Sandy Places in the Shadows

Part One

"Are you still looking at that?" Spike asked in a disbelieving tone, rolling over on the bed to face Xander. He scooted closer, looking first at the book in Xander's lap, then up at Xander's face.

"It's important," Xander replied absently, sparing only a glance at Spike before turning his attention back to puzzling out the old text.

"Yeah, so you said the dozen other times. Come on, Xan. We've only a few hours left before you start making 'got to go' noises." Spike leaned down and rested his chin on Xander's arm. "D'you really want to spend the whole time reading?"

"I haven't spent the *whole* time reading." Xander gestured rather pointedly down at his unclothed and still-rumpled state.

"No, but you've spent almost *ten* *minutes* reading. Ten minutes while I was lying here in my all-together. You didn't leer at me, once." Spike pouted.

Xander sighed. Then he looked up, leered, then turned back to his book. "Better?"

"Yes-- hey!"

Xander kept his nose buried in the book for a minute more before his smile got away from him.

He felt a hard finger poke him, then, "You stopped."

"Stopped what?" he asked, innocently.

"Leering." Spike reached over, took hold of the book, and started trying to drag it away.

Instantly, Xander was out of his slouch and slapping the vampire's hand. "Spike! If that gets damaged, Giles is going to have my hide!"

With a short glare, Spike let go of the book, shaking his hand slowly. Then he sat up and in a reasonable tone began, "Xan, look. You've been worrying about this 'Mayor' thing for weeks. It's not going to hurt if you take an hour off and stop reading the same bloody book you've been reading all week."

"It might." Xander hardly wanted to think about just what would happen if they didn't find a way to stop the Mayor's plans. How was he supposed to explain to everyone in the hereafter that he'd missed the answer because he'd stopped to have sex with a vampire?

"You've read it seven times! What makes you think whatever wasn't in there the first six times, is going to suddenly appear?" Spike crossed his arms, managing to look seriously annoyed, despite being totally naked.

"Because seven is a magic number?" Somehow it hadn't sounded as silly in his head.

There was silence, as Spike let his expression convey his regard of Xander's reply. Xander was about to add to his retort when he realised Spike was humming something.

Xander rolled his eyes. "You've been watching *way* too much TV."

"Haven't! Haven't seen that show in ages. Is it my fault they deliberately make those things so they stick in your head?"

"To stick in a four year old's head."

"Hey! I'll have you know that show taught Dru how to count! Er, again. Sometimes she'd forget." Spike leaned forward. "Tell me it isn't running through your head, now."

"I'm resisting by a supreme act of will," Xander replied, keeping a straight face with an effort.

Spike just looked at him. Then, very carefully, he began, "I could sit and count all day. Sometimes I get carried away. I count slowly, slowly, slowly getting faster. Once I've started counting it's really hard to stop." As he sang each line, he inched closer to Xander.

"You're going to make me kiss you just to shut you up, aren't you?" Xander asked.

"But you'll count up to nine if you love me," Spike sang. "I can hardly wait, Oh, baby, count up to nine for me." He was mere inches away by that point.

Xander gave a world-weary sigh. "That would be a yes." And with a most put-upon air, he closed the remaining distance and kissed his annoying, persistent boyfriend. Spike eagerly accepted the kiss, pushing Xander backwards ever so slowly. When Xander reached back to catch himself from falling, he felt the book being removed from his lap. "He-- umph!" he protested, the sound cutting off as Spike kissed him again.

Then his arms were being pushed aside, and they fell onto the bed. Spike quickly arranged himself on top of Xander, never quite breaking the kiss. Xander was fast losing the will to continue protesting, especially when Spike did *that* with his mouth. Or when he did that *with* his mouth. And his tongue. Then his hand...

What was it he was supposed to be doing again?

Spike pulled back far enough to say, "Xan... could you lose the pen?"

Xander blinked. "Pen?"

His hand was picked up, and the pen he'd been holding was taken from his fingers. "Pen. Lovely that you're so organised, and all, but don't fancy being stabbed or made all inky." Spike stopped and considered. "Though actually, if you *wanted* to draw all over me, we can. Not with ballpoint, though."

That made him blink again. Spike as canvas had interesting possibilities. "Maybe later. Right now I'd rather focus on that stabbing thing. Not with the pen." Surely a few minutes wouldn't matter. Not in the grand scheme of useless studying up on evil plans to destroy the world.

"What with, then?" Spike asked, going down to lick at Xander's collarbone, then up his jaw.

Some far portion of Xander's brain noticed that Spike still carefully avoided his neck. He wasn't sure if he were ready to yell at him to stop avoiding everything *except* actual fangs. But if he mentioned it now, they would end up having one of those discussions. Which would mean Spike would stop doing what he was doing. He'd mention it later. For now, he just answered Spike's question with a taunt. "You're the big, bad vampire with over a century of experience; I'm sure you'll puzzle a solution out."

"Oh, a challenge, is it?" Spike grinned at him, then ducked down and did something that made Xander yelp.

"Spike!" he yelled. Then when his lover looked up at him, "Do that again?"

"Say the magic word," Spike prompted, even as he was lowering his head down to the same spot.

"Which one?"

In reply, Spike pinched him, right near the hip. Xander hissed and arched up under the touch. Spike slipped a hand underneath him, not letting him fall back onto the mattress. A lick, then, on the spot he'd bitten, and, "What's the magic word?" Spike's voice was low, and the tone made Xander shiver.

"Acracadabra?"

Spike stopped and looked at him. "No."

"No?"

"Not sucking you when you say 'abracadabra'. Makes me think about muppets. Puts me right off."

"You asked for a magic word," Xander pointed out reasonably, not pointing out who'd brought muppets into this already.

"I said 'the' magic word. Not 'a' magic word." Spike's fingers trailed lightly down Xander's thigh.

"Picky, picky. You'd almost think you didn't want to have sex after all."

"ME? *I* wasn't the one getting all 'do that again'. I was perfectly happy to just wander about aimlessly poking and sucking." Fingers emphasised his words, poking Xander right in the balls.

Trying to keep from squirming, Xander pointed out, "Most people take a request to repeat as a compliment."

"But I was getting all inspired, trying to be creative," Spike protested. Poked him again in the same spot. "Now I just feel like flipping you over and buggering you."

The squirm got away from him. "That would be good too," he managed, in a faint voice.

"Oh." Spike blinked, as if taken aback by the admission. "Right, then." He grabbed one of Xander's legs, and flipped him over. Xander's squirming got more pronounced as his anticipation grew. Spike pulled Xander's hips up, patted him on the butt, then asked, "Last chance for the magic word."

"Spike! Do it, already!" At this rate he was going to pummel the vampire with a pillow and go back to his book.

"Now *there's* the magic word! Well, phrase, but who's counting?" Spike slipped a finger inside him, without warning. "Now who's a clever human?"

Xander hissed and wriggled some more. Spike wriggled his finger, back. Then Xander felt Spike's other hand on his leg, pulling at it. He let Spike move him, position him as he wanted to. At least until Spike kept re-arranging his leg, back and forth.

"*What* are you doing?" he demanded, glaring at Spike over his shoulder.

"Nothin'? came the innocent-looking and sounding reply. Spike wriggled his finger again, only this time it felt move like Spike was trying to arrange *that*, and less like it was supposed to be arousing.

"Spike," he growled warningly.

Spike stopped moving. "Yes?"

"I can always go back to researching."

"Can't."

"Why not?"

"Book's on the floor, and you're trapped."

Xander wasn't sure how this position qualified as 'trapped', but he didn't feel like getting into a semantic debate. Not *now*. "Fine! Then will you get on with it?!"

Shaking his head, Spike sighed. "The romance has gone right out of our relationship, I can see that." He added a second finger, though, and pushed in.

Xander bit back a groan. "We had romance?"

"Er," Spike leaned into him, pressing his leg against Xander's. Moved his hand back and forth a bit as if levering his fingers deeper inside. "Didn't we? You brought me a dead rat, once."

"That was disgusting, not romantic."

"*I* thought it was sweet. You, bringing me your kill..." A third finger.

"It wasn't sweet. It ran across my foot when I was asleep. *After* you promised me you didn't have rats." The accusation didn't come out as forcefully as he had hoped, as his voice was sounding a bit breathless.

"But you slayed it, and brought it to me," Spike repeated, working his hand back and forth. Xander's hips were starting to move in conjunction with Spike's motion, and he felt fingertips squeeze his left buttock briefly. "Hold still, you've made me lose count."

"Lose count?" He was beginning to wonder what Spike was up to. It obviously wasn't anything as straight-forward as having sex.

Spike leaned forward again. "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. But you'll count to nine if you love me," he sang.

"You know there's something vaguely obscene about doing this when you're singing Sesame Street songs."

"D'you want me to stop?"

Xander peered at him suspiciously. "If I say yes you're going to interpret that as meaning more than just the singing, aren't you?"

Spike's eyes widened in outrage. "Would I do something like that? I mean, just when I've got you right where I want you?"

"Yes," Xander retorted. "Because you're an evil vampire." Part of his mind immediately began wondering if "evil vampire" wasn't just a bit redundant.

"Oh, well," Spike paused, thinking. He continued moving his hand while he thought, so that Xander didn't feel any need to hurry his thought-processes up. At least he wasn't singing when he thought, Xander thought muzzily, putting his head down and losing himself in the moment. Very zenlike. Giles would be proud.

Which was immediately followed up by frantic mental backpeddling. No, no, no, thinking of Giles while he had his boyfriend's fingers up his ass was definitely a bad thing. Especially when his body didn't seem to notice anything wrong. Perhaps it was just that Spike's fingers were getting more active, again, and his legs were now trying to pull Spike in closer, so he could do more of what he was doing.

"What if I said," Spike began, startling Xander out of his thoughts and non-thoughts. "That I didn't want to be predictable?"

Xander gave a slightly strangled sounding laugh. "I don't think that's a problem."

Spike grinned smugly. "Right, then." And, as if as in reward, he moved his hand just right, to make Xander's brain explode. Coupled with the other hand on his cock and a tongue doing *something* to the small of his back, and Xander stopped caring. He forgot about Giles, forgot about research, forgot about annoying vampires singing and just felt.

He heard a nasty-sounding chuckle, and ignored it. Spike could be as evil as he liked, if he would just keep doing that. All of that. He pushed himself back, towards Spike, and felt the second chuckle. "Want more, do you?" Spike asked.

Xander moaned, hoping it would be taken for the affirmative it was.

There was a pause before Spike asked, "Sorry, was that a 'yes, right there, that's lovely', or a 'shut up you wanker and wank something'?"

"Gah," Xander said helpfully.

"Right, then I'll just wing it, shall I?" Spike said, in an accomodating tone. "What if I just do this?"

Xander yelped as Spike pinched him again. "Spike!"

"Xander!" Spike screamed in a sensual moan. "Oh, god, Xander..."

He curled around to glare at the vampire. "What is *with* you today?"

"Nothing..." An innocent blink which made Xander want to hit him with the pillow.

"That is about what's happening," he groused. This was seriously beginning to convince him reading the same unhelpful prophecies for the eighth time would be more fun. Less frustrating, at least.

"Then why were you moaning so loud, a minute ago?"

"But you stopped!"

"Didn't! Oh, er, yeah, I did. Oops."

Muttering darkly under his breath, Xander buried his head in the pillow again. For a moment there was nothing, no movement. No resuming the sex, just one hand on his not-so- erect cock, one hand still in his ass. Ten more seconds of this, and he was going back to his book and to hell with Spike.

"Maybe you should shag me," Spike suggested.

Xander froze for a long moment, then surged up, dumping Spike off of him and coming to rest straddled on his boyfriend. "You could've just asked you know."

Spike looked almost-innocent. "Thought I did ask. Um, sort of. Was sitting around naked for all of ten minutes after I shagged *you*."

"Words, Spike. Most people would use words." He leaned down and began nuzzling at Spike's neck.

"Mmm, urrrrrrr," was all he got, as Spike arched up into Xander's touches.

"Absolutely," he agreed, letting his hands wander. *Now* it was more fun than useless prophecies.

~~~~~

Xander had managed to put Spike and his more exasperating -- evil vampire, natch -- habits out of his mind for a day or two. Part of it was due to spending his free time re-reading what few texts they had on the Ascension.

Part of it was college. Applying had been hard enough, what with trying to figure out where to go. Now there was the waiting to hear back. OK, so the first part had been a little easier -- Willow had used his computer to scour the web for suitable colleges, and made them each a list. Several colleges were on both lists, including UC Sunnydale, Oxford ("We can visit your grandparents on the weekend!"), and UCLA. They all had their benefits and their drawbacks, and Xander wasn't sure which one he wanted to go to. He was all for going someplace Willow was, if only for having a built-in best-friend on campus.

But then there was the entire rest of the list, which ranged from the University of Washington, which Xander still didn't know why was on his list other than Willow's "but we can come visit you there", all the way to less-than-human-oriented schools including Dobb's College, which he'd been taking correspondence courses from for the last two years.

He'd tried to list the schools according to what he liked and didn't like about each, hoping one would stand out. There were big drawbacks on all of them of one sort or another. His most obvious choice, was, of course, going to Dobb's College. If he were accepted, he'd already have five semesters of work done in his major field as well as having met and obliterated the language requirement. He'd also be in LA, which was within commuting distance home. It would be perfect.

The problem was that every time he mentioned it, Giles would get all excited for him, and talk about how wonderful it would be. And when he mentioned it to Spike... Spike would talk about going to LA with him so he could annoy his recently re-located Sire.

He wasn't sure which one scared him more.

Xander tried to figure out what it was exactly that was scaring him so badly, but despite a heavy session of Merle Haggard and Mary Chapin Carpenter, he wasn't able to pinpoint it. He suspected that it might simply be all so perfect, he wasn't truly able to believe it would come true. There was also the chance that it was just... college. Moving away from home. Being a grown-up again and this time there was no turning back.

Or it might be the way Spike chortled about helping him look for a place to live and what fun it would be to drop in on 'Peaches'.

Ironically ironic, two years ago he would never had pictured himself in this position. Going to college at all, much less having so many choices... Maybe every school but one would refuse him, and then the choice would be easy.

He walked across the school yard, heading towards his friends all sitting under a tree, with a handful of envelopes he wasn't ready to open. Willow looked up from her own pile of envelopes and gave him a smile. "You got yours, too? Great! Have you opened them yet?"

"Nope. You?" He sat down, dropping his backpack on the grass. Buffy was sitting on the bench, looking down on them with equal measures of interest and the same trepidation he himself felt. Willow had told him last night on the phone that Buffy had already been discussing her acceptances with her mom.

For all his problems, Xander was glad he didn't have to figure in being a Chosen One to planning his future.

Willow shook her head. "I was waiting for you. You know, moral strength in numbers."

"Wanna swap stacks?"

"Sure!" With a grin, she handed over hers and accepted his.

Xander happily settled himself down to opening Willow's mail. He didn't mind knowing where she was accepted -- he only cared about where she ended up going. Another moment for the wiggins, thinking about his best friend forever being out of touch except through long distance calls and email. Good thing grandmum had bought him a new digital camera for his birthday after the old one died. Spike's fault, there. Him and his 'just one for Dru, then I'll stop.'

Willow quickly began sorting Xander's replies into two piles. He tried not to keep glancing over at her piles -- his piles. His acceptances and rejections... and he noticed she was looking are his piles of hers piles, as well. Xander grinned and gathered up the sorted envelopes -- sorted into 'accepted' and 'accepted'. Willow hadn't had a rejection in the entire bunch.

She was looking over anxiously now, forehead wrinkling as she tried to figure out which was the "no" pile. Xander held them out with a grin. The two stacks were nearly equal in height.

Woefully, she shook her head. "I couldn't have... I should've added more extra-curricular activities, community service and--"

Xander sighed. Sometimes it just wasn't fun to tease her. "Relax, Will. You got in. Oxford, Harvard, Duke... a German polytechnic institute I'm going to pretend I can't pronounce..."

Willow blinked. "I did?" she asked cautiously.

"Promise." He put the two stacks together and held them out, in one hand. "You even got in to Texas A&M." He wondered if she'd realise she hadn't applied to Texas.

She looked at the pile, slowly took it, then whacked Xander's arm with the envelopes. "That wasn't nice."

He laughed, and gave Buffy a wink when she laughed, as well. Made no move to pick up his own two piles of replies. One was significantly larger than the other and he wasn't sure he wanted to know which was which just yet. Was it too late to run away and join the circus? Oh, wait... he'd already done that. Scooby gang circus.

He looked up at Willow, who was cheerfully going through her stack, naming off schools and making comments about the high points of going to there. "Don't forget the football program," Xander interjected.

She made her icky face. "Big sweaty Neanderthals. How could I forget that?" She glanced down at his two piles. "Aren't you going to look at yours?"

"Do I have to? Can't I just opt for the Burger Barn management option?"

Willow glared at him. "No."

"I could learn how to fix major appliances."

"Xander--"

He went for cute. Never worked on Willow, but it was a reflexive defense while he thought of something else.

"Nice puppy," Buffy said. "Goto college."

"Do we have to get some Xandersnacks?" Willow asked in a mock-scolding tone.

"Oo! Zingers? Swiss roll?" Xander was willing to beg; he got onto his knees and brought his hands up. "Ho-ho?"

"Ho-ho for college?" Willow offered.

"Um--" Xander quickly refigured his negotiating. "I'll have to have my lawyer look over any contracts *before* I sign."

"That's fair."

Xander waited. When neither of his friends got up, he prompted, "That doesn't mean you shouldn't provide the Xandersnacks as a bribe."

"And you could look at your acceptances to show your good faith," Willow prompted back.

Xander looked down at the stack. "Ho-hos for just looking at them?" He reached down and picked up one of the piles. "I can do that." He had the urge to hand them over to Spike for a bit of merrily-destroying. He'd bet that Spike was the bonfire type.

"I'll buy you some on the way home from school," Willow promised.

"Cool!" Xander grinned, though he had a sudden, faint feeling of dread.

~~~~~

Willow didn't call him on it until they were walking home that evening following the after-school research session. Giles and Buffy were taking patrol together so they could discuss strategies against the Mayor while Buffy patroled. "You going to talk about it?" Willow asked, glancing sideways at him.

"About that embarrassing incident with the milk carton at lunch? No, thank you." Despite the fact that it was just the two of them, he didn't exactly feel like going right to the heart of the matter.

"Why don't you want to go to college?" she asked bluntly, seriously.

"I do! I mean, yeah, I wanna go."

"Then why all the..." She waved her hand around, "song and dance earlier about your acceptances?"

He shrugged, and they walked a few more feet while he tried to get the courage to explain. "I just... don't know if I can do it."

"What? Of course you can. You've been getting straight A's all year--"

"Not that," he replied quickly. "School is school, right? The classes just get harder." He subsided again, wondering if Willow wouldn't think his real reason was silly.

"Then what is it?"

"Would you really go all the way to Boston to go to school?"

She shrugged. "I haven't made up my mind yet. It's a great school, but it's a long way from home- that's what's bugging you, isn't it? Leaving home?"

Again he shrugged, but then he nodded. "I just... I feel like I just got here, got everything the way I want it. I'm not ready to just pack up and move again."

She reached over and took his arm in hers. "You finally have a real home."

And a real family, he added silently. Truth was, he wouldn't mind moving if he could just take his family -- friends included -- with him. "I guess everyone has to grow up and move out sometime," he said quietly.

"That doesn't mean you can't come back," Willow pointed out.

"Yeah." But that didn't really help. What good was coming back for holidays when it meant you were living most of your life somewhere else?

Who was going to hold him through his nightmares if he moved away?

Willow was watching him closely. "You're not ready to leave, yet."

"I--" He stopped before he found himself agreeing with her. He knew, and it was why he hadn't shared his fears with Giles -- if he said he wanted to stay in Sunnydale, he could. Whether he attended UC Sunnydale or not, Giles wasn't going to make him move out. But he wanted to go. The idea of going to college, making something of himself and having nothing expected of him except to learn new stuff... It made him want to take all of his accepting
schools up on their offers.

"You don't have to decide tonight, you know."

"I know." They continued walking for a while. Xander tried to think about whether he wanted to stay home and what he'd do if he did. Or if he didn't. Finally he just shook his head. "I don't know how to choose. How do I know what I'm supposed to do?"

"There's ways of weighing the pros and cons, but you know all that." She stopped and turned to look at him seriously. "I know it sounds hokey, but just listen to your heart."

His heart. So what was his heart telling him? He looked up, and saw they'd almost reached Willow's house.

Willow was aware of it too. "Do you want to come in for a while? I think I might have some Xandersnacky type food..."

"I think I'd better not. I have a lot to think about-- not that I can't think and stuff my face with snack food," he added quickly, making Willow laugh at him. "But thanks."

"Any time. It's all in the description of best friend."

"That and carrying my books for me?"

"No, that's what boyfriends are for," she said primly.

"Ah. I should go find him, then." Suddenly he knew where he wanted to do his thinking -- ironic though the thought was. Spike rarely let him spend more then ten minutes sitting quietly. But it was quality sitting, Spike would say. Besides, he might just have something helpful to say about the whole college thing.

Weirder things had happened.

Willow was giving him a knowing smile. "Just let Giles know you're going to be late so I don't get a phone call."

"Oh, yeah, uh. Yes." The last time Willow had received such a phone call, they hadn't even been *doing* anything. Made it even more embarrassing to explain to an amused Giles why he hadn't thought to call. "Maybe I'll call now and leave a message. Can I use your phone?"

She grinned and nudged him towards her house.

~~~~~

"Spike?" Xander called out as he entered the warehouse. He wasn't sure if Spike would even be there; on the other hand it was still an hour before nightfall -- where else would he be? Something landed behind him, and he spun around with a yelp and a stake in hand.

Spike grinned. "For me?"

Xander scowled at him. "You know you shouldn't sneak up on someone with a stake."

"I don't have a stake," Spike pointed out reasonably. "Gonna kiss me or keep scowling?"

"I'm still deciding." The adrenaline was still pumping through his system and he tried not to think what would've happened if his slaying instincts were just a bit more hair trigger.

"Fine. Lemme know when you've decided." Spike stepped in and laid a kiss on Xander's lips, then walked casually away.

He hated when Spike did that. With a weary sigh, he turned and followed. He blinked as Spike took off the duster he'd been wearing, then his shirt -- then what looked for all the world to be a chainmail shirt. Spike dropped it on the floor, and the sound of metal hitting concrete confirmed the identification. "Chainmail?"

Spike glanced over his shoulder. "I may like it dangerous, luv, but I'm not stupid." He continued walking further into the warehouse. Shirtless.

What had he been thinking about getting *ten* minutes? "Spike, I was hoping we could talk..."

The vampire stopped, looked over his shoulder again. "About what?"

Telling himself sternly to talk first and jump later, Xander replied, "College."

Spike blinked and tilted his head slightly to one side. "College?" Xander could hear the joke in his voice -- Xander knew that whatever Spike said next was going to make him glare at his boyfriend again. Which was, no doubt, why Spike surprised him. "You mean, 'which one do I go to', or 'the hell with this let's run away to Spain'?"

He laughed weakly. "The latter, except without the Spanish influence."

"You don't like Spain?" Spike had walked back over and picked up his shirt. As he slipped it back on, Xander stopped himself from telling him they could talk without Spike getting dressed. Because he couldn't.

Even with him dressed, Xander was having to concentrate to keep his mind on the subject. "I don't know. I've never been there. But that isn't the point. If I could go to Spain, I could go to college."

"Since they have colleges in Spain, yeah. I see your point." Spike gave him a look of cluelessness which Xander knew was only mostly faked.

He tried to explain it more clearly. "Going to college isn't the problem. Leaving home is the problem."

Spike nodded like he'd understood, all along. Xander wondered if he wasn't deliberately being aggravating as revenge for not getting to have sex, first. "Not ready to leave Rupert?"

Xander shrugged. "I've just got used to having a real home."

Spike gave him a brief look which made him squirm. "Yeah, and the fact that you love him plays no role in that?"

"I-- Of course I love him! He's my-- That's what families do! There's nothing wrong with me loving him." He told himself to shut up before he said too much and told Spike he was right. And how the hell did *Spike* know any of this, anyhow?

"Never said there was, Xan," Spike replied calmly. Then he grinned. "Always loved it when Angel--"

He quickly held his hand up. "I am pretty sure that the rest of that sentence is going to make me go 'ew' and put evil pictures in my head that may inhibit my sex drive for the foreseeable future." Mostly lies, of course. It wasn't like he hadn't thought about Angel, naked. But not when he was trying to have a serious conversation.

With a consternated expression, Spike spent a moment opening his mouth, closing it, then opening it again before finally saying, "So, this is about you not wanting to leave Rupert."

"Yes." He started pacing, and wished Spike would stop saying it like that. "Well, not just Giles..."

"Know you don't mean *me* since I've already told you I'm going with you." Spike's voice dropped a bit. "If you want me to, that is. But yeah," he continued in a breezier tone, "Don't wanna leave your friends. I can see that."

"You really would come with me?" He'd always gotten the impression that when Spike had said 'go with you' he'd meant temporarily. Stop in and say hi whenever he liked.

Spike looked honestly startled. "Said I would. I'm not bored with you, yet."

Yet. That one word spoke to all of Xander's insecurities.

When Xander didn't answer, Spike's confident expression softened. Not into worry -- Xander couldn't remember *ever* seeing the vampire look worried. "Don't you want me to come?" he asked again.

"I..." He wanted to say yes, but... Taking a deep breath he finally said, "Not if you're going to leave." He surprised himself, saying it -- as well as realising he meant it.

"You're the one who--" Spike stopped. He looked at Xander for a lone moment, as if searching for something. Then he walked closer and put his hand on Xander's face. "I'm not going to leave, Xander. Not until you ask me to leave."

Xander searched his face, not even sure what he was looking for. But whatever it was he found it. He felt himself start to smile. "All right."

Spike nodded. They both stood there for a minute, looking at each other. Then Spike asked, "So, *are* we going? Or staying? You won't be joining any fraternities, will you? Not sure I can do the 'my boyfriend is a frat boy' thing."

"I don't think I want to be a member of any fraternity that would accept me."

"I wouldn't say that. There's a fraternity that specializes in demons, and your lot. Er, not 'your lot' as in 'let's go kill the nasty demons', but your other lot. Studying 'em."

"What, Watchers Phi Kappa?"

"No. They don't use the Greek alphabet. I'm serious, though. You should ask Rupert about it -- I bet he and his old man were members."

"I'm not even sure I'm going to college, yet." Xander felt like his head was spinning. A usual sensation when he spent too much time talking with Spike. There *was* an advantage to the ten minute rule.

"But if you do, you have to invite me to the frat parties. You can, if you join... um... think it's Deke Appa Lay. Or Loy. Something. I hear frats are the best way to make contacts for after you've graduated."

It was rather spooky, listening to Spike sound like a guidance counselor. He almost wished for the sex-with-Angel thing, instead. Which wasn't a bad idea, he decided. The sex part, not the with Angel part. He had one thing settled, at least. Whatever he did decide, he didn't have to give up Spike. For the moment that was enough. He'd deal with all the rest later. "Spike?"

"Hmm?"

Xander slid his arms around Spike's neck and pulled him closer. "Shut up and kiss me."

~~~~~

Xander looked at the book he was still carrying around. Spike was right -- eight times he'd read it, and there was nothing new. Unless he was missing something *really* subtle. He sighed. Thinking things like that was going to make him read it nine times. He looked up from his seat at the large table in the middle of the library, and found Giles already stuck in a book. As he watched, Giles glanced up and caught Xander looking at him. "Trade ya?" Xander held out his book.

A moment's consideration and Giles nodded, holding out his own. "A fresh set of eyes might prove beneficial."

Xander accepted the book, gave Giles a brief and ignored glare when he realized the book wasn't in English, then scanned the index. After a moment, he said, "I'm trying to think of a retort to 'fresh eyes', but all I'm coming up with is an Elton John song." And wasn't that *so* all Buffy's fault.

"Which one?" Giles asked curiously.

"Fresh eyes," he replied, unhelpfully. Xander watched as Giles frowned, mulling that over, then stifled a laugh as he realized Giles was singing to himself. When Giles glanced over at him, he quickly returned to his book.

"I think we both might have been researching a bit too much." Giles' voice interrupted him.

"Yea!" Xander tossed the book on the table and stood, paused when he saw the startled expression on Giles' face. "You did mean 'Xander, go get something out of the snack machine,' didn't you? I'll need some money." He held out his hand, despite the money he had in his wallet. Mooching had become a fun and profitable enterprise, since England.

OK, so he knew Giles knew what he was doing. But so far it hadn't stopped working.

Giles' lips twitched, but he pulled out his wallet and handed over a couple of dollars. "Bring me back something, please."

Xander kept his hand out.

His guardian lifted an eyebrow. "I do feed you at home, don't I?"

"You're the one who said 'bring me back something'." Xander pointed out, though he figured he'd already lost this round.

"You're going for snacks, not a four course meal."

"Two sodas, two chips, two candy bars - $3.80. Then whatever you want - I was already gonna pay for half of mine."

Giles gave him one of his Looks. It was the 'we are amused, but you're not getting anything more' look. Ranked well below the 'we are amused, and there is no way in hell you are getting anything more' look. When he got that one, he had to resort to asking Maggie. As far as he knew, she didn't have a 'not getting any more' look.

"Right." Xander closed his hand over the two dollars, just in case Giles decided he should pay for it all. "I'm guessing you want that peanut and caramel thing?" He started for the door.

"Don't get too much," Giles called after him. "I was thinking we could stop for dinner on the way home."

"Yeah, four hours from now," Xander muttered. These after-school Stop The Mayor campaigns were starting to get long. Not that he objected -- there was the whole 'if you're dead you don't get any free time' thing to consider.

But he was getting tired of spending all his spare time studying something that didn't seem to have any answers. He wondered if it was time to admit that they had to make plans for fighting the Mayor after the Ascension, since it didn't look good for their stopping him, before.

"Two hours, actually," Giles replied, interrupting his musings and his path to the library doors.

"Why only two?"

"We need to the time to celebrate." When Xander gave him what had to be a blank look, he elaborated. "You received some acceptances from some of your colleges, haven't you?"

"Yeah." He found himself starting to grin. Then he felt the kick to his stomach that reminded him why he hadn't talked to Giles about those acceptances. After talking to Willow, then Spike, then worrying about it for a night -- he still didn't know what he wanted to do.

Giles was watching him knowingly. "Not that you should have made a decision by now. We're merely celebrating getting to this point. That's quite an accomplishment."

"Celebrating with food and chocolate, right?" Thoughts of the snack machine faded. "Oo, and if the Mayor kills us all, I won't *have* to decide!" He laughed at the look that appeared on Giles' face.

"I'm not sure if that is what I'd call a bright side."

"Sure it is! And you won't have to worry about cholesterol, so we can get a triple cheese meat-lover's pizza for supper tonight!"

"We can get whatever you want tonight," Giles allowed with only a hint of reluctance.

Xander opened his mouth, then stopped. Thought it over. Pretended to think it over again. "What *ever* I want?"

He thought he caught a slight wince from Giles, but the man nodded and confirmed, "Whatever you want."

He sighed. He knew there would be no way he could get away with any whining if he asked this, but... "Can we just have pizzas brought here so we can keep looking for a way to stop the Mayor?"

Giles blinked. "You sure that's what you want?"

Xander shrugged. "Graduation's only four weeks away. Everyone else is worried about finals. We have to worry about finals *and* stopping some unknown demonic evil thing from destroying us."

"It does put whether or not you pass physics rather into perspective, doesn't it?" Giles agreed. "But that's all the more reason to make the effort to recognize your accomplishments."

"In case I don't have anymore?" Xander regretted the morbid joke as soon as he made it. With an effort to think positive again, he asked, "Have you heard from Wes?"

Giles brightened. "This afternoon, actually. He and Kendra are going to fly in next week. He's already begun his research, but he hasn't come up with anything yet."

Xander's return smile was genuine, relieved as he was to know they would at least have two Slayers to fight the Mayor's plans. For the last eight months Wesley had been Kendra's Watcher, taking over for hers when he'd retired. With an extra team, the Watcher's Council had given Wesley dispensation to take his Slayer wherever in the world they were needed.

The two worked well together -- the proper Slayer's Slayer was just what the young Watcher needed to introduce him to the realities of how messy a business Slaying really was. And Wesley, young and trained enough to do more than simply watch, was able to occasionally fight at Kendra's side, providing her with somewhat of a connection to the world she was protecting. According to Wesley, her social skills were improving when she had to practice saying "Duck, Watcher!" in a respectful, but no-nonsense tone.

"I really think we need the break tonight," Giles was continuing. "Sometimes taking a step back can jar something loose."

Xander grinned. "That sounds like you're suggesting the Bronze. If you wanna jar something loose."

"If that's where you want to go."

"Sure, I'm always up for hanging at the Bronze." Xander caught a glimpse of resignation in Giles' eyes, before it was replaced with determination. A penny or three dropped. Giles meant for *them* to take time off. Not 'go have fun, we'll pick up again tomorrow'. Them, as in Xander and Giles. Spend some time together.

"Can we go see a movie?" Xander asked casually.

Giles' face relaxed into a smile. "Did you have a particular one in mind?"

"Something stuffy and artistic. Oo! 'Universal Soldier, The Return' came out last week."

"That's stuffy and artistic?" There was barely suppressed laughter in Giles' voice.

"It's very subtle."

"Subtle."

"The literary allusions are obscure, I admit, and the symbolism is... multi-cultural. But there *are* hidden depths to his movies. You just have to watch them ten or twelve times."

"You watch it ten or twelve times and your brain goes into a coma."

"That's a hidden depth right there."

"We're going to have to work on your definition of hidden depth."

"Maybe if we saw the movie, you could explain to me afterwards what wasn't a hidden depth," Xander offered.

"You mean between the explosions or the physical violence?" Giles asked drily.

"And the naked women. Semi-naked. Not that I ever look..."

Giles grinned. "The naked or semi-naked men, however..."

In an offended tone, Xander said, "Jean Claude Van Damme is a talented actor! I don't see his movies just to see him take off his shirt. If I wanted something like that I'd just rent something from Bl--" Xander stopped. "You know, if we're going to take the evening off, we should get back to work now."

His guardian's warm chuckle rang in his ears as he turned back to the books. Xander wished Buffy and the others would show up, so maybe he could avoid talking about things his guardian wasn't supposed to know about. "How are things going, by the way?" Giles asked, a moment later.

"Um?" Xander looked up, trying to convince himself that Giles was *not* asking about the movies they'd rented.

"With Bork."

Again, a frantic second to remind himself Giles didn't know about their 'frequent renter's card', so he must mean in general. "Good. Fine. Pretty good." Told himself that babbling wasn't going to convince Giles of anything -- except maybe that they'd been watching movies. Er.

"I've been wondering." Giles glanced up from his book. "You've hardly spoken about him of late."

"Oh." Xander looked back down at the book in his hands. He'd never been able to come up with a way to balance having Spike in his life, and not lying to Giles about it. Over the months he'd gradually just spoken less about him at all. "We're OK."

"You sure?"

"Yeah, with everything that's... you know." Hey, if Giles drew his own conclusions, it wasn't quite lying, was it?

"That's all it is?"

"I guess so. Between the Mayor, and me maybe moving away forever--" He stopped. Spike wasn't the one he would be leaving, though.

"Forever?" Giles smiled faintly. "It may sometimes feel like it, but college doesn't last forever."

"Depends on how often you flunk," Xander replied, but he felt reassured a little. Who was to say he couldn't move back to Sunnydale after he finished college? He felt like someone had just pulled the curtains open. Or closed, if you wanted to be vampire-friendly about your metaphors.

"And there are all the vacations," Giles was continuing.

"Yeah, vacations, I know." He waved Giles off, not wanting to disturb the sudden 'd'uh' moment he was having. He *could* go, get his degree -- his professor at Dobb's said it would only take him two more years -- then come *back*. Home. He suddenly noticed that Giles was smiling at him knowingly. "What?" he demanded.

"What, what?"

"You're giving me that 'isn't he cute when he's figured out something obvious' look."

"Well, you are."

Xander stuck his tongue out and pushed aside the warm feeling that Giles' words had elicited.

"That doesn't help, you know," Giles pointed out. "Still cute."

"Good thing for me you don't carry a camera around like your mum," Xander grumbled.

"Maybe I should buy one."

Xander just stuck his tongue out, again.

"Eloquent comeback."

"Been working on that one for weeks!" he said, proudly.

"It shows."

After a moment, Xander asked, "Was that a compliment or an insult?"

Giles just smiled, mysteriously. Xander gave him a suspicious look before returning his attention to the Getherian book he'd swapped for. So conveniently one of the languages he could get by in -- he looked up to give Giles another suspicious glare for luck. Before Giles could glance up and catch him at it, the library doors swung open.

"Are we late? Did we miss monsters?" Willow called out, as she, Oz, and Buffy came into the room.

"Nope! We saved monsters for everyone. Dibs on the pepperoni monster," Xander replied.

"Oo! I want the extra cheese monster." Buffy grinned.

Xander turned to Giles. "And a veggie monster? And breadstick monsters?"

Giles sighed. "And I suppose it somehow falls to me, to place the order?"

"Well, you are the one with the plastic." Giles raised an eyebrow, and Xander hastily added, "Not that my checking account isn't in great shape and the debit card you let me get isn't safely in my wallet or anything. But if I'm saving up for college, I can't be wasting my money on pizzas, can I?"

He could see the expressions in Giles' eyes warring with each other. It was entertaining to watch. Exasperation, amusement, and pride, all equally, wonderfully familiar.

"College? You decided to go?" Willow squealed, and grabbed Xander by the neck for a hug. "Yea! Where are you going? Did you pick, yet? I still haven't decided but maybe we'll be nearby, oh, Xander! I'm so proud of you!" She stopped, and let Xander gently disentangle her as he'd been trying to do since she'd grabbed him. "Unless this was just getting out of a lecture on finances and you aren't going." Her eyes narrowed at him, but it was a worried narrow instead of a scolding.

Xander found everyone watching him. He gave a half-shrug. "I hadn't actually gotten that far yet. But... yeah, I think I'm going."

Willow squealed again and grabbed him in another hug, drowning out what he suspected were Buffy and Oz's congratulations. Possibly they were just adding their orders for pizza. When Willow let him go, Xander handed her back to Oz, who almost smiled.

"College is good," Oz said, and Xander felt warmed by the approval in Oz's voice.

"You going?" He realized he hadn't heard anything about Oz' options for after high school. He knew it probably had a lot to do with where Willow went. Oz seemed like the whither thou type, even if it meant Oxford.

His grandparents would help chain him up during the full moon, wouldn't they? Grandmum would probably feed Oz lots of rare meat, too. Xander blinked against the image of Maggie taking a wolfed out Oz into the backyard and telling him to hunt for bunnies.

"Haven't decided yet," Oz was saying, and Xander saw the glance he gave Willow. Willow, for her part, was hiding a worried look, and Xander wondered if Oz knew how much more responsibility he was laying at his girlfriend's feet. "It doesn't really matter where I study," he added.

Xander figured maybe he knew. He wasn't convinced Willow appreciated the overture, though. In an effort to distract her, he asked, "So, Buffy. What about your plans for higher learning? Found a good party school?" He saw Giles roll his eyes, and suspected the mutter was 'oh for god's sake'.

"Oh, mom wants me to go to Northwestern University. Or possibly UMich. Or... I'm not sure it matters." She half-smiled. "But you know, I'll probably end up going to UC Sunnydale."

"Speaking of party schools," Oz said. Buffy smiled at him.

"Buffy, you know that you needn't necessarily... limit your options," Giles said carefully. "With Wesley and Kendra around, you don't have to be tied to Sunnydale."

"I know. But if Kendra's here, I feel like I should be out there, being wanderer Slayer Girl. I don't know that I could stick her here and go off on vacation for four years."

"I'd hardly call college a vacation," Giles said kindly. "But even if you alternated, or returned during the summer, you could pursue a degree anywhere you liked."

Xander watched Buffy shrug off Giles' words -- at least on the outside. But the half-smile on her face, he knew she appreciated the words of encouragement. "Hey, you could come to Oxford, too. We can all go to my grandparents' house for Sunday tea, and listen to embarrassing stories about Giles."

And on that note," Giles interjected over the grins and laughter, glaring at Xander, "I think we should get back to work."

"Party pooper."

~~~~~

Giles had offered to take him to find a tuxedo, but Xander decided to do it, himself. He knew that Giles being there would have meant Giles paying for it -- but despite his total enjoyment of letting Giles pay for things, he'd been saving for this. Wanted to buy it himself. Since, after all, he didn't have to save for a car.

He hoped.

He hadn't hinted lately about was he really getting one for graduation -- the whole Mayor thing was putting a damper on things like that. Talking about them, at any rate. Xander always felt a little self-conscious about discussing things which might be perfectly pointless if they all ended up dead.

But prom was only a few days away, and he felt confident that buying a tux wasn't going to jinx anything. There were no apocalypses prophesied for between now and prom, and he just had to take it on faith that there would be no unscheduled ones.

Walking down the street, Xander glanced idly into the store windows he was passing. He saw Cordelia in one of the shops, hanging a dress back on the rack. Obviously shopping for prom, although Xander had no idea who she was going with. Last time he'd looked, she hadn't been dating any one guy seriously enough to go with.

Knowing Cordelia, that wasn't going to be a problem for her. He smiled wryly. She probably had a list of possible dates that she was whittling down. He decided to go inside and ask her how the whittling was going. It might be fun to hear if any of the guys were up to bribery, yet. Besides, it would distract him from the fact that he didn't have a date for prom. Not a date he could *take* to prom.

Spike swore he had some plans for afterwards. Xander wasn't sure he wanted to know what they were. Somehow he didn't think the vampire's idea of a prom celebration was going to be anything resembling normal. Not that it wasn't practically guaranteed to involve shagging...

On the other hand, he should go in and talk to Cordelia before he called off his tux search and headed over to wheedle the information or a demonstration out of his boyfriend. Suiting actions to thoughts, he opened the door and entered the shop.

Cordelia was smiling at a woman who was walking away -- then her face froze when she turned and saw Xander. Not exactly the warmest of hellos, but Xander smiled brightly and barreled forward anyway.

"Xander! What are you doing here?" She looked around, as if afraid someone would see them -- a typical reaction for the two of them in public, if a little over-stated.

"The same as you. Looking for promwear. I was passing by, saw you through the window, decided to come in and watch a master at work."

"Oh!" She seemed flattered, but also nervous. "Oh, well, you know. I haven't settled on anything. Just browsing, getting a feel for what's out there. I imagine it would be boring for you."

Xander gave her a look of disbelief. "Are you kidding? Watching you shop is like... like..." He searched his mind for a proper analogy.

She titled her head, folded her arms, and looked at him expectantly.

"Like watching someone do what they're really good at doing," he finally finished lamely.

She rolled her eyes. "I thought you were a brain. Guess *that* was a fluke."

He shrugged. "I'm a chemist, not a poet."

"Yeah, well." She glanced around again, nervously. Xander looked over and saw one of the salesladies heading their way. "Look, I'm almost done here. Why don't you--"

She broke off as the stern-looking saleslady came up to them. "You're not being paid to chat with you little friends, Ms Chase. I suggest you get back to work."

Looking as mortified as though she'd been caught wearing last year's fashions, she just nodded at the woman. She turned to Xander, not quite meeting his eyes.

Not quite sure he knew what was going on, Xander nonetheless jumped to his friend's defense. "Actually," he said to the saleslady, with all the airs he could put on, "I'm shopping. Cordelia was just helping me pick out a dress for my sister."

The woman gave him a disbelieving stare. Cordelia jumped in, though. "I know her, see, so I know what size she wears and what would look good on her. Come on, Xander, I think this little blue dress would be perfect for her." She grabbed his arm and pulled him towards another rack. Casting a glance back towards the other saleslady, Cordelia pulled a dress off the rack and said in a almost-loud voice, "Don't you think Cecile would love this?"

"I don't know," he replied in the same volume. "Not sure blue is her color..."

"Well, why don't we look for something in green, then?" Cordelia took his arm and led him farther away from the saleslady, who finally stopped staring at them, apparently convinced. They glanced back furtively to watch her walk away, then Cordelia let go of his arm with a sigh. "Thank you."

"I got you in trouble, the least I can do is get you back out." He tried to catch her gaze. "Want to tell me why you're working here?"

She started to shrug, he could see it in her face that she was going to give him a lie about wanting pocket money over her allowance, wanting to experience the other side of the street. A project for school - how the other side lives. He wasn't ready to hear her say, "My parents lost everything. My father never filed taxes, and the IRS finally... caught him."

He wasn't ready to hear her say it, and didn't know how to respond. He just stared at her for a minute.

With a careless wave of her hand, and an almost 'I don't care' expression on her face, she continued. "So, I got a job to pay for my prom dress, not that it matters because it won't be paid off in time because I never sell anything more expensive than a pair of shoes and a handbag."

"Do you sell tuxedos?" Xander heard himself asking even before he had formulated the thought.

"Yeah, of course. Why?"

"Hey, you girls aren't the only ones who have to look good for prom."

With a surprised look, she said, "But I thought... since you couldn't take what's his name Bork...?"

"He's insisting I go anyway. I figure I'd go stag."

"So you need a tux?" Her eyes went wide. "You need a tux. We have tuxes!" Grinning widely, she grabbed Xander's arm and again, Xander found himself being pulled through the store.

It turned out to be almost as bad an experience as shopping with Buffy and Willow. Trying things on and parading in front of Cordelia didn't quite make him feel like a dress-up doll. He couldn't deny, though, that Cordelia had great taste.

Looking at himself in the mirror wearing the tux he suspected he go with, he had to admit -- yeah, he looked hot. Cordelia's grin told him he wasn't alone in thinking so. "So you think this is the one I should get?"

"Oo, definitely." She slide up beside him, and for a moment stood there, as if they were being photographed at Prom. "Any beautiful girl -- or guy -- would be lucky to be going to Prom with you looking like this." There was a hint of wistfulness in her face.

Frowning at his reflection, Xander said, "There's one thing missing."

She frowned as well, and looked him over head-to-toe with the precision of an expert shopper. "What's missing?"

"The beautiful girl on my arm."

There was a slight hesitation before she said, "Maybe you could ask Kendra? If you think she's up for some actual socializing on the scale of intimidation that is high school prom." Again, there was a hint of something wistful in her eyes.

"Actually, I had someone else in mind."

She looked back at him, slightly confused. Then her eyes got big. "Are you going to ask Buffy? I thought... well, with the," she stage-whispered, "Mayor thing, Angel was coming back to town? Even though they broke up, Buffy was talking like--"

He shook his head. "No, not Buffy."

"Who?" Her expression changed slightly, as if she thought she knew. But she didn't say it.

"I was hoping..." He turned serious. "Cordelia, would you go to the prom with me?"

She smiled and took his arm, acting for all the world as if she'd known all along. "I'd love to, Xander. I expect an expensive corsage, and a limo. *With* champagne."

"The corsage and the limo I can provide."

She whapped him on the arm. "Sparkling cider, moron. Non-alcoholic champagne."

"Oh. Well, that I can do."

"Now, unless there's anything else you need, let's get you to the cash register before Giles finds out how much you're spending. Socks, tie, cuff links?"

"Um, yeah. I mean I should probably get those."

Fifteen minutes later, he was standing at the register with a very happy Cordelia wrapping up his purchases. He even managed to hide his wince at the total, telling himself it was for a good cause. Besides, he could always ask Giles to reimburse him. Or, better, mention it to grandmum.

Cordelia gave him a bright smile. "Thank you very much, Mr. Harris-Giles. We know you'll be pleased with your purchase. Come again!"

Xander smiled back, happy to see the sparkle back in her eyes. "So, what kind of expensive corsage should I be buying?"

"Get an orchid. Blue, the same color as your cummerbund and tie."

"Blue orchid." He made a writing it down gesture. "Got it."

"That *matches*," she re-iterated, as if explaining something too complex for a mere male. Maybe she was. Xander didn't have time to ask her what shade he should call it, when something crashed through the front window of the store.

~~~~~

"So what was it?"

Xander didn't bother trying to open his eyes. If he fell asleep in mid-conversation, it wasn't going to be through any fault of his. "Uh, hell... oh, yeah... hounds."

"Hell-oh-yeah-hounds?"

He reached up and lightly whapped Spike on the arm. "Who's trying to talk to me while he rubs my back?"

"Trick question?"

Xander wriggled, and heard a nasty, leering chuckle from behind and above him. He was lying on Spike's bed -- nicely transformed with clean, satin sheets and surrounded by Coleman lanterns. There was a crate turned on end next to the bed, upon which was a plate of unwrapped chocolates. The good stuff, Spike claimed, but so far Xander hadn't had the chance to eat any without also having someone's tongue in his mouth -- so he couldn't say for sure it was the quality of the chocolate he was enjoying.

He'd arrived here after taking Cordelia home from prom. They'd had a wonderful time dancing, though she'd stolen dances with half a dozen boys and one slightly older, British Watcher. She'd given Xander a kiss on the cheek when he'd dropped her off -- not at home, since the house had been seized, but at a hotel. A nice hotel, not the best... and he had pretended not to notice when she waited on the sidewalk as the limo drove away then walked over towards a waiting cab. There was no reason to embarrass her by asking what motel she *was* staying in. But at least she'd let him try to talk her into accepting the financial aid package from UCSD. No one there would know she'd ever been the rich girl, so there would be no -- public -- shame in being there on scholarship and loans.

But Cordelia was far from his mind at the moment. Most of the evening was, since Spike kept rubbing him as he talked. The naked vampire was sitting on Xander's thighs, massaging his back, asking Xander questions about the festivities. He'd been delighted to hear of the dance's blood and destruction, pouting that he hadn't gone, after all.

"So," and Spike leant over and kissed his shoulder blade. "You lot survived your little dance."

"Mm. Yeah."

"You've done the dress-up bit," he continued, giving the other shoulder blade a kiss. Xander just sighed a happy 'yeah'. "You've done the 'lose your virginity' bit some time back, so there's a tradition we needn't uphold."

Xander cracked one eye open, and peered over his shoulder. "We can fake it."

But Spike shook his head. "No, nope, there are certain standards of propriety we have to adhere to. Now--" He nudged Xander to lie back down.

But Xander just rolled over between Spike's legs, and stared at him, incredulous. "You know what the word 'propriety' means?"

"Hush. I'm making a point, here." Spike looked down at him, then blinked. "On second thought, I've got a Xander lying underneath me, all dressed in a tuxedo." He leered, and his gaze went up and back down Xander's torso. Spike leant back on his heels, positioning himself above Xander's knees, and looked some more.

Xander wriggled again, hopefully.

"What was I saying?" Spike asked.

"You were saying 'Xander, how would you like to very carefully be divested of that expensive garment you're wearing?'"

"Oh. Yeah, I was." He looked Xander over, again. "Where should I start," he said thoughtfully. Xander gave him a hint, wriggling a portion of his tuxedoed body encouragingly. "Hm, You're right." Spike reached down for the lapels of Xander's jacket.

"That isn't what I was wriggling," Xander protested, even as he lifted up slightly to help Spike slip the jacket off his shoulder.

"Hmm? What was that?" Spike glanced at him, as he worked one sleeve then the other, off.

"You do know that if I have to get this dry-cleaned in the morning, you are paying for it?"

Spike looked offended. "I haven't even thrown it on the floor yet, and already you're complaining? Accusing me of--"

"Paying for it."

Spike glared at him. Xander just looked back. Spike sighed, and pulled the jacket out from underneath Xander, then carefully folded it in two and tossed it over to one of the two clean chairs in the room. "Happy?"

"Not yet." Xander repeated his 'undress me here' wriggle. "But I have a feeling I will be, soon."

Spike just muttered quietly and started unbuttoning Xander's shirt. When he began to pull the collar free from Xander' tie, Xander reached up to pull the tie off. He got his hand whapped, and he responded with his own glare. "I am *not* doing a Chippendale's for you."

Spike pouted. "Why not? You're dressed for it." He dropped the shirt on the bed beside them. He looked up and down again, eyes tracing the contours of Xander's body. Xander shifted nervously, both turned on and a little freaked by the attention.

"I'm not bringing you drinks in returns for tips, no matter how good."

"Could just walk around the room with a bar towel," Spike offered in a low, encouraging tone.

"No." Xander reached up for the tie, to pull it off and try to end this little foray into fantasy Spike was having.

"Why not? I dressed up for *you*."

Xander narrowed his eyes. "You 'dressed up' in a washcloth, and it was while you were headed for the shower -- besides which all it covered was your chest which I couldn't see anyway since you were walking away from me. I am not parading around like a stripper for you." How anyone could want someone staring at them like a side of beef, was beyond him. Even if it was the person you had sex with regularly. He shivered.

"Please?"

Normally having pushed someone to beg him, made Xander think he ought to say yes just to be nice. But the happy-evil glint in Spike's eyes, and the completely unsympathetic tone of his voice made him resolute. "We can either have normal sex, or I can put my shirt back on and go home."

"Normal sex? We have to have *normal*--"

"Spike." Xander placed his hand on Spike's chest.

"What, now I can't even complain first?" But Spike was smiling, now. He leant down and kissed Xander.

"I expect you to complain first, second, and fourth." Xander returned the kiss, flicking the tip of his tongue along Spike's upper lip as Spike began to move away.

"And what d'you expect me to do third?"

Xander grinned. "I expect you to do me, third."

Spike growled, and came down again, opening his mouth on Xander's, and pulling him in. Xander smiled triumphantly into the kiss, though no one but he could tell. His mouth was stretched wide, lips pressed against Spike's mouth, his tongue laying across Spike's front teeth, being caressed and suckled. He wished Spike had finished undressing him before doing this, though at least he could still whine his way into getting Spike to pay for the dry-cleaning. He shoved his hips upwards, not even bothering to try for his zipper and get skin on skin.

"Xan," he heard growled as Spike pulled his mouth away.

"Unless what you have to say will directly result in one of us coming, I don't want to hear it," Xander panted. He reached up for Spike's face, and used his hold to pull himself up to lick Spike under the chin.

There was a pause, then, "Nope, nevermind." Spike pushed him back down to the mattress, and grabbed him by the sides, pushing Xander into better position. Spike lay down on him, rubbing himself against Xander's groin. He was growling by the third thrust. Xander suddenly realized that Spike was rubbing against his cummerbund -- his silk cummerbund. Judging by the way Spike's eyes were rolling into the back of his head, that was a very good thing.

Spike worked his hands underneath Xander, and held him tightly as he continued thrusting. Xander was panting again, turned on by the motion, and the sight of Spike's face as his eyes began to close and the muscles in his neck tightened. The thrusts shifted, became longer and harder, and Xander cried out. He was coming, and Spike was by god paying for the dry-cleaning, because he was never, never going to explain this one to Giles.

Xander's eyes closed, and his arms tightened around Spike as he shoved his own hips up, wishing for a moment he was thrusting into, and not against. Wishing his legs were bare, so he could wrap them around Spike and feel him sliding against his skin. Wishing he had cool, smooth skin against his lips so his scream wouldn't echo throughout the warehouse, calling his attention away from his orgasm back to a slight more awareness of where he was and whom he was doing it with.

Spike was still thrusting, still making soft strained noises above him. Xander felt himself relaxing, arms and legs falling limp, and as his body fell, Spike buried in deeper. Held on tighter, and pushed in even longer strokes. Xander brought one hand down to cup Spike's left buttock, squeezing it once. He got a heart-felt groan, and kneaded the muscle again. Then he slipped his hand towards the cleft and then one finger rubbed at the puckered opening. Spike let out a yell.

As the thrusts became more frenzied, Xander worked one finger inside. Rotated the tip of his finger in a circle, then pushed in, hard, to shove against that spot. Spike howled, and Xander felt the cool, wet splatter on his stomach and chest. He held Spike with his other arm, still working him with his finger, and watched Spike's face as he came, not surprised when the vampire's features shifted. Spike froze, his orgasm spilling and his howl bouncing from the rafters. His head was thrown back, and Xander could see the tension that kept him up, held away.

He moved his finger again and Spike's hips shoved forward, the growl punctuated with a brief flicker of gold-flaked eyes staring at something high on the far wall.

Xander leaned up, and placed a kiss in the center of Spike's chest. He heard an explosive sigh, and the tension in Spike's body vanished as Spike collapsed on top of him. Xander could feel the smooth skin of Spike's face, pressed against his shoulder, and he wrapped his arms around Spike's body.

They lay there for a moment, Xander waiting for Spike to recover the vampiric equivalent of his breath. When he felt Spike stirring, he asked, "Spike? Silk cummerbund, that good?"

Spike pushed himself onto his elbows, and looked down at him in surprise. Before he knew it, Xander found his pants open and pushed down around his knees, and his cummerbund undone, flipped over, and being rubbed...

"Ohmygod." His head hit the mattress. Silk, good. Dry-cleaning... expensive.

But worth it. Xander whimpered. Even if he ended up paying for it.

~~~~~

"Hey, where's the priming cord? I set it right here," Xander asked as he searched the floor beside his foot. He had set it right down, and now -- poof.

"Oh, sorry." Giles handed it over. "I thought you were done with it."

He gave Giles a dirty look, and took the cord back. "We're never going to get the library rigged at this rate. You steal my cord, I steal your plastique. We should have practised a couple of times before doing this for real."

"It never occurred to me that we would be even considering doing this." There was a faint edge to Giles' teasing tone that Xander wished he could ignore.

"You never dreamed about blowing up a school? Man, I must have had a *dozen* fantasies--" Xander stopped, and his grin faded. He looked around the library. They'd removed everything of value, yesterday. Now it was just a shell, full of memories. "Where are we gonna have Scooby meetings after this?"

Giles paused and also took a look at their surroundings, his face unreadable. "I suspect somewhere will make itself available. Our living room, most likely."

"Since that's where all the books are right now, I'd say you're right." Xander sat back on his heels, and stared at the explosive he'd been rigging. It had taken him half an hour of detailing just exactly how it should be done in order to prove to Giles he knew what he was doing before Giles had agreed to let him help.

"This is the only way," Giles said suddenly, sounding like he was trying to convince himself as much as Xander.

"I know." Xander looked over at him. "It's war, and this is the only way we can win."

Giles nodded. "It isn't easy, though."

"It's never been easy." He forced a grin, and said in a bright tone, "But if we bring marshmallows, we can make s'mores."

"Add that to the graduation ceremonies?" Giles asked, a faint smile gracing his face.

"We'll squeeze it in between throwing our hats in the air, and killing the elected town officials. Democracy in action!"

"Been paying attention in your civics classes, have you?"

"Um, no?" Final report cards hadn't been mailed out yet, so he could get away with that. Maybe. Then again, Giles was on the staff and knew they were going to blow up the school. Xander wouldn't put it past him to sneak.

The cryptic smile Giles was giving him didn't help dispel the sudden suspicion.

Xander glared. He put one more piece of duct tape down around the base of the small explosive, then stood up, duct tape in one hand, priming cord in the other. "Giles?"

Giles had turned back to the explosive he was working on. "Yes?"

He held up the tape, threateningly. "Did you rescue our report cards?"

"Would I do that?" Giles looked innocent.

"Don't make me use this," he said, giving the tape a little shake. "I'll de-lint you, don't think I won't."

"They're kept on computer. You know computers and I don't get along."

"Don't make me threaten to de-lint Willow." Xander headed down the stairs towards Giles. "You got our reports cards and you already saw them and when were you gonna tell?"

"We've been a little busy."

"Too busy to say 'Hey, you flunked calc'? What's too busy?" All right, so he didn't seriously think he'd flunked calculus. But you could never be *totally* sure, until you saw the official grades. And if Mr. McGrady held true to his promise not to grade finals on a curve...

"You didn't flunk calculus." Giles was smiling at him.

"Yea! Are you sure? What'd I get?"

"What do you think you got?" Giles asked, infuriatingly calm.

"What? How am *I* supposed to know? Report cards are the original Schroedinger's Box. Reality is indeterminate until the cat grades your final." He worried that he might be forced to duct tape Giles, after all. "You're killing me, here!"

Giles was giving him a look of surprised pride. "That really is a rather clever metaphor."

He blinked. "A what?" Then his voice rose. "Who *cares* what it is?"

"Xander, I really don't think--"

Xander tore off a strip of tape, and placed it firmly in Giles' shirt.

"What are you doing?"

He tore off another strip. "I am going to cover you in duct tape unless you tell me my grades."

"I didn't want to ruin the surprise."

A third strip, this one placed on Giles' arm, from shoulder to elbow.

"If I tell you now, it wouldn't be a surprise tomorrow during the ceremony."

He tore a longer strip, and put it catty-corner across Giles' chest. Then he looked up. "Why would I find out my grades during the ceremony?"

Giles didn't answer, just Looked at him.

Xander stopped as he was tearing another strip. "The only ones who..." He found himself grinning. "Really? Really?" The only ones who found out, were the ones announced on the year's honor roll. Xander bounced.

"Would I lie to you?" Giles smiled back.

Xander cheered again, and gave Giles a hug. While he was there, he tore off another strip of tape and put it on Giles' back.

"Xander--"

"What?"

"Why are you taping me, still?"

"Because technically you haven't told me my grades, yet. You only implied, loudly." He laughed, then jumped out of reach.

Giles sighed wearily and began pulling the tape off his shirt.

Xander eyed the tape. "You know, I think there's a bit of plastique just begging to be taped down." Not that he suspected Giles would counter-tape *him*. Really.

Maybe.

He backed up another step. Giles gave him a mild look and took a step towards him.

"Over there." He pointed helpfully to the area Giles had been working towards, laying the packed charges. "We only have five rolls of that stuff," Xander reminded him.

Giles took another step.

"You're supposed to set a good example," he tried.

Another step.

"I bet it isn't even sticky anymore!" Xander backed up several steps, towards the other set of stairs. Luckily, from his years here, he knew all the escape routes. So did Giles, but he had youth and panic on his side.

"Who said anything about me using the tape?" Giles asked, reasonably.

"Eep!" Xander turned and ran. He had to jump over a chair, and duck around the edge of the table, and by the time he hit the bottom step leading to the stacks, he felt a hand close on his arm. Then fingers unerringly found the ticklish spots along his ribs.

He shouted again, and tried half-heartedly to pull away. He went down on the steps, and found Giles using his leverage, greater weight, and sneaky Watcher training to keep him pinned. Xander was laughing too hard to fight back with any effectiveness, but he did manage to trap one of Giles' hands under his arm.

For a second.

Giles went for every ticklish spot Xander had, causing Xander to wonder how closely the other man had been watching him to know them all. Then he wondered how come *he* didn't know any of *Giles'* ticklish spots. Well, he told himself, because you've never tried looking. He squirmed around, trying to fend off Giles, and went for a likely spot.

He was rewarded with a very undignified yelp from his ever so proper British guardian. "Ah-ha!" He dove for the same spot on the other side.

Giles wriggled away at the same time keeping up his own attack. Xander managed to roll onto his side, attacking with one hand, defending with the other. Still laughing too hard to give his inner soldier any real pride, but the sight of Giles, laughing just as hard, flat on his back -- looking imminently kissable, imminently--

Xander flung himself back, coming up against the railing. He could feel his heart pounding, and he knew he must have a freaked out expression on his face. The bad part was, next would be Giles asking him...

"Xander?" Just that, nothing more as Giles slowly sat up.

He tried to shrug it off, but he knew he was only two seconds away from babbling. About anything other than what he was trying so desperately not to think, he begged silently. "I just... I don't think I've ever done this before." He latched on to a little piece of truth, suitably freak-worthy and nothing to do with 'can I get you naked?'

"Have a tickle fight in the middle of the library floor?" There was a deliberate note of gentle teasing in Giles' voice.

"Rough-housing with m-- a parental type person." His voice was shaking, half from nerves, half from wishing he didn't have to lie. It wasn't like the last time he'd been rolling around on the floor in the library, anything had come of it except maybe a little almost dying.

Giles responded to the tone by moving closer, concern in his eyes. Xander felt like kicking himself. Maybe it was good that he was moving. Get away from Giles... Which made him feel worse, of course. All his easy decisions made in the sunlight surrounded by friends who wanted the best for him. Who was he supposed to tell that he couldn't go, because he was in
love?

Well, there was Spike. Maybe that was why he was taking Spike with him. Xander rubbed at his nose and looked away. "Maybe we should get this finished."

"Xander..." Giles' hand touched his arm gently.

He looked back, feeling more miserable. Talk about wanting what you could never have. Giles tugged gently, pulling him into his arms. He let himself be pulled into the embrace, hating himself for doing this -- playing on Giles' sympathies, when all he really wanted was, well, exactly what he was getting at the moment. He turned his head, pressing his cheek into Giles' shirt. He could feel the tiny bits of glue that the tape had left behind. "I just don't wanna leave," he whispered. He left off the 'you'.

Giles' arms tightened around him. "I know."

Unable to speak louder than a whisper, Xander said, "But I think I have to." If he stayed, he'd never leave. Never be anything more than hanger-on, assistant slayerette boy. Never get past how badly he wanted to stay with Giles.

"Not quite yet." Was that as much a plea as a declaration?

"No, not yet." He sniffed, and smiled a little. "Have to blow up the Mayor, first. And then -- we don't have to clean up, after, do we?"

Giles chuckled, the sound strangely muffled to Xander with his face buried against Giles' shirt. "Not the school, no."

"Oh good." Xander counted the amount of plastique they had. "Can I have a small bomb for the science lab?"

"Maybe," Giles answered after a moment's thought.

He leaned back and gave Giles a cute pleading look. "Can I rig my own explosive? I still have some Frothia frog's legs and sticker weed."

"Let's not take any chances, what with the Ascension happening."

He nodded, and leaned back against Giles. "You *never* let me blow up the labs. Sure, you get to blow up the library, and Buffy gets to burn down the gym. But do I ever get to have any of my own fun?"

"You're helping me blow up the library," Giles pointed out in a pleasant tone that did nothing to indicate he'd said 'blow up the library'.

"Yeah, but it's *your* library. It's mostly all *your* fun. It's like when Willow let me help demolish the sand castles she built. I could never get it to stack properly, so she had to build them. It just isn't the same."

Giles looked at him for a long moment and then shook his head. "I think I must be missing something here."

"What?" Xander looked at him again. "I never got to blow up anything of my own. Willow's castles, your library, mom's car-- not that it should impinge upon your giving me my own car; it was a small fire, really."

"Really."

"Would you believe me if I said it was due to stop running soon, anyhow?"

"Most cars would, after a fire."

Xander pouted. "I knew you'd take their side."

Giles sighed, shook his head and gave Xander an affectionate smile.

"I'm still getting a car, though, aren't I? Just kidding about the small fire? Since you aren't about to call my mom and ask her?"

"Xander--"

"Yeah?"

"Do you want to spoil all of your surprises ahead of time?" Giles asked exasperatedly.

He didn't answer right away. Truth was, yeah, he did. He wasn't sure Giles needed to hear why, though. After a moment, he realized that maybe he ought to say it anyway. "Yeah. If we die tomorrow, I won't even know about them. Much less get to be surprised."

Giles reached out and brushed his hair back from his forehead, gaze intent, unreadable. "Yes," he finally said with a small, sad smile, "I got you a car."

"Oo!" Xander did a little dance where he sat. A mini-version of the snoopy dance, without the head thrown back. "I got a car! Is it new? Used? Whadyagetme whadyagetme?"

"If I told you that, there really would be no surprise left."

Sighing, Xander conceded the point. "All right. I can wait."

They sat in companionable silence for a while, Giles looking around the library. "I will miss this place," he finally said.

"Yeah, me, too. Mostly." He gave Giles a squeeze. "The best parts of it are gonna be safe at home, though."

"Actually," Giles glanced at him, "the best parts will be busy graduating."

Xander looked up, giving Giles a confused look. "How can the rare books be graduating?" Then he had to dodge back out of the way of Giles' hands, again.

~~~~~

Standing in the middle of the room, Xander surveyed the chaos. He supposed it wasn't true chaos -- Spike would have sneered and started in on what *real* chaos looked like, complete with demolished town squares and uprooted trees and cats actually coming when called. He would have been impressed with the high school, however. A bunch of boxes in the living was nothing, comparatively speaking. Unless you were the one trying to live in said room. "I guess we forgot about this part."

"It does look rather more impressive in the smaller area, doesn't it?" Giles was surveying the almost-chaos with him.

"Much smaller. Do we even have *room* for all of these? Other than leaving them in boxes all over the floor, which I'm thinking is a fire hazard at least." Xander looked around the room at the bookshelves, though he knew perfectly well how much room there wasn't on them. "Maybe I should move now, and you can turn the bedroom into a library." He grinned, only
half-joking.

"That bedroom is yours and will remain so," Giles replied vehemently.

"Hey." Xander stepped around a box, going over to Giles. It was nice, seeing how much Giles didn't want him to go. Unfortunately, much as he wanted to tell him things were going to be all right, he had no idea what to say.

Giles continued a bit more calmly but no less passionately. "You will always have a place here. It's your home. I'm not going to take over your room and fill it with books."

"I know. But hey, if there are books all over my bed, I can sleep on the couch." Xander grinned, knowing they were both thinking the other thought. They'd never really said as much, or in fact *anything* about it at all. But he had the feeling that if, a year from now, he came home and crawled into Giles' bed, all he'd get was cuddled.

"If we keep all these here, there would probably be books all over both our beds and the couch." Giles looked around them. "We're going to have to rent somewhere to store them."

Xander frowned. "You say 'books all over the bed' like it's a bad thing."

"When there's no room to use the bed for its intended purpose..."

"You can't sleep on books?" Xander asked, dubiously. Not that he'd ever slept on an entire *bedful* of books, before, but he had woken up once or twice -- or a dozen times -- to find a hardback underneath him.

"Depends on the number of books."

"I've slept on four, before," Xander said thoughtfully. "I was supposed to be studying for mid-terms." The thought of studying made him think of something else, and he grinned.

Giles looked at him suspiciously. "What's that smile for?"

"I graduated. On the honor roll." The silly smile seemed to take over his face, and with a sudden emotional whoosh, the excitement and relief hit him. He'd graduated. They'd blown up the snake-Mayor, killed the school, and survived closing ceremonies.

And he'd graduated. On the honor roll.

"Hey! Do you think the paper will list our names? The honor roll students? Or will the news be just about the fight?" Xander frowned. "Not that they ever put stuff like that in the paper. Do you think the newspaper editor-in-chief is in on it?"

"I'm not sure," Giles replied, seriously. "I always did wonder why nothing ever showed up on the news. You can barely read about any dead bodies at all, in Sunnydale."

"But you can't beat our paper's section on gardening."

Giles just gave him a small smile. Xander's smile faltered a bit at seeing it. Soon enough he'd only be hearing it over the phone. Maybe he could get Giles to use the digital camera, finally.

Or maybe all the vampires on the planet would decide to go outside in the morning, and make Buffy's job obselete. Buffy *and* Kendra. The second Slayer had done a bang up job last night, so he'd been told. She and Wesley had fought along-side Angel and the other students, fighting the vampires during the eclipse. Wes said she'd even managed to slay Mr. Trick, the Mayor's right hand-demon.

She hadn't been able to prevent Wesley from getting hurt, and at the hospital afterwards she'd shown every sign of sitting at Wes' bedside until they finally released him. Buffy and Willow had stayed with her for awhile before finally coaxing her back to Buffy's house to get some rest.

Angel had vanished right after the fight, only Buffy had seen him go. She'd said little about their good-bye, and Xander had been left with the impression that something more than good-bye had been said. Angel might have broken up with her a year ago, but Xander wasn't so sure Buffy was over him, even yet. Scott, Mark, and Phillip, non-withstanding as rebound boyfriends. Xander couldn't really blame her.

It made him glad he had such an uncomplicated relationship with Spike. They had three simple rules: Spike didn't talk about killing, in front of Xander. Xander didn't talk about slaying. And neither of them spent more than fifteen minutes in the presence of the other with clothes on.

Thinking about Spike and being naked made him think that he should change the subject. Even if he hadn't been babbling out loud for a change. "So, we survived," he said casually.

"Yes," Giles responded with a smile. "High school and graduation."

"So, what'd you get me?!?" Xander felt he'd been patient enough.

Giles checked his watch. "Twelve minutes. Longer than I thought you'd hold out."

Xander stuck his tongue out. Then he brought his hands together, and begged. "Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease. The suspense is killing me, and I can say that now that I'm not about to be actually dead."

"Come with me."

Xander leapt up, and followed. Confused, when Giles led them towards Giles' bedroom. He saw the stack of boxes and large envelopes on the bed, but frowned. "This isn't a car," he whined, exaggerating it.

"Well, if you don't want them..." Giles began, stepping forward as if to gather them up.

"No!" Xander grabbed Giles' arm, pulling him away from his loot. But he still pouted. "But you said you were getting me a car..." He wasn't worried about doing a guilt-trip on Giles, because he knew his guardian had gotten him a car.

The question was just -- where the hell was it?

"We'll go to the dealership tomorrow."

Xander blinked. "To pick it up?"

"To pick it out." Giles turned back to the pile of gifts. "Most of these are from the family in England."

"I get to pick it out?" That surprised him, only he didn't know why. But he was turning back towards the pile of presents. "Most of them? Who else are they from?" The question was mostly rhetorical, since he was walking over to dig through them. "Have I mentioned that I like graduation?" He grinned.

The smile Giles gave him then was warm and indulgent. "You've earned it."

He bounced onto the bed, beside the pile. Several of the envelopes shifted towards him, falling off their neat stacks. He grabbed one at random -- Uncle Charles. He grinned. Uncle Charles was always extravagant in his presents. Left-over guilt.

"There's one in there I should warn you about--"

"Huh?" Xander glanced up, even as he reached for the next one. He stopped as he saw the look on Giles' face.

"My family weren't the only ones who sent you gifts."

"Buffy and Willow and I already exchanged graduation gifts," he pointed out, looking at the stack again. Who else was there? "Did I get something from Angel?" And if so, why was Giles warning him?

"I believe there's one in that stack with his name on it, but that isn't the one I'm talking about." The look on Giles' face was starting to worry him.

Xander pulled his hands away from the presents. "Who else is there?" If Spike had sent something, he was a dead man. Undead man. Xander had made him promise not to mail him anything that Xander would have to open in front of Giles.

But the answer wasn't what he'd expected. "Your mother."

Xander felt himself freeze, inside. He looked at the stack of boxes, making no move towards them. She hadn't tried contacting him at all since his father had died. That he knew of -- if she had, Giles had done an excellent job of protecting him.

"Do you know which one it is?" he asked, knowing it was a stupid question.

Giles reached over and picked up a small, green-papered package.

It looked harmless enough. Of course, he couldn't remember the last time he'd received a nice present from his mother. He looked up at Giles. Would it sound too stupid to ask him to... what? Check it? X-ray, detection spell... open it for him?

"You don't have to open it if you don't want to."

"But--" But what if it was something nice? He looked at it again. What was the chance of it being something nice?

"Do you want me to open it?"

"Would you?"

In response, Giles began unwrapping the small package.

Xander moved closer, so he could watch. When the paper was pulled off and Giles tossed it on the bed, Xander told himself he could not watch. If he was going to watch he might as well open it, right?

But he just stood besides Giles.

Giles paused and glanced up at him, the question in his eyes. Xander hesitated. Opened his mouth, had no idea what to say, then just nodded. He watched as Giles opened the box, revealing...

A wallet.

"A wallet?" He didn't try to pick it up out of Giles' hands, but... a wallet? God, maybe there was a picture of her, inside. Or of him and his parents -- except there wasn't anything like that in existence. "What's in it?"

Giles picked it up an went through all the compartments. "Just this," he said, pulling out a ten dollar bill.

"What?" Xander reached over and took the wallet. He went through it all, just as Giles had done. Nothing in it but the money. "Why is she giving me a wallet?"

"Perhaps because she thought it was something you could use," Giles answered quietly, watching him with sad eyes.

Frowning, Xander looked the wallet over, again. It was sorta... typical gift fare. Something you'd expect from an aunt you never saw, and wanted you to know she remembered you needed a present for something. Not that he *did* need a wallet, but... He looked back up at Giles, confused. "But why-- why did she send me a wallet?"

The sadness in Giles' gaze deepened. "You're her son and you just graduated. With honors."

Xander looked back down at the wallet in his hand. "Maybe her sister asked about it, and she'd had to say she was sending me something. She never did like her family to think she was..."

Giles didn't say anything but his arm somehow found its way around Xander's shoulders. Xander kept staring at the wallet, and the ten dollar bill he could see, sticking partway out of it. What was he supposed to do with it? Maybe give it to Spike. That guaranteed it would be lost and the money spent, within a week. He wouldn't have to think about it at all.

A thought occured, and he felt his stomach clench. "Do I have to tell her I got it?"

"You don't have to do anything you don't want to."

He knew, of course, it would be the polite thing to do. She'd done something nice, more or less, and whatever her reason, it would be rude not to at least tell her he'd received it.

Which would encourage her to do it again. Giles pulled him against his side, one hand coming up to stroke at his hair.

What was he supposed to do?

"It could be she's trying to reach out." There was a hesitancy to Giles' voice that Xander wasn't used to hearing. "But that doesn't mean you have to reach back if you don't want to."

"But she's my mother," he said, surprising himself at how small his voice sounded. He hadn't even missed her all that much, not since he'd moved in with Giles and discovered what being cared for felt like. "Why did she wait til now?"

"Sometimes it takes courage to reach out."

Did that mean he was supposed to be brave, too? If he didn't reach out, was he ruining his chance to have his mother back?

He dropped the wallet on the bed, and turned towards Giles, wrapping his arms around him. He pressed his face into Giles' shoulder, and said, "I can't--" And he didn't know if he meant he couldn't do it, or couldn't decide.

Giles' arms enfolded him in a warm, safe embrace. "You don't have to decide right now."

He held onto Giles, grateful. Grateful for everything, for being able to feel this way, for getting to be someplace safe where he could refuse his mother's overtures. Someplace where he could admit he wanted, and didn't want.

He could feel himself shaking, and hated the fact that his stomach was still clenching. He had been through a little too much, these last few days, to give any of himself to thinking about letting his mother back into his life.

"Maybe I should've waited to give it to you..." Giles murmured more to himself than anything.

Xander thought about that. Then, "Nah. You would've worked yourself into a tizzy."

"A tizzy?" He could hear the amusement in Giles' voice.

"A tizzy. You'd have wandered around on eggshells, trying to keep me from going anywhere near whereever you'd hidden it, and flinching every time anyone said anything like the word 'mother'." The amusement faded a little, and he felt tired. And when Xander would have found out, he would have had to put on more of a braver front, to reassure Giles that he hadn't had to be so protective. This was better. He could break down and throw the wallet away and move on to a cuddle and hearing Giles say 'I love you' and opening his other presents.

"I'd like to think I'm a bit better than that at keeping secrets," Giles protested without heat. One of his hands was rubbing Xander's back soothingly.

"For a week before my birthday, you tried not to tell me about my great-grandparents' things I'd inherited from my father, that I was supposed to get when I turned 18."

"Oh, that. I was only trying to come up with a way to broach the subject that wouldn't..." Giles broke off obviously searching for the right word.

"Freak me out? Push me over the edge? Send me on a rampage or country music marathon?"

"Bring up bad memories," Giles finished. Then a beat later, curiously, "Country music marathon?"

"Tell me you haven't noticed," he said dryly.

There was a long pause. "Well..."

"I heard you singing along with 'Forever Young'."

"Auditory hallucination."

"You were singing harmony."

Another long pause. "If I was, it was a totally subconscious reflex."

Xander grinned, happily. He knew Giles was trying to distract him. "And then there was the first time Uncle Charles sent me a letter. You hid it for four days before giving it to me."

"I was just waiting for an appropriate time."

"You were trying to protect me," he countered, quietly. Which was the best part of it all.

Giles' arms tightened around him. "Sometimes I think I'm overprotective."

Xander smiled. "I'll let you know."

"Good."

He stayed where he was for a bit, the first prolonged hug he'd had since they'd discovered they'd beaten the Mayor. Xander closed his eyes, ready to just soak it in. "Can I open my other presents now?"

~~~~~

Late that night, when he finally got away from the books and his presents and being with Giles, Xander walked into his bedroom and found himself not at all surprised to see a blond head pressed up against the window. Walking around the stacks he'd shifted into his room from the living room, Xander went to the window and opened it. Spike fell in, catching himself on the sill, then looking surprised to see him as he got to his feet.

"Thought you were never coming to bed -- don't you have a curfew?"

"Curfews only apply when I'm out. I've been home all evening." He grinned and leaned in for a kiss.

Spike gave him the kiss, opening his mouth and counting all of Xander's teeth and checking his tongue for bumps. Or something, he checked twice to be sure then pulled away. "Saw the school. Bloody nice job."

"Yeah, it blew up real good." Xander moved to sit on the edge of the bed. "We killed the mayor and managed to get through the graduation ceremony, too."

"Yeah, honor roll. Knew you were a brain a year ago when you said I was dead sexy."

"How did you--"

Spike just looked innocent.

Xander shook his head. "You know, that's a look that just doesn't work for you."

"What look?"

"That look." He pointed.

Spike ignored him, and his gaze swept around his room. "You need a bigger apartment, you know that? A person could hurt himself, shagging his boyfriend in a cramped room like this."

Xander leaned back against the wall and crossed his arms. "If you're so worried about it, there's an easy answer. We don't shag. And you're changing the subject."

Spike's eyes popped open. "Don't shag? Don't *shag*? That's like saying 'don't breathe' -- which is a bad example for a vampire. Moving on." Spike wandered farther into the room, avoiding the bed and the boxes and the desk chair pulled out to hold another box.

Like he could see well enough in the dim light not to step on anything, the prat. Xander decided he'd been hanging out with British guys way too much if he was using words like 'prat' in his thoughts. "How did you know about me being on the honor roll?" When in doubt, ask directly.

"Was in the papers, wasn't it?" Spike said casually.

As if Xander didn't know how long it took to publish a newspaper *after* the event in question. "Not yet, it hasn't been."

Spike glanced over, a hint of something else in the faked-innocence. Not quite a smile, but definitely apparently hoping Xander would think he was too cute to kill. Then it faded and Spike just said, "Nah, Dru told me. Weeks ago, as a matter of fact."

"*Dru* knew?" Why was it he always seemed to be the last to know -- even when it was about him?

"Yeah -- mind, I didn't have a clue what she *meant*, not until a couple days ago when I found out what colour your graduation robes were."

Knowing he was probably going to be sorry for asking, he ventured, "What does the color of my robes have to do with anything?"

"She was going on about how the maroon would light up the night, and some prattle about golden necks. I thought she meant she'd found something good to eat." Spike looked at him, then leered. "Course, she was right..."

Xander ignored the thought of Drucilla thinking of him as something good to eat on the basis if he didn't think about it, it couldn't creep him out. "You could've mentioned it to me, you know."

Again the innocence, this time flavoured with surprise. Xander just liked seeing the way Spike's eyebrows moved. "Mentioned it to you? And ruined your surprise? Rupert would have staked me."

"Giles doesn't know about you, remember?"

Spike opened his mouth to retort, then stopped. Xander watched as the vampire tried to think of something clever to say.

"You know you're cute when you're speechless."

Spike opened his mouth again, stopped, then closed it again. Then he waggled his eyebrows. Xander grinned and waggled his finger in a come here gesture. Spike did, deftly avoiding tripping over everything he'd claimed would be in his way. He stopped when he was only a few inches away from Xander.

"You want to kiss a high school graduate?"

"Know any?"

But Spike kissed him again, before Xander could protest. Xander wrapped his arms around Spike's neck and kissed him back happily.

"Mmm," Spike said when they broke free, again, several moments later. "You taste..." Spike dove back in and licked the inside of Xander's mouth.

"Taste like what?" Xander asked a bit breathlessly when they broke apart again.

"Like a high school graduate." Spike was back to tasting him, again. Apparently trying for the tonsils, this time.

When they broke apart this time it took Xander a few seconds to catch his breath enough to speak. "I take it you like it?"

"Could get used to it," Spike returned, and moved in for yet another kiss.

Somehow they ended up lying down, still kissing. Somehow Xander couldn't be bothered to mind. Even if there was a book, and something else not exactly soft, poking him in the back. He'd left all the valuable books on the shelf, so he stopped thinking about it, and concentrated on Spike's hand, which was sneaking towards his waist. Much better than worrying about what he was lying on.

~~~~~

The bed was completely cleared of books, an hour later. Completely except for one, under the pillow, but Xander couldn't move to push it out of the way. It wasn't particularly uncomfortable, anyhow. Spike was nestled in beside him, one arm and one leg flung over Xander, as if afraid he'd fall off the bed without being held down.

"Well?" Spike slurred, sounding almost as asleep as Xander felt.

"Well what?"

"Didja like your graduation present?"

Xander blinked, feeling like his brain was moving in quicksand. "My graduation present?"

Fingers were tapping on his chest, then slid down to squeeze his exhausted bits. "Pressie."

"Oh. *That* present." He grinned, knowing his smile was probably rather fatuous.

"Yeah. Spent a lot of time getting it all ready. Wrapping it up, writing the card." There had been a blue ribbon tied around Spike's genitals, and with an ink pen, he'd written down the shaft, 'To Xander'. It had made for a short disruption in the presentation of the gift -- Xander had had to stop and laugh for a while, and Spike had looked offended.

"I could see that. Hand delivered and all."

"And you tipped the delivery boy, which was very thoughtful of you."

"Maggie taught me always to mind my manners." He lazily nuzzled Spike's shoulder.

"Good for her," Spike replied, sounding even more drowsy. "Nice Maggie. Like her..."

"You've never met her," he pointed out with a drowsy chuckle. This was nice, he thought. Have to do this more often.

"Hm. Have." Spike sounded almost asleep.

Xander opened his eyes and propped himself up on one elbow, suddenly more awake. "When?"

"Huh?" Spike's eyes were still closed, and he looked like he wasn't really listening.

"When did you meet my grandmother?"

Opening one eye, Spike looked up at him. The expression on his face said he thought Xander was waking him up for no good reason. But he said, "Webcam. You were in the shower, I think."

"You *talked* to her?" Xander sat up, his voice going up in alarm, which he hastily kept quiet enough not to bring Giles to the door, asking if he were all right. Asking him why he could hear *two* voices at this time of night despite the small sound-muffling spell on his room.

"No, not really. Bloody thing kept timing out. Chatted with her on irc, though, for a bit. She thinks I'm a lovely boy." Spike snorted.

Xander flopped back down with a groan. "I'm a dead man."

"Uh? Why's that?"

"What did you say to her?"

"Um." Spike was looking innocent again. "Don't remember?"

"Spike!"

"What does it matter what we talked about? Robert Burns and John Donne, and whether The Animals should be on tour again."

Xander blinked, as his mind tried to picture that conversation. It was doing a horrifically detailed job.

"She said I was a lovely boy, and she was happy I was being so good to you," Spike added, sounding positively smug. "Didn't tell her how good I'd been that you needed another shower."

He groaned again, covering his face with his hands.

Spike continued, "Think she might've guessed, when I said Rupert was gone all afternoon, and that I'd been here since he left. She asked something about were we doing it all right..."

"Oh god."

"Promised her we'd be careful."

Xander was reduced to making a strangling sound. It occurred to him he should be strangling Spike, instead.

"Xan? You all right?" came an innocent sounding inquiry.

"Just tell me one thing. What name did you give her?"

"What name-- I told her I was your boyfriend. She said, 'Bork?' and I made a sort of 'uh-huh' noise which, if one weren't listening properly, might have been taken for an affirmative."

Xander raised his head and stared at Spike.

Spike sighed. "Oh, fine. I told her I was Bork, right off."

"Oh." It was the best answer, he thought, but still... He liked lying to Maggie about as much as he did to Giles.

Spike was snuggling closer, now, threatening to make him forget about his grandmum. "Xan?"

He sighed and allowed himself to be snuggled. "Lovely boy, huh?"

"I didn't actually talk to her. Was having you on." He said it quietly, and Xander wasn't sure, for a moment, if he was lying now or not.

"So she doesn't think you're a lovely boy?"

"She would if she ever met me," Spike said smugly.

Xander grinned, letting himself be relieved. Deciding that Spike was having him on, if only because it was safer. Besides, he thought belatedly, wouldn't she have mentioned meeting 'Bork', since then? She hadn't, so Spike must be lying. He relaxed. "Quite a step down from the Big, Bad. You're mellowing."

A snort. "What makes you think Maggie doesn't like Big, Bads?"

Thinking of what he knew about Maggie, he had to privately admit Spike might have a point. Not that he'd ever admit it. His Big, Bad was currently re-snuggling himself against Xander, though, and looking entirely too cute to be frightening. At least in the conventional vampiric way.

"Now hush up, m'trying to sleep."

Xander glanced at his clock radio, checking to make sure the alarm was set. They had to be extremely careful with Spike sleeping over -- he had to be gone not only before sunrise, but before Giles had a chance to poke his head in. Simply setting the alarm wasn't enough, since, once awakened, Spike tended to start licking things and making them forget about sunshine and slayings.

After the last time that happened, Xander had changed the alarm for an hour earlier. It meant he spent much of the next day either yawning or guzzling caffeinated sodas, but it gave him time to convince Spike that he really should leave.

It gave him time to convince Spike that he really should leave *now*. That he meant it this time, and ok, just once, then he had to go because he was *not* spending the day locked in Xander's closet again.

Xander's heart could not take that kind of anxiety a second time.

Or a third, if you counted the time Spike had simply had run of the apartment with his coat over his head, because Giles was out of town for a couple days.

But tomorrow he had an appointment to go with Giles and pick out his graduation present. Two and a half years of pestering had finally paid off. If Spike messed it up because he wanted sex... again... Xander was going to be cross. As soon as he woke up.

He yawned, snuggled closer and closed his eyes. Spike pulled him in, and nestled them together.

Sleeping on the books.


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