Sandy Places on the Ground

Part One

He had to admit, looking at the world through goggles -- even special demon-grade ones with the blue tinting -- was sometimes enough to make him feel more academic. Then again, given his subject, perhaps it was 'academonic'? Xander glanced over at his semi-study partner, and bit his tongue on the giggles.

Willow was carefully measuring out some unnamed ingredient, the tip of her tongue showing between her lips as she concentrated. Xander watched her, waiting kindly until she had poured the stuff into a beaker before asking, "Do you still have the silver pipet?"

"Yeah. It's... um..." She looked around the table, eyes lighting as she spotted it. "There." Picking it up, she handed it to him.

"Thanks." He took it, but didn't turn back to his own experiment just yet. The scene struck him as odd, and for a moment he just wanted to enjoy it.

Willow noticed his continued regard. "What? Do I have powdered mugwart on my nose or something?"

Grinning, he shook his head. He pushed the goggles up onto his forehead, and blinked for a moment as his eyes adjusted. "I just never thought..."

"Thought what?" She cocked her head to the side, looking at him curiously.

He waved his hand towards his table, covered with paraphernalia both recognizable to the average chemist and not. "I'm actually having fun with this stuff," he admitted. "Heck, I may even start enjoying trig, if this keeps up."

"Now don't go getting too crazy on me, Xander," she teased, smiling at him.

"Hey, can I help it? Who knew under all this was a wild scholar just waiting to get out?"

"Offhand, I'd say Giles, since he gave you your stuff in the first place. But I always knew you were smart. You just needed to find something that interested you."

Xander shrugged, turning back towards his experiment. He'd been working through the textbook Giles had given him for his birthday, and halfway through the summer Willow had discovered what he was doing. They'd begun studying "together", she on her wicca, inspired by Ms. Calendar's own interests, and he on the demon chemistry. It was nice, and comfortable, to be working with Willow nearby.

Even though she was wrong. He hadn't needed something to interest him. He'd needed the freedom to care.

"So what is it that this experiment supposed to do?" Willow asked, shaking him from his thoughts as she looked at his setup with interest.

"Um, actually, if it works it's supposed to blow up the school." He gave Willow a wink, since she could see who had walked into the room behind them and he, supposedly, could not. Having reflective silver equipment was sometimes extra useful.

"You didn't study for the English test tomorrow, did you?"

"I was busy."

"You do remember that the reason Principal Snyder is so hard on Buffy is because she burned down her last school?" came a reasonable voice from behind Xander.

He turned and looked up at Giles who was looking at him soberly,though by now Xander could tell when he was serious and when he wasn't. His eyes always gave it away. "Oh, it's ok," Xander replied breezily. "This experiment hasn't worked right, yet."

"Just remember if you get expelled, you'll be grounded for the next two years."

Xander raised an eyebrow, ignoring the way Willow was stifling her laughter. "If I'm grounded for the next two years, you realize that'll be me, at home? All the time?"

Giles smiled. "It'll be worse than that. I'll have to home school you."

"You wouldn't just make me get a job at the Tastee Freeze?" Xander smiled, but the joke reminded him of a time when it wouldn't have been all that funny. His parents had always said-- He cut off the train of thought and gave Giles a rueful grin, glancing towards his still-bubbling experiment. "I'm doomed to have a career, aren't I?"

"Yes." Before Giles could say anything else, the door opened again and Cordelia came in.

"Hey, Cordelia, gracing us with your presence?" Xander made it almost sound sincere.

"It's not by choice, believe me." She turned to Giles. "Buffy said to tell you she's finished with the thing and is ready for the next thing."

Xander didn't hide his grin; Giles, on the other hand, was keeping a very straight-face. Practically. "Ah, yes, thank you, Cordelia. Willow, I believe I'll need your assistance?"

"Oh. Sure." Willow gathered her things up and moved to join the librarian. "See you later, Xander."

"Come by the library when you're done and we'll pick something up for dinner on the way home," Giles told him as he turned to leave. "Provided, of course, you haven't blown up any portion of the school."

"*Any* portion?" Xander looked at him, dismayed. "Even just the lab?"

"No explosions."

Xander frowned. "You don't love me anymore." It gave him a shiver when he realized he'd picked that phrase up. He *had* to stop hanging out with Spike. And it had only been twice all summer. Plus one time that hadn't been much more than a 'hi' and a liplock.

"That didn't work when you wanted a raise in your allowance, it's not going to work now," Giles told him sternly. Though it might not have gotten him a raise, it had gotten him a new computer game he'd wanted.

He wondered what he'd get this time. He wondered if he should feel guilty about playing on Giles' emotions in order to get presents. That thought suddenly *made* him feel guilty, and he turned towards his experiment. If it didn't feel so nice to be given gifts for a change, he'd stop pushing for them.

"Way to use the emotional blackmail there, Xander," Cordelia told him after Giles and Willow left.

"Thanks," he said brightly. "Learn from the best."

"Oh, this was taped to your locker." She handed over an envelope with his name printed on it. In a very familiar handwriting.

He stared at the note, knowing he didn't want to open it. He didn't *care* what it had to say. So he opened it anyway, because if he didn't he'd only keep wondering, until he did.

"Since your so-called what's his face apparently never lets you answer the phone, I'm resorting to leaving this. Hope you're happy, making me sneak in here, leaving this note like a secret pal or something. That give you a charge? Knowing what you've done to me? Acting like I don't got the right to talk to my own kid? It's long past time this nonsense was over with. You get back where you belong, get these stupid notions out of your head that you mean anything to these people. You and I both know it's just charity, and I taught you long ago that Harrises don't take no charity. You've embarrassed us enough. Get back home. Now."

Xander stared at the note in disbelief. It had to be someone's idea of a sick joke.

"Xander?" Cordelia asked in an uncertain tone. "Your face just went all... you know. Icky."

He glanced up. "Yeah." He felt sorta... icky. He'd stopped by his locker only a half hour ago, and there had been no note.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah. Great. Shouldn't I be?" Which meant he'd been just down the hall...

"Most people who are great don't look like that."

He started to snap back at her, and stopped himself. The brief surge of anger spun away, and he felt empty. "Yeah, well, most people don't get notes at school from their dads."

Cordelia looked confused. "Why would Giles send you a note?"

For a moment Xander's jaw just hung open. Then he smiled, which became a somewhat hysterical grin. "Not Giles." He wondered if his father was still on school grounds. He leapt off his chair. "Cordelia? Where was Buffy going to be when she asked you to send
Giles after her?"

"The library. Where else? Not Giles? Then who--" Her eyes widened as she figured it out.

It wasn't the threats that were in the note that worried him. Well, not those which worried him most. It was the chance of running into him again... Xander turned to his experiment, turning off the Bunsen burner and putting away what little he had to to ensure no actual explosions or stained table-tops would occur. Then he turned back to Cordelia, and, amazing himself, asked, "Would you come with me to the library?"

She reached out and touched his shoulder, her expression showing an empathy that most did not think her capable of. "Sure, Xander."

"Thanks." He didn't go so far as to try to take her hand; he didn't need her to know how scared he was. It was weird to be feeling this way -- he'd fought and killed all manner of monsters. Why was he shaking at the thought of seeing this one?

He kept a hyper-aware watch as they walked down the hallway. Listening to Cordelia talking with only enough attention to say 'Uh-huh' as she filled the silence, he kept lookout for any sign. When they reached the library he nearly ran inside.

Giles was standing a few feet away from Buffy, Willow sitting on the table in between them. They all turned to look at him when he entered and Giles immediately stepped towards him, seeming to sense something was wrong. Xander wondered why he wasn't running across the room yet, leaping at -- possibly behind -- Giles. That was why he'd come, for protection. But for some reason, he couldn't make his feet move.

Luckily he didn't have to. Giles was coming to him, not stopping until he was directly in front of him, hands resting on Xander's shoulders. "What's wrong?"

He found himself caught in Giles' eyes. Unable to break the gaze, Xander held out the note. Dimly, he heard Cordelia say, "It was on his locker."

Giles took it from him, and Xander watched as his eyes dropped to the paper to read it. When he looked up again, Giles' face was white with rage.

And apparently he was still conditioned, despite all his evidence to the contrary. Because he backed up, one step and he bumped Cordelia. Rage was bad. Rage was to be avoided at all costs, even pride and love and safety. He was shaking, and he was suddenly afraid he was going to lose something.

Again, Giles seemed to be totally tuned in to his feelings because his face smoothed out into an expression of worry and caring. "Could the rest of you excuse us, please?" Giles asked, his eyes never leaving Xander's.

"Sure, Giles," Willow said softly, her voice subdued with her own worry. She and Buffy moved past them to join Cordelia.

Even now, he hadn't broken the line of his gaze. Trapped by Giles' eyes -- searching for the remnants of anger, or the love which ought to be there, too. His brain started working again, asking him why the hell he's trying to run away.

Giles slowly opened his arms, mutely offering an embrace.

Xander dove for safety. Straight into Giles' arms, closing his eyes and ducking his head just a bit, enough to feel like maybe, if he didn't move, he could feel like he was hiding there. His guardian's arms closed around him, holding him tightly, protectively. "It's all right," Giles murmured. "I've got you."

Xander realized his panic was leaving; replaced by two very important things. The first, that nowhere on earth felt as good as this spot, right here, did. The second, that it was going to have to stop happening if he wanted Giles to never know. The curse of a young man's hormones, that as soon as fear faded everything else kicks in again. He still had time, though, before his body told Giles more than he needed to know. He stayed nestled in the embrace, counting the seconds before he had to pull away.

Giles continued to murmur comforting words and hold him. Taking a deep breath, Xander dragged himself together and let go. It was probably his imagination but Giles seemed oddly reluctant to let him move away. "You're all right?"

Nodding, Xander found himself stammering an all-too-unconvincing, "Yeah." He tried another deep breath, said in a much steadier voice, "I'll be OK. I just-- didn't know if he was still... around." Still didn't know, but he was no longer so afraid. Now that his reflexes had had a chance to calm down, he knew that rage had been directed at his father. Knew it was there to protect *him*.

"He won't even get close to you," Giles told him, fierce determination shining through.

This time the smile was there, without further hint of fear. He wanted to say something, acknowledge what was in those words. All he could think was something he didn't know how to say.

"Why don't we go home?"

Relieved, Xander nodded. Again he stifled the impulse to reach out for Giles' hand. He had no idea where the need came from -- a peculiar thing to start doing at his age.

Spike might let him, though. He'd probably enjoy it.

Giles reached out and laid a hand against his back as they headed out of the library, the gesture half-guiding, half-protective. Xander made sure he didn't step away from that hand.

~~~~~

Giles was gathering his things, glancing up at his clock. He muttered something under his breath that Xander couldn't quite make out, but he thought the words "Snyder" and "insensitive lout" were prominently featured. Xander tried not to let Giles hear him laugh -- he didn't think he could keep a straight face while being lectured about showing proper respect for the principal.

He also tried not to watch Giles as he went from room to room, gathering the things he needed for the meeting Snyder had called. He didn't want to make Giles think he was anxious about his going. He must've given something away however, because when he reached the front door, Giles stopped and looked at him with concern. "Are you sure you'll be all right here alone?" he asked.

As casually and believably as he could, Xander nodded, replying, "Yeah, I'll be fine." When Giles still looked doubtful, he added, "Besides, Willow gets back at 1. I can go hang with her." Truth was, he wasn't sure he was as fine with it as he sounded, but he wasn't about to give in to being too scared to stay out of Giles' shadow.

"If you're sure," Giles said uncertainly. "You know you can always come with me."

Xander's eyebrows rose of their own accord. "Go to school? On Saturday? For a *meeting*?" He wasn't *that* freaked out.

"Ah yes. A fate worse than death. Silly me." He slid the folders he'd retrieved into his briefcase. "If you're all right then, I must be off. To school. On Saturday. For a meeting."

Xander couldn't help laughing. At Giles' look of disgust, he found himself laughing harder.

With a weary, long suffering sigh, Giles opened the door. "If you do go out, just be back by sunset."

Xander rolled his eyes. "D'uh!" Then he grinned. "Cheer up. When I'm the grown-up again, I'll have to go to meetings. Probably."

"I will look forward to gloating about it." Then Giles was gone.

Xander followed him to the front door, and made sure it was locked behind him. Then he turned around, briefly considered the chores and homework he had to do over the weekend -- then headed for his computer. Willow had started bragging about her accomplishments in Myst. It was time to show her that no genius could defeat a slacker boy with time on his hands.

Half an hour later, he gave up in frustration. He couldn't sit still, couldn't quiet his thoughts enough to even concentrate on the game. He jumped up and went into the bathroom and gave cleaning a try. Ten minutes into that he threw the rag down and headed for the
kitchen.

A snack kept him busy for as long as it took to inhale -- then he was wandering into the living room looking for something else. Homework -- four minutes. Magazine, three. Newspaper, channel surfing, staring at the ceiling - thirty minutes. He tried calling Willow, just in case she was home three hours early.

No luck.

He'd felt like this before, but not for a long while. It had been a fairly common occurrence back when he still lived with his parents -- a restlessness that grew out of unease. Fear. He felt like his skin didn't fit, itching on the inside where he couldn't reach. It made him jump at every little noise. Every car engine that pulled into the lot made him tense, waiting for the sounds to follow, of footsteps to the door.

He couldn't stay. Grabbing his keys, he ran through the apartment, turning off lights before heading to the door. Where could he go? Too early for the Bronze. Buffy was out with her mom, Willow was gone, anyplace else he hung out was... well, his father knew where everyplace was.

Except one.

The one place not even Giles or Willow knew about.

He told himself he was absolutely out of his mind, thinking of going there. There was every reason to think it was just as dangerous as going to his folks' house and yelling 'here I am!'. But even as he was thinking that, he was heading in the direction of the abandoned factory. It was dangerous, it was stupid, it was crazy. But that didn't seem to be stopping him.

As he got nearer, he found himself getting both more nervous, and more certain this was what he wanted to do. It occurred to him that maybe Spike wouldn't be there -- but where else would he be during daylight? The building was now looming in front of him. If he had any sense whatsoever, he'd be turning back, he told himself.

Apparently he didn't have any sense.

He went inside, the place was unchanged from the last time he'd been here. There was no immediate sign of Spike, which probably meant the vampire was sleeping. Xander told himself to run those words through his head again, and focus on the important one. Vampire.

Nope, no sense. He wasn't leaving.

His footfalls echoed eerily in the empty expanse, and despite everything, he felt tendrils of unease climb up his spine.

"Miss Edith, you must be nice and not scare away our guest." A sing-song voice came from the shadows, echoing just enough that he couldn't tell exactly where it came from.

Xander froze.

Drusilla walked out, carrying her doll. She looked at him, slyly, before smiling at the doll and saying, "No, you mustn't eat him. He belongs to Spike. Spike won't share."

Swallowing with a suddenly dry throat, Xander pasted a smile on his face. "Um... hi Drusilla. Is Spike around?"

Swaying back and forth, she watched for a long moment before answering. Xander wondered what she was listening to -- and decided he really didn't want to know. "Come, now, Miss Edith. It is time for good little girls to go to bed." She turned and walked away from him, his presence apparently forgotten.

He let out a cautious sigh of relief as she disappeared into the shadows. Turning back towards the room he'd shared with Spike before, Xander went in search of his... so what *was* he going to call him? Lover? Boyfriend? Suck buddy?

His addiction, he thought, entering the room and seeing Spike asleep on the bed. Something that was unquestionably bad for him but that he couldn't seem to resist.

Spike didn't move as he approached. Sound asleep, he looked... just as sexy and dangerous as he did when awake. He took another step closer, almost to the bed, and Spike's eyes snapped open. The smirk that passed for a bemused smile appeared instantly and gave Xander an irrational -- or not -- urge to slap it off his face. "You know you could at least pretend to be worried I'd come to stake you," he said, irritated.

Spike sniffed. "I keep hoping you will. Or let me stake you." Spike shifted slightly, not getting off the bed, but rather making room.

Xander perched on the edge of the bed, nervously.

Spike raised his eyebrows. "Oh, what?"

"What what?"

"You telling me you came here to just look at me? Not that I could blame you, of course."

"No. Not just to look." He couldn't bring himself to say what he did want. He wasn't even certain he knew himself what it was.

But Spike's smirk turned into a welcoming smile, and he held out his hand. "Come on, then."

Xander found himself moving forward eagerly before he'd even thought of it. Probably for the best. Around Spike, thinking wasn't his strongest suit anyway. But that wasn't what he'd come here for. What he'd wanted, what he was getting, as Spike caressed his arms,
leaning forward and licking Xander's lips...

Spike rolled him easily onto his back, and continued touching him, hand gliding up and down his chest. He arched up into the light touch, his own hands reaching to wrap around Spike's shoulders and pull him closer. Spike mumbled something vaguely encouraging as he was brought down into a kiss.

As they kissed, everything else seemed to hang, steady and silent but for a single heartbeat, a single panting breath when the kiss was broken. Xander didn't want it to stop. He was so starved for touch, for this kind of touch, from holding himself in such tight check all the time, that now that he actually had it he couldn't get enough.

It didn't seem that Spike minded. In fact, the more Xander tried to get at him, the more Spike made himself there to be touched. They began trying to shed clothing, opening and removing just enough to touch skin, then the touching overwhelmed the planning again, and there were soft moans and quick, hungry touching.

Somehow Xander ended up on top, his hands holding Spike's wrists over his head as he devoured the vampire's mouth and ground his erection against the answering hardness beneath him. The way Spike was writhing beneath him was delicious, heady. Xander wanted to grind them both into the mattress, hard and unyielding. Having this powerful, erotic person pinned beneath was a real trip, incredibly intoxicating.

It was also arousing as hell. Xander growled something that Spike interpreted to mean 'strip'; he wriggled and shimmied out of his jeans, kicking them out of the way even as Xander descended once more. His skin was like ice, smooth and electric, vibrating beneath
Xander's every touch.

His moans were incoherent and yearning, Spike's head thrown back, exposing the soft curve of his neck. A sudden impulse made Xander lean down and lick along his jugular.

The strangled scream that erupted startled him. Made him do it again. He used his teeth, nipping lightly, then sucking on the spot. Spike began thrusting hard against him, hanging onto Xander's waist and pressing his head farther back yet. All the while he kept moaning, until one more bite made him howl.

The sound sent a surge of arousal straight to Xander's groin. He thrust once more, hard, and shivered as he came.

He let himself collapse onto Spike, breathing heavily and uninterested in doing anything at all which involved moving. After a moment he realized Spike was lightly running his fingers up and down Xander's back.

"Hmmm... wha--" he mumbled.

"Shh," Spike kissed his cheek, moved a bit and kissed his lips, lightly. He continued running his fingers along his back and up into his hair, combing gently.

Shh. He could do that. He laid his head back down and closed his eyes, letting Spike's touch lull him into a light doze.

~~~~~

The light doze was disturbed by Spike moving. Xander opened his eyes and looked around, blearily. He felt like he'd been asleep for hours. He glanced at his watch and sat bolt upright.

The reason why he'd felt like he'd slept for hours was that he had.

"What's wrong?" Spike sounded cheerful and wide-awake.

"It's after dark." Giles was going to kill him.

"Yeah? You got a moon allergy?" Spike stretched before jumping out of bed. He grinned at Xander. "You wanna have some more fun?"

"I can't." He scrambled up, fumbling with his clothes, trying to straighten them into a semblance of propriety.

Spike watched, eyeing him with blatant appreciation. "Got somewhere to be?" He sounded disappointed. Xander couldn't tell how genuine it was.

"Yeah. Two hours ago." How was he going to explain this? Went out for a walk and lost track of time? He couldn't tell the truth very well. But sitting here trying to think of a reason wasn't going to help. Letting Giles go from worried to frantic...

"You gonna come back and visit sometime before another three months goes by?"

Xander paused, looking at Spike. "I don't know," he said honestly.

Spike met his gaze before shrugging. "Maybe I'll get a phone put in." He said it lightly, then headed out of the room. He glanced back at Xander once, but he didn't say anything more.

Xander was surprised to find that a large part of him wanted to go after the vampire, but he firmly squelched that desire. He *had* to get home. He headed for the door, seeing Spike going the other way. One more squelched urge to call after him -- to say what, he didn't know, and so he didn't.

Once outside, it occurred to Xander that Giles may be the least of his worries. He still had to make it home. After dark. And he didn't have his usual precautions with him.

He hurried away from the factory, towards home, thinking of what he could say. He knew he could always say something about his father -- maybe say he'd gone over to see his mother, knowing his father would be gone? Total, utter lies, but it would prevent Giles from asking after the truth. The thought of lying to him, playing on his emotions like that, though, made him feel sick.

A shadow stepped out in front of him and Xander jumped back, suppressing a yell.

"Geez! Buy some squeaky shoes, deadboy!"

Angel didn't show any reaction. "This is a bad part town to be in after dark," he said, stepping closer.

"Tell me about it," Xander muttered. He realized Angel probably knew who was around, and clamped his mouth shut. The faint frown on Angel's face made him hesitate, wondering if he was going to get narked on to Giles.

But if he was going to, he didn't say anything about it. "Come on. I'll see you back to Giles' place."

They took a few steps before Xander could say, "Thanks."

It made him nervous, being out with Buffy's mysterious man. Vampire. Even knowing Angel had a conscience didn't allay all his fears. He knew humans who had souls, and did far worse than kill you.

Which begged the question: why didn't he feel that way about Spike? It was a question he felt sure was going to keep him awake tonight, and no doubt several other nights as well.

He glanced over at Angel, and wondered again what possible cover story he could use - now that he had to convince both Angel and Giles. Angel kept glancing sideways at him as they walked, looking like he wanted to say something.

Finally, he couldn't take it anymore. "Angel," he began, then realized he hadn't decided on what to say.

"You know, sometimes danger can be very seductive," Angel said conversationally. "But it doesn't make it any less dangerous."

Oh, yeah. He knew. Xander swallowed his stomach, and his heart, and hoped he could just get home in one piece. Not that he expected Angel to go 'grr' on him, but he had a feeling a lecture from Angel would be even worse than one from Giles. Two hundred forty years worth of 'I *know* what I'm talking about.' The problem was, he knew what his response was supposed to be: 'Won't happen again.'

And he wasn't so sure it wouldn't.

"I'm not going to ask what you've been doing. But don't let your guard down and don't forget that no matter how tame a tiger appears, it's still a wild animal. That goes for more than tigers."

At that, Xander laughed. "You're telling me that sometimes people can be dangerous? Even when they aren't supposed to be? Oh, let's say, like someone who's supposed to take care of you?" He heard the bitterness in his voice, didn't try to stop it. "Thanks for the
newsflash."

"Xander, I didn't mean--"

"Don't, OK? Just -- I don't even wanna think about it." Which was, after all, why he'd done this.

When Angel spoke again his voice was calming, accommodating. "All right." A pause. "But if you ever need to talk to someone who's been there..."

That made him stop. He looked over, blinking. This was not part of the dark and dreary image of a vampire, cursed. "You what?" he whispered.

"My father..." Angel cleared his throat and fell silent.

Xander stood there silently for a moment. Then he nodded. "Yeah." He turned to walk again, heading away from Spike, heading for home.

Angel fell into step easily, beside him.

When they approached Giles' apartment, Xander looked in the front window and could see Giles talking on the phone and pacing. His stomach tightened at the look at Giles' face.

He was definitely in for it.

"Don't suppose you could bite me real quick and get my painful and messy death over with?"

Angel shook his head. "Sorry."

Xander sighed. Nice as it was to know he didn't have to be afraid of Giles' anger, he found he hated it more than he'd ever hated his father's wrath. But he headed up to the apartment, Angel still following. Xander reached the door, took a deep breath, and opened it.

Giles' eyes widened when they came in and he spoke quickly into the phone. "It's all right, Willow. He's just shown up. Yes, I'll have him phone you later. Bye." He hung up the phone and stared at Xander, expression unreadable.

Another deep breath, and he said calmly, "I'm sorry. I know -- stupid and dangerous. I'm sorry."

"Do you know how worried I've been?" Giles' voice was mostly calm but there was a barely detectable tremor that made Xander feel worse. "I thought that your father--"

"Perhaps I should go," Angel said quietly. He gave Xander a look, which said everything.

Giles glanced at him. "Thank you for bringing him home."

Angel nodded, said only, "You're welcome," then was gone -- silently as he'd arrived.

Xander faced Giles. "I know. I... wasn't thinking. I know it isn't much of an excuse..."

"Are you all right?"

"Yeah. I'm all right."

Letting out a breath in relief, Giles stepped closer, opening his arms. Xander accepted the embrace, feeling somewhat dirty. He knew Giles wouldn't be hugging him if he knew the truth. Grounding for two years wouldn't come close. Therefore, he let go sooner than he would have otherwise wanted.

His guardian looked at his face searchingly. "Are you sure you're all right?"

He sighed. "I didn't mean to make you worry about me." Yeah, it was nice knowing he *did*, but it was definitely not-nice to actually make him do so.

"It's nice to know it wasn't deliberate..."

Xander felt the second drop of his stomach into his shoes for the evening, and wondered if he should just tell it to take up residence there. He deserved it, he knew that, but he looked away anyway, unable to meet Giles' eyes. Giles had every right to be angry. All Xander could do was take it. "I'm grounded, again?" he asked, knowing the answer would be yes. At the least.

"Yes. One week."

That wasn't as bad as he'd thought. Curious, he looked up at Giles.

Who was avoiding his eyes. "I shouldn't have gone to that meeting. You weren't ready to be left alone--"

"And what would Snyder have done if you hadn't shown?" He wasn't about to argue that, had he not been left alone, he wouldn't have ended up... where he ended up. But making Giles baby sit him wasn't the answer.

Giles shook his head. "That's just... beauracracy. Politics. You're more important than that."

*That* made all his stomach-twisting worry vanish in a single pop. He tried to point out that he *didn't* need Giles with him every minute -- for that was where this would be going -- but he couldn't talk with his mouth stretched so. Reining in the smile long enough to say anything wasn't working, so he ducked his head again.

Gentle fingers touched his chin and lifted his head again. "Next time if you're uncomfortable, say something. Please."

"I didn't know I was," he admitted. It had only taken half an hour, but he had honestly thought he was... well, ok, uncomfortable only to a level he could handle on his own.

And he was still smiling, replaying Giles' words in his head.

"You could have phoned. And I will expect you to, next time."

"I thought I wasn't supposed to do it next time?"

"Well yes, but if you do..."

"I promise. I'll call." As he stood there, he replayed the words again. Again. It was silly and childish, but, "Am I?" He just wanted to hear it one more time.

"Are you...?"

Losing his nerve, he looked away. "Nothing. I'd better--"

"Grounded?"

"Nothing," he said again, and started past Giles.

Giles hand came out and caught his shoulder. "More important?" he asked quietly.

He didn't look over. He'd just gotten through telling himself he didn't need to be babied. Babysat, babied, all the same.

"You are, Xander. Very important to me."

Xander told himself, even as the words settled in, that he shouldn't have pushed. Awkwardly, he said, "I guess I better call Willow back. Let her yell at me, too."

Giles nodded. "Have you eaten?"

"Um, not since breakfast." High-protein snack *not* included. He turned away so Giles wouldn't ask him about the expression on his face. See it written on his forehead, maybe...

"I'll fix you something when you're on the phone. What would you like?"

"Um, anything that takes a while to cook." He'd been yelled at by Willow before.

"All right." There was another pause and then Giles added quietly, "I'm very glad you're all right, Xander."

Xander stopped on his way to his bedroom. He just stood there, savouring the way Giles' voice sounded. Then he continued, willing if not ready to face the rest of his music.

~~~~~

Xander craned his head, looking around, through, and over the crowd. He was meeting the gang here and he was late -- Giles had dropped him off, no arguments. Would be picking him up later unless he called -- *called* -- with a ride home. A safe ride home.

Xander didn't mind. The suffocating thing would get old eventually, he knew. Hoped. Right now he just wanted a soda and a couch with some of his friends. Looking around again, he spotted Willow and Buffy across the room and made his way over to join them.

He wasn't terribly surprised to see Oz sitting beside Willow. Xander fought off a fierce urge to get in the other boy's face and growl him off his best friend. But Willow looked happy, the way she always did when Oz was near, about to be near, or just someplace
else, breathing.

'Not fair,' he thought. 'She gets a boyfriend who breathes.' He grinned, greeting his friends. "Hey!"

"Hi!" Buffy said. "Finally got parole?"

"Only until next time." He sat down beside her, opposite the Willow-Oz unit. "I'm not planning a next time, mind you, but I'm assured by teenagers everywhere that there will be."

"Take it from the queen of being grounded," Buffy said woefully. "There is *always* a next time."

"Wonderful," Xander said in a cheerful voice. He looked over to find Willow doing that 'isn't he cute and what are we going to do with him' facial thing, and Oz, doing the 'Oz' thing. It sort of looked like a happy Oz thing. "So, quiet night? Did I miss the beheadings?"

"That comes after the band's last set."

"Oh, good, then I'm not late." Xander settled back, comfortably. He glanced around the room, wondering if anyone else he cared about was in residence. There was a flash of brunette; when he focused he could hear the distinct sound of a familiar laugh. It sounded like she was having a good time. The rest of the Bronze was filled with the same -- kids dancing, talking, laughing, carrying on. "You'd hardly think it was a school night," he said it his best disapproving-parent voice.

Buffy snorted. "Add a British accent and you'd have nailed Giles."

Xander spent an embarrassingly long two seconds trying not to choke, before he could give Buffy what he hoped was a meaningless smile. "I'm workin' on it."

"The day you show up at school in a tie and a tweed jacket, I'll know you've been fully assimilated."

"Ah, but you, too, shall be overcome," Xander replied, this time in what he knew for a fact was a ridiculously inaccurate German accent. "Resistance is useless." He noticed that Willow was having very definite difficulty controlling her giggles, and Oz had raised at eyebrow at him when he glanced over.

"Next thing you'll be imitating the borg."

"Borg?" He shook his head, sadly. "Buffy, Buffy, Buffy..." He 'tsked', but didn't explain.

"What?" she frowned, as if not certain she should give him enough rope for his joke, or not.

But Oz was the one who explained. "Daleks. Pre-dated the Borg."

Xander nodded. "He speaks! That's quota for the day?"

"He has a few more times left," Willow said straightfaced. "I think he's saving them up."

Oz nodded. Said nothing.

"See?"

They continued to talk, passing the time with nothing more important than old TV shows and late night movies. Xander enjoyed every moment of it, not even stopping to wonder why tonight felt so much thicker, so much heavier. As if the world were weighing down on him -- not to drag him under, but just pressing in on him and holding him together. As if the world were saying "Here we are, this is real, come and play."

When Oz had to leave to do a second set, he asked Willow to dance. She gave him a pretend-dubious look before accepting, taking his hand and leading him out where they could dance -- and she could watch Oz. Xander didn't mind. Maybe Oz could enjoy some vicarious dancing. It had to be a bummer, sometimes, to be in the band.

They danced through three songs before the Dingoes played something slow -- a glance at Oz showed Xander the friendly look of challenge. He considered accepting, dancing with Willow, slowly swaying with her in front of her boyfriend who'd written the song.

A look back at Willow changed his mind. She was staring at the stage with a totally starstruck gaze. He sighed, gave in gracefully, and headed back towards Buffy. He stopped when he saw she had company -- tall, dark, knows too many secrets company. He headed for the bar instead, to spend a little of his unill-gotten gain on caffeinated syrup. Cordelia was waiting for a drink of her own at the bar when he got there.

"Hey."

"Hi."

"Come here often?" He grinned when she laughed.

"More often than you lately." She gave him a searching look.

"Yeah, what can I say. The secret life of a double agent isn't all fun and glory. Sometimes you actually have to... well, stay home and mop the kitchen."

Cordy wrinkled her nose. "Ew. Giles doesn't actually make you do that, does he?"

He shrugged. "Someone had to." He gave her a look up and down, and asked, "You're wearing a new outfit. Hunting for a new boyfriend, or taunting Jacob?" Jacob was the boy Cordelia was 'dating' -- depending on who asked and how recently said Jacob had annoyed and/or amused her.

"Please. I don't hunt. I grace some lucky boy with my presence."

He looked around, back towards the gaggle she'd been standing with earlier. Nope, only girls. He turned back to her. "Only boy I've seen you with tonight is - hey!" He smiled triumphantly.

"Don't flatter yourself."

"Why not? No one else does." He took a drink of his soda, and wondered when he'd started drinking diet crap. He swapped with Cordelia before she could take a drink of her own.

"Hey!" She glared at him.

He took a sip. Yup, this was the real stuff. "What? Don't tell me you *want* the extra 150 calories?"

"Are you calling me fat?"

"No." He tried his very best to remain calm. He had just stumbled into the realm of 'no-win with angry female'. "I think you look great. I just assumed you were ordering your usual diet drink. Besides, 0 calories makes it possible to consume an entire candy bar, as well." He thought about what he'd just said. "Hey. Now why didn't I think of that?"

Cordelia shook her head. "You are just weird, Xander."

"I thought that was why you--" he remembered his promise to never admit in public that she enjoying hanging around him. Private, sure, he could get her to even play a rousing game of go with him when they were on patrol together. Another thing he was sworn to silence about.

"Don't think."

He nodded. It was about time for her to walk off, go back to her power-play and hangers-on. They had their drinks, she couldn't reasonably keep standing here talking to him. He should let her go.

He leaned forward and whispered, "I think it's really brave, being seen in public with your hair like this." *Then* he walked off.

~~~~~

Xander went by his locker before fourth period. He was pretty sure he still had some candy bars left, stashed away. He'd been as surprised as Willow at how hard it was to hang onto them -- although in Willow's case, she wanted to sell them. He would have been happy to keep them all, himself.

Of course, having Giles buy a box off Buffy helped ease the separation anxiety. Some. He grabbed a bar from underneath his history textbook, and headed off for class. He hoped the band appreciated all his efforts at fund-raising.

By the time school was out, he was seriously thinking of ways to sabotage the band's new uniforms so they'd be forced to sell the candy again. Soon. He grabbed the remainder of his stash before heading over to Willow's to study. Afterwards it was home for supper before escaping again to the Bronze. All in all, a perfectly normal day.

Until he got home for supper. The first thing that told him things were not normal was the fact that there was no supper. And no Giles. He wandered through the apartment, and confirmed -- Giles was not home. Normally that sort of thing wouldn't bother him, but normally Giles... never did this sort of thing. He was always when and where he said he'd be.

Xander wondered if he should be worried, or look forward to teasing Giles about punctuality.

It was almost an hour later when Giles finally came home. At least it looked like Giles. He wasn't so sure when he saw what the man was wearing. Jeans, white T-shirt, overshirt tied around his waist by the sleeves. He looked... well, perhaps he was drunk. Xander wandered into the living room from the kitchen, where he'd been trying to cook a proper stirfry and making a mess of things. Apparently Giles used something besides oil for flavour, only he hadn't any idea what. "Giles?"

"Yeah?" He frowned, his nose scrunching up. "What is that horrid stench?"

"Um, Chinese radish?" Xander offered. He hadn't thought it was going *that* badly. Even if it didn't smell... good, exactly.

"Good thing I ate before I came home. Smells more like something that needs to be buried."

Xander blinked, confused at the harshness of Giles' tone. Maybe he *was* drunk. "Sorry. I'll go get it cleaned up."

Giles waved him off. "Oh, just leave it. Jenny is coming over and it's going to be awfully hard to score if you're still underfoot."

He blinked again. Score? It wasn't like Giles to be so crude. Concerned, Xander went back towards Giles to see if he could smell alcohol...

"What are you doing?" The man was frowning at him now.

"Nothing." He couldn't smell anything, which meant it could be vodka. Or a hit on the head? If he'd found demons or vampires on the way home, it would explain a lot. Some, rather. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine. Except that you're still here."

"Oh. Yeah, sorry." Xander backpedaled. He wasn't exactly sure why Giles was being so rude about it, but he'd planned on heading to the Bronze anyhow. Except he still needed supper. He detoured to the kitchen again. "Lemme just grab something--"

Giles gave an exaggerated sigh. "You're really not good at taking a hint, are you? Go away. Leave. I don't want you here."

The tone of voice startled him. Xander stared at him, wondering if maybe it was just frustration. Maybe he should stay out an extra hour to make sure. He'd just go grab his wallet so he could buy dinner somewhere, and he'd be out of Giles' hair. "OK, OK, I'm going." He headed for his bedroom to get some cash.

His arm was grabbed as he went by Giles. "Wrong way. The door is over here." And the next thing Xander knew he was being shoved out the front door, which was then closed and locked behind him.

Stunned, Xander stood there, staring at the door. His brain tried to explain this to him -- Giles was really needing some time alone -- with Jenny, which he could understand. A simple request for an evening out would have done nicely. Heck, Xander might even have managed a whole night out, if Giles had needed it. Then, though, Giles could have stayed at *Jenny's* place. But instead Giles had come home, insulted his admittedly pitiful attempt at cooking, and then thrown him out.

Without his keys, wallet, or jacket. He raised his hand and knocked at the door.

"Go away!" Even muffled, Giles' voice carried exasperated frustration.

For a split second he was frozen, then he turned. And ran.

He barely watched where he was going, running instead on instinct, letting his reflexes carry him around and past whatever wasn't empty space. It was good, and it was necessary, because his brain wasn't paying attention. It was staring in at itself, asking, 'What did I do?'

He ran faster, harder, trying to leave the wailing voice behind. He didn't know what he'd done, couldn't very well ask, now. All he could think was... nothing.

With each step it felt as though a piece of his heart fell, dripping into the pavement like an open wound splattering blood. Each step pounded through his bones, crumbling and threatening to crack into a thousand bits.

Slowly his brain fell silent and the numbness grew. Spreading from his head, down into his throat which stopped its crying, down into his chest and arms and legs until he barely realized when he collapsed against something hard, and crawled into, under something,
and stayed.

He drew his knees up, wrapping his arms around them and staring at the crates before him which created the haven he'd found. Haven, burial ground, he didn't know. Didn't care, because everything that had cared or known or thought had been left scattered -- shattered -- behind him. He was shaking, and dug himself a little deeper into the pile of refuse he'd found.

He'd thought it was going to last forever. Instead, barely a year had gone by and now Giles was tired of him, too.

~~~~~

He had no idea who was out there, had no idea if whatever was moving knew he was there. He stayed still, not for fear of being found but simply because there was nowhere to go. No point in moving. If the local contingent of 'eat it kill it destroy the human' had come out to play, that was fine. He didn't care.

He heard something, a voice, talking low and rhythmically. Something told him he might recognize it, but he didn't want to listen. He pulled himself farther inside the hollow shell of his mind and waited until it went away.

He didn't know how long he sat there, wrapped in nothingness. Occasionally he had the feeling someone was near, but if it was someone bad, he was far enough away that it couldn't hurt him where it mattered.

Because none of it mattered. In fact, maybe he should go ask whatever it was to eat him...

There was a fervent voice telling him it was *not* going to eat him, but he didn't know why the voices in his head would be so adamant, so he turned his thoughts away again, and went back to being nothing.

Suddenly there was something warm and hard on his arm, dragging him out of his haven.

"Xander? Are you all right? God, I'm so sorry. If you're hurt I'll never... Look at me... please."

He turned towards the voice wondering why anyone was bothering him. He felt his heart stop again as he saw Giles. It wasn't enough to throw him out, now Giles had to follow him as well. Maybe he wanted to participate in the more normal game of Xander-bashing. Missed out on his fun by getting rid of him too early.

Giles smiled a little when he saw him looking. "That's it. Focus." Xander noticed his voice had an odd tone to it, sort of trembling, like he was trying to hold back something powerful and emotional.

Xander shook his head. He heard someone whispering, then Angel's voice saying "I don't know. I tried talking to him off and on since I found him; he wouldn't answer."

But Xander just stared at Giles. He didn't want to go through this again. Didn't want to get pulled up and forced to see just how little anyone wanted him around.

Giles was looking back, his face serious, almost... tortured? That couldn't be right. "I'm sorry, Xander. I didn't mean it. I don't want you to go away. In fact that's the last thing I want." His voice cracked on the last word.

This was a game Xander knew. Come here, son, I'll make it up to you. The making up always hurt worse than the rest of it. Xander whispered, "No," and found once he'd said it, he couldn't stop. "No, no, no no nononononono--" He tried to back up, but his back was up against something which had no give.

He watched as Giles' expression collapse. "God, what have I done," Giles muttered, in a small heartbroken voice full of tears and self-loathing. Then he was moving forward, pulling Xander's protesting body into an embrace.

Xander tried to fight, tried to struggle against the too-strong arms, holding him despite his fight to break free. He started screaming his 'No's, wanting anything but this, to know that Giles would hurt him, too. As he fought he could hear Giles' voice, saying something over and over.

He heard the words 'magic' and 'chocolate', then listened long enough to hear "All the adults were drugged." before Giles went into the litany again.

Drugged?

Xander stopped struggling as hard.

Giles held him tighter. "I would *never* throw you out, Xander. Even drugged, I only wanted the apartment to myself for the evening. Not for good. Never that."

"Drugged?" he managed, voice shaking as hard as the rest of him was. He raised his head, found Giles staring down at him. Crying.

Giles nodded. "I believe I'm going to swear off chocolate for the rest of my life."

Xander was having a problem with his brain. He understood what Giles was saying. Even without the details, he could understand that somehow chocolate had drugged the adults, and had made them do things they wouldn't otherwise do. But he was having trouble getting past what *that* meant. That it meant he wasn't thrown out, alone, and unwanted?

He flung his arms around Giles' neck, burying his face against Giles' shoulder. Giles continued to speak to him, but his voice had now dropped to the soft, almost inaudible murmur he had used in the past to comfort Xander. One hand came up to cup the back of his head while the other began rubbing soothing circles on his back. Xander found himself hanging on even tighter. It occurred to him it might be too tight, but he couldn't bring himself to loosen his hold.

Then he made out some repeating words in the quiet murmuring that Giles was doing: "You're important to me, Xander."

He started shaking, again, but this was shaking as all the tension vanished. It didn't break his grip on Giles -- Xander had a moment of clarity to doubt that *anything* could break his grip -- but it made the rest of his body limp, exhausted. He found himself trying to concentrate on breathing, then, hearing the ragged pull of air past a tortured throat. The hand rubbing his back continued to do so and he focused on the feeling, using it to calm everything else.

"You think you could stand up?" Giles asked, several minutes later.

"I--" If he could do it without letting go, sure. He wondered if they could manage that; reluctantly decided they probably couldn't. He moved his arms, getting his feet underneath him. He suddenly realized that everyone else was there. Buffy and Angel -- who had, perhaps, been there for a while? -- and Willow, Oz, and Cordelia, all watching him as he stood. He flushed, felt faintly nauseous.

Giles seemed to sense what he was feeling, or maybe it was just obvious on his face, but either way, his guardian put his arm back around him protectively. "Come on," he said quietly. "Let's go home."

Oz dropped them off at the apartment. Xander had dozed in the back of the van, leaning up against Giles. He stumbled out, feeling Giles' hand on his arm, providing guidance. He heard Willow saying something, and tried to pull his attention back to her, but before he could focus, Giles was tugging him towards the front door.

They had to pause there for a moment while Giles fumbled with the key and lock one-handed, still holding Xander with the other. And then the door was open and he was tugging Xander inside. He registered enough to realize that, as he went inside, the sky was lightening. Morning.

School. Xander groaned.

"You're all right? You're not hurt I mean?" Giles was running his gaze over him, looking for any injuries.

"Huh?" Xander blinked. It felt like his body was drenched in rapidly-drying wet cement. He considered the question and replied, "I don't know."

"Does anything hurt?"

He shook his head. "My chest hurts. My throat. From... from running." He found himself beginning to sway a little.

Giles' arm went more firmly around his waist, supporting him. "Let's get you sitting down," he murmured, helping Xander to the couch.

"Wanna lay down. Do I have to go to school?" He bumped against Giles while trying to go around a chair. He grabbed onto Giles' arm, clutching it tightly. Maybe too tightly.

If he was, Giles gave no sign. "No, of course not." He got them to the couch and gently pushed Xander down.

As soon as he sat, Xander felt himself collapse. The cement was dry now, thank you, and he wanted to close his eyes and let himself drown.

"Will you be all right if I go into the kitchen for a few moments?"

Xander nodded. As long as the couch cushions didn't come to life and swallow him whole, he'd be great. Anything that didn't involve moving was better.

Giles stood and looked at him for a moment more. Then, saying "I'll be right back," he headed into the kitchen.

Leaning his head back, he let his eyes close. Several long, deep breaths, and he thought about asking Giles if he had a chisel and hammer, to chink his way out of the concrete so he could go to bed. What only seemed like seconds later, Giles was back sitting beside him and handing him a mug of something hot.

He took it, enjoying the way the heat soaked into his hands. It was only then that he realized he was cold. As soon as he noticed, he began to shiver, and instinctively brought the mug to his lips to take a drink. Hot, strong, and sweet, he had no idea what he was drinking. He rather thought he liked it.

"Tea with honey," Giles said softly. "It'll help your throat."

He nodded, and continued sipping it. The warmth spread into his chest, into his hands. Holding it close, the heat rose to his face, slipping up his cheeks like a lover's hands. If your lover weren't undead. Xander grinned at the thought, and closed his eyes.

"Better?" Giles' arm had found its way around his shoulders.

He leaned into the embrace again, and gave a nod. The mug was getting heavy, though, and he figured he'd best set it down somewhere. That required opening his eyes again, which took a little bit of doing.

Giles took the mug from him, setting it on the coffee table. "We should get you to bed."

"Oh, good."

He let Giles help him up, guiding him through the tricky obstacle course that was the hallway. They made it unscathed into Xander's room and Giles settled him on the edge of the bed. "Do you need any help getting ready?"

Xander shook his head. "Lemme fall over and I'll be good."

"Sleep as late as you want. We'll talk later."

He tried to make an affirmative noise, but then his eyes were closed again and he was falling, cement overcoat dragging him down into the ocean.

Then there was utter darkness.

It lasted for he didn't know how long -- but Xander found himself wide awake, choking back a harsh whisper, the words he lost as soon as he opened his eyes. Heart pounding frantically, all he could remember was fear, being surrounded by something that wanted him dead, ripped into pieces and buried. He'd been alone, left as sacrifice to whatever had stalked him.

He scrambled out of bed and headed for Giles' room, wondering which, if any, had been a dream. He paused in the hallway again. He knew what Giles had said. Knew what he'd say.

But he also knew how he felt. Giles could be standing right here telling him it was OK to knock, and it was still so hard to actually do. The alternative was going back to bed alone, and that made him shiver and take another step forward.

Uncertainly, he raised his hand and tried to knock. When his hand hit the door barely hard enough to make a sound, he wondered if that counted and he could run back to his own bed, now.

Giles voice came through the door, stopping him before he could move. "Xander?"

"G-giles?" His voice wasn't much louder than his knock had been, but apparently it was enough.

Seconds later the door was opened and Giles stood there in his pajamas pants. "What's wrong?" he asked gently, opening his arms to Xander.

"I... I had a bad dream." He hesitated before starting to move forward. This was everything Giles said was OK, expected. But knowing that didn't erase everything he felt. What he *had* felt.

"It's no wonder after last night." When Xander seemed reluctant to move, Giles pulled him in and hugged him. "I'm sorry."

"I know it wasn't your fault," Xander said, not liking the tone of guilt in Giles' voice. He didn't want Giles feeling bad, he wanted... he wasn't sure what he wanted, other than to not be so scared.

"As you could tell, manners and consideration were not my strong suits when I was a teenager," Giles said self-effacingly. As he spoke he pulled Xander further into the room.

He went willingly, gave Giles a half-smile. "S'ok. Gives me ammunition next time I do something stupid." He let Giles pull him all the way to the bed and sitting down.

He got an faint smile in return. "Do you want to talk about it?"

Blearily, he looked up at Giles. "I just wanna stop-- I wanna go back to sleep. I don't think I can, though."

"Come here." Giles lay down, pulling Xander down with him, both of them on their sides, Xander in his arms, back to his chest. "I've been told that some of my more esoteric lectures are excellent soporifics."

Xander blinked, then started laughing. Two seconds into it his entire body was shaking, and Giles' arm was bouncing on top of his from the force of it.

"That's not quite the response I was going for, but I'll take it," Giles said good humoredly.

The laughter wrenched the last bit of energy from him, though this time the exhaustion felt lighter. Smiling, Xander closed his eyes again and was almost asleep before his brain asked him if he realized where he was. In Giles' bed, with Giles holding him.

But as he thought it, Giles' arm tightened around him, making it clear that the older man wanted him there. Or at least didn't begrudge having him there. Or at least -- Xander told his brain to shut up and go to sleep. Nightmares be damned.

He lay there awake only long enough to feel his entire body relaxing, enjoying the sensation of being held so tightly, so closely. It was a feeling he'd long forgotten. "G'nigh," he mumbled, as he felt himself returning to sleep.

"Good night, Xander," Giles voice followed him down into slumber.

~~~~~

When Xander woke up, the exhaustion, fear, and tension had completely vanished. All he felt was hungry. Starving, actually, and he started to crawl out of bed. He froze momentarily when he saw whose bed he was crawling out of. But Giles wasn't there, so Xander was able to sneak out without having to look him in the eye and pretend he hadn't just crawled out of Giles' bed.

He thought about shower and clean clothes, but his stomach voted for food; so food it was. He headed towards the kitchen, and stopped when he heard Giles talking.

"--asleep right now." There was a pause. "All right might be a bit optimistic. I'm focusing on 'home and safe' at the moment."

Unabashedly, Xander stood where he was and listened. He wondered who Giles could be talking to.

"Oh, Jenny, it was terrible. He was practically catatonic when we found him. That sight is going to stay with me for a very long time."

Xander leaned up against the wall, his stomach clenching. Giles sounded like he'd nearly been broken in two.

There was another long pause as Giles listened. "That's kind of you to say, but spell or not, it is still my fault." He laughed a bit bitterly. "I managed to do in ten minutes what his parents hadn't his entire life. They hurt him, but they were never able to make him give up on life."

'Only because you made me believe you cared,' Xander thought. He wanted to say it, but he wasn't sure he should interrupt this. He didn't know why he was hesitating, but whatever his subconscious' reasons, he remained where he was.

"I've spent the last year trying to get Xander to believe that this is his home, that I really wanted him here. And I'd thought I was succeeding. But this has undone all that. How can I expect him to trust his place here -- trust me-- after this?"

He found he couldn't stay back any longer. Xander crossed the room, laid a hand on Giles' arm.

Startled eyes caught his own. "Xander-- I'll call you later, Jenny." Giles hung up the phone and turned to him.

"Giles, I--" He stopped, then realized if he thought about this he would not say any of it. "I love living here. It's only because you made me believe you cared that it hurt so bad when I thought you didn't want me. I trust you -- it's the rest of the world I don't trust. Everything good in my life has been taken away from me, except for Willow. You, and I guess Buffy, too, are good, so part of me expects to lose you. I--I..." He choked on the last of it and looked away, wishing he had the nerve to say it.

Gently fingers brushed against his chin, turning his head back to meet Giles' eyes. "I love you, too."

He thought, perhaps, he must be still dreaming. Or he had died, curled up in those crates, and now he was-- well, no, he didn't expect heaven to involve the sort of pain he'd heard in Giles' voice earlier. Besides, Giles wasn't dead, so he wouldn't be here now.

Then he realized it had been seven years since he had heard anyone say those words to him.

Giles hugged him again -- he'd definitely been getting his share of those recently. Funny thing was, he didn't feel like giving them up. He tried to think of a way he could keep getting hugged -- after breakfast or lunch or whatever meal was next.

He must have had a version of Willow's thinking face, because Giles looked at him curiously. "What are you thinking?"

"Of a way to not move for the rest of the day," he answered as he tucked himself back into the hug.

A loud rumble rose from the vicinity of his stomach. "Part of you doesn't agree," Giles teased. "But you can be here whenever you need to be. And for as long as you need to."

"Couple years?"

"If that's what you need, yes."

Xander closed his eyes, and said nothing. He could hear Giles' heartbeat. Smell him, the scent of wool and tea and something else. He wondered how he could stretch that two years into more. He laughed once.

"Was that a-?"

"If I flunk a year of high school, can I make it three?"

"However long you want." Giles paused and then continued, "And you don't have to flunk anything. Getting your diploma -- or not getting it for that matter -- won't change your place here."

That surprised him. He leaned back, wondering if maybe Giles was overcompensating for last night -- decided he didn't care. He opened his mouth, telling himself he *could* say it, and managed only, "Thank you."

"You're welcome."

His stomach growled again, louder this time. Xander grinned, and asked, "Can we have breakfast now?"

Giles chuckled, a soft warm sound. "Of course. Though it's actually closer to dinner."

"As long as there's food involved, I don't care what you call it." Despite his words, Xander didn't immediately let go. It was weird how he grown to need something he'd been so long without. Survived years without, surely he could let go for one single meal.

His stomach growled again. Yeah, ok, he could let go.

That earned another chuckle and Giles hugged him tighter briefly before releasing him. "Anything in particular you'd like?"

He compared something like lasagna -- extremely wonderful but it took an hour -- to something good and fast. "Pasta?"

"We can do that. Or... there's some lasagna in the freezer if you'd prefer...?"

Xander knew that sometimes his face lit up and his eyes grew big in the way that only anime characters did. The mention of homemade lasagna did it to him, every time. He didn't bother saying 'yes'. Giles gave him a smile and then headed into the kitchen to get it ready.

Xander followed, to grab the dishes and drinks. He stopped when he saw the mess from last night, still scattered all over the counters. He *hadn't* been... hadn't meant... When he looked up at Giles his face must have been back to kicked-puppy because suddenly Giles was hugging him again.

"I'm sorry. I was going to have this cleaned up before you awoke."

"Yeah. I..." He forced himself to remember that it was the drugs, the magic spell and the whatever it was in the chocolate. "I didn't know what you used besides the oil, to give it flavour."

"Garlic tamari."

Xander nodded. Next time he'd know. "I'll clean this up while you get the lasagna." His voice was low and he heard the after-shock of last night in it, but he couldn't pretend it didn't hurt. Of all the things Giles had apologized for, he hadn't for this, Maybe it *had* smelled like something that had died. But, damn it, he'd tried, hadn't he?

"The first time I attempted a stirfry, I set the kitchen on fire." Giles offered the words matter-of-factly, glancing over at Xander. "You did a lot better than I did."

"You what?" He had a flash of an image -- a young Giles, dashing frantically for a fire extinguisher, hoping to God no one came clamouring in to ask him calmly why he hadn't just ordered a pizza. Except they didn't have pizza in England, did they?

But he was starting to laugh again, anyhow. Cool, resourceful, never -- hardly ever -- ruffled Rupert Giles. A firebug. Who knew?

"All right, you needn't laugh quite so hard," Giles said in that very dry proper way he had.

Which of course only made him laugh harder. A moment later he was finding it difficult to remain standing and he knew from experience that his stomach was going to hurt once he stopped. If he stopped. The way it felt -- the dour expression on Giles' face *wasn't*
helping any.

The man gave a long suffering sigh. "Somehow I knew this was going to be your reaction."

Which was *just* too much. He let himself collapse on the floor, legs sticking out and in Giles' way when he pretended to ignore Xander, and begin rooting through the freezer for the lasagna. One of the few bastions of chaos in the Giles household, one that, Xander suspected, Giles enjoyed.

Finding the wrapped container, Giles moved to the microwave, stepping over Xander to do so with a casualness that sent Xander into new paroxysms of laughter.

He fell over onto his side, curled up as the laughter finally drained away. Still grinning, stomach spasming in the occasional bubbled-up laugh, Xander watched from below as Giles prepared dinner. It looked as it might have done, had he been a small boy in Giles' house. Standing foot-high to a turtle, looking up as his favorite meal was prepared for no reason other than he had asked for it. A glimpse of what his childhood could've been like.

"You going to stay down there while we eat?"

"Well, the floor's clean enough that I could." Mopping. Chore of the damned and grounded.

"I would prefer to have your company at the table."

"You're welcome to join me here," Xander offered brightly. But he got to his feet, grinning at the look Giles gave him. He loved those looks.

He set the table while Giles finished making the meal and they ate at the table, the conversation consisting of light small talk. It was a comfortable meal, a secure feeling. Knowing even if he wasn't saying anything important, Giles was listening to him.

~~~~~

When the meal was over, Xander found he couldn't let go of that feeling. He wondered if Giles would mind if he followed him around all evening -- and suspected he wouldn't. He hadn't quite had time to look restless, waiting for Giles to do something so he could figure out how to stick with, when Giles asked if he minded a quiet rest of the day at home. He had books to read -- when didn't he -- and Xander agreed quickly.

As soon as Giles was settled on the couch, Xander was there with his own book, a volume of case studies in non-traditional demonic chemistry. It worried him that there was a field in demonic chemistry that could be called "non-traditional", but the book itself was fascinating.

He finished a chapter and looked up to find Giles watching him with a faint smile. Succumbing to impulse, Xander scooted over on the couch. Giles made room for him as he leaned back; a minor amount of re-shuffling and soon they were reclining on the couch, Xander half in Giles' embrace. His book was propped up on his knees, and he figured this would be the way to spend his two years.

"I was thinking," Giles said conversationally after a few minutes.

"No. Polka-dots don't look good on me." Facing away from Giles, Xander allowed himself to grin.

"Ah, thank you for that piece of knowledge, but that wasn't what I was thinking about. I was thinking about demonic chemistry."

"Oh? Well, then I wasn't off-topic." Xander flipped back a few pages, to the picture of a chemist's supporting evidence that drinking Hagthul juice pressed with wine gave one dots. He showed it to Giles.

Giles looked and nodded seriously. "How would you like to take a course?"

He twisted around. "What? Please tell me Sunnydale Community College doesn't offer classes in this."

A faint smile. "No. But there are correspondence courses that you--"

"Correspondence courses?" Xander sat up, changed his mind and leaned back again. "For real? I mean, you mean I could, I don't have to have my diploma yet?"

"I can pull some strings for you."

"You don't--" Xander frowned, then stopped. Did he mind if Giles called in a few favours for him? Well, in principle, yes. But that was because he felt that he shouldn't need whatever Giles was trying to give him. This was one of those things Giles had been trying to unteach him. Finally, then, he nodded. "Yeah. I think I'd like that."

"I'll make some calls tomorrow, then."

"Cool!" He turned back to his book, tried to read for a minute before flipping to the back where the bibliography was. The books were divided by discipline. Reading through, he wondered which he'd get to take. What he could take. What-- "Giles?"

"Yes?"

"Is this, like, a college course?"

"Yes, it is." Giles cocked his head to the side. "Is that a problem?"

"No." Xander found himself getting excited. Bizarre -- his life since he'd moved in with Giles had taken decidedly unpredicted turns. But this -- "Does that mean I could, when I graduate, go to college? To study this stuff?"

"If you want to."

Xander thought about that for a second. "I could really go? I know my grades aren't the best, but we... could really afford to send me to college?"

"The money won't be a problem. And I have confidence in your abilities to get your grades up. You have the ability to do whatever you want."

Xander bit back the automatic rejoinder. Though, truth be told, it had grown less automatic recently. After all, he *had* brought his grades up already. He hadn't gotten an F yet this year, and Mr. Cullins said he might even get out of the semester with a B in trig.

"You're smart, Xander. You just need to believe that."

He hesitated before answering. He tried to think of how to say what he meant without making Giles wig out. "Sometimes I do," he finally said.

Giles smiled encouragingly. "It's a start."

~~~~~

He wasn't feeling smart a week later. Sitting in class the Tuesday after a big test, Xander felt a perfectly rational relief that no one expected him to get good grades. Even if he tried as hard as he could, he'd never set the sort of precedent Willow had by grade
four.

So he was the only one anxiously awaiting the tests to be passed back, wondering if he'd actually gotten the sort of grade he'd thought he might have. He didn't want to jinx himself, but he thought he might have done pretty well.

In the instinctual way of the perverse that all teachers seemed to have, Mr. Cullins of course waited to the end of class to hand out the papers. And, of course, Xander's was near the bottom of the pile.

He watched Mr. Cullins moving up and down the rows handing over the white papers to each student. Finally he reached Xander's desk. "Well done, Mr. Harris," he said with a smile as he handed over the test.

Xander started, pleased but mostly surprised. Then he looked at his test and he froze.

"Xander?" Willow was looking at him curiously. "What did you get?"

He blinked, but the test didn't change. He checked the name. His. Maybe it was a Hellmouth thing. He looked up at Willow, but couldn't answer. She leaned over and took the paper from his unresisting fingers. "Oh wow. You got an A! That's great!"

Buffy leaned forward from her desk, taking the paper from Willow. She stared at it before agreeing that it was real, then gave Xander a smile. "Congratulations, Xander."

When the bell rang, Cordelia came by - Xander was still too stunned to grab his books and stand up. "Xander? That ringing noise just now? That's the bell. It means class is over and you can leave."

He accepted the test back from Buffy, and turned it to show her.

Cordelia stared. "*You* got an A? Isn't that a sign of the apocalypse or something?"

Willow gave her a dirty look. "It is not. Frog infestation in the school's toilets is a sign of the apocalypse."

The way she said it, Xander had to suddenly wonder if she were telling the truth.

"Didn't that happen last week?" Cordelia asked with a frown.

"Um, no, last week was salamanders." Willow looked suddenly guilty, and Xander gave her a sharp look. She ignored him.

"Well, come on, we better get going before Mr. Cullins thinks we *like* this class," Buffy interrupted.

"But I do like--" Willow started.

Xander jumped up, and grabbed his books. They had ten minutes to get to their next class -- which was just enough time. Leaving his friends behind, he all but ran through the halls to the library.

Giles was just coming out from between two of the stacks when he burst in. "Xander, wha--"

Xander ran up the stairs, holding the paper out in front of him like a runner's baton.

"What's this?" Giles asked, reaching for it.

He let Giles take it, and waited. Not patiently, certainly not motionlessly. He heard Willow call his name, behind him.

A pleased smile lit up Giles' face as he read it. "I knew you could do it."

Xander bounced, glanced over his shoulder to see Willow, Buffy, and Cordelia had followed him. He took the test back as Giles handed it over, and stared again at the red 'A' written at the top.

It *was* his name in the upper right corner.

"Is this what living with a librarian does?" Cordelia asked curiously. "Turn you into a brain? Although I guess it's okay for you. It's not like you could get any less cool."

Xander turned and gave her the only proper response. "Nyah, nyah. Got an A and you didn't."

"Oh, that's mature. But then again, what can you expect from someone who's never had an A before?"

He considered sticking his tongue out at her, to cover for the fact that he was surprised she'd remembered that. Willow was giving her another dirty look.

"This is your first A?" Giles' voice was quiet with an undertone of surprise.

He turned back, feeling nervous. He nodded. Behind him, though, in a tone of sheer pride, Willow said, "His first ever. He got an A -- and in trig!"

"Then this calls for a celebration." Giles was giving him a look that took him a few minutes to place. So that's what having someone proud of him looked like.

Then -- "Celebration?"

"Yes. Dinner out and maybe a movie? Or is there something else you'd like?"

"Um, that's sorta major celebrating, there," he said quickly. He was really glad he wasn't the blush-bright-red type.

"You deserve it."

"He's right," Willow put in. "My parents took me to the zoo when I got my first A. Got ice cream and everything. Of course, I wanted a pony, but the zoo was nice, too."

"Will, back then you always wanted a pony. For Chanukah, your birthday, first day of summer, last day of summer..."

She nodded seriously. "I had pony envy. Then they hired one for my ninth birthday and..." She shuddered. "Let's talk about something else."

"Um, not meaning to jump in where uninvited," Buffy asked, "But are we?"

"Invited?" Giles nodded. "Of course."

Xander tensed, slightly, and turned back to Giles. In a low, hopefully un-overheard voice, he said, "You don't have to do this. Happy, yeah, but it's a little..."

"Embarrassing?" Giles didn't lower his voice. "Xander, as your legal guardian it is my right, in fact my privilege, to embarrass you whenever I like."

Three girls laughed, in varying degrees of volume, behind him. Xander felt the heat rush to his face despite the silly grin that had appeared without warning on his face. "Fine. Then I get to pick the movie *and* the restaurant."

"Oh, no!" Willow gasped. "Giles, please! Don't let him."

"It is his celebration--"

She came running up the stairs towards them. "You don't understand. I *know* that sneaky tone of voice. He's going to make us eat at Sparkys."

Xander tried for a shocked and insulted expression, but decided teasing her would be more fun. He smiled triumphantly.

"Sparkys?" Giles asked quizzically.

"They have the best burgers in Sunnydale," Xander began.

But Willow was giving him pleading face. "They give me a stomachache," she begged.

"Ah. Well, I'm sure Xander wouldn't want to go somewhere that would make you ill..."

"It doesn't make her ill. She just keeps ordering the corned beef sandwich. I've never gotten a stomachache from their cheeseburgers, or chili dogs, or--" He stopped when he saw that Willow was beginning to look queasy.

"You do realize that price is no object for this celebration?" Giles put in.

"Oo! We can go to Michel's!" That, from Cordelia. Xander wasn't terribly surprised.

"I don't know how to pronounce what they serve there," he told her.

She gave him a look. "You don't even know what they serve, so how could you know whether or not you can pronounce it?"

"We can certainly go there if you want, Xander. But only if it is *your* choice."

The thought of going to a place like Michel's was, frankly, intimidating. But he conceded that Sparky's wouldn't be the kindest option, either. "What about Longhorn's?" He suggested. A steak joint, but a nice one, and he'd heard they had good food.

Giles nodded. "I'll phone and make reservations." He looked beyond Xander to the girls below. "Aren't you going to be late for your next class?"

"Eep!" Willow started, and hurried for the door. Buffy gave Giles a 'yeah, ok' look and followed.

Cordelia just looked at him. "So?" She rolled her eyes in response to Giles' best librarian stare, and sighed. "Fine. I'm going."

Giles' voice stopped Xander before he could turn to follow. "I really am proud of you, Xander."

Shyly, Xander looked away, floor, books, wall, before trying to meet Giles' eyes. "I better get to class," he stammered, before running for the doors as the first bell rung.

~~~~~

Xander walked along beside his co-patroler, staying on her right. The archaic piece of gallantry probably didn't make a difference; vampires could attack from either side, unlike puddle splashes. Cordelia didn't seem to notice, which meant she probably approved.

"One more time and then can we call it a night?" Cordelia asked.

"That's the plan." Xander was glad it had been quiet, so far. It wasn't that he doubted their ability to deal with a vampire, but nights like this gave him a chance to relax. Even with Cordelia as company.

"Good. I still have a ton of stuff to do for school tomorrow."

He gave her a raised eyebrow. "Surely not homework yet to do? At this late hour?"

"Who said anything about homework? I've got a whole beauty regime to go through. You think looking this good is easy?"

"Ah, Cordy, you make it look easy." He gave her a grin. He felt generous, because he'd beaten her soundly, earlier in the evening. She had brought a little travel-set go board, and they'd played while watching the cemetery.

She smiled at him. "You really think so?"

He looked, then nodded. "Yeah. You kinda look... natural." He wasn't sure that was the sort of thing a girl liked to hear, but all he meant was that she didn't look overly done. Like even without the regime she'd be pretty.

It seemed it was something girls liked to hear, because Cordelia's smile grew and he thought she might even being blushing a little. "Why thank you, Xander. And you look... well, you're dressing better lately."

"Yeah. Nothing like buying actual clothes to improve a guy's style." This year Giles had taken him back to school shopping. New clothes, new everything. He'd been able to get complete outfits which made him look -- in his and now Cordelia's own words -- stunning. Of course, having Buffy along to help pick stuff out for him hadn't hurt.

"A brain with fashion sense, I don't think that's allowed to exist."

"Not to worry. Buffy has the fashion sense. I only borrow it." He smiled, though, liking the sound of his new nickname. As insults went, Cordelia could call him 'brain' anytime she liked.

She glanced away. "That is really great, by the way. The trig class I mean." Her voice was more earnest than he was used to.

"Thanks," he answered her with equal sincerity. "I got another one, too. English class."

"No dinner for this one?"

He heard the hint of disappointment in her voice - that maybe there had been and she hadn't been invited. "I opted for a stack of CDs this time," he explained quickly.

"Giles really goes all out on the rewards, huh? Maybe if you get straight A's he'll buy you a car."

"Oo - you think so?" A car. He *knew* Giles could afford one, even a used one. Xander hadn't been able to come up with a successful scenario for needing one, yet, to convince Giles to buy one. Maybe if he had to go down to LA... "Hey! You know that correspondence
course I told you I might be taking?"

"The demon biology thing?"

"Chemistry, yeah. Well, I got tentatively accepted into the class. I have to go down to the school and apply to the program, the head of the department wants to interview me, and give me a couple tests to make sure I understand the material. But Giles says I've already taught myself everything from the intro class."

Cordelia looked at him. "You're really taking this all seriously, aren't you?"

With a shrug, he admitted, "I like it. It's like science and magic all rolled into one. I can take stuff from physics class, and do the same experiment with different materials, and get the weirdest stuff. I can even blow things up without getting in trouble --there's this demon's skin which removes soot and fire damage like you wouldn't believe. Giles has no idea I've had nine fires so far."

"Remind me not to volunteer to help you with your experiments. Just hanging around with Buffy has increased my risk of being blown up enough."

"Speaking of which, I haven't seen anything. What say we call it quits?" They'd reached the main gate of the cemetery where Cordelia's car was parked.

"You'll get no argument from me. Cemeteries." She wrinkled her nose prettily. "This was not how I pictured spending nights of my high school life."

"But think of all you've learned which will help you later in life."

"Oh yes. How to turn the undead into dust is going to come in so handy." She opened the door of her car and slid in behind the wheel.

Xander climbed in as well, continuing, "You said you wanted to be an actress. You don't think knowing how to slay things isn't useful in that line of work? Think of all the sleazy directors and producers you'd have to put up with otherwise."

"Somehow I don't think I'll get many jobs if I kill all the sleazy directors and producers. There wouldn't be any left."

"Good point. Maybe you can just threaten them, to keep them in line? You know, slay an assistant or two."

"Threatening might work." Her expression turned thoughtful as she turned the key in the ignition. "I could get into threatening."

Xander had a glimpse of what she'd be like, threatening. He shivered.

"Oh, I have to stop for gas before I can drop you off. You don't mind, do you?"

"Why should I mind? Unless you want me to pump it for you."

She smiled brilliantly at him. "How kind of you to offer."

He opened his mouth to retort, and realized there was nothing he could say that would get him out of it. Unless he paid for full-service. "All right, fine. But if my hands smell like gasoline, I'm going to put them all over yo-- uh, your car."

"Then you can help wash it this weekend."

"I'm not washing your car." Surely with simple declarations he could avoid getting hooked.

"Oh, of course not." The smile didn't leave Cordy's face.

"Uh-oh." He leaned away from her, not sure he wanted to hear whatever was next. "Oh, look! The gas station." He was undoing his seatbelt before she even came to a stop, ready to jump out and pump the gas.

Cordelia turned off the engine and got out as well. "I'm going to get a diet soda."

He'd opened his mouth to ask for a soda as well when he realized she'd expect him then to pay for both. He sighed, and dug out a five. "Get me one, too?"

"Sure." She took the money with a winsome smile and disappeared inside the store.

Xander turned back to the gas pump. He had no idea what type she preferred - regular, premium, plus? He also had a sneaking suspicion he would end up paying for it somehow. That in mind, he picked the medium grade. He leaned against the car while the gas pumped, and watched as Cordelia allowed a boy to strike up a conversation with her, inside.

Yeah, they'd be here awhile.

He was completely unprepared for the rough hand that grabbed him and spun him around, then let go, letting him tumble hard to the ground. He reacted instantly, one hand going for the stake, the other raised to ward off the second blow. All that training left him, though, when he saw who it was.

"So this is what you're doing now, huh? Running around all hours of the night?" His father sneered at him.

Xander scrambled to his feet, and didn't reply. He didn't owe his father any explanations.

"It ends now. Come on. You're coming home."

"Actually, yeah, I am. I'll be going home -- and going nowhere with you." He found that, after all, he was still afraid of his father. But he wasn't about to show it.

His father glared at him. "You've got even more mouthy. Well, we'll soon take care of that." He took a step towards Xander.

Xander stood his ground. He didn't find it encouraging that his father didn't even hesitate.

"Hey, Xander."

He turned to see Angel leaning against the bumper of Cordelia's car, managing to loom while simultaneously lounging. It had to be some vampire trick. Or possibly just an Angel thing. Xander realized how sickly relieved he was, when he noticed he was trying to catalogue it in favor of thinking about what Angel had just interrupted. "Hey, Angel," he said casually, glancing towards his father as he walked over to stand by the vampire.

His father was scowling at him, threat still bright in his eyes. "This isn't over, boy," he growled and then stalked off.

Xander hoped Angel didn't mind when he leaned against the car next to him, close enough to press himself against Angel's arm if he leaned over another half an inch. "Thanks."

"Any time."

He glanced over to see Cordelia coming out, a worried look on her face. "Was that--?"

He nodded. "Yeah."

"You okay?" She was looking him over as if looking for injuries.

"Yeah, I'm good." He thought about the chances that his father was watching, and realized he didn't want Cordelia dragged any farther into this.

Angel seemed to be thinking the same thing and offered, "We're not that far away from your place if you want me to walk you home."

"Oh, um," he heard himself saying 'no' and swallowed it. He tried to find a plausible excuse for accepting, when Cordelia with her car seemed much more... Well, he didn't need a reason. Angel had already offered. "Yeah, thanks."

"You sure? I'll still drive you home," Cordelia offered, her face and voice still concerned.

Xander turned to her, already taking a step towards Angel, away from the passenger side of her car where the gas nozzle was still set in the tank. "Yeah, I..." He thought again for excuses, and opted for true ones. "He's liable to follow me home. I'd rather you were... he can't hurt Angel."

Her expression softened at his concern. "All right. Do me a favor and call me when you get home then? I don't need to be worrying all night." She turned to Angel. "If he does show up, bite him."

"Sure," Angel agreed easily, giving Xander a look that said he wasn't entirely serious. Not entirely joking.

Xander wasn't entirely sure which one he would mind. "I'll call," he told Cordelia, impressed by the number of people he'd added to his 'must notify when alive' list.

She nodded, walking around to remove the gas nozzle from her car. "I paid for it when I was inside." She gave Xander a quick hug, then got in her car.

They watched her go before heading off towards Xander's place. Conveniently in the opposite direction his father had gone in, but that didn't mean he wasn't lurking. Xander shivered. Had he been lurking already? Or was this an accidental meeting?

"He's gone for now," Angel reassured him.

"Thanks. Super-vampire powers come in handy sometimes." He grinned, wanting, rather, to grimace at his sudden urge to make lame jokes. Nothing like a blast from the past to incur old coping strategies.

Angel's mouth quirked up a little. "Sometimes."

"Too bad you can't fly."

"Do you really want to deal with vampires dive bombing you on patrol?"

"Oh. Good point." Xander reminded himself that most vampires were bad guys. He really had to start hanging out with a better crowd. "Hey, I just remembered -- Buffy was going on and on and on about you the other day. I think you're in the doghouse. Or the vampiric equivalent. Thought you could use the heads-up in case you didn't know already." He was babbling, and he knew it. He hoped Angel wouldn't mind.

"Buffy upset with me. That wouldn't be anything new," the vampire said with a rueful grimace.

"Things not love and joy in the Buffyworld? I was only talking about the other night, she swung by your place and you weren't home. She complained for an hour, but I think it was because she didn't have anything else non-school related to talk about."

"It seems every other time I talk to her, she's mad at me for something. The rest of the time she's apologizing. Or I am."

"Um, not to sound dense, or anything, but isn't that not the whole point of dating someone?"

"It's been a while for me," Angel said with another small smile.

They fell silent as Xander tried to puzzle that one out. Twice he started to ask another question, but stopped himself. He didn't want to cause any problems between them. "OK, call me dumb, but I don't get it. Why do you love her if there's that much trouble?" This was starting to make his relationship with Spike sound a lot more fun -- and that had to be bad.

Angel gave a half shrug. "I wish I could answer that."

"Doesn't sound like a lot of fun. But I guess the rest of it makes up for it, huh? The being in love with her."

"Yeah, the rest." He didn't sound all that convincing, more like he was trying to convince himself.

Xander fell silent. He had the feeling he was bordering on things it was none of his business to talk about. They were almost home, anyhow, so further conversation didn't seem necessary. He was just glad Angel had stopped-- "Hey, deadboy?"

That earned him a half-hearted glare. "Don't call me that."

"Yeah, yeah. What were you doing here, anyway? Shouldn't you be on patrol with Buffy?" OK, so much for not talking about things not any of his business.

"I had a message to give you." Angel didn't address the on patrol with Buffy part.

"Oh?" Who would be sending him a message via Angel? If it were a save the world from evil thing, he wouldn't have waited til now to deliver.

Angel handed him a piece of paper. "Spike put in a phone. That's his number."

Xander stopped walking. He stared at Angel in disbelief, even as his hand moved automatically to take the paper. He looked down, saw that there was a phone number written there. No name, just a number.

"I talked to Spike. He isn't playing with you. Well, not in a food sort of way, at least."

"Huh?" Xander remembered asking himself once if his life could get weirder. Since then, it had. And was again.

"I won't tell you he isn't dangerous, but you've managed to get him to see you as a person and not just a meal."

"Really?" He found himself smiling, and wondered if he shouldn't be this happy to hear that Spike... liked him.

Angel was even passing notes for him. Xander laughed.

Angel smiled at him. "Don't ever make the mistake of thinking he's tame."

"I know. It isn't-- I just had this image of him in high school. Sitting in the back of class, passing notes up to me, of dirty pictures he'd drawn." He calmed himself down as they neared the apartment complex. "I don't think he's tame. I don't even think he's safe. But he... gives me something I need. Someday -- I know that someday it'll be over and I'll have to hope he's bored enough to just leave, or that someone will be around with a stake. But right now, I think I have more to lose if I don't see him."

He didn't know if he was making sense -- but if anyone could understand this, it was probably Angel. Although Xander suspected that Spike already understood, too.

He got a solemn nod from Angel. "As long as you're going in with your eyes open."

"As open as I can manage." He looked over towards his living room window. No tale-tell pacing. That was good.

"Here we are."

"Yeah. Thanks for the walk home. Um, you know if you come up with me Giles is gonna freak out--"

"I know," Angel said with a smile. "I'll leave you here."

"Thanks. See ya-- well, whenever." With that, Xander headed up.

~~~~~

Giles looked up from his reading when he came in. "Good evening."

"Hey! Giles, the Giles-man. How'd it go? Our cemetery was dead."

"Our patrol was likewise uneventful." He took a closer look at Xander and frowned.

"Huh? What?" He looked down at himself and saw grease and dirt everywhere. "Oh. That was at the gas station. Cordelia needed gas. For her car."

"And something happened." It wasn't phrased as a question.

"I fell?"

Giles just continued to look at him.

"Down?" He didn't know why he was trying to avoid telling him. He just hated that he couldn't keep his own father out of his life. He wanted him to go away, fade into nothing like his mother had. Except for seeing her at the grocery store, which he'd been able to not tell Giles about. Why couldn't he do that now?

"Why did you fall down, Xander?" Giles asked in patient tones.

He looked away. Giles was going to get upset, and while Xander knew it wouldn't be at him, it wasn't any easier to deal with. "Because he knocked me down." He glanced up, and added before Giles had to ask, "My father."

Giles was up out of his chair and across to where Xander was standing, in a heartbeat. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. Uh, Angel came by. Scared him off." He felt bad, and he wished he could just go call Cordelia, then call Spike and forget about this.

"Good." Giles' whole manner was one of carefully restrained anger. "It won't happen again, Xander, I promise."

"What are you gonna do?" he asked, fearfully. A second later he asked himself why he wanted to beg Giles not to. Wasn't it a little insane to want to protect him?

"Tomorrow I go down to the courthouse and file a restraining order against him. If he comes near you again, he'll go to jail."

"Oh." That would be all right, then. His family was used to spending nights and weeks in jail, anyhow.

"What, you thought I was going to cast a curse on him?" Giles smiled at him.

He shrugged, not returning the smile. "I know I shouldn't care, but I don't wanna see him get hurt."

"I know. And I understand. Whatever else, he is your father."

"I know he isn't much." Which didn't, never had, explained this feeling.

"We all make choices in our lives. Sometimes they're wrong." Giles' gaze seemed to be turned inward.

Xander found himself thinking of a hundred or so of his own choices. How many he knew were wrong, how many would he think were wrong in years to come? "I need to call Cordelia," he said, not wanting to get dragged down into regret. Not without music.

Giles nodded. "I'm here if you need to talk."

"I know." He headed for his room. The call to Cordelia was short and to the point. She was relieved to hear he was home, but not to be distracted from her beauty regime. Xander didn't mind.

He had someone else to call.

Hanging up on Cordelia, he pulled out the piece of paper Angel gave him and dialed the number written on it. Nervously, he waited as it began to ring.

"Hello, luv." A familiar and rather cocky voice answered.

"You always answer your phone that way?" The words were said before he even thought about them.

There was a laugh. "No one but you ever calls me. Well, Angel has the number, but he wouldn't call. And if he did, he wouldn't mind my calling him 'luv'." There was a pause. "I don't think."

"Angel doesn't strike me as the 'luv' type."

"Oh, he never was." Xander heard some noises, as though Spike were moving about, then he continued, "S'never stopped me."

"Not much does." He settled back against the headboard on his bed.

"Glad you noticed. So, would you rather tell me about your day, or listen to me describe how you look when I'm getting ready to suck you clean?"

He stiffened in surprise at Spike's directness. Some parts got stiffer than others. "Spike!" he hissed, not sure if he was chastising or asking him to continue.

"Yes?" The vampire sounded completely unrepentant.

"You can't-" He broke off when he remembered who he was talking to. Spike most definitely could. And would. "Just hang on for a moment." He put the phone down and went to shut his door.

This was not a conversation he wanted Giles to overhear.

When he got back to the phone, he could hear muffled laughter as Spike asked, "You ready now?"

"Fine, yeah." He gestured with his free hand. "Give it your best shot."

"Oh, a challenge, is it? You think I can't make you scream for me by just talking to you?"

Think? He damned well knew he wasn't going to scream. Not with Giles out in the living room. "No screaming." He tried to sound firm.

"Aw, that takes half the fun out of it." He could see Spike pouting.

"Half the fun or no fun," he replied firmly. "I can always just hang up."

There was a sigh, then, "All right, no screaming. But you're gonna owe me." In a cheerful tone again, he continued, "Or, if we do this right, we'll owe each other."

Xander swallowed. "Right."

"So, get comfy," he said, encouragingly.

He leaned back against the headboard, squirming as he tried to get comfortable. It wasn't easy, knowing what Spike was going to do.

"Now close your eyes. Imagine it's me, kneeling at the foot of your bed." Spike's voice had suddenly taken on a husky tone.

"Spike..." he said dubiously, but he obeyed.

"Right here, luv. Watching you. You're still nervous, still not even unzipped. But you're listening to me, watching me watch you. And you know I'm already half-hard, myself. From just thinking about it."

Xander was more than half-hard, his jeans getting tighter by the moment. He reached down to adjust himself, shivering a little at his own touch.

"And I'm watching you, wriggling around as your jeans get tighter," Spike's voice became a whisper in his ear. "You want to touch yourself, want me to touch you. But as I crawl up towards you, you can't move. Don't move."

Xander froze. He told himself it was silly, but he still froze.

"That's right, luv. Don't move. Let me be the one..." There was a silent pause, the more sounds of Spike moving. Xander wondered if Spike had unzipped himself...

"You can see me between your legs, now, Kneeling there. You're spreading your legs wider for me?"

"Um, yeah." He swallowed and cleared his throat as he spread his legs wider as he had been told to.

"Good, oh, yeah, I love the way you look, you're all spread out on the bed, waiting for me. Waiting for me to touch you just right there. Unzip, now, and show me if you're ready."

The sound of the zipper seemed loud in the quiet of his room. Xander bit his lip, almost feeling Spike's eyes on him.

"Pull 'em down, a bit, now. So I can get a good look."

He did so, unthinkingly reaching for his erection when he did.

"Yeah, touch yourself." Spike sounded almost smug, but more than that, he sounded fiercely aroused.

Xander ran a finger down his length, circling the head. Teasing himself. "Tell me what you're doing," he commanded breathlessly.

"Watching you, Xander. Watching your cock strain for me. Watching how you're getting harder as you touch yourself for me, touch yourself to make me want you til I can't take it any more. You know what I'm going to do then? When I can't take it any longer?"

"W-what?"

"I'm going to go down on you. Wrap my mouth around your cock and suck you -- My hands'll be on you legs, holding you so you can't move, and my lips and tongue are gonna taste every inch of your cock, over and over. You're gonna want to yell for me to suck you harder, beg me to touch you, and all you're going to feel is my mouth."

Xander swallowed a moan and bucked upwards into his hand.

"Yeah, just like that. Touch yourself, now. Show me right where you want my tongue."

"And what about you?" he gasped, even as his hand slid up and down his length.

There was a soft groan for an answer, before Spike said, "I'm thinking about how you feel under my tongue. The way you can't quite hold your hips still, the way you arch up and try not to shove yourself deeper into my mouth."

A full body shudder of arousal went through him. "God," he breathed almost inaudibly, the picture vivid in his mind.

"You like that? Like seeing me down there, between your legs, sucking you so hard your toes curl?"

"As m-much as you like doing it."

"God, then you must be about to explode," Spike said in a mangled voice.

"Is that enough to get you off?" Xander asked breathlessly, his hand speeding up. "Come just from blowing me?"

"N-no. Coming from feeling you come." Spike was having trouble speaking. Xander heard another muffled groan, then, "Want you here, right now, naked and got your cock in my mouth."

The growing desperate need in Spike's voice was probably the most arousing thing about this. Knowing that thinking of him, talking to him was doing this to the vampire.

"Xan--" Spike pleaded, before trying again with a bare minimum of control. "Touch... oh, god, Xan, come with me." He could hear the hitching sounds of a man about to scream.

The image was suddenly clear in his mind, Spike with his hand on his cock, head thrown back, eyes closed, expression desperate. "Spike," he whispered breathless before everything went white with pleasure.

He could hear Spike choking back an outcry, reduced to panting moans and soft, low, 'Xan's. They were quickly reduced to what sounded like brainlessly repeated 'Oh's, before fading off into silence altogether.

Xander wasn't sure long he lay there after that, neither he or Spike speaking, just listening to his breathing slow back to normal.

Then he heard Spike say, "Rrrumm, gah. I need a bloody towel."

He started laughing at that, hard and long and uncontrollably.

He heard Spike chuckle, sounding utterly pleased with himself. When Xander got control of himself, Spike asked, "So? Was I right?"

"About what?"

"Did I make you scream? Well, if you weren't trying to keep your guardian from breaking down the door, would you have?"

"Sounds more like I made *you* scream." He grinned smugly.

"Well, I knew I could make *myself* scream, luv. Not nearly as much fun though." There was a hint of something in Spike's tone. Wistfulness?

Responding to that, Xander offered, "You did something greater than make me scream. You almost drove me speechless."

"Oo, you're right. That *is* better." Cheery once more, Spike asked, "So, what'd you do all day?"

~~~~~

It was the first day of winter break. Xander found himself bouncing off the walls. The weather was warm, and sunny, and everything seemed to be going extremely well. He'd finished all his reports and papers that had been due before break, for a change, and had even begun reading The Catcher in the Rye for his "due your first day back" report. He figured it was just excess energy he had to burn off.

Or perhaps it was the closet Giles had told him he could not, under any circumstances, open. It was the first time in, well, almost his entire life that he'd actually been looking forward to Christmas. The first year he didn't have to fake holiday cheer.

He bounced into the living room where Giles was reading something. Again. He leaned over Giles' shoulder far enough to partially block his view. "Hey!"

Giles patiently closed his book and looked up. "Yes?"

"Can we have a holiday party? Christmas and Chanukah for Willow, except she might be into celebrating the solstice this year. And invite everybody? Are we getting a tree and decorating? Are you sure I can't taste the pudding yet?"

"Yes, yes, yes and no."

"Really?" Xander grinned, too excited to hold still any longer, even draped over the chair as he was. "When? Christmas isn't for another week, but Chanukah already started. Can we have it on the Solstice or is that some big day for Evil taking over the world?" He wondered why Giles was looking at him as if expecting his head to spin around or fall off.
Possibly both.

"Just how much soda have you consumed this afternoon?"

He blinked. "None."

"Are you sure? You're a bit... overly hyper," Giles said diplomatically.

"Am not!" He grinned, and bounced again. A thought suddenly occurred to him and the hyper activity stilled in the face of something even better.

"That expression always makes me worry." Giles didn't sound particularly worried, and he still had the tiny, happy smile he seemed to always have nowadays when he looked at Xander.

Xander enjoyed the smile as he explained, knowing it was about to go away. "I don't have my sleeping bag." He felt like he was five years old again, meeting Santa for the first time. Before he found out that Santa *didn't* go to everyone's house.

Giles shook his head in confusion. "I fear I don't follow you."

"I don't need one." Xander was unable to wait. He dove in, wrapping his arms around Giles in a bear hug, half on his lap and half crouched on the floor. He got a hug back, but Giles still looked perplexed. "You're gonna get mushy and sad and stuff, and wanna hold me, so I figured I'd start there. See, Christmas eve at my house was always difficult. Moreso than normal, that is. Whether the house was full of relatives or not, everyone would spend the whole evening drinking. Then fighting. They'd get drunker and the fights would get louder and I always snuck a plate of cookies outside, and slept in the yard in my sleeping bag. I took the cookies so Santa would maybe know to stop by."

As predicted, Giles' arms tightened around him.

Xander nestled inside the embrace for a moment before continuing. "But I don't need my sleeping bag this year. I bet I don't even need the cookies."

"Cookies are tradition," Giles said, his voice strangely soft. "But we'll leave them inside. And eat the extras."

Xander was the one who tightened the hug, then. "Can I get sappy for a bit?"

"It is the season for it."

Embarrassed, but determined, Xander said as loudly as he could -- which was not very at all, "You're already my best Christmas present ever."

Giles didn't answer for a moment and his eyes were suspiciously bright, just as his voice had a strange huskiness when he did speak. "You're mine as well."

Xander laughed at the thought that came then, glad he had noticed it before he'd said it aloud. He could *not* ask Giles to unwrap him. He really had to do something about that annoyingly persistent obsession. One thing he could do, now. He let go of Giles and bounced away, intent on resuming his former mood.

Giles watched him. "You won't need a sleeping bag again -- unless you *voluntarily* go camping."

That made him smile. He loved it when Giles got all... Ripper, on him. "So can we have the party on the 22nd?"

"Yes." Giles smiled. "Just how big a party are you planning?"

"Um, big? Willow, Buffy, Oz, Angel," Don't say 'Spike', he told himself quickly. "Cordy and whoever she's dating by next week and Buffy's mom and Jenny. Is that too many?" he asked uncertainly as Giles' expression changed.

"You're welcome to invite Miss Calendar, but I fear she is probably going to decline." Giles looked down at his hands in his lap.

"Why?" Mood wavering again, Xander tried to recall if there had been any disagreements lately between the two. That was when he realized he didn't know the last time they'd even gone out. "Is she mad at you for something?"

"Mad is perhaps too strong a word. We... uhh... broke up about a month ago."

"What!? How come?"

He watched as Giles squirmed in that understated British way of his. "Sometimes two persons' differences can't be reconciled."

"What differences? The only thing you two disagreed about was the value of computers." Xander frowned.

"Just... differences."

This was definitely something that was none of his business. He got that part, easily. But seeing as how this was Giles, that meant it was something Giles didn't want him to know about. Not just not know the details, but not even know it had happened.

"It... it wasn't... anything to do with me?"

"No," Giles said quickly. Too quickly. "Not in the way you think."

Which meant it was. Xander found himself taking a step backwards. Giles had *liked* Jenny. A lot. "She decided she wasn't up for dating a single parent, huh?"

"She decided she wasn't up to dealing with my guilt." Giles was looking down at his hands again.

"Guilt?" Xander hesitated before moving forward again. "About what?" He knew Giles didn't want him to know. But the way Giles wouldn't even look at him made him feel funny.

Xander watched as Giles' shoulders heaved as he sighed deeply. "About throwing you out to have her here."

His voice sounded weird when he said, "You said that was the band candy."

"Oh it was. But the impetus came from within me. And I don't know if I can forgive myself for that." He sighed again. "Jenny got tired of waiting for me to try."

"She... she broke up because you feel guilty for what happened?" There was a lot going on here, and Xander wasn't sure he was following it.

The answer was quiet, almost inaudible. "Because I couldn't let go of the guilt. She said -- rightly so - that seeing her only made it worse. Made me think about what I'd done. So she said we would both be better served if we... no longer saw each other."

Xander swallowed. He knew this was his cue to say something, some well-reasoned and intelligent something that would make Giles look at him, make his eyes clear, and make him agree he didn't have to feel guilty. The only thing he could think of saying was what he feared would be exactly what he shouldn't say. "You were wrong, you know."

Giles sighed, the soft whoosh of air audible. "I know. I'm sorry."

Yeah, he knew Giles wasn't understanding yet. He knew that. "They did make me give up."

That got Giles to look up, but his expression was a study in confusion.

"You said... to Jenny, you told her you'd done what they hadn't ever done -- make me give up. But you're wrong. They made me give up more completely than you ever have. That night included." Xander tried to hold Giles' gaze, knowing that if he stopped talking Giles might not ever get to hear this. "I tried more than once to kill myself when I was living with them. Once I was going to slice my wrists. I had a knife all set and was headed for the bathroom, to run the hot water. Willow came around, knocked on my window. She never knew -- still doesn't and I'd prefer you not tell her -- that she saved my life."

He swallowed again, watching as Giles' expression change from confused to horrified. He kept going. "Another time I swallowed a bunch of stuff. I don't know what it was, I was only eight. They took me to get my stomach pumped. You think I gave up on life because you threw me out?" Xander found himself getting angry. Didn't know why, but went with it. "If I'd wanted to die I'd have done a lot more than just let fate decide if I should be snack food or not. What you did -- what I thought you did and what you did -- hurt like hell. But come morning, when I looked around, I'd have come home and made you say it again."

Giles stared at him and Xander could catalogue the emotions he saw flicker there, one after another. Horror, sadness, guilt again, but briefly, then there was understanding, pride and one that was still very new: respect.

Xander wanted to stop and ask what it was for, but he still had something to say. "I can promise you I'm never going to do it again, because I have too much to lose." There, now he was done, and now he wanted to shake off all this weight of confession and demand to know why Giles was just *looking* at him.

"I believe you." It was said softly and that respect was interwoven through each word.

"Good." Xander nodded, glad he didn't have to repeat himself. Then, of course, he was left with no idea what to do or say next.

After a moment's silence that was not quite awkward, Giles cleared his throat. "So we were planning this epic party of yours."

"Can we have caramel corn?"


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