Learning Curve
Sexual Content (No Partner Betrayal!)

Jim/Blair, Blair/Xander, Xander/Spike

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"Xander, we really need you to do this for us," Willow blinked in that' helpless little girl' expression she'd been using on him ever since the yellow crayon. Xander crossed his arms and squinted his eye. When she was four and her crayon broke, that look had made him hand over his own crayon. It didn't work nearly as well now that she was one of the most powerful witches on earth.

"Right. And the fact that it's on the other side of the world?" Xander demanded.

"The council hasn't seen an active Sentinel in like five hundred years. This is big. It might be some sort of apocalyptic sign big."

"You're just trying to make me feel better, aren't you?"

"Maybe," she admitted in a small voice. "But knowing how to work with a Sentinel, that would of the good, yes?" she quickly added. "I mean, we already know that a lot of Sentinels end up doing the crazy thing, and if you understand Sentinel psychology, and then we find another Sentinel and this Sentinel is losing his marbles… what with the seeing and hearing things, and really that does sound a bit like schizophrenia, so you really can't blame the doctors for thinking the Sentinels are doing the crazy. There was a guy in the 1800's who might have been a Sentinel and he… let's just say it didn't end well what with mental health field using more chains and boiling water than Prozac." Willow paused in horror, and Xander jumped in before she could continue. He knew her babble well enough to know that she'd just keep right on going.

"So you want me to train to work with some weird nearly-human thing even though no one has seen one in five hundred years and it'll probably be another five hundred before another pops up? Thinkin' I'm not going to be around in five hundred years, Wills."

"Bloody hope not," Spike growled as he aimed his car at another hapless citizen of Springfield. Xander glanced over as Spike backed the car up and aimed it at Ned Flanders again, sending the man rolling down the street. No wonder Spike could never beat his scores on the game, he was too busy mowing down the pixilated population.

"Of course you'll probably still be here mooching," Xander snapped.

"At least I'm of some use, mate. Red's sending ya on this chase 'cause none of us need ya 'round here."

"HEY!" Willow protested that, but Xander turned his back and started walking out of the common room. Yeah, he knew he was big on the useless scale, but he didn't need it pointed out by Spike. The missing eye meant he was more a danger to his own side in a fight. He couldn't even count the number of times Buffy or Spike had to save him from some baddie running up on his blind side. They kept trying to blindside him, he quipped to himself as he strode down the hallway, but even he didn't find his joke funny. One little case of malaria and Buffy wouldn't even hear of him going back on the road to track down slayers. Which left him… it left him nowhere he realized.

He could hear Willow's footsteps running behind him in the hall. She had probably stopped to give Spike shit, which was kinda emasculating, but then he should be used to it by now. He started down the main staircase of Watcher HQ.

"Xander, wait," Willow called. Xander considered ignoring her, but too many years of listening made his feet stop before he'd even made a decision.

"Xander…" Willow came up to him and put a warm hand on his bare arm. He could feel the love there, but he could also feel her helplessness, the fact that she wanted to help and didn't know how. "He didn't mean it."

"Yeah, he did," Xander answered. Spike didn't say things he didn't mean. Spike was rude, blunt, sexy, sadistic, lithe, and honest. Then again, Xander had always fallen for the sadistic ones, and the way Willow was looking at him, he wasn't fooling her much with his 'I hate Spike' campaign.

"You just need some time to sort this out," she said softly, and Xander made the connection.

"You're sending me away from *him*," Xander accused her. "So, how many of you are in on this little plan? Giles? Buffy? Wait, did you call Angel and talk about ways to keep me from making the worst mistake of my life?" Willow pulled back in the face of his anger, and Xander immediately felt guilty. Yep, Xand the Insecure Man spreading unhappiness and misery everywhere he went. Xander wondered what kind of cape came with those sorts of super powers.

"No! I didn't… I just thought…" Willow started tearing up, and Xander's anger evaporated. He reached out and pulled her into a hug.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean it. You know me, I say lots of stuff I don't mean—it's a disease. I'm just a sick, sick boy… got diarrhea of the mouth here."

"I haven't said anything to anyone," Willow whispered into his chest, and Xander knew she was telling him the truth. "I just don't want you to get hurt."

"Yeah, my skills of pickage suck when it comes to partners," Xander admitted.

"You just deserve someone who loves you."

"Yeah, I know. Maybe you're right about needing some time. So, what's the weather like in Cascade this time of year?" Xander asked as he laid a cheek against her head, smelling the sweet fruitiness of her shampoo.

"Um, I think rainy," Willow said. Xander glanced toward the windows where a grey English drizzle misted the glass.

"Great. More rain. Yippee," Xander said unenthusiastically. Willow poked him in the ribs. "I mean, Yippee," he repeated with a fake smile and a strained enthusiasm. "I'll go pack a bag."



Xander took a deep breath and looked around the airport. Blair's long hair should be easy enough to spot, or at least that's what he'd thought before stepping off the plan in Cascade and discovering at least half of the guys had long hair. Okay, that was a slight exaggeration, but by that much, Xander thought as a guy who looked a lot like Fabio flipped his hair and hitched his bag up onto his shoulder. Xander shifted his own duffle bag higher on his shoulder as he walked off the ramp and into the waiting crowd. Xander detoured around a happily chatting Asian family as he searched the edges of the crowd.

It was funny how every airport in the world looked just the same... the same light colored walls, the same big windows overlooking the planes as they crept over the grey asphalt. Xander looked up to see a display of Native American headdresses and decorated spears behind bulletproof glass. Yep, there was the obligatory cultural display put up just to prove that this building wasn't interchangeable with the one in Zimbabwe with the shield collection or the one in Phoenix with the Indian pottery collection.

"Xander?" a voice asked from behind him, and he turned around to find the bluest eyes surrounded by a mane of brown and red curls. Blair.

"Blair?" he asked just to be on the safe side.

"Oh man, I'm so totally stoked to meet you. Jim was half convinced this was some sort of practical joke." Blair gestured toward a second man, and Xander turned to smile a hello to Jim. His expression just sort of froze in place as he found himself looking at the scariest guy he'd ever seen. The expression was pretty much like Spike's 'one second away from killing something' face with a bit of Angel's jaw-twitching 'I think you're an idiot but I'm not going to say it' face thrown in on the side. Oh yeah, someone was not feelin' the love.

"Nice to meet you," Xander finally choked out as he held out a hand. Jim took the hand and ice blue eyes searched him for a second, stopping at the duffle bag before that gaze returned to the crowd. Something from Xander's soldier memories screamed about threat assessments and covert ops, and Xander found himself taking a step to the side to get closer to Blair.

"So, are we ready to get out of here?" Jim suddenly asked.

"Um, yeah. This is all I brought since I don't really trust the airlines with luggage. One time when I was flying to Africa they sent this tribal god carving thing I was supposed to use as a way to prove I wasn't some nutcase because it had this big truth mojo, and they mixed up the bags and sent the thing to Denmark and there I was in this village trying to convince them that I was interested in their young girls because of the whole slayer thing rather than the whole creepy pedophilia thing." Xander groaned to himself as he realized that pedophilia might not be a good topic of discussion around cops.

"Tribal carving? Cool. What tribe?" Blair asked as though Xander hadn't been babbling.

"Um, not sure. Might have been demonic," Xander said. He didn't miss the twitch in Jim's shoulders as the man walked ahead of them.

"Demonic tribes? Oh man, that is so cool. I wonder how Dr. Stoddard would react to a demonic fetish," Blair mused without missing a beat.

"Fet—" Xander choked.

"An objects, something with magical or spiritual energies," Blair defined the word, and Xander just nodded mutely. Funny, Xander had expected more freakage, something more like Jim whose back kept going stiffer until the man could give Angel a run for his money in the stick up his butt department. But Blair seemed strangely okay with it. Xander didn't answer since he really had no idea what to say. Anymore his words seemed to either come all at once or not at all.

"Wait here," Jim said brusquely as they reached the curb. Xander thought he was talking to both of them until Jim's hand reached for Blair's back, herding the shorter man away as Xander stood on the sidewalk wondering whether either of them were going to come back. He had a feeling that if it were up to Jim, the two of them would drive off and leave Xander standing in the grey Cascade morning trying to book a flight back to England. Not that Xander necessarily would head back right now. Time away from the demon slaying and time away from Spike suddenly seemed like a good idea.

Xander shifted his bag to his opposite shoulder as people around him hailed taxis and disappeared into the traffic. When an old blue pickup pulled up to the curb, Xander ignored it until the door opened and Blair leaned out.

"Come on, if we make Jim late for work, we'll never hear the end of it," Blair called, and Xander tossed his bag into the back before climbing in the cab.

The ride to their apartment was uncomfortable with Jim's jaw twitching in very Angel-like ways, Blair filling awkward silences with descriptions of the historical significance of nearly every building they passed and Xander watching them in uncharacteristic silence. He didn't know what to say, especially since there wasn't a good reason for him being here. Sure, Willow had a reason for wanting him out of HQ, but these two were just the saps he got dumped on. Even if Jim was a Sentinel, it's not like there was some big huge need for information on Sentinels.

"I left some paperwork in the loft," Jim said in clipped syllables as he parked the truck in front of a bakery.

"You've got time, man. Simon isn't expecting you 'til ten."

"I know, Sandburg," Jim practically growled. Xander had already gotten out and had his bag half out of the bed of the truck, and even though the words weren't aimed at him, he still flinched at the growl.

"Ignore Jim. He's just perpetually cranky," Blair offered as he got out the passenger side and slammed the door. Blair didn't miss the way Jim waited at the hood of the truck and then dropped a hand onto Blair's shoulder as they headed to a door next to the bakery. Xander wondered whether those two were doing it or if his own recently discovered interest in the same sex was just making him look at the world through gay-colored glasses.

"Yeah, no problem. Spent years living with the perpetually cranky myself, only in my case it was the perpetually cranky and occasionally murderous in the blood sucking demon kinda way," Xander answered, his nervousness making words tumble out, "But then at least Spike never shaved his legs with my razor the way Dawn does every time she forgets to put razors on her shopping list." Xander followed the pair up the stairs and neither one answered. Okay, Blair might have, only Jim was pushing the man up the stairs ahead of him.

Jim stopped on the first landing, only a half a story up. "Sandburg, we're out of that organic cleaner you keep under the sink. Unless you want me to use Comet…"

"Oh man, that stuff leaves welts on your skin."

"And it leaves the sink actually clean."

"The organic orange cleaner works just as well."

"If you scrub twice as long," Jim countered. "But do me a favor and run down to the store for some while I get my paperwork together. You know, this would be a lot simpler if that car of yours wasn't always breaking down."

"Hey, she's a classic." Blair protested.

"She's a piece of junk," Jim said with a snort. Xander watched as Blair gaze went from him to Jim and then back to him. Xander knew that Blair knew that it was a set-up, but Xander didn't protest despite a pretty good feeling about what was about to happen. Hell, he'd given a few intimidation speeches in his day, so he got it. Blair had believed Willow's story about Hellmouths and demons and watchers, and Jim… not so much.

"I'll be right back," Blair finally said. "You wanna ride along?" Blair offered.

"Nah, I think I'll stick around and let the Neanderthal intimidate me," Xander shrugged. Blair opened his mouth to say something, but then closed it with an audible snap. Jim's jaw just tightened until Xander could see the muscle bulging.

"Oh man, do not let him scare you. His bark is much worse than his bite," Blair finally said as Jim started up the stairs with heavy footsteps that suggested that Xander had just broken some sort of unwritten rule.

"Yeah, I've dealt with that sort a lot," Xander said as he looked up the stairs. "It's probably just better to let him get it out of his system." He said the words, but he wasn't sure he entirely believed them as he considered being alone with Jim in an apartment. The man was big. And dangerous. And definitely set off the old Hellmouth radar in a vague creepy feeling up the backbone kinda way. And he clearly didn't like Xander.

"I'll be back as quick as I can," Blair promised as he dashed down the stairs and out the door. Xander wondered for a moment if it would be too cowardly to just sit on the steps and wait for Blair to get back, but then again, he had to face Jim sometime. With a sigh he switched his bag from his left shoulder to his right before heading up the stairs. He only hoped that Jim was waiting in the hall because he couldn’t remember the apartment number.




Fortunately for Xander, Jim stood with his arms crossed outside one of the doors on the third floor. Xander hitched his bag further up on his shoulder and walked past the man despite the slight Hellmouthy vibes. Or maybe vibe was too strong a word since he was only getting a tingle of Hellmouthiness.

Xander dropped his bag near a couch and turned to watch as the detective locked the apartment door. It really was a nice place, but Xander didn't spare much attention for the room considering the aggression pouring off every tightly controlled gesture Ellison made.

"Want a beer?" the man asked as he went into the kitchen.

"Um, really rather not. Kinda have some bad memories with beer, and since I figure you aren't going to stop growling at me until we talk this out, I'd rather get to the talking part. Not that I want to do the talking part," Xander quickly added, "but if we're going to talk, I really just want it all out on the table. Not big on the waiting. Waiting bad. And I babble when I get all freaked out," Xander trailed off, and the expression on Jim's face suddenly lightened. The man was possibly even biting his lip to keep from laughing, but laughing was better than pounding.

"Freaked out?" Jim asked as he leaned again the square pillar, taking a drink from a bottle of water before crossing his arms. "I thought you people dealt with Hellmouths and demons." Xander couldn't exactly miss the disbelief in the voice.

"And guys who can hear dog whistles miles away," Xander added. He had to remind himself not to flinch when Jim's expression suddenly darkened again.

"Are you suggesting I fit into the same category with demons?" he demanded.

"No! Well, maybe. Giles said there was a theory that Sentinels might somehow be related to slayers like the male half of the line or something because they have these protective instincts like slayers, although really slayers do a lot of hunting and killing considering they're supposed to be protectors."

"Slayers. You mean the vampire slaying girls Ms. Rosenburg described." Jim said cautiously. Xander fidgeted and moved closer to the door even though he knew Blair couldn't get back this quickly.

"Um, yeah. They're extra strong and have this vampire radar thing going on. But Giles also said that the Sentinels might come from some sort of warrior-priest clan that battled demons like thousands of years ago, and some people think they might actually have some demonic blood in their ancestry." Xander stopped when Jim's hands closed around the front of Xander's jacket and slammed him back into the door hard enough to knock the breath out of him. The man was fast, faster than anyone Xander knew who wasn't a vampire or a slayer.

"Oh, hey, no grabbing the guest. Willow said you guys were the 'protect the tribe' types, definitely not the 'eviscerate the guest' type," he joked even though he could feel cold panic wrap around him.

"You aren't part of my tribe," Jim just about growled the words, and that wasn't exactly a protective expression on the man's face. "And I don't buy your line. So tell me who you work for and what you want with us," Jim demanded. The hands tightened so that the jacket dug into Xander's underarms.

"The Watcher's Council sent me just to learn about Sentinels. Who else is going to hire a one-eyed carpenter?" Xander's desperation ratcheted up a notch as Jim turned him and pulled one of Xander's arms behind his back. Ellison shoved Xander face-first into the door, and then used his leverage on Xander's arm to keep him there. "You know, if you're trying to convince me you don't have demonic grandparents hidden up in the old family tree, this probably isn't the way to do it," Xander said as one large hand quickly and efficiently frisked him. The grip on his captured arm changed and then his other side got an equally official frisking.

When the cold of metal went around his wrist, he used the hand he had braced on the door to try and free himself.

"Hey, just hold on one second because I am not into that. Handcuffs were definitely not in the travel brochure, and if you're that cranky about houseguests, just let me know, and I'll find a hotel. Never let it be said I stayed where I wasn't wanted." Xander tried to turn and regain control of his hand, but a kick to the back of one of his knees sent him crashing to the floor, his cheek plastered to the door. "HEY!" he complained even louder as his second arm was pulled to the small of his back before being handcuffed in place.

"Right, so now we're going to have that talk you mentioned," Jim said as he pulled him up and pushed him toward the couch. He briefly considered a sweeping kick aimed at Jim's legs, but considering how easily the man had cuffed him, Xander wasn't making any bets on how well that would go over. He decided on going for the helpless approach instead, which wasn't all that hard handcuffed in a strange city in a strange man's apartment. Why was he the only who always got into these messes?

Strong hands turned him and then pushed him back into the couch, and Xander flinched when the handcuffs tightened uncomfortably as Jim pressed him back against the cushions.

"Who do you work for?" Jim demanded as he stood over Xander, arms crossed.

"The Watcher's Council," Xander answered honestly.

"Do you work for the CIA?"

"What? No. I don't even know anyone from the CIA. Well, except these two guys that showed up in Sunnydale to get this invisi-girl I went to school with."

"The FBI?"


"Secret Service?"

"You mean the counterfeit money guys? Just no."

"MI-5? MI-6?"

"Okay, I don't even know who that is." Xander's soldier memories suddenly supplied the information. "Oh, hey, wait, do I *sound* stuck up and British to you?"


"No." Xander suddenly found Jim Ellison's face an inch from his, Jim's arms on either side of him as he leaned on the back of the couch.

"What branch?" he demanded in a voice that made Xander shudder as much as any fledge's growl ever had.

"What part of 'no' don't you understand?" Xander demanded. "Not big with the military types here, and I'm not going to pass the physical with only one eye."

"So why did your heart speed up at the question?" Jim demanded. Uh oh. Xander considered how to explain *that* little hitch to someone who didn't even believe in vampires much less chaos mages.

"Um, I might have some Army memories in here after a small Halloween accident with a cursed uniform. But I have hyena memories after a small zoo accident with a cursed hyena, and I don't go eating raw meat… any more. Anyway, my point is that I'm no more a soldier than a hyena," Xander pressed back into the couch as Jim leaned even farther in. "Personal space, buddy. You're definitely in mine, and I really don't know you well enough to be comfortable sharing body heat unless here some apocalyptic disaster."

"Cursed uniform? At least you're original," Jim announced as he stood up.

"Um, not really. Everyone sort of got cursed that night. Well, maybe not everyone, but most everyone."

"Wait here," Jim ordered before heading up the stairs.

"Yeah, like I'm going anywhere like this," Xander snorted in disgust as he leaned forward to take some of the weight off his wrists. And there he sat and waited as Ellison slammed around on the second floor. When the lock on the door clicked, Xander looked up as Blair pushed the door open with a hip.

"I decided to get a few extras while I was out, so if you he-men types are finished growling at each oth…" Blair stopped as he came around the door, and Xander figured it wasn't hard to guess why.

"Um, I think the growling part is over and we've moved on to bondage and general intimidation, which is a bit over-the-top-ish in my book, but seems to be making your partner happy," Xander shrugged awkwardly

"What would make me happy is if you had never called," Jim said as he came down the stairs with a length of chain in his hand: one of those heavy industrial chains with huge links.

"Ya know, technically I never called, so if it's the callage making you grumpy, you really should take that up with Willow." In his head, Xander added, 'the woman who could turn that thing into a daisy chain and leave you making froggy noises as you hopped across the room.

"Oh man, this is the definition of uncool. I told Willow that he'd be perfectly safe here, and I don't think handcuffs and chains fit the bill," Blair added.

"His heart spiked when I asked if he was Army. You may believe this demon crap, but I sure don't, and now that I know where to focus, I plan on finding out exactly who Mr. Harris is representing." Jim wrapped one end of the chain around the pillar and closed a padlock around it.

"Would it help if I once again pointed out that I work for the Watcher's Council? 'Cause I can keep saying that if it helps any," Xander offered as Jim walked over and pulled him to his feet.

"Don't bother," Jim said as he did something with the handcuffs.

"Jim, man, don't do this," Blair finally got around to putting the bags on the counter, and then both of them got to watch as Jim handcuffed Xander's one hand to the end of the chain.

"Chief, if you're right, he won't die from a day chained to the post, and I'll apologize later. If I'm right, I won't risk leaving you alone with him." Jim said to his partner, turning his back on Xander.

"I should be complimented. Usually I'm the guy no one takes seriously, so I normally just get ignored," Xander joked as he sat down on the floor with his back to the post. He might have room to reach a kitchen chair, but he wasn't going to amuse Ellison by trying to reach and finding the chain just a little too short.

"Xander, I am so sorry. He isn't usually such a dickwad," Blair said with a glare.

"Better safe than sorry, so I'll take these keys with me. And don't you go cutting him free. If he isn't still chained to that post when I come back, there's going to be hell to pay."

"Don't go telling me what do to," Blair shot right back, stepping forward until he was chest to chest with Jim. Xander really thought that the anthropologist would have a better chance if he didn't stand a good five or six inches shorter. As it was, it reminded Xander of a Vinji demon trying to take on a Kleynach demon, or a poodle trying to take on a pit bull, and maybe he really needed to stop hanging around Spike and Buffy if the Vinjis and Kleynaches came to mind first.


"Ellison," Blair snapped back in the same frustrated tone.

"I'm not leaving you here with someone dangerous. So, the handcuffs stay, or you can both come down to the station and sit your butts in front of my desk until I check out his story."

"So not cool. You think I didn't check out his story? Oh man, you must think I'm a real idiot."

"Chief, I think you're trusting. And I love that about you, but the Army has some deep cover operatives and I'm not letting them get their hands on your research." Jim put up his hand and brushed the unruly curls out of Blair's face. "Or you." Xander could practically feel the connection flare to life between them as they touched, Blair's face turning up to Jim, and in return, Jim's features softened. Xander felt his own loneliness grow in the face of that bond. And really, he wasn't about to be the one who made them turn on each other. Nope. Not going there. Well, not going there again, anyway, he amended that as he thought of his own parents.

"Guys, hey, strangely enough this is hardly the first time I've been tied up. As long as you don't try eviscerating me to summon the fires of hell, I'm weirdly okay with the chain," Xander offered. Jim turned to look at him with ice cold eyes.

"Good because you're staying there until I get some answers." He turned back and dropped a quick kiss on Blair's lips before heading for the door.

"Hey, wait," Xander called just as Jim reached out for the knob. He turned and looked at Xander with the same interest that Spike sometimes gave bugs right before smashing them. "What if I have to pee?" Xander asked as he pulled at the chain.

"Use a bucket." Jim pulled the door open and was gone before Xander could even protest.

"Well, I think your lessons on Sentinels have started. Lesson one, they get really pissy when they think their territory is being invaded," Blair sighed as he went back to the kitchen and started unpacking groceries.

"Ya think?" Xander replied from his spot on the floor. Oh yeah, this was going to be like fun--only not.



Xander was starting to consider the bucket by the time the door opened and Jim walked through with an expression even grimmer than the one on his face when he left. Xander looked up from his nest of cushions where he was trying to read a huge binder Blair had loaned him. Okay, to be fair he sort of read two or three words, asked Blair a question, and then listened as Blair explained the stuff with more enthusiasm than Willow describing the atomic thingy during a convergence spell whatsit.

Okay, he didn't *really* listen to Willow, but he listened as Blair described a Jim who he hadn't yet met, a Jim who was noble and self-sacrificing and overprotective, and maybe he had seen a bit of that last one. And from the expression on Jim's face, he might be about to see more of that, but Xander really didn't know what would have put such a grim look on the Sentinel's face considering Xander really *wasn't* some top-secret super spy.

"As much as it pains me to say this, my bladder and I are very happy to see you," Xander said with a crooked smile despite the look of murder in Jim's face.

"Give me your hand," he ordered as he pulled out the keys. Xander stood up and offered his handcuffed hand.

"Told you," Blair loudly whispered from near the stairs where he stood with his own arms crossed. As long as he got to use a bathroom, Xander didn't care who told who what or when they'd told it. As soon as the handcuff came free, Xander darted toward the door where Blair had earlier flushed the toilet and nearly made Xander ask for that bucket.

After peeing about a gallon, Xander wandered out of the bathroom wondering what exactly he was going to have to face. At this point, he'd be happy with a quick order to get out of Dodge. Of course, he wouldn't, not after a day listening to Blair's descriptions of Jim's abilities, but at least then he could grab his bag and call Blair from the relative safety of a hotel. However, when he opened the door, he found Jim standing in his way.

"Can we just avoid the bondage and man handling? Just tell me where you want me to sit, and I'll sit there -- no pushing, pulling, frisking, intimidating, or handcuffing required," Xander offered as he held up his hands in a show of surrender.

"I, uh, called around some," Jim answered, in Xander noticed both that the words weren't instructions as to where to sit and that Jim looked mildly... well, embarrassed was the closest word he could come up with.

"And I'm assuming you found out that I'm not some big government spy. 'Cause I'm not."

"Yeah. I found one or two people who could confirm that."

Xander waited for Jim to continue, but instead they stood with Xander in the bathroom and Jim right outside it. "Um, not to complain since this is actually better than my accommodations for the afternoon, but are we going to have this entire conversation in the bathroom?" Jim flinched a bit before backing off a step and waving a hand toward the living room. Xander slipped out of the bathroom keeping as far away from Jim as possible.

"Oh man, I knew he had nothing to do with the military. Don't you owe him something?" Blair asked without getting up from the couch. Xander made his way into the living room and sat in the chair.

"Oh, hey, no. No biggie, no need to make the absolutely huge and still slightly cranky Sentinel apologize," Xander hurried to say.

"Xander," Jim started in a tired voice as he walked into the living room.

"No, really, I mean it. All's fair in love and when being incredibly and completely overly protective." Xander really wasn't about to push things, especially with Jim still looking so cranky. He really didn't want to spend the night chained to the post.

"Xander, have you ever heard of The Initiative?" Jim demanded, and it was suddenly very clear that an apology was about the farthest thing from his mind.

"Maybe in an 'I really don't want to talk about it' kinda way," he admitted carefully. It was obvious that Jim could sense a lie, and Xander definitely did not want to get into discussions about the Initiative around the guy. There were a couple of slayer secrets that did not need to go outside the group who had taken Adam down. Hell, he really didn't want to talk about Adam either. It really wasn't a good time what with Spike trying to break up the group and Adam trying to kill the group. Spike's words still stung at him a little. Of course, the truth always did hurt.

"You sound a little defensive there, buddy."

"Oh hey, earned the right to be a little defensive here."

"Who is the Initiative?" Blair interrupted.

"Bad guys, well not really bad guys as much is totally clueless guys, but still. Whether they meant to be evil or not, they still kinda ended up doing evil stuff."

"That's what Major Finn suggested, just not in quite those words..." Jim said.

"Riley? He got promoted? Good on him. So now you know I'm telling the truth. Do we get to skip the Houdini impression... or the half of the Houdini impression. The chaining up half without the escape half since my powers of escape kind of suck."

"I want to hear your version. Who are the Initiative and what is your connection with them?"

"Hey! No connection at all, at least not after I helped blow up their little secret base."

"Whoa -- you blew up a government base?" Blair asked with wide eyes.

"Um, yeah but demons had taken over most of the place by then."

"Start from the beginning." Jim ordered as he leaned back on the couch his one arm resting on the back, and his hand resting on Blair's shoulder.

"Oh man, I'd love to hear that story," Blair added, and Xander smiled at the man he was quickly learning to see as a friend. The comment made him feel like he *was* just telling the story rather than getting interrogated by Ellison. He started at the point where a smoking and chipped Spike had shown up and kept talking until he got to Riley's last visit. Yeah, the one where Spike was sleeping with Buffy, and that didn't hurt him in the least. Not at all.

Yeah, he was just going to keep telling himself that. All the really he didn't know whether it was the secrecy part or the fact that Buffy said yes to Spike after turning him down for the fact that Spike said yes to Buffy after years of making fun of him. And really, this wasn't the time to try and figure it out. Besides, he could distract himself by focusing on the creative editing. Blair and Willow had shared a lot, but some secrets just didn't need sharing.

Jim had just opened his third beer when Xander finally stumbled to a stop.

"Oh man," Blair whispered.

"Yeah, Chief, that pretty well covers it."

"So, is that pretty much what Riley told you?" Xander asked as he tried not to play with the hem of his shirt. Spike always told him it made him look like an insecure six-year-old being sent off to kindergarten. Xander had tried pointing out that five year olds went to kindergarten, not six-year-olds. Spike and just smirked wider and answered with an "Exactly" that it had taken Xander several minutes to figure out.

"There are parts that definitely don't match," Jim said slowly, and Xander opened his mouth to protest. Jim's voice cut him off," Which actually makes it more likely to be true. The only way two people ever describe an event the same way is if they practice their stories."

"No more chains?" Xander asked hopefully.

"No more chains." Blair answered definitively as he turned to glare at his partner. Jim looked back impassively and unapologetically.

"Of the good," Xander said to try and derail the growing tension.

"You have to admit your story sounds a little..." Jim stopped.

"Completely, entirely fucking insane?" Xander added helpfully.

"Yeah, that," Jim conceded.

"So tomorrow the three of us are going to hit the field." Blair said excitedly.

"Wha... no way. Simon is not going to sign off on a carpenter doing a ride along." Jim protested.

"So we don't tell him, but man, Xander cannot learn what he needs to know from books. He needs to be out there seeing how you work, learning how a Sentinel uses his senses, observing you as you defend your territory." Blair might have been impassioned in his words, but Jim's stony expression didn't change a bit.

"Um, I'm really not big on the book learning, so if I could learn things more hands-on..." Xander blushed at his own phrasing. He didn't think he wanted to get as hands-on as those two who had somehow moved closer together at some point so that Jim's whole arm was thrown over Blair shoulder and Blair's hand rested on Jim's thigh. The touching seemed so natural -- so unconscious -- that Xander couldn't resist watching longingly. And despite their clear frustration with each other, the touching continued.

"No," Jim insisted firmly. "This is Simon's job on the line if something happens."

"Oh man, this could make a difference for some Sentinel who the watcher's Council manages to find, the difference between a life in an asylum and life as a functional Sentinel defending his territory. The council has resources we can't dream of, and with a good enough understanding of Sentinel abilities they have a chance of finding and helping potential Sentinels. Think what would happen if no one had found and helped you. We have an obliga..."

"Chief this isn't..."

"The structure they set up to find potential slayers turned actual slayers could be easily adapted to make a global search for Sentinels using existing reporting agencies and some creative hacking..."

"That doesn't mean..."

"And if we can help them find and save other Sentinels, the ability to then empirically study this phenomenon in a larger population could give us clues about how to better protect Sentinels from zones outs or even the phenomenon you experienced when Alex came..."

"Chief," Jim growled, and Xander shrank back into the chair is the two men battled.

"Hey, it's no problem," Xander tried interrupting.

"Oh man, we cannot just keep ignoring the fact that she hijacked your senses. With a larger population..."

"Sandburg, we're not discussing this." Jim's expression came pretty close to the one that Angel would get right before he killed something that he really didn't want to kill. Xander shivered.

"Man, you cannot repress this away. With a larger sample population we could isolate the phenomenon."

"Enough," Jim said as he stood up from the couch, breaking the physical contact that had continued even into the fight.

"Says who?" Blair demanded as he stood.

"Chief, please," Jim said softly and Xander was amazed at the sudden transformation as Blair's mulish expression faded, and he reached out to touch Jim's arm. For several seconds they stood there touching, looking at each other.

"We can talk about it tomorrow, huh? Maybe with some sleep things will seem clearer. Hey, I know, maybe we can just use experiments and demonstrations with Xander after work," Blair suddenly compromised.

"We'll figure it out tomorrow," Jim promised as he reached up to rest a hand on Blair's shoulder, the fingers playing with a curl of hair. "Right now I just want to order some pizza, watch the game, and pretend vampires don't exist."

"I bought all the supplies for my ostrich chili and my mango walnut green salad."

"Pizza sounds good," Xander threw in at this point. What with a being chained to a post all afternoon and the having to watch the fight, he was having a bad enough day already. He really didn't need to cap things off by having to eat vegetables.

"Whatever, man. I just have two words for you guys: Heart Disease." Blair sighed and rolled his eyes, but he also sat on the couch without further complaints while Jim went over to the phone. At least something was going Xander's way today.



"So tell me, what did you have to do to beg, bribe, or blackmail Mr. Macho into letting me ride along?" Xander asked as he looked out the front window of the truck.

"Oh man, lesson number... what number are we on now?" Blair asked.

"I lost track somewhere around the forties. Not that I remember any other than to expect general pissiness, and I'm really hoping you have a Cliff Notes version somewhere, because I was never big on the remembering."

"Yeah, no problem. I probably need to write up something that looks less like an anthropological dissertation and more like a practical set of guidelines. But back to your question, don't expect a Sentinel's decision-making process to make sense to mere mortals," Blair told him in a tone of voice that teetered between aggravated and amused.

"Not of the good, huh?"

"A *little* questionable," Blair agreed. "I totally wish I were joking, but I've seen Jim go on guilt trips when it would've taken Superman to do a better job than he did. And then as much as Jim likes to deny it, he does have instinctive behaviors that make it very clear that Sentinel abilities are linked with the primitive brain.

Oh man, you should see when some poor FBI agent comes into town. Jim's territorial imperative kicks in and he will not let them near his case." Blair nodded out the front window where Jim was speaking to one of his snitches, the cop's arms crossed over his chest aggressively. "And then he gets these mystical dreams that send him running off in some crazy new direction. He kicked me out of the house once. He has one weird dream and he packs up everything I own and tells me to leave. My best advice is just go with the flow. God, we must help like real flakes to you, huh?"

"Um, not so much. When it comes to the weird, it takes more than that to even hit my weird o'meter," Xander assured him. "I mean, the guy who hit me upside the head with a microscope hard enough to give me a concussion when I was 16 lived with me in my parents' basement when I was 18. And then there's the weirdage with the dating, and you really don't know weird until your date has spent the evening explaining ways to emasculate men."

"Oh man, I hear you. I dated this feminist literature major once... oh boy." Blair rolled his eyes and held his hands up in surrender to emphasize the horror of the experience.

"Yeah, only Anya tended to use things like branding irons and communicable diseases to do her emasculating.

"Literally?" Blair demanded in a shocked voice. Xander nearly laughed as Blair closed his legs unconsciously. He knew the feeling.

"Literally," he agreed. "Six months after we broke up, I'd still wake up every morning and check to make sure I still, you know, had it."

"I hear ya. Man, I so totally hear you."

"Um, is that normal?" Xander asked as he watched Jim grab the snitch by his jacket and slam him into the brick wall. "I know Hellmouth cops do that, but they're just slightly on the completely worthless side, and I somehow didn't think your normal cop on the street type did that."

"My guess, the guy lied. Jim doesn't take well to being lied to."

"Remind me not to lie to him... not that he's all sunshine and light when I tell the truth, but that... yeah, not really feeling a need to get that roughed up."

"Trust me. Jim may bear his teeth and growl, but he would never hurt someone who wasn't threatening the tribe."

"Are you really sure of that, because I have to tell you that I would be pissing my pants right now because he's looking kinda of the serious there."

"The point of dominance displays is TO look serious, but it's like a stag shaking his antlers to challenge other males. It's not actually meant to cause harm," Blair explained, and the man did know his Sentinel pretty well because Jim suddenly stepped back and crossed his arms again.

The snitch's mouth moved at near Willow speeds, and Xander had to admit that the cop was effective. A little over-protective and more than a little cranky, but then he hadn't been Mr. Accepting when Buffy had first shown up in Sunnydale. Hell, he'd just really wanted to hide his head under his pillow and pretend to not know about the things that went bump in the night.

Problem was that Jesse had been the one he had always hid from bullies with, and since he had sorta staked his best friend, it was hard to do the denial thing. Considering that Sentinels got over-protective of guides, and Xander had just introduced Jim to a whole new world of bad guys who might not just kidnap but could also eat, eviscerate, or sacrifice the guide. Yeah, he got the cranky part. Didn't mean he had to like being glared at, but he got it. And speaking of the cranky devil…. Xander watched as Jim stomped back to the truck.

"Hey, looked like he talked," Blair said enthusiastically.

"Unfortunately, most of it was babble," Jim growled, and Xander could have sworn the man looked his way. Xander quickly looked out the side window and scooted closer to the door.

"So, where to next?"

"Harry said this guy has been picking up girls in the low-rent strip joints. You up for some nosing around, Chief."

"Hell yeah am I."

"You don't have to sound quite so enthusiastic."

"Hey, just because I am happily monogamous with my occasionally cranky roommate does not mean that I can't occasionally look elsewhere. Fantasy is a healthy component of any sexu…"

"Hold it right there, Chief. We have an audience, remember?" Jim asked in a voice that sounded more amused than offended. Xander just focused on the interesting, interesting grey buildings out his window. Yep. There was another one. How interesting—one grey, square warehouse after another. How very, very interesting.

"I'm talking about accepted psychological concepts, I'm not outing you to your golf buddies."

"I don't play golf, and if I did, I wouldn't care if they knew about you, Chief. I just don't think sex is really polite conversation."

"Hey, I'm supposed to be teaching him everything I know," Blair teased, and Xander could feel his heart sputter into second gear at that comment. Oh yeah, just focus on the warehouses and not the hot body next to him. Hot temperature-wise, not hot as in sexy-hot, and here we are focusing on the warehouses, Xander mentally babbled, but babble was good if it could just distract him from thinking about what Jim would kill him for thinking about.

"For right now, can we focus on finding this creep and teaching the kid the boring stuff you usually make me listen to? I know, give him your theory on cultural depression."

"Culturally-motivated repression of the senses. You have a college degree, so I don't know why you pretend to be so obtuse."

"I'm not pretending, Sandburg. I just tune you out after a while. Anyway, give him that lecture and maybe his heart will stop speeding," Jim said.

Xander could feel his heart give another jump as adrenaline flooded his system. Oh shit. Busted. Maybe Jim just thought it was him being weirded out by the whole discussion. Xander focused out the window and tried to ignore the friendly fight that continued next to him. Now that he had known these two for a full day, he could tell that these little mini battles of words were just friendly teasing, but the sex talk was hitting a little close to home.

Xander wondered what Spike was up to. He kept trying to just let his stupid case of lusting go, but every time he thought he had gotten the bleached one out of his brain, the asshole would make some gesture like volunteering to drive him to the airport. Hell, the vamp had even managed a nearly non-insulting type farewell with a final order to avoid any demons large enough to eat him. But maybe Xander was lucky that the whole never been gay before thing kept his mouth sealed shut on the crushing front. If he ever 'fessed up to liking Spike the vamp would make his life a living hell.

"Xander," Jim's voice called, and Xander shook his head as he turned to face the two men in the cab. Jim was leaning forward, his head cocked slightly to the side as he looked over with a concerned expression, and Blair's hand rested on Xander's knee.

"Man, are you alright?" Blair asked. Xander gave a crooked smile before opening his mouth to reassure them that him mentally wandering… not of the new. Instead he opened his mouth and made a different sort of announcement.

"There's something with a big ol' Hellmouthy vibe here, guys," Xander said as he felt the tiny spider feet of creepiness crawl up his backbone. He hadn't even realized there was a Hellmouth vibe until he got off the Hellmouth since Hellmouthy vibes were the norm there. Now he suspected that something was definitely not right. Hellmouthy not right.




"Okay. Can you describe what exactly a Hellmouth vibe feels like?" Blair asked. Xander looked at the man incredulously.

"I'm telling you that something out there is putting off danger or evil vibes, and you want to know what evil vibes feel like? Shouldn't you be more worried about out there than in here since something out there has the vibage going on?"

"Welcome to my world," Jim said dryly, cutting Blair off as the man opened his mouth. "Tests later, right now I want to know what's got the kid twitchy," Jim interrupted. Somehow he had expected Jim to do the disbelieving thing, but instead Xander could see the tension in the man's body as he stood next to the open door of the truck scanning the area. Xander slid out on his side and slammed the door before walking around the truck.

The air was thick with a fine mist that refused to turn into an actual rain, and Xander could practically feel the cold soaking into him. Oh yeah, something really, really Hellmouthy around here.

"So, which way?" Jim asked, his head turning as he scanned the various strip clubs and bars and cheap hotels in the areas.

"Me?! You're the Sentinel."

"You're the one with the Hellmouth vibe," Jim countered.

"And I told you I'm vibing, so it's all yours from here," Xander protested. Jim and Blair exchanged a glance that Xander couldn't even begin to interpret and then Blair took a step forward.

"Okay, let's take this one step at a time. When did you start feeling the vibe?" Blair asked.

"Um, I don't know," Xander said helplessly. "When we pulled in?" He certainly wasn't going to admit that his own lusty thoughts had distracted him.

"Okay, let's walk around a bit and see if we can get more specific," Blair suggested as he slipped a hand under Xander's arm and guided him away from the truck and toward the gas station on the corner.

"Can't superman over there... I don't know... sniff the air or something?" Xander complained.

"What exactly am I supposed to be sniffing for?" Jim asked wryly as he trailed behind. Xander turned his neck to look at the Sentinel.

"You're not supposed to be big on the believing me, anyway. Why are you believing me?"

"Man, argue later, focus on the Hellmouth vibes now," Blair demanded, and Xander stumbled a bit as Blair picked up the pace. "So, are they stronger or weaker or about the same?"

"I don't... weaker I guess," Xander admitted as he realized the invisible spiders were starting to just crawl down his spine instead of running.

"Awesome, man. Let's try across the street." Xander really didn't have a choice as he found himself just sort of pushed along by Blair. They crossed the street a second time before the spiders started tap-dancing their way up and down his back.

"Um, feeling something creepy here," Xander admitted as he came to a stop in front of a sign advertising topless dancing, complete with a caricature of a woman with impossibly large breasts.

"Okay, Chief, you stay here," Jim said as he stepped forward.

"No way," Blair countered.

"Chief, I don't want a civilian in here, and I don't want to leave him out here alone," Jim insisted, and even Xander saw the logic in that. He wasn't exactly Helpful Guy in a fight, and even Blair looked half-convinced by the argument.

"How about I just go back to the truck and wait?" Xander offered.

Jim's snort of laughter was unexpected. "And here I thought you were so much like Blair. Obviously not. Just stay in the truck, and we'll be back as soon as we can," Jim ordered, putting a hand on Blair's shoulder as he stepped between his partner and the door.

"If he came, he might be able to narrow down the suspects," Blair argued.

"Not a chance. This suspect is dangerous, and I have enough trouble keeping track of one of you, Chief," Jim said absentmindedly as he focused on the building. Xander backed away a bit, and he tried to tell himself that it was stupid to be so insanely jealous of people he didn't even know. It wasn't even the sex part... with Willow busy running the magical side of the Council and Buffy running around with the Immortal, no one ever touched Xander like that... like he mattered. Spike smacking him on the arm was as close as he came to good touching, and that wasn't exactly good touching since the soul didn't stop him from leaving bruises.

"I'll just go wait in the truck," he turned around and made a near dash for the truck before he lost all his manly points with a good old fashioned bout of pathetic self-pity.

Xander sat and tried not to look like some pervert sitting in the truck between a strip club and a cheap bar. From the way people looked at him as they passed by on the sidewalk, he wasn't doing a very good job. When he first heard the sirens, he was half-afraid that someone had called the cops on him.

Then people started running out of the strip club across the street; two young men dashing for the beat up yellow Dodge parked in front of the bar. A fat older man hurried to the adult bookstore next door. A whole group of seven or eight men made a beeline for another strip place, hurrying as the sound of sirens grew closer.

Xander shifted in his seat, suddenly aware of being vulnerable sitting here, and he reached over and pressed down the door lock. Yeah, because a lock would certainly stop a bullet, he thought to himself sarcastically.

A Cascade police cruiser came around the corner, followed by a second unmarked car with lights flashing through the front grille of the car.

The door to the bar slammed open and Blair came out, yelling something to the two uniformed officers who went running inside while a huge black man got out of the second car and went up to Blair.

Soon enough Jim came out, followed by a burly balding man in handcuffs who was flanked on either side by a uniformed cop. Xander could tell from the smiles that everyone was happy—or at least everyone but the handcuffed guy—and Blair was moments away from doing a Snoopy dance of victory. However, Jim's summoning gesture caught Xander off guard. Yeah, and turning around to see if Jim was gesturing to someone behind him, that was just of the stupid. And embarrassing.

Xander unlocked the door and slid out before heading across the street that newly arrived cop cars had blocked off.

"No one beyond this point," a uniformed officer stopped him.

"He's with us," Blair said as he came bounding over. "Simon, this is Xander," Blair said as the large man followed.

"Another ride along?" the man demanded as he turned to Jim.

"Not my fault I keep collecting geeks," Jim said with a shrug.

"Hey!" Blair complained. "Man, that is uncool."

"Jim, our paperwork on Blair wouldn't stand up to someone taking a good look at it. What's the story on the new one?" Simon stuck an unlit cigar in his mouth as he glanced in Xander’s direction, frowning.

"He's temporary, but he helped track Kent."

"Oh?" Simon turned at looked at him again with new interest, and Xander struggled not to squirm under a gaze that reminded him of Snyder. "How did he do that?" Simon asked.

"Trust me, sir. You do not want to know. Just mark it up as a Sentinel thing," Jim said as he started toward the truck. "Come on you two, time for the fun part of the day's adventure—paperwork."


Xander spend the afternoon flipping through antique magazines while detectives stared at him while trying to look like they weren't staring. Blair, however, seemed so totally out of place and so totally comfortable at the same time. He'd typed reports until Jim had complained about him using the word 'nefarious' in the report. Then Blair bounced from one place to another, perching on random desks in the room as he chatted with different detectives.

Xander had just tried to stay quiet, something he was doing better at lately. Anymore, he felt like he wavered between running out of words and having fountains of them fall out of his mouth without editing. It was like being 15 with the totally lack control over his own mouth, only then he'd feel about 115 and couldn't seem to care about anything enough to be bothered with talking.

Eventually, Jim had pulled papers off the printer, delivered them to Simon, and had then herded him and Blair back to the truck. Xander silently listened as Jim and Blair talked about cases all the way out to the truck.

"So, one rapist down, two murders, one aggravated assault, and one case of graft still on the table," Blair said cheerfully as Jim pulled onto the street in front of the station. To Xander, it didn't sound like anything to be cheerful about, but even Jim smiled.

"Oh man, that was really something. I can't believe we nailed the rapist on the first day out," Blair practically bubbled as the truck bounced over some road construction.

"Teamwork, Chief," Jim answered with a smile, and Xander felt the warmth of that word.

"Yeah, let's talk about that," Blair interrupted Xander's moment of basking.

"Talk about what?" Jim asked cautiously.

"Talk about how you went from chaining him to a post because you refused to believe his story to believing in Hellmouth vibes enough to follow his lead." When Blair laid it all out like that, it did sound a little strange, even to Xander who made strange a way of life, but Jim only shrugged as he turned with traffic.

"Have my reasons."

"Which you are going to share, correct?" Jim sat silent as the streets flashed by.

"I'm not dropping this."

"God, you're a nag, Sandburg."

"Which suggests that you have issues since you're the one who fell in love with the nag, but I’m not dropping this. So, talk now or talk later, Ellison," Blair teased. Funny, the only people he knew that argued this much were him and Spike. Willow would have pulled out the pouty lip to get these two to stop it; however, these two seemed to enjoy it.

"A man's entitled to change his opinion," Jim pointed out as he pulled into the parking lot in front of the loft.

"Yeah, yeah. Spill. Something changed your mind." Blair asked as he slid over the bench seat and scrambled out the truck after Jim. Xander got out of the truck on his side feeling suddenly left out at the two men started arguing again. Blair followed Jim into the building, and Xander tagged along after. Personally he didn't care why Jim changed his mind as long as he didn't get chained to another post.

"Don't have much *to* spill yet," Jim answered and then the words ended as the three men went up the stairs, but Blair picked up the minute they reached the loft.

"Maybe you don't have much, but you have something, man. I am *not* letting this go, so spill."

Jim sighed heavily as he stood next to the front door to the loft waiting for Xander to come in. "I might have had a dream," he finally admitted.

"Whoa, one of *those* dreams? Oh man, this is heavy. Was Xander in it?" Blair had been heading for the refrigerator, but now he stopped and turned back around.

"You're dreaming about me?" Xander asked, confused. Not that confused was new, but Blair had said the dreams were some sort of Sentinel warning system, and Xander wasn't sure he wanted to be in the middle of a warning.

"Not exactly," Jim said as he came in and dropped onto the couch. "You two aren't going to let this drop, are you?" Xander opened his mouth to point out that he was in no way, shape, or form nagging the cranky Sentinel, but Blair cut him off.

"Not a chance, man. Not a chance," Blair agreed as he came over and sat on the arm of the couch nearest Jim. For his part Xander kept his mouth closed and retreated to the chair despite a growing nervousness that made him want to fill the silence with noise, any noise.

"I saw a cat... Xander's spirit animal."

"I have a spirit animal?" Xander asked, shocked. "And it's a cat? I always figured if I had one it'd be a hyena what with the possession, but then again Dru with her crazy talk did call me a kitten, which really is not high on the list of animal names a man wants to hear applied to himself," Xander said, shock blasting his resolve to not talk. You couldn't spend years half-listening to Willow without knowing that having a spirit animal was big. Really big.

"It's a cat," Jim confirmed, ignoring the rest. "You were tracking something, and I tried to keep up, but you kept disappearing into the underbrush."

"He got away from you?" Blair interjected. "The great Sentinel couldn't keep up?" Blair laughed as he used his leg to nudge Jim playfully.

"Keep it up, Sandburg. I'll give you beard burn in places you don't even want to think about," Jim threatened as he grabbed the attacking knee, sliding his hand to the inside as he captured it. Xander found something else to look at before he embarrassed himself again. Stupid Sentinel senses.

"Okay, so do you see a lot spirit guides?" Xander asked as he tried to remember what Blair had said about the dreams. He really wasn't good with learning out of a book, and Blair's book was nearly as confusing as Giles' books.

"Nope, my own, Blair's, Incacha's, yours, and a rogue Sentinel."

"Wait, you think Xander's a guide," Blair said as he practically bounced on the arm of the couch. "Oh man, that is so cool. So when he said he felt Hellmouth vibes..."

"Slow down, Darwin."

"Hold on, I'm not a guide. I'm the normal one of the group who gets kidnapped and hit over the head and knocked into tombstones and has to be rescued. I'm the one the First ignores, the average-Joe middle-child Jan Brady of our little Hellmouthy Brady Bunch," Xander added. Guiding meant having to watch out for a Sentinel and keep him safe and he was not signing up for Blair's job. Besides, Blair already had Blair's job.

"You have a spirit guide. That doesn't make you a guide, but it does mean you have a connection to the spirit world. It means you might be a Shaman," Jim corrected him. Xander heard the words, but he couldn't quite get the brain to engage. Blair didn't seem to have any trouble with the brain-engage problem because he was already off and running.

"Oh man. But if he found a Sentinel..."

"Darwin, not everyone wants to be around some Sentinel who between the guilt and the sensory spikes is grouchy about as often as not. *I* wouldn't put up with me." Jim's hand was still wrapped around Blair's leg, and Blair reached down to touch Jim's cheek.

"Wouldn't trade my grouchy Sentinel for anything," he said in a tone of voice that made Xander ache with longing.

"Wait. Confused here. So, am I a guide or not?" Xander interrupted the moment. His pity button and his lust button were way to close to the surface here to take any Jim/Blair mush.

"The word 'guide,' it's something Blair and I use, but really a Sentinel works with a Shaman. So, a guide is a Shaman who has chosen to help a Sentinel."

"Giles had this Shaman in to work with Willow when they were trying to convince the spirit of this postal worker to stop with the decapitating of dogs in this neighborhood, and I'm seriously hoping you don't think I'm going to paint my face red and stick bird feathers in my hair. With the patch, I don't think I can pull that off. Now if I had the whole bird sitting on my shoulder, that might be a possible look for me.”

Blair laughed. "Hey, I'm the Shaman of the Great City, and basically I just help Jim with interpreting the dreams, when the big idiot isn't forgetting to tell me he had them. So, start from the beginning." Xander smiled at the image of the man ordering his partner around, especially since Jim looked strong enough- and what with his covert ops background definitely had the knowledge- to break Blair in half. Instead Jim just gave Blair an indulgent look.

"I'm in the jungle and I see the jaguar and the wolf lying next to the temple. I don't see anything else until the jaguar sits up, and looks over my shoulder. When I turn, I catch a hint of something yellow dashing through the trees. I don't know how I know, but I know it's tracking something through the jungle, and I start running after it. Next thing you know, I am the jaguar and I'm racing through the jungle at top speed, my claws ripping through the forest floor. But no matter how fast I run, this flash of yellow dodges away after whatever it's chasing."

"Running, I can do running. Lots and lots of practice with running," Xander confirmed.

"But he was tracking something, so when he said he had a Hellmouth vibe--" Blair's voice broke off and when he started talking again, the hesitation had turned to awe. "You think it's part of some Shaman powers. Cool. Oh man, I would love to have powers."

"You mean you don't?" Xander couldn't help feeling a little guilty at that revelation. He was supposed to be the normal one, not the one with some sort of special powers that made people who were normal feel like they were somehow smaller.

"No problemo. But you know what this means? Oh man, if you can find a Sentinel, you could be a guide. You could keep them from losing themselves in the sensory spikes because trust me when I say I will *not* be getting near another Sentinel. And you could help them track down threats. So now it's more important than ever that you train. We should do some tests to determine how you lock on to whatever you're tracking. You didn't even know the suspect, so I wonder what set off your 'vibes'?" Blair mused in a string of words that would have made Willow proud.

"Watch it, kid. When Sandburg gets going like that, it means he's thinking up new ways to torture you with testing," Jim said as he looked fondly up at his partner two seconds before getting swatted on the arm.

"This is important. Oh man, how could he have picked up on our rapist?"

"Well, considering the suspect is a garden variety human, it wasn't anything related to a Hellmouth, no matter what he calls it."

"I think you guys are making way too big of a deal out of this," Xander protested. Suddenly being the normal one sounded good because being of the un-normal variety meant people relying on him, and relying on him to remember the doctor's appointments was very much okay, but relying on him to track down evil was way outside his comfort zone.

"No way man. Xander, I know you guys have faced major bad guys. Now imagine if you had some way of latching onto the evil, tracking it down before it could hurt someone. You could help save people." Blair kept talking, but Xander had long practice at tuning out babble. He also had a series of images suddenly running through his head. He'd been drawn to Faith the minute she came to town. He managed to hit on the only vampire in a hardware store full of humans... a vampire who had then tried to sacrifice him to the Hellmouth. He remembered a feeling of serious Hellmouth vibeage right before following those bullies into the hyena house where an evil zookeeper shoved a primal spirit in him.

Xander had heard of people's lives flashing before their eyes when they died, and when Caleb had stuck a thumb in his eye and come within an inch of killing Xander, he had relived every mistake and regret he had in life. Now his life flashed before him in another series of moments. And suddenly he questioned the whole demon-magnet reputation.

"Xander!?!" a voice broke into his thoughts.

"Uh, what?" Xander asked as he blinked and found Blair in front of him.

"Oh man, you scared the shit out of me. Are you okay? You're, like, white as a ghost here."

"Yeah, just… thinking," Xander answered, his hands trembling a little as his entire world suddenly shifted two inches to the left. And things really looked different from two inches to the left. Really different.

"Might help to talk about it," Blair said encouragingly.

"Give him some space, Sandburg," Jim's voice interrupted. "In fact, why don't we go out for dinner? Xander, you want to come with us or stay here and eat leftover pizza?" Jim asked. Xander looked over and realized that Jim was being protective of him. He smiled at the Sentinel.

"I hate to let good pizza go to waste," he said weakly, still struggling with the idea that he'd spent half his life cursing his bad luck, only to find out his bad luck WAS his superpower. And as far as superpowers went, this one kinda sucked.

"But…" Blair started, and Jim stood up, and put his hands around Blair's shoulders as he pulled the man backwards.

"No 'buts' Darwin. Xander can watch the fort while you accompany me to a nice little place I call Wonderburger."

"Oh man, not that crap. That stuff will clog your arteries."

"But I'll die a happy man. Get your coat."

"Jim," Blair started, and Xander had to smile at the pathetic tone of voice.

"Not gonna work, Chief. I've been trained to withstand torture," Jim said as he manhandled his partner out of the room, leaving Xander alone with his thoughts.


For several minutes Xander continued to sit and stare at the wall. Then he picked up the phone and started punching the numbers he had memorized while in Africa. The phone rang several times before someone picked up.

"What the bloody hell do you want?"



"I was just… Is Willow there?" Xander asked.

"Some big nasty after you?"

"No, Spike, despite the rumor, I am not actually a demon magnet."

"Tell that to someone who hasn't lived with ya, mate," Spike snorted his disbelief. "But if ya don't have some butt-ugly nasty tryin' ta eat you, why are ya callin' at near three in the morning?"

"It's three?" Xander counted in his head. Usually he was only two or three hours off from them, but usually he was in Africa and not on the other side of the globe.

"Bloody hell. You really are a moron."

"Says the man who fell for the fake seer bit."

"Oi, that didn't have nothin' to do with you lot."

"Yeah, but it's still true. Listen, I don't suppose Willow is doing her sit up and read all night thing, is she?" Xander asked. He really wanted to talk to someone and fighting with Spike didn't actually qualify as talking.

"Hold on a bit, yeah?" Spike asked.

"I'll wait."

Xander pulled his feet up under him in the chair as he waited in the fading light inside the loft.

"She's sound asleep over her books, and I'm not wakin' her up for you," Spike said when he finally came back to the phone.

"I don't suppose the G-man is around, is he?" Xander asked. Giles really was his last chance to get any info on Shamans.

"Git went over to Paris ta talk to the froggies 'bout some demon treaty."

"That's sucky," Xander complained. "Not to mention completely offensive," he added when he finally registered Spike's French-bashing.

"Oi, didn't know you were the thought police."

"Yeah, well someone needs to police your thoughts because you obviously don't. Offensive much?"

"You're the one callin' *me*. So if ya don't want to hear my opinions, ya can just bloody hang up."

"What do you know about Shamans?" Xander blurted before his brain could tell his mouth to just say 'goodbye' and hang up.

"Ya mean like the voodoo Shamans?" Spike asked cautiously. "Told ya not ta mess with anything big enough ta kill ya, didn't I?"

"I'm not 'messing' with a Shaman, and what you told me was to stay away from demons large enough to eat me."

"Close enough. So what the hell are ya into over there?"

"It's just that Blair, the guy who works with the Sentinel, is a Shaman and I was just wondering what it really meant to be a Shaman since Blair seems to be of the normal." Xander shifted uncomfortably, and really he didn't know why since he wasn't technically lying. And even if he was lying, it was Spike which meant it didn't morally count as lying.

"Shaman are a strange lot. Most do seem normal when they aren't puttin' on a bone and bell show for the tourists. But their powers... well, ya just don't mess with 'em since ya can't tell their powers until ya piss 'em off." Spike's voice carried a clear warning.

"So, do they all have powers?" Xander asked, as nonchalantly as he could fake.

"It's what makes them Shamans. Some just have more than others. So, if this git seems normal, what makes you think he's a Shaman?"

"Jim, the Sentinel, says he can see the spirit animals of Shaman and Sentinels. Hey, why animals?"

"How the bloody hell should I know?"

"But is it true? Do Shaman all have a spirit animal?"

"Seems like. Played poker with one who claimed his power totem was lightning, but who the hell knows. Could be his spirit animal was a dormouse and he just didn't want to admit it."

"Wait. You played *poker* with a Shaman?"

"Did until I figured out his power let him tell who was bluffing. Soddin' cheat."

"But a Shaman playing poker?" Xander demanded. He had an image of a man with lines of red painted across his cheeks holding cards with one hand and a staff with eagle feathers in the other hand.

"You said yourself that this Shaman you met seems normal. Shaman aren't saints, and they're just as likely to have human faults as anyone else."

Xander thought about that. So being a Shaman didn't have to change who he was, but just knowing that he had this power somewhere in there made him feel... well, it make life make this weird sort of sense at the same time that it completely creeped him out.

"Xander, if you're uncomfortable 'round there at all, ya need ta get out of there. Don't care how normal this guy seems, if he's a Shaman, he's got some ace in the hole. Ya can't let down your guard."

"Gee, you sound almost concerned, Bloodbreath," Xander sniped about two seconds before his brain could point out that it was kinda nice talking to Spike without fighting.

"Not bloody likely," Spike snapped back. "But if you get your pathetic arse killed, the girls are goin' to be in a foul mood for months. Not goin' to put up with the Bit mopin' around like Peaches for the next six months because you're too stupid to keep your own arse out of trouble."

"Well if I did get killed, I'd be dead a lot longer than six months, so not feeling sorry for you here. And actually, not planning on dying, at least not soon, so why are we having this conversation?" Xander asked as he lost track of what they were even arguing about.

"I've had better arguments with a turnip," Spike groused, and then the phone line went dead. Xander held the phone for several minutes before setting it back down and going for the pizza. If life had taught him nothing else, it had taught him that nothing was so bad or so confusing that cold pizza couldn't fix it.


Two weeks into guide training, Xander was nearly as cranky as Jim. Of course the fact that Blair kept trying to sneak in tests of Xander's new-found tracking powers didn't exactly help matters. Unfortunately, Blair had a resolve face and pouty-eyes that made Willow seem like a rank amateur. At night, lying on the futon in the office, Xander would swear that he wasn't going to do one more of Blair's tests. The next morning, he would shave and shower while giving himself a pep talk about not doing any more tests. He would sit at breakfast while Blair drank green sludge and order himself to not go along with any more tests.

Then they would be on the street, and Blair would start bouncing with some new theory, and Xander would find himself trying to track someone from a clinical forensic description of some horrible and brutal murder. Like now.

"Okay, just clear your mind and try to focus. The star he carves into their backs... that should be unique enough, so just clear your mind and focus on the feeling the killer must get when he's carving her flesh."

"Have I told you lately how much I hate this?" Xander asked as he really tried to clear his mind. He hadn't always been on good terms with his brain, though, and it showed now as the attempt to clear it meant that a thousand images flooded it, from the fact that he needed to get to the Laundromat soon to the memory of Spike's fists flying under the full moon.

"Jim, you gotta help me out here. He's testing me to death," Xander looked past Blair to the smirking man behind the wheel. "There's got to be some law about homicide by testing, right?"

"Not a chance, kid. I try to save you, and he's going to have me trying to identify perfumes from across a mall. You're on your own."

"Oh man. That would be... I wonder if you could actually do that. We already know you can piggyback your hearing on to sight, so I don't see why you couldn't do the same for smell. Why didn't I think of that?"

This time Xander smirked as Jim's shoulders hunched.

"No way, Darwin."

"Come on, Jim."

"Shouldn't you be focusing on the test you already have running?" Jim asked, and Xander shot the ex-soldier a dirty look.

"Traitor," Xander hissed.

"All's fair in love and testing, Sport. Suck it up." Jim answered as he turned the corner and brought the truck to a stop.

"I've got an interview to do. You and Sandburg can keep working on the vibe from here, right?"

"Yeah, no problem," Blair answered at the same time Xander gave a firm, "No!" Jim gave Xander an evil smile before slamming the driver side door shut with him safely on the other side.

"Coward," Xander said to the closed door, not even doubting that Jim would hear it.

"Come on, Xander. Just close your eyes and clear your mind of everything except the case."

"You do know that the minute you say that, the brain instantly goes into hyper-drive, right?"

"Just take deep cleansing breaths."

"Not my breathing I'm having a problem with. Been breathing my whole life without problems, but clearing out the brain? Okay, true, the brain is usually kinda clear of actual useful information, but getting all the useless stuff to clear out is not as easy as breathing." Xander sighed and looked out the window. He wanted to find this killer, he really did, but he just couldn't seem to focus today.

"Okay, let's try something different," Blair said in a voice that was just as enthusiastic when Xander had really been expecting a whole lot more exasperation and a whole lot less patience. "A lot of times when people have trouble clearing their minds it's because their subconscious is trying to send them some sort of message. So, what keeps coming into your mind."

"I have to get my laundry done soon," Xander said as he looked back to Blair with an expression that challenged the man to find a hidden meaning in that.

"Oh man, do you normally spend a lot of time worried about your laundry?"

"Not generally. Usually a sniff test with the underwear and I'm good to go," Xander admitted.

"Okay, that might have been a little too much information, man," Blair laughed. "But I'm betting that you're worried about the fact that a Sentinel can do a sniff test from the next floor down."

The minute Blair said those words, Xander realized the man was right. He didn't really care if his clothes weren't springtime fresh, but the idea of Jim smelling him… kinda ew, both from the smeller and the smellee sides.

"Maybe," he admitted.

"Which is one item taken care of because Jim dials down at home. He isn't smelling your laundry any more than I am, and I'll show you the laundry room in the basement when we get home. So, what else is running through that overactive brain of yours?"

Xander snorted, and then shrugged when Blair gave him a confused look. "People don't normally describe my brain as overactive," he admitted. "Why don't you try reading that file again," Xander asked as he braced his stomach for another round of gore that rivaled the inside out swim team members."

"Oh man, that was the saddest piece of distraction I've ever seen someone try. If you can't clear your mind, that means that you need to deal with whatever is interfering with your ability to concentrate. Keeping it in just corrupts your chi, man. Blocked energies create havoc in the body."

"Some things should stay blocked," Xander said dryly as he imagined what Willow would say about the other thing getting unblocked.

"Man, you are sounding more like Jim every day. He is *not* a good influence on you," Blair said with an elbow in Xander's side. Xander grabbed at the arm and they had a friendly game of tug of war before Xander lost due to a quick finger jab in the side. As soon as Blair retrieved his own arm, he sat back and looked at Xander, clearly waiting for an answer. Xander tried avoiding that look, but as the silence continued, he squirmed with the need to fill that empty space with sound.

"There are just things I don't want to talk about," Xander finally insisted, unable to keep silent any more.

"Like Spike?" Blair asked softly, and Xander sucked his breath in through clenched teeth.

"Wha…? Just don't go there," Xander finally managed to spit out.

"For someone you don't want to talk about, you talk about him a lot," Blair said as he leaned forward and dropped the clipboard with the case information on the dash.

"This is me doing the not-talking thing."

"Xander, you obviously admire him, and from what you've said, he's gone out of his way to protect you more than once."

"Only because he has to. Trust me, there's not a lot of love lost between us." Xander blurted right before remembering he was doing the not talking thing.

"But you wish there were?" Blair prodded. Xander turned and looked back out the window as he tried to rein in his emotions.

"Spike is more about the big romances and self-sacrifice and that is more than a little weird because he was like that even before the soul. And I'm just not the big romance type. I'm sort of the use 'em and leave 'em type. Or the hide 'em in the closet type. Or maybe the leave a girl at the altar type. At most, I would be a drunken roll in the hay type."

"And you'd still rather have that than nothing." Blair said the words softly but in a tone that made Xander realize that he had told Blair more about himself than he had meant to. Blair seemed to get it better than Willow anyway.

"I… I just don't know, okay?" Xander said in a voice that he could feel tremble and crack with uncertainty. "But what I want doesn't really matter since the only thing he feels for me is contempt."

"I don't know what to say about that, Xander, but your powers… they're incredible. Simon said that we should offer you a job and he'd find a way to get the paperwork through. He was floored with how you tracked Kent and then Luther, and Simon does not impress easily."

"Maybe," Xander said, suspecting that even Giles would be impressed with his growing ability to control the evil vibe that had always hovered just below the surface. Not that he'd been telling anyone. In fact, he'd been big with the not telling much in his reports.

"So I don't think he'd feel contempt if you showed your strength. And he does seem to worry. Gotta say ordering you to not get eaten is a strange way of showing concern, but a rose by any other name, man." Blair reached out and put a warm hand on Xander's arm, and that alone was enough to make Xander take a deep shuddering breath as he tried not to lose it at such a small gesture.

"You obviously don't know Spike or you'd be pulling a Willow on me and trying to keep us on opposite sides of the globe," Xander said as he pulled back, the touch painful because of all the things it reminded him of not having.

"But that doesn't seem to be keeping him off your mind. And I may not know Spike, but I know how you see Spike. I know about a vampire who fought to get his own soul because he didn't want to hurt the people he loved any more. And I know that you let him live with you twice, and with your ability to sense evil, I'm taking that as a character reference." Blair didn't reach out again, but the words struck Xander deeply.

"But… I didn't really *let* him live with me," Xander argued.

"But you flew to LA to try and find him after the world nearly ended, and you feel safer with him than with Angel who everyone seems to see as the champion."

"Okay, Angel… just no. Every time I'm around him, I get the vibe big time. It's like he's carrying around this big well of evil and I keep expecting him to slip and drop all our asses into it."

"And you don't get that from Spike?"

"Hell no. He's just more the annoy-you-to-death type. Unless you really piss him off and then he's the snap your neck type. But he's not the torture and maim and throw the world into hell type."

Blair shook his head. "Oh man, there could be a whole new field of psychology here."

"Yeah, if your test subjects didn't eat you," Xander pointed out.

"True. So, if you trust Spike and you're interested in Spike and you are starting to have more confidence in yourself, it sounds like you need to make a decision."

"I'm not big on the good decision-making. I tend to go more for the cowardly avoidance and occasional denial," Xander said with a shrug.

"Well, you have lots of options here. You could be lusting after Spike as a way to avoid forming any other relationship. It's equally possible that after Anya's death you're attracted to someone who can't die. On the other hand, you could be feeling compatibility there. Sounds like it's time for some serious meditation."

"It's like having a Hellmouth psychiatrist. I wonder if there's money in that field? Considering there's still one active Hellmouth in Cleveland with smaller ones in England and Uruguay, you could have a nice little client base," Xander joked.

"Xander, what's bothering you?"


"Says the man who's joking and fidgeting and sweating despite the fact that it's cold in here," Blair pointed out.

"Pushy," Xander complained.

"Oh man, you have no idea. Your powers are sidetracked by whatever is bothering you, and you've got to work through it. I know- close your eyes and we can do some light hypnosis. You know, pull it up into the light so to speak." Blair's words made Xander choke as he considered *this* issue coming into the light, and just no.

"I already know what's bothering me, and as Jim would say, it's not polite conversation."

"What the hell does Jim know? We aren't polite people, so polite conversation is so totally not required," Blair said lightly.

"Blair." Xander’s voice was heavy.

"I'm going to keep being this annoying until you cough it up."


"Possibly even more annoying. I'll wake you up in the middle of the night and ask you to describe your dreams. I'll play my aboriginal music until your head throbs. I'll nag you until you consider taking a dive off the balcony." Blair’s voice was teasing, but his gaze was steady.

"Is this how you get your way with Jim?" Xander asked as he faced Blair's determined expression.

"Totally, man… totally."

"Look, it's really something personal."

"It's really interfering with your tracking, and man, you have to learn how to process these emotions."

"It scares me, okay?" Xander finally snapped, and then he pressed his lips together as he realized he had said too much.

"Spike scares you?"

"No," Xander said cautiously, praying for Blair to just drop it there.

"Oh," Blair said in a voice that made it clear he had figured it out. Xander blushed, he just knew he was vivid red. Not of the good. "Xander, that's normal. I was kinda freaked myself, and I started with a partner who has an instinctive need to protect me. Spike's instincts may work against him in this department."

"He tried to rape Buffy. I don't… I know he's different now and even back then, he didn't want to hurt her, but he's a demon and his instincts sometimes don't match up with human needs. Or human biology," Xander nearly whispered. This fact had stopped him more effectively than Willow's quiet disapproval or Spike's contempt or his own sense of self-preservation, which wasn't actually very good.

"You think he'd hurt you," Blair nearly whispered.

"Not on purpose," Xander admitted, "but yeah."

"Oh, Xander," Blair said softly, and Xander flinched away from the pity and sympathy he could feel starting to gather.

"Okay, how did you two get on? Any vibes to chase down yet?" Jim asked brusquely as he pulled open the truck door. "I just completely blew out with Mr. Andrews, so any leads would be more than welcome."

"Um, no luck, sorry," Xander said as he ducked his head and felt the heat in his face intensify.

"Not a problem. We were solving crimes before you came along… it's just nice to solve a crime without giving myself a headache sniffing the carpet," Jim offered. "You can catch the next bad guy, Sport. Since you're not vibing, why don't we drop you off at the loft so you can write up some of those reports you need to send back to your group?"

"Um, sure," Xander said as Jim started the truck. The offer was just so reasonable, so logical that he couldn't quite figure out why he was suddenly suspicious.


"Hey, who's up for Chinese?" Blair called as he came in the front door looking like the cat that ate the canary.

*Gotta go, B 'n J back from the wars* Xander typed into chat window.

*Stay safe* Willow typed back, and Xander could practically hear her worry. He really shouldn't have mentioned the shoot out last Friday, especially since he'd stayed in the truck like a good little sidekick the whole time.

*Promise* he typed back before clicking off the window. Willow's goodbyes could last longer than her conversations if he didn't take drastic action, like cutting the power.

"Sure, Chinese sounds good," Xander agreed as he looked at Blair suspiciously. The man was bouncing a little too much, even for Blair whose bounce levels were only slightly lower than Willow's.

"Good, because we already brought it," Blair said as he went for the kitchen. Jim followed with plastic sacks decorated with red Chinese characters.

"I hope you feel like eating a lot because Sandburg went a little overboard with the food," Jim said wryly as he put half a dozen sacks on the table.

"Food good. I've been known to eat my body weight in food," Xander agreed as he started pulling cardboard bins out of sacks. He stopped when he found the sesame beef. Oh yeah. Food of the gods. Well, not gods as he hell gods since they were not of the good and didn't deserve Chinese food. Xander knew he was doing the internal babble, but the alternative was watching Jim who had an arm wrapped around Blair's waist and was leaning against Blair's back.

Jim reached around Blair and snagged a fortune cookie, and now he wrapped his second arm around Blair so that he could break the cookie while holding Blair, and oh hey, there were peas in the sesame beef and that was sacrilege. Xander picked the green contamination out of his container, dropping them onto a napkin before retreating back to his chair in the living room.

Time for some TV. Nice distracting TV. Xander flipped to a football game and staring at the game as Jim and Blair settled in on one end of the couch arguing about something, and Xander was not paying attention. Nope. He was inattentive man. He was also hoping that Blair was telling the truth about Jim dialing down at home because he was also becoming sweaty, musky man as Jim groped his partner.

"You screwed up the order, Chief, you live without the sweet and sour chicken."

"Oh man, that is not fair. Just let me have some of yours." Blair reached over and tried to stick his chopsticks in Jim's container, but Jim used his longer reach to move the food out of Blair's reach.

"Give it up," Jim laughed, but Blair wasn't ready to admit defeat yet. Xander nearly choked as Blair half rolled onto Jim, reaching across to get the food. Jim laughed again and arched his back to get the food farther away as Blair proceeded to plaster himself to Jim's front, pulling himself up toward the food with one hand on Jim's shoulder.

"Not going to happen, Chief."

"So you say," Blair answered, and Xander really did start choking as Blair wiggled a bit causing Jim to groan. Blair used the moment of distraction to dart out with his hand and grab the container.

"Cheat," Jim said as he gave Blair's ass a slap before his partner settled down on the couch next to him.

"Whatever. I still got the chicken, and unlike some selfish jerks, I'm willing to share," Blair pointed out as he held the container within reach of Jim's fork. Jim grabbed a forkful and held his free hand under the fork as he took a big bite. Xander took huge forkfuls of his own beef and shoved it in his mouth before he could say something completely and totally inappropriate. Something that would get him killed. Something that would get his pathetic arse, as Spike would call it, tossed out into the hall.

"Good stuff," Jim said when he finished chewing. His free warm went around Blair's waist, pulling him close, and Blair toed off his shoes before hooking his heels into the couch cushions sort of curling up into Jim's side, his arm with the food resting on Jim's stomach. Xander tore his eyes away from the sight of them curled together, their bodies fitting together perfectly.

"So, you get your reports sent off to home base, Sport?" Jim asked, and Xander kept his eyes on the television. Unfortunately, the image of full grown men tackling and grabbing and rolling around on the ground seemed suddenly very gay.... very, very gay. Gay enough that someone should be out on the field protesting the gayness.

"Um, yeah," he answered in a strangled voice.

"Good. We don't want them to think we've kidnapped you," Jim said calmly enough, but Xander could hear a shifting of bodies that suggested that he really, really didn't want to look at what they were doing even though he really, really did.

"Um, kidnapped. Right." Xander stared at the screen, but really, watching one guy slap another guy's ass wasn't helping. Xander shifted his cardboard container down to camouflage his growing problem. The only reaction from the couch was a deep moan that made Xander squirm in his chair.

"Um, I think I'm going to, um, go to... bed," Xander stumbled over both his tongue and his feet as he tried to get past the couch without looking at the couch because he couldn't deal with lookage right now. He totally didn't need to see them wrapped up in each other, and besides, it was their living room, so if they wanted to play tonsil hockey they should be able to, and Xander took the last few steps at a run. The thin French doors to the office were on the flimsy side, but at least Xander had the privacy to throw himself on the bed and open his jeans before closing a fist around his sore aching cock. Maybe they would take their show upstairs and he could sneak into the bathroom.

Xander panted heavily as his mind refused to let go of the image of the two men's bodies fitting perfectly together. Jim's arm resting on Blair's shoulders, Blair curled up into Jim's side. Even more, Xander couldn't escape the image of Jim's face looking down at Blair with such incredible love. And the way Blair's face softened when Jim suffered from a headache or sensory spike. And the way Jim's voice gentled when he said 'Chief.'

Xander was so focused on these memories that he didn't hear the knock until it came again. Taking a deep breath and holding it for a moment, Xander tried to calm down before he closed his jeans over his protesting cock. Okay, that hurt.

Standing was definitely not of the good as he tried to ignore the frustrated ache in his crotch. If he was going to be around these two much longer, he needed bigger jeans. Unless of course that was Jim at the door ready to throw him out for jonesing, which wouldn't be out of character. When it came to anything even remotely related to the guide, Jim had an overprotective streak about the size of New Jersey. Or New York, whichever was the big state.

As he opened the door, he expected pissed off Jim. He got Blair with an indecipherable expression.

"Xander, mind if I come in?" Blair asked even though it was his house.

"Yeah, I'm really sorry about the whole bailing thing, and you know, if I've outstayed my welcome I have no problem giving you guys some space because, you know, you look pretty space-needing out there what with the naughty touching," Xander said as he turned and went to the bed. Sitting turned out to be as awkward as standing.

"Did it bother you?" Blair asked as he closed the door gently behind him.

"Define bother," Xander blurted before he could get the brain in gear. Yeah, real subtle.

"'Bother' would be making you feel bad about yourself. That wasn't the point," Blair said.

"Point?" Xander asked suspiciously. "There was pointage here?"

"Possibly," Blair admitted as he sat on the desk chair near the foot of the bed. "I know you're scared, and I want to help you through this the way I helped you with the Shaman stuff." Blair's soft words made Xander do a literal double take as his brain tried to decode that message. Help couldn't possibly be....

"Um, okay, I'm slow on the uptake boy, and you need to use really small words because otherwise I'm going to get the mistaken impression that you're offering things that I don't think your offering and that Jim would turn me into a puddle of guts for thinking about, not that it keeps me from thinking about it," Xander blurted, biting his tongue as the last part sort of slipped out without permission. Bad, bad mouth.

"Jim's not going to turn you into a pile of guts," Blair said amused as he moved from the chair to sitting on the edge of the bed.

"So you say, but I'm not big on the believing that when he looks at you like..." Xander stopped because he really didn't want to describe the way Jim looked at Blair because it was the way Tara had looked at Willow and the way Spike had looked at Buffy, and maybe, back before he'd screwed everything up, it was the way Anya had looked at him every once in a while. But now, not so much of anyone looked at him like that.

"Xander, neither of us wants you hurt."

"Makes three of us. That's why I'd prefer to avoid Jim-sized fists."

"We *both* want to help you through something that really seems to scare you."

"Both?" Xander kind of choked out.

"He's upstairs, but if I know my Sentinel, he's listening."

"But." Xander stopped. "Yeah, I'm going to need shorter words. Much shorter," Xander finally admitted as he tried to interpret that statement.

"Xander, you're obviously scared of what it means for two men to be together," Blair said softly as he scooted a little closer on the bed. Xander focused on the blue striped fabric of the sheet. His only answer was a cough as his throat seemed to close around any possible words.

"Oh man. I don't want to freak you out, but I really do want to help you with this. You're a beautiful man, inside and out. That sounds pretty cliché, but I would really like to be with you."

"You should have Ellison check you out for concussions because now you're really not making sense," Xander laughed as he stood up and retreated to the wall. He kept his right shoulder to the wall as he tried to hide his own erection behind a slightly bent knee.

"Man, you have to see yourself in the mirror every day. You have to know that you're a handsome man." Blair stood up and stood next to Xander, his hand resting on Xander's shoulder so that Xander could feel the heat soaking into him.

"Oh yeah, I do pirate impression in the mirror as I shave," Xander joked, but it came off more bitter than distracting, and he really needed to work on his powers of distraction because Blair wasn't buying it.

"Such a strong face, and beautiful hair," Blair said as he reached up to run fingers through curls. Xander closed his eyes as the feeling of such an intimate touch.

"I think we should... you know... stop," he whispered.

"Why?" Blair asked while continuing his slow exploration of Xander's curls.

"Oh because the man you love is upstairs listening and I can I just say that's more than a little creepy."

"Would you rather go up there?" Blair asked.

"No!" Xander practically squeaked. Jim was... okay, Jim was impressive and only just slightly totally stunning, but the man was more than a little intimidating. "Not that... I mean... he's just..."

"Is almost as scary as Spike?" Blair asked, and Xander turned to see a small smile on Blair's face.

"Maybe," Xander admitted.

"Yeah, for a long time, that kept me from telling him the truth about how I felt. If I'd known he had a demon under the surface... I might have been so confused and afraid that I might have never told him. I might have packed my bags and run for the other side of the globe." Blair's words stung a little, but the fingers intimately stroking his hair soothed the sting away.

"I just..." Xander realized he had no idea how to end that sentence. He just wanted life to make sense. He just wanted to know how Spike felt. He just wanted to stop being afraid. And okay, if he was being honest here, he just wanted Blair to keep touching him like that. Maybe he even wanted to do a little touching back.

"You know the really sexy part? You're a powerful Shaman. I'm in awe of how you can track evil and protect the tribe. And yet, in the last two weeks you haven't let that power change you at all. You still speak in that same quiet voice. You still do all these small things and never expect people to notice or thank you. Trust me, I know that Jim didn't fix that stove hinge." Xander shivered as Blair ran the back of one finger over his cheek.

"Haven't really been called sexy before. I'm kinda feeling like I'm not holding up my end of the compliments here," Xander said with a small huff of laughter. When in doubt, insult self. It was a strategy that had worked for a couple decades.

"This is about you, Xander. Let me show you. Let me love you," Blair asked as he moved in, pressing himself to Xander's side, and now Xander could feel Blair's hardness.

"I don't know what, well, I technically know what, but I can't really..."

"Just say yes," Blair interrupted him, Blair's arm slipping around his waist as Blair laid his cheek against Xander's shoulder. "You are so damn beautiful that I just want to share this with you. Oh man, just say yes." Xander could feel himself start shaking at the possibility being offered here. Blair was a beautiful man, and looking at Blair's face, he could see that passionate expression focused on him. Those blue eyes had a depth that made him ache in both body and soul.

"Yes," he whispered.



Blair pulled him gently back toward the bed, and Xander didn't even realize that he was holding his breath until he started getting grey blobs in his vision, and how sad was it that he recognized the symptoms of asphyxia? He took a deep shuddering breath and sank to the edge of the bed. He hadn't felt this awkward since Anya had burst into his room asking for orgasms.

He didn't have time to worry about it though because Blair's hand slipped between his legs, massaging a thigh though his jeans. Xander groaned as he brought his own hand up to Blair's forearm. He pulled back almost immediately, feeling somehow guilty for that simple touch despite Blair's far more intimate caress.

"It's okay, Xander. I like the touch," Blair promised as he let go of Xander's leg long enough to unfasten his buttons and pull off his outer shirt. Wearing only a thin t-shirt, Blair leaned into Xander and suddenly stole a kiss. Xander gasped in surprise, and a strong tongue slipped into his mouth, tickling the sensitive skin behind his front teeth. Xander bucked up and instinctively brought his arm around Blair's waist.

When Blair shifted and pushed, Xander let himself be maneuvered down onto the futon with Blair on top. And then Blair let his weight settle in on Xander, and suddenly Xander's cock went from cramped to screaming as the jeans seemed to tighten around them. His moan was actually one of pain as much as pleasure as Blair continued teasing his mouth, nibbling at Xander's lower lip and running a knuckle along Xander's cheek. For his part, Xander just held the smaller man's waist.

Blair finally pulled back, trailing kisses along Xander's jaw.

"Ow," Xander complained as he squirmed a bit.

"Are you--" Blair started before he cut himself off. "Oh," he said as he slipped a hand down between them, popping open the button on Xander's jeans before sliding the zipper down with his thumb. "Better?" he asked with a smile as he setting his weight down on top of Xander again.

"Much with the betterness," Xander agreed as he felt the air drifting over his cock, the dampness making his cock twitch as the air cooled his hot skin. Xander slid a hand up and under Blair's t-shirt, feeling the heat of Blair's skin under his hand as he pushed the shirt up. "Much, much better with the betterness," he repeated as he considered the wrinkled and peaked brown nipple now revealed. Xander ran a thumb over it and felt Blair's groan vibrate his body. As a wave of pleasure rolled through him, he reached down to grab his own exposed cock.

"Let's slow down some," Blair said as he caught Xander's wrist, pulling their linked hands up next to Xander's head before leaning in for another kiss. Xander opened his mouth and thrust up against Blair's weight. When hands started pulling up on the bottom of his t-shirt, Xander arched his back to make it easier. Blair pulled the shirt totally off before shimmying out of his own t-shirt. Now, as he now lay back down, Xander felt the heat of skin against skin. He could feel his entire body tighten with need and lust and if her were being honest with himself, more than just a little fear.

"Slow. I can do slow... maybe," Xander said as he trailed a hand up Blair's backbone, enjoying the feeling of the muscles contracting under his touch. Blair shifted so that he was half on the bed while still leaning into Xander' side.

"God you're handsome," Blair sighed as he traced a finger along one side from Xander's collarbone down to the waistband of his jeans and then back up to a white line in the skin just below Xander's ribs.

"What's this from?" Blair asked as he outlined the scar.

"Um, vampire, I think," Xander answered. "Didn't know there was going to be a quiz." He leaned forward and kissed Blair's shoulder. Blair leaned farther in, and Xander moved up to the neck, first kissing and then nibbling on the skin. Blair seemed to enjoy that as he pressed his crotch into Xander's leg and moaned deeply. Xander moved up to an ear.

When Blair started pushing on Xander's jeans, he arched up off the bed so they would slip off more easily, toeing his shoes off without giving up the earlobe he was gently sucking. A sudden image of Jim outside the French doors listening made Xander hesitate, but then Blair wrapped a warm hand around his cock and Xander couldn't have cared if a legion of the First's minions waited outside the door.

"You like that?" Blair asked as he pushed himself up on one arm. He reached down into his own jeans and came back with a red foil square. Xander swallowed at the sight of the package. As much as he wanted this, and he really, really, really wanted this, he didn't know if he wanted this enough to actually go through with it. When Blair tore the package open and took out the condom, Xander bit his own lip to keep from blurting out a refusal that he really didn't mean.

Instead of putting the condom on himself, Blair reached down and slid the condom over the tip of Xander's engorged cock, rolling the rubber down over the sensitive skin. Xander watched in confusion until Blair leaned down and sucked the head of his cock into that warm mouth, and Xander almost hyperventilated on the pure pleasure that shot up his spine and turned his whole body into a giant nerve that quivered on the edge of orgasm.

Blair ran his tongue over the head, and Xander couldn't help bucking up into that mouth. Instead of choking, Blair fisted the base of Xander's cock and allowed Xander to drive the rest of his cock up into that waiting mouth. The sight of Blair's cheeks puffed out with his cock nearly drove Xander over the edge, but then Blair pulled back and settled himself on top of Xander's body once again.

"So, are you okay?" Blair asked.

"What is it with you and talking during sex?" Xander asked blurrily. He really couldn't focus on much except the feeling of his cock threatening to break off if it didn't get to come. Blair just laughed. When a touch of something cold ran over the skin behind his cock, Xander jumped, his foggy brain cleared by the sharp spike of need as his whole body tightened and his balls drew up on the verge of orgasm. One touch on his cock and that would be the show. Obviously Blair was evil because he didn't touch, and he intercepted Xander's hand when it tried to play sock puppet.

"Trust me," Blair whispered, and that touch returned, making Xander writhe helplessly. "Put your feet flat on the bed," Blair ordered. Luckily he followed that up by moving one of Xander's legs into position because Xander was far beyond being able to comprehend English. It had been so long since he had touched or had been touched like this. His body pressed into the feather light kisses Blair trailed on the inside of his thigh.

"Hand me a couple of pillows," Blair asked, and Xander blinked as he tried to gather enough brain cells to figure out what a pillow was. When he did finally process it, he passed two of the three pillows down to Blair who started shoving them under his ass. Xander pushed up to make it easier, and boy howdy could two pillows make a man feel vulnerable… and horny.

Then Blair's fingers moved down to cup Xander's balls gently, holding them until the heat of Blair's hand burned and Xander thrust up until his ass left the bed. Only when he dropped back down did he realize something was different. Blair smiled and planted a kiss on Xander stomach before starting to work a finger in and out, stroking the skin around the pucker. Xander would have pointed out that he had expected it to hurt, he might have even complimented Blair's technique. However, he couldn't manage more than a needy moan.

"Just relax. I won't hurt you," Blair promised, and Xander felt the cool track of a tear across his face. Instead of answering, he spread his legs farther to give Blair more room to work as he ran his own fingers through Blair's thick long curls. He wondered if his own hair would curl that much if he let it grow.

Blair reached down and took the head of Xander's cock in his mouth again, and Xander thrust up into that warm embrace as he felt the pressure at his ass increase. This time the intrusion felt uncomfortably large, and Xander could feel his own erection soften with the sting. Blair pulled back, and his cock softened even more.

"Press back if you have to, like you're pushing something out," Blair suggested before once again taking Blair's cock in him mouth, this time taking half Xander's length into his mouth before humming. Xander gasped and closed a fist around Blair's hair as the vibrations traveled the length of his cock. Following Blair's instructions, he pushed back and suddenly he felt a fullness stretch him.

Xander hissed in both need and discomfort, and Blair's fingers stopped moving while Blair bobbed gently up and down on his cock. Suddenly realizing that he was fisting Blair's curls and probably ripping a few out, Xander let go and smoothed the hair down with gentle touches. Blair sat up with his fingers still in place.

"Oh man. You are incredible. I was so freaked out by this point that we had to call it quits for the night."

Xander just gasped as a sudden pressure made his cock twitch. It felt like someone almost tickling him from inside, and Xander pushed up as he tried to escape that uncomfortable feeling, but Blair's fingers followed, pressing harder. Suddenly the uncomfortable tickling turned into a burning pleasure that engulfed his entire groin. Xander squirmed and pressed back down onto those fingers, bracing his hands on the wall to press his shaking body onto those fingers.

"Seeing you like this, open and needy, it's seriously hot. Oh man, seriously hot. Man, I'm going to be lucky to get through this without coming all over the sheets," Blair whispered hoarsely, and the needy words washed through Xander, warming him.

The long slow stroking returned now, the fingers spreading his hole so that he could feel the muscles strain. Then on every in stroke, Blair would hit that spot inside him. Sometimes lightly, making Xander squirm uncomfortably at the tickling sensation like when he'd had an itch under his cast and then harder, making his cock harden with need and then hard enough to make Xander's vision white out and his whole body shudder.

"Breathe out," Blair said, and Xander hadn't even processed the words before the pressure increased again, and he couldn't help but tense at the pain. "Press down, like before," Blair said, but Xander couldn't. The fingers were too much.

"Hurt. Big with the hurt," Xander gasped.

"Shhh. It's okay, we won't go any farther unless you say to," Blair promised, and the fingers remained in place stretching him uncomfortably while Blair planted a kiss on the inside of Xander's left knee. Then he moved to the thigh, kissing and licking and putting his cheek against Xander's upper thigh before moaning so that the vibrations traveled up to Xander's cock.

Xander fisted his hands into the pillow to avoid grabbing Blair and ripping the rest of his hair out as Blair slowly worked up until he was blowing puffs of warm air over Xander's balls, nuzzling in the hair before sucking one into his mouth.

"Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck yeah, Xander swore as he fell into a near trance where only Blair's mouth and his groin existed. Blair pulled back and moved to suck at just the head of Xander's condom-covered cock. Now Blair's motions were teasing. He ran a tongue up the underside and scraped the head gently with his teeth before pulling back.

"More," Xander begged, and Blair swallowed a good three-quarters of Xander's cock while sucking enthusiastically. Xander cried out in need. When the fingers in his ass slid in and hit that spot inside him, Xander arched up off the bed and stiffened as his balls drew up and started shooting. The first and second waves of orgasm crashed through him so hard that he was barely aware of the third wave or of Blair's whispered question. He just gasped and writhed and cried out his pleasure as his body turned into one giant happy spasm.

He was still gasping when he felt something pressing uncomfortably against his hole. He hadn't yet won the battle to open his eyes went something large spread his hole impossibly wide before popping into place. "Oh fuck," Xander whispered as he realized that Blair was inside him.

"Xander, are you okay?" Blair asked, and Xander opened his eyes to find Blair holding his own condom-covered erection with one hand and bracing himself on the mattress with the other.

"Oh yeah," Xander said as he trailed a finger up Blair's arm.

"Breathe out, nice and steady," Blair said, but Xander was just a limp puddle of Xander-shaped goo, he couldn't have done anything else. He lay there feeling Blair slowly rock in and out one centimeter at a time as he worked his way deeper into Xander's body. When the thick cock hit his prostate, Xander felt a warmth travel up his body in a shiver even though his own cock couldn’t react so quickly.

Lying there, he watched as Blair's face contorted with lust, his eyes squinting shut and his one arm trembling. Knowing that he was making Blair feel this and knowing that it was Blair's cock stretching him open until he could feel the stretch and burn made Xander's own cock ache a little even if it couldn't manage a second show. Blair's thrusts grew longer and harder, and Xander could feel the length of Blair's cock sliding across that tender skin, reminding Xander's cock that two shows in a day wasn't unheard of.

Suddenly Blair thrust all the way in and started coming. Xander watched as the energy drained from Blair and he pulled out, carefully keeping the condom in place before pulling it off and collapsing onto the bed next to Xander.

Xander hadn't bothered with his own condom, and now he looked down and considered the mess. Yeah, shower time. Shower and thinking. Shower and brooding, he admitted to himself as he now realized that Blair would be going upstairs to sleep with Jim and he'd be in this bed alone. Xander suddenly started wondering why he'd gone through with it at all.

"I need to clean up," he said as he scooted out of the bed. Blair's arm tightened around his waist.

"Xander?" Blair looked over.

"It was great. God, I didn't know it could be that good, and you've certainly won over a convert, I'm just feeling a little sticky," Xander quickly added as he pulled away. Eventually Blair let go, and Xander grabbed his sweatpants and robe as he darted for the shower.




Xander showered until he exhausted the hot water heater, and then he sat on the toilet seat rather gingerly. Yeah, he had done it. He could now officially call himself gay. Or bisexual maybe because there were still Faith and Anya in the old closet of love. Not that Faith had been a love. Faith had been more of a quick fuck. Xander flinched away from comparing that night to tonight.

Faith might have guided him around the curves, but it hadn't been the same. Faith had just used him, and Blair cared about him and wanted to make him feel safe. But still, Xander wasn't going to get what he wanted more than anything else. He wasn't going to get held. If he asked, Blair might stay a while, but sooner or later, he would slip out and head back upstairs to the man he loved. It was a step up from Faith who had handed him his clothes and kicked him out half-dressed. But still.

Xander took a deep breath as he tried to sort out what had happened. Okay, Blair was the big guru, teacher type and he wanted to help Xander through a tough spot. It wasn't some sordid one night stand. Or actually, it probably was a one-night stand in that it wouldn't happen again, but it wasn't sordid. Or Xander assumed it wasn't sordid. Xander realized he didn't actually know what sordid meant, so maybe what he'd done was sordid.

Xander felt the pain of loneliness more sharply than ever, and suddenly he wondered if it was possible for Giles to send him to some place like Mars looking for potentials. Buffy couldn't worry about malaria on Mars. Nope, Mars was a big non-malarial planet. He could wander around picking up rocks and then have a reason for feeling lonely because feeling lonely when people who should make you feel safe and loved were standing two feet away…

Xander reached over and turned on the sink to cover the sounds of his own rough breathing. He hadn't ever realized it, but that's what was wrong. While he was in Africa he could tell himself he was lonely because Willow was back in England. What the hell was he supposed to tell himself when she was in the next room and he still felt like he had this empty place in his soul where she used to be? She didn't need him, not him or his jokes or his help, and god he was worthless.

And Spike? Oh god. He had always told himself that it was the whole him not being gay thing, but now he would have to look Spike in the eye knowing that he technically was gay and the only reason he wasn't with Spike was because Spike didn't want him. Xander pushed his eye patch up and off so that he could rub his face without feeling that thing in the way. God, he was pathetic. Standing up, he looked in the mirror at the bloodshot eye and puckered skin around the missing eye and the wet hair plastered against his head, and he had no idea who he was looking at.

Xander put a hand in the running water and splashed it over his face as he tried to force all of the feeling back into whatever pathetic little corner of his mind they had slipped out of. Okay, he'd probably been in the bathroom close to an hour, so if he was lucky, Blair was upstairs asleep in Jim's arms and he could slink into his own bed. Or maybe he could quietly pack up while the guys slept. He'd pretty much learned whatever he was going to learn about Sentinels already, and even Willow had commented that his reports were a little light in the actual reporting part.

Slipping the eye patch back in place, Xander pulled the door open a little and peaked out. A light was on in the living room, but Blair probably just left it on so that Xander didn't come out in the dark. He debated going and turning it off, but he decided instead for a quick dash to his room just a few feet away.

"Xander," a deep voice said as Jim walked out of the kitchen, appearing without warning near the table.

"Jim, hey. Sorry about the bathroom. You could've just like told me to get out if you needed to use it 'cause I'm a big old bathroom hog, but at least now I'm one less person trying to get a shower in the morning, which is of the good, right?" Xander babbled as he wavered between running back into the bathroom and making a dash for the bedroom. The bedroom was the obvious choice, but that meant getting dangerously close to the Sentinel less than an hour after sleeping with that Sentinel's guide. Oh yeah, not of the good.

"I don't need the bathroom, Sport," Jim said as he leaned against the pillar. "How are you doing?"

"Me? Fine. Very much of the good, and boy are you a lucky man and please don't kill me for saying that," Xander blurted.

"Harris, I'm not going to kill you. I am however, a little worried about you."

"Okay, death and mayhem would be better than the big talk right about now," Xander said with a sigh.

"Tough because I'm not killing you, Sport. Not unless you upset Blair that badly again."

"Blair?" Xander looked at the ceiling above him where he had expected Blair and Jim to be wrapped up in each other.

"He thinks he hurt you. Sent me down to sniff for blood, see if you were hiding some injury."

"What? He didn't. I mean, not that I want to talk about this with you, but it was sorta good in the absolutely mind-blowing way."

"Yeah, I know," Jim said, his voice getting soft, and Xander felt that stab of pain again. Blair had Jim and Jim had Blair, and Xander was the afterthought. He should be used to that by now. "Let's go sit down; I can't have this conversation without a beer. You want one?" Jim's voice became far more businesslike as he talked about things other than Blair.

"Um, am I going to be looking for a cab soon because I find drunk and homeless a bad combination."

"Harris, I'm not throwing you out."

"Okay, maybe one beer then," Xander said as he went in the living room and pulled his robe around him before sitting in his favorite chair. He watched cautiously as Jim pulled two beers from the fridge, offering him one before dropping onto the couch wearing just boxer shorts.

"First, I'm not upset. Blair and I talked about how much you needed someone, how much you needed a connection. I don't have a problem with what you two did."

"Um, okay?" Xander stared at the floor.

"I also have a pretty good guess about why you just spent two hours sitting in my bathroom."

"Two…?" Xander looked over at the clock.

"Blair doesn't get what it's like to have your insides rearranged, to watch people die and see pieces of yourself go with them. I get the feeling you do," Jim said it so calmly that the words didn't sink in right away as Xander tried to figure out where the missing time had gone.

"What? You have that totally wrong since I am so not the warrior type. I'm the sidekick who stays in the truck unlike you and Blair. Only difference is that I usually hide behind Buffy and Spike… or Buffy and Angel although I'm not big on the hiding behind Angel part. Of course there was the summer I hid behind the Buffy-bot, and boy do I have some interesting stories from that time."

"And you've seen friends die, and you've seen your own death coming right at you," Jim interrupted him before taking another drink.

"Hey, I don't know…"

"I do. I've seen too many men with that same desperate need to hold onto something who have an equally strong belief that whatever they hold onto will turn to dust in their arms." Jim's words drove a knife so deeply into Xander that he gasped in pain as though physically hurt. Silence filled the loft for several seconds before Jim started talking again. "Xander, I've been there. I married a woman because I needed to hold someone and then I drove her away because I was terrified that I would wake up and find her gone. It's a hard way to live."

"I don't…" Xander started, and then he had to take a deep breath as he felt the pain deepen and the tears threaten. "Okay, pathetic much?" he asked himself as his breath shuddered.

"Human much?" Jim returned in the same tone of voice. Jim drained the last of his beer and rested the bottle against his thigh. "It's human to need that contact, and it's human to be afraid of it after seeing the kinds of things I think you've seen."

"I'm just having some freakage. I'll be fine in the morning," Xander promised as he looked at the ceiling and tightened his hold on the beer he hadn't yet touched.

"No, you'll have your front back on in the morning. It's not the same thing," Jim countered.

"I thought Blair was supposed to be the pushy one," Xander said as he glanced over at Jim's determined face.

"He is. He just doesn't understand what he stepped into. I guess I thought he understood since he walked into this emotional mess with me." Jim shrugged. "I guessed wrong. He doesn't understand why he hurt you so much by offering to let you in. His heart is big enough for everyone, but I don't think he understands why it's so hard for us to let him in or to handle it once he worms his way in despite our best efforts."

Xander would have asked what Jim was talking about, but he understood all too well. Blair had shown him something that didn't fit in his life anymore, and now he found himself dying for something he couldn't have. "I'm fine," he lied softly.

"I know what it does to a person to see battle," Jim said calmly. "My worst was probably this kid I had in my unit. We were doing a joint mission with another agency and he took a bullet in the leg. He kept telling me that he was only shot in the leg and he knew he'd be fine. He kept saying that as I held a field dressing that turned into a red sponge as his femoral artery pumped out all his blood. He fell asleep and died telling me how he'd be fine." Jim's voice sounded so calm that Xander almost missed the tremor at the end.

Jim sat silent, and Xander could feel the pain heavy in the air. "I've had more than one nightmare where Blair's face is on that boy," Jim finished softly. "So, how about you?" Jim asked as he stared at the empty beer bottle resting against his thigh.

Xander didn't realize he was shaking until he watched the beer bottle tremble in his hand. "I had to, um, stake my best friend," Xander said as he forced his hand to still. But that wound was an old scar. He thought of faces that had turned to him for reassurance and protection that he hadn't given, and the tears started.

"When Sunnydale went down, I listened to all those would-be slayers fight over the bathroom and talk about their dreams, and then I watched as they saw their own guts spill on the floor. And afterwards, I would give the survivors the big pep talk about how they were fighting the good fight." Xander's face felt alternately hot and cold as his tears slid silently down his face leaving wet trails to dry in the air. "They were kids, and they didn't even know what they were walking into, and I just…" Xander's throat closed.

"I hated working with recruits," Jim agreed. "When I went out with seasoned soldiers, they knew the score, but the new ones expected battle to be heroic."

"It's just ugly," Xander said.

"Yeah, it is."

Xander clenched his teeth to keep the screams or cries from falling out of his mouth.

"Xander, come to bed," Jim said quietly.

"Huh?" Xander looked over to find that Jim had stood up.

"Come sleep upstairs, Sport. That way Blair doesn't have to give himself the guilt trip in the morning. If he wakes up grumpy, he's a pain in the ass all day." Jim took a step closer and snagged the untouched beer bottle from Xander's hand before heading to the kitchen and dropping them on the counter.

"I don't want to…"

"You don't want to be alone, Sport, so get your ass upstairs while I use the bathroom," Jim ordered. Xander considered ignoring the order when Jim turned and disappeared down the short hall. In the end though, he really didn't want to be alone. He climbed the stairs slowly and looked at the large bed where Blair sprawled near the center. He walked around to the far side where Blair's body left a smaller gap on the bed. Pulling his robe off, he draped it on the railing of the loft before slipping under the covers.

The heat of Blair's body warmed Xander and he lay in the dark waiting for Jim. When the man appeared at the top of the stairs, he stood for a moment considering the bed.

"He's a bed hog, but at least he sleeps like a log," Jim whispered as he leaned over the bed and got an arm under Blair's shoulders and hips. He pulled until Blair's body slid away from Xander and to the edge of the bed closest to the stairs. Xander stayed put, allowing that heat to slide away. He imagined it was hard enough for Jim to have him there at all, so having him touching Blair was probably more than Jim's instincts could take.

Jim walked around the bed to Xander's side.

"Shove over." Jim pushed at Xander's shoulder. In shock, Xander slid into the middle of the bed as Jim slipped in behind him, a strong arm sliding around his waist as he pressed into Blair's warm back. Suddenly Xander realized how utterly exhausted he was, and he closed his eyes and let himself drift to sleep as strong arms held him.



Xander flipped past a dozen different channels as he searched for something to help keep his mind off the subject of temporary roommates. Jim and Blair would be home soon, but until they did come home, Xander really wasn't sure where to go to bed. Waking up in the middle of a pile of slowly moving male limbs had been… okay, it had been more than a little nice. He'd woken up warm and safe, and Blair had accepted him with a simple kiss and a quick grope. He'd also woken up with a slightly throbbing ass that had lasted through a day bouncing around in Jim's truck.

He desperately wanted to wake up like that again, and he really wouldn't mind waking up throbbing again. However, he wasn't sure the invitation was still open. And if he went to bed in the small room under the loft before the guys came home from the big emergency meeting, he wouldn't ever know if he did still have that invitation. So instead he sat on the couch in his robe and flipped through advertisements for extra-special cheese graters that could make meals by themselves through the magic of made for television kitchen gadgets.

The sudden pounding at the door was so loud that Xander dropped the remote and nearly fell off the couch.

"Oi, open the bloody door," a familiar voice yelled from the far side of the door. Xander leapt up and stood in the middle of the room feeling a wave of panic wash through him. He so did not want to deal with this, not now. He was still trying to figure out where he was with Blair and Jim, and he did not want to figure out where he was with Spike, especially since he had a pretty good idea where he wasn't with Spike. Yeah, he could do without the mocking and the eye rolling and the British insults.

The pounding at the door came again, loud enough that Xander was fairly sure all the neighbors could hear. Xander had a sudden flash of Simon's face growling when he got a disorderly call, and the neighbors were probably already calling the cops. Oh yeah, time to minimize the damage.

"Open the soddin' door," Spike yelled, and Xander flinched even as he went for the door.

"I'm coming," Xander yelled back as he worked the locks on the door. Pulling the door open, he found Spike complete with leather coat leaning against the wall in the hallway.


"Yeah, who else would get sent ta fetch your sorry arse back? Now invite me in," Spike said as he threw a cigarette to the floor and crushed it with his boot.

"Um, not my house, not sure Jim would appreciate me doing the invite thing," Xander pointed out as he crossed his arms.

"Fine, then pack your bags and come out here."

"Hey! I'm the boss of me. You can't just come here and…"

"Bloody fuckin' hell. Buffy sent me ta get ya out of here and that's what I'm going to do. Ya got three choices. One, you invite me in. Two, you come out here. Three, I burn the bloody building down and grab your sorry arse when you go running out like a rat off a sinkin' ship."

"HEY! There will be no burning! Jim would be so hacked off he'd give birth to kittens or something, and I mean that as a figure of speech since we aren't on a Hellmouth and that kind of stuff generally doesn't happen."

"Invite me in or I'll just start the fire now," Spike threatened as he took out his silver lighter and flipped the top open.

"Ass," Xander complained, "Come in, oh great pushy one." Xander turned his back and returned to the couch where he dropped onto the cushion before reaching down for the remote on the floor.

"Why are you here?" Xander finally demanded as Spike stood inside the door glaring.

"Ya still are a few brain cells short of retarded, aren't you? I told ya that Buffy sent me. She don't like the idea of you tangling with a Shaman."

"Not tangling with one," Xander protested before his brain sent an image of his limbs and Blair's limbs tangled together in that big bed upstairs, and maybe there was *some* tangling involved, but it wasn't of the bad. "And how did she know about the Shaman thing?"

"Wot, you think Buffy and Red don't talk?"

"No, I'm thinking I never told Willow. In fact, I'm thinking you're the only person I told, so if there's a rat here, that'd be you." Xander didn't miss the look of surprise on Spike's face at that one, but the vamp recovered quickly.

"Yeah, well I already told you that I'm not going to have months of weepin' and hair pullin' because you've gone and done somethin' even stupider than usual."


"Just pack your bag so we can get the hell out of this soddin' dump."

"Not going."

"You bloody well are."

"Am not."

"Pack your bags."

"Nope. Nuh-huh. Not going to happen," Xander insisted as he crossed his arms and leaned back into the couch.

"Listen lack-brain, you've got yourself mixed up with a Shaman. Don't bloody care about some Sentinel since a Sentinel is still a garden-variety human in a fight, but a Shaman has powers that you don't want to mess with. So get your bloody arse up and pack your things or I'll drag you out without the soddin' clothes. Be better off losing some of those abominations ya wear anyway."

"Hey! There will be no dragging. I will so call Willow and tell on you if you try to drag me out of here."

"Yeah, and maybe then I'd be tellin' her how the place where you're stayin' smells like a whore house."

"Okay, rude much?"

"So, ya finally get your cherry popped then, pet? Is that why you're hanging around here? Find someone willing to have your sad little arse?" Spike's smirk grew into something ugly, and Xander just looked up at the vampire in frozen horror. When Spike just stared back with a smug expression, Xander focused on the television where a bald man was spray painting his head.

"Get out, Spike," Xander said softly as he focused on the dots of light from the television.

"Get your things."

"No." Xander was focusing on the television, so he didn't even see Spike move before supernaturally strong arms pulled him over the back of the couch and slammed him onto his back on the dining table. Xander pulled at the hands that fisted his robe, but he couldn't move them an inch.

"Let go!" he shouted.

"You bloody little wanker. They're all worried that you're in over your head again, and you're fucking these bastards. Newsflash, Harris, fucking a Shaman is bein' in way over your head. If you want to get your sorry hide stripped from your bones, don't do it on company time. Don't you make Willow and Buffy and even the stuck up prick of a watcher live with sendin' you into a battle where you don't back."

Spike was in full game face now, yellow eyes flashing down at Xander whose prey instincts had kicked in so that he lay still in Spike's grip, like if he were really, really quiet the big bad predator would forget he was there. It occurred to Xander that the bunnies on National Geographic who used this strategy usually ended up wolf-food. He didn't want to be wolf-food. He didn't want to be food for anything, but Spike's expression was bordering on homicidal and Xander thought he might be about to be vamp-food.

"So if you want to get bloody killed, do it on your own time."

"And if you don't want to get killed, you'll step away from Xander," a cold voice came from the door. Xander looked over to find Jim pointing a crossbow at Spike's heart. For a half-second, Xander could see a warrior imposed over Jim's body, face paint and a naked chest decorated with lines and circles. With a blink, that was gone and Jim stood there in a casual shirt and beige pants and a crossbow. Slightly freaky choice of weapons for a cop but effective.

Spike stood so that he wasn't bent over Xander, but one hand stayed on Xander's chest, keeping Xander bent over backwards and trapped.

"So, would you be the Sentinel or the Shaman?" Spike asked calmly. Xander tried to push himself up, but Spike's hand kept him pinned down. Nice... now Jim and Blair got to see him doing his helpless and needing rescuing routine.

"I'm the Shaman," Blair said as he stepped to the side far enough to see while still standing behind Jim.

"Right then. So I'm takin' the whelp and we're goin' back to merry old England. Get your kit together," Spike's last order was snapped at Xander and came with a fist pulling him up by the lapels of his robe.

"And again, I'm repeating the 'you are not the boss of me' portion of our earlier discussion," Xander complained as he stood next to the table with Spike still holding him with one hand.

"And I'm seconding that. Step away from him before I have to use the vacuum cleaner to get your ashes out of my carpet," Jim said in a voice that had absolutely no emotion. It was even scarier than Spike's scary voice, and Xander held his breath as his heart tightened with fear. Now if he could just figure out who he was afraid for.

"Not likely, mate. Faced off against more than a single crossbow in my century or so of fighting."

"And I don't go into battle without being prepared. So step away from Xander before you discover just how prepared I am for a vampire attack," Jim said softly.

Spike looked from Jim to Blair before stepping away as he searched his pockets for his ever-present cigarettes. "So, you're the blokes who fucked the boy even more senseless, huh?" Spike asked as he pulled a cigarette out of package and stuck it between his lips.

"Don't you even..." Blair started, and Spike flipped his lighter open and lit it before cutting Blair off mid-sentence.

"The Slayer sent me to fetch the boy back, and that's what I aim to do."

"Um, guys, this is Spike. Spike, that's Jim and Blair," Xander said as he gestured toward the two men still in the doorway.

"I figured that. Otherwise he'd be drifting in the breeze," Jim growled.

"Better than you have tried, mate."

"Hey, I have an idea, let's not threaten each other with permanent death," Xander interrupted. "So, Spike, nice of you to drop by, but it's getting late and I'll catch up with you tomorrow. You know, after I call Buffy and explain why you coming here is big on the bad o'meter. We humans are just going to go to bed... to sleep. Sleepage is good at one in the morning."

"Actually, Sport, we aren't. We have a problem, and we just stopped by to pick you up. Any chance you could give us a hand with the vibes?"

"Vibes?" Spike turned and looked at him with a single raised eyebrow.

"Later, huh? Like after the next Armageddon or so," Xander answered Spike's unspoken question before turning to Jim. "Just give me a chance to get dressed." Xander glanced at Spike whose body practically trembled with coiled energy and Jim who still stood in the open door with the crossbow leveled at the vampire. "Blair, any chance you could, I don't know, keep them from killing each other."

"I'll do my best," Blair answered as he put a hand on Jim's arm. Jim kept the crossbow aimed, but Xander could feel the tension in the room drop.

"I'll just hurry," Xander said as he made a dash for the room under the stairs.



"No bloody way," Spike cursed when he spotted the truck.

"Good. You can wait here then," Jim shot back, and Xander could feel the Sentinel's hand on his back urging him forward, away from Spike. He was starting to feel a little like a pull toy as Spike darted forward and gripped his arm, yanking him away from Jim.

"I stay, he stays."

"I'm not staying. They need my help," Xander protested and then he flinched as Spike snorted his disbelief.

"Oh man, you're just rude. Death is no reason to cop an attitude," Blair said, and Xander felt his other arm grabbed by Blair who pulled him away. Xander was surprised Spike had let go, but the vampire had dropped into a defensive pose focused on Blair, and now Jim stepped in, pulling both him and Blair behind his own large frame.

"Anyone else feeling like we're having some sort of bizarre dance?" Xander asked quietly.

"Yeah, a Maori haka… a kind of tribal dance," Blair whispered. "Of course, not all haka were about war and killing. Some were just about intimidating the shit out of the other side."

"Ride in the back or stay here, I don't care, but Xander makes his own decision," Jim snarled. Xander found himself pushed toward the cab of the truck. He scrambled to get in and then Blair got in behind him. He watched out the side window as Spike considered him with narrowed eyes. He somehow thought Spike would be happy to go through Jim to get to him, but the vamp was strangely reluctant to get in a direct fight with Blair. Xander turned away from that angry glare as Jim got in the driver's side door and started the truck. Xander thought that Spike had given up, but when Jim put the truck into gear, the entire truck shook from the impact of Spike landing in the back.

"Great," Jim snarled sarcastically.

"Hey, at least he's not in here," Blair pointed out.

"He better back off or I'll give him to Miss Schmidt for her roses. She's always asking for the ashes from the fireplace." Jim said the words so calmly that it took a second for them to sink in.

"Hey!" Xander protested. "No stakeage. Yeah, he's a big undead pain in the ass, but he's died saving the world and that deserves some... well some putting up with his general pissiness."

"Jim's not going to stake him," Blair promised, and Jim just rolled his eyes as he guided the truck around a turn. "Besides, we have more important problems than a vampire with an anger management problem." Blair pulled a file off the dash and handed it over. The minute Xander opened the brown folder, he wished he was back on the Hellmouth chasing some slime demon. Slime demons were nicer. The pudgy face of an average-looking man was paper clipped to one side of the folder and inside were crime scene photos--dozens of them. Little girls dressed up in women's make-up, their legs sprawled obscenely in death… their skin red and slick with their own blood.

"Stop the truck... stop it," Xander demanded. Jim didn't even ask, he pulled the truck to one side immediately, but Xander still didn't even have time to wait for Blair to get out. He lay over Blair's lap and vomited out the side of the truck. He heaved as Blair ran fingers through his hair with one hand and put the other hand on the small of his back, anchoring him as he continued dry heaving long after his dinner was gone.

"Xander? Ya alright?" Spike asked.

"Peachy," Xander answered as he continued to hang head down out the passenger side of the truck. He heard a door open and slam shut before hearing paper rustling and he figured Spike was looking at the file. That would explain the colorful string of curse words.

"Why the bloody hell would ya show him rot like this?" Spike demanded with murder in his voice.

"No killing," Xander protested weakly without raising his head. Blair started tracing circles on his back and then a water bottle came into his line of vision. Xander grabbed for it, twisting the lid off.

"We need him to help catch this bastard. I wouldn't show him this if I didn't need his help."

"What the fucking hell do you think he's goin' to do except decorate the sidewalk with his guts?"

"I think he's going to help track him." Jim answered. Xander swished the water around in his mouth and then spit it out before answering.

"Ixnay on the Amanshay," he barely whispered, just knowing that Jim would be listening closely to him.

"What about a Shaman?" Spike immediately demanded, and damn vamp hearing.

"That's something you can take up with Xander later. We have a criminal to catch," Jim said. Xander pushed himself up in time to see Jim walking around the front of the truck. He pushed himself farther up to find Spike staring at him with a suspicious expression.

"Great," Xander said shakily as Blair helped push him back up. Xander took a deep breath before drinking more water.

"Xander, we hate asking you this, but this guy slipped away from the surveillance units and if he gets out of the area he may disappear..."

"And more little girls will show up like that," Xander said with a shaky voice.

"Yeah," Blair answered softly. Then Jim got in the truck and started it without a word.

"Sport, don't focus on what he did. Focus on stopping him from doing it again."

"Right. I can do this," Xander whispered as he let his eyes fall closed.

"Okay, just relax and let yourself feel the vibrations," Blair counseled him. Xander shivered as he managed to open that door in himself that Blair had spent a good week teaching him how to close. The tingles that he had always called a Hellmouth vibe shimmied across him like fingernails down a chalkboard.

Xander gasped as he felt the dark cords reaching out to tangle around him, and he turned to see Spike glaring at him through the back window of the truck.

"Xander, focus on the suspect. Block out the other vibrations and just listen for that one," Blair counseled, and Xander let the image of the cords coming from Spike slide away like sand slipping under the water. Now he could feel other threads. Some were far away and some close. Most were soft, a minor aggravation humming just below the surface. Xander allowed the image of that little girl to float to the top of his mind as he felt the vibrations around him.

A sudden twang told him that it was there. Somewhere. Xander turned his head in the direction of the sound and pulled up the girl's image again. He could feel his head starting to pound with the effort of listening to the aggravating noise. A second echoing twang had him turning a slightly different direction.

"All cars we have a location on the suspect on the Charlie-1-7-2 . Blue Ford Mustang, white racing stripe, two doors. Southbound Central Ave. All units respond. Code Niner. All units respond." The sound of the car radio slammed Xander out of his half trance and back into the real world. Jim flipped on the lights on the truck and hit the accelerator.

"We're minutes away," Jim said as he reached for the radio. "This is unit Echo-Seven responding to the Code Nine, southbound on 3rd toward Central."

"See, I'm not so needed after all," Xander said, relieved that everything wasn't going to rely on his own slightly wonky sense of evil vibes or danger vibes or whatever they were vibes which had a bad habit of blinking on and off now that Xander understood it better. Which really... was still better than having it always on. Maybe now Xander wouldn't date quite so many evil demons or slightly evil ex-demons or even not-really-evil but certainly self-serving ex-demons.

Jim took a corner much sharper than the truck was designed for, and Xander found himself plastered to Blair by the force of the turn.

"Got him," Jim said as the turn brought them onto Central where three patrol cars with sirens running already followed the Mustang. "Okay, Xander, if you can, lock on to him just in case he has a trick up his sleeve," Jim ordered, his lips pressed into a thin line and his knuckles white on the steering wheel.

"Right, just in case," Xander said. He focused on the car and let the door in his mind creak open a slot. Instantly, the threads wormed into his awareness. The screeching sound vibrated his skull, and a faint throbbing trickle of color made the truck go out of focus. Xander really wished that focusing his power didn't screw up his hearing since he hated this muffled partial deafness he seemed to suffer when he intentionally opened himself.

"Uh, guys? Problemage." Xander opened the door in his mind wider as he searched for the thread he had found earlier.

"Problem? What problem?" Jim demanded darkly, his expression making Xander wish he wasn't pressed right up against the man in the truck as they took a turn in the opposite direction. He hoped they hadn't left Spike plastered to the side of some building somewhere. That would be bad. Xander pushed that thought away and concentrated on the job.

"The guy who hurt those girls... he isn't in that car," Xander said as he closed his eye and started sweeping again, the sounds of the sirens muffled by the undercurrents that hissed and squealed in his mind.

"Shit. This is unit Echo-Seven ending pursuit. Engine trouble," Jim's voice immediately announced, sounding like a radio someone had dropped a wet towel over.

"Oh, yeah, like that's believable. Sweetheart runs better than most of the patrol cars."

"So maybe I should say our visiting Shaman has the wrong vibes and I learned that ignoring Shamans leads to big trouble?"

"Oh man, go with the engine story."

Xander ignored their distorted voices as he thought of what the man had done and then found that echoing vibration. He could feel the truck turn under him, and the motion and sound conspired to make his stomach roll uneasily.

"Major vibage," Xander said as the sound sent a cold shiver down his spine that made his muscles tense up.

"Close?" Xander could barely hear Jim over the sound that vibrated his soul. A warm hand rested on his forearm and he focused on that rather than the noise that made him flinch.

"Way too close for comfort," Xander said, struggling to close that opening into his mind that allowed him to hear the echoes of an evil that threatened to overwhelm him.

"The playground," Blair said, and the truck rattled to a stop. Xander blinked his eye open and found the truck parked under a street light, the colorful playset appeared to be shades of gray in the low light, and trees cast black shadows from the dim streetlights along the perimeter.

"Is he here?" Jim asked as he opened his door. Xander slid out after Blair.

"Oh yeah. It's just... I can't..." Xander struggled to explain why he couldn't open himself up enough to track the man any farther.

"Don't worry about it Sport. You've gotten us this far, so I think it's my turn to take over," Jim said as he came around the truck and put a hand on Xander's shoulder.

"Bloody hell. Don't need any help to track that scent," Spike snapped as he jumped from the back of the truck. Xander was nearly knocked over as Blair flinched back from the sight of Spike in game face.

"Spike?" Xander asked at the same time that Jim stepped forward while reaching for his waistband. Before Xander had a chance to worry about impending stakeage, Spike took off across the park still in game face.

"Shit. He's right, that's blood," Jim said before taking off across the damp grass. Xander and Blair exchanged a quick glance before taking off after the two. The four of them pounded across the grass, Spike dashing at the front of the pack.

"Stay behind me," Jim yelled as Spike disappeared around a tiny brick building.

"Yeah, yeah," Blair gasped as they followed. "Oh god," he added as they came around the corner. The dim light above a door marked "Men" highlighted a small arm just beyond Jim's kneeling form.

"She's alive. Call it in," Jim said tersely and that's when Xander spotted Spike holding the suspect up a good foot off the ground, yellow dripping off the man's shoes from where he had peed himself. In the background he heard Blair on the cell phone as Xander closed the distance between himself and Spike.

"You soddin' little piece of shit. I ought to rip your throat out."

"Spike," Xander said softly.

"You can't. I have rights... rights... I have 'em." Xander recognized the true babble of terror, and the smell of pee. Kinda ewww. Not as eww as what the man had done though.

"Small problem… not a cop. As far as the constables are concerned, I don't exist. I'm the shadow in your nightmares."

"Spike, killage would be bad. Hard to explain bodies when the police aren't Hellmouthy stupid. Come on Spike, don't make me call Buffy on you," Xander pleaded. Yellow eyes turned to look at him sharply.

"Fuckin' well deserves to die."

"Not arguing. Just thinking that he fucking well deserves to go to prison where he'll be raped and tortured by people who hate him as much as you do. Scary people. Scary people with tattoos and names like Bubba." Xander put a hand on Spike's shoulder and the vamp tilted his head to one side as though struggling with his own thoughts.

"Listen ya little wanker," Spike snarled at the man. When he didn't get any response, Spike shook him, grinning with a feral expression as the man's head snapped forward and back. "Fuckin' listen up. You hurt anyone ever again, and I'll find you. Never been much for torture, but I learned from the best. I bloody well know how to make it last for weeks, and if you ever touch another child, I'll find ya.

"I'll tie you down and skin your cock before makin' you eat it one piece at a time. I'll torture you 'til ya scream for mercy and then beg for death in a hoarse whisper and then fall silent because you've screamed your voice away. I'll break you until you don't have a coherent thought left. Then I'll turn you into what I am so that I can rip your guts out of your body over and over again. I'll stick splinters into your eyes until you rip them out of your own head to make the pain stop. So you think of that if you ever consider hurting another person."

Spike dropped the man who fell to the ground and hid his face in his arms, shaking so hard he was doing a good impression of a seizure. When Xander turned around, Jim stood there with a satisfied expression on his face as he looked down.

"Sorry mate, didn't mean to step on your territory there," Spike said as he stepped back and started digging through his pockets. "Think we might want to take a hike seein' as how I can hear sirens."

"Not a problem," Jim said in a satisfied voice. "Just take off."

"Right, come on then," Xander didn't even realize that Spike was talking to him until the strong hand landed on his arm and started pushing him back from the weeping pedophile.

"He stays," Jim insisted as he stepped forward.

"Xand, we need to do some talkin', and I'd rather your name not show up on some police report. So tell Starsky and Hutch here to back off." Spike tightened his hand on Xander's arm. Xander looked at the open expression on Spike's face, the slight confusion and concern and something that looked like it might be relief.

"I'll see you guys later. Spike's right about the whole police report thing because Simon is starting to look constipated every time I just happen to show up on a scene," Xander said with a shrug as he started backing away. For a second, Jim looked like he might follow, and then Blair came up behind him, a small body in his arms, and put a hand on the Sentinel's shoulder. Xander couldn't hear what he said, but he watched as Jim snapped back into cop-mode, pulling the suspect up and cuffing him.

"Right, get the lead out then, pet." Spike started trotting across the parking lot to a gas station on the corner, coat flying out behind him, and Xander had to run to catch up.




"Wow, the Council went all out on this trip," Xander said as he followed Spike into the suite.

"Bloody right they did. And when the Watcher finds the bill, I'll be sure to tell him it was worth every penny," Spike added, dropping his coat across a green wingback chair in the small living room area of the suite. "So, think you might have a few things to explain to me," Spike said as he dropped onto the couch and sprawled across the end.

"Don't owe you anything," Xander pointed out.

"Talk," Spike insisted as he narrowed his eyes in aggravation.

"Hey, I thought you said it wasn't wise to piss off a Shaman," Xander blurted. He might call Spike dumb, but the vamp really wasn't, so he knew Spike had put two and two together.

"Yeah, not until you see what their power is. For all I know that shaggy little one might be a fire summoner. You, though, you I got all figured out. Ya seem to still be a demon magnet. Only now, you seem to be in a little more control."

"So, hey, you figured it out, and now we don't have to talk," Xander replied cheerfully as he stood next to the small counter with the coffeepot and ice bucket, and hey, the hotel had little packets of hot cocoa and how cool was that?

"Bloody hell. Xander, just tell me what the hell happened in the last two weeks." Spike's voice was tired, something Xander hadn't heard since the vamp had turned up straight from ground zero of the latest Armageddon. Xander glanced up, and Spike had that same expression as when Xander had found him in a seedy L.A. bar, drinking whiskey after whiskey to the memories of Wesley and the others who hadn't made it. Even though vampires couldn't age, Spike had looked old in that moment, and he looked old now.

"Um, Jim thought I was a secret agent, I rode around in the truck, their boss complained about me not being all legal with the riding around in the truck, the truck got shot at once, I discovered I'm a Shaman, and then you showed up." Xander finished, not sure he understood the sudden seriousness in the room. Usually, he said something stupid, Spike called him an idiot, life went on, only now Spike looked exhausted, and after Xander's comment, he looked more than a little aggravated.

"Most days I can't get you to soddin' shut up," Spike said quietly as if he was talking to himself. He sighed and looked at Xander through narrowed eyes. "Now let's start with the important part. How the hell did you figure out you're a Shaman?" Spike demanded, and Xander could tell he wasn't going to get out of it that easily, and so he started over from feeling the Hellmouth vibe while tracking the rapist. Xander didn't even get a quarter through before Spike was madly smoking.

"So, wait. Ya always felt this?" Spike asked once Xander finally stopped talking.

"Um, something like it... I think. I remember vibing when this group went into the hyena house and I thought they were going to beat up this geek they had followed in there. I thought I was having geeky sympathy pains."

"Right, and you were going to save him from the bullies, I suppose?" Spike said dryly. Xander opened his mouth to protest. "Bloody hell, that was habit, mate. Slipped out on me," Spike interrupted with something that sounded suspiciously apologetic before Xander could even start talking.

"I know I'm not saving-people man, Spike. So, now that you've gotten the whole story, I'm just going to call Jim for a ride." Xander stepped forward to get the phone from the cherry wood desk, but Spike darted forward and grabbed for it.

"Hey, I need that."

"No, you don't, pet. You're not going anywhere with them." Spike emphasized his words by tossing the cordless handset across the room where it hit the wall and then separated into a phone that flew behind a chair and a battery that tumbled to the middle of the floor.

"Okay, I know we've covered this before, but I'll give it a third try. You're not the boss of me," Xander pointed out.

"In Africa. When you took on that Ubankwi, did you have the vibe then?" Spike demanded as he completely ignored Xander's complaint.

Xander remembered that night. He'd been searching for a girl with the strength of a lioness, which seemed to be local code for slayer, and he kept getting the feeling of being watched. In his tiny hut, he couldn't escape hidden eyes peering at him, and yeah, that seemed vibe-like now that he stopped and thought about it. Xander shrugged. "Probably."

"And the night we lost Rebekah?" Spike demanded. Xander flinched from that memory, hating those times when young slayers died way before their time.

"Oh yeah, I remember feeling like something was calling me. I’m thinking vibe," Xander agreed.

"Bloody hell," Spike breathed, as he walked to the window and flicked the cigarette out. "Thought you were soddin—." Spike stopped.

"If you're through being cryptic guy…" Xander let his words trail off. He had meant to say he was going to go call Jim and get a ride back to the loft, but Spike just stared out the window in a pained silence, and Xander couldn’t bring himself to walk away.

"Thought you were trying to off yourself," Spike said to the night, and it took Xander a second to even process what the vampire meant.

"What? Me? I'm big with the not offing myself. No way," Xander protested.

"We were so bloody blind." Spike turned around, and Xander could see a new determination there. "Ya aren't going back with the Sentinel and his little furry Shaman. You're comin' home," Spike said calmly.

"You don't listen well, do you? Still not the boss of me."

"Yeah, reckon I am. From what you say, you're like a private evil warnin' system. So when we head back into demon territory, I bloody well will be the boss of you and make sure you don't get eaten while doing that mojo. I'm not missin' the obvious any more, so whether you like it or not, I'm going to be there when this powers starts tugging at you," Spike said as he crossed his arms.

"Spike, this isn't your problem," Xander answered slowly. "Besides, I haven't decided whether I'm going back," Xander defiantly announced, and a look of fury flashed across Spike's face. Maybe he should have taken that as a signal to run, but he had been away from Spike's sudden emotional twists too long, and he didn't notice the danger until Spike had a forearm across his chest pinning him to the wall.

"Goin' to stay here and fuck your little friends?" Spike demanded with a sneer.

"Fuck off, Spike." Xander tried pushing Spike away, but Spike flashed into game face and slammed him back into the wall. For the second time that night, Xander felt like the rabbit at feeding time. Spike stared at him with a predator's yellow eyes, and his whole body froze in fear. Maybe fear. Maybe not since not all parts of him were frozen. Some were heating up nicely. And oh god, Spike was going to smell that. "Get off me," Xander insisted as he started struggling harder. He had to get free before his body outted him and then he'd never live it down. Bad enough to have Willow's sad eyes looking at him, but Spike's mocking eyes were more than he had the ability to endure.

"No," Spike said simply. "I can bloody smell them on you. The shaggy Shaman, his scent is all over you. And the Sentinel, I can smell him here too." Spike lowered his head to Xander's neck, and Xander had a sudden flare of panic.

"Hey, no necking… neckage, no neckage, no neck-anything with a vampire," he spluttered as he tried to squirm away. Unfortunately, Spike used a knee to keep him still, and a knee pressing into his groin wasn't helping him hide his problem although it did keep him mighty still.

"Tell me you don't want me. You smell of need every time I come near ya," Spike whispered.

Xander took a deep shuddering breath, but he didn't answer.

"Ya aren't walking away from me this time. You pushed so bloody hard, that I never looked at why, but one way or another, I'm stayin' close enough to keep you from getting yourself killed. But I need to know how much more you want," Spike leaned in closer and took a deep scenting breath. "I've bollocked up too much already, so tell me you don't want me and I'll let ya go. I'll keep you safe and never touch you like this again." Spike pressed his knee harder, and Xander gasped with lust so intense it left him gaping.

"I don't want you," Xander finally managed. Okay, that would have been a lot more convincing if Xander's voice hadn't broken half way through. Fact is that somewhere in the middle of getting drunk with Spike that first night in L.A. after tracking the vampire down, Xander had realized that Spike wasn't the vampire he remembered. Spike stopped being the monster who had scared him spitless.

Spike cried on his shoulder as he described watching Gunn's body get ripped apart, and Xander had cried about Anya and the potentials and all the others who'd died along the way, and something fundamental had changed. Okay, it had changed for him. The next morning, Spike had woken up sober and more than willing to go back to the familiar mutual annoyance club.

"Spike, you don't want this," Xander whispered, and oh yeah, that sounded a whole lot more convincing.

"I want you, pet. Always wanted you from the day Angelus came back to the lair yelling about you makin' him back down. Wanted you in the basement when you were afraid of me and still mouthed off. 'Course back then, I wanted to turn you and let all that lovely aggression out on the rest of the world," Spike smiled bitterly. "I wanted ya when you took me in even after I went a little bat-shit crazy with the soul. I wanted ya when you were dyin' of loneliness and pain in the middle of your little gang and still making jokes." Spike whispered the words so close to Xander's neck that the air of the words brushed across his skin.

"Only, you turned those jokes against me and then went out and tried to get yourself soddin' killed." The words spoken in that low rough voice that Spike would so often get when he talked about Dru made Xander tremble with desire. It also confused the hell out of him.

"Spike, um, I hate to point this out, but you hate me, remember? Did you get hit upside the head when I wasn't looking? Willow can probably unscramble the brain... maybe. With the chip and the dying and the soul, it's probably pretty messy up there." Oh yeah, babble, thy name is Xander. And what the hell was Spike doing with his hand and what did he have to promise the vamp to make him keep doing that with his hand? Xander groaned softly as Spike' thumb rubbed Xander's nipples through his shirt.

"Thought ya wanted to kill yourself. I'd smell that lust rollin' off you when I came in the room or when you walked near me. But instead of lettin' yourself touch me, ya kept tryin' to get yourself killed. I'd pull some nasty off ya, and you'd break your neck trying to get free of me just to stumble right into the claws of the next nasty. Got to where Buffy didn't trust you enough to send you to the store without an escort. I saw all that, and I thought you'd rather be dead than with me."

"Oh god, Spike, no," Xander ran a thousand memories through his head as he considered the possibility that he was an idiot.

"I'm just stupid," he finally admitted as he realized the truth. "Seriously stupid. You were so grouchy and I thought you were still lusty over Buffy and I didn't want to make a fool out of myself because I was doing the crushing, and now I've gone and slept with Blair and you can't be too happy about that, not that you have any room to talk with Harmony in your sexual closet."

"Stop babbling," Spike said before cool lips met his, tasting and nipping until Xander gasped and squirmed in lust. Spike's tongue darted and claimed his mouth aggressively that made Xander ache for more. When Spike pulled back, Xander was left speechless and breathless and slightly bloodless because all his blood had drained into his cock.

"I have babble issues when I get nervous, which, of course, you are big with the knowing since you've seen me go into Willow-levels of babble in the—"

Spike stopped Xander with a finger over his lips, and Xander took a deep shuddering breath through his nose as he battled the babble into silence.

"Want you to answer with one word only, pet. Got that?" Spike asked without releasing him. Slowly, Spike slid his finger down, stoking Xander's lips before trailing over his chin and disappearing. Xander squirmed a bit and Spike's knee just pressed in holding him against the wall.

"Yeah," Xander finally answered.

"Good. Now the Shaman. He taught ya to control the feelings, the vibes?"


"And can you always control the feelings?"

"Not even," Xander snorted and the knee in his crotch leaned in hard enough to make him gasp. And oh yeah, he was so very, very wrongly wired because damn that felt good. Xander gasped at the sensation of heat traveling up his backbone.

"One word answers, pet," Spike said as he reached down and soothed the abused cock with long, slow strokes through the fabric of Xander's jeans. Then slim fingers slid the zipper down. Xander shivered and grabbed Spike's shoulder as his knees threatened to go out from under him.

"You forget, pet, vamp sense of smell. When I would grab you, hold you, pin you to a wall as Buffy took out the nasty, I'd smell your need teasing me. Used to infuriate me that you wanted me so much but you didn't want me enough to stop tryin' to get yourself killed." Spike popped the jeans' button open, and Xander involuntarily bucked into the feeling.

"Oh, shit," Xander hissed. The knee was back, pressing into him momentarily causing another flare of heat and desire.

"Now, pet, I didn't ask you a question." Spike's hand slid in under the boxers, and Xander lost his entire vocabulary at the first feel of a finger sliding across the head gently. "So, can you track from an image of the nasty?"

"No," Xander answered with a voice that trembled.

"Do you want me to stop?" Xander opened his eye to find deep blue eyes searching him.

"No," he answered honestly. He would have added more, like a threat if Spike did stop, but that would have been outside the one-word rule.

"Are you plannin' on stayin' here?" Spike put a finger over Xander's mouth to keep him from answering. "I'm done with bein' used and tossed aside, pet. If you plan to stay here or dump me on my arse or get yourself killed, you speak up now. So think careful on this before you say anything." Spike leaned forward so they were no more than an inch apart. "Do you want me?" Spike voice was low, whispered right into his ear so he could feel the air stir his hair.

"Yes," Xander answered immediately.

"My very own Shaman," Spike whispered as he slid strong arms around Xander who could only clutch at Spike helplessly as he tried not to fall on his face since his legs had sort of stopped talking to the rest of him as they trembled and refused all orders to stop.

"All this power runnin' under your skin, and you're mine, aren't you?" Spike pulled Xander away from the wall, backing up toward the double doors.

"Yeah," Xander agreed as he followed, pliant in Spike's embrace.

"Pet, I don't want us to hurt each other. You have to know I'm still a demon. Won't rip myself apart between the demon and the soul, and that means I can't do the Ozzie and Harriet deal."

"The what?" Xander asked as he pulled back and looked at Spike in confusion. Oz he knew, Harriet he didn't.

"Bloody hell," Spike rolled his eyes. "Can't do the Brady Bunch," he amended himself.

"Oh, I know that. That's why I was freaked out about you being my first and maybe being a little too demony. Well, that and I thought if you knew I was doing the crush thing you'd make fun of me until I died of embarrassment."

"Pet, now that you understand your powers a mite bit more, I expect you to have far fewer brushes with death, including dyin' of embarrassment," Spike said seriously as he continued to pull Xander into the bedroom, toward the bed, and oh buddy that was a big bed Xander realized as they got closer.

"So, you already thought about what it meant to be with a demon?" Spike asked.

"Oh yeah," Xander agreed as talented fingers reached down the back of his open jeans and under his boxers to cup his ass, pulling their bodies closer together. His brain short-circuited, but a voice that sounded a bit like Giles whispered that things were going a little too fast.

"And what did you decide?" Spike asked before nipping at an ear.

Xander hesitated. He could feel the cliff he was about to fall off, and if he did, he wouldn't come back. Hell, he went running after Faith even knowing she had murdered, and Xander couldn't turn away from Anya even after the wedding that wasn't and her return to the demon business. And if Spike hadn't come, Xander knew for a fact he would have stayed with Blair and Jim even knowing that he would never quite fit. Xander couldn't give half of his heart; he didn't know how.

"Pet?" Spike asked. Xander looked at the concern in the vampire's face, and he opened the small door in his mind, not looking for evil… okay, looking for evil, but really, really hoping he wouldn't find it. Xander could almost feel the insecurity flow through Spike's skin, insecurity and possessiveness. Xander leaned forward and kissed Spike, opening in an invitation that Spike took up with a passionate fervor.

"Pet, we need to talk."

"Can think of better things to do than talking. Talking bad," Xander said as he pushed himself into Spike, pressing their bodies together as he kissed and then nipped the side of Spike's neck. Spike's hands tightened on his ass.

"Need to know that you understand what you're getting yourself into, pet," Spike answered as he twisted his body so that Xander was suddenly standing with his back to the bed and they were falling. After a brief flicker of instinctive panic, Xander let himself fall, not even trying to free himself when Spike landed on top.

"I read Giles' vampire books," Xander hedged. Spike just snorted his contempt.

"Problem is that about half those are rot," he pointed out.

"But I lived with a vampire. I can recognize the things that make sense," Xander pointed out. "So when I read that for vampires it's about who's in charge, that sounds about right."

"And you're okay with that?" Spike asked. Xander just groaned and tilted his hips since the rest of him was pretty well trapped under Spike. Spike smiled wickedly as he reached out and snagged Xander's wrists and pressed them to the bed. "You smell good, pet," Spike said and then Xander was lost in another kiss.

"So, what else you get from those books?" Spike asked as he pulled back.

"Now? Do we have to do this now?" Xander demanded as his cock throbbed. "I don't have enough blood for both heads, Spike."

"Maybe I want to just smell you laying here all needy for me. So, what else ya find?"

"Um, the vampire on the bottom, not that I'm a vampire, and hey, not going to be a vampire but the books usually focus on two vampires. Um… where was I?" Xander lost his train of thought at Spike started rubbing his body slowly and rhythmically across Xander's.

"Vampire on the bottom, pet."

"Um, yeah. They're usually really strong because another vampire wouldn't claim them if they were weak. Thought that meant that I'd never get your attention because I was never the strong one."

"Bloody hell, I started wanting you when you were strong enough to face down Angelus although back then I would have turned you first."

"Yeah, not so much for the turning."

"I have a soul now, ya git. Not going to turn you. Well, not unless you go and start dyin' on me and then we can worry about the soul later. Anythin' else?"

"Ah, the vampire on top was judged by how strong his underlings were."

"Yep. Goin' to bug Angelus no end that I have a Shaman. Angel's going to spend the next six months tryin' to get the bastard to quiet down in there. A powerful Shaman. My powerful Shaman." Spike punctuated the words with hard thrusts down into Xander's body. Xander writhed, but with Spike holding him down, he couldn't do much else. "So, you're alright with all this?" Spike asked.

"No. I'm not okay with the lack of sex here. If you don't get on with the sex part, I’m going to come in my underwear, and since I don't have my other clothes here, I have to wear these things tomorrow," Xander practically whined. Spike rolled off and onto the bed.

"Right. Can't have you gettin' messy. But first we have the small problem of you breaking the one word rule, pet." Spike pushed himself back so that he was leaning against the headboard, and Xander looked up at that smirking face. His cock took even more notice, and Spike's leer grew wider.

"So, strip and get over here so we can figure out a proper punishment for a Shaman," Spike ordered.

"Oh yeah," Xander agreed breathily as he sat up and quickly pulled his shirt over his head, ignoring the buttons. He smiled. Some days it was good to be the Shaman.




Xander pushed his pants down so quickly that his pants and underwear tangled and he nearly took his cock off with them as he scrambled.

"Slow down, pet," Spike shushed him, and then strong hands closed over his wrists. Xander trembled as Spike released his hands and then slowly pushed Xander's pants down the rest of the way as though unwrapping a present, and Xander had always been more the strip as fast as possible and jump into bed man.

"Slow bad," Xander tried joking, but he sort of gasped out the words.

"And here you thought I'd be the one goin' too fast for ya," Spike laughed as he pulled his own shirt and jeans off both faster and more gracefully than Xander had. Then Spike smiled crookedly, his eyes crinkling at the edges, and Xander could almost feel himself fall off that cliff. Spike reached out and took Xander's hands in his own as he pulled Xander close so that their naked bodies pressed together.

"Could do with faster, Spike. I could totally do with much, much of the faster."

"Told ya, pet," Spike whispered as he ran hands over Xander's sides and back, briefly kneading Xander's ass, "the demon means I need ta be in charge."

Xander would have complained but the thought of not having to take control, of not having to be the one making decisions, it made him ache with a need that reached deeper than just lust. A knot he'd carried in his guts for years eased even as his cock started throbbing with a need to get the show on the road. "You're torturing me, here," Xander said as he sagged into Spike, letting his forehead drop to Spike's shoulder.

Spike paused. "Won't ever hurt ya, pet. Won't ever let ya get hurt, either," Spike promised as he returned to the gentle petting.

"So no punishment?" Xander asked softly. He didn't know how he felt about that, and for the sake of his own manliness, he wasn't going to look too hard.

"I said I wouldn't hurt ya, pet. I didn't say I wouldn't punish ya for breaking the rules," Spike pulled back, and Xander shivered at the sexy, possessive look Spike gave him, blue eyes raking over his body until Xander blushed.

Spike sat on the bed and tugged on Xander until he stood next to it. Yeah, Xander was big with knowing what came next, but bending over Spike's lap just seemed very much not manly, and just because he was good with the gay part didn't mean he was ready for a pink tutu and fingernail polish.

"Pet," Spike said. Xander had expected annoyed but instead Spike sounded comforting. "You said you understood." Spike paused, and Xander could feel his shame grow in the silence. Right, months of fantasy only to balk at the last minute, and boy wasn't this a familiar pattern for him. "For vampires, what's it about?" Spike asked, interrupting Xander's moment of doubt and self-hatred.

"Who owns who," Xander whispered, and his traitorous cock twitched at even the thought of being owned, of having someone else carry the responsibility and the pain.

"Right, and I'm doing the owning, so get your arse over my lap," Spike said, and this time the voice sounded like Xander's 11th grade history teacher, the one who didn't take any shit at all. Not even Hellmouthy apocalypses counted as an excuse for not having homework done in his class. The tone moved Xander when Spike's tugging hadn't, and Xander bent over Spike's lap. He squirmed into place and clung to the bedspread to keep from sliding off.

"I got ya," Spike said as a hand grabbed him by the waist. Xander still held on, pressing his face to the bed as he felt the blush warm his skin. He wondered if his ass was blushing, and he had one fleeting, insane thought of asking Spike. Luckily, the feeling of a strong hand caressing and exploring his exposed ass short-circuited his ability to speak.

"So, why didn't ya tell anyone about feeling evil?" Spike asked. Xander groaned into the bedspread. Talk? Spike wanted to talk?

"I did. Hellmouthy vibes. I distinctly remember mentioning Hellmouthy vibes," Xander stopped when a thumb rubbed his still-tender pucker so that he could only gasp.

"You talked about 'em the same way Willow or Buffy talked about 'em," Spike corrected him.

"And I thought it was the same," Xander protested as he started squirming, pressing his butt up into the gentle petting.

"So, ya didn't use good judgment there. The others never got pulled toward evil, so you should have known something wasn't the same."

"Me dumb. I'm okay with that," Xander offered as he curled his hands into fists. It was amazing how helpless he felt over Spike's lap with a vampire arm holding him down. He couldn't do anything to stop the slow torment as Spike played with him, and now Spike's thighs tightened around Xander's cock so that Xander just about lost all coherent thought.

"You're not bloody dumb," Spike snapped, and the first hit landed on Xander's ass, hard enough to bring heat to the skin and make Xander jump with the sound of it.


"Relax, pet, I won't hurt you," Spike now crooned as he blew across the warm skin, and oh yeah, that wasn't hurt. That wasn't even related to hurt. Not even third cousins twice removed from hurt.

"So, you don't have good judgment when it comes to yourself. Here you are, a potent Shaman with power running under your skin, and ya still walk around calling yourself dumb."

"You called me dumb first," Xander pointed out.

"Yeah, well I call Angel Peaches or Pouf, and I know he's not some piece of soddin' fruit, and as far as him bein' a pouf, well, there was just the once."

"Okay, not wanting to know!" Xander interrupted as a whole new shiver went through him, and not for good reasons.

"Right, so I may say all sorts of things, but we're talking about you, pet." Spike emphasized the 'you' with another hit, this time a softer one that he immediately rubbed. Xander groaned. "You don't take care of yourself, do you?"

"Not so much," Xander agreed, but then he would have agreed to anything by that point. Spike landed three hits right on the swell of Xander's ass, and Xander arched his back as the heat soaked into his skin and gathered in his cock.

"You don't value yourself, pet. That stops now." Spike returned to gently stroking Xander, the pets now wandering down to the backs of Xander's thighs and then inside his legs and then up to the perineum. Xander twitched with need, unable to even form words. "You're mine, and you don't have a right to go gettin' hurt."

Xander shivered as the words sunk in. He was Spike's. Oh god, that would be panic showing up for the party right on time as Xander's brain conjured the image of Willow's shocked face. Shit, and Buffy would get that totally neutral expression that suggested that things had gotten too weird for her to even process.

"Breathe, pet," Spike ordered, and the naughty petting turned into a gentle stroking up Xander's back.

"They're going to have kittens," Xander whispered.

"It doesn't matter, not as long as you're okay, pet," Spike crooned. "Ya can't keep carrying this by yourself, so you need to just let go."

"I'm thinking it matters. I'm thinking Willow is going to give me her disappointed look. I'm thinking--"

"Xander!" Spike interrupted, and Xander fell silent. "Listen to me, pet. You're soddin' mine. It's my lap you're bent over because you broke the rules, and I'm the only one you need to worry about. And as far as I'm concerned, you're bloody perfect. Got me a Shaman, don't I?" Spike asked as his hand headed back down to Xander's ass. "Don't I?" Spike repeated with a little slap that sent a warm shiver through Xander.

"Yeah," Xander agreed.

"A mouthy Shaman who faced down Angelus himself."

"Oh yeah," Xander nodded, although he wasn't sure whether he agreed with Spike or Spike's hand which now tickled the backsides of Xander's balls.

"A mouthy Shaman who needs to listen when the rule is one word," Spike said with an amused voice, and Spike struck again, this time more noise than heat. Xander could feel his skin come to life one hit at a time: hot, phantom hand prints lingering on his body. "A mouthy Shaman who needs to learn to ask for help." Spike hit three times, each a little harder until Xander gasped as the heat traveled to his cock and made him squirm and hump. Spike's hand tightened on his waist. "A mouthy Shaman who's going to take better care of himself," Spike finished with several more hits, and Xander arched his back.

Xander gasped as Spike physically picked him up and put him stomach down on the bed. Before Xander had a chance to turn over, Spike's hands landed on his hips, holding him down as Spike knelt between his legs and nudged them open. Xander blushed, and the heat settled into those phantom hand prints, as he opened his legs for Spike.

"Sore, pet?" Spike asked, his breath whispering across Xander's warm ass. Xander wanted to say that the spanking hadn't even hurt but then Spike's tongue lapped at his hole, and every brain cell Xander owned short-circuited. Spike hummed, and the vibration took the express train right up Xander's spine and danced through his belly.

Throwing his legs open farther, Xander forgot to breathe as Spike's tongue probed him, wiggling at his entrance so that Xander's whole body began to tremble. If he didn't come soon, his cock was going to fall off and then Spike would be sorry. Xander must have made some sort of unhappy noise because now Spike chuckled, the low sound shimmying up Xander's backbone as he fisted the bedspread.

Wet fingers now probed him more forcefully than the tongue, and Xander pressed back as a finger slipped in and drove unerringly for his prostate. Oh yeah, Spike was so going to break him. Xander started humping the bed, his cock demanding more and more as he rubbed himself against the cheap bedspread until he could feel his cock head grow sore. Pressure nudged at his backside and he struggled up to his knees where he could press back.

Oh yeah, that was more. That was wonderfully more. Xander panted as the muscles stretched and burned.

"Slow, pet," Spike said as strong hands took him by the hips and controlled his movements. Xander let his head slump to the bed, his ass still up as he surrendered to Spike's pace.

Finally Xander could feel Spike pressed up against the back of his thighs, and Xander whined as Spike pulled out and then thrust back in no more than an inch. Slowly, Spike started moving, using his grip on Xander's hips to keep the pace building slowly, each thrust just a little faster and deeper than the last.

A hand wrapped around Xander's cock, and Xander exploded, lunging forward into that tight grip before driving himself back onto Spike's cock. His whole body turned to fire and need as he lost all control, and then he was coming, all the frustration and heat igniting as he shouted. He could feel Spike coming, Spike's arms tightening around him, and then they both collapse do the bed in a big, sticky pile of tangled arms and legs.

For long minutes, they lay there, tangled in each other. Xander had a nice view of the side of Spike's face where he could see the vampire's profile. "Okay, that was—" Xander flopped a hand as words failed him. Spike just continued to stare up at the ceiling.

"So—" Xander tried again, and then he fell silent as Spike didn't even glance over.

"Are ya plannin' on staying in Cascade?" Spike asked calmly while still staring at the ceiling.

"Wha? Um, not unless you are," Xander said, slightly confused since he thought they'd had this discussion already. Maybe he only thought they had the discussion because his brain had been getting significantly less blood than usual.

Slowly, Spike smiled. "Bloody right you'll go where I go," Spike said as he worked an arm under Xander and pulled him close.

"Can we please just start by going under the covers?" Xander asked as he realized that the room was chilly. Up until now, he'd been hot, but now the cool air over his sweat-soaked skin left him ready to start shivering.

"Yeah. In the bed with you, pet. Can't have my Shaman gettin' sick now, can I?" Spike asked as he started tugging at the covers. Xander lifted himself up halfway so that Spike could pull the covers down. Then he slipped between the sheets and allowed Spike to arrange them both so that the vampire could wrap around him. Xander relaxed into the strong arms that held him and opened himself to the vibrations in the room. Contentment and protectiveness and pride enveloped him.



Jim stood in the living room with his arms crossed, but even with the suspicious looks, the tension had somehow dropped between him and Spike since they had arrived at the loft just after the setting sun.

"Bloody hell, we'll never make customs if you don't hurry your arse up," Spike complained from his own spot leaning against the wall.

"Hurrying," Xander promised as he headed into the small room under the stairs. Yeah, Jim and Spike seemed to have called a truce on any murder attempts, and Blair was out there to baby-sit the two of them, but Xander still planned to make record time with the packing. He pulled open a drawer and grabbed random handfuls of fabric, not even bothering with sorting or sniff tests as he jammed it all into his suitcase.

"Xander?" Blair called quietly from the door.

"Hey, are they… ?" Xander glanced toward the door, half expecting to hear Jim and Spike in some epic battle to the death, or at least to the serious injury.

"They're fine. I just wanted to talk to you for a second," Blair promised as he came in and shut the door… the flimsy door that didn't even block the sound of Spike's boots impatiently pacing across the floor.

"That's not exactly going to keep a Sentinel or a vampire from eavesdropping," Xander pointed out as he grabbed his stuff out of the next drawer and shoved it into his bag.

"Jim wouldn't eavesdrop."

"Spike totally would."

That seemed to make Blair pause. "Xander, Simon was serious about that job offer. I don't know what happened last night, but I think I really screwed up big time, and I don't want you to go running off because I did something that made—"

"Hey, no. Ixnay on the exsay talk with the significant others isteninglay, not that they don't know, but I'm just thinking let's not go for the exsay in front of them anyway," Xander interrupted. "And if we were talking about it, which we aren't, I would say that it was wonderful and I'm really glad that you were there for me, and is this feeling as weird for you as it is for me, because this is feeling pretty weird here," Xander finally petered off.

"Oh man, a little, yeah," Blair agreed. "I just tried to talk to Jim today, and he went all stoic on me."

Xander stopped packing and stared down at his own hands, hands that had rebuilt broken walls and carried injured girls and picked up the fallen weapons of dead potentials. His hands had held Rebekah, the young slayer they'd lost in England, as he skin peeled off in black sheets. Her tears had made little pink pools on his fingers where her blood stained his skin.

"Jim helped me last night," Xander struggled to explain.

"Did I hurt you?"

Xander snorted a laugh. "I was big with the hurt before I ever got here," Xander finally admitted. He'd never admitted that to even himself. "Jim just… he offered me a place to try and heal."

"That place is still here for you," Blair offered, and Xander nearly jumped out of his skin when Blair's warm hand came to rest on his shoulder. He turned and smiled at Blair, amazed at the acceptance he found in Blair's expression.

"And you have no idea how much that means, but I think I'm going to be okay. Really," Xander promised. Blair watched him, blue eyes searching for some sign, and maybe he found it because he nodded.

"I hear you. We all make our paths in life, and just remember that this one is here for you," Blair said softly.

"Will you just bloody hurry up?" Spike shouted from the living room, and oh yeah, the vampire had totally been listening. Xander shrugged at Blair.

"Is he always this annoying?" Blair mock whispered, and in the living room, Spike made a strangled noise that might have been some strange English curse cut off in the middle.

"Yep," Xander agreed with a smile. Blair smiled back before heading back out into the living room, probably to finish making the dinner that Spike and Xander had interrupted when they'd shown up on the guys' doorstep.

"Chill your fangs, Spike, I'm coming," Xander shouted through the open door as he grabbed his stuff out of the third drawer.

"We're going to miss the bloody plane if you don't shift your arse."

"And wouldn't that be a shame," Jim offered in a sarcastic voice.

"Oh man, would you just stop baiting the vampire?" Blair threw in. A knife ticked against the chopping board as Blair chopped vegetables.

"Soldier boy can't handle that he bloody lost," Spike said, and Xander didn't have to look to know that Spike had a smirk on his face.

"Xander isn't a prize at the county fair. He made a choice." Oh yeah, Jim was doing the jaw thing now.

"And you bloody lost."

"You'd better hope that you never die because with this attitude, your karma must be—" Blair made a whistling sound, and Xander imagined the man was making hand gestures to show the size of Spike's karma. Xander finished pulling clothes out of the dresser and got on his knees to retrieve anything that had migrated to under the bed.

"Mate, you have no idea. But I never plan to die, so I can't say I worry about it."

Xander stood and shoved the last pair of socks into the bag and zipped it. When he stepped out of the small room that had been his for the last few weeks, Jim and Spike were glowering at each other and Blair stood in the kitchen, knife still in hand as he rolled his eyes.

"Blair, Jim, I'm really glad you let me come do the whole tagging along thing, and well, you know all the things I have to thank you for that I'm going to avoid thanking you for because I'm not kiss-and-tell guy," Xander offered. Jim looked toward him, and the glower softened.

"No problem, Sport. You're always welcome."

"Don't know why you're actin' all shy. Not like I don't already know, pet. Especially the way this loft smells," Spike interrupted with a leer.

"The loft smells of Blair's orange cleaner and soap," Jim said with a hint of frustration in his voice.

"You're no bloody fun, mate. Can't give the boy shite if you go undermining me. 'Sides, maybe I just have a better sense of smell than you," Spike suggested.

"Oh man. That would be fascinating. Testing a demon? Talk about opening up new frontiers," Blair replied, awe clear in his voice. Xander turned and Blair had put the knife down as a look of curiosity slowly transformed the guide into the hyper super-scientist Xander both loved and dreaded.

"Oh shit," Xander whispered.

"Spike, just run for the door, and I'll cover you. As long as he doesn't have his notebook yet, we have a chance," Jim added with a fond look at his partner.

"Very funny, man," Blair complained, but Xander noticed Spike actually was moving toward the door.

"Xander, hurry up. Not goin' to be here when the Shaman starts the mojo."

Xander looked up at Spike sharply, as did Blair and Jim. "Mojo? Blair has mojo?" Xander asked.

"Of all the… what the soddin' hell do you think makes a Shaman a Shaman? They do mojo."

"Whoa," Blair interrupted as he held his hands palm-out in a gesture of surrender or helplessness. "I have never been the one with mojo here. Jim does the prophetic dreams and the super senses, and I just cover his back," Blair made a half-laugh that Xander recognized all too well, the whole 'make fun of yourself before someone does it for you' laugh.

"You honestly don't get it, do ya?" Spike asked curiously. No one answered. "Bloody hell, it takes years to train a Shaman. You got this one up and running in two weeks, and as much as I love the git, he's not known for his ability to sit still and learn. Then ya got a Sentinel here, and from what I read in Xander's reports, you taught him to use his sensory "dials" in one sitting. *That* is mojo."

Xander looked at Blair whose eyes were wide with shock. "He's mojoing his teaching?" Xander blinked at Blair who looked absolutely… well, Spike would describe that as gobsmacked. "God, where were you when I almost failed algebra? I so could have used a mojoing teacher with the powers of making people learn." Xander joked as he walked toward Spike giving Blair a little shove on the shoulder as he passed by.

"Oh man. Are you sure?" Blair finally asked in a voice weak with surprise.

"No, I'm not. But I'm willin' to bet your mojo has something to do with that. So, if you're goin' to go trying to use your powers of persuasion on me, I'll just be leavin'. I don't go for the mojo," Spike answered as he pulled the door open. Xander smiled when Spike's free arm slipped neatly around his waist. Spike tightened his grip for a moment before guiding Xander out of the apartment.

"Xander, hold on," Jim called. "I wanted to give you this." Jim came over, grabbing a manila envelope off the table as he came.

"If that's garlic…" Spike warned with a snarl, and really Jim and Spike didn't bring out the best in each other because Jim glared murder back.

"He was joking earlier," Blair interrupted, but Jim just smiled coldly at Spike as Xander pulled open the flap. Inside were printouts. A small wildcat with rounded ears and round brown eyes looked at a photographer from behind a wide leaf. The next picture had a cat's body laid out next to a yardstick, and Xander realized the animal was smaller than the average housecat. The third sheet had information about the animal's habitat in South America and how the animal lived in social groups… males actually rumored to help raise the kittens although scientists had never been able to study the elusive creatures well enough to confirm those reports.

Xander looked up at Jim. "Um… thanks? Can't say I'm getting it though," Xander admitted as he looked down at the sheets of paper. Spike reached over and tilted Xander's hand so that he could peer at the printouts.

"It's what I saw. That's your spirit guide," Jim answered as he nodded toward the envelope. Xander looked up at Jim's earnest expression and then down at the papers.

"A kodkod? I have a spirit animal named kodkod?" Xander nearly squeaked in his dismay. "Oh no. There has to be a return desk for these things. You know, trade up for something in a nice lion shape or actually anything that isn't small enough to get eaten by a housecat," Xander complained. "Come on… kodkod? I mean, the universe isn't this cruel."

"Least it's better than a dormouse," Spike pointed out as he looked over Xander's shoulder. Xander turned his head and glared at his lover, which earned him a slap on the ass.

"Thanks, mate," Spike said to Jim, and the man nodded his head in answer.

"We're here if you ever need us, you know," Blair said as he came over and joined Jim next to the table, leaning his body into Jim as the sentinel slipped an arm over Blair's shoulders.

"We'll keep that in mind," Spike answered.

"Bye, and thanks," Xander barely had time to add before he found himself pushed out of the loft and into a new life. As Spike's hand slipped around his waist and then the fingers dipped into the waistband of his jeans above his hipbone, he decided change was good. Now if he could just figure out how to trade in his spirit animal, it might even be perfect.




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