Sandy Places on the Ground

Part Two

The next day Xander was in the library, reading. If anyone had told him he'd be spending his Christmas vacation at school... he'd have believed them, but pretended not to. Snyder had called an emergency meeting, and no amount of "School? During winter break?" had gotten Xander out of coming along. Granted, the main reason he'd come along was because they were hitting the mall after. Xander still had presents to buy, and later they were going to get a tree. Giles had unearthed boxes of decorations yesterday, and tomorrow they were going to decorate in time for Xander's party the following night.

Xander heard the doors of the library swing open. "Wow, that was quick. Principal Snyder actually get some Christmas spirit?" He grinned and looked up--

"So glad to see you hitting the books," his father sneered as he strode forward. "You turn into a brain, after all?"

"You're not supposed to be here!" He was pleased the words sounded more angry than afraid, even as he fought the urge to curl in on himself. Making himself a smaller target. Old habits die hard.

His father gave him a look of surprise. "Not supposed to be here? This is a public school, ain't it?" He was still coming closer. Xander stood to face him, as his father continued his approach. "My son goes to school here, I'm not welcome?" His voice was hard, ugly. Xander knew the tone. Knew it was bad.

"No." He was trembling inside, wanting to back away, to run, but his feet wouldn't move.

"No?" He was close enough, then, and Xander had time to flinch before his father's hand flew out. "Don't you *dare* say no to me!"

Xander tumbled back from the force of the blow, knocking into the corner of one of the library stacks, then falling to the floor. He lay there stunned, waiting for the pain to kick in.

He didn't have a chance before his father was grabbing him, pulling him up. Xander tried for balance and a blow back, all his training and workouts telling him to block the next punch. But the sight of his father's face -- glaring at him in rage like he had never seen -- made him miss the following one.

The blow made his head snap back and had him on the ground again. He tasted blood as he struggled to get back to his feet, knowing he was too much of a target down here, but he barely got to hands and knees before his father's boot lashed out and caught him the stomach. He cried out in pain and collapsed back down.

Every instinct and learned response was telling him to hide, curl up and roll under the table where he couldn't be reached. Giles would be back soon, all he had to do was stay out of reach. Before he could convince himself to move, he was caught up again and thrown.

He crashed into the book cage and he heard a sickening snapping sound as he fell awkwardly. His left arm exploded in a pain so encompassing he couldn't even scream. He tried to roll over, present his back to his father, but another kick landed on his ribs, driving him against the cage again.

And the blows kept coming. Trapped against the cage, Xander didn't have any leeway to dodge or getaway. He curled in on himself as best he could, whimpering as the kick after kick jarred his already battered body. It suddenly came to him that this time his father wasn't going to stop. This time he wasn't going to get away.

This time he was going to die.

The thought served only to make him press himself harder against the cage wall at his back. He couldn't get away, the pain in his arm and now his ribs told him he couldn't effectively fight back. All he could do -- was scream.

So he did.

It was punctuated by the blows, his scream cutting in and out as he grabbed air enough to scream again. He squeezed his eyes tightly, not wanting to see-- and he heard a slam of wood and his name, then suddenly there were noises unaccompanied by the feel of further hits.

He pried his eyes open and saw his father getting pummeled by Giles.

Perhaps pummeled wasn't the right word, he told himself, as he saw Giles land another blow. They way he grabbed Xander's father and rammed his head against the table -- twice -- made him wonder if 'pummeled' wasn't entirely too weak a word all together.

He realized someone was nearby, close enough to touch, and he stiffened. A gentle hand touched his forehead. "Easy," a warm, familiar voice said. Willow. "Don't try to move, Xander."

He relaxed, air rushing out of him with a painful quiver. His sides hurt, his stomach hurt, and in spite of what he was seeing, he was still beyond scared. Wanted to beg Willow to drag him out of there, someplace where his father couldn't follow.

He heard, then, Buffy's voice say, "Don't kill him, Giles." When Giles stopped to look at her, still holding onto the weakly-struggling man, the Slayer added, "I want a turn."

Giles pulled the man up and stared him in the face, then shoved him away with a sound of disgust. "Watch him," he barked at Buffy. "If he moves, break something." Then he was moving across the room and kneeling at Xander's side.

He saw Buffy grab his father who was now apparently offering no notable resistance. Xander looked from her to Giles and wished he could move. Giles' hand reached out toward him, hovering hesitating over Xander's skin. "Xander..." The tremble in his voice matched the one in his hand.

"Hurts," he managed, and he wanted to make it stop.

"I know." Xander saw him swallow hard. "You're going to be all right. We're going to get you to help."

"Hurts..." He tried to reach out and jostled something; his arm shrieked with pain. "Dad..." He needed to get away.

Giles' hands held him in place. "He's not going to hurt you anymore."

Xander tried to move against the hands holding him. He didn't want to stay here, he wanted... "Dad," he whispered again.

The face looking down at him was anguished. "You don't need to be scared now, Xander. He can't hurt you."

The floor was cold, and hard. Xander couldn't get himself up. He struggled, and Giles kept trying to hold him down. "No... Dad--"

Then Willow moved closer, putting her own hands over Giles'. "He wants you to hold him."

"But he keeps--" Giles broke off, eyes widening, then Xander was being picked up gently and cradled against his guardian's chest. "I've got you, Xander. I'm here."

Xander finally closed his eyes. He could heard the muffled groans of his father, hear Buffy's quiet threats. But he could hear Giles' heart beating, feel his body move with every deep, slowing breath. Feel his arms around him. He pressed his face into Giles' sweater, the wool scratchy and Xander wanted to rub his face against it and let that discomfort take the pain even further away.

He felt more than heard Giles' voice, the rumble vibrating against his cheek. A minute or so later, Giles was gently urging him to look up. "We have to get a splint on that arm."

"Here," came Oz' calm voice from somewhere above and behind him. "I've got it." Xander remained where he was, felt gentle hands on his elbow. "This might hurt," Oz warned. Xander didn't care, didn't make any noise as his arm was shifted and the pain soared.

But then something was being wrapped around his arm, and tightened ever so, and the pain ebbed a little. Enough that he could turn his head and see Oz still kneeling there, wrapping a strip of tape around the splint and his arm. Willow was beside Oz, watching over Xander -- he flashed on the number of times she had watched this. He'd tried so hard to protect her from the bad things, and here she was, silent and strong and watching over.

"We need to take him to hospital," Giles said quietly, all traces of anger hidden away. "Oz, may we borrow your van? Can Willow drive it?"

"Sure." Oz looked momentarily confused.

"I want you to stay here with Buffy." Giles glanced over and his face hardened again. When he looked back down at Xander, though, all Xander could see was love.

Oz nodded, handed over his keys.

"Not that I care?" Buffy interrupted. "But Mr. Dead Man here is gonna need stitches, too. You don't want him in the ER while Xander's there."

"No." Giles looked over, face hardening again until Xander knew who it was who was watching his father bleed. He pulled himself closer. "I'd hate for you to be stuck here with him long... but we'll be a while. Wait an hour?"

"Eight hours."

Xander saw them all turn to Willow, saw Giles' expression of amazement. Xander wasn't surprised at her unforgiving tone or her words. Wasn't surprised when she explained.

"He broke Xander's arm once before. In his bedroom -- usually when he got beat up, he'd crawl out and came to my house or Jesse's. He couldn't climb out that time, because of his arm. Xander lay there all night until Jesse stopped by the next morning to walk with him to school. That's when we started making him call us every night after everyone went to bed. So we'd know."

Giles exchanged looks with Buffy and Oz then nodded. "Until evening, then."

Xander saw the tiny, pleased smile on Willow's face before his head rolled back towards Giles as Giles lifted him up. He didn't have a chance to protest he might have walked -- Giles was holding him, carrying him past Buffy and Oz and the crumpled form of his father, and out of the library all together.

~~~~~

Everything was fuzzy from that point. All he really knew was that Giles continued holding him. He heard the engine of Oz' van, and knew it meant they were going to the hospital. But he didn't think much about it, about the ride or the words Giles was saying or Willow's occasional question.

Even when the darker interior of the van gave way to bright overhead lights, Xander didn't try to rouse himself enough to notice what was going on. It wasn't until Giles laid him down, and people pressed around him and pushed Giles away that he screamed again.

He heard loud voices, one of them Giles', then he was back, kneeling down beside him until their faces were level. Giles reached out and stroked his hair gently. "I'm here, Xander. No one's going to hurt you."

Xander kept his attention on Giles. He knew hospitals, didn't particularly care for them, but with Giles there making sure no one got near... no one who wasn't supposed to be near, he could manage okay.

The nurses moved around, pulling and prodding and lifting him, measuring things and taking things and using far more needles than he cared for. But Giles was still standing there, talking to him, only looking away long enough to answer a nurse's question before his eyes were on Xander's again.

Then he was being moved, the gurney he was on pushed through the halls. Giles was still at his side, holding the hand of his uninjured arm as he walked beside. They stopped briefly, and a woman was saying "I'm sorry, you'll have to wait here." Xander felt Giles let go of his hand and he craned his head around to see what was happening.

Giles was kneeling by his head again. "They have to take some X-rays of your arm and your ribs."

Xander managed a nod, despite knowing he'd rather Giles went with him. There was no point in making this more difficult for them both.

He stared at the ceiling and the walls while they took the X-Rays. He turned when told, and made no noise when the motion jostled fresh spikes of pain. Giles caught up with him again when they took him back into the examining room where the nurse said they'd be putting a cast on his arm. Immediately he took hold of Xander's hand again. "How are you doing?"

"When are we going home?"

"Soon. They have to get your arm fixed up first."

He nodded, glanced around. "Where's Willow?"

"Filling out your paperwork." Giles smiled faintly. "It seems she even does my homework for me."

Xander grinned a little, and was answered with Giles' expression lightening a bit more. Xander was beginning to feel tired, and he suspected that the adrenaline had worn off. Shock had probably already set in, he reasoned dimly, wondering if the sensation of a wall between he and that thought was further proof he was right.

"Rest if you can," Giles said softly, stroking his forehead again. "It's the best thing for you right now. I'll be here."

Xander nodded, and closed his eyes. His thoughts took the chance to wander, looking for things other than what had happened to focus on. Perversely, that made him think of nothing but.

He skimmed the actual attack, used to glossing over such things in his memories. Instead he noticed something he decided to consider heartening. For a few months now, in order to try to overcome the now-regular dreams he was having -- inappropriately and still embarrassing as hell -- he'd started referring to Giles, in his own head, as 'dad'.

Apparently his brain had learned the habit well. He wondered if that meant the attraction had gone away. He opened his eyes to regard Giles, test his own reaction.

After a moment he realized he couldn't be sure. All he did know was that he loved this man. If that meant calling him dad, then that would have to be OK.

Giles was watching him, eyes full of protection and worry and love. Xander still remembered the look Giles had worn when he'd figured out it was him Xander'd been referring to. Shock, then a flash of something wonderful: awe and love and pleasure all rolled together. Then his face had settled into determined lines and he'd pulled Xander to him.

Xander couldn't help the wide smile that crawled onto his face at remembering it. When Giles looked at him in confusion, Xander whispered, "Thanks, dad." He hoped the resulting expression would make the sheer embarrassment of saying it aloud intentionally, worth it.

It was. Again he saw the same expression, and Giles' eyes were unnaturally bright. He patted Xander's shoulder. "You're welcome."

They kept him another hour, setting his arm and taping his ribs. Xander was happy to get going when they finally announced they were ready to discharge him. He wasn't the only one. From the way Giles and Willow kept hovering, he figured they were as ready as he.

He walked out to the van with Giles' arm around him for support. He could tell from the man's expression that he wanted to carry Xander as he had on the way in, but was allowing him the dignity to make it under his own power.

Xander appreciated the gesture, but he knew he wouldn't have complained too loudly had Giles said to hell with dignity. As it was, he curled as closely to Giles as his ribs would let him on the ride home, and let the embrace, the steady thrum of the engine, and the ease of the pain due to some very lovely drugs they'd given him, soothe him into a light doze.

When the van finally pulled into the parking lot, Giles gathered him up into his arms and carried him up to their apartment. Xander tucked his head against Giles' chest, mostly to hide the sleepy smile he knew would ruin any macho-guy-image he might want to claim later.

Willow unlocked the front door and Giles took him inside all the way to his room. When he was on his own bed, in his own home, Xander finally let himself get the shakes. He was quickly surrounded by support on both sides as Willow and Giles sat down beside him and reached out to him.

"There's enough of me to share," he mumbled. Before either could say anything, there was a soft knocking at the door.

Giles stood reluctantly. "I have to go get... I'll be right back."

Xander nodded, knowing he was in good, safe hands with Willow. He didn't even have to ask before she was scooting onto the mattress to sit beside him. He rolled over onto his side, and draped his cast over her legs.

She touched it gingerly. "I think I have some of those stickers left somewhere," she said softly, referring to the bright and overly cute bear stickers she'd put all over the cast he'd had when he was a child.

"Yeah?" He grinned. "And hey, you and Giles and Buffy and Oz and Cordelia can all sign it." He could feel the painkillers hitting his system, and knew he'd be asleep before long. He didn't want to dream about his father, so he tried to stay awake as long as he could.

"Count on it." She was quiet for a minute, looking down at his cast, her fingers still absently stroking it. "Hey, remember when we were really young and you and Jesse used to sleep over and we'd stay up half the night telling each other wild stories?"

"Yeah..." He snuggled in a bit more. "Tell me one." Listening to her while he fell asleep always made the dreams stay away. He closed his eyes, and listened.

She thought for a moment and then began. "Once upon a time there was a young prince. Only he didn't know he was a prince; he'd been stolen away when he was still a baby and had grown up thinking he was only a poor shepherd..."

"Did he work really hard?" Xander asked, knowing all his cues already, though he'd never heard this particular story before.

"Really, really hard. He grew up handsome and kind and funny and well, wonderful, but he was very sad."

"Why was he sad?" He could feel himself getting more drowsy.

"Because deep down inside he knew he wasn't a shepherd, knew this wasn't supposed to be his life. He was different and all the other shepherds knew it. He only had two friends, two people he could talk to about these feelings. One was the gamekeeper's son who lived nearby and the other was the local wisewoman's apprentice."

"Were they good friends?" he whispered. He missed the gamekeeper's son.

"The best." Willow's voice was low and warm.

He gave Willow a squeeze. Smiling, he waited for the story to continue. He heard a soft noise as though a footstep had fallen on carpet nearby. He ignored it. It couldn't be anything dangerous.

"One day, two strangers came to the village, a young warrior woman and her teacher, a powerful sorcerer. And somehow the prince knew as soon as he saw them, his life was going about to change forever."

"Oooh," he said with just the right amount of awe. "Did it? What did they do?"

There was another slight noise, just past the doorway.

"They were on their way to fight a great evil that had been attacking the kingdom. They'd just stopped at the village to barter for food for themselves and their horses. But then the sorcerer caught sight of the young prince. And he knew. He Saw."

"What did he see?" Xander was almost asleep, but he wanted to hear the next bit.

"He saw through the facade to the true heart underneath. For the first time since he was a baby, someone looked at the prince and saw him for what he truly was."

"Saw that he was a prince?"

"Uh huh. The sorcerer knew he'd found the missing heir and he vowed he would make sure the prince reclaimed his birthright."

"Good," he asserted, not quite sure if he was awake to say it aloud or not. But Willow's voice followed him into sleep, and he dreamed of a sorcerer with eyes of fire and voice of cabled steel, whose hands wrought magic and love for the entire kingdom of Xander.

~~~~~

The next morning Xander came out of his room late. He'd slept several hours yesterday, waking only long enough for a small dinner and to greet Buffy and Oz when they stopped by. More painkillers and a cuddle from Giles sent him back to sleep where, upon waking, he'd lain in bed for as long as he could manage.

He'd been told by the doctor to get rest and take it easy, essentially not to do anything that made his ribs hurt. He didn't think it would be difficult to manage that part.

When he finally did come out of his room, he noticed the state of the apartment and realized what they'd missed doing the day before. No decorations, no tree, no presents for his friends.

"Good morning," Giles greeted him, getting up to come help him. "How are you feeling?"

"Hungry." He rubbed his stomach. It was sore, but not much worse than the worst he'd ever had.

Giles seemed to find that answer heartening because he all but beamed at him. He guided Xander to the couch. "What would you like me to make for you?"

"Something easy. I'm not sure I'm up to much, yet." He sat down, discovering as he did so that sitting was far easier than standing. His ribs were going to bother him for days. He sighed. There was still shopping to be done.

"All right." Giles smiled and squeezed his shoulder, before going into the kitchen.

Xander was left looking at the space they'd cleared for the tree. The tree skirt was folded neatly on the table and the stand was sitting in place. There were wrapped presents hidden around the apartment, waiting to be placed under the tree. Xander had done half of the shopping he'd planned, but he still needed to get his present for Buffy and Oz and there were two more things he wanted for Giles.

Only the thought of going out to buy them made his heart stutter.

He wasn't sure how long he sat there staring at the empty space and thinking, but it seemed like only an instant before Giles was back and settling a tray laden with juice, toast and a steaming bowl of-- something onto his lap.

He looked at the bowl. Blinked. Looked up at Giles. "Can I ask what this is without sounding insulting?"

Giles looked amused. "It's porridge."

"Porridge?" He looked down at the bowl again. "Porridge really exists? I thought it was just a myth." He picked up his spoon, but eyed the bowl warily.

"Considering some of the things I've seen you eat, I find it ironic that you are intimidated by a simple bowl of porridge. I had it for breakfast every morning when I was a child."

"That explains so much." He laughed, then, interrupting Giles' retort. He dipped his spoon in the gooey stuff and took a bite. "Tastes like cinnamon and brown sugar."

"That's probably because I mixed some in," Giles observed sitting on the couch beside him. "And don't talk with your mouth full."

Xander's jaw dropped. Then he closed it, swallowed, and said, "That wasn't full. This--" He started to take another heaping spoonful.

"Xander." Giles frowned at him, but his eyes still glinted with humor.

He grinned, and ate his next bite with all decorum due a bowl of porridge.

"Do you need some of your pain medication?"

"Not yet. Not to worry, I'll let you know." He took a sip of his juice and eyed Giles.

Giles looked back with his most innocent expression. "Yes?"

"This almost tastes like orange juice." It was good, but if Giles was feeding him some weird potion... he didn't mind, he just wanted to know.

"That would be because it is." He coughed slightly, nervously. "Freshly squeezed."

Xander felt his eyebrows climb up over his forehead and halfway into his hair. "What's the matter, couldn't you sleep?" He said it lightly, only intending to tease, then wanted to smack himself. Well, perhaps not literally. "Sorry, I--"

"It's all right," Giles interrupted, waving off the apology. "I do have a tendency to go a bit... ah... overboard when I'm worried."

"It's OK. It's... kinda nice." He ate a few more bites, before a thought occurred to him. "You weren't by any chance worried when you went Christmas shopping, were you?" He made it sound properly Kid's Greed of the Season. To hide asking just *how* much he was getting. He suspected he was getting a lot. But was this bordering on spoiled? And if
so... well, there was no 'if so'. Was he getting spoiled?

Giles eased the nebulous worry by laughing. "That would be telling. Besides I'm not quite finished yet."

He felt a stab of excitement, quickly over-run by instantly suppressed panic. He ate another bite of porridge to hide the unasked request that he needed to go shopping, too.

"That will wait, however until you're up to a trip to the mall."

Again mixed emotions surged. Relief and guilt were primary. It was already the 20th, and soon it would be too late to find anything decent -- and it was already too late to avoid the crowds. But going today... was impossible.

"Don't." Giles was holding his gaze seriously. "Don't feel guilty. None of this is your fault."

"I know," he said in a low voice. "But we had plans. We were doing everything right to have a good Christmas for once. And then this..." He felt himself shaking, and he cursed under his breath, pressed his palms to his eyes.

The tray was removed from his lap and then he was being pulled into Giles' arms. "We'll still have a good Christmas."

Xander was beginning to feel like there was a geyser inside his chest. One small tap and water, pain, cries came pouring out with no end to be found. He used to be so good at holding it in, letting none of it show, much less be felt.

Perhaps in this Giles had been bad for him, making the pain get out where he could feel it again. But the trade was worth it.

"You'll just have to trust me on this." Giles' arms tightened and his voice dropped to something barely above a whisper. "You're still here and that is already the best gift I could have received. The only Christmas I need."

He snagged Giles' sleeve with the fingers of his broken arm, the other arm he worked around behind Giles. The images he'd been so able to ignore came rushing back at him. It wasn't so much the physical pain -- he'd fought before, and vampires landed blows harder than his father ever did. Though never so many at once, and never... never had he, as a boy, still loved the monsters that stalked them in the cemeteries of Sunnydale.

"What did I do?" he whispered, as Giles just sat there and held him.

"Nothing. You didn't do anything, Xander."

"But why--" He choked it off, knowing what Giles would say, and knowing he couldn't believe it.

But the words that were said were not what he expected. "Perhaps... because he wanted to make sure the prince stayed a shepherd."

Startled, Xander pulled back far enough to look up. Somehow he found he didn't need to ask 'why'. "You heard that?"

Giles nodded.

Xander settled himself back into the embrace. After a few moment's silence, he said, "She makes a good apprentice-wisewoman."

"Yes, she does." A slight pause. "And you make a wonderful prince."

Xander smiled, as he suddenly thought of another gift he needed to buy. Then he realized his breakfast was getting cold, and, since he had no idea how well porridge re-heated, rubbed at his face and pushed himself carefully back up to resume eating. Giles watched him for a moment, then the doorbell rang. Giles got up to answer it, letting in Buffy and her mother.

"Hey, Buffy, Mrs. Summers," Xander greeted them as they came in -- mostly came in. For some reason Mrs. Summers was still standing in the doorway, and Giles was leaning out the door. Buffy was grinning at him in a way that made all his paranoia alarms go off. The good ones, except for the few that said 'she might want me to perform hard labour or do something embarrassing'. He narrowed his eyes. "What's up?"

"We come bearing gifts," Buffy told him as her mother and Giles wrestled something in through the doorway. "Or at least something to put them under."

Xander set the tray aside again and was standing -- with a helping hand from Buffy -- as the two adults brought in... a tree. A real, honest-to-slayerettes Christmas tree. It was huge, thick, with long branches and stood taller than Giles once they'd righted it.

As Giles got a more solid grip on it, Mrs. Summers moved away and held something out to Xander. "Also, this."

He took the small box, which was unwrapped and therefore fair game to be opened right away. He did so and pulled out an ornament. It was a crystal ball, with silver glitter scattered over its surface. Xander held it up by its string and stared.

"Something to commemorate your first Christmas here," Joyce told him and glanced at Giles. "For both of you."

Xander gave Giles a huge grin, and urged, "Suppose you should get the tree up so I can put it on."

"As you command, your highness," Giles said in that very proper British accent, his eyes glinting with humor and more.

Xander ignored Buffy's raised eyebrow and simply waited with as much regal bearing as he could muster. He did hand off the ornament to Buffy, though, to help Giles get the trunk into the stand, fit it in, and set it upright.

"Don't overdo it," Giles warned him in a low tone as he wrestled the tree upward.

"I'm OK," he said in a steady voice. He wasn't going to mention the fact that he didn't think he'd be able to stand back up without help. He wanted to help put up the tree.

His guardian shot him one more dubious look and then turned his attention back to the tree. When it was firmly in place, he reached down and helped Xander stand without a word.

Xander took a moment to admire the tree and get his breath back. Then he turned to Buffy and accepted the ornament from her. Feeling as though there ought to be some sort of ritual, formal words or something, he hung the ornament on the tree.

Giles was standing behind him and put his hands on Xander's shoulders as they looked at the tree. "Thank you," he heard Giles say to Buffy and her mother.

"Hey, how did you--" He stopped, and narrowed his eyes at Giles. Fresh-squeezed orange juice. Porridge. Tree. He wondered what in the world he'd done to deserve Giles. What else Giles had done in the last twelve hours.

Joyce's answer confirmed what he was thinking. "I asked Giles yesterday what we could do to help. And he mentioned you had been planning on getting a tree today and asked if we could pick it up."

"Thanks. It's a great looking tree." Xander had a feeling everyone was looking at him in varying degrees of *that* expression. He ignored them. Pretended to. He was really getting used to *that* expression. Sometimes he felt like The Xander Project.

When his phone rang he was glad for the excuse to get out of the room gracefully. He caught it on the third ring. "Hello?"

"Xander, luv! When are you coming by?"

Spike. The usual surge of mixed emotions went through him; the tangled feelings that talking to Spike always engendered, blended with a healthy jolt of panic-induced adrenaline at the thought of someone overhearing him. "Hang on a moment." He went and shut his door firmly, then settled back onto his still unmade bed. "I can't come by today, Spike."

"What?" He could hear the pout, practically see the vampire's lower lip jutting out where it would normally be extremely nibble-onable. "But you said you would, last night or tonight."

"I had a little... incident yesterday." He forced himself to say the words. "With my father."

Spike's voice was inflectionless. "What sort of incident?"

"He... expressed his displeasure with my new living arrangements." Xander swallowed. "Vehemently."

"How vehemently?" This time there was inflection. The sort of inflection one would expect from a creature who lived his life on the blood of others.

He was reminded of Angel's warning; Spike was definitely not tame. "The bruises and broken bones kind of vehement." He tried to make light of it, or as light as one could of being beaten, but he fell far short.

"You all right? I mean, you're not-- You're home, so you must be all right. Right?"

The barely articulate worry seemed to touch something deep inside of Xander that he didn't feel up to examining too closely right then. "Oh, I'll be fine," he hastily assured the vampire. "Just a broken arm and some cracked ribs. I already feel better than I did last night."

"You sure?" There was a slight softening of Spike's tone. It didn't make him sound any less upset, and less dangerous. But Xander was no longer worried he'd slam the phone down and go-- but he didn't want to think that far.

"I'm sure. Hey, I've had broken bones before and I've always healed just fine." Again his attempt at lightness fell flat.

There was a pause. "Before? From him?"

He wanted to deny it, say it was from demon fighting or falling out of a tree or anything else, but his hesitation was answer enough.

"I see." There was a shorter pause, then in a completely casual tone, Spike asked, "So can I come by, then? Tonight? Don't expect you to invite me in, but I can get to your window easily enough." He sounded for all the world like a man yearning to see his lover.

Nothing more.

And Xander found himself wanting to see Spike as well. "Okay. After Giles has gone to bed though."

"Right. Midnight? After?"

"Um, after. Just wait until all the lights are out."

"All right. But you're gonna owe me a kiss if I have to wait past one thirty." There was a hint of tease, a hint of pout, then.

It made Xander smile. "I think that might be able to be arranged."

In a cheerful voice, Spike added, "And if you turn out the lights before one thirty, you owe me two."

"Keep sweet talking me like that and I'll have to drug Giles' tea," he teased, feeling himself smile.

"I can get you something for that," Spike offered, much too helpfully.

"Ah, thanks, but no thanks. You are not drugging my guardian."

There was a sniff. "You don't love me anymore."

Fortunately Xander was saved from a response by a knock on his door. "Gotta go," he told Spike quickly. "You can pout at me tonight."

"Gotcha."

When Xander opened his door, he found Buffy standing there. "My mom and I are heading out." She gestured behind her to the living room. "Just wanted to say good-bye."

"Hey! Thanks." He followed her as she stepped back into the hallway. He could see the tree in the living room, looked from it to her again. "Thanks."

She smiled at him. "Anytime." She leaned in and kissed his cheek. "Just get better, okay?"

What was it with people kissing him? Not that he was complaining. Never. But it was going to give him a major wiggins before too much longer. He followed her back into the living room where he was given a cautious hug from Joyce -- major wiggins right there by itself -- and told they'd be back tomorrow night for the party.

After they left, Giles asked him if he felt up to decorating the tree. "If you don't, it will wait until later," his guardian added. "I don't want you to overdo it."

"Overdo it? By hanging stuff on a tree?" Xander didn't quite feel up to bouncing... but he started looking around for the boxes of ornaments.

"I stand corrected." Giles came over and helped pull out the boxes from where they'd set them the day before.

Before all of this happened.

Xander's hand shook as he opened one of the boxes. Before. He hadn't ever really thought of his life in terms of Before and After, even when his life had rather definite befores and afters.

Before grandma died. After Jesse died.

Before going to Giles' apartment that night. All of those events in his life, and he'd never once thought of it as before and after. But suddenly he was having a very definite Before.

"Xander?" Giles' quiet voice accompanied the hand on his shoulder.

"Does it matter how we hang them?" His voice tried to break, but he ignored it. He wanted to decorate the tree. Not think about... things.

"We can hang them wherever you'd like."

Xander nodded, and pulled an ornament out. Without much deliberation at all, he hung it on a branch.

~~~~~

They spent the rest of the day at home. Decorating the tree, the apartment, and simply resting filled most of Xander's day. As evening progressed, he found himself getting anxious. Apparently too anxious, he realized, when Giles asked him if he was going to be able to sleep. Xander assured him more than once that he would, and if not, that he would let Giles know.

Then it was late, and Xander was sitting up in bed. Waiting for Giles to turn out his light... He realized that Spike must be already outside, waiting, watching. The thought made his heart beat faster. 'Come on, Giles,' he thought, 'I love you, but go to bed already!'

Finally, just past eleven thirty, Giles' light went out. Xander got off the bed and headed for the window. He knew it would take Giles a few minutes to fall asleep, but it might take Spike a few-- He stopped when he saw Spike on the other side of the window, smiling at him.

Spike waved.

Okay, so maybe it wouldn't take Spike a few minutes to get up here. With one last glance at the door of his room and the hallway behind it leading to Giles' bedroom, he opened the window.

Spike leaned towards him, lips first. He stopped at the boundary of the apartment, and waited. He waggled his eyebrows encouragingly when Xander didn't kiss him right away. Xander felt himself grinning at the expression, then leaned forward to meet his lover's mouth.

Spike took the kiss eagerly, opening his mouth and running his tongue along the edge of Xander's teeth. As Xander kissed him, he realized he could taste something he'd not tasted in Spike's kisses before.

Blood.

He flinched at the realization and pulled back.

Spike looked at him curiously. "Xan? Owe me one more," he said with airy confidence. There was an undercurrent of something.

"I can taste the blood," he blurted.

Spike blinked. For a second there was no change in his expression, then the barest hint of something that made Xander angry. But then the expression flowed smoothly into concern and apology.

Very smoothly.

"Sorry, pet. Bring me a beer and I'll--"

"You killed someone before you came here."

"Yeah? You ate dinner, yourself. Have a hamburger, did you? Dead cow?"

"It's not the same thing!" He had to remind himself to keep his voice down.

"Oh, really? Yeah, guess those butchers at the slaughter house only take volunteers."

"I'm not sleeping with a cow!"

Spike stopped, mouth open partway into his retort. Then, calmer, he said, "And I'm sleeping with someone who slays vampires. You see me bringing it up?"

Xander sighed and rubbed at his temples. He was getting a headache which he didn't need -- he already hurt enough, thank you very much. He didn't want to think about all this, didn't want to remember exactly what Spike was at the moment.

What Spike did.

"Look, you've managed to ignore it til now. Why all of a sudden do we have to argue about it?" It almost sounded like Spike didn't understand the problem. Xander knew better -- he understood. The problem was that Spike didn't really care.

Could he live with that? Go back to ignoring it? Part of him wanted to; he was tired and he hurt and he just wanted the feelings back he'd had when he'd been waiting for the light to go out.

Maybe, maybe he could. At least for the night.

But that would mean not kissing Spike again. Which meant either he invited him in for other things, or they sat here and talked. He wasn't so sure what they could talk about that wouldn't just lead back to...

Spike was looking at him now. Worried, and, as Xander watched, Spike raised his hand, reaching towards him. He was stopped at the invisible barrier.

Xander reached back and touched his hand. "I can't invite you in," he whispered, pained. He couldn't betray Giles that way.

Spike pressed his hand against the barrier, as if on a pane of glass. Looking in at him, so close yet separated by the very world. For the longest time Spike just looked at him, sadness and regret hidden none too well on his face. Then, "I know." Spike hesitated before asking, "Can you come out?"

"I..." He shook his head. "I'm sorry."

"Yeah." Spike held his hand in place another moment before letting it fall. He remained where he was, simply looking in at Xander. "Well, then. I guess I better be off." Spike stepped back, and Xander hated hearing the hurt Spike was trying to suppress. But he couldn't go after him. Spike stopped a couple feet away, looked at him again. "You can still call if you like." Then, as if wanting to deny the need in his words, Spike vanished immediately thereafter.

Xander stared out into the night long after the vampire had vanished. The darkness seemed to close in on him, making him feel more empty and alone. Suddenly he knew that if he stayed here in his room it was only going to get worse. There wouldn't be anything left of him by morning.

He didn't need this. His father, now Spike... he didn't need to lose any more illusions. Turning suddenly away from the window, he ran out of his room. Knocking was easy, this time, and he had barely done so when he heard Giles' voice say "Come in."

He did so, finding Giles sitting up and reaching to turn on the lamp by his bedside. "Can't sleep?"

As soon as Giles saw him, he was out of bed and coming over. But Xander was already falling apart.

Giles didn't ask anything, just pulled him into the haven of his arms and held him while he cried. His entire body shook, and he had to dig his fingers into Giles' shoulders, hanging on as best he could. The cast made it awkward, but Giles was holding him up, letting him hang on as his world swam beneath him.

He cried until his head ached, as well as his ribs and throat. He tried to press his hand against his face, then, pushing everything back in.

"Do you want one of your painkillers?" Giles asked softly as Xander's sobs faded to the occasional hiccup, his hand still gently rubbing Xander's back.

Xander nodded, the pain starting to flare every place he'd been struck. His arm, his side, his stomach... his heart. He started crying again as Giles headed for the bathroom, but kept his mouth closed against letting more of it out.

Giles returned with one of his pills and a glass of water. Handing it to him, he watched as Xander swallowed it, then took the glass and set it on the nightstand. Then he was pulling Xander back into his arms again.

He was shaking, knowing it would take a few minutes for the drugs to kick in, his body was already trying to let go. He closed his eyes and let his head fall on Giles' shoulder.

"You should lie down," Giles said softly, after several moments of silence.

Xander nodded, stepping reluctantly away from Giles to return to his room. He knew as soon as the drugs kicked in he'd be lucky to be conscious, much less mobile. He yawned. "Thank you."

Giles reached out and touched his arm. "I meant here, Xander. If you want to, that is."

Xander stared at him, surprise fast giving way to a fast nod and moving back towards Giles' bed. When he'd climbed in, Giles settled beside him. Xander wriggled a bit, trying to get comfortable. Between his ribs and his arm, he wasn't sure it would be completely possible.

But it felt better, already, just being here.

An arm gently slid around him, gently tugged him back into Giles' embrace. He slipped off to sleep, then, fears of the days behind him fading under the weight of Giles' arms.

~~~~~

"Where next?" Xander looked at the crowd of fellow last-minute-shoppers and tried to remember the list of places Giles had detailed at breakfast. He hadn't tried to remember them, not up to doing much more than following Giles around.

Giles had offered to let Xander stay home, or bail partway through the morning if the shopping expedition proved to be too much. He had opted to come, but now, tired and sore as he got, Xander couldn't bring himself to leave.

"The food court," Giles said after eyeing Xander closely. "I think we could both use a break."

"You don't think anyone will be there?" Xander teased, though truthfully he was grateful for the chance to sit down. He shifted the bag he was carrying to the other hand as they made their way towards the food court so that it was out of the way. The crowd made it difficult to maneuver and he had to stay right next to Giles to get through.

Giles glanced over at him every few seconds, finally reaching out and guiding him with a hand at the small of his back. Reassured that they wouldn't get lost in the crowd, Xander turned his attention to the next big question. Chili dogs, Chinese, or pizza?

Of course, Giles would head for the deli, and the other places were on the other side of the court. There was a Greek place next to the deli, though, and the deli did have baked potatoes. When they reached the food court, Xander tagged along after Giles.

That earned him another long look, then Giles was stopping. "Perhaps Chinese today," he finally said casually. "Care to join me, Xander?"

"Whatever's good with me."

They wended their way through the lines towards Ming's. The tables were already in short supply, which made Xander wonder if it wouldn't be smarter to split up -- one grab a table, the other the food.

Or they could just take their food down to the benches...

They got their food, then miraculously found an empty table. Xander raised an eyebrow. "Are you allowed to use your sorcerer's talents on this kind of thing?"

"I have no idea what you could possibly be referring to," Giles replied with a tiny smile.

Giving him a suspicious look, Xander turned his attention to lunch. He loved mall Chinese food -- $4 for a plate full of food. Granted it was mostly noodles, but that was OK. It would keep him full until they reached the other end of the mall where the Orange Julius was.

"Is there anywhere else you need to go this afternoon?"

"Oh, I still need to-- um... get stuff." He grinned. "At that place. Where they sell those things..."

Giles gave him one of those "I'm humoring him" smiles. "If you're tired I can drop you off back home before I finish my--"

"Oh, it's OK. I can--" Well, he couldn't do it later, could he? He frowned. Maybe Willow would be free to go with him while he finished up his shopping for Giles.

"Are you sure? You're looking a little white around the edges."

"Too much holiday cheer. I'd rather get it done today, though, than wait til tomorrow."

The other option was not getting it done at all. He knew Giles wouldn't mind, would give him a lecture on how he'd rather Xander took care of himself than overdid it in order to buy a present.

But he really wanted to get this for Giles. Even if he had to... Well, if Willow weren't free, maybe Buffy or Oz was?

Giles nodded. "All right, then. Barring a change in your status or demon attack we'll get it all done this afternoon."

"How about a change in my status as a demon attack?" He gave Giles a "I'm cute" look.

"Have you been doing experiments I should be worrying about?" Giles asked with a mock frown, playing along.

"Um, define 'worrying'?" Xander eyed Giles' untouched eggroll and compared the risk of stealing to braving the line. Then again, there was the pretzel place next to the Orange Julius...

Giles followed his gaze and handed over the eggroll with a half smile. "Well, it's certainly not your appetite I need to worry about."

"It isn't my fault," he said, trying for actual repentance. Or at least an absence of overt joy at getting the eggroll. "Besides, I'll probably grow out of it by the time I'm thirty."

"Should I be getting more eggrolls then?"

Xander gave him another cute look. "Unless you want a pretzel, too?"

That earned him a laugh. "Pretzels after shopping then."

They ended up leaving the mall after the one more store -- a little knick-knacky thing Xander knew probably had a real name. It was for Buffy's mom, a sort of thank you for the tree and all-around 'thanks for letting us borrow your daughter all the time'. Then, with pretzels and a strawberry julius, they left the chaos that was The Mall and headed for downtown.

"I've just the one stop to make," Giles told him as he pulled into a parking spot. "Any places you need to go to?"

Xander looked up and down the street. A hodgepodge of small specialty shops of the sort that usually went out of business when the strip malls moved in. Sunnydale, however, had an eclectic enough populace that these shops stayed in business. Magic shops, herbal shops, imported clothing... Xander wondered how many non-humans shopped here, and if he should be worried about that fact.

There was, however, a shop two stores down he needed to visit. He glanced over at Giles, knowing he just had to say 'be right back' and he could dash off and get his guardian a present. He got out of the car, heading for the sidewalk, mind still not made up.

The store Giles was heading for was a small jewelry shop with a reputation for exquisite custom work and the prices to match. It was well beyond Xander's means so there was really no reason for him to go in with Giles. Not when he could better use the time to do his own shopping.

He took a step towards the shop he needed to visit. The sidewalks weren't particularly crowded. Xander suddenly realized Giles was about to go inside the jewelry store and he jumped after him. The other could wait.

Giles gave him an accessing look as he caught up to his guardian. He didn't say anything, but the guiding hand was once again at the small of his back, a comforting point of contact.

He stayed next to Giles as they entered, though he craned his head around to look at everything. He'd been in here once, accompanying Cordelia as she picked something up. They had neat stuff, but it made Xander feel like he should be out back in the alley delivering their boxes, rather than inside like an actual customer.

The salesman knew Giles by name and already had a small package gift wrapped and ready for him. The price quoted was enough to make Xander's eyes bug out, but Giles just handed over his credit card without so much as a blink.

He wondered if it were something for -- but no, it wouldn't be for Jenny. He eyed the box, then looked at Giles curiously. The only other person he could think of was Buffy -- would he buy something like this for her?

Yeah, he would. Xander relaxed, thinking how excited Buffy would be when she got it, whatever it was.

"Anything you need to do?" Giles asked as they exited the store.

It wasn't like he could ask Giles along with him. Even if he stayed on the other side of the store, he'd see what Xander was getting. If he asked Giles to wait outside?

Maybe.

"I wanna see if Traeger's has something."

"All right." They headed down two doors to the store.

As he opened the door, Xander finally figured out how to manage this. See if they had what he wanted, then come back later to get it. Without Giles.

It couldn't be that hard.

~~~~~

Willow came over early, ostensibly to help get ready for the party. In fact, as soon as she showed up carrying a large sack, she and Xander headed for Xander's room.

Xander had found exactly what he'd wanted at Traeger's the day he and Giles had stopped in. He'd been unable to get away yesterday to go get it, helping Giles clean the apartment and then fix dinner, by which time it was too late to head back out. This morning he'd intended to go and had gotten as far as the corner when he'd realized he could just call Willow and ask her to stop by on her way over.

It was simpler that way, he told himself. It had nothing to do with cold ball of fear in his stomach at the thought of going downtown alone.

She'd been happy enough to go, however, and now, sitting on his bed with his bedroom door closed, she pulled it out of the sack and its tissue wrappings. Xander grinned. He'd debated getting a box and wrapping it up, or doing a 'Santa' present and leaving it unwrapped, appearing mysteriously by the tree during the night. He still hadn't decided.

"This is such a cool gift," Willow told him. "He's going to love it."

"Yeah. You don't mind, do you? That he heard you?" He took the hat from her and looked it over again. It was velvet, a dark, dark purple with silver embroidered symbols all over it. A perfect wizard's hat.

"I don't mind at all. I'm glad to help out."

He set it on the bed, pleased with the way the tip of the hat bent ever so slightly, indicating that it was not completely stiff. It'd been made to be worn.

"So how are you doing?" Willow asked casually, glancing at him.

He looked at her, surprised. "I'm fine. You know, 'hanging in there and not thinking much about it' fine."

"You haven't called me or anything."

Fighting the urge to either smile or fidget with embarrassment, he admitted, "I've been, um..." OK, this was Willow. Tell her anything best friend for life. He took a deep breath. "I've been sleeping in Giles' room. Keeps the nightmares away."

She smiled at him. "Oh, that's just so swee-- I mean, I'm glad you're not having bad dreams. That's what I mean."

He gave her a sharp look. He reconsidered giving her a hard time, though, because he felt the same way. Even if it meant he had more of *those* dreams. So instead he smiled at her. Reminded himself that 'tell her anything' did not mean everything.

"Oh, speaking of recovering..." Willow dug into her bag and pulled out a handful of stickers.

He held out his cast to her, tugging his long sleeve out of the way. But he was still watching her face, wondering.

"Which ones do you want?"

"Oh, one of each?" He glanced down at the bears, all in various poses and stages of cuteness. "Will?"

"Yeah?" She began peeling the stickers off and putting them on his cast.

He knew he wouldn't have to ask her to keep it a secret. But maybe she could tell him his dreams were perfectly understandable. He looked down at his cast, watching her carefully place another bear. "It is good. But-- you know you can't tell anyone this."

His tone alerted her to the fact he was talking about something serious and she looked up, meeting his eyes. "You know you can tell me anything, Xander. And that I'll keep your secrets."

"I know. I just -- I'm babbling to put off saying this." He grinned briefly. "I just... don't want...." He sighed. "I don't know what I want. I just want to tell you something."

She reached out and took his hand. "I'm listening."

Nervously, and as quietly as he could manage, he said, "I keep... having dreams. Good dreams, I mean, not nightmares, but--"

"But...?"

"About Giles."

"What about Giles?"

"Dreams. About Giles." He stared at one of the bears Willow had placed on the cast. Last time, she'd practically covered the plaster, unintentionally leaving no room for anyone to sign. This time she'd left lots of white space.

"What kind of dreams?"

"Um, dreams where... he... the sort of dreams I used to have about Buffy."

"Oh." Willow's eyes widened. "Oh!"

He nodded. "I know I shouldn't, I mean, he's like... my guardian. I'm not supposed to think these things about him." Doubtfully, he met her eyes again. "Right?" Because, other than the embarrassing part about having the dreams, there was the utter lack of actual shame he had about his feelings. Nothing wrong with them, as long as no one knew...

Willow answered slowly, obviously considering her words with care. "He rescued you from a horrible situation. He loves you and you love him. Not to mention he's really yummy."

Xander grinned, despite his surprise at hearing those words from Willow. It wasn't that he expected her not to notice such things... but he didn't expect her to notice such things. Especially about *Giles*.

She glanced at him sideways. "I never knew you thought of guys... y'know. That way."

Xander shrugged. "I never expected me to think of guys that way. Apparently my brain had other ideas." He glanced away again, wondering if he wanted to admit, at the least, that he had more than a theoretical knowledge of That Way. Even if he didn't tell her who. It might be nice to at least tell her he *had* someone.

"And you've been getting more in touch with your brain lately." She smiled at him in that 'I'm proud of you' Willow way she had.

He shifted uncomfortably. This was getting closer and closer to actually saying "Besides, there's sort of a reason for that."

Xander groaned, and closed his eyes.

"A reason?" Willow's eyes widened. "You and Giles haven't--"

"NO!" Xander protested before he could even process what she was asking. "No, gods, Will, I--" He calmed himself down hurriedly, shook his head in a much more calm and collected and believable manner. "He isn't... you know. He wouldn't."

"Then what do you mean about a reason?"

He needed to figure out how to stop saying things to Willow that he didn't really want her to know. He'd had sixteen years to practise, he should know how by now. "I mean... um... that I kinda have. With someone else."

He wondered why he felt guilty for telling her. He knew how she had felt about him -- it was hard to miss how she had tried for so long to get him to ask her out, until she'd finally met Oz. But he'd never encouraged her, never let her think he felt the same way.

She was looking at him, her eyes so wide they seem to take up half her face. "Who?"

"Um, I can't really..." He sighed. "That I can't tell you. Do you mind?"

"He's not out?"

"He's so not out." It was a good excuse, at least. Xander suspected that Spike would gleefully tell the world, if he felt like it. Assuming, of course, there was anything left to tell about. If he never saw Spike again... would it make a difference what he told Willow? What he didn't? Other than the fact he was never, ever going to tell her he was... had been... He cut off his thoughts. Not going there. Not today.

"I understand. It's not your secret to tell."

"I'm sorry." She was being so understanding about everything, it only made him feel worse. Of course, he knew if he told her who she'd be yelling at him, telling Giles to lock him up -- or exorcise him or both.

Willow leaned over and kissed his cheek. "Thank you for telling me."

He ducked his head, grinning like an idiot. It was silly to be grateful to her for such a little thing.

"Can I sign your cast?"

He held it out to her. "Since you left room this time, sure."

"I had to. There's more people who will want to sign it." She took out a marker she'd brought with the stickers and leaned over his arm while she wrote on the cast.

He watched her signing, wondering why her statement sounded so odd. When she'd finished signing, he asked, "You mean you did it deliberately? Because no one but you and Jesse would have signed it?"

Willow was silent for a moment and when she did finally answer it was without looking up. "I didn't want anyone else to sign it. Jesse was okay because he was one of us, but otherwise I wanted you all to myself."

Xander felt his smile spreading from his face all the way through his body, down even to his toes. He looked at his cast, to see what she'd written.

~~To my very best friend, here's to no more broken bones or dreams. Willow~~

He reached out with his good arm, and pulled her close. She sighed and hugged him back, wrapping her arms around his waist and rested her head on his shoulder.

Sometimes, Xander thought, life could be a good thing.

~~~~~

It was late, very late even by Slayerette standards, when they finally declared the party Over. No one had wanted to go, everyone having a good time and tacitly agreeing not to look at the clock, not to mention 'maybe we should's. But eventually there were yawns, and reluctant agreement that even a party had to end.

They'd all pitched in to help clean up, finishing the job in little time at all. Then there were goodbyes, and finally Giles and Xander were left alone.

Xander collapsed on the couch and looked at his cast again. Everyone had signed it, even Joyce and Cordelia's boyfriend.

Giles smiled down at him. "You should go to bed."

"Yeah, I should." Xander turned his arm upside-down, trying to read Buffy's line. She'd written it so he either had to hold his cast up to a mirror, or twist his head underneath his arm. Beside it, right-side up, Giles had signed.

"Perhaps I should've written something more profound."

"Huh? What's not profound about 'Rupert Giles'?" Xander grinned. "There's still white space, if you wanna add something."

His guardian considered for a moment, then went and got a marker. Xander held out his cast and Giles wrote something brief, then stepped back again.

Xander read it, then jumped off the couch and grabbed Giles in a hug. He'd added simply, 'Dad'.

"Profound enough?"

"Yeah." Xander squeezed hard, then jumped back and grinned at him. "You could add 'is gonna buy Xander a car'. That'd be profound."

"And also a fantasy."

"A profound fantasy. Is there any better kind?"

Giles smiled faintly. "Those that come true."

Xander stopped, regrouping his mental bearings -- everyone had had a touchy-feeling moment when they'd read Willow's line. Xander had breezed through it during the party, but now it was proving kind of hard. He wanted to say something about the car being a true fantasy, but the light retort just stuck on his tongue.

The look Giles gave him was totally understanding.

"I'm gonna go to bed." He hesitated, then just said, "Thanks for the party."

"Thank you for giving me a reason to have it." He pressed a kiss to Xander's forehead. "Pleasant dreams."

Oh, yeah, Xander told himself as he headed for his room. 'That's gonna help those dreams be pleasant.' He brightened as he realized there was something waiting for him in his room. Angel had brought it, not handing it over when everyone else exchanged a gift. Rather, he'd shown it to Xander then left it in his room.

It was resting on the bed when he entered; a large, fairly flat, brightly giftwrapped package. He dove onto the bed, catching up the package as he landed. He didn't know why Angel hadn't wanted him to open it in front of everyone. It wasn't like anyone didn't know they were friends. He flipped the tag over before tearing the paper, and saw.

It wasn't from Angel. It was from Spike.

His hand rested lightly on the package. He could feel his heart-rate picking up. When had Spike bought this? Before their fight? After?

Did it matter?

Slowly, he began unwrapping the paper, taking care not to rip it, care he hadn't with the earlier gifts. The box inside was a well-made one, sturdy cardboard. A touch of quality Xander hadn't realized he wouldn't have expected from Spike. He ran his finger across the lid, wondering for a moment if it would be anything he could share with his friends. Unlike the Dead Puppies CD which he tried not to let anyone know he enjoyed since, after all, they thought it was from his folks.

He opened the box to reveal a coat. A long black duster like the one Spike wore. Without thinking, he stood, shaking the coat out and slipping it on. It fit perfectly. That didn't surprise him.

As he turned, letting the coat billow, he caught sight of the package he'd stashed, still waiting to be wrapped. The Dead Puppies debut album. He'd searched for weeks, looking everywhere to find it. Finally he'd located one, ordered it over the web from a company in Timbuktu, New Jersey, or some such place. Paid nearly as much for shipping to get it here in time.

Then he'd doubted he would even get to give it to Spike. Now, though...

It seemed silly to let it just gather dust on his shelf. Even if they weren't... anymore, they had been... well, whatever they were. And that deserved some acknowledgement.

Besides, Spike had sent his present over, which meant... something. He'd have to just wrap the album and take it to him -- or give it to Angel to be delivered, if he didn't want to see Spike.

He'd think it over. Til then, he turned again, letting the edges of the coat twirl.

~~~~

Xander lay in his bed. He was, as he'd expected to be, wide awake. He hadn't slept much -- lain awake until nearly midnight, simply unable to reconcile Christmas with being inside, in bed, in a quiet home. He kept wanting to go out and see if everything was still really there.

He hadn't, though, not wanting to make Giles think he was impatient for Christmas morning and presents. He'd finally fallen asleep for a few hours, then he'd woken again with a shot of fear, expecting to find himself outside again when he'd opened his eyes. He'd finally crept into the living room, then, around 3 o'clock. The apartment was mostly dark, lit only by the street lights outside and the glow of the microwave's clock.

Everything had seemed the same. All the decorations still in place, the tree still there with its piles and piles of presents. He'd sat down beside it, and stared for the longest time.

At four, he'd returned to bed, intent on sleeping some more. Instead he'd lain awake until now, almost dawn, watching the shadows on the ceiling. Now he wanted to go back into the other room again. Not to find out if the magic had washed away to leave a cold, greyer reality, but for the simple reason that soon he'd get to start *opening* those presents. Watching Giles open his. They'd make tea and biscuits and they'd spend the entire morning just... celebrating. Being there.

He sat up, seized by the urge to go out, start now. Wanting to be out there with Giles and all the Christmassy stuff now, before it *could* fade away. But that was ridiculous, wasn't it? He stayed in bed, and told himself it wasn't going to fade. That sort of thing didn't really happen. It couldn't. Just like there was no real Santa and no real magic and no real.. ..

Xander leapt out of bed and into the hallway, ignoring the protest from his ribs as he ran silently the few steps to the very edge of the living room. He leaned against the wall, looking in. It was real, and maybe if he kept looking at it, it couldn't fade away.

He stayed where he was for he didn't know how long. Eventually he heard the floorboards in the hallway creak and a soft footstep behind him, and Giles' voice, still thick with sleep, say his name.

"Hey," he said quietly, not turning around. "Didn't mean to wake you."

"Are you all right?"

He knew it was going to sound stupid, but he'd finally, somewhere along the line, overcome letting that stop him from saying things to Giles. "I just needed to make sure it didn't go away."

A hand came and rested on his shoulder, squeezing briefly. "Come on," Giles urged him, leading him to the couch and settling them both on it. "Might as well be comfortable while we watch."

Xander settled against Giles, trying only a few times to find a way to lean sideways without making his ribs hurt. Then he let his head fall sideways onto Giles' shoulder, and they watched.

As the sun began to rise, the room began to grow color. The greys bled into white, and the blacks into green and red and blue. As the light spread, the room began to look more real, more like what he remembered from yesterday when they'd put the final touches on everything and he'd thought nothing at all of it being strange.

"Merry Christmas, Xander."

"Merry Christmas." He waited another moment, telling himself he should wait until the sun was actually up and not just thinking about it. "Can we start now?" he asked, sounding more like an excited five year old than someone old enough to know better.

"My parents always made me wait until after we'd eaten breakfast," Giles said conversationally.

"Nooooooooo!" Xander pushed himself up, turning to grab onto Giles' arm. "Food bad! No breakfast."

"Yes, if I recall correctly, that was my reaction as well. It never seemed to impress my father."

Xander froze, starting to frown. "You're kidding me, aren't you?" He realized it was probably ungrateful as hell to whine about waiting an extra hour to make and eat breakfast.

"Yes."

Xander blinked. "Yes... about waiting?"

Giles nodded. "Yes."

He frowned at Giles again. "That wasn't nice! D'you want Santa to take your presents away?" He got off the couch, though, and headed straight for the tree.

"I would never have made you wait. You've waited long enough for this."

"Yeah, eight hours," Xander replied, knowing it wasn't what Giles meant. He stopped before kneeling by the pile of presents. "Stockings? Presents? How--" He'd mostly managed to overcome not saying stupid things to Giles. "Is the English order of events different?" Well, it hadn't sounded too stupid.

"We always started with the stockings first." Giles gave him a fond smile. "But feel free to start wherever you want."

"Stockings!" Xander went over to the mantle. He'd filled Giles' stocking last night on one of his admittedly many excursions to the living room. He brought it over to Giles, carrying his own rather heavy sock. Peeking out of the top was a bar of chocolate. He pulled it out. "See! Breakfast!"

"Yes, well, only today." Giles still tended to look at chocolate bars with suspicion and, as far as Xander knew, hadn't eaten any since the incident with the cursed candy. But he had never said anything about Xander eating it and had continued to make sure there was always some in the house.

"Don't worry, I didn't put any in your stocking." Xander grinned, and set the chocolate aside long enough to dig further into the stocking.

He began making a pile on the cushion beside him, stopping occasionally to oo or ah. When he pulled out the Matchbox Mustang, though, he stopped and held it up to Giles.

Giles lifted one eyebrow. "You said you wanted a car."

"Did I forget to say what size?"

"You might've, yes."

Grinning, Xander said in as stern a tone as he could manage, "I would like to clarify that I meant a full-size car."

"Understood." Giles paused, then added almost diffidently, "Consider that one a promise. When you graduate, we'll see about getting you something to get around in."

"Really?" Xander reminded himself not to bounce, after he'd done so once and felt the resulting pain shoot through his side. "Really? A real car? Full-sized and runs and a real car?"

"Really."

He bounced again, anyway. "Ow."

"Take it easy on those ribs."

"I'm trying! You think it's easy to have bruised ribs on Christmas?" He went back to emptying his stocking, and munching his way through the first of the three chocolate bars he'd gotten.

"No, I'm sure it isn't." Giles' voice was soft.

He glanced back, knowing what sort of expression he'd see on Giles' face, even the parts that would be hidden behind a mask of whatever a proper British gentleman called the mask he wore over his emotions. "It's still the best, you know."

"I'm glad."

He waited what he thought was an appropriate interval after emptying the stockings -- reflecting that Giles had been just as pleased by his own, even if he had been more composed in his oos and ahs. Then -- "Presents?"

Giles smiled faintly. "You waited longer than I thought you would." He got up and went over to the tree, bending and picking up a small package. Returning to the couch, he handed it to Xander. "Open this one first."

Startled, Xander took it. "This is what you picked up at the jewelry store." He was already tearing the paper -- he didn't care if it was a Giles family tradition to remove the paper carefully. Removing the paper revealed a black velvet box, of the kind he'd really only seen in movies and tv shows before. They always seemed to contain priceless jewels, silver, or gold.

"Open it," Giles said softly, watching his face intently.

He almost didn't dare. There was something wonderful in this box. Something of the sort he'd never had, never even dreamed of having. Something so far above his reach... He opened it anyhow, carefully, and looked inside.

It was an I.D. bracelet. Bright silver chainlinks, and a small plaque engraved with his name. He read it. Blinked and read it again.

'Xander Harris Giles,' it read, and in smaller print underneath it, 'Christmas 1997'.

He lightly rubbed his thumb over the engraving. He had no idea what he was supposed to say -- and couldn't have, anyway, over the thick tightness in his throat.

"I wasn't sure if it was something you'd like, but I wanted to give you something... permanent. I hope I'm not overstepping myself," Giles said rather nervously.

"Does this mean... I could... this is me now." He could barely think, barely say whatever it was he was feeling. He held out his right hand and the bracelet to Giles.

Reverently, Giles took the bracelet and fastened it around Xander's wrist. "If you want it to be."

"Oh, yeah," he breathed, staring at his wrist. The name was right where he could see it, anytime he glanced down. "Oh!" He tried to bounce up off the couch. Giles caught him.

"Ribs," he was reminded gently with a warm smile.

"The one in the blue and green bag," he pointed, letting himself be eased back down onto the couch. "Open that one first."

Giles went and got it. "This one?"

"Yeah."

He watched excitedly as Giles brought it over and sat down. Carefully, Giles opened it, laughing as he pulled out the hat.

"The very best in Sorcerer's wear," Xander explained.

His guardian's smile softened at that explanation. "All the more precious coming from the prince," he said quietly.

Xander gave him a wide grin. Someday he was gonna figure out a way to get that allusion to work for him. If he were royalty, he ought to be able to order the peasants around, at least.

They took turns unwrapping several more presents. Clothes, CDs -- albums for Giles -- and various books of the mundane and non-mundane variety. When Xander saw Giles about to open one particular present, he kept watch out of the corner of his eye.

This one also inspired laughter, but it was gentler and more affectionate. "Still maintaining the tradition?" Giles asked, holding up the tie.

"Well, yeah. What is Christmas but a conglomerate of traditions? Besides, um, I know how pissed you got when you had to trash the other one after the Bego demon slimed it."

Giles shifted uncomfortably. "Actually... I still have it."

Xander's eyebrows rose. Grown-ups did that sort of thing, too? Maybe he wouldn't feel so silly about keeping those two boxes.

"But I will treasure this one as well." His guardian smiled. "Can't wear the other with the slime stains on it."

"Oh, you could. To the right kinda parties..." Xander grinned at the look Giles gave him, and turned his attention to the next present.

The one Giles handed him was large and heavy. The nametag was not in Giles' handwriting though it did bear some similarity. He blinked when he saw what was written after the 'from'. 'Grandmum and Grandad.' He looked back up at Giles. "I thought you weren't, you know, talking to your dad...?"

"We still keep each other informed about important things."

"And they got me a gift?" He hadn't gotten them anything. Hadn't even known they knew he was here.

"It is tradition in my family to spoil grandchildren."

Xander figured his grin was one of the scary kind from the way it made his cheeks hurt and made Giles roll his eyes and mutter something about 'god help me'. He wasted no more time, then, tearing the wrapping off.

It was a set of leather bound volumes. Encyclopaedia, Xander thought at first, but then he looked closer. Corrand's Complete Demonic Reference. The same set as Giles had, only he saw that it was a newer version by several years. Newest, in fact. "Oh, wow!" He opened the first one. The pages smelled new. They were thick, high quality paper. "Wow."

Willow was going to be *so* jealous. For as long as it took her to borrow them. He grinned again.

Giles smiled and picked up another one of the books. "It looks like I'm going to have to keep my eyes open or my father is going to try and recruit you into the family business."

"I don't wanna be a Watcher. I'm gonna be a chemist," Xander said, still looking through the book. The set had been on his class' recommended reading list, and he'd been able to take shortcuts already in his homework by using Giles' set.

"You can be anything you want, Xander." The words were quiet and determined.

"Yes, dad," he replied in his best 'whatever' voice.

Giles rolled his eyes goodnaturedly. "Finish opening your presents."

"Do I *have* to?" he whined, though he held onto the still-wrapped one at his side -- just in case.

"Well, if you'd rather not, we can always just go and have breakfast--"

"We can't have breakfast," Xander said matter-of-factly. "I still have presents to open."

He got a 'well there you go then' gesture for that and Giles sat back on the couch to watch him.

Xander pointed out casually, "You've got presents left, too."

"Do I?"

Xander pointed to the tree. He knew for a fact that three of the packages still under it were for Giles. He knew because he'd put them there.

"And I should open them now?"

Xander cast a doubtful eye on the presents. "You could leave them for next year, I guess. If you have that much restraint."

Diffidently, Giles said, "You went to all the trouble of getting and wrapping them, it's the least I can do to open them."

Xander controlled his grin while Giles went to pick up two of the last of the gifts. When Giles was almost back to the couch, he said, "Yeah, I knew you couldn't wait."

Giles smiled faintly at him, then turned his attention to carefully unwrapping the first gift. Xander paused in opening his fourth-to-last present -- not that he was counting -- and watched Giles. The paper was removed and set aside, the box opened, revealing another giftwrapped box. "Very... industrious of you."

"I had a lot of wrapping stuff left over by that point."

The process was repeated, revealing one more wrapped box. "I can see that."

Xander kept quiet. The multiple wrappings had been an idea he'd stolen from a cousin of Willow's -- she'd wrapped a Chanukah present for Willow inside eight boxes. He didn't know if it would help, hinder, or matter at all when Giles finally found what was tucked inside.

He still couldn't believe he'd done it, but he couldn't help but feel it was appropriate. He glanced down at the bracelet on his wrist and the words written there; very appropriate indeed.

It took several moments for Giles to get through the boxes and to the envelope they contained. Xander was trying not to fidget -- he hadn't counted on making *himself* anxious, when he'd wrapped the envelope.

Giles opened the envelope, pulled out the card... and froze.

Xander bit his lip, waited as Giles read the card. And read the card again. And apparently was getting stuck on one of the two-syllable words or something, because he was still staring at it.

When his gaze finally left the card and looked up, Xander could see his eyes were overly bright. "This is..."

"Seemed appropriate, our first Christmas and all." The card was one of those brightly coloured kids' drawing type things, meant to be purchased by the doting mother for the doting father. 'Merry Christmas, new Dad' on the front and a picture of a sleeping infant under a tree. A bit hokey, Xander knew, but it said everything he wanted it to.

Giles opened and closed his mouth a few times, obviously searching for words. "Thank you," he finally managed.

"You haven't even opened it yet," he teased.

That got him a surprised look and then Giles was opening the card, catching the piece of paper that fell out as he did. Glancing at the certificate, he laughed. "According to Buffy, I already have enough tweed."

"I think they sell non-tweed stuff." Xander looked thoughtful. "Maybe."

"Thank you," Giles repeated, this time with a smile, the words much less strangled.

"Hey, what's a baby's first Christmas without lots of sappy mushy stuff?" Xander had to turn his face, though, to avoid Giles' eyes. He didn't remember Christmas being this sentimental.

Well, of course, it hadn't been before now.

"Indeed." When he looked back Giles was wearing one of those smiles, affectionate, proud, happy.

~~~~~

Feeling bashful -- not a completely new experience, but close -- Xander returned his attention to his own present. He looked back up, however, when he heard Giles beginning to open his next present. The card might have been the most emotional, but this was the one he'd spent the most on.

He knew it was something Giles needed, even if the other man would have protested otherwise, if asked. Naturally Xander hadn't asked. He had, however, saved a hefty portion of his allowance for a good many weeks.

The briefcase was revealed and Giles looked up quickly. "Xander, this is too--"

"It isn't." Xander gave him a half-glare. "Your old one has a hole in it, for god's sake. This one is tough enough for even a stake to not poke through."

Giles' mouth twitched upward into a smile at that. "An important consideration in Sunnydale."

"Yeah." Xander nodded. "I thought so." He grinned. "The monogram is so you don't get it mixed up with all the other British librarian Watcher's cases."

Giles chuckled. "It is a wonderful gift, Xander. Thank you."

"Open the next one." He felt like he had a good gift karma thing going here, and wanted to see what Giles thought of the last gift. It had been an impulse buy, and he hoped it would have its intended effect.

"I'm almost afraid to," Giles teased, even as he reached for the last gift.

"I can promise you it isn't... um..." He thought carefully. He finally settled on, "Undead."

That earned him a long Look.

He grinned halfheartedly. Shifted a bit before moving surreptiously away from Giles and the package. Giles shook his head and muttered under his breath as he turned his attention back to opening the gift.

"You're paranoid," Xander said. Turned his attention back to his own third-to-last-but-still-not-counting present.

"When you feel the need to qualify a gift as 'not undead' it does bring out my paranoid side, yes."

"I could have said it isn't still moving. Would that have been better?"

His guardian considered. "Not considerably, no."

"It isn't still alive?" Which, Xander reflected, was true. All three statements were true and Giles was now looking at him like he was *never* going to open his last package.

"If I were you, I'd stop before I dug myself in any deeper."

"You could just open it and find out if I'm lying or not."

"I am trying, but I keep getting interrupted." As he spoke, he was undoing the paper.

"How are you getting interrupted?" Xander asked, innocently. He thought about asking, 'Did you hear something?' as Giles removed the paper, but figured it would be over-the-top and no longer funny. On the other hand, if Giles turned the box the wrong way, it *was* going to make noise.

Finally the paper was finally off and Giles was staring at it in confusion. "It's..."

"A bottle of wine," Xander pointed out helpfully. Joyce had bought it for him, even argued with him over the vintage.

"And this..." He held up the contraption, eyeing it and Xander.

"The holder." Xander smiled his best 'aren't I a good kid' smile.

"It looks more like you're trying to hang the bottle."

"Well, that's to keep it... secure." It didn't seem that Giles had exactly realized the nature of the bottle's holder, yet. He stifled the widest bits of his grin.

"So what you're telling me is this is a chastity belt for the wine?"

"It opens!" he protested. "If, you know, you can figure it out."

"The bottle holder is a puzzle."

"Yeah!" He paused, and took in the still-dubious expression on Giles' face. He wondered if it was the puzzle, or the wine.

Giles was looking closer at it now, the dubiousness giving way to concentration as he examined the puzzle closer. Xander bit his lip to keep from distracting him from getting well and thoroughly hooked. He'd spent an hour with it himself before resorting to the directions.

Joyce had spent half an hour before asking for them. Giles, it appeared, was settling in for the duration.

"Should I go make breakfast?"

"Hmm?" His guardian's tone was distracted. "If you like."

Xander giggled, and began unwrapping his present. "Cold pizza and coke?"

"Fine, if that's what you want." He was turning the puzzle sideways now.

"Can I use the coke in the Thermagurgical experiment?" Giles had forbidden him to do that experiment anywhere except the school's lab, with himself supervising -- and only with properly heated liquids. When Xander had suggested kool-aid, Giles had asked him if he wanted to spend the rest of the day cleaning pink smoke off the walls.

Giles' head shot up. "Nice try, but no."

"Man! You are way too good at that," Xander groused. "You'd think you'd been a parent before."

"No, you're my first experience."

"Bummer. You should have asked to start off easy."

"Easy wouldn't have been as rewarding," Giles countered, smiling faintly. "At least you were toilet trained."

Xander stared at the half-unwrapped package in his hands, the ribbon curling around his wrist from when he'd pulled it free of the tape.

"Xander?"

"I kinda wish... you know. I had been here, instead of--"

Giles' expression softened. "So do I."

"Even if I'd been wearing tweed the whole time." He frowned. "Do they *make* tweed diapers?"

"I don't think so."

He raised his eyebrow, eyeing Giles. Then he burst out laughing.

"And what is so funny?"

"You... in glasses and tweed..." Xander was beginning to regret laughing, but he couldn't stop. He held onto his sides as tight as he could, and fell back against the couch, still laughing.

Giles waited patiently.

"...age two, holding a stuffed bear..." Xander was seriously beginning to hurt. But Giles' calm expression wasn't helping banish the image any.

"I assure you my nappies were of the normal cloth kind," Giles replied with much dignity.

"Nappies?" Xander choked out, trying desperately to cut off his laughter.

"It's a perfectly good English word."

Xander could barely remain upright. Gasping for air, he managed, "Please, no... tell me you don't have pictures."

"Not on this continent."

Xander's eyes opened wider. "But I could go visit..." Well, assuming that Giles' parents wanted to be grandparents *that* up close and personal. Maybe he could just write them a thank you letter, and ask for photos.

Giles smiled faintly. "I'm not sure if I should if you're going to go looking for incriminating photos, but we'll see what we can do next summer."

"I can ask for the incriminating photos through the mail," he offered cheerfully. "That way we don't have to try to get me a passport."

"Oh, that won't be a problem."

Xander just raised an eyebrow.

"I have a copy of your birth certificate in among your papers." He cocked his head and regarded Xander. "You could probably get British citizenship as well if you wanted to."

"You got my papers?" For some reason that had never even occurred to him. He realized it was absurd to think Giles didn't have them... but he'd never really thought of it. Then -- "British citizenship?"

"Since I adopted you-"

Grinning, Xander asked the first thing that popped into his head. "Can I learn how to talk funny, too?" Then he was sitting upright, ignoring the flash of pain in his side. "A--"

"Adopted." Giles looked at him in dawning realization. "You hadn't realized--?"

"I thought--you know, legal guardian..." He babbled as quickly as he could, then shot off the couch and ran for the bathroom.

When his stomach stopped heaving and his ribs went from screaming in pain to merely aching loudly, he found Giles kneeling beside him, one hand rubbing his back soothingly. He leaned sideways, resting against Giles. Horribly unexpected, and now he really needed his painkillers.

Shifting him gently, Giles stretched up to the sink, getting Xander a glass of water and the bottle of pills that were on the counter. "Here."

"I'm sorry." He knew as soon as his head stopped throbbing he'd have to explain. If he could only think of why the news had shocked him so badly.

Other than casting an awful new light on his real feelings. He'd spent a year trying to talk himself out of them, pointing out there was simply no chance, so it was rather a shock to find out he'd never quite believed himself. Until now, when Giles was removed forever from possibility...

"You have nothing to be sorry for. I should have never assumed--"

"No, no, not..." Xander tried to take a breath, shaking his head. He grabbed onto Giles' arm, half-afraid he'd let go. "Not that." Frantically trying to figure this out so he could explain, make Giles stop thinking that being part of his family was an awful thing. "I just never thought..." He closed his eyes and pressed his face against Giles'
biceps.

He felt a gentle hand stroke his hair. "You never thought what?" Giles' voice was equally gentle.

Nothing in Xander's brain was making much sense, but he tried to find something he could say that would make Giles understand. He knew what he could say, something that was sort of true somewhere deep inside. Giles would understand and wouldn't ask any further, and leave Xander free to wonder why hearing the words had made his heart stop.

As he thought out the words, he realized they might even be the true ones. "It's permanent, isn't it?"

"Yes. As long as you want it to be."

"I do," he whispered, hearing the echo in his mind. 'Forever'.

But then he heard someone else's voice, and he suddenly realized why he was so scared. Something his mother had said once, when he was small, about why his grandmother had allowed him to stay at her house for a whole summer one year.

'Your grandmother is a wonderful woman. She'd let any stray dog in. Domesticated or not.'

He tried to remind himself of all the things Giles had said and done, but all he could hear was his mother saying, 'He's nice to everyone, isn't he?'

He must've stiffened or something because Giles was slipping a hand under Xander's chin, tilting his head up to meet his gaze. "What is it?"

"Tell me you're not just being nice to me," he whispered.

Giles' eyes widened in surprise and when he spoke, his voice had the steel of determination in it. "Xander, I don't adopt people because I'm being nice."

"Mom used to say--that nice people were nice to me because they were nice. I used to ask if I could go live with my grandmother because she was nice to me and mom said it was her and not me and if you're not just being nice then there's nothing wrong with me and if there's nothing wrong with me why don't they like me?!" He realized he was shouting, and pulled himself in. He shook his head, trying to make sense of everything in his head and
failing.

"Some people are just incapable of caring for anyone other than themselves, if that. I know that doesn't make it hurt any less, but..."

Xander barely heard the words. He knew them, they made perfect sense on the outside. He tightened his grip on Giles, and felt the responding tightening of Giles' embrace around him. Maybe, despite whatever either of them said, that could be enough truth for him. "I'm sorry," he said again. "I don't mean to be still doing this."

"You've nothing to apologize for."

"But after all this time and I still don't believe you--"

"Your parents told you how worthless you were for fifteen years. You've been with me less than a year and look how far you've come. I'd say you were doing more than well."

Xander took another deep breath, deeply as he could manage at least. He found himself willing to believe Giles in this. He wasn't crazy, wasn't stupid. Everything just hurt.

"Is it ever gonna stop hurting?" he asked quietly, a minute later.

Giles tightened his embrace again, running his hand up Xander's back to cup his head. "It will. Someday, this will all be in the past."

Giles had never lied to him. He nodded his head, taking comfort from the words.

For a while they simply sat there. The painkillers had kicked in, putting a thick haze between Xander and the throbbing in his ribs. It made it easier to relax against Giles, easier to stop trying to listen to the voices in his memories. He tried to recapture the feelings from this morning: happy, content, and laughing. He couldn't manage it, but as he sat there the panic and pain faded more.

He found himself half-grinning as a thought occurred, and he whispered, "Worth a thousand diapers."

Giles chuckled softly. "Worth far more than that."

"Worth getting off the bathroom floor?" he asked. What he wanted was a nap -- rather, to lie on Giles' bed in Giles' embrace, but he was willing to concede that returning to Christmas morning, presents and breakfast and normalcy would do fine.

"I think we can manage that." Giles got up, lifting Xander with him. "Please don't take this the wrong way, but you look worn out. Would you like to nap for a while before breakfast?"

Xander smiled, a slow, sleepy smile. It widened when he realized, "And when I wake up, I still have presents." There were still two, sitting on the floor where he'd left them.

Giles smiled at him and guided him out of the bathroom. Xander did his best to keep one foot in front of the other, walking almost like he didn't need to be held upright. He headed down the hall, not even realizing where he'd gone until Giles was helping him over to the bed.

Giles' bed.

"Oh. I can--"

"Lie down and go to sleep," Giles finished for him with a faint smile.

"Yeah." He nodded. Already his eyes were closing. His last awareness was of Giles lying down beside him and pulling him close.

~~~~~

Xander rubbed his eyes and yawned as he stumbled out of Giles' room. He'd slept nearly two hours and was now so beyond ready for breakfast. Stomach growling, he headed for the kitchen. The smells he encountered told him he'd been anticipated. Giles looked up from his cooking and smiled at him when he entered. "Just in time. I was about to call you."

"Oh. Food." Xander moved forward, feeling more zombie-like than human. "Food. Food, food," he repeated, enjoying the faintly worried way Giles stepped out of his way.

Giles had dished out large amounts of food on two plates and handed one to Xander on the way by, making a show of checking his fingers when Xander grabbed it.

"Not without ketchup," Xander assured him as he grabbed a fork and began eating where he stood.

With a chuckle, Giles guided him towards the table. Xander managed four more bites before he had to stop long enough to sit down without dropping the plate.

"M's go," he said.

"Translation?" Giles asked amusedly, one eyebrow raised.

Xander swallowed. "I thought you spoke fourteen languages. Doesn't that include 'mouth's full'?"

"Only in tarkaain demon."

Xander paused. Briefly. "Tarkaain demons talk with their mouths full?"

"Almost constantly. And you really don't want to know what their mouths are full with."

"Oh." Xander blinked. Then he grinned. "Oh!" He jumped up and grabbed his notebook from his demonology 201 course, flipping through to find his current lesson. Finding the question which had stumped him, he chortled.

"You realize you're studying during breakfast? On Christmas morning?"

"No, no, not studying. I just finally have the rest of the answer to this question, and now all the rest of it finally makes sense. Wanted to write it down before I--" He looked up from where he was scribbling a rather detailed note. "Um. But it means I can mail this lesson in now, and take the final exam."

"Already?" Giles sounded honestly surprised. And pleased.

"Well, there were only fourteen lessons." Xander pushed the notebooks aside and returned to his breakfast. He'd been enrolled in the class for five weeks - how long was it supposed to have taken?

"The average time to finish that kind of course is usually about ten weeks."

Xander stopped eating again. Blinked at him. "It is?"

Giles nodded. "And it often takes even longer."

Xander wondered if Giles was pulling his leg. He looked down at the pile of homework, then back at Giles. "It wasn't that hard, though."

"You really have no idea what you've done, have you?"

"Um, my homework too fast?" Xander cleaned his plate and hopped up for more, returning to find Giles still just sitting there, looking at him.

"You've completed an intermediate level course in one of the hardest disciplines I know of in half the required time."

"Hardest disciplines?" Xander stopped eating, in shock. "You didn't tell me it was a hardest discipline!"

"Didn't I?" Giles looked innocent.

Xander glared. He knew that innocent expression. "Next you'll be telling me the class I enrolled in next is hard, too."

He got a faint smile in response. "Given what you've done so far, I have doubt you will find it so."

Giving Giles a grumpy look, he went back to his breakfast. For a moment, until he could no longer contain himself. "Professor Calgrn let me enroll in Dem Chem 204." He'd tested out of demonology 100, as Giles well knew. But Xander had taken the exam for demonic chemistry 101 through the mail, without telling Giles he was doing so.

It was Giles who was wearing the shocked expression now. "Enrollment in that course is invitation only."

Xander didn't try to stifle the happy grin. "I was invited. Professor Calgrn said my test scores were high enough, and I sent in a prospectus for a sophomore study thing -- where I suggest an experiment and tell 'em what's supposed to happen? I forgot what it's called..."

"Research proposal," Giles supplied absently, still looking shocked around the edges.

"Yeah. He said I should make sure someone supervised me, you know, to clean up the pink smoke." Xander turned back towards his plate. Waited.

"Pink smoke?"

"I asked if I could use kool-aid."

Giles blinked. Then started laughing. Xander grinned. He was looking forward to when Giles found out he really *had*.

The phone rang before Giles could say anything. Xander finished his second plate and was wondering if there was enough for thirds, when he heard Giles' delighted, "Mum!"

He looked up, trying not to look like he was eavesdropping shamelessly.

"No, it's not too early," Giles was saying. "We were just finishing breakfast."

Xander laughed silently. It was nearly noon.

"Yes, he's right here." Giles smiled at him. "If you want-- you do? I'll get him on the portable then."

Xander looked at him in surprise. This sounded like it was about to be--

Giles put his hand over the mouthpiece and nodded in the direction of the other phone. "She wants to speak to you."

"Who?" It was a dumb question, Xander knew that as it slipped off his tongue.

"My mother."

He went over to the second phone, completely without a clue what he was going to say. He picked up the receiver, relieved that at least Giles wasn't hanging up to leave him to talk to her, alone.

"--get the gifts all right?" A woman's voice with Giles' accent was saying as he put the phone to his ear.

Xander didn't say anything, watching Giles for a cue. Her voice sounded nice, though.

"They arrived just fine, Mum. The sweater fits perfectly."

"I know you probably don't need it in California, but it is a family tradition after all." Her voice was full of good humor. "And how did Xander like the books?"

Xander caught the look Giles sent him, and stammered, "Just fine. Um, hi. I'm Xander."

"Xander!" Giles' mother sounded genuinely pleased to hear him. "Rupert's told us so much about you. I'm Maggie, by the way."

"Pleased to, um, meet you. Sorta." He half-smiled at Giles, who was watching him with an encouragingly expression.

"Yes, voice to voice, if not face to face."

"Dad says we might visit," was out of his mouth before he could stop it.

There was a pause and when Maggie spoke again, the pleasure in her voice matching Giles' expression. "Did he now. Well, you would be more than welcome."

Xander grinned, and said quickly, "And I'm not supposed to ask about any incriminating photos of him when he was a baby."

Maggie laughed delightedly at the same time that Giles warned, "Xander."

"Hush, Rupert," his mother told him. "If I can't show those pictures to my grandson, who can I show them to?"

Xander gave Giles a unrepentant smile. Then he told her, "He's blushing. What sort of photos do you *have*?" He looked away gleefully when Giles tried glaring at him.

"You'll just have to come over and see."

"Yeah." He found himself looking forward to it, for more than just the photos.

"It'll give us a chance to get to know each other better. I want to hear all about your life."

"Oh." He hesitated, glanced down at his cast. He had no idea what Giles had told them about his life. Maybe he should just focus on current stuff. "Hey, do you know anything about demonology? Is dem chem really one of the hardest disciplines?"

Maybe Giles really *was* pulling his leg.

"Oh my, yes. Rupert sat his exams twice before he passed."

"*Twice*?" He looked at Giles.

"Thank you, mother," Giles said, with a 'you can stop embarrassing me anytime' expression.

"Dad didn't tell me about that part. He just said it was hard."

"I take it you're doing well?"

"Well, I tested out of the first year classes." It felt weird -- cool weird, but weird -- to be saying that sort of thing.

"Really? How wonderful!"

"I'll be taking the second year course, next." Xander sat down in a chair, catching Giles' gaze -- he was still looking at him like *that*, all smiling and happy. He wondered which part was making him do it. It might be the proud of him thing, but he had a suspicion...

They talked for another half hour, Maggie an enthusiastic listener for all that Xander told her. He found himself reluctantly realizing that they needed to end the call -- but even as they were saying their goodbyes, Giles was telling her they'd call next week.

Giles was smiling at him when they hung up. "You had to mention the photos, didn't you?"

"Was I supposed to not mention them?" he gave Giles back the all-too-innocent look Giles had given him earlier.

With a sigh, Giles waved the innocence off. "You made her day asking. She's been waiting to have someone to show those to."

"So I'll have to look at them, if only for her sake."

"And I'm sure that's the only reason you have."

Xander nodded earnestly. "Hey, I'd offer to show you mine, but the Rosenburgs aren't home." He grinned.

"What makes you think I haven't seen them?"

Xander froze. "She didn't." He narrowed his eyes at him. "You're joking."

In response, Giles left the kitchen and headed for his bedroom. A moment later he was back with his wallet which he handed over. Xander took it. Opened it.

"And you carry them around with you?" He didn't know if he was more touched that Willow had thought to give these to Giles -- knowing that Xander's own folks never took pictures and that those her mother had taken would be the only ones of Xander -- or touched that Giles had been carrying them around with him in his wallet.

Giles gave a small half shrug. "It's tradition."

He flipped through, seeing a picture of himself and Willow, age four, playing in the yard. Another of himself, about age 6, standing in the Rosenburg's kitchen. A third-- "She gave you *this* one?"

"That's my favourite."

"It's *embarrassing*!"

It was him, barely six months old. Mrs. Rosenburg had babysat him for a couple years, right after he'd been born -- hence his knowing Willow from the day *she* came home from the hospital. In the picture, he was looking at the camera -- cross-eyed -- and his tongue was sticking out. None of which was intentional, he knew. It was just one of those baby 'can't control my head' things.

"It's adorable," Giles countered. "Now if you were naked before a fireplace, *that* would be embarrassing."

Xander tried to think if Willow's mom had anything like that. Then he looked at Giles sharply. "And why do we say that, hm? Something I can look forward to seeing?"

Giles mumbled something noncommittal and took his wallet back.

Xander laughed. "And how old were you?" Xander found himself struck by an image of Giles, now, naked in front of a fireplace. He tried frantically to replace it with something else.

All he could do was Spike, naked, by a Coleman lamp. Well, it would do.

"Three months," Giles finally answered with a sigh.

"Aww. I bet you were cute." The image of naked Spike was beginning to interfere with his ability to think.

"I would have preferred even tweed nappies."

"But it's traditional to have naked baby pictures. I bet Willow didn't show you the ones of her, naked on the rug." She would kill him if she knew he'd even said such a thing. But as far as he could recall, none such of *him* existed at all.

Thank god.

"No, she didn't. Understandably."

"I bet I could find some." He glanced at the wallet Giles was still holding. "I owe her." He didn't mean it, of course. But he *did* owe her something.

Like chocolate.

"That won't be necessary," Giles said, sounding amused. He took the wallet back and added, thoughtfully, "Though perhaps we should take some current photos of you."

"Naked?!?"

Giles stared, opened his mouth to answer, closed it again with a shake of his head, and stared some more. Finally he answered, "Fully clothed. To send to my mother."

Xander grinned. He wanted to laugh at the expression on Giles' face; he didn't often see him get *that* off-balance. Instead he decided to test an earlier hypothesis. "OK, dad, for that you can take photos. But nothing embarrassing, or I'll tell Buffy about the fireplace and rug."

"Nothing embarrassing," Giles agreed absently, that look Xander had been expecting back on his face.

Score, Xander thought. He kept his grin to himself as he looked forward to making that expression appear again.

~~~~~

Boxing Day. A day for boxes, Xander told himself as he sat down in front of his own good box. A day full of nothing to do except not exert himself -- which meant Tomb Raider. First, though, his email and newsgroups, which could conceivably take all morning, as well.

Didn't matter. Giles was busy at the moment with Watcher things -- or librarian things, or Giles things. He wasn't really sure. Didn't care. He had the whole day to himself to do nothing at all constructive.

As the machine booted up, he considered that 'nothing constructive'. He ought, he supposed, do *something*. One thing, so when Giles asked him later to help with the dishes, he could protest that he'd done a chore already. But what could he do from his desk chair?

Aha.

He waited impatiently through the start-up screen, then logged onto the net. The mailtruck voice greeted him, and he set the mail to download while he accessed one of the URLs Willow had bookmarked for him: the Coroner's Office. He could check for any bitten corpses from the day before for Buffy. One chore, as ordered.

He flipped through his CDs as the browser began loading, selecting a nice, loud, unintelligible-lyrics one. He set it to play then turned his attention back to the screen. There had only been two deaths in the last twenty four hours -- some kind of record, for Sunnydale. The first he quickly determined was probably not suspicious -- a 98-year-old woman dead from a heart attack. The second...

Xander didn't know which part made him stare harder. The two rather obvious holes on the neck -- or the fact that the victim was his father.

He was still for a long moment, waiting to wake up. It had to be a dream. For it to be reality was just too... ironic? Poetic? Surreal? Of all the people in Sunnydale to be a random vampire victim...

Or was it random? Before the thought was even completed, Xander was up and moving. He grabbed his coat, not realizing what exactly he'd picked up until he moved to put it on. That thought stopped him long enough to grab one more thing. Then he headed out, moving silently to the front door and outside.

The entire time he was walking to his destination, he tried not to think, not to imagine what might have happened. He didn't even know what he was going to say, or do, or what he felt about what might or might not have happened. All he knew was that he had to-- He didn't even want to think that far.

His ribs were starting to ache from exertion by the time he reached the warehouse and he used that physical pain as a focus, blocking out the images his mind was insisting on providing. It almost worked.

Until he entered the mostly abandoned warehouse and found Spike. The vampire looked at him, startled. As Xander walked over, he could see Spike's expression wavering between delight and doubt. But all he said was, "Looks good on you."

"Was it you?"

Spike looked even more startled. "Of course it was me. I signed the card, didn't I?" He reached out to tug at the duster's lapel. "You think Angel would buy you something like--"

Xander grabbed his hand before he could touch him. "Did you kill my father?"

Spike blinked. His face smoothed over and he just stared at Xander.

"Did you?!" He knew he was yelling, but couldn't stop.

In a surprisingly calm, almost gentle tone, Spike said, "Don't ask unless you really want to know, Xan."

"Tell me!" Xander winced as his voice cracked.

For a moment he thought Spike wouldn't say anything. Then, slowly, Spike nodded. He reached up to touch Xander's face. "Yeah. God, look at you, Xander. The doctors said he might have killed you if he hadn't been stopped."

"How do you know-- You didn't kill my doctors, too, did you?"

"Of course not!" Spike looked offended. "I went and asked!"

"And they just told you?" He was having trouble wrapping his brain around the fact that Spike cared enough to seek out the information.

"Um, well, yeah, after I told 'em I was... you know. Your boyfriend," he muttered quickly. "You'd already been released so it wasn't like I was trying to push my way past the Duty Nurse." He said it like Xander would have expected him to say "Demon Guard".

"So you talked to my doctors and then you went and... killed my father."

With a shrug, Spike said, "He was there, just leaving. I didn't actually plan to do it. I saw him and I'd just heard how you-- well. He didn't even say he was sorry." Spike kept glancing away, meeting his eyes for a moment before looking away once more.

"He never did." Xander felt... He wasn't sure what it was he felt. What it was he should be feeling.

"I'm sorry."

Startled, Xander looked up and met Spike's eyes. Suddenly he knew there was one thing he didn't feel, and that was anger at Spike. "Don't be."

"Uh... what?"

"Don't be sorry. I-I'm not mad. At you, at least."

Still surprised, Spike slowly began to grin. Not a full-blown Spike-grin, but something more hesitant. "Somebody else you're mad at? I'll bite 'em for you." His tone, however, showed none of the same hesitancy.

"You already did."

"Good for me, then." He leaned forward, slightly. Not enough to show any pressure, just there. In case Xander wanted it.

Xander suddenly remembered the package he had grabbed just before he had ran out of his bedroom. "Here," he said, shoving it out towards Spike.

"What's this?" Spike took it, reflexively. Then his face lit up and he pulled the Christmas wrapping away. "Oh, god! Their first album!" Spike stepped forward and grabbed Xander by the neck, kissed him soundly.

"I take it as a given that you like it," Xander said with a half-grin when the kiss was over, trying to ignore the way his body was reacting to it.

"Like it? Pet, I love it. Makes me forget all about stealing Angel's credit cards." He titled his head. "Oh, nope, I'd already forgotten about that." He ran his hands down Xander's arms, rubbing the sleeves. "You do like it, right?"

"Yeah. It makes me look..."

"Sexy." Spike leaned in again.

Xander felt his cheeks heating at that. "I was thinking more along the lines of dangerous."

Spike just pressed his face nearer Xander's face, moving down to his neck. "Yeah... that's what's so sexy."

"Good thing I'm not holding a wooden stake, you'd start drooling."

Spike's gaze flicked up. He placed one hand on Xander's chest, fingers splayed over his heart. "Yeah?" Xander didn't know if he should be more worried about the way Spike's eyes dilated -- or about the way his own arousal soared at the vampire's reaction.

He took a step back. His mind skirting away from dealing with that, it came up with another question that he voiced before he could talk himself out of it. "The other night... was that my father's blood I tasted on you?"

Spike looked at him. There was a moment when Xander knew he was going to say 'yes'.

He wondered why he thought that changed things.

But Spike didn't answer. He raised his hand to rub his thumb across Xander's lower lip. "Can you stay awhile?"

"I..." Xander suddenly remembered he has snuck out without telling Giles he was going, much less where. The man was going to be frantic. "I've got to go. Giles doesn't know I'm out."

"So? You on a leash?" Spike grinned as soon as he heard what he'd said.

"I don't want to worry him." He said it more sharply than he had planned.

Spike let his hand fall. "Fine. Go, then."

Xander took a step towards the door, then stopped and looked back. "Maybe I can stop by next week sometime?" he offered, knowing his ribs would be feeling better by then.

The shadow in Spike's eyes vanished as he smiled. "Yeah. Call ahead if you want, or not. Drop by during the day; I'll be here." He moved in for a quick kiss.

Xander obliged, even raised his casted arm unthinkingly to wrap around Spike's neck, stopping before he could bonk the vampire in the head with it.

"Hey, careful!" Spike stopped and took hold of the cast. He stared at it silently for a moment, then raised an eyebrow at Xander. "They're you, pet. Very nice. Oo, can I sign it?" He started looking around for a pen before waiting for an answer.

"Um..." Xander thought frantically of a way to say no, finally coming up with, "you can draw a picture."

Spike gave him a look. "I do know how to sign my name." He came up with a pen. "But yeah, I get it. I can draw something? Anything?"

"G-rated," he clarified quickly.

Spike pouted. "Never let me have any fun." But he considered the cast, pen poised -- expression of concentration making Xander want to laugh. Spike held Xander's arm steady with one hand, then began doing something with the pen.

Xander craned his head, trying to see what he was drawing, but the angle was wrong. Spike moved his hand slightly to even better shield what he was doing.

It was beginning to make Xander nervous.

Finally, though, Spike looked up. "Voila."

He'd drew fangs on one of the teddy bear stickers and a stick figure behind it. "A vampire bear?" Xander said with a laugh.

"I admit it doesn't look like me. But the other resembles you nicely, I think?"

"It's a stick figure."

"Well, yeah, but it has your heart." He pointed to what looked like a little black dot. "And your eyes."

"Two more black dots."

"It isn't my fault I can't draw. If you'd let me just sign--"

"No!"

Spike pouted again. "I'd have written 'Will' or something. Or possibly not." He grinned, then it faded quickly. "You'd best go now, though."

"Yeah." He started backing up. "See you next week?"

He nodded. "See you next week."

Xander smiled slightly, then turned and left.

~~~~~

He walked homeward, more slowly than he had on his way to see Spike. He was anxious to get home, but his side was aching. The first pay phone he found, he stopped and called home. No answer. Knowing what that meant, Xander headed on, trying to move faster. Then, down the street, he saw a familiar car turn the corner and head for him. He stopped walking, knowing he'd be easily spotted.

Sure enough, the car came to a rather uncharacteristically-screeching halt at the curb. Giles got out, the driverside door left open in his haste to get to Xander. He stopped about a foot away, looking Xander up and down intently. "Are you all right?"

"I guess so." Xander felt suddenly very... unemotional. He'd been fighting feeling anything until he'd talked to Spike; now the need to fight seemed to have gone. It worried him a little.

Giles still looked worried too. "I saw the autopsy report."

"Yeah." Xander slipped his right into his jacket pocket. "He's dead." He waited, but nothing changed when he heard himself say it.

Giles nodded slowly. "Yes, he is."

Something occurred to him, and he heard himself saying thoughtfully, "I don't think he'll be coming up later." Spike wouldn't have fed him, turned him. Unless he'd wanted to torment the man by killing him twice. He'd forgotten to ask. He should call Spike and ask.

Only Giles was looking at him, oddly, now. "We'll make sure, just in case."

Xander frowned. He wasn't sure he liked the idea of making Buffy stake his father. Of course, he wasn't entirely sure she'd mind the job. He suddenly realized that he had no idea what to do next. Giles didn't seem upset with him for taking off.

"Are you ready to go home?" The question was asked in the same calm, careful tone that Giles had been using all along.

He nodded. "I left my painkillers at home. I think I need 'em." He rubbed absently at his side, well above the point of the bruising. "Oh." His father was dead. Dead as in actually not-just-wishing-he-was-dead.

Giles reached out slowly sliding a supporting arm around him. "Come on."

"Is it a bad thing if I'm not sorry?"

"No."

All at once, Xander found himself relaxing. "Good. Do I have to fake it?" He smiled a bit. Wondered if it would be in poor taste to laugh -- but of all the things that were starting to swirl in his head, none of them were grief. He was still a bit off balance, but he thought that might be due to Spike. Wanting to go back to him, now.

"Not with me." Giles was leading him back to the car and pulling open the passenger door.

He caught the hard tone in Giles' voice and grinned at him. "Why, Rupert Giles, I am shocked! You're happy he's dead, too," he said the last in a stage-whisper.

Giles didn't deny it, just helped Xander into the car. Xander let him, but wondered why, now that Giles knew he wasn't upset, he was still acting like Xander was about to break.

The ride back to the house was quiet, with Giles shooting concerned looks at Xander every few minutes. Finally, Xander figured he'd better give Giles the excuse to spit it out. "Dad, are you OK?" It slipped out that time, but it wasn't like he minded saying it.

Giles glanced at him in surprise. "Am I--" He stopped, blinked and continued in a warmer, less careful tone, "I'm fine, Xander."

"OK. It's just that you're acting like I'm about to implode or something and don't wanna get startled by it in the middle of an intersection." Not that traffic in Sunnydale was anything to worry about, unless it was just after Happy Hour.

Or midnight, when the professional drunks and demons were out. He watched as Giles' lips twitched upward a little.

"You don't have to worry about it, though," Xander continued. "My coat should keep the mess off the seat."

"It would still be rather difficult to explain to the authorities."

"In Sunnydale?"

"Well, a little difficult."

"Sorry, officer, he just imploded. That's why I ran into the telephone pole. Won't happen again, I assure you." His British accent still needed work, but it was coming along.

"I don't sound like that," Giles protested.

Xander sighed. "I know. I'm still practicing."

They pulled into the parking lot of their building and into their spot. Giles shut off the engine and turned to Xander. "I would prefer if you just didn't implode."

Xander half-smiled. "OK. No imploding." He got out of the car and followed Giles up -- repeating quietly to himself, "I don't sound like that." He was getting one of the vowels wrong.

He was faintly surprised to see the door was unlocked; Giles was compulsive about that sort of thing. He looked at Giles again. He must have run out as soon as he'd discovered what had happened.

He suddenly realized why; he went over to where Giles was putting away his jacket and keys, studiously pretending to ignore him. It wasn't surprising, now that he'd thought of it. He might have guessed when Giles had found him so quickly -- Spike's warehouse was only a few blocks from where Giles had found Xander catatonic, hiding under the crates.

Xander was right there when Giles turned back around, less than a foot away. "I mean it, no imploding," he said, despite knowing that wasn't the problem.

Giles searched his face, then nodded seriously.

Softer, "I'm sorry I took off."

"It's all right," Giles replied, just as softly. "I know it must've been..."

Xander reached out, getting as far as touching Giles' arm. Then those arms were closing around him, holding him gently. He smiled to himself, knowing the embrace was as much if not more for Giles' benefit. He wrapped his arms around Giles and held him.

He heard and felt Giles' soft sigh. "I'm glad you're safe."

Xander made a note never to run off without word, again. Of course, Giles might have already opted for a subcutaneous GPS tracker...

Hmm, better not mention that. No point giving him ideas.

"When I saw the report and found you gone, I thought..." Giles sighed again and shook his head. "Actually I wasn't thinking much at all. Just feeling."

"Missing Xander, huh?" He was beginning to feel badly, now. He hadn't realized just how much he'd shaken Giles up when he'd disappeared that night. Halfheartedly, he said, "I told you I'd call if I were dead."

The arms around him tightened at that.

It wasn't a particularly funny joke. "Actually, I did call, but you'd already gone, I guess," he said a moment later.

"I left as soon as I realized you'd... gone out," Giles explained. "But thank you for trying."

"Maybe we should get cellphones, for next time. Um, if there's a next time. I'm not planning a next time, mind." Xander heard himself babbling and tried to shut up. "But you know us teenagers. Always a next--"

He tried harder.

"It's all right, Xander. I know these were extraordinary circumstances."

"Yeah," he tried again for levity. "Not like it can hap--" He suddenly tightened his grip.

Giles gently stroked his back reassuringly. "It's all right," he repeated, in low soothing tones.

It couldn't happen again. It wouldn't. Xander didn't try to move away, staying where he was until they were interrupted by a knock at the door. Reluctantly Giles let him go and turned to answer it.

He heard Giles say, "Buffy" in a not altogether surprised tone. Buffy came inside and gave them both a worried look.

"Willow called from her grandparents' place," she said quietly.

"So you know."

"She told me." She looked over at Xander, with one knowing glance towards her Watcher. "How are you doing?"

Xander shrugged. "Won't miss him."

Giles laid a hand on his shoulder. "We're managing."

Buffy looked from Xander to Giles, obviously not entirely sure what to believe. Xander knew he should let her know he didn't mind that she might need to stake him. He didn't have a chance, however, before the phone rang.

Standing closest to it, Xander walked over and picked it up. "Giles residence."

There was silence for a moment, then, "Xander?"

He glanced over at Giles and Buffy. "Hey." They were talking quietly, not apparently paying him any mind. He knew, though, if he said 'Hi, mom' he'd have both their attention.

"You've got to come home, Xander."

"What?" He turned away from Giles and Buffy, staring at the wall as if his mother could thereby see the incredulous expression on his face. "What for?"

"Your--your father is... dead."

"Yeah?" It didn't feel any different hearing it, either.

"He was..." She broke off with a sob. "Attacked. Mugged. Put him in the hospital. And then when he got out, whoever it was came back and finished the job!" Her voice trailed off as she began crying noisily.

Xander rolled his eyes. He didn't try to tell her anything about what had actually happened -- like 'he was attacking me, first'. He just waited patiently for her to stop crying.

And waited. Finally, she managed between sobs and hiccups to ask, "When are you coming home, Xander?"

"I'm not," he replied matter-of-factly.

"I'm sure given the circumstances that Giles person will let you leave. Even he can't be so heartless as to keep you from your family at a time like this."

"Excuse me? Why would I *want* to leave?" He was trying to keep his voice down, not wanting to bother Giles and Buffy with this. With her.

There was a long pause and he could almost hear her disbelief. "Xander, your father is *dead*."

"Yeah? I know. What does that have to do with me leaving?" He found he couldn't come right out and say 'I don't want to live with *you*.' Even though it was true.

"He's your *father*. You have to come." Her voice had turned into the whine that had always set Xander's teeth on edge. He heard what she wasn't saying. 'Come back and take care of me.' She would suck the life out of him more surely than a vampire.

If he were gonna get sucked by a vampire, he had a better offer. He stifled his sudden smile, knowing she would hear it in his voice and rail at him even more. "No, actually, I don't. I'm not going to." He managed to sound a little bored, hoping she would get pissed and slam the phone down. If he hung up on her she'd just call back -- or show up on the front step.

"You *have* to."

"Why?" He knew he was needling her. He didn't mind.

"Because I'm telling you to!" Her voice was becoming sharper.

"Yeah, and when was the last time I did what you told me to?" he retorted.

Her temper snapping was almost audible. He heard her take a deep breath and then she was screaming at him. Horrible vicious words. Belittling him, telling him how worthless he was. How she wished he'd never been born.

At first he just listened, astounded that anyone could say such things. He realized he was hearing the same phrases he'd heard all his life. He told himself they weren't true anymore. After all, there had been times when he'd wished he'd never been born, too.

But she kept yelling. He turned and held the phone out to Giles.

Giles took one look at his face and accepted the phone without questioning. He listened for a moment, his expression darkening with every second. Xander stepped back, coming up against the wall. He could still hear her as her voice raised further. He sat, crouched against the wall, and put his hands over his ears.

He suddenly heard Giles' voice overriding his mother's, angry and authoritative, and he tuned back in in time to hear, "And if you ever try to contact Xander again, I will not only have you arrested, but will do whatever is in my power to make your life a living hell. Believe me, I mean that literally. Do we understand each other, Mrs. Harris? Good. Then we won't be hearing from you again."

One small part of his brain noticed that Giles' accent sounded different when he was that pissed off. The rest of his brain was whispering, 'I don't want to go back' and wondering when he would. Someone *did* have to take care of her, after all.

Giles hung the phone up, took a deep breath, then turned to Xander.

If he was everything she said he was, it was probably all he was good for. Then again, why would she *want* him, if he was all that? If he-- someone touched his arm. He looked up and Giles mutely held open his arms.


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