Kin of the Soul


Chapter One

Xander opened his eyes, closed them, and then blinked several times as fast as he could. Yeah, like that ever worked. Funny enough, all the freakish and hellmouthy things in his life didn't really care how fast he blinked, although it did amuse Spike. And then Spike and Angel would kill whatever was freaking Xander out, but there was definitely a lack of vampires in this scene.

"Um, Commander, I'm guessing he's not one of us," the blond one said, and Xander refused to even allow himself to think the name. This wasn't possible. Nope, not possible. Not happening, and if he just ignored it, it would all just go away.

"Paris, call the captain," Chakotay ordered. Oh yeah, that was definitely Chakotay, and Paris was definitely Paris and not some random blond guy. And Xander was standing in the middle of the Voyager bridge in his yellow pajamas with a guy pointing a phaser at him. Either he was having the most realistic dream of his life, or he'd just had a total break with reality. Odds were running fifty-fifty.

"Yes, sir," Paris agreed, tapping on that stupid table desk thing as he sat in the chair that always made Xander wonder what science fiction writers had against seat belts. As the recipient of many head traumas, he could say from experience that they were not fun. Nope, no fun at all. Hey, maybe he'd had another head trauma. That would explain the major weirdness.

Chakotay took a firm step closer, holding a hand out to the side to keep the ensign from shooting. "I'm Commander Chakotay of the Starship Voyager. And you are?" he asked Xander, and Xander opened his mouth without anything actually coming out. Giving up on words, he reached up and pinched his arm.

"Ow," he whispered to himself. Chakotay looked over at Paris with that same expression Angel had on his face a whole lot of the time... the look that said he totally did not understand what was going on.

"Perhaps it is deficient," Seven of Nine suggested. She stalked closer with that predator's gait and skin-tight suit that made Xander think naughty thoughts. Lots and lots of naughty thoughts--like what would happen if Seven of Nine, Buffy, and Faith all ended up in the same mud pit. Not that he thought about Faith like that. Much. Since she was technically the only person he'd ever had sex with--and since the sex had been remarkably not bad--his penis did tend to think about her, even when he was definitely not thinking about her. Only now, his penis was way more interested in thinking about Seven of Nine.

"Seven, stand down," Chakotay ordered.

"Come on Chak, let her have a little fun." Paris stood up and went over to lean against Chakotay, and Xander's eyebrows went all the way to the top. He so did not remember this episode. Paris rested his palm against Chakotay's chest, and Chakotay got this indulgent expression on his face as he looked at Paris fondly, and Xander knew THAT had never happened in the show.

"I should inspect him for weapons or deficiencies," Seven announced grandly, and then she was there with hands reaching everywhere. Her hand stroked up his sides before fingers slipped under his shirt and traced across his stomach. The Borg implants on her fingertips made him shiver. One of her eyebrows rose, and then her Borg hand darted down the front of his pajama bottoms.

"Hey now, that is inappropriate touching," Xander objected.

"I am checking you for weapons," she declared archly, her fingers wrapping around his cock so that Xander made a slightly unmanly squeak and grabbed her shoulders to keep from falling over. Oh yeah, Xander Jr. was totally into this fantasy. If this was some head-trauma induced fantasy, he was going to throw himself into way more headstones.

"That's not a weapon," Xander panted.

"We shall see," Seven said, and again that eyebrow rose.

"Okay, this is... this is way more real than my usual wet dream."

Paris laughed. "If this is a dream, do you mind dreaming us back home? I'm getting sick of Neelix's cooking."

"This isn't a dream," Chakotay said firmly. "And aren't you supposed to be piloting? There's time for this later, get your attention focused on your work Tom." Chakotay slapped Paris on the ass, and Paris gave Chakotay a look that Spike would have been proud of.

"This is officially freaky," Xander whispered to himself. "Freaky enough that I really think I need to wake up." He slapped himself hard across the face. The heat and sting made his one eye water.

"Hey, if you're into a little violence with your sex, I can help you with that," B'Elanna appeared out of nowhere, and Xander retreated fast enough that he slammed his hip into the computer panel. And damn that thing was hard.

"No, no violence with the sex. Me and Klingons are definitely on the no list," Xander babbled, holding both hands up in surrender as he tried to back up. He found his retreat blocked by Seven of Nine who snaked an arm around his waist and pulled him close to her body. His poor cock was getting all kinds of excited now, but his brain was definitely putting up warning signs. Unfortunately, the sight of hot women pretty much vetoed any rational thoughts.

"How do you know she's Klingon?" Chakotay demanded. Now he just looked angry.

"Report!" Captain Janeway strode onto the bridge, and why had Xander never noticed just how many scary women were on this ship? Of course, he'd never before been trapped between two of them with the third staring at him. A little scary... something along the lines of Cordelia or Faith... that was hot. Right now, even his cock was starting to think there were way too many scary women in the room. No wonder Paris and Chakotay had retreated to a nice safe homosexual corner of this universe. Xander's cock was starting to think about a strategic retreat.

"We have an unexpected visitor who just appeared on the bridge," Chakotay offered in a tone that was all military. Paris turned around to face front, but he had a wide smirk on his face.

"I believe he is deficient, but he is unarmed," Seven declared, her hands slipping under the elastic of his pajama bottoms.

"Hey, I resemble that remark, and trust me, I've been called deficient by way better than you," Xander complained as he shoved at her hands. It was a little like trying to shove Spike away, not that Spike ever grabbed his cock in one hand and reached down for his balls with the other. Oh, he offered, but there was definitely no Spike touchage. "And this is a dream. This is a dream or a hallucination. I just need to make myself wake up." Xander closed his eyes tightly. "Wake up wake up wake up."

He gasped and then found himself sitting up even though he didn't remember ever having laid down. And the weird just kept right on coming. Xander was sitting in a pile of red and gold pillows in front of a huge fireplace flanked by two statues of gold cats with diamond eyes. None of the lights were on, so the fire cast flickers around the room.

"Darling, you're awake," a voice purred. Xander twisted around and nearly swallowed his tongue as a woman in a tight black outfit sashayed toward him, black cat ears sticking up through her thick, auburn hair. Oh yeah, he remembered this. He used to watch old Batman reruns with Jesse and drool all over Catwoman. And she was just as drool-worthy now. She made an umming noise deep in her throat as she knelt next to him, handing him a glass of wine. "After that ridiculous prank of the Joker's, all of Gotham is blacked out. We'll have to make our own warmth."

"Um... I have absolutely nothing that I can say that doesn't make me sound crazy," Xander said. He took the wine and stared at it. This... whatever this was... went way past dreamland.

She laughed wildly, her fingers trailing up and tangling in his hair. "You are so delightfully unassuming, darling. I am so glad I traded in one do-gooder for another." A white cat ran over Xander's legs and then disappeared into the shadows.

"Okay, this... this is so not happening." Xander pushed her hands away and scooted backwards.

She cocked her head to the side and made a little whine in her throat. "Oh Xander, you know better than to make me angry." She opened her mouth and made a little rowr sound.

"Angel!!" Xander bellowed. That made Catwoman sit back, her eyes wide with surprise.

Xander scrambled to his feet and managed to drop his wine glass along the way. "ANGEL! Angel, where are you? I'm losing my mind here!" He backed up to the window, and he could see the dark city below him. It was hard to tell with the blackout, but that definitely looked like Gotham.

"Xander, are you unwell?" Catwoman asked.

"Oh, I am unwell like you would not believe. Angel!!! Angel, I'm losing my mind here!" Xander screamed at the top of his lungs, and two guys in yellow and black tiger striped shirts burst through the really garish, gilded double doors. They hurried to Catwoman's side, and now she looked outright concerned.


"Nope. No, you are not even you. You are a television show, and I am losing my mind. Angel!!" Xander screamed as loud as he could, and Catwoman, her henchmen, and her scary-ugly bedroom shimmered and vanished into a sort of bland grayness. Xander spun around, but there was just a big old nothing in every direction.

"I'll have you know that I worked very hard on this wish. You are totally inconsiderate." Xander spun around again and found himself face to face with a demon. An unhappy demon. An unhappy girl demon, and this was not looking good. Blue veins and heavy wrinkles and folds covered a face that otherwise looked pretty humanish.

"Um, I'm sorry," Xander offered, not exactly sure what he was apologizing for, but he'd gotten used to that with Spike. Demons had all these weird rules in their brains, so you just had to apologize.

"You should be," she said firmly.

"And I'm perfectly willing to be even more sorry, only can you please explain what's going on?" Xander asked, doing his best to sound respectfully requesting instead of bossy or commanding or frustrated—all of which tended to not go over well with demons.

She crossed her arms over her chest and stared at him for a second. "I'm trying to give you love and happiness. This is not the kind of wish I usually do, so don't start thinking that I'm not good at my job. I'm great at my job. I can make a man's penis shrivel to the size of a Q-tip. I can make flesh fall off bones. I can turn a man into a gibbering idiot who drools on himself for the rest of his life."

From the intense expression on her face, Xander was guessing that she wasn't even kidding. "Impressive resume," he said with a weak smile. She looked at him with suspicion. "No, seriously. I mean, I know this vampire who loves to brag about his torture techniques, and he's never described anything that creeps me out as much as the penis shriveling, although the flesh falling off comes a close second. Heck, Spike and his railroad spikes just got bumped to third in my list of things I never, ever want to experience."

The demon nodded and actually managed to look a little happier. "Exactly. I am the best at what I do. A vampire certainly does not have the experience or the creativity to touch me."

"And what exactly do you do because if the plan was for penis shriveling, I'm hoping there's some sort of deal we can make."

"I do not make deals," she informed him primly. "I am Anyanka, vengeance demon and patron of scorned women. I've had men offer me jewels, wealth, power. I do not take bribes."

"Oh shit." Xander closed his eyes and sent up a quick prayer. Then he sent up a second and third one. He was so seriously in deep shit that he needed all the help he could get. "Cordelia," he sighed. "I swear, I did not mean to do anything to hurt her. I wouldn't ever—"

"Oh please," Anyanka waved her hand dismissively. "You let her publicly humiliate you. That is more class than most men show. Even if she called on me, I don't think I would have bothered with her because there are men out there far more deserving of my torture. Your mother called me."

"Mom?" Xander really wished Anyanka would bring back one of the fantasy rooms because he so needed to sit down. His head was spinning and reality was moving way too fast for him to keep up. "My mom called for vengeance on me?"

"No." Anyanka sounded really frustrated now. "She earned vengeance against your father. I offered to make your father's balls fall off or shrivel up into peas, or give him a good case of leprosy, but she insisted that her only wish was for you to find happiness with someone. So, I'm trying to find someone for you to be happy with. Now, I don't have all day, so you need to get with the program and start being happy." Anyanka touched her necklace and the two realities appeared on either side of them like ghost images floating in a fog.

On one side, Seven of Nine was pressed up against his back, B'Elanna standing in front of him with a predatory look on her face, and Paris looked like he was about to go pop some popcorn so he could enjoy the show. It was weird looking at a ghost image of himself with this look on his face like he was caught between shock and lust. It was a weird look on him. In the other scene, Catwoman was just starting to walk toward him, a whip hanging from her hip and her henchmen on either side. In that one, Xander looked way more alarmed, but from the way Catwoman's hand hovered over the whip, he had a right to be a little alarmed. "Pick one," Anyanka finally said impatiently.

"What? Why?"

"Because I pulled these from your mind. It's your mother's wish, but this is where you go to be happy, so go be happy in one."

"Wait... my mind? You're wandering around in my mind? Way with the creepy."

She rolled her eyes, and suddenly she transformed into an attractive woman with light brown hair and truly stunning eyes that were brown with just a touch of gold to them. "Like I care what a human is thinking about." She gave him a look that made it clear she thought he was stupid, but it was one of those looks where the person thinks you're cute-stupid. "I just need to get this wish finished."

"By making me happy?" Xander asked, just trying to make sure he'd actually heard this right.

"By making sure you're with the right person to make you happy. Your mother doesn't want you getting screwed by love the way your father screwed her. And can I just say that your father is a real bucket of slime? I've met chaos mages and slime demons I've liked more than that man."

"Hey, I know mass murders and demons that I not only like more, but that I trust more than him. He sold me," Xander quickly pointed out. "That was enough to drive me into therapy, so don't look for me to go defending the family honor here."

"I may shrivel his genitals just on principle."

"Go for it, only, can we not talk about it, because parents and genitals really should not ever be said in the same sentence." Xander made a disgusted face as he tried to wipe that image out of his mind. Anyanka gave him another of those fond-idiot looks.

"So, which world are you going to pick? I need to recycle the other one. I have other wishes I need to get to."

"Is there a door number three?" Xander asked hopefully.

"Do you want Faith?" Anyanka asked, and that was actually a serious look on her face.

"What?! No! I mean... no. She has issues, and her issues are way more issuey around me, and then her issues spill over into my issues, and the breeding of issues is very bad for all involved."

Anyanka was already nodding. "I got that from your memories. Like all men, you're weak when you masturbate, but at least you don't have those really gross fantasies where you think everyone else exists only to service your penis. Her needs have nothing to do with your penis. So, that leaves Seven of Nine, B'Elanna, and Catwoman. B'Elanna is the most attractive. I like her forehead. And she kills well, that's always a plus in a mate. But then Catwoman and Seven of Nine are good at killing, too. You have good taste in women."

For a second, Xander wasn't really sure what to say, because getting complimented on his taste in women by a demon was probably not good. It was about as disturbing as... well, as the rest of his life.

"Okay, as much as I have to admit that all of these women are incredibly hot. Seriously hot," Xander admitted as he looked around at the frozen scenes, "this isn't exactly the 'ever after' kind of relationship. This is more the 'giving the brain something to think about while the hand is doing its thing' kind of relationship."

Anyanka frowned at him. "I granted a wish. You have to be happy with someone."

"Hey, I'm happy now," Xander pointed out.

"You're happy with your hand. Your hand does not count as someone. And I will not have a failed wish on my record. That sort of thing can give you a reputation, you know. Eleven hundred years and I don't have a failed wish on my record, and I am not starting with you." She had her poking, pointing finger going now. "So, if you don't want forever with any of these women, we just start over."

The scenes faded into the fog, and suddenly Xander found himself at the center of three new images. In one, Chakotay was reaching out for him. Xander was dressed in an ensign's uniform, but from the look on Chakotay's face, he wasn't going to be wearing it for long. The second scene showed him standing on the bridge of the ship from V, and Diana the reptilian invader had her hand up his shirt. The third scene showed the Knight Rider guy pinning him up against a car.

"Hey, no, no, that is not right," Xander pointed at the Knight Rider scene.

Anyanka patted him on the arm. "Oh please. If you don't want a woman, then we have to find you a nice man or non-human. You know you had that fantasy about Michael Knight, and he's not that bad. He tried to get revenge on people who do wrong, and I like that." She nodded as if approving of him and Michael Knight doing it on the hood of the car, and that was from so far back in the denial box that Xander couldn't even bring himself to look at it. Nope, he was firmly focusing on Diana. At least she looked like a curvy woman... who ate people. And oddly, she wouldn't even be his first date to try and eat him.

"You do know this is not going to end well. I'm a mammal, she's a reptile. She's so going to eat me," Xander pointed out.

Anyanka tilted her head to the side. "She could make you happy until she ate you. It's not like she'd be your only relationship where the other person considered you a food group."

"And way to go with the disturbing," Xander sighed.

"I have other wishes to get to. I've provided five perfectly good scenarios, so why don't you pick one so that I can get on with the making you happy in love?"

"I'm just supposed to pick one?"

"Hey, I don't normally give options here. This was supposed to be a quick wishverse with you and B'Elanna and Seven of Nine having sex all over the Voyager, so you should be grateful that I made a housecall at all. Options... well, let me tell you, you will not find a whole lot of people I've given options to. Although there was the one man who I tied so that this sword was caught between his penis and his balls, and he had the option to cut off one or the other or starve to death. That was a good wish." She smiled, and even with her pretty, human face on, that was not a pretty expression.

"Creative," Xander said weakly.

She smiled brightly at him. "I was very proud of it. His wife wished that he had to make hard choices, the same way he'd forced her to choose between public humiliation and poverty. She was very satisfied."

"I bet." Xander swallowed and tried to figure out how he was going to get out of this one.

"I'm very good at my job," Anyanka told him proudly.

"So, you want to make sure that the wish really works out. I mean, if my mother wants me happy with someone and I'm in this fantasy that gets boring, that would be bad, right?" Xander asked.

Anyanka frowned for a second. "You do have a lot of experience with excitement. But Voyager is in the middle of hostile space. There are lots of chances for you to get taken over by Borg or eaten by an alien virus." And boy didn't she just sound cheerful about that.

"Yeah, but I'll know it's not real, not like my life is real," Xander pointed out. "I won't be fighting to keep people I love safe. And I won't have a chance to make a real connection with someone in my world."

That seemed to make her think. "You aren't connecting with someone now."

"Only because I've been getting over Cordelia. I feel things deeply. I don't want to just go rushing into a relationship with the girl who serves coffee on the corner."

Anyanka frowned at him. "She's boring, and small. She is not right. Seven of Nine is far better for you."

"But I'll know it's not really Seven of Nine."

"I could wipe your memories."

"And then it wouldn't really be me, and since my mom wants *me* happy, that wouldn't really make the wish true, would it?"

"Oh please, I've screwed with people way more than that." She touched her necklace again and all the scenes vanished so that they were again standing in the middle of gray.

"You're 1100 years old, right?" Xander tried a new tactic.

"Yes??" She drew the word out, hissing it dangerously.

"Then giving me a little time to get my head screwed on straight is not such a big deal. I mean, you're pulling out heroes and villains, guys and girls, humans and non-humans. Face it, you can't give me the perfect partner because I'm so screwed up in the head I don't know what I want." Xander gave her his best pleading expression.

"Huh." She stared at him. "It is a strange set of fantasies."

"That's me, strange to the end. And if my mother's wish is for me to be truly happy with someone, well, you can't be expected to pick someone who would make me happy if I can't figure it out for myself."

"But I need to finish the wish," Anyanka said with a frown.

"And I would not want to ruin your record, but if you gave me a little time, I could work through some issues, maybe come to a better understanding of what I want in a partner." Xander tried really, really hard to not think about the fact that all he wanted to do was get back to his apartment so he could go running to Angel. Yep, he was going to hide behind Angel until he was ninety and his cock no longer worked. Anyanka frowned at him, and terror swept through Xander as he realized he was thinking about what he didn't want to think about and she could read his mind.

"A month," she said.

Xander snorted. She glared at him, and he put on his most polite smile. "Hey, it took me two years of therapy to work through my dad issues. I think it's going to take that long to work through any sexual identity issues."

She frowned again and her veins and wrinkles reappeared as she became a demon again. "One year. One year and I'll be back to finish your mother's wish."

Xander opened his mouth to argue, but he was suddenly standing in the middle of his bedroom. Slowly, he turned and tried to figure out what had just happened. The red numbers on his alarm clock read 4:56 am. His VCR was blinking 12:00. His soda bottle and cake plate were on the table next to his bed. It looked just like when he'd gone to bed. Xander walked over to the bed and sank down, weariness and terror both still pulling on him.

"Oh yeah, and I thought my life would get less weird after high school," Xander said to the air. Grabbing his robe off the floor, Xander headed for Angel's apartment. If it had been a nightmare, at least he could torture Angel by making him listen to the story... or the story with Michael Knight edited out, anyway. If Anyanka really did exist, they obviously had a problem. Xander really did not look forward to spending the rest of his life dodging Borg and alien viruses. And with his luck, he'd get infected by both within a week of being in the Delta Quadrant.



2. Chapter Two

Angel could feel the arms of the chair groaning under his grip, but he still couldn't get himself to let go. No wonder Xander was always having to fix things.

"Bloody hell, pet. You really are a demon magnet." Spike's words might have been teasing, but he was bouncing on his toes, which usually meant that violence was on the horizon. Spike's ability to control his demon might go far beyond most vampires, but he had limits, and the idea of a vengeance demon targeting their clan was beyond Spike's ability to control himself. Even now, his eyes flashed yellow.

"Hey, this is so not my fault." Xander was sitting on the couch, his head propped on the back while he stared at the ceiling. "Although the demon magnetness is way too unjokelike to be funny. And as someone who normally is all about laughing at the brutal truth of life, that's really saying something."

"Can't believe your mum--"

"Hey, there will be no blaming of the one decent parental unit I have," Xander said, cutting Spike off and tipping his head far enough to glare at him. For a second, Spike glared back, and Angel imagined that vampire instincts were pushing Spike to put Xander in his place, to remind him that he wasn't high enough in the hierarchy to tell Spike what to do. Angel tensed, fully prepared to act if Spike lost control. At this point, Angel could hardly blame Spike if he lost control because even with the soul, Angel was feeling pretty close to an edge himself. Their clan, their family, had been targeted by a dangerous demon who was threatening to take Xander away from them.

"Decent," Spike snorted. He threw himself back against the wall so hard that Angel could feel the floor vibrate with the force of the impact.

"She gave up a chance to make my father miserable just to wish me happy, that's actually..." Xander stopped and frowned. "That's actually making me feel way with the guilty about the lack of mother time lately. You'd think I'd have more time after graduating, not less."

Spike snorted again, making his opinion on the matter clear. But then, Spike wasn't the best at forgiving or forgetting. Angel leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and gripping his hands together to avoid hitting something. He wasn't all that better, but for Xander's sake, he would keep his doubts to himself.

"I mean, I haven't been over since I helped her move to the apartment, how shitty is that? I've officially entered bad-son-land and set up residence."

"You've had classes, you've been helping train Riley, and you've been patrolling to give Buffy time to study. You're a little busy," Angel disagreed. Compared to the problem with their vengeance demon, Jessica Harris' issues were unimportant. He looked up and Spike was staring at him. Angel gave the smallest of nods. If Spike could find Anyanka, Spike had Angel's permission to rip the demon's head off and spit down her throat.

"It could have been a dream," Xander said with a lot of hope and not much confidence.

"Not bloody likely." Spike started pacing. "Could try and pair ya up with someone before the bint comes back."

This time it was Xander who snorted. "One, there's a lack of pairablility around here, and two, this is me. Me and love are like..." Xander's words failed him. "I'm not the sort to get the big romance. I'm more the type to hide in a closet or throw down on a hill." Xander's voice sounded so lost, so desperate, that Angel barely controlled a growl, and Spike flashed into full gameface. Angel was just grateful that Spike considered both women clan members or he'd have to worry about chunks of them washing up on shore. And that was the problem with letting Xander date anyone. If someone Angel's hadn't scent marked ever hurt Xander, Angel had no doubt that Spike would choose a long and painful death for them. Torture in the family was one thing, but torture from outside the family was not going to be tolerated.

Angel sighed, wondering when they'd fallen into the old patterns with him as the patriarch and Spike acting as enforcer. Oddly, his attempts to find his humanity through Xander seemed to have backfired a bit because he was also closer to his vampire self. Of course, that thought led him to wonder what exactly he'd been for all those years of wandering alleys eating rats. He hadn't been human or vampire, and he could see that now. But was it his human soul's love for Xander or his vampire rage at having his clan targeted that was driving the anger he could feel right now? If an innocent human was standing between him and Anyanka, Angel wasn't sure what he would do.

"You're a right treat, pet. I wouldn't mind takin' you in hand." Spike wiggled his eyebrows and stalked the couch, his body rolling in sinuous moves that made Angel's cock harden. He had grown entirely too close to his vampire nature, but at least he was leaning forward so Xander wouldn't notice. Spike, however, sniffed the air and looked over with a knowing smirk before turning his attention back to Xander. "I wouldn't mind at all." Standing behind the couch, Spike ran his hands over Xander's shoulders and down his chest.

"So not the time, Spike," Xander sighed.

"Oi, you're ruinin' the mood here, pet," Spike complained, but he leaped the back of the couch and dropped down next to Xander. "Keep it up, and you're going to make me think I'm not irresistible."

Xander reached over and patted Spike's leg. "Oh great god sexual prowess, I am in awe of your powers and way too freaked out to actually show my appreciation for your godly powers. Forgive me."



"Demon magnet."

"Way more than anyone should be," Xander agreed with a sigh. Spike looked at Angel, and Angel could feel the frustration building up. Usually Spike could distract the boy out of his moods.

"There's that bint in Finn's unit. Saunders." Spike sniffed, stretched and thunked his boots down on Angel's coffee table. His body radiated disapproval. Angel watched his boys, wondering when Spike had become so reasonable and when Xander had become so very used to discussions that were more about demonic instincts than human emotion.

"Wait, you want me to sleep with one of Riley's soldiers? Um, newsflash, you're not okay with me doing that as the whole disaster with Faith and Graham so totally proved. Unless you're lying and you really were just big with the jealous." Xander crossed his arms and glared at Spike.

"I'm not jealous," Spike snarled. Angel rolled his eyes. Spike was the most jealous and possessive vampire he'd ever met, but considering what Angel had done to him as a fledge, Angel could hardly blame him.

"Spike, would you want Xander to date Saunders if Saunders stayed in Riley's unit?" Angel asked. He knew exactly where Spike was going, but Xander obviously needed a little push. Spike looked over at him and frowned, like Angel had just lost his mind.

"Bloody hell no. Tell Finn to hand her over, and then have 'em date. She's a tough enough bird to keep Xander's interest. No offense, pet, but your taste in women in downright terrifying. Hell, I might have to turn her just to make her woman enough for ya."

"What?" Xander squeaked the word and just about flew off the couch. "No. No and more with the no. There will be no turning of people, and do you really think we can just walk up and say, 'Hey, Riley, we're confiscating one of your people'?"

"Well, yeah." Spike tilted his head the way he did when Xander said something particularly stupid. Angel just smiled and leaned back, watching as Xander's brain finally twisted itself around Spike's words. Spike didn't want him to date; Spike wanted to kidnap someone and just order them into Xander's bed. It was an easy and elegant solution for a vampire.

"Okay, way to go with the creepy. I am so glad I don't have a little sister because I would never let you in the same state with her." Xander threw himself back down on the couch.


"Okay, the sad and creepy thing is that you don't know." Xander sighed.

Angel cleared his throat. "The first goal here is to find out more about this Anyanka. Since Xander's mother made the wish, there may be a way for her to unmake the wish."

"If you can get her to remember and/or believe that she actually met a demon. Sunnydale blindness runs strong in my family. It's sort of the opposite of having the force. It's like we have the anti-force so that we're extra special clueless when Darth Vader comes creeping around."

Angel nodded. Sadly, she really might not remember. "We can go to Giles and see if his books have any information on vengeance demons, and if we need to, we can go to L.A. Lorne usually has some good sources on anything demonic."

"Until then, I say we sit on him," Spike suggested, reaching out to pull Xander close. Angel wondered if Xander had any idea how serious Spike had been about taking Xander into his bed. He'd already asked permission and even made a few outrageous promises and bribes trying to get Angel to give him that permission. But if Xander knew, he sure wouldn't be comfortable doing what he was doing now. Spike had tugged a little too hard and Xander had landed half on Spike's lap and was now retaliating by trying to punch Spike in the gut. Spike fended off Xander's attack with one hand and held him down with the other. But at least the young man didn't smell like fear anymore. Now he smelled more like aggression and annoyance, two smells that appealed to Angel's vampiric nature.

"Some of us have class. We're going over architectural symbols today, so unless you want me to confuse our water lines for electrical lines and electrocute myself, you can not sit on me."

"Oi, can too."

"Angel!" Xander was stomach down over Spike's lap by this time, and he looked over to Angel for help. "Tell Spike to stop being a worry wart. I have a whole year before the crazy lady tries to kidnap me. And while you're at it, tell him he can't go kidnapping other people people."

"Bloody hell, he's the one who taught me how ta kidnap," Spike pointed out with a nasty smile in Angel's direction; however, Angel couldn't exactly deny the charge. He had taught Spike most of his bad habits. "Mind you, he was always taking the birds away and leaving me to bugger whatever guy we caught up in our snare, not that I minded." Spike landed a smack on Xander's butt, and Xander retaliated with an elbow in Spike's side. Angel really didn't think that Xander wanted to know how much vampires used physical confrontation and mutual attacks as a form of foreplay. Xander, however, looked a little frustrated at his inability to escape or even get a good hit in on Spike.

"Just to let you know, I officially told Anya that she scared me way more than you," Xander said. "I mean, penis shriveling? So much scarier than a little old railroad spike." Angel struggled to not grin at that counterattack. Xander was far smarter than he gave himself credit for, because that had gotten through all of Spike's defenses and scored a direct hit.

"You soddin' little runt. I've got a century of torture goin' for me."

"And she has a millennium. Millennium trumps century... I think." Xander looked over.

"It does," Angel agreed, watching as Spike glared even harder.

"I've cut men's bollocks off," Spike defended himself.

"Which is still not as much with the creepy as making them shrink to peas. And that doesn't even make sense to me, but my penis is voting that I keep far, far away from women to can do that."

Spike snorted. "Bloody hell, pet, if she's that scary, I'm surprised you didn't ask her out on a date."

Xander put his best punch right in Spike's stomach. Since Xander had started his construction classes, mostly out of a need to fix all the things Spike broke, he'd been putting on a lot of muscle. That still wasn't enough to make Spike even twinge. Xander just sighed and sagged down, obviously surrendering to Spike's manhandling.

"I hate hanging out with vampires. You guys do bad things to my manly ego."

Spike gave Xander a couple of swats on the butt before letting him go. Pushing himself up, Xander looked over at Angel.

"But I can go to class, right?"

Angel nodded. "That should be safe. Vengeance demons aren't known for breaking their word... they just..." Angel struggled to find the right word.

"Obfuscate?" Xander guessed, picking up on Blair's favorite word, a term that Faith had brought back from Cascade on her last visit. It'd taken Buffy two days to realize that Faith had been basically announcing her own lies right out in the open.

"Yes," Angel agreed. "Go get some sleep. We'll figure this out."

Xander nodded and pushed himself up. He smelled of weariness now, weariness and Angel's bloodmark. If they couldn't kill or distract this demon, Angel would follow Xander into whatever world where she sent him. And Angel had no doubt that Spike and Faith would follow him. One way or another, Angel was not going to lose his family.

"One week. I just want one week without the weird happening." With that, Xander wandered out of the room.

"Ya okay, Peaches?" Spike asked. Angel wasn't. He wanted to rip heads off. He wanted to eviscerate this Anyanka and wrap her entrails around her neck. He wanted to kill something and he had less than an hour before sunrise. He stood up and headed out the door.

"If we grabbed up Xander and the Saunders bint, we could get 'em together. He's randy around most any woman who's strong enough ta break him into pieces, and she's noticed him more than a few times," Spike commented as he followed Angel. Angel led up the stairs and to the roof. There was more chance of someone being flung off the roof and seriously injured, but less chance of being seen. "If we turn her, she'd be loyal."

"We don't turn people," Angel snarled. "Besides, if you touch her, he'll convince himself that it's his fault. He'll never survive that kind of guilt." Angel pushed the roof door open and headed out into the gray predawn air. Sunnydale sprawled out on all sides, the streetlights like rows of crops laid out in straight lines. Angel stood looking out and struggling with this own fury.

"You could take him." Spike inched out onto the roof, clearly reading Angel's mood.

"He won't have us."

"Bloody fuckin' hell. He'd have either one of us, Peaches. The boy isn't so far into denial that he can't be talked around it."

Angel spun around and backhanded Spike. The blow threw Spike across the roof and he had to grab an antenna to keep from going off.

"We aren't doing that to him."

Spike crouched, and Angel prepared himself for the counterattack, his cock already hardening. "Doing what? It's not like we'd treat him bad."

"It's not what he wants."

"How the fuck would you know? You never offered, did you?" Spike snarled the words, his body coiled for violence.


"Then call Faith back or make Cordelia come home from L.A. She shouldn't be off on her own, anyway."

"They have lives."

"They have a fucking clan." Spike leaped through the air, his hand reaching for Angel. Angel reached out to grab Spike, to throw him to the side. A half second too late, he saw the knife that Spike had thrown in advance of his attack. The knife sank deep into Angel's chest and delayed his defense just long enough for Spike to bowl him over.

"You'll pay for that," Angel snarled as he ripped the knife out and tossed it to the side.

Spike rolled and came up on his feet. "Counting on it, mate. So, is that the best you have?" Spike bounced on the balls of his feet.

Oh yeah, this is what Angel needed--an opponent he could put his hands on, that he could fight. He smiled slowly, fingering the blood that had soaked into his shirt before he licked it off his fingers. Spike went into gameface, his yellow eyes shining in the dim light.

"You'll learn, boyo," Angel promised as he leaped for at the boy. Spike danced to the side, breaking an antenna off and swinging it like a sword. Angel dove forward and under the weapon, tackling Spike by the knees.

"Fuck." Spike drove an elbow into Angel's neck, and a bone cracked with a loud snap. Pain lanced down through Angel's body, setting every nerve on fire. Angel could feel his blood flow through his body, the vampire healing tingling through his chest. This was the heat the mimicked life, that made Angel feel alive. Angel smiled and sank his teeth through Spike's jeans and into the vulnerable flesh underneath.

Spike roared and brought his elbow down on the same spot. Spots appeared in Angel's eyes as the bone failed, the jagged edges driving deep into his shoulder. But there was blood in his mouth, filling his senses and feeding the healing powers that tingled through his body. Spike was weakening now, his hands clawing at Angel as Spike's blood dripped onto the roof and soaked the jeans faster than Angel could suck.

"Fuck," Spike repeated, but this time, Angel could hear the lust and need in that one word. He backed up, his lips still tingling from the salt and power of Spike's blood.

"Ye never were a fast learner," Angel pointed out.

"You're thick as pig shite if ya think this is going to discourage me," Spike said, that cocky grin still on his face. He pulled himself to his feet, and Angel circled, watching as Spike shifted, his body ready to defend himself.

"I figure I can still teach ye a lesson."

"I drew first blood," Spike pointed out. "Arm hurt, mate?"

Angel smiled sadistically. His shoulder hurt like hell, and he was caught between frustration that Spike had caused so much damage and pride that he'd managed to get in such a good hit. "Someone musta taught you well," Angel pointed out, still circling.

"Dru," Spike shot back.

Angel laughed. Dru couldn't have taught a fledge how to feed much less how to fight. Sometimes he wondered how she was doing now that she had cut herself off from them, but that was one problem he didn't mind avoiding.

Spike got a wry look on his face and shrugged. They both knew that most of Spike's early tricks were learned at Angel's side. "So, you plan on circling until the sun comes up? Maybe you need a lesson in what you do with that," Spike said, his eyes going to Angel's crotch. His own hand reached down to cup his own erection.

"Oh, I know what I want to do with it," Angel said. He darted forward, but Spike danced back out of his reach. Pretending that he was frustrated with the retreat, Angel continued to chase Spike who simply danced backwards, laughing. At least he laughed until his heel caught on the antenna he'd dropped earlier. Trying to avoid falling, Spike made an inhuman leap into the air. Angel timed his attack and plowed into Spike when he was in the air, just when he would have no leverage. They both fell to the ground, and Angel pinned Spike to the ground under him.

Spike growled, his legs coming up around Angel, but instead of trying to force Angel off to the side, Spike pulled him close. Angel showed his fangs, growling his own warning. Spike might enjoy trying to control this, trying to manipulate Angel, but Angel was not going to be manipulated.

"Fucking tyrant."

"And?" Angel challenged Spike, grinding his body down into Spike.

"And nothin'," Spike agreed as he arched his back and pressed his cock up into Angel. Angel smiled, his own demon crowding forward. Tilting his head just slightly to the side, Spike invited Angel to bite, and Angel did, driving his fangs deep into Spike's neck and pulling the blood from him until he could feel Spike slow, his movement growing languid instead of demanding. Only then did Angel pull back enough to pull Spike's jeans open, the hard cock immediately pressing up.

"Boyo, you come before me and—"

"Shut the fuck up and just bugger me, ya bloody bogtrotting—" Spike stopped when Angel flipped him so fast that Spike didn't have a chance to protect his cock from the rough concrete. "Fuck."

"I plan to," Angel agreed, pulling Spike's jeans down to his knees before driving his cock deep into that strong body that twisted and bucked below him. Spike growled his pleasure, struggling up to his knees and lifting Angel's weight with him. The first hint of the sun added a hint of danger and the need to finish quickly, so Angel drove in with brutal speed, reaching around to grab Spike's cock and pump him.

Spike arched his back and roared out his pleasure as he came, leaving Angel to thrust into that tight, spasming hole before he came. Angel sighed, knowing he should probably do something to punish Spike. A real vampire sire would take the skin off Spike's back for intentionally disobeying an order, but Angel just pulled out and rolled onto his side, exposing his own neck. Spike slipped into his arms and drove his fangs deep into Angel's neck, sucking so that Angel could feel the connection between them like a bright line of fire connecting their dead hearts.

Spike pulled his fangs out after a second. "He'd be happy enough in your bed," Spike said quietly as he settled next to Angel. They had a couple of minutes before the sun came up, and Spike didn't fight against Angel's embrace.

Angel thought about that. He thought about what he was becoming, of the blood spilled between him and Spike, of the way his cock hardened when Spike fought him. "It's not going to happen," Angel said firmly. He might not know himself anymore, but he knew that Xander didn't fit in this picture. He couldn't substitute Xander for Spike without feeling sick in his very soul. Xander deserved better than what Angel could offer.

But Cordelia and Faith hadn't offered him much better. Angel stared up at the gray sky, streaks of clouds just starting to appear as the sun approached the horizon. Birds were singing, warning of the coming dawn that Angel could feel in his bones just like he could feel the fear of failure settling into his stomach. He could protect Xander from a lot of things, but he couldn't protect him from dying—he couldn't find Xander the perfect love—he couldn't do so much.

Even now, with his demon sated and quiet, he still didn't know what to do. God, no wonder he had avoided living for a hundred years. Living was messy and complicated and Angel didn't have any more answers than Liam had back when he'd just tried to drink himself into a state of not caring—not caring that his father hated him and his mother cried over him and he'd been even less successful in love than Xander. At least Xander had girls who liked him. The girls Liam had favored had only favored him as long as his purse had coin. Without coin, he was just one more rejected lover vomiting on himself in the back alley.

"If nothin' else, we'll find this Anyanka and rip all her guts out." Spike said and then he pushed up and away from Angel. Angel sighed and pulled his pants up.

"Stop broodin' over it, Peaches. I'll even let you be the one ta rip her head off," Spike offered, grinning like a madman as he pulled up his jeans and then dashed for the roof door. Shaking his head and still not sure what they were going to do, Angel followed, closing the door behind him.



3. Chapter Three

Hear that?" Spike bounced on his toes and then froze before he looked over his shoulder and grinned at them. Sunnydale was quiet tonight, but it had been since the mayor had fallen, so Angel had a pretty good guess what was creeping through the distant bushes. "Up for muckin' about with the soldier boys?" Spike asked them.

Angel shook his head. Spike never was going to grow up, but Angel couldn't come up with any good reason for stopping Spike. Sometimes he wondered what he would have done with this version of William back before the curse. Back then, he'd been so focused on trying to impress Darla and convince the rest of the world that he wasn't some drunken loser that he had been remarkably bad at having fun. Even though Spike had toned down his violence to match the needs of his new clan with their inconvenient souls, Spike just delighted in fun. He delighted in fun as much as he'd once delighted in Drusilla, in watching her face when he brought her some trinket that temporarily lured her back from the edge of madness.

"You know, one of these days, one of them is going to catch you with a tazer," Xander warned.

"Oi, don't you have faith in me, pet?" Spike put on his best wounded expression.

"So much faith that I actually listen to you when you tell me that even the best prepared fighter has an accident sometimes."

"Yeah, but I meant you, not me, luv," Spike pointed out. He pulled a large insulated flask out of his jacket and downed the contents.

"Do I even want to know what that was?" Xander asked with a disgusted expression. Spike wiped his mouth and grinned. "No, no, don't tell me," Xander said, holding up a hand to stop Spike from describing whatever disgusting thing he was about to describe.

"Ice water," Angel told Xander. "And once he's dropped his body temperature too low for the sensors to register him, he's going to remind Finn that a hunter can't rely on his technology."

"Exactly," Spike agreed. "It's all about helping the sod, innit?"

"Or getting your jollies by trouncing them and then playing with them like a sadistic cat, only hopefully with less actual eating of the metaphor mice," Xander sighed.

"Same thing, pet. Last chance ta help me."

"Oh, I think I'll skip the soldier torture tonight," Xander said. Spike traded a concerned look with Angel before he shrugged and went darting off. Normally, Xander was more than happy to help play bait and beat up a couple of soldiers. Angel was starting to worry that Xander enjoyed it a little too much, but for last day or so, he'd been sticking close to Angel whenever he wasn't in class. He'd even fallen asleep on Angel's couch, and it wasn't difficult to figure out why.

"Any word from Lorne?" Xander asked. He walked so close that their arms brushed as they headed down the path.

"He has a lead on some books with references to Anyanka. Spike's going up to LA to get them tomorrow."

Xander nodded. "I called Blair."

"Does he know anything?" Angel hadn't thought to call Blair, maybe because he tended to think of the D'fatum demon as the expert on humans, not on demons. But he had at least as many connections to the demonic community as Lorne. Maybe more. Blair's uncle had been around for centuries.

"Blair says that vengeance demons aren't actually evil, more like issuey."

Angel frowned. "She shrivels men's genitals and gives them terrible diseases."

"Which they bring on by doing something really bad. And as someone who has never been genital-shriveling bad, I want to officially say that the universe sucks for putting me in her path. I've never done anything to warrant more than genital... and I'm stopping now, because that's kinda creepy to even think about. But anyway, Blair says that vengeance demons are actually humans who turn to trying to fix the balance of things, only they turn all demonic to do it, which is probably not the kind of fixing of things Father Peter would approve of. Every vengeance demon focuses on answering the not-so-nice prayers of one type of person, like Anya and her unhappy, screwed-by-love women. I wonder what kind of issues she had that she decided to take up penis shriveling for a living?"

Angel thought about that for a second. "I don't want to know," he finally said.

"Oh yeah. I'm with you in the land of blissful ignorance. I mean, Willow-issues and Faith-issues, and even you-issues with the whole guilt complex are enough for me. I don't even want to think about Anyanka-issues. I think Spike is the only issueless among us."

Angel managed to not choke on his own incredulity. Spike had enough issues to fit in with the rest of them; he'd just learned how to hide them a little better. The path widened into a small clearing. A park bench was sitting at the edge of an island of light, and Angel put his hand on Xander's back, guiding him to it.

"And this is totally making my head do the screwy," Xander said quietly as he sank down on the seat. In the distance, Angel heard a human call cut off sharply, but at least it didn't sound like Spike was doing any permanent damage to Finn's group.

"Xander?" Angel sat next to him, his hand on Xander's knee, offering comfort silently. While Angel often didn't know how to say what he was thinking, he found that a simple touch often allowed Xander to understand what Angel couldn't say.

"I was at class, and I kept looking at Brenda Bakersfield, wondering if maybe I could ask her out without making myself look like an idiot."

Angel cocked his head. "Isn't that normal?" he asked. While he'd been born before the custom of dating had really developed, from the television he'd seen, fear seemed normal.

"Yes, but then I started wondering if me liking her meant that she was more likely to be a demon because there's a long history of me and demons."

"There was Cordelia."

"Which is not big with the proving anything," Xander said with a shrug. "She scared that one vampire guy into not touching her during Slayerfest, and the fact that those demons couldn't tell Cordy from another slayer, so not saying much about her humanity. And then there's mummy-girl and preying mantis lady and Amy and Faith and Kendra." Xander swallowed, and Angel could feel the slight tremor in Xander's leg as that old memory washed through him. "You are seeing the pattern here, right?"

Angel didn't answer, but Xander did attract a fair number of demons and witches. Then again, unlike most males, he didn't immediately fight for the dominant position in a relationship. He didn't sprawl out, claiming as much territory as he could on the bench. He didn't jump into the middle of every conversation and dominate it. For demons, who often tended to be a little touchy on the topic, Xander would be one of the rare humans who did allow them to keep their own power. And for women like Faith and Amy who had been so badly hurt in the past, he was someone they could trust to not hurt them again. He was a good choice in a mate.

Angel ignored the way his chest tightened, hatred curling up in the center of it for whomever Xander chose.

"And then there is the whole issue of clan which is way more issuey with Spike around. I mean, I really felt bad for Graham because you know he did not deserve the whole smack down."

"He slept with Faith," Angel said, trying his best not to answer Xander's implied question. As far as Angel was concerned, Graham did deserve the injuries he'd received. Faith was stronger now, more centered after spending so many months with Blair, but she wasn't healed. He could see her pain in the way she diverted every question about her past with sexuality, in the way she looked to Angel or to Blair for approval. Xander never did that. Sometimes Xander seemed to go out of his way to try and annoy Angel, and Angel knew for a fact that Spike tried to annoy him. Faith's continued need for the protection of a patriarch suggested that her healing had only begun. So, if Graham was too idiotic to recognize that he was sleeping with an emotionally injured girl, he deserved every bruise and broken bone Spike gave him. That way, he wouldn't make the same mistake next time Faith visited.

"From experience, I'm guessing that she was sleeping with him way more than he was sleeping with her--not that there was any sleeping going on. Screaming and... I'm going to stop now," Xander interrupted himself, and Angel smirked as he could smell the gathering desire from Xander. "Stop sniffing me. That is so very high on the creep-meter," Xander said as he punched Angel's arm.

Angel captured Xander's wrist in his hand and held it. "I'm breathing."

Xander tried to jerk his hand away. "You don't breathe."

"Habit." Angel smiled at Xander, still holding his arm. Xander rolled his eyes and then yielded, allowing Angel to have control over Xander's hand. Angel held it for several seconds before giving it back.

"Issuey," Xander said softly. "And how long is Spike planning to take? We're supposed to be meeting with Giles."

Angel turned his attention to the distant sounds of scuffling. "It sounds like one of the unit is giving him a run for his money," Angel said as he heard the faint trails of two people still moving.

"Probably Riley. Riley's not bad."

"For a human," Angel agreed. He waited for that twinge of jealousy that Riley had finally taken the place he'd once wanted so badly. It didn't come. The soldier had no idea how strongly he smelled of Buffy, and for a second Angel wondered if Buffy's scent marking of her partner was intentional.

"There is nothing wrong with being human. Personally, I'm all in favor of humanity."

Angel didn't answer as he listened to the distant conflict. The better Riley got, the more Spike was going to feel a need to prove his superiority. The conflict might get out of hand. When two clans occupied the same territory, it wasn't unusual for the opposing enforcers to kill each other, and Angel couldn't expect Spike to ignore his instincts for too long. Xander was looking at him strangely, but Angel focused on the distant sounds and ensuring that Spike didn't accidentally break Riley.

"I should have brought my comic books or my text on retrofitting wiring in residentials." Xander leaned back against the bench and pushed his legs out in front of him. "Some of us can't hear well enough to enjoy the show, you know."

"Xander? Angel?" Angel had been concentrating so hard on Spike and Riley that he had not seen Buffy approach. Obviously Xander noticed his distraction because the boy was already smirking.

"Hey, Buff. We were going to come meet you at Giles', but we lost the third musketeer," Xander said cheerfully. "Pull up a bench." Xander scooted closer to Angel to make room for Buffy to sit next to them.

"No thanks. I'm actually just looking for Riley."

"Um..." Xander cleared his throat.

"Again?" Buffy demanded. "Angel, your brat is being exceptionally bratty."

"It is good training," Angel offered in way of an apology.

Buffy didn't look appeased. "After what happened with Graham..."

Xander interrupted her. "Hey! That was so not Spike's fault. I mean, he hears a woman screaming in the park in the middle of the night, and he reacted."

Buffy crossed her arms and shifted so that all her weight was on one leg. She looked like a school teacher about to scold Xander. She certainly didn't look like the child sitting in the sun and sucking on a lollipop as Whistler had once shown him. Looking back, he was embarrassed that he could have confused his desire for redemption with his desire for Buffy. The woman she was now, strong and confident and clearly annoyed... Angel could fall in love with her now if he allowed himself. He could have feelings for her without confusing his destiny and his love. However, their chance had passed. She deserved Riley who could grow old with her and stand by her side in the sun.

"So, Spike was being a good Samaritan?" Buffy demanded, not even pretended that she believed him.

Xander shrugged. "Hey, he is not a fan of raping. And he was probably hoping he'd found a rapist so he could have a good dinner, which I am not approving of, but in the grand scheme of life, antelope and rapists are on their own when it comes to predators."

Buffy frowned. This was one point on which the two would never agree, and Angel didn't want to see that conflict flare to life now.

"Spike was restrained considering the circumstances. A simple broken arm is nothing compared to what he could have done," Angel pointed out. Buffy frowned. She didn't like the logic, but she also didn't understand vampire culture well enough to know what had really happened. Angel wondered if Giles understood Spike's need to defend the clan now that Angel was leaving him to handle the duties normally performed by an enforcer. If he did, he had chosen not to explain it to the others.

"Whatever." Buffy dismissed the whole thing with a wave of her hand. "I so know that someone is not big with the truth-telling, but Graham seems weirdly okay with the breaking and manhandling, so I'm not going to comment. Then again, he slept with Faith, so manhandling is probably not a problem for him. And that weirdly implies gross things with Graham and Spike, doesn't it?" Buffy asked, wrinkling her nose in disgust.

"It kinda does, Buff," Xander agreed with an equally disgusted expression. "There was some implied naughty in there somewhere."

"Ick." Buffy walked over and sat next to Xander. Angel noted that she sprawled more than Xander did. "And do I want to know what Spike is doing now, because the whole accidental implying of inappropriate is really doing not nice things to what I'm thinking."

"Okay, ew," Xander said softly.

"Seconding the ew," Buffy agreed. "I think my brain is all warped and broken. I walked in to see Giles the other day, and now all sorts of inappropriate things keep popping in when I really don't want them popping in. It makes me feel like a perv, but apparently my literature teacher is impressed with my ability to find a phallic symbol."

"You didn't..." Xander said slowly, his disgust not only clear in his voice but in his smell.

"Yes, Giles and Jenny, sitting in a tree, only it was Giles' kitchen table and that was not kissing. That was not even... and I am so not going there. I just didn't know that Giles' life came with a rating higher than mine. It seems wrong."

"He's an adult," Angel pointed out.

"And old," Buffy objected. "And I know I should be more mature about this, but I really just want to be squicked for a while.

"We can squick together," Xander offered. "Giles and sex is squick-worthy. I like to think that anyone over forty isn't doing that." Xander glanced over toward Angel. "Of course, I know I'm an idiot for thinking that, but sometimes I like to embrace my inner idiot."

"Embrace away."

"So," Xander asked after a long silence. "What's new with you guys?"

"Um, you know the roommate I said was a demon from hell?"


"She was," Buffy got a smug smile on her face. "I told them she was demonic, but they didn't believe me until she started sucking out my soul."

"She... what?" Xander nearly swallowed his tongue, and Angel sat up, his hand tight on Xander's leg. A soulless slayer was enough to cause his demon to rage and his instinct to urge him to pull Xander away.

"Yeah, but I kicked her ass and took my soul back. I wasn't the nicest person without a soul." Buffy shrugged. "I actually think Spike is nicer than me without the soul, so I will be voting no for any soul-sucking offers in the future."

Angel blinked, shocked that she would have faced such danger without calling for one of them.

"So, what's the sitch with you guys?" Buffy asked, and clearly she had recovered from the incident because she didn't even need to talk it through. Either that, or she had already done all her talking with Willow and Riley. Angel glanced at Xander, wondering if the boy missed being part of that inner group.

"I have a demon girl after me again," Xander offered.

"Again?" Buffy asked, and Xander tensed under Angel's hand, at least until he saw her expression.

"Very funny, Buff."

"There's a rule written somewhere. You get the demon girls, and I get the weird guys." Buffy was silent for a second. "At least, I used to. I'm really starting to think that me and Riley might actually have something."

"I hope so, Buff. You deserve something good. Besides, I was running out of loser jokes for your boyfriends." Xander just smiled when Buffy punched his arm.

"Oi, lookie what I found," Spike said cheerfully as he came into the clearing, pushing through the bushes and pulling Riley behind him. Angel could see that Riley had his hands tied, and Buffy was on her feet, stake out, almost immediately. Spike flashed into gameface, and Angel hurried to get up and between them.

"Spike," Angel warned as he hurried to take custody of Riley.

"Oi, bugger was hiding one of them tranq darts in his hands for after I caught him. If he isn't going to play fair, I'm not either."

"You never play fair," Xander said, while Angel took Riley's arm and pulled him away from Spike, Xander went to Spike's side.

"Yes, but I nearly got you, this time. I will take you down sooner or later," Riley said with confidence, and Angel was surprised to see that he wasn't all that upset about getting tied up. "You need to go cut the other guys loose," Riley suggested while Angel examined the ropes. Spike had been a little too enthusiastic, and it was going to be hard to get the ropes off without cutting them. Angel gave Spike a dirty look as he pulled his knife out. Spike just smirked. The smirk vanished when Angel didn't soften his expression.

"I'll go get 'em," Spike offered, and then he off into the woods again. Angel sighed. They were just lucky that Riley was good-natured about losing or this game really could get badly out of hand. One wrong move, and Spike was going to kill or rape the soldier; he was just too good as a fighter and his willingness to challenge Spike touched on too many instincts.

"Angel, are you going to let get him get away with this?" Buffy demanded.

"It's no worse than training," Riley said, waiting as Angel tried to cut the strands of rope without cutting Riley. "And the unit is improving."

"He tied you up!" Buffy objected, pointing at Riley's hands with her stake.

"So did my commander when I was taking covert evasions class," Riley said, and Angel was once more surprised at just how calm the soldier was taking all this. "Besides, I've seen Spike manhandle Xander just as much, so you can't convince me that he has any nefarious motive.

Angel paused. That was a dangerous assumption. Spike manhandled Xander because they were clan, family, and that gave Spike certain privileges. However, Riley belonged to Buffy, and the motives weren't the same.

"Riley," Angel said softly, not sure how to explain this. "I don't--" He stopped.

"What the ever-articulate one is trying and failing to say," Xander interrupted, "is that Spike is all about who has the power, and this may be a game as long as he ends up with the power in the end, but it really might not be all that gamelike if you ever won."

Buffy took an aggressive step forward, her body radiating danger and anger, and Angel had to take a deep breath and fight back the urge to pull Xander away from her. "Define ungamelike. Like he might refuse to come over and eat popcorn and play Monopoly with the rest of us?"

Xander flinched and looked at Angel as though seeking permission. But Angel didn't understand Buffy or her reactions well enough to know how to calm her down, and he could only trust that Xander would make the right decision about how much to share. "Um... I beat him once, and he pretty much spent the next week sitting on me. And I only won because Angel sorta cheated to help me win. But Ri, if you beat him, he's going to do something to remind you that he's way with the stronger. And trust me, he's always going to be way with the stronger, and the faster, and the fighting dirtier. He has a century of really dirty fighting behind him."

Riley looked at Xander for long, silent seconds, and Angel went back to work trying to cut the bindings. "Understood," Riley finally acknowledged. "I'm still going to try and win, but if I do, I'll accept the consequences of that."

"Riley!" Buffy objected loudly. Angel knew she had her own instincts, and every time Spike and Riley got into a conflict, she probably felt the need to stake Spike just as much as Angel felt the need to protect Xander.

"Buffy, they're our strongest allies. My team isn't up to their standards. Most of the unit can't take Xander, much less a master vampire or a serious demon. And that's after years of military training and covert ops work. I need the freedom to use the tools I have available to make sure we're as prepared for any emergency as we can be."

Angel cut the last strand, and Riley brought his hands around to the front, rubbing the wrists as he just stared at Buffy, waiting for an answer. Buffy looked at him and then turned to stare at the woods where Spike had vanished.

Buffy's hands twisted around the stake, rubbing the wood. "Xander, could Spike hurt them?"

Xander didn't answer right away. "Um... maybe?" Xander finally admitted.

"That has always been a danger," Riley pointed out. "Just like we might get killed trying to take down a demon or someone could target us because they want to establish a base of operations on the Hellmouth. But Graham said that Spike wanted to kill him, and he chose to back off and allow Graham to call for help." Riley took a step toward Buffy, raising his hand for a second as though he was going to touch her shoulder, but then he put his hands behind him and stood straight. "The danger that Spike could kill one of us keeps us on our toes; it reminds us that this war isn't being fought by humans, and we have to meet an enemy that's faster, smarter, and more adaptable than anything we've experienced during training. Buffy, if you tell me to pull the men back, I will order them to disengage the moment they identify Spike during any conflict, but I don't believe that's the best use of our resources."

Buffy shoved her stake back in the waist of her pants. "I really preferred it when I wasn't all adultlike. Because now, when I say 'fine', I'm going to have to live with the guilt if Spike hurts someone, and Angel, if that happens, I plan to get irrational and childishly vengeful all over Spike."

"Buffy, just remember that he has taken three slayers," Angel pleaded. He couldn't bring himself to say more because he honestly didn't know who he would want to win such a fight. He hoped he never had to make that choice.

"As long as he remembers that I've taken hundreds of vamps," she answered, and Angel thought that was probably as close to a truce as they were going to come. "So, are we going to Giles'? Oh God, we are going to Giles' and now I have to face the table of Giles. I don't want to face the table." Buffy looked at Riley in distress, and Riley cleared his throat, probably to kill a laugh before he held out his arm and gathered Buffy up. "Protect me from the creepy images that keep playing on the inside of my eyes," she begged him, turning her face toward his chest.

"I'll stay between you and the table the whole time," Riley promised.

"Between me and Jenny, too, please," Buffy asked. "Jenny, tables, wooden spoons, and all butter are officially on the list of things from which you must protect me."

Riley smiled and patted her back. "Always," he promised.

Angel watched them, the power now shifting so that Riley acted as protector, his arms around Buffy. It was uncomfortable. Angel shifted away, not sure how to deal with the sudden and inexplicable return of his childlike Buffy who was clearly not the dominant adult.

"So, we're off to see Giles, and Buffy, you so do not have room to talk. Let me tell you, living near Faith and Spike, I have a whole laundry list of things that I can no longer look at." Xander slipped his arm around Angel's arm and started pulling him down the path. "Washing machines, those clips you use to put laundry out on a line, and since we have no line, I'm not even sure why we had those clips, but..." Xander shrugged. "And then there's rope and hairbrushes and caramel sauce, and carrots, and considering that carrots were one of the vegetables that Angel could get me to eat without complaining, that was a major loss. However, I will never eat a carrot again without brain scarring memories."

"You don't sound too scarred by it," Riley commented, his arm around Buffy's shoulders as they followed.

"Oh, you have no idea. I've just given up pretending to be shocked," Xander offered. Angel listened as Spike raced through the woods just north of them to wait near the street. He didn't want to come up from behind where Buffy would be between him and the rest of the clan. Angel sighed. This situation couldn't go on forever, that's for sure. Angel just wasn't sure what he should do. He didn't want to take Xander away, but more and more he was starting to think he couldn't keep Spike here.

"Captain," a voice called out from behind, and Riley paused, watching as his three soldiers came up behind them. Saunders, the only woman in the unit was there. Angel looked at her with an appraising eye. It was Saunders who had called. "Sir, reporting back. Did you get him?"

"No, I got my ass kicked and then tied up," Riley answered without any rancor.

"Next time, sir," Saunders suggested, then she fell back to take a rear position. She wasn't right for Xander. Her voice was so annoying that he could never find love with her. Angel pulled his arm free from Xander's hold and rested it on the small of Xander's back, urging him to walk faster. The sooner they found out whether or not Giles had information, the sooner Angel could get Xander back home.



4. Chapter Four

They pulled into the parking garage, the brilliant sun of the late afternoon vanishing into shadows. And the chill didn't seem to have all that much to do with the sudden lack of sun. Los Angeles seemed like a pretty cheerful place from what Xander had seen as they drove through at 90 miles an hour, but this law firm's building seemed to suck up all the cheer and put out creep-vibes.

"Seriously not liking this place," Xander complained softly. Pulling into the first open spot, Angel cursed softly in Irish, which usually meant that he was going to find Spike, disappear, and show up many bruises and broken bones later. Irish Angel was pissy Angel, and pissy Angel took it out on Spike.

Xander got out of the car and wasn't surprised when Angel's hand came up around his neck, pulling him way too close for complete heterosexual comfort. Pissy Angel was also handsy.

"Peaches," Spike said, walking out from behind a pillar, his cigarette and his eyes glowing dimly in the shadows.

"What have you gotten yerself into?" Angel demanded. "Caught in a building, in daylight. I thought I beat this kind of stupidity out of you."

Xander knew there was major badage when Spike didn't even bother to verbally snipe right back. Instead he dropped his cigarette and crushed it under his boot with way more force than was really needed.

"Wankers took Cordelia."

For a second, Xander could only blink, his mind coming up with all kinds of stupid questions, like 'his Cordelia?' and 'who?' and 'how did Spike find out?' Luckily, Xander's brain had learned to disengage from the mouth when the less human members of the family were this worked up. Angel's eyes flashed yellow, and his hand tightened around Xander's neck to the point where it was almost painful. Xander made a little grunt, and Angel immediately loosened his hold, moving his arm so that it was slung over Xander's shoulders and still way too close for total heterosexual comfort.

"How many?"

"One vamp. Lots of other wankers." Spike turned and started walking, his coat billowing around him. Instead of following, Angel paused, and Xander could almost read the big idiot's mind. He could definitely read that stubborn expression.

"Oh no, no, there will be no leaving of the Xander. Besides, I will just follow you two seconds after you take me back to the car, so unless you plan to spend all night carrying me back here, I am not going to be left alone." Xander crossed his arms and glared.

"I could tie you up or lock you in the trunk," Angel threatened.

That only made Xander roll his eyes. "Oh please, something would come along and eat me, and you know it."

Angel sighed. "I should have left you at home."

"I would have followed."

"I could have tied you up there." Angel started walking towards Spike, an arm still around Xander.

"The house would have caught on fire. Admit it. Me and luck are not buds, not unless you count bad luck, and then it's not so much that we're buddies as it is bad luck is like the little brother who follows me around and makes me miserable. Or he's the big brother who follows me around and beats me up for fun. Either way, me and luck are not to be trusted in the same room together." And that brought another huge Angel sigh.

The elevator dinged open, and Spike went in, that weird bounce in his steps that suggested that either demons or drywall was about to get very broken. "Spike, who has Cordelia?" Xander asked as they went in. Spike pushed the button for the top floor, and then Xander couldn't really see anything else because he was physically shoved behind a wall of vampire.

"Wanker named Russell Winters. Vamp."

Yep, Spike was not really big with the talking when he was really pissed. Well, pissed drunk he talked a lot, but pissed angry, he turned all Oz levels of quiet.

"I thought you said she was safe." Angel had the cranky voice out.

"Thought she was. Winters was respecting the bloodmark."

Xander's eyes went big at that little bombshell. His vamps had bloodmarked Cordelia, which meant... he had no idea what that meant. He just knew that the bloodmarking was what made him smell like Angel and it was the reason that one minion had actually broken his own leg trying to abort an attack mid-lunge. It'd been weirdly amusing if you discounted the pain and writhing, and he really had been hanging out with Spike way too much.

"What happened?" Angel growled.

"She bloody went after him. Tried ta stake the bastard."

"Cordelia?" Xander asked in surprise. That was not like Cordelia. Cordelia was more the kind to sit on the headstone and point at whoever she wanted dusted. Queen C was more than just a random nickname. No random at all in that name.

"Yes, Cordelia," Spike snarled, his fangs making his accent sound all weird. "I fucking told her to drop it. I told her to stay away from him. Vamps feed; it's what we fucking do."

The elevator opened, and Spike stormed out, his coat looking mighty capelike in a red kryponite evil-coming-your-way kind of way. "Stay close," Angel ordered, and then he followed, leaving Xander to trail behind. They were in a fancy office building with wide windows, and Xander opened his mouth to shout a warning when Spike walked right through a patch of sunlight without the ugly-ass ring to protect him, but there wasn't even a wisp of smoke.

A secretary hurried out from behind a desk. "You cannot go in th--" She didn't get any farther before Spike drove a stake into her heart. Xander lost a step, horror making his legs lose the pattern of walking, but then the secretary turned to a dust statue with a surprised face, her skeleton showing for a millisecond before Spike charged right through her, scattering her ashes. Vampiric secretaries. That was... new and weirdly disturbing. Others moved to the side, and Spike closed in on an ornate double door. One kick, and the doors flew open.

"Where the fuck is she?" Spike demanded. Xander followed Angel into the room. There was a large conference table, and at the head of it stood a middle aged man with heavy features. Xander had no idea how he knew, but he was definitely calling that one a vamp. An older woman with her gray hair in a bun and a young guy with a smirky smile stood to one side.

"William," the vampire started around the table, looking like he might hold out his hand for Spike to shake, and the growl that came from Spike was enough to make Xander press closer to Angel.

The vampire changed his focus from Spike to Angel. "Angelus, your childe is not exactly well mannered. We are civilized here; we do not go charging into each other's lairs staking minions and issuing challenges."

"I dunna care what you want. I want my female back," Angel said, and Xander was calling that soft and silky tone an Angelus voice... a pissed Angelus voice. Sometimes Angel's inner demon was a little freaky, and they were definitely heading for the freaksome now.

"She attacked me. I never challenged the bloodmark. I have to say that I was surprised. I thought bloodmarking territory went out with gas streetlights."

"I do things the old way," Angel said as he stepped forward, his hand falling to the sword he had hidden under his coat.

The vampire raised his hands. "I believe in being more reasonable. For example, my lawyers here have prepared a document. It holds me free of any liability for minor injuries she may have suffered in my attempts to defend myself and it holds you personally responsible for any of Ms. Chase's actions after she is released, including any attempt to press charges or defame my character. Mr McDonald?"

The smirker stepped forward. "Lindsey McDonald, counsel for Russell Winters. If you would just like to sign--"

Spike darted forward and grabbed the lawyer by the shoulders, driving teeth into his neck so fast that Xander didn't have time to do more than gasp before Spike was feeding. Xander clung to Angel's coat in shock. Yeah, he knew that Spike fed, but knowing and seeing were definitely not the same. Lindsey's hands clawed at Spike's shoulders, and one leg kicked out, but then his struggles grew quieter. Xander held his breath, not sure what to think because killing bad, but this was a lawyer. This was a lawyer who worked for a vampire. Hell, this lawyer worked for a vampire who had kidnapped Cordelia, so there were layers on layers of bad there, but that didn't mean he wanted a front-row seat.

"Spike," Angel said softly. Spike raised his head, his lips red with blood. With a wicked smile, he dropped the lawyer on the table. From the groaning and weak twitches, the guy was still alive. He wasn't happy, but he was alive. A little part of Xander's brain wondered if Angelus was better at biting or something because the humans he'd seen Angelus bite on Christmas Eve had been way more into it than this guy. Then again, Angelus had left neat little holes, and Lindsey had a raw and sluggishly bleeding wound.

"I don't really care about lawyers and contracts. I want my human," Angel stepped forward to Spike's side, and for a half second, Xander was left a whole five feet away from his vamps. He quickly moved to a spot just behind Angel. He so should have stayed in the car, but he usually figured out that he was in over his head when his head was already six feet underwater, and he was sinking fast.

"You seem fond of your humans," Winters said, and now he looked at Xander.

"Hey, eyes to yourself, bub!" Xander complained. For the first time, Winters actually showed a little of his vampire nature, yellow eyes flashing at Xander. Angel moved and now Xander had a good view of his back.

"You shouldn't be worrying about my court. You should be a little more concerned about the fact that you have surrounded yourself with fools." Angel started moving. He walked in a slow arc with Winters at the center. Oh yeah, this was so going to go bad. Spike moved off to the side, and Xander retreated to a wall, his hand on his cinquedea. Angel reversed his direction and walked an arc toward the windows.

Winters watched, and that almost looked like worry on his face. "This isn't some cave where we challenge each other for territory. Your human attacked me. She interfered with my feeding, and I restrained her and waited for you to come collect her."

"Call and have her sent here." Angel reversed and paced back toward Xander. Spike held his spot near the table, but he was crouched, all bounce gone as he waited to explode into motion.

Maybe Winters finally figured out that he was chin deep in shit and sinking fast because he reached over and hit the intercom button on his phone. "Have Ms. Chase escorted to my office," he ordered. Angel smiled, but that was more the Angelusy smile of doom than anything Xander would want to see aimed at him. Winters was clearly an idiot, though, because he smiled back. "We can work things out. I can see where you might have taken this as a hostile act, even though I never meant it that way. She is the one who attacked me."

"If you canna defend yourself from a slip of a girl, you don't deserve to keep your unlife," Angel commented with that same amused expression that was seriously starting to freak Xander out. Angel tilted his head and considered Xander, his head tilted up while he scented the air. A half second later, Angel frowned--now that expression was all Angel with the doubt and the distress. Oh no. No and more with the no because Angelus was handling this way better than Angel would have.

"Yeah, buddy," Xander said, pulling Winters' attention to him before the guy noticed that Angel had gone all regrety. "If you feel threatened by a human, you are so not even worth the dust that you're going to get turned into. As a human, I'm officially saying that any vamp who feels intimidated enough to kidnap me is rating pretty high on the loser scale of unlife."

Spike bounced on his toes, clearly amused.

Winters snarled. "You are noth--"

"You do na talk to him. He is mine," Angel practically roared as Angelusy traits took front and center. The gray-haired lady made a little squeaking mouse-sound and retreated to the corner. Even the wounded guy managed to slide off the table and get himself half under it. Yep, there was one who knew how to keep himself alive in the middle of potential mayhem. Actually, Xander might join him under the table if things got really bad because that table was the only thing in the room large enough to provide any cover.

"I apologize." Winters had his hands up in surrender again. "I should have left her on the street. I would like to make amends. You're welcome to Lindsey. He's quite a good lawyer and if nothing else, your childe clearly enjoys the taste of his blood."

Xander expected outrage and arguments and threats, but Lindsey just sat under the table, his hand pressed to his injured neck as he watched silently. Oh, if Angel ever tried to offer Xander up as a peace offering, the vamp would never have a minute of peace again in his life, but Lindsey didn't even look particularly surprised or offended. The guy needed to find a new job, one with benefits that included a no-getting-traded-to-enemies clause. Although right now, Xander was thinking the guy would be lucky to get traded. Angelus had less of the creep going than these guys.

A knock on the half-open door interrupted the uncomfortable silence that had descended on the room. "Mr. Winters? We have Ms. Chase," a voice called out, but Xander couldn't see anyone. Yep, the smart ones were definitely hiding down the hall.

"Send her in," Winters called out. Someone must have given Cordelia a good shove because she came stumbling forward, hit one of the doors which was hanging from a broken hinge and then tumbled into the room. Her hands were tied, and without them, she ended up face down on the floor in an inelegant and unCordeliaish heap. Xander darted forward, his cinquedea out.

"You disgusting little troll," Cordelia complained, and Xander was seriously hoping she was aiming that at Winters and not him. "Seriously! What is your problem?"

"Pet, you okay?" Spike asked, his nose going as he scented the air.

"If loser boy would hurry up and cut me loose, I'd be fine."

"Hey, I'm working on it," Xander defended himself as he used his blade to slice through knots. Whoever had tied her up had been a little too enthusiastic, so he was guessing that she had been giving them a hard time.

She pushed herself up to her knees and pinned Winters with a very Cordeliaish expression. "He had to have minions sneak up on me from behind. What kind of a reject is too afraid to fight a human? And what kind of a reject goes after my friends? At least Spike goes after people who can fight back, but you have to use your money to trick girls and then you have your hired help hold them down. You couldn't get a fang into an orange without someone to hold the orange still for you. Even then, you'd probably miss."

"Oi, sounds like she has your number," Spike offered, and that bounce was back.

"She's disrespectful," Winters snapped.

"Not to me, she isn't," Angel pointed out as he started that slow pace again. The bounce vanished from Spike's step. "But then I've earned her respect. Do you truly target the weakest humans you can find? Do you truly require help in your hunt?"

Winters didn't answer.

Angel gave a slow, low laugh. "Oh boyo, what did I always teach you about vampires who couldn't hunt for themselves?" he asked Spike.

Spike smiled. "Ya said they weren't worth challenging. Ya said that no matter how many years they'd managed to survive, they were nothing more than glorified minions, and should be put down like one," Spike immediately answered.

"You dis--" Whatever Winters was going to say, he never finished it. Xander couldn't even tell if Spike or Angel had thrown the stake, but it was there in Winters' chest for half a second as the outline of the man in dust hovered in the air, and then it exploded.

The woman in the corner squeaked again. Angel looked over toward her, and for a half second, Xander worried about whether Angel was going to get all Angelusy on her too. Xander cut the last strand on the ropes around Cordelia's wrists, and she stood up.

"I don't care who you people are, but you leave my clan alone." Angel growled the words, and the woman nodded so fast that she looked like a bobblehead doll.

"Exactly! I warned you that you weren't vamp enough to challenge Spike and Angel, but oh no. You thought that surviving a couple of hundred years made you someone important. Loser," she told the pile of dust that had been Winters. With that, Cordelia dismissed them all with a sniff and turned to leave. She was one step out the door before Spike gave a colorful curse and darted out after her.

"Move," Angel said, gesturing toward Spike. Xander got up and hurried after him, leaving Angel to protect the rear. On the way out, the employees were still keeping to the sides of the hallways. Cordelia charged past them, her head high, and Spike kept close to her side, Xander right behind him.

Welcome to the big city, where instead of hanging out in cemeteries, the evil dressed up in suits and ties and had demonic secretaries. This was freaky, even for a hellmouth boy like him. They reached the elevator without anyone stopping them, and Cordelia pushed the down button and crossed her arms. She didn't look any more annoyed than she would have if someone had told her they had run out of her shoe size.

Angel rested his hand on the small of Xander's back, and the four of them watched as people peered from behind office doors and around corners.

"Evil lawyers. Kinda cliche," Xander offered.

"Cliches are born in truth," Angel sighed. "They want power and they think a vampire is the way to gain power."

"Vampires are the way to get dead," Xander disagreed. Then he looked at his weird little family. "Or the way to get pushed around and sat on and ordered to eat vegetables, which is still not feeling powerful," he amended himself.

Cordelia looked at him with that old expression of hers, the one that suggested he was an idiot, but she still liked him anyway. He hadn't seen that look since he had screwed everything up. Cordy shook her head at him.

"Guys, are we sure we're safe in an elevator?" Xander asked as the little bell dinged and the doors opened.

"I'm not walking down twenty stories," Cordelia insisted as she stepped inside, and that pretty much ended that discussion. A man in a suit was already in the elevator, and Spike reached in and grabbed him by his tie, flinging him out before he followed. Xander and Angel got on last.

The elevator music was pretty surreal as they rode down to the garage level. Spike's mouth was still stained red, and his coat was gray with vampire ash. Cordelia had her arms crossed over her chest in a pose that generally meant she was about to rip into the cheerleaders for not working hard enough, but her wrists were covered with angry red welts. Angel just... actually, Angel didn't have any emotion on his face at all, which generally did not bode well for whoever had pissed him off.

They got out in the garage, and Angel led the way to the car. "You're in the trunk," he told Spike. "And next time you get yourself trapped in a building with no sewer access, you'll have a lot more to worry about than an uncomfortable trip in a trunk," he warned. Spike didn't answer. He was busy glaring at Cordelia. Xander tended to wilt under that expression, and if he tried to stick up for himself, Spike usually just grabbed him and dumped Xander over his lap. It was hard to stick up for yourself when you were stuck over someone's lap. However, Cordelia just glared back at him.

"There are enough people in the world who deserve to get eaten. I wasn't going to stand back and let him eat girls I knew."

"You had no business challenging a master vampire," Spike snarled, his eyes yellow.

"You made your choice, I made mine," she told him archly. Cordelia could do a mean arch when she wanted to.

"He could have fucking killed you!" Spike pivoted and was nose to nose with Cordelia.

"Yes, he could have. Your point?" Cordelia had her sweet voice going, and Cordelia's sweet voice was about as scary as Angelus'.

"Argue about this later," Angel ordered. He opened the trunk of the convertible. "In."

Spike gave Cordelia one last growl before he got in the trunk, wrapping his coat around him.

"You could get a fucking van, Peaches," he complained, but Angel slammed the trunk.

"I could, but I don't want to," Angel answered as he went to the driver's side. "Get in the car."

Xander hurried to claim shotgun, and then retreated to the backseat when Cordelia turned her arch on him. Angel didn't comment on the seat shuffle because he was too busy trying to strangle his steering wheel with his bare hands. His knuckles were turning white. Xander knew that if he held onto something that tightly, he'd lose circulation and his fingers would go numb, but maybe vampires were different. Or maybe Angel was so angry that he didn't care.

They pulled out onto the street. The sun was starting to set, and the tall buildings cast long shadows over the road.

"You can't challenge vampires." Angel had on that calm before the storm voice, and for once, it wasn't Xander who had inspired it.

"I think I just proved I can." Cordelia stared at the buildings, turning her back to Angel, and if Xander were stupid, he'd get in the middle of this fight by pointing out that Cordy was just pissing him off more by turning her back to him. However, he liked to think he'd left his days of complete stupidity behind with textbooks and chalk dust and Sunnydale High.

"You were captured."

Cordelia shrugged. "So I'm not good at challenging vampires. It doesn't mean I can't do it anyway."

Angel made a noise that sounded like someone was smushing a hamster. Not even Xander had ever inspired that particular sound.

"You are such an idiot," Cordelia sighed, and she gave Angel one of those looks that she usually saved for Xander... and the kid who always ate glue in class. Yellow flashed in Angel's eyes, but Cordelia seemed a little less than intimidated. "Xander," she said, turning to him, and for a second, Xander knew pure terror. Demons and hellgods scared him less than the thought of getting into a fight between these two. "If Angel told you to let someone die, would you do it?"

Xander's memory flashed back to a night long ago when Angelus had slipped out, the feel of Angelus' hands on Xander, pinning him down, threatening him if he wasn't quiet while Angelus hunted and killed. "Um, I'm thinking I've already proved that's a big old 'no'." From Angel's flinch, he knew exactly what Xander was thinking.

"Exactly." Cordelia turned her glare back on Angel. "We are not children, and we do not do what we're told just because you and blondie back there think you have some sort of claim over us. Yes, Winters was leaving me alone, but I am not going to sit back and let him eat the prettiest and the smartest girls out there on the audition circle. Someone has to think of the future of the human genome here."

Angel was almost whispering in his attempt to not yell. "Cordelia, you could have been killed."

"I think I know that."

And the emotional dam broke. "Do ye want someone to rip your throat out and feast on your blood?" Angel shouted loud enough that even people who had their windows rolled up turned and looked at him in surprise and fear. Angel slumped down in the seat, and when the light turned green, he floored the accelerator. Xander noticed that the other cars let them get way ahead. Yep, no one wanted to try and drag race with the crazy sun-lovin' vampire.

Cordelia gave a big sigh. "I happen to think that my life isn't worth turning my back and letting someone like Winters take out girl after girl. I know these people. I go on auditions with them and suffer through really boring acting workshops with them, and I draw cartoon mustaches on their headshots when no one is looking, but I will not let some vampire eat them."

"Wait. Auditions? I thought you were going to acting college or something," Xander interrupted. Cordelia looked at him, and for a second, something that looked like doubt flashed across her face, which was weird because Cordy was many things, but she never had an ounce of doubt, not even when verbally shredding someone who so did not deserve it.

She shrugged. "Acting requires auditions. Besides, I need the money. My parents neglected to pay their taxes for the last several decades." Cordelia sounded so airy and casual that Xander knew she was totally putting on an act. And she didn't act all that well, so her going on auditions was probably not all that pretty. Then Xander started thinking of their last months in school. Cordelia had been grounded from her car and stuck hitching rides with Harmony or one of the college boys she dated. She stopped having the cheerleaders over to her house. She'd tried to get him to buy her prom dress. But he hadn't, and she'd still shown up in the most lavish designer dress in the history of all promming, which wasn't particularly surprising given that it was Cordelia... but...

"How long?" Xander asked.

Angel flinched, and Xander narrowed his eyes at that bit of evidence. "You knew!" Xander accused him. Angel didn't protest his innocence, so Xander punched the stupid vamp as hard as he could in the shoulder. Unfortunately, it wasn't hard enough.

"Oh please, get over yourself, Xander Harris. You didn't tell me about your night with Faith, I didn't tell you about Daddy's IRS trouble. That isn't exactly saying good things about our relationship."

"I told you about Faith," Xander said, not exactly sure how this had come back to him and his screw ups.

"No, you told me that night was 'disturbing.'" She made quotes with her fingers in the air. "Which means that you basically told me that there was something you weren't telling me. It's not the same."

Xander shrank back into his seat. Yep, Cordelia's nails were just as sharp as ever. Actually, he was surprised she hadn't talked Winters into dusting himself.

"None of this changes the fact that you should not be challenging vampires," Angel said, and thank god for him and his one-track mind. He pulled up in front of an apartment building with ugly square windows and square lines and the sort of modern architecture that Xander absolutely hated, even if it did make finding water lines ridiculously easy.

"And none of it changes the fact that I'm going to anyway," she answered sweetly. "You and Spike can play Daddy with Xander; I am not going to get ordered around by anyone, and don't think that paying my rent gives you any more rights than anyone else has on that front."

"Hey, they are not playing Daddy. I have a father, and trust me, if Angel or Spike acted anything like him, I would stake them. Or I would try to stake them. I would try and fail to stake them." Xander shrugged. He'd long ago come to terms with the fact that he was always going to be the physical weakling of the group. It helped that he could beat the snot out of at least some of the covert-ops trained soldiers though.

"I am not his father," Angel growled. "But if he tried to challenge a master vampire, I would lock him in his room for a month."

"You don't have that option with me," Cordelia said as she got out of the car. "And seriously, Angel, pull your head out of your ass because if he lets you lock him in his room and sit on him and generally torture him with anally retentive over-protective tendencies... well, there are a limited number of relationships where someone will put up with that. I'm just saying," she finished. And then she gave both Angel and him one of her looks that proclaimed their stupidity. Then she turned her back and walked toward the building without another word.

"Fucking go after her!" Spike shouted from the trunk, his words muffled by the upholstery.

"She's going to make up her own mind." Angel practically growled the words, and then he accelerated right into the path of a Volvo that had to brake and swerve into a turn lane. Oh yeah, Angel was going to be a joy tonight, that's for sure.



5. Chapter Five

"Hello, house of madness, chief straight-coat puller speaking," Xander answered the phone.

"Xander?" The man on the other end was sounding stressed enough that Xander tried to sit up; however, Angel grabbed his ankles.

"Don't spill the popcorn," Angel growl-whispered.

"This is Xand-man," Xander said to the man on the phone, giving Angel a dirty look. Angel glanced over, his hands still holding Xander's legs down across Angel's lap, the popcorn bowl perched on top, but at least he was interested.

"It's Graham."

"Graham?" Xander had trouble processing that one because Graham had been huge with the avoiding of them ever since Spike had beat the snot out of him for sleeping with Faith. "What's up?"

"I think I need some backup."

Angel took the bowl and moved it to the table so that Xander could finally sit up. Spike had been sprawled over his end of the couch, but now he leaned forward. Then again, Spike was probably hoping for a chance to beat Graham senseless again.

"Buddy, any demon with any self-respect takes the night off to watch stupid horror films and eat popcorn and make inappropriate complaints about the lack of realism in blood spray," Xander said slowly. "Are you sure you aren't trying to slay a trick-or-treater?"

"I'm sure." Graham sure sounded big with the sureness, and he wasn't one to lose his head during a fight. "Buffy and Riley went to a party, but I lost Riley's signal. When I went to the house to investigate..." He stopped, and Xander could pretty much guess what the problem was. Yep, Sunnydale was good at making people worry about the crazy-making... or the crazy-assuming anyway since most of the crazy turned out to be real.

"Trust me, I've dated a praying mantis and a mummy, I've seen talking dolls and invisible girls. Graham, whatever you're going to say, you are not even approaching my levels of weird." Yep, Xander watched the Twilight Zone when he wanted that warm, fuzzy feeling of home and all things familiar, because his life was pretty much one big Hellmouth Zone.

"I heard screams, and when I tried to get in the house, the house swallowed the door and I was left looking at solid siding."

"Ah fuck. What the hell is wrong with demons today, mucking around on fucking Halloween when they should be home spawning or somethin'." Spike was up off the couch and grabbing at his coat, and Angel was right behind him.

"Where's the house?" Xander asked, tilting the phone a little to make it easier for the others to hear.

"The Alpha-Delta house on the north side of campus."

"On it," Spike said as he headed for the door, and Xander was so not asking how Spike knew where the frat house was. Then again, loud music and lots of drinking tended to attract Spike.

"Graham, we're on our way. Call Giles and see if he and Jenny can provide a little magical backup because people-swallowing houses might not be something you can kill with a sword," Xander said. Not even waiting for an answer, he hit the disconnect button and shoved his cell phone in his pocket. He wasn't more than two feet from the couch when a hand on his chest stopped him.

"Where do you think you're going?" Angel demanded.

"Um, with you. Seriously, Angel, lay off the hair gel. It's sinking in." Xander tried to detour around Angel, but Angel was the original immovable object when he wanted to be.

"You're not going."

"Give it up, you are not the boss of me even if you and Spike like pretending bossiness. Well, you actually don't have to pretend the bossiness part because you have that down, but being bossy does not make you the boss." Xander frowned, fairly sure that he had lost the logic of that argument somewhere in the middle.

"You're not going."

"And you can't stop me. Not unless you plan on standing here all night and letting Buffy get killed." Xander crossed his arms and glared. For a second, Angel stood there, a silent statue without a single emotion on his face. Then the stoic cracked and he made that weird cringing, snarling expression that meant he was really and truly pissed.

"Stay behind me." Angel turned and headed for the door. Spike was there, leanin' against the wall and watching with a smirk. "Shut up, Spike."

"Oi, didn't say a word!" Spike sounded offended, but he was still smirking. "If your knickers are in a twist over Xander, take it out on him, luv. Take it out all over him. It's bloody unhealthy taking your frustrations out on the wrong person, innit it, Xander?" Spike turned to him. Xander was not so stupid to miss the fact that the two vamps were talking about something other than frustration, but he was not getting in the middle of whatever weirdness they had going.

"This is me staying out of this." Xander followed Angel out to the car, refusing to even pay attention as Spike and Angel had one more little sniping war. They definitely enjoyed torturing each other.

By the time Angel pulled up in front of the frat house, he was almost strangling the wheel. Yep, as soon as everyone was safe, Angel was going to take Spike up to the roof and beat the snot out of him. He might throw him off the roof if Spike didn't stop with the weird references that weren't making any sense.

"Angel, Spike, Xander." Graham stepped out from behind a tree. Xander had to give the guy a whole lot of credit because his arm was still in a sling, and he didn't look more than a little totally terrified of being around Spike. Xander would have been running for the hills by now. "There was a woman screaming at the window, but I couldn't break the window to get to her." Graham looked over his shoulder at the very normal looking house... normal except for a definite lack of door where there should be a door.

"We'll get them." Angel pulled a crowbar out of his backseat and strode up to the house. Raising the crowbar like a baseball bat, he swung with all his might. Xander flinched, expecting to be picking glass shards out of Angel's arms for the next week, but the crowbar hit the glass and rebounded with a dull thudding noise.

"What the fuck?" Spike demanded. He hurried up the walk and practically yanked the crowbar out of Angel's hand. Angel just surrendered it and stepped back, watching as Spike attacked the window like a madman, the blows bouncing off until finally the crowbar flew out of Spike's hand and sailed up and over a tree. It hit the neighbor's house, and the long metal arm sunk deep into the wood siding.

Angel looked up at it for a second. "You're buying me a new crowbar."

Spike glared.

"Well, that was totally and completely not helpful." Xander climbed out of the backseat of the convertible and looked at the frat house. "Okay, so what's the next step?"

Before either vamp could admit total defeat, a little red truck pulled up behind the convertible. Giles got out of the passenger seat. "I take it that you haven't had any luck?" Giles asked.

"We just got here," Spike snarled. Giles didn't seem to notice though. While Jenny got out of the driver's side, he reached into the back of his truck and pulled out a chainsaw.

"Bloody hell, why don't you carry one of those, Peaches?" Spike demanded with a little bounce, so Xander was figuring all was forgiven. Angel just reached over and casually punched Spike in the arm hard enough to make him stumble to the side.

"Rupert, if this is magical, I should--" Jenny started to say. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she had cat whiskers painted on her face. But then Giles was wearing a big ugly sombrero, so the whole night had a surreal vibe going.

"Jenny, as soon as we get inside, you may do whatever you like. However, I am going to find a way to reach Buffy." Without another word, Giles pulled the cord on the chainsaw and it roared to life with puffs of smoke. Walking up to the front, Giles shoved the chainsaw into the wood where the door should be. The whole house shivered as though in pain, and the sawdust flew. In just a couple of minutes, Giles had hacked a rough opening into the side of the building.

"Coming?" Giles asked, and he had more than a little of Spike's destructive glee in his voice, and with the chainsaw in his hand, he was slightly scary. Most of the time, Xander had trouble thinking of Giles as anything other than the school librarian, even now that the school was a big smoldering pile of ash. However, right now, he was looking like someone who might summon a demon. Jenny sighed and shook her head, but she hitched up a bag over her shoulder and followed him.

"You stay close," Angel growled at Xander before he headed for hole in the wall. Just as he reached the house, a woman came screaming out through the hole, her hair writhing with snakes.

"Bloody hell," Spike said as he watched her run. "Someone obviously didn't get the memo about demons taking the night off."

"Note to self. Demons need better secretarial staff," Xander agreed. Angel was already stepping in through the hole Giles had made, and Xander followed. He was barely in the door when a skeleton with one eye raised a knife to attack. Xander pulled his cinquedea at the exact same time that Angel kicked out, his boot hitting the skeleton's pelvis, making the bones fly apart and rattle to the floor.

Xander felt himself pulled backwards, and he just about skewered Spike before he realized his vamps were doing their normal overprotective thing. Angel looked over, his eyes yellow with anger. "Keep the retreat open."

"Got it," Spike agreed. Angel followed Giles and Jenny up the stairs, and another teenager went screaming by them, her face literally missing and the screaming sound just floating out from her body. "Fuck," Spike breathed, and he pulled Xander a little tighter.

"Okay, not to be obvious man, but neither one of us can fight worth shit if you're playing snuggle bunny," Xander whispered. Spike gave him a narrow-eyed glare, but at least he let Xander go.

"Don't leave me! Don't leave me!" Willow's voice echoed through the hallways. Xander looked at Spike for a moment, panic making his mouth go dry.

"No," Spike said firmly. Ignoring that order, Xander turned and darted up the stairs. To be honest, he really thought that Spike was going to catch him in two seconds, but he heard a vicious curse and the crashing of boards behind him. Turning around, Xander found a hole in the stairs, the edges looking suspiciously like teeth.


"Stay back!" Spike yelled from somewhere in the basement. "Get Angel."

Xander looked around for something he could use as a rope or a ladder, but there was a big old nothing around. They had chains in the trunk of the car, but Angel had the keys. "Um, getting Angel. Right. Hold on," Xander called down. Looking down, he could see a flame burst to life and then Spike's vampire features were highlighted in red as he lit a cigarette.

"I'm fine, pet. Don't get your knickers in a twist and keep your head about you." Spike clicked his lighter off, and all Xander could see was the end of his cigarette floating.

"No twisty knickers. Got it," Xander agreed. "I'll be right back." Xander backed away from the hole and looked up the rest of the stairs to the second floor. Rushing into the house seemed so not-stupid two seconds ago, and now Xander was seriously reconsidering that decision. But Willow had needed help. Pushing aside the fear, Xander moved more slowly up the stairs, his cinquedea held up in a defensive pose.

Willow's scream filled the house, and Xander ran toward the sound. Willow came running at him, her hands flying around her head as a million little fireflies tried to eat her face. "Willow!" Xander ran to meet her, but she went running right past him and right past the top of the stairs and she kept running until she reached the far end of the hallway. "Willow?" Xander called as he chased after her. "Willow, random running bad." Xander watched as she ran into a door and fell to the ground. "And random stopping worse." Luckily most of the weird lights had gone right on through the door and vanished.

"Xander?" she looked up at him with teary eyes. "Is it really you?"

"Um, demons, weirdness, potential death—where else would I be?" he asked with his best goofy smile. Tears slipped down her face, but he knew her well enough to know that they were tears of relief. He held his hand out for her, and she let him pull her up.

"My magic is not working all that well."

"Um, I noticed," Xander agreed as he watched a little spark fighting to escape a tangle of red hair. "What do you say we find the door out?" Xander turned around to lead her back to the stairs, only to find a blank wall behind him. "Okay, that was not there two seconds ago."

"The house doesn't want us to escape," Willow whispered.

Just then, as if to agree with Willow, the house rumbled, "Release me. Release me!"

"Creepy frat boy sound system?" Xander asked hopefully. Willow shook her head.

Xander was feeling the beginnings of a good old-fashioned panic when Spike came striding down a new hallway that had opened up at a ninety-degree angle to the old one. "Right then, leave her," he snapped. Walking past Xander, he caught Xander by his left wrist and yanked Xander away from Willow.

"But, but!" Xander spluttered.

"Xander! Don't let him take you away!" Willow wailed as she chased them down the hallway. But Spike was dragging him so fast that Xander couldn't do anything more than stumble behind him and try to not stick Spike in the ass with his cinquedea. Spike was in a bad enough mood already. Without a word, Spike kicked through a door, the wood splintering under the force.

Behind the door, someone screamed, and then Spike dragged Xander into a room crowded with college boys and girls.

"Spike!" a familiar voice called out. Xander looked up to see Riley and Angel, both with very confused expressions.

Spike didn't answer; he snarled and dropped into a crouch in front of Xander.

"Spike?" Angel growled the name and stepped in front of Riley, who was looking about as confused as Xander was feeling.

"Not clan!" Spike snarled and tilted his head up as though he was sniffing the air.

"Leave him!" Angel's face rippled into his vampiric ridges.

"I'll eat his entrails!" Spike let out a roar that seriously creeped Xander out. He looked to Angel for help, but even with his vampiric features, Angel looked confused. Riley looked just flat out dumbstruck.

"Bloody hell. No fucking way is that supposed to be me," Spike said from the other side of the room. Wait. What? Xander looked around in confusion, and sure enough, there were two Spikes. One was standing near Buffy at the far end of the room looking confused, and the other was right in front of Xander doing his impression of a mindless fledge.

"This is new and weirdly disturbing," Buffy offered.

"Buffy!" Riley smiled, clearly relieved. He started heading across the room, and that's when feral Spike charged, his roar making the people crowded around the perimeter of the room cringe and cry out.

Xander gasped when Angel stepped forward and staked Spike, the dust exploding all over a pentagram drawn on the floor.

"Oi! You staked me! That was bloody unnecessary!" the other Spike complained as he strode across the room.

"That wasn't you," Angel said. "You weren't that bad even as a fledge."

Spike just snorted, and Xander couldn't quite figure out if that was a 'damn right' on the part where he'd never been that out of control or a 'how dare you' on the part where Angel had staked a vampire that looked weirdly Spike-like. While Riley hurried to Buffy's side, Angel walked to Xander and gave him a look that made it perfectly clear that they would be having words later about Xander's inability to stay near the exit.

"Willow was screaming," Xander said in his own defense. "Willow!" Xander turned back to the door, but the door wasn't there. Only then the door was and Willow came barreling through. "Get them off me! Get them off!" She was waving her hands around her head, but the flock of firefly lights was already gone. Oz stood up, and hurried over to her. "Willow. It's okay. They're gone."

"What's gone?" Buffy asked.

Oz just shrugged.

"Exit, stage left," Xander suggested, but when he turned, the door Willow had just come through was gone. "Or not."

"The house separated us. It wanted to scare us," Oz offered quietly. Xander couldn't really disagree with that logic.

"But—we got away." Willow looked up at Oz with this big-eyed hopeful expression, and all Xander could think was thank god that wasn't him. No way would he want to live up to the pressure of being the guy who got that look. That was a look that made it perfectly clear that Willow expected Oz to be able to fix the world. Oz turned and Xander spotted the nametag with "GOD" in block letters. He couldn't help it, a snort of laughter escaped.

"Sorry. Inappropriate time for humor," Xander apologized.

Buffy was already shaking her head with amusement. "Only you, Xander. But we aren't away. We got rounded up here. Why?"

"I'm guessing the big honking pentagram has something to do with something," Xander suggested, pointing down to the floor with the end of his cinquedea.

"Good guess," Buffy agreed. "This is why we never go anywhere without weapons. And you thought I was being all paranoid girl." Buffy used her elbow to nudge Riley, but from the startled look on his face, she needed to watch the slayer strength on those elbows.

"I think it's from this," Angel held up a book, an old book. He flipped the pages open. The house shivered and grumbled "Release me!" even louder than before. "It's the Mark of Gachnar," Angel said after finding what he was looking for.

"Oh great, another summoning. Do we not have enough demons already that we have to go borrowing them from other people?" Buffy asked.

"Hey, some of us like our demons," Xander replied. "And that came out really, really wrong, didn't it?"

"Just slightly," Buffy agreed.

"But it was effective distraction from the terror," Oz offered. Xander smiled at the peace offering.

"Release me!" the house bellowed. The walls shook and shivered until dust rained down on them from the roof and the random teenagers along the walls screamed in terror.

Angel looked up from the book. "It's feeding on our fears in order to bring itself into the world."

"So, we close our eyes and clap and say we DON'T believe? Okay, I don't think this thing is going to fall for the Tinkerbell approach," Xander offered. "That Spike-thing was real. And strong."

"And good-looking," the real Spike offered from his spot against the wall.

"I say we start trying random doors before they vanish," Xander said turning toward the only remaining door in the room. Angel caught him by the wrist and pulled him back so hard and fast that Xander oomffed against Angel's chest, which was good because Giles came bursting through, chainsaw in hand, Jenny trailing closely behind.

After that, Xander and his vampy family retreated to a corner and watched as Giles and Jenny read the book, Buffy accidentally finished the summoning by destroying the symbol, and she then squished the itty-bitty demon that emerged.

The house shivered once and then went silent.

"Bit of a build up for nothing," Spike complained as they all wandered back out to the car. College kids were swarming out of the building now that the exits had reappeared and the monsters had turned back into plastic bits and bobs.

"Not if he'd had enough fear to grow," Angel pointed out. "Besides, the night isn't over. We're going to talk about someone's inability to follow orders." At first, Xander thought he was the only one in deep shit, but then Angel's look turned to include Spike.

"Oi, I tried to bloody stop him. Damn stairs collapsed under me, and I couldn't get out of the basement until the slayer showed up. What I want to know is who the fuck conjured the feral version of me in there."

Xander frowned. "Conjured?"

Spike leaned against the car and pulled out a cigarette. "That house wasn't pulling random bogeymen out of the closet. It made the slayer face a hundred vamps all comin' up out of the ground at once, so I figure one of you conjured that handsome devil."

Xander frowned as he thought about that for a second. "Willow did."

"Willow?" Spike looked at him like he'd lost his mind, but Xander nodded.

"She needed help, and when the not-Spike pulled me away, she was yelling for him to not take me away from her."

Spike rolled his eyes. "That bint has a possessive streak about as wide as any vampire I've ever met. That's one that I sincerely hope never gets turned. So, whose fear was I watching in there when that doppelganger went for the soldier boy's neck?" Spike made the answer all-too obvious as he glared at Angel. Xander turned to face Angel, waiting for the denial. Instead Angel had a look on his face like he'd just found a rotting Hot Pocket in the microwave after a weekend trip to L.A. just because Xander had forgotten to take it out. Not a good look.

"You think Spike's going to go all fledge-like on Riley?" Xander asked.

"It could have been Riley's fear," Angel said entirely too quickly. Xander wasn't sure how Angel had survived a couple of centuries because people who lied that badly usually got eaten alive and spit back out during high school. For an adult to be so pathetically bad at lying was just pathetic.

"Wanker doesn't know enough to be afraid," Spike disagreed. "So, we going to talk about this or just ignore it?"

"Why would he even be afraid of that?" Xander asked Spike. When Angel got that pinched expression, he was never good at sharing information. However, Spike was perfectly willing to share all the gory details, even when Xander didn't want them.

"Vampire politics, pet. When two clans come into conflict, the two enforcers usually clash. The masters only get involved if it’s a full-out war."

"Okay, I'm still missing the meaningful part in the middle with all the meaning because that is not making sense."

"Riley could get lucky," Angel said, his voice clipped. He also turned his back and immediately went for the car. Xander scrambled to get in before Angel could leave them to walk.

"Wanker," Spike complained as he barely got in the car before Angel pulled away from the curb. "Do you really think I'd ever be threatened enough to want to seriously challenge that soldier-boy? I didn't snap Graham's neck." Spike leaned back and gave Angel a very smug look.

"And Buffy?" Angel asked.

"What about her?"

"She's growing up. She's becoming powerful. How long will it be before you feel a need to test your strength against her?" Angel was staring straight ahead, but Spike looked around, clearly confused.

"Spike?" Xander asked softly.

"Oi, not looking to fight the slayer. Mind you, I wouldn't mind taking her on if she started something, but I'm not looking to send my unlife tits over arse. Not again. Just look at the trouble you two got into last time I left you lot alone."

Angel flinched, but then Angel usually flinched when someone brought up anything Angelus-related. "Clans don't normally live this close, I'll give ya that. Are you feeling a need to challenge the slayer?" Spike asked as he studied Angel's profile, and now Xander was seriously freaked out. Buffy and Angel fighting was just a big old no.

"Of course not," Angel snapped.

"Right then, so we share territory with the soldier boys. Maybe we'll get lucky and something really big and nasty will come creepin' out of the Hellmouth and we'll have a chance to play before the soldier boys and their toys come barging in. Whoever summoned Gachnar might still be out there." Spike sounded so damn hopeful. "Maybe I should start comin' to more of these parties. If they're going to move up to demon summoning, I might be able to find a good fight. Actually," Spike looked over his shoulder at Xander, "with the demon summoning, I'm bloody surprised they didn't invite you over. You always seem to end up in the middle of all things demonic, luv."

"Okay, being a townie is one thing," Xander said with a snort, "but being the sort of loser townie who clings all over the college-bound and crashes their parties? That's a little too pathetic, even for me. Nope, I will sit back in my vocational tech classes and wait for their college-bound toilets to break and their college-bound electricity to fail and their college-bound cars to leave their pathetic little asses by the side of the road, and then I will force them to worship me as the fixer of all things broken. Behold the mighty power of the townie!" Xander held his arms up like a boxer winning the final round, and Spike laughed.

"You tell 'em, mate. It's not like you can fix the telly with poetry."

Xander frowned at that particular example, but then Spike winked at him. Yep, so not unintentional irony. Xander stared off into the dark for long minutes. They were passing a graveyard, but he could only see row after row of tombstones. Other than Buffy's demonic roommate, there hadn't been any serious threat at all. Spike had taken to patrolling the waterfront for human nasties and disappearing for days at a time just to avoid the sheer boredom. And Xander's voc-ed school wasn't the best what with all the money going to the university.

"Um, guys," Xander asked as Angel finally pulled up in front of the apartment complex.

"Yes?" Angel turned to look at him.

"Why are we still here?"

For a second, the two vamps exchanged curious expressions.

"Why are we still in Sunnydale?" Xander repeated as he waved his hands toward the generally quiet little town around them. "Face it, Giles could have done the rescuing tonight, because there's not exactly a big bad around. Angel's afraid that Spike is going to eat someone, Spike is bored, and I'm stuck in a town that's so small that the world is divided into townies and stuck-up college kids. Why? I always swore that when I grew up, I'd see the world—I'd move on, and this is not feeling moving-onish."

Xander looked first at Spike and then Angel. Slowly, Spike's expression turned into a smirk. Angel just had that face that kinda defined gobsmacked.

"You want to leave?" Angel asked. "You want to leave Buffy and Willow?"

Xander looked around at the quiet street, the short, fat apartment building, the distant street light with its sickly yellow glow. "I guess I'm wondering why we're staying. Angel, I love Buffy and Willow, but I'm not part of their life. I don't know. I just feel like—" Xander wrinkled his nose. He didn't know what he felt like, but he didn't feel like he belonged here.

"Our boy's done gone and grown up. We did a fine job with him, didn't we Ma?" Spike asked in a joking tone as he slapped Angel on the shoulder. Angel glared at him. "Oi, trust me, you were the mother figure around here," Spike said, but he also vaulted out of the car before Angel could hit him.

"Right then, I say we pull up stakes and axes and head for L.A." Spike pulled out a cigarette and took some time to light it.

"Why L.A.? I mean, they have a really good construction school there, but those are slightly dime-a-dozenish."

"Yeah, but I'm bloody tired of driving three hours every time Cordelia wants someone to look handsome on her arm," Spike said, and then he turned fast enough to make his coat billow before he headed into the apartments. For a second, Xander could only stare at the door as it slowly drifted closed.

"Did he just suggest he's dating Cordelia?" Xander asked weakly.

Angel got out the car and just shook his head fondly as he headed into the building.

"Seriously? Okay, I'm ... I'm so very glad they can't have kids. That would be terrifying."

"I think that's why they like each other," Angel pointed out when he reached the door. He pulled it open and waited. "If it upsets you—"

"No, no, it just creeps me out a little," Xander said as he went through the door first. Angel's hand landed on his back, but after tonight's incident, Xander expected extra touchy-feely Angel for a little bit. So, L.A. with Lorne and Cordelia and construction school. Xander felt a twinge of regret at the idea that he would be leaving Willow and Buffy and his mom and her new apartment with the tiny refrigerator and her new love of making him cookies when he came to visit. But he could still visit. Growing up meant moving on, and even with all the little threads tying him to this place, it was time to move on. Sunnydale didn't fit him, and it didn't fit his family, not any more.



6. Chapter Six

"Ladies, gents, and demons of every kind, this is choice number three and a personal favorite of mine!" Lorne practically sang the words as he pushed through the double doors to the Spanish colonial building.

It had some nice details like stucco walls—although big chunks of plaster were falling off—a front courtyard, a terra cotta tile roof, ornamental fenestration, and decorative iron trim. Xander was so busy focusing on the bones of the old lady that he didn't notice that Angel had stopped in front of him. Okay, so he kinda noticed after hitting Angel's back. He had to grab Angel by the waist just to keep from falling on his butt.

"You've got the position backwards, pet," Spike offered with a laugh and an eyebrow wiggle as he looked from Angel to Xander. Xander yanked his hands away from Angel's ass and glared at Spike. Yep, Spike had officially gone on high alert for inappropriateness lately, and Xander could only guess that dating Cordelia was as frustrating for Spike as it had been for him. However, from the fact that Spike and Angel were still disappearing and reappearing with torn clothes and stupid smiles, Xander so thought that Spike would be less frustrated.

Blair made a sound that might have been a laugh strangled in the middle. "Man, I have never known two people who ran into each other as much as you two. Seriously Freudian. Seriously." Blair detoured around Xander, his hands held up in an expression of exaggerated surprise, before he followed Lorne into the building.

"We aren't buying this place," Angel said, his voice tight with emotion, and Xander frowned. That was sounding like Angel's 'don't fuck with me' voice, and yeah, home hunting was big on the annoyingness scale when you needed a home for a whole clan of people with sexually inappropriate habits, but he hadn't thought Angel was that out of patience yet.

Spike stopped looking around the weed-covered courtyard and looked over at Angel. "Peaches?"

"Problem?" Faith asked. She moved closer, her hand moving toward her jacket where she had more serious weaponry than Xander had seen hidden inside a coat since the last Highlander marathon. By giving up the hooker look, she'd picked up lots of new places to hide really sharp swords and knives and brass knuckles.

"No problem." Angel may have said no problem, but he was using his big-freaking-problem voice, which was not inspiring the confidence. "We should look at the next place."

"I'll get Blair." Faith darted around Xander to get into the hotel, and Xander recognized the sheer panic on Angel's face about a second too late to make a grab at her. And with Xander between them, Angel grabbed at her only to get tangled up in Xander. Xander clung to Angel's arm just to avoid falling, and getting knocked around was starting to become not only a theme but an annoying theme.

"Get her!" Angel said, his hands reaching out to steady Xander. Without a word, Spike darted past them and slammed through the double doors hard enough to send them slamming back into the wall. The thunderous crack suggested he'd done more than just cosmetic damage.

Xander opened his mouth to ask just what the hell had Angel wound tighter than a coil, but Angel was already running for the hotel, dragging Xander behind. Oh yeah, the big stupid vamp was not in a rational, sharing sort of mood.

"Now Sweetcheeks, I am not suggesting that you actually run a hotel," Lorne immediately started when they got into the lobby of the old building. Stone arcades led away into the deeper areas and an art-deco vibe met rococo details in a way that bordered on truly and disastrously tacky, but still managed to look kinda cool.

"Get her out," Angel snarled, and now he was using his big-freaking-problem voice and had a yellow-eyed glare going. Xander opened his mouth to demand some sort of explanation, but a rough chuckle suddenly filled the room, circling around them like a cold wind. Xander gasped as he was pushed back behind Angel so fast that his arm ached where Angel had grabbed him. Then he spotted the wavering air drifting down the wide staircase looking like a big blob of water hovering above the stairs.

"What the fuck?" Faith yanked her arm out of Spike's grip and took a defensive stance with her big freaking huge sword already out. Xander reached for his own cinquedea.

"The realtor left this bit out of the advertising." Lorne was already backing up, his green hand pulling Blair with him.

"Whoa. Okay, I'm voting for running away," Blair whispered.

"I second the running and raise some girly screaming," Xander agreed.

"Too late," Angel said grimly, but he wasn't looking at the waterish blob that was closing in—he was looking at Faith. One glance in that direction, and Xander did a double take. Faith had reversed her position and was holding her sword out to ward off Spike.

"What the fuck are you doing?" Spike demanded, but Xander noticed that he was keeping himself away from Faith's sword.

"You're talking about me with her, aren't you?" Faith demanded. Spike looked over at Angel, and from the look, Spike had no idea what was going on. Faith's voice grew dangerously soft. "You found another bed warmer, and that's all I ever was, wasn't I? Does Cordelia keep your prick all warm now?" She leered unpleasantly.

"Bloody hell, what the fuck crawled up your arse and died?" Spike demanded.

"I should have fucking known." Faith's face twisted into something ugly. "That whole story about wanting me to help pick the place, about wanting me to be a part of the clan again, that's all another fucking lie. What, did someone want a quick fuck? Does someone want to play Daddy and spank the bad, bad slayer?"

Blair took a single step forward. "Faith? Whoa there. You are seriously freaking me out."

"And you have to be fucking gay," she said as she poked a finger in Blair's direction. "Or maybe I'm just too old for you. Maybe you like 'em when they're so little that you can suffocate them with the stink of alcohol when you lay on them. Maybe you like to hear a little girl cry. Is that your game? Is that why you don't want to fuck me now that I'm strong enough to defend myself?" Faith stalked toward Blair, the sword up. Blair almost tripped over his feet as he backed up, and Angel reached out and grabbed Blair, pushing him back toward Xander.

"Hey, I have an idea. Maybe we could put the man-skewering sword away," Xander said hopefully.

Instead of putting it away, Faith swung it in Xander's direction. "It's your fault. It's your fault I lost my family."

Faith's face was twisted with pain, an expression that drove the air out of Xander as fast as a fist in the stomach. Yep, he was officially going to hell. He knew Faith was big with the sex issues, and yeah, he only knew about the whole sex and father issues after he slept with her, but he was still so hell bound. He'd slept with a rape victim. He'd slept with a rape victim who'd only wanted a little reassuring, and sex and rape victims were not big with the healthy mixing, at least not without a little therapy. A little voice whispered warnings in the back of his head. No way would Faith ever forgive him for that. Because of him, she had lost the only safe haven she'd ever had. He couldn't even blame her if she wanted to go killing him, but the feeling that she was going to kill him? That was definitely getting way stronger.

"You're trying to kill me. I know you are. I know I'd kill to not lose our family, and you are way less with the mentally stable than I am," Xander accused her.

"Oh man. Right now, no one is getting a passing grade on the mental health portion of this outing," Blair said as he backed away.

"Faith, Xander," Angel started, his voice low and quiet, "you can't listen to the whispers. They aren't real. You are both family, and you always will be." Angel reached for Xander, but he darted backwards. If Faith was going to try and kill him, no way did Xander want to be too near Angel. Angel was a vampire, and vampires had this whole thing going where they respected the strong. And no way was Xander ranking high in the strength category, not unless he was getting compared to Buffy's idiot soldier boys. Nope, Xander was the weak link, and in vampire families, the weak link got eaten. "You are not eating me!" Xander said as he pointed from Angel to Spike.

"Don't even play that game." Faith sounded furious and oddly unemotional at the same time, which was a pretty damn good trick. "He's always going to side with you. You both just want to find a way to get rid of me. Spike was the only one who had any use for me, and now he can just stick his cock in Cordelia, can't he?"

"Fucking hell. Someone better tell me what the bloody fuck is going on or I'm going to set this whole place on fire!" Spike exploded. Xander watched Spike's anger with a cold fear in his guts. Spike was dangerous. He didn't even understand Spike half the time, and why did he live with someone who he didn't understand when that person considered humans one of the five essential food groups along with Weetabix and onion rings?

"It's a Thesulac demon," Angel said softly. "Faith, the voice you hear, the whispers, they're lying to you."

"No way, man." Blair started backing away, shaking his head slowly. "You're just trying to pull us all in. You hold out this clan like there's some chance for us to fit in, but no way. You're going to yank all of it away. Totally unfair. And then we'll be alone... again." Blair sucked in a breath. "The minute we're out of the room you're talking about how we don't fit in. This is your idea of a mind game, isn't it? Angelus was always one for playing mind games."

Faith was already shaking her head. "No. It's more than just a mind game. I fucked up too damn much. You know, I think I know how to fuck up less now, but I fucked up too much with you. I fucked Xander, and you won't ever forgive me for that. He won't forgive me. Fuck. You shouldn't forgive me." Faith raised her sword. Xander blinked as his brain tried to figure out that statement. In his universe, Faith didn't feel guilt for much, and she didn't ever feel guilt for the whole sex in the graveyard incident. If he brought it up, she either complimented him on his driving around curves or just ignored him, and both reactions made him a little twitchy.

Xander could feel his hands tremble, the cinquedea shook, the weight of it fighting him, but anger rose up and crashed through him like a wave, and he brought his weapon up. Yeah, Faith might talk about the whole sex thing had been her fault, but Xander knew the truth. So if she was lying it was because she was about to take a shot at killing him, and she wanted to get Angel on her side first. Xander focused on Faith, his anger making him want to charge into a fight with her even though he knew he was so getting his ass kicked.

The bit of air that had turned to a waterish blob thickened until a vague human outline appeared. "I don't remember ordering take-out, but I like what you brung me," an amused voice offered. "Absolutely delectable. The paranoia is all there, right under the surface and I just have to scratch off a thin layer of common sense." The form shimmered and then a demon with a pale, diseased face and black cloak appeared at the bottom of the stairs.

"You fucking wanker. This is your doing, innit?"

"Guilty as charged. This place has always provided such pleasant feasts. So, who is going to feed me their fears first?"

Spike stretched his neck one way and then the other, a prelude to a fight that Xander had seen a hundred times. "You want a fight, mate? First come, first killed." Spike's vampiric features rippled as they came to the front, and he became the beast who wasn't human. Xander watched the inhuman movements, the gleeful anticipation of violence, the yellow glare. This was a predator and Xander was definitely more preylike than predatorlike.

"Everyone listen to me." Angel looked around, and Xander watched him suspiciously. "This demon is feeding you your own fears. We are all clan here... we are family. You have to focus on that." Xander frowned, Angel's words making no sense because he knew he and Faith wanted to kill each other. He wasn't sure why, but he knew they did. He raised his cinquedea.

Angel turned toward the demon and pulled his own sword. "You had your last meal here a long time ago. You should have gotten out when you had the chance." Angel circled around to one side while Spike stalked in perfect counterpoint. Xander shook his head, struggling to clear his thoughts. This was familiar. Angel and Spike moved together by moving apart, forcing the target to split his attention. Only the demon wasn't splitting his attention, he was looking at Faith.

"Got out? Now, why would I wanna do that? When the room service in this hotel is still excellent. Paranoia is like fine wine. Only now, you've brought me a whole new vintage, something hearty with the," he sniffed the air deeply, "aroma of anger and insecurity and paranoia. Oh, this one is special."

Faith was frozen, her sword pointed toward the ground, and she didn't even react to the tentacle snaking out toward her.

"Faith, duck!" Xander yelled. When she didn't react, he leaped forward and brought his cinquedea down on the tentacle, hacking the tip of it off. The demon roared and Angel and Spike attacked at the same time.

"Sweetcheeks, I would suggest you come away from there," Lorne suggested from the doorway. Yep, he was ready to run, but he wasn't running yet. Considering the guy was basically a bartender and lounge singer, Xander didn't exactly expect him to stick around and fight the good fight.

"I'm not leaving Faith," Xander yelled. The room was full of sound without meaning, a roar like the wind only without wind. Faith's sword was now pointing at the ground, and she was almost trembling, so Xander could only hope she wasn't going to stab him through the back.

"Neither of us are," Blair said as he appeared at Faith's side. "Faith, can you hear me?"

Xander set himself in front of Blair and Faith and defended from tentacles that kept snaking toward Faith as Spike and Angel attacked in a flurry of swords and fangs. Spike darted in, using his bare hands to rip part of the demon's cloak and one of his tentacles off, but the demon reached out with a second tentacle, wrapping it around Spike's neck. Raising Spike up, he shook until Spike's hands dropped to his sides. Then the demon slammed Spike's head into the floor several times, each one making a dull thudding noise. With bare hands, Spike ripped at the tentacle until his hands were red and the tentacle was frayed.

On the other side, Angel used his sword to sever a couple of tentacles which writhed on the floor behind him. A third tentacle snapped at him like a whip, and Angel rolled, coming to his feet so near a cluster of tentacles that Xander shouted. Angel drove his sword down through two of the tentacles, pinning them to the floor beneath. A stray tentacle whipped out toward Xander, and he took a swing at it. He missed and sunk his sword deep into the wood. Unfortunately, that meant he was stuck trying to retrieve it.

Blair yelled, and Xander glanced over his shoulder to see Blair getting dragged toward the demon. Oh yeah, they were getting their asses kicked. For a second, Faith stood there, her face still twisted by fear and confusion.

"Blair, hold on," Xander yelled. That made Faith blink, her head tilting to the side as she slowly swung her gaze over toward Blair. Xander was still fighting with his weapon, but Blair was holding his own. He'd grabbed the edge of the built-in circle-couch-sitting thingy, and he was kicking the tentacle with his free leg.

"Blair?" Faith sounded dazed.

"A little help would be good!" Blair kicked at the tentacle and then shouted as a second tentacle grabbed his free leg.

Xander pulled harder at the stuck sword. "I'm coming! I'm coming!"

When Faith exploded into movement, Xander instinctively huddled down, still half-expecting her to attack him, but she leaped over him and sliced the two tentacles that had captured Blair's feet. Spike had fought his way free of the tentacle that had been strangling him, and he darted to Faith's side.

"Right then, you got your head on straight or are you still doin' your best impression of Dru?"

"Don't fucking start with me," Faith warned. Spike smiled widely and danced to the side before darting in and punching at the demon's main body.

"We got our girl back!" Spike called out.

"Watch the flank!" Angel growled before throwing a knife at the demon's head. The thing hit and then just stayed stuck there without slowing the demon down much.

"I am watching it, wanker!" Spike leapt over a number of tentacles, and just how many tentacles did this thing have?

The demon turned his face toward Faith. "You are my creature. I can taste your despair like fine chocolate."

"Fuck you," Faith said grimly. She leaped up into the air so fast that she could have been a vampire. Bringing her sword down, she hit him straight on the top of the head, her sword passing through bone with a deafening crack. Her sword kept moving until it hit the collarbone, and blood sprayed out. The Thesulac screamed and then in a blinding white pop of light, it was just gone.

Xander's sword finally came out of the floor with a screech of metal against wood.

Spike backed away, stretching and bouncing on his toes. "Don't rightly remember house hunting being all this fun before."

"Shut up, Spike," Angel replied. Walking over, he pulled his own sword out of the floor, and Xander flinched at the fingernails-down-a-chalkboard sound that made. Angel looked over at Blair. "You aren't part of the clan? I'm just playing a mind game with you to make you think you're part of the clan?"

Blair snorted. "Oh man, old history. I could have told you I had abandonment issues. But that... whoa. There is never a dull moment with you people, is there?" Blair sounded okay, but he was half lying on the couch thingy, and he didn't look ready to get up any time soon.

Angel walked over and offered Faith a hand. She had fallen to one knee when the demon went 'poof' and now she looked up at him for several silent seconds before putting her hand in his and allowing him to help her.

"I was going to..." Faith stopped.

Angel got his guilt look going. "I know. I was here a long time ago. The demon feeds people their worst emotions, and even now I could feel the pull."

Spike snorted, and Xander realized that he understood exactly what Spike wasn't saying. Why had he ever thought Spike was too dangerous for him to be around?

"Yeah, yeah, but some of us don't always have our evil side going," Xander told Spike. "If your big, bad evil side comes out to play, you're pretty much still Spike. Now me? I was all prepared to do battle with Faith, not that battling Faith makes any sense because I was feeling guilty about the whole sex thing even while I plotted murder, and that is making sense of the not-even kind."

"You were feeling guilty?" Faith looked at him like he had just grown another head.

"Hey, I have a right to some guilt here," Xander defended himself. And Faith was still looking at him like he was growing more and more heads with every passing minute. "I knew you were all with the issues, and I still slept with you. I didn't even ask you why you wanted to sleep together or take two seconds to figure out your recent weirdness probably had something to do with it. I get to carry a little guilt for that," Xander pointed out. He really hated saying things like that out loud, but his therapist had been right about one thing: the more he said it, the less it hurt when he thought about it.

"So, you think I'm broken?" Faith had gone from confused to angry in less than a second, but at least this time she didn't have her homicidal face going.

Xander might have defended himself, but Blair interrupted by making one of his weird little noises. "With your definition of broken, we're all fitting in that category," he told her.

"Oi!" Spike objected.

"Do not make me repeat some of the stories Uncle Saul has told me." Blair held up a finger in Spike's general direction, and Xander was amazed at how fast that shut the vamp up. Oh yeah, Blair had some good stories in there somewhere. "Anyway," Blair said, exaggerating an eyeroll as he turned his attention back to Faith, "I have major abandonment issues. I love Naomi, but she was a little on the flaky side, and the whole part-demon ancestry did a real number on me. My own grandfather, Naomi's dad, tried to kill me when I was just out of diapers because he was convinced I was some spawn of Satan come to bring the end of the world. Seriously, that will give you issues. So, Naomi took me on the road, and we are not talking about an exactly stable environment. And you should have seen Xander when I first met him. Angel actually convinced his parents to sell him to a vampire, and he was so not dealing. Totally not dealing." Blair gave a shudder. "I first met Angel during his rat-eating period, and after seeing both you and Angel at your worst, Angel wins on that front."

"Hey! I wasn't that bad," Xander defended himself weakly before dropping on the couch next to Blair. Yeah, he'd been pretty screwy in the head after that.

"And I knew this demon was here, at least I knew sixty years ago that I left him to prey on all the humans in this building." Angel looked up at the stairs that led to the guest rooms. "He preyed on my fear that I wasn't one of them. He turned them against me, and then he convinced me to walk away and let all these people die. I had finally started sleeping in a bed and exchanging a few words with humans as I passed them in the hall, and after I stayed at this place...." Angel closed his eyes.

"You ended up back in alleys eating rats," Xander guessed. Pushing himself up, he closed the distance between them and leaned into Angel. Angel nodded as he moved his arm to catch Xander in a one-armed hug.

"I did."

"Right then, so you lot are all fucked up. Now that we have that sorted, what I want to know is why this thing is still hanging around an empty hotel." Spike's words made them all look at each other in confusion.

"She wouldn't be," Angel said softly, and from the tone, whoever the 'she' was, he was thinking she definitely was, whatever the 'was' was. Without an explanation, Angel bounded up the stairs, and Xander ran after him. From the thundering on the stairs behind him, they had the whole company following. "Her one fear was of being trapped, of being sent to jail and being locked in somewhere. She couldn't still be here." Angel pushed open a door, and an old woman turned to look at him.

"Judy." Angel breathed the word.

"I don't hear them anymore. - Are they gone?" The woman's eyes looked around, and Xander knew right away that her train didn't pull all the way into the station anymore. She had that vague spaced out look that Grandmother Lavelle had a few weeks before she'd just dropped dead.

Angel carefully moved to right in front of her. "Yes, they're all gone," he promised.

The old woman must have finally seen Angel because she smiled. "It's you."

"Yeah, Judy. It's me."

"You look the same."

"I'm not the same. I shouldn't have left you here. I'm so sorry." When the old woman reached for Angel's face, he caught her hand and held it.

"They killed you - because of me. I killed you." A tear slipped out. Xander had no idea who this woman was and what she had done, but he could feel her pain and guilt like a living creature in the room. Nothing a person did ever deserved this kind of punishment.

"No. You were afraid, and you turned them against me, but they made their choices. They chose to try and kill me, and I chose to leave you here alone when I knew how afraid you were. This was all the demon's fault." Angel released her hand, and she raised it up and cupped his cheek. Xander felt a stab of something cold as he watched Angel's face soften as he looked at her. Okay, he was guessing former lover. Former screwed over lover who had done her best to screw Angel, but in real life, that was the way most love stories went.

"He kept them from the door. He told me I'd be safe. Am I safe?" She looked around as though expecting someone to attack her. Then again, considering how many of them were armed, that wasn't all that weird. Xander quietly slipped his cinquedea back into its sheath and he noticed Faith did the same with her sword.

"You're safe. No one has been looking for you for a very long time." Angel turned to face them. "She stole money after she was fired for having a black grandparent. Back then, a black person passing for white was scandalous. She came here looking for a place to hide, and this became her prison."

Spike pulled out a cigarette. "Fair enough, but why the fuck do we care?"

Xander hit Spike in the stomach at the same time that Faith backhanded him across the arm. "Wot?" Spike demanded in a tone of voice that suggested he was the injured party.

"Man, you so have issues. I'm not stupid enough or strong enough to hit you for them, but you so have issues," Blair muttered softly. He moved to Angel's side. "Did you say your name is Judy?" Blair asked softly.

The old woman nodded. "Can I go outside now?"

"How long has she been in here?" Xander whispered soft enough that, hopefully, she wouldn't hear. Angel and Blair were carefully helping her stand.

"Looks like the late forties or early fifties," Spike said as he looked around the room. He totally had his normal tone of voice going. Yep, you could count on Spike to have lots and lots of sympathy for any family members who were neck deep in shit. Xander was starting to think Cordelia might even be one of the neck-deep people who Spike was going out of his way to care for, but you just could not ask him to care about random humans.

"Can I feel the sun? I haven't felt the sun in so long."

"It's night, so you'll have a wait a little while for the sun," Blair soothed her. "Angel, I think we should contact social services. She's going to need care."


"Forget it. You have enough taking care of your humans," Blair cut him off, but he kept his voice that same soft sing-songy tone that Xander normally associated with his kindergarten teacher who used to read them stories in that voice. Angel and Blair slipped out of the room, supporting the old woman between them.

"We're never going to find a place at this rate," Spike complained, and then he followed. Of course, knowing Spike he was just looking for someplace he could smoke without Angel yelling at him about human lungs and cancer.

"Xander." Faith stopped him with a word as Xander turned to follow Spike out the door. "Thank you."

"Hey, I was 'getting his sword stuck in the wood' boy, so go thank Spike and Angel. They were the ones actually making a difference," Xander answered with a shrug. For a second, Faith just looked at him, emotions flickering on her face so fast that Xander couldn't really identify them before they were gone.

"No, it's not that." She took a deep breath. "I really wanted to kill you down there."

"Hey, I was just as big with the wanting, although I'm guessing that if it came down to it, I would not have been doing much of the actual killing. I would have been more with the dying."

Faith broke eye contact, and Xander choked off a desire to babble, to fill this awkward moment with words—with any words—just to avoid the sudden seriousness that had invaded the room. Or maybe the seriousness had stayed when Blair and Angel had helped the old woman out. Xander was pondering the odds of a serious demon hanging around when Faith finally cleared her throat.

"You put your back to me."

"I did?" Xander looked up at her.

"When the demon attacked, you knew I wanted to hurt you, and you still put your back to me. Your first thought was to defend me, and I think that's what gave me the ability to see through the demon's lies. Your only thought was to defend me, so I knew he was lying."

"Well, um..." Xander cringed, "my first thought was to kill you. My second thought was to defend you because even if I thought you were going to kill me, you were still family."

"I was going to kill you." Faith's voice rasped with guilt. She actually had to clear her throat.

"I got that," Xander agreed. "You'd be surprised at how many people have tried to kill me. Actually, you'd be surprised at how many people I like have tried to kill me. Did I ever tell you how Angel and I really started getting to know each other? Let me tell you, he totally wanted to kill me." Xander smiled at her. Slowly, she smiled back. Something hard and jagged that had been lying between them all this time without Xander ever noticing melted.

"Angel wanted to kill you? No way. You have that boy wrapped around your finger," she said. She shoulder-bumped him, a gesture she hadn't used with him since before the whole disaster. Actually, she hadn't touched him at all since that weird night when she'd decided that throwing him down and having sex was a good way to deal with her issues.

"Oh yeah," Xander agreed. He bumped her shoulder back before heading for the door. "Angel was all Buffy-whipped back then. Anyway, I was coming home from the store and I got jumped by these vamps..."

Xander told her the story as they headed down the stairs. Judy was wandering around the lobby, touching objects as if she had never seen any of them before. Apparently the telephone was a wondrous thing. Blair was hovering at her side. Lorne was busy describing how perfect the basement was and trying to convince Angel that he didn't need to run a hotel, but if he just let some of Lorne's clients stay inside his clan lair for a night or two, they would bring a nice tribute to show their appreciation. Spike was standing by the door smoking and just looking disgusted that his beautiful fight had degenerated into this. Yep, this was his family. It was definitely time for the move to LA, and Xander suspected that Lorne was wasting his breath. From the way Angel was looking around, he was already planning on where he wanted the furniture.



7. Chapter Seven

"Buffy!" Xander called, trotting to catch up with her as she headed away from Giles' house. He was lucky because she didn't even have Riley with her, and the lack of audience was, hopefully, going to make this less with the painful.

"Xander!" Buffy smiled at him. "There's still pizza left, if Graham hasn't inhaled the last piece. I thought you were murder on the pizza, but Riley's guys can definitely challenge your eating crown."

"I lost the crown to you long ago," Xander pointed out as he closed the distance between them. He wasn't even surprised when she aimed a mock punch for his stomach.

"Hey, that's your serious face," Buffy said, her smile falling away as she really looked at him.

"No, more my, 'I'm going to say something that you aren't going to like even though it's not really bad' face. They look the same." Xander grinned at him and shrugged.

"Okay." Buffy sounded suspicious. "Can we do the walk and talk thing?" She poked a thumb down the street toward downtown.

"Big bad?"

"More like big moderately annoying. There's a rash of cavemen running around downtown clubbing each other and randomly grunting. Giles is guessing Hellmouthy fun."

"Hellmouthy cavemen?"

"Which are probably less cavemany than spelled or drunk or maybe escapees from the drama department, but they're more than likely of the human variety, which is why I am Rileyless tonight."

"I think I missed the logic in there, somewhere."

Buffy shrugged and wrinkled her nose. "He's big with wanting to arrest the humans who are up to Hellmouthy fun."

"And this would be bad because?" Xander walked beside Buffy, watching her as she made that face like when the chemistry teacher asked her to explain osmosis. Xander had long ago decided that some demons, like Blair, were on the side of good, and some people, like his father, definitely weren't. Of course, his father was way too drunk to actually cause Hellmouthy fun, but if he did, he shouldn't get a free pass because he was human.

Eventually Buffy sighed. "As someone who very nearly spent her teen years in juvenile detention after a slight case of burning down a gym, I'm prejudiced against holding supernatural weirdness against a person. Sometimes arson just happens."

"And weirdly, I agree," Xander admitted. "But I don't think that means everyone gets a free pass just because of their humanness. There are a few people who I might consider turning over to the military. Ethan Rayne comes to mind."

Buffy shivered. "Do not go there. Okay, seeing Jenny Calendar and my mother in a bitch-slap fight over Giles? That permanently scarred me. Permanently. I will never recover."

Xander had totally forgotten the band candy bit. He was more thinking the getting Angel possessed by the demon Giles and Ethan had summoned, and then the Halloween when he'd done the Janus spell. Put that together with the band candy, and Ethan really did deserve a very small cell and a very big cellmate named Bubba. "Band candy. Oh yeah, I forgot that."

"You forgot that? How could you forget that?"

"I was distracted by the way he shoved new memories into us on Halloween."

Buffy stopped walking. "Oh yeah. You know, for a holiday that demons take off, we do always have the demony Halloweens around here. Take this year. At least this year's demon squished easily, which cannot be said of Ethan Rayne or cavemen." With a shrug she kept walking. "Weirdly, you may be pointlike on that whole arrest point."

"It sometimes happens."

"Yeah, just don't rub it in. Jenny has been on the same point, and I've been slightly avoidy. Actually, Jenny and Riley have been similarly pointlike, but pretty much any pointiness Jenny comes up with I'm pretty much avoiding."

"Trouble in slayersville?"

She shrugged. "Same old, same old."

"And I'm missing the same. What's up?"

Buffy stopped, and this time she sat on a bus bench. For a second, she stared up at the dim stars, the light of which barely filtered through the California smog and the glow of the city. "It's just this whole pseudo-step-mother jealousy issue I have going with Jenny. I know that Giles needs his own life, but there's this little part of me that keeps remembering that when my real father tried to have his own life, his life quickly became Buffyless."

"Ouch," Xander said softly.

"Yeah, but it's not like your father is winning father of the year." Buffy blurted the words out, but then she cringed back, as if she'd just spotted demon goo. "Okay, that was bitchy, wasn't it?"

"Only slightly and entirely," Xander agreed. But then again, the words didn't exactly hurt. His father wasn't winning father of the year. He'd sold Xander, blown every cent of money that he got from Angel, and had then turned on Xander's mom when she tried to make a better life for herself. He was pretty much slime, so calling him slime felt less insulty than truthful.

"Giles asked Jenny to marry him."

"Whoa. And the reasons for the issues keep on coming."


"You okay with it?"

She gave a dark laugh. "Totally not. But I'm thinking that it's unhealthy for me to let myself transfer my dad issues onto Giles."

Xander sat next to her. "That's sounding weirdly adultish and mature and a little like you're channeling my second therapist."

"I'm channeling Riley." Buffy sighed and leaned into him, her shoulder pressing against his. "It really sucks to be all whiny around a psych major because he tends to be way more about constructive improvement than wallowing. Sometimes I just want to wallow. Of course, wallowing is all shallow and unhelpful, so I guess I should be grateful to have someone around who reminds me to face my issues, huh?"

"That's sounding very weirdly adultish," Xander offered.

"Are you saying I'm not mature?" Buffy frowned, but she also had that teasing tone in her voice.

"Hell no. I'm way smarter than to say something like that to someone who can break me into little tiny pieces." Xander slung his arm around Buffy's shoulders just about the same time she backhanded him in the stomach. "Ow! Okay, the whole part where I didn't say anything, I was not saying things so I would not get hit," he pointed out.

"Don't think them so loud then."

Xander rolled his eyes. This was comfortable... familiar. He loved Angel and Spike and even Faith, but a little part of him—or a not so little part of him—was going to miss his old life. For a half second, Xander wondered if he was doing the right thing by moving. Then again, it sounded like Riley was pretty much being feet-on-the-ground guy these days. Xander couldn't contribute much in terms of slaying or magic or computers, so his big contribution had been sharing the cold, unvarnished truth, and Riley seemed to be moving in on that territory.

He tightened his arm around Buffy's shoulders. "Seriously, though, it actually sounds like you're dealing. Either that or you're really listening to way too much Oprah Winfrey."

"Yeah, well I sometimes accidentally listen in my psych class, only don't tell anyone because it would totally ruin my rep."

"Your secret is safe with me."

Buffy leaned over, her head resting on his shoulder. "You know, you might like college. Yeah, it's a little like high school what with the tests, but it's more interesting. They teach you all kinds of gross and disturbing things in history class that we totally skipped over in high school. I mean, seriously, your grades were no worse than mine, and I'm holding my own."

There was a day that a suggestion like that would have brought Xander running. Had he always been such a follower? Yeah, he pretty much knew the answer to that one. However, he had a choice about who he followed. "Maybe I just don't want that, Buffy," he said softly.

"What can you do with your life without a college education?" Pulling away from him, she looked at him with wide, serious eyes.

"Oh, I don't know. Learn a trade, get a good job, meet the love of my life and settle down, try to not fuck up my kids as bad as my parents kinda fucked me up. I mean, really. I can't afford the therapy bills. I don't know how Angel affords me. Actually, I'm sort of serious about that. I really honestly don't know how Angel affords me."

Buffy punched him in the arm gently. "Okay, I get that you don't really want to do four more years of classes and teachers."

"Buffy, please don't take offense and punch me or something, but you are really being overly blonde."

She gave him a second gentle punch. "You know, if I didn't like you so much, I really might hit you for that. And while I am blonde, I am not being blonde. You could take some classes."

Xander took a second to rub his arm as he considered his answer. It was important to him that the girls understand, but he wasn't sure how to explain to them just how different his world was. They used to share dreams—things like not having the world blow up and surviving high school and not having the parental find out about the sneaking around. And yeah, they still shared the goal to avoid world ending, but their other goals had sort of split a way back. He sighed as he stared up at the dim stars.

"But I don't want to take classes. Look, Buffy, I'm really glad you're much less with the hating college, but I really don't want to do the school thing. I'm good with my hands." Xander looked down at his hands. He'd developed calluses from his plumbing class and he had a thin scar on one finger from where he'd accidentally touched a pipe he'd just heated with a torch. He had workman's hands. "I enjoy construction. I like doing something with my hands, and then, at the end, seeing something that I actually created. I helped build a house for Habitat for Humanity. I like seeing that house standing there, although giving a poor person a house on the Hellmouth is not feeling like a particularly nice thing to do."

Buffy still looked worried. "I guess I'm just weirded out because it always felt like school united us, even when we weren't doing the uniting. I mean, even after the whole Kendra disaster, we were still there, together, at school. I miss seeing you around. You know, you could just come and hang out with us. There's a really cool student lounge in the dorm."

"And non-collegy guy hanging out in a girls' dorm--that's not going to look funny."

She shrugged. "Okay, it might look slightly funnyish."

"Slightly. Besides, the commute is going to be hell." Xander watched Buffy out of the corner of his eyes, watching as she slowly stiffened and turned to face him. She didn't look exactly happy. For a second, she just blinked at him, her mouth opening a couple of times before she managed to actually say something.

"Are you trying to say you're moving?"

"Um, I think the commute thing sort of implied it because I'm finding it way hard to say it."

"You're moving away?" Buffy collapsed back so fast that the bench groaned dangerously. Then Buffy just stared at him. And cue the awkward silence. Xander had never wished for a vampire attack quite so much.

"Are you mad?" he eventually asked.

Her nose wrinkled. "It depends. How far are you moving away?"

"Not far," he promised. "Just LA, which means I'm close enough to come back and visit for all birthdays, national holidays and world endings."

"We seem a little short on the world endings, but with Riley's group, we have lots and lots of birthdays, and I want you here for every single one of them. Got it, mister?" Buffy poked him in the chest with her finger, and, unlike when she punched him, it actually hurt.

"Got it," he agreed while he rubbed the sore spot she'd left in the middle of his chest.

"Are you doing something great and exciting down in LA?"

"Enrolling in a technical college, so I'm going to be kinda-collegy guy, although I'll be studying construction. Oh, and Angel bought this totally trashed hotel. I mean, the foundation and plumbing is solid, but I'm going to be renovating it for the rest of my life. But hey, I bet I can get my teachers to give me extra credit." Xander smiled at the thought of just how much work there was. Yep, color him insecure, but he was never going to feel like worthless-guy at the Hyperion.

Buffy smiled at him. "I really am glad, you know."

"I really am glad you're glad." They both sat on the bench and looked out into the night. Xander wasn't exactly sure what he should do now, although a little cowardly voice suggested that he have Buffy tell Willow and the others. Okay, that was a hugely cowardly voice because Willow had been his best friend longer than anyone. Yeah, she totally threw him over for Amanda in the third grade and again for Buffy when Buffy had shown up their sophomore year, but that didn't erase their shared history of arson and yellow crayons and crying. She'd been his best friend longer than anyone, and maybe that was why he was so totally terrified to tell her. She was going to give him Willow eyes.

"Is this feeling awkward?" Buffy asked.

"You noticed."

"Yep. Hard to miss what with all the awkwardness."

Xander had to admit that was true. "How does Oz always make the long silences look all cool?"

"He's Oz." Buffy nodded wisely. "He has lots of Ozness. It's a nice balance for Willow, who has a definitely lack of Ozness, and there will be more than just awkwardness going when you tell her."

"Of this, I am aware."

Buffy stood up and held out her hand for him. "You know what? Cavemen can wait. We really do need to go tell Willow, and hopefully she will not be practicing any big wiccan mojo because Willow and stress and magic are not a good combination, and you, mister, are the bringer of stress."

"Gee, thanks for making this awkwardness even more with the awkward." Xander put his hand in Buffy's and let her pull him up.

"I live to please."

"Who exactly is this supposed to please?"

She smiled at him as they started walking back towards Giles'. Her hand was still in his, and Xander tightened his grip. He might be moving, but she would always be part of his life. He just needed to have a little more space so he had room to be more about him and less about the Hellmouth. "Well," Buffy started with her bright-and-cheerful voice, "Giles has been all cranky with me ever since I walked in on him and Jenny, although Riley thinks it's more about me not getting over the extreme and ungetoverable horror of walking in on them. But either way, Willow is going to be so totally weirded out that this will eclipse my weirdness, so I guess this is pleasing me."

"You know, when you talk like that, you and Spike have way, way too much in common."

"Hey, no need for insults." They walked down the quiet streets. "Xander?"

"That's my name... except when I'm under a spell and think I'm Sergeant Slaughter."

Buffy ducked her head. "I'm sorry I'm being all selfishly sorry you're leaving. I really am happy for you, and I know you have way more chances to be something out there. Sometimes I think you and Willow would both be better off if you went off and had your own lives, and part of me doesn't want that. I'm going to try to be happy for you. Promise." She stopped in the middle of the street and looked up at him.

Xander caught her in a hug. "I'd rather have that than have you throwing a get-out-of-town parade."

"Definitely not feeling the parade-love right now." Buffy cleared her throat, and Xander thought he heard a little catch in her voice, but she took him by the hand and started walking towards Giles' again. "After I became the slayer, after I left LA, I felt like I wouldn't ever have anything normal or good in my life again. I just... I'm not good at saying this, but thank you. You and Willow gave me back something that I lost when I had to leave LA, something I thought I'd never have again. And a little part of me is terrified that you're moving on because for a long time, you were the ones I really counted on."

"I think you can count on Riley, and I know you can count on Giles and Willow and Oz, and even Jenny."

"Yep, I'm big with knowing that, but you and Willow were the ones I counted on in the Buffy kind of way, not the slayer kind of way. I mean, have you ever tried to talk to Giles about a shoe sale?" Her smile looked almost real.

"I can safely say no."

"But I can count on you to sigh and complain, and still let me drag you around as you sigh and complain. I'll miss that."

Xander could feel his heart twist. "I'm not moving to another planet."

"Yep, I'm knowing that."

"I will be back. I promise. It's not that I don't love you and Willow because I do, and not in the kind of love that causes me to change the sheets in the middle of the night from dream love. I save that for Seven of Nine. You and Willow only have my heart and no other parts which will remain unnamed." Xander gave her his best goofy smile. This time when she smiled back, he could see the amusement reach her eyes, making the edges of them crinkle.

"Count on you to be inappropriate."

"After living with Spike and Faith, I don't even know where the appropriate line is anymore."

"That's no joke. So, any plans for how to tell Willow?"

They turned the corner, and suddenly Xander was faced with Giles' place and potential Willow confrontage. "Um... blurt and flee?"

"Bad plan. She can run pretty fast, and she's way meaner than she looks." For a second Buffy stopped and the two of them looked at the light spilling out of the windows.

Xander sighed. "Geez, the way you're looking at me, it's like you think I'm actually afraid to tell her."

Buffy's look didn't leave any room to doubt that she thought exactly that.

"Yeah, yeah. Don't say it," Xander said as he started walking up the path.

"I'm a big old saying-nothing girl. Do you hear the silence?"

"I hear what you're not saying."

Buffy planted an elbow in his stomach, and he oophed as it drove the air out of his lungs. Of course, he'd rather get hit about a hundred times from slayer elbows than face Willow, but that wasn't an option. Running away just led to more running away, and for a half-second, Xander wondered why running away was such a bad idea. But then Buffy pushed the door to Giles' apartment open without even knocking and it was too late to wonder anything. Buffy kept her hand on Xander's back as they walked in.

"Hey, look who came to visit," Buffy said brightly as they faced the gathered group. However, when she looked at him, Xander could see the sympathy. Yep, this was going to be bad.

"Hi, guys!" Xander offered, trying his best to smother the butterflies in his stomach. Willow was sitting on the couch between Jenny and Oz, and that's who he focused on as he walked in. He could face demons, but one red-haired girl could pretty much reduce him to blind terror—terror that he was going to say exactly the wrong thing and hurt her.

"Xander!" Willow answered brightly.

Oh yeah, he was screwed.



8. Chapter Eight

Riley was the first to react to Xander's announcement. "It sounds like a good opportunity," he offered with a nod. "I was hoping to tempt you into joining the service, but construction is a great field. Not as good as the military, of course." He smiled and reached forward to slap Xander on the shoulder in a manly show of support. Then he leaned back against the wall, his shoulder touching Buffy who leaned next to him.

"The military? Me?" Xander's voice cracked, probably from the horror and disbelief. "No offense, but I would fit in like a Goth in church," Xander pointed out, the metaphor probably influenced by the fact that a Goth had started coming to the Catholic church, and there were many stares and whispers to be had.

"It might be a little awkward at first," Riley admitted. "But when the others figured out what a good fighter you are and how loyal you are, you would have gotten along fine. I would have put in a word for you to make it into Special Ops."

"Harris, Xander Harris, Double-Oh-Eight," Xander said in his best English accent. It was more cockney than proper English, but at least Riley and Jenny and Giles all rolled their eyes on cue.

"Yes, well, I can't say I'm sorry that you've chosen to avoid that future," Giles said dryly. The look he gave Riley was not all that friendly, but then Giles was dealing with his issues over losing Buffy just as much as Buffy was dealing with pseudo-father-Giles issues. Buffy stood by Riley's side and leaned into him, and it looked like she had picked her side. "The military is not the panacea for evil." Giles crossed the floor and stood behind Jenny who was still sitting on the couch. From the sympathetic look Jenny gave him, she understood. And really? Xander was shocked that he understood it, but maybe he was big with understanding because his own heart was being ripped in two by leaving. He could get just how ugly it got when the family group started drifting.

Jenny reached up and patted Giles' hand, the one he had rested on her shoulder. "Xander, I think it's a wise choice."

Willow's back stiffened at that statement, and Oz's eyes darted her way.

Jenny, however, ignored all the unhappy in the room. "It sounds like this school is a good opportunity, and let's face it--those of us who do not have to live on a Hellmouth are far better off clearing the battlefield for those who are fighting." Jenny smiled at him, but the smile felt like a punch in the gut. What the hell had he been doing for three years if he hadn't been fighting evil? Then again, Jenny and Angel had a mutual hate society going on, and she tended to be weirdly distrustful of anything related to Angel, including Xander.

"Xander has been big with the battlefield fighting," Willow blurted, her face wrinkled by a deep frown.

"Right in the middle of the fighting," Oz agreed. Even Riley was frowning.

"Yes, of course, I didn't mean that he hadn't. I just meant that he is not obligated to be part of the fight," Jenny hurried to amend herself. She blushed dark red. "Giles and I were committed to this fight by our families long before we were born, and of course Buffy...." Jenny waved a hand in her direction.

"Yes, the point is," Giles offered as he patted her on the shoulder, "that some people are obligated to remain in the fight. We will be here until the world ends, I suspect, at least those of us who have made a lifelong commitment and not just signed a contract for a four-year tour." Giles glanced at Riley. Oh yeah, Riley had won over Xander's role as most Giles-hated member of the group. But then again, Riley was doing what Xander never had--he was stealing Buffy away from Giles. Weirdly, Riley didn't even look bothered by the Giles' nasty expression.

Giles removed his glasses, a gesture that Xander half-suspected that he used when he didn't want to look at them, to see how they were taking his words. "There is a certain cadence to most fighter's lives. Their dedication to fighting demons ebbs and flows, but being on a Hellmouth, you are locked into a constant battle and never allowed time to rest or to mentally regroup. It's why I recommended that Wesley leave the Hellmouth if he was determined to become a demon hunter. I know you have proved invaluable more than once, Xander. I am grateful for that. I am equally grateful that you are moving off the Hellmouth where you might have some sort of balance in your life."

Giles finished. For long seconds, he stared down at his glasses, not even cleaning them. Silence filled the room, right beside shock and disbelief. That had almost sounded like Giles was worried about him.

"We worry about all of you," Jenny said softly.

Willow blurted out, "We still would worry if he was in Los Angeles. They have demons and vampires AND gangs and all sorts of not nice people who show up on the news all the time. Every time we turn on the news there are people in LA with guns and weirdness going on that is so weird that it has to be demonic. There's even more reason to worry about him if he's down there."

"Willow," Oz said quietly.

"No!" Willow burst up off the couch, pushing Oz's comforting arm away. "This isn't okay. The three of us stick together, even when there's really big stuff pulling us apart, like Spike killing Kendra. We stuck together after that!" Willow looked around the room, and Xander flinched--not at the reminder of Spike's demonic traits but at the way she had just neatly left Oz out of the inner sanctum. Oh yeah, as the inner sanctum reject himself, he so knew that had to hurt. But instead of showing his hurt, Oz just leaned back and watched Willow, his face concerned.

"Will, I hear you, but this is a good opportunity for Xander."

"I gave up Stanford to keep us together." Willow was going from hurt to angry at a pretty good clip. But instead of reacting, Buffy just folded in on herself, retreating to Riley's arms. Riley pulled her close and watched Willow with eyes devoid of any emotion. When Spike got that expression, things tended to get ripped apart, but Riley was just watching.

"Willow, we are all aware of the sacrifices you have made," Giles said.

"How could you?" Willow demanded, her anger collapsing under the raw pain as she faced Xander. Xander would way rather deal with angry Willow. The pain in her eyes was gutting him faster than a knife. Before Xander could answer, Willow ran for the door.

Oz immediately got up to follow, but Xander took a step toward him. "Let me?" he asked permission. Oz was her boyfriend, but Xander liked to hope he was still her friend. He'd made this mess, and he needed to clean it up.

Oz nodded and slowly sat back down. "Um, if I'm not back in an hour...." Xander gave a rough laugh, as if this were all a joke, but no one laughed with him. Buffy and Riley stood by the kitchen door, Jenny just looked uncomfortable, and Giles had his hand resting on her shoulder, and Oz watched him with a barely veiled threat in his eyes. Xander knew full well that part of Oz wanted to just beat the shit out of him. He was just lucky that Oz's zen nature overrode the werewolf. Turning away from the group, Xander followed Willow out into the night.

She hadn't gotten far. She sat on the low wall around Giles' apartment complex, the light from the street lamp leeching the red out of her hair so that it looked mousy. Silently, he sat next to her, watching a stray cat slowly pick his way down the street. He stopped to sniff every drain as he worked his way south, tail flicking. For long minutes, Xander waited for her to say something, but she was stubbornly quiet.

He sighed. "Okay, this is feeling much with the weirdness."

"Then fix it." Willow's voice was tight with emotion, but she kept her tone steady.

"If by 'fix it,' you mean stay and don't have a life, I'm voting no. If by saying 'fix it,' you mean make a really stupid joke, I have one about a priest and a rabbi. You wouldn't think a priest would be big on priest jokes, but Father Peter is oddly fond of them." Xander grinned at her. She was not grinning back.

"This is not funny."

"And I'm agreeing with you. I just wish I could make it funny."

For a second, she just stared at him. "You're leaving. You're leaving, and you want me to laugh at a stupid joke?"

"Technically, I haven't told the stupid joke yet."

"Xander." She said his name in a tone that people usually reserved for curse words and Hitler and Spam, and other things big on the grody scale of life.

Xander ducked his head, waiting for the rest of her condemnation. Once she got it out, once she told him off, they could move past it... hopefully. At this point, he was starting to worry about the lack of moving onness. Instead of speaking her mind, Willow went silent again. Silent Willow was never a good sign. Silent Willow meant that she was channeling her parents and their wacky-wacky need to have a perfect home and a perfect child and a perfect marriage and a perfect life. It led to fake smiles and a perfectly painted house and a real lack of love. They were the poster children for 'If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all,' and after seeing the poster, Xander would not be going to that movie. It was a sad way to live.

He sighed as the silence lingered. "Willow, do you remember how in third grade that new girl showed up?" he asked.

"What?" Willow looked over, the pain replaced by annoyance with a hint of confusion. Yep, her parents and even Giles may have tried to create pod-Willow, but his real Will was still in there.

"Amanda, she of the nerd in third grade," he reminded her. "You two geeked out over Einstein."

After a second, the confusion faded, replaced by a fond expression. "Jonas Salk," Willow said softly. "He's Jewish, you know."

"I stand geekily corrected."

Willow poked her finger at him. "You are changing the subject, mister. We are not talking about Salk or Amanda. We're talking about how you're running away."

"I thought I was moving away."

"Moving and running are both active verbs which suggest you're leaving." Her look dared him to contradict that logic.

"This I know." Xander cringed as she gave him a death-glare. "Okay, can you just give me a second to explain because your Willow eyes are short circuiting the brain and going straight to the guilt complex."

"They should."

Xander shook his head. He loved Willow, but there were times when he wasn't all that sure he liked her. Of course, that didn't mean she wasn't family. Angel and Spike and Willow and Buffy and Faith--they all had parts that Xander was not big with the liking, but he loved the hell out of all of them. Right now though, he focused on Willow. "When you met Amanda, that was exciting for you because Jesse and I were in our mud pies stage, and you were never a fan of mud pies."

"Not when you two threw them at me." For a second, either annoyance or amusement made her mouth twitch--maybe both.

"Okay, that might have been a little rude, although to be fair, we just liked seeing you run and scream. We didn't actually try to hit you with the mud."

Willow glared.

"Usually," Xander added. "But I have a point going here, a really pointy point. You were friends with Amanda because you needed someone to geek with. And then, when Buffy came to town, Jesse was off on his girl-chasing stage, and I was starting with the girl chasing, although at the time I was more in the holding a book in front of me when I walked stage. They're closely related stages. But that is one stage you will not be going through, so Buffy was way more stagelike for you."

"You're jealous of Buffy?"

"No!" Xander paused. "Not usually. Okay, so when she first showed up, I might have been a little jealous besides being intermittently horny. I'd lost Jesse. I watched you turn to Buffy, and I was just so damn angry. And honestly? Angel got most of the fuzzy end of that lollipop because I regularly made myself feel better by verbally torturing him."

"Then let him leave town. You can say here with us. Buffy and I were talking, and there's this architectural program that you would love." Willow sounded just so damn hopeful that Xander wanted to just give her what she wanted and make her light up with that joy that seemed to bubble out of her sometimes. He just couldn't this time.

"No, no, actually I wouldn't. I don't like designing buildings. I like taking an old building and scraping down the paint and finding the original carvings that some workman made. I like screwing in drywall and watching a pile of materials turn into a room that someone is going to live in. I like tracking down a short in a wiring system and ripping the old wires out. I don't want to be an architect."


"Don't go there," Xander warned.

"What is wrong with you? Don't you want a good future? I swear, I don't know you any more Xander. College would be a chance for you to make something of your future." Instead of bubbly happiness, Willow oozed out a righteous indignation and fury that made Xander want to cringe.

"No, college would be a chance for me to make my future look like yours, which is where the whole staging stuff comes in. I don't want to be college-boy. I wouldn't ever get through the math."

She leaned in, her hand resting on his leg as she got her earnest-face on. "I can help you. You know I will always be there for you, and we can set a date on Tuesday nights, and we can just work through it together."

"And when I get a job as an architect?"

She smiled brightly. "You'll be really grateful that went to college."

"Actually, I'm thinking I'm going to be worried about the bosses figuring out a big old fraud who can't do his own math. Or maybe you think you'll follow me to work and do my math for me there, too."

"Xander! You don't need to be mean." Willow pulled her hand back.

"No, I really don't. However, right now being mean is feeling slightly good." Xander struggled to shove down his own frustration that she was just so willing to tell him how to live and just expect him to go along. "Willow," he said, his voice artificially calm, "I don't want to go to college."

"Then don't go. I didn't say you had to go. Did I say you had to go?"

"You implied."

"I'm not implying, I'm just saying there are choices out there that you're not considering because you see yourself as someone who isn't as good, and that is so not fair, and sometimes I really hate Jesse, and that makes me feel like a horrible person because he's dead and I'm hating him, but he said all these things to you. He used to make fun of you and beat you in all the races and call you stupid, and you just let him be mean. And now it's like you're being the Xander that Jesse and your father used to tell you that you were. And I was there too. I was always telling you that you were good enough and strong enough and smart enough, but I wasn't ever enough. You had to believe them." She stopped as though out of air, and her eyes glistened, even in the low light of the streetlamp.

Xander blinked, more than a little blindsided by that admission. "Okay, maybe I got confused mid-babble, but do you think that I think that I'm not any good at shit?"

"Language," Willow said softly, but Xander was guessing it was habit or maybe a need to change the subject, because Graham had said way worse and she never commented on his language.

"Willow," Xander sighed her name, but then he stopped, not sure what to say. Yeah, he and Jesse had been engaged in a war of insults most of their life, but so were Angel and Spike and Spike and Riley and Giles and him and Riley and Graham. Actually, mutual insulting seemed fairly guylike, right up there with spitting and farting and belching.

"I love you, and yeah, I know I really messed things up there for a while because my hormones confused love and love." She got a sour look on her face. "I know that, but I still love you, and I want to cry when you sell yourself short, and now you're leaving?"

"You didn't mess things up."

She looked at him incredulously

"Okay, so you made things a little weird there for a while because you're the closest thing I have to a sister, and sisters and..." Xander let his words trail off, not even wanting to go there in his mind.

"Sisters and smoochies are unmixy," Willow finished for him.

"Very. Unmixy like lead-based paint and toddlers unmixy. But I do love you too, and I am not running away because of a lack of self-esteem. If I were having self-esteem issues, Angel would so drag me back to therapy. But the fact is that you're off in the college stage of life with Buffy and Oz and Riley. And that's cool. That's a good stage."

"It could be your stage," Willow offered, her voice whisper soft and trembling, as if she were reining in her emotions and starting to fail.

"It could be," Xander agreed. "But I don't want it to be. I don't like the idea of college. I like the idea of a vocational school and fixing things and building things. And you watch... you're going to think this is not a good idea until Buffy tries to flush some demon goo that totally backs up all your toilets, and then you will be calling me and my mighty snake."

Willow giggled. "Your mighty snake?" Her laugh turned into a snort and then something that might have been a sob before she finally got her breathing back under control.

Xander gave her a crooked smile. "And by snake I mean the thing you use to unclog drains, although I have it on good authority that I'm mighty in more ways than one."

"Xander!" Willow punched his arm, her fist little more than a tickle against his bicep.

Xander nodded wisely. "I'm mighty with the drywall and the wiring, and I've started doing some carving, and I'm showing some mightiness in that way too."

She looked at him out of the side of her eyes, her mouth still a tight line. "You've been around Spike too much," she finally announced. Then again, if he was making mighty snake jokes around Willow, he probably had been.

He shrugged.

"You could be mighty around here," she offered softly.

Xander looked up and down the quiet street. "Not much building going on around here, Will. And face it, most of the buildings get blown up way before they need renovating. LA has a great school for construction, and Angel bought this really cool old hotel that needs about a million hours of renovation."

"He bought it for you?"

"Well, that and it's big enough that we won't have to know what Faith and Spike are doing." Xander frowned as he thought about that one. If Spike was dating Cordelia, he had no idea how any of that was going to turn out, other than he seriously intended to avoid any and all nuclear fallout caused if those two ladies started fighting. And with Spike and Angel definitely still doing the nasty, he figured he would have craploads of damage to fix once all the shit started hitting the fan. Willow had wrinkled her nose at the thought.

"Besides," Xander said as he threw an arm around her shoulders, "I still have to find someone to have happily ever after with or the vengeance demon is going to turn me into Catwoman's love slave." Xander schooled his expression into a lustful leer. "Explain again why I'm trying to avoid that fate."

Xander genuinely smiled when she backhanded him in the stomach. Slowly she let her head sink down until it rested against his shoulder. "I love you, Xander."

"I love you too, Will. I always will."

"Always?" Her voice sounded so small that Xander wanted to promise her that he'd stay, that he'd make her pain go away. If Angel hadn't already spent an ungodly amount of money on the hotel, he might have even done it. Instead he just tightened his arm around her.

"Always. You just let the world try and end, and you'll see how fast I come running," he promised.

When the sniffles and the ragged breathing started, Xander didn't say anything. He just sat on the low wall and watched the moon slowly track across the sky and held on as Willow cried in his arms. It might be time to move on, but she would always be family.



9. Chapter Nine

"Now he's a cutie," Lorne suggested, raising his pink drink toward the current singer. The comment was wrong on so many levels that Xander wasn't sure where to even start.

"He's a he!" Xander finally settled on. Lorne looked at Spike and the two of them sadly shook their heads like Xander was a child who had said something particularly amusing and equally stupid. Xander considered putting an elbow in Spike's stomach since he was sitting so close, but he really didn't want to get dragged over Spike's lap and given a wedgie right in the middle of Caritas. "Just because some people like to drink pink drinks does not mean the rest of us are into pink. I am so not into pink. I am a brown man... or a blue man sometimes, but I am never pink." Xander crossed his arms and glared at Lorne for even suggesting the current singer. They never should have told The Host about Xander's little trouble with Anyanka and their search for a perfect partner.

"Now sweetcheeks, no need for ruffled feathers. I am simply looking at the auras."

"Well, his aura is evil. That's the guy that Spike ate," Xander pointed out. The singer was half-sitting on a stool and strumming his guitar as he sang "I Can't Stop Loving You."

"Oh, Spike. You didn't tell me that you've been eating Lindsey," Lorne said with an eyebrow wiggle.

"Okay, ew," Xander interrupted them. "I meant eat as in nearly killed, so please stop corrupting my brain with thoughts it is not prepared to handle. That guy's evil, and you're trying to set me up on a date with him. When Angel gets here, I'm guessing he's going to veto that plan."

Spike snorted. "Face it, pet. The big lug is going to veto anyone takin' you out on a date."

"Isn't that true? He's going to implode from the force of all that repression," Lorne answered. Xander was going to ask what he meant by that, but Lorne kept right on going, his red eyes focusing on Lindsey. "Besides, that sweetie is not evil."

Xander looked at Lorne like he had lost his mind. "Evil lawyer at evil law firm doing evil things to Cordelia... and many other girls. That's a lot of 'evil' for one sentence."

"Oh, his bosses are evil, that's true enough." Lorne took a drink and studied Lindsey, who actually had a pretty good singing voice for someone who was so evil. Maybe that's what was making Lorne's aura-reading skills do the wonky, because even Xander knew this guy was headed for the villain's hall of fame. Or maybe just the lobby rather than the hall, but he was definitely villain-bound.

"As long as those wankers stay clear of me and mine, they can be as evil as they want," Spike announced, and he had a bit of yellow in his eyes when he said it.

"Hey, evil bad, Spike. Remember?"

Spike rolled his eyes, reached over to drape an arm over Xander's shoulders, and then pulled Xander close enough to give him a noogie.

"Hey! Uncle! Enough!" Xander flailed and tried to defend himself, but Spike kept it up for a second before finally letting go. By then, Xander could feel his face turning bright red. Everyone was looking at him--even the guy up on stage. And from the expression on his face, he remembered them--or he remembered Spike anyway. Lindsey turned a sickly shade of white and nearly fell off the stage as he did a full speed retreat. When Xander glanced over, Spike had his game face on and he was showing Lindsey more than a little fang.

"Not nice," Xander chastised him, but he focused on just drinking his root beer and trying to get the blush to vanish. If Angel was here, he would have made sure to sit between Xander and Spike in order to save Xander from Spike's more embarrassing forms of affection. And next time, Xander was so going to evening mass with Angel.

"Never claimed to be nice, pet. I'm evil, remember?" Spike flashed him a little fang.

"You're evil like a saber tooth tiger, which is to say, not much," Xander argued. Spike narrowed his eyes and reached for Xander again, and Xander just knew he was getting the wedgie this time. Unfortunately, Lorne was blocking his retreat on one side, and Spike was too close for any fancy moves because the booth definitely wasn't built for fighting... or even rough housing.

"So, Tiger," Lorne interrupted, "how serious is Angel-cakes about letting our sweet little thing find himself another sweet little thing?"

That distracted Spike from the Xander-torture, and Xander breathed a sigh of relief as the yellow eyes and ridges vanished under Spike's human mask. "Don't know. He likes to think he's serious enough, but the boy hasn't brought home anyone for him to hate good and proper." Leaning back in the bench, Spike sprawled his arms out full length and looked around the room. "And if the boy runs true to form, he won't be looking for a sweet, young thing. Bloody hell, Lindsey comes closer to his type, evil and all."

"Not gay!" Xander objected. "And Lindsey is so not my type."

Spike tilted a head and considered him for a second. "Pet, your fantasies include a villain who dresses like a cat and a woman who is half machine and could break you in half before turning you into a mindless slave. And then there are your crushes. At least half have been on demons--most of them evil--and the only woman you've ever bedded is a slayer. Seems like Lindsey fits in there pretty well."

"Not gay!" Xander repeated. "And I was only accidentally attracted to evil women when I didn't know they were evil."

Spike didn't answer, he just cocked his eyebrow in that way that made it pretty clear that he believed Xander so little that he wasn't even going to bother arguing that lame point. And Xander had to admit that his point was limping a little because he really did seem to be attracted to dangerous and sometimes borderline evil people. Amy had been his first man-sized crush, and she had turned into a big-almost-bad before she got whisked off to England. And from there he'd gone to Cordelia, and even he had to admit that she was freaky scary with a small side-order of evil.

"Lindsey isn't evil, you big bundle of repressed cuteness." Lorne reached over to pat Xander's arm. "He's a little lost and following all the wrong people, but he's not the sort to end the world or torture virgins."

"Then he definitely works at the wrong place, because he's looking evil from where I sit," Xander mulishly insisted. He'd grown up on the Hellmouth, and working for people-eating vampires who kidnapped Cordelia was evil with a capital E.

"That he does, Sweetie," Lorne said sadly. He twirled his straw and stared down at his drink.

Spike grabbed his whiskey and threw it back in one showy gulp that would have left Xander choking and gasping. "Bloody hell, I've got things to do and people to eat. I could be working on trying to finally shag Cordelia, so Peaches had better show up soon. "

Xander cringed. "Okay, that would be over-sharing."

"Over-sharing would be telling you how it felt havin' her thighs clamped around me, but I don't bloody know that yet. Four soddin' months and I'm still buyin' gifts. With Dru, one twelve thousand dollar prom dress would've been good enough. But no, I have to bloody impress her. Well, being late is pretty fucking unimpressive, innit? Where is this git who wanted to meet Angel?"

"He's around," Lorne said vaguely.

"If he's so bloody keen on seein' Angel, he could just come to the soddin' hotel," Spike growled, and he was definitely running out of patience. An out of patience Spike was a dangerous thing, and maybe others realized that because the yellowish-demony couple at the next table decided to cut their night short. They left in a flurry of tentacles and coats. He thought people in Sunnydale were blind, but people in L.A. were blind, deaf and dumb to not notice all the weirdness.

"Ah, the prodigal sire returns," Lorne said with a happy smile. Xander looked over and Angel was standing at the door with a familiar man standing just behind him.

"Father Peter!" Xander called, waving.

"Bloody hell. He brought the soddin' priest. My unlife just gets better all the fucking time," Spike sighed. This time Xander braved the wedgie danger and planted an elbow in Spike's side. Unsurprisingly, Spike captured his arm rather easily, and then held it captive as Angel and Father Peter came over to the table.

"Xander! It's so nice to see you; I missed you at mass."

"I'm technically not Catholic, so I thought the mass thing was optional." Xander gave Father Peter his best 'forgive me' look and really cursed himself for picking video games with Faith over church with Angel. He didn't mind disappointing God, but Father Peter had a way of really making you regret disappointing him. After all, the guy had shown up with a cross and a bunch of bandages to help out at graduation, and when a guy had put his life on the line for you, it felt kinda creepy to not even bother to show up for church.

"You're welcome whether you're Catholic or not."

"Yep, I'm big with knowing that. So, are you visiting the big city for the day?" Xander asked with a wide smile, praying that the topic would change before anyone mentioned what Xander had been doing instead. But honestly, the video game carnage had been the first time since Faith moved back that things felt totally normal instead of the varnish of normal over whole heaping loads of guilt and weird politeness. Then again, maybe Xander was just feeling like there were heaps of weird laying around because a Faith who didn't try to have sex with everyone she met was feeling vaguely unFaithlike. Nice--but unFaithlike.

Father Peter smiled at him, and Xander hoped that meant he was forgiven. "Actually, the Archdiocese transferred me down here. The local priest is..." he stopped, frowned, and then shrugged. "He's a little concerned about the fact that his parish suddenly includes a vampire who is trying to rediscover God. He put in a panicked call to the Archbishop and the issue ended up going all the way to the Pope. I'm not sure whether to be complimented or terrified that the Pope knows my name." Father Peter's mouth twisted into a wry smile.

"I'm sure he thinks well of you," Angel offered with an awkward pat on Father Peter's shoulder. Father Peter's smile turned into something more amused and less with the being freaked out. Then again, watching Angel attempt the interpersonal supportive shtick was pretty amusing.

"Thank you. Considering that he's counting on me to keep a demon on the path to righteousness, I have to assume he thinks I've done something well so far."

Spike interrupted the mutual admiration society Angel and Father Peter had going by snorting loudly. "Bloody unnatural, you two being bosom buddies or some such rot as that. It's like a wolf makin' nice with a soddin cow."

"Ah, but you make nice with Xander," Father Peter disagreed. However, he also pulled a chair over and perched on the edge rather than sit on the booth's bench next to Lorne or Spike. Xander figured that Father Peter's tolerance for demons had limits, and sitting too close to one would probably give him the wiggins. Personally, Xander had sat next to, fought next to, and woke up next to demons. His wiggins button had broken long, long ago.

"Not the same, mate. Xander's more like a wolf cub--a little clumsy and cute, but he'll grow into his fangs." Spike ruffled Xander's hair, and Xander glared at him.

"Spike," Angel warned darkly.


"He's been in this mood all day," Xander immediately tattled on Spike.

"Oi, I'm not getting enough sex. I'm bloody randy, and you aren't offering to fix that for me," Spike shot back with a healthy glare for Xander.

Xander opened his mouth, but he couldn't get his tongue to work before Angel settled the fight by hitting Spike on the back of the head. Lorne didn't even bother watching--he was fascinated by a small woman who stood nervously on the stage. Father Peter only looked a little freaked. Then Angel shoved Spike over and sat on the end of the booth. Xander smiled as Spike, who had been the master of the sprawl just a minute earlier, was now crowded into the center of the booth with him and getting sprawled on as Angel spread his arms in an almost perfect imitation of Spike's body language.

"Lorne, where is this man who asked to meet me?" Angel asked, but his hand landed conspicuously on Spike's neck. Xander smirked. Yep, he might be the bottom of this totem pole, but Spike wasn't at the top either.

"Fucking mick," Spike whispered under his breath, but he also didn't even try to move away. Xander suspected that Spike was totally okay being pushed around, which probably explained why he was dating Cordelia, even without getting any sex.

"Such impatience. Now Angel, have you considered changing the look? I have to say, the black with black ensemble does not match the good church-going boy image. I can see you looking very good in chartreuse. It's a lovely color if I do say so myself." Lorne preened a little, but when everyone at the table looked at him blankly, he deflated like a flat tire. "No appreciation for the finer things in life." He shook his head sadly at them all. "Here's Doyle now."

Xander looked over and there was a thin man walking towards them. He had dark hair and a sharp gaze that put Xander on edge immediately. "Evening, folks," he offered in a soft lilting accent as he stood near Father Peter's chair. "Padre." He tilted his head in that direction.

"Another fucking mick." Spike snorted and shoved at Xander to make him scoot over.

"He's not human," Angel said in his quiet, dangerous voice.

"Now that’s a bit rude. So happens that I am very much human." Doyle frowned at them for a second, and Xander looked from Angel to Doyle and back. Doyle's face split into a grin. "On my mother's side, anyway. My other half is Brachen, which is not exactly the world-ending sort if you know what I mean. Normally Brachen keep clear of vampires and other assorted nasties. We're a quiet lot."

"I'm Xander," Xander offered after a brief and awkward silence. Spike and Angel both glared at him.

"Nice ta meet you, Xander. And I assume this is Spike?" Doyle had balls, that's for sure. He didn't even flinch at the growl he got as an answer.

"I'm Father Peter." The priest stood and offered Doyle his hand.

"Ah, bringing your own spiritual guidance. I didn't think The Host was going to tell you my business before I got here." Doyle looked at Lorne unhappily.

"Oh, I didn't, sweetie. The priest was a surprise to me too, but since you've already gone and put your foot in your very lovely mouth, I'm going to leave you to your chatting. You people be nice, now," Lorne said as he stood up. "And if you're not going to be nice, do remember that the spell will keep you from being violent."

"I can be as violent as I want," Xander pointed out. Since the non-violence spell was keyed for demons, it wouldn't work on him.

Lorne looked at him for a long moment. "I need to get that little oversight fixed. Note to self, have the transuding furies include humans in the next round of spell casting. I should charge you for that little add-on, Darling." With one last look at Xander, Lorne got up and headed over to the bar. Spreading his arms, he loudly and enthusiastically greeted a scaled demon with a head like an anvil.

Father Peter moved and sat down next to Xander, leaving his chair empty. "Please," he said with a gesture toward the chair.

"Thanks," Doyle answered. He sat and fidgeted awkwardly.

"What do you want?" Angel asked, and that was his 'don't screw with me' voice, the one he got after discovering that Xander had replaced all his shampoo with dishwasher soap.

"The Powers That Be sent me." Doyle said the name in a way that made it really clear that he was capitalizing those words. Obviously, Xander was supposed to know who these powers were, but he was pulling a big old blank. He looked at Angel for some sort of explanation, but Angel had his poker face on--the one where even Xander couldn't tell what he was thinking or feeling.

"The Powers That Be feeling like leaving us alone because we're not big with getting messed with by people with powers much less powers with no people attached?" Xander asked hopefully.

Doyle looked over at him and smiled. The expression transformed him from sharp-faced and sly looking into someone friendly looking and almost sweet. "They're not big on leaving people alone. Let me tell you a little story. See, once upon a time, there was a vampire, got himself cursed with a soul. Then all of a sudden he's mad with guilt. 'Oh woe is me, what have I done?'" Doyle looked over towards Angel, but he had on his stone-faced expression, and his fist was curled around Spike's forearm. And that was probably of the good because Spike was looking extra-special cranky.

Doyle cleared his throat and looked away. "Skipping ahead... Maybe I should get a drink." Doyle looked around for a bartender.

"Whatever you have to say, say it," Angel said, and that was still not a nice tone of voice.

"Well, it seems that this vampire is looking to make amends, to fix what he's done wrong in his life, only he doesn't know how. He's playing the numbers, figuring out how many he's killed and how many he's let die, both pre and post soul, and he can't figure out where he starts tipping the balance over to the side of the angels. That's where I come in."

"You're on the side of the angels?" Father Peter asked, his voice oddly unemotional.

Doyle, however, smiled at him. "That I am, Father. The Powers That Be don’t speak to me direct. I get... visions--which is to say great splitting migraines that come with pictures." Doyle's face twisted at the memory of the pain, but then his voice took on a sing-song quality like when the priest read prayers at mass. " A name – a face. I don’t know who sends them. I just know whoever sends them is more powerful than me or you, and they're just trying to make things right." Doyle blinked, and it was like the spell was over. "I've got amends of my own to make, and the visions they send me--they're my way of making things rights. Since the cosmic balance sheet isn't exactly in your favor, either, they sent me to you."

"To do what exactly?" Angel asked in that same calm voice.

"To work together. With my visions and your brawn, we could make a difference."

Angel frowned, and Xander knew he was feeling tempted. Give Angel a chance to play caped crusader, and he was going to go for it every single time... like a dog sniffing after crotch. Not that Xander had a problem with fighting the good fight, but sometimes, just sometimes, Angel took the fighting the good fight part a little too far, like sniffing after a fifteen year old slayer. Ick.

Father Peter leaned forward. "So, the Powers That Be sent you visions, painful visions, and told you that you have to make up for the wrong you've done in your life?"

"That's about it in a nutshell. Considering how the visions make my head feel like it's going to fall off, I figure I'm doing my penance at a pretty good clip."

"Bloody hell. Do not tell me you're even considering this rot. We moved up here to make our own territory, not to get involved with some soddin' powers and their bloody war." Spike shook Angel's hand off and leaned forward, but at least now he looked aggravated instead of homicidal.

"I...." Angel stopped. He looked over at Xander, and Xander gave Angel his best 'Don't look at me' expression. "Maybe we--" This time Angel got cut off by Father Peter.

"Angel, you don't have anything to atone for."

"All those years--" Angel immediately objected, but Father Peter kept right on going, totally ignoring Angel's guilt trip.

"Grace does not require servitude. The Lord forgives because he knows that we all sin, and the Sacrament of Penance offers us forgiveness."

"That's what I'm doing, Father, offering penance," Doyle said seriously.

"No, no you are not. Penance is offered by a priest, and it does not include physical pain. If you have sins to atone for, you should come to confession, not put your trust in mysterious shadows that you can't see. Trusting shadows is a sure path to deception and corruption."

Doyle was already shaking his head, frowning at Father Peter's words. "They want to make things better. They send me visions of horrible things that are going to happen and give me a chance to fix them. They're fighting on the side of the angels, Father." Father Peter did not look convinced at all.

"Wait, are you saying that he might only think he's working for the good guys?" Xander asked. This whole conversation was getting a little confusing for him, and sometimes just admitting that he was totally and completely lost was the best approach.

"That's not possible," Doyle immediately insisted, but Xander knew that look. He'd seen that look on his own face in the mirror plenty of times. That was the look of someone who'd just realized that he might possibly have just done something stupid. And as the doer of many stupid things, Xander was starting to feel a little sympathy for the guy. "They send visions." Doyle was definitely trying to bolster his own confidence with that.

"Of what?" Father Peter asked. Angel actually looked more relaxed now as he watched Father Peter and Doyle talk, but Spike rolled his eyes. Yep, in about two minutes, Spike was going to get bored and do something so very, very bad. Maybe Angel recognized the same signs because he reached over and squeezed Spike's shoulder hard enough to force Spike to hunch up and hiss in pain.

"Images, like a slide show going by so fast that you can only see bits and pieces, and what with the blinding and debilitating pain, it's a little hard to concentrate even on the images I do see."

For some reason, that made Father Peter frown even more.

"Father, the Powers That Be aren't called that because they're wimps. These are powerful beings, but they want our help to make the world a better place." Doyle really wasn't sounding sure now.

"I don't doubt that they have power," Father Peter quickly agreed. "Many creatures have power, but a true vision given by god, a supernatural, imaginative vision given by our Lord is full of grace and light and a sense of wonder at his power. To have pain and confusion... that is not a mark of God. That is a mark of some other supernatural agent."

Doyle was shaking his head.

"St. Paul said that Satan often appears in his angelic form to tempt souls, and St. Martin was confronted by a demon who appeared to him in the form of Jesus Christ in a purple robe, crowned with a diadem. Visions do not mean that these 'powers' are agents of God. If the visions cause pain, I am very likely to believe the opposite. And since we are all born into sin and we are incapable of living without sinning, no matter how well intentioned we are, anyone who suggests that we have to balance some scale is wrong. Now whether they're misguided or just lying is another issue, but I'm sure they're wrong."

"Father, I have done more wrong in my life than most," Angel said quietly, his guilt rising like a dark tide that Xander could see in his expression. Xander frowned and wished he had a nice way to tell Spike to move so that he could be next to Angel. Spike was great when Angel needed someone to fight or do other things that Xander wasn't thinking about, but Spike and comforting where not big with the mixy. In fact, from Spike's expression, he didn't even know he should be offering comfort.

"Yes, you have," Father Peter agreed. Xander glared at the man and might have kicked him under the table, only... hello... priest. Kicking a priest was not really of the good, and he didn't feel like getting hit by any godly lightning. "Yet Christ chose to allow a sinner to wash his feet, a task he had denied others the right to do. God knows you've sinned." Father Peter got an embarrassed look on his face. "I'm hardly free of sin myself. Pride and recklessness have caused me to make more than one poor choice, but I can't fix those past mistakes. I can only repent and have faith that God forgives me."

"How can he?" Angel asked, and now even Spike looked over at him with concern. Yep, that was Angel's 'flailing in guilt' face.

"Because he knows we're all weak. You don't have to earn his forgiveness. He's already given it." Father Peter sounded so sure, and right now Xander hoped he was because this wave of guilt was rising higher. It was quickly looking like a full-on guilt tsunami, and Xander glared at Doyle, the earthquake that had brought it.

Spike looked from Angel to Xander and back, a worried frown on his face, and that was not a normal expression for Spike. "Bloody hell, I have better things to do than talk all this rot. As the only person here guaranteed a trip to hell at the end of this ride, I don't really feel a need to discuss it. As far as I'm concerned if ya just have the sense to not get killed, you don't have to sodding worry about it." With that, Spike twisted around and got a knee into the seat of the bench before vaulting over the back and striding away with long steps that made his coat billow. Yep, Spike did know how to stage an exit. And with Spike out of the way, Xander scooted closer to Angel--close enough to rest his hand on Angel's arm.

"Sure you were big with the bad, but now you're big with the good, and sometimes big with the clueless, but overall, that's sounding weirdly normal. I mean, I tried to rape Buffy, and while I normally do my best to either repress that memory or blame it on a temporary case of demonism, the fact is that it was me that was doing the lusting and the demon just sort of put the lust into motion. So if you're going to go thinking that every bad thing requires some sort of payment or," Xander looked over at Doyle, "pain...." Xander shivered at the thought of having some mysterious power reach into his head and hurt him. Yeah, he would not be signing up for that dumb-ass plan. "How much pain do I deserve for trying to hurt Buffy?" Xander asked.

Angel stared at him with wide eyes. "You dunna deserve any pain," Angel said firmly and slowly and in a thick enough accent to tell Xander that he had hit a nerve. "You've done more good in your life than any ten men."

"I got Harmony killed, and other people whose names I'm not even a good enough person to remember. I mean, if I led the graduation attack, and then I can't remember the names of the people who died, that's not saying good things about me. And then there's the attempted rape and the way I didn't save Kendra and the staking of my best friend and then there's the suckhouse... the one on Christmas Eve." Xander stopped. If he was truthful with himself, that was the one that still filled his mouth with the bitter taste of guilt. He'd talked Angelus into going to that suckhouse. Considering that Angelus hadn't tasted human blood in a century or two, Xander really should have figured out that he wasn't going to be able to control the bloodlust.

Before Xander could say anything else, Angel had reached over and grabbed him, pulling him close with one arm and cupping Xander's face with his palm in order to make Xander look him in the eye. "Ye didna do anything wrong. Remember that couple standing in the moonlight? I would've tortured them. They both would've died that night and they both owe their life to you. As I remember it, you were willing to lay down your life in order to warn them. You stopped Angelus from going on a rampage, and you did that alone. Alone and afraid you still didna back down from doing what was right." Angel looked at Xander with brown eyes flecked with gold, and Xander bit his lip as his eyes grew hot. He wasn't even sure whether the guilt or Angel's uncompromising belief in him was inspiring tears, but if Angel didn't let go soon, Xander was going to cry in front of way more people than he wanted to cry in front of. Of course, he didn't want to cry in front of one person, and the whole demonic clientele of Caritas was way more than one.

"Xander, God forgives even when we don't forgive ourselves," Father Peter offered softly. Xander swallowed and blinked to try and clear the blurriness in his vision and twisted his head away from Angel. However, he remained leaning into his friend. Funny, this was supposed to be about reassuring Angel, so Xander wasn't quite sure how it had twisted around to him.

Angel still had his arm around Xander's shoulders as he turned to face Doyle. "You're right that the balance sheet isn't even, and it never will be. That doesn't mean that I have to make up for what I've done or even that I can."

Father Peter smiled.

"They're trying to improve the world. It's about helping people," Doyle insisted, but Xander had the feeling that Doyle was going to start reconsidering his own allegiances soon enough.

"I'd like to see you at church some time." Father Peter held out a white card with an embossed gold cross. Doyle looked at it like it was a snake.

"No offense, Padre, but I'm not the church-going type."

"Then make a choice to be a different type, but don't think you can cure yourself of sin through your own actions or that God wants your pain." Father Peter took the card and put it on the edge of the table closest to Doyle.

"Father Peter's right," Angel said, his voice suddenly louder than the general din in the club or even the singer who was whispering the words to 'You are the Wind Beneath My Wings.' "You should come to church. If these Powers of yours are actually godly, they won't mind. You know, I knew Drusilla when she was human, and her visions never harmed her. She was accused of witchcraft and her da told her she was going to hell for lying about being able to see the future, but that was more about the ignorance of people than anything else. The pain only came after I turned her."

"Heavenly visions aren't painful," Father Peter agreed. "You know, I think the Vatican assigned me to the Hellmouth because even as a young seminary student, I was more than a little obsessed with the supernatural elements of the church. I once drove ten hours straight for the privilege of seeing an exorcism."

"Hang out with us long enough, and you'll be conducting them," Xander pointed out. "I seriously wouldn't have minded you kicking my demonic spirit out before the attempted rape or the eating of the school mascot."

Father Peter frowned. "Your school mascot wasn't a...." He winced and let his words trail off.

"A pig. Of course, several of the other infected guys were off eating the principal while I was trying to rape Buffy, so there was still the eating of people going on, just not by me."

"Oh dear. I'm surprised the church didn't assign you your own priest given the number of spiritual crises you seem to have." The words might have sounded harsh coming from someone else, but from Father Peter who had seen them through some tough times, they were just the simple truth. Xander had to admit that the number of spiritual crises sort of snowballed some days. And other than Spike--and maybe Cordelia--they all definitely had the habit of falling off the guilt wagon.

"Actually, I think they have," Angel said.

Father Peter nodded. "Perhaps. Certainly I'm interested in helping anyone who is trying to find their way through a world more complex than the one most people live in." Father Peter might have been talking to Angel, but he kept his gaze focused on Doyle.

Lorne appeared out of nowhere, clapping his hands together with delight. "Ah, so I see some auras that are definitely more in tune now. Would anyone like anything to drink? We have a lovely little demoness from the Oden Tal, and I'm thinking she's right up Xander's alley. You watch, Sweetie, we'll find you the perfect mate in no time at all." Lorne winked at Xander, and then Xander flinched because Angel's arm had tightened painfully.

"Ow. Human here, soft human flesh."

"Sorry," Angel offered, but he sure didn't loosen his grip much as a stunning woman in a tight outfit stepped up on stage, her violet eyes searching the crowd before she started singing an alien song in a deep voice. Oh yeah, time for Lorne to try and hook him up with totally inappropriate people again because tattooed demons were not on his approved dating list. Xander looked at the woman again. But she was hot. Seriously hot. Xander could feel his body warm and tighten and he leaned farther into Angel's personal space to get a better look. Angel's hand landed on Xander's knee. Oh yeah, this was way more interesting than talking souls and powers and things that went bump in the night.



10. Chapter Ten

"You could have bought that plastic stuff that came in big rolls," Angel complained as he carefully piled the tiles on the heavy cart.

"Linoleum," Xander said. "And the reason we need to redo the bathroom is because linoleum and T'hoc slime are unmixy." Xander straightened up and thought about that for a second. "Actually, they're way too mixy--mixy in a making a big pile of sticky goo kind of mixy. Lorne has some odd friends." And Lorne really did have odd friends. Since Angel had lots and lots of left over space, Lorne had designated him the demonic innkeeper of choice, and some of the guests were a little hard on the flooring. Angel insisted that most demon goo didn't react with porcelain, so the very expensive porcelain tiles should be way more demon friendly. Xander actually felt a little bad for Matack who ended up picking melted linoleum bits out of some toelike things that definitely weren't toes.

"Can't bloody believe you're going to let that green git invite anythin' with slime into our territory. I get one drop of slime on my coat and someone's bloody losing a tentacle." Spike was laying on the floor, his boots propped up on the wall and his MP3 player jacked up so loud that Xander could hear it on the other side of the lobby.

"Hey, he paid well," Xander pointed out. He figured out that was a stupid thing to say about a second after Faith laughed.

"I'm not a hireling." Angel just about growled the words and that was definitely a glare he was giving Xander.

"Chill, big guy. Xander's just pointing out that Matack offered a pretty nice tribute." Faith looked up from her spot on the floor. She was surrounded by weapons that she was currently polishing, sharpening, and tightening the handles on. "Actually, considering that Xander hasn't had time to remodel any of the guest rooms, he offered way more of a tribute than I expected for this shithole."

"Hey, this shithole has class," Xander objected, but he was pretty much drowned out by Spike indignant yell.

"Oi! It's a bloody honor to be allowed into an Aurelian court." Spike's boot was hitting the wall in time with the ear-splitting music spilling out from his headphones. Yep, Spike the hater of all things traditional was very happy to pretend to be traditional if it got them paid... or if it got them respect, Xander wasn't quite sure which Spike appreciated more. Then again, if Spike kept spending money on Cordelia, he was going to need a steady source of income. Cordelia might play selfish and vapid... a word he had learned from listening to Willow describe Cordelia for over a decade... but she really wasn't. Which all led Xander to wonder what game she was playing with Spike. Whatever the game, she was obviously winning because Faith and Spike hadn't been doing the dirty since Faith had moved back in. In fact, Faith seemed oddly dirtyless.

"I just don't see why I have to carry the tiles," Angel complained again as he loaded another box.

"Vamp strength," Xander said without any sympathy. "And Spike plus $30,000 worth of porcelain is..." Xander let that trail off.

"Oi! I could not break it if I felt like it."

"Then get over here and prove it." Angel straightened up and glared at Spike.

Spike just gave him a wicked grin. "Don't feel like, mate."

For half a second, Xander was sure the two vampires were going to break into fist fighting which would lead to clothes ripping which would lead to things that would make him flee and Faith smirk. Dating Cordelia might have cut Spike off from Faith-sex, but it obviously didn't slow down the Angel-sex. The tension broke when the front door opened. A short arc of light came in the open door, and a figure stood backlit in the opening.

Stepping forward, Angel put on his 'don't screw with me' expression. "Can I help you?"

"Seems like you can." The figure stepped in and Xander recognized Doyle, the guy who'd tried to talk Angel into working for the Powers.

"I'm not interested." Angel sidestepped so that he was between Doyle and Xander, blocking the view. Wiping his hands on his jeans, Xander stood up and rolled his eyes at the idiot's overprotectiveness. Sure, there was probably a good reason to stand between him and vampires because Xander wasn't as good with a stake as the rest of the family. But Xander was at least ninety percent sure that Doyle wasn't a bad guy, and he was eighty percent sure he could take Doyle even if he did turn out to be some big bad. Or not-so-big bad.

"So, you'll let a woman die?"

Okay, that was so not what Xander was expecting. He stepped around the pallet of tile and then had to poke Angel in the back to make the stupid, paranoid vampire move to the side enough to let Xander look over his shoulder.

"If you hurt someone," Angel growled. Spike was up on his feet, and Faith had stood, a wicked ax in her hand.

"Not me!" Doyle immediately yelped, his hands held up in surrender. "I only get the visions. But there's a woman, Melissa Burns, works at Pardell Paper Products. I have the address." He held up a slip of paper. "I looked her up through a cop who's a friend of the padre, and she's filed a restraining order against some bloke who did an operation on her eye, a real smooth fellow. I got a vision, and she's in trouble."

"Who bloody cares?" Spike asked with a snort. "I don't think you've figured out that you're not welcome, mate."

"Whoa, hey, let's not go eating the visitors, and what do you mean by 'she's in trouble'?" Xander stepped forward, stopping only when Angel's hand closed around his arm. Clearly Xander was not going to be allowed any closer.

"I don't know. The visions are not exactly clear--or pain free. I just know she's in major trouble, and from what the cop said, the guy who's stalking her is big trouble. Look, I'm not asking you to work for the Powers or even listen to me, but can you really walk away knowing that this Melissa woman is in trouble?"

Angel looked down at Xander, and Xander frowned in worry. "We can't ignore someone in trouble," Xander pointed out softly.

"We don't know if the vision is real or if it's designed to trap us," Angel argued.

Silence descended on the room as Angel and Xander stared at each other, but it was Spike's voice that finally interrupted the staring match. "If you're running a con, you always give the mark some accurate intel up front. Seems like if these gits are tryin' to suck you in, they'd give you some real victims to save so you could get your giant ego all poofed up."

Xander smirked as Angel turned his evil glare on Spike.

"Oi, I'm just telling the truth. Now, if you want to let the bird get killed, I got no problem with that."

"Well, I do," Xander interrupted.

Angel got a constipated expression--the one that suggested he really didn't want to do what he was about to do. "I could..."

"Hold on there, big guy," Faith interrupted. She braced the ax on her hip so that it looked marginally less intimidating... sort of. "If this is a human stalking a human, maybe you aren't the best one to send out. Besides, if these Powers are looking to trap you, it seems like you're the one person to keep away from the trouble."

"She's got a point," Xander quickly agreed. Angel glared at both of them in turn.

"If this is a trap, I'm going to deal with it."

"Right." Xander drew the word out sarcastically. "Sure, we'll just send big brooding you to a woman who has guy issues and then you'll tell her... what exactly?"

"That I want to help," Angel said, but he already had that defensive look.

Faith snorted and performed an elaborate eyeroll. "Angel, trust me. She's heard that line before. 'Oh, I only want to help you. You know I have your best interests in mind. I really like you.'" Based on the bitter tone of her voice, more than one person had said exactly that to Faith, and knowing what he knew of her background, Xander was guessing it had not turned out well. "Yeah, she's not buying that shit from some man, especially not a man she doesn't know. Strange men who offer help in return for nothing are always up to no good." Faith was looking more bitter than she had looked for quite a while. Maybe it was unrealistic, but Xander wished that Blair had been able to just wave a magic wand and made all Faith's pain vanish.

"Then I'll... um... I'll offer my services for a fee." And that was Angel's mulish expression. It looked a lot like his defensive look, only with more grrrrr in it.

"Angel, no offense but your people skills are...." Xander let that sentence fade away, but they all knew what he meant. If this woman was twitchy around men, she was going to be extra-special twitchy around Angel because the guy tended to set off people's internal alarms. Unlike Spike, he would forget to breathe or he'd go inhumanly still or he'd do something that just triggered people's "odd" trigger.

Angel glared. "I'll be nice. I'll convince her to let me help."

Faith walked up to Angel and patted him on the arm a little like someone might pat a dog. Angel's eyes narrowed, but Spike laughed out loud. "Babe, no offense, but you are not good with being nice. You're great at being good, but nice is a little more than you can handle. I'll take this one." Faith shifted the ax to her left hand and walked over to Doyle, holding her hand out. "Faith Lehane," she introduced herself.

"Allen Francis Doyle, but most people who aren't trying to annoy the life out of me call me Doyle."

"So, let's go kick some ass, and if you get me caught up in the middle of any shit, either I'll gut you or I'll let my two favorite vamps do it for me." Faith stroke over, plucked the address out of his hand and set the ax down against the front check in desk.

"I--" Doyle looked over at them, and Xander could see the confusion and panic in those eyes. Yep, he had no idea what he was dealing with, but he knew Faith wasn't a garden variety girl, even if she looked slightly more garden varietiesh with her hair pulled back in a ponytail and a t-shirt that actually covered both her stomach and her boobs. Yeah, it was tight enough to show off her figure, but it was pretty non-sexual even while being sexy.

"Hey, Xand, why don't you come along?" Faith invited him. Xander hissed as Angel's fingers dug into his arm painfully.

"Sorry," Angel said softly as he loosened his grip, but he didn't let go.

"Hey, Big-A, face it. If we're trying to look friendly and not freak out the woman with the stalker, Xander's the biggest gun we've got."

"No." Angel didn't even debate it. Xander really would rather lay tile than run around dealing with weird stalker guys of the human variety. Vampire stalkers he had a pretty good idea how to deal with, but human stalkers were sounding more complicated. If Angel hadn't said anything, Xander probably would have turned down the invite, but no way was Xander letting Angel set the rules for him. Okay, so Angel set some rules, like Xander never again touching the throwing stars, which probably made them all a whole lot safer, but he was not setting this rule.

"Hey, I'm the guy who taught soldiers how to fight and not get an ass-kicking every time Spike jumped out from behind a bush. I deal with people every day in classes, and I'm actually pretty good at not getting killed around them. If this were a Moira demon or a nest of vampires, I would be right there on the keep-Xander-back bus, but these people are people. You are not the boss of me when it comes to me talking to people."

Angel's hand tightened. "This is not people. This is a situation that The Powers That Be have intervened in, and these are unknown powers that may or may not be evil."

"Lorne thinks they're eudemon," Xander pointed out. "So, he's voting for good guys."

"Lorne doesn't know everything."

"He knows lots," Xander countered.

"Father Peter insists that they are evil and that any attempt to present themselves as noble is simply a trick."

Xander grimaced. Honestly, Father Peter had made a pretty good case for the eviltude of the Powers. "Look, if I smell evil, if Faith smells evil, we will so get out of there, but even Spike thinks the tip is legit, and Spike is all on the side of letting the woman die. He has no reason for saying things that would lead to us taking this on."

"Bloody hell, leave me out of this," Spike quickly insisted. Leaping to his feet, he retreated behind the front desk and grabbed for the bottle of whiskey he kept hidden behind the tax bills.

Angel ignored him. "It could be a trap."

"And I could get hit by a bus. Seriously, Angel, unless you plan on going all Angelus on me and locking me in my room, you so do not get to tell me what to do unless I let you do the telling, and I am not in the mood to let you do the telling on this issue." Xander crossed his arms and tried to look firm. It wasn't easy because Angel looked like he was considering the whole Angelus plan. He really, really looked like he was considering it, and if he went there, Xander had exactly zero chance of stopping Angel.

Just when Xander expected Angel to drag him off to his room, Angel turned toward Doyle and vamped out. "If ye allow one hair on his head ta be harmed, it's you I'll be hunting," he warned. The tone was enough to give Xander the shivers, and Xander wasn't the one getting threatened.

"I'll protect him," Doyle promised.

Faith looked Doyle up and down and then snorted in disgust. "More importantly, I'll protect him. Come on Xander, let's go teach this bastard that it's not nice to pick on women." Faith jerked her head in his direction, and Xander bounced his way to her side. Yep, he might have a designated bodyguard in Faith, but he hadn't backed down to vampy overprotectiveness. Xander gave Angel a smile, half expecting him to come running out after them. He didn't.

"I'm driving!" Xander called. "Doyle, I have no idea what kind of driver you are, but after seeing Faith attempt to shove through a traffic jam like her slayer strength somehow made the car tougher, I am not riding with the crazy woman!" Xander gave Faith a smile and then ducked through the front door as she aimed a punch at his shoulder. She still caught him with a glancing blow.

Faith and Doyle followed out into the sun, and Xander headed for the huge tan Plymouth parked in front. He had no idea what Angel had against cars built within the last decade, but at least his old car ran well and he was fairly sure it would survive a head on collision with a train. Faith didn't even bother to call shotgun; she just shouldered Doyle out of the way, leaving him to get in the back. And that was another reason why Xander wanted to drive. If he didn't, he was so backseat boy.

"You are playing a dangerous game, winding him up like that. You better watch out or he's going to install some chains on your bed," Faith said with a laugh and a wink that made it very clear that she was thinking things about bed and chains that Xander really, really didn't want to think about. She held out the slip of paper with the address, but when Xander went to take it, she held it for a second, using that time to really give him the eye.

Xander pulled out into traffic and for a short time, the car was silent. He could practically feel Doyle studying them from the backseat, but he didn't worry about getting attacked from the rear because Faith was sitting sideways in her seat, one arm draped over the back, and it was pretty clear that she could grab him and throttle him in no time at all. Maybe Doyle realized that too because he was pretty quiet for a while.

Eventually Doyle cleared his thought. "I thought that even without the chains, he was going to improvise and tie you to the bed anyway. Is he always like that?"

"Like what?" Xander asked. Hopefully by the time he got home, Angel would have gotten the tile up to the bathrooms and he could lay it before he went to bed. If not, he was going to have to put it off for a week because he already knew he was going to be buried in homework for a while. He liked the whole purchasing and bookkeeping end of his construction classes way less than the building parts, so next week was going to be a pain. And somehow he didn't think his teachers would be amused if he just announced that he didn't have to care about cost overruns and budgeting for supplies because he told Angel what he wanted and Angel just bought it. The man clearly had money he was not 'fessing up to, and considering the trouble Angel and Spike could get in at night when they went out and did their vamp thing, Xander really wasn't going to think about it too much. Xander looked back, and Doyle was just staring at him in a mixture of disbelief and horror. "What?" he asked, brushing a hand over his face just in case he had ketchup on his face from lunch.

"Like what?" Doyle asked incredulously. "Like a completely overbearing and jealous lover, that's what."

Xander choked on his own tongue. No, no, no and more with the no, but Faith was already laughing. She reached back and slapped Doyle on the arm hard enough to jam him into the car door.

"You're attracted to big A!" she accused him.

"Hey, not nice!" Xander objected.

"Maybe a little," Doyle admitted at the same time. The light turned green, but Xander ignored that in favor of staring at Doyle in the mirror until the car behind him beeped. His gut was feeling a little unhappy, mostly because the thought of Angel doing the deed was... okay, it wasn't that bad, but Angel was definitely more Spike's speed, and Doyle was not nearly as speedy as Spike.

"Since when is it not nice to point out that one person is attracted to another?" Doyle asked, giving Xander a very pointed look in the mirror. Xander blushed as he realized that might not exactly be the politically correctest thing to say. Willow definitely would have backhanded him across the arm.

"Yeah, Xander," Faith jumped in. "What's wrong with another man admiring Angel's broad shoulders, his well defined muscles and his deep, haunted eyes?" Faith wiggled her eyebrows, and Xander could feel his blush starting.

"I never said..." he stopped because technically he had said. "I just meant that you shouldn't go commenting on other people's sexual preferences. It's rude," Xander finished, mentally congratulating himself for digging his way out of that hole. "How would you like it if I implied you were panting after girls?" Xander asked.

Faith put on her thoughtful look, the one that always made him worry. "Oh babe, I have no problem with girls. If there were any girls around other than Cordelia, I might give them a twirl, but even I'm not stupid enough to go there. But if you want to think about me and girls..." She gave him a wicked smile. Oh yeah, this was the old Faith, the Faith who could make anything look sexy. Since she'd moved back home, that cloak of danger and sexual need had slipped away, but clearly she still had it stashed somewhere, because she could pull it out when she wanted. Xander focused on the truck in front of him because the idea of Faith and Cordelia was doing not nice things.

"It's not the same with guys," he said, and maybe it was the fact that his brain didn't have enough blood that made him say that because he was back to being on the side of the politically incorrect.

"Oh?" Faith asked him in a dangerous tone.

"It isn't!" Xander snapped his mouth shut. Oh yeah, he knew when he was on thin, thin ice.

"I don't know about that," Doyle commented. "I usually chase the women, but I certainly don't mind admiring a man's figure. And personally, I'd be downright complimented if someone looked at me like I was the last piece of chocolate."

Faith laughed, "Yeah, Angel does have that lovelorn look down, doesn't he?"

"He... what?" Xander's voice squeaked.

"I haven't seen a man look that lovesick since I got dragged to an amateur production of Romeo and Juliet."

"What? No way. I know you're not talking about Angel, because no way is Angel in any way lovesick over me. I'm not the lovesick over type."

"Oh babe." Faith reached over and patted Xander on the arm as Xander pulled the car to the curb in front of Pardell Paper Products. "If you weren't so cute, that clueless look on your face would look stupid."

"Seriously? You didn't know?" Doyle asked. Xander sat behind the wheel and tried to figure out this odd feeling creeping through his guts.

"He likes me? But he likes Spike. I'm definitely not Spikelike."

"Fuck. You broke him. I'm making you tell Angel," Faith said. Xander turned to glare at her.

"I'm not Spike. There's no way Angel ever looks at me like that. He's brotherish. He's always doing the roughhousing and with the overprotectiveness and the grabbing... and I'm not helping my case, am I?" Xander fell silent. It was hard to talk when his brain was doing that odd rewiring thing. It was like after he figured out that Giles loved Buffy, even after he'd tried to get her killed with that stupid Watcher ritual.

"I'm not gay," Xander said softly.

"Lad, I hope you're saying that because you're a red-blooded American male so terrified of being called gay that you're in denial. If you really don't feel any attraction at all, I'm feeling sorry for Angel." Doyle offered that advice and got out of the car, leaving Xander alone with Faith.

He looked over at her, hoping that she would say something to make all the weird go away. She sighed. "Angel's going to kick my ass for telling you, but if I had to put up with anymore cluelessness from you two, I was going to call Blair in. Xander, you adore him, and you trust him."

"But... I'm not gay." Xander firmly exiled the thought that he'd been crushing on Michael Knight during one of his more idiotic phases.

Faith raised an eyebrow. "If that's how you look at people when you're not attracted to them, you have more problems than I do," she offered, but her voice had this softness to it that he wasn't used to hearing from her. The moment passed, though, and she reached over and slapped him on the arm. "But right now we have a damsel in distress to save. So suck it up. You can fall apart after we figure out how to get this asshole to back off." With that, she was out of the car, and Xander was left feeling a little dazed and a whole lot confused. Okay, he loved Angel, but not all love was sexual. He loved Willow, but Willow and sex together were enough to drive him back to therapy. And yet Angel and sex was not causing the Willow and sex gut-level ick.

Xander decided he really did need to suck it up because he didn't trust Doyle enough to back Faith up. Faith was heading for the parking lot, and he got out and hurried after her.

"This is her car," Xander heard Doyle say, but they were ahead of him. He turned the corner and found Doyle pointing at a car. "We should wait here."

Faith snorted at that suggestion. "Sure, we'll just lurk in the dark and jump out at her when she comes to get in her car. Men. You're just lucky that dicks are so much fun to play with or you'd be worthless," Faith commented, and then she strode toward the elevator without a backwards glance.

"Ouch. Is she always that rough on the ego?" Doyle asked as Xander came up.

Xander considered that for a second before he shrugged. "Yep," he agreed.

"No wonder you're subconsciously drawn to men." Doyle didn't give Xander a chance to reply before he trotted after Faith who was poking the elevator button.

The elevator doors opened, and Xander nodded and tried not to look totally out of place as a couple of guys in suits got off. One guy frowned at him, and Xander hurried into the elevator. Had that guy been cute? Okay, so he was cute in a Larry kind of way. He was a little scruffy for Xander's tastes. Xander stopped. Oh crap, he had a taste in guys. If he were on the totally heterosexual side of the fence, he wouldn't have a taste in men, would he? Xander wished he could ask someone, but all the guys he knew were already over the fence. Lorne hit on everyone, Spike and Angel were going it with each other. There was Giles, but Xander was so not going there. Besides, now that his brain had been rewired, he was more than a little freaked out by some of those long looks between Giles and Ethan Rayne.

"Is the whole world gay?" Xander whispered to himself.

"The word's bisexual, and if you're hangin' around with demons, pretty much," Doyle offered as the doors dinged and then opened. Faith just offered him another slap on the arm before he headed down the hallway.

"Hey, you, I'm looking for Melissa Burns," she called out to a guy standing next to one of those inspirational nature posters. The guy frowned, but he pointed down the hall, and Faith was off.

"We should probably stay close in case..." Xander grimaced. If Faith was feeling inappropriate, who knows what kind of trouble she could get into. By the time Xander caught up, Faith was leaning against the edge of a turquoise cubicle, looking down at a freaked out looking redhead.

"Did he send you?" she demanded.

Faith snorted. "Oh please. Men don't tell me what to do, and if some pencil dicked doctor told me to help him terrify some woman, he'd be reattaching his own prick." Faith offered. And now the nice redhead was looking even more freaked.

"Hey, maybe we should make introductions before totally making you think we're stalkerish because we are not into stalking. I'm Xander Harris. I go to the voc ed school downtown." Xander offered her his hand, which she ignored. He would have introduced Doyle, but the man had vanished.

"Look, the name is Faith," Faith offered, and Xander pulled his hand back. Okay, this wasn't going well. "I know about Dr. Pencil-dick. I know all about him, and I know his kind. He doesn't understand what real love is, which, hey, we can all be accused of that, but being fucked up doesn't give any of us the right to hurt each other. So, I thought I'd let you know that if he's giving you shit, you give me the word, and he'll eat that shit." Faith had on her slayer-look, the one that said someone was about to get dusty only there were a lack of candidates for dusting around.

"Why? Who told you about him?" Melissa stood up and backed up until her back was to the plastic organizer hanging from her cubicle wall.

"Why?" Faith inched closer and tilted her head. "Sister, you know why. You know why I want to find every asshole who takes advantage of women and castrate them. You feel it, too, don't you? You want to cut his balls off and shove them down his throat. You want to hurt him and watch his eyes when he realizes that it's you in control. You already know why I'm willing to throw down with him. So, are you five-by-five with that or would you rather handle small and spineless for yourself?" Xander held his breath, overwhelmed by the pain and the anger he could feel from Faith, and it occurred to him that he used to see this from her all the time, only he was so busy being distracted by her boobs that he hadn't noticed it.

Melissa's face sort of froze, and Xander stepped in before there was the calling of security guards. "Hey, she's not nearly as scary as she's making it seem like." He offered his best harmless smile.

"Yes, I am," Faith interrupted.

"Then why bring him?" Melissa asked, and now she was looking at Xander suspiciously. No one ever looked at Xander suspiciously. He was the harmless little brother type who inspired trust, and in the case of Riley's soldiers, stupid underestimations.

"He's here to remind me that I don't hate all men." Faith shoulder bumped him. "Xand here is the kind who denies his own needs just to make sure the people he loves are happy. He's the opposite of every other man I ever knew before him. Fuck, he let me hurt him, and he still forgives me because he's got more heart to him than a fucking army of assholes like this shit who's been giving you trouble. So, I'm asking you again. You want some help, or should I just fuck off and let you handle this ass?"

Melissa looked around, her whole body tight as though ready to run away even though there wasn't any running room. "It's not that easy," she whispered.

Faith nodded slowly. "No, it isn't. It never is. But if he pushes too hard, there are ways to push back. They aren't nice, but they sure as fuck work."

Melissa really focused on Faith, studying her. "He didn't hire you? He didn't send you here just to make me trust you?" Melissa sounded hopeful, and Xander was starting to hate this doctor a whole lot because it was pretty clear this woman had some pretty major mental health issues at this point. He wondered how she'd feel about a therapist who sometimes turned blue.

"Do I look like the person you'd send in if you wanted to earn someone's trust?" Faith demanded. That seemed to make Melissa stop and think for a second.

"No. You look more like the kind who I shouldn't be trusting." Melissa twirled a pencil in her hands, staring down at it sadly for several seconds. "There's something not normal about him, though. I'm not sure you want to get in the middle of this."

"Babe, if there's something not normal about him, I want in even more," Faith said as she stepped in and rested her hand against Melissa's arm. "Xand, go amuse yourself for a little while. My girl and me need to do a little talking."

Xander opened his mouth to point out that going without backup was not the smartest thing in the world, but when Faith looked at him, he closed his mouth without saying a word. Whatever was going on in Faith's head, she needed to do this. He nodded. "I'll be downstairs rearranging newly shorted out brain cells," he offered.

Faith smiled at him. "You do that, babe. More than one person is waiting for you to get a clue because you know that man is never going to figure it out on his own, not without you to give him a push. I have this, so head on back home and I'll catch up with you later."

Xander nodded and backed away. Faith understood Melissa in a way that he never could, so this was one problem he needed to trust her to handle. Besides, if Faith was right, he had more than enough trouble on his plate already.



11. Chapter Eleven

Angel put the supplies down, frowned at the feeling of being watched, and turned. Xander quickly looked away, his tool-thing escaping his grip and clattering to the floor via a pile of tiles.

"Damn," Xander swore as he knelt on the ground next to the pile and ran his hand over the veined tile that he had just dropped the tool on. "Score one for quality materials," Xander offered with a lopsided grin, but the grin was just too wide and too awkward, and it didn't reach his eyes at all.

"Are you okay?" Angel moved closer, crouching down so he could look Xander in the eye.

"Yeah, totally, of course. Hey, I’m the definition of okay. See me be okay?" Xander skittered away from Angel's touch, but the smell of lust lingered in the air even after he'd darted to the far side of the guest room.

Angel blinked and tried to ignore a little part of him that roared and writhed in reaction to that smell. The demon wanted loose. Angel just hoped that Spike got back from Cordelia's soon because once he could feel the demon's needs so acutely, he could never escape until he let the beast out. Trying to control himself, Angel closed his eyes, but instead of finding some calm, he was assaulted with the memory of Xander on his knees. He opened his eyes.

"So, thanks for carrying those up. Any word from Faith? Is she still doing the female empowerment thing? I totally think it's good that she's doing the group therapy with Melissa. She can teach all the other stalked and raped women how to empower their inner scary Amazon women." Xander was bobbing his head like one of those ridiculous dolls Angel had seen in the back of a car window.

"She hasn't called." Angel frowned. Xander rarely tried to distract him anymore, and he had not been beset with random lust since the middle of his senior year. The incident with Faith seemed to have settled Xander's hormones as well as ruining his relationship with Cordelia.

Xander was compulsively wiping his hands on his shirt. "Yep, that's just like Faith. Off saving the world and bashing males everywhere at the same time."

"Has Faith bashed you?" Angel could feel his demon's lust and possessiveness tangle with a more primal anger. He stepped forward, intent on making Xander talk. If Faith was hurting Xander, Angel would not allow that to continue.

"That's your cranky face," Xander accused him, but he remained several feet away and crossed his arms defensively, so Angel assumed there was good cause for him to remain cranky. Xander was affectionate, physical and open—everything Liam had failed to be in life.

Well, Liam had been physical, but never the kind of physicality that Xander excelled in. Liam knew how to swive a whore. He didn't know how to touch her after. When his sister would sit on his lap and cling to him, he always felt uncomfortable. He always sat with her perched on the edge of his knee as he waited for his father to start some fight. The quiet touches became the calm before the storm, and Liam had lived in a wary expectation of the inevitable explosion.

And then he'd become Angelus and touching had been about power and control. Sometimes Darla would curl her fingers around his genitals and squeeze and watch his face for signs of pain, and if he showed them… Darla was not a forgiving sire. He'd thought that was normal until he'd watched Dru and William exchange soft touches that Angelus couldn't understand or forgive.

Xander had been the first person with whom Angel had found comfort and safety in physical closeness. Sometimes just having the boy's legs resting across his lap gave him a sense of comfort that Angel had never before found in his life. Now that Angel could feel that same, old awkwardness lying between him and Xander, he frowned. He refused to let Xander slip away without discovering what had changed.

"I'm cranky because something is bothering you," Angel said, struggling to keep as calm as possible. Xander's confusion and the lingering scent of lust were making his demon restless.

"There are so many things that bother me that it's not even funny. There's world hunger and the hole in the ozone layer and the... um... world hunger. There are starving kids in Africa." Xander nodded knowingly before turning to eye the door. "I should go get more grout."

Angel opened his mouth, but he didn't have time to say anything before Xander all but bolted for the hallway. Alone in the room, Angel growled before he headed after the boy. Whatever was bedeviling Xander, Angel was going to find it and throttle it until it yielded. Considering that Xander had stopped being affectionate after he had gone with Faith and Doyle to save that woman, Angel suspected Faith, Doyle, and The Powers That Be were all near the top of his list of suspects.

"Xander, whatever is bothering you, ye can discuss it with me," Angel said as he hurried down the stairs after him.

Xander stopped in the middle of the staircase, and Angel put out a hand to keep from running into his back. His hand ended up resting on Xander's shoulder, and he could feel a tremor go through Xander's body. "Xander?" Angel squeezed Xander's shoulder, but when Xander started to flinch away, Angel yanked his hand back. His demon nearly overwhelmed him, angry at the rejection and all but ready to overpower Angel's soul. He wanted. He wanted so badly that for a second, Angel gripped the handrail and rocked slightly with an almost irresistible need to grab Xander and prove that he had the right to touch him.

"Angel?" Xander asked softly, and the voice broke Angel out of his trance. He opened his eyes to find Xander staring at him, but the awkward distance was still there. Angel instinctively knew that if he reached for Xander, Xander would pull away. "You know I'm an adult, right?" Xander asked the question with a sharp desperation that Angel didn't understand.

Angel frowned. At one point in the not-distant past, at least half of his conversations with Xander had left him bewildered, but he wasn't used to feeling this confused anymore. "Yes, you are an adult," Angel said slowly, thinking the statement through as he searched for some trap in the words. Otherwise, Xander would not be looking at him so strangely.

"I'm not a kid. I'm going to be certified in construction management in less than a year, and in less time than that, I have to be settled down in a 'happily ever after kind of way,' unless we want Anyanka of the scary powers to whisk me away to some fantasy universe where Seven of Nine or the Maquis Captain Chakotay ravishes me on a regular basis. So clearly, these are adult issues and adult problems implying I am an adult. Things like that do not happen to kids. Or if they do, I do not want to know about it."

Angel stared at Xander, not even sure where to start trying to unravel the knot of words the young man had just created. Before he could say anything, Xander turned and started heading down the stairs again.

"Xander!" Angel called out. Xander didn't stop, but Spike looked up from his spot where he was leaning against the front counter and smoking a cigarette. Angel narrowed his eyes at the evidence of Spike's disobedience.

"I've told ye before that you'll keep that outside where the smoke canna harm anyone," Angel growled. It made him feel a little better when Spike's eyes immediately widened. The expression might look fearful, and he had no doubt there was some fear in there, but the darkening pupils also made it clear that Spike was feeling more than ready for a good swift fucking. Clearly he had not yet found his way into Cordelia's good graces, and a part of Angel was impressed that Spike had managed to control his own impatience this long. Most of Angel was just calculating all the ways to fuck Spike against the front counter.

"Just finishing it." Spike sounded defensive, but he immediately dropped the cigarette onto the marble floor and crushed it under his boot.

Angel stalked toward Spike. He might not understand Xander, but he understood Spike, and he understood the relationship he shared with the younger vampire.

Xander stepped right into Angel's path so that Angel had to pull up short to avoid touching Xander and receiving one more reminder of how quickly Xander would recoil from him. "Does it ever occur to you that other people around here are adults who can make adult-type decisions and who you should look at as adults?" Xander demanded, his arms crossed. Angel cocked his head in confusion. The uncertainty of earlier was gone, but the faint traces of lust remained, and Xander still had touch-me-not body language that made Angel's demon fret and stir.

Spike laughed. "You tell 'im, pet."

Angel glared, and Spike cleared his throat and looked away.

"I know you're an adult," Angel promised.

"I think I'm gay," Xander blurted.

Angel had no answer for that at all. He just stared at Xander, not breathing, not moving, and trying very hard to not think about the idea of sin. The moment that last thought entered his mind, Angel knew he was being hypocritical because he indulged in his own lust with Spike far too often to ever claim any sort of moral purity, but he wanted Xander to be free from that sort of venial sin. He wanted Xander to be safe from the consequences of that sort of sin. Angel already knew the guilt, the almost certainty of damnation, the fear and the self-hatred. He knew of the slow build of need until his sin and his passion overwhelmed all else, and he knew the moment after he'd filled that need when he'd found the emptiness in everything.

"Xander." Angel said the name softly, whispering it, and then he stopped because he didn't know what to say. He knew what Father Peter would have him say. He knew what Blair would have him say. He had no idea what he wanted to say.

"It's about bloody time you figured out the present is more important than the wrapping," Spike offered. "So, you have some bloke in mind when you made this big revelation?"

Angel growled warningly in Spike's direction.

"No... maybe. Well, yes." Xander blushed, and the scent of lust and need started drifting from him. Angel knew he had vamped out, but he couldn't control his own body well enough to force himself to hide the monster under the human mask.

Spike kept right on with his pointless blather. "You're not thinking of that evil lawyer the green bean is always trying to hook you up with, are you? You bring Lindsey around here, and I will bloody eat him."

"Lindsey?" Angel spit the name out, hating the person attached to it already.

"Do I look like the type to fall for a Lindsey?" Xander demanded.

"Yes," Spike answered quickly enough that Angel had some very unpleasant thoughts about ways to occupy Spike's mouth, like putting a fist in it. "Look, pet, why don't you get some sleep? You look done in."

Angel turned to study Xander. He knew what Xander looked like when he was tired—the dragging footsteps and the glazed stare that focused on nothing. If anything, Xander looked too wired to get any sleep at all, but Xander nodded. "Yeah, I should sleep. Tomorrow we're playing with big automated cutting machines that can take off whole limbs, so not cutting off an arm would be very good. I'll catch you guys tomorrow." Xander turned and fled upstairs. Fled. The sight of Xander running was almost enough to make Angel chase him down and sit on him until the boy said something that was not confusing.

A hand caught him by the arm. "You feeling peckish, mate?" Spike asked.

Angel shook his arm free of Spike's grip. "What's the matter, Spike, still not good enough to get in Cordelia's pants?" Angel smirked at the small flash of pain Spike showed, but then Spike shrugged.

"I reckon it's not taking me as long as it's taking some." Spike turned and headed for the kitchen.

"Don't walk away from me, boy," Angel warned darkly. Spike stopped and slowly turned, his body coiled for action, and Angel had no illusion about how this was going to end. His cock was already hardening in anticipation.

Spike raised an eyebrow.

Angel stalked closer, smelling the air. Spike might put on the façade of indifference, but he smelled of lust. If Angel reached out right now, he knew he'd find Spike's cock hard and hot and trapped inside those tight jeans.

"You're still panting after Cordelia and getting turned down, aren't you?" Angel purred. His anger leaked out through the words. "You can't even convince a human to bed you. I suppose I should take pity on you."

Spike cocked his head to one side. "You still got your soul pinned on tight?"

Angel took a quick step back. "What?"

With a snort, Spike turned his back and started for the kitchen again. "I'm getting' some blood to replace what you're about to take," Spike said over his shoulder, but then he muttered vampire-soft, "Nutty as Dru."

"Why would you ask about my soul?" Angel demanded as he followed. Spike was pulling packets of human blood out of the refrigerator, and he paused long enough to give Angel an incredulous look.

"No reason. Right then, what made Xander go off like that?"

If Spike had gone in search of a topic that would quench Angel's lust, he couldn't have found a better one. Angel dropped into one of the chairs at the table. "I don't know."

Spike gave another snort. "So, what has your knickers in a twist? I thought you'd be happy enough to have him finally stop clinging to this heterosexual rot."

Angel frowned. "Why would I be happy over this? The church says it's a sin. Homosexuals don't inherit the kingdom of heaven."

When Spike started choking on the blood he'd been drinking, Angel stood up, not sure what he should do to help. Spike tossed the half-full mug of blood into the sink, splattering blood across the white tile before he turned to face Angel.

"Bloody hell, you're kiddin', right?" Spike stared at him in horror, his mouth stained red with blood and his eyes yellow. "You're a fucking demon, mate."

"I have a soul," Angel roared back, and his demon rose up until he could smell the spilled blood and he could see every line of Spike's ridges. Spike had challenged him, and a part of Angel wanted to beat him until Spike crawled and apologized and just stopped trying to pull away. His childe was supposed to be loyal to him, not call him names.

Spike shook his head, and his demon features fell away. "Pet, you're not handling this very well. If Xander's ready to try out men, that means we can bring him into the clan good and proper. I know you want that."

"You willna touch him." Angel lunged forward and grabbed Spike by the neck, slamming him into the kitchen cupboards so hard that something cracked.

"Fair enough. I won't touch him," Spike said, his voice thin and strained because of Angel's grip. "But I know you want to take him."

Angel dropped Spike and stepped back. For a second, the world tipped and tilted as though the entire planet had lost its balance. Closing his eyes and shaking his head, he forced his demonic needs and thoughts back, focusing instead on what he knew was moral and right. "My demon wants to take him," Angel admitted slowly, and even saying that much made his soul hurt. "Just because I want it doesn't mean I have a right to pull him into an unhealthy relationship."

When Spike didn't answer, Angel opened his eyes to find Spike staring at him with a confused expression. "Pet," he said slowly, using the same tone he had used so many years ago to soothe Dru. Angel frowned at the suggestion that he was as unbalanced as Dru. Spike cleared his throat and tried again. "You've been better for him than anyone else in his whole soddin' life. He has a mother who's incompetent, a father who's a fucking waste of human flesh, and friends that never gave him an ounce of credit. You gave him a safe place, you trained him to protect himself and paid for his bloody schooling. I know something about unhealthy relationships, and what you have is about ready for Hallmark. We should call them and suggest a line of human/vampire valentines. It's bloody disgusting how healthy you two are for each other." Spike patted his pockets and pulled out a cigarette and then just turned it around and around in his fingers.

"It's against god," Angel said softly.

"Fucking hell," Spike sighed. "I'm not exactly the one to talk about god, but call Blair before your head takes up permanent residence in your ass, Peaches." Spike started heading for the door. The smell of lust that had both placated and enraged Angel's demon had vanished.

"We're bad for them," Angel said softly.

Spike stopped at the doorway and leaned against the doorjamb. "If I believed that, I'd leave Cordy alone. The fact is, I can make her laugh."

"But are you really good for her?" Angel asked. He lowered himself into the chair again and looked up at Spike. "Maybe that's why she won't move in here, maybe that's why she won't sleep with you—she knows you're not right for her."

Pain flashed across Spike's face again, but this time he didn't cover it. He left it on his face for Angel to see, laying it out there like an offering. "She doesn't want to trust me until she knows that I love her more than my demon lusts after Faith. It's no different from a clan leader demanding a show of loyalty." Spike shrugged. "It's not all that different from old Heinrich demanding that Darla stake you to show her loyalty."

"That didn't work out well for him," Angel pointed out wearily.

"Yeah, but I'm not stupid enough to give up a chance at a bird like Cordelia." Spike came close and sat in the chair across from Angel. "I was bad for Faith. Didn't see it at the time, but she was bloody self-destructing. She asked me who I would follow, and I told her I'd leave her for you. The boy knew in two seconds that she was afraid and alone—that's why he was so quick to forgive her. But I didn't even bloody notice. So, I know about having both healthy and unhealthy relationships with the livin'. It's not the same with Cordelia. She doesn't have that same taste of desperation and lust clinging to her, driving her from one act to another."

"And what happens when Cordelia asks that same question?" Angel asked.

A smirk crossed Spike's face. "She already did. I told her that I bloody walked away from you once, and I'd do it again."

Angel sat up straight, his possessive streak already demanding that he grab Spike and push the boy to the floor before proving that he had no right to choose a human over him.

"'Course, I also told her that it'd rip me apart. Vampires have needs that humans can't rightly fill. I adore my princess, but she'll never be able to fill the demon's need for blood. I asked her to not make me choose. And that is why you're still getting the great pleasure of buggering me."

"She gave you permission?" Angel asked, not sure how this conversation had gotten so strange so quickly.

Spike shrugged. "Girl's cosmopolitan. She knows that what we have isn't the same, and she knows I'll always stay loyal to her. Besides, it's not like I can bring a disease home. 'Course, we'll see if she's still as open when she finally lets me into her bed. We're both love's bitches, you know this, don't you?"

Angel just glared.

"Oh, we can bloody rail and complain and claim that we're the captains of our own bloody ships, but love is driving, and we're swabbing the decks."

"Your poet is showing," Angel said quietly.

Spike chuckled. "The boy is going to do what he thinks is right, even if it drives you right up a wall. So, if he thinks he's gay, he'll bloody well be as gay as he can. He never does anything by halves. I suggest you get your head out of your arse or the boy will be trawling bars looking for someone to teach him how to get properly buggered."

Angel growled. With another chuckle, Spike reached over and patted him on the arm. "Life was a lot easier when we just raped 'em into complying, but it wasn't nearly as much fun. Face it, Peaches, they're going to do what they want, and if we use our strength against 'em, we've already lost." With that, Spike left the room, leaving Angel sitting in the dark and wondering what he was supposed to do. He'd always hated feeling lost and ignorant, and that's exactly how he was feeling right now. Hell, he was feeling too damn depressed to even go and give Spike the beating and buggering he deserved.



12. Chapter Twelve

"So, what's the emergency?" Cordelia asked as she strode into the hotel. Once in the lobby, she stopped and looked around. "This is almost passable in a retro-chic way if you don't look at the cheap paint job."

"Hey!" Xander objected without much energy. He had his head in a magical text and was reading as fast as he could. "This is quality paint, and I am a quality painter. I'm also a sore painter and a tired painter, but I am a quality painter."

Angel stepped forward, anxious about how these two might interact. In his experience, broken relationships led to pain and suffering, and he would save Xander from that suffering if he could. True, it had been nearly a year since they had dated and Cordelia was now dating Spike, but in his experience, a woman like Cordelia did not forgive or forget easily. And he certainly didn't want Xander slipping and announcing his sudden interest in homosexuality. Cordelia would torture him with it.

Besides, the fewer people who knew that, the greater the likelihood that Xander could quietly change his mind and... Angel cut that thought short because the idea of Xander finding a girl pained him almost as much as the idea of Xander's soul being in danger of perdition or purgatory. A long phone conversation with a very irate Blair had not convinced him to accept the risk that Xander's soul was in danger as a result of his willingness to commit sin.

"Cordelia, the emergency call was for Spike," Angel said firmly, stopping short of asking her to leave because he knew how that would end. Spike was right about one thing, the human members of his clan did not react well to being told what to do and physically forcing them was an invitation to failure.

Cordelia strode in and turned a circle as she examined every corner of the lobby. "Spike and Faith and Father Peter and some guy named Lorne, so that sounds like an all-call to me. Since I don't have any auditions right now, I decided to come and get you out of whatever trouble you've managed to get yourselves into. You clearly need some feminine influence around here."

Xander stood up and rubbed a hand wearily over his eyes. He'd only been reading for a couple of hours, but they were red. Angel mentally made a note to take him in to have his eyes checked. "We have female influence. Faith is very influential."

"Influential? Yes. Female? Questionable," Cordelia announced. "So, what is the big emergency?"

Angel might have lied and claimed they had some slime demon that posed an immediate threat to her shoes, but Graham called out, "Angel, I need you in here!" Angel took off running for the back, Xander right behind him. In the back room, Riley had clearly woken up from Angel's earlier punch, and he snarled through fangs red with his own blood. Two neat holes in his lower lip sluggishly bled, and Riley had managed to shake loose of about half the chains Graham had used to bind him.

"Get back," Angel barked at the humans before he focused on Riley. "Sit down or I'll strip the skin from your back," Angel warned, his voice dark with threatened violence. Riley's eyes turned yellow, and he snarled louder. Angel had learned to control his demon in many, many circumstances. He had yet to push Xander down and take him or discipline Faith for her irreverence, and he could certainly see how someone might accuse him of being cowed by Cordelia. However, he was not going to stand in his own territory and have a fledging snarl at him. Angel surged forward and slammed his body into Riley's—driving his teeth into Riley's neck before Riley could react. Riley roared, but the sound quickly turned into a whimper. Angel pulled his fangs out, but he kept Riley pinned against the wall for several seconds. "Behave, boy," he warned.

When it seemed that Riley decided to remain quiet, Angel turned around to find the humans staring at him.

Unsurprisingly, Cordelia recovered first. "That was a little unexpected. Who turned Buffy's Ken doll into the walking dead?"

Angel suspected that Cordelia had been spending entirely too much time with Spike. Then again, even before Spike, she had never been the most tactful person. Angel sent the Lord a quick prayer of thanks that vampires could not father human children because a child of Spike and Cordelia would be intelligent enough to take over the world and vicious enough to make the world regret it.

Xander jumped in. "You know, that is so not important. I mean, the important thing is to make sure that we're supporting him because supporting him is supporting Buffy, and we're all about supporting Buffy when she needs support, right Graham?" Xander turned to the other soldier who seemed a little dazed by the flurry of words. Either that or he was still having trouble dealing with the fact that his commanding officer had spent most of the drive to LA trying to get free of the chains and eat him.

Graham nodded. "Exactly. The objective is to provide tactical support for Buffy."

"And supporting Buffy probably means we shouldn't let Riley starve. I should heat some blood."

Angel loved Xander, but the man was about as subtle as an out of control freight train when he was trying to keep a secret. And Cordelia was not stupid.

"I come bearing religious assistance of the Catholic variety," Lorne's voice called from the front.

"Oh thank God," Xander breathed as he pulled a packet of blood out of the refrigerator and grabbed for scissors to cut it open.

"Why?" Cordelia demanded. "What's going on that you're thanking god for a distraction, and do not think you can lie to me, Xander Harris."

"Anyone home?" Lorne asked as he stuck his head into the kitchen. "And by anyone, I mean anyone with a very big sword capable of standing between me and any out of control newly-made vampires. You really should get an anti-violence spell on this place, Cupcake."

Angel sighed at the addition of one more person to the madhouse. Lorne edged in. "So is this our temporarily out of sorts conquering hero type?" Lorne had obviously looked at Riley a little too long because vampy Riley snarled at him.

"Sweetie, this one is all yours." Lorne stepped to the side and let Father Peter come in. Doyle was right behind him. Angel spared the last man a dark glare since he was still considering the possibility that Doyle had said something stupid that had made Xander think of himself as gay--gay and unwilling to allow Angel the casual touches that Angel had grown used to.

"Angel." Father Peter said the name and then just stopped as he looked at Riley with wide, alarmed eyes. Father Peter had seen demons and vampires at graduation, but Angel doubted the man had a chance to really look at them as he ran from one fallen student to another, offering water and assistance and bandages. Now he was looking into Riley's yellowed eyes, and he stank of fear. "While I appreciate your vote of confidence, I can't exorcise a vampire. There is no enlightened soul to work with to expel the demon."

"There'd better still be a soul under there, or I'm going to be having a private discussion with certain people," Graham said, his lips tight with anger. Angel didn't comment because he could imagine his own anger if one of his clan had been caught up in this madness.

"This wasn't a normal turning. A spell imposed the features of a vampire over Riley without having him die first," Angel said, ignoring Graham's growing scent of anger. Riley, though, was having a harder time ignoring all the human smells in the room. Graham's anger and Father Peter's fear and Xander's distress had mingled into a perfume that was tempting even Angel, and he knew that Riley was quiet and crouching on the floor only out of fear that Angel would attack him again. His whole body trembled with a need to attack someone.

"A spell?" Cordelia asked suspiciously.

"Which is totally irrelevant. Or it's elevant only in that it was a spell and not a sudden case of death that caught up to him, but is there any chance you can maybe fix him?" Xander asked with a false cheerfulness that did little to hide his rather transparent attempts to obfuscate.

Cordelia crossed her arms. "Buffy or Willow?" she demanded.

"What?" Xander looked honestly confused now.

"You only get that idiotic look when you're desperately scrambling to cover for someone. The only two people you'd cover for in Sunnydale are Buffy and Willow. The fact that it's Buffy's boyfriend who's gone all grrr suggests that it might be her because I know for a fact that she's had the hots for more than one vampire to come through town. But it's magic, and magic always leads me back to Willow, the girl who doesn't know her own limits."

"That sounds like a fun bunch," Doyle said softly.

For a couple of seconds, the room was silent as Corelia glared and Xander shifted his feet nervously and Angel tried to figure out how to defuse the situation. Usually by now Spike would have made an inappropriate joke, but Angel doubted that he could use that strategy.

It was Graham who broke first. "We aren't sure, but we think Willow cast a spell that went wrong. She made an offhand comment that Buffy kept disappearing into our command center, and every soldier who returned to base physically vanished. Fourteen men and women are just gone. She called Giles blind, and he's lost his vision, she said that Jenny was jealous of her magic, and by the end of the day, Riley had to restrain Jenny to prevent her from killing Willow."

"And him?" Cordelia asked.

For a second, Angel could see the raw fury on Graham's face, and then he hid that behind a more professional and neutral expression. "Willow said that she wished that Buffy was in love with a demon so that she understood how much it hurt to be left because her lover's instincts were more important that she was."

Angel flinched at hearing the facts laid coldly out on the table, but it was all true. If anything, Graham was understating the disaster. Willow's comment that she didn't care whether Sunnydale was overrun with demons was certainly keeping Spike and Faith busy. Angel would have gone himself, only someone had to keep Riley under control, and Angel didn't trust Spike to not stake him. As a soldier, Riley was a tolerably even-tempered man and respectable fighter. But this vampire who wore his face was a caricature of a vampire--he was all hunger and fury with none of the humanity that tainted even the newly risen fledge.

"So, this isn't natural?" Father Peter asked. "I think I need to consult with someone with more experience. Can you keep him here safely?"

"He'll stay here," Angel said firmly.

"And I think I'll just give the good father a ride anywhere other than here," Lorne quickly offered. "Feel free to not need me for any more of this. In fact, I think I'm going to suggest to Orn that he visit the city later because this is clearly not a good time for guests."

"We're too busy now," Angel agreed. "And I assume you're leaving with them?" Angel finally turned his attention to Doyle since it didn't look like the man was leaving. Common sense told Angel that he was probably being unfair to Doyle, but the appearance of Doyle and the unhappiness of Xander had come too close together for him to dismiss his gut-level displeasure at having the man around.

"I probably should," Doyle agreed, ducking his head in a gesture that looked almost Xander-like in its insecurity. "I had a vision, but compared to what you already have going on, it seems rather insignificant. I'm seein' a whole lot of folks emotionally vomiting all over each other on topics from jealousy to love, but the Powers can figure out what's wrong for themselves."

"Hey," Xander interrupted. "Someone has to run out for Roaloa's dinner and make sure he's doing okay in his room and we have lots of research going on. Any chance you could hang out and help around the place? I'm sure Angel could pay for a little day help."

Angel turned to stare incredulously at Xander, but where the boy's face had transmitted every guilty thought just a second ago, now he had on a sweet smile that shone with an honest cheerfulness--which was annoying because Angel knew when he was being manipulated.

"I wouldn't want to impose," Doyle said, but he also left Father Peter's side and walked toward Xander. "You have anything around for dinner?" he asked. Xander turned to the refrigerator, pulling it open to offer their food, and Angel conceded defeat.

"I'll be back as soon as I can," Father Peter vowed with a concerned look toward Riley. The fledge just pressed back into the corner and glared at everyone.

"And I won't be," Lorne offered as a parting comment before he left with Father Peter.

Angel sighed and tried to just think for a second. Hopefully, Buffy would get Willow to undo all this, but if that failed, Angel was at a loss as to how to fix any of this. Buffy would be crippled without any support, and with Giles blind and the Initiative unit missing in action, she would need some sort of support. He just truly did not want to take his clan back into that situation. There would be difficulties trying to integrate Faith with any family group that included Giles, and Xander's feelings for Willow were still tangled enough that Angel hated to put him in a situation where Willow would cling to him, and after Oz's abandonment, he knew that was exactly the situation they faced.

"Hey, we are so not out of options," Xander blurted out. Angel looked around and saw that Graham's expression had turned murderous.

"She did this to him." Graham didn't even try to hide his hatred. "She turned him into a vampire."

"Hey, and I got possessed and tried to rape Buffy and Faith accidentally staked a human and Angel... okay, I'm not coming up with any stupid stories, but I'm sure there are some."

"Many," Angel agreed unhappily.

Xander nodded. "Living on a Hellmouth, you just have to know that sometimes the good guys are not always the best at being good. Buffy herself burned down a gym, and I'm voting, 'woo hoo' for vampire carnage, but I know her school pretty much just thought it was arson."

Cordelia interrupted him with an, "Oh, please. Look, Graham, if you have any dark little corners of your mind, you'd better believe that the Hellmouth is going to bring them out. Get used to the idea. Angel, is it just me, or is Riley being weird, even for a vampire?" She took a step closer and studied him.

"He is," Angel admitted. He walked over and took the mug of warmed blood out of Xander's hand. Riley would attack if a human got close enough to feed him.

"Most vampires aren't like this?" Graham asked, and now he studied Riley more closely. Ignoring the other soldier, Angel carefully crouched down next to Riley and made eye contact with him. Bound hands opened and closed in distress, and Angel was guessing that Riley desperately wanted to lunge for the blood. Well, the first lesson of a fledge was to learn to control that need. He waited until Riley dropped his gaze in submission before he held the mug to Riley's lips. Riley's gaze darted to him for a second before he focused his gaze on the mug and drank greedily.

Xander waited until Riley had started drinking before he answered softly. "Jesse was big with the grrrr, but he was still Jesse. He still wanted Cordelia and he... he didn't exactly have tons of respect for me. And looking back, that was very much like Jesse."

Cordelia rolled her eyes. "Oh please, Jesse was one of those insecure little boys who thinks that making other people feel small makes him look bigger."

"He was my friend," Xander said softly. Angel was surprised when Cordelia actually moved closer to him and stood so close that her shoulder brushed against Xander.

"He was a crappy friend. And the way he hit on me was disgusting. He didn't want me—he wanted people to see him with me, which is not the same thing." Cordelia looked at Xander with an expression of pain and fondness, and her voice was soft with emotion. "When you wanted to date me, you liked me, not because of what it would do for your reputation to be seen with me... not that I let you be seen with me until I was sure of that."

Xander frowned. "You didn't really think..."

With a shrug, she nodded. "Too many boys were like that. When you let me push you into closets, I knew you weren't. Of course, you're also stupid and you'll kick yourself for the rest of your life for letting me get away, but we can blame that on the influence of your Y chromosome." She looked at him for a second before focusing on Riley. "And no, you aren't getting a second chance. I do not give stupid men second chances," she said, her voice sharp again. "So, what's wrong with Riley that he's all the grrr and none of the Riley left?"

"I don't know," Angel admitted.

"Someone needs to slap Willow," Cordelia said before she turned and headed for the front.

"Hey, no slapping my Willow!" Xander called after her, but there wasn't an answer. He sighed and gave Angel a resigned look. "I'll show her the research I've been working on." Angel watched him go after her and wondered if maybe a little attraction didn't still exist there. If it did, Angel knew that Spike would be more than willing to share, and that might convince Xander that he wasn't gay. Angel just wasn't sure about God's opinion on sharing women.

"And you," Angel said, standing up and moving toward Doyle.

"I should go help them... do something," Doyle said, his voice a little panicked as he tried to get to the door, but Angel stepped into his path, blocking his escape.

"What did you say to make Xander think he's gay?"

"Me?" Doyle squeaked the word. "Buddy, I didn't say anything. We went, Faith did her thing with Melissa, and I caught a cab back to my hotel. That was the end of that."

Angel narrowed his eyes. "You're lying," he said quietly.

"About what I said? Absolutely not. About nothing being said, you bet your bottom dollar I am, but that's Xander's business. He's a good man with a good heart and he knows himself well enough to make up his own mind about things. Besides, he's surrounded by demons. He doesn't have a whole lot of heterosexual role models, if you know what I mean."

"Demons are gay?" Graham asked. Angel turned on the man, angry at the interruption. Graham took a step backwards and held a hand up. "Not my business." Clearing his throat, he turned his attention to a stack of papers on the table that he had brought with him.

Angel turned back to Doyle. "Leave Xander be or your visions and your headaches will be the least of your problems, understood?" Angel asked. Reaching out, he grabbed Doyle by the throat before the man could retreat. Doyle turned green and little spikes broke out all over his face.

"Understood," Doyle agreed, his hands clinging to Angel's arm, but he didn't try and fight his way free.

Angel let go. "And I'm not dealing with whatever the Powers want to send my way."

"I already understood that. Hell, I'm not planning on doing anything about the touchy feeling verbal spewing I saw in this last vision," Doyle agreed. "Father Peter makes some sense on the matter of visions."

"Father Peter makes sense on a lot of fronts, which is why you'll leave Xander alone," Angel said firmly.

"Got it," Doyle agreed.

"Angel?" a confused voice asked. Angel turned around and found Riley kneeling on the floor. The chains were still wrapped around him, but the vampire features had fallen away to reveal a very confused human face. Nothing had changed, not a whisper of magic was in the air, but somehow the spell had broken.

"Riley? Are you okay?" Graham asked. He took a step forward, but he hovered just beyond the reach of Riley's feet. Clearly he didn't want to get knocked on his ass again.

"I don't know," Riley said slowly. Angel turned his back on Doyle and moved to Riley's side, kneeling down to study the soldier.

"The vampire is gone. He's human," Angel said after a second. There wasn't even a lingering scent of vampire.

"Thank God," Graham sighed.

"The vampire?" Confusion was quickly turning to alarm in Riley's face. "Oh God. I was a vampire. I tried to bite you." Riley looked up at Graham.

"Thankfully, you were no Spike. You didn't get a fang near me," Graham said with more than a little amusement as he pulled a key out. "Let's get you unchained."

Riley frowned. "Are you sure I'm okay?" Riley turned to look to Angel for confirmation. Angel could feel his demon settle under the evidence that in this house, he was the one in command. His soul knew that the reaction was bestial and stupid, but he couldn't escape the fact that he did feel better for having this interloper acknowledge his superior strength and knowledge.

"The vampire is completely gone," Angel said, nodding for Graham to unchain Riley. "I'm going to call Sunnydale and find out what happened."

"Angel?" Graham called just as Angel was turning to leave. Angel glanced over. "Could you ask about the people who disappeared into HQ?" The stress was clear in Graham's voice, and Riley's face twisted with worry immediately.

"I'll ask," Angel agreed. He left Graham to unlock Riley as he went to the front, Doyle trailing after him. Without a word, Doyle hightailed it for the front door. Clearly, he had decided to not take Xander up on the offer of some work, and for that, Angel was incredibly grateful. It was hard to control his demon when he was angry, and the very sight of Doyle reminded him of how much he hated how his relationship with Xander had changed.

Out front, Cordelia and Xander were already researching. "The spell broke," he told them. From the way Cordelia's body sagged, she'd been more worried than she let on.

Xander blurted out his relief. "Thank God, because your research library sucks, Angel. Sucks like a fledge... and by that I mean that it sucks badly, but do new fledges suck badly?" Xander thought about that for a second. "We need more books here for when things go wonky there."

"I agree," Angel said. As much as he hated to admit it, he had always relied on Giles to know whatever there was to know in books, and his own few books were a poor substitute. As Liam he had never had much time for books, and as Angelus, he had burned more books than he'd read. Of course, during his cursed years before Xander, he'd found books were his only escape from the pain of hunger and loneliness, but he doubted his first edition of *The Count of Monte Cristo* would be helpful.

"Well, if you're going to get a library going, you should computerize the topics so you have a searchable database. None of you know how to do that, so I'll start work next Monday, and you'd better pay me more than you pay the manual labor around this place," Cordelia said with a glare in Xander's direction.

"Hey, you try matching moldings with a building this old! I earn every penny of the salary I don't earn," Xander shot back.

"Whatever. You sand things. I'm talking about organizing and cataloging a library. And do you even have any sort of system to make sure that Lorne's friends are paying proper tribute? I mean, all of you are useless with money. You clearly need a keeper."

"I don't—" Angel started to say.

"Have a clue. I know that," Cordelia announced. "Xander, find me a desk, something classy that I can use for a computer station, and make it something made from real wood, not some cheap put-it-together-yourself thing. That is so tacky, and I will not have people walk in here and think we are tacky people." Cordelia looked first at Xander and then at Angel. "Speaking of appearances, let's make sure that people see me first. You two have so much tacky going that not even my skills are up to the job of trying to make you look chic."

"I'll have you know I'm blue-collar chic," Xander countered.

"Doesn't that clash with your new gayness?"

Angel misdialed as his fingers hit random numbers on the phone. He looked over, expecting some sort of major conflict as Cordelia brought up the subject. Instead Xander was rolling his eyes at her.

"Oh please, your boyfriend is homicidal gay chic, so don't even go there."

"I just thought going gay might teach you a little style, but that plaid screams 'fashion-dork'."

"It screams comfortable," Xander disagreed. "Some of us don't have to put on thousand dollar dresses and shove our feet into tiny shoes to look good."

"I look good in anything. Now you in a thousand dollar dress would make for one sorry drag queen." Cordelia took all Xander's papers off the nearest desk, scooped them up and dropped them on the counter in a disorganized pile.

"Hey, that's my desk."

"Then get me one that's more appropriate for my position as manager and chief financial officer, and I'll let you have it back."

"And people wonder why I'm gay," Xander said with an exaggerated sigh that sounded more amused than anything else.

"Because after me, clearly no women can measure up," Cordelia answered immediately, but Angel was disconcerted by the look she sent in his direction. She put a hand on her hip and clearly expected something from him, but Angel had no idea what that might be.

Turning his back, Angel hung up the phone and then picked it up again, this time trying to dial Giles' place without poking at random numbers. Behind him, Xander and Cordelia argued about desks and the placement of desks and plaids, and Angel wondered when he had let things get so out of control. Probably about the time he'd let Cordelia walk in the front door of the hotel. He considered that for a second. The truth was, he'd been pretty much out of control about the time he first allowed Xander in the front door of his apartment with an armful of stupid movies. Well, there was very little he could do about it now, and after three hundred years of life, he knew enough to let Xander go down in flames on the desk argument. It looked like Cordelia was moving in on them.



13. Chapter Thirteen

"Sandman!" Faith called out. Angel looked up in time to see Faith run across the lobby and throw herself on Blair. Blair stumbled, his back hitting the wall as he gave an oomph.

"Oh man, mostly human ribs here, Faith! Let me breathe." Blair was laughing as he said it, but Faith let him go with a slap on the arm.

"Did you get tired of all them high and mighty types and decide to come slumming with us?" Faith gave him an eyebrow wiggle. Angel could see Blair's dismay at that comment, but before he could answer, Faith was already dragging him farther into the lobby. "I could find us some hot dance spots, I know you'd like that."

"Totally!" Blair enthusiastically agreed, but Angel could see the small frown that hadn't completely vanished. Clearly, he didn't like Faith criticizing herself, and Angel felt a twinge of guilt. Maybe he hadn't done enough to make Faith feel successful. Angel hadn't been in a mood for a visit from Blair and his very strong opinions anyway, but now he was even less enthusiastic. He didn't need someone to remind him of how inadequately prepared he was for the emotional needs of humans.

Blair, however, didn't seem to notice Angel's discomfort as he bounced a bit and smiled widely. "I am all over the LA scene, you know that. And I finished my first round of masters classes a little early, and I think the profs were sick of the wunderkind pointing out their out-of-date research, so I decided on a tactical retreat."

Faith was smiling wider than Angel had ever seen her smile. "Pissed 'em off, didn't you?"

Blair laughed. "You know it. I am the master of pissing people off." He finally looked around the lobby, his eyes finding Angel. Considering how their last phone conversation had gone, Angel didn't want Blair here, but if he said that out loud, he was going to have more than one unhappy human around to make him regret it.

"Hey, Angel. Man, the hotel is looking great. Xander must be working triple time around here. It's only been... what? Three months?"

"Four," Angel answered.

"Man, four months, and this place is looking great. Xander is a construction god. And how is my dark princess really doing?" Blair asked as he slipped an arm around Faith's waist.

"Five by five."

"Really?" Blair took a second to really study her.

Faith gave a half grin and shrugged. "Still have good days and bad, but I'm giving myself permission to have bad days, so yeah, five by five."

"Oh man, you've just described what it means to be human." He gave her a brilliant smile. "So, where do I check in?"

Angel stiffened. While he wanted to suggest that Blair stay somewhere else, he just didn't know how to do it. Xander had more rooms open and ready than they needed, and Blair was about as stubborn as Xander when he got his teeth into a subject.

"You're family. No check in required, although we should probably tell Cordelia if we want to avoid another speech about the proper running of a business." Faith's expression twisted into something half-amused and half-resigned.

"Oh yeah. I so want to meet her. Man, she sounds like...."

"Someone you'd go for?" Faith finished for him. Blair gave her a dirty look. "Oh please, Sandman, you are so into partners that push you around a bit. I lived with you for a year, so no way are you pulling the wool over my eyes. Although if you don't cut your hair soon, I'm not going to have to pull anything over them." Faith reached up and tugged on a lock of hair.

"I'm going to grow it out so that I can just shove it into a ponytail and forget it. I hate the whole Brillo-pad look, and when I was in Irian Jaya, I lost my scissors and I ended up looking like I'd stuck my finger in a light socket." Blair pantomimed his hair sticking out at all angles. "But it was great. Three weeks with the Kombai Tree people, and get this, they have Sentinel legends. It was wild. The minute I asked them about people with extraordinary senses, they were like... whoa... spilling over with stories and legends. It was awesome." Blair's hands were flying as he talked.

"So, does that mean you aren't interested in a woman who can verbally castrate Angel or that you would rather just change the subject?" Faith asked with a wink and a shoulder nudge.

"I plead the fifth," Blair said with a laugh.

Angel shifted as Spike walked into the room. While vampires were normally quite promiscuous, Spike wasn't. He had learned about relationships under the tutelage of Angelus, and Angel was the first to admit that he had twisted William's love into something desperate and fearful and jealous. Now, he just wasn't sure how Spike would react to this kind of joking, so he moved out from behind the counter so he could intercept any violence. Spike stopped six or seven feet from Blair and looked him up and down slowly. "You're interested in Cordy, are you?"

"Whoa, I never said that."

"If you do start thinkin' it, you'd just better remember to go through me first. Otherwise, I might do to you what I did to that wanker who thought he could go sniffing after Faith," Spike warned, and that didn't sound like a joke.

"Spike," Angel warned with a single word.

"Sod off, Angel. I'm just makin' sure that Blair and me understand each other."

"I'm totally understanding," Blair nodded. "There will be no sniffing after Cordelia without permission."

"There will be no what?" And that was Cordelia's voice. Angel flinched as she came out of a back storage room, her hands on her hips and her scent underlaid with the heavy smell of vampire. Spike smirked. "I know that no one was talking about sniffing around me, because if they were, someone is going to be sleeping in his own room for a very long time."

Considering the narrow-eyed look Cordelia was giving Spike, Angel was glad that he was not in a relationship with her. While she had a far more loving nature than she generally allowed others to see, she still shared far too many traits with Darla for Angel to be completely at ease around her. Spike, however, pursed his lips and stalked toward her, a predator intent on showing his power and grace to a prospective mate.

"Now, luv. I'm just pointing out that you're beautiful enough that any man would have ta be insane to not want you."

Cordelia sniffed.

"And if some bloke wants to try to talk his way into your bed, he'd bloody well do it right and be up front with it."

Cordelia looked at Spike like he'd just grown another head. "Oh please. You vampires can play whatever little weird little vampire games you want, but when the day comes that you aren't enough for me, you'd better believe you're never getting in my bed again," she told him with a tone of voice that would have befitted a queen. But she also reached out and rested her palm against his cheek. Spike tilted his head, pressing into her hand for a second before he turned back to Blair and Faith who were watching with equally amused expressions.

"Right then, I changed my mind. You sniff around her, and I'll pull your intestines out through the hole I'll make in your soddin' chest."

"I think they're in love," Blair said in a stage whisper to Faith.

"Whatever," Faith said with a roll of her eyes. Faith's words seemed normal enough, but from the sharp look Blair gave her, he was disturbed by them, and once again Angel had the unpleasant feeling like he was outside his own clan, looking in, desperately trying to understand things that were just beyond him. Angel was already anxious for Blair to leave.

"So, from the way Faith is clinging to you, I take it you're Blair," Cordelia said. The sharp edges hadn't yet all softened between the two women, but Blair didn't react to that underlying anger at all as he reached out a hand to shake with Cordelia.

"She's the closest thing I have to a sister. And considering my demon relatives think I'm too human and my human relatives think I'm the spawn of hell, any family I have is pretty damn important to me."

"You have Naomi," Faith said softly.

"Yep, you and Naomi, my two girls... women... my very empowered women. Man, I'm going to get my ass kicked if I can't break this habit of saying 'girls'," Blair said with a sheepish grin. "So not PC. So, you're the woman who's decided to keep tabs on Spike. Man, you have bigger balls than I do."

Faith laughed and slapped Blair on the back. "Remember, I've met your girlfriends. I didn't hear any of them complain about you lacking anything."

Blair turned vivid red. "Maybe we need to change the subject. So, where's Xander?" Blair asked with a wide and plastic smile. Angel suppressed a growl.

Spike glanced over at Angel with a frown, but it was Cordelia who answered. "He's off at that school of his, hopefully learning something useful like how to install a spa tub. And Hilssa needs something to rest her tentacles on, so I'm assuming she's asking for more pillows, but I am not the maid. Just because someone doesn't have any demon blood does not make her the whipping girl for every Tom, Dick and Uitalia that comes in here, and I think we need to post that next to the check in desk." Cordelia turned and headed back to her desk behind the counter. Blair was left looking at her with wide eyes that he eventually turned toward Spike.

"Wow. Should I offer congratulations or sympathy?"

Spike flipped two fingers in Blair's direction before he followed Cordelia.

"Come on, Sandman, it looks like you and me get to play room service. Otherwise, Angel's going to end up going up, and every time Angel tries bringing something to a guest, they get all weird about the head of the clan doing it, like he's offering them some big honor."

"So, having a slayer deliver pillows isn't a big honor?" Blair asked, clearly confused.

"Hey, babe, I just plan on pointing out the room. You're going to be delivering the pillows. Consider it payment for room and board."

Faith took Blair's bag away from him and slung it over her own shoulder before urging him toward the stairs. Angel watched all this feeling out of control and resentful. He wanted Blair gone before Xander could come home and Blair could reopen the painful conversation about Xander's sexual orientation. However, Angel didn't have any illusions about his ability to get Blair out. Faith was happily chatting to him as she guided him up the stairs, and Cordelia was adding his name to her map of guests in the rooms. Even worse, she had written Blair's name next to a room in the wing where family stayed instead of assigning him to the guest wing.

"He's in 225!" Cordelia yelled.

"Got it," Faith called back down. Angel was clearly outvoted on this issue. His demon stirred fitfully, unhappy at the way the others had discounted his opinions, and he knew it was irrational, because he had never voiced his opinions for them to contradict. They were acting without knowing of Blair's bitter words over the phone. However, what Angel hated most was the way Blair had made him feel like an untutored child in need of a lecture. He hated that, and he hated the way he looked at Blair and just knew that Blair understood Angel's clan better than Angel did.

Angel spent the afternoon haunting the lobby, not able to sit and focus on any of his work. He had financial records that needed tending and magical reference books to track down, and he'd been in the middle of reading The Lord of the Rings, which Spike and Xander both insisted was the greatest novel ever written, even if Angel found that the author had borrowed extensively and not always successfully from the Elder Eddas of the Vikings. But these pastimes, which normally kept him occupied while Xander was out, had no appeal. And unlike a fledge who might sleep from sunrise until sundown, he couldn't escape into sleep.

When the sound of Blair's laughter and Blair's happy voice telling stories filled the lobby, Angel retreated to the basement, one space they had left largely unexplored. Xander said the plumbing needed extensive remodeling and didn't want the pipes bumped. He'd specifically described the torrential floods that would follow if anyone tried to use the space for training or if they just hit the pipes too hard. Now Angel wandered under the tangled web of copper and iron.

The long shadows and high, narrow windows looked the same as they had back in the 1940's and 50's when Angel had first lived here. This was the first place he'd lived in the Hyperion--lurking in the shadows and eating rats. Later, after he'd moved upstairs in an attempt to hide among humans, he'd hidden stolen money in these same pipes. Even though he'd been trying to help, Judy had turned against him just as surely as he'd turned his back on her--leaving her and all the other humans in the Hyperion to a demon that fed on their fear. His soul failed about as often as his human self had.

His guts felt like curdled milk. Blair had made it perfectly clear who he considered perfect for Xander, but Angel knew the danger that lay down that path. Encouraging Xander to pursue homosexuality was putting his soul in danger. Encouraging Xander to pursue him...

Angel closed his eyes and leaned back into the cold brick wall. He could feel the beam of sunlight from the high window like a fire that he was holding his hand too close to. Angel reached out and let the sunbeam fall on the back of his fingers. The skin bubbled and smoked, and Angel watched as light turned his dead flesh to kindling.

When a tiny flame appeared and the smell of burning flesh filled the dank room, Angel yanked his hand back. Kindling... that's what he was. And Blair wanted him to tie himself to Xander. Right now, Angel felt like he was barely afloat in the moral abyss of his life, but his ship was always listing and taking on water and in danger of sinking. And Blair wanted Xander not only standing against the church but also tied to a sinner so black with sin that hell was nearly as certain for him as it was for Spike. Father Peter talked about forgiveness and redemption, but the priest clearly never understood the depth of Angel's sins or the pleasure he'd taken in committing them.

Angel thought about the man he'd seen shot in a small diner. He'd had his soul then, but he'd fed from the dying man instead of getting help. He'd left a demon to feed on the humans in the Hyperion. He'd been a drunken failure of a son. Even if he couldn't convince Xander to change his mind about being gay... even if Blair's arguments about the existence of homosexuality in the natural world were true... he couldn't let Xander turn to him.

Putting his charred hand into the weak sunbeam again, Angel watched as his flesh shriveled away from the light. If Xander ever turned to him, Angel knew he was too weak to let go. Xander was too much a part of his life now, and if Xander ever allowed Angel in his bed, Angel would pull Xander with him into hell before he'd let go.

His hand caught on fire, and for a second, Angel watched it burn before he pulled it back. He was tempted. If he just didn't put the fire out, it would consume him, and the pain of that was still less than the pain of understanding his own damnation.

"Fucking hell." The curse came right before Angel was tackled to the ground, the fledgling fire on his hand smothered by Spike's body. "You great sodding arse. Are you trying to get yourself killed?" Spike demanded as he rolled away. Angel pulled himself to the wall and sat on the cold ground, his back against the cinderblock wall. He didn't answer.

Spike was a silent statue, motionless in the shadows. Seconds ticked by, but Angel couldn't find an answer for this yellow-eyed monster that stared at him with anger and confusion.

"Keep this in mind, luv," Spike said slowly. "You leave, and I'll be the head of this fucking clan, and I'll do what I want with your precious humans then. You think on that before you get your oversized head lodged up your arse again, got it?" Spike didn't even wait for an answer; he turned and went sailing toward the stairs, anger radiating from every cell. Angel stared at the motes of dust floating in the weak sunbeam and for a second, he wondered if that would be such a bad thing.

Angel watched the sunspot on the floor slowly climb up the wall and vanish as the sun set. Hours passed and the demon in Angel's chest stirred, hungry for healing blood and for violence. But what eventually moved Angel was the knowledge that Xander was going to be home from school soon. He didn't want Xander seeing his damaged hand, and that meant that he had to feed the beast and put on his human mask before he braced himself for a very uncomfortable conversation with Blair and Xander. But no matter what Blair said, and no matter how Xander looked at him, Angel knew what he had to do: he had to keep Xander safe.



14. Fourteen

Xander took a deep drink of root beer and listened to Blair's story of falling on his face while running from head hunters in some weird place with a tribe that lived in trees. Demons and Hellmouthy stuff were totally believable, but Xander was only about sixty percent sure that he believed Blair with the whole story about a tribe that thought he was an evil spirit... well, until he tripped, fell in the mud, and convinced them he was way too clumsy to be some big bad.

"Oh man, that was wild," Blair finished, his hands finally settling down on his knees. Faith was sitting next to him on the couch, her feet propped in his lap, and Spike kept slipping his hand over to touch Cordelia, first running a finger down her leg and then capturing her hand for a quick kiss. The fact was that Xander missed touching, but until he could get his body and his brain on the same page sexually, he was so not going there. He couldn't even hardly look at Spike or Angel without his cock getting involved. So instead, he focused on Faith. His cock seemed to have a 'been there-don't want to go there again' attitude toward her.

"I think I'll stick with demons because natives are sounding a little too wild for me," Xander said.

"Bloody hell, as clumsy as you are, you'd be safe as houses, pet."

Xander glared at Spike. Maybe at one point that insult would have been actually insulting, but now it was just annoying. Cordelia backhanded Spike for him, and from the sound of flesh against flesh, she'd backhanded him a good one, but that just made Spike wiggle his eyebrows and smirk.

Xander smiled at their antics. This place, this hotel and this room and this group, finally felt like home. At one point, this room had been a meeting room, but a set of couches and some furniture recovered from a storage attic, and it had become a classy 1920's living room. Even Cordelia approved of the décor and had very firmly banned anything slimy from using it. Yep, Xander was feeling good--until he caught a glimpse of Angel's expression. Angel was sitting in the only chair, his one hand obsessively rubbing the other so that Xander had to wonder if he'd done something stupid again, like stick his hand in a bucket of turpentine to retrieve one of Xander's tools. Vampire skin liked turpentine about as much as human skin, but considering that the whole hotel was done in oil-based paint, Xander was starting to become friends with the noxious crap... at least when he didn't drop his tools into it.

"Oh my god, do you ever think about anything other than sex?" Cordelia demanded loudly.

"Can't help it, luv. I bloody well like sex with you."

"Keep it up and you won't be getting any," she warned calmly, but Xander somehow didn't think she would follow through on that. If he had to guess which one of them--Spike or Cordelia--was more sappy in love, he'd be hard pressed to pick one.

"Man, that is as good of an opening as I'm going to get." Blair shifted and leaned forward, toward Xander. "So, you're thinking of trying out the gay side of the fence, huh?"

Xander could feel the blood rush to his face, and Angel shifted unhappily. Yep, anything that made Xander unhappy tended to make Angel really, really unhappy. For a demon, he was very mother hennish. With a sigh, Xander just tried to ignore Angel's weirdness because he was fairly sure Angel would never be okay with Xander's new gayness, and Xander was having not-warm-and-fuzzy feelings toward Father Peter on that front.

Xander tried to focus on Blair and not all the pieces of unhappy he had rattling around in his own brain right now. "I'm thinking about it in a 'gee, I might have been thinking about it all along' kind of way. Just call me Alexander Denial Harris, and that's actually a better name than the one my parents saddled me with."

Blair laughed. "Oh man, I hear you. I totally hear you."

"Hear me in a..."

"In a been there, done that way."

Xander looked at Blair in shock. "No way, not you, too. I mean, if ten percent of the population is gay, the rest of LA has to be straight as an arrow because everyone I know is riding the gay bus. Seriously, I'm starting to think we all drank some pink water or something."

"Speak for yourself. Some of us prefer to keep our sexuality a little more conventional." Cordelia gave him an arched-eyebrow look, but she was also smiling and running the toe of her shoe up and down Spike's leg.

"Oi, you weren't conventional with--" Spike didn't get any farther before Cordelia hit him again, and this time it was pretty clear she wasn't trying for playful. The footsie even stopped.

While Xander was smart enough to stay out of that crossfire, Blair laughed. At least, he laughed until Cordelia turned one seriously evil glare in his direction. That made him shut right up.

"But to answer your question," Blair quickly said as he turned away from Cordelia, "I look at guys and think, 'not bad,' but then I think about what gay sex includes, and the fear factor so totally overwhelms any prurient thoughts. I mean, it's hard to stay excited when you're pretty much scared shitless." Blair gave a grin and a shrug.

Xander found himself almost feeling sorry for Blair because the thought of being afraid of sex was not of the good. Maybe he might have had a fearful thought or two cross his mind when it came to girl sex, but he hadn't really had time for any full-blown issues. When Faith had decided they should have sex, Xander had been too startled to be afraid, and after two and a half rounds of Faith-sex, Xander wasn't sure there was much to be scared of anymore. Faith was violent and loud and strong enough to leave deep bruises along his hips and shoulders. Sex with a guy just couldn't get any weirder or more painful than that. He'd woken up the next morning with black bruises and sore muscles. It'd been three weeks before the green bruising had finally faded from his skin. Xander shied away from that memory. That was the old Faith, and it wasn't fair to keep that memory fresh and polished when the new Faith wasn't the same person anymore.

"So you're more straight with a little gay frosting?" Xander summarized. That made Blair blink in surprise.

"Okay, that's one way of looking at it. I was going to suggest I was a one or a two on the Kinsey Scale for sexual orientation, but I think that's pretty much the same thing. You know, very few people are all heterosexual or all homosexual. Most people fall somewhere in the middle, like me. I am so into girls, but with the right conditions, I might go for a guy. And I would call Spike a true three on the scale."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Spike asked, his voice carrying a bit of a warning in the tone.

Blair rolled his eyes; clearly Spike's growl had lost most of its ability to intimidate. "You're bisexual. You're attracted to the person, not the body, so you don't care what the package looks like as long as you're attracted to the person in it."

Spike snorted. "That seems like the normal way of doing things, mate. You lot get yourselves all twisted up about gender. Soddin' idiotic if you ask me." Spike might have kept going, but he looked over, and snapped his mouth shut. Of course, if Cordelia glared at Xander like that, Xander would have done more than just shut up. He would have gone on to cover his genitals with his hands and then run for the next county.

Blair coughed, the sound only half-covering his laugh.

"I'm with Spike," Faith said. "All this shit about gender is just that... shit. Life is too fucking short to not do what feels good. Tits or a cock—it's all about feeling good."

Blair looked over at her with a frown.

"Chill," she told him. "It's also about not letting your fear or your anger rule your hormones, and I'm not forgetting that." Faith gave Blair an almost fond look, but Xander was a little more interested in Angel. His yellowed gaze was traveling from one person to another. Oh yeah, Angel was on the verge of a total freak-out, and usually Xander would have been the one to head off the freaking, but this was his life and his sexuality, and if he had to fight Angel and the whole Catholic church for his right to be as screwy as he wanted, he would.

"Yeah, well some of us are on a deadline. I have seven months left to find happily ever after, or a demon is going to give me some fantasy lover, and considering that she thinks me getting taken over by the Borg qualifies for 'happily ever after,' I'm voting 'no' on that plan."

"Good idea," Blair said with a grimace.

Faith swung her legs around and sat up, leaning her elbows on her knees as she studied Xander. "So, are you sure you're interested in some cock? I mean, if Sandman is right, there's being gay and then there's being really gay. Are you going to be happy getting cock for the rest of your life?"

"And way to go with the brutally honest and uncomfortable." Xander crossed his arms and thought about that. "I honestly don't know. I mean, I've had exactly one sexual partner, which puts me slightly on the side of the totally inexperienced. So, I don't know if I do know what I want, but when I look at guys..." Xander grimaced, "there is a certain wanting there. And if I'm going to be totally honest, Anyanka knew that because she was offering up a couple of guys in those fantasies." Xander had spent all of high school denying that, so saying it out loud was making him feel like there was more than one hypocrite in the room.

"Oh man... now that is one lady that could do some incredible things with guided visualization and therapy... if she wasn't evil, that is. But the idea that she could pull images out of the subconscious? Oh man, that is wild. Part of me really wants to meet her, you know?" Blair had that bright-eyed look, like when Angel had shown him their newly acquired books. Only Xander didn't really get the whole reason for being enthusiastic because he really would like to avoid ever meeting Anyanka again.

"I would rather find a way to defeat her." Angel had his stubborn voice on. With his yellow eyes and his stiff posture, that added up to one seriously freaking vampire.

"Who was in your fantasy?" Blair asked, totally ignoring Angel. "I mean, for me, it was John Savage in The Deer Hunter. Oh man, my mother hated that I loved that movie, but I couldn't get enough of it. She kept burning sage to try and counteract my testosterone poisoning, but I did not care. I mean, he was loyal and stoic and so very hot."

"For me it was Star Trek Voyager's Chakotay," Xander admitted, refusing to make eye contact with anyone. He waited for Cordelia to say something catty about nerds and science fiction, but there was a real lack of cat in her tonight. She was quiet, and it was Blair who eventually broke the silence.

"Oh yeah, tall, dark, and tattooed. I hear you. I totally hear you."

Xander risked a glance up, but no one was looking at him like he was a loser for having a sci-fi crush other than Seven of Nine. Blair, however, was watching him carefully. "So, is this like me, is this a sort of passing recognition that Chokotay is seriously hot or are you really going to go there?"

Not having an answer for that, Xander just ran his fingers through his hair and leaned back on the couch he was sitting on alone. He had just thought gay was gay, and now Blair was making it way more complicated with scales and numbers and degrees of gayness. This was now feeling weirdly like a math test, and Xander did not have a good track record with anything that included the words 'math' or 'test' much less both in the same sentence. And now that Blair had brought it up, the idea of gay sex was hitting on the freaky, scary scale. It wasn't up there with mutating mayors and graduation, but it was registering.

Faith stretched her legs out in front of her. "Seems like someone needs to show Xand the ropes before he can make a decision like this. I mean, if he doesn't like it, but that wish demon has done something permanent before he figures out that he's more of a cock window shopper... that would not be good. He needs to know about this shit now when he still has time to do something about it."

"I totally agree. Totally." Blair was nodding.

Xander could feel his face turn hot with a blush, but it wasn't like anyone was saying anything that wasn't true. Yeah, in a perfect world, he'd be doing the whole falling in love thing, and maybe if he had time to fall in love with someone who didn't have his hypocritical Catholic head up his hypocritical Catholic butt, the gender thing wouldn't matter, but they were five months into Anyanka's year, and Xander wasn't even dating. He had some practical deadlines to meet, and that was not leaving time for the long angst-filled therapy and drama that normally went with gender crises.

"This is not the sort of conversation for a classy lady," Cordelia said, standing up. "So, I'll leave you boys and Faith to have it. Some of us have too much style to butt into other people's choice of bed partners." And with that, she was gone without even a glance in Xander's direction.

"What a bitch," Faith said softly. Then she looked over to Spike. "You two must be in heaven."

Spike offered her a two-fingered salute.

"Boy whore."

"And worth every cent," Spike agreed cheerfully. "Right then, so we need ta find the boy a tutor. Peaches, you up for it?" Spike asked casually enough, but Xander could see the way Spike's body tensed. Oh yeah, Spike was ready to run for the hills, and actually Xander was too. This conversation was too weird, even for their normally weird conversations.

"And hey, how about letting Xander find his own tutor," Xander suggested brightly before Angel could come back and say something really, really embarrassing. Xander was having a hard enough time keeping Little Xander under control now, but thinking about Angel and tutoring was not helping issues. And Xander had to admit that Faith and Doyle just might have been right about him liking Angel, although Xander still wasn't sold on the idea that Angel liked him.

"Would this tutor be called procrastination?" Blair asked, but he kept talking before Xander could get all defensive and distracting and deflect them all from the fact that procrastination was sounding pretty good. "I mean, normally, I am all about people making their own choices, and asexuality is a valid lifestyle choice. There are these monks I know who... and that is totally off topic, but my point is that I would usually say you had a right to procrastinate. Man, I was one seriously late starter myself." Blair popped up and started pacing. "But the fact is that in seven months, you are hitting one serious deadline, and there is no one I've talked to who knows any way to distract Anyanka from her wish. My whole demonic half of the family is all for just staying out of her way. She has a reputation. I mean, a thousand years, and she hasn't been tricked, bribed or forced out of even one wish. A thousand years. Man, that is one seriously determined woman, so I am not going to assume we can beat her."

"So you think we should just throw Xander to the wolves?" Angel growled the words, and when he stood his arms were bent, his fists curled. Blair must have seen the same signs that Xander did because he fell back a couple of steps. Xander stood up, not sure what he could do if Angel was really about to go ballistic, but if there was a fight, Xander was going to make sure he was in the middle.

"Whoa, hey, no wolves, werewolves or tossing involved," Blair hurried to say, holding his hands up. Spike's glare might not have intimidated him, but Angel's glower was clearly getting the job done. Xander moved to stand between the two of them.

"It's not like he's making some wild and wacky suggestion," Xander pointed out. "He's just saying that maybe I'd be a little more sure about where my number on that scale fell if I actually had someone show me around some curves." Xander flinched as Faith's phrase accidentally came out of his mouth.

Angel's anger fell away and his arms hung limply at his sides. "You want to have sex with someone?"

"Well... kinda. I want to have sex more than I want to talk about wanting to have sex. Talking about sex is not really all that much fun." Xander backed up and eyed the door. Running was sounding better and better.

Spike stood, and now Faith was the only one still sitting--she sprawled over a couch, watching them all curiously. "Oi, I'm not letting him go outside the family and get some human disease."

"And as much as I don't want to talk about sex, I really, really don't want to talk about sex diseases," Xander quickly cut Spike off.

Faith made a disgusted noise. "If getting the disease is anything near as bad as having a pushy little shit show you pictures of the disease while lecturing about safe sex, trust me—it's better to talk about it than get it. Face it, you don't even have demonic blood to give you a little boost and make it harder for the bugs to take hold. You really do not want your dick looking like some of those scabby things Sandman went waving in my face."

Angel turned around and looked at Faith. "He waved someone's genitals in your face?" he demanded. Oh yeah, Angel was getting cranky enough to be turning off the brain. Even Xander knew Blair hadn't been using actual diseased boy parts.

"Hey!" Blair objected. Angel glanced over at him with yellow eyes, and Blair fell silent and retreated to the wall again. "Nevermind."

"Chill, Angel. He showed me pictures and gave me the birds and the bees talk," Faith said. She stood up and walked past Angel, dodging around him as he stood in the middle of the room with his feet planted like he was waiting for a fight. "Come on Blair, I'll buy you something green and disgusting like salad or tofu or some shit like that."

"Tofu isn't green," Blair objected, but Xander noticed that he was pretty dang happy to let himself get herded out of the room with the angry vampire. Now Xander just had to figure a way to get himself out of the room.

"I think I hear my bed calling me," Xander said, backing up toward the door. Yep, he was smart enough to know when to retreat and leave the vampires to beat the crap out each other and then have lots of gay sex until they felt better. And then tomorrow, Xander could poke Angel for being a big old hypocrite.

"Freeze," Spike said sharply, and the tone of his voice made Xander do just that. He stood a couple of feet from the door and a quick escape, but from the serious look on Spike's face, Xander was not going to be escaping soon. "Enough is bloody enough, Peaches. The boy needs ta know whether he's comfortable being a shirt-lifter, and we both know we're not letting him go lay down for some wanker off the street."

"He's not laying down for anyone," Angel growled.

"Hey!" Xander took a step forward and poked a finger at Angel. "You are not the boss of me... except when you are because on the slaying of monsters front, you're very bosslike, but this whole Anyanka disaster is my mess. And any gender identity issues I have are mine, and I happen to think that I should probably know whether I'm kinda gay or Friend of Dorothy gay before the deadline comes."

"What he said," Spike added with a smirk. "So, are you going to get the job done?" Spike demanded. Xander's idiotic brain figured out a few seconds too late that he was talking himself into a corner where he probably did not want to go. The only thing worse with having sex with some random stranger in a wish-inspired dream universe would be having Angel sleep with him out of some sense of obligation. Oh yeah, having a partner who was only there because he had to be there was not really on his list of sexual kinks to try.

"Oh no," Xander said as he turned on Spike. "No and a world of more no. Angel does not get to tell me I can't have sex, you do not get to tell me I have to. Seriously, the dysfunction in this one room is enough to make my ex-therapist turn blue." Xander glared at first one of them and then the other.

Angel was studying the top moldings along the top of the wall with great care, and Spike was staring at Angel. "It's you, me, or some wanker off the street, Peaches. So, you'd soddin' well better decide who you want seducing him."

Slowly, Angel tilted his head until he was looking at Spike with yellow eyes. "You're not going to do it," Angel said with a smirk. "You're under Cordelia's thumb, getting pushed around by a woman."

Spike snorted. "I bloody watched you dance on Darla strings, so that shite isn't going to work with me. But luv, I have to say, you're a mean git when you have your knickers in a twist. So, either pull that Catholic stick out of your ass and seduce the boy proper, or give me permission ta try and do it myself." Spike crossed his arms and stared at Angel with yellowed eyes. And this whole conversation was now hitting Xander's freak-meter big time.

"If you want to piss on your relationship with Cordelia, you go for it. I'm not going to be part of this," Angel said, his voice a growl. He turned and walked out of the room. For a second, Xander stood in the room with Spike and he tried to figure out something he could say to make all this a little less awkward.

"That went well." Xander gave Spike a weak smile.

Spike rolled his eyes. "No one spilled any blood. It actually went better than I figured it would." He gave a shrug. "He'll be out beating the shite out of something or threatening Sandburg for a while, so let's go have a little talk," Spike suggested. He caught Xander by the arm and pulled him out into the lobby and toward the stairs.

"Um, Spike, where are we going?" Xander asked. His stomach tightened, and he couldn't even identify the emotion he was feeling.

"Your room, pet."

Yep, that was fear. Xander just wasn't sure what he was afraid of—Spike, Spike sex, or Cordelia.



15. Fifteen

"Okay, Spike, no offense, but this is just a little stupid," Xander pointed out as Spike escorted him into his room.

"What is?" Spike asked. He let go of Xander's arm, but then he took a chair and flipped it around so that he could sit straddling it right in front of the door. Unless Xander wanted to lock himself in his bathroom, he definitely couldn't run away from this conversation.

"You know you aren't going to screw up your relationship with Cordelia, so if you're trying to make Angel jealous, it isn't going to work." Xander pushed a pile of clean underwear off the end of his bed so he could sit down.

"Pet." Spike stopped. His fingers twitched, and Xander figured the vamp probably wanted to light a cigarette pretty bad. Talking was not normally Spike's thing. "Do you or do you not want to get the sod in your bed?"

Xander blinked. He had absolutely no answer for that because he didn't even know if he wanted to get a guy in his bed at all, which had been the point of the conversation downstairs. But even if he wanted Angel, there was the whole lack of wanting on Angel's side to worry about. "I don't know," he finally settled on.

Spike snorted. "Pet, you leak lust every time Angel is in the same bloody room."

"Okay, the sniffing? Slightly gross," Xander complained.

Spike laughed. "After the way you threw a wobbly the first time I brought up Angel bedding you, I have a bloody right to be amused."

Xander had to smile as he remembered sixteen year old him. Spike had caught him on the street not long after Principal Snyder had made a few comments about Ampata being a boy on the paperwork and after Buffy had accidentally emasculated him by rescuing him from a bully. "You scared the pee out of me, and I was really, really in denial," Xander admitted. He studied Spike for a second, and he realized Spike had changed since that day. The skull rings had vanished and the bleach job wasn't quite as bleached and the punk eyeliner had totally vanished. Spike was still Spike, but he was a slightly different Spike.

"You were a treat, pet. You smelled of terror, but there you were still giving me mouth. I wasn't quite sure what to think of you." Spike's mouth twisted into a smile. "I figured Angel was either onto some brilliant plan or he had finally gone 'round the twist."

"He's 'round the twist," Xander said softly. His chest was tight in a way it hadn't been since he'd been sitting in that classroom facing Cordelia and trying to figure out how to tell her that he'd gone and cheated on her.

Spike sighed. "Pet, Angel smells of lust around you, but he comes from a time when things were just different."

"Indoor plumbing, deodorant, television—lots of different."

"Do you remember how I told you that my mum had an uncle take me to visit a woman ta teach me the ropes?" Spike asked.

That had been a very strange conversation, but Xander definitely remembered it. "Your mom thought you might be gay."

"My mum, she was a grand lady, and she couldn't let that horse-faced shrew I was supposed to marry deal with it if I couldn't function with a woman. Bloody hell, my mum couldn't deal with it either—she had to bring in my uncle. See, upstanding women, like my mum and my fiancée, didn't talk about sex. But the women my uncle introduced me to, they were all about the sex, luv." Spike wiggled his eyebrows. But then a more serious expression settled over his features. "That's where I fucked up with Faith. A hundred years ago, people assumed that women were all pure and perfect, or they dismissed them as whores." Spike shook his head. "Faith acted like a type of woman I thought I knew. Isn't the first time I've proven myself a fool over a woman." Spike's expression was suddenly unhappy.

"Okay, no offense, Spike, but what the hell are you talking about?" Xander already had enough issues to work on, and he really didn't need Spike adding more weird to the already large weird pile in his brain.

"I'm trying to explain something, prat," Spike said with an exasperated sigh. "I've bloody figured out a few things. Faith acts like one of those whores my uncle took me to. Cordy acts like those upstanding women I knew when I was alive—the ones who pretended to not know which end they'd look at to find a cock. Only, it's all a bloody lie. I reckon the woman who taught me how to bed her went home and talked to her kiddies and sang to them and made them biscuits. It's just that Angel still believes the lie."

"And again, I'm saying, 'huh?'" Xander just really wanted this very odd conversation over.

Spike narrowed his eyes and gave Xander a nasty glare. "You're not stupid, so stop playing like you don't see what bug crawled up his ass and died."

"I'm not playing with the stupid here, I'm fully employed in stupidity as far as Angel is concerned." Xander might have added a few choice words for Father Peter, too, but with Spike, there was a danger that he would do something Spikish to the priest, and Xander actually liked the man. He really hated the guy's theory on gays, but he liked the man.

"As far as Angel's concerned, you're the fucking Madonna, pet. You're a virgin, and he's going ta see you as a pure being who shouldn't be sullied with talk of sex."

"Hey, not virginish here."

"You're a bloody babe in the woods," Spike disagreed. "You've never had anything bigger than a finger up your arse, and that's a virgin. And the problem is that as long as you're a virgin, Angel's going to treat you like the Virgin Mary."

"Wait." Xander leaned forward. "Okay, you're telling me to have sex with a guy so Angel will see me more like a whore? Okay, I’m not really behind that plan."

Spike stood up moved to right in front of Xander before he crouched down in front of him, a serious expression on his face. "Angel could never see you as a whore, pet, but until you have sex with a man, he's never going to see you as a sexual creature. It's just his nature."

"His nature sucks."

"He gets sucked more often than he does the sucking," Spike answered quickly with a smirk. Spike dropped the sexy look the minute he realized Xander wasn't responding. He reached out and rested his hands against Xander's knees.

"He bloody wants you so bad it's ripping him apart. His demon wants to bed you, and as long as you had your head up your ass, he could push that aside. But now, you're leaking lust all over the hotel, and his demon is clawing at him, but that soddin' soul is stuck on the fact that you're a virgin and touching you would mean destroying that."

"Sex is not destroying," Xander protested softly as he studied the pattern on the carpet, but oddly, this was making an odd kind of Angel-sense. Angel logic was twisted and weird and old-fashioned, and Xander considered, and not for the first time, that Angel needed therapy way more than Xander ever had.

"No, it's not, pet." Spike leaned in. Because he was crouching down, his head was lower than Xander's, so when Spike did that, he looked up into Xander's face. "I meant what I said about not letting you go outside the family. So, the question is whether you're willing to let me show you how this is done."

Xander's gaze flew up to Spike's face. "But... .Cordelia! I already have Anyanka to worry about and I so do not need Cordelia trying to eviscerate me right now. And with Faith.... I stabbed Cordelia in the back once and I.... This is such a bad idea." Xander tried to push Spike aside, but Spike just held Xander by the legs, keeping him on the bed without any effort.

"She's a bloody terror, isn't she?" Spike asked with undisguised glee.

"That's not a good thing. She's going to cut off your little guys for even offering!"

"Bloody hell, you aren't much better than Angel yourself." Spike's fingers tightened on Xander's knees, and Xander tried very hard to ignore how good that felt. "I told you, pet, I figured out that human women are a little more complicated with their attitudes about sex. Cordelia may act like all this is beneath her, but in private, she's not exactly shy. She thinks you need to make a point or Angel's never going to get his oversized head out of his arse."

Xander's brain stuttered to a full stop. "But... aren't you... Spike?"

"She already gave me permission, pet. She's no more sexually innocent than Faith is a whore. And her exact words were that I should get your head screwed on straight because if we wait for Angel, we're all going to die of old age. She then added that if I went and fell in love with you she was going to rip my bollocks off and hang 'em from a nail in our room."

That actually sounded strangely Cordeliaish. "Okay, this is still way too weird. I really don't think..." Xander's voice faded out, and he tried again to stand up. Spike's hands didn't move, and Xander had exactly zero chance of physically pushing past a Spike who didn't want to be pushed past. That was one of the annoying things about being the normal one of the group—everyone else could push him around.

"Pet, just stop and listen. I'm not saying we do anything to hurt Angel or Cordelia, you know I wouldn't do that, right?" Spike stared at him with blue eyes. Xander nodded. "We just need to get Angel's soul past all those loose screws in his head."

"What if you can't?" Xander blurted the question before his brain could edit it.

Spike frowned. "I'll beat the bugger senseless and pour holy water in the wounds."

Xander jerked.

"Oi, I'm just talking. He bloody annoys the unlife out of me some days, but I wouldn't do anything to actually hurt the git. He needs this, Xander; he's ripping himself in two he wants you so bad. We just have to tip those scales a little bit." Spike reached out and placed his fingers under Xander's chin. "Trust me?"

Xander swallowed and nodded. He did trust Spike, which was weird because of the whole lack of a soul issue. Spike smiled. "I just want you to know how bloody good it can feel. Spike traced the line of Xander's jaw back to his neck and then down to a shoulder, his fingers leaving a tingling trail behind. Spike smiled again, one of those sly smiles where his tongue pushed out his lower lip.

"This won't hurt you and Cordy?" Xander asked. Yeah, he knew Spike still had sex with Angel, but that was a vampire thing, and he wasn't a vampire.

"Not unless you grow balls enough ta threaten my unlife and make me believe it, pet. And even then, you'd have to take her on if ya really wanted to challenge where I put my primary loyalty."

"Okay, I will never have balls big enough to do that," Xander admitted.

"Most men don't. That's the point, pet." And with that, Spike seemed to consider the subject closed. He shifted so that his knees were to either side of Xander, trapping him between, and then he reached up and started unfastening the buttons.

"Shouldn't we be doing dinner or flowers or a movie or something?" Xander blurted. Spike ignored him. When Xander's shirt fell open, Spike ran one finger over the newly-exposed skin. Even without body heat, Spike's touch left Xander's skin hot and tingling. Spike smiled as he laid his palms against Xander's chest and then stroked up to his shoulders, pushing the shirt off as he went.

Xander fisted the bedspread, not sure what he was supposed to be doing and pretty sure that his brain was turning to mush. Spike stood and leaned in. He placed a kiss on the juncture between Xander's neck and shoulder, and a shiver traveled through Xander's whole body. "Bloody beautiful," Spike whispered, and then he placed another kiss higher on Xander's neck.

Xander's hands flew up and grabbed Spike's arms. Xander felt like he didn't have control over any part of his body because his back was arching and his cock was hard, and he was totally slipping into a quiet place where all that mattered was the growing lust. Oh god, he wanted this. He'd wanted this for a long time, and a little part of him wanted Angel more, but this was Spike. This was the vamp who had protected him and taught him and helped him pull practical jokes on Angel. This was the vamp who had come running when Xander was afraid and alone with Angelus. This was the vamp whose fingers were making his body arch and his skin break out in goose pimples.

"Spike," Xander gasped, not sure that he was going to last any longer than he had the first round with Faith, and he had lasted an embarrassingly short time with Faith.

"Shh. It'll feel better with the edge off," Spike soothed him. Strong fingers danced down over Xander's naked side and pulled at his jeans. When the fly came open, Xander's hard erection pressed up through his underwear. Xander gasped when Spike leaned down and sucked at the head of Xander's cock right through the fabric. With a scream, Xander came. His come was warm against his skin and soaked into his underwear so there was a dark spot.

"You're bloody gorgeous, pet. Even when I was trying to figure out what game Angel had going, before I understood what he was doing, even then I thought you were gorgeous," Spike said, and Xander floated on the post-orgasm haze and the compliments and the soft feeling of Spike's hands tracing figures in his skin. If his hand had performance anxiety over Faith, it was going to have performance terror after Spike. His hand was never again going to be willing to perform out of fear of getting compared to Spike. Xander couldn't believe how good he felt.

"Right then, let's move you up, pet," Spike said, his voice drifting into Xander's happy place. Strong hands lifted him at his waist, and Xander crab walked up onto the bed until he was in the middle. Spike settled next to him, propped up on one elbow and watching with amused blue eyes. Xander had just enough energy left to reach up and stroke Spike's arm, feeling the soft skin and the strong muscles. He was wearing his short-sleeved red silk shirt, and Xander let his hand wander up to Spike's shoulder. The silk was cool under his fingers, and Spike tensed his muscle so that it moved interestingly under Xander's fingertips.

"Wait, you didn't..." Xander looked down, and Spike's crotch was bulging.

"Hurts like hell, pet. I don't mind that at all," Spike said. Xander tried to reach for Spike's jeans, to... okay, Xander didn't know what he was going to do, but it seemed rude to leave Spike hard. However, Spike captured his hand. Bringing the hand up to his lips, Spike kissed Xander's knuckles. "It's fine. You might not like waiting, but for me, a little pain just puts the edge on all the pleasure." He kissed Xander's knuckles again before releasing the hand.

For a second, Xander wasn't sure what to do. A little part of him wanted to undo Spike's jeans and give him a good orgasm, and a little part was afraid he wasn't going to be good enough to get Spike to come, and a big huge piece of him just wanted to sink back into the soft place where he didn't care about anything.

Xander's hand was near Spike's chest, so he finally reached over and pulled a button loose on Spike's shirt. Beneath, his pale chest was muscled and Xander could see the edge of a nipple. Xander pulled another button loose and then another. The silk fell open, and Xander studied the beautiful form laid out beside him. A faint wisp of light brown hair gathered just above the waist of his jeans, and his stomach was defined by long muscles that lay under the pale skin.

Even all fuzzy from his earlier orgasm, Xander could feel a little gathering heat of interest. Spike had the sort of well-muscled body that Xander sometimes looked at a little too long, even back in his glory days of denial.

"You're about as randy as a vampire," Spike said with some amusement, but Xander focused more on the way Spike's hands had returned to his body, skimming over Xander's chest and brushing the skin just above the open waistband of Xander's jeans. His stomach muscle contracted and he hissed in a breath. Spike chuckled. "Ya filled out nice, pet. As soon as you have some time away from school and fixing up this old heap of bricks, I need to teach you a few new tricks with the sword... things ya couldn't have done without a little more muscle."

Talking about swords really should not be big with the sexy, and yet it clearly was because Xander's cock was making a valiant effort to rise for the occasion. It was failing, but it was definitely trying. Spike chuckled before he worked his fingers under the waistband of Xander's jeans.

"This is still weird," Xander whispered, but he brought his own hand up to trace the line of Spike's collarbone. The shirt got in his way, so he pushed it back a little and then a little more and then just enough to explore the round of Spike's shoulder, and then it fell off Spike and puddled onto the mattress.

"No it's not. It's about giving and finding pleasure, pet. It's about caring for someone else and figuring out where your needs meet." Spike muttered the words into the curve of Xander's neck, and Xander arched his back and tilted his head to give Spike more room to work. Spike rewarded him by sucking gently on the tender skin. Xander gasped.

While still teasing his neck, Spike pushed on Xander's jeans. Xander lifted his butt and tried to help push his jeans down only to accidentally hit Spike in the crotch. Spike hissed and lifted his head, his eyes yellow.

"Sorry. Oh god, I'm really sorry," Xander hurried to say, feeling like the biggest dork in the world.

"Oi, don't be. Bloody hell, do that again, and I'm going to come in my jean." Spike panted the words, and he barely finished them before he dropped down onto Xander, holding him down and kissing him. Spike's tongue and lips tormented Xander, teasing and exploring and nipping until Xander was half hard and squirming and definitely out of breath. He just couldn't suck in enough air through his nose, and Spike kept kissing and kissing him.

Finally Spike pulled back, and Xander lay there breathless as Spike looked down at him. Spike brought a thumb up and traced the shape of Xander's lower lip. "I do love ya, pet."

Kneeling up while still straddling Xander's body, Spike pulled his own jeans open. Unsurprisingly, he wasn't wearing underwear and his cock jutted out. The ridge around the head that made Xander think of an arrow when he looked at his own cock was softer, less pronounced, and the end almost looked like it had two openings, like the head of his cock was trying to escape his cock.

"Go on then. You'll never know if you like it unless you touch it, pet." Spike sounded so calm, but his cock was turning a darker bluish purple color.

"Um... ow."

"Vampire, pet. I like a little pain with the pleasure."

Xander still hesitated. He'd known frustration more than once during his teen years, and he'd known the pain of getting hard and then having your mother walk in and want to lecture you on dirty clothes and being totally unable to do anything about being hard. But he'd never been that hard.

Spike reached down and wrapped his fingers around his erection, groaning as he slowly stroked himself. Xander was almost sure that was a happy face Spike was making, although he wasn't totally sure. It looked a little like a pain face. Reaching out, he let his own hand rest on Spike's hip, watching for some sort of reaction. Spike arched his back and threw his head back. Maybe it was the fact that Spike wasn't looking, but that gave Xander a little more courage; he reached out and touched the end of Spike's cock. Spike hissed, but he kept his slow rhythm going. He was rocking back and forth against Xander's thighs, and Xander's own cock was starting to push up against his underwear.

The slit of Spike's cock was wet, and Xander ran his finger through the moisture before tracing the unfamiliar edge of the foreskin. Spike let go of himself, but he kept rocking, and Xander finally did what he'd been thinking about for a really long time. He held someone else's cock. Wrapping his fingers around the shaft, just under the head, just where Xander liked to hold when he was indulging in a little sock puppet of love fantasy, Xander watched Spike's cock darken. Spike arched his back even more so that the muscles around his neck stood out.

"Fuck, yeah, pet. Bloody hell. Can't let you explore too much or we aren't going to get around to your deflowering." However, Spike kept rocking back and forth, his hands braced on his knees.

Xander tightened his hold, and Spike stopped. "Did I..."

"I'm about to bloody come." Spike reached down and put his hands on Xander's wrists. "Give me a sec, yeah?"

Xander let go, strangely proud of the fact that he had forced Spike to stop. Clearly he had been doing something right. And clearly Xander was not really on the fence with the gayness as much as he was over the fence and ready for a Friend of Dorothy sticker.

"We need to get this moving before you're all the way back in the game," Spike commented, running his finger over Xander's damp and sticky underwear.

"We could wait until I'm all not thinking and gasping and not able to say stupid stuff," Xander suggested.

Spike smiled. "Pet, you're one of the wisest people I know. Sometimes you say things a little oddly, but then I spent a hundred years around Dru, so I'm pretty capable of sussin' out the truth, even when you get mired in your own words. I just don't want you tight when we start the next part. It's better if you're a little more relaxed."

Xander didn't answer because he'd just figured out what the next part involved. His cock softened.

"It'll feel good. If ya liked what Faith did with her finger, you'll like this," Spike promised. Part of Xander trusted Spike. The other part looked at how big Spike was and wanted to measure the size of Spike's cock and the size of his own hole because he suspected that the one wasn't going to fit in the other. "It's okay, pet. Just roll over, and I'll make you forget your own name," Spike promised. He shifted so he wasn't pinning Xander down, and then he lifted Xander's hips, just about flipping him over without any help at all from Xander. In fact, Xander's legs got tangled in his jeans, and he managed to kick one of his legs with his opposite foot.

"Ow," Xander said softly. Spike was at the end of the bed, pulling Xander's shoes off, and he found the spot Xander had kicked and kissed it.

"That'll make it all better, luv," he promised. His voice was lilting and the accent had faded to something closer to Masterpiece Theater than punk rock. When Spike pulled his jeans off, Xander shivered and fisted the sheets, not sure what he was supposed to do. But rather than pull off Xander's underwear, Spike settled in next to him on the bed. Spike threw one of his legs over the back of Xander's thighs, and he lay there, watching Xander.

For long minutes, Spike just watched him with blue eyes. Spike's fingers stroked the back of his neck, and every once in a while, he'd reach up and brush a curl away from Xander's eyes.

"Um, are we doing this?" Xander asked, wondering if Spike had changed his mind.

"Yeah, pet, we are. I'm just waiting for you to stop feeling so tense. I won't hurt you. Not only would Angel throw a wobbly that made your past fits look like nothing, but I don't think you'd enjoy the pain. Since the goal here is to show you how good it is; I'm just waiting for you to calm down a little."

Then Spike kissed the back of his shoulder before trailing a line of kissing down arm. With a wiggle of his eyebrows, a now-naked Spike straddled Xander's thighs and pushed his underwear down.

"Oh God." Xander buried his face in his arms and he could feel his skin prickle with heat everywhere Spike had touched him. Something cool and wet touched the spot right above where his cheeks met, and Xander gasped. Oh God, that was Spike tongue. Spike chuckled and then shifted, but Xander kept his eyes closed and his face pressed against his arms.

"Open up, pet," Spike said, tapping the inside of Xander's thighs. Xander opened a few inches, but strong hands took his ankles and opened him up obscenely wide. Xander felt his whole body blush.

"Such beautiful muscles, luv. You're a stunning man." Spike's hands traveled up the back of Spike's legs and over his butt. "Lift up here." Spike lifted Xander's hips, and Xander pulled his legs under him to hold himself up. Spike did more shifting and then patted Xander on the butt. "Right then, all you have to do is relax pet." That advice might have been more helpful if Spike didn't take that moment to run a slick finger over the underside of Xander's balls. Xander arched his back and hissed as his cock definitely took an interest in that.

"I guess we need to get this started if we want you relaxed. You're not going to be relaxed for long." Spike sounded way too amused, and maybe Xander might be offended later, when he didn't need to come. But right now, he just wanted Spike to do something. Xander might not be getting hard fast, but he could feel the lust growing and he had to fight an urge to hump the pillow Spike had just shoved under his hips.

Xander opened his mouth to complain, and before he could, a slick finger slipped all the way into him. He gasped. Okay, that didn't hurt. It was surprising, but it didn't hurt. Xander pressed his forehead into his arms and tried to slow down his breathing. He could feel the knuckle of Spike's finger rub his entrance every time Spike thrust in or pulled out, and Xander squirmed. It was like having someone play with your nipples for too long, just until it felt weird instead of good. Then Spike pressed deep into him, and he found that same spot Faith and used. The pressure made his cock immediately harden. Xander let a quiet 'fuck' slip past his lips.

"Like that?" Spike asked, pressing harder.

Xander half rose onto his knees and squirmed. "Yes!" he agreed.

"Push back, pet," Spike advised him, but Xander wasn't paying any attention until something larger started pressing against his opening. Xander stilled. "Just lay back down and push back," Spike repeated.

Xander slowly lowered himself and focused on breathing as something larger pushed in. It burned, and Xander couldn’t figure out if it felt really good or if it hurt. It was like stretching his muscles after sparring with Angel, but the burn was connected directly to his cock, making him warm up in ways that post-exercise stretching never did. Xander panted, struggling to relax into the feeling.

Then Spike pressed that spot deep inside again, and Xander's body exploded with more feelings than he could handle at once. His whole body was hot and it was stretched like a rubber band about to snap. Xander grabbed at the bedding and the sheet popped off one corner.

"Just relax, pet," Spike whispered. He shifted and then he started sucking gently at the small of Xander's back. This was two fingers. Xander still wasn't sure what he thought about a cock, but he was very fond of two fingers. He grabbed the edge of the mattress and started squirming, the need for more slowly building until he couldn't be still anymore.

"Bloody hell, no doubt about which side you're on, pet," Spike laughed, and then he started slowly thrusting in and out. Xander's holes stretched around the knuckles and the intense heat burned him. The burn and the feeling of Spike's slick fingers sliding in and out and the knowledge that Spike was about to have sex with him... that Spike wanted to have sex with him... it finally just overwhelmed Xander's brain so that everything vanished except the need to come.

Xander whimpered, Trying to hump the pillows, he arched his back up, but Spike's fingers disappeared and both of Spike's hands pinned him firmly down. Xander moaned in protest and opened his legs farther. He was rewarded with something even wider pressing against him.

Xander's breath caught in his throat. This was so wide that Xander didn't think he could stretch. The burn was so much that he gasped.

"Shhhh. Just push back," Spike muttered in his ear, and Xander was really starting to hate that phrase. But then Spike started tasting the back of Xander's neck, scraping sharp teeth across the sensitive skin, and Xander groaned with need. He needed more burn. He needed more movement. He needed to come.

The pressure at his hole increased, and for a few seconds, it was painful. Xander whimpered, and Spike sucked at his earlobe. One of Spike's hands reached up to rest on the back of Xander's hand, pinning it to the bed just like Spike had the rest of Xander pinned. The pain didn't go away as much as the stretch and the burn grew so hot that the sting wasn't nearly as important as coming.

Xander felt Spike press up against his butt, and the pressure against his prostate added a whole new level to the fire and the pressure and the need. Xander was gasping for air now, his vision gray as he struggled to get up onto his knees. He needed to thrust into the bed, to come, to move, to do something, but Spike had him totally pinned. Spike's other hand caught Xander's one free arm and pinned it to the bed.

"Just let yourself adjust, pet. You're doing great. I'm all the way in, but if we move too fast, you could get hurt so just relax."

"Relax?" Xander's voice was about three octaves too high. He couldn't seem to get enough air into his lungs. Xander's breath came faster and faster until Spike started tiny rocking motions. He couldn't have been moving more than an inch at a time, but Xander found himself breathing in time with the rocking. Thrust in. Gasp. Then he'd hold his breath until Spike started easing out again. Each thrust was longer, and now the pressure against his prostate came and went like ocean waves that carried Xander's brain cells away with the tide.

The thrusts came harder, and Xander struggled up to his knees, his whole body demanding movement. When Spike pulled back, Xander rocked away and then he drove himself back onto Spike's cock as Spike drove in. Their legs slapped together loudly, and Xander cried out as he started coming. The sting grew so great that Xander's second cry was more of pain, but then Spike slid out of him, and Xander felt Spike's come hit him in the small of his back and trickle down over one side of his waist.

Collapsing onto the bed, Xander's trembled. He was hot and cold and shaking, and he was happier and more sated than he'd ever been in his life. Spike moved around behind him, but Xander didn't have the strength to even turn his head to see what Spike was doing. If the world ended right now, Xander wouldn't even care, but he would die happy. And gay. He'd definitely die gay.

A sheet settled over his body, floating down from above, and Spike slipped into the bed next to him. Spike's blue eyes were watching him and long fingers stroked sweat-soaked hair away from Xander's eyes. "So, did that answer any questions?" Spike asked.

"Gay," Xander answered sleepily. "So totally gay. And willing to write letters of recommendation."

Spike laughed. "Bloody right I'm good. I've had a century to take natural talent and refine it into pure sex, haven't I?" Xander closed his eyes and let Spike pull him close so their legs tangled. Spike shifted around so that he lay on his back, and Xander shifted so that he was using Spike's arm and shoulder for a pillow.

"And jealous," Xander said softly. Spike's hands paused in their petting. After a brief second, Spike's hands went back to work stoking over Xander's back and down to his hip. Xander felt like a giant cat, and he just wanted to curl up in the warmth of Spike's sun and go to sleep.

"You'll get your vamp sorted, Xand. I've got faith in that," Spike said softly. Xander heard the words from that place of half-sleep where everything was fuzzy. He didn't have the strength to answer. Spike had worn him out.



This chapter isn't proofread, but I've been working it so long I just want to get it off my harddrive before I'm tempted to delete and rework sections *again*



16. Chapter 16

Angel clenched his fists. He wanted to hurt someone... anyone would do, but Blair was near the top of the list of people he would prefer to hurt. Blair's and Faith's scent lingered on the air, and Angel stalked them. He would convince Blair to leave this topic alone or he would shove the man into a suitcase and ship him back to Cascade by boat.

Angel was so focused on following the scent through the maze of building and alleys and crowded streets filled with the hot scent of exhaust and the heavy stink of hot dogs and nachos that he didn't notice where he was headed. It was only once he stood outside the cathedral that he realized that Faith and Blair had headed straight to Father Peter.

The older priest who had been here for decades still handled most of the church services, but Father Peter watched the cathedral at night and ministered to the homeless and less human of LA. Clearly, Blair had run to the one place where Angel couldn't kill him, not that Angel had planned on any murder tonight. No, he had only planned some intimidation... a little shoving around and maybe a quick trip to the harbor.

As Angel walked around to the front, he spotted Faith straddling the stone banister, kicking her legs in time to some music on her earphones. She didn't stop when he walked up. Instead, she poked a thumb toward the main doors. "They're in the big room. And Angel?" She leaned forward. "Play nice. Your demon is showing." She jerked her head toward him, and Angel realized he was showing his demonic face to the world. He'd walked down the streets of LA with his demon features, and he had been too lost in his own anger to even notice. He frowned and forced his human face back to the front before heading up the stair.

"Do I need to babysit?" Faith asked without moving off the wide stone railing.

"No." Angel growled the word and gave her a look to make it perfectly clear that he expected her to stay out of it.

"Five by five with me," she said, holding her hands out to show she wasn't going to fight him. "But you'd better make sure you're just fighting with words because you versus Sandman is not exactly a fair fight.

Angel stopped and looked at Faith. "Do ye really think the fight will be fair if we use words? Are ye siding with him, then?"

"Whoa, I'm not taking sides at all because you both want to do the right thing. So you two go verbally rip into each other and I'll just wait here."

Angel narrowed his eyes. By asking him to keep the conflict verbal, she was asking him to lose it. Angel was a taciturn man by nature, and he had no hope of verbally warring with Blair. His demon railed at the challenge.

"Father Peter's waiting," Faith pointed out. Leaning back, she lay flat on the wide railing and propped on boot on the stair.

Her position left her unable to quickly defend herself, and Angel could feel his demon settle under that silent submission. And if Father Peter was in there, Angel would have support, unlike in his hotel where his entire clan seemed determined to fight him on this issue. Only Cordelia had refused to get involved in Spike's conspiracy to encourage Xander's homosexuality. Of all those who lived at the hotel, Angel never thought Cordelia would be his staunchest ally.

Forcing himself to unclench his fists, Angel pushed the doors of the cathedral opened and walked into the narthex. Most days, he stayed in this front entry, uncomfortable entering the main church.

When his grandmother had been alive, she'd secretly taken him to an underground Catholic church. Behind a curtain, he could hear a priest chanting in a mysterious language, and she'd explained that he couldn't go past the curtain until he'd been baptized. An old man with brown spots on his hands had taken young Liam by the hand and had pulled him down next to him on a bench and had talked to him about God and forgiveness and heaven. Grandmother had told him they had to keep the church a secret, but Liam had been so afraid that his parents would go to hell that he had cried to his mother. He'd begged her to come to the church so she wouldn't go to hell. Liam had never seen the church or his grandmother again.

But now, things were different. The narthex was only separated from the nave by two columns that stood on either side of the hall, and a statue that created an illusion of a front entry room without actually separating the spaces. Already he could see Blair sitting sideways in one of the pews, Father Peter sitting near him.

The light from the apse lit the curved ceiling painted with images of Christ and angels and lambs standing under Christ's hands. And this light spilled over so that Blair and Father Peter were backlit shadows. Blair's hands had been gesturing, but now he turned to face Angel over the back of the pew and his hands fell to his side.

"Hey, man. I guess Faith was right about you following. So, maybe we can talk about this."

Angel didn't answer, but he walked closer. He knew what his demon wanted, but he wouldn't desecrate the church with any sort of violence. However, he didn't stop until he was close enough to smell Blair's fear.

"Angel," Father Peter greeted him. The priest looked from Angel to Blair and back to Angel. "Perhaps we do need to talk."

"No, we don't. Homosexuality is a sin, and Blair should not be encouraging Xander to put his soul in danger." Angel spoke each word slowly and carefully as he tried to not let the demon slip out.

"Man, you are like a broken record. It's a sin, it's a sin, it's a sin, it's a sin." Blair spun his finger like a record going around and around. The darkness lifted as Angel's vision went demonic.

"Now, Angel," Father Peter stood up, "even when provoked, the good man finds patience. And Blair," Father Peter turned toward Blair, "the intelligent man does not provoke a good man who is trying so hard to find patience."

Blair snorted, and Angel gritted his teeth. Father Peter sighed. "Angel, perhaps we can talk this through and come up with some agreements."

"Like Blair leaving town?" Angel asked. That would be a discussion he could tolerate.

"If you can convince me it's better for Xander, I'm out of here," Blair promised. "You guys are the only family I have, and I would detach with love in a second if I thought I was hurting any of you. Totally. You'd never hear from me except for a Christmas-Hanukkah-Kwanza card once a year. Maybe not even that."

Angel frowned, suddenly not happy with that thought, either. Before Angel had come to know Blair during that long road trip, Blair had been barely surviving. He'd lived on couches and in a couple of shelters as he sacrificed living money to buy books. His own grandparents believed he was demonic spawn and had wanted Blair dead, so they certainly hadn't provided any support. And as much respect Angel had for Naomi's ability to emotionally raise a child, the woman was financially irresponsible. Spike understood financial matters better than she did, and from the speed at which they were liquidating the Sunnydale treasure they'd found, Spike understood very little. Without him, Blair would go back to that difficult life. Angel had bought a warehouse for him so Blair didn't have to ever worry about rent and utilities, and he didn't want to think of Blair going back to scrambling in order to pay for school and books and the trips that seemed a required part of his schooling.

"Let's all just talk." Father Peter reached out to rest a hand on Angel's arm, and Angel could feel a need to strike out and a need to seek some sort of comfort warring in him. "Let's go in the office."

"No way. I say we do it right here." Blair had a stubborn look on his face, and for a second Father Peter looked confused. However, Angel understood Blair's logic. Here, they were close enough that Faith would hear any fight, and he was hoping that Faith would defend him. Angel wasn't sure how he felt about that divided loyalty. Or rather, he knew he hated it, and he wasn't sure he felt about his own demonic instincts rising up.

With a sigh, Father Peter gave in. He gestured for Angel to move to the pew behind them, and then he sat next to Blair again. Angel perched on the edge of the pew's seat, close enough that he could grab Blair and drag him close if he needed to. Blair stunk of fear and sweat, but he didn't flinch away.

Blair swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing a couple of times. "Okay, first—homosexuality is perfectly normal. Male killer whales engage in frottage to determine which of the young males is strongest, and then the strongest ones go to mate with females. Many whales never mate with females. Their only sexual contact is during these male competitions. And if you've ever been on a farm, you know that you don't buy a stud pig or bull without making sure that he likes girls. A small percentage of them will only try to mount other males. And man, that generally does not make other males happy." Blair's hands were up and gesturing as his words came faster and faster. "Mallard ducks, penguins, great apes... they all have homosexual members and cows? Oh man, girl cows will mount each other all the frickin' time. Scientists call girl cows who have male behaviors freemartins, so no way is this some odd sexual deviance. It's normal."

Angel blinked at the assault. Cows were gay? He looked at Father Peter to explain this away, but Father Peter was nodding.

"Clearly, homosexuality does exist in God's creatures. However, there are many behaviors that are both natural and wrong. Some male fish who tend their nests use their own unhatched children as food so that they can tend the rest of the eggs without leaving. It is natural behavior, but it's clearly not something either one of us would accept in a human being."

"You've had this argument before," Blair said, but he sounded amused rather than annoyed. If Angel had had his argument so effectively decimated, he would have hated the man who had shown him to be such a fool.

"Several times," Father Peter agreed.

"So, I've proved it's natural, I think that means it's up to you to prove that something so widespread and normal can also be wrong." Blair leaned forward, clearly looking forward to the argument, and for not the first time, it occurred to Angel that he truly did not understand the man.

"I suppose I can skip the Leviticus argument?"

"Oh yeah," Blair agreed enthusiastically. He turned to Angel. "Leviticus comes right out and says that it's detestable when a man lays with another man. But the same book says that if you touch an unclean thing crawling on the ground, otherwise known as a bug, you're guilty of some great sin. Man, that hotel is crawling with spiders, so I think Xander would be pretty much doomed if you used Leviticus, and I'm not even getting into the part where Leviticus says that God hates disabled people."

"What?" Angel demanded.

"I don't think that's a fair interpretation," Father Peter interrupted.

"Oh man, yes, it is. Leviticus says that anyone who's blind or lame or defective can't come up to the altar because it would desecrate the temple. I can so look that one up for you."

Father Peter spluttered with indignation. "God doesn't hate the disabled. Christ walked among the..."

"Got it," Blair interrupted. "God loves the disabled and Leviticus is just a wacky, wacky book in the Bible. That's okay because most people pretty much ignore it. I'm assuming you're going to jump ahead to Corinthians?"

"I had been planning to. Do you want to start the discussion?" Father Peter's voice had more than a little frustration in it, but Blair just waved a hand, inviting Father Peter to start. Father Peter sighed again, and Angel was comforted by the fact that he wasn't the only one who had difficulties in dealing with Blair. Father Peter was equally exasperated with him. "The Apostle Paul clearly states that idolaters and adulterers and homosexual offenders will not inherit the kingdom of God. The act is a sin in the eyes of God."

"Gee, Angel, you have to kick Cordelia out of the hotel, and man, I'm not sure, but I think Faith has to go, too." Blair nodded with a sad frown on his face. Angel looked in confusion from Blair to Father Peter, but the priest looked just as confused by the odd turn in the conversation.

Blair smiled. "I mean, Paul said that women have to be silent and submissive. He actually said that woman was the only one deceived into eating the apple and the whole fall was her fault. Seriously, Adam had a choice. He chose to eat the damn apple, but Paul just puts it all on Eve. And then he says all women have to suffer because of that mistake. All women through all time lose their voice and have no right to speak their mind because of that. Nope, a woman's only redemption is through the pain of childbirth and suffering.

"Even today, the Catholic church won't let women become priests because they believe a guy who never even met Christ. Man, if you're going to build a religion around Christ, I would think you would listen to him and not some random guy who never once heard Christ preach. Because I'm telling you, Christ was pretty good at telling people what he thought." Blair got up out of his seat, his hands gesturing wildly. "He condemned greed and meanness and hatred. He condemned people who thought they were all that and reminded them that we're all just humans in this together. He forgave the sin of prostitution, and he forgave Peter for his coming betrayal, but he never condemned homosexuality and he never felt the need to forgive anyone for it."

"You can't be suggesting Christ approved of homosexuality," Father Peter sounded shocked and angry, but Angel's anger had largely drained out, replaced by confusion.

"I don't think he cared!" Blair practically shouted. "If he cared, he would have said something."

"He did, through the Apostle Paul. Jesus appeared in a vision—"

"Whoa. Let me tell you, I've had tons of visions. Marijuana will do that. But I've never woken up and tried to convince someone that my vision was real—that I had the right to put my own words in Christ's mouth and that instead of loving and forgiving each other, we were supposed to create a system that systematically discriminated against non-Christians, women, and homosexuals. All the hate came out of Paul."

"Inspired by God," Father Peter's voice was tight with anger, his words clipped.

"Man, believe that if you want, but I'm not biting. And Angel, you need to really think about this habit you have of blindly following the church. I mean, I'm a huge fan of religion. We all need a connection to the universe, to the creator. No way would I ever want you to give that up, but the church isn't God. There is not a whole lot of perfection anyone on this Earth, and that includes the church. I mean, the Vatican refused to save Jews during World War II because they were afraid."

"Thousands of priest and nuns died in concentration camps for hiding Jews. The church never backed away from evil." Father Peter was on his feet now, and Angel was starting to wonder if he was going to have to play peacekeeper.

"Yes, they did. Thousands put their neck on the line for the Jews, but they were doing it in spite of the Vatican, not because the church was doing the right thing. And the children abused by priests who were moved from parish to parish?"

"That has nothing to do with this." Father Peter shouted the words so loud that the front doors came open, and Angel looked over his shoulder as Faith came into the church.

"That has everything to do with this. It's all about blind faith because the thing with moving abusive priests... that was just ignorance. The church leaders didn't understand pedophilia, and they clung to this weird faith that said if a person just confessed and felt sorry that he could avoid sinning again. But pedophilia is no different from schizophrenia. Pedophiles can't just say, 'hey, I guess I'll give up feeling this way.' Even on abortion, the church is all over the map.

"You aren't—"

"St. Augustine believed in delayed ensoulment and said that abortion destroyed only a body, not a soul. St. Jerome said that abortion was only a sin after all the parts and limbs had been formed. Pope Innocent III said that killing a fetus was only murder if the fetus was animated. Man, it was only in the 1800's that the church decided that abortion was murder, so this great infallible church, was it wrong back then or wrong now? Angel, seriously, stop believing everything and just know that the church is a group of good people trying to do the right thing. It doesn't make them all-knowing."

Father Peter took a deep breath before saying in a much calmer voice, "The church is the path to God's mercy."

"And you and I are going to have to just disagree on that," Blair quickly added.

Father Peter looked at Blair for several long and awkward moments before he turned to Angel. "And here I really thought you were exaggerating his annoying qualities."

Blair laughed. "No way. I am an expert in annoyance. And it helps that I know I’m right."

Father Peter frowned. "You really believe you are smarter than centuries of theologians? Are you so arrogant that you would advise someone to step off the path and just wander around the moral abyss and try to figure it out on his own? Do you not see how much danger you're putting Angel in?"

"The danger to my soul isn't my concern," Angel said. "I won't have Xander risking hell in order to sleep with me or any other man."

"Hell?" Father Peter turned to Angel. "While it is true that many Catholics believe homosexuality is a mortal sin that could lead to damnation, a mortal sin generally requires you to understand the nature of the sin and still engage in it. Someone who is confused or mentally ill or ignorant or the nature of sin cannot have an act count as a mortal sin. Clearly Xander is not trying to be sinful or denying God; you two are simply confused."

Blair snorted. "Not sticking with the company line there, are you? Look, Angel, if I'm wrong, like Father Peter said, Xander will spend some time in purgatory."

"A place of suffering," Angel growled, all his earlier anger returning.

"Hey, his life, his choice. But if I'm right, and the church just has its collective head up its collective ass... again... then you're taking away his choices. The question is, are you so damn sure you know right from wrong? Are you willing to assume Xander doesn't know his own soul well enough to make choices for it? Do you really think you have a better moral compass than Xander?"

Angel frowned, not sure how he was supposed to answer that.

Blair reached out and put a hand on Angel's arm. "If he feels homosexual, he has a right to make that choice."

"People feel many things. People feel homicidally angry and vengeful and lust, but we can't call any act inspired by those feelings 'right.' Take Doyle," Father Peter disagreed. "His ex-wife is remarrying, and despite his pain, he is going to her fiancé's bachelor party because he is not ruled by jealousy. Human beings are better than their instincts."

"Oh man. The fiancé wanted Doyle there? That is one seriously open-minded dude."

"Demon, actually," Father Peter corrected him. "I had no idea that there were so many demons in LA, but Richard and his family run a local restaurant."

"Whoa. A demon wanted the ex-husband at the bachelor party?" Blair's body stiffened and Angel sat up straight and scanned the church for some sign of danger that would have made Blair change his mood so quickly.

Father Peter nodded. "It turns out that Doyle's ex-wife is an ethno-demonologist."

"Do you know what type of demon he is?" Blair was edging toward the end of the pew.

Faith took a step closer. "Blair, is something wrong?"

"I really hope not. It's just that some demons have got some pretty wacky customs when it comes to mating." Blair took a second to really glare at Angel. "Father Peter, do you know what kind of demon Richard is?"

"He mentioned it. It was something that reminded me of Latin for 'influence,' which is movi. Is there a problem?"

"Oh man. I really, really hope not."

"Blair, do we need to get involved?" Angel asked. He might be angry with Blair and more than a little resentful that Blair had left him feeling so confused, but he would relish a chance to get involved in any sort of conflict. Faith's body was coiled with tension, and clearly she was just as ready to back Blair up.

"I think I should just, you know, check on him. No need to go crashing in and ruining some guy's bachelor party if they're just enjoying some naked girl or something." Blair held his hand up in a placating gesture. "And seriously, Faith, you are way too likely to cause trouble in a bachelor party full of drunk demons. One case of grab-ass and we're going to have tribal war. Father Peter, maybe you could drive me over to the party?"

"Should I call Harry?"

"Who?" Blair and Angel asked at the same time.

"Doyle's ex-wife," Father Peter explained. He was already pulling his cell phone out of a pocket. "Perhaps I should call her on the way. My car is out back. Angel, we can talk about this later," Father Peter offered. Clearly, the man had picked up on the anxiety that Blair was leaking.

"I should..." Angel started to say.

"Go deal with Xander. Man, that kind of rejection is totally enough to drive a sane person to therapy. This is probably nothing. Father Peter and I will just check on his friend." Blair was almost running backwards as he tried to talk to Angel and run after Father Peter at the same time.

Angel frowned, surprised that Father Peter and Blair would so quickly drop this argument considering the importance of it. Faith put her boot on one of the pews and leaned in.

"So, do we follow?"

Angel shook his head. If Blair needed them, he'd call, and right now he didn't trust himself to have the best judgment. He wanted to hit someone a little too much. Maybe he should go and find Spike. Guilt pulled at him because he had no right to take Spike away from Cordelia... out of her bed. She was the only one who hadn't tried to get Angel to give up his beliefs.

Even more confused than ever, Angel headed for the front door. He hadn't even stopped to get his car, so he would have to walk back to the hotel. Faith fell in beside him, her footsteps keeping time with his. She believed Xander should explore homosexuality. Angel frowned, wondering if that was a sign of her open-mindedness or her sin. Father Peter certainly hadn't argued when Blair said that Christ hadn't mentioned homosexuality. Angel understood why, in his time, the church discouraged the common people from reading the Bible or debating these issues. It made Angel's head hurt.

Faith walked beside him the entire way back to the hotel. Once Angel was in the lobby, back in his territory, he was more confused than ever. He wanted to protect Xander, but he had no answers—only questions.

"Big-A, you going to be okay?" Faith asked.

"Fine." Angel said the word without believing it himself, but he needed to see Xander. He climbed the stairs, leaving her behind in the lobby. Before Father Peter, Xander had been his moral compass. Xander had talked him out of an infatuation that Angel could now see would have destroyed both Buffy and himself. Angel stopped at the smell of Spike and Xander drifting down the hall.

"So, did that answer any questions?" Spike asked in a voice so soft that Angel could almost close his eyes and imagine William with his brown curls and soft hands. Angel stepped closer, his rage rising up like a beast that threatened to rip its way through Angel's chest to escape into the world.

"Gay." Xander sounded sated and happy. "So totally gay." He gave a soft chuckle. "And willing to write letters of recommendation." Jealousy added its voice to Angel's inner screams.

Spike, however, was laughing. Obviously the boy had not yet smelled Angel because if he had, he would not be so pleased about his conquest. Yes, Angel had given him verbal approval, but they had both understood that Angel had not truly given Spike permission to do anything like this. The passage reeked with the mingled scent of their release.

"Bloody right I'm good. I've had a century to take natural talent and refine it into pure sex, haven't I?" The cockney arrogance returned to Spike's voice, and Angel stepped up to the doorway to Xander's room and quietly pushed the door farther open. Xander was laying at Spike's side, his arms wrapped around Spike, and their legs tangled under the sheets. The smell of sex and joy made Angel's demon leap to the front.

"And jealous." Xander whispered the words like a secret. It took Angel a second to realize what Xander was saying. He was gay and jealous. Jealous of Spike or for Spike? Angel had an overwhelming urge to walk over and rip Xander out of Spike's arms. Spike looked up, his blue eyes watching Angel as he stroked Xander's back.

"You'll get your vamp sorted, Xand. I've got faith in that." Spike stared at Angel, and in that promise, Angel could also feel the warning. If Angel didn't get sorted, Spike had every intention of taking the boy for himself. Angel bared his teeth in a silent snarl, and Spike's eyes yellowed even as he continued to stroke Xander. Spike had no right to take what was his. Spike had no right to hold Xander and comfort him. Spike had no right to whisper soft words in a voice that made Angel recall William. Spike was supposed to be the violent demon who Angel fucked and who then got up, still bleeding and limping and left Angel's bed... at least when they reached a bed. Spike wasn't supposed to give or accept comfort and Xander wasn't supposed to turn to Spike.

Angel emotionally flailed. He wanted Xander safely heterosexual. He wanted Xander in his bed. He wanted Spike to lay in bed and share soft touches with him. He wanted to rip into Spike's neck and drain the blood from his body and leave him broken and empty and slowly going insane from lack of blood.

Instead of doing any of that, Angel turned his back and walked out of Xander's room and to his own suite.



17. Chapter Seventeen

Xander shifted under an unfamiliar weight. Blinking, he opened his eyes and started cataloguing all the ways that his world had suddenly changed. He was definitely gay, and he had a sore-muscle kind of ache going on in his ass that reminded him of that. Spike was still with him in bed, and Xander was more than a little surprised at that.

Turning, Xander edged away and Spike's hand slipped down to his hip and then fell to the bed. A blue eye opened.

"Pet?" Spike asked, his voice bleary with sleep. Xander smiled. Spike was cute when he first woke up. Of course, it probably wasn't wise to point out that sleepy-Spike was cute, so he just shook his head. Spike frowned and blinked both eyes open before getting an elbow under him and propping himself up. "You okay, pet?"

"Much with the good. The good and the gay. I have the G's going today," Xander agreed. "And thank you for staying the night." Xander looked down at Spike's hand resting against the white sheets.

Spike reached over and put his hand on Xander's cheek. "Not exactly a chore sleeping in the middle of a warm bed that smells of lust."

"Well, yeah," Xander said weakly, "but I thought you'd want another warm, lusty bed."

Spike tilted his head. "I bloody worship the ground Cordelia walks on. She's a brilliantly vicious creature. But you're a right treat, pet." Spike sighed and twisted himself around so that he was sitting with his back to the headboard. For a second, the room was silent as Spike studied him, and Xander studied the sheets. There were definite stains. Big stains. "Did the great lug every tell you why he tortured Dru the way he did?" Spike finally asked.

"Okay, Spike, this is Angel. He feels broody about the fact that he can't control the world well enough to make everything rainbow bright. He's not going to bring up his torturing past—not unless he's in one of those moods where he wants to torture himself, and even then, I'm not the person he's going to tell those stories to. I think he tells Father Peter the big 'hate me because I'm evil' speeches." Right on cue, Spike rolled his eyes. But Xander would rather have Spike rolling his eyes at Father Peter than eating him.

Xander's eyes slipped down to where the sheet was hooked over one of Spike's legs, revealing his cock. When Xander looked back up, Spike was smirking. "Right then, Dru," he said, ignoring Xander's peek, but spreading his legs a little to give Xander a better view. "For vampires, the holy grail is to sire a vampire so loyal that he'll give his life for ya. The Master had Luke. Darla wanted Angelus to be that for her, but that didn't turn out so well." Spike shrugged. "But with Dru... Angelus was determined to prove that he had the ability to create a vampire who would be loyal enough to even lay down her life for him. He bloody ripped her apart and put her back together."

"Which is where all the weird and inappropriate 'daddy' comments come in," Xander finished. Giles had certainly filled them in on most of that very disturbing story—probably in the hopes that they would all be disturbed enough to stay away from Angel. And the rest he'd seen when Dru had decided that he was a bad puppy and had stalked him through Sunnydale.

"Yeah. And Dru was bloody loyal. Not sane, but loyal."

Xander waited for some sort of explanation that would make this weird morning conversation all logical-like.

"Pet, Angelus hated me when I was a fledge. Dru turned me and, poof, I'm bloody loyal to her. Loyal and sane."

Xander cringed. "Hello insecurity issues," Xander guessed.

"Soddin' right. The bloody mic took it as a challenge to try and turn me against Dru. He played sire, he took me hunting, he turned on me and beat me bloody. Maybe if he'd had enough time..." Spike shrugged. "He never did break my loyalty. It took Dru herself to drive me away, and even then I might 'ave turned to dust for her if you and Angel hadn't called."

"Spike?" Xander was still not connecting the dots into any sort of picture that made sense.

Spike slapped him on the shoulder. "You're part of the clan, pet. I'll bloody rip apart anyone who looks at ya wrong—don't care if it's a human or a moira. I'll be here any time you need, and if ya fuck up, I'll be perfectly happy ta teach you a lesson. But my loyalty..."

"You've given it to Cordelia," Xander guessed.

Spike smirked. "Girl knows how to torture without ever picking up a whip. If she ever gets turned, she'll bloody control the whole west coast. But she has total faith that I'll come home to her, so she doesn't worry about me being up here. My loyalty is hers, and if I forget that, she's promised to torture me into remembering or just setting me on fire." Spike wiggled his eyebrows like immolation was some sort of dirty, kinky sex game, and that was a little on the creepy side.

"But what about Angel?" Xander started to ask. Spike cut him off.

"She made it bloody clear that she's done with being second to Angel in anyone's affection. So, I've made it clear that Angel comes in second to her."

"And I come in third to Angel," Xander guessed. A little part of him understood that... was happy for that, even. He didn't want to come between Spike and Cordelia. Not only would that be really shitty, but it'd be stupidly dangerous. But on the other hand, it was really weird to think that he'd had sex with someone who put him down below others on some sort of mental scale of loyalty.

Xander tried to get out of bed, but Spike's hand darted out and caught him. "Pet, look at me," he ordered.

Xander couldn't. Before he could come up with an excuse, Spike had hauled him close—one arm around Xander's waist and the other under his chin. "You lot and your souls," Spike said with an amused tone. "I bloody loved last night. I loved it, and if you need it again, I'm bloody here and I always will be. Cordelia's not going anywhere, so I'm not either. But you have another vamp who needs you. And when you finally get through to that thick-headed git, I doubt he'll let me near you again. Cordelia has a lot more faith in vampire instincts and hierarchies than Peaches does. Bloody funny, that. But since I doubt I'll get to do this again soon..." Spike leaned in, and then they were kissing. At first, Xander was stiff, not sure what to do with his hands or his lips or his growing erection. But after the first second, all Xander could think about how good it felt.

For long second, Xander lost himself in the play of lips against his mouth and the dance of hands over his bare skin. Then Spike pulled back. He was smiling so widely that his eyes were crinkled at the corners.

"God," Xander sighed.

"I think I shag better than God," Spike said. "But the question is whether you want round two, or whether you're going to get cleaned up and go see for yourself that Cordelia is fine," Spike said. His hand trailing over Xander's hip was definitely pushing him toward door number one, but he was sore and even with Spike's reassurance, he was wigging a little.

"I think, maybe, you know..." Xander looked over at the door. Spike rolled his eyes and slapped Xander on the hip.

"Tell her we're going to need more blood." Spike sounded totally calm about it all as turned on his side and dropped back down onto the pillow. Clearly he wasn't worried at all, but then Spike and worry were definitely not friends. Not even friendly acquaintances. Now Xander and worry were way more with the intimate friendship.

"And pet, you might want to shower before Angel runs into you," Spike suggested sleepily.

Xander sniffed his underarm. He didn't think he smelled, but then vampires tended to do really weird things with sniffing. And while he really did plan to tell Angel, he might not want to tell him this fast. It would be good to get his own brain around the sex before having any more sex talks.

The shower turned into a wank-fantasy that started with Spike and ended with Angel all yellow-eyed and strong. Of course, that fantasy was definitely going to stay a fantasy. Spike had been so totally wrong about the part where he thought Angel would take Xander to bed, but he was right about Angel not trusting his vampire instincts. Yep, Angel trusted Father Peter. Father Peter said gay sex was wrong. Therefore, Xander was so totally screwed... or not screwed. Okay, he had been screwed, but he wasn't getting any more screwing unless he found someone else. And maybe he was being big with the prejudiced, but he didn't think it was going to be all that easy to find a gay happily-ever-after. Girls were more about the sappy stuff, but with Anya's deadline breathing down his neck, he was definitely running low on choices.

Xander stalled as he pulled on clothes. It was nearly noon, and the sun poured down onto the street. Normally he wasn't up until two or three since he did the night-class gig, but his brain was twisting into pretzel shapes as he thought about what he was going to do. Of course, his body pretty much voted for turning around and crawling back in bed with Spike. If it weren't for Cordelia and for Spike's need for a dominant lover, Xander could so see things being pretty close to perfect on that front. At least the sex was perfect.

When he stuck his head out into the hallway, Xander was surprised at the quiet. No Faith, no Blair, no Angel pacing up and down and randomly growling, and Xander had kind of expected that last one. After Angel's big growly moment last night, Xander thought he'd still be two steps behind Blair randomly threatening the man.

Xander got all the way to the lobby without seeing anyone, but a familiar face was sitting on the big circle couch. "Um... hi," Xander offered Graham.

"Xander. Hello." Graham smiled and nodded. "It's good to see you again."

"Yeah," Xander shot Cordelia a confused look, but she just shrugged and then went back to filing her nails to show just how little she cared. Xander just wasn't sure if she was not-caring girl about Graham or him and Spike or just the world in general.
"Morning, Cordy," Xander said hopefully. Last night had been... pretty fucking perfect. But he so totally did not want another round of weirdness and hurt feelings.

"So, are you off the fence?" Cordelia put her file down and really stared at him.

"Um, kinda," Xander admitted. If he had to pick between Spike or Faith, he was picking Spike. Actually, Spike scared him way less than Faith or Cordelia, but he was way too smart to tell any of them that.

Cordelia studied him, her eyes sliding over his body. "You're so gay," she said with a dismissive shrug.

"Um, that was sort of the point," Xander answered. He noticed that Graham was looking way more than slightly confused, but he didn't plan on explaining anything. He still wasn't quite sure why he was getting a free pass from Cordy, but he was so not poking that gift horse by repeating the tale far and wide.

Cordelia looked him up and down. "Next time, sleep with Graham if you feel the need to scratch that itch," she said. For a second, Xander could only choke on his shock and indignation, and really, he lived in a hotel with Cordelia and Spike, he should not have any shock or indignation left. He should have been shocked and indignated out after a week.

"I... Xander, I'm sorry, but I'm not gay," Graham hurried to say.

"You're in a very small minority around here," Xander said, he then flinched when Cordelia gave him a particularly hard stare.

"What?" Graham's voice was somewhere between shocked and squeaky.

Time for a tactical verbal retreat. "No problem. I do not plan on going there—not that you are very attractive, because you are. Very attractive with the whole manly-man look, not that only manly men are attractive, because Cordy here is still very much... and I’m stopping now." Xander decided that his feet needed to retreat because his mouth's retreat button was obviously broken.

"Does anyone want coffee, because I think I need to do something before I manage to get both feet in my mouth at once." Xander could feel his face get hot. Okay, he was obviously way better at being gay than talking about it. But then, after years of trumpeting his heterosexuality, his tongue was probably just tripping over the sudden about face. Not that it had been all that sudden. The Michael Knight fantasy had been in there right alongside Catwoman and the very hot and very scary women of Star Trek Voyager.

"I'm surprised your mouth isn't foot-shaped from the amount of time you have one shoved in there," Cordelia offered. "Angel went storming off into the sewers, by the way, and you *will* be dealing with that mess, understood?" Cordelia gave him a sweet smile, one that made him want to reach down and protect his cock and balls with his hands.

"Dealing with Angel. Got it. And Graham, unless you have really, really good news, you might want to be big with the scarceness when the Irish one returns. He's..." Xander thought about how to explain this whole screwy situation. If Angel would have just slept with him in the first place, this wouldn't be so very, very screwed up. "He's going to be cranky," Xander finished with a helpless shrug.

Cordelia snorted. "Homicidally cranky. And if he eviscerates Spike, I'm eviscerating you." Cordelia's smile thinned into something pretty wicked and homicidal looking before she turned to head back to the kitchens.

Xander watched her disappear. "And people wonder why I'm gay," he sighed. "Or bisexual. Or bisexual with a strong preference for gay. And I think I’m tripping over my tongue again. Seriously, would you like some coffee, Graham? If we hurry, we can probably still cut Cordelia off before she touches the coffeemaker. Her coffee is more good with the stripping of paint or repelling of demons than with the drinking."

"Coffee would be fine," Graham nodded.

"Watch the floor. We had a d'mak'ta staying here and we haven't gotten all the mucus off the floor yet," Xander suggested as he followed Cordelia. Graham looked at him oddly and then stared at the floor for a second before following Xander.

"A demak'ta?

"D'mak'ta," Xander corrected him. "They're fairly harmless, but no way can they pass for human, which is why they need the demon-friendly hotel. That and the fact that most people don't want to scrape snot off their floor. They make really bad house-guests, but really pay well." Xander shrugged and pointed to a glob. He'd get around to cleaning it when it dried enough to stick together instead of sticking to him.

"It's an interesting line of work." Graham sounded like he was about ready to call for the guys in the white coats, but Xander supposed it did look kinda crazy from the outside. And actually, it was nice to have someone focus on the demon hotel crazy instead of the bed-hopping demony crazies.

"It pays the bills and keeps Cordelia from crawling all over Angel about bills and salaries." Xander pushed through into the kitchen and sighed at the electrical wires still hanging out of the walls. "And if it's a wire, don't touch it," he suggested. He was never, ever going to get all the crap around this place fixed—not even if he magically got a crew of fifty and a hundred years.

"So, what brings you to L.A.?" Xander asked. He hurried over and grabbed the coffee out of Cordelia's hands. The withering look she gave him was way less scary than her coffee.

Graham didn't answer right away, but he was one of those people who tended to think things through before talking, sort of an anti-Xander. "The general believed that we should have a liaison officer here," he finally answered.

"I think there's already enough liaisoning going on around here." Cordelia gave Xander one of her looks. Xander paused as he scooped out the grounds, studying her as he tried to figure out if this was normal Cordelia-torture or if she was more pissed than he thought. He never wanted to hurt her, and he wouldn't have dreamed of taking Spike up on the offer if he thought it would hurt her. Maybe if she was looking at him, he'd have a change to judge her level of pissedness, but she was focusing on Graham.

When the silence descended on the room, she finally looked over at him. For a second, she frowned, and then she rolled her eyes.

"Get over yourself. Any bad mood I am indulging in has more to do with my lack of appropriate pay and the lack of respect I am getting from our guests than your bed hopping."

"So, we're okay?" Xander asked hopefully.

"Oh please. If I had a problem, I would have said something. It's not the same with vampires, and you know it." Cordelia crossed her arms and did that breast-plumping thing she did when she was really on the verge of sharpening her claws on your internal organs.

A little voice told Xander to shut up, but that advice was way too good for him to actually take it. "Hey, not a vampire here," he pointed out.

"No, you're more like vampire imprinted, like those little ducks that follow some plane around because they're stupid and think that the plane is their mother, that's you, only with vampires."

"Hey, I am not ducklike!"

Cordelia looked him up and down again, and Xander could feel his face heat up. Slowly, she smiled one of her vicious smiles that made it pretty clear she could date a vampire and come out on top. "If it looks like a duck and waddles like a duck...." Cordelia looked pointedly down toward Xander's legs.

Graham snorted with laughter and then very quickly covered with a loud cough. Xander brought his legs together quickly, his face heating as he realized he been standing all wide-legged and ducklike. But he couldn't help it; he was sore. And now that he had his legs together, he was more sore. Cordelia rolled her eyes at him. "Dork," she announced. And with that, she was out the kitchen door and heading back for the counter. He'd take her a cup of coffee later, and maybe she'd tell him what she was really upset about.

Xander sighed and started counting out little scoops of coffee and pouring them into the filter. "So, Graham... why did the general send you?" Xander frowned, realizing about two seconds too late that it sounded like he was implying that the general shouldn't have sent him. "Not that there's a problem with him sending you— Okay, I am seriously in babble mode, so feel free to cut me off. I've just had an... interesting day." Xander finished and flipped the coffee maker to on before he turned to face the guy.

"Maybe we should wait—" Graham stopped and shook his head. "I don't mean to be taciturn, Xander, but I don't know the rules here, and I'm trying to not step on any toes."

That was a little odd. "What toes are you afraid of stepping on, because there are lots of toes around, but you'd be amazed at how hard it is to step on them. I'm a champion toe-stepper, and no one takes it particularly badly when I step away," Xander offered. From the look on Graham's face, he was wigging almost as bad as Xander, and the truth was, Xander always like dealing with other people's wig-outs way more than his own. For a second, he didn't think Graham was going to answer, but then the guy shrugged.

"The prevailing thinking was that since Spike had already established dominance with me, he might be more willing to have me around." Graham pulled out a kitchen chair and straddled it, his back to the table as he faced Xander.

"Okay, that's weirdly not stupid for the government. When did the government become not stupid?"

Graham laughed. "Captain Finn suggested that vampire behavior more closely resembled the psychology of predators than humans. Being stuck in a vampire body changed the way he saw our mission, so our unit has recruited a couple of wildlife biologists. They said that since Spike already broke my arm and proved that he could take me in a fight, he might be less homicidal at the thought of me joining your group as a liaison between here and Sunnydale."

"Spike as a tiger, that actually works. Well, except for the whole implication for bestiality because, seriously, when it comes to sex, I am calling him one-hundred percent human because anything less is going to seriously squick me."

Graham looked like he had just bitten something sour. "Xander, I know the bite is addictive. He didn't...." Graham waved a hand in the air that made it look like he was implying that Spike had been surfing... or maybe belly-dancing... those might be belly-dancing moves Graham was making with his hands.

"Hey! I will have you know that I am perfectly capable of picking semi-inappropriate partners all on my own. Not that I'm saying Spike was inappropriate, because he was weirdly appropriate, and that is all I'm going to say about that very not-so-horrible night. Well, other than there was no biting involved. There was sex, but with vampires in a clan that is way less committmenty than biting."

"So you enjoyed it?"

"Oh yeah. So very much with the yeah. Total yeah." Xander stopped. He could feel the big stupid grin on his face, but he could not seem to get it to go away. "And this is so not the conversation I planned to have with pretty much anyone, much less some guy I don't really know much."

"Sometimes it's easier when you don't know someone," Graham offered.

"You're another of those psycho people, like Riley, aren't you," Xander accused the man.

"Psych," Graham corrected him, "and I'm guilty as charged. The Sunnydale unit needed men who could think on their feet and handle extreme psychological readjustment as well as follow orders. Even when Walsh was there, the command wasn't a traditional one."

"Walsh... the creepy 'shooting her guys up with weird hormones' lady, right?" Xander asked.

Graham nodded.

"Okay, that's what I expect from the government—pure stupidity and a real lack of concern about things like people's rights." That comment made Graham flinch, but he didn't try to defend himself. Xander figured that if he could get over the urge to try and win arguments, Angel and Spike just might let him stay.

After a second, Graham looked over at Xander. "Professor Walsh was sentenced to eight years in a military prison for her willingness to ignore the rights of the men on whom she was experimenting. She was out of line, and her treatment of demons was misguided. The whole government isn't like her. "

"Just parts," Xander pointed out before he went to get eggs out of the refrigerator. "And I hope you know that if you guys don't back Buffy up, Angel is going to make you more than a little miserable."

"I think that's pretty well known," Graham agreed. "The unit is doing well in Sunnydale. That's actually why I'm here, but I think I should probably be discussing this with Angel."

The doors pushed open and Spike came in, his hair still falling in soft curls. "If ya want the great sod to listen to whatever you have to say, best to tell Xander first. He's got a way of manipulating Peaches," Spike suggested. Walking over to the fridge, he pulled a bag of blood out. "I couldn't sleep with the soddin' bed empty," Spike complained as he wandered over and gave Xander's hip a sharp slap.

"Ow!" Xander complained more for effect than because of any hurt. Spike raised an eyebrow at him.

"Git." Spike reached over Xander to pull a mug out of the cupboard.

"As long as Cordy is," Xander offered.

Spike cocked his head. "Her foul mood's not got anything to do with you, luv. You two are still right as rain," he promised, and Xander could only hope that Spike was telling the truth because Xander did not want her being all pissed and pissy and hurt. None of those were good things in his book. And he'd hurt her already. He'd hurt her more than he'd understood until he'd finally admitted to himself that he did love Angel. Dating one person and loving another was way, way worse than even the sleeping with someone else bit. Looking back, Xander really hadn't been given a whole lot of choice about sleeping with Faith, but he had totally been choiceful when he'd fallen for Angel.

"So, you," Spike said as he turned a harsh glare toward Graham. Xander gave the guy credit for having balls because the soldier just stood beside the table. He didn't even flinch at the sight of the vampire who had beaten the snot out of him and broken his arm. "Start talking."

"I really should...." Graham took a deep breath as he seemed to make some sort of decision. Of course, his change of heart might have something to do with the fact that Spike had vamped out and was glaring at him with yellowed eyes. "The general believes that the best way to minimize the risk is to insert teams with locals, to provide trained back up and firepower based on local intel and request from local support. That way we can eliminate major threats without accidentally taking out undisruptive species that might be controlling an invasive species from taking root in an area."

"Am I alone in thinking... huh?" Xander asked.

"They don't want to kill off the good guys and let the world-endin' types take over," Spike translated. "So, they figure ta send you in? What if I break your other arm and send you toddling off to wherever the fuck you soldier-boys go when you aren't tripping on your own boot-laces?" Spike leaned back against the counter, and Xander recognized the cat-playing-with-mouse expression. He'd been the mouse to Spike's cat often enough that he knew Spike was just playing, but Graham had turned a little gray around the edges.

Graham drew himself up even taller. "That was a risk I was willing to take. The second I started thinking with my larger brain, I realized that I had no business sleeping with Faith. Your actions were extreme, but I can't call them unjustified."

Spike started moving forward, his hips rolling in a dangerous prowling gait.

"Um, Spike?" Xander called. Spike totally ignored him. Weirdly, Graham did too. Graham just tightened his jaw and focused his gaze on his own shoes. His gray complexion had gone white.

"So, you think you can play games, you think you can write reports and predict how I'll react to you? Are you really that sure of yourself?" Spike's voice was cold and cruel, and something hard and tight settled into the pit of Xander's stomach. This was not feeling gamelike.

"Maybe I should go get Cordy," Xander suggested in a small voice. Yep, Cordy would just bitchslap Spike into being more Spikelike and less... completely, freaking terrifyingly vampy.

"Sit," Spike growled, his yellow eyes freezing Xander mid-step.

"Or I could sit," Xander agreed, dropping into a chair as far away from Graham as he could. Oh this could go so very, very wrong. And this was the creature who he had trusted enough to have sex with. This was the creature Cordelia was still having sex with—who she intimidated by glaring at. He wasn't sure if that said something scary about Spike or Cordelia or maybe both.

"So, you think you want to join our merry little band, is that it?" Spike asked, and now he had a creepy-friendly voice going. The hairs on Xander's arm stood up.

"I am here to present a request to Angel. I have no interest in pushing in where I'm not wanted." Graham's voice sounded calm, but Xander could see the man's left hand tremble slightly as he held it down by his side. Oh, this was so going to turn ugly because the smell of fear was an aphrodisiac to most demons. He figured that was why no demons ever bothered Cordy—she never felt fear. She just inspired it in others.

"Too late. You pushed in here." Spike stopped on Graham's right side. Reaching up, he ran a finger over Graham's neck. "So, you stop to think what the initiation ritual might include?" Spike kept right on stroking the skin on the side of Graham's neck. The trembling in his left hand increased until he reached out and grabbed the edge of the table and stilled it.

"I know that a lot of creatures have dominance displays. I know I'm not anywhere near the top of the dominance pile around here and that if you accept me as a liaison officer that you'll probably feel a need to point that out on a regular basis."

Spike cocked his head. "Dominance displays? Makes me sound like a bloody peacock." With a snort, Spike turned his back and the vampire features fell away. Xander, however, kept holding his breath. "So, what sort of dominance displays did you expect?" Spike asked in the same disinterest tone he might use to ask about the weather, if he ever had asked about weather. He took his mug of blood and put it in the microwave. With his back turned, he was giving Graham the perfect chance to either attack or run, and Xander really, really hoped the guy understood just how stupid both of those would be.

Graham's gaze slipped over to Xander, but Xander could only stare at the man blankly. If Graham wanted answers, he should so be cheating off someone who actually understood what was going on. That person would not be Xander.

"I was hoping that it wouldn't be anything more serious than what you did in Sunnydale. You certainly proved your superiority in a fight over and over... and over." Graham swallowed, and the humor sounded forced, even to Xander who didn't have vamp hearing.

"No other thoughts?" The microwave dinged and Spike took his blood out before he finally turned around again. He slowly brought the mug up to his lips and drank the blood with an expression of pure, unadulterated joy. Xander had seen the vamps drink blood a whole lot, and he'd never seen Spike make a show out of it the way he was now.

"None that I'd like to share," Graham said.

Spike didn't answer right away. His eyes had fallen closed, and slowly he brought the mug down. When he finally opened his eyes, they were yellow again. "Don't care what you want to share. I asked a question, mate." Spike carefully placed the mug on the counter.

Graham swallowed. "The unit has often discussed the possibility that you feed from the humans in the group."

"So, you signed up for that, did you? Maybe you're curious?" Spike looked Graham up and down as though he were a car Spike was thinking about stealing. From the thoughtful look on Spike's face, Graham was landing in the 'maybe worth it' category.

Graham swallowed several times, his Adam's apple bouncing. "I would endure that."

"Not for long. After two or three times, you'd crave that. I can always smell the ones who would enjoy the bite. And with the bite, we'd have to break you in a bit."

Graham's eyes finally left the floor and they stared at Spike with heat and anger, and for a half-second, Xander wondered if Spike was going to react to that silent challenge. Then Spike laughed. "Pillock," he declared before he picked up his mug and headed out for the front. As he was passing Graham, he stopped and looked at first Graham and then Xander.

"I don't bloody rape, but before you lot play this game with another court, you'd better soddin' understand one thing: proving allegiance usually involves going arse up in front of the whole court and letting them all have a shot at fucking you. You're just lucky that this clan has a different definition of allegiance and a different use for sex—got it?"

"Understood," Graham immediately answered.

Spike snorted again, and then he pushed back through the doors.

Once Spike left, Xander started breathing again. Graham all but collapsed into the chair across from Xander, his face even more pale than a vampire's. The kitchen was so silent, Xander could hear Graham's rough breath and his own madly beating heart.

"Um, Graham, you may want to run for the hills before you get a second round of that speech," Xander suggested softly. Graham looked up at him, and his pale face was slowly turning pink like he'd been out in the sun too long.

"I volunteered for this, but if I don't complete the mission and present the offer, someone else will come in my place. If someone has to do this, I'm the best choice." Graham stopped. Xander understood duty and he understood the need for evil-fighting groups to make their own Justice-League type alliances, but that didn't mean he understood Graham's willingness to walk into the middle of this. "I'm just glad that it doesn't look like I'll have to actually sleep with...." The pink in his face deepened. "Not that there's anything wrong with sleeping with a man. It's not something I'm interested in, but that's not suggesting that there's anything inherently wrong—I have no problem with Willow and Tara, no problem at all."

Xander watched with more than a little amusement. He wondered if he looked like that when he got going. Maybe Graham caught a look at the amused expression on Xander's face because he closed his mouth. Clearing his throat, Xander focused on his coffee cup and tried not to smile. "Whoa, wait." He looked up. "Willow and who?"

"Tara. Tara Maclay. The woman Willow is seeing."

Xander put his coffee down so fast that it slopped over the sides. "Willow's gay?" Xander could hear his own voice squeak. For a second, Graham just frowned at him in confusion. But Xander was way more confused than Graham was. Willow was his friend. Okay, Willow had been his friend and now she was more like someone he had fond thoughts about when he actually thought about her, but still, he should know she had her gay on.

"She's dating a woman, so yes, I think she's gay."

"But what about Oz... and as someone who just jumped the genderline I'm sounding weirdly unopenminded here, but what about Oz? Didn't he come back?"

"No, he's been gone since before the spell that turned Riley into a vampire. Willow started dating Tara not long after that."

"Way to be way uninlooplike," Xander sighed. "She was my best friend for years, and she doesn't even mention to be that she's going gay."

"Did you tell her about your change of heart?" Graham asked, and suddenly his voice sounded a whole lot like Xander's second therapist, the one who turned blue if you managed to say something really, really shocking.

Xander glared at Graham. "That would be a 'no.' However, being girl-gay is way less stressful than being boy-gay. Face it, girl-gay just inspires thoughts of the lusty sort, not the gay-bashing sort."

"So, you were afraid she would bash you?" Graham asked in confusion. Xander glared at the man harder and picked up his coffee again.

"No. I’m just a big, old coward who so did not want to have that conversation. Look, the weirdness goes way back and trust me, you do not want to hear that sordid little tale. Any time there are multiple women involved, the man is not going to come out without emotional and psychological damage, and I am not going there."

"Multiple women?" Graham sounded downright interested.

Xander thought about those days. Willow had been chasing him, and he'd felt like shit that he couldn't like her. Instead, he'd gone chasing first Amy and then Kendra and then finally the holy grail of women, Cordelia. He'd shocked himself when he landed her. And then Faith had landed him. Oh there were way too many women involved in that story. Xander was just amazed he'd walked away with a cock still attached to his body. Rather than explaining any of this, Xander gave a half shrug. "I tell you what. Angel's going to be off brooding most of the day. Why don't you help me put in the wiring for the new stove and I'll find you a room."

"I'd appreciate that," Graham answered. "Do you mind if I get myself some coffee?" he asked. Xander waved a hand in the general direction of the coffee maker, and Graham got up to serve himself. Willow was gay. That was just sort of freaky. Xander wondered if Jesse would have given up the girl-chasing when he grew up. Maybe they'd all drunk gay water or something. Life was truly strange, sometimes. And hopefully, now that he was officially and cherry-popped gay, he could get Angel to act like a vampire instead of a stick up his ass Puritan. If not, things were about to get even stranger now than they had been back during his Willow-avoidance days.



18. Chapter Eighteen

"Whoa. Oh man, did a wire demon attack?" Blair called. Xander pulled his head out of the ceiling and looked down at Blair who stood at the foot of the ladder.

"Please tell me that you're joking about there being a wire demon," Xander begged. He had enough trouble trying to deal with wires without wire demons.

"He'd better be!" Graham called from his spot behind the stove. He was pulling wire while Xander was trying to get it to go where it was supposed to go in the ceiling.

"Totally. I think," Blair answered. "Oh hey, you were the guy Faith.... Wow, there's really no good way to put that, is there?" Blair sounded friendly enough as he held a hand out, and Graham reached over the stove to shake it.

"The guy Faith slept with two seconds before Spike kicked his ass?" Graham filled in. "Yep, that's me."

"Has Spike seen you?" Blair asked, and from the tone, he was expecting bad, bad things.

"Seen me, threatened me, and wandered off," Graham agreed. "I used to think the Rangers had some serious hazing issues, but Spike does take in-group behaviors to a whole new level."

Blair laughed. "Totally. You have no clue. Demons make sorority girls looked like amateurs when it comes to cliques. So, did you just come over to help install the stove?" Blair sounded like a big old doubter on that front.

Xander dropped his pliers into the bucket he'd tied to the side of his ladder. "Oh no, Riley sent him over to change teams." Xander realized that he'd phrased that badly when Blair choked on a half-laugh and Graham's mouth fell open. "And I am not talking about Faith or sexual teams, not that Faith is on a particular sexual team. Shit." Xander rolled his eyes at himself. One day, he'd grow up and learn to use his mouth for something other than self-humiliation.

"Riley suggested I would be a good liaison officer," Graham said, saving Xander from his own verbal diarrhea.

Blair looked from Xander to Graham with more than a little concern. "Um, you do know that you're going to have to give your loyalty to Angel, right? I mean, the military is totally into following orders, but you are not going to get to follow their orders and live in Angel's house." Blair frowned. "Okay, you might get away with it for a while because Angel is like..." Blair whistled to show the size of that problem.

"A giant stick-up-his-butt, church-going idiot?" Xander filled in for Blair. The look Blair gave him was full of sympathy and maybe a little concern.

"I don't think I'd put it exactly like that," Blair said slowly.

"Oh, I would," Xander said. "I could think of a few more words, but I'm not entirely sure I'm using them right, so I would need to check with a dictionary first." Xander realized he was probably going into way more than he wanted to go into. Graham was basically a stranger, and yeah, Blair was family, but he was like cousin family, and Angel-bashing was more something he did with Spike. "And you've been missing. Where were you?" He quickly changed the topic.

Blair got a wild-eyed look. "Oh man, it was crazy. It turns out Doyle's wife was getting remarried, but the new hubby's family wanted to engage in a little ritual eating of the brains. I mean, I know Samoans consider a few pig brains a real delicacy, but this was a little out there." Blair leaned back against the kitchen table and gave an exaggerated shudder.

Xander came down a couple of steps on the ladder. "Is he okay?"

"Oh yeah. His ex is more than able to verbally eviscerate any and all demons. The wedding is off, and Doyle actually went running after her."

"After her as in..." Xander looked at Blair hopefully. Whenever Doyle came around, Angel got all weird and stressed. It wasn't fair to Doyle, but sometimes Xander really wished he would just stop coming around.

"After her as in he's dealt with some of his issues. He's going to try and get back with her." Blair smile. "Man, he is still totally in love with her. Maybe now that he hates himself a little less, he can make it work this time around."

"Doyle hated himself?" Xander frowned. Doyle never seemed like he was into the self-hate.

"Totally," Blair agreed with a sigh. "He didn't know he was a demon until he was a teenager. I mean, sometimes Naomi did some pretty questionable things, mom-wise, but she never lied like that. And she knew I wasn't going to pop out green and spiky. So, it's not like I would have caught her in that lie. But she never played those mind games. I seriously need to thank her for teaching me to be okay with my demonic side."

"You're a demon?" Graham sounded shocked, and it occurred to Xander that there were lots of things the Sunnydale group and the LA group had stopped talking to each other about a long time ago.

"Only about this much," Blair said holding up two fingers with about an inch between them. "But man, my grandparents were orthodox Jews, so that was enough for them to order my mom to have an abortion. And then, after I was born, they were ready to try a retroactive abortion."

"But if they were orthodox Jews, surely they didn't approve of abortion," Graham said. Xander rolled his eyes because the last thing they needed around here was one more person ready, willing, and able to talk religion. There was already too much going on, as far as he was concerned.

Blair shrugged. "Different rabbis will give you different stories, but the Halakhah has the protection of life as one of the first rules. Since a baby in the womb is only potential life, protecting the mother's actual life takes precedence. However, being that I had a demonic father, my grandparents' rabbi decided I wasn't even potential life. And man, that was so not cool. But hey, it's not like I'm the only one with family issues." Blair shrugged like it wasn't any big deal. "I'm just glad Doyle is finally dealing with the fact he has issues and he's trying to embrace the inner demon."

"So his wife is okay with the demony?" Xander flinched. "And of course she is—she was marrying another demon."

Blair laughed. "Harry's an ethno-demonologist. I mean, whoa. You have to love a woman who challenges gender stereotypes and creates a new anthropological field. Man, if Doyle strikes out, I am so going for it." Blair thrust a fist out to show just how much he was going to go for it.

"Just as long as Doyle doesn't end up back here, I'll wish him bad luck so you can give it your best shot." Xander brushed the ceiling dust off and headed for the refrigerator.

"Bad blood?" Graham asked. The stove screeched against the floor as Graham pushed it out a little more to give himself room to escape the cramped and greasy space. Yep, Graham had the shitty half of this job.

"No, not really. Angel just gets stick up his butt over Doyle," Xander said with a shrug. He held up a soda, silently offering one to Graham, who held up his hand to catch one.

Blair snorted. "Angel has too many people telling him the right thing to do. But I think Doyle is taking the Powers that Be out of the equation."

"Oh?" Xander gave Blair all his attention at that little piece of information.

"Oh yeah." Blair didn't sound sorry at all. "Doyle thinks the Powers are punishing him because his visions are turning vague and coming far less often. In other words, they're turning into normal visions. Man, if someone rewarded me with migraines, I would be totally okay with some punishment." Blair pulled out a kitchen chair, but instead of sitting on it, he sat on the table and put his foot on the chair.

"Visions?" Graham asked, sounding like a big doubter-boy. "Real visions?"

"Several demons do the vision thing. My cousin claims to get them all the time," Blair nodded. "Of course, I'm fairly sure my cousin is lying through his teeth, or at least obfuscating through his teeth, but Doyle had the real deal."

"And now he doesn't?" Xander wasn't sure what to think of that.

Blair shrugged. "He's still a fatidic demon, so he'll get the visions, but I don't think the Powers are supercharging them anymore. D'fatum demons believe that if you slip out of your fate, sometimes you physically change... you'll lose a lot of weight or your eye color will change or your powers either get stronger or weaker. Whistler would probably insist that it was some sort of warning."

"What do you think?" Xander wasn't a great Doyle fan, mostly because Doyle did bring out the unhappy in Angel, but he didn't want the guy to get screwed over.

"I think people have a right to make their own lives," Blair said firmly. "If he loves Harry, he should try to make the best life he can for himself, and all this following fate stuff is... I mean... Okay, so there's a pattern to the universe, a certain karmic justice, but that does not mean you have to be the flotsam and jetsam getting shoved around. You know?"

Xander shrugged as he thought about the way his life had been going lately. "I'm feeling pretty flotsamy."

Blair looked at him with all this worry, kinda like when Xander had told his mother he was moving to the "big city." Of course, he was a little worried about himself, truth be told. It was pretty easy to ignore the fact he was head over heels in love with Angel when he was firmly in denial. Now, he had to admit that his guts were twisting around at the thought that Angel didn't want a relationship. It was like when he was trying to get up the nerve to ask Kendra out. Other than Kendra, all his relationships sort of fell on him without much effort, and now Xander wasn't sure how he was supposed to deal with these feelings or do the chasing in the relationship.

"I hear you," Blair finally offered softly. Xander wanted to change the topic, but as he watched Graham wiping his hands on a towel and looking anywhere other than Xander, he realized that he couldn't think of any topic other than Angel. How had his good mood managed to vanish so totally?

"Xander!" Cordelia screeched from the front room. "Get out here and deal with this because I'm not doing it." Xander jumped when Cordelia slammed the kitchen door open. "I do not clean floors!"

Xander opened his mouth to answer, but he couldn't find words before she went through the kitchen and stormed out into the back courtyard.

"Whoa. So not going after her." Blair whispered with exaggerated horror.

"And that would be why Spike is the only person not scared to ask her out," Xander agreed. He eyed the door out to the lobby wondered what had been bad enough to set her off like that.

"But I thought you dated her," Graham said, sounding confused. Then again, if he was going to hang around for long, he'd better get used to being confused.

"But I was not the one doing asking. She just kinda announced she was claiming me one day," Xander said with a shrug. "Which is one more thing you'll be getting used to if you hang around here. But right now, I really think I should probably see what major structural damage has been done. Blair can entertain you with stories about tree houses, right, Blair?" Xander turned his best puppy eyes on Blair. He liked Graham, but that didn't mean he trusted him if one of their slimier guests had gone and done something particularly slimy. Soldiers and slime were probably not the best mix, and killing hotel guests was really not cool if they wanted to make the business work.

"Kombai Tree people," Blair muttered, but Xander was creeping out the door and trying to figure out whether the slimy was still actively sliming things. Cordy would never put him in danger, but she had no problem putting him in the path of extreme ick. The lobby seemed quiet as Xander crept out of the back hall. Sure enough, there was a serious trail of something that looked suspiciously like bits of innards.

"Okay, that's just gross," Xander said as he looked at a clump of something that looked like green liver.

"I didn't mean— I'll clean that up."

Xander looked up, and Angel was standing near the weapons cage with a shredded shirt and bits of glop still clinging to him. Oh yeah, Angel had two ways of dealing with stress—brooding and slaying. Xander didn't have to guess about which one he'd picked today.

"Is that anyone we knew?" Xander asked as he looked at the slime trail.

Angel looked back at the mess he'd made and finished wiping the last of the ick off the sword before putting it back into place. "Hacksaw demon was trying to set up shop. Had a few henchmen around to protect it."

From the amount of gore and Angel's injuries, Xander was guessing that it had more than a few henchmen... either that or hacksaw demons were seriously bad bad-asses. Xander just watched as Angel locked up the weapons and then turned to look at him with that constipated expression that meant that Angel needed to go brood or go kill more. Xander was guessing that Angel had come home for a shower, a few mugs of blood and a new weapon before he went out again. Angel was sadly predictable.

"So, are we going to talk?" Xander asked.

"About the fact that you let Spike fuck you?" Angel asked with uncommon crudeness. Oh yeah, he had his head way up his butt tonight.

"For one," Xander said sweetly, refusing to answer crude with crude. It used to annoy the life out of him when Willow did that—when she totally ignored the ways he tried to piss her off. It obviously had a similar effect on Angel because he clenched his jaw until the muscle went all bulgy. "And then there's the part where you think you have a right to tell me what's right and what's wrong," Xander added as he crossed the lobby to stand not more than six feet from Angel. He would have gotten closer only the smell was a little totally disgusting. No wonder Cordy had run for the hills.

"I'm just concerned about your choices." Angel could barely get the words out with his jaw clenched so tight.

Xander sighed. This would be so much easier if Angel was trying to be an idiot, but he was just being his normal Angel self. "When I'm doing wrong, I know it," Xander pointed out. "And last night was not feeling wrong. It pretty much felt..." Xander stopped when he spotted the look on Angel's face. "If felt like something we're never going to discuss or bring up again," Xander cleared his throat and tried to not notice that Angel was looking homicidal. Hopefully Spike planned to be scarce for a while because it was not looking healthy for him right now.

"I don't have to approve of your choices," Angel said, his voice pretty much making it clear that he was lying through his teeth. He desperately wanted to have the right to approve or disapprove, and that wasn't all that surprising considering he was a demon, even when he was trying really, really hard to not be one.

"Good, because I'm in the right here."

"Father Peter—" Angel started to say, but Xander cut him off before he could go any farther with that.

"Okay, can we please have one conversation without Father Peter? I'm really starting to regret dragging you into that church, and the irony of this whole conversation? So not lost on me. But when I dragged you in there, I wanted you to talk to someone, not open your brain and let someone else set up camp in there." Xander could hear himself start to shout, but Angel and Father Peter were going through his last nerve. He was either going to shout or shoot Angel somewhere really painful. Maybe both.

"I haven't—"

"Oh yes, you have. Father Peter says.... Father Peter says...." Xander said in his snottiest voice. Then he took a deep breath and tried to reclaim some sort of calm. Otherwise he was going to be down to calling Angel poop names at this rate. "Angel, at one point, you were the champion of 'homosexual is normal,' remember?"

For a second, Angel just stared at him, like he couldn't keep up with all the emotions spilling out. Normally, Xander would be the first to wade in and try and explain things and reassure Angel, but this time, he just let Angel flail. Eventually he nodded. "You thought being homosexual was weak."

"And clearly I have more trouble with the logic than the knowing right from wrong. After seeing you and Spike, I can safely say that homosexuals are allowed to be kick-ass scary." Xander backed up until he could sit on the round couch. Honest. He definitely needed to share some honesty here. He glanced up, and Angel looked more freaked out now than ever. Xander ignored the little part of him that felt guilty because it would be so dang easy to just let Angel off the hook. Stupid, but easy. They could go back to ignoring their feelings, except Xander had never really been one for self-deception. Stupidity and blindness, sure, but self-deception reminded him of his father, and that was not a path he wanted to walk.

Xander leaned forward. "Angel, as much as I was terrified of being called gay because gay and in high school is a very unsafe place to be, I never thought being gay was hell-bound freaky evil. I've seen evil. Gay is not it... unless you're talking Spike, and his evil isn't really coming from any gayness he might have."

"Xander...." Xander waited for something more, but Angel stopped there. He stopped and sighed and stared at Xander with demon goo dripping from his shirt.

"Okay, lay off the heavy sighs for lent or something," Xander suggested. "Look, I know when I'm doing wrong. Like that first night when you walked me home and I called you a pedophile—that was wrong."

Angel took several fast steps forward, but he stopped short of sitting next to Xander, which was probably good for the upholstery. "You were completely ethical that night. Even if Blair's right that my attraction wasn't technically pedophilia, you were right that I was out of line."

"Well, yeah, you were so totally out of line. I mean, you're two hundred and something, and you didn't even give her a chance to grow up and find herself before you're sweeping in like Errol Finn."


"Unpointlike, Angel." Xander glared up, but Angel was too busy looking everywhere else to notice. "My point is that yeah, you were being a little stalker-creepy, and if I had come up to you because I was bothered by your stalker-creepiness, I would have been totally on the side of doing good. I didn't. I would have staked you if I thought I could get away with it, but I settled for making you miserable because I was angry."

Angel's gaze snapped to him, and his mouth opened, but Xander rushed on before Angel could interrupt. "Buffy got to keep her vampire boyfriend, but I had to lose my vampire best friend. I couldn't get the memory of Jesse out of my head, and it was like if I couldn't have my friend, no one else could, either."

"Xander." This time, Angel did sit down, goo and all. For a second, his hand hovered over Xander's knee like he couldn't decide whether or not he was allowed to touch. But then he rested his palm against Xander's thigh. "I wish I could have saved you from that memory."

Xander shrugged. It was an old memory and a dull pain, although it never totally vanished. "Even when I was torturing you because I wanted to torture you, as opposed to later when I discovered it was kinda fun to torture you, I knew I was wrong," he admitted. "I told myself to stop. I would tell myself that it was no different than if my dad died, and so I decided to kill everyone else's dad... or torture everyone else's dad by showing up at their apartment and calling them names when they were too tongue-tied to defend themselves. And I think I lost my point in there somewhere."

"No, I think you made it," Angel said softly.

"Good because I'm way better with pithy comebacks than long speeches." Xander stopped and for a second, the hotel was freaky quiet. No guest bellowing, no Cordelia heels clicking over the tile, no Spike with his weird Britishisms shouted across the lobby. Xander gave a small smile at the evidence that their family was trying to give them space. "You know," he admitted, "that's actually why I pointed you at a priest—because I'm not good with the talking about right and wrong. I just know when I'm doing it."

The heavy silence returned. Even Angel's hand on Xander's leg was inhumanly still, and that silence seemed to soak into Xander's bones, making him almost afraid to move. It was like there was an abyss, and if someone shouted the wrong word, they'd all slide into it. When Angel spoke, his voice was little more than a whisper. "And if the priest you pointed me at tells me that this is a sin that puts your soul in danger?"

"No offense, Angel, because I know you really love your new, shiny religion, but these are people who thought eating hamburgers on Friday pissed God off. I've seen people-eating vampire and demons and girls brought back from the dead after being sacrificed to false gods. I've seen demons rebuild themselves out of computer parts and a giant snake try to eat the world. I've seen lots and lots of wrong, and I don't think God really cares about our cholesterol. "

Angel's expression had softened now—he almost had a smile on. "That's not a rule now."

"And again, not pointlike. My point is that the church has been wrong, which means the church probably is wrong on something now. The church is made of people, and people are really good at being wrong."

"Except you? You always know right from wrong?" Angel's voice might be soft, but Xander could hear the challenge in there. He rolled his eyes because Angel was so very good at getting everything wrong.

"Okay, I am officially not even close to perfect. I am way with the wrong, way too often. My head will be saying things like, 'Faith sex bad,' and my pants pretty much veto me." Xander gave Angel a sheepish grin. "My head says that after a hundred years of eating rats, you've probably earned a little rest, and yet, I kept showing up at your apartment with the sharp jab. My hate for all things vampire was definitely vetoing any thoughts of doing the right thing. My point is that I do lots of bad, but I generally know when I'm being bad."

"I want to believe you."

"And yet I'm hearing a really big 'but' in there."

Angel's gaze slipped away from Xander. He almost reached up and pulled Angel's face around, forcing Angel to look at him, but the gesture was way more intimate than Xander wanted—not until he knew he wouldn't get pushed away. "I want to believe you so much, that I'm afraid I'm lying to myself." Angel still kept staring at the wall like he expected to find the meaning of life in magical ink. "You may be good and listening to your own moral compass, but from the time I was old enough to resent my father, I lost all ability to see right and wrong. It does suggest that my father might not have been wrong about my eventual damnation."

Xander laughed—he couldn't help it. Yep, give Angel half a chance, and he really would make it all about him. Xander adored the guy, but neither one of them were in any danger of perfection. "You have guilt to an artform. Put that guilt on canvas, and we so do not have to take in boarders anymore." Xander slapped Angel's slimy leg. He then stared unhappily at the goo left smeared against his palm.

Angel sighed and looked at him.

" Oh, get off the martyr horse, Angel. So you're a big old screw up. You're kinda in a family of screw ups. And for the record... I don't know anyone who isn't a screw up. Willow's parents loved the stuffing out of her, and yet they screwed her around so backwards that she's terrified of making one mistake. Buffy's father loved her, and yet he did the big vanishing act. Faith... and I'm not even going there. There's so much screwing up going on there that I can't keep it all straight. But my point is that no one wants to screw up. We just do. I staked Jesse. I loved him like a brother, and I didn't mean to, but I did."

"You had no choice," Angel hurried to reassure him.

Xander just shook his head at how unpointlike Angel could be. "And if I hadn't staked him, I wonder what would have happened. Would I have let Jesse drain Cordelia? I don't think so, but I don't know because my love for him might have made my right-wrong button do the wonky. Me and loyalty sometimes take a few unhealthy detours, kind of like you and guilt."

"You wouldn't have let him kill her," Angel said firmly.

"Which is easy to say when I never had to face that. But here's the deal, Angel. We all screw up. Big screw ups, small screw ups, small screw ups that turn into huge city-eating screw ups. We don't know we've screwed up until the screwing has happened, and I really think I picked a bad verb for this sentence." Xander sighed. Yep, on the not-perfect side of his scale, he could add verbal incompetence. "Screwing up doesn't make us bad. And being gay isn't wrong, it's just how some people are born. I am gay. I am so totally gay. I am blissfully gay." Xander spread out his arms to show the scale of his gay-bliss. "So, you can either put your hat in the ring and try and impress me with expensive gifts or watch me...."

"Xander—" Angel strangled his name so that it came out as almost a cry.

"Nope, no discussion. You're no worse a man than anyone else, and I’m gay and definitely looking for a man, so either get with the gift giving or step aside and watch me interview prospective life partners." Xander stared at Angel, willing him to just listen for once in his over-gelled life. Slowly, the anger and frustration faded, his shoulders stooped, and something that looked like fatigue seemed to settle onto every inch of Angel.

"Gift giving?" Angel asked.

Xander could feel his cheeks ache, but it wasn't a surprise considering the size of his big, stupid smile. "Oh yeah. You can cough up the big bucks to impress me with double-paned windows and cherry paneling or you can watch me be gay with someone else."

"I buy you those things now." Angel still looked more tired than anything else, but he had a small smile going.

"Well, yeah, but now we can call them courting gifts. Because seriously, I'm more than a little interested in you, but I'm thinking I'm going to be the girl in this relationship, and if I'm the girl, I want gifts."

"Of double-paned windows?"

"Hey! Have you looked at how many windows we have around this place? Diamonds would be cheaper." Xander leaned his shoulder into Angel. He hadn't realized just how much he'd missed their physical contact until just now. Even demon goo couldn't get him to give up touching again. For a minute, they just sat there. Angel's fingers tightened some on Xander's leg, and things felt right.


"If you go getting your guilt on, I'm putting a red sock in with your underwear," Xander warned. Of course Angel had to ruin their perfect moment.

"I don't want to hurt you."

"And I would like to not be hurt, so that's good."

"You don't understand. I'm not a man."

"Okay... I haven't seen in your pants, but I always assumed you had man parts." Xander hoped that Angel would take a clue and just let this one go.

"I'm a vampire." So much for that hope.

"The lack of heartbeat gave that one away."

"You don't—"

"Angel," Xander cut him off before they could go for round two of the guilt. "You're a vampire. I do get what that means. Your soul may care about me, but your demon is going to do this weird ranking thing and put me in a spot where he feels like he can safely keep me. I'm big with knowing this. I'm also weirdly okay with that because you have over two hundred years of experience on me, so in issues not involving morals, I'm pretty sure you are the boss. You definitely get to set rules when throwing stars are involved, because the minute I start saying that a weapon looks easy, that is not a good sign." Xander looked up and Angel was watching him.

Angel reached over and ran a finger over the line of Xander's jaw. "If you understand my demon, then you know why this is dangerous."

Xander just looked at Angel. Yeah, he had a pretty good idea what Angel meant, but he was not even going to dignify it with an answer.

"If I'm successful in my courting, I willna let you go. I won't be able to. For a demon, to have something and to want something and to then leave that which you want..." Angel stopped, his voice heavy with emotion and his pain laid out across his face, making him look so vulnerable that Xander wanted to make stupid promises.

"Hard?" Xander guessed.

Angel looked at him with haunted eyes. "I dunna know that I'd be strong enough to do it. I don't know that I'd be able to look at you and know that I couldn't have you, not without taking you anyway."

"Well, it's a good thing that I don't plan on ever telling you that."

Angel shook his head, but his hand moved to rest against Xander's neck. Demon goo smell or not, Xander's body reacted to that touch. "You can't know that. You can't know how you'll feel about a relationship with me."

"Angel, you're an idiot." Xander brought his own hand up and put it on the back of Angel's, trapping it there against Xander's neck. "I've been in a relationship with you for three years. Cordy dumped me because I was more relationshippy with you than with her. Sex doesn't make a relationship, it's just a really nice cherry on the top of the trust sundae. Really nice. Really, really—" Xander stopped "Angel, that is not a pleasant expression."

"I'm not having pleasant thoughts."

Xander fought to not smile. "Okay, if the thought of me and sex makes you that unhappy—"

"The thought of you and Spike and sex makes me that unhappy."

"Jealous?" Xander teased. There was more than one way to skin a demon.

"Yes." Angel's eyes were yellowing now.

"We could fix that."

For a second, Xander thought Angel was going to agree. He thought he was going to get scooped up and rushed to the nearest room, and he actually started gathering arguments for why they should shower first because Angel seriously stank. But then something shifted, and Angel pulled his hand back. However, as the yellow faded from his eyes, he smiled at Xander—an honest, open smile. "One month. Let's wait one month so that we know we aren't making a mistake."

"Your head is still up your ass, isn't it?" Xander sighed and shook his head sadly.

Angel rolled his eyes and got up. "I just don't want you to make a mistake."

"Too late. I already fell for a guy with his head so far up his ass that he can't see straight."

"Spike is having a bad influence on your language."

"Spike and Faith and even sometimes Blair. There are a lot of bad influences around here," Xander pointed out.

"Speaking of questionable influences, why do I smell Graham?" Angel asked as he headed for the stairs.

"I don't know how you can smell anything over your own stink." Xander followed, wondering if he was going to be able to catch a peek. A month was a really long time to wait.

"It's not my stink, and you didn't answer my question."

Xander shrugged. "Riley sent him. He's supposed to be liaison officer or go between or something. Apparently Riley's time as a vampire made him see the world in a whole new light."

That made Angel stop in the middle of the stairs. "So he gave us a soldier?"


"Spike is not going to be amused."

"Oh, I don't know. Spike had lots of fun scaring the pee out of him."

For a second, Angel stared at him with horror. "Does Graham know that an amused Spike is much worse than an angry one?" Angel asked.

Xander could only shrug. "If he sticks around, I think he'll find out, but that's up to you."

Angel reached out and slung an arm over Xander's shoulder. "You keep telling me that I'm in charge, but why do you always seem to get your way?"

"It's my sex appeal," Xander answered with a wide smile. "I have crazy, scary powers of the sexy." Angel just shook his head as they headed up the stairs.



19. Chapter Nineteen

"Graham, I am so sorry you got sucked into doing this," Xander repeated again.

"It's not your fault, Xander. I really don't mind." Graham used the broom to push a pile of cracked chicken bones out from under the bed. The broom also pushed a wide trail of slime with it. "You just have to do the jobs that come along."

"Yeah, well tyv cleanup duty is not exactly big with the fun. My guess is that you didn't go to officer school and college to clean slime." Xander scooped the mess into a dustpan and thanked god that he'd put good tile in on the third floor rooms that got the most use. As it was, the bedding was going to have to be burned. Xander made a mental note to have Cordy charge this guy more... lots more. Demon bill collecting was a touchy subject, but no one could do offended and insulted like Cordelia, and the more insulted she got, the more tribute money the demon coughed up. This guy needed to cough up a lot.

"You aren't studying construction management and practicing swordsmanship to clean slime," Graham countered. Xander leaned against the side of the stripped mattress and thought about that for a second.

He didn't generally think about the fact that he got the slimy jobs. Angel would do it if he knew it needed to be done, but Angel and housework was not only freaky but likely to lead to a large number of objects needing to be fixed. Faith was pretty much the same, and Spike would have laughed his ass off at the suggestion he touch a broom. He would have then taken the broom and broken it into a million little pieces if anyone had even suggested Cordy do the cleaning. Besides, Cordy was working her butt off even as she insisted that she was above work. Angel's new library was growing book by book, and Cordy was struggling to keep up with all the cross-referencing and the bills and the guests and the collecting of tribute and a nasty tax problem that was making her growl at Angel in ways that made Xander wonder if she didn't have a little demon blood herself. She was getting so snippy that Angel had even vetoed taking any more of Lorne's boarders for a while.

"Okay, you have a point," Xander admitted.

"This really isn't as bad as basic. Trust me; it's not nearly as bad, although the physical training is a little more demanding."

"When he's sparring, Spike sometimes forgets that humans need to breathe," Xander agreed. "And he is definitely not good on the heart. What with him jumping out from behind bushes, I nearly died about a hundred times before I graduated from high school."

Graham pulled the broom out from under the bed and leaned on the edge. "It turned you into a damn good fighter. When Riley and I first saw you fight... we thought for sure you'd had military training."

"Not so much. I was only seventeen or maybe eighteen," Xander said. He looked up and quickly quashed an urge to react as Spike crept into the room. If Graham wanted the whole experience, Xander wasn't going to get in the middle—especially not when Spike had so much fun playing with the soldier. There wasn't the hard edge like when Spike stalked Riley, but it was pretty clear that Spike considered Graham a play toy to take the edge off any boredom he might be feeling.

"Some militaries train soldiers a lot younger than we do. Several major countries let men in at seventeen or even sixteen if they have their parents' permission. Laos drafts men as young as fifteen, and when small countries get caught up in civil wars, guerilla fighters will 'recruit' fighters as young as ten or twelve." Graham made finger quotes in the air at the word 'recruit.'

"And can I just say that ignorance is my happy place because I really do not need to think about fourteen year olds fighting wars."

"You were, what, fifteen?" Graham asked.

Spike had pulled out a cigarette and had gone from looking amused to just looking aggravated. Not knowing you had an enemy at your back--or even a friendly ally who like to play with you like you were a rubber mouse at your back--that was not good. Even Xander knew that.

"Fifteen what?" Xander asked Graham. He considered letting his gaze slip up to focus on Spike, but if he did that, Spike was going to find a way to give him a wedgie, and if Angel found out, Angel was going to sit back and watch Spike give him a wedgie. Spike and Angel and even Graham were oddly united on this whole training game.

"You were fifteen when you started fighting this war against demons."

"Oh." Xander shrugged. "I didn't think of it as a war as much as a case of trying to not end up dead."

"I think that's the definition of war," Graham pointed out.


"Exactly," Graham said. "Riley and I were both horrified at the thought of teenagers trying to fight creatures as old and powerful as Spike here." Graham poked his thumb over his shoulder. For a second, Spike was actually shocked out of reacting, but then he grabbed for Graham.

Graham rolled to the side and kicked out, aiming for Spike's middle. It wasn't a bad move... only putting any body part within arm's reach of Spike was not generally of the good. Spike's unlit cigarette fell from his mouth when Graham's foot connected with his stomach, but then Spike caught him by the ankle and twisted the foot around. The move forced Graham to flip over onto his stomach or get his leg broken, and as soon as Graham was stomach down on the floor, Spike ended the fight by sitting on him.

With one hand, Spike held Graham's ankle, and with the other, he grabbed the back of Graham's neck. Graham lay limp. "This is embarrassing. I thought I could get in at least one good hit," Graham sighed.

"Hey, it's good for my ego," Xander pointed out as he scooped more slime into his dustpan and dumped it into the trash. "I thought I was just really bad at fighting, but if the big, buff soldier guy gets his ass kicked, suddenly I'm feeling less pathetic."

"Big, buff soldier?" Spike asked, pulling Graham's leg up until Graham hissed with pain. "Careful, pet. You know vampires, they're jealous sorts."

"It was just a saying," Graham protested, his voice higher than it should be. Spike let go of his leg and patted Graham on the shoulder before he bounced up. "That hurt," Graham said softly, not even trying to get up.

"You were bloody toying with me, pretending to not see me. You got what you deserved." Spike bent over and recovered his cigarette from the floor. Spike might not smoke much anymore, but he always seemed to have one in his hand or dangling from his lips as though he was about to light it and he had just forgotten.

"I was going for a tactical advantage." Graham slowly pulled himself up, using the edge of the bed.

"How'd that work for you?" Spike asked.

"Not well."

"Right then, if we have that sorted, the priest is downstairs. Peaches called for both of ya."

Xander narrowed his eyes and glared at Spike. "If this has anything to do with gayness...." Xander let his voice trail off, but he hoped that it was pretty clear he was willing to kill the messenger on this issue.

"It if does, I promise to eat the priest, and you can get a bloody calf puller and yank Angel's head out his oversized arse," Spike assured him. "Now move your arses. I don't want to be stuck in a bloody meeting when there's fun to be had and killing to be done." Spike turned and was out of the room faster than either of the humans could answer.

"I really hope he's killing bad guys," Graham said. Sitting on the side of the bed, he massaged his knee.

"I'm pretty sure he is. Cordy would eviscerate him if he did anything too stupid. So, are you sorry you agreed to Angel's terms yet?" Xander asked. Graham had been almost too quick to agree to sever all ties with Sunnydale and the army and allow Angel to approve any of the reports he sent back to Washington describing various non-combatant demons.

"Not really. An army needs intel, and intel requires a scout," Graham answered. "And we need to get down there before Spike loses his patience and decides to eat Father Peter on the principle of it."

"Or Faith glares him to death," Xander agreed. Their clan was an odd sort of family, but they were family, and everyone except for Angel had come to the conclusion that Father Peter was a "them" and not an "us." It was kind of strange having everyone get so upset on his behalf, but Xander had to admit he was selfish enough to enjoy it.

Downstairs, everyone seemed to have gathered in the sitting room, and not only was Father Peter there, but Doyle was there with a pretty woman who had a long nose and curly blonde hair. Xander smiled as he watched Faith shift. Up until now she'd been laying on the small sofa, but now she put her feet on the ground, freeing up a place for someone to sit, and Xander really didn't have any illusions about who she was hoping would sit there. Graham was a nice looking man, a little clichéd with his dimpled chin and muscles and bright blue eyes, but cute. Xander with his new-minted gayness could admit that.

"Are we waiting for Blair?" Father Peter asked. He didn't comment at all as Xander gave him a nice long look before sitting so close to Angel that he was almost in Angel's lap. Of course, the fact that Angel was in the oversized chair and there really wasn't room also might have something to do with the near lap sitting. Angel glanced over and Xander almost thought he saw a smile.

"Blair had to go home. He has classes he needs to not fail." Angel put a hand on Xander's knee.

Looking around, Xander realized that they were all finally paired up. Faith was stiff and still awkward around Graham, but Xander really didn't have any doubts about her interest. She wasn't exactly showing it the same way, but it was there. And Graham was going out of his way to do little things like pick her up her favorite soda when he went out on a grocery run. Hopefully that was Graham being interested and not just Graham feeling guilty because he'd figured out her earlier case of sleeping with him came from a psychologically unhealthy place. If it was Graham-guilt, things were going to get weird.

Spike was sprawled out, his boots propped up on the edge of the table, and Cordy was filing her nails. But her one foot rested against Spike's thigh as she marked her territory. Spike was the one sprawling, but somehow Cordy still managed to look very queenlike as she glanced up and looked around the room with that indifference she'd been practicing since she was twelve. Of course, anyone who knew her, knew that she threw herself into fights two seconds after insisting that it was all beneath her. It was just all part of Cordy's charm.

And now he and Angel were definitely heading for couplesville. Angel's hand comfortably rested on Xander's leg and the chair was big enough for both of them, but only if they were squashed together way too close for casual friends. Xander shifted around, trying to find a more comfortable spot. This time he could see the edges of a smile pulling at the sides of Angel's mouth.

"So, what is the emergency?" Angel asked.

"And it better not be a gay emergency," Xander whispered. Angel tightened his fingers into Xander's knee. "Just saying," Xander defended himself. Angel gave an exaggerated sigh, and Spike chuckled.

"There's no gay emergency, Xander," Father Peter said. At least the priest wasn't laughing at him, which was more than he could say about Spike and Angel.

"Good, because I'm not giving up the gay," Xander said firmly. Yeah, he was being less than subtle, but he and subtle were not exactly friends.

"I had gotten that impression," Father Peter said. Xander narrowed his eyes because Father Peter was sounding suspiciously amused. It was one thing for Spike and Angel to laugh at him, but he was not taking that from a priest.

"And you aren't going to go off on hell and sin? You aren't going to pull the big silent treatment?"

Father Peter's expression turned serious. "Xander, if I only talked to people who didn't sin, I'd have a pretty limited life. I wouldn't even be able to talk to myself, because none of us is perfect. You're still welcome at church, although I would prefer it if you didn't sit in Angel's lap during the service." Xander opened his mouth, but Angel's hand tightened on his knee again. Xander harrumphed, but he closed his mouth.

"Doyle, why don't you explain what happened."

"I should go check on them," the woman with the long nose said.

"Thanks, Harry," Doyle said, and from the way he looked at the woman, Xander was guessing he wasn't the only one who was newly paired up or newly frustrated about wanting to pair up, maybe. Doyle looked at the woman like she was the last glass of water in the desert. If this was the demon-expert Harry that Blair had lustful thoughts about, Xander was guessing Blair had just lost his chance at her. For someone who had just broken up with her fiancé, she was looking at Doyle with a whole lot of semi-appropriate fondness.

"Food's in kitchen, last door in the hall behind the check-in counter," Cordy offered. "We feed all kinds of demons, so there should be something in there that Listers like." Harry nodded and left.

"We have guests?" Xander asked. He'd been fairly sure that Angel had closed the hotel due to general grumpiness.

"More like refugees," Cordelia answered. "And if we can find the idiots who chased them out of their homes, I'm charging them our top rates for every room the Listers use," she said, poking her fingernail file at Angel.

"Princess," Doyle interrupted, "the Scourge is not interested in you balancing your books."

"Like I care what they want. And that is officially a stupid name. Who calls themselves the Scourge?" Angel and Spike both looked over at her, and for a second the room was quiet. By the time Faith cleared her throat, Xander was trying really hard to not laugh. "What?" Cordelia asked. She looked from Angel to Spike and then she rolled her eyes. "Oh please, that was in your tacky days. Besides, Darla must have picked the name. All style, no substance."

"I take it I'm missing something?" Graham looked around.

"Don't you know it," Faith offered. "These two were one-half of the Scourge of Europe back when they were down with their bad selves. I'm just wondering, who are these guys who've picked up the name?"

"They're bad news," Doyle said seriously. "Last time I ran into them... it wasn't pretty." Doyle leaned forward and hung his head.

"That wasn't your fault." Father Peter reached over and rested a comforting hand on Doyle's back.

"No, who should I blame? I refused to help people because I could pass for human, because I was too freaked out about finding out about my demon blood."

"None of us is perfect, and if you had gotten involved, you probably would have died, too." Father Peter looked around the room at all of them, and Xander noticed that the tension had risen dramatically. Spike was always the best barometer for how the group was feeling, and he was deadly still. "They're fanatics. They believe that all humans and part-human demons should die."

"Hate to point this out, mate, but most full demons feel that way," Spike offered, but he still had that unnatural calm that made Xander itch to get a weapon in his hands.

"This isn't some demon who just cuts the head off any half-breed he finds." Doyle looked up, and Xander could see the fear and the guilt across the man's face. It was a little freaky. "They're an army of pureblooded demons. They have a big hate-on for us mixed heritage types. Very into pedigree. They hunt us down like animals."

"So, we hunt them back," Cordelia said. She frowned and looked over at Angel for some sort of agreement, but Xander could feel how inhumanly still Angel had gone. "Demons make trouble, and we kill them. That's the deal, right?" When Angel didn't answer, Cordelia sat up a little straighter.

Faith pulled out her knife in a not-so-subtle indicator of where she was on the issue. "I'm five by five with the killing plan. Those families who came running here for sanctuary—they have kids. I'll be damned if I let some fucking army hunt down kids in our city."

"It's not that easy." Doyle looked around. "They're fanatics. Nothing you do will stop them. If you kill a hundred of them, they'll just call for more. They'll die for their cause. They're death." Doyle stopped, and Xander could feel the cold run down his back. He didn't care how big a demon got, a demon was still just a demon. It had a weakness. But an army of fanatic demons was sounding slightly more freaksome.

Obviously, Xander wasn't the only one concerned. Angel's hand tightened on Xander's leg until Xander poked him with an elbow. Then Angel cringed and eased up on the squeezing. Everyone was looking at Angel, and for the first time, Xander actually pitied the vamp. He would not want to be the one with this bomb dropped in his lap.

Angel nodded thoughtfully. "We need to know what they're up to. If this is an organized army, it's something we haven't fought before. I could go in undercover—"

"You're right 'round the twist there, aren't you?" Spike demanded. "Did you miss the part where they hate us?"

"I can tell them that I want to be like them, that I hate half-breeds," Angel snarled back, and that was an actual snarl. "I'll get them to give me information."

"They won't tell you anything because you are a half-breed." Spike leaped to his feet. "You even fucking try this shite, and I'll knock you tits over arse." Angel stood, his body angled for battle.

Faith was the next one up. "Hey, let's just chill." Faith raised her hands, but both vampires were pretty much ignoring her.

"Have you forgotten who's the better vampire, here?" Angel demanded as he took a predatory step toward Spike.

"I bloody know who's the stupid vampire here if you try this."

Angel reached out and grabbed for Spike's throat. Xander jumped up and grabbed at Angel's shirt, pulling him back. Or trying to pull him back, anyway. Angel was not big with going along on that plan and Xander felt a little bit like that cartoon of the little tiny dog playing tug of war with the great big dog—only the big dog didn't notice that the little dog was even there.

Then Cordelia was on her feet, looking at them without getting involved, but weirdly, it was Graham who actually put his hand between the two snarling vampire faces. For half a second, Xander really thought one of them was going to eat Graham, which would probably not be all that helpful. Spike would lose his toy, and Angel would be guilting for about a century.

"What?" Angel snapped. Dropping Spike, he backed up a step. Before Xander realized Angel had even moved, he found himself pulled close to Angel's side—not that he minded.

Graham was strangely calm in the face of all the growling. "This is an organized army, right? We need intel, information on targets, weapons, leadership—right?"

"Sounds about right," Spike answered when Angel just kept glaring.

"You have access to those things. Riley would come in a second if you called for backup." Graham looked from Angel to Spike and back, clearly waiting.

"It's a lot better than some suicide plan," Cordelia agreed after a few long seconds of silence.

Faith was the next to jump in. "As long as I'm in on the final beat-down, I don't mind having the soldier boys do a little of the footwork for us."

Angel and Spike stared at each other. "Peaches?" Spike asked.

Angel's eyes narrowed. "Call me that again, and you'll be healing for a week," Angel threatened him. Spike was weird though, because the threat just made him smile. "Call Finn. If the Scourge has an army, we'll answer with an army of our own."

"I'm on it," Graham agreed, taking a quick step toward the door.

"No!" Angel said the word sharply enough to stop Graham in his tracks. "Xander can call."

Xander blinked in surprise. Angel had been holding on tightly, but now Angel let go and gave him a small push. "Doyle can give you any details. Riley's people can stay at the hotel as long as they know that the Lister refugees are under my protection. Got it?"

"Um, got it," Xander agreed. "Hey, maybe I should go call now. Graham, you can give me the number," Xander said with false cheerfulness. The room had gotten way too cranky, and it was probably good for all humans to get out of the path of cranky vampires.

"Cordelia can look up Finn's number," Angel interrupted. "Graham and I can go over some tactical details. Faith, why don't you walk Father Peter home?"

Xander traded half panicked looks with Cordelia and Faith. He was hoping at least one of the girls would back him up about being a little freaked out about leaving Graham behind. Sticking yourself in the middle of a Spike and Angel smack-down was up there with castrating yourself with a melon baller, so Xander hadn't actually tried it, but he was guessing it was not good. However, neither of the girls looked interested in getting involved.

"You got it, A. So, Father Peter, just to let you know, if you lecture me, I might drop you in a gutter," Faith warned him as she started toward the door.

Father Peter looked a little confused as he stood up. "I don't actually lecture people. I talk to people who ask me for my opinions on the scripture."

"Oh." Faith frowned at Angel for a second. "Just don't go looking for me to ask. Come on, let's get you home."

Cordelia pulled on Doyle's arm. "We need to call Riley, and if Buffy's crew is staying here, they're paying full rates. This is not a flop house. Oh, and the Listers are in our best rooms, so the Army will have to make do with the fourth floor. I wonder if we can get them to pay for their rooms and the Listers'..." Cordelia headed out the door, towing Doyle behind her.

"Wait... who are we calling?" Doyle was asking her as she dragged him out.

"Angel," Xander started to say.

Angel turned around, his brown eyes looking down at Xander. Slowly, Angel brought his hand up and cupped the side of Xander's face. "A mhuirnín," he said softly, "go call Buffy and Riley."

For a second, Xander thought about arguing or pointing out that Graham hadn't meant to get in the middle or defending the guy. Then Xander thought about how it had felt when Buffy defended him, and that was not a good feeling. It was like someone didn't trust you enough to not get your ass kicked by the school bully. True, they weren't in school, and Spike was way better at bullying than Larry had ever dreamed of being, but... Xander glanced over at Graham... he was kinda big enough to take care of his own problems. It wasn't like they were going to eat him. Probably. Almost certainly.

"I am not explaining this to Buffy," Xander settled for saying. "You know how she is about defending demons, and Giles has a stick the size of a baseball bat up there when people mention good demons. If either one of them is on the phone, I'm going to make you talk to them," Xander settled on saying.

Angel slowly smiled. "You can handle one little slayer and her watcher," he said without much sympathy. "Go on."

Xander headed out of the room shaking his head. "I'm not cleaning up after her, either. You'd better be prepared to have a maid service in." Out in the hallway, Xander chewed his lip and watched Angel close the door. Yep, he had been officially uninvited to that little meeting, which usually meant Angel was doing something vampy that Xander didn't want to see... or that Angel thought Xander didn't want to see. Vampires—they were giant pains in the ass.



20. Chapter Twenty

Angel closed the door. If the Sunnydale clan were coming, they had to get certain loyalties settled, and that was not something he wanted Xander to witness. When he turned around, Graham had gone to parade rest. He smelled of anxiety, but not fear. And that was not necessarily a good thing. If Graham was afraid, Angel could get a little truth easily, but a confident Graham might be a little too cautious with his words.

Angel went back to the chair and sat, the lingering remnants of Xander's heat soaking into his leg. Spike looked at him, and Angel gave a nod so small that a human couldn't have seen it.

"If I overstepped my bounds, I apologize. I didn't mean to get in the middle."

"Sure you did, mate. Your hand didn't just float up in front of my face on its own." Spike sounded friendly as he slowly circled, and now Graham had the good sense to smell of fear.

"I should have waited. I was wrong." Graham was stiff, his body as still as a human could get.

"You don't actually believe that," Angel said. "You believe that bringing Finn's unit here is the best chance to find and defeat the Scourge."

This time, Graham didn't answer.

"That right?" Spike asked, giving Graham's shoulder a push. Graham rocked forward, but he moved back into his military stance.

"Yes, I do. If they're an army, Riley has the experience to deal with armies. But I also know that you have a lot more experience with demons, so if you tell me I'm wrong, I'll believe you."

For several minutes, Angel didn't comment on that. He watched while Spike stalked the room, his predatory attention never straying from Graham. With every passing minute, Graham's scent turned more and more sharp with the spiced smell of fear, but he continued to stand silent.

The chair had cooled, Xander's heat had finally dissipated, and Angel stood. Graham's eyes flicked toward him before returning to that same straight-ahead gaze that Angel had seen in so many army movies Xander had inflicted on him. The pose might be called 'at ease,' but there was no ease in this room.

Angel moved to a point in front and just to the side of Graham. It meant that Graham could see him out of the corner of his eye, but he couldn't focus on him. The position was intended to unsettle Graham, and from the sharp burst of fear in the air, it had worked.

"Why do you want to call in the Sunnydale group?" Angel asked, leaning in so close that he could feel the heat of Graham's body.

"I think Riley is trained to deal with an enemy organized into an army," Graham's voice was steady, but the tone betrayed his fear. Angel traded looks with Spike. Spike moved in behind Graham, his hand coming up to caress the side of Graham's neck in a gesture that Xander would have called affectionate. Angel knew better—it was a possessive gesture, one that a minion would have taken as a reminder that he owed his life and his allegiance to the master of the clan. But Graham wasn't a minion, and that was part of the problem. Angel still wasn't entirely sure where Graham's loyalties lay, and if Buffy and Riley were coming here, he needed to know.

"Any other reason?" Angel asked. Spike's fingers tightened slightly on Graham's neck. Now Angel could see islands of white around each of Spike's painted black nails as Graham's flesh yielded to him.

"No." Graham's eyes darted over to Angel again, and this time there seemed to be an honest confusion in that expression. Then Graham turned his eyes back to the front.

Turning his back, Angel walked to the ornate fireplace and stared at the wood surround. Xander had stripped the layers of paint and stain, exposing the bare wood with all the intricate carvings and scroll things. Angel ran his hand over the warm wood. "It does seem like the military and a vampire clan run by pretty similar rules. You obey the commanders, do your job, and show loyalty." Angel considered that for a moment. "Well, obeying and doing the job are the same. Some vampires are more loyal than others."

Angel could hear Spike scenting Graham loudly enough that even Graham with his human hearing had to be aware.

"But if this were a true vampire clan, and a minion from another clan came to me, asking to be part of my clan, I would make some assumptions."

"Like the git got tossed out on his ear and he needs some place to hide before he gets staked," Spike offered.

Angel shrugged and then turned around. "Maybe. Maybe I would assume that his clan leader had done something monumentally stupid and he didn't want to be around for the fallout. Maybe I would think that this new minion was still loyal to his old clan, and he was coming to spy. I might think a lot of things."

"I'd just bloody think the git had no loyalty in him, and I'd stake him," Spike offered cheerfully.

"I don't think that's the case here," Angel said as he moved back toward the middle of the room.

"Probably not," Spike agreed.

Graham swallowed several times before he spoke. "I told you, the generals in Washington wanted a source of information on demons other than the Watchers' library Giles has."

Spike let go of Graham and moved around to the front where he held his hand up, pantomiming his use of a phone. "Oi, need some intel on demons, so fax me somethin', got it?" Spike pantomimed hanging the phone up. Of course, if Spike called someone for information, that probably was how the conversation would go.

"Riley thought it would facilitate communication between the groups," Graham offered, but the scent of fear was hanging heavy in the air.

"Yet you allow every communication to go through me," Angel pointed out. "There's no more communication now than before."

Spike moved in, running a finger down Graham's cheek, and Angel could feel the shifting emotions. A part of him remembered this... remembered watching a human for every little twitch and tell that revealed its inner thoughts... remembered watching humans break. Graham was nowhere near breaking, but a sizable stress fracture was about to open up, and Angel could feel his own anticipation growing.

"So, do you think our little soldier is playing spy?" Spike asked. He had pulled his lips together into that tight smile so unique to Spike. Graham swallowed several times.

"I have from the beginning. I just never worried about it." Angel walked to a spot behind Graham. Now he could see Graham's hands. His hands were tightly clenched, something which Angel was guessing violated his military training. Breathing deeply, Angel scented the fear and the sweat and the smell of Spike's arousal. Angel ran his own hand over the curve of Graham's neck and watched as Spike's eyes yellowed. So close—Graham was so close. "I allowed you to spy," Angel whispered in Graham's ear, "because I knew you didn't have the power to harm my clan. But now you want to bring Riley into my house."

Graham started trembling. It wasn't anything that a human would notice, but Angel could see the slightest tremors in his legs. Spike did too because he moved in. Now Graham was caught between them.

"Right then," Spike said cheerfully, reaching up to wrap his fingers around the back of Graham's neck, his thumb across the front. In less than a second, Spike could snap Graham's neck, and the soldier probably knew it. "Explain what made you leave your nice safe world of soldier boys and university classes. Explain so I believe it, pet."

"I... I never spied." Graham's voice rasped. Angel wasn't sure whether Spike's thumb across his larynx or his dry mouth caused it, but words were definitely not coming easily. If Graham had broken, even if he had only suffered that first crack that opened his soul, the words would fall from him. They'd be a twisted mass of truth and lies, desperation and fear and hope. However, words would come easily. Clearly, Angel had not found the right lever.

"Convince me you aren't a spy; convince me I don't have to start planning for a war against your government," Angel urged him in a voice that he rarely used anymore. The smooth tones had lured more women to their deaths than Angel cared to remember, but to keep his clan and his Xander safe, he would use any of the many weapons he possessed.

"What? No, you don't have enemies in the government." Graham tried to turn, but Angel grabbed his arms and easily held him in place. That forced Graham to turn to Spike and make his argument. "The general read the reports on what Angel did in World War II; he said both of you helped to bring in a sub. Getting our hands on that technology saved thousands of soldiers, and he didn't believe that Angel got involved because he was forced. Angel's a centuries old vampire, and the soldiers, the Demon Research Initiative, they didn't know what they were doing." Now the words spilled out. Angel breathed deeply, the terror making him feel nearly drunk.

"None of you know what the bloody hell you're doing," Spike pointed out. He leaned in toward Graham and his delicious smell of fear.

"I know that. I'm not trying to spy. I want to make this work because I know the advantages you bring to the table. I'm not spying. I swear I'm not spying."

Angel had no doubt he was getting the truth now. The words and the fright fell from Graham like apples rolling from the top of an overloaded bushel.

"Why did you leave Riley?" Angel whispered.

"I didn't have a choice." Graham sounded desperate now, and Angel had to truly hold him still as Graham fought against Angel's grip. "He told me that I was making things more difficult—that I had to toe the line or transfer out."

Angel looked at Spike in shock. Riley and Graham had been the two who had been closest.

"Explain what happened, pet," Spike urged him. He moved his hand so that he was no longer gripping Graham's throat, but instead he rested his palm against Graham's chest, directly over the heart. With the little bit of freedom he now had, Graham looked over his shoulder at Angel, and the man was closer to breaking than Angel had thought. A small part of him reveled in his ability to rip a human apart, but a larger part was bothered by the sudden vulnerability he could see there.

Angel let go of Graham's arms and walked to his side. Reaching up, he put a hand on the soldier's shoulder, the way two men might do. It was a gesture that Graham would understand. "You came here because you trusted us to make a better decision, but then you withheld information so that we were forced into a conclusion that wasn't accurate. If you trust us, you have to give us your loyalty." Angel watched Graham; he could see the man gathering up his emotional reserves and patching the spider's web of cracks in his psyche.

"It..." Graham stopped. He closed his eyes and weighed his words. Angel knew with one push, he could finish this job and break Graham. Whatever had happened in Sunnydale, it had already started the process. Instead, Angel jerked his head in Spike's direction. Spike backed off and pulled a cigarette out of his pocket. They both waited while Graham sorted his own thoughts.

When Graham opened his eyes again, Angel just watched as Graham slowly backed up and sank onto the couch he had recently shared with Faith. He looked exhausted.

"I don't want to share intel that could get someone killed," he admitted quietly. Angel had to contain his smile. Clearly Graham had chosen his side because he had just given them his greatest fear and his most vulnerable weakness. Angel gave a tiny nod to Spike.

"Mate," Spike said, casually strolling over to the couch and sitting next to Graham, "I've put up with a lot of shite without killing. Bloody hell, I found you fucking Faith when I didn't know you from a hole in the ground, and I was ready to kill you over that, and I didn't."

Graham looked over. "I didn't understand."

"Wot? That she's not as unbreakable as she pretends or that you didn't have a bloody right to go mucking with clan without being clan?"

"Either," Graham admitted, but there was a little hint of humor in his voice.

"Graham, we are not going to randomly kill. We'll only kill if there truly isn't another way because killing generally only leads to feuds and more death. You know I won't put Xander in the middle of that." Angel sat in his chair and looked at Graham, waiting for the inevitable confession.

Graham's gaze slid back down to the floor. "The Initiative, the newest incarnation of that World War II Demon Research Initiative, it had an objective. Before her arrest, Maggie Walsh was working on a behavior modification chip. Sensors would detect violence, and it would punish any violence by sending an electrical shock into the vampire's brain."

Angel sat up, anger slamming into him. Spike was already in gameface, so it was probably good that Graham was so intent on studying the floor. He kept on talking.

"Dr. Walsh thought she could limit the chip. When vampires feed or even hurt humans, it activates the ventral striatum, a part of the brain that reacts when a basic need is satisfied. Fighting demons doesn't activate the same brain structures. Some of the Initiative scientists hoped to capture and use vampires as..." Graham swallowed nervously... "hunting dogs."

"Did they develop the chip or operate on any vampires?" Angel asked. The idea of chipped vampires disgusted him, both because of the way it would make those vampires weak and because of the unethical people who could torture a creature that way. The vampire would have an unbearably miserable life.

Graham shook his head. "She never even got the chip to work. She was arrested for illegally experimenting on us."

"Bloody lucky thing because if I'd found out about her plans, I would have tortured her until she crawled over glass for the right to soddin' die." Spike snarled the words. Graham shrunk in on himself, but he didn't defend his former boss. Angel moved to sit on the arm of the couch, resting a reassuring hand on Graham's shoulder.

"This is old news, Graham. How did this cause you and Riley to fight? How did this get you exiled from your clan?" Angel intentionally used words that would remind Graham that he wasn't part of the Sunnydale group anymore. They had thrown him out and Angel had taken him in.

Graham took a deep breath. "Some of the soldiers mentioned this to Giles and Buffy. Giles and Willow and Jenny started discussing the possibility of a magical version of the chip, but Buffy eventually vetoed it."

"To use, how?" Spike asked. He was furious, Angel could tell from his lack of emotion.

Graham slowly turned his head to the side and looked at Spike. "They talked about a targeted spell, something that would disable a vampire's ability to fight right before the men moved in. They also talked about bombs... magical bombs that would saturate an area with the spell and vampires who wandered through the area during the bomb's active period would be magically chipped."

"Bloody fucking wankers." Spike was up and pacing, and if Giles, Jenny, or Willow were in the room right now, Angel was guessing he would have to physically defend them from a very pissed off Spike. "They give any thought to the fact that we're vampires?"

Graham nodded. "Riley said that once we created the weapon, we couldn't keep it absolutely secure. You two would be vulnerable, but so would the other vampires the government has been watching."

"Other vampires?" Angel demanded.

"Some vampires seem to be more human than most—a couple in Toronto, one in Louisiana, a pair in Singapore... Riley pointed out that creating a weapon that could disable a vampire would pose a danger to all of you, and since we had an alliance with you and Spike, we shouldn't do it. He also had tactical objections."

"Such as?" Angel prompted him. He kept his own emotions tightly controlled. Clearly Graham already knew the Initiative was on thin ice with him, and further threats weren't likely to make him talk more.

"There was no way to know if the weapon worked before the battle, so it would make planning difficult. Even more than that, it targeted a part of the brain humans use, so if the spell went wrong, it could end up disabling or destroying humans instead."

"Oh, it would bloody go wrong. Mojo always does," Spike said.

"If Riley opposed the spell, did that mean you approved of it?" Angel asked, not liking where this was going.

"No!" Graham looked at him with alarm. "Vampires are not a major threat... vampires on the hellmouth... minions. Minions are not a major threat and that sort of firepower is inappropriate for the threat-level."

Spike looked amused at Graham's attempts to backtrack after calling vampires harmless. Angel was a little more interested in getting more information.

"You and Riley opposed the spells and Buffy vetoed it, why did this cause a problem?" Angel tightened his grip on Graham's shoulder.

"I told Riley that I wasn't comfortable with how things were. Buffy only vetoed the planned spell after Jenny Giles admitted that it might affect humans. Buffy has a blind spot when it comes to people. The Initiative has arrested everything from a man making magical beer to devolve college students to a mage trying to capture the energy of the hellmouth. But in every case, Buffy attempted to interfere with the capture because she isn't comfortable admitting that humans are just as dangerous as demons."

"Buffy's always had that blindspot," Angel admitted. She wasn't the only one. The Order of Teraka, the most feared assassins and bounty hunters in three dimensions, hired humans for that very reason—people tended to see humans as generally good and overwhelmingly harmless.

Graham rubbed both hands over his face and leaned back against the couch. "I told Riley that I didn't trust Jenny or Willow. Several times, they seemed to stop talking when I came near, and when I brought the subject up with Tara, she blushed and couldn't look me in the eye. I think Tara knows those two are in danger of going off the deep end, but she loves Willow. And Buffy is so blind to any sort of danger posed by a human that she can't evaluate the potential danger."

"You told Riley this," Angel said.


Angel looked at Spike. This explained a lot—like why they'd inherited Graham. Angel was guessing that Riley had given him the choice of shutting up or leaving.

"Spike, call Lorne. We're going to go see the Transuding Furies and make sure we're safe from any cast spells."

"That'll cost a pretty penny," Spike pointed out.

Angel cringed. The treasure they'd raided in Sunnydale was not lasting nearly as long as Angel had hoped. Between the hotel remodeling and the cost of weapons and charms and books, they were going to have to either open the hotel for a lot more guests or he and Spike were going to need to find another treasure to steal.

"We'll figure that out later," Angel promised. "Right now, we need that protective spell."

"On it," Spike agreed as he headed out the door.

Angel looked down at Graham. The man looked absolutely miserable. "So, should I pack my stuff?" he asked, weariness clinging to his every move and word.

"You're part of my clan, Graham. You leave, and you'd just piss me off by making me find you," Angel answered. "I need you to keep close to Xander. His blind spot is just about as big as Buffy's when it comes to Willow. He loves her too much to have any good judgment around her, so if you see anything that makes you nervous, you come to me."

Angel turned around to leave, but Graham called out his name. Angel stood at the door and looked back at the man.

"You're good at breaking a person," he said softly.

Angel studied the soldier. This was a man who'd studied capture and interrogation and the psychology of breaking. "You didn't break, Graham. That would have taken a lot longer and you wouldn't have enjoyed it nearly as much. You just chose a side." With that, Angel headed out to the newly set-up library. He had very little time to prepare for a visit from the Sunnydale clan, and he was suddenly far less comfortable with the thought of Jenny Giles or Willow Rosenberg in his hotel.



21. Chapter 21

"Willow! Buffy!" Xander called out as the first of the Sunnydale clan walked through the front doors of the Hyperion Hotel. He threw himself forward, his arms out. Both girls returned his embrace enthusiastically. Angel was a little more cautious, and he noticed that the rest of his clan was equally reticent. Cordelia was sitting on the counter, leaning against the computer monitor and pretending to file a nail. In the corner, Spike was sharpening a sword, and the sharpening stone never paused as it shushed over the steel. Graham stood near the bottom of the stairs trading nods with the soldiers who trailed in behind Buffy and Riley and Willow, and Faith stood on the second story balcony, watching the scene with a detached caution.

"I'm feeling one with my inner jealousy, Xander," Buffy said with a whistle as she looked around. "I'm on the dirty, fuzzy end of the lollipop when it comes to cool lairs. I get a dorm room; an underground bunker done in white, white, and more white; and a frat house that smells like beer."

"Our place isn't that bad," Riley said, holding out a hand to Xander.

"Yes, yes it is." Buffy gave Riley an amused look as he shook hands with Xander.

"Most of us are coming straight off bases. We appreciate an order to relax the regs and look like good old fashioned college students," he laughed.

"Hey, I'll give you the penny tour if you want. I'm halfway through remodeling the fourth floor, and I have plans for a couple of suites up there that will knock your socks off," Xander interrupted. His face was lit with happiness. Angel just tried to not think about the money his future remodeling plans would cost, but from the withering look Cordelia gave him, he was not going to get to live in blissful ignorance for long.

Cordelia put her nail file down and hopped off the counter. "Speaking of penny tours, the rooms are $129 a night, due up front. So, how many rooms will you be needing?"

Buffy turned toward Cordelia. "You're really charging us? You called us for help, remember?"

"Then feel free to use the Downtown Sheraton as your base of operations while you do the helping. I can call ahead and check on their policy for carrying in heavy weaponry, if you like," Cordelia offered with a smile that wasn't anywhere close to nice.

Xander cringed. "Oh the high school memories this brings back," he said. "No wonder I went running and screaming away from the scarier gender."

"You what?" Buffy stared at him.

"My foot just had a close encounter of the mouth kind, didn't it?" Xander asked.

"Really?" Willow stepped forward, and for the first time, Angel noticed the shy woman who followed in her shadow. "You're gay?" She squealed the words, and just as she said them, Giles walked in, his gypsy wife at his side. Angel wasn't surprised when Giles' gaze immediately settled on him. "Why didn't you tell me?" Willow demanded.

"Hey, what about you getting your gay on? I did not get the memo on that." Xander held his hand out to the woman standing behind Willow. "Xander Harris, at your service," he offered with a flourish. The woman blushed and retreated a half step even as she took his hand.

"Tara Maclay."

Buffy shook her head. "Okay, not to sound totally offensive, but did everyone drink gay water?"

"Oh yeah, that doesn't sound offensive at all," Cordelia said as she rolled her eyes. "Hey, you! Oh no." Cordelia stormed across the lobby and planted herself in front of two soldiers who were trying to pull a cart of equipment in through the doors. A wheel was caught on the doorjamb. "Only guests are allowed to go crapping up our lobby, and no one has paid yet."

"I have a credit card." Riley stepped forward and pulled his wallet out. "I'm authorized for 14 rooms, but I'm sorry; I'm capped at $99 a night. Government rules." He gave an apologetic shrug as he held the card out toward Cordelia. For a second, she stood with her arms crossed. Angel watched curiously. He knew he had a poor understanding of money at best, but the payment sounded fair to him. Then again, he had accepted a tribute of $50 after a ronath had eaten one of their beds, and according to Cordelia, that had not been anywhere near the replacement cost.

"Fine. Fourteen rooms, and if someone so much as parks a luggage cart outside of a fifteenth room, I'm having Spike steal someone's credit card and charging it." She plucked the card from Riley's hand and headed behind the desk.

"And welcome to the Hyperion, where the staff is always..." Xander waved a hand in Cordelia's direction before slipping his arm around Willow. Even Angel had to admit that Cordelia wasn't easily described.

Cordelia looked up. "We have a wonderful suite on the third floor—marble bathroom, spa bathtub, and California king bed with these imported Egyptian cotton sheets plus a separate sitting room with an oversized television, top of the line stereo, and stunning decor. Actually, it's a lot like the room I sleep in every night, not quite as nice, but close. If anyone is classy enough to want the suite, it might be available."

"Buffy?" Riley asked.

"For $300 a night," Cordelia added.

Riley choked. "I think that's a little rich for us. The army doesn't pay that well."

Normally, Angel allowed Cordelia to run the finances; however, he needed to make sure that the two groups didn't become too acrimonious. After all, if there were elements of the Sunnydale clan that were plotting against him, he needed to make sure that Buffy and the soldiers were on his side. And that meant that he was going to play good vampire to Cordelia's bad human. Part of Angel appreciated the irony of this version of good cop, bad cop. A hundred years ago, he would have slowly shredded the skin from anyone who suggested that a human could intimidate an enemy more effectively than he could, and now he was ceding that field to Cordelia.

"Cordelia, Buffy is the head of her own clan. I think we can put her up in the good suite." Angel stepped forward.

"Yeah, Cordelia, I'm the head of my clan," Buffy seconded. Angel cringed because Cordelia was going to make him pay for that, but it was still worth it. He walked up to the counter and studied the gathering group.

Jenny was the frontrunner as the source of the trouble. Willow was entirely too concerned about pleasing the authority figures in her life, and right now, Rupert and Jenny Giles were the only parental figures for her to worry about. According to Xander, her own parents had been less than thrilled about her decision to choose Wicca over Judaism, and that probably made her more vulnerable to a need for reassurance. Giles was a close second. The Watcher had never forgiven Angel after their little midnight chat. The new witch was a mystery, but Graham insisted that she would never approve of any weapon that endangered their allies, so Angel gave her a preliminary pass. The rest of the soldiers who were wandering in, gathering in small groups around their equipment, would follow Riley. And Riley would follow Buffy.

Cordelia was still glaring at him, and Angel just looked at her blandly. "Fine. If we don't pay the back taxes, I'm sure we can find a nice homeless shelter." Cordelia muttered the words so softly that only Angel could hear them. Clearly he and Spike needed to do a little treasure hunting sooner rather than later.

"Angel," Riley stepped forward, offering a nod. "I brought a demolition team," Riley gestured to three men Angel didn't know. "Two surveillance teams." This was an assorted group, including a woman old enough to be Riley's mother. "Computer and logistical support." Angel knew two of the men in the four-man team. He remembered doing patrols of the university and seeing them hunched over those strange little computers that you could close up and carry around. "And four tactical teams." Riley gestured to the largest group. These were warriors—some of whom Angel already knew. Saunders was here, the woman Spike had originally suggested Xander sleep with to solve their Anyanka problem. So were Haarde, Clark, Aaronson, Sabato and Kirkop, all of whom had trained with Spike in Sunnydale. Several more were familiar, but he didn't know them.

Xander looked around. "Um, you guys do know our rooms are way more like rooms than like a TARDIS. Fourteen rooms divided by lots and lots of you is going to make for really crowded sleeping, and the rooms are not bigger on the inside than on the outside, which is where the TARDIS reference came in for those of you who are not hopeless Dr. Who geeks."

"We don't mind close quarters," Riley assured him.

"Speak for yourself," one of the tactical team said. "Begay snores like he's trying to break the sound barrier." Several of the soldiers laughed, one aiming a punch at the arm of a Native American who flipped them all off.

Buffy was laughing with the others, leaning into Riley. It was Willow that Angel watched. Xander still had his arm around her shoulders, but the only other person really paying attention to her was Giles. He would have thought she would fit right in with the computer and logistical support team, but clearly she was isolated from the military support, and that was a problem because Buffy was clearly part of the team. The dynamics were starting to become entirely too clear. Angel looked away from the Sunnydale crew and checked his own clan. Spike just continued sharpening his sword and watching silently, and Graham had actually backed away some. Xander was the only one who seemed oblivious to the tensions running through the room. He was busy whispering in Willow's ear, and she had her hand over her mouth as she tried to not laugh.

"We have a place on the first floor where you can secure any equipment," Angel said. "Xander can show you that. And Cordelia can find you keys for your rooms. Except for Buffy's third floor room, they're all going to be on the fourth floor." Angel watched as a new face appeared next to Faith at the second story railing. From a distance, the Lister boy looked human, but the ridges around his eyes and his color would mark him as a demon the moment someone got close enough to discern more than the general outline.

"I just need to make one thing clear." Angel stepped away from the counter and faced the entire clan. Buffy frowned at him, clearly confused by his tone. The soldiers immediately quieted, and Spike even stopped, the schoop-whirl of the stone against the sword falling silent.

"Being human doesn't give a person a free pass, ethically," Angel started. He could see Giles' back stiffen. Jenny had turned her back completely and she was half-hidden by her husband, so it was difficult to judge her body language. Of course, the body language he could see didn't exactly please him. "Soldiers know this more than most humans, I think. They have to fight evil that is, more often than not, created by humans. I think I've earned the right to say that. After all, Spike and I are the only two in this room around to actually fight the Nazis."

Spike stood up and looked at the crowd. "Bloody tasty gits, even if they were five stone of crazy in a burlap bag. And their women all looked like Goebbels." Spike made a disgusted face, and Angel watched that bit of information filter through the Sunnydale crew. The soldiers had turned somber.

"You fought Nazis?" Giles asked Spike rather disbelievingly.

"SS came mucking about in my life, so I mucked up theirs a bit, yeah," Spike told him. "I'm not a bloody do-gooder. I’m not like Angel out to save the world for puppies and kittens. But there's evil that's bad enough that even I'll take a stand, and when I've seen that evil, like as not, I’m looking at a human."

Angel took another step forward, reclaiming the floor. "The whole reason why I could convince your general to investigate Dr. Walsh is because I already had a history with the army—one that included fighting the Nazis. And it turned out that Dr. Walsh was the one illegally testing on her own soldiers—turning them into guinea pigs so she would test her theories without having to worry about ethics or review boards or medical doctors who might question the long-term damage she was doing. She was keeping men alive on machines after she had carved over half their bodies away." There was an uncomfortable stir in the room.

"I saw it," Riley confirmed. "Dr. Walsh had three fallen soldiers in a secret level of the lab. They'd been butchered and machines were forcing their hearts to beat and push blood up to their brains."

"Okay, way to bring the downer," Buffy said quietly. "Angel, is there some reason for this Prozac-sucking moment?"

"Demons come here," Angel said. "Not the type of demons who want to reclaim this dimension and wipe out all human and half-breed life. The demons who come here have families and lives and jobs. They complain about their bosses and jet lag and taxes. They come to LA to meet potential mates or to have their auras read as part of their religious rites." Angel paused. He wasn't a fan of speeches, but all the soldiers needed to hear this.

Jenny stepped out from behind Giles, and he could see her distrust and her hatred like a living creature that had crawled into her skin. Angel continued, focusing on the soldiers who were listening, on Buffy as the clan leader. "These demons come here to have a quiet room where no one will judge them or try to hurt them. Right now, I have twenty Listers staying on the third floor. These are families that have been living in abandoned buildings and basements, running for their lives because they don't have any special powers and the Scourge has been exterminating them because they're peaceful enough that they've married humans and had children of mixed blood. The injured and the elderly and the sick have fallen behind and been slaughtered. Their few fighters have died trying to slow the Scourge down long enough for families to flee as the Scourge set fire to abandoned buildings to force them out. If one of you does anything to make them feel unwelcome..." Angel smiled at the group, but he didn't even try to make it a nice smile. "I will not be pleased."

"Bloody understatement, that," Spike added softly.

"Oh please," a voice called from the second floor. Angel didn't bother looking—he recognized Rieff's voice. Doyle had been trying to work with the teenager, trying to convince him to let go of some of his anger, but the Lister teen was just as resentful as ever. "Do you think they're ever going to see demons as anything but evil?" Rieff demanded. "They don't understand. None of you will ever understand. Even you vampires—you think you can imagine how I feel, but you can pass as human. You can walk around without people pointing and laughing. You're all the same. You have no idea what it's like to be me."

Rieff's running footsteps faded as the boy ran farther into the hotel. For a second, there was utter silence. Xander looked troubled, and Angel was actually relieved to see that Willow and Tara looked equally troubled. Most of the soldiers had lost all expression from their faces, but Angel knew these were battle-tested men and women who were going to hide even the strongest emotions. Angel was surprised to see that even Giles looked speechless.

"Well," one of the soldiers eventually said in the heavy silence. "If I didn't know better, I'd swear I was home on leave because that sounded exactly like my little brother. Sixteen is not a fun age." Several of the soldiers laughed, the dark humor cutting through the somber mood without dispelling it.

"Less fun when you have the running for your life going for you," Xander pointed out. "His job was to raid the neighborhood for food and get it back to his family so his little brothers and sisters didn't starve. And I complained bitterly about taking out the trash at his age, which is not making me feel all that good about myself." Soldiers shifted uncomfortably. Career soldiers were warriors who had a code, and Angel was relieved to see that most of them were bothered by Xander's words. Even now, as soldiers started to gather up equipment, they talked in whispers and moved slowly and quietly.

"Xander, why don't you show them the secure storage," Angel suggested, keeping his voice soft. He wanted these soldiers thinking about what they'd seen. Xander nodded and whispered something to Willow before he started moving toward the hall, gesturing for the others to follow. Giles and Jenny huddled by the door, their conversation intense, but so quiet that Angel couldn't catch even one word of it. Spike was closer, so hopefully he'd catch a word or two. "I need to get the keys," Cordelia said softly, and then she vanished into the inner office.

Eventually, Buffy wandered over to Angel's side. "Okay, that was slightly intense."

"I didn't want there to be any misunderstandings," Angel told her.

She frowned at him. "So, we get the 'humans, evil; demons, good' speech?"

For a second, Angel could only look at her. "That wasn't the speech I just gave," Angel pointed out.

Her frown deepened. "Okay, then I need to borrow someone's lecture notes because I got humans evil, demons good. Being that I'm on the human end of that syllogism, I'm not feeling all warm and fuzzy."

Closing his eyes, Angel immediately dismissed the urge to correct her vocabulary. Xander mangled words far more consistently than Buffy ever dreamed of, so he knew his urge to lecture her on logical syllogisms was just part of his general frustration with her. He also passed over the opportunity to point out that she had more than a touch of demon herself. "Buffy, the Scourge are both unforgivably evil and demons. The Nazis were evil, and they were human beings. My point was that an individual chooses to be good or evil."

"So, people being evil means that demons are out there being good? Still not buying the logic."

For a second, Angel watched as Cordelia came out of the office and started handing out keys, typing into her computer with each key that she finally relinquished. Small groups of soldiers began to wander toward the stairs and the elevator, keys in hand. Angel wondered why he thought he could do this. He did so much better with problems he could just hack at with a sword. Angel changed his approach. "Two of the most ethical men I've ever known are Xander and Oz. Both showed an incredible willingness to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. They didn't have to do the right thing, they simply chose to."

Buffy looked at him oddly.

"One is human, and one is a demon," Angel pointed out. Riley wandered over. Wordlessly, he wrapped his arms around Buffy's stomach and pulled her close, but he didn't comment as he watched them. Buffy smiled up at Riley for a second before focusing on Angel again.

"Um, no. Okay, I have my moments, but even I can count to two. One, two." She held up first her index finger and then her middle one. Then she put both fingers down. "Xander, Oz." Again she lifted the index finger and then the middle one. "Human, human." Two more fingers. Then she frowned. "Okay, so human 27 days out of thirty, but that's a majority, and the majority rules."

"A werewolf is a demon, Buffy," Angel said, wondering just what Giles had taught her. "If you read any of the demonology books, you'll find them listed along with vampires as blood-borne manifestations of demons into human bodies. I can show you if you want."

"That makes it sound icky. He just got teethed on by a toddler, not mauled. And vampires are very much not werewolflike."

"No, the demons in werewolves are stronger. If you drank my blood, that would open a portal for a vampire to try and take possession of your body."

Buffy stiffened in Riley's embrace, her hands grabbing his wrists, and for a second, Angel could see the distrust there. "Okay, let's not try that," she said.

Angel sighed and leaned back against the counter, intentionally putting himself in a poor position to defend himself, and Buffy immediately relaxed. Allowing the quiet commotion in the lobby to distract him, Angel watched as Xander came back out and headed straight for Willow. Oddly enough, Willow had been standing in the middle of the room, not moving toward anyone. Tara stood by her side, but the two of them were an island of stillness in the middle of all of the soldiers' efficient movement. He turned his gaze back to Buffy.

"I wasn't planning to offer you blood," Angel pointed out, "but if I did, you'd be safe. A vampire is not strong enough to battle a soul for possession. Your soul would push the demon back out."

"But that's not true with a werewolf demon?" Buffy asked, but the detachment in her voice suggested that she was already thinking of the ramifications of that one fact.

Riley spoke up. "So, does that mean that Oz is actually possessed all the time, that the physical manifestation during the full moon is just one symptom?"

Angel nodded. "The demon is always inside Oz, always making him feel demonic instincts. If a werewolf becomes emotional—angry, lustful, afraid—he can turn without the full moon. I've seen one turn in the middle of the day in the middle of a crowd."

"How did you keep the press away?" Riley asked, immediately considering the practical concerns.

"It was somewhere in the mid-1800's." Angel pointed out. "Covering for the werewolf was not my first priority. However, Oz is a good man who doesn't lose himself in that. Just because he is infested with a demon, that doesn't mean he's evil. He would only be evil if he gave in to the instinct to serve his own pleasure and power at the expense of other people."

"Dr. Walsh proved that you don't need a demonic possession to give in to that instinct," Riley said with a grimace. Angel understood how hard that had been for Riley to admit. The soldier had vehemently stood up for Dr. Walsh until all the evidence had come it, but once given, loyalty wasn't easily given up. God knows that Angel had his own issues remembering Darla, the sire who he'd tried to follow even after she'd brought him the gypsy girl who had led to his sould being cursed back into him. Sometimes during his hundred years of wandering the earth homeless, he'd blamed her. He'd imagined that she'd betrayed him out of malice or boredom. In his saner moments, he understood that she had only wanted him to enjoy a girl whose dark hair and eyes were so much like Drusilla. But Angel couldn't imagine knowing that you'd pledged yourself to someone and, in return, they'd filled you with poison and lied to you. Dr. Walsh was probably safer in prison than she would be around the soldiers she'd betrayed.

When Buffy's nose wrinkled, like she was smelling something unpleasant, Angel also suspected that he had made her see something she had not wanted to see. "Why do I have a sudden urge to give evil surveys to the demons I slay pre-slayage?" Buffy asked unhappily. He understood her position—to be effective, she had to kill without remorse, but if she believed him, that was impossible.

"It's not the same on a Hellmouth," Angel promised her. "Most demons can feel the evil soaking up through the ground. There are a few neutral demons who can't feel the Hellmouth or who just don't care. Some time when I'm in Sunnydale, I'll introduce you to Clem. But most good demons are going to avoid anyplace that feels so inherently evil."

"And if I accidentally come across the not-evil kind?" Buffy looked up at him with horror, and he realized she desperately wanted an answer.

"They'll be running away from you long before you see them," Angel promised her. "Demons like the Listers learn to make themselves scarce because that's their only defense." Angel watched as Xander urged Willow toward the stairs. Tara followed, her gaze darting around the lobby like a bird unsure of where to land. He was pleased to note that Graham quickly closed in on the trio, smiling at them as he invited himself for whatever tour Xander had offered her.

"This makes me wonder what would have happened if the general hadn't arrested Dr. Walsh," Riley said quietly, and Angel focused back on their conversation. "Would I have captured Oz or some kid like the one who just gave us his version of teen angst?" Riley looked more than a little bothered.

"You wouldn't have done that," Buffy said firmly, but Riley was already shaking his head.

"Dr. Walsh was drugging me. She controlled all the information, and the information she shared with me and the men... every day I discover another lie. She wanted us to focus on vampires because she thought they were some of the strongest demons."

"Not really," Angel offered. As Angelus, one of the reasons he had been so ruthless was because he felt his inferiority just as surely as Liam had. Only instead of having one overbearing father telling him that he wasn't worthy, he had most of the demon community saying it. Vampires survived by wit or by reproducing at rates that other demons couldn't match. They were stronger than humans, but that wasn't saying much.

"You know," Angel said, watching as Cordelia rationed out the last of the keys, "I'm developing an extensive library here. Your logistical and research teams are welcome to come down and study it."

"If they pay a fee," Cordelia said loudly enough to carry over the general murmur of the men left in the lobby.

Buffy rolled her eyes.

"That's fair," Riley offered before Buffy could object. "It's not easy or cheap to run a covert operation this size. Does Graham have clearance for the library?" For the first time, Riley's voice showed stress.

"Graham has full access to anything in the hotel," Angel said, keeping his voice emotionless. Graham was part of his clan now, and a small part of Angel stirred restlessly at this evidence that Riley still held strong feelings for his friend. "But Graham and Faith normally patrol the tourist districts while Spike and I take the docks and warehouses. LA has a large enough vampire population to keep us all busy, and I wouldn't want him up all day transcribing books and then trying to patrol."

Riley nodded, but the motion was tight and jerky. "Fair enough. It's been pretty quiet, so I might send one or two of our researchers down."

Buffy gave a laugh. "At least you have vamps. Sunnydale has been deadsville this year, and not in the crawling with the living dead sort of deadsville. We're down to fighting over who gets to slay the odd demon we can scare up. I never thought I'd be so bored with demonless, slimeless patrols."

That piece of information truly worried Angel. "That isn't good. There's a lot of power in Sunnydale, and if no one is trying to tap into that power, something big is scaring them away."

"Maybe we're the 'big' doing the scaring," Buffy said. "Only I'm not really believing that. That was more like wishful thinking." She shrugged. "Giles says there's some ultimate evil that's scheduled for a return tour next year, so I'm just trying to get my required English classes out of the way now."

"I appreciate that you're giving the teams a chance to work in the field." Riley looked around as the last of his men waited at the elevator, their bags sitting at their feet. "Training hasn't been as intense since Spike left town, and we need to stay sharp if Mr. Giles is right about next year."

Spike had wandered close, the sword he'd been sharpening still in his hand. But then, Angel didn't expect him to go unarmed in a hotel full of demon hunters. Spike flashed Riley and Buffy a wide grin. "Right then, you miss me?"

"Like the plague," Buffy answered for Riley.

Spike offered her a two fingered salute before he turned to Cordelia. "You need me ta help with anything, luv?"

"Them!" Cordelia gestured toward the door. Giles and Jenny were still deep in conversation just outside the front doors of the hotel. "I am not going to stand here forever and wait for them. I have paperwork to do and books to catalog and my hair is scheduled for deep conditioning tonight."

"Oi, you lot," Spike yelled. Angel thought it was probably a little over the top to point the sword at the couple, but Spike had never been good at subtle. "Piss or get off the pot. The woman's got better things to do than wait for you to move your sorry arses."

"Charming as ever," Buffy said with a nasty smile.

"Bloody honest as ever." Looking at Riley, Spike shook his head. "I don't know what you soddin' see in her. She's as bad as Darla, always tryin' to put on airs and make out like she something she's not."

"Spike," Angel warned. He got an eyeroll in return. However, Angel had other concerns. Giles was finally coming into the hotel, his arm resting on Jenny's back as he escorted her in. From the look on Jenny's face, she'd lost whatever debate the two of them had been having just outside the hotel.

"Angel," Giles offered with a stiff nod. The man was obviously going out of his way to not create more hostility.

"Giles," Angel offered in return.

"Yes, despite the rather tactless invitation," Giles looked at Spike, "we will take a room near the one Buffy and Riley will be sharing."

Cordelia typed something into her computer. "Three hundred a night," she offered primly.

"I... what?" Giles blinked owlishly.

"We should get a room somewhere else," Jenny said with a tight smile, making it all too obvious what they had fought about.

"I'm sure Cordelia can find us a more reasonable rate. This isn't the Taj Mahal, after all." Giles stared at Cordelia. Angel wondered if that had worked when he had been a teacher in possession of some nominal power over her. Somehow, he doubted it.

"We're booked up. If you're unhappy with that, talk to Xander. He's the one in charge of remodeling, and right now, the fourth floor is full of soldiers, the third floor is full of Listers, except for our deluxe suites, and the second floor is family." Cordelia looked up. "You are not family."

"Listers? The demon refugees?" Giles' stiffened some at that.

"My guests," Angel said sharply.

Giles pulled his hand away from Jenny and used it to pull a handkerchief out. Not surprisingly, he began polishing his glasses. "Yes, of course. I would hope you could find us a room at a slightly discounted rate," Giles asked. He stared at his own glasses as he polished them, but then, Angel imagined that was the point of his little ritual. Cleaning his glasses allowed him to emotionally divorce himself from the situation by focusing on his own hands.

Angel gave Cordelia a nod. She narrowed her eyes at him, and Angel just knew he was going to have to sit though another spreadsheet outlining their expenses and their income and her inability to magically make numbers match when people kept spending way more than they brought in.

"Fine. $199 a night, and considering that we paid more for the Egyptian cotton sheets, that is the best deal you're getting." Cordelia turned her finger toward Buffy and Riley. "And if any of you get gun oil, demon ick, slime, or semen on those sheets, I'm back charging your card."

Riley held up both hands in surrender. "Yes, ma'am."

Buffy rolled her eyes, but she didn't argue. Angel wondered if her own demon could feel the discomfort at being in another's territory.

"I'll show them up to the rooms," Angel said, holding out his hand for the keys. He knew that Giles would want to stay between Buffy and any demons, and he specifically wanted to make sure that Buffy got as close to the Listers as possible. Cordelia surrendered two keys with an unctuous smile. "Thank you for staying with us, and if you need anything, feel free to take care of it yourselves because we're not your servants," she told the last of the Sunnydale crew before she turned and headed back into the inner office.

"Bloody hell, I adore that woman," Spike said and then he grabbed his sword and followed.

Angel started heading for the stairs. The extra exercise would, no doubt, annoy Giles and Jenny greatly. "Wait," Buffy called. "Did Spike just imply... Okay, that's disturbing."

"Only if they could have children." Riley walked over and grabbed two bags, slinging each over a shoulder as he smiled.

"Way to go with the disturbo images." Buffy walked over to the door and grabbed most of Giles' bags. "Now I'm going to have nightmares about little miniature punk wanna-bes wearing tiaras and taking over the world."

Angel smiled. He had forgotten how much he actually enjoyed Buffy's irreverence. She and Xander had similar senses of humor.

"Think about this," Riley said in an amused voice, "if they could have children, that would mean they'd be stuck raising miniature versions of themselves."

"Ohh!" Buffy's eyes lit up. "That would almost be worth the world-endage."

Angel headed up the stairs. On the second floor landing, he could hear Xander excitedly showing off Angel's suite, so he was guessing Willow was in there. Pushing aside his fears, Angel allowed Graham to keep an eye on that situation while he headed up to the third floor, the leaders of the Sunnydale clan following close behind.



22. Chapter 22

"You have to see this," Xander said, reaching over to flick a light switch. Blue lights under the porcelain tub turned on, and the light seemed to glow from inside. "Cool, huh?" Xander turned the light back off.

"Very much with the lighty goodness," Willow agreed. Xander shifted uncomfortably on the edge of the tub where he was sitting next to Willow. She picked at her skirt, and Tara was looking pretty uncomfortable as she stood next to Willow. Things were definitely not back to the easy friendship they'd once shared.

"So, you did all this work?" Tara asked. Xander smiled at her. "Not all by myself. I found a really cool way to get extra credit and free labor."

"Oh?" The word 'extra credit' cheered Willow up a bit.

"Yep. I get Angel to pay for supplies and then volunteer the hotel for a field trip. The teachers love the fact that this place has enough rooms for the construction students to pair up and see just how ugly plumbing and wiring can get in a building that's coming up on its ninetieth birthday. And in one week, I can get twenty rooms updated. And bonus, Angel gets to see everyone's grade, so I know which rooms I have to redo before the building inspector shows up."

"Generally, it's a great plan, but I thought Faith was going to snap that guy's neck last time," Graham said. He was sitting on the long marble vanity, leaning back against the mirror so there were two of him, each leaning against the other.

"Goddess, why?" Willow asked, her hands coming up to her mouth. Xander was just glad that Graham didn't mention Spike being in on that neck-snapping plan.

"Do you remember Devon? The dating Buffy and asking Cordelia out at the same time Devon?"

Willow scrunched up her face before she turned to Tara. "He was kind of a boy whore, and then there was the time he put drugs in the green Jello, and he turned Angel all grrrr."

Xander flinched. He hadn't actually meant to remind her of that little adventure. Tara nodded. "I heard the s-stories."

"Yeah, well one of the guys at school makes Devon look classy. He was over here about a month ago, and he offered to plumb Faith's pipes. Actually, I seem to remember talk of pipe snakes and clogs and some really bad thrusting metaphors."

Willow made a face, and Tara just blushed.

"I remember the screaming," Graham added. "Lots of screaming. He should have known that if he was offering his equipment, Faith was going to want to test the durability of the goods before buying."

"Oh... OH!" Willow cringed in sympathy.

Graham shrugged. "I was not feeling the sympathy."

"The school offered to kick him out for sexual harassment, but Faith didn't want to go there. She just told him that if she caught him talking to a woman like that again, she was going to confiscate his equipment altogether. Oddly, he dropped out of school," Xander said with a grin. He couldn't say he was sorry.

Tara reached up and ran a finger over the glass tile around the tub. "It seems like you're happy here."

Xander didn't miss the way Willow's gaze skittered away and settled on the floor. "I miss my girls," Xander quickly answered. "I make Spiderman jokes, and no one gets them."

Willow looked up and smiled. "I can't believe you made me read all those."

"Jesse and I would quiz her on Spiderman and then she'd quiz us on our required reading for school. I'm guessing you know who always won that little contest," Xander told Tara.

Tara gave him a small smile and let her hand rest on Willow's shoulder. Xander liked Tara. He hadn't expected to because part of him still thought of Willow and Oz as the fairy tale couple, but Tara had a calm that could rival Oz, and she looked at Willow like she was utterly in love and didn't even care who knew it.

Reaching out, Xander rested his hand on Willow's, stopping her from picking any more threads from her skirt. He was afraid, at this rate, that she was going to end up skirtless. "I haven't been able to beat Willow in anything since the first summer Boogerman came out."

Willow shivered. "I hated that game. It was so bad. You had to fling boogers and fart at these creepy little demon things. It was gross."

"Which led to a lack of Willow practice. I am the almighty Boogerman champion." Xander held his arms up in victory. "Of course, it didn't hurt that she kept covering her eyes every time she fart attacked."

"It was gross," Willow defended herself softly, but Xander could feel the tension finally draining out of the room.

"I'm sure it was," Tara agreed with her.

"So, Tara, what were your big misuses of time as a kid?" Xander asked. He wasn't prepared for Tara to go stark white.

"I... I was f- f-fairly quiet."

Willow looked up at her. "Tara actually comes from a big magical family. She can do way more than I can, especially with potions and incantations. I guess training with Jenny has left me more on the techno end of the magic scale, but together, we can do some wild magic."

"You have a lot of power," Tara told Willow. Then she looked up at Xander. "I know about herbal remedies and potions, but I didn't do much before I came to Sunnydale."

"Yeah, that's the Hellmouth for you," Xander said. "It makes you tap into whole new powers just to try and not get your ass kicked by the local demons. You should have been around right before the mayor went boom in the local school. I think there were more vampires than humans in town."

"We were under orders to only conduct reconnaissance at the time, but we'd go out and get all these vampire readings on our gear, and it just about turned my hair white," Graham agreed. He shook his head. "Some days I wondered why the hell I didn’t run for the hills, and other days I just wanted the green light so I could start killing the things."

"Yep, Hellmouthy good days," Xander shrugged. "I can't say that I'm sorry the mayor going boom has left a big pile of boring. You guys deserve a little boring," Xander told Willow. He was bothered by the fact she'd gone back to picking at her skirt.

"Is your room this nice?" Tara asked in the awkward silence that had descended.

"Tara!" Willow hissed. Tara practically shriveled into herself.

"What?" Xander recognized Willow outrage, he just didn't understand it. He traded looks with Graham, but he looked as confused as Xander.

"The room. I mean, it's really okay that you share a room with Angel, and this is a really, really awesome room to be doing the sharing with. The bathroom is bigger than most apartments in LA. So, it's all good. I mean, as long as you really like him it's okay, because you would never... you know... just to get a nice room. And goddess, I practiced this speech after Giles told me that you were probably going to, um, yeah, and it didn't sound like this at all."

"Oh," Xander said. Yep, here came the weird.

Willow reached out for his hand. "Exactly, and 'oh' is fine between consenting adults. 'Oh' is good even."

"Okay, I really don't want to think about you and Giles discussing my 'oh' at all," Xander said unhappily.

Graham made a disgusted sound. "I like to think that anyone who can't come out and say 'sex' isn't having any in the first place." Willow blushed dark red, and Xander glared at Graham until Graham held his hands up in surrender. "Just my opinion," he said in his own defense.

Xander was starting to wonder if the bathroom wasn't going to explode from the force of all the weird building up. "I have my own room, Willow," Xander said. "Not to say that I'm not interested in..." Xander waved his hand incoherently.

"Sex," Graham offered. "It's really is less disturbing when you just say it."

Xander glared at him. "Fine. I'm interested in sex, happy?"

"Goddess, no," Willow whispered. She really was going to burst a blood vessel blushing so hard, but strangely, Tara almost looked amused.

Xander braced himself to just get the conversation over fast—like pulling a Band-Aid off or ripping out an arrow that was lodged in your liver. Fast-good. "I would love to have sex with Angel, but Angel is all going-slow guy. He seems to think that I’m going to wake up and decide that he's gross or creepy or something. So we are not big with the... sex."

"But... why show us his room?" Willow asked. Xander was starting to wonder that himself. Right now, hanging out with Faith or Spike was sounding better and better, even if they were both taking sword training way, way too seriously. Xander's bruises had bruises some days.

"Because he has the coolest room," Xander pointed out. If he had a shot at the door, he really might run for it right now. Unfortunately, the bathroom really wasn't big enough for four adults and he was crammed in the corner farthest from the door. "He'd probably be happy in a closet if we let him put a bed in it, but demons have all these rules and expectations, and the head of the clan definitely needs bragging rights and I worked my butt off on this room."

"Hey, I'm impressed with the room," Graham offered. When Graham had first decided to tag along, Xander had been a little on the slightly confused side, but he was pretty damn glad he was here now.

"You just like the big screen TV."

"Hell, yeah," Graham agreed. "It's a little ironic because Angel does not strike me as a big television guy, but it's impressive."

"The bookshelves are more his speed," Xander agreed. "Those are solid mahogany. Originally, they were in storage in the basement, and water had damaged them so badly that the warping had split the wood and pulled all the joints loose." Xander stopped. Okay, he was falling back into pointless small talk, which was not really where he wanted to be, not with Willow.

"They were nice," Willow agreed. Then she picked at her skirt some more.

"We should see if we can get Cordy to comp you a room." Xander stood up and gestured toward the door. He really did wish he could make her happy, like when he had taken the fall for breaking that crayon, or when he and Jesse had gone along when she played doctor by poking them in the mouth with sticks, but he didn't know how anymore.

Willow stood up, and Tara reached over and slipped her own hand into Willow's, threading their fingers together. Looking over, Willow gave Tara a scrunch-face. "We'll probably have to pay double. Cordelia and I are not exactly friends."

"Hey, she's going to like you a whole lot more now that you're gay," Xander pointed out. "And I totally did not mean that in a creepy, she's-interested-in-you kind of way." Graham looked a little confused at that, but Xander did not want to get into a discussion of the weirdness that had been his high school love life. He really did consider gayness a defensive strategy at this point. "Speaking of the gay, where did you two meet?"

"Wicca group at school," Willow said, and now that they were safely small-talking, she looked a lot more cheerful. This was so not feeling like a healthy reunion. Xander still loved Willow, he just wasn't sure he knew her. "I thought I was going to meet all these witchy types and learn other types of magic, and it turns out that they were all new age pseudo-witches. They waved sage around and said that purified their auras, but when I mentioned spells." Willow got an unpleasant look on her face.

Tara nodded. "They weren't very open minded."

Xander held the door for the girls, watching them head for the stairs. "They probably don't believe in magic and demons and Hellmouths. I still think there's a weird brain-wiping vibe."

"Hellmouth amnesia," Willow agreed.

"Xander," Angel called from the first floor, and Xander was really, really hoping for some sort of plumbing emergency that would require his immediate attention. Heck, given five minutes and a wrench, he could create a fourth floor plumbing emergency.

Xander hurried down the stairs. "Wow, the lobby really cleared out. We were hoping you could maybe put in a good word with Cordy and get Willow and Tara a room, because unlike Giles and Buffy, she is not getting the monthly government paycheck."

Angel frowned. "Why not?" He reached out, and Xander just silently shook his head. For someone who insisted they had to wait three more weeks before sex, Angel was touching more and more. The second Xander got close, Angel's arm slipped around his waist and pulled him close. Oh yeah, his Angel had a few issues with possessiveness.

"I don't really do anything." Willow was quick to say it, and Xander even knew she believed it, but Xander wasn't buying it. From the frown on Angel's face, he wasn't either.

"I thought you were the one to develop the computer program that tracked deaths and potential vampires." Angel looked at Willow with that face that Xander liked to call his 'making a point' face.

"And she integrated a charm," Tara said. The woman was clearly uncomfortable around Angel, and she was practically behind Willow in her attempts to stay back, but she still spoke up. "The charm tracks demonic signatures and transposes them onto the program's map, so we can see how much demonic energy is in a place."

"That sounds cool. Why don't we get any of the cool computer stuff?" Xander asked. Honestly, he wasn't sure he wanted to be able to track demons. He knew he didn't want to see how many demons were in LA because that number was freaksome. However, he also suspected that Willow had not been getting her daily dose of praise. The last time he'd seen her this twitchy was sixth grade. They'd had a teacher who thought praise just made a student lazy and laurel resting. By the end of the year, Willow had been a total basket case.

"Because we don't have anyone who can do that type of magic," Angel answered. "Willow, the tech team is setting up in the office, but I was wondering if you could help them."

"Me?" Willow took a step backwards, and practically pushed Tara back with her. Oh yeah, this was just going peachy. And here Xander thought this would be a great time to heal old wounds. Either this was opening new wounds, or Willow was way more wounded in general than he really wanted to even consider.

"Hey, you're tech-girl," Xander pointed out with a smile.

"Jenny is much better than I am. I should get her," Willow said, and she backed up another step toward the stairs.

"Willow." Angel held up a hand to stop her. "I don't trust Jenny Giles." Willow opened her mouth to argue, but Angel kept right on going without giving her a chance. "She knew there was a happiness clause on the soul-curse, and she didn't tell us."

Willow chewed on her lip for a second. "I'm sure she was only doing what she thought was right."

"I believe that," Angel agreed. "But the problem is that Xander was living with me at the time. Now we know that the curse requires perfect happiness, a condition I really don't think I'm in any danger of, but none of us knew that back then. For all she knew, a really good television program or a chance to see a sunrise in Technicolor for the first time in a hundred years could have been enough. If Angelus had come back for good, Xander would have been the first to find out."

Xander watched as Angel's words made Willow fold in on herself. Her arms hugged her stomach, and she just looked like she was shrinking. For a second, Xander considered stepping in, but hopefully Angel had a plan—one that didn't involve emotionally shredding Willow and leaving her in tears, because right now, Xander could see tears coming.

"Jenny didn't put Xander's safety first, but I know you will." Angel stepped forward and put a hand on Willow's shoulder. "You and Xander have been friends longer than anyone else here, and I'm including Spike and myself because our early relationship was not exactly friendly. I know you'll protect him, and I know you have the skills to do what the army programmers can't."

Willow blinked at him, and Xander recognized that expression. She was trying really hard not to cry and on the verge of failing. Xander wasn't all that sure that Angel recognized the expression because he kept right on talking about the job.

"They're trying to create a virus that will spread through the hate groups and the demon groups on-line, something that would capture information on the Scourge and send up a red flag so we can track all their units. But the Scourge is dangerous. If we destroy one army unit, they might write the unit off as dying in the line of duty or three more units might show up. They're fanatics, and we can't predict what they'll do."

"What do you want me to help with?" Willow asked in a small voice. Tara moved in closer, her arms coming around Willow's stomach as she held Willow from behind.

"The programmers are good, but they're used to tech. The Scourge may have cyberwiccan or technomages working for them. Can you create a cyberspell that will confuse any magical attempt to trace us? I don't want the Scourge showing up here and Xander being the one to answer the door."

Willow looked from Angel to Xander and back before nodding. "I can look. I still think Jenny could—"

"I don't trust her like I do you," Angel said firmly. "She doesn't have the same desire to protect Xander."

"Intention is important in a spell, and you love Xander," Tara whispered.

"Hey, Willow." Graham stepped forward. "Do you know Steven Wolfe?"

Willow nodded. "We met. He's one of Riley's friends."

Graham laughed. "Friend might be too strong a word. He's a great darts player and a nice guy, but Riley and I don't actually understand two words he says. I saw him and Miranda Tamani earlier, so I can introduce you. I'm surprised you guys aren't geeking buddies already." Graham turned to Angel. "Where'd you set up the geek boys, boss?"

"The blue office," Angel nodded toward the service hallway.

"Ladies," Graham offered a charming smile and a sweep of his arm. "Once you're done with your spell, I happen to know a certain carpenter who can be bribed into wearing a suit for a dinner at a nice restaurant."

"Hey! Any place that wants my business wants my workboots," Xander said while Graham was herding Willow and Tara toward the service hallway.

"Keep telling yourself that, kid," Graham called over his shoulder. Xander waited until they'd all turned the corner before Xander sagged into Angel.

"First, thank you for the save."

"You're welcome." Angel's arm came up behind his back, and Xander let his head fall onto Angel's shoulder.

"You have talked more today than in the last month," Xander said. Angel wasn't a talker, and the minute Angel started doing stuff that wasn't Angelish, Xander started wondering what plan he had going on in his head.

"I thought people needed to hear some truth, and I don't think they're getting that truth at home."

"Jenny and Giles." Xander sighed. Whoever thought time healed all wounds never tried being wounded around Jenny and Giles because they were more the hyenas gnawing at the edges of the wound than the letting it heal sort.

Angel urged him forward, and Xander gratefully followed Angel's lead. He was so in over his head with Willow and Giles and the new brand of weird they had going now. A Lister girl went running down the stairs, squealing in joy, and Xander stopped and watched her run. Her sister was close behind.

"How long do you think it's been since she could play like that?" Xander asked quietly.

"I don't know. But we're not only going to destroy this unit; we will track the main Scourge army so she doesn't have to worry anymore," Angel promised.

Xander wondered if the little girl or her family would have to worry about demon hunters or slayers. He thought back to those early speeches Giles had given them. Vampires had nothing of the human whose body they had taken. Demons were all evil hellspawn. Other dimensions were full of evil beings with the sole goal in life to destroy all human life. God, had he ever been so young that he bought that?

It didn't even make sense because if all demons were united against humanity, he was guessing humanity would have been in the crapper a really long time ago. Heck, they'd found that record of the one town where the demon finished his ascension. The whole town just, poof, vanished. Or at least the people did. Xander was guessing that if anyone had gone looking, they would have found a lot of suspicious poop. But the ascended demon hadn't then eaten the world. As far as Xander could tell, he'd ascended, eaten the town, and then fallen off the demonic radar. If you were in the town about to get eaten, ascension was totally and justifiably terrifying, but it wasn't world-ending, human race extinction, badage.

Angel guided them toward his bedroom, and Xander happily allowed himself to be guided. Only when the heavy double doors were closed and Xander had collapsed onto the couch did he think about the mess they had in the hotel. "This is not good, is it?" Xander asked.

Angel came over and sat so close that their thighs touched. "We can handle it. I think we're safer if more people do their own thinking and have access to independent information," Angel answered.

Xander let his head fall back against the couch. "And we're back to the Jenny and Giles show."

"Buffy is the leader of the clan I saw today. Those two are..." Angel stopped.

Rolling his head to the side, Xander studied Angel. He was more stressed about this than he was letting show. Angel had a seriously good poker face, but Xander could see the tiny traces of emotion that snuck through anyway. "Explain it in vampire terms," Xander suggested.

Angel looked over and shook his head. "They aren't vampires."

"But that's how you see the world. And freakily, your vampire logic works with people most of the time."

"Vampires do learn about the world from the humans whose memories they inherit. Maybe we inherit more human behaviors that we like to admit." Angel rested a hand on Xander's thigh. "Jenny and Giles are exiled Masters, old vampires who have made such a terrible mistake that their minions have abandoned them and they're left trying to curry favor with a new Master. A clan leader with vampires like that in his court knows that the old ones should be watched because they will learn their place, they will try to manipulate the situation to make themselves invaluable, or they will try to usurp the court."

"Slightly harsh," Xander said.

"But is it accurate?" Angel asked.

Xander couldn't answer that, he could only shrug.

"Maybe I shouldn't assume their motives are similar." The confidence Angel had shown just minutes ago faded. Now Angel had that expression like when he was watching a movie that he really didn't understand.

"The whole trying to make themselves invaluable part is possible. I don't like to think that Giles would be all shallow-man, but he got booted out of the Watchers, and his family was all Watchered up, so he probably got the boot from them too. When he got married, Willow told me that one cousin and Ethan Rayne were the only ones to show up on his side." Xander chuckled. "And then Ethan Rayne tried to suck Hellmouth energy out for some big chaos spell and Riley had to arrest him. Apparently Buffy was way with the freaking about Riley almost missing the wedding."

"Jenny failed her family." Angel stopped at that, but Xander could fill in the blanks. From what he'd seen of Jenny's creepy uncle, her family wasn't the forgiving or the mentally healthy sort. Suddenly Xander was feeling sorry for them, but he really did not want to deal with that tonight. Nope, he wanted to be really frustrated with them for keeping up the demonish propaganda. Maybe they needed to find a PR firm to friendly up the word "demon." Or they could pick a new word... like "dimensionally different" or "alternately evolved."

"Oh, and thank you for seeing that Willow was way with the flailing," Xander said. Angel's mouth did that little quirk thing.

"What?" Xander demanded.

"Nothing." Angel looked at him, but he had on that face, the one that said he had more than nothing going on.

"Angel, she's been my best friend as long as I can remember. That face? That face you have on right now? That face is making me wonder if I should worry."

The minute he said that, Angel immediately cut him off. "I would never hurt your friends."

"Then tell me what you did."

"I didn't do anything."

"Tell me what you're thinking about, then," Xander insisted. No way was Angel going to get a free pass on this one.

For a second, Angel just looked at him, and Xander crossed his arms. Angel sighed in defeat. "I just did what I would have done if she'd been a valuable minion acting like that," Angel admitted.

"Okay, please tell me this does not involve anything that is going to make me blush next time I see her," Xander begged.

"It doesn't." Angel shifted on the couch so that he was looking at Xander. "Sometimes a clan gets so large that a clan leader can't keep control over all the vampires in his court. The old master, Darla's sire, had a court that large. When that happens, the leader creates groups within his own clan, cliques that are loyal to each other. As long as the leadership of the group remains loyal to the clan leader, then all the members of the group will as well."

"That sounds logical," Xander agreed.

"Until you have a clique leader like Darla who breaks away, and then she takes her group with her."

"Oh, yeah. Batface could not have been happy about that."

"He forgave her." Angel dismissed that with a shrug, but then he always ended conversations about Darla as quickly as possible. Yep, Xander avoided Jesse conversations, and Angel avoided Darla ones. They had matching issues.

"Wait." Xander sat up. "You're trying to put Willow into a clique."

Angel nodded. "One that is loyal to Riley."

"Who is loyal to Buffy, and Giles and Jenny are out of the equation."

"Hopefully," Angel agreed.

"Small flaw, oh scheming one. Willow is all about the authority figure. She brought apples for the teachers, she practiced piano until her fingers cramped for her parents, she is pretty much all about the older authority figure telling her she isn't screwing up."

"Hopefully the soldiers with those computers will do that."

"If they can't?" Xander asked. Manipulating your friends because they were there and you just happened to manipulate them was one thing. Xander could admit he'd done his share of drive-by manipulations. But this was premeditated manipulation, and things were feeling creepier.

"I'll do what I have to in order to keep the clan safe," Angel said firmly. Then he got up and walked out of the sitting area and into his bedroom, closing the door behind him.

"Well, crap," Xander whispered. Something was going on because no way would Angel get this worked up unless there was something to get worked up over. And the very fact that Angel wasn't telling him meant that the something was big enough that Angel didn't want him to have to deal with it. "If I catch any Scourge, I'm going to hit them... a lot," Xander promised himself. If it weren't for them, his two worlds wouldn't have come crashing up against each other. He glanced toward the main door. He could go down and talk to Willow—maybe crack a few jokes and try and help her fit in with the soldier guys. But he also knew that Angel was going to be brooding and wondering if he was screwing things up.

Getting up, Xander walked over to the bedroom doors. Locked. "Angel, open the doors," Xander called, knocking on the solid wood. "Angel, I built this suite. Do you really think I didn't keep builders keys for myself? Don't make me go through the crap in my room to find them."

The door clicked, but it didn't open. Xander pushed the doors open. "Hey," he said. Angel was sitting in the reading chair under the lamp. He had one of his big depressing books beside him. "You know..." Xander crossed the room and sat at the end of Angel's bed. "You're handling this way better than I am. I mean, I was just kinda failing my way through that conversation with Willow. We were doing great when we kept the conversation to anything pre-slayage, but whole avalanches of freaky kept falling on us when we talked about the here and now. So, you are not going to do your guilt thing. In fact, I just got a new video—Species II. Naked girl parts, aliens, and really, really horrible reviews. Horrifying reviews even. How can we go wrong?"

"I'm worried that I'm harming your friends, and you want to torture me with movies?" Angel asked. He was clutching his book like that would save him, but he should know better by now.

"Oh yeah," Xander agreed with a smile. "Either that, or I can get naked, lay on your bed, and see how long your one month rule lasts. Your choice."

Xander was rewarded with eyes that instantly yellowed with lust. Oh yeah, Angel might be playing noble, but there was definitely lust there. He was almost disappointed when Angel practically ran for the television in the sitting room. Not that Xander really wanted his first time with Angel to be a quicky with Willow likely to come knocking on the door and asking about dinner at any time. That would be awkward. Nope, sex later—sorting the various demons, friends and semi-allied clans now. Real life sucked.



23. Chapter 23

Angel rested the flat of his sword on his shoulder, and Xander might have stopped to consider how very sexy that looked if he wasn't more than a little freaked out about the coming fight. Across the alley, one of Riley's teams prepared the explosives at the west wall.

"Tell me these guys are good," Xander whispered to Graham. He was a little surprised that Graham was going in with them and not with the army guys going in on the other three sides, but Angel and Spike seemed to accept it without blinking, so Xander supposed something had changed when he wasn't looking.

Now that he thought about it, Graham hadn't really been hanging out with the soldiers except during sword training. Riley's crew had been more than a little disappointed that bullets were more on the annoying than the deadly side with these guys, and apparently their nifty exploding shell bullets used guns that were a little too large to carry into a fight. Three sharpshooters had already gone in to find the Beacon and make sure they were in position to shoot any demons trying to turn it on, and their guns were so big Xander wasn't sure he could lift them.

Faith stretched her back and shifted a little closer. "They'd better be good or this is going to be one short fight when those Scourge set off that Beacon." Two Listers had insisted on fighting with them, and they both watched with their lips pressed tightly together. Xander was guessing he was not the only one with pre-fight jitters.

"They're the best," Graham assured all of them. "The explosives teams will get all sides open at once, and while the other teams don't have as much experience with swords, they're experienced soldiers, so they'll handle their end of the fight."

"Then these uglies are going down," Faith said with a tight smile. "And if the fucking soldiers get in my way, they're going down, too," she warned, looking away from Graham. Xander traded a worried look with the guy.

"No worries, pet," Spike offered. "They get in the way, and I'll cut 'em down to size."

Cordelia rolled her eyes at them. "You two need a dictionary. Look up 'ally'."

"It means the wankers who I won't go out of my way to kill unless they threaten me or mine." Spike's lips curled into a smirk as he stalked closer to Cordelia, ducking his head and reaching out to slip a hand around her waist. "Nothing's touching you, pet," he promised her, his lips moving toward her. Xander cleared his throat and looked away because Spike somehow made kissing look dirtier than porn.

"You aren't ever touching me again if you kill Buffy's soldiers."

Xander looked over, and Cordy had on her 'so not kidding look.' It was a scary look.

"If you're done getting shot down, we need to focus," Angel said. "Four minutes. Xander, keep Cordelia in sight, and both of you stay to the rear. Call out if we have Scourge trying to flank us, and other than that, just pull the wounded to safety. And Spike, if you kill any soldiers, just remember that those two are going to be pulling the wounded out of the way, so they'll be the ones cleaning up any mess you make." Angel took a second to really stare at Spike. No way did Spike care about the soldiers, but Xander had the feeling Spike would protect all Riley's guys if that's what it took to keep him and Cordelia safe. No matter what Spike claimed, he was a giant softie when he cared about someone. Angel turned to the last three members of their team. "Doyle, Tor, Jerry, stay behind the four of us and focus on defense. Keep the demons off our backs."

Xander wasn't as sure about that bit of planning. Doyle looked pale with fear, and Tor was one of the Lister fathers and old enough to be Xander's grandfather. Xander would rather be doing the backing up himself, but he understood why he couldn't. Years ago, he'd called Angel an idiot for thinking he could be in a battle with someone he loved and not have something really bad happen. At the time, he had been trying to cleverly break Angel and Buffy up. But now Angel loved him, and Xander knew if he was in the middle of the battle, Angel would take stupid risks to protect him. Which all meant that Xander planned to actually stay in the rear.

Spike sighed heavily. "Peaches is a lot more fun ta hunt with when the rest of you aren't around," he complained. Moving to the side, he pulled out a cigarette and lit it, watching from the corner of the building as the time ticked down.

"Spike, they can see you," Xander hissed.

"Yeah? I'm just a bloke on the corner smoking, so I'm not all that interesting unless I'm talking to the shadows in the alley."

Okay, that kinda made sense. Xander switched the hand his sword was in and flexed the fingers as he waited for the signal.

"You'll do fine," Graham whispered. "Hell, you're still better with a bladed weapon than I am, so you'll probably do better than I will."

"I won't let anything touch you, boyfriend," Faith said with a grin that promised murder and mayhem. "Besides, we're good at covering each other's backs." She shoulder bumped him and shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Yep, she was ready for the fight.

Xander didn't feel nearly as ready as Faith. Then again, Faith and Graham patrolled about every night when Xander was safely tucked up in bed with a book on city wiring regs. The last time he'd been in a major fight had been graduation.

Back then, he'd done what he had to, but he was more than a little happy to have Angel making the decisions this time around. The deaths of every single person in that fight still weighed him down as much as the look of horror on Jesse's face when the stake pushed into his heart. There were nights that he could swear he saw Harmony's long, blonde hair, and he wished he could just turn back time and tell her to stay home. He should have done that the first time around because asking Harmony to fight was like encouraging a little corgi dog to go after a pit bull. Slightly guilt-inspiring. Xander was officially not cut out to be warrior-guy. Or he was not cut out to be leader-warrior-guy anyway. He was fix-it guy and moral-center guy and kick-in-the-ass guy when Angel put his head up his ass. And now he was covering the rear escape and pulling-the-injured-to-safety guy. He could do that.

A muffled blast startled Xander out of his thoughts, and he found himself running next to Cordelia. She had her short sword up, and an intense look on her face that made Xander suspect that demons would try to get through him before they challenged her.

Angel and Spike went through the hole first, flying through with supernatural grace, and Xander almost felt sorry for Graham who had to scramble over the broken bricks looking way more human than the other front line fighters. The Listers were stuck scrambling over the rubble too, so no supernatural grace and strength there, but Doyle demoned out and managed a single jump over the mess.

Riley's men were standing guard at the hole, so Xander ducked in through the smoke and braced himself for an attack as he went in. Cordelia was close behind him, and inside, he heard her softly say a very unladylike word she probably wouldn't admit to even knowing much less saying under normal circumstances.

The Scourge had brought in extra units after Riley's guys started playing 'poke and run' with the bad guys, but Xander hadn't expected this many. The Scourge were an army—a really ugly army. Sword clashed against swords, and Xander heard gunfire echoing through the enormous warehouse, so either the sharpshooters were choosing targets or Riley's guys were in deep, deep shit. A bleeding Scourge soldier in a uniform totally ripped off from some Nazi came stumbling toward them, and Xander disemboweled him with a quick thrust and retreat move. Not pretty or fancy, but so very effective.

Spike leaped up above the crowd, his face shining with glee, and his body moving with inhuman grace that reminded Xander of a really playful tiger. He landed, and half a second later, a Scourge soldier was flying over the entire melee, his arms flailing before he slammed into one of the metal catwalks and then fell back to the ground.

"Soldier down," Cordelia called. Xander brought his sword up and ran next to her as she aimed for one of Riley's guys. He was down on the ground emptying his gun into the belly of a Scourge who was about to decapitate him.

"Hey, pick on someone who knows which weapon to use." She thrust forward with her sword, and it wasn't a half-bad move. Unfortunately, the Scourge was better than half-good. He knocked her sword to the side, but Xander used the opening to shove his sword deep into the guy's underarm. He started gurgling up blood, and Cordy held out her arm. The injured solder grabbed hold, and Cordelia pulled him backwards while Xander covered them both.

The fight was slowly turning from one giant free-for-all into a number of smaller fights, and Xander caught of glimpse of Faith whirling and kicking her way through a clump of Scourge, Graham at her side, only without the kicking and whirling and more with the straight hacking at enemy arms with his sword. Cordy got the wounded guy to the blasted opening, and the medics claimed him from there, and then the two of them were, once again, stuck watching the action and waiting to see if any more of their own would fall. Xander was just trying really hard to not think about how easy it would be for one of the Scourge to stake their vampires. Technically, a stake to the heart would be just as deadly for Graham or Faith, but Xander found himself searching the warehouse for Angel and Spike.

A bubble of power swept through the building, and Xander screamed as he saw Angel lifted and thrown across the room. Xander hadn't even opened his mouth to call out for someone to help him before the sound of other screams filled the air. The remaining Scourge members clawed at themselves, their skin sliding down off their bodies like melting wax figures.

Xander brought his sword up defensively and spun around, searching for an enemy. That's when he noticed Spike springing up from the ground where something had thrown him, snarling at the air. One Scourge member exploded into little hard chunks that ricocheted off the walls.

"Faith!" Graham's call made Xander spin around again, and Faith was on the floor, her arms up over her head like someone was hitting her. Graham was spinning around like he was searching for an enemy to fight. He had his sword held high, and he'd pulled his gun out, but he couldn't seem to find anything to shoot at or stab. Xander made quick eye contact with Cordelia, who made 'go-go' gestures with her hand. Xander ran to cover them. Another Scourge exploded, and Xander yelped as a chunk of demon caught him on the shoulder and stung like when the baseball team would throw balls at Xander instead of to him during P.E.

Luckily, Angel was up again and looking a little Angelusy, but now Xander noticed Doyle lying silent on the floor, a pool of blood spreading out from his head. "Doyle!" Xander called, changing course mid-dash. Another Scourge exploded and then a series of them went up at once, showering the warehouse with hard little chunks of demon that hurt like hell when they hit. Xander threw himself over Doyle and tried to defend the injured man and cover his own head.

"Medic! Medic!" Xander looked up at Riley's call, and Riley was shielding Buffy, who was sitting on the ground looking confused and glassy-eyed. Riley yelled loud enough that his voice carried, even over the last pings as the chunks of Scourge hit the inside walls and fell to the concrete. All around, Xander was surrounded by chunks of grayish charcoal that had been the Scourge army, and he pulled his jacket down over his hand before he shoved the nearest pieces away.

"Um, needing medic more for bleeding man!" Xander called out as he waved his arm. There really didn't seem to be anyone left to threaten with a sword, so he was a little more worried about Doyle bleeding out his ears.

"Help me." The pained cry came from near the weapon, and Xander looked over. Tor was trying to push himself up from the floor, but he was bleeding badly. A soldier with a medic bag ran to his side, but Tor was already starting to shake, his head snapping back and then forward, flinging blood across the concrete.

"He's seizing. I need a stretcher!" The soldier got his hands around Tor's shoulders and moved him over to his back as a second soldier ran over with a backpack that he was already unfolding into a stretcher.

"Oi, he's about to blow," Spike called, but the two medics ignored him. One man laid his own body over Tor to hold him down through the seizures while the other snapped the stretcher together. Xander watched in horror as Tor's head imploded with a pop. Grey and red bits from his head splattered in a tight circle, hitting the two medics. The medics jerked back, and Xander threw up on the floor next to Doyle. "Bloody warned you," Spike said. "This one already blew. Hey, you lot, Doyle is still breathin'."

Xander felt hands on him and he just allowed himself to be pulled away as the medics quickly moved to Doyle, attaching IV lines and a breathing mask before they even wiped Tor's blood off their faces. Xander's throat burned, and his stomach started heaving again. Strong hands supported him, holding him as he threw up yellow bile on a small pile of Scourge charcoal. "Doyle?" Xander wiped his mouth and carefully didn't look in Tor's direction. He wasn't surprised to hear Angel's voice right behind him. Who else would hold him when he was vomiting, and if that wasn't love, what was?

"He's still breathing. He doesn't sound as bad as the Listers," Angel said quietly. Then again, Xander couldn't imagine being worse than the Listers.

"I need help with Faith," Graham called out.

"I'm fine." Faith was answering, but even Xander could tell she didn't sound fine. She sounded shaky, and Faith did not do shaky. She made others shake.

Before a medic could get to her, Spike was there on one knee beside her. A medic and his bag came up, and Spike stopped the guy from coming any closer by pointing a sword at the guy's guts. "You soddin' leave her alone. Got it?" Spike demanded.

"She needs help," Graham reached out and caught Spike's sword arm. For a very long second, Xander held his breath as he waited for Spike to backhand Graham into the middle of next week, but instead Spike actually tolerated him, although he didn't lower his sword and the medic backed away, his hands held up to show that he didn't plan to fight over this. The other two medics were carrying Doyle out, and the third guy hurried after them.

"If she needs help, we bloody get her help, but I'm not letting one of them anywhere near her. Did anyone else notice what direction that attack came from?"

"I did." Angel's arms were still around Xander, and now they tightened. Xander looked around in confusion. Riley was still sitting on the floor next to a dazed Buffy, but as Giles came over to sit next to her, he got up and moved toward the center of the warehouse.

"What are you saying?" Riley asked.

"Just said it, mate. That definitely came from your lot, and seeing as how it took out all the demons, you're dense as pig shite if you can't figure out who did it."

"Oh goddess." Willow whispered the words, but in the silence of the warehouse, her voice was unmistakable. "Oh goddess, no. No."

Xander felt the arms around him shift, and then Angel moved forward, his sword held down by his side. "Cordelia, get over here," Angel said quietly. Cordelia was standing near two soldiers, and she frowned in confusion. "Now." Whatever Cordy had going through her mind, she obviously decided to not piss off the already pissed off vampire.

"Geez, alright. But seriously, if they killed the Lister men, I want a chance to poke someone really hard before you go eviscerating them." Cordy sounded all together, but her eyes were puffy and her mascara was streaked sideways from her wiping her eyes with that weird under-eye move that was supposed to keep her eye makeup from running. Xander guessed that not even Cordelia's tricks could save her makeup when she cried that hard. Spike moved to the side so that he was standing in front of her.

"Just help me up," Faith said, her voice still shaky. Xander was even more freaked out about the fact that Graham had to practically lift her. But she was still one up on Buffy who was still sitting on the floor beside Giles not even trying to get up.

"Captain! Kirkop is injured, too," one of the soldiers called.

"I'm fine," Kirkop said in an unhappy voice, but Xander could see red trails up his arms and his neck and even his face, like he had hundreds of tiny broken blood vessels.

"That shouldn't have happened," Willow said, and Xander's stomach turned to stone as he looked over at her.

"Willow? What do you mean?" Giles demanded before Xander could get past the horrible sinking stomach feeling enough to ask the same question. Giles got up from the floor, and Willow's hands fluttered.

"Giles, let's take this somewhere private." Jenny stepped to his side, her hand resting on his arm.

"Let's not," Angel suggested.

"I agree." Riley turned around so his back was to Angel and he crossed his arms as he considered Jenny and Giles. "Kirkop, get to the medics."

"Sir, I'm fine. I'd rather stay here." Xander watched as Kirkop turned to face Giles and Jenny who had drifted closer to Willow and Tara, and this was not feeling good. This was feeling bad. Freaky bad.

"Dead bad guys is reason to celebrate," Buffy argued. "Yeah, the chunks were a surprise. But hey, at least the Scourge made nice messless chunks." However, she had to use the wall to push herself up, so her cheeriness felt a little forced. She stood leaning against the wall, and Xander cringed as he watched her struggle to stay upright.

"Willow, what do you mean that this shouldn't have happened?" Giles turned around and went back to Buffy, getting his arm around her waist.

"I..." She stopped and looked around with wide eyes full of panic. Xander could feel himself pulled toward that desperation. Whatever she'd done, she hadn't meant to... he knew that. She had on her really, really sorry face, but at the same time, two bloody bodies lay on the ground with their heads exploded. The Listers hadn't deserved to die.

"What did you do?" Angel growled.

"Nothing!" she blurted. She turned around to look at Jenny, and Xander realized that Jenny's face had lost all expression.

"Willow, let's go out to the car," Jenny said firmly.

"Jenny?" Giles sounded bewildered, which was not a tone of voice Xander normally associated with Giles.

"Rupert, we can talk about this later." She gave him a tight smile.

Buffy spoke up. "Oh, I'm starting to think we can talk now. Or you can talk now, I’m just going to stand here and fade in and out of consciousness."

"Buffy?" Willow hurried to her side, getting her own arm around Buffy's waist so Buffy was propped up between Willow and Giles. "Jenny, this wasn't supposed to happen."

"What wasn't supposed to happen?" Giles almost yelled.

Willow jerked like he'd hit her, and Giles sighed. Xander started to step forward, but Angel caught him by the arm and pulled him back. When Xander turned to glare Angel into letting him go, he failed miserably because Angel just pulled him closer.

Giles sighed again. "Willow, what happened to the Scourge?"

Willow's gaze immediately went to Jenny, but she just raised her chin and said nothing. Xander noticed several of the soldiers shifting uncomfortably, and hands were starting to come to rest on the butts of guns.

"So," Angel said softly, "you used one of the spells you'd prepared against demons."

Xander looked up to see if Angel was attempting some wildly inappropriate humor. Sometimes Angel's attempts at humor were definitely lacking any humor. However, there was not much of the haha in his expression. "Spells? Against demons? Friendly demons?"

Kirkop held up his arm where a spiderweb of red veins looked distinctly unhealthy. "You did this?" He looked from Willow to Jenny. "My grandmother always said her father was part odmience—a Polish changeling. I always thought she just liked to tell stories about the old country, but I guess your spell hit more than just the bad guys. And those two were on our side." He swept his hand toward the two Lister bodies, but Xander was not going to look at them again.

"Willow, I'd like a clear answer," Giles said, and Xander was starting to get whiplash from all the demands. However, it looked like whatever weird was going on, Giles and Riley and Buffy had all been unlooplike. Even Tara was looking a little shocked, and that was whole levels of wrong because in the last couple of weeks, Xander had come to think that Willow and Tara were ridiculously in love.

"I didn't do anything." Willow sounded close to crying.

"Mr. Giles," Tara's voice was barely above a whisper, "WWillow didn't cast the spell. Her power was tapped, and whoever cast it pulled on my powers through Willow, but Willow didn't cast it." Okay, for not naming names, that accusation was pretty much pointed right at Jenny.

Willow was already nodding her head at Tara. "I wouldn't cast a spell like that. Angel and Spike could have been all dusty, and I wouldn't do that. Okay, I might do that to Spike because he's soulless and dangerous and really scary, but I wouldn't do that to Angel. He's Xander's best friend, and it really hurts to say that because I know I messed things all up between us, but I wouldn't kill Angel. He has a soul. And Xander gets all googly eyed when Angel comes in the room and there's touching... like they care about each other too much to not touch kind of touching. I wouldn't have ever killed Angel." Willow looked over toward the bodies of the two fallen Listers and tears slipped down her face. "I wouldn't have ever killed them. Tor was really nice," Willow finished with a sob, and Tara hurried to her side.

Xander watched while Giles' back grew stiffer, and he really thought Giles was about to give Willow the motherload of all father-lectures, but then Giles turned toward Jenny. "What did you do?"

"Rupert, this is not the time."

"Actually, I believe it is."

"Hey, I have an idea. Let's just all calm down," Buffy suggested. Willow nodded, tears running down her face.

"We can discuss this in private." Jenny had backed all the way up to the door, which had been blasted open, but Willow and Tara and Giles and Buffy weren't moving. They were all huddled together, supporting Buffy in the middle.

Giles' face got that scary lack of emotion thing going. "Do you think I don't recognize the signature of chaos magic? Are you quite mad? Techno-magic and chaos magic are incompatible. You could have killed us all. And your foolish willingness to cast spells willy nilly has injured Buffy."

"Riley?" Buffy turned her eyes to him. "Help please? I'm not really good at doing the calming people down thing. I'm better at making them mad, but maybe you can play peacekeeper."

Riley stiffened, but he didn't jump in there and start calming people down. "Giles, is Buffy hurt badly?"

"Yes, Giles," Angel said, his voice dangerously soft and lilting with an Irish accent, "are the slayers injured badly?"

"I won't know until I know what spell she used." Giles looked right at Angel without even glancing over toward Jenny, and Xander was thinking that was not a good sign for their marriage. Jenny was slowly turning a pink color, and he thought she was probably getting pretty pissed because she didn't seem the type to be embarrassed.

"It was out of de Aldedelega's Opprimo," Willow whispered. From the silence that fell over the magic-knowing crowd, Xander was guessing that was not of the good. "We found the book in Mr. Rayne's things after he tried to put the forgetting on you before the wedding. But it was only supposed to affect demons, not you, Buffy."

Spike started laughing, and the soldiers shifted nervously. Heck, Xander was nervous because an attack like that probably had Spike itching to taste Jenny's blood, and right now, Xander wouldn't bet any money on Angel stopping him. The laughter was just pretty much reminding all of them that you really couldn't predict what a pissed off Spike might do. "You bloody idiot. Slayers are faster, stronger and heal better than humans. How the fuck do you think that happens without a little demon blood in 'em? Considering how much harder the spell hit them than good old Kirkop there, I guess they're more than an eighth demon and since their heads didn't explode, they're less than half."

"Oh goddess." Willow looked like she was turning green, and Buffy turned to stare at Giles with big eyes.

Instead of answering, Giles looked like he was wilting, and now Riley moved and he moved fast. He got his left arm under Buffy, holding her up with one hand, and his other hand rested on the butt of his gun. The other soldiers were shifting around. If Xander were the suspicious sort, he'd think they were clearing a line of fire toward Jenny. Oh yeah, this was turning so very, very bad.

"I think I want to sit," Buffy said. Graham had Faith in his arms, and her head was resting against his shoulder, so Xander was guessing she couldn't lift it because if Buffy could still sit up on her own, Faith would be fighting like hell to prove she was no worse off than Buffy. Riley carefully settled Buffy on the ground, and several soldiers moved closer. Kirkop actually pulled the strap on his big gun around so that it hung in front where he could rest his elbow on it and glare. Considering that Kirkop had a slightly dark Neanderthal look going for him, he had the scary glare down pretty good. It was going even better with his veiny skin, which made him look a little like a comic book villain. Jenny, however, kept her chin high and still managed to look like she was not-even-doubting-herself girl.

"The first priority was ensuring that the Beacon was not fired. I acted in the best interests of the group. They were going to activate the Beacon."

"I had sharpshooters assigned to prevent that." Oh yeah, Riley sounded pissed.

"It was chaotic. One of the Scourge was going to—"

A soldier with one of those monster guns stepped forward. He was an older man and had a look that would have made Xander avoid dark alleys with him. For two weeks Xander had been living and training with these guys, and Xander would have described most of them as goofy, silly, crass, or overly competitive. Now they all just looked dangerous... and pissed. There was lots of pissed going on. "Lady, I was doing my job, and I didn't even have to worry about refugees darting through my target zone, so that Beacon was covered."

"You couldn't..."

Riley cut her off. "An exploding shell in the head would have stopped any Scourge that got close to the Beacon, but you made a unilateral decision to activate your own version of a Beacon. You chose to selectively attack my unit."

"I targeted the enemy." Jenny looked around, and maybe she noticed the suddenly hard expression on Giles' face. "Rupert, I didn't know this would affect Buffy. You have to believe that. I would never do anything to hurt Buffy or Willow—they're our family."

No one answered her, and Xander could almost smell the homicidal rage in the air. He definitely could smell the dead Listers and his own vomit, and that was doing bad, bad things to his stomach and his psyche, so he definitely didn't need any more dead bodies around.

Looking around at the group, Xander tried putting on his best pleading expression. "Okay, I know I'm not strategy man but attacking your own side is feeling unstrategy, so can we all agree that Jenny stupid and head back to the hotel?"

Xander eeped as Angel turned around and grabbed him, pulling him close before he turned to face the Sunnydale crew. "She's na welcome in my home. You set foot in my territory again and you'll learn what real pain is," he promised in a voice that gave Xander chills. That was Angelus. That was pure Angelus, and Spike stepped forward, his glee shining through as he bounced on his toes. This wasn't even going to be a fight, it was going to be two really big, pissed off demons ripping Jenny into little tiny shreds, and Xander wasn't sure how to stop it. Even worse, Xander wasn't sure he wanted to stop it, and that did not exactly make him a good person.

Jenny pulled a small satchel out from a pocket, and a dozen soldiers had their guns drawn before Xander could blink. It was feeling more and more like the OK corral, and Xander really wished he'd paid more attention in history class because he couldn't even remember if anyone came out of that alive.

Giles stepped forward into the empty territory between Jenny and everyone else. "You need to leave."

"Rupert." Jenny smiled and tilted her head to the side as she reached out her empty hand for him. Giles just stood there as her smile faded and her hand slowly dropped back down to the side. She looked around, but she obviously did not find whatever she was looking for because the emotion drained from her face. Willow was standing in the corner, her face buried in Tara's shoulder as she sobbed, and the soldiers were looking about as homicidal as Spike and Angel, and that was pretty homicidal.

"Jenny, go back to Sunnydale." Giles was using the teacher voice that Xander used to hate.

"I made a choice to save all of us."

"You made a choice," Giles agreed. For a second, they stared at each other, and then Jenny backed up, her hand still clutching that satchel she'd taken out of her pocket. Xander's arm was starting to tingle from Angel's overly-tight hold, but he didn't complain. He felt like one wrong breath and Angel and Spike were going to go racing out into the night and do something that Xander only kinda sorta wanted done. And if they did it... if they ripped Jenny Giles' throat out, Xander just knew he was going to end up in therapy again. He was approaching therapy levels of badness already, and he just couldn't deal with any more.

"Wait," Xander blurted as the obvious suddenly hit him. "You and Spike are okay. You are, right?" Xander squirmed around until he could get a good look at all of Angel. He hadn't worn the Gem of Amara, and Xander made a mental note to make Angel wear it from now on, even if he had to shove it up Angel's ass. Delayed panic made Xander's heart pound so hard that it physically hurt.

"Calm down," Angel soothed him, pulling him close while Xander ran hands over Angel's shoulders and chest looking for burns or injuries. "Calm down, a mhuirnín, we're fine," Angel promised, catching one of Xander's hands and holding it still. "Graham warned us that Jenny and Willow were practicing dangerous magics, and we had a counterspell done. I'm only sorry that I didn't think to protect the rest of you, and for that, she will die if I ever catch her in L.A. again." Angel looked over Xander's shoulder and glared at Giles, but surprisingly, Giles didn't have any sharp comments to throw back.

"Right then," Spike said, pulling out a cigarette and lighting it, "that leaves one bad little witchy."

"Hold on there," Buffy said, but her warning would have probably carried more weight if she had the strength to stand. She didn't. "Tara already said that Willow didn't cast the spell."

"She just helped create it, didn't you pet?" Spike had his friendly voice going, the one that usually led to bad, bad things, and the two people who could actually stop him, Cordelia and Angel, were just watching silently.

Willow looked up from Tara's shoulder. "It was supposed to be a last resort. Like if we were fighting the mayor and the explosives didn't work. It's a really, really dangerous spell, and Jenny said we would only activate it if we didn't have any choice. I never would have...." Willow's eyes skittered over to one of the Lister men, and her sobs cut off her words.

"Yes, that doesn't absolve you of all responsibility." Giles sounded tired. "However, given your relationship with Jenny, I can certainly see how she was able to convince you to prepare such a dangerous spell."

"Bloody hell, you think that's enough?" Spike demanded. "She soddin' well helped prepare the spell and she provided the power to attack Faith. If you're not willing to discipline her, I bloody well will."

"I hardly think that's appropriate," Giles squared off, but Xander was not calling that a fair fight. Yeah, Giles had more to him than tweed, but without some sort of backup, Giles was going down, down, down, and Angel didn't look interesting in stopping the fight. Xander opened his mouth to object, but Angel's fingers dug into the soft of his arm so hard that Xander gasped in surprise and pain.

"So appropriate is letting her get away with murder?" Angel asked. "Two men who wanted nothing more than to protect their families are dead."

"That's a horror Jenny will have to live with," Giles said firmly.

"But Willow lied," Riley interrupted the stare down.

"Riley," Buffy said in a not-too-subtle warning voice.

"No, Buffy, she lied, and we both know it. After the anti-vampire spell Jenny suggested, we asked if they had other ideas for aggressive magical spells, and they both assured us that they did not, yet they've been working on this since shortly after Ethan Rayne's arrest."

"Hey, it's not like we always made the best judgments under fire. I'm the one who set a gym on fire, and you had that whole incident with the truck and the payroll and the mudslide. Let he who is without a history of major stupidity throw the first mudball." Buffy sounded way more serious than usual, but Riley stood up and turned to Willow.

"Willow, I'm sorry, but this sort of conduct is not within the scope of my command authority. This has to go up to the Army JAG office."

"You're arresting me?" Willow sounded ready to hyperventilate, and Xander squirmed in Angel's arms. He didn't want Willow arrested. He just wanted her to be really sorry and never do anything like that again, and she was sorry. He could tell from the look on her face that she was chocolate-chip-cookie-making sorry.

"Riley, as scare tactics go, this is a good one, but enough is enough." Buffy was sounding cranky.

Riley crouched down next to her. "Buffy, I love you, but I'm a soldier. I know from experience that we make choices in battle that... that can haunt us. And if we know we will never have to account for our actions, we can end up on a slippery slope that will lead to a psychologically dangerous place. I’m not saying Willow is culpable for the murders. I'm saying she needs to stand in front of a JAG court and make her arguments. These are soldiers. They'll understand the pressures of command, and they'll understand that I bear some of the responsibility for this because I never insisted that Willow take the combat ethics courses, even when it was increasingly obvious that she was developing into a frontline fighter."

Giles moved to stand in front of Willow, and he was clearly not planning to budge. "Now see here. This is not the military, and we have not been drafted into your army."

"Then she can face accessory to murder charges in the FISA court. The government is quite clear that demonic activity falls under the jurisdiction of the Foreign Intelligence act."

"Buffy?" Willow clung to Tara, but she looked at Buffy.

"Willow," Riley said as he got up and walked over to her, "I doubt they'll sentence you to anything more than taking the classes I should have required you to take in the first place. But if you ignore your responsibility in this tragedy, can you honestly promise to never make a mistake like this again? You allowed an attack that has disabled Buffy for who knows how long, and if Angel hadn't prepared for a betrayal that I never saw coming, you would have dusted Angel and Spike. You know Xander never would have forgiven you if that had happened, not even if this was a mistake."

Willow hiccupped from crying so hard. "But arrested?" Willow turned to Tara. Her eyes were red, and tears started slipping down her face, but she didn't say anything.

Riley rested a hand on Willow's shoulder. "A review board, Willow. If Buffy told you about my first big failure, she told you that I managed to dump half a payroll into a swollen river, and this was a field operation, so the money was in local currency. A hundred soldiers were fishing the river for the last Treasury bag for a month, and I had to go in front of a review. It was a miserable experience, but I survived, and I'm glad I faced my own mistakes. I will speak for you, as will everyone else here. You made a mistake in following Jenny, but I don't believe you're responsible. I just know that I don't have the authority to make that decision legally. Your actions led to two friendly fire deaths, do you really think you should walk away without facing any consequences?"

Without answering, Willow turned her face back to Tara's shoulder and cried. Riley sighed and turned to face a very pissed off Giles. "Jenny Giles has the same choice. Unlike Willow, she is a government employee acting in a military action. She can go before a JAG review board voluntarily, or I will arrest her under the authority of the FISA court."

"How dare—" Giles started to say.

"You didn't object to the laws when I used them to arrest Mr. Rayne for his attack. This isn't open for debate," Riley said. Xander was impressed. Yeah, Xander had stood up to Giles before, but when Xander did it, he always felt like he was some kid. Riley came out looking way more collected and in-charge than Giles. Of course, if Buffy were up and walking around, Xander suspected that Riley wouldn't have been quite so large and in-charge, but without the spell-attack, Riley wouldn't have needed to take charge.

"If he doesn't make her face her actions, I will take my own justice," Angel said, and the Irish lilt was still there. Giles looked over wearily, and maybe he knew he was defeated or maybe he was just too tired to argue, but he didn't have anything to say about that.

"We need to get Faith somewhere quiet," Graham said. Xander turned, and Graham had put her back on the floor at some point. Her head was in his lap and he was smoothing her hair back from her forehead.

"Right then, we're out of here." Spike walked over, scooped Faith up in his arms and headed for the blast hole they'd walked in through.

"I want to know what spell was cast, and I want that information by sunrise or I'll start asking the questions m'self, boyo." Angel pinned Riley with a cold glare, but Riley just nodded his head.

"Understood. I'll make sure we both have the information we need." Riley went back and knelt down next to Buffy, slipping his hand behind her neck. For a second, Buffy looked at him with all this unhappiness, but then she sighed and let him pull her close.

"What a mess," she said softly, and that was the last thing Xander saw before Angel pulled him out into the night... or Angelus did. Xander was starting to think that perfect happiness and perfect pissedoffness both brought out the great soulless one.


A/N: FYI... I now have some original stories available if you like here on Lulu



24. Chapter 24

"Hey, Harry," Xander offered as he walked into the kitchen. Doyle's ex was looking a little frazzled, but Doyle was the worst of their walking wounded, and she got Angel-levels of guilt going whenever she left him for more than ten minutes at a stretch, so he wasn't surprised.

"Evening, Xander. How's Faith feeling?" she asked in that tone of voice that meant she wasn't actually listening.

Xander paused with his hand on the refrigerator handle. "I wouldn't know. Everything is 'fine' this and 'five by five' that."

"Ah." Harry nodded, either because she recognized denial or she still wasn't listening.

"So, how about Doyle?" Xander asked.

She stopped halfway through loading her tray with the last of some sliced pickles. "He's definitely not downplaying the pain, but he'll be fine. I hope. He's better about going into his Brachen form, which helps the headaches. He's not getting worse," she answered in a disjointed tumble of words.

"No rush," Cordelia said, looking up from the newspaper. "The army is paying full price for your rooms, so you're welcome to stay for the next year."

That made Harry smile. "That's tempting, especially given the variety of demons you have visiting, but I have my own life and a long-term study of a Molfa clan that I need to get back to just as soon as Doyle is okay." She carefully didn't mention the same thing that all of them weren't mentioning—the fact that the weakness did not seem to be passing. Even the whole Listers deciding Doyle was their chosen one who had summoned an army hadn't cheered him up much. And Faith hadn't asked to go out and slay anything, which was freaking Xander out big time. Faith not wanting to slay was one of the signs of the apocalypse, and Xander had already been through one of those. Two if you counted the Master, who had turned out to be a bit of a disappointment on the apocalyptic front.

"When you leave, do you plan to take Doyle with you?" Cordy asked. Yep, leave it to Cordy to bypass all manners and worrying and go straight for the juicy stuff. The juicy distracting stuff. Xander was starting to think that Cordelia's inadvertent changing of the topic was slightly more advertent than not.

Harry put down the empty pickle jar and frowned. "He's going to have to decide whether or not he fits into my life because I can't keep trying to fit into his."

Cordelia rolled her eyes. "Men are stupid, and demons more than most. You have to come right out and set the rules. That's what I did with Spike and before that Xander, and that's what Xander had to do with Angel."

"Not really the rule-setting man here," Xander pointed out. If he was, he would definitely be having sex, but no, Angel was all self-denial man and insisted on waiting the full month. Of course, now that they were three days away from the deadline, Xander spent half his time not wanting sex because he was too worried. If his hand could complain, it would be griping about his lack of interest in sex. He had the only sock puppet of love with inadequacy issues. The other half of the time, he was so tied up in knots and excited that he didn't care if he did suck... he wanted to have sex now. Yep, he was embracing his many, many issues.

Cordelia rolled her eyes at him. "Oh please, you have him wrapped around your finger. You just don't know how to reel him in. You obviously were not paying attention when I modeled that skill."

"And people wonder why the three hundred year old master vampire doesn't scare me. I dated her. That was scary," Xander pointed out. Cordelia just made a little huffing noise.

Harry shook her head and laughed. "Is there anyone here who hasn't slept together?"

"Oh please," Cordelia said without looking up, "like he ever got that far."

Harry just shook her head. "The culture in this hotel is enough to write an entire book on."

"Blair said that, but he made is sound less like an insult," Xander observed. Harry blushed, and Xander bit his lip as he realized that probably didn't come out right.

"I didn't—" Harry started to say.

"Xander's an idiot. Ignore everything he says," Cordelia cut her off. She also gave Xander a look that would have killed most lesser life forms.

"Well, I just wouldn't want to offend, especially with everyone on edge." Harry lifted the plate she had fixed. "I should take Doyle his dinner." With that, she retreated, her plate full of a weird combination of cauliflower, Hersey's kisses and pickles. Maybe it was a Bracken-demon thing Doyle had asked for.

Turning away from Cordelia's death glare, Xander started digging through the refrigerator for food. Since the soldiers had come and gone, the shopping budget from Cordy had improved, but Graham was the one who did most of the shopping, and he rarely left Faith's side. It meant they were getting down to the questionable, demonic, and downright-healthy food. A white Styrofoam container was marked with "Enné-Demon Only" in block letters, and Xander pulled it out. It looked suspiciously like barbeque pork.

"What is enné and will it kill me?"

Cordelia looked up from her paper. "If you don't know what it is, it probably won't."

"It's a choice between that or tofu burgers out of the freezer, so I'm going with enné," Xander said as he pulled a fork out of a drawer and poked at the food for a little bit. They'd had one demon guest who insisted on eating eggs just about to hatch into big maggoty things, so he just wanted to make sure the food wasn't going to break out in maggots. "Are Spike and Angel back?" The food seemed to be acting like food, so Xander took a bite. It was a little peppery, but it could pass for barbeque as long as someone wasn't too picky. From the way Cordelia stared at him, he was guessing that he was eating meat from a slug monster or something, but that was still better than tofu. He had standards. Low standards, but standards. And tofu was too low on the edible totem-pole for even him to eat.

"Not yet," she eventually answered. "Spike called, and they have some new lead, but they have to come back to the hotel first."

Xander shoved another forkful of enné in his mouth and dropped into the chair across from Cordelia. Even she was feeling the stress because she hadn't been dropping the little hints about how they needed more help at the hotel. Before the Scourge and the battle and Jenny's spell, Xander and Graham had bet Graham's best knife against an afternoon of Xander's remodeling skills that Cordelia was going to make Angel hire someone. Graham thought maid, Xander was voting for something weirdly unpredictable. But now... now she wasn't even dropping hints. Mostly she stared at newspapers pretending to read them. Yep, they were all a little freaked out. Graham paced, Faith laid around, Doyle complained and Xander didn't know what he was supposed to do. He shoved more enné in his mouth.

"Oh, and the little bitch whose stupidity almost got my lover killed, a mistake for which I would have killed her, called."

"Willow?" Xander asked, perking up a bit. Cordelia was having a little more trouble forgiving than Xander was, which seemed a little unfair because Cordy knew how much Willow wanted to please her teachers, so it really did seem more fair to blame Jenny. Xander could get behind the Jenny-hate.

"Isn't that what I just said?" Cordelia looked up at him, and it was pretty clear she was nowhere near forgiving Willow. Either that or she was so not happy about Faith being sick that she was just willing to blame everyone involved. Maybe if Riley could find and arrest Jenny, Cordelia would shift some of the hate over to the right person. "I told her that she needed to call early enough that all the little vamps would still be in bed because if Angel picks up the phone, he's going to come up and rip her throat out and I'm not going to stop him."

"Cordelia! If she calls earlier, I'll be at school and I'll miss her. Did it occur to you that maybe I'd want to talk to her? "

"Yes. Don't care," Cordelia answered. "Besides, Angel does not need to hear that Riley is working with her defense team. Angel gets all soul-light whenever someone mentions Willow, and I don't want to deal with him getting a grrrr over the fact that the military is going to slap Willow on the wrist and make her take classes on battlefield ethics." Cordelia made a disgusted noise and turned the page on her newspaper. "So, if she wants to apologize and grovel and brag about how she isn't going to jail for the rest of her life where she'd end up as someone's bitch... if she wants to then blubber like she doesn't care what that does to her complexion, she can do it when Angel's still asleep. "

"You seem to know a lot for someone who didn't have a long supportive conversation." Xander had to struggle not to smile.

"Whatever. She's just going through a masochistic phase, and I am so very willing to verbally abuse her."

"Uh huh," Xander said, not even pretending to believe it. Cordy rolled her eyes and refused to answer. They both fell silent. Xander hadn't realized how much Faith's energy and Cordelia's and Spike's complaints had filled up the hotel. Now Cordy was all quiet, and Spike was always out trying to beat an answer out of someone and Faith way lying around pretending she was okay, and the hotel felt about a million times too big for them.

The swinging door slammed open and Spike came through the kitchen. "Any new problems, luv?" he asked, heading straight for the refrigerator. The side of his face was rusty colored, like it had been cut open and bled a whole lot, so Xander was guessing the questions had gotten nasty again. Either that, or Spike was so frustrated that he and Angel had a good bout of fighting and then sex before they came home smelling like sewer. Xander could feel a twinge of jealousy at that. Not the sewer part, of course.

"Just the same old ones," Cordelia said as she put the paper down. "Please tell me you actually found something this time."

Spike turned with a wicked smile that gave Xander the first bit of hope he'd felt for days. "Bloody right, luv. Have a lead on some bookish type that keeps track of spells in the area. According to a demon who had good reason to believe giving me bad intel could be soddin' hazardous to his health, this old git might be able to steer us right." He emptied two blood packets into a mug before sticking it in the microwave and setting the timer. When he walked over to Cordelia, he reached out and ran the back of his fingers over her cheek reverently. "Goin' to get things set right, you watch," he promised. Cordelia reached up and caught his hand, holding it for a second, as she looked up. For one blinding second, the fear was there in every inch of her face, and Spike reached down to cup her cheek with his free hand. Then the moment passed and she slipped back into an annoyed expression.

"Do you have to go walking through the sewers?"

"Unless I plan ta be a flaming ball of dust, yeah. You can teach me a good lesson later." Spike wiggled his eyebrows at her before he went back for his blood. Cordelia raised just one eyebrow in a way that made her look like the horribly mean teacher they'd had in sixth grade. Even now, Xander was almost certain the teacher had been a vampire or a demon or at the very least, a soulless human being, and Cordy could do a pretty mean impression of soullessness when she put her mind to it.

"Bloody hell, what are you eating?" Spike spun around and stared at Xander's dinner.


Spike looked over at Cordy and smirked. "I'm a bad influence on you, I am."

"Oh please. I was cruel long before you," Cordy said with a sniff. "Besides, I warned him. I even put 'demon only' on the container, but he's so demonfied that he thought it meant him."

"Hey, it was tofu or enné, and I have my standards."

"You do know what that is, right?" Spike got a look on his face that made it pretty clear he was about to make up some outrageous and disgusting story. Knowing Spike, two seconds after Xander gave up the enné, Spike would eat it. That would be just like him.

"The slimy innards of some slimy monster? Or maybe you can come up with a better story." Xander had the fork halfway to his mouth just to prove that Spike's teasing no longer worked, and then Angel walked in. His fork paused midair. Angel was so freaking out. His hair was still damp from the shower and chunks of it were going every which way, which would normally be a major issue with Angel. He just totally ignored the fact that he had some serious ugly going on as he went straight for the refrigerator. He didn't even heat his blood after dumping it in a mug. For a second, the kitchen was silent as they all watched Angel.

"I was going to say the gonads of a demon beastie stewed in its own ejaculate." Spike didn't even pretend to have his heart in the teasing. "Right then, you ready ta play head of the clan?" Spike asked Angel.

Angel downed the last of his blood and slammed the mug down so hard that the counter grew red freckles as the last of the blood splattered. "Yes." Angel looked over at him. "You need to change."

"You're the one playin' head of the clan and talking to the wanker. I'm just the charmin' and handsome enforcer. No one will care if I smell like I've been walking around in the sewers all afternoon looking for a chance to rip someone's spine out through their navel."

"I care. Change." Angel definitely had his 'not-joking' voice going.

"Hey, I'm going with you two," Xander said. He dropped the enné on his fork back into the container and ran to put it back in the fridge. From the cranky look on Angel's face, he was about to argue. "With you and Spike both playing 'bad cop,' you need someone to play goofy sidekick 'good cop' or all your 'bad cop' will go to waste."

Angel's frown deepened.

"Pet, this git is a real traditionalist. Might be best if you stayed home," Spike suggested, but Spike was not the boss of him. Spike was not even the boss of himself when Cordelia and Angel were around, so Xander turned to Angel with his best pleading expression.

"I don't have class tonight, and I can't just sit around and watch Doyle and Faith be sick. Come on, you've been crawling through sewers all day instead of waiting until dark like all the good little vampires, so I know that you know how I feel."

That hit the target. Angel cringed a bit and looked over at Spike. They had some sort of weird non-talking vibe thing where they did Morse code by eyebrow or something because after a second, Angel sighed like someone had just talked him into something he really didn't want to do.

"According to a few well placed sources, Prusha tracks every spell in the area, but he doesn't have much use for humans. If we go in there, he wants to meet the head of the Aurelius clan." Angel was clearly apologizing.

"So, you're playing big, bad Angelus. And Spike..." Xander looked over. "Spike is pretty much always big and bad." Spike practically preened under that observation. "So again, you're left with no 'good cop' to your 'bad cop'."

"Prusha won't want to see you playing 'cop' at all. You're human." Angel reached out and rested a hand on Xander's shoulder. Xander could practically feel Angel's need to get Xander to stay home, only Xander had done entirely too much of nothing already. One more day of doing nothing while Faith insisted she was fine without ever getting out of her bed and Doyle groaned like the near-dead, and he was going to climb a wall. Several walls.

"Faith is my friend," Xander said quietly. For a second, Angel just looked at him, but then Angel's fingers slipped around his neck and pulled him close so that Angel could wrap his arms around Xander and hold on tight. Xander put his own arms around Angel's waist and just held on. Yeah, it was girly, but he was gay, and gay meant he got to be girly, and he was gay enough and girly enough and scared enough that he just wanted someone to hug him and promise him that Doyle and Faith and Buffy weren't going to die. He wanted that. But Angel wasn't good with the lying, so he'd settle for the hug.

"I do know how you feel," Angel whispered in his ear.

For a second, Xander couldn't talk. Fear choked him, and he had to struggle to catch his breath before he could make his argument. "I want to help. And even if I'm not helping, I want to be standing there while you help."

"It actually would help to have you along." Angel said that like he didn't want to say it, so Xander was guessing he was not being good with the sharing of pertinent information. He poked Angel in the ribs. Angel sighed his surrender. "The old courts always had human servants. It was how a Master Vampire showed off his ability to control his own bloodlust, and the older demons only trust vampires who can show that they have that same control."

"Ah." Tonight, Xander would be playing the part of the vampire slave. Well, about half the hotel guests thought he was one, anyway. It wasn't exactly going to damage his sterling reputation with the less-human community. A few even thought Cordelia was a slave, which generally led to some scary glareage in which she either convinced them that they were wrong or she convinced them that she was such a powerful slave she could have them cut into pieces and chucked down the sewer, Xander was never sure which. And then there was the one guest who Spike took for a little 'talk' who never showed up again. All in all, having people assume he was a vampire slave was oddly familiar territory, and he was way more in touch with his potential slaveness than Cordy.

Angel, however, was looking constipated over the topic. "You shouldn't have to—"

Xander cut Angel off before he could get any farther. "Just call me Xand the local slave boy. Do I get my own palm frond to wave over you?" His smile was strained, but bad jokes were part of his job description, and when the going got tough, it was his job to get joking.

"You won't have to do anything," Angel promised.

Spike snorted. "Except for maybe not pushing the sod around while the demon's watching, pet."

Xander frowned at Spike, not really getting his point.

"Let's get this over with," Angel said, pushing Xander toward the door with Spike close behind.

"If this wanker doesn't have anything on the spell, I’m going to go back to Merl and pull his intestines out through his soddin' nose."

"If Merl gave us a bad lead, he's already half way to Kansas by now," Angel answered as they walked through the lobby. The sun had gone down less than an hour ago, but no one had gotten around to turning on any of the lights yet. The lobby had an eerie horror movie vibe as the hall lights from the second floor spilled over the balcony. Xander was practically running to keep up, Angel's arm around his waist. For the first time in the two weeks since the spell had flattened the Scourge, he really felt hopeful that they had a real lead. Xander knew that he would never be suicidal enough to give Spike bad information. Hopefully this Merl had at least as many active brain cells as Xander, and they were on their way to finding the spell and finding a cure.

Angel stopped at the front door and looked back at Spike. "We still aren't leaving until you clean up."

"Bloody fucking wanker," Spike snarled under his breath, but he turned and headed for the stairs up to the second floor rooms at a dead run.

Slowly, Angel's nose twitched as he smelled the air. For a second, Xander thought maybe some of Spike's sewer smell had rubbed off on him, but for once, Spike hadn't been manhandling him. Inch by inch, Angel turned to really study Xander with yellowed eyes.

"Why do ye smell like that?" Angel asked in that creepy Irish voice that meant he was not doing good with his temper.

"Like what?" Xander asked. He tried to sniff at his own underarms, but Angel caught him by both arms, holding him so tight that Xander suspected he was going to have finger-shaped bruises on his biceps. "What?"

"Boy? What have ye been doing?"

Xander was really starting to freak out when Spike's yell drifted down from above.

"Cordelia fed 'im the enné!"

Angel blinked, his yellow eyes vanishing and brown reappearing along with a confused frown. "The enné?"

"It's good. Peppery," Xander agreed. For a second, Angel stared at him and then he just shook his head.

"It dunna matter how much I understand; you continue to confound me." Angel shook his head again and moved to settle an arm comfortably across Xander's shoulders.

"I keep it interesting," Xander said, leaning into Angel. Now he had both hope that they were getting somewhere with untangling Jenny's spell, and just a little worry about just what was in enné. And sadly, it was still better than tofu.



25. Chapter 25

Angel pulled up in front of a store with newspapers lining the windows like it had been abandoned, but the lack of broken glass and the German Sheppard out front were not exactly matching that first impression.

"I still say we should just find the bloody bint and break bones until she gives us the fucking spell," Spike muttered for about the thousandth time. Xander couldn't remember the last time Spike had been this obsessed with breaking a particular person instead of threatening humanity in general.

Xander looked at Angel who was very carefully not making any protest over that suggestion. "Hey, killing humans is on the list of things that will freak your humans out. I say let Riley deal with that mess. Besides, if she's in prison, she gets to be miserable and you get to vicariously torture Giles by making him go through with a divorce. Legal messiness all over." Xander climbed over the seat to get out of the car.

"I'd rather have intestinal messiness all over," Spike answered with a not-nice smile. Sometimes Xander had trouble thinking of Spike as being a soulless predator... not so much today. He had a feeling that if they ran into Jenny Giles on the street, Spike would be very happy to demonstrate his soullessness, and Xander suspected Angel would not be stopping him.

"I'm just going hope that Riley is better at missing persons than you two," Xander said with a sigh. He was not going to win this fight. Vampires were like giant cats with giant catnip balls that they refused to give up when they really put their minds to it.

"So they can give her a swat on the backside and send her dinner without her sweets?" Spike asked with a fake smile that made Xander reach out and try and poke him in the stomach. Unfortunately, vamps also had catlike reflexes.

"Hey! Willow did not cast that spell. She was more spell attached, which was not really great considering Jenny supercharged her mojo finger that way, but it's not like Willow did anything intentionally."

"No, just stupidly," Spike said, and Xander would have defended Willow, but Angel slammed the door to the shop open with so much force that the metal handle crashed into the brick and the glass made a screeching sound that Xander really thought was going to end with broken glass. He definitely needed to ask whoever owned the shop what kind of glass they used because any glass that could stand up to a pissy Angel was worth investing in.

The sad part was that part of Xander got it. Yeah, he trusted Spike and Angel, and if they looked him in the eyes and told him they needed something, he would so give it to them, but he wouldn't just let them drain him of mystical energy or whatever energy he might have bouncing around in his cells. Not without talking about it. Maybe he'd seen one too many cases of possession or something, not to mention one memorable case of soul loss, but he was just not that trusting. And he really wasn't that trusting with Jenny. She creeped him out. But maybe he was just prejudiced against people who knew big freaking secrets that could have gotten him killed and kept them secret for the sake of some hundred year old curse. If he lived to be as old as Anyaka, he still wouldn't be okay with the whole Angelus-soul-happiness secret.

Spike followed Angel into the shop. "Right then, let's get the intel and get back. I don't bloody trust Graham to play guard."

"Cordelia can just nag any invaders to death," Angel suggested before he stopped at a counter nearly buried in books. "Hello?"

A really, really old guy poked his head up from behind a counter full of books. "Yes? Yes? You be wanting something?" For the blink of an eye, the old guy looked 'off,' like his features hadn't quiet kept up with his face when he moved and his nose slid around a bit. Yep, demon. Xander was suspecting that he couldn't even tell what kind of demon because this guy had some sort of camouflage, which explained why Angel had decided to play mostly nice.

"Information," Angel said as he stepped up to the counter and pushed a stack of books out of his way. The old man blinked at him and then at Spike and finally Xander.

"Ah, the new Master. I am U'talaba, always happy to serve. I have books and information on many subjects. Many, many. What can I help you with Master Angel?"

"I need information on a spell that was used north of here 13 days ago. I hear that you track most of the magic in the area and that you can probably help me untangle exactly which spell was used." Angel laid it all out and then stared at the old guy. U'talaba's eyes travelled from one of them to the other, and Xander inched closer to Angel because he was seriously getting the creeps.

U'talaba slowly smiled. "Yes, yes. Information I have. Big spell, yes? But I know nothing about origin, about caster, so I cannot..." he waved a hand inarticulately.

"You can't interpret what you recorded?" Angel supplied. Xander never knew Angel was so good at charades.

"Maybe. New words. English... so imprecise. Too many words. Russian, much more like to talk. You talk Russian?" he asked hopefully. After a second, he shrugged in defeat because they were definitely not going to be talking in Russian. "Tell me what of which you know." U'talaba leaned forward, an expectant look on his face. For a second, Angel didn't answer. He stepped back and slipped an arm over Xander's shoulders while Xander stood there and tried to look like a slave, which wasn't easy because he didn't actually know what one looked like. Maybe he passed, though, because U'talaba smiled so the edges of his eyes crinkled.

"We know it was a chaos spell out of de Aldedelega's Opprimo," Angel said in a tone that suggested he was bored. The tone was a total lie. "A techno-wiccan modified it to key into genetic codes so it would target demons."

That made U'talaba blink really fast. "Bad news. Very bad. Chaos magic like to go 'woosh' everywhere. Techno magic is like," he chopped his hand through the air to suggest getting right to the point. "Bad mixing."

"Bloody know that bit already," Spike said softly. U'talaba looked over at him and did a weird head-bobbing thing.

"Most surprised you did not make this techno-wiccan into dinner... or slave." From the tone of voice, U'talaba would not have been disapproving of a little techno-dinner, and Xander really wasn't sure what to think about that. In Sunnydale, it had always seemed to simple with good on one side and evil on the other... at least until Spike showed up. But L.A. was all about gray. And from the looks of it, this old man who was nicely trying to help them was not actually big on the nice.

"Who said we didn't?" Angel asked with a not nice smile. U'talaba smiled back.

"Ah, stories of your soul... maybe exaggerated?"

"Perhaps," Angel agreed. "I want to know what you know about the spell."

U'talaba ducked his head and tilted it to the side. "Maybe I feel a spell like this. Much..." he held his hands out like he was holding something between them and trying to pull it apart.

"Tension," Angel offered.

U'talaba smiled. "Much tension. The chaos and the order. De Aldedelega, he be rolling in his grave at that spell. It was powerful like elephant. All strength. No grace."

"The demon who helps me undo this spell would make me exceptionally happy and would earn my gratitude." Angel had his used car salesman voice going. Angel liked to call it his seductive voice, but that wasn't exactly the word Xander would use. Then again, used car salesman did actually have to be pretty good at their job, so maybe the tone wasn't that far from seductive. If that was the case, Xander was immune because it always left him wanting to giggle manly and poke Angel for being a goober. Maybe Angel knew that because his arm tightened around Xander just hard enough to hurt a little. Yep, there would be no poking of the vampires in front of U'talaba.

"The gratitude of a true Master Vampire." U'talaba clucked and nodded his head. "Know you the ingredients?"

"Some of them."

U'talaba did a weird bounce move in his excitement. "What?"

Spike and Angel traded a wary look before Angel took a step closer toward U'talaba. "If someone were to waste my time or take information without offering any in return... well, I would not want to be that demon."

"No, no, no. I wish to help am. What ingredients?"

For one more second, Angel just looked at U'talaba before speaking. "Chalcedony, maca root, human bone dust from a hip joint, powdered Kungai skin, and a lot of runes entered into a computer, most of which we don't know. We can reliably say the runes were in either Sanskrit or Skilosh and they included the symbol for water and fire."

U'talaba shook his head sadly. "Bad mixing. But this fit what I feel. I feel the energy. It suck, like a vampire with blood. It pull at all that I am, but the pull is too far away. The Kungai is most important part. Skin has power. Horn... horn is big magic. With Kungai horn, I could undo the bad mixing."

Angel's hand darted out so fast that Xander didn't have time to do more than eep in shock before Angel had dragged the old man half way over the counter. "Be careful before ye promise something, old man. I've left a lot of demons with little more than bruises for not being able to help, but if you make a promise and canna keep it, I will be very unhappy."

"I keep," U'talaba shouted weakly, his hands flailing. "I keep all promise. With Kungai horn, I undo bad mixing. You bring me Kungai horn. It is strong spell, but stupid and one pull... it unweave magic." U'talaba pantomimed pulling something apart with a thread. "I just need Kungai horn."

"Right then, where do I find one?" Spike immediately asked with the sort of smile that suggested he had high hopes that he was going to get to rip it off the Kungai himself.

"Rare. Very rare." U'talaba's look turned cunning. "But I am good friend of Master Vampire Aurelius. I have boy work in basement. He know something about Kungai. You go talk. My English... not good. He speak many demon language. Best of very good with translating. But his Pilixy... worse my English. You talk him."

Angel looked at U'talaba for a long minute, and a little part of Xander was curled up and screaming in fear that this was a trap or that it wasn't a trap and they were going to leave without getting the information or that they would get the information and it would turn out that there wasn't a cure. And a little part of that little part that was screaming at Xander said that if this guy said there wasn't a cure, he was going with Spike when the vamp found Jenny Giles and help tear her into little itty, bitty pieces. And if he was perfectly honest, he wasn't sure he could forgive Willow if this thing didn't have a cure. He'd still love her, but he just wasn't sure he could forgive her.

"Here, here," U'talaba moved to a door, opening it and gesturing. Oh yeah, nothing about this screamed trap, not at all. Angel, however, had his big, bad vamp face on as he walked toward the door without a moment of doubt, and he pulled Xander along with him. Well, if they were going to be in a trap, better to be trapped with Angel than away from. He hooked his fingers in Angel's belt and held on tightly as they went down the creaking wood stairs. Spike stopped at the top and leaned back against the open door, a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth as he watched with a casual air that did not match the way his body was unnaturally still like a coiled snake ready to strike.

At the bottom, Xander could see books, more books and piles of books. One set of shelves held scrolls piled up in triangles and a desk in the middle was nearly buried under the weight of the paper. A man with glasses and a dorky haircut looked up.

"Wesley!?" Xander may have squeaked the name out first, but he was guessing Angel and Spike were as shocked as he was. None of them had expected to find a Watcher in some demon's basement. Well, not without a lot of chains and some torture being involved, and Wesley just looked... well... dusty. He stood up and wiped his hand on his jacket and left behind a streak of dust from the book he'd been handling.

"Mr. Harris, Mr. Angel." He looked up the stairs at Spike who was now crouching at the top of the stairs and peering down. "Mr.... Spike." Westly blinked at them in shock.

"If it isn't the nancy-boy Watcher." Spike sounded amused.

"I have left the Council's employ. I found their philosophy entirely too confining," Wesley said sharply.

Spike did the thing with his eyebrow that meant he totally didn't believe Wesley, but Angel stepped forward before the real prissiness could get started. "We need information on how to find a Kungai horn."

And Wesley did the blinking thing again. "Yes... quite... but I hardly think that's wise."

"Listen up you gormless prat," Spike threatened, but it didn't carry as much weight with Spike still standing at the top of the stairs.

"Spike." Angel stopped Spike's rant before it got started. "Wesley, U'talaba said that you may know where we can find a Kungai horn."

"He did." Wesley looked toward the door like he might go up there and give U'talaba a piece of his very stuffy, English mind, but he had a couple of vampires between him and the guy, and from the way his fingers kept twitching toward his one pocket, Xander was guessing the guy only had one stake. Not that Wesley was particularly scary, even with a stake. However, pushed hard enough, Wesley might try to do something, and given Spike's current mood, Xander was guessing that would be of the bad. Okay, Wesley trying anything with Spike would always be of the bad, but right now, it would be of the bloodletting worse.

"So, Wesley, you're working for a demon. Way to go with the opening of your mind. Demons are people, too." Xander shouldered past Angel and reached for the first thing on Wesley's desk, which turned out to be a huge book that smelled like crayons. "Cool... basement." Xander couldn't quite say that last bit with a straight face.

"That is an original text of the Nor-ck prophesies of Oru!" Wesley sounded so much like Giles for that one second that Xander was almost homesick as Wesley darted out from behind his desk and snatched the book away, clutching it to his chest like it was the baby Xander had been about to sacrifice to some hellgod. "Don't you three have some evil vampires to slay? I assure you that I have no idea where one might find a Kungai. They are a particularly violent and thankfully rare species, and I have not heard of one in this area for quite some time. There was one in Phoenix if you are particularly interested in tracking one down."

The words hit Xander like a punch in the guts. He looked over expecting Angel to have the big brood on, but instead he had that calculating scary look, like when he'd figured out something that you really didn't want him figuring out. Angel moved forward slowly while he shook his head sadly.

"Wesley, Wesley, Wesley." The tone sent shivers up Xander's spine, and Xander wasn't the one getting looked at like the mouse in a cathouse... a house full of cats. "What do you know about the power in a Kungai horn?"

Wesley swallowed several times and held the book closer as he backed away. Ignoring Xander, he focused totally on Angel. "Well, it's rather well known that the Tac horn has the ability to drain life force of a living creature. Parker Fitzwater recorded the phenomenon in the twelfth century. He was a monk. I read his original diary. I was headboy, you know." Wesley's words tumbled out, but then if Angel was looking at him like that, Xander would have developed diarrhea of the mouth, too. "I am quite good with books. In school, they afforded me quite a few privileges normally reserved for full Watchers." Wesley finished weakly.

Angel nodded. "U'talaba is very impressed with your work. He says you have a talent for it." Angel reached up and put his hand over Wesley's. Xander opened his mouth, and for a second, he wasn't sure if he was upset about Angel intimidating Wesley or him touching Wesley.

"Wesley's all kinds of talented." Xander stepped forward and gave Angel a nasty look as he planted himself right next to the big dork. "Well, except when it comes to weapons. Seriously, no offense Wesley, but you're not really big with the weapon talent."

"Yes, quite. I had realized that, thank you for the enlightenment. I assure you that after having a seventeen year old boy who describes his fighting skills as 'marginal' show me up multiple times, I do not have a lot of illusions left on that front. It's one thing to be shown up by a slayer, but to be shown up by—"

"Be careful of the words ye choose, there," Angel warned softly. He pulled the book out of Wesley's hands, and now Wesley's hands hovered in the air. "You see, I would hate to be offended. And U'talaba has assured us that you know where to find a Kungai horn since we need one to undo a spell that removed life force from my friends. If U'talaba was lying, I would be offended. And if yer keeping something from me, I would be even more offended." Angel leaned in, trapping Wesley up against his desk. Slowly, Angel put the book down on the desk, and Wesley started sweating and went absolutely still as Angel had to lean way into his personal space to add the book to an already dangerously high pile.

"But if you were to tell me where to find a horn, I would be grateful. I have no doubt Giles would also be grateful since Buffy was also hurt by this spell."

"Buffy?" Wesley straightened up at that name. "Is Faith alright?"

"What do you care about that? You're not her soddin' Watcher anymore," Spike called down. Yep, it was a good thing for Wesley that Spike was up there and not down with him, and from the startled look on Wesley's face, he knew it.

"I am quite aware of that, but I do still care. Despite the fact that I was sacked over her disappearance, I would not want something to happen to her... her or Ms. Summers."

"Sacked like a funky English fired?" Xander asked.

Wesley blushed. "If you must know, yes. I lost my slayer, which made for a rather questionable employment history. Now if I had simply gotten her killed, they would have welcomed me back into the fold. Cecil Burward's slayer died in her first encounter with a vampire precisely fifty-three minutes after he had taken his position. However, he was welcomed back with open arms. I, on the other hand, committed the ultimate offense. I lost my slayer in that I could not find where she had been placed, which is, apparently, a far greater sin than getting one's slayer killed. We had a difference of opinion over that exact point, and they sacked me. I would have been in a right mess had I not found employment with U'talaba which included room and board. So, yes, I am now a free agent. A man without ties to the old world. A researcher of some repute who has chosen to live free of the constraints of the Council's dictates, and I do still care very much about Faith and Buffy being weakened by a spell. What exactly happened?"

Xander really didn't think it was fair to let Angel bully Wesley, not when the guy had been clearly bullied all the way out of his job, so he started to explain. "We were fighting a group called the Scourge..."

Wesley's gaze snapped over to him. "Paramilitary demons?"

"With delusions of Nazihood," Xander agreed, "very bad taste in uniforms, and a big tinkertoy that threatened to turn all humans into goo. Only there was a witch..."

"A witch? Within the Scourge?" Wesley interrupted again.

"Um, more like a three sided fight with a witch on one side and Scourge on the other and a whole lot of people you know on the third side. But the witch, she cast a spell and it made Faith and Buffy sick. We really need the Kungai horn because U'talaba thinks that with a Kungai horn he can undo the spell because it used Kungai skin."

Wesley looked around, his mouth opening and closing a couple of times before he visible straightened. "Good lord, any part of a Kungai joined with a magical enchantment could wreck havoc in the hands of the wrong practitioner. Do you know what type of spell might have been used? A chaos spell, necromancy, aeromancy, voodoo?" Wesley looked almost excited.

Xander looked at Angel, not sure how much to tell Wesley. It wasn't like any of them had been around to know how close Wesley might have been to Jenny, and Xander really did not want to get Wesley all defensive so that Angel and Spike went back to bullying. Not that Spike bullied. Angel bullied and threatened, Spike just ripped guts out.

"Cyberwiccan," Angel said without emotion.

The energy drained from Wesley immediately. "Good lord. Jenny Calendar."

"Jenny Giles," Xander corrected him.

Wesley flinched. "I hadn't received that memo. Not that the Council sends me many memos these days. Surely Mr. Giles didn't participate in such an unwise endeavor."

"He didn't," Angel agreed. "Jenny has vanished, and we are both search for a cure. Right now, you are standing between me and the chance that U'talaba can find a cure if he had access to a Kungai horn."

"Oh, right." Wesley almost sounded like he was surprised, like he'd forgotten the question Angel had been bullying him over. Turning around, he pushed aside several notebooks filled with odd symbols until he found a blue folder. "I'm not absolutely sure that I'm right, you understand. The last sighting of a Kungai truly was in Phoenix, and it's pure speculation that his horn might show up in L.A. with or without him, but I had noticed a pattern. Not to boast, but my research skills are quite formidable, and so when I noticed that a number of mystical murders were spaced the exact amount of time it would take one to drive from one location to another, I developed a theory."

Wesley pulled a map out of the folder and unfolded it to show red circles and lines traced over highways. "This is a nasty bugger. He left a trail of bodies, demon and human, with one common denominator... they all had powers. A Peto demon with a poison tongue cut out, a clairvoyant with his head ripped off, a woman with healing hands who had them pulled off her body..."

"Okay, someone killed a healer? That's sounding like something that needs a good slaying," Xander said. There was killing, and then there was the killing of children and healers and priests, which just really was so very wrong.

"While I would normally agree, this particular healer sold her talents to a local mob in Chicago. Those she chose to heal were not the sort of which you and I might approve," Wesley explained. "That is one more reason why I believe the deaths were connected. This killer targeted supernatural beings who had extensive human defenses, but he avoids anyone with a supernatural support network. It does mean that the hunter normally targets the more evil among us since beings who fight for good typically have alliances while evil is more..." Wesley glanced at Angel, and Xander could practically read his thoughts. Yep, Angel had been evil, and from the stories, evil Angel had not been nearly as good with the alliances. Heck, Darla and him kept trying to leave each other to get killed. Spike was about the only evil person Xander knew who did the family thing. Actually, Spike was way better at the family thing than Xander's father, and that was not saying good things about the nature of his father's soul.

Wesley cleared his throat. "Three days ago, the Kungai rumored to live in south Phoenix disappeared under suspicious circumstances, and the killer appears to be working his way back to California."

Wesley started spreading newspaper clippings out over the desk. "And this is the third time I've seen this pattern. Someone starts on the east coast and then works his or her way back to California, collecting various powers on the way. If this person did kill the Kungai as I hypothesize, then he is somewhere near here with the horn."

"So, someone is collecting powers." Angel leaned over the desk and studied the maps and articles spread out over it.

"More than likely. And if that is the case, the demon will be a formidable opponent," Wesley said.

Angel shook his head. "That many powers would have side effects. But there is more than one reason to collect powers. U'talaba is willing to try a counterspell if he gets the horn. How much would something like that sell for?"

Wesley blinked. "I hadn't considered it."

"What? We're looking for a retail shop of evil?" Xander frowned at the idea of his two worst nightmares shoved together into one thing. Shopping with Buffy and Willow had been bad enough, but retail of evil was sounding infinitely worse.

"Makes sense," Spike agreed from his post at the exit. "If demons are involved, the green bean will know where to find them." Lorne really was like a demon Switzerland, neutral and knowing way more than he ever admitted.

"So, we find the collector, get the horn, and Faith is safe as houses in no time," Spike said, and for the first time since Jenny's spell, he actually looked pleased.

"Faith and Buffy and Doyle and that guy from Riley's unit with the rash," Xander corrected him. Spike gave a snort that made it pretty clear he didn't actually care about anyone other than Faith, but that was Spike for you. As good as he was doing the family thing, he didn't really do friendly alliance well.

"To attempt to use the horn in any sort of palliative or curative measure could prove counterproductive." Wesley stopped when Angel moved forward, his shoulders rolling like a panther that just found a bunny rabbit in his cage with him. Actually, Angel was moving in a way that Xander normally associated with Spike and imminent death.

"We will get the horn, and if U'talaba needs any assistance, you will make sure that this is not a counterproductive spell." Angel gave a real Angelus smile, one that made Xander's mouth go dry and that made Wesley lose all the blood out of his face. Xander should probably explain to Wesley that vampires had more fun playing with you when you looked like you were about to pee in your pants.

Xander cleared his throat. "Um, shouldn't we be doing something about evil retail?" he asked Angel.

At first, Angel didn't seem to have heard. He just continued with the Angelus smile, but then he shook his head, like he was just coming up from under the water, and looked over at Xander. "Which part?" Angel asked. "If we shut down the evil buyers, the sellers will just find more. If we shut down the sellers, then they stop taking out the original owners of the evil objects. If we try to confiscate every evil object—" Angel didn't finish, but Xander could see where that was going.

"Oh bloody hell. If you lot get off on that, we're never going to focus on getting the bloody Kungai horn for the spell. We can worry about the rest of the moral shite later. So, are we going to take the horn away from the wankers or pay for it? I know which one I prefer." Spike smiled and morphed into gameface. Wesley didn't scream or squeal or do anything too unmanly, but he came close. Xander remembered a day when that had been him, and he was clearly a bad person because watching someone else deal with Spike was amusing him.

"What if the guy who grew the horn wasn't evil? I mean, are we sure these are evil people torturing evil people?" Xander asked.

Surprisingly, it was Wesley who spoke up even if he was still looking like he was close to the peeing of his pants. "It is quite admirable to question the moral turpitude of those involved in such nefarious goings on, but..."

"But we don't bloody care," Spike cut him off.

"You don't bloody care. I kinda bloody care," Xander said with an exasperated glare. Sure, he didn't understand anything Wesley was saying, but at least he was willing to talk about this.

"Xander." Angel stopped and just looked at him, and now Xander knew he finally had Angel's attention.

"I know we need the horn, and hey, I am totally okay with taking the horn or buying the horn or if someone gets in our way letting Spike eviscerate them for the horn." Spike's smile made it pretty clear which option he'd vote for. "But should we leave the auction up and running?"

Angel frowned. "There might be a few good people involved. Some buyers could be looking for cures." His frown deepened. "However, some of the merchandise might be stolen from demons who were fighting evil," he admitted with an unhappy expression.

"So, the Kungai could have been a good guy and someone ripped his horn off his head... please someone tell me we are talking about a horn on a head." Xander looked around, but before Spike could start making up some story like he had with the enné, Wesley nodded.

"Indeed, right in the center of the forehead."

"Okay, then how do we know we aren't buying the body part of some poor demon who was just walking to work one day when 'bam' some horn collector jumped out from behind a bush because that...." Xander eeped when Spike caught him by the front of the shirt and dragged him forward until they were nose to nose. Okay, clearly Spike had moved away from the door at some point.

"I don't soddin' care if I have to find some git walking to work and rip something off him myself, I'm getting Faith her fucking cure."

"Spike," Angel warned. Out of the side of his eye, Xander could see Wesley's hands fluttering like he didn't know what to do with them. Xander just reached up and patted Spike. Father Peter might say that love required a soul, but Xander knew two things: Spike didn't have a soul and Spike loved everyone in his odd little clan.

"And I am oddly okay with that plan. We need the Kungai horn, so we'll take it," Xander promised him. "I'm just wondering if we shouldn't burn the auction down or do some slayage while we're there."

Spike frowned at him for a second and then let go. "That'd be a bit of alright," Spike said with a casual sniff like he hadn't been thoroughly pissed off two seconds ago. He let go of Xander, but he slung an arm over Xander's shoulder and pulled him close. Angel's eyebrow went up, but he didn't comment.

"A Kungai is evil by definition," Angel said, stepping closer. Reaching out, he caught Xander by the arm and pulled him away from Spike. For a second, Spike held on, his lips curling into a smirk before he let go. With an oomph, Xander hit Angel's side, and then Angel's arm was over his shoulder and pulling him tight. If vampires were cats, he was the catnip ball. "Like vampires," Angel continued, totally ignoring Spike's smirk and Wesley's slightly panicked expression, "a Kungai lives by draining others, but they drain the lifeforce and leave nothing but dust behind when they feed. If we had a Kungai was in the area, I would track it down and kill it."

"And you would have left the soddin' horn behind, so that would have been a waste," Spike interrupted.

"Yes, well, I would certainly not want to distract you from your imminent battle with the nefarious forces of evil." Wesley gave a ragged laugh. "I have some translations to tend to. Very difficult. A rare dialect of Fil'ta. Quite a daunting task." He was backing away, and Spike cocked his head.

"Wesley, thank you," Angel offered. Spike gave Wesley a thorough and predatory looking over, and Wesley lost what little color he had in his face. Spike smirked before heading for the door without a word.

"Quite alright." Wesley sat down so fast that Xander thought his knees had probably failed him. Angel and Spike had sort of left him alone back in Sunnydale. He was in Buffy's camp, and that made him persona non toucha. Not so much now.

Angel turned around and started for the door without letting Xander go.

"Hey! Thanks and it was really nice seeing you," Xander called over his shoulder as Angel pushed him toward the stairs. Wesley just waved his hand with a vague gesture. Yep, he was freaking in his own very English sort of way.

Upstairs, U'talaba sat on a low bench and twirled two strands of something stringlike together. "He is good, yes? Very smart."

"If this information turns out to be good." Angel stopped, his arm tightening around Xander protectively, but it was just U'talaba and his stool.

"He always gives good information. More people should get themselves an old Watcher. They make good workers." U'talaba sounded very friendly, but something about the way he said that made Xander's arm hairs stand up and start looking around. "The Watchers have the patience to train them right."

"It probably helps that he worked for the Slayers," Angel offered mildly, but the deathgrip on Xander arm didn't exactly support the idea that he was feeling mild.

"You know how it is. People like to brag. They had their translation done by a minion of one of the great Slayers." U'talaba smiled showing teeth that were too pointed for a human. "Good for business, but it is the Watchers who trained him to be so good a worker." U'talaba nodded. "His information good. Go find the horn, and I will undo what the clumsy witch did."

Angel tipped his head in U'talaba's direction before pushing Xander out into the night air. Outside, Spike was leaning against the car with barely contained impatience.

"Don't bloody care if you want to burn the place down after, but you get Lorne on that phone and find out where we find this demon with the horn." Spike took a deep drag on his cigarette so the end lit his face with a demonic glow... or that might have been the fact that he was still in gameface.

"Are we going to burn them down?" Xander asked. He pushed the seat forward so he could climb in back.

"Seems pointless. We might need 'em later." Spike slammed the door closed and then leaped over it to land in the passenger seat. "Then again, a good fire is a right treat—all that screamin' and burnin'. I bloody loved China with the whole fucking country on fire and everyone tryin' to kill everyone else."

Angel gave Spike a dirty look before he moved to the front of the car to talk on the phone. Hopefully Lorne would help without them having to drive down to Caritas to sing or threaten Lorne.

"You do know I'm not really into randomly burning things down." Xander thought back to his early days with Buffy, back when he'd been as dweebish as Wesley and he'd been pretty much into burning any and all demons he could find. He definitely would have burned down U'talaba's place, and now he was wondering whether his new or his old instincts were better. "Anymore," he added. "But if they're evil..."

"You're as bad as Peaches, some days, pet. They're evil the way Wall Street or the soddin' Congress is evil. They spread shite around and try and suck up all the money and every once in a while, someone good gets chewed up and spit out. If ya want to bloody burn them to the ground, I don't really care, but don't go getting your knickers in some sort of moral twist. That's Peaches' job."

Xander pulled the seatbelt across his lap. "Is it a bad sign when the soulless demon makes sense?"

Spike blew a cloud of smoke out into the night air. "I always make sense, pet. I don't have all that guilt clogging up my brains."

"Hey, guilt is not what's clogging my brains." Xander frowned because that wasn't exactly what he'd meant to say. However, he didn't have a chance to correct himself—Spike was laughing too loudly.

"Hotel Ramsey," Angel said as he got in behind the wheel. "A demon named Barney runs a regular auction offering up magical parts. So, are we taking them out when we get the horn?"

He started the car and checked over his shoulder before pulling out into traffic. Xander didn't realize Angel was asking him until he reached up to adjust the rearview mirror so he could see Xander's reflection. Part of Xander wanted to play hero and rush in there and do the slay thing... or the watching vamp backs while they did the slay thing and he stood around with his cinquedea. They were evil, and evil should die. But if they stuck with that rule, they'd have to track down most of the politicians, and Xander was pretty sure those guys were human and killing them was on the 'no' list. He was a big fan of less evil in the world, but he wasn't the one to be making the big decisions about who was evil enough to deserve getting taken out. He wasn't even sure that getting rid of Barney would mean less evil because Wesley made it sound like he was pretty good at killing evil, even if he was kinda evil. For that matter, Spike was evil, and if they let Spike do his Spiky thing, it seemed unfair to not let Barney to his Barney-y thing. Unless he did something particularly evil to them, anyway.

Xander sighed. "You could just make up your own mind... you know, without making me question my moral boundaries." Since Angel didn't have a reflection, Xander couldn't see his face, but he knew what the silence meant. "Fine, we get the horn and let Barney be Barney, but if he tries selling me or, you know, someone not evil, he gets put on the slay list."

Angel nodded and hit the accelerator.



26. Chapter 26

Angel pulled Xander closer as they walked through the hotel's back room. Demonic chests, body parts, shriveled heads and idols were strewn across folding tables, each with a small number on a tag attached. He could smell Xander's distress, and he wondered if Xander had changed his mind about burning the place down once they got the horn. Angel could feel the violent glee at that prospect, and he reminded himself that he would have to pull the fire alarm and give the humans in the rooms above a chance to get out first.

"Creepsville," Xander said softly. "It's like paradise only for really twisted people who think Poe and Quentin Tarantino make for good bedtime stories."

A young man went rushing by them, his arms held out like he was about to hug a long-lost friend. "Oh! Look! I really want one of these." He stopped just short of a mummy, which was good because it was covered in rotting bandages. "Buy me this one."

An older woman in spiked heels and a business suit followed. She had an indulgent look on her face as she agreed.

"Bloody idiots," Spike said softly.

"Oh yeah. Fools in fool's paradise, and please tell me that fool can't use the mummy to end the world or perform any apocalypsy fun." Xander turned to Angel.

Angel looked at the misshapen artifact. "It might eat him," Angel finally concluded.

"And I'm thinking that's only fair in a Darwinian kind of way."

Angel didn't know how to answer that. Certainly he didn't feel any sympathy for the young man who was almost dancing around the mummy, but Angel was a demon. Xander was a human, and he still wasn't bothered by the high likelihood that this overly enthusiastic young man was about to become part of the food chain.

"Bloody hell, let's just get on with it," Spike said, and that effectively interrupted any introspection on Angel's part.

"This way." Angel started walking toward the office area. Smaller artifacts were lined up on tables in this area. It occurred to Angel that this Barney would pay a lot to get the Gem of Amara, and Angel calculated the cost of adding a little more security onto the hotel.

They definitely needed to either bring in more guests or go raid some treasure. Angel had heard rumors of a necromancer who had a very large treasure and an even larger library. Of course, it was insanely dangerous for vampires to go after a necromancer, but Spike was nearly dancing with glee at the thought of trying, and if this worked, Faith and Graham would be available for a raid. It would solve both their current difficulties with dwindling finances and provide them with more research material. And it would make Cordelia happy. Angel had quickly discovered that the entire hotel tended to match Cordelia's mood. If she was stressed over money, Spike would break something, Xander would get upset about whatever Spike had broken, Graham would get tense around Spike, and Faith would snap at Spike for making Graham uncomfortable. Life was easier when Cordelia was happy. Sometimes it worried Angel just how much Cordelia and Darla had in common, but at least this time he wasn't sharing a bed with the queen bee.

Angel glanced over at Xander who was looking around, his expression caught between horror and fascination. The idea that Xander would be in his bed within days... within hours... it was terrifying. Angel knew how to dominate Spike and he knew how to get dominated. Darla's training wasn't something he cared to think about, but he certainly knew how to placate a dominant lover in bed. However, Angel wasn't sure what he was supposed to do with Xander.

"Okay this place? Officially weird," Xander said with an exaggerated grimace. "And if you lose me the way my mother lost me in K-mart when I was seven, I'm never forgiving you."

Angel blinked, shocked at the evidence that Xander would ever suspect that. Reaching out, Angel caught Xander by the neck and pulled him close, enjoying the warmth. "If you wander more than two steps, I'll track you down."

Spike smirked over at them. "We could probably pick the boy up a leash if you'd like," he suggested, wiggling his eyebrows. Spike was enjoying Angel's discomfort a little too much, and the worst part was that he probably understood the dilemma that Angel was in. After all, Spike had already made the transition to having sex with humans... sex that didn't involve broken bones and bloodletting. Angel glared at the younger vampire.

"You try it and I'll... I'll..." Xander sputtered, struggling to come up with a threat good enough. "I'll tell people you're addicted to Passions!" Xander finally blurted. "I'll have Graham put it on the webpage!"

"You soddin' little..."

"Enough," Angel cut them off before they could get into a war of mutual threats and blackmail. A woman was walking straight toward them, her dark eyes focused right on Angel, and this did not look like a casual interest.

"Ah, Mr. Angel." The woman walked up to them, and Angel stepped forward to get between her and Xander. Her tailored suit and briefcase suggested that she was a broker or a buyer, and if she wanted to buy Xander, Angel was going to have her for lunch. It would distract him from his aggravation with Spike. Xander sighed, but since he didn't loudly complain and poke Angel in the ribs, Angel assumed that was a sort of tacit agreement that this woman was dangerous.

"Yes?" Angel narrowed his eyes and looked at her. He considered the length of time it would take her to die if he started stripping off her skin. While he didn't actually plan to try that, Spike and Xander agreed that tended to have his most intimidating expression when he indulged in that fantasy, and he needed this woman to understand that he didn't want her near. Unfortunately, she didn't seem bothered by his expression.

"I'm Connie Whither, from Wolfram and Hart. I wanted to introduce myself." She put her hand out and offered him an unctuous smile. Angel stared at her. Russell Winters had used the law firm before Angel had killed him, and there were rumors of other demons hiring the lawyers. As far as Angel was concerned, working for demons put you on some pretty thin ice. He was fairly sure Xander would approve of terrorizing the woman since her law firm had tried to defend Winters when he'd kidnapped Cordelia.

"Whoa, the crazy vampire businessman's law firm? The people who tried to defend the vamp who grabbed Cordelia?" Xander asked with a fear coloring his voice. Angel didn't like that tone. He also thought the tone pretty much confirmed his first guess. This woman was on some thin moral ice. One wrong move, and Spike would be having fresh blood for dinner.

Angel narrowed his eyes and took a step toward the woman. "If ye have something to say, say it quick." Angel noted that Spike had moved back to Xander's side, defending him.

"Yes, we did represent Mr. Winters, but there are certainly no hard feelings there. Vampire culture has its own laws, and while we would have attempted to negotiate on his behalf, you were clearly well within your rights." Angel could hear the strain in her voice. She wasn't lying... not outright, but not everyone agreed with that assessment. Taking another step forward, Angel moved within inches of her. Tiny drops of sweat gathered at her hairline, and she smelled of the musk that came not with terror, but with the emotion that preceded it--a sort of nervous awareness of mortality. "We simply wish to offer our services to you."

"Services?" Spike asked, and the sarcasm in his voice made it clear what he thought of that offer.

"An evil door-to-door salesman in an evil auction, who woulda thunk?" Xander said quietly, echoing Spike's displeasure with his own odd sort of mangled English.

"We offer a wide range of services beyond the normal legal firm. For example, we have an establishment that presents demon gladiator fights. Normally, vampires are not a popular attraction. While I would never want to offend you, the fact is that the normal minion does not present any sort a challenge for the demon fighters. However, if you are interested, I'm sure the crowd would love to bet on a Master Vampire, and we could arrange a profit sharing plan for our mutual benefit." Angel sub vocalized a growl, warning Spike to stay out of it before he signed himself up. By insulting vampires as a race, she was clearly attempting to manipulate Spike. The boy simply could not resist any challenge to his strength. Of course, Angel understood that insecurity entire too well since he had created it.

"I don't see any reason why I would be interested in your profits," Angel pointed out coldly. She simply smiled.

"I would not expect you to take any interest. That's the advantage of our law firm. We are a neutral party out to secure profits for ourselves and our clients. We have no political motives other than money, so you can be assured that we will always act in the best interest of our financial future. You would be a significant draw in the fights--you or Master Spike--and we would be willing to share those significant profits in order to secure a share for ourselves."

Angel studied her. From what he'd heard in the demon communities, Wolfram and Hart was far from neutral, but then evil people shied away from announcing their own nefarious motives. Certainly Angelus had only showed his true nature once he has his prey in the trap. However, that left him wondering what trap Wolfram and Hart was preparing. "Not interested," Angel said shortly.

"Or," she hurried to say as Angel started to turn away, "we could arrange to use your hotel for accommodations. From what we've heard, you have done a remarkable job with the restoration." She smiled at Xander, and Angel growled, his eyesight slipping into the gray, sharp-edged vision of the demon. The woman had the grace to turn pale and take a step back. "We represent a number of politicians, demonic clan leaders... diplomats. We would pay top dollar for a demon-friendly luxury hotel."

Angel studied the woman, but her vacuous smile didn't reveal anything of any interest.

"Master Angel!" A floppy eared demon who clearly shopped for obnoxiously colorful shirts at the same stores as Xander hurried up to him. Reaching out, he grabbed for Angel's hand without even pausing. Clearly he was stupid. "U'talaba said to expect you, and can I just say I am really excited about doing business with you. You are just the hottest thing to hit L.A. since pastel colors during the Miami Vice craze. So, I hear you're looking for a Tak horn, and I have just the merchandise for you. That boy of U'talaba's really knows his business if he spotted my trail from the newspapers, huh?"

Angel's vision turned human again as he studied the strange demon that was shaking his hand enthusiastically. If he didn't know Xander was completely human, Angel would have been tempted to assume that they were related.

"Barney?" Angel asked.

"That's me. Your procurer of all things of power. Healing hands, visionary eyes... Tak horns—I have it all. But for you, I'm just your good old buddy, Barney."

"Is it just me, or did anyone else expect bigger, musclier and scarier when Wesley described a killer of killers and other really big, scary stuff?" Xander asked in a slightly bewildered voice.

"Hey, kid, don't go judging a book by his skin," Barney suggested. "Of course now that I know how U'talaba's ex-Watcher tracked me, I clearly need to change my MO a little."

"Ex-Watcher?" Connie Whither's face grew speculative. Angel mentally cursed. Barney might not be as physically intimidating as Xander had expected, but Angel suspected he had just done far more damage than a rampaging Moira demon. Damn. Clearly, they would have to move to get Wesley out of U'talaba's place more quickly than Angel had planned. And hopefully, he could do it without Xander realizing that U'talaba had effectively enslaved Wesley. Xander would consider that a sin worthy of slaying, and Spike always wanted to kill, so that would make it two against one in favor of killing U'talaba. Angel would prefer to avoid that. The demon had connections, and more than that, he had power that Angel still didn't understand, and that made him nervous.

"Some new slave U'talaba picked up," Barney said dismissively. Angel kept his best stoic face on, even when Xander turned and looked at him with undisguised horror. Damn it. If Xander weren't here, Angel would wring Barney's neck like one of his grandmother's cheesecloth bundles with the curds tucked inside the rough fabric. Only, Angel would squeeze until Barney's brains started leaking instead of whey.

"How interesting," Whither said as if Wesley and U'talaba were the least interesting topics in the world. Angel wasn't buying her faked disinterest. "Do consider our offer, Mr. Angel. Wolfram and Hart is always looking for profitable partners, and we could make a lot of money together." She looked over at Xander and Spike and tipped her head in respect. "So nice to meet you Mr. Harris, Mr. Pratt." Angel could feel every muscle tense at the evidence that this lawyer had done her research. No one alive knew Spike's original name, and she threw the name around as if the information were so easily come by that it didn't matter. That kind of arrogance suggested that either Wolfram and Hart was far more powerful than Angel had thought or that they had paid dearly for that information, and they'd been waiting for a chance to drop it into some conversation just to convince Angel of their power.

Angel traded looks with Spike. All the playfulness had vanished, and Spike was dangerously still and ready to attack. Angel weighed the dangers. Whither was just a minion of the real power, however. Killing her would only serve to give Wolfram and Hart an inflated sense of their own ability to worry Angel.

"Don't expect a call," Angel said shortly. Barney looked from the lawyer to them and back in clear confusion. "Let's discuss the terms of sale on the Tak horn," Angel said, facing Barney even though he tracked the lawyer's every move with his hearing.

"The auction is tomor—" Barney choked off the last word, probably because Angel had reached out and grabbed him by the throat.

"Let's understand each other," Angel said in a friendly voice. Spike gave a little bounce. "I've had a really difficult day. A technomage attacked my clan, and when I find her, I'm going to pull her intestines out the smallest possible hole I can make in her stomach." With his free hand, Angel reached out and slipped a finger between the buttons of Barney's shirt and stroked the skin beneath. "I'm having fantasies of eviscerating something with a beating heart, and I can either take the Tak horn and work on undoing the technomage's spell or I can indulge in a little torture while I wait for someone to find this woman for me." Angel smiled and let that piece of information soak in. "How would you like me to spend the next hour?" Angel tilted his head to the side and considered Barney. His pinkish skin was turning a much brighter shade of red and he was making little inarticulate noises.

"Um, I think he needs to breathe, Angel," Xander said softly.

"Oh." Angel tried to hide his own embarrassment at forgetting that. He loosened his hold, and Barney noisily sucked air in.

"But for you, we can do a private sale," Barney said, his voice a rough whisper. "How does $10,000 sound?"

"Unreasonable," Angel said sharply.

"Because it is," Barney agreed with a strained smile, patting Angel on the forearm. "Because we're friends, and we don't make a profit off each other... or kill each other. I would never charge my friend more than $4,000. I have it right over there," Barney waved his hand toward a table. Angel looked over, and he could see the Tak horn with its tag. Angel nodded and Spike headed for the table, pulling Xander along with him.

Slowly, Angel let go of Barney's neck and patted him on the shoulder, mimicking Barney's desperate and placating gesture. "It's good to have friends," Angel said as he pulled his wallet out of his pocket.

Barney was holding his neck with both hands, but he nodded his agreement. Angel pulled the money out and counted out the hundred dollar bills. "I'm five hundred short. I'll have to have the last part of the payment sent over." Angel handed Barney $3,500 and watched for any sign that the demon was about to call in security. For a second, Angel thought he might be considering it, but Angel reached over and patted Barney on the cheek the way one might a child. "After all, friends trust each other, right? If you didn't trust me, you wouldn't let me leave without the last of the payment and if I didn't trust you, I'd rip you apart and throw your decapitated head at the first guard to show his face."

For a second, Barney didn't breathe. Hell, most of the patrons who were inspecting the exhibits held their breath. "Of course. I have absolute trust in you, Master Angel. You're quickly becoming the most important Master in L.A. You certainly run the only traditional court on the West Coast. In fact, I insist that you take the horn for $3,500. It's more than fair. Maybe you could let me leave a few brochures at your hotel? Advertise my services? You know, one friend helping out another?" Barney's words tumbled out, and he smelled of desperation and hope.

"Call Cordelia. If you can get her to agree, you have my permission." Angel turned toward the exit, but he kept an eye out for Barney. Unless Angel missed his guess, Angel didn't have anything to fear from him at this point, though. Barney was looking at him with awe and excitement. Angel jerked his head, and Spike took point, Xander right behind him as they headed for the exit. Angel kept to the rear, covering their retreat. He wasn't even all the way to the door before Barney turned to a human who'd been hovering in the background during the entire conversation.

"Do you hear that? Master Angel is going to let me advertise in his hotel if I can get past his major domus."

Angel sighed, wondering if it would placate Cordelia to know that the demon community was about to promote her from human slave to majordomo. Probably not. The title wouldn't reduce her work load, but maybe Angel could do something about that, too.

Outside, Xander moved away from Spike and back to Angel's side. Angel raised an arm and let Xander slip into place against his side. The warmth of Xander's body reminded Angel that he wasn't the demon he once had been, no matter how good it felt to intimidate Barney and feel the awe and respect as people looked at him and saw a Master Vampire—not a souled abomination known for crawling through alleys for a century.

"U'talaba thinks he owns Wesley?" Xander asked.

"Ya just now figuring that one out, pet?" Spike turned around and looked at Xander like he was a particularly cute and slightly stupid dog. Angel glared at Spike, silently warning him to play nice. Spike was probably still stinging from Xander's threat to publicize his Passions obsession.

"Hey, I think I'm figuring it out way faster than Wesley. You do know that Wesley doesn't know that he's U'talaba's slave, right?" Xander looked from one of them to the other. "We aren't going to just let him stay enslaved, right?"

Angel sighed. He was aware. "We'll deal with that after we get the spell we need. We're not going to abandon Wesley," he promised. They reached the car, and Angel looked back at the hotel.

"Should we take the auction out?" Angel asked. He'd asked Xander before, but now Xander had seen just how much power and how many dangerous artifacts were together in this one place.

Xander sighed and shrugged and gave a lop-sided grin that looked like the one he used when he'd performed particularly badly on a test at school. "Lots of things creep me out. Like the Barney that's on TV. That's way worse than this Barney. There is something very wrong about getting kids to hug a purple dinosaur. If you see a purple dinosaur, running and screaming in terror would be way better reactions than hugging. So trust me, you are not going to be able to uncreepify the world."

Angel tightened his arm around Xander's shoulders. He remembered a day when Xander would have asked for exactly that. He wasn't sure whether it was good or bad that Xander was willing to accept a certain level of evil in the world.

"Let's go get a cure for Faith," Angel said.

"About bloody fucking time." Spike leaped over the door and landed in the passenger side seat and propped a boot on the dash of Angel's car.

Angel walked around to the driver's side and opened the door and pulled the seat forward so Xander could climb in.

"Harry will be very happy if Doyle gets well enough to travel, because I really think they're going to get back together, which is hard to do if Doyle is here and Harry is off learning demon table manners," Xander said. "Although I'm almost a little sorry, because Harry and Blair would have been really cute together. They would have had kids so smart that the rug rats would have been making fun of me before they got to the third grade, but Blair and Harry would have been cute together."

Angel listened to Spike and Xander chat about who should pair up with whom as he pulled into the traffic. Considering his own fears that he would not live up to Xander's expectations, that was not a conversation he planned to join in. Besides, right now, he couldn't think past getting Faith her cure. That and trying to figure out a way to get Wesley away from U'talaba and Wolfram and Hart.

Life was just never simple. He remembered Whistler once warning him about perfect happiness. Angel certainly didn't see himself being in any danger of that. If he didn't get Wesley before Wolfram and Hart bought him, he doubted he was ever going to be even slightly happy ever again. Sometimes it occurred to Angel that Spike and Xander were not all that different. Inside the auction, Xander had walked away from a young man who was most likely going to get eaten by a demon mummy, but he wanted to save Wesley from a situation where he was safe and happy and enslaved. Yeah, Xander was far more protective of his people than of people in general, and clearly Xander wanted to save Wesley. So, they'd be saving Wesley.

If life got any more complicated, Angel was going to have to start keeping "To Do" lists. Save Wesley, make Cordelia happy, figure out what Wolfram and Hart was up to, and do it all before they ran out of money. No wonder he'd spent a century living in alleys; it was simpler.



27. Chapter 27

Angel kept his hand on Wesley's back, ushering him into the hotel. The man seemed to just drift to a stop when not pushed, like all the revelations of the past hour had drained him of energy or the ability to form his own thoughts, which had been a blessing of a sort. It had facilitated the transfer of custody. When U'talaba had brought out the enslavement parchment with the spell and Wesley's signature, the man had been too astounded to do more than stare.

"Big A!" Faith yelled from the top of the stairs about a half second before she flung herself down them, using full slayer strength to take the whole length in four leaps. "Oh yeah. The big man gets the job done again! Graham just got off the phone with Riley, and Buffy is five by five, too, so your big mojo-maker did good."

"And Doyle?" Angel asked. He gave Wesley a bit of a push, and Angel's newly-acquired slave wandered to the center couch and sat. He didn't even bother putting down the box of dusty books he was carrying; he just held them in his lap.

Faith stopped right in front of Angel. "He and Harry couldn't find any food that wasn't demonic or growing mold, so they went out to find some food." Faith gave Wesley a quizzical look before raising an eyebrow at Angel.

"Bloody hell, you could offer a hand, wanker," Spike complained as he balanced two boxes and held the door for Xander and his one box.

"Let me." Faith trotted across the floor, all sign of weakness gone as she plucked the box out of Xander's arms. "Where to, boytoy?"

"Library," Xander told her before he headed for the couch. He'd been sticking close to Wesley ever since Wesley had discovered his slavery, and Angel was trying hard to strangle the creeping jealousy that kept wrapping around his heart. "Hey, why don't you give me those?" Xander reached out, but he had to physically take the books away from Wesley because the man still wasn't reacting. Xander gave Angel a concerned look, but Angel had no idea how to help. Wesley was out of danger now, so Angel didn't understand the fear that leaked from his pores.

"And let the weirdness begin," Xander sighed as he put Wesley's box on the floor.

"If you bring weirdness home, you'd better leave it outside the door," Cordelia said as she came out of the office. She stopped and stared at Wesley. "Who brought the geek?"

Wesley's gaze rose to meet hers, but he still didn't answer, and he had an expression that Angel couldn't describe. Even his years as Angelus failed to provide any memory of any human who had ever looked so very lost—at least not without significant torture.

"Way with the rude, Cordy," Xander complained.

Cordelia rolled her eyes. "Oh please. Geeks think 'geek' is a compliment. So, why is he here?"

Angel tried to find a kind way to describe the situation, something that wouldn't further traumatize the man who looked ready to crumble. He took too long.

"Peaches bought him," Spike offered as he strode back into the lobby. Crossing the lobby, he stopped in front of Cordelia, and the two of them exchanged an expression of longing and lust and trust. Spike cocked his head to the side and brought his fingers up to brush Cordelia's cheek. "You wanted some help around the place. A slave's nearly as good as a minion."

"Okay, I think we all need to ixnay with the ave-slay." Xander glared, but Spike didn't even bother breaking eye contact with Cordelia. Angel made a mental note to beat some information out of Spike because whatever had been worrying Cordelia lately, other than their dwindling resources, it was not solving itself. Pretty soon, his to-do list was going to require an entire scroll.

"I rather doubt anyone has any interest in avoiding that topic," Wesley said with a sigh. Angel flinched back from the raw emotion there. He hated the feeling of glee he got at Wesley's misery, but he couldn't deny that the power, and the contract in his pocket, were stained with this odd pleasure. While it didn't make him a good man by any stretch of the imagination, no amount of confession or prayer—or on his bad nights, Irish whiskey—could make Angel stop enjoying the little miseries of certain people. Giles was one. Clearly, Wesley was another.

"I know I plan on bringing it up whenever I can," Spike agreed with a wicked smile.

"Assions-Pay!" Xander warned with a glare. Spike's eyes narrowed and he glared back. Angel sighed as they started bickering again. He still wasn't sure whether Spike would have eviscerated Xander or bedded him if they'd met without Angel being around; however, they certainly enjoyed torturing each other.

"Not to interrupt the testosterone, but would anyone like to explain?" Faith jumped up onto the reception desk and pulled her feet up under her. "If this has something to do with those stick-up-the-ass watchers, I am voting 'no.'"

"I've parted ways with the council," Wesley said, but his voice carried none of the bravado or defiance he'd used to make that announcement earlier. He sagged like a deboned fish. It was not a pleasant sight; at least, not unless you were a sadist secretly enjoying a former enemy twisting in your power.

Graham trotted down the stairs, a wide smile on his face, but he wasn't more than halfway down when he stopped and scanned the room. When he saw Wesley, he frowned, but then he had known Wesley before and now the man looked like he'd been kicked once too often. Angel resisted the urge to defend himself since he had not been the one to put the expression on Wesley's face. Then again, after he and Spike had nearly broken Graham in their attempt to get information out of him, Angel imagined that Graham had a right to assume the worst. But at least Graham had his loyalties settled enough to watch and wait instead of challenging them.

"And we are all in favor of the parting," Xander told Wesley with a comforting pat on the knee." The look Wesley gave him in return suggested that he didn't appreciate the gesture, and Angel gritted his teeth. Just because Wesley needed to be taught manners and just because Angel wanted to make him just a little miserable, that did not give him the right to torture the man. Father Peter was going to have Angel doing penance until the next Armageddon at this rate.

"There was some confusion, and it turns out that U'talaba kinda owned Wesley," Xander explained to the room. From the confused looks, the others were going to require more explanation.

Angel took a step forward, and the others looked at him expectantly. "Wesley signed what he believed to be an employment contract. It was an enslavement contract with a binding spell."

Wesley grimaced, but he didn't protest Angel's description of events. "In my defense, Pilixy is an exceptionally difficult language. The difference in declination in the verbs referring to Pilix and non-Pilix can alter the interpretations..."

"And can I tell you right now that absolutely no one understands what you're saying?" Xander interrupted. "Okay, Angel might, but probably not. Anyway, Wesley decided to come hang out with us, so he's going to be taking your old room Cordelia."

Cordelia narrowed her eyes. "And why am I giving up my room?"

"Because you don't sleep in it anymore?"

Angel leaned against the wall and watched this contest. Xander might understand moral issues better than Angel, but he didn't understand women or status.

"Then give him yours. It's about time you moved into Angel's room anyway."

"Really, I don't mind a guest—" Wesley was cut off.

"But you've already moved in with Spike... or Spike moved in with you... but there's an extra room whichever way you look at it."

"And there will still be an extra room when Wesley is in your old room and you move in with Angel." Cordelia's expression turned sharp, and maybe Xander knew he was out of his depth because he looked over at Angel for help. However, Angel had lived long enough to know that he was not going to contradict Cordelia unless it were an issue worth the suffering she would inevitably cause.

"Not to interrupt your argument," Graham said as he walked in, "but are you saying that you bought Wesley?" His voice rose on the word 'bought.'

"Soddin' right we did," Spike offered cheerfully. Too cheerfully. Xander glared at him again.

"Wait. You bought like with money?" Cordelia started glaring at Spike, but she turned her glare on Angel within seconds.

"Yes, with money," Angel said firmly. He wouldn't debate rooms, but he would defend his right to bring Wesley home. "We'll be fine." From the look Cordelia gave him, she didn't believe him, but she would wait until they were alone because she lectured him again about how money just didn't last like it had in 1750.

"No worries, luv. It's more like we leased to own."

"Leased?" Graham crossed his arms. Angel desperately wanted to just go upstairs and avoid all these condemning looks and the scent of frustration and the feelings that were dredged up from his own soul when he was around his humans too much.

"I assure you, I will pay my own way." Wesley straightened up. "I have made this error, and I will not ask others to cover for my inability to correctly translate a verb. The thought had occurred to me that the salary he was offering was rather impressive for someone who had not yet proven his abilities." Wesley sighed. "I guess I should be grateful that my translation services do bring in a significant income. I shudder to think what U'talaba would have done had I not met my weekly quota."

Xander leaned closer. "Hey, anyone could have confused quota and salary. Salary, minimum quota, yep, very confusable."

Angel loved Xander, but even he had to admit that sometimes Xander's attempts at reassurance left him doubting whether Xander's logic had ever fully formed. From the way Wesley was looking at Xander, he was wondering the same thing.

Spike snorted. "Simple enough, mate. He would have chained ya up and taken a whip to you until you decided to work harder. And seeing as how you signed your name on a contract with a binding spell, you couldn't have done much to stop him. And you'd bloody well better pay your way here, too. If I hear about you not bringing in enough to cover U'talaba's fees, I'll take it out on your hide."

"No you won't," Xander said firmly. "Wesley, ignore Spike. If he gets too pissy, I'll just accidentally on purpose cut off the electricity in the middle of Passions."

"You soddin' little..."

"You two can verbally castrate each other late," Cordelia cut them off. "As the person who has to make the bank happy, someone needs to explain what happened in short sentences that actually make sense."

Angel looked around the room. Wesley had sagged again, so clearly he was not going to be telling the story and Xander was not the person to tell anything without causing more confusion. Spike opened his mouth, and Angel spoke up before Spike could say something that made everything worse. One wrong word and Wesley just might cry and Graham looked about ready to pull a gun and attempt a rescue, not that a rescue would actually help Wesley at this point.

"When we went to see U'talaba, we found Wesley. It turns out that he signed a contract written in Pilixy that signed his freedom over to U'talaba and required that he provide translation services in return for room and board. However, we informed U'talaba that Wolfram and Hart was interested in Wesley." Angel thought he should probably feel guilty about misleading the demon, but he didn't. Besides, it would give Father Peter something for which to lecture him. "With Wolfram and Hart wanting to take Wesley, U'talaba decided that it was dangerous to have such a valuable slave in a place with minimal security, so we made an agreement. We're going to provide room, board, and security, and we'll keep Wesley here and in return we'll keep most of the fees Wesley collects from his translations and send a percentage back to U'talaba."

"So we're renting Wesley?" Faith asked, clearly confused.

"We're keeping him for U'talaba, but the contract allows us to buy him outright after two years."

"He's a slaver?" Graham demanded.

"No," Angel said quickly, before Graham could decide to declare a holy war. "He believed that Wesley had enslaved himself voluntarily, but Wesley thought he had signed an employment contract and that as soon as he got caught up with the work, he would collect his salary."

"Which was clearly foolhardy," Wesley offered. "To fail as a watcher is one thing, but to accidentally enslave oneself is unforgivable. It also provides evidence to justify my father's opinion of me." Wesley pulled his glasses off. "Considering the trouble you have all gone to, I assure you that I will continue to work any translations to pay any costs until U'talaba is paid." He cleaned his glasses with the bottom of his shirt, and Angel found himself feeling an odd sort of sympathy.

Xander gave Angel a pleading look, like he wanted Angel to do something to make this better, but Angel had no idea what he should be doing.

Xander sighed and then looked at Wesley. "With the exception of Spike and Graham who have weirdly supportive families... okay, they both have dead families, but they were Cleaver-family supportive back before they were dead. And with the exception of them, all of us have father issues. I mean, not even therapy and years, and I do mean years, of trying to forget it, can make me get over the fact that my father sold me. He didn't even know Angel, and he sold me to him. And do not mention fathers, taxes, or phone calls in front of Cordelia unless you really want to explore masochism, and even if you do enjoy masochism, unless you want to explore death, the whole issues of Faith fathers will never be mentioned. And Angel...."

"Yes, that is in the watcher's diaries," Wesley stopped Xander from saying any more. "While I do appreciate the attempt at camaraderie, perhaps I should just get some sleep. I assure you, I do not require a large room, so perhaps you have a small guest room available?"

"I'll get the key," Graham said before anyone could argue. He strode behind the desk, his boots hitting the tile sharply enough that Angel suspected he was daring anyone to try and stop him.

"There's the room by mine," Faith offered. "Just as long as you know you are not my watcher," she said, pointing a finger in Wesley's direction.

"I assure you, I have no interest in returning to the watchers, even if Angel didn't own my contract. I really cannot imagine why U'talaba would have placed an advertisement for a slave. It really did seem that in the context I was correct in translating the word as 'employee.'"

"Lots of humans enslave themselves," Spike said with a nonchalant shrug.

Graham was coming back out from behind the counter, key in hand. He stopped and looked at Spike in evident shock. "They do?"

Spike shrugged. "All the time. Some are tired of making decisions and some are tryin' to protect themselves from some nasty that's out to eat 'em, and some are just bloody loons who have some fantasy. "

"And some are just so tired of life they don't care anymore," Faith said quietly. Angel looked at her with concern, and he noticed that Xander and Graham seemed equally as bothered by the words she had nearly whispered. Maybe she felt their eyes on her because she looked around and shrugged and formed an irreverent smile. "It's not all that different from the reasons people get into drugs. It's all about escaping life and the need to make choices when it seems like all the choices you make are wrong."

Graham took a step toward her and stopped, his hand raised like he might offer it to her. For a second, he stood there, and then he slowly lowered his hand. Faith shrugged again and then leaped off the counter. "God it feels good to be strong again. So, let's go find a room for the newest nut in the nuthouse. Oh, and if you see something in the refrigerator that's labeled 'demon only,' stay away," she warned Wesley seriously before heading for the stairs.

"She's not kidding," Graham agreed. "Come on, I'll show you the room." Graham walked over to stand next to Wesley. For a moment, Angel thought Graham might actually have to pull the man to his feet. However, Wesley gave a nod and then pushed himself up like an old man whose arthritis made every movement an agony.

Angel watched them walk up the stairs. Graham's back was still stiff with repressed emotion, so Angel suspected that Graham would later track him down and demand some hard answers. Now that Angel thought about it, he probably should have focused on the vampire dens and the human slaves he knew were tucked into dirty corners all around the city. It just seemed like there was evil everywhere, and Angel couldn't keep up with all the tasks that needed doing and all the people who needed saving. He'd saved Wesley. That should buy him a few redemption points and maybe a small reprieve from Graham and his questions. However, Angel had learned that living life instead of just lurking at the edges meant that the people in your life rarely gave you reprieves.

"So, you bought Wesley," Cordelia said, her voice sharp like a knife the second Graham and Wesley were gone.

"Would you rather I left him there?" Angel asked. "You wanted help around here, and this ensures that Wesley is safe and gets you help with the library."

From the flash of guilt on Cordelia's face, Angel knew there was something there, but he was too tired to pursue it. Tonight, all he wanted from Cordelia was a stalemate; they could finish this fight tomorrow when he could mollify her with plans for a new raid. He knew he wasn't good with money, and Spike was even worse. This time, they would give Cordelia control over whatever funds they captured, and then she could make sure they weren't in financial trouble again because Angel understood unsecured lines of credit even less than he understood morality.

"I'm going to bed," Angel announced before he headed for the stairs. They should tell Lorne they were open for business again. A couple of really good tribute payments would make Cordelia happy and would cover the blimp payment. Angel still didn't understand that. He didn’t think they'd bought a blimp, but Cordelia insisted that they had a payment on one due soon, and according to her, any failure to pay it would result in dire things for the hotel. Angel signed and mentally admitted defeat. He doubted he would ever understand finances, so it was better to let Cordelia rail and rant and torture them all over any perceived inadequacies. At least that meant someone was tending to the business which Angel neither understood nor cared to understand.

Angel had walked through the door to his sitting area before he realized Xander had followed. He tilted his head and looked at Xander, waiting to see what Xander wanted.

"You do know I'm going to lose the fight with Cordelia, right?" Xander asked.

"What fight?"

"The fight over the rooms."

Angel frowned. He didn't like where this was going.

"Okay, Angel, I totally understand that you still want me to take another couple of days to wake up and realize that I don't actually like you. Trust me, though, that isn't going to happen. I used to not like you, and now that I do like you, I'm not going to go back. And by this time tomorrow, Cordelia will have found a way to move Wesley into my room, and you know it. So, I'm admitting defeat and planning a strategic retreat. I'm moving in with you tonight." Xander stopped and looked at Angel, but Angel had no idea what he was supposed to say to that. He wasn't mentally prepared for this... not yet. And yet from the stubborn and nervous look on Xander's face, Angel had just run out of time if he wanted to convince Xander to choose a better mate. Well, damn.



28. Chapter 28

Angel stood watching Xander shift his weight from one foot to the other, his fingers pulling at the hem of his shirt.

"Okay, this is the part where you say something," Xander said with a lopsided smile.

Angel drew a deep breath in through his nose, the scent of musk and the sour fear both pulling at instinctive parts of himself that he didn't trust—not when it came to Xander. "I just—" Angel stopped. What could he say? The truth was that he did want Xander to choose someone better—someone safer. Another part wanted to snatch Xander up and hold him so close that no one else could ever get near. The two emotions pulled on Angel until his head started to throb. He hadn't had a headache in nearly three hundred years, but trust Xander to give him one now.

"The month isn't over," Angel said, but it was a weak argument. Without a doubt, Cordelia would find a way to put Xander out of his room within the next twenty-four hours for no other reason than he suggested she give up her room. And even if she did not, the month would be up in a matter of hours. Angel had just hoped to live in denial a little longer.

"Okay, seriously, that's just lame. Lame and self-esteem damaging. I mean, Spike keeps telling me that you're attracted to me, but between my own lack of experience and your ability to look like you're sucking lemon juice every time I mention the topic of sex, my ego is suspecting my own lack of sex-appeal."

"What?" Angel could feel the shock hit him like cold air. He had never meant to damage Xander, and yet as Xander confessed his insecurity, his expression was nearly as lost as the one Wesley had worn moments ago. "I am attracted to you. You are sexually appealing." Stepping forward, Angel caught Xander by the shoulder and pulled him forward into an embrace. "I want to have sex with you." At that confession, Angel could feel his guilt rise.

"You are really good at faking disgust then. And if this is some Catholic thing, I'm calling Washington and siccing Blair on Father Peter again because he said that he would let you make up your own mind and stop with the priestly guilt trips." Xander leaned into him, and warm arms slipped around his waist.

Angel sighed. "I hurt you."

"What?" Now Xander sounded confused.

"A human would have known that you were feeling insecure."

Xander snorted. Even through the silk of his shirt, Angel could feel the warm breath sliding across his skin. "Okay, now I know you're dreaming. Angel, people are just as clueless as you. My mom pretended we were some suburban family until she had lied to herself about all the dark little psychologically unhealthy corners in the house. People are masters of blindness."

"But I hurt you." Angel stopped. He didn't have the words to explain the fear and the guilt and the desire that raged in him like a hurricane of emotion that left him unable to find his footing.

"By not sleeping with me. If not sleeping with me is hurting me, I have a pretty easy cure for that," Xander leaned back and tilted his head so that he could give Angel a playful smile. The expression made Angel's heart clench painfully. "And that's your lemon-sucking face again." Xander tried to pull away, but Angel held on and closed his eyes as he struggled to clear his expression. Most people said that he was masterful at hiding any emotion, but Xander had grown entirely too good at reading him.

"I'm afraid," Angel confessed. Xander had been futilely pulling back, quietly struggling to escape Angel's embrace, but now he stilled.

"Okay, I missed something because that's not big with the logical-type logic."

Angel sighed again and struggled to put words to the nebulous fears that raged within him. "I'm a vampire." The words were a poor explanation for all the feelings he had inside.

"And I think I noticed."

"I won't ever be... I'm not human."

"And again with the noticing," Xander agreed. He cocked his head to the side and looked at Angel like he couldn't quite understand what was going on. Angel reached up and ran a finger down over Xander's cheek. He hadn't shaved in many hours, and Angel could feel the stubble under the pad of his finger. Xander was grown, but that still didn't give Angel the right to feel what he felt about Xander.

"Crap," Xander sighed. "You never did intend to sleep with me. The deadline was you doing your thing where if you put something out of sight, it doesn't really exist and you have permission to ignore it, wasn't it?"

That made Angel flinch. "Not exactly."

"Just kinda?"

When Angel didn't answer, Xander tried to wiggle away. Angel held on. "Xander, wait."

"I think I've waited too long already." Xander put his hands on Angel's biceps and pushed with all his strength, but after a minute of being unable to loosen Angel's arms, he sagged in defeat. "Angel, please let go," Xander said in a voice too soft and too slow for any sort of normalcy.

"You don't understand," Angel said, desperate for Xander to understand.

"Then explain it."

Tilting his head back, Angel looked at the ceiling. It startled him when warm fingers trailed over his cheek, and he looked down at Xander again. "Please, Angel. I don't understand this. Or I do understand in that I don't have your experience or your muscles or your whole dark avenger thing, but this is feeling like you not wanting me. And hey, I can be okay with that... eventually, but I really just want you to let me go if you don't want me."

Holding Xander with one hand, Angel ran his fingers through Xander's hair and let his palm rest against his cheek. "I am attracted to you. I do want you. I just...." Angel took a deep breath. "I'm not the best choice. If you're with me when Anyanka shows up—"

"I want to be with you. I want to tell her that I've picked you."

"I'm not human. I'll never give you what you could have with a human."

"What? A bitter divorce and legal bills? Venereal diseases? Hey, there are lots of things you can't give me that I'm really okay with not being given."

"And if you do want a divorce?" Angel asked.

"I don't."

"You may."

"I won't."

For a second, Angel glared at Xander. The man was being obdurate on purpose. "If you do, I don't know that I could do that. I'm a demon, Xander."

"And again, I'm huge with the noticing the demoniness. I've noticed for many years now."

Part of Angel wanted to cling to Xander's words and push the guilt and the nagging fears aside and just take his boy into his bed. His cock was hardening, pressing into the unfamiliar warmth radiating from Xander's body. "I wouldn't be able to let you go. If you tried to leave, I would just hold on harder." Angel tightened his arm around Xander to make his point. Unfortunately, Xander didn't look impressed. Angel tightened his grip just a little more, just until Xander hissed in pain, and then he eased his hold again.

Instead of reacting with horror or struggling to be free again, Xander patted Angel's arm. "No offense, but who the hell is good at letting go? Willow just about got someone I consider family killed, and I'm still not doing good with the letting her go plan. I've been clinging to you for three and a half years now, and I don't see me backing off any time soon. I call my mom every week, and that's after she conspired in the whole selling me thing. See me get obsessive? Besides, if things get so bad that we want to split up, there will be screaming and the throwing of random objects, and much willingness to let each other go."

When Xander finished, he stroked his fingers over Angel's cheek, the warmth dancing over Angel's skin. "I don't know how to do this." Angel whispered the words, shame and fear and lust and love all tangling in his heart.

"You know way better than I do. I've got a grand total of two times under my belt, and that first time, I was way too shocked to actually pay much attention."

Angel shook his head. Clearly, Xander didn't understand. Reaching up, Angel captured Xander's hand and held it against his own cheek for a moment before pulling it down. "Spike was so careful with you." Angel hated admitting it, but Spike had made Xander happy.

"He told you?" Xander's voice squeaked.

Angel immediately shook his head. "He's never said anything." Angel realized his mistake as the red started crawling up into Xander's face.

"Oh god. You heard... or you smelled or something. Oh shit. You didn't watch, did you?"

Angel's mouth fell open, but before he could answer, the dull red in Xander's face had turned to a bright scarlet. "You did," Xander accused him. "You watched?" His voice cracked so that the last part of the word vanished into a squeal.

"I only saw the end. I came back early," Angel admitted. "I didn't—" Angel took a deep breath. "You were happy, so I left you alone. Just please listen," Angel asked. Xander's expression was turning mulish, and while Angel would like to postpone this, he did not want to do so at the cost of his relationship with Xander. "I've ignored this because I don't know how to do this. Xander, when I was alive, the only girls I slept with were ones I paid. After I was turned, I had sex, but I never made love." Angel's mind flashed with an image of Spike slowly stroking Xander in bed. While Spike clearly knew how to make love, Angel had never seen that side of him. With him, Spike was feral and dangerous. Drusilla had vacillated between not participating at all and indulging in masochism that would have killed a human and Darla... well, tenderness had never been a trait she sought. Had she wanted a thoughtful lover, she would never have picked him.

"But you and Spike..." Xander frowned with confusion.

Still holding Xander's hand, Angel tugged him over to the couch where they both sat. "If we had love between us, Cordelia would have made Spike choose," Angel pointed out. "We have sex and dominance and blood, we have a biological connection, but we don't have love."

"Darla?" Xander asked.

"A lot of sex and even more dominance, but never love."

Xander cringed. "Okay, kinda creepy because that leaves Drusilla and a bunch of nuns who weren't exactly getting flowers and candy from you."

Angel studied the grain on the coffee table. It wasn't the sort of sexual history that inspired trust. If Xander were to have a suitor and Angel and discovered that sexual history in the suitor's background, he wouldn't have thought twice about killing the person. "I care for you." Angel curled his fingers around his own knees. "I worry that I won't be what you want."

In his peripheral vision, Angel watched Xander reach over and rest his hand against Angel's thigh. "I just want you. And hey, I’m actually pretty okay with us fumbling through this together."

"I might hurt you," Angel warned. He would cut off the hand that caused Xander any pain, but that didn't mean that he wouldn't still hurt him by accident.

"I might hurt you. After all, I was off making assumptions and trust me, my assumptions weren't anywhere near this reality. You having issues was not even on my list of potential reasons why you were acting all weird."

Looking over at Xander, Angel studied him, searching for any sign of doubt or fear, but there was only trust in his expression. "I do have issues," Angel confessed.

"Join the club. We all have issues." Xander shrugged. "So, since we're both a little inexperienced, maybe we could just try some stuff out?" Xander's gaze slipped away, and pink returned to his cheeks.

"Some stuff?" Angel reached over and rested his palm against Xander's cheek for a moment, soaking in the heat and sinking into the scent of desire that drifted through the air.

"Naughty touching is coming to mind." Xander looked back toward Angel. Angel smiled and slid his hand down to Xander's collarbone, tracing the curve of his neck.

"Naughty touching," Angel echoed. His fingers moved down to the first button of Xander's shirt. Slipping the button free of the fabric, Angel used his fingertips to explore the new skin. Xander's gasp suggested he was on the right track. The second button pulled free, and Angel pushed the edge of the shirt back to reveal a pebbled nipple. The scent of desire now stained the air, and Angel breathed deeply. As a vampire, the smell of fear was almost intoxicating, like strong ale that made all a person's troubles fall away so that he could laugh and sing in some dark tavern. But this was the first time Angel had realized that the scent of desire was like a wine. Leaning in, Angel pressed his lips to Xander's neck, feeling the blood and the warmth and the life surging under the skin.

"Naughty touching good," Xander whispered, his voice vague and heavy with lust. Angel stilled as Xander's fingers found the buttons to his silk shirt and freed them so that Xander's warm hands could explore. A shiver ran down Angel's body as Xander brushed the edge of a nipple. However, the couch forced them to sit at an awkward angle. Angel caught Xander's hand and pressed it between his own hand and his chest. Then he stood, pulling Xander up with him.

The black of Xander's eyes had widened with lust, and Angel could smell the musk that came with an erection. While he did not have experience with tenderness, he was clearly doing something well. Angel backed up toward the bedroom, blindly groping to find the doorknob without breaking eye contact with Xander.

Once in the bedroom, Angel stopped and cupped the back of Xander's neck, pulling him close for a kiss. Xander was breathing quickly, his warm like a halo around him that Angel could slip inside. Angel brushed his lips against Xander's, feeling awkward at the unfamiliar gesture. He'd committed lewd acts that would shock the most vulgar libertine, but this was new. Xander sighed, his lips opening and Angel pressed in closer. He caught Xander's lower lip and gently nibbled at it. From the quick gasp, Xander enjoyed that.

Xander's hands pulled at the silk of Angel's shirt, and the last button broke off and made a plinking sound as it hit the wall, but Angel didn't care. Xander's heat enveloped him now, and as Xander pushed the shirt off Angel's shoulders, Angel pressed close so that he could feel Xander's heartbeat through his skin. Angel's hands sought the heat and slipped under the waistband of Xander's jeans.

"Oh god," Xander gasped, and he arched his back. Angel could feel the muscles bunch and strain under Xander's skin. Sweat gathered until Angel's hands slid across the skin like satin slipping across satin. Smiling at his evident success, Angel moved down to taste the skin where the neck and shoulder met. Angel sucked gently, and Xander's hands clutched at Angel's shoulders, pulling him closer.

"Pants. Seriously, gotta get the pants off. Now." Xander's words tumbled out and he scrambled at his own waistband.

Catching Xander's wrists, Angel stopped him. "Shhhh," Angel whispered. Holding Xander's wrists, he backed the man toward the bed. Xander went, his breath coming in little gasps that made Angel want to ravish him and taste every inch of hot skin. When Xander's legs touched the bed, Angel stopped and slowly released Xander's wrists. "Shhh," Angel repeated. He moved his fingers to Xander's waist, and Xander seemed to understand that Angel wanted to do this.

Instead of scrambling to get his jeans off, Xander rested his palms on Angel's shoulders, his fingers pressing deep into Angel's flesh. Angel smiled and slowly unzipped Xander's jeans. His underwear bulged out, the cock pressing forward. Sliding his hand over Xander's hips and then around to cup his butt, Angel ignored the jeans as gravity slowly pulled them to the ground. Only Xander's boxers covered him now, and Angel let his hands explore inside the boxers without removing them.

When Angel's fingers slid across Xander's butt to touch the hidden entrance, Xander gasped and pressed forward. Xander's lips found Angel's collarbone, and Angel hissed with pleasure and Xander marked the skin with his hot mouth. For a second, Angel lost track of his own hands as Xander gently bit down, his hands pulling at Angel's waist to keep him close.

"A mhuirnín dílis," Angel sighed. Xander's hands skimmed over Angel's back, copying Angel's explorations of seconds ago. Slipping his hand under the waistband of Angel's pants, Xander pressed his fingers into the swell of Angel's ass. Angel reached down and pulled the fly open on his pants, and Xander's second hand slipped in beside the first.

"I want to see you laid out for me," Angel whispered. It felt odd, asking a lover for something rather than taking or having something taken from him. Xander smiled at him and stepped out of his jeans. He would have gotten on the bed like that except Angel reached out and caught the waistband of Xander's boxers, holding him in place. "I want to see all of you," Angel added. He used his hold on Xander's boxers to pull him close again. The moment he'd said that, he could see the uncertainty and insecurity in Xander's eyes, and that was an expression Angel did not like to see on his lover.

Distracting Xander with another kiss, Angel pushed Xander's boxers down to his thighs and let gravity take them the rest of the way. Without ending the kiss, Angel pressed forward, using his hands on Xander's hips to guide the man to the bed.

Xander gasped when the back of his knees touched the bed. He broke the kiss and looked at Angel with such longing and love that Angel was struck silent and still as he looked at the beautiful man who had chosen him. Slowly, Xander smiled shyly and the pink rose to his cheeks. "I should have turned the lights off," he said with a half-shrug.

"No, I want to see my mhuirnín." Angel reached up and cupped Xander's cheek, tracing the shape of Xander's lower lip with his thumb.

The pink in Xander's cheeks darkened and his gaze slipped down to Angel's pants. The front was open, but they were still in place and his own underwear hid the erection that pressed forward. "Maybe I could..." Xander licked his lips and fell silent. Angel smiled and reached down to push his own pants off. Unlike Xander, he hadn't gotten rid of his shoes along the way, and now he toed them off and left his pants and underwear and shoes in an untidy pile on the floor.

Xander took in a deep breath and let it out with a uneven little gasps. Angel pressed forward, and this time, his erection pressed into Xander's stomach, nestling in the heat that gathered between them. Angel might not be able to generate his own warmth, but his body could radiate back that which it soaked up from Xander.

"I don't know what you want to do." Xander caught his lower lip between his teeth and looked up at Angel.

"Whatever you'd like, mo ghrá."

For a second, Xander looked up at him. Slowly, Xander brought his hand up to rest against Angel's chest and he ran his fingers across Angel's nipple so slowly and gently that it made shivers travel through Angel's whole body. "What do you want?" Xander finally asked.

Angel blinked at the question. He wanted so much. He wanted things he shouldn't. He wanted to not want things he shouldn't.

"No wrong answers," Xander said, his voice quiet but without a trace of uncertainty or fear. "What do you want?"

Angel looked at the place where Xander's shoulder curved into the neck. The breastbone stood out and the muscles gathered and curved seductively. "To taste you," Angel whispered, caught between desire and horror.

Xander nodded. "Please. Please, Angel." Xander arched his neck so the muscle corded. Angel couldn't prevent his demon from rushing to the front at that offering.

"I... if I do this..."

"Nearly four years, Angel. I know you. I know I want you. I know I want this." Xander pushed forward, his cock pressing against Angel's balls. Reaching up, Xander caught the back of Angel's neck and guided Angel toward the curve of his own neck.

Angel panted, nearly overwhelmed and intoxicated by the need and desire that filled the room. Slowly, he brought his mouth to place he'd earlier marked. Giving Xander time to change his mind, Angel pressed the points of his fangs against the tender skin, barely breaking through. The small drop of blood that rose to meet him was heavy with the taste of lust and a flavor Angel had never before found in blood. Using his hold in Angel's neck, Xander jerked Angel forward and Angel's fangs sunk into the muscle. Xander gasped, but before the pain could register, Angel slowly suckled. One small mouthful at a time, he drew blood up and out of Xander.

Xander's breaths grew ragged and he started squirming in Angel's arms, his sweat slicking both their bodies.

"Oh god. Oh god. Okay, can't come yet." Xander gasped between each word. His erection pressed hotly against Angel. If Xander did not intend to come yet, Angel would just have to test that resolve. Angel pulled his fangs out of Xander's neck carefully. Catching every last drop that seeped from the tiny wounds, Angel wrapped his arms around Xander's waist and easily lifted him. When the twin marks closed, Angel moved Xander to the bed, settling him down into the middle of it.

Xander threw his legs wide and reached for his erection, but for the second time, Angel intercepted his hands and caught his wrists. Squirming deliciously, Xander made a small mewling noise at the back of his throat. Angel had done this. Angel had reduced a lover to need and desire and happiness. Angel's own erection throbbed with need, and Angel guided Xander's captured hand toward it.

Not needing any more encouragement than that, Xander wrapped his fingers around the shaft of Angel's erection and started a tortuously slow rhythm up and down. Xander's cock dripped, and drop of come touched the skin of his lower abdomen and stuck, creating a thin thread that connected cock and stomach. Angel twisted his body around so he could capture that drop without interrupting Xander's delicious torture.

Angel had never touched another man's cock, not unless he intended to torture him. He'd never tasted come. Reaching out his tongue, he captured the head of Xander's cock in his mouth and sucked gently.

Xander screamed and came. Surprised, Angel swallowed, the thick come tasting of musk and blood and salt and perfection. The hot hand on his cock and the delicious taste of his lover in his mouth, Angel thrust forward into Xander's hand and came. If that was what come tasted of, Angel was not surprised Xander enjoyed enné. Xander's body radiated heat and a musk that smelled of happiness and release, and Angel moved up to lay next to his lover.

"I don't always come that quick," Xander finally panted out, his words a clear apology.

"Shhh, mo ghrá. It was perfection," Angel reassured him. He reached up and brushed locks of hair off Xander's sweat-damp brow.

Xander opened his eyes and looked at Angel with a sort of disbelief evident. His boy had become a cynic at some point. Angel reconsidered that. Unlike the girls, Xander never had been one to trust easily or assume the best of others. Maybe he had always been a bit of a cynic.

"I can be more perfect. Give me a little time to recover, and I can be way more perfect."

Angel lay back against his sheets and breathed in the scent of a happy, sated lover. "If you want, we can try for more perfect every day," Angel said slowly, focusing on Xander's expression, "but that was better than anything I've had in my life, and my life has been significantly longer than most." Angel watched Xander, luxuriating in the heat and the knowledge that Angel's needs would not be used against him and that he did not have to use their sex as a weapon against Xander. He'd never experienced sex like that. Xander rolled himself lazily toward Angel, draping his arm over Angel's stomach and resting his cheek on Angel's shoulder. He also ignored the fact that he was now laying in the wet spot Angel had made.

"We definitely have to try for more perfect... maybe a couple of times a day," Xander agreed. He sounded sleepy. Angel used a foot to hook the covers and drag them far enough up that he could reach them without having to dislodge Xander. The light over the reading chair was still on, but Angel was too tired and too happy to bother with it. He pulled the covers over both of them and closed his eyes. He wouldn't mind a couple of times a day. After all, if they wanted to be perfect, humans often said that practice made for perfect.



29. Chapter 29

Xander shifted lazily, half sleeping and wondering what time it was because there was light. Normally light meant oversleeping because his room was on the west side of the building. His brain was not into waking up yet. Nope. He wanted to lay in bed and feel warm and lazy and limp. He shifted and tried to pull his pillow closer, but his pillow was big and solid and definitely wasn't moving.

Blinking, Xander opened his eyes to a very nice view of Angel's back. Xander's arm was draped over the curve of Angel's back, and he had and up close and personal view of the round of Angel's shoulder with the griffin tattoo. Oh yeah. A smile spread over Xander's face as he considered how he had spent the night. Reaching up, Xander traced the edge of the griffin's wing and Angel's shoulder twitched, but Angel didn't wake up. Not wanting to disturb Angel, Xander pulled his hand back and just studied Angel.

His head was turned away so that Xander could see his hair--chunks going every which way so that it pretty much looked like Xander's own morning bedhead. A little part really wanted to reach up and run his fingers through the tangled hair, to smooth it out. Maybe when Angel woke up, he'd do that, but now he just studied the muscular curves and shadows made by the dim light filtering in through the necroglass Xander had paid so dearly for. It had been worth it to see Angel's face when he'd seen the sunrise from the security of his bedroom.

Angel grunted and shifted so that he was now facing Xander. Oh yeah, Angel was not quite as impressively perfect when he was asleep. The seam of the pillow had pressed a deep line across Angel's cheek, and his mouth was slightly open. When Xander had woken up in Spike's arms, Spike had been just as perfect in the morning as he had been the night before. He'd been so perfect, it felt slightly on the side of totally unfair. Clearly, Spike was fond of hair products. Way fond. But Spike never seemed to get the weird head clumps that Angel got... and that Xander had gotten during an ill-advised attempt to use hair gel in sixth grade. Spike was just too cool for his hair to ever clump up. He was too cool to come before he meant to or to mess up in bed or to have insecurities. Xander wasn't. Angel wasn't.

And that's what it came down to. Looking at Angel, Xander realized that he wasn't stressed boy. When he'd first woken up with Spike still in his bed, Xander had felt panic roaring through him. Had he sucked in bed? Had Spike been bored waiting for him to wake up? Was he a disappointment? Was Cordy going to eviscerate him? His first feeling had not been good. And then Spike had smiled and called him "pet" and those fears had evaporated. However, they'd been there. The fears had been lurking, and even now, Xander was totally sure he would not want Spike to go ranking him on any list of lovers. Xander knew he ranked under Angel and Cordelia and Drusilla, and there was a chance he ranked below the minions Angel and Spike sometimes visited when they really needed to go out and be demons. But the way Angel had looked at him... the way Angel had admitted that he'd never had love in bed....

Xander blinked back the emotion that threatened to wash over him. As a man, he did not get all weepy over a lover who wanted him and needed him so very much. That was way too girly, even for him, and he wasn't exactly the manliest man in his community college. He had a bad habit of noticing when people had their feelings hurt or when Lonnie, who was dyslexic, started getting all down on himself. Xander wasn't exactly sure why caring about people was girly, but according to a couple of the guys in his commercial design class, it was. And oddly, that didn't even bother him. When he was in bed with Angel, a lot of things didn't bother him. Maybe he wasn't the lover who could compete with Spike's sexual resume. Maybe he wasn't all manly. But after feeling Angel totally lose control and come from a hand-job, Xander knew he was the lover who Angel wanted.

With an odd little snorting sound, Angel shifted and threw an arm over Xander's stomach, pinning him down. The pressure made Xander realize that he was going to have to go to the bathroom sooner rather than later. Running his hand up and down Angel's arm, Xander watched as Angel's eyes popped open, the yellow of them bright, even in the dim light.

"Xander." Angel said the name softly.


One of Angel's eyebrows went up and small frown lines made the skin between his eyes crinkle--either that or Angel was about to vamp out. Angel reached out, but his fingers hovered less than an inch from Xander's cheek. "How are you?" Angel's eyes faded to brown, and now Xander could recognize the worry.

"Only just about perfect," Xander promised. The frown lines vanished and Angel's fingertips brushed across Xander's cheek. "Mo chuisle," he whispered.

"Either you're calling me a hushla, which is not sounding like a real word, or you're getting all sappy with the Irish again," Xander teased. For a second, Angel froze. Shit. Okay, no poking Angel first thing in the morning.

Xander reached up and caught Angel's hand before Angel could pull away. Turning his head, Xander tried to give Angel a romantic gesture, and ended up kissing Angel's thumb. He wasn't sure how romantic that was, but at least Angel was relaxing. "I need cue cards so I know what you're calling me. Otherwise I don't know how sappy I'm allowed to get with the love names. I mean, are we talking 'hon' or 'pet' level sap or should I be going for the full-blown 'sweety dumpling cheeks'?" The look of horror on Angel's face made Xander laugh out loud. "No dumpling cheeks?" Xander guessed.

"No." Angel's voice made it pretty clear he wasn't joking on that front. "Mo chuisle just means darling."

"I thought mog ra meant darling."

"Mo ghrá."

"Which still doesn't sound like the hushla you called me just now," Xander pointed out.

"Mo chuisle. It's basically the same." Angel tried to pull his hand back, but Xander clung to it and just used Angel's tug as an excuse to land on Angel's chest and sort of settle in. Peeing could wait. This was too nice to give up.

"You are such a bad liar," Xander said as he wiggled his arms around Angel's waist and settled his head onto Angel's shoulder. After a brief hesitation, Angel's arms came up around him, pulling him even closer.

"It does mean darling," Angel said, and that was his mulish tone of voice--the one that said that he knew he was so going to lose this fight, but he was going to put on a good front before going down in flames and glory. Xander just lay in Angel's arms, silently waiting for the inevitable surrender. Until then, he was actually pretty damn comfortable. "Literally it means 'my pulse,'" Angel admitted.

Xander pushed himself up on one elbow and looked down at Angel. "Is that a real Irish love word or just something weird you made up?"

"It's a real love-term." Angel reached out and caught the back of Xander's neck, pulling him down for a quick kiss. "Mo chuisle just sounds less... sappy than calling you my life and the force which keeps me going. And you will not use any terms of endearment that include the word 'cheeks.'" Angel pulled Xander in for one more kiss before letting him go altogether. "Go take care of your morning needs before we make a bigger mess on these sheets," he suggested.

"Um, good point," Xander admitted as he darted out of bed and headed for the bathroom. He had to talk loud over the sound peeing because he was going to be making a really big mess if he waited any longer. "So, since sweetcheeks is out, and can I just say I'm really sorry because Cordelia's face so would have made that worth any humiliation, what can I call you? Calling you 'my angel' sort of loses the whole dear part of endearment when your name really is Angel."

Xander's pee finally trickled off and he shook off a few drops as Angel appeared in the bathroom doorway and leaned against the doorjamb. "You could say m'fhear."

"Which means?"

Angel frowned for a second, and Xander made a mental note to look the word up on his own. Spike always claimed that Angelus had been the master of lies, but Angel had obviously not inherited that skill set. "It means 'man,' but in Gaelic, it suggests a lot of fondness."

"Ma fear." Xander tried rolling the sounds around in his mouth as he washed his hands. Angel came and stood behind him and wrapped his arms around Xander's waist. It was weird to look in the mirror and not see Angel when Angel was pressed up against his back and kissing the curve of his neck.

"M'fhear," Angel whispered, his breath ghosting across Xander's skin.

"M'fear," Xander tried again. He gasped as Angel's hands slid across his stomach, fingers spread wide. Xander grabbed Angel's wrists so that his hands moved with Angel's as Angel explored down to the curve of Xander's hip and the crease where his thigh met his body.

"M'fhear." This time Angel whispered the word right into Xander's ear, and a shiver traveled down Xander's whole body.

"M'fhear," Xander echoed.

"Táim i ngrá leat, mo shíorghrá."

Xander had no idea what that meant, but he was quickly reaching a point where he didn't care. Squirming around, he could feel Angel's erection pressing into his hip for a second. Angel hissed but didn't back away as Xander finally faced Angel. Reaching up, Xander stroked his fingers across Angel's cheek before running his fingers through that messy hair that Xander just couldn't resist. Angel blinked and let go of Xander long enough to try and smooth down the awkward clumps.

"Don't," Xander whispered. "I love it. You look so human in the morning."

Angel froze and looked at Xander for a long second, but then he slowly brought his hands down to rest against Xander's hips.

"Mo shíorghrá, I'm not human," Angel said, and the pain was laid out like a buffet for Xander to see.

"You're human," Xander said, still running his fingers through Angel's thick hair. "You're human and demon. You're Liam and Angel and Angelus. You're Catholic and issuey and the strongest man I've ever known. You're all sorts of things, m'fhear."

Angel's eyes yellowed and he sucked in a breath so fast that Xander thought maybe he'd said the word wrong and cursed Angel out in Gaelic or something. Before Xander could get too worried, Angel caught him by the back of the neck and pulled him in for a long kiss. Their erections pressed together in the growing heat between their bodies, and Xander squirmed in need and pleasure as Angel ran his teeth gently over Xander's lower lip before pulling back.

"Bed," Angel gasped.

"Oh yeah," Xander agreed. Except bed meant letting go, and Xander really didn't want to let go. His arms were wrapped around Angel's shoulders, and he didn't even remember doing that. Angel's eyes were still yellow as he wrapped his arms around Xander's waist and solved the dilemma by just lifting him up. Xander caught his heels behind Angel's thighs and held on so that when Angel tried to toss him onto the bed, Angel came crashing down on him.

The weight drove the air out of Xander, and Angel rolled them so they were both on their sides facing each other.

"Xander?" Angel asked, concern turning his eyes brown.

For a second, Xander couldn't get enough air in, and then giggles kept slipping out, stealing what air he could get.

"Are you hurt?" Angel's hands skimmed over his skin, and everywhere they touched, Xander could feel the ghost of the contact tingling through his body long after Angel had moved on to searching for broken bones in another place.

"I'm fine," Xander finally managed to get out between the gasps of laughter. Angel stopped running hands up and down, which was good and bad. Xander had definitely enjoyed getting inspected that way, but he didn't want Angel thinking he was hurt. "I'm just thinking we need to practice... lots. Lots and lots. I say we practice at least three or four times a day."

The smile was slow to appear, but Angel did finally smile. "Until we can be in bed without falling on each other?" he asked.

Xander didn't answer. He reached over and slipped his own hand behind Angel's neck and pulled him close. For a half-second, Angel was an immovable statue, but then he yielded and leaned into Xander's kiss. Xander imitated Angel, kissing Angel deeply and then catching Angel's lower lip between his teeth and teasing it for a second before he pulled back. "Can I try something?" Xander asked.

"Anything, mo chuisle," Angel agreed. Xander gave Angel his best wicked smile, an expression he'd stolen from Spike and practiced in the mirror. From the confused expression on Angel's face, Xander was guessing he needed practice on that, too. Oh well. Somehow all their fumbling still didn't bother him because they loved each other, and Xander believed that with everything in his heart.

Sitting up, Xander urged Angel to shift over to his back. Angel resisted for a second, his fingers teasing Xander with gentle touches that made shivers travel through his whole body. But then Angel slid over to his back. Propped up on one elbow, Xander started with tentative kisses across Angel's chest and then up to the base of his neck. Angel gasped and threw his hands wide. For a half second, Xander thought he had done something unhot, but then he saw Angel fisting the sheets so tightly that Xander was surprised the sheets didn't rip.

With a smile, Xander kissed his way back down until he found Angel's nipple and sucked gently. "Xander!" Angel called out, and Xander sucked a little harder. Angel's hand caught at him, pulling him, and Xander let himself be pulled up toward Angel for another kiss. When Angel's hands found his hip and started guiding him up onto Angel's body, Xander was guessing Angel planned for a little mutual rubbing, but Xander had other plans.

When the kiss ended, Xander squirmed away and planted a single kiss on the nipple he'd neglected before he focused on Angel's stomach. He kissed the skin just below the bellybutton, and he could feel Angel shiver. Angel's cock was turning dark, and the head was odd. Xander always joked about the sock puppet of love, but this was a little more like a sock puppet than Xander had noticed last night. Reaching down, Xander traced the edge of the unfamiliar skin with one finger. The sounds of ripping sheets answered him.

Before he could chicken out, Xander leaned down and traced the same course with his tongue. Salt. Angel definitely tasted salty and a little sour—like the vinegar and salt potato chips Jesse had loved. Angel let out a string of sounds so guttural that Xander wasn't sure if he was grunting or cursing in demon. Hopefully that meant Xander was doing something right. Opening wider, Xander caught the head of Angel's cock in his mouth.

Angel thrust up, and Xander had his entire mouth full before he could react. His gag reflect sent a cold warning through him, and with a shudder, Xander pulled back. Angel's head was thrown back, his neck arched and his fists tangled with shredded sheets. Okay, so Angel had definitely liked that. Xander smiled at the sight of Angel so helpless in his lust, struggling so hard to control himself.

If one thrust got Angel that excited, Xander was about to really screw with him. This time Xander got his fist around the base of Angel's cock and then took about half of it into his mouth. The sour and salt was stronger this time, and Xander sucked before sliding up and running just his tongue along the head.

"M'fhear, I'm—" Angel ended with a sharp cry as Xander sucked again, harder this time. Then come filled Xander's mouth. Unfortunately, Xander sucked just a fraction of a second too long and he got come up his nose, which was about like getting soda up his nose, which was less than enjoyable. Xander pulled back, coughing and spluttering come and making an even bigger mess out of the sheet, but then Angel had pretty much ruined them already.

"Mo chuisle, I'm sorry," Angel said, his hand running over Xander's shoulder as Xander tried to catch his breath.

"Hey, three hundred years and I still made you come when you didn't want to. Go me," Xander said with a smile. He wiped his chin and hoped he didn't look too horrible... or porny. A guy with come splattered over his face was definitely in danger of looking porny.

"So, it was a contest?" Angel asked, a smile tugging at his lips.

"We're guys. Everything's a contest," Xander pointed out.

"Then I'll have to take my turn."

"Oh, I'm easy to make come. I think I proved that already," Xander said with a self-depreciating grin. Blair said that all guys were like that in their teens, so Xander was trying hard to not get all insecure about it.

"Then I'll have to choose another challenge," Angel said with a thoughtful look that made Xander worry just a little. "Maybe we can see how long I can keep you on the edge without coming." Angel's smile widened.

"M'fhear, you are about to lose that contest," Xander said with confidence. Just seeing Angel look at him like chocolate was already getting Xander hard again. The whole come up the nose might have killed his erection, but Angel's "Xander looks good enough to eat" look was very lust-worthy.

"We'll see," Angel said. He ran a finger over Xander's cheek, and when he pulled his hand back, he had a drop of come caught on the end. Angel put the finger in his mouth and sucked at it. Xander had no idea why that was hot, but it totally was. His cock was starting to ache in all the best ways. Yep, he was going to be coming so very soon.

Angel put his hand in the middle of Xander's chest and pushed him back. Xander lay sprawled in the middle of the bed and looked up at Angel.

"Whatever you do, I am so coming," Xander pointed out. His cock was bobbing... hell, it was damn near waving. One touch, and Xander brains were going to leak right out the end of it.

"Really?" Angel had on his devious look. Before Xander could even ask, Angel had grabbed Xander's cock. Xander dug his heels into the mattress and thrust up, fully expecting to come. Instead, Angel put pressure on the base of Xander's cock, pushing a spot on the underside particularly hard.

"Shit!" Xander shouted. He gasped for air as his need to come rose and rose, and yet he didn't come.

"You did challenge me, mo ghrá." Angel chuckled, a sensual sound that made Xander squirm even harder. His eyes threatened to water, but god, Xander never wanted this to end. The pleasure and the need to come was going to kill him, but he was going to die a happy, happy boy. Xander grabbed the headboard and strained with all his muscle. He didn't really want to pull away from Angel, but he wanted to strain. He wanted to come, but he didn't want to come, and this was the going to melt his brain. Angel tightened his hold on the base of Xander's cock, and Xander gave a little squeak that represented his entire ability to talk.

"M'fhear," Angel said softly, and then he licked up the underside of Xander's cock, his tongue cooling and burning as it trailed lazily up the shaft.

"Angel...." Xander panted. Fuck this was good. This was so good he was about to die of good.

"Xander?" Angel asked in that same smug, sensual tone.

"Please, Angel. Oh god." Xander stopped as he lost all the air from his lungs. But Angel took mercy and wrapped his lips around the head of Xander's cock just as he let go of the base. Xander screamed and thrust his hips up, coming with such intensity that the world grayed around the edges.

Xander lay panting, his body slowly cooling from the lust fever that had made his brains melt. Angel settled in next to him, propping his chin up with one hand as he rested an elbow on Xander's chest. "I think we both won our challenges," Angel said. He had a milky drop at the corner of his lips, and Xander reached up to wipe it off.

"Go us," he agreed weakly. Yep, definitely brain damaged. "I think I like challenges."

"They are fun," Angel agreed. He brushed a curl back from Xander's sweaty forehead. "And I am starting to understand why you like enné so much."

"Enné?" Xander frowned at that change of topic. "Um, I like peppery, but I'm missing something."

Angel frowned and cocked his head at Xander. "I thought Spike told you what was in enné." Angel suddenly sounded like his old self—slightly bewildered.

"No, Spike gave me a stupid story about it being cooked in come...." The second the last word came out his mouth, Xander's eyes popped open in surprise. "Oh no," he said as it dawned on him that Spike wouldn't lie if he could torture someone with the truth. Angel was looking at Xander with even more confusion than before.

"Shit." Xander closed his eyes and let his head fall back to the mattress. "I am so very gay. And remind me to murder Spike later. I'd murder Cordelia since she actually let me eat it without any warning at all, but Cordy scares me too much."

Angel gave a small huff that might have been laughter as he settled down next to Xander, his leg thrown over Xander's thighs. "I'll remind you in a few hours. I plan to sleep with my m'fhear and recover from that very wonderful sex."

"I can do that," Xander agreed. He'd miss class, but right now, there wasn't anything more important than spending in bed curled around his Angel.



30. Chapter 30

Xander headed down the stairs. Considering that Angel was undead, and therefore didn't actually have bodily functions, he was way more fond of his bathroom than Xander had expected. Out of self-defense, Xander had abandoned the bathroom after shaving, leaving Angel to worry over his hair and sit in the bath and generally do all sorts of things that Xander usually associated with girls. Yep, Xander was not the only one with gender-identity issues. Or maybe he just had gender-conformity issues. Or maybe he'd hung out in therapy way too long.

"Good morning," Xander offered as he reached the lobby. The afternoon sun drifted through the trees out in the courtyard, but the lobby was dim. Clearly Cordelia was still on the saving electricity kick. Xander had offered to install some solar paneling if she wanted to go all environmental, but her face had done that stony-cold thing that made him run for the hills, even when he didn't understand what was making her cranky. Of course, entire demon clans had run from her after ruining sheets, so Xander was not even feeling a little emasculated. Then again, the demon clan had to worry about her sending Spike after them because Spike definitely enjoyed being the official bill collector and enforcer of all Cordelia rules.

"Morning," Graham offered. He was leaning against the front counter, pretending to watch Cordelia on the computer, but he kept glancing over to the weapons cabinet where Faith was just putting some staffs away. She had on a black halter top soaked with sweat, so Xander could understand the glancing. Even if he was gay, he had to admit that sweaty Faith in a halter top was hot.

"Good morning," Xander offered. He looked around at the crew. Spike was leaning back against the wall, one boot propped up on a chair as he watched Cordelia. Either that or he was watching Graham and waiting to rip his intestines out if Graham got too close to Cordelia. Xander was fairly sure that Spike liked Graham, but the jury was still a little out. "So, where's Wesley?" Xander headed toward the kitchen door, but then he quickly detoured when Graham raised a box of donuts. Oh yes, heaven was fried with cherry filling.

"He's still hiding in the library." Faith locked the weapons cabinet and turned around. "Either that boy is getting damp in the pants over Angel's books or he's scared to come out and play with the rest of us."

Xander cringed. That was so not good.

"I think he just needs to get settled in," Graham said. "He was pretty excited by some of those scrolls, and he's expecting some translation work from U'talaba pretty soon. Is Angel coming down soon?" From Graham's tone, Xander was guessing that was not an idle question.

"Um, hair issues," Xander answered with a shrug. Graham looked confused, but Spike started laughing.

"The sod never changes. So, how was your grand deflowering? Not that you needed a deflowering seeing as how I took care of that." Spike wiggled his eyebrows, and Xander could feel the heat gathering in his face. And he wasn't alone. Graham was turning a little pink around the edges too, but then Graham was sort of unforgivably straight.

"Yeah, Xand," Faith said as she walked over and gave him a slap on the back. "How was the big night?" Xander ducked his head, but it was nice that Faith would touch him now. There for a while, she had tiptoed around him like she expected him to start with the blaming and screaming at any time.

"Am I going to get away with saying that I am so not saying anything?" he asked with a sort of hopeless desperation.

Surprisingly, Graham laughed. Xander had thought Graham wasn't really comfortable with the gayness, but now he just shook his head like he was all amused. "These people are worse than soldiers in a barracks, Xander. If you don't throw them some sort of bone, they're going to start making shit up."

"Fucking right," Spike quickly agreed. "Now pet, I know the old sod can't keep up with me, but did you manage to get your end off with Peaches?" Spike's smirk was so wide it was just about to make his face crack.

"Well, yeah, you were really good, not that I'm comparing. Because there is no comparing the two of you. Because comparing would be bad. And you're both good in different ways." Xander knew that he was babbling, but he could not get his mouth to turn off. At least, not until Faith started laughing and Spike's smirk had vanished into a shocked look.

Spike stood up and stared at Xander with horror. "Bloody hell. You prefer him? Bloody fucking hell. It must be love... either that or you've gone 'round the twist."

"That's what you get for asking," Graham said with a laugh of his own.

"Someone's got his little feelings hurt," Faith added, emphasizing the world 'little' just a little too much. Spike glared at her.

"If you people make Angel cranky before I talk to him, someone is dying," Cordelia warned. "Do you see the vein in my forehead doing the cha-cha? This would be your warning to play nice."

Spike still glared at Faith, but at least he didn't take a swing. From the way Faith had settled into a fighting stance, she'd been ready to push until he did exactly that.

"Hey, just pointing out a little truth," Faith offered, her hands held up in surrender as she backed off a step, but she was still emphasizing the word little, which was funny because little was not the first word that came to mind when Xander thought about Spike and sex. And oddly, lots of people who lived at the hotel actually knew that. His life was officially odd.

"Bloody fucking women," Spike muttered before he turned his back and headed toward the kitchen.

"Remind me to find a toilet to clean the next time Spike wants to spar," Graham said with a laugh.

"Coward," Faith accused him in a teasing tone.

"Hell yes. Spike can kick my ass in training. So, if he's in a mood to kick my ass instead of just playing head games, I'm staying out of his way. The army specifically trained me to avoid engaging when I'm destined to end up getting beaten to a pulp."

Faith snorted and rolled her eyes, but Xander was way more interested in Cordy, who had her serious-face on—the one that meant someone died... or was about to die... or had pissed her off enough that they were about to wish they were dead.

"Cordy?" he asked. She looked up, and there was a flash of worry across her face that really seriously freaked him out even more than the death look.

"Oh, don't give me that look," Cordelia snapped, but then her face did that weird squinch-flinch that meant guilt, and Cordy did not do guilt easily. She started typing, focusing all her attention on the computer.

All the humor left Faith. "Come on, Queen C, you should run this by Xand. If anyone can get through Angel's thick skull, Xander can."

"I can what?" Xander looked around the room.

Graham raised his hands in surrender. "I am not getting in the middle of this. Right now, I am saving up any idiosyncratic credit I have with Angel for a conversation about Wesley's status. So, whatever happens, I am officially neutral."

"Okay, what are we taking sides about?" Xander frowned as he considered all the very bad things that might be lurking because it took something really bad to make the vein in Cordelia's temple throb, and whatever idiotic credit was, it wasn't sounding good from the way Graham said it.

"Can I come out yet?" a girl's voice asked. He knew that voice. He shouldn't know that voice. That voice was so very not someone he should hear from again. Xander slowly turned his head until he could see the door to the kitchen and a blonde head sticking out from behind the door. "I'm really sick of being in here," she whined.

"Harmony?" Xander 's voice squeaked. "You're dead."

"Well, duh," Harmony said, and yes, that was definitely Harmony. "I can see you're still riding the short bus."

Xander blinked, but before he could even answer that, Harmony flew backwards and vanished into the hall with a short squeal that got cut off in the middle. There were a few thumps and one really loud crack, and then Spike came walking out the kitchen door.

"You should fix that hole in the drywall in the hall, pet," Spike said to Xander before he walked over to lean on the counter next to Cordelia. Maybe Xander's brain wasn't fully awake before coffee, but he didn't remember there being a hole in the drywall.

Before Xander could say anything, Harmony followed, and her long, blonde hair was a lot more tangled now. "It's not like he takes it as an insult. He was almost cool there at the end, and now that he's gay, that totally comes with some cool points," Harmony said, and that looked like a pout on her face. "If I didn't insult him, he'd think I didn't recognize him or something now that he's actually growing some muscle." Harmony slid along the wall until she hit the far edge of the counter and then she just sort of hovered there.

Xander looked from Harmony to Cordelia and then back to Harmony several times. His brain needed restarting. Maybe the sex with Angel had caused brain damage or something.

"Oh for God's sake, just ask before your head falls off from swiveling," Cordelia finally said. She slammed her hands down on the keyboard hard enough that Xander seriously hoped she didn't break it.

"I'm still trying to figure out what to ask," he admitted.

"Just don't ask about her skill at sucking," Faith suggested with an exaggerated expression of thoughtfulness.

"Hey, that's not nice!" Harmony objected.

"Never claimed to be nice," Faith agreed.

Xander held up his hand to stop any imminent bitch slapping. "And this is me even more confused. Is it just me, or is Harmony remarkably Harmony-y?"

Spike gave Xander an amused look, but despite his poor English, Xander had a point there. He even had a good point. Vampires were supposed to be blood-sucking creatures of darkness unless someone shoved a soul in them and they turned into guilt-ridden, blood-sucking creatures of darkness. But unless Xander missed his guess, Harmony would still be decorating with pink and unicorns, which did not scream 'creature of darkness.'

"She'd better still be as harmless as Harmony or someone is going to pay for having her near my Xander," Angel growled from a spot just behind Xander's ear. Startled, Xander shrieked and just about jumped out of his skin, but Angel slipped an arm around his waist and pulled him so close that Xander had trouble getting a full lungful of air in. When he looked up, Xander could see the ridges and yellow eyes of one seriously pissed off vamp.

"Peaches," Spike offered calmly. That was impressive considering that even Cordelia looked a little shaken up, and Harmony was trying to become one with the wall.

"William," Angel answered. Oh yes, the road to badness was lined with use of original first names. Xander held his breath and waited for the explosion. Instead of snapping back, Spike just leaned against the wall and watched Angel with cool blue eyes.

"She's pretty much what you see."

"Vampires lie, William. Just how sure are you that you haven't put Xander and the others in harm's way?" When Xander opened his mouth to argue that he wasn't exactly helpless against a fledge, Angel tightened his arm enough that Xander decided that Spike was totally on his own in this fight.

"Sure enough," Spike said with a shrug.

"She came looking for me after graduation," Cordelia spoke up. When Angel tightened his arm just a little too much, Xander made a little squeaking sound and Angel eased up again. However, considering how stiffly Angel was standing, that was not the answer that he'd wanted to hear. "She came with me when I moved to L.A. and Spike helped her find a place to stay."

"I could have stayed with you." Harmony's words were little more than a whisper, but he actually found himself feeling bad because Harmony got rejected as a roomie. This was definitely new territory because most fledges did not inspire sympathy. Not even Jesse.

Spike turned and pinned Harmony with a nasty look. "No, you bloody well couldn't have. You needed to prove something."

Harmony looked down and seemed to be studying the 1925 tile work.

"And what did she prove?" Angel asked with an Irish lilt to his voice.

Spike turned and looked at Angel for several seconds before answering. The whole room had gone silent. Even Faith was standing quietly without fidgeting. "She proved she doesn't feel any need ta hunt. She bloody well proved that she doesn't feel any need to dominate humans."

"And you're so confident that you'd put Xander at risk?"

"I'm so bloody confident I'm putting Cordelia in the middle. Besides, if I'm wrong, I'm the second person you're going to skin alive and drown in holy water, so I'm bloody well putting my own life on the line." Spike squared up like he was expecting Angel to hit him for that one. Xander grabbed Angel's arms and held them as tight as he could. Whatever was going on, Xander did not need for the vamps to go off all vampy.

Cordelia looked at Xander with this expression that demanded he do something.

"What?" Xander demanded. He needed cue cards to keep up with this conversation.

"You are such a..." Cordelia sighed. "Tell Angel to play nice."

"If I understood what was going on, I might. I'm still back on why is Harmony so Harmony-y." Xander looked around, but only Graham answered him.

"I have no idea, but I'm keeping a stake under my pillow." Graham then frowned and turned toward Harmony. "No offense."

Harmony shrugged like she didn't care, but that was not a happy face. That was a face like someone had just drawn mustaches on all her flyers for the Junior High Harvest Queen back when she and Cordelia had still been working on their pecking order, and as the mustache-drawer in question, Xander knew the guilt that look inspired.

"Vampires aren't like other demons, pet," Spike offered. "We don't possess a human. We come into the body, and we pretty much take over where the human left off, only we don't give a shite if we hurt people because it's all about doing what feels good."

"Yep, I'm pretty much getting that already." Xander had learned that lesson when Buffy's date of the day had slipped Angel some drugged Jello. Angelus was pretty much exactly like Liam with his father issues and insecurities and a really bad habit of trying to overcompensate for both. But with the strength of a vampire, Angelus had been way more dangerous.

"Sometimes there just aren't any dark corners," Spike shrugged and then moved to stand next to Cordelia, catching her hand in his, and that was the first time Xander noticed she was busily shredding little pieces of paper. "Some people really are what they seem to be."

Xander frowned. He knew full well that he had a whole lot of anger at his parents. Yeah, his mom was trying hard to be the supporto-mom, and had even been all pep-talk and offers of cookies when he'd told her he was gay. He still had anger issues. And he was not going to look too closely at the box marked "Faith" because he did still have a few issues with what she had done. Yeah, he forgave her because she'd been hurting and when she'd tried to reach out for Spike's reassurance, Spike had missed the signs that she was hurting under all the bravado. However, if someone turned off his conscience, Xander suspected his vampire him would have a few words with her. Actually, his vampire him would have a few words with a whole lot of people. Most of his high school teachers would be in serious shit. They'd all let him think he was an idiot, but his community college scores did not exactly support that conclusion.

"Wait," Xander said as he finally put the pieces together. "Do you mean that Harmony with the demon is pretty much Harmony without the demon because we always saw the real Harmony?"

"Exactly, pet," Spike agreed.

"I'm not sure what to even say about that," Xander said softly. Harmony was still scrunched back against the wall looking a whole lot like Harmony, so a little part of him was ready to buy the story.

"I'm tempted to say that's almost sad," Faith said softly. The fact that Harmony didn't even stick up for herself was the part that Xander was feeling was more than a little sad. Harmony was always a pleaser, and there were not many people she could please in this room. Not even Cordelia was really sticking up for her.

"Is that why some vampires don't seem to turn evil?" Graham asked, suddenly all interested.

Angel answered. "It's not easy to resist temptation, no matter who you were before the demon took over." Angel and Spike exchanged a long look that suggested there was way more going on than Xander understood.

"Convince me that she isn't a danger." Angel sounded cranky, but he had loosened his arm around Xander's waist, and that was almost a reasonable expression on his face.

"I set her up at one of the suckhouses." Spike leaned against the counter. "It didn't work out, but she's soddin well proved that she's not out to eat or enslave the human race."

"Didn't work out? Why?" Angel's reasonable expression completely vanished.

"Ask her." Spike poked his thumb over his shoulder.

When Harmony's head came up, she had on a total deer-in-the-headlights expression. "What?" She sounded so much like Harmony had every time a teacher called on her for an answer that Xander found himself starting to believe this was Harmony. Angel just looked at her until she started fidgeting under his glare. "It wasn't my fault. Just because I told people they were losers for wanting someone to bite them, they got all weird. It's true, you know. I mean, I have to eat. But the losers who came in looking for someone to bite them were all... icky."

Okay, that was definitely Harmony. Xander was feeling way more comfortable having her around because any vampire who thought suckhouse humans were icky instead of delicious bags of walking goodness clearly had some humanity sticking to them.

Angel finally let go of Xander and stepped up to the counter so he could glare down at Cordy. "Why bring her here?"

Cordelia looked up and shrugged. "You mean other than the fact she got kicked out of her second suckhouse?"

"Still not my fault losers don't like to hear they're losers." Harmony said it softly, but from the tone, she was not backing down on that one. Yep, she was definitely still the same old Harm.

"Yes, other than that," Angel said to Cordelia. He still hadn't said one word to Harmony.

Cordelia looked at Harmony and then at Spike before she looked back toward Angel. "We need someone to help run the hotel."

"Don't you—"

Cordelia cut him off. "I am constantly trying to track down demons who owe us money or researching some weird ritual for collecting debts or trying to find the freshest enné in L.A. I'm busy doing all the things well-connected demons expect. And the others are too busy to be constantly washing sheets. Xander is going to school part-time and fixing this place full-time. Graham and Faith are constantly training and every night they're trying to help that rude little black man and his sister clear out the Badlands and now Wesley is going to be chained to his desk. We need someone to help with the work, and we don't have the money to pay a salary. Trust me, if we had money in the accounts, I would have been hiring illegal immigrants a long time ago. But we have stunning rooms, and with the cost of downtown real estate, we need to get this hotel actually running at capacity. So we need Harmony." Cordy put on her own version of Willow's resolve face. Xander had no idea that she had it down so well, in fact.

"We... oh," Angel said, and he was back to looking bewildered. "We can't hire someone?"

"With our bank account? No. In fact, we need to have a steady source of income, so I'm going to tell Lorne that we're opening up for residential guests."

"Meaning?" Xander asked.

"Demons are going to live here," Cordelia said firmly. "We have beautiful rooms, a great location, and now we have at least one staff, so it's time to bring in some money before the back takes the hotel back."

"Before the bank does what?" Xander pushed Angel to the side so he could move up to the counter and look at Cordelia. "What do you mean before the bank takes the hotel back?" Xander was suddenly noticing a whole lot of glares and embarrassed looks between Spike, Cordelia, and Angel.

"Looks like someone's been keeping a secret," Faith commented. "So, how bad are we hurting?"

"We aren't," Angel said firmly.

Cordelia didn't answer at all, and that really said something.

"Fuck," Faith said softly.

"Gunn is really shaping up as a leader. I could take a couple of nights off each week and work around the hotel," Graham offered.

Xander chewed his lower lip. "Maybe I should take a semester off."

"You will not!" Angel said with a whole lot of Irish in his voice. He turned yellowed eyes toward Xander.

"That wouldn't be enough, anyway," Cordelia interrupted. "A hotel like this would take dozens of full-time staff."

"Dozens?" Angel sounded like he was out of breath, which was odd for someone who didn't breathe.

"Although vampires don't need breaks, so maybe not dozens," Cordelia admitted.

For a second, Angel only glared. "Cordelia will be lettin' out the rooms while Spike and I do a little clean up job we've been plannin'. Xander will not quit school." Angel turned his furious glare toward Graham. "And yer not going to stop working with Gunn." Angel stopped and ran a hand across his face.

"You," he said as he turned to Harmony for the first time. "You will keep your fangs clear of any humans. If I smell fresh blood on you, someone will be sweeping you off the floor. And you are not allowed near the family wing without an escort, understand?"

Harmony didn't answer, but she nodded with this wide-eyed look that was either fear or puppy-love. Maybe both.

"She can stay—" Cordelia started.

"Down here," Angel said firmly. The look he gave her promised a whole lot of pain if she wanted to argue with that. Xander held his breath as the two had their stare down.

Cordelia sighed and looked away. "I'll help you pick a room, Harm. Xander's drywall work in the hall can wait—he'll get to work on fixing up your room just as soon as you pick one." Cordelia looked over toward Xander, but he was not Angel. He wasn't even going to pretend that he had a chance of out-queening her.

"Just give me a budget," Xander offered with a smile. Guilt chewed at the edges of his thoughts. He'd never even bothered with budgeting even though it was a huge part of the classes. When he looked though supply magazines, he had a bad habit of not even considering the price. He wondered just how much of their money problems were his fault. He cringed as he considered how much he had spent on Angel's bathtub. And Spike's room had a stereo system that most disco clubs would envy. Okay, he definitely needed to start budgeting instead of just buying two of everything that caught his eye. Hell, he had enough supplies in the sub-basement that he could probably just make do with the supplies he had, at least for a while.

Even though Xander hadn't said anything all that special, Cordelia gave him one of her best smiles, one that made him understand why he'd fallen for her in the first place.

"So I get my own room?" Harmony asked with a small, hopeful voice. "Oh! Can I paint it pink?" She suddenly looked excited. Xander might have answered, but Angel caught him by the hand and started pulling him back toward the stairs.

"Hey, can I have sex with him?" Harmony asked brightly. Xander didn't even get a chance to ask which 'him' Harmony wanted because Angel was practically dragging him back up the stairs. Oh yeah, his life was so very, very weird.



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