Sandy Places in the Heart

Part One

Xander woke up on the couch, the blanket all tangled above him. Not really providing warmth, but he didn't really need it to. Protection, maybe, from the dreams he didn't want to have, something to wad up in his hands and hang onto while he slept. The pillow was soft, almost too soft, but he didn't want to complain. Didn't want to hear the 'if you don't find it comfortable, there is always the other option.'

He didn't expect to hear it, not really. But he did expect to hear it, as well. Three weeks, surely he'd have worn out his welcome by now.

He'd only stayed over on seven occasions, nights when he knew going home would be bad, or when he just couldn't bring himself to leave Giles' warm, welcoming apartment and go home to... home. This was the first time he'd stayed two nights in a row. His stomach clenched briefly as he got up, and looked towards the kitchen.

Giles was already up, busy making breakfast. Xander knew that there would be enough for two and that he would be expected to eat. Not that Giles ever ordered him to, he'd just give him that mild questioning look and Xander's conscience and stomach would do the
rest.

Not that he would ever want to turn down food. But he did still feel guilty about subjecting the bachelor to the hunger pangs of a teenage boy. He always tried to eat only one plate of whatever he was offered, and say nothing when it left him still hungry.

Xander left the blanket draped over the back of the couch and headed for the bathroom. He'd forgotten to bring clothes with him, hadn't in fact been home since the day before yesterday. He'd have to go by this morning, then, and get something. He'd have to go by early as possible. Maybe he'd better skip breakfast...

"Good morning," Giles called out, catching sight of him. "I was just going to wake you. Food's almost ready. You'll have time to wash up."

"Great, thanks," he replied before shutting the bathroom door. It smelled wonderful, smelled like waffles or pancakes. Sausage, too, and those biscuits Giles always turned into something other than 'break 'em out of a can' biscuits. He hated to miss it. But around 7 o'clock his dad would stumble out of bed, and if Xander wanted to be there and gone...

He headed back to the kitchen, words swallowed into his throat as he saw the sheer amount of food Giles had prepared. He could always wear his gym clothes.

Giles sat at the table across from him. "Sleep well?" These mornings always started out with neutral conversation.

"Yeah." Xander gave one last thought to leaving, then discarded it as he smelled the biscuit Giles was now buttering. His mouth began to water as he reached for his own plate and piled it high.

He never volunteered much during these conversations, but Giles always seemed able to make him say things he never intended to admit. He wondered, though, if they would get around to The Talk again today.

They've had some form of it every morning he'd stayed over. Giles was never pushy about it, or demanding. But he kept trying to get Xander to talk about it. Trying to get him to *do* something.

Xander didn't want to. He didn't want to so much that, a few nights, he'd stayed home just to not have this conversation the next morning. But each time he stayed the night at Giles' place, the harder it was to go home at all.

Giles was watching him and Xander realized he'd just been asked something which he hadn't heard. "Umm... huh?" Smoothly, of course. How could he expect anything less?

"I was just wondering if you'd come to a decision yet?" It was asked as casually as it had been all the other mornings.

"Oh." He turned back to his pancakes, pancakes with blueberries and walnuts in them, something he hadn't known was possible. He couldn't imagine not wanting them this way, now. "No, I--" He wanted to stop and let it be his decision. 'No.' But that meant not coming back, not staying here at night anymore.

But 'yes' meant...

"You can't continue like this, Xander." Giles was looking at his plate as he spoke.

Xander sighed. Usually it took Giles a bit longer to reach this point. Apparently he was finally trying the other man's patience. Maybe... too far. That realization led to another. "I guess I'll go home, then," he said quietly. He set his fork down. He wasn't
really hungry now.

"Xander-" Giles reached out and caught his arm. "If you're not going to do anything, I'm going to have to."

Xander's head snapped up. "What?" This was new; usually Giles just told him he should do something. Tell someone, find a counselor, move out of his parents' home. He'd even offered his own place to move to. But he'd always -- til now -- left it as Xander's decision.

"I work in a public school. It's my legal responsibility to report any suspected abuse."

Xander's throat closed over any response he could have made. Staring back down at his not-so-tasty pancakes, he tried to say something resembling a response. "What if I said you didn't have any proof?" he finally said, glancing back up warily.

"Proof isn't needed. It's any suspicion." The older man met his gaze steadily. "And I have what I've seen and what I've heard. Proof or not, I *know*."

Xander felt his bottom lip beginning to twitch, and bit on it. He knew if he sat here too long, Giles would take the decision out of his hands. Is that what he wanted? Not to have to decide? Or did he want the answer to be so desperately yes, that he was afraid to
say so?

Finally, before he hoped it was too late, he whispered, "If you report it, everyone will know."

Giles got up and moved until he was kneeling on one leg in front of Xander, hands resting on the boy's shoulders. "That is why you are keeping silent?"

Xander tried not to look at him, tried not to see the earnest, honest sincerity of the man who kept offering something he'd wanted forever. Stammering, nodding jerkily, he said, "Willow used to know. Knows, knows it used to... When I was 13 I told her it stopped. She was going to tell on them and have my folks arrested and I told her they stopped. I can't tell her I lied. She'll kill me, Giles. She'll--"

He'd said way too much. He felt scared, not duck-and-cover scared but ruined-everything scared, and bit his lip again. He felt strangely relieved, though, too. Like it was too late not to say anything now, so maybe... just maybe, things would be righted.

"She'll be angry, I've no doubt. But she'll also be relieved you're finally getting the help you should've had long ago. But how much worse will she feel if she finds out because one night you're not fast enough to run away and you end up in the hospital -- or worse? Are you willing to take the chance of making her live with that kind of guilt?"

Xander looked away. It wasn't like the thought was new. When he'd been little, when his grandmother was still alive and still provided him with someone who noticed him and loved him and sometimes was able to protect him, he'd tell her that the best part about it all was knowing she and Willow would come to his funeral and drop flowers on his grave.

But to tell her he'd been lying to her...

"She'll understand, Xander," Giles said quietly, seeming to answer his thoughts.

"No, she won't. Giles, you don't understand. She'll feel guilty because she believed me." Xander met the other man's gaze again, trying to make him understand. Not hurting Willow was more important than hurting himself.

With a sigh, Giles stood back up again. "Then we are at an impasse. Because legally and morally I can't let this continue."

"Can't we... do something without anyone knowing?" It wasn't the first time he'd asked. He knew what the answer would be.

The silent look he got in response told him the answer was the same.

"Please?" He couldn't help begging. Anything except telling everyone. Anything but actually going home.

"Would it help if I spoke to Willow first?"

He blinked. "Huh?" Again with the smooth comeback. "What... how would that help?"

"She can get angry at me. Get it out of her system as it were."

"I... I..." 'Think it's a great idea. I'll stay here in the closet... or under the bed, and you go tell everyone. I'll be out in ten years.'

He couldn't say yes.

"Please?" He wasn't sure he'd said it loud enough to be heard.

His answer was a brief squeeze to his shoulder and a "I expect to see you here tonight," and then Giles was moving past him towards the door. Xander knew where he was going.

To talk to Willow.

And being here tonight meant... third night in a row. It meant Giles was going to tell someone, *he* was going to tell someone, and it was all to get him *out* of his parents house. For good.

He had to pack.

~~~~~

He waited at Giles' until almost eight. Giles had left, not saying anything about Xander joining him for a ride to school. Xander cleaned the kitchen after proving unable to finish his breakfast, then headed for home. By now his father would be gone, and his mother wouldn't care when he came in and packed a duffel bag.

He didn't bother thinking about what to take, what to leave. He'd packed in his mind so many times -- packed a couple times for real, too -- that he knew what to grab. Soon he had clothes, books, and two boxes he never opened anymore all stuff in a bag. He ran downstairs with it slung over his shoulder. He didn't see anyone as he left.

It took an hour to get back to Giles' place, throw his bag down, shower, change, and head to school. Almost all the way through second period, by then, and no reason to sneak into class. He hung out, waiting, pretending there was no real reason for ditching his first two classes.

'He's told her by now,' he suddenly realized. Willow knew. She must.

The bell rang, and there was a fifteen minute break before third period. It was inevitable that the first person he would see would be Willow. She looked like she had something serious on her mind and her steps faltered when she saw him.

He looked down at the ground. Give her the chance to Not Deal With It Yet and go the other way. But after that initial hesitation she made a beeline right for him, expression a combination of determination and concern.

He kept glancing at her, then looking away. He was seized by the urge to run. Instead he waited. Soon he felt her touch his arm and he felt himself flinch.

He hated when he flinched.

She pulled back her hand immediately. "Sorry."

"Don't be. Not your fault." It was a lot harsher than he had any right to sound, with her. Willow had never done anything wrong.

"Giles told me..." She trailed off looking at him closely. "Are you all right?"

He opened his mouth to say something like 'Shouldn't I be?' or 'Of course' or something equally flippant, equally untrue.

But lying to Willow was what he'd been afraid of facing up to...

He shook his head and said nothing.

She stared at him for a moment then her face took on that determined expression that there was no arguing with. She grabbed his hand and said, "Come on," dragging him away from the crowded hallway.

He followed, always willing to do as Willow suggested -- with one major exception involving cops and foster homes. She took them to a classroom, empty now and for the next period. When the door closed behind them, she turned. He waited, hands in his pockets and
hoping... for what, he didn't know.

"I'm not mad at you, Xander. Well I *was*, but being mad wouldn't really accomplish anything except make you uncomfortable and you're uncomfortable enough so..."

He just watched for a moment. It was kinda fun, in a reassuring way, to see her babbling like... normal. Like everything - like Willow, at least, this part of his world - was normal.

"But Giles is right. You've got to get out of there. I mean, we have enough danger in our lives, what with the vampires and assorted demons, you don't need anymore."

"Oh, so it's OK to be killed by marauding demons, just not my own folks?" He said it lightly, then wanted to smack himself as soon as he did. The look on her face was enough to want to smack himself again.

"I didn't mean -- I don't think--" Willow stammered.

He wanted to apologize. He knew he ought to. But he looked away. If he said nothing, maybe they wouldn't have to have this conversation at all.

Willow let out her breath in a long sigh. "Sorry."

So still, he said nothing. He stared at his feet, wondering if this meant Giles was going to be the one buying him new shoes in a month, when he out-grew these. Or was he going to need a part-time job? What could he do between school and fighting evil? Pizza delivery?

If he had a car.

Willow was still talking. "I'm saying this all wrong. I just wanted to tell you we're still friends and that I'm here for you if you need me. Like when we were kids, though I guess I wasn't much help back then..."

"You were." He moved forward, stopping her. "God, Willow, don't you know that sometimes you were all I had? I'm sorry. Sorry I lied and didn't tell you."

"You were scared." She waved a hand dismissing it. "I'm just as much to blame because I wanted to believe you. I wanted everything to be okay so I wouldn't have to tell and maybe get you sent away."

Xander looked down and realized he'd reached for her hand; she'd taken it, and he doubted either of them had done so consciously.

"But I'm glad you finally told someone."

"I hope--" He didn't have any idea what he hoped. He just... wanted things to be okay. Bearable. Handle-able. He heard the bell ring, and sighed in relief. "We better get to class."

Willow nodded and they started for the door, still hand in hand. "It'll be all right, Xander. You'll see."

He wanted to believe her. Instead he let her lead him to class, secure in the knowledge that, no matter what else happened, he could borrow her notes later.

Xander didn't get a chance to talk to his friends again until after school. At lunch he'd had to go to his first period and take the quiz he'd missed -- totally forgotten about, in fact.

As for the classes he shared with Willow and Buffy, there had been no chance to talk. Today was one of those days where all the teachers seemed to have agreed beforehand that every second would be spent writing, listening, learning. Not a peep from anyone, and hardly a sideways glance. He caught a few of those sideways glances anyhow, worried but encouraging from Willow, worried and confused from Buffy.

She still didn't know. Xander wondered if he could get Giles to tell her, too, while he hid in the stacks.

He made his way to the library after getting another lecture from Mrs. Peterson, his last class of the day. He'd nodded and looked earnest and by the time he'd managed to get here, pulling the library door open, he had no idea if he still had A Talk to go through or not.

When he entered he could hear Buffy badgering Giles about whatever secret she wasn't being told. Giles was in the process of fending her off when he looked up and saw Xander. Xander stopped just inside the door, trying to tell himself that feet moving would get him to the table faster. That was probably why there weren't moving.

Buffy noticed Giles looking at something and followed his line of sight. "Xander. Hi. Maybe you can tell me what's got everyone weirded out today. Well, more than usual weird."

"Um. Yeah. I could. Should. Probably, yes." He tried to shove his brain into a gear which would allow him to speak as if he knew what he was saying.

Behind Buffy, Giles was moving away. He said something to Willow which Xander couldn't make out but whatever it was had both Giles and Willow walking farther away.

Eep.

Xander looked at Buffy. "Hey." Oh yeah, that'll do it. She'll forget all about weirdness and secrets now.

"Hey," she repeated. "'Hey, there's a new demon in down wanting to suck out everyone's eyeballs out?' 'Hey, someone's got a fatal disease and only has 6 months to live?' 'Hey, Buffy, you've been walking around with a sign on your back saying, "Please Stake Me"?' What's hey?"

"Um, no, no, and we got it off at lunch." He grinned, grateful when she smiled back. This would be easier if she started off smiling.

"Ah. Good. Being staked would've totally ruined my day. Not to mention what it would've done to my reputation as a slayer."

"And ruined your shirt," he added, giving the article in question a nod. Hands shoved into his jeans pockets, he found himself beginning to rock back on his heels. Space. Need more space.

Maybe if he kept up the inanity long enough, she'd get bored or distracted and go away.

"That too," she agreed readily enough, moving closer and leaning back against one of the library tables. "So we've established what hey isn't..."

"Yeah." He leaned back again, and made himself stop. Surely she'd notice if he tried to keep three feet of space between them. She'd worry, think something was up. Oh, wait, she already did. "So."

Buffy shook her head. "Hey... so..."

"So. Hey." He grinned again, and she shook her head a little, obviously trying not to laugh. His humour left him as he realized that soon, now, she was going to ask.

"Is this conversation going to progress beyond monosyllables?"

"Um, yeah. I think. Maybe -- hey, that was two syllables!" He started to grin and stopped as she just looked at him. Sighing, Xander sat on the edge of the table and didn't quite look at her. "OK, weirdness, right. You probably mean me moving out of my folks' place and in with Giles because I'm tired of my father using me as a punching bag. That weirdness?" He could feel his heart pounding, siren song for any vampire within a dozen miles.

Good thing it was daytime.

Buffy was silent for a few beats. "I'm having a don't know what to say moment."

"OK, good. I'll sit here and pretend I didn't say it."

Another moment or two of silence. "Do you want me to go kick his butt for you?"

Blinking, Xander looked over at her and simply stared for a moment. "Wouldn't that go against the Slayer Code?" He noticed that he wasn't saying no. He opened his mouth to say no, and still didn't say it.

"I'm not sure. I haven't read it all the way through yet. Even if it is, I've never been all that good at following the rules. Especially where my friends are concerned." She slid closer to him, nudging his shoulder with her own.

He glanced over at her, almost afraid to see if she was serious. "I don't think it would help," he finally stammered. He caught a glimpse of Giles behind a bookcase and realized they were listening in, and that made him smile.

Buffy nodded. "Okay. The offer stands." She nudged his shoulder again. "Is there anything I can do?"

Xander shrugged. What else was there beyond not freaking? "Would you... not tell anyone about this? I mean you aren't exactly gossip-girl like some, say, Cordelia. But... this isn't exactly something I want going around."

She mimed turning a key in a lock over her mouth. "Mum's the word. Wild vampires couldn't drag it out of me."

"Thanks."

They stood there for a minute, neither saying a word. Xander wondered if there was more to say, because their eavesdroppers weren't coming out of hiding yet. "So, um. Flunk the last chemistry quiz?"

She smiled faintly. "Totally blew it. You?"

"Completely out of the water." Xander glanced towards the bookcase again. He saw movement, but little else. Then Giles stepped out, giving him a proud and resigned smile.

Buffy continued, "Have to work on that study versus slaying thing, I guess."

"Or maybe we can talk our teachers into giving us test on slaying. How about it, Giles? Pop quiz on types of demons and how to make 'em little piles of goo?"

"Somehow, no matter how practical that knowledge might be, I doubt the school board would accept it as part of the curriculum," Giles replied.

"Too bad, Demonology 101, I bet we'd ace it." He was relaxed, again. Hard topics safely hidden away again, he could smile and joke and relax.

"I bet we could get Ms. Calendar to teach it," Willow offered, joining in on his side, like always. He gave her the grin he always reserved for only her.

"I'm sure Giles would be able to talk her into it," Buffy teased her watcher with a grin.

"Ahem, yes, well, don't some of you have things to be doing? Studying, I'd say, if you're flunking chemistry quizzes." He gave Buffy a dour look.

"Right." She slid off the table. "Time to beat feet before he starts giving us homework."

"Oh, I dunno, I kinda like the homework he gives out," Willow started to say, subsiding only when Buffy gave her a fierce glare. Willow instead gave Giles a smile, and told Xander she'd see him tomorrow, and they left.

Xander watched them go before turning back to Giles. "Um... So..." He bit his lip. "Hey?"

Giles smiled faintly. "I'm done here for the day if you want a ride home."

"Yeah, that'd be... yeah." He suddenly remembered what he'd done that morning, and said, "I went home and got my stuff. I just dumped it in the living room I didn't know where... I mean..."

"Yes, well, I've been thinking about that. You can't very well sleep on my couch for the next couple of years-"

Something inside Xander froze. He *knew* Giles wouldn't just turn him over to juvie, and he didn't seriously think he'd retract his offer, not after nagging him into accepting.

Right?

He tuned back into what Giles was saying in time to hear, "-get a new place, one with two bedrooms. Xander? Are you listening?"

"Wha--what?" Two bedrooms? New...? "Giles, you can't break a lease just for me!"

"I might not have to. I called my landlord and there are a few two bedroom places he'd let me transfer into. I was thinking, if you're up to it, we could go take a look at them tonight."

At first, all Xander could do was blink. Then he grinned.

Giles continued, "After you do your homework, of course."

Xander groaned.

~~~~~

The landlord handed over one key at a time, letting Giles and Xander go look at the empty apartments on their own. It wasn't like she couldn't find them if they absconded with a key. Xander tried not to say anything while they looked at the first place, other than noncommittal uh-huhs and fines whenever Giles said something.

The first place had the same square footage as Giles' current apartment, making the two bedrooms small and cramped and the living room barely big enough for the couch and bookcases Giles would need to move in. Xander could tell Giles wasn't thrilled with it -- but the rent would only increase $50 a month.

The second place was huge, big enough for a family of three or four. It was bright and spacious, the westward windows would let in plenty of evening sun. Xander liked it, but didn't say anything more about it than he had the first. That one came with a rent increase of $150 a month.

Finally they went to look at a third, and Xander tried to pretend he didn't notice the looks he was getting from Giles. "I suppose this place is going to receive the same reaction as the others?" he finally asked Xander in a neutral tone.

Xander shrugged -- exactly as he'd done three times before. "It doesn't matter to me, Giles," he offered. "Whichever place you like. I'll just be happy if... you know." He turned away, ostensively looking at the small kitchen, set back from the dining area.

"But it's not just my decision," Giles said softly. He gently squeezed Xander's shoulder. "This is going to be your home, too."

"But I don't have to pay rent," he said, trying for breezily and feeling as if he'd landed flat on his face. Maybe if he got an after-school job he could help a little and they could get that big apartment. He could have the smaller bedroom that faced south and west, two large windows which promised to make the room warm at night, and cold in the morning.

"Don't worry about the rent. It's taken care of."

"Yeah, but you don't know how expensive a kid is these days." Xander knew. God knew his father had told him often enough. He saw Giles start to respond, and said hurriedly, "Giles, it doesn't matter to me. Whichever place you want."

Giles opened his mouth to answer, but closed it without saying anything. Instead he nodded decisively. "In that case, do you have any objections to the last one? With the windows?"

Hiding his grin, Xander shrugged. "Sure. It's cool."

He got the impression he hadn't fooled Giles, not entirely. Perhaps not at all.

The tiny smile Giles gave him as they made their way back to the landlord's apartment strengthened the impression. It didn't matter. If Giles wanted the nice, big, sunny-until-the-last-minute, spacious, comfy looking apartment -- who was he to say no?

~~~~~

Saturday morning, at an hour Xander was sure was early even for vampires who hadn't even been to bed yet, Giles woke him. With a cheery "get up, Xander, and eat. We have work to do", Giles jarred him out of a sound sleep.

Xander considered rolling over and grabbing another ten minutes, or even five, but unfortunately he was awake enough to remember why he was being awakened at such an hour. He rolled over, groaning as theatrically as he could, and stretched in his bed.

His bed. His furniture.

Giles had asked him, over dinner two nights ago. Quietly, with that thoughtful, apologetic look which told Xander something icky was about to be voiced. Usually it involved descriptions of demons they had to go fight. Recently, it was always about Xander's parents.

Xander had initially agreed to go ask his mom what he could take. He hadn't planned on going back to his folks' house, but he realised he couldn't exactly sleep on the floor for the next few years. He'd gone alone, despite Giles' offer, and had returned exactly one hour later and discovered just how safe and comforting Giles' embrace could be.

Then, after dinner that night, Giles had casually mentioned they'd needed to go to the new apartment to await a delivery. The delivery had turned out to be not only a bed, but an entire set of furniture for Xander's room. A bureau, a desk, some book shelves, everything he could have needed.

More than he had had in his old room.

He hadn't dared say a word about not needing it and you didn't have to do this. One look at Giles and the determined expression as he'd opened his mouth made him close it again and simply decide where he wanted what.

He'd slept in his new room ever since, and today they were moving all of Giles' belongings over. Tomorrow they'd clean the old place to within an inch of its life.

"Xander!" Giles voice came through the bedroom door again, reminding him he was supposed to be getting up and dressed. He groaned again, getting a very vivid impression of what the rest of his teenage life was going to be like.

Xander grinned, and shoved himself out of bed.

Breakfast was cold cereal, quickly consumed in their practically empty kitchen. Then the doorbell rang, and Xander went to find Willow and Buffy, looking as pleased as he was to be awake and about to lug boxes.

"Buff, Will, how's it going? Hey! Giles, they brought donuts!!" He relieved the girls of their burden and headed back in, relieving the box of donuts of some of *its* burden.

Everything the next little while was pretty chaotic as they tried to figure out who was going to do what and what had to be moved first. Finally though, a rough plan was worked out and the process of carrying everything to the new apartment began.

They did it systematically -- nothing else could have been expected, with Giles in charge. One room at a time, one part of each room at a time. Clean off a piece of furniture. move said furniture, move stuff back onto furniture in new apartment. Xander and Buffy did most of the heavy work -- Giles saying blithely that she could consider it part of her daily workout and thus have the rest of the day off, once they'd finished. Willow cleared off bookcases and tables, and Giles set everything back up in the new locale.

"So this is really happening, huh?" Buffy asked him as they were wrestling with a small bookcase.

Xander nodded, telling himself not to bite his lip while he was likely to stumble, drop a bookcase, and put his teeth through his lip. He wanted to show off his new bedroom furniture, but the idea of doing so seemed silly. If not a rather clumsy come-on... Even if it wasn't, anymore. He could just hear himself, though. He settled for not tripping while he walked backwards, bookcase in hand.

"Your parents are just letting you go?"

"Yeah." What else was there to say to that?

Buffy was silent as they hefted the bookcase up the stairs. "That's good, I guess," she finally said. "I mean it sucks, but..."

"Yeah." It'd have been nice if they'd argued. It'd have been nice if they'd offered to help. An apology, or a promise to-- Xander cut himself off. He'd thought these things before, and they hadn't changed. He looked up as they set the bookcase down, and grinned.
"Wanna see my bedroom?"

"Sure." She paused as they started to walk across the room. "You did mean that like 'see your bedroom' and not like 'show me your etchings' or something, right?"

Xander looked properly taken aback. "Buff, you wound me. I mean that figuratively, of course. Would I show you etchings? Would I even have an etch to show? I had an etch-a-sketch once, but I gave it to Willow when we were seven. She still has it." He led her to his room, went in, then proudly moved aside. "Voila. Chateau ala Xander. Did I just mix my languages again?"

"Just the French with the English." She moved past him and turned around in a circle, looking the place over.

"Ah, good, I meant French and English and something else I didn't know I was saying." He realized he was babbling. Who could blame him? It wasn't often -- or ever -- that he'd invited a beautiful girl into his bedroom and actually had her say yes. Granted he *hadn't* meant it like that and besides there were people--

Giles stuck his head into the doorway. "Ah, there you are. We're taking a break for lunch. Sandwiches are in the kitchen."

"Ah! Great, food!" Xander forced himself not to leap backwards, guiltily. Both Buffy and Giles looked at him, and he just looked back. "What?"

Buffy shook her head, smiled and kissed his cheek. "Don't ever change," she said as she headed for the kitchen.

He watched her go, glancing down at himself and saying, "Won't my clothes start to smell after a couple weeks?" and followed them.

They made small talk as they ate, talking about school, slaying, all the usual things. Xander had a hard time staying in his chair. He wanted to jump up and *move*, but all he could think of to do was start moving heavy stuff again and he really didn't see the point in leaving food, to lug boxes. Not until he had to. But neither could he sit still.

The weird part was, no one seemed to act like anything weird was going on. It was like this was perfectly normal, his moving in with Giles was perfectly ordinary. Like nothing had changed, even though they knew.

He noticed the occasional glance his way, the occasional look which said nothing unless you were paranoid, in which case it said 'I know; we all know'. Xander didn't know what they thought they knew. He was beginning to suspect he was getting himself worked up over nothing -- he was barely making sense, even to himself.

It was almost a relief when they finished lunch and went back to lugging boxes, furniture and whatnots.

Giles had a lot of whatnots. Also a lot of gizmos and whatchamacallits. And then there was the really strange stuff that he had no idea what it was. What worried him most, was that living here, with Giles, meant he'd probably learn.

~~~~~

Xander collapsed on the couch, and stared at the ceiling. He never, ever, wanted to do this again. It wasn't that the work had been hard, or the lugging too heavy. But it had gone on, and on... *All* day they'd spent moving. Every time he thought they'd return to Giles' old place and find there was only one more thing, there had been a dozen more things to move.

Xander swore that someone was going out and bringing stuff in while they weren't looking. No one person should own so much *stuff*. But he hadn't complained. He couldn't -- all this work was for him. *Him*. He glanced over at Giles, who was collapsed on the couch
beside him.

He wanted to... he didn't know what. Thank him. But the words didn't even form well enough to get lodged in his throat. Giles glanced at him and caught him staring. He wondered what expression he must be wearing to make the older man look at him with such concern. "Xander?"

The expression made him feel funny, in ways he couldn't begin to describe. He pushed the feelings aside and stammered, "Thanks." He looked away, wondering if this was just his day for making a fool of himself. He had seen those indulgent looks his friends had been giving each other all day.

"You're welcome," Giles replied with a faint smile.

Xander waited a moment, then when nothing else -- nothing weird -- happened, let himself go back to having collapsed on the couch. Then he thought of something even more important than Giles. "When's dinner?"

He watched as Giles lifted his head and looked at the kitchen, then reached for the phone instead. "As soon as the pizza is delivered."

"Pizza!" He bounced off the couch, laughing at Giles' expression of disbelief. "We have soda?" He headed for the kitchen to check, grinning at Giles' muttering behind him. It sounded something like 'simply isn't *fair*'. He got out two cans of soda as he heard Giles phoning in their order.

The pizza had barely arrived, when the phone rang. Giles went to answer it as Xander picked up a slice of pizza. Listening to the conversation, he quickly realized he better eat fast. When words like "vampires" and "nest" and "how many" were bandied about, hopes for a quiet night at home pretty much disappeared.

He devoured the first slice even as he was getting up and searching the room for his shoes. He grabbed a second slice as he headed for the cabinet where they kept weapons, pulling out the usual array and stuffing them all into a duffel bag.

He was devouring the third slice as Giles hung up, and stopped only long enough to mumble "What?" around a mouthful of pizza, at the look Giles gave him.

"You do chew, don't you?" was all Giles asked, and then they were grabbing the duffel and jackets and -- for Xander, one more slice of pizza -- and were headed out the door.

~~~~~

After the usual night of fighting for their lives and rescuing the world from incipient evil, they headed back to the apartment. It was... nice... Xander thought, to not be more afraid of heading home than fighting than undead.

He was actually looking forward to it, their first night together in their new place. He stopped that train of thought before it could become too sappy. Too... He caught Giles' look and realized he'd been talking non-stop, excitedly, for the last half hour.

He smiled, sheepishly.

Giles smiled back, understanding clear in his eyes. "No more soda for you tonight."

"Soda? Giles, man, this is so far past caffeine and sugar -- actually I could use another coke, all that vampire slaying and ducking away from makes me thirsty. This is all just me. Me, me, me, out late at night and full of post-killing adrenaline and -- hey! There's cold pizza at home, isn't there?" Xander didn't twitch as he heard what he'd said. Home. He focused on the pizza.

"There should be a few slices left that you didn't manage to inhale."

"Ah, you say that like you were never 16."

"It has been a while, but I do have some rather vague memories."

"Vague? Geez, you're not that old." Xander realized he was starting to babble again, starting to bounce. Maybe that third soda *had* been a mistake.

"Thank you." Giles smiled. "Buffy is convinced I am one step up from decrepit."

"Decrepit?" Xander turned and eyed Giles carefully. Up and down, laughing at the way Giles rolled his eyes at him. "You're not decrepit. You have at least a couple more years left."

"If you and your friends don't age me prematurely in the meantime."

"Nah, keeping up with us will keep ya young." He stepped sideways casually, bumping into Giles. When the other man stumbled, Xander laughed, and ran ahead.

He heard the older man mutter something resignedly, but when he glanced back over his shoulder Giles was still smiling.

Xander laughed again. This was good.

~~~~~

Four days and Xander was still walking on air. Eggshells, too. Eggshells in the air, he told himself. It was hard to believe this was *real*, and yet the way he felt told him it was.

He was relaxed, and comfortable, and he could even wander around the apartment any time of the day or night, doing anything he wanted, and so far the worst he'd gotten was a raised eyebrow and a dry suggestion of wouldn't he rather do something else.

He had a feeling Giles knew he was just testing. He didn't mean to, not really, not that he wanted to know what happened if he pushed Giles too far.

But he couldn't help himself.

At the moment he was trying to be good, doing his homework before Giles could ask him to.

"--discuss this in a reasonable manner, I'm certain we can come to an agreement." Giles voice drifted to him through his partially open bedroom door.

He set his pencil down -- that tone of voice was a lot more intriguing than algebra, anyhow. Giles was angry, but it was carefully hidden under English politeness.

"That isn't what I consider a reasonable manner, aside from being physically impossible." Giles voice rose slightly. "Look, Mr. Harris-"

He couldn't have moved even if he'd thought it a good idea. Xander stared up at the wall he'd decorated with posters Willow had given him, one a year for the last five years for reasons only she knew and Xander didn't need to understand. He didn't see them. Didn't see *anything* as Giles' voice went on.

"Yes, I know, but that isn't the same thing as your truck or your house. You can't own another person. Xander isn't your possession."

All Xander could think of to that was 'Huh?' Why did it matter if anyone owned him? Unless... did they want him back? Then he realized he hadn't heard the phone ring, which meant Giles had called his folks. Which meant... he didn't have a clue what Giles meant by his remark.

"I don't respond well to threats, Mr. Harris." Giles' voice had gone completely cold.

Threats? What could his father possibly be threatening Giles for? His mom had practically said she didn't care where he lived when he'd gone to ask for his furniture. He hadn't seen or talked to his father at all since that night. Why would he be threatening Giles?

Unless... he was threatening Giles not to let him come back? Xander shook his head. That didn't make any sense. But why was Giles talking to his folks in the first place?

"We can do this the easy way and you can sign the papers voluntarily, or we can do this the hard way, involving the courts. Either way, Xander is not going back there."

Xander nearly fell backwards out of his chair. *That* was what this was about? He had no idea... had absolutely no idea...

The papers Giles had mentioned reminded him of the research he, Jesse, and Willow had done when they were nine. Papers to get Xander legally away from his folks, they'd planned on Jesse's parents adopting him. But why would Giles need legal papers? He was sixteen, he'd only be here for a couple years before heading out on his own.

Giles was continuing. "Of course if I have to go through the courts, there'll be criminal consequences as well. Shall I be contacting social services and starting legal proceedings or--" He stopped for a moment and when he spoke again there was a fierce satisfaction in his voice. "I thought you'd see it my way. My lawyer will contact you about a meeting to settle everything."

Xander was on his feet and halfway to the door before he regained presence of mind to stop himself. What was he doing? Run in there and... what? Demand to know it was true?

Demand to know it wasn't?

He took another step towards the door, stopped again, and put his hand on the doorknob. Two more heartbeats and he was standing in the doorway to Giles' bedroom, in time to see Giles hanging up the phone.

"Bastard," the man muttered softly, then looked up, starting a little at Xander's presence.

Xander felt his mouth opening, but no sound came out.

Giles got up and moved to his side. "You heard."

"Yeah. You..." Xander listened to a dozen half-formed questions swirling in his mind. Most of them began with 'why', so he wasn't terribly shocked when he heard himself ask it.

"Because it was the proper thing to do."

Xander clamped his jaw closed so he wouldn't say anything else. 'Proper' meant... He relaxed, suddenly, as he realized what Giles was doing. Why, rather. As a minor, he'd need his legal guardian to do the stuff that legal guardians did. With all the evil slayage he was involved in, chances were good he'd need a few stitches some night, and calling his folks to come down to the ER -- well, it had never been a good idea. It wouldn't be any better with him out of the house. Xander nodded, calmly.

"And because I wanted you to know this is permanent." Giles met his eyes seriously. "There is nothing you can do to screw that up."

"I... what? Screw this up?" He hadn't even begun to worry about that part of it, yet. He'd been so floating on airy eggshells that he hadn't thought about the day Giles decided it was all too much for him. He blinked. "Permanent? You mean--" *Those* papers? Not the parental release form you sent to school before a zoo trip -- ok, bad memory there, thanks -- but those papers?

Like he and Jesse had photocopied out of the law books at the UCS library, and filled out, for practice?

"Of course it is your decision," Giles said, looking a bit uncertain. "If you would rather I didn't--"

Xander didn't give that comment any more thought than it needed. It wasn't his decision -- rather, it was, but he'd made it the night he'd come running to Giles in the middle of the night. "Are... they gonna let me?"

Giles nodded. "Yes."

He started smiling, wanted to shout for joy. They were gonna sign whatever papers Giles' lawyer -- Giles had a lawyer? -- brought and he could stay here, permanently. Giles *wanted* him to stay here, and his folks were... only letting him to avoid a court fight. A public fight, where everyone found out why Giles was trying to take Xander away from them.

Xander looked at that thought twice, before deciding he didn't mind. Liked it, in fact.

Until he realized what the flip side of that meant, and he felt all the blood rush from his head and into his shoes.

"Xander?!" Giles was grabbing hold of him and then sitting him on the bed.

It took a few tries to get in enough oxygen to speak. When he could, he looked up to find Giles watching him, worried and concerned, hovering protectively. He wanted to throw himself into the man's arms, like he'd done before, and stay where he knew he was safe -- and wanted. "They don't--"

"I didn't give them a choice."

He grabbed onto the soft words as the offering they were -- an excuse, a reason, a way to pretend his parents hadn't just admitted they didn't really want him. But the arms that closed around him did that better, telling him that he *did* belong, somewhere.

He should be grateful he didn't have to go home. Xander closed his eyes and let his head fall; it rested against Giles' shoulder, and for a long time he said nothing at all.

"They don't deserve you," Giles said softly, "but I know it still hurts."

It was like getting permission. He hadn't intended to, hadn't thought he'd need to. But the quiet understanding pulled the tears out of him, and try as he might to stifle it, he couldn't stop.

Giles murmured quiet words that he couldn't make out, but the tone was comforting, as were the arms still holding him. Reminding him he wasn't alone.

Would, apparently, not be alone again.

~~~~~

"So what's 'a' again?"

Willow looked up from her books. "Xander, are you paying attention?"

Xander gave her his best 'wounded, of course I am, I love this stuff' expression he'd been perfecting since the second grade. Then, "Of course not. It's algebra. Can't I just copy your answers?"

"I heard that!" came from the other room, and Xander mock-glared through the wall at Giles.

"He heard that," Willow repeated, gesturing at the wall. "Here, I'll talk you through it again."

With a sigh, Xander returned his attention back to the books. It didn't seem fair; he'd only just gotten the hang of math a couple years ago, now all of a sudden they changed the rules. Letters instead of numbers -- this was math? Living with someone who expected him to actually do his homework was no real picnic, either.

Well, it was nice, but couldn't Giles have a more Montessorian attitude about it? "I'm sorry, that's a what?"

Willow sighed and closed her book. "Let's take a break."

"Break! Great, I can do break. Food?" Xander jumped to his feet before Willow could say something silly like a break didn't require refreshments.

They left their homework scattered across Xander's desk and headed for the kitchen. They passed Giles in the living room, who merely glanced up and gave them a Look. Xander knew that look well, and he'd only been living with the man for two weeks.

Willow caught it, too, and when they were in the kitchen stocking up on munchies, she asked quietly, "How's everything going? Y'know, with you living here and all."

"It's good! Things are good."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah." He nodded, handing the can of cheese doodles to Willow and taking two cans of soda in one hand. Loaded down, they went back to Xander's room, and Xander flopped down on his bed. He wasn't sure how to describe to her what it was like living here.

Sitting on the corner of his bed, Willow cocked her head and looked at him. "You do seem different. Less... manic. I never really noticed how tense you always were before, even when I knew you were tense. But even when you weren't being tense, you were always a lot
more... tense."

He raised his head a little, returning her serious gaze. "Yeah. I'd forgotten what it was like..." He sat up, crossing his legs. "It's kinda like when I stayed at Jesse's in the summer. Up to and including the paperwork." He grinned. He still remembered the way Willow had screamed and hugged him when he'd told her what Giles had done.

She smiled back at him and he wondered if she was remembering the same thing. "I'm happy it's working out."

"It is. I think..." He stifled the urge to say something, anything to make it less certain, to make it sound like he didn't care. He couldn't. But neither could he just sit here and take it all so seriously. "Well, except for the homework thing."

"That's what you get for letting a librarian adopt you."

"Yeah, I shoulda picked Mr. Gardener." Gardener was a loony old man who lived near the edge of town. All the kids in town knew him because his yard backed up against the river. He chased kids off his lawn by shooting ping pong balls at them. Xander opened his eyes wide into a happy leer. "Or Mrs. Delreydo. Oo! How about Mrs. Summers? Think of all the chances I'd get to accidently meet Buffy in the hallway after her shower. Or before her shower. Or-- ow!"

"I should tell Buffy you said that," Willow told him after whapping him in the arm. She was giving him that exasperated look she always gave him when acted outrageously.

"I think she knows I'd like to see her-- ow!" He rubbed his arm again. "You've gotten vicious in your old age, you know that?"

"Someone's got to try and keep you in line." She shrugged. "I've known you the longest so the duty falls to me."

He opened his mouth to make a witty retort, and, frustratingly, his mind blanked. 'Have not' wasn't true, and 'Do not'... wasn't true either. When Willow began to giggle at him, he settled for, "Oh yeah?"

She giggled. "Yeah. And don't you forget it."

For a moment he was able to keep a straight face. Then he lost it, and laughed with her. The funniest part was he didn't exactly know why he was laughing.

They ended up leaning against each other when they finally stopped laughing, breathless. She hugged him briefly before moving away.

"Oh, god, my stomach hurts." Xander stared up at the ceiling and tried to breathe.

"Mine too. Wonderful, isn't it?"

He grinned. "Yeah. I fact, it hurts so much I think I couldn't possibly do anymore algebra."

"I heard that!" came from the living room.

That sparked more laughter, and they collapsed on the bed.

Finally, when they calmed down again, Xander turned his head to look at Willow. They were lying side by side, and she was looking back at him, a wide grin on her faced as she continued to giggle.

"Hey."

"Hey," she said back.

"I made it," he said softly, swallowing against the sudden nervousness that had hit him.

Willow smiled at him, but her voice was serious when she answered. "Yeah, you did. Finally."

He sat up, fast, uncomfortable saying things that used to be said only in the dark. "And you know what? He's gonna get me a car," he said in a slightly raised voice.

There was a pause, then, "I'm *what*?"

~~~~~

At least he didn't have to wear a tie. He hadn't had to dress up at all, and it was a good thing because he didn't own anything nicer than cargo pants and a clean shirt.

Giles hadn't dressed up -- rather, he always wore nice stuff so his usual was nice enough for a visit to the lawyer. He looked a lot more comfortable than Xander felt, as well.

"You know you don't have to do this," Giles told him in a low voice, eyeing him concernedly.

He stilled his bouncing leg and took a deep breath. They'd been discussing this for two weeks. Every conversation they had came around to this, every stretch of silence eventually broken by those words.

"Yeah, I do."

His folks were going to be here soon -- assuming they remembered to show up -- and Xander couldn't let this happen without being here. One small part of him said it was in hope they'd see him, realize their mistakes, and ask him to come home. He didn't really believe it would happen, so most of him wanted to be here because... he had to.

Giles didn't say anything more, just reached over and touched his arm reassuringly. Xander took a deep breath at that, steadying himself. Whatever happened he wouldn't be facing it alone. And that was the other reason he was here. Because he *wasn't* alone. He had Giles.

That was rather the whole point of this, he told himself in the sardonic tone he reserved for only himself. Before he could think another word, though, the door opened.

Xander was on his feet in an instant, comforted when Giles stood as well, conveniently placing himself between Xander and his parents. His father looked belligerent, glaring at him in the way that used to say wait until we get home and then you'll be sorry. Except this time he wasn't going home.

His mother had no expression at all. She'd been crying, Xander had no doubt. It was her most common reaction to things she couldn't control, couldn't stop. Cry hysterically until someone stepped in to fix things, or until everyone agreed to ignore it 'til it went away.

He suddenly realized he wasn't going to miss living with them. He slipped his hand into Giles' as the secretary came out to announce that Mr. Levine would see them now.

Giles kept himself between Xander and his parents as they walked and then settled in chairs inside the lawyer's office. Everything had been well-prepared. All they had to do at this point was sign the papers. So of course Xander's father decided not to make things easy.

"I wanna see those things again," he demanded, even though he'd been sent a copy a week before. Xander knew he was just trying to make sure everyone knew whose call this was. Drawing attention to himself, his delusion of being the one in charge. When they were handed over, he muttered and grumbled as he read them over. "There's no loopholes here are there?" he asked looking up and glaring at both Giles and Mr. Levine. "You're not going to be coming back asking for money or anything are you? You want him, fine, but I ain't paying for no hoity toity lifestyle."

Xander felt himself starting to shrink back in his chair. He glanced at his mom again, she was carefully looking away, ignoring them all.

"I think you've given him quite enough, Mr. Harris," Giles replied, his voice cold and full of suppressed anger.

The hard tone made Xander want to curl up behind Giles. He fought back a grin at the thought; Giles was probably the sort to let him sneak into his bedroom in the middle of the night after a bad dream. Thinking about that distracted him from whatever his father had to say in response.

"You don't want to lower the timbre of this conversation any more, Mr. Harris. You really don't want to deal with me if I get nasty."

Xander shivered. He glanced over at his father and grinned freely as he saw his father turn a lovely shade of bloodless. His father muttered something Xander was glad he couldn't make out, and watched as he leaned forward... and signed the paper.

Despite everything, something in Xander was dying at the sight, the part that had always, even in the face of the facts to the contrary had wanted to believe that his parents loved him and wanted him crying out at this proof that he wasn't. For the moment he was unwanted, unclaimed, alone.

Then the papers were passed to Giles.

He watched as Giles signed, signed the paper that said he wanted, accepted, and had in fact demanded the right to take Xander. It didn't come close to filling the hole that had been ripped inside him, but it was... something. Xander remained still as the papers were passed back to Mr. Levine, not really hearing the last of the polite 'well now that that's done's.

He felt Giles tugging at his hand as he stood, and stood with him. Xander didn't look back as they left the office.

"Are you all right?" Giles asked as they waited for the elevator.

He shook his head, staring ahead. He didn't want to see his folks come out behind them -- oh god, if they had to ride down on the elevator together... Giles just might tear his father apart. On second thought, that might not be such a bad idea.

"Of course you're not, stupid question." A short pause and then Giles asked, "Would you rather we took the stairs?"

"No, I'm fine, this is fine," and he realized that standing still was a bad idea, and turned towards the stairwell.

Giles followed him without a word.

They made it all the way back to the car before anything was said. Giles put the key in the ignition, then stopped turned to him. "Do you want to go for ice cream?"

"Ice cream?" The totally normality of the question startled Xander out of the swirling inability to think that had held him since they'd walked out of the lawyer's office. Food, he told himself. You can always do food.

"Yeah, let's get ice cream."

~~~~~

Xander waited until Willow got inside. He'd walked her home, since Buffy was on patrol -- with Angel. Willow and Xander had made their excuses and left the two alone. Xander had escorted Willow home, as he had since what seemed like his entire life.

It wasn't until he'd left her there and gone an entire block, that he realised this wasn't going to be his normal post-dropping-Willow-off walk home. His folks lived about a quarter mile away, down several well-lit and well-trafficed streets.

Giles, on the other hand, lived about a mile away. The only short cuts were down alleys...

Xander closed his eyes. Giles was going to kill him. If he got home alive.

He hurried, trying not to think of the last time he'd crossed town after dark alone. He had no idea how he'd managed to do it without seeing anything undead or monstrous, but he hoped he could do it again tonight.

As he crossed a street in full view of the streetlights, he found himself thinking about that night. It was bizarre. He hadn't really thought of it, though it'd only been about three months ago. Nearly two months since he'd moved in with Giles, and since then he hadn't thought of that night... more than a dozen or so times.

He thought of it now, and found himself feeling nothing that he'd felt that night. There was no fear, not really. A nagging sense of stupidity, perhaps. But not the deadening pain he'd felt that night. It gave him an eerie sense of confidence, and he strode on, suddenly not really caring what he met.

Which meant, naturally... "Well, what have we here?"

Xander stopped and looked over. The vampire leaning against the brick wall had his arms crossed, leaning casually as though he weren't about to leap for Xander's neck. But Xander grinned, with a spark of bravado he hadn't realised he'd feel at seeing this vampire again. "Spike."

"What brings the Slayer's batboy out on a night like this?" The vampire was smiling as though toying with his food.

But Xander wasn't frightened. Didn't mind at all, he discovered. Spike could kill him, and it wouldn't matter. He left his hands at his sides, leaving alone the bookbag on his shoulder where a stake lay, an easy grasp in the side pocket. Spike was faster than he, he'd reasoned. Later.

Xander had been not-afraid of death his whole life. For years, it was because death was an escape. He knew he wasn't afraid now because even if he died, it wouldn't change the fact that for a little while, he'd had it all. He could die having been happy -- and *that* was worth dying for.

Besides, being eaten by Spike wasn't anything like being betrayed by a parent. Xander grinned. It was like being mad at a hyena for eating its prey. Been there, done that, had the bib to prove it.

Spike frowned at him slightly and walked over. Xander tensed, then relaxed, watched him approach. Spike stopped a few inches away and Xander could feel the chill from the vampire's gaze riving through him. Maybe 'spike' had nothing to do with railway iron. "So. Out late, aren't you?"

"Said that already," Xander pointed out. "Not in so many words, but it's implied in the statement 'a night like this'. In context. You have to take things in context." Perhaps he was a little nervous.

But Spike laughed. OK, maybe a *lot* nervous.

"You know that if you eat me, Buffy'll slay your ass, right?"

"Oh, very brave. Hiding behind mommy's skirts, are we?" Spike sneered at him, half-frown and half-smile.

"Hey, an Oedipus complex. Now *that'd* be new and different. And yeah, I'll gladly step aside and let her kick your butt. It'll be fun." Xander grinned. "Oh, wait, it already *was* fun." He wanted to slap himself. He wasn't dead yet -- why in the world was he
taunting a vampire?

"Yeah, well, we all have our triple low days. You're amusing, though. I like that in an entree." Spike's face changed, and Xander was caught, staring at his eyes. "But I'm through with being amused."

Xander tilted his head to one side, considering. "You know, you should see someone about those. I like the colour, but the whole pinpoint iris thing has got to make it hard to see."

"What?" Spike stopped, and looked at him with a perplexed expression which looked fairly ridiculous in ridges and gold.

"And can I ask you something? Can you *feel* your fangs lowering? I mean, doesn't it hurt? Or is it kinda like losing a baby tooth? Just plops out and you get a quarter from the vampire fairy." Xander suspected he had a plan. Keep talking until someone walked by. Someone conveniently carrying a stake, or a cross, or a cellphone. On the other hand, now he was genuinely curious.

Perhaps he could ask Angel. Oh, wait. He had to live through this, first.

"Don't you ever shut up?"

"Not so's you'd notice," Xander admitted.

Spike shook his head. "Forget it. Not turning you. I'm not going to listen to this for the next hundred years."

"*Turn* me?"

"Yeah, turn you. What better to send to soften up the Slayer, than an old friend? Maybe that girl would be better," he continued, thoughtfully.

Xander, however, was offended. "What makes you think I'd hang around with you for a hundred years? Alaska in summer would be better, I'm thinking. Turn me and the first thing I do is pack my bags."

Spike opened his mouth to respond, then stopped. He glared at Xander and shook his head again. "Forget it. You're dinner."

"Yeah, I bet it does hurt. That's why you're not answering."

Another irritated glare. But hey, not dead yet. Though he was going to ensure Spike ripped him apart instead of merely drinking from him... but wasn't that better than making Buffy slay him? Xander looked at Spike's mouth, closely. "What the bloody hell are you doing?" Spike jerked backwards a bit. Then, in a very severe tone, he said, "They do *not* hurt coming in!" He glared some more, then demanded, "Why the hell aren't I killing you, yet?"

It was a very good question. Xander wondered if he knew the answer.

Spike narrowed his eyes. "You're not out here on some sort of death wish, are you? Depression makes the blood taste off."

Xander blinked. "What makes it taste good?" OK, a second dumb question. He had a sudden image of himself finding out when Spike smiled, and leaned forward.

He whispered, in a low, very smooth voice, "Fear."

That had probably been a gimmie. But Xander found himself asking, regardless of the way Spike's fangs were really, really close to his neck, "What about too many preservatives?"

Again, a dumbfounded blink. "Preservatives?

"Yeah, like from twinkies and soda. High cholesterol -- does that make the blood taste, I dunno, stale and unappetising?"

"Actually, I rather like twinkies. But I'm tired of talking. I'm hungry."

Xander didn't even take a step back. He didn't know why -- he was definitely feeling the fear, now. Not the mind-numbing, out-of-control, sheer paralysing terror he was sure Spike's victims were usually feeling at this point. If not several minutes before. But fear, just enough to make his blood have that nice, refreshing flavour to it. Spike'd probably enjoy him. Gourmet vampires, who knew? He wondered who would serve the mint, and laughed.

~~~~~

It was late, way later than he'd ever come home since moving in. Giles had never really set a curfew, but Xander knew that 'be in before dark' was just expected. Unless he was off doing his Slayerette duty, of course. Which he hadn't been.

Which Giles knew.

Without a back door, it wasn't like he could try sneaking in. He wasn't really sure he *needed* to sneak in. He didn't know he didn't. He walked slower and slower as he approached the stairs that led up to their apartment.

He didn't even have the forlorn hope that Giles had gone to bed, as his parents had as often as not; he could see from where he was that the living room light was on and the shadow moving past the window told him that Giles was not only wide awake, but worried enough to pace.

It wasn't like he had nothing to hide, either. He was fairly sure Giles wouldn't approve of his little... encounter. Rather, Giles would whole-heartily approve of his surviving it, but would most certainly not approve of it having happened, at all. Xander felt the oddest sense of calm about the whole evening, up to and excluding going in to face Giles.

But standing out here all night wasn't going to help. With a sigh, he walked up to the front door, key out. Before he could put it in the lock the door was jerked open and Giles was standing there staring at him.

"Um, hey," Xander managed. They stood there for a moment before Giles stepped back enough for Xander to walk in.

"Are you all right?" Xander didn't think he'd heard that particular tone of voice from Giles before.

"Yeah, I'm fine." He headed past Giles to set his backpack on the couch. He'd been carting the thing around all day -- that'd teach him to actually intend on doing his homework...

"You're sure?" Giles was still staring at him in that same strange intent way.

"Of course. No bite marks, see?" He craned his head sideways, giving Giles a clear view. Spike hadn't even tried to bite him, leaning in close enough to sniff his neck notwithstanding. Figure that one out, sometime when he had nothing better to worry about. He'd been expecting to die, right up until Spike patted his cheek and said, "Next time, pet. Your reward for being entertaining" and walked away.

Who knew he had a superpower? The ability to entertain. Defeats evil vampires every time...

Xander could practically see the tension in the older man disappear; Giles' shoulders slumped and his breath whooshed out in a noisy sigh.

"Hey, relax. If I'd been dead, I'd have called." He grinned and headed towards the kitchen. He was starving. Again.

"Do you know what time it is?" Giles asked, and this time Xander recognized the tone. He'd heard it a lot at home.

He stopped, and turned. "Um, it's late?" He looked at his watch. Ouch. Very late.

"Late. As in after dark. You know what that means. And you were out -- alone."

"I wasn't alone!" The words were out before he could stop them, and he was grateful that for part of the walk he had been with Willow. No way was he going to say he'd been hanging with Spike, unintentional though it had been. He didn't need to be scolded for endangering himself with inappropriate chatter. "I was with Will. Took her home. I..." He looked away, and apologized. "I forgot that I live so much farther away from her now. I'm used to walking her home so she'll get there safely, you know?"

"I phoned Willow. You left her over two hours ago. It doesn't take that long to walk from her place to here. Where were you?" Giles demanded, his voice getting louder as he spoke.

"I was on my way home." Xander swallowed nervously. He froze as Giles took another step closer, then jumped backwards into the wall as Giles raised his hand.

Giles' eyes widened and his expression turned into one of horrified realization and he immediately lowered his hand. Speaking softly, as if to a spooked animal, he said, "Oh, god. Xander... it's all right, Xander. No one's going to hurt you."

"Yeah, I know." His voice sounded funny. Was he shaking? Oh, god, what if Giles did hit him? What on earth...

"I'm not going to hit you. I'll never hit you. You have my word." He was looking steadily into Xander's eyes, still speaking in that soft voice.

Xander knew -- sort of -- that Giles was telling the truth. He knew that Giles believed it.

He was still shaking.

On the other hand, he really, really wanted to believe Giles, too. He must have made a noise, because Giles was there beside him, suddenly. Not threatening, not anything except looking like he wanted to hold him.

"May I-?" Giles asked, not touching without permission.

Xander had to take a deep breath, then he nodded, diving in towards Giles even as Giles was raising his arms again. Then those arms were closing around him, hugging him comfortingly, reassuringly. He dropped his head on Giles' shoulder. His breath was coming in shudders; he wasn't sure if it was from this or leftover from -- what *had* he been thinking, talking to Spike that way?

He had no idea why Spike had decided to let him live.

He grabbed onto Giles, hanging on as tightly as he could. Giles held him just as tightly, murmuring, "It's all right," over and over.

"I... I'm sorry. I didn't... I'm sorry," he stammered.

"What happened?"

"S...s...spike," was all he managed.

The arms holding him tightened at that. "Are you all right?" Giles asked in a low tense voice.

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm... he didn't..." Xander took a deep breath. "I think I just amused him."

He got a soft chuckle in response. "I do believe you could talk yourself out of anything."

Xander laughed, once. Then he felt something breaking, inside him, and he made no noise at all as he held himself together.

"It's all right," Giles repeated again. "I've got you. You're safe."

Xander let himself believe, finally. He closed his eyes and listened to the soft voice in his ear, felt the arms around him promising security and protection. He was safe.

He was home.

"Better?" Giles asked after a moment.

He pulled away slightly, nodding and sniffing. "I think I'm OK. Sorry for freaking out on you, G-man."

"I shouldn't have lost my temper."

Forcing a grin, he offered, "You can make it up to me. Pizza party?"

"You can order a pizza, but no party. Not for the next two weeks anyway. You're grounded."

Xander felt his jaw drop. "I'm what?" He re-focused on the other important part of the statement. "Not even Willow and Buffy?"

Giles raised an eyebrow. "Letting you have your friends over would undermine the point of grounding wouldn't it?"

"I'm really grounded?" He found himself starting to grin for real. It was bizarre, but... "Grounded? For coming home late or for talking to Spike?" He hadn't done anything else worthy of punishment -- unless Mrs. Grainger had graded their essays already.

"I imagine talking to Spike would be its own punishment. You're grounded because you walked home that late alone." Giles looked at Xander sternly. "You should've phoned. I would've come and picked you up."

"Oh." Xander blinked. "I hadn't thought of that." It made sense, of course. In retrospect. "I'm sorry. You're right, I should have called."

The older man was looking at him strangely. "You've never had anyone to call before, have you?"

Xander shrugged, and finally moved away from Giles. It was weird, knowing that he could have stayed there in a half-embrace for as long as he'd wanted. But it felt... weird, being hugged like that. Nice, yeah, but way too weird. Besides, he was still hungry. He headed into the kitchen. It was too late to call for pizza tonight, since the pizza parlours had long learned that their delivery boys stood too great a chance of disappearing after eleven.

Giles followed him, going to the fridge and getting something out. "I saved you a plate from dinner. It shouldn't be too bad warmed up in the microwave." He handed Xander a covered plate, looking at him closely again. "One week's grounding," he added, halving the length of the punishment. "I should've made sure you knew you could phone for help. Any time."

Xander just stared at the plate, not really hearing Giles' words. Then he pushed it all aside. This was not something he wanted to think too well about. "So, a week? Then, next Saturday? Willow, Buffy, pizza? Can we rent movies and stay up all night?"

OK, that meant he'd just asked if he could have Buffy and Willow spend the night...

Looking very much like he was holding back a smile, Giles told him, "Barring a crisis of some sort I think that can be arranged. At least that way I'll know where you all are." The last was said gently teasing.

"Cool!"

~~~~~

With a weary, put-upon groan -- entirely faked because moving toward the VCR also got him closer to the second pizza box -- Xander crawled over and hit 'eject'. The movie popped out, and Xander dug for the next with one hand while grabbing another slice of pizza with the other. "Any preferences for the next? Comedy? Romance? Historical documentary?"

From his place in the armchair in the corner, Giles said, "I keep telling you, Dracula is not a historical documentary."

The girls giggled, and Xander rolled his eyes. "We didn't rent Dracula. This time, I mean. It's a night off, who wants to watch movies about vampires?" Xander pulled a tape from the pile and stuck it in the VCR.

"Last time that was all you rented," Willow pointed out in a helpful tone.

"Last time was study night," Xander defended himself. "Tonight is an official party -- Giles said so." He grinned. He hadn't told Willow and Buffy exactly what had lead up to Giles agreeing to tonight's festivities. "Besides, who doesn't love seeing 'Hunger'?" he added breezily, trying to make his thoughts shy away from Spike.

"Depends on what I've done for the last week," Buffy answered from her position curled up in the corner of the couch with a bowl of popcorn.

Willow gave her a slightly confused look. "What have you been doing for the last week? Other than all the usual high school, vampires, homework, and dark mysterious guy not showing?"

"This last week hasn't been too bad," she admitted.

"It's been frighteningly quiet, really," Giles agreed. When the three looked at him with varying degrees of disbelief, he added, "Well, all right, perhaps 'frighteningly' isn't the proper word. Would you prefer 'refreshingly'?"

"As long as they're not quiet because they're plotting something big," Willow muttered.

"Willow!" Xander reached back for the throw pillow he'd been lying on, and threw it. "Don't you remember anything about jinxes?"

"Well, they could be," she replied. "And shouldn't we be ready if they are?"

"That doesn't mean you should encourage them by taunting fate!"

"I doubt," Giles interjected, "that Fate needs any help. On the Hellmouth, I mean -- something big will happen eventually, regardless of what we say about it."

Xander turned his attention to him. "Oh, thanks. I feel better now."

"Ignoring it won't make it go away," Giles admonished, but then smiled faintly. "There is nothing wrong with taking the occasional night off however."

"Wow. We should have a recorder. Anyone have a recorder?" Buffy looked from Willow to Xander, eyes wide with astonishment.

Giles looked around at them, looking slightly offended. "I'm not that bad."

"No, no, of course not. Still, it'd be nice to have a recording for prosperity," Willow said. Xander could see the way she was smiling-not-smiling, looking earnest to those who didn't know her. Laughing freely on the inside to anyone who knew her well. Xander smiled, ignoring the fact that they'd missed the first several minutes of My Man Godfrey. Black and white version, Willow would accept no substitutes.

"I see," Giles said, beginning to get out of his chair. "Perhaps I should leave you to your party before I accidentally suggest homework or something." Xander could tell he was joking. At least he *thought* the man was joking.

"No, don't," Buffy protested immediately. "Don't go; stay. Watch. Eat." She held out the bowl of popcorn to replenish the empty one Giles was holding. "We'll tease Xander instead."

"Yeah," Willow chimed in. "We've a long history of doing that. It would be a shame to break the tradition."

"Excuse me? As the subject of this planned ridicule, I'd like to say something." He paused when Buffy and Willow turned to him, waiting expectantly. "Um, frogs. Oh, look, Will, it's the part where that girl does that thing that you always like." He pointed to the TV screen where William Powell was scaring away pixies.

OK, so there were no girls on the screen at the moment.

"There's no use trying to wriggle out of it," Buffy told him. "Best you can do is take it like a man."

"Why do I have to take it like a man, when he doesn't?" He gestured at Giles who had sat back down and emptied half the bowl of popcorn into his own bowl.

"Because teasing you is more fun," Willow said, winking and throwing some popcorn at his head.

"Oh." He blinked. "Okay." He rolled back onto his stomach, facing the TV. Then he looked down, realizing why it was he was no longer comfortable, and crawled over to Willow to retrieve his pillow.

"Let that be a lesson to you, Xander," Buffy told him as Willow handed the pillow back. "Never use as ammunition something you're going to need later."

He gave her a grin. "This is why you're the Slayer and I'm food."

"Funny, you don't look like a pizza."

"He ought to, given the amount he consumes," came Giles' dry voice. There was an odd note of hesitation, though, which Xander recognized.

Just why, exactly, hadn't he been vampire food last week? He didn't want to think about it, hadn't thought about it all week in fine Sunnydale tradition of Ignore It and It Doesn't Go Away.

Willow caught the fact that he was thinking of unsettling things. "Xander?"

"Yeah?" he replied in his best happy go lucky charms manner.

"Has something happened?"

"Well, I think Godfrey's friend from college is about to show up."

No luck - both Willow and Buffy were looking at him, now. Then Willow looked at Giles. "*Did* something happen?"

"Nothing permanent," Giles answered, glancing sideways at Xander. Then he shut up. Not telling on Xander.

But that didn't deter them. If anything, it made Buffy glare all the harder. "Give. Now. What happened?"

Xander sighed. "It wasn't anything, really. Spike just--"

"Spike?!" Willow yelled.

"Xander got away safely," Giles said soothingly, and to Xander it sounded like there might have been a hint of pride in his voice.

Of course, he didn't know that it had nothing to do with Xander's ability to fight. Spike had let him go because it had amused him to do so. Or something like that. But he said nothing, because Willow was looking at him in that warm, wonderful, impressed way, and he
wanted to bask in it all night.

"Did you dust him?" Buffy asked, hopefully.

And Xander shook his head, the bubble of accomplishment shattering with an audible pop. "We... talked." Although, that she assumed he might have was *something*. Right?

"You talked," Buffy repeated slowly. "Like 'Hi, how are you, killed many people lately?' talk?"

Xander shrugged. All three were looking at him with interest; Giles hadn't ever asked for details of that night. Xander wasn't exactly sure what details he could give. "More of a 'Hi, wanna be drained of your blood?' 'No, thanks anyway' followed by a 'Oh, well, all right then'."

"Gee, why haven't I thought of that for getting rid of vampires?" Buffy asked.

"Hey, if you got it, flaunt it, I always say," Xander said easily. The funny thing was, in retrospect the conversation hadn't been nearly as scary as it should have been. Rather, it was scary to think back on, but it hadn't been as terrifying at the time as it should have been.

And it wasn't proving to be all that terrifying to anticipate happening again. Part of him wanted to meet Spike again, just to see if it would happen again. He wasn't about to share that particular thought however; not unless he got a sudden burning desire to be
grounded for the rest of his life.

"I'd appreciate a little less of that kind of flaunting," Giles said mildly. "There's enough strain on my nerves as it is."

Shrugging, Xander said, "It isn't like I did it on purpose." He belatedly thought to clamp his jaw shut -- wire it closed, perhaps.

Willow smiled slightly. "You never do it on purpose."

He glared at her, knowing that he ought to object to that -- but not entirely sure which part he objected to more. "Hey, I sometimes do things on purpose. Not vampire taunting, but... things. Brave things."

He felt himself turn bright red when Willow leaned over and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "We know you do. Sometimes you're the bravest one here."

"Indeed," Giles agreed easily, which only made him blush the harder.

"Aw, come on, guys, we're missing the movie," he finally said, though it sounded lame enough to his own ears.

"Xander, we have this movie memorized," Willow pointed out.

"I haven't," Buffy put in, coming to his rescue.

"See?" He grinned. But he jumped to his feet, glancing around the room. "Who needs more popcorn?"

~~~~~

He was standing in the kitchen, trying to remember what it was he usually saw in the freezer. It wasn't like he had ever paid attention, not realizing that Giles would actually expect him to know. Expect him to recreate whatever it was.

Expect him to go grocery shopping.

Giles was up to his elbows in research, reading in some arcane language and thus preventing Xander and the others from helping. There was no great save-the-world urgency to it, but it was enough that Giles had asked Xander to take care of the errands for the week in Giles' stead.

Dry cleaners, gas for the car, things like that he could handle. But buying groceries?

A piece of paper was thrust in front of his face from behind. "I find it easier with a list," Giles said with some humor.

Slowly, he grinned. "Thanks." He scanned the list, and found that he actually recognized everything on it. "Um--" He blinked again as Giles handed over some folded bills. "Thanks, again. Hey, can I--"

The car keys were handed over. "Don't do anything stupid."

"Stupid?" Xander gave him a properly shocked look. "Me? With a car?" He realized he was about to talk himself out of the use of the car, and shut his mouth.

Giles chuckled. "I trust you, Xander. Don't disappointment me."

"Oh, man, that's *harsh*." But he kept the keys, gave Giles a triumphant grin, and headed out before Giles could think of another errand. Admittedly, driving Giles' car was only one step above walking, but it *was* a car.

He got into the car, adjusted the seat and the mirrors, another moment to find a good radio station and he pulled out and off to the grocery store. When he arrived, he found the parking lot not quite packed. He zipped into a clear spot near the end of one row, and considered that there must be some people in Sunnydale who *weren't* here now.

Maybe five. Or possibly seven.

Briefly he wished for some kind of supernatural attack to thin out the crowd before deciding that that would be too much trouble than it was worth. With a sigh, he got out of the car and trudged toward the store's doors. Besides, if something attacked he'd probably be obligated to fight it. He'd almost rather fight the crowds.

He stepped inside, and reconsidered. A monster could be slayed, at least.

No wonder Giles had volunteered him for this chore. It was payback for every time he'd called him 'G-man'. Or Mr. Tweedy. Or teased him about his books. Or his tea.

Or... now that he thought about it, maybe he was getting off easy. Taking the list out, he got a cart and started tracking down what he was supposed to get. Great white hunter stalking the dangerous and elusive tea biscuit mix...

It didn't take long to discover that the store was in an entirely different order than the list. Fortunately, a little more recon determined that he'd merely gone in the wrong door -- going to the other end of the store and the list was suddenly in exactly the same order as the store's aisles. OK, perhaps he could have simply started at the bottom of the list. Either way, now he was set to shop.

Xander pushed the cart along, studying the shelves for a brand he recognized as Giles-approved.

"Xander."

And froze. A voice he knew, a tone he knew even better. He felt himself pushing -- shoving, really -- his head around to look. To smile as if it were easy. "Mom. What are you doing here?" It wasn't a stupid question, not really, though he knew what would be: a can of coffee and cigarettes. Beer. She also had a box of something which looked like cake. Typical.

"I see he's got you doing his chores for him," she all but sneered. "Was it worth breaking up our family for?"

"And what a lovely surprise this is," Xander said, not even blinking. She did this, too. When crying didn't work, she went for the jugular. "I can see you've taken up cooking."

Again she totally ignored what he was saying. "Did you have to do this, Xander? Perhaps your father was a little harsh at times, but if you wouldn't get him angry-"

"I've heard this before, you know." He had no idea how or why he was being so... angry, right back at her. When was the last time he'd spoken back to her?

Of course, he was also thinking that leaving right now was a good thing, too.

"You could still come back, let us be a family again. I've kept your room just as you left it."

"Oh, and you're making it sound *so* attractive." He discovered he'd taken a step backward, and decided to go with that thought. Another step back, leaving the fucking cart right there and just get the hell out before...

Like quicksilver her demeanor changed again, going from coaxing to angry. "Don't you walk away from me when I'm talking, boy!" Her voice was shrill, her face a grimace of rage. All around them people began to turn and stare.

And he laughed. Once, loud, sharp and heaving. An old, eerie, familiar laugh. He laughed again and turned, walked out of the store.

He made it to Giles' car before he felt the first shake. Clamping down on it, he jerked the door open a little too hard, slammed it shut a little too loud. Put the car in gear and only just slammed on the brakes when he realized he hadn't looked first.

Miraculously there had been nothing coming and he shakily pulled out into traffic, his mother's voice still ringing in his ears. He drove without direction for about a block. Then he turned, jerking the wheel and speeding with blatant disregard of everything.

Giles would take the keys away from him for life.

He drove to the school, and let himself into the library with the key Giles had given him; he'd given them each one. There, he went directly to Buffy's stash, the training gear, and stared. Something had to be here. There had to be *something*. He grabbed a wooden sword and screamed, swinging it in an arc towards the wall.

The entire top end of the sword went flying off in the opposite direction.

"Whoa. Guess you showed that wall."

He jumped, spinning to find Buffy standing there. "Oh. Um." He looked down at the half-sword he still held. "Sorry, I'll get you a new stick." Maybe this was a bad idea. Maybe he should just go tear the snack machine into a thousand pieces. Blame it on the football team.

"Don't worry about it. I go through them pretty regularly. It's no big deal." She moved closer. "Saw you driving up here like a bat out of hell and followed. Thought there might be an evil occurring."

"No evil."

She looked at him, closely. "I take it something's happened?"

"No. Nothing's happened. I guess this one's toast," he said, considering the sword he still held. With one swift motion, he slammed it into the wall again. Quarter stick, now.

"Pretty much, yeah."

Xander looked at the sword, then grinned and held it out to Buffy. "Here, it's a stake." He wondered where else he could go. Gym? Track? Home under the bed?

"Thanks." She looked at him consideringly. "I could use someone to spar with. If you don't have anything else to do...?"

"Yeah! That'd be, I mean, we could do -- um, you're gonna pull your punches, right?" He gave her a doubtful look which vanished as she returned it with a 'duh' one of her own. "Sorry, I'm not thinking. Yeah, let's spar. Um..." He had followed her out into the open area of the library, then stopped. He had no idea what Slayer sparring involved.

All he really wanted to do was hit something that he couldn't hurt.

Buffy went over to the large box where she and Giles kept her workout materials and pulled out what looked like two oversized blue mitts.

"What are those?"

"Padding." She slid them on her hands and turned to face him holding her arms up. "Think of them as a sort of portable punching bag. Go ahead. Take a swing."

"Um?" He found himself taking a half-step back, instead. Then he stopped. "You mean it?"

She nodded. "You look like you need to blow off some steam. Go ahead."

He shrugged; he knew he wouldn't hurt her. Heck, he probably wouldn't even knock her back. He raised his hand, making a nice, easy fist, and let fly, right into the center of the mitt. The smack of fist against canvas and padding echoed in his ears.

He smiled. Buffy smiled back and braced herself. Xander hit the mitt again, then settled himself into a balanced stance, where he could alternate strikes with each fist. One, two, pausing in between long enough to take a breath and make sure he remained calm. He struck the mitts, over again.

What the hell had she been thinking?

*Smack*

She knew why he couldn't go back.

*Slam*

She wanted him back because with him gone, there was no one but her. No one but the two of them alone, to go at each other's throats.

*Pow*

Breaking up the family. As if it had been him.

*Smack*

'If only you didn't make him angry...'

*Slam!*

He realized he was screaming. He found he didn't really care.

Not until he also realized his throat hurt like hell. He checked his next swing and tried to breathe deep... and looked up at Buffy, at eyes wide in disbelief.

"Well, the steam is well and truly blown off." She lowered her arms, striving for an almost achieving a nonchalant air. "Feel any better?"

He gasped, beginning to feel as if he'd... pounded the hell out of punching mitts. "I... think so..." He contented himself to stand there for a moment, panting. He didn't feel better, not exactly, but he felt a lot more relaxed about not feeling better.

"Whatever didn't happen must've been pretty major."

"Yeah." He was beginning to breathe easier, though his throat was still rough. "Oh, hell, I still have to buy groceries."

He wondered if Giles was keeping an eye on the clock, or if he'd expect Xander to succumb to the lure of having a car and spend most of the day tooling around, doing nothing. Then again, it was daylight, and there wasn't likely to be a repeat of the last time he came home later than expected.

Buffy cocked her head to the side, studying him. "Want some company?"

That made him grin. "I'd love company. Do you know anything about shopping for groceries?"

"Not a thing. But how different can it be from shopping for clothes?"

"I don't *even* wanna go there." He slapped his shirt pocket and found he'd managed to hang onto the list, through all this. "But I am prepared."

"Great. This should be a breeze then. Shall we?"

"We shall."

~~~~~

Breeze, it was not. By the time they made it to Giles' car with the bags, Xander had sworn never to go shopping again without the Slayer. Not that she *used* her strength against mere mortals. But just knowing she was there to guide the cart...

Once they'd slammed the trunk down on what Xander hoped was at least a month's worth of groceries, Buffy gave him a smile. "Well, that's done. Don't suppose you could drop me off at home before you have to get the Gilesmobile back?"

"Your wish is my command. And I mean that," he added as he headed for the driver's door.

"I'll try not to abuse the power."

"Oh, feel free to abuse me--" He coughed, and forced a grin.

Buffy, thankfully, kept it light. "Only in play." She looked at him speculatively for a moment. "Actually, if you're willing I could use someone to spar with in a regular basis. Giles is good, but he's, you know... it makes his arms hurt. Once he can feel them again."

"Yeah? Hey, I'm your man. I, um, know a little about hand-to-hand. I'll even try not to hurt you." Buffy returned his grin with an only slightly exasperated one of her own.

Xander discovered that he finally felt better. He dropped her off at home with a cheery wave and his best British-accented "There you are, fare's ten pounds, please' which got him a laugh, but no tip. Then he headed home himself, and hoped they'd gotten everything right.

~~~~~

Giles was in the living room, five books opened around him on the couch, blatantly neck deep in his research when he came in. Regardless, Giles set the book on his lap aside, getting up and coming to help. Xander handed three bags off to him, then ran down for the rest. When he got back to the kitchen, he surveyed the pile. It had seemed like less at the store.

He moved over to the cabinet, though, and began putting the canned goods away. It was interesting to note that almost nothing he and Buffy had gotten were things -- items or brands -- that his mother had ever had in her kitchen. He found it interesting to note that he noted.

"You made out okay?" Giles asked, putting the frozen goods in the freezer.

"Yeah, didn't we? I mean, did we miss anything?"

"Not that I can see." He paused. "We?"

"Oh. Yeah, I... uh, ran into Buffy. We sparred for a bit and then she went to the store with me." He found himself biting his tongue over the 'is that OK?'

"You sparred with Buffy?" Giles looked at him, one eyebrow raised.

"Oh, not exactly. Not this time -- we're gonna, though. Practice, I mean. Not full strength but, you know, the moves and things. I," Xander ducked his head as he folded one of the bags and put it away. "I remember that stuff, so I figured it'd give her a chance to beat up on somebody young enough to recover by lunchtime."

That earned him an inquisitive look. "Remember? Ah, from the Hallowe'en fiasco."

Xander shrugged again. In many ways it had been a fiasco, he'd be the first to admit. Though seeing Willow in that skirt had been nice, once he'd come back to his senses and thought back on it. "Yeah, so, we decided we'd spar together sometimes." It occurred to him that he might be encroaching on Giles' territory. Giles was in charge of Buffy's training, after all. He snuck a glance up. "That's all right?"

"Oh it's fine." He reached over and clasped Xander's shoulder. "Give this old body a chance to not have to strain to recover by lunchtime."

Xander grinned, and returned to the next bag of groceries. "Do you really cook this stuff?" He held up a handful of something Buffy swore was probably what Giles had meant by Chinese radishes.

"You've eaten them."

"I *what*?" Xander dropped them on the cabinet like he'd been told they were the next demon spawn to rise against Sunnydale.

Giles smiled faintly. "The stirfry last Thursday."

With another glance down at the offending whatever it was, Xander shook his head. "The one I said was good?"

"The one you had four helpings of."

"Yeah, well, I have four helpings of Willow's mom's meatloaf, too." Xander stopped as he realized the unintended effect of what he'd just said. "But the stirfry, I liked."

"We can have it tonight if you'd like." There was a pleased glint in Giles' eyes at the fumbled compliment.

Xander found himself smiling. It wasn't often that he made anyone look at him like... like that. Self-consciously, he turned his attention back to the groceries, only to find they were all put away. He went back to the cabinet stocked with all manner of junk food and took out a package of Twinkies.

Which was promptly taken out of his hands. "No snacking before dinner. In fact-" A knife was placed in his hand, along with the bag of Chinese radishes, "-you can help get it ready."

"No snacks before dinner?" Xander raised his eyebrows. "What planet are you from?" He glanced at the knife, and added, "I don't know how to cook, not unless it's in the woods over a fire."

"Then it is time you learn. A man cannot live by pizza alone."

"Man needs twinkies and cola, too." He caught Giles' look, and added, "And Chinese radishes?"

"And Chinese radishes," Giles agreed. "We'll move up to carrots and cauliflower when you're ready."

"I thought cauliflower was a type of demon."

"Cooking and demonology have much in common." Giles gathered the rest of the ingredients, and then moved to prepare a pot of basmati rice. Xander had no idea what made it basmati, but Giles' list had been very clear on the subject. Not brown, not wild, and certainly not that horrid white. Basmati, or Jasmine.

It looked white to him. But he shook his head. "I do *not* want to know. I don't." Xander start slicing the radishes as Giles instructed, getting halfway through the first before he conceded, "OK, I do."

The older man was setting mushrooms and peppers ready at the counter beside him as he explained, "Both require the right ingredients, both require you follow a recipe, improvisation in both can either make things better or lead to total catastrophe."

Xander stopped and looked over at him. "And they both involve Chinese radishes?"

Giles stopped and looked over at him. "If I answer that, you might not eat them anymore."

"Oh." Xander looked at the radishes with as forlorn an expression as he could manage while trying not to giggle. Then he paused. "How does demonology involve things that sound like chem class? I thought it was all about where they come from and what are their weak spots?"

"Admittedly, that does seem to be the aspect we end up focusing on the most, but it is just a small part of the whole."

"There's more?" Xander dumped the chopped radishes on the plate as indicated, then grabbed the peppers and began slicing them, as well.

"Oh, much more. Demonic chemistry, for example."

"That isn't demons doing chemistry, is it?" Xander found himself intrigued. He'd never thought much about the supernatural world beyond is it going to hurt me and how do I kill it.

Giles chuckled. "No. It's the study of the chemical makeup of demons and what affects it, and what effects it can have on other things."

Xander blinked. "They *do* that? Is there demonic math, too? Besides algebra? Or demonic earth science? Demonic philosophy? OK, don't answer that last one, that would be *way* too weird for me to handle."

"There are other disciplines." The older man glanced sideways at him for a moment assessingly. "I have some beginning texts if you're interested."

"Yeah?" Xander realized he was about to voluntarily read something *scholastic*. He gave Giles a look. "Just don't tell Willow, OK? If she finds me studying on my own, she'll stop tutoring me."

"Mum is the word."

Turning his attention back to the cutting board, Xander continued, only realizing he was babbling after he'd said, "If she stops tutoring me I won't be able to copy any of her answers and *then* I'll be--" When he stopped and looked up, he found Giles watching him. "Um, can this be one of those 'haha, made a funny joke' moments?"

Giles just looked at him.

"Ha, ha?" Xander tried again. It occurred to him that he was only convincing Giles he hadn't been joking, and tried, "Come on, you know Willow - would she let me copy from her?"

"Not without making sure you understood it," Giles finally allowed.

"See? So it isn't like cheating, really. It's just creative learning." Xander told himself again to shut up before he got himself back into trouble.

"Perhaps you should try to be a little less creative in your learning methods."

Xander bit his tongue. His luck, come Monday afternoon Willow would have had a short chat with Giles, and would be giving Xander those big, sad, Willow-eyes. And apologizing.

Or threatening to steal the twinkies out of his locker for the remainder of the semester.

~~~~~

Xander set the book down he'd been reading, 'Neophyte's Guide to Chemistry'. The first book Giles had shown him on the subject of demonic chemistry he'd read through a couple weeks ago. Now he was halfway through this one, and amusing Giles considerably with his interest and reading speed. He'd blown it, of course, convincing Giles that he should be able to read history texts with equal ease.

But for now, Giles had grabbed his attention with one of the magic words. "Take the car and go where?"

"The library at the school, if you would. I left a couple of books there that I'm going to need sooner than I thought." He looked up from the volumes he was currently going through.

"Sure. You need 'em tonight?" Xander knew there hadn't been any recent portents of doom, death, or detention, so he knew this wasn't an urgent quest. Giles could probably have gone, himself... except apparently he knew how much Xander liked having an excuse to take the car. Even a car like the Citroen.

"Yes, if you don't mind. I can't go much further without them."

"Sure!" Xander bounced up and took the keys Giles was holding out absently, already gone back to reading.

He knew he was probably being extra eager about the whole run-errands-for-you thing, and he did do a nice job of squelching the sound of his mother's voice when he thought that particular phrase, but tomorrow was his birthday and he didn't want to risk anyone deciding he didn't deserve three pints of ice cream, instead of two.

Giles had given him a look of disbelief when Xander had brought home four cartons of ice cream last weekend, and had merely smiled with a tolerant air when Xander had sworn three of them were for his birthday.

As Xander was heading for the door, Giles added, "If you want, you can stop and pick up a cake for tomorrow, as well. If you think you're going to have room for cake with all that ice cream."

Xander glanced over his shoulder. "Cake, ice cream, pizza, and chocolate. Just watch me!"

He heard Giles mutter half under his breath about the supernatural appetites of teenagers as he was heading out the door. Xander laughed as he headed down the stairs. Listening to Giles grumble and mutter was... god, it was wonderful. Like whenever Willow said that she liked her mother's best friend's house because it was homey, like visiting an aunt. Xander had never gotten the 'homey' thing until now.

Now, did he ever. Homey. Giles was homey.

Xander laughed again, at himself and with some relief that there was no one around to have said that aloud to. He'd been doing that a lot lately, laughing for the smallest of reasons. It was like it had finally sunk in that this was all real and he was having a delayed giddiness in reaction. Idly, he wondered if that would constitute a new kind of syndrome, a sort of flipside to post-traumatic stress disorder, and concluded he'd been listening far too much to Willow discussing the psychology books she'd been reading.

Or perhaps he was just happy, and he had little experience in handling sustained happiness. In being sustainedly happy. Xander flicked on the radio and sang along with whatever came along, so he could stop making up words.

He finally pulled into the school's parking lot, taking blatant advantage of Giles' parking spot, turning off the engine and stepping out into the early night.

"Oh, you *can't* be serious. You drive this?"

Xander spun around, heart speeding in startlement, doing a stutterstep and going even faster when he saw who it was. "You."

"Me?" The vampire looked down at himself, inspected his torso and hands, then gave Xander a start of surprise. "It *is*. I'll say, I'm glad you're here to point out these things." Spike was standing partway in a pool of orange light from one of the lot's streetlights. It gave his pale skin an eerie, bizarre tinge.

Like he didn't look eerie enough already.

Xander leaned back against the car, trying to look at ease, while he ran through all the possible escape routes if he had to run for it. "What do you want Spike?"

"What do I want?" Spike appeared to think it over, for a second. "How about world domination? Nah, too much responsibility. To see Angel hung by his toes? Definitely." He took a step forward, and gave Xander a measuring look. "Or," he continued forward another step and Xander wondered if he could get to the library's stash of weapons in time. "The Dead Puppies' first album?"

"Why doesn't it surprise me you follow a band named that?" He answered without thinking, which he couldn't figure out if it was a bad or good thing. Guess he would find out when Spike either ate him or let him go. Again.

"What, you've never heard the Dead Puppies? Oh, mate, you're missing out. Remind me to get you a CD of theirs." Spike's gaze flickered at him, for a second looking him squarely on, before his stance relaxed again and his gaze, though never wandering, seemed to let Xander go again. "For your birthday or something."

The sudden picture of Spike showing up at home the next day wearing a party hat and carrying a brightly wrapped present made him suppress sudden hysterical laughter.

Possibly he wasn't suppressing too well, because Spike was giving him that startled look that faded quickly into a grin. His voice was smooth, though, entirely too smooth when he said, "I like cake, you know. Party favours..." Xander was suddenly reminded that he was chatting with a vampire. Evil, souless, killer.

He resisted the urge to gulp and instead shrugged as nonchalantly as he could. "Sorry, all booked up. You'll have to find your favours somewhere else."

Spike pouted, and though his face was still human Xander could see the vampire's visage glittering underneath the surface. "You don't have an extra favour for me?"

"Not on me, no." What did a vampire consider a party favour anyway? And did he really want to know?

"Oh, well," Spike said with a sigh. "Maybe next time. Unless you want to grab a quick snack instead?"

He shook his head, hoping his knees weren't shaking as much as they felt they were. "Sorry, wouldn't want to ruin my dinner."

"Won't ruin mine." Spike grinned easily.

When Spike stepped forward again, Xander stopped. Well, not that he'd been going anywhere backed up against the car, but he stopped trying to press himself into the car's frame. He narrowed his eyes at Spike. OK, yeah, he might get eaten. However, he wasn't going to just bare his neck and let him.

With a startled blink, Spike stopped. He titled his head, and said, "You know, you smell different."

Xander flashed back to when he'd been possessed by his inner hyena and how he had been able to smell emotions on people. Especially fear.

Or lack of it.

"Maybe I am different."

He didn't even flinch when Spike took the last two steps, and was near enough to-- he leant forward and sniffed Xander's neck. It was weird enough that it startled a heartfelt, "What the fuck are you doing?" out of him, and he shoved against the vampire's chest, knocking him back.

Spike laughed. It was an odd sound, sharp and delighted.

It made Xander feel... something. Something he didn't want to look at too closely. That in turn made him angry. He stepped forward and shoved Spike back again.

Spike stumbled, though he caught his balance a half-second later. He glared at Xander and opened his mouth to say something. Xander didn't want to hear it.

"Stop doing that."

"Doing what?" Spike looked honestly perplexed. It still looked ridiculous on him.

"Sniffing my neck!"

There was an instant's pause, then Spike said cheerfully, "But I like the way you smell, luv."

Xander groaned, silently. Could his life get any weirder?

~~~~~

He managed to drive all the way home -- with Giles' books sitting safely on the front seat -- without getting any closer to figuring out what exactly was happening. Again Spike had just grinned and shaken his head and... walked off. Xander had watched him go, half-convinced it was a trap and twenty vamps were going to leap out at him as soon as Spike crossed the large pool of light and into the darkness beyond.

But they hadn't, and Xander had run into the library and grabbed the books and a stake and a cross and holy water, and made it all the way back home without having a single freakin' clue.

Maybe Spike was just insane.

Xander left everything except the books in the car, and headed up to the apartment. He opened the door -- then jumped a foot in the air at the loud shouts of "Surprise!" He dropped the books, hoped that they weren't old, rare, and irreplaceable. From the satisfied grin on Giles' face, he guessed not.

Then he *saw* the room, and after a moment of heart-stopping amazement, he grinned back. Ear to ear, and he knew he couldn't have stopped even if vampires attacked. There were streamers and balloons hung up all over and a large banner opposite the door that said
"Happy Birthday".

Everyone was smiling at him.

He laughed. He could feel the giddy half-a-step-away-from-losing-control sensation, and he didn't try to reign it in. He did shut his mouth, though, before he could startle his friends with hysteria. He ducked his head as Willow came forward with a paper hat -- she and Buffy were wearing them, Giles and Cordelia were rather pointedly not.

Xander didn't mind -- was pleasantly surprised to see Cordelia, as for the last couple months she'd been hanging around more and more, alternating quite well between hating him and tolerating him. But here she was, returning his grin with a smile of her own. Maybe she was just here for the -- "Oh, damn! I forgot to get a cake."

"No biggie," Buffy said. "Willow and I picked one up on the way over." She gestured towards the dining room table that was piled high with food. A large cake was sitting in a place of honor.

"Darn, we coulda had two..." Xander laughed again at Giles' expression, and turned his attention to the only thing better -- as good as -- chocolate cake.

Presents.

He suspected he must have been doing the puppy-dog eyes thing, because Giles said in a rather amused tone, "So, um, would you like to start with the presents?"

"Isn't that the tradition?" Willow grinned and handed him a familiarly-shaped giftwrapped cylinder.

Xander gave Willow a grin. Well, the same grin. He figured he was going to wear out his smiling muscles in one evening if this kept on. He accepted the package happily and went over to the table where the rest of the packages were waiting. Slipping the ribbon off, he quickly unwrapped his first, expected, gift.

Unrolling it, he revealed a vintage movie poster, one that would have actually cost quite a bit if it were authentic. Willow was smiling at him. "I thought it was appropriate this year," she said with a shrug. "No place like home and all that."

His grin softened into a much less manic, much more touched smile. "Thanks, Will."

He set it carefully aside, then, and considered his next choice. Big? Small? His eye caught a very small package with Giles' name on the from line. Xander grabbed it, wanting to know what Giles could be giving him that was *that* small.

Heck, he wanted to know what Giles was giving him, regardless of size. He tore off the paper and-- "Tell me these are to a 1969 Mustang?"

"Sorry," the librarian replied, not sounding sorry at all.

But Xander didn't mind. He knew what they were -- keys to the Citroen. "Very cool. Thanks, G-man."

"Here, you should open mine now," Cordelia announced. "It goes with his."

Xander followed her finger, finally spotting another small gift. The card did indeed say 'From Cordelia'. "Isn't this the first time you've given me a birthday present since we were four?"

She blinked at him. "I gave you something when we were four?"

Of course she wouldn't remember. He did. He'd kept all his gifts from that year under his bed, with the tags still next to them. It had been his first actual party, one he'd shamelessly begged for and blackmailed his mother into letting him have, by merely telling all the kids at he was having one. Parties tended to come with a price, though, and after his 6th party fiasco, birthdays had been a Willow and Jesse and grandma kinda celebration, until grandma had died and it had been Willow and Jesse, giving him presents and cake at
lunchtime, at school.

"You probably don't want to see the photos, then," he teased her, banishing those thoughts as he unwrapped the gift. A keychain. He grinned. "How appropriate. Thank you, Cordelia."

"Didn't break the budget there, did you?" Buffy asked Cordelia.

She shrugged. "Hey, it's a gift. Something I haven't done in 13 years, apparently. I thought it was in 'never'."

"So which one next?" Xander interrupted, not wanting to explain to Buffy that Cordelia was right - a gift at all was cool enough. There was one whose card had a signature he couldn't quite read -- though the curl of the 'B' made it obvious. He snatched it up and gave Buffy a look. "Hmm... what could it be?"

She smiled. "Maybe you should open it and find out."

From the size, shape and feel of the present he figured he knew what it was. He didn't mind the lack of surprise -- he wouldn't know which albums she'd gotten him until he tore off the paper, anyhow. Xander did so, and grinned -- still, still -- as he rifled through the stack. Three CDs of music he could play loud, to make Giles say disparaging things about 'noise' and real music. "Cool! Thanks, Buffy!" He used the chance to hug her, and laughed when she didn't pretend she didn't know he was taking advantage.

There was another CD shaped package on the table and he picked it up. There was no card, and the wrapping was plain dark red paper. Intrigued, Xander tore the paper.

And stared. Dead Puppies.

He heard Giles' soft voice coming from right beside him, then he was taking the CD out of Xander's hand. "I... I wasn't sure if, when there was no tag, I didn't know..."

Xander looked up, and wondered if he were pale or something. Giles looked extremely concerned, contrite.

"I wasn't sure if I should put it out with the others. I'm sorry."

Giles set the CD aside, and Xander watched him. Confused. Scared as hell. Giles' next words confused him more.

"I... assumed it might be from them, but didn't know if you'd rather not see it, or--"

"Giles?" Xander was surprised to hear his voice sounding so steady. "It's OK. I'm OK." He suddenly understood what Giles thought, and wasn't going to correct him. A gift from his parents, safely anonymous but there all the same, as though a peace offering, or a pitiful attempt to show they still cared.

They didn't, but Xander was not about to explain who it was from. Let his friends think that, then, and hope Spike's sense of humour left things at this.

"Here." Buffy held out another present. "This one's better."

It took him a moment to realise what she was saying, then he held out his hand and took the box. Slightly larger, though light; he unwrapped it more slowly. And was even more confused when he saw what it was.

"Thanks, but - I don't have a computer." He looked back down at the game, verifying that yes, in fact, it was a computer game. Tomb Raider, which he'd been hearing so much about. This was supposed to be better?

Then he realised everyone was looking at him, exptectantly.

"Don't I?"

All it took was for Giles to raise his hand, starting to point towards Xander's bedroom. Xander took off, practically running to his room. Stopped when he saw it on his desk.

"Who-hoo!" The game was tossed to the bed, and he sat down in front of the computer. *His* computer. He turned it on as he began checking out all the peripherals.

"I helped picked it out," Willow was saying proudly. Xander looked up, found all of them standing there. Buffy looked bemused, Cordelia was simply looking. Giles was watching with a faint smile of amusement, and a large hint of pride. "I've had it in my room for the last two weeks," Willow continued. "You have no idea how often I've wanted to hook it up and check it out. Oh, just to make sure everything was working," she added.

Xander laughed. "If you're nice to me, maybe I'll let you play Tomb Raider."

"I'd rather play Myst." She stopped, and suddenly looked guilty.

Xander remembered there was another game-shaped box on the table. Knowing Willow as well as he did, that almost guaranteed that it was...

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to spoil." Willow pouted, though there was still that look in her eyes that said she was too pleased to be truly sorry.

"It's OK. It's fine." Xander jumped up, and hugged her. "Thank you."

After a few more minutes checking the computer out, Xander and the others headed back to the living room and dug into the food. There was a lot of eating, talking, joking, all in all the best birthday he'd had in a long time.

It seemed entirely too early when it was late enough to go. Buffy was the first to mention it, apologizing for her need to go on patrol before it got too late to get home. With that, Cordelia took her leave as well. Willow tried to offer to stay and help clean up -- stay and let the celebration go on just a little longer -- but Buffy was her escort home.

After they'd left, Xander wordlessly moved to help Giles with the clean up. The older man shot him an approving smile as they made quick work of most of the mess.

Xander couldn't decide which of his presents he wanted to play with first. Maybe he could swing all of them... put a CD in, crank up the 'puter and play Tomb Raider. Or Myst, just so he could have a headstart on Willow before she began trouncing him into the dirt. Put up her poster... huh, ok, he couldn't play with his keys and keychain until he actually had a reason to use the car.

He grabbed a fingerful of icing as he carried the remainder of the cake to the kitchen. It had been a practically perfect birthday.

When he went back to the living room, Giles was coming from the direction of his bedroom with a large gift wrapped box in his hands. Xander stopped. Blinked a couple times. 'You shouldn't have' warred with 'one more! one more!' and he was left just staring, as Giles
brought the present over.

The librarian hesitated before handing it over. "Considering some of the reading you've been doing lately, I thought you might appreciate this."

Xander didn't try hiding his eager grin. Taking the package, he quickly removed the paper. Inside was a book -- a textbook. A practical guide to demonic chemistry.

To go along with the chemistry set...

Xander stared up at Giles, knowing his eyes were wide and he must look ridiculously excited.

"Judging from that expression, I take it I judged correctly," Giles said with a faint smile.

"Yeah," Xander breathed, setting the kit down and opening the book, only to look over to check the 'this set includes' list on the box.

He had moved to the couch and was going through the table of contents and verifying just how many of the lessons he could get through with the set, when he realised Giles had completed the last of the clean-up and was standing in the hallway, watching him. Nervously, Xander realised he hadn't said anything yet. "Hey, Giles, thanks. This is cool. Way cool -- beyond cool."

"I gathered," Giles replied as he walked over and sat down beside him.

Xander grinned, ducked his head. There was something about the way Giles looked at him... it made his stomach feel tight and his skin warm, like if he were the blushing sort, he'd be blushing. He focused on the book again, but didn't open it again, knowing he'd only start reading and lose whatever Giles said next.

Beside him he saw Giles focusing on the book's cover as well. "This set is quite complete, but if you have any questions or find you need something that's not included, just ask."

"Thanks. I will. Um -- do I even want to know where you got this?"

"Probably not. Let's just say I am not without connections and leave it at that."

Xander laughed. "You probably got it from the grocer on third street -- the one who sells Chinese radishes in a bin on the sidewalk." The laughter left him, though, and he felt suddenly tired. He was about to excuse himself to his room -- to play with even more of his presents -- when he caught sight of the CD Spike had given him.

He started slightly when Giles laid a hand on his shoulder. "Are you all right?"

"Sure! Why wouldn't I be?" It sounded too loud, too cheery. He doubted Giles would be fooled, even if he didn't already probably know. He wondered what Giles would do, if he told him whom the CD was really from. Not let him go out alone at night, for one thing.

"I know birthdays haven't exactly been the best of days for you..."

The climbing of his eyebrows asked the question. Unless he only guessed, unless he meant the day their nightmares came to life, and they'd learned about that stupid clown.

Or - unless Willow.

"Willow and I talked while she was helping me pick out your computer," Giles said confirming that last suspicion.

"Ah." He found that looking at the floor was easier. He wasn't mad -- and certainly not at Willow -- but he was... embarrassed? Ashamed? He shrugged. "It really wasn't--"

"Fair," Giles interrupted. "No, it wasn't."

That hadn't been what he was going to say. He knew it, he knew Giles knew it. Was he going to let Giles get away with it? It occurred to him that the alternative was covering for his folks.

"I know your past with your parents isn't an easy subject for you to talk about." Giles'tone was serious. "But when you do need to, I'm here to listen, Xander."

He kept staring at the floor. He knew he could -- it wasn't that much harder than talking to Willow. Although they had always talked late at night, over the phone where Xander couldn't see her face. Those nightly calls which they claimed was just to catch up on the
day -- Xander knew Willow only wanted to know that he was safe for one more night.

But it was still hard to say, because the words... the feelings sounded stupid and petty.

"I'm not going to judge *you*," Giles continued, the emphasis on the last word making it plain that he was making no such promise about Xander's parents.

Xander shook his head, sharply. "It's just a birthday, Giles. It doesn't mean anything."

"Doesn't mean anything? It's a celebration of one year of growth, one year of survival. And that is something that definitely holds meaning."

In a whisper, he said, "Yeah, well, they didn't really want me to survive, you know?"

Giles' hand was back on his shoulder. "All the more reason to celebrate your doing so. You have a great many people who are thankful that you have survived."

He shivered, wanting to lean into the touch. Lean into the embrace he knew was his for asking. But that would admit that it mattered, wouldn't it? That knowing that the only ones who cared for most of his life were three people in the entire world, two of whom were dead...

He found himself being held, somehow without asking, and he was crying, harder than he'd thought possible. Through it all Giles held him tightly, murmuring words too soft to make out, but that were reassuring nonetheless.

When he kept crying, unable to stop himself, Giles turned him, pulling him half into Giles' lap so he was facing the back of the couch, legs curled up on the cushions. It was the most comfortable embrace he'd ever felt.

If he ignored the way his chest, throat, and head hurt, and the way he just couldn't stop. He pressed his head against Giles' shoulder, trying to push it all back inside. He felt Giles' hands gently stroking his back, one of them moving up to cup his head. "Let it out," Giles murmured. "You've held it in far too long already."

"I can't," he managed, trying to push the words out and bring everything else back in. It hurt, hurt far worse to let it out than just make it go away. "I can't..."

He realised that Giles was rocking him, slowly, back and forth. It felt... it felt wonderful, aching, and he focused on it. Wanted to draw that feeling in and hang onto it forever.

And realised the tears were slowing down.

The rocking gradually slowed in concert with the tears, but Giles made no move to release him, to pull away. Xander closed his eyes, needing to steal a minute to pull everything back together before he could risk looking up, saying anything. Letting go. He dragged in a breath, deep as he could manage, and discovered he'd been wrong.

It didn't hurt more to let it go. He yawned, and told himself one more moment to rest there, then he'd let Giles go. He closed his eyes, only to find himself blinking in early morning sunlight in what felt like a minute later.

He was still on the couch, still in Giles' embrace, must've fallen asleep there the night before. And instead of waking him and telling him to go to bed or at least slipping away and leaving him asleep on the couch, Giles had stayed where he was and had even managed to fall asleep while not relinquishing his hold on Xander.

Xander swallowed, not moving, knowing he was totally out of his depth. Vampires he could deal with -- except for Spike. Demons, math tests, even fresh vegetables begging for a little hot oil.

This... this was too perfect to be any good at all.

Giles kept surprising him, throwing him off balance. It was one thing to provide sanctuary and even ensure protection for Xander. Quite another to be treated like this. Like someone important.

Like someone who mattered. Like someone he lo- Xander closed his eyes, instead, and decided to let Giles be the one to get up first, say all the 'sorry, didn't mean to's and 'are you all right's.

It wasn't too long before he felt Giles stir slightly and he slitted his eyes enough to watch Giles' flutter open. He kept himself relaxed, long used to faking sleep, and waited for Giles to disentangle himself.

But he didn't. He just sat there.

Holding him.

Xander opened his eyes again, bewildered.

Giles smiled down at him. "Good morning."

"M...morning." Xander pushed himself up, and Giles let him go, without comment. Xander stood there a moment, wondering what he was expected to say.

"The usual for breakfast?" Giles asked, standing up and stretching with a nearly inaudible groan.

"Ye-yeah," Xander managed. He decided to delay the moment of confrontation, and slipped off to use the bathroom. When he returned, the tea kettle was on and Giles was getting things out to make waffles.

Giles looked up and nodded towards the orange juice that was already poured and ready. "You want to drive on the way to school today?"

Xander grinned. Maybe he would get to play with all his new toys today.


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