Sandy Places in the Shadows

Part Two

Xander tried very, very hard not to appear as though he'd had five too many sodas. It was only 9 am, and look out for him normally even being awake at that hour during the summer. But he'd woken up two hours before dawn -- the alarm's fault -- and hadn't been able to fall asleep again. Spike's fault.

He'd managed to remain cool and calm all morning during breakfast, although he'd only had one soda because Giles had started making "not for breakfast, dear god, Xander" noises. He'd tried to behave, if only out of pure fear that Giles would go into his room and discover a stupid, stubborn, sexy vampire currently hiding under his bed.

Now, however, they were almost to the car dealership, and Xander felt like pressing his nose against the glass of Giles' Citroen as if it were a jet plane. Giles kept throwing amused glances his way every few minutes. It would probably be best if he *didn't* press his nose to the window, since Giles had let him drive. Xander grinned, and glanced over at the passenger seat. Willow was *still* going through the print-outs and babbling. Xander knew for a fact she hadn't had any soda today, at all.

"You've researched this rather thoroughly," Giles told her when she paused for breath.

"Oh, well, ever since Xander told me you were getting him a car, I've been checking websites in my spare time. I started with Consumer Affairs' website, and ruled out anything that will be likely to kill him." She looked at Xander. "No pintos."

"Have you any ideas about what you want to get?" Giles asked, with an amused tone.

"Umm..." Xander began.

"Well, I like the new Hondas," Willow said. "And I think the Saturns are nice, although, mostly hype. But still, a good car. Luckily George's Auto Emporium has a little bit of everything."

Xander gave Giles a helpless look in the rearview mirror. He'd been listening to Willow babble like this for weeks. In-between everything else, of course.

Giles smiled faintly. "You can just take a look at what they have and see if anything calls out to you. You don't necessarily have to make a decision today--"

Xander started to protest that assumption immediately, then stopped with his mouth open. Smiled. "Yeah. We can come back tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after while I try to pick one. We could do this all month." He bounced, but only because they were stopped at a red light. Though possibly 'vibrated' was more accurate.

"The act in itself is the reward?" Giles asked, sounding faintly surprised. Still amused as well.

"No. Are you kidding? The car is the reward. Dragging you to the dealership every morning at 9 am with me wired on only one soda, is bonus."

Willow giggled.

"If that's how you want to spend your summer..." Giles told him.

Instead of replying, Xander just rolled his eyes, then mumbled something under his breath about complacent, know-it-all, snooty Brits who knew darn well Xander wouldn't last for more than a half a day of looking.

"I heard that."

Willow was giggling again, and Xander gave her a grin. Then looked innocent. "Heard what?" They were only a block away from the dealership. He tried to stop bouncing.

Giles chuckled. "Are you going to vibrate out of that seat before we get there?"

"No. Because you'd probably take it as a sign I shouldn't be driving, ergo, shouldn't own a car. Um, where do I park?" He could see the two driveways into George's dealership, but the place was full of cars for sale.

"Take the first entrance."

He did so, now concentrating more on not hitting any new cars -- he didn't want to know if they had a 'you dented it, you bought it' policy. As he pulled in, he saw the few empty parking spots for customers, and took one. "Is this OK?"

"It's fine." Giles was smiling at him in that "isn't he cute" sort of way.

Xander waited until he had the car stopped, engine off, seatbelt undone, and keys in shirt pocket before he rolled his eyes.

"You look like Giles when you do that," Willow said.

Both Xander and Giles turned to her and gave her a Look.

"And you both look like Giles when you do that," she said, undeterred. She looked thoughtful, and said, "Maybe it's genetic."

Giles lifted one eyebrow. "Genetic?"

She smiled again, the cute 'innocent me' smile Xander loved... and never trusted. "Or maybe it just rubbed off?" Then she was out of the car. Xander followed, praying to god he stopped blushing by the time the salesman came over.

He heard Giles chuckle as he followed, but it sounded forced. Xander was just glad he'd never told Giles what Willow knew. Only, he told himself, because it was fun watching Giles react when Willow said something almost purely innocent... if you didn't know that she knew.

Xander had to hurry as he followed Willow towards the first row of cars. She was already ruling out the first two vehicles and walking past the third, and he hadn't even reached the first, yet. Willow called back, "I forgot to ask, what're our budget restrictions?"

"Nothing more than $50,000," Xander quipped. He saw a salesman near the door jump.

Willow's eyes widened slightly. "That's almost enough to make me wonder if Giles would adopt me, too."

"Hey, you *had* your chance. Paperwork deadline was last spring." He'd caught up with her now, and glanced at the first car. The salesman had caught up to Giles, and was oozing already. In a purely human manner... Xander hoped. He couldn't hear what they were saying, but did see Giles gesture his way.

"Now, this one is OK," Willow said, pointing to a Toyota which make Xander's skin crawl.

"Yellow? You want me to drive a yellow car?"

She thumped in lightly on the stomach. "We're not shopping for *colour*, Xander."

"You're kidding, right? Not yellow."

"It would be easier to find in the dark."

"Then we can paint it glow-in-the-dark." Xander grinned. "Hey! I *could*!" He saw out of the corner of his eye the salesman, who was approaching with Giles, shudder at that overheard remark. Willow grabbed Xander's arm, and pulled him determinedly farther down the row. The intensity of her enthusiasm suddenly made sense, and he asked, "Willow? You aren't planning to *borrow* my car, are you?"

"Oh, look, purple," Willow said, pointing at another car and ignoring his question.

"Because, I'm thinking, who ever let me borrow her little red wagon?" He followed along, as she pulled him towards the admittedly cool-looking purple Honda Civic.

Willow brightened. "Really?"

Xander glared -- then remembered that Willow *had* let him play with her wagon. Jesse had been the one to horde his, which had been a radio flyer, actually. "Um, yeah!" he retorted, anyhow.

She gave him a quick one handed hug and leaned in to kiss him on the cheek. "You're sweet."

"So," interjected the salesman, sidling up beside them, and giving them each a look before giving them both a wide smile. "What are we looking for?" he asked in a blatantly patronising tone.

Xander gave him a look. "A car," he said, clearly. The salesman didn't blink, but his smile grew a tad forced. Willow thumped him again. "A nice car," he clarified, only to get thumped yet again. "A purple car," he tried one more time. The salesman's smile was *really* getting strained.

"Perhaps I should talk to your father," he said, and his voice was exactly the kind of voice Xander had heard when he was six years old and insisting that he *knew* he'd given the clerk a five dollar bill, and was owed more change than a quarter. Giles' expression was taking on its forbidding protective aspect at that tone.

"What for?" Xander blinked. "She's the one buying it." He pointed at Willow.

Willow looked startled for a second, but a quick glance at Giles' face smoothed her own expression out. "Yeah, that's right," she said, backing Xander up.

"I *see*," said the salesman. His tone changed a bit -- not for the better, as far as Xander could tell. He looked Willow up and down, and Xander could just *feel* Willow getting ready to ask him if her measurements would affect the final price.

Giles opened his mouth to say something. Willow smiled at the salesman. "I'd like to see a Honda Accord, maybe a 96 or a 97?" She sounded innocent enough, if you didn't know her well enough to interpret that 'I am going to slay you' gleam in her eye. Xander walked over to grab Giles' arm.

"Why don't we let Willow *shop*, and we can browse?"

"Go ahead, I'll be all right," Willow encouraged before turning back to the salesman.

"Holler if you need us," Xander said, and gave Giles another tug on the arm. After a moment's resistance, Giles finally let himself be dragged off. "He'll be fine," Xander told him.

"I hazard to say I wouldn't be that upset if he weren't."

"Aw, let him be. He's a salesman, he can't help it." Xander started looking around at the cars he'd dragged them off to. Carefully, so none of the other salesmen would discover unattended potential buyers amongst them.

"Do you see anything you like?" Giles asked after a minute or two.

"Umm... do you remember anything Willow said?" There were a *lot* of cars, and George's carried several models. He didn't want to listen to Willow say "I *told* you" all summer.

"I won't let you choose something dangerous," Giles replied, not answering the question exactly.

Xander raised an eyebrow at him. "Doesn't that imply I'll be driving a Volvo?"

Giles didn't answer, just smiled serenely at him and turned to look over the cars.

"If you buy me a granny car, I'll..."

"Yes?"

"Well, drive it, but I'll pretend I don't know where I got it."

Giles smiled at him again and repeated his earlier question. "Do you see anything you like?"

Xander looked around, considering the question for real. He caught sight of one, and headed towards it. He was vaguely aware of Giles following quietly behind. He started to look it over, and stopped. "OK, so I was just kidding when I said $50,000."

"If that's the one you settle on," Giles began.

Xander shook his head, then frowned as he looked over the lot. "I don't think they *sell* those kinda cars, here."

"Perhaps not. It does have a wide variety, however."

"I think I'll just try to keep it affordable." He glanced at the sticker of the car that had attracted his attention. OK, trying again...

Giles chuckled softly. "If you're interested in this one, we can look at it."

"Well, I figure the longer we look around, the more Willow can annoy the salesman." He grinned. "I think we can look for at least a couple hours."

"It is your decision," Giles said, even sounding serious. "Taking time to make it is prudent."

"Yeah. I don't want to just *settle*." Xander spun in a slow circle, and noted four or five cars that looked good. He pointed in the opposite direction of any of them. "Let's try over there."

Giles gave him a knowing smile. "Of course."

They managed to spend a half hour merely wandering, more or less aimlessly. Xander did look at the cars, and the stickers, and kept a running list in his head of ones he wanted to go back to. They both kept half an eye on Willow, but so far all they could tell was that neither she nor the salesman had strangled the other, nor run screaming yet.

"She's got staying power," Giles murmured.

"You're surprised? He probably doesn't even know yet that she's got him hooked, and drawing him in. He's probably just thinking about--" He stopped himself from ensuring Giles went over there and tore something he'd have to pay for. Like an arm from its socket. "Her IQ."

Not that Giles seemed fooled any. "I can see how that would be... distracting." It was clear he didn't approve of such distraction, and Xander wondered if he ought not grab hold of Giles' arm again, to keep him from going over and ruining Willow's fun.

Xander looked over to where Willow was. "She'll yell if she needs us." Wouldn't she?

"One would hope so, yes."

Xander watched her for a moment. She *seemed* OK. She wasn't yelling, and the salesman didn't have green antlers growing out of his skull.

"Nothing's blown up so far at least," Giles commented echoing his thoughts.

"Yeah. Well, if she can handle vampires, she can handle a car salesman," Xander decided. On the other hand, they could always go look at cars over in Willow's direction.

"Vampires are easier to dispose of."

Xander looked at him in surprise. "I'll have you know I know thirteen simple ways of getting rid of-- hey, a truck! I could get a truck." He walked hurriedly towards the pick-ups.

"A truck," Giles repeated dubiously.

"Yeah! We could use it on patrol. Easier to jump out and run after fleeing vampires. And tail-gate parties! Um, if I ever go to football games. Then there's moving--" He swallowed, and kept walking towards the trucks.

Giles followed in silence for a moment, then asked, "Did Willow research trucks as well?"

"Don't remember." He gave Giles a sheepish grin. "I kinda tuned her out."

"Ah. I wouldn't mention that to her if I were you."

"She knows. She's known me my entire life -- she knows."

"I'm glad you've had a friend like that," Giles said softly after a few minutes of just looking at trucks.

"Me, too." Xander waited for him to catch up, as they walked among the vehicles. Didn't reach out, just let him be near.

"Do you really want purple?"

"Nah. Blue, maybe." Like Spike's eyes, he suddenly found himself thinking, but thankfully came nowhere near saying. "Or black." Like his duster. Or white, or... no, not red. He turned to find Giles regarding him thoughtfully. He returned the look for a moment, then, "What? I haven't *done* anything adorable."

"I didn't say anything."

Xander pointed at his eyes, which Giles obligingly rolled. "See? You did so." With a grin, Xander turned towards a navy blue truck three vehicles down. Darker than Spike's eyes, but at least that way he could deny he'd bought it because it reminded him of anything.

Giles had followed his gaze and was now walking towards the truck in question.

"Looks kinda nice, doesn't it? And it's only a quarter-ton, so I wouldn't be spending my trust fund on gas."

"Sounds like you've made a choice."

"No, but..." He looked the truck over. It did look nice, and he could just see himself driving it around town. See Willow driving off in it on yet another 'just for an hour, Xander, then I'll bring it right back'. Best of all, it was only $9,699. An entire digit less than 50 thousand.

"Should I see if we can take it for a test drive?" Giles interrupted his thoughts.

"Well, if you don't think the salesguy's gone into hiding." Xander looked over to where Willow had last been -- and found only Willow, walking casually along the row of cars.

Smiling happily.

"Oh, dear," Giles murmured.

"You don't think she disposed of the body already, do you?"

"I'd watch out for toads or snakes, just in case."

"She wouldn't have turned him into a toad. She'd have turned him into a gecko. She's always talking about how she needs gecko skin for one of her spells."

Willow was heading towards them, now, still smiling. Xander looked around for the salesman again.

"Oh, dear," Giles repeated.

Frowning, Xander asked, "Do you remember that spell book I got, with the transmutation spells in it?"

"The one you got in England?" Giles eyed him warily. "Yes."

"The one you said I shouldn't lend to Willow because it didn't actually *have* a how-to-transmute-them-back spell in it that worked?" Xander sidled backwards a step, away from Giles.

"I assume this is leading up to you admitting you did just that?"

"I didn't exactly lend it to her. But I might have mentioned where it was... and might not have mentioned when I couldn't find it... for six months..." Xander continued taking small steps backwards. "But this is *Willow*! She wouldn't have--" Except, yes, she would have. Xander attempted a smile.

"Again I say, 'Oh, dear'."

Willow came up, still smiling, though as she took in the look on Giles' face, her smile faded. "What's wrong? Bad credit? Or did something hellmouthy happen?" She got excited again. "Do we need to go squish demony things?"

"I think we squished enough demony things yesterday to give us a few days' respite," Giles replied.

"Oh. Then why the frowning?" She glanced around, then suddenly realized Giles was frowning at *her*. Before she could ask, Xander stepped in.

"Willow, what'd you do to the salesman?"

"He suddenly remembered a phone call he had to make." She paused, eyes widening. "You didn't think I'd--"

"Of course not! Would we think you'd turned him into a gecko, just because he was... um... a salesman?" Xander took her by the arm. "Hey, come look -- I found one. What'dya think?"

"It's a truck."

"Yeah, that's what *he* said." He jerked his thumb at Giles. "I'm still not convinced, though."

"Trust me, Xander. It's a truck." Willow frowned. "I didn't do any research about trucks."

"Perfect! I mean, darn," he said quickly as she frowned at him. "We're gonna take it for a test drive. Think your salesman friend will be coming back, soon? Anytime today?"

"I don't know. He seemed really intent on making that phone call."

Xander gave her a stricken look. "But how are we gonna buy my truck if you scared the salesmen away?" Willow started to look stricken right back at him, and Xander caved. "Maybe we can make Giles go look all distinguished and responsible, and they'll give him the keys."

Recognizing his cue, Giles nodded and said, "I will see what I can do." He gave them both a look. "That is, if I can leave the two of you alone for a moment...?"

They gave him identical innocent, 'you can trust us, we weren't the ones who scorched the ceiling that time' looks.

"Yes, that's what I thought." Giles made no move towards the sales office.

Xander gave Willow a surreptitious nudge, and they upped the wattage. 'And we never ever ever stay up late watching movies at a volume that makes the neighbors call the landlord.'

Giles frowned at them. "That isn't instilling confidence, you realize."

"We promise to be good," Willow offered in a sincere tone. Xander giggled. Wiped his face clean of amusement when Giles looked at him sharply, and Willow nudged him with her elbow.

"We promise," Xander said. "No shrinking trucks down to matchbox size and carrying them home with us." He glanced at Willow. "Can you really do that?"

"I'm hardly going to admit it if I could in front of Giles." Willow gave him a prim look.

Xander nodded. "See?" he said to Giles.

Giles opened his mouth to answer but seemed to think better of it, because he turned and went off in search of a salesman without another word.

They waited until he was out of earshot to start laughing. Then they looked over the truck again while Giles was in the sales office, Willow tried to explain to him what everything on the price sticker meant. When Xander saw Giles finally leaving the office and heading back towards them, he looked over and gave Willow a wink. She winked back.

They stood there, staring at the sticker, until Giles got close enough to see their faces. Then Xander glanced up quickly, as if startled, and tried very hard not to look guilty. Willow did the same. Giles stopped short, then sighed. "I don't want to know."

"Did you get the keys?"

The watcher held them up. Xander reached for them. Giles smiled and handed them over. "I don't need to tell you to drive carefully, do I?"

"Are you kidding? You're making me pay for the insurance, you can bet I'm gonna drive carefully." Which meant, he suddenly realized, *not* letting a certain vampiric boyfriend borrow the truck.

"Try it out then, and see if this is really the one you want."

He couldn't quite stop himself from yelping in glee as he took the keys. He turned and opened the door, and gestured for Willow to precede him in. He glanced over his shoulder. "Are you coming?"

"As long as there's room."

"There's room," Xander assured him. "It's an automatic, so no poking anyone with the gear shift."

Again he watched Giles pause and check whatever he was going to say. Willow and Xander gave him innocent looks again. Giles muttered something under his breath about grey hairs as he moved around to climb in the passenger side.

Xander jumped in the driver's side, and started checking out all the knobs and buttons. He felt Willow setting in beside him, and when Giles got in and shut the door, Xander looked over. "Did you know that this model is supposed to do zero to seventy in 5.2 seconds?"

"Oh, dear."

~~~~~

He glanced behind him, worried. Not *worried*, worried, but still. Giles had told him that should anything occur due to supernatural activities beyond Xander's control -- and he had actually stressed that last bit several times -- that he would pay for the repairs.

"It'll be fine," Buffy told him patiently.

Xander turned to her. "Yeah, you say that because you don't own a car. What if we come back and there's a dent? Demon slime? Vampire ashes coating the windshield?"

Counting off on her fingers, she replied, "You get it banged out, wash the truck, and blow them off."

"Dead body on the hood? Blood spilled in the bed?" The first, actually, had happened already -- Spike had helped him inaugurate his truck. Technically Spike's body was undead, but it wasn't like he was going to share this tidbit with Buffy, anyway.

"See option number two. It's amazing what a little soap and water will get rid of."

Xander countered, "The dead body might hit the hood at a velocity great enough to smash it. Or a gang of demons might pick it up and roll it over. Or someone might breathe on it wrong."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "If you're that concerned, you can always leave me here and I can go patrolling by myself while you guard your truck."

"No, I'm good to patrol," he said quickly. Then glanced back again. "Can we kinda... patrol nearby? We don't need to go through the *entire* cemetery, do we?"

"It depends on where the vampires are hiding," she said with no hint of sympathy.

"You think we could just draw them out? Make 'em come to us over near the truck -- but not too near."

Buffy finally gave him a look. "You know you're seriously edging towards obsession with this protect the truck thing."

"Spoken like somebody who doesn't own a vehicle, herself."

"If this is what owning a vehicle does to you..."

"Oh, don't worry," he told her as he finally turned his glances backwards to glances around the cemetery. "I'm pretty sure it's a guy thing."

"I'll keep that in mind."

They walked for a minute, both occasionally glancing into the shadows. Xander kept turning back to check on his truck, until he lost sight of it behind the trees. He told himself it was fine. He glanced back again and saw trees.

"It's fine," Buffy repeated patiently, a hint of a fond smile on her face.

"Your super-Slayer senses tell you?"

"Would you believe me if I said yes?"

"Um." He thought about it. He knew she could tell when vampires were nearby. She probably could also tell if there were any spooky, non-human things nearby. "Sure." He didn't think he really would, but he could at least fake it, and relax. Relax for a night of vampire hunting. Such was life on the Hellmouth.

They patrolled in silence for a bit before Buffy asked, "You going to the Bronze tomorrow night?"

"Yeah, always." He ignored the fact that lately he hadn't done the Bronze thing, much. Hadn't even gone on patrol much either, hence tonight. Back in the regular swing of things now that everything from the end of school was settled down - before things got way unsettled again.

"Have to take the chance to go when we have it," Buffy said, echoing his thoughts.

"Yeah." They walked without talking, a bit longer. Then Xander asked, "You still gonna move into the dorms?"

She nodded. "Going to try for the whole college experience, or as much as I can get mixed in with slaying."

"Will said she was gonna go to UC Sunnydale. Oz, too."

Leaving him the only one leaving, if you didn't count Angel, who'd left already, and Spike, whom no one else knew about. And Cordelia, who was going to LA to pursue an acting career and forgoing college. Xander realized that meant nearly half of their little group was moving to LA. Suddenly it didn't seem so much like a foreign land.

"You going to do the dorm thing in Los Angeles?" Buffy asked.

"Nah, we're-- I'm gonna get an apartment." He kept his face forward, not wanting to look over and see Buffy giving him the raised eyebrow.

"We?"

Xander swore he could hear the raised eyebrow even if he couldn't see it. "Um. Me and my truck...?" He looked over, and told himself silently that he was an idiot. "You gotta swear not to tell." Maybe the vampires would attack now, and save him.

Buffy mimed turning a key over her mouth. "I swear. Now give."

"Not even Willow, because she'll tell Oz, and accidentally tell Giles, and god knows who else." Xander tried giving her a stern look. For some reason, it worked a little better on her than on anybody else.

"My lips are sealed. Now, give."

"Bork's going to LA with me." He prayed he hadn't just ruined something by telling her. Like his chances of moving out of Sunnydale without Giles chaining him to his room, or giving him a lecture about living with his boyfriend. Although being chained to his room... He quickly banished that train of thought before it could lead to places he tried not to go. At least when he was awake.

"The mysterious Bork. So does that mean if I came down to LA for a surprise visit I might actually get to meet your elusive boyfriend?"

He tried not to scream 'no'. "I keep telling him there's nothing to worry about," he offered, sounding just as miserable as he felt. Lying to her, too. He hated making her think she -- the Slayer -- was the reason Bork didn't want to meet her. Which was true. but for all different reasons than she thought. She could promise for hours not to harm a scale on Bork's head -- but as soon as she met him, no glamour would be enough to make her *not* know. "I'm sorry," he offered, not wanting to go into any of the half dozen half-excuses he'd ever given her.

"Hey, it's not that big a deal." He could see the shadow of hurt in her eyes though that only added to his guilt. "As long as he makes you happy..."

"He does." Then Xander couldn't stand it anymore; he looked away and pretended to scan the cemetery for vampires. After a moment, he forced himself to say, "Maybe when you come visit, you can meet him. He might... feel differently." He knew he was lying, but he hoped he sounded sincere. Sincere enough. Another glance at Buffy's face made him wonder when Spike had started dragging him this far away from his friends. Or was it just him? Would they *really* believe him if he tried to explain? He tried desperately to find something more cheerful to talk about. "So what are you doing this Saturday?"

Then he wanted to smack himself. Great choice.

"Not much. Willow and I might go shopping. You?"

"Um. Lunch. Maybe. I'm not sure." He hadn't told anyone before now about the invitation. Not sure if Giles had told anyone either -- though he suspected not, since Willow hadn't been calling him every day to ask him if he were going.

"With Bork?"

"No." Although Spike would offer to go, if he could. If he knew. Xander wasn't sure he needed Spike there to protect him, though.

"Giles?"

Giles, maybe. And he had offered to go along. He'd been rather forceful about it, in the way that made Xander's stomach get warm and a little tight. He shook his head. "No. My... my mother called."

Buffy stopped and turned to stare at him. "Are you okay?"

He shrugged.

"What does she want?"

"To have lunch, she said. She talked to Giles, and he said... he said it sounded all right. If I wanted to go."

"Do you?" There was an air of protectiveness about her attitude that warmed Xander's heart even as it made him feel more awkward.

He couldn't answer right away. It was a woman he'd lived with for fifteen years. For better or worse, he'd called her mom. Now, with almost three years away, he was being asked to... what? He still didn't know. Start over? "I miss having a mom," he found himself saying.

Eyes sad, Buffy reached out and laid a hand on his shoulder.

"But I don't know..." If she was going to be it, he finished silently.

"Do you want some moral support? Willow and I could always come along."

He shook his head, before he even realized he knew he didn't want them there. "I think she'll think I'm ganging up on her. I don't know what she wants, but if I show up with you and Willow and Giles and Oz, she'll think I don't trust her."

Buffy nodded slowly. "Promise me you'll call afterwards then? We can wait at my place until we hear from you."

"But you're going shopping."

"We can go shopping anytime."

Xander shrugged again, thinking that maybe it was a little silly to want his friends waiting for him to get back from lunch with his mother. He kept his head down, though, trying to think of a nice, mature, manly way of saying 'please?'

It seemed all he needed to do was not object to it because when he didn't say anything Buffy nodded decisively. "It's settled then. Willow and I will wait at my place and you can come over after you finish."

"Um," he began, feeling as though he ought to make a token protest. But that was enough, because otherwise he might actually convince her he didn't want them to wait for him. "If Giles goes with..." he began, not sure if that mattered.

"Bring him along when you come over. He can help re-hash lunch; provide a subjective view-point." She gave him a tiny, knowing smile.

Xander opened his mouth, then stopped. As if he could find a reason to object to that? He laughed silently, at himself. Then he realized that he'd decided to go. He managed to mumble something that he hoped Buffy would take as a 'thanks'.

Buffy nodded again and they moved on patrolling. A moment or two later she asked, "Xander?"

"Yeah?"

"I know it's not the same thing, but if you can borrow my mom if you ever need to."

He smiled, unable to even begin to control the way it spread out across his face. "Cool. Thanks -- does she make you do chores?" he asked quickly, in a doubtful tone.

"Some. But I can usually get out of them with slaying duties."

"Yeah, but what would my excuse be? I don't wanna borrow a mom who's gonna make me wash even *more* dishes."

"Slayer's close companion's duties?" Buffy suggested, her eyes glinting with humor.

"Which would involve carrying the stakes and spotting vamps? Or provide the even more important straight man -- no jokes, please -- for your witty 'about to slay you' quips?" Xander kept his face serious. "I wonder if that would fit on a business card?"

"Only if you use really tiny print."

"Would she buy that? Could I get out of dish-washing duty if I said I had to assist you?"

"Sure." Buffy looked at him seriously. "Even a slayer needs someone to watch her back."

Xander considered matters for a moment -- pretended to, anyhow, as if the matter needed weighing. "Do you suppose... if assistant-slayer duties were *that* important... I should get out of washing dishes completely." He gave her a querying look.

"I doubt it. Doesn't work for me. And I've tried."

Xander pouted. "Damn. Then I guess we should go kill that thing, huh, and get back to our respective homes and do our chores." He pointed at the big, greenish-greyish, multi-limbed thing that had appeared some yards away.

Buffy started heading towards it. "Work, work, work," she bemoaned.

"Just remember, the sooner we get done here, the sooner we can go home and clean the kitchen!" Xander called after her. He grinned cheerfully when she gave him a look, over her shoulder.

"You know, Xander--" She dodged a punch, then spun and kicked, "I think you should work--" A jump and a punch between the horns, "a bit more on your encouragements."

"Sorry. Um... 'Hey! When you kill this thing, don't get demon slime on your boots!' Is that better?" He backed up a step as the demon was forced his way. Pulling a knife out of its sheath on his belt, he threw it at the demon's leg. When it paused and growled at him, he shrugged an apology.

"Not much." The demon flipped her, but Buffy managed to land on her feet and lash out at its midsection with a well placed kick.

"How about you just *tell* people I assisted?"

"You know you could *actually* assist..." She dodged a couple of arms, not even sounding winded. Or terribly annoyed.

"Why? You need help?" he asked, as Buffy flung the demon to the ground, and landed a foot to one of its arms. Xander tried again to count the number of arms, and gave up at 'five' as the demon stood up again.

"I wouldn't say 'no' to some," she responded, beginning a flurry of punches and kicks.

"OK! 'Watch out!'" he yelled, as the demon swung two arms. Buffy was already ducking, of course, but as she ducked the demon followed her down -- ignoring Xander, as he raised the tree branch he'd picked up over his head, and brought it down. The demon snarled and spun towards him... before slowly toppling over.

Xander blinked in astonishment. "Did I do that?"

Buffy looked down at demon lying at their feet. "I softened him up for you."

"Uh-uh, you just kept him busy while I found a demon-killing tree branch." Xander looked at the branch. Not even broken. "You think it was allergic to oak tree?"

She shrugged. "No medic alert bracelet."

"His loss." He dropped the branch, and kicked the fallen demon. Then jumped back quickly, just in case. "Don't you know those things can save your life?" he scolded it. Then he grinned. "Hey! You know what?"

"What?" Buffy straightened and brushed a stray lock of hair out of her face.

"We can head to the Bronze for an hour, then get home too late to do any chores!"

~~~~~

Xander stood nervously just outside the restaurant's door. Waiting. He'd arrived ten minutes early and had been second guessing his decision to come ever since. It kept occurring to him that maybe she was already inside -- fifteen minutes early, and waiting at a table. He'd never know if he stayed out here, but if he went inside, she'd arrive and wait outside and the resulting never finding each other that would ensue would only serve to make this lunch worse. He asked himself again if he really wanted to do this alone. It wasn't too late to call Giles... Especially since Giles had practically threatened to come along, at the first sign of Xander's wanting him to.

He'd finally opted to do this alone, if only because he was concerned that his mother wouldn't do whatever it was she was meetnig him to do, if he had someone along who spent the entire lunch glaring at her. Of course, it might be *nice* to have Giles here when she did whatever it was, just in case...

Then Xander saw her car pulling into the parking lot, and that was the end of the debate. Too late to call, too late to back out. He found himself relieved that the decision was taken out of his hands. For good or ill, he now had to go through with it. He waited with as much faked bravado as he could muster as she parked, and got out of the car.

He watched her walking towards him... and it struck him how long it had been since he'd seen her. The last time had been at the grocery store shortly after he'd gone to live with Giles. Years ago now. It felt like a lifetime.

It was a lifetime, he realized. He could remember everything he'd felt that day -- things he had felt almost constantly in the years before he'd finally run away. Things that he hadn't felt at all in so many months, he could barely remember exactly when it had last been. Now, though, watching her catch sight of him, he felt his insides tighten.

He found himself fingering the bracelet that Giles had given him that first Christmas, the one that had his new name engraved on it. A concrete reminder he had a new life now with people who loved him. She could only hurt him if he let her.

That didn't stop him from tensing up the closer she got. It also didn't stop him from wondering if he shouldn't have taken his bracelet off. He saw the look on her face, as she stepped onto the sidewalk. Determined, a little worried. A little frightened. Other than that, she looked just the same.

He couldn't tell if the last three years had changed her.

He nodded a neutral greeting when she came up to him, doing his best to keep his doubts and nervousness off his face. "Hi."

"Hello, sweetie," she said cheerfully, and put her hand on his arm, leaning upwards to kiss his cheek.

Xander flinched back without thinking. She froze, blinking up at him uncomprehendingly before it smoothed away and she just moved backwards, letting her hand fall.

"I suppose we should go in," she said, quietly.

"Um, yeah." He turned to hold the door open for her, wondering if he should've let her kiss him. But that was so unexpected, so completely unlike her, except at funerals and in front of her husband's parents. But the chance to pretend it was normal was gone, and she didn't seem scarred by their exchange.

She didn't glance at him as she headed inside, and stopped to let Xander precede her towards the host's stand. "Reservation for two," he told the host when they got there. "Xander Harris-Giles."

She started, and turned to him. Didn't say anything, but her eyes had gone wide. The host, meanwhile, had gathered up menus and was walking away. Xander followed, and his mother followed him. He presumed she did, though he could fairly feel her gaze boring into his skull.

When they sat down and the host left, she said in a soft voice, "I didn't realize-- the paper had you listed that way, but I didn't realize you used his name."

"Yeah." He fidgeted with his menu. "He-He's been good to me."

She didn't respond to that. She *might* have nodded as she picked up her menu, but Xander couldn't tell. He was studying his own, grateful for the reprieve, when he heard her say quietly, "But you kept Harris. That's good."

Xander shrugged, uncomfortable with the assertion. "I'm still me."

She was nodding again, like she'd always known he was. As if there had never been any question. "Are you getting the ribs? You always loved the ribs here," she was saying in that once-again bright, mother tone.

"I was thinking I might, yeah," he replied, surprised she remembered.

She was nodding, now, smiling. Looking like she was happy that things were still the same. "I'll probably get the salad and cream of chicken soup."

"And chocolate pie for dessert?" he asked, thinking back on one of the few memories from his childhood that didn't hurt.

"Of course." Her smile told him that maybe she was thinking the same thing.

"Might have to get two pieces this time."

There was a pause. "Oh, I don't know. They're pretty big pieces... at least they used to be. I haven't been here in so long. But I don't think I could eat a whole slice--" She glanced at him. "Oh, but I suppose you could. You're still at that stage, aren't you? Eating everything in sight..."

"Pretty much." He grinned. "Giles is always saying he should just buy the grocery store, it would be cheaper."

She nodded, half-smiling. "I used to say that sort of thing to your father. You were just getting to be a teenager, just starting to really grow."

Xander's grin faded and he dropped his gaze as not so nice memories reasserted themselves at his mother's words. "Yeah, but Giles doesn't beat me if I ask for seconds."

"Don't be ridiculous, Alexander," she said sharply. "I know he hit you, but he never *beat* you. That's absurd."

He looked up at her with disbelief, his stomach tightening in that old familiar way. "What did he have to do before it would be 'beating' then? He broke my arm, twice. He cracked my ribs at least that many times, probably more. I can't even count the bruises..."

She frowned, and there were shades of the old, familiar, 'you don't know what you're saying and I won't listen' on her face. Instead, she told him, "He lost his temper. I *know* that. But saying it like that makes it sound--" She shook her head. "He hit you. And I'm sorry. But anything else is just exaggeration." She sounded like she was scolding him.

Pain that he thought he'd put behind him surged up, threatening to cut off his voice. "You never believed me. Or you believed him. Same difference. What would have it taken? Him killing me? Or would you have believed I'd deserved that too?"

"I never said you deserved it," she whispered.

"You did by not stopping it. By not protecting me."

She didn't say anything to that. He hadn't really expected her to, but then, he hadn't expected her to say anything. She stared down at her menu, then smiled at the waitress who walked up. Her face showed none of what they'd been saying a moment before as she ordered her salad and soup.

She'd always been good at faking normality to outsiders, Xander thought. Just as he had been. Xander gave his order as well, then the menus were taken away and with them the only legitimate distraction they had until their food arrived.

His mother was looking around at the decor, as if they'd changed it in the last twenty years.

"Didn't you ever love me?" Xander heard himself ask. "Even a little?"

"What?" She turned to him, astonishment dropping her jaw and widening her eyes. "What an absurd thing to say! You're my baby boy, how could I not love you?"

He shook his head. "I never felt..."

"Of course you did. I told you, and I always did what I could. I made sure you had clothes and food and a roof over your head." Her voice was hard, determined. But then it slipped, just a little. "I know we didn't have much money for all those toys you wanted. But I saved all I could, to buy you things. So you'd be like your friends. Those race cars, and that helmet when you were five."

Xander didn't say anything. He had liked the cars... until his father had broken them in front of him a week later because he'd spilt his milk at the dinner table.

"You know I love you, Alexander," she said. "I did for you, what I could. You know that." She seemed to be slipping back into her world of denial.

Xander shook his head wearily. "The clothes and the toys and the things... they didn't matter. I'd given up everything you ever gave me if you'd just kept him from hurting me."

Again she didn't answer. She was looking across the aisle, at the signs and fake flowers nailed to the wall.

Suddenly angry, Xander warned, "Ignoring it doesn't make it go away. But it might make *me* go away."

She sighed. "I just thought we could have a nice lunch. Can't you do that? Without talking about him? Can't we just have a nice lunch together, like we used to?"

"When was that?"

A sharp glare, and there was a time when that look had made him flinch. "Are you deliberately being hateful?"

Xander shook his head. "I won't pretend anymore."

"I'm not asking you to pretend, I'm asking you to be civil. I invited you to lunch because I thought it'd be nice. I haven't seen you in forever, and I just wanted to see you and I thought we could talk. About something pleasant." Her expression was wavering between screaming at him, and breaking down. He wasn't sure what she'd do, here in the restaurant where everyone would be staring.

"You're the one who brought my father up. He almost killed me, mom. I can't sit and discuss what he did to me 'pleasantly.'"

"I--?" She blinked at him. "All I said was that I used to talk to him about you. Is that so strange, that I used to talk to him about you?"

"Tell him I'm eating too much, I made a mess, I didn't do well at school..."

"I didn't say you ate too much, I said you were growing up. I... I was hoping he'd get a job and keep it, for a change, so I wouldn't have to wonder if I could afford to feed you. I never told him about the messes you made, and I..." She stopped, looked down at the table as the waitress stopped by with her salad. She managed to whisper 'thank you'.

Xander waited until the waitress was gone. "Every time you talked to him about me, he'd take it out on me." he said in a low voice, looking down at the table. "I just wanted him to forget I existed."

"I'm sorry," she said, so quietly Xander wasn't completely sure she'd said it. "I wanted things to be normal. Mothers talk about their sons... I'm sorry."

Somewhere inside Xander those words resonated, echoing over and over. 'I'm sorry.' In a voice that sounded strange even to himself he said, "That's the first time you've ever apologized to me."

He saw her hand twitch, and wondered what she was thinking of doing. Play with her fork? Reach for his hand? "I wish I didn't have to." He could barely hear her. He wondered if he was supposed to pretend he hadn't.

"I wish..." His voice trailed off as too many ways of completing the sentence all struggled to come out of his throat at once.

But she didn't look up at him. Instead she began eating her salad with a fierce concentration.

Xander watched her silently for a long moment, his thoughts and emotions all in a tangled ball. "Why did you send me the wallet?" he finally blurted.

Surprised, she looked up at him, fork halfway to her mouth. She set it down, and asked, "Didn't you... I mean, did you like it? It was OK?"

"It was... nice."

She nodded, and went back to eating her salad. At first Xander thought she wasn't going to answer his question. Then she said, "I didn't know what you might need."

Taking a deep breath, he asked, "Don't take this the wrong way, but why did you send anything at all?"

She blinked at him. "Because I'm your mother! What would people think if I didn't send you a graduation present?"

Xander felt the hope he'd been trying to ignore begin to shrivel up. "Oh."

There were a few silent moments, and his mother went back to toying with her salad. Then she said, "I asked him if it would be all right. Before I sent anything."

There was an emphasis on 'him' that Xander couldn't tell if he liked. "He has a name, you know."

There was a flinch, and she fumbled for some more salad dressing. "Why don't we talk about something else?"

But Xander didn't want to let this go. "Giles isn't your adversary. He's someone who's important to me." You should be grateful to him, he thought, but didn't say.

She stirred a cherry tomato around in the salad dressing, then left it sitting on the plate. "I'd rather not talk about him, Alexander. It's bad enough I have to ask his permission to send you *mail* much less see you. Why don't you tell me what your plans are for the summer?" She forced a brighter tone into her voice as she asked.

"Spending it with my friends. And Giles." He was feeling stubborn now and he welcomed the emotion as a pleasant change from the uncertainty of earlier.

She just sighed, and said nothing more. Didn't look over at him, didn't offer any more conversational efforts.

When the waitress brought Xander's food, he wasn't entirely sure he was hungry anymore. But he picked up his fork and began eating anyway; it was far better than sitting there watching his mother silently. They managed to spend the next ten minutes eating, neither of them saying a word. Every time Xander glanced over, his mother was looking down at her food, or off at the far wall.

Eventually she asked awkwardly, "What about after the summer? Are you getting a job somewhere?"

He shook his head. "I offered, but Giles told me to just enjoy my last summer at home before I leave and I'm really not bringing him up continuously just to annoy you."

"You're leaving?"

Xander blinked. "Yeah, I thought you knew. But then again how could you have... Um. I'm going to college in Los Angeles."

She stared at him. "College?"

"Yeah, college."

She stared at him some more, and he was beginning to wonder if she had even bothered to keep up with his life. When she'd called Giles, hadn't she asked about him? "That's... nice. Wonderful," she finally managed.

"You really didn't know?"

She shook her head. "How was I to know? Who ever called me to tell me? You know I was told to leave you alone, after--" She looked away. Looked guilty. After she tried to make him come back. He remembered that phone call, remembered his reaction and couldn't help but shiver. Another stretch of awkward silence. Then, "But that's nice. College. College is good for you." Her tone of voice returned to the cheerful, polite facade as she said, "You know you'll be the first member of the family to go to college. Not counting your Aunt Debbie."

It was on the tip of his tongue to say he wasn't the first in Giles' family, but stopped himself just in time. He wondered what she'd do if he referred Giles as 'dad'.

"It will be so exciting, I'm sure," she was continuing, as if warming to the subject. Something they could discuss, safely.

"Yeah, I guess. I've been taking some correspondence course the last couple of years so I've got most of my first year completed already."

The startled stare wasn't so surprised, this time. Not because he thought she'd known. Rather, he got the impression she was resigned to simply discovering she knew nothing. "Correspondence courses? I suppose... you must be pretty smart, to have taken college courses already."

"You seem surprised by that." He tried to keep the accusation out of his voice as well as the knowledge at how much the doubt hurt.

"You always got Ds and Fs in school. Except when your little friends did your homework. Jesse wrote all your essays in 8th grade. You got a 'C' that year." There was little inflection in her tone' Xander couldn't tell if she cared at all that he'd cheated in school.

"Maybe because I was told every day how stupid and worthless I was," Xander shot back and this time he didn't even try to keep the edge from his voice.

She threw her fork down, suddenly. "I don't see why you have to constantly attack me. I did the best I could. Maybe you don't appreciate that. But you have no call to use that tone with me. I'm your *mother*. Did that man teach you to no longer respect your elders?"

"He taught me to respect myself first," he shot back refusing to be cowed by her anymore.

She gave him a look, one that reminded him of the looks she always gave him, back when she only wanted him to stop making his dad hit him. She leaned back, and he could see that she about to stand up.

"It wasn't my fault." The words seemed torn from deep inside him, a protest that had been building all his life.

"And you're saying it was mine?" Her voice dripped, hard and angry. Or maybe just defensive -- but Xander didn't care anymore.

"You were supposed to protect me, not make me feel like I brought it on myself."

"Oh, so this is entirely my fault? Let's ignore what he ever did to *me*, and just think about you. You could have stayed out of his way, you know."

"No, I couldn't," Xander murmured, then repeated it louder, eyes widening as the truth of the words sunk it. "No, I couldn't. I was a kid. I didn't have a choice to stay out of his way."

"You did, sometimes," she said.

Xander was struck by the absurdity of the conversation he was having. He shook his head and pushed his plate away. "This was a bad idea."

"Yes. Maybe it was. I'm sorry, I thought you'd like to visit with me, just once in your life." She pulled her purse onto the table, and opened it.

"I got it," Xander said, reaching for his wallet.

She stopped, and set her purse aside... then her eyes widened as she saw what he was holding. She pulled her purse to her side and said, "I guess I'll go." And she got up, and walked away.

Xander sat there and watched her go, bewildered. Until he looked down... and saw the wallet in his hand. The wallet that wasn't the one his mother had given him. Xander wondered if he should feel guilty about that, without actually feeling the emotion. He pulled out a few bills and left them on the table, then left, himself.

~~~~~

He drove more or less on autopilot to Buffy's house. Not really thinking about anything at all, just letting his hands and feet drive while the rest of him floated.

He parked in the Summers' driveway, absently noticing the other cars. Got out, walked to the door, and rang the bell. Buffy opened it, but behind her Willow, Oz, and Giles were hovering while trying to look like they were not hovering. Oz was the only one who managed the air of casualness.

"Hey." Xander gave them as much of a smile as he could dredge up.

It couldn't have been very successful because all of their expressions became even more blatantly concerned. "Didn't go too well, huh?" Willow asked quietly, reaching out to touch his arm.

"Of course, went great, the food was--" His attempt at whatever humour he could throw out fell flat. Too-long unused defense mechanisms were rusty and he stopped, not even sure he wanted to make up a lie about the food he hadn't even tasted. Xander let Willow pull him forward, into the house, but he went directly to Giles, who didn't say anything, just pulled him into his arms and hugged him tightly.

Willow and Buffy didn't say anything, though he felt a light touch of a hand on his back. He heard movement farther away. He peeked out to see Joyce standing nearby, watching. Remembering Buffy's offer, he found himself wondering, insanely, if maybe she'd meant it.

The look in Joyce's eyes as she watched made him wonder if Buffy had already talked it over with her. But for the moment, he was fine. Happy, content, secure -- or at least not curious enough about it to actually let go of Giles. Being wrapped in this man's arms was like a security blanket -- the tattered old red scrap he'd finally let Willow bury behind the tree when they were eleven.

"I'm sorry," Giles said in a voice meant for his ears only.

Xander tightened his hold a little, but turned his head so he could say clearly, "It wasn't all that bad. It wasn't... she was just... she didn't want to talk about you and she didn't understand why I--" He stopped. "She tried, but it just wasn't working."

"Well, that's worth something," Willow said, obviously trying to sound encouraging. "That she's trying."

"I guess." Xander kept his head pressed against Giles' chest, and it occurred to him that Giles wasn't saying anything. In point of fact, he was standing very, very still. Xander wondered, if he looked up, if he'd see Rupert or Ripper peering out of his eyes. Xander smiled, faintly, and didn't look up.

"Do you want to go home?" Giles asked.

"No." He said it without thinking, but then realized that he liked having a lot of people standing around, being protective and concerned. Especially... well, he could maybe see just how borrowable Joyce really was, without actually... borrowing her.

"We were going to rent some videos to watch," Buffy said. "You can have first choice."

"Can we watch vampire movies?"

"As long as I get to heckle them." Buffy grinned.

"And I can criticise the victims' escape plans," Willow added.

Xander returned their smiles. "Deal."

~~~~~

He was settled on the couch in between Giles and Buffy. Willow was on the floor in front of them, and Joyce was in the armchair on the other side of Buffy. Xander felt quite surrounded.

It was a nice sensation. They'd not only let him pick the first video but gave him veto power on all the other choices. The result being an afternoon Xander-fav film festival. He was still debating torturing them, seeing just how far he could push their sympathies. Unfortunately for that plan, Willow would happily watch anything he'd want to see, and Buffy would happily watch anything he would, except tapes of professional wrestling. That left torturing Giles and Joyce -- and that was too easy as to not be fun.

It *would* be fun to watch their faces when he asked for _Fearless Tiger_. Giles never could sit still during a subtitled movie, especially when it was badly dubbed. Eventually he started correcting the translations.

That was why he had snuck it into the pile after all. He just needed to weigh the benefits of hauling it out now versus hauling it out later in the movie watching.

The benefit of now was getting to see Giles' reaction. Now. The benefit of later, was lulling him into a false sense of predictability. All the other titles -- which he'd let Giles see them renting -- were the same vampire movies he always rented.

There was even Nosferatu, which he, Willow, and Buffy had MST3K'ed into a soap opera, the last dozen times they'd rented it. Actually that would be a good one to start with, warm up the old heckling muscles on an old favourite before moving onto harder material. Besides which, the last time they'd MST3K'ed it, Buffy's mom had joined in, and played the part of the cloned grandmother of the wandering amnesiac vampire lover. Maybe they could get Giles to join, too...

Yes, definitely start with Nosferatu. He grinned and pulled it from the pile. Willow clapped as he handed it to her, and she put it into the VCR. Buffy raised an eyebrow, and Giles asked, "Dare I wonder why 'Nosferatu' is such a joyful movie?"

Xander looked at him, as innocently as he could.

"Oh dear," Giles said faintly.

"You don't have to play," Willow told him, in what was meant to be a reassuring manner.

"Play?"

"Play," Buffy repeated. "It's all right," she continued in her 'soothing the old people' tone. "You can just watch."

Xander grinned at the look of exasperation that crossed Giles' face. It was nice seeing it turned towards someone *besides* him. "Just watch," Giles repeated mostly to himself, dubiously.

"And listen. Clap, even, if you like," Willow added, helpfully.

"Or you can be long lost brother, who escaped from the monastery after being exiled by our insane, murderous father," Joyce offered, almost managing to hide her grin.

"Oh god. You've turned it into a soap opera."

"D'uh!" Xander and Willow said together.

"Seemed appropriate," Oz said.

Giles looked at them all for a long moment. "It would."

"So? Shall I start it now, or does Giles need time to figure out his character?" Willow asked. Everyone looked at Giles.

"I think I can wing it."

Xander bounced, earning himself a look or five of amusement from everyone else. This would get Giles into a wonderfully silly mood... then they'd hit him with the subtitles. The afternoon thus planned out, he settled in to enjoy the show.

~~~~~

He was still trying to hold back chuckling at Giles when they finally left Buffy's house. Giles was giving him dark, 'you did that on purpose' looks, which only made him want to laugh more. He managed to control himself, somewhat, on the drive home -- by virtue of being the one driving. He turned up the radio, though, and glanced over often to see Giles holding his hand over his eyes and mouthing something that looked like 'my god, give me strength'. Or maybe it was a Sumerian curse on rock music.

Xander kept laughing and stifling laughter, until he pulled into the parking spot next to Giles' Citroen. Then, on the way to their apartment, he started -- once again -- quoting the lines which had gotten Willow and Buffy rolling on the floor.

Giles gave a long suffering sigh as he opened the door. Xander bounced into the living room, grinning and thinking about which line to quote back to him next -- the bit about the dangerous laundry soap makers was a classic, but most of the joke was in the build-up. Or he could repeat Joyce's line about being married off to the umbrella stand, and how Oz had stepped in with the lines for the stand, to accept.

Instead he bounced again, tossing his keys and jacket down and realizing that no one had taken the movies back which meant they could go watch them again, tomorrow -- and stopped. Giles had been in the process of hanging his own jacket up and paused. "Xander?"

"Nothing." He headed towards the kitchen. Soda was good. Maybe they had some candy bars left over from... yesterday.

Giles followed him in. "It doesn't look like nothing," he ventured quietly.

"Nah, I'm fine. Just too much fun for one day." He opened the fridge, stared inside for a bit and tried to decide what he wanted. There wasn't any coke left. He slammed the door shut again.

A hand came down on his shoulder. "And the part that wasn't fun?"

"What?" Xander turned towards him, not sure what he meant. The whole afternoon had been fun -- even being sent to make more popcorn had got he and Oz into a popcorn fight, missing ten minutes of the movie. Well, as much of a popcorn fight as one could hope to get Oz into -- no kernels had actually been thrown. A verbal popcorn fight, one could say, and Xander realized he was staring at Giles, who was looking worried.

"Maybe we should talk about your lunch."

"Lunch? I didn't have--" He stopped. "No. I don't wanna talk about it."

Giles nodded. "But do you need to?"

He found himself nodding, even though he *wanted* to say no. He wanted soda, and chocolate, and more movies or video games. Video games he could do, all night.

"Shall I make some hot chocolate?" Giles asked.

"Sure," he was nodding again, and it was like his body was doing it without even consulting him. Moving after Giles, as he took the necessary two steps to get a couple of mugs down, and fill the teapot with water. Xander opened the cupboard and got down the hot cocoa mix -- Cadburys, the good kind, that his grandparents sent over.

"What happened at the restaurant?" Giles prodded gently as they continued the preparations.

"Nothing. We talked. We ate, we left. Early. She didn't--" He was bouncing again.

"She didn't what?" Giles tone was calm and level.

"Wanna stay." Why would she, after all? All he'd wanted to talk about was himself, his life, his relationship with his so-called father. She'd wanted to have a more pleasant time.

"Did she give a reason?" Again, that same calm level voice.

"I wouldn't play nice," he said, and surged forward to grab his mug, and start scooping cocoa into it. He got to five scoops before he stopped. He only stopped because Giles made no move to stop him. It wasn't as much fun when it was allowed. Maybe one more. He added the sixth scoop, then began to stir. "She wouldn't talk about it."

"About... your father?"

"Anything. You, him, growing up. All she wanted to talk about was... how good it was. Things she missed. Complain that she didn't know me anymore..." He stopped stirring, knowing that the rest of the sludge was never going to dissolve, and if he kept trying he'd just stir it out of the mug.

"She doesn't." Giles looked at him seriously over his own mug. "I don't know if you realize it, but Xander, you've changed, grown so much in the last few years."

"I think she meant ever." Xander took a sip, then had to rub his nose on his sleeve to get the extra powder off. "She acted like it was all my fault--"

"It wasn't. None of it was your fault."

"But she--" Was he defending her? Explaining her?

Giles remained quiet, waiting for him to finish the thought, to figure out what it was he was thinking.

"She said it was. Why would she think it was my fault?"

"What exactly did she say? What words did she use?" Giles' tone was oddly intent, reminding Xander of debriefing Buffy after an altercation.

Xander tried to think. He couldn't seem to make his brain go back there, though. He'd get as far as 'she ordered salad and accused me of eating too much and getting me into trouble' and his mind would go skittering off into wondering if they had marshmallows for his cocoa.

"Xander?"

"What?" Xander looked over. "Do we have marshmallows? I didn't make him do it. She said I should have stayed out of the way. I ate too much, sometimes. I was supposed to stay out of the way. She did."

Giles was silent for a long moment, looking at him consideringly.

He looked back down at his mug of cocoa. "I didn't mean to," he found himself saying. It wasn't what he was trying to remember, but it came out anyhow.

"I know," Giles said, reaching out and touching Xander's hand.

"She wouldn't listen to me," he said, and that sounded more like what it was.

"Maybe she couldn't. Not about this."

"You do." He left his mug of cocoa alone, his stomach not feeling up to even the chocolately goodness of too much cocoa powder not enough liquid. His mom had caught him, once, eating it straight from the canister. She'd laughed.

Giles said quietly, "I don't have defense mechanisms I've developed to let me survive with myself. Not about what happened to you."

He thought about that, for a moment. Then he looked up. "Huh?"

"She might not be able to look objectively at what happened in your childhood because she isn't strong enough to emotionally."

"*She* isn't strong enough? He never hurt *her*."

"Perhaps not physically, but that is a small part of what can hurt." He looked at Xander seriously. "And her own actions -- and inactions -- would have done their damage as well."

"Yeah, every time she just *stood* there and let him... or left and pretended she didn't know what was gonna happen." Xander felt himself trembling again, and forced himself to stop. "I hated that she knew, and didn't care."

"I am in no way defending her, there is no excuse for what she let happen to you, but I think she did care. Does care. If she didn't would she have reached out to you?"

Xander shrugged. "She said she had to look like she knew what I was doing. Maybe her family keeps asking about me, and she can't say she has no clue." Except... she hadn't said that, really. She'd been... sort of actually interested. For a little while.

"Is that what you truly believe?" Giles asked softly.

"I don't know." He looked over at Giles, again. "Why'd she wait til now, if she really was interested?"

Giles shifted nervously. "Actually, that would be my fault."

"You what?" Talk about completely unexpected...

"She's been phoning once or twice a year, but after what happened when your father died, I told her I wouldn't let her talk to you until you were 18."

Xander stared at him, totally unable to comprehend what he was hearing. She'd called? She'd *called*? And Giles hadn't ever told?

Apparently there were some secrets he'd been able to keep.

Giles was now looking down at his mug and not at Xander. "I thought it was for the best at the time, but--"

Xander put his hand on Giles' arm. When Giles raised his head, Xander scooted forward, inserting himself into a hug with long practised ease. She'd called, and Giles had kept it from him. Protecting him.

But she'd called.

Giles' arms came around him and hugged tightly. "Does that change things?"

"She called." Which meant she had been checking on him. She'd wanted to know -- even if she didn't have a lot of details about his life. Maybe she hadn't remembered them. Maybe she hadn't called recently. She might have only called to ask 'is he still breathing?'

"Yes. Usually around your birthday and end of school year."

Xander found himself smiling. He tightened his hug. She'd called, she'd cared, and he hadn't had to deal with her. He was thrilled and upset and confused, but it was better than what he'd been feeling. Better than thinking she'd just written him off the moment he'd stepped out of their house. As much as he'd wanted her to leave him alone after he'd run into her at the store and taken her call after his father had died, he was relieved to know she hadn't. Not really. "Did she--" He stopped, not entirely sure he wanted to know.

"Did she what?" Giles asked, and his tone made it sound like he already knew what Xander needed to know.

"What did she ask about me? Did she... because she said she didn't know I was going to college or anything. Did she ask for details, or just..." Xander looked at Giles, and found himself fairly calm when he asked, "What did she want to know?"

He could see the sadness that Giles tried to hide. It was there in his eyes, hidden behind the layer of everything he felt for Xander. Insanely, it made Xander want to ask every hard, hurtful, difficult question he could, just so he could see how much Giles cared about him. He held his tongue, and Giles answered honestly. "Sometimes she wanted to know everything I would tell her. Sometimes she only called to see that you were... well, still doing all right."

"Still alive, you mean?"

There was a pause, then Giles nodded. "I'm sorry, Xander."

For some reason that made him feel better, more so than anything else had -- besides the hug. The hugs were always the best. Xander shrugged, and tried for a casual air he didn't really think he needed. "It's nothing can be changed. I... should be glad I got as much as I did from her." He stopped himself from saying that it was little enough. He was tired of being bitter about his mother.

He was tired, period.

"She called before you'd actually graduated, last time. Asked how you were doing, but you hadn't decided if you were going to college, yet. I couldn't very well tell her about the Ascension, so I'm afraid I might not have shared very much detail with her. When she called to invite you to lunch... I thought you would decide what to tell her, yourself. I'm sorry,
perhaps if--"

"You're apologising?" Xander interrupted. "No, no, don't apologise for her. Don't *ever* apologize for her." Anger spilled out of the corners of his mind, without warning. "She knew how to ask. She could have asked or said or done anything she wanted. At any time. Don't you *dare* apologize for her. You weren't the one who hurt me."

His quick anger surprised him as much as the look on Giles' face. Surprise, there, but something else. Stronger, almost like Xander's words meant something more than what Xander intended them for. "I... I hadn't meant to apologize *for* her," he said quietly, but Xander wasn't so sure Giles wouldn't have. Giles would have said anything, he suddenly thought, if it meant making some of Xander's pain go away. "I simply... I suppose I wish I could have made things go a bit better."

"You did. Believe me, if someone else could make my mother do something she didn't want to do... I'd have..." He looked away. Without warning he was held tightly, again, pressed against Giles' chest.

"I'm sorry, Xander. I wish..."

Xander held onto him, and didn't try to object this time.

~~~~~

It took him a few days of trying to think about it - playing Final Fantasy and Tomb Raider and listening to music and not really thinking about it at all for hours at a time - before he could go back to Giles. No one had said anything about it in that time; patrol was devoted to talking about college and reminiscing about monsters slain, afternoons with Willow were devoted to college and boyfriends and is this really what I want to do with my life.

Easy stuff. Stuff Xander didn't mind talking about because he could say anything at all and retract it a day later. Things that involved 'why did she' tended to dry up in his mind and blow away before he could get much past understanding that he didn't understand.

Eventually, though, he'd managed to actually think about it; got past 'why' and all the way to 'to me' once or twice. He knew he probably wasn't going to get past that by himself - and he wasn't so sure he wanted to. So, one morning after staring at his computer and pretending to shoot bad guys with animated bullets, he got up and went to find some help.

Giles was reading in the living room, something that was making him scowl and scribble notes and get up to check other references every few minutes. Xander happened to know it was a work of fiction and had no bearing on the state of the Hellmouth - he also knew how the story ended, because he'd snuck a look at the last page and emailed it to his grandmum.

He stood in the hallway for a moment, watching Giles read and wondering what he would do if Xander offered to tell him how the story ended. Before he could distract himself debating, he said, "Dad?" The word felt funny.

Giles looked up immediately. "Yes?" He was already setting the book aside, as though he'd been expecting this. Knew what it was about.

"Can I..." Xander didn't know if he wanted to ask him about it, or try to tell him what he'd been thinking. All he really wanted were answers.

"Come here." Giles waved his hand towards the couch beside him, and Xander gratefully went over. Maybe he wouldn't have to say anything at all. He sat down and leaned over, up against Giles. "You've been thinking about your mother?"

"Yeah--" He stopped, then admitted, "Not really. I keep trying to. But I can't concentrate on it. But... she's gonna call again."

"Yes, I imagine she will. You're wondering what you should say -- if, in fact, you should talk to her at all?"

Xander nodded. What if she wanted to try lunch again? What if she didn't?

"What do you want to do?" Giles sounded calm and straight-forward, reminding Xander of the times he'd helped Xander write his English papers.

"I don't know."

"Do you want to see her again?" Giles asked quietly.

"No." Xander closed his eyes.

Equally quietly, Giles asked, "Do you want to never see her again?"

Xander kept his eyes closed. "No," he whispered. His stomach was threatening to turn over, and he felt Giles hug him tightly. He knew he was being unreasonable -- he expected Giles to tell him he couldn't have it both ways and he'd better decide.

But Giles didn't say anything. He just sat there, and held him. Xander waited for him to respond, waited for Giles to help him figure out which he wanted to do. Or which he *had* to do, regardless. Minutes passed, and Giles still didn't say anything. Xander turned a little in the embrace, and looked up at him.

Giles was wiping his eyes. "I'm sorry," he said as he put his glasses back on. "Whenever we have a battle against evil -- the Mayor or vampires or Judalthia demons or whatever... I always wish our fight could be easier. That the stakes were lower, and the search for answers an easier one. I find myself wishing that I had an instruction book that said 'go to this address and place a bit of lilac on the monster's chest and that will destroy the evil creatures before they can arise next year and destroy things.' But I forget that those battles *are* easier. Because we know that there *are* answers to be found. We know that eventually we will be right, and the evil will be destroyed by something, if not by us then our descendants."

When Giles fell silent, Xander just stared at him. He knew what Giles meant, but he was surprised to hear him saying it. "So you don't have the answers either, huh?" Xander teased, half-heartedly. He leaned back against Giles, turning around to settle in.

"I do have some," Giles surprised him. "The first is that whatever you decide, I will support you. However is needed -- if you want me to accompany you to see her, or want me to be the one to tell her off. Whichever you decide. The second answer is that goes for your friends, as well. You don't have to face her -- face any of this -- alone."

Xander closed his eyes again. He'd known that, really. Deep down inside. He hadn't been thinking of it, though, when he tried to think about her. A thought occurred, and he asked, "Would grandmum come and help? I mean, if I invited her to go to lunch with us..." The idea appealed. Xander had a feeling that if anyone could make his mother behave -- however it was he wished she would behave -- it would be Maggie.

"Of course. She'd be here immediately, if you asked her."

"Would Kendra and Wesley come slay her?" he asked, joking this time to distract himself from jumping up now, to make the phone call.

Giles' tone was light when he asked, "Why not Buffy?"

"For that matter, why not Angel? He could bite her. Or Oz could bite her. Think she'd come around if she had to turn into a wolf every month?"

"Perhaps," Giles said, still lightly, but with a hint of a verbal nudge.

Xander sighed. "Yeah, I know. I can't exactly have her beaten up because she *didn't* do anything."

Which made him think of talking to Spike. Not talking to Spike -- she'd end up dead if he said the wrong thing, if Spike decided she'd hurt him and got pissed off about it. Maybe he would agree to just scare her?

But for what purpose? Scare her into being nice to Xander? Was that what he wanted?

"Assuming, that is, you wish her to leave you alone." Giles' words echoed his thoughts.

And that was the crux of it, wasn't it? Did he want her to be nice, or did he not want her at all? He shook his head. "I can't decide this."

"You do know you can change your mind."

"But which would I pick, first? If I tell her I'll have lunch with her, do I have to right away? What if she--" Xander wished he could just make the problem go away. Keep his eyes closed and pretend it wasn't there and he wouldn't have to deal.

Rather like she had done all his life.

His stomach hurt. He felt Giles reaching up, then lay his hand on the side of Xander's head. A kiss was pressed against his temple, and he heard, "I'm sorry, Xander. I wish I could make all this go away."

"You don't know any spells that make mothers vanish?"

There was a soft chuckle. "If there were, I dare say I would have used it when I was eight."

"What'd you do?"

After a short pause, Giles said in an amused-affronted tone, "I wanted to make *her* vanish. Why not ask what she had done?"

"Because you were eight. I bet she caught you doing something you weren't supposed to be doing. Made you go to your room or something, and you stomped off, yelling that you were gonna make her disappear."

There was a longer pause that time. Then, "I didn't yell. And she hadn't sent me to my room - she sent me to *her* room. Perhaps because she knew about the tree..."

"What'd you do?" Xander asked again.

"Oh, I don't recall, really. I just remember--"

Xander looked up at him, briefly. "What did you do? Or can I call grandmum and ask her?"

Giles sighed. "It may have involved a can of paint and my father's study. But honestly, I don't recall exactly what I did. Only that... well... she greatly misunderstood my purpose in doing it. I was trying to be artistic. Er, so I imagine."

Xander smiled, though he didn't quite feel better enough to laugh, as was warranted. "I think I should ask grandmum what you did. I haven't heard any good 'when Rupert was a lad' stories in almost a week."

"She'll soon run out of stories, you know. You mustn't use them all up."

"Won't. She'll have stories for years. One story a week, for the next twenty years -- then she can start in on the stories about you when you were older."

"You sound very certain," Giles observed, dryly.

"I am." Xander sighed, once. Still not quite better, he felt a lot calmer than he had been. His stomach wasn't threatening to do anything imminently, and he didn't feel like he was about to break into a hundred pieces if anyone walked up behind him.

"You realise she might be making them up, to entertain you."

Xander raised his head, and gave Giles a stern look. "She has photographic evidence."

"Oh god. She hasn't *shown* you--"

Xander grinned.

"They might have been faked," Giles said quickly. "I understand those infernal machines will allow you to do anything with a photograph. Make it appear as though a small child were smearing mud on the hall carpet when in fact he was just playing with his toys."

"She hasn't shown me *that* one." Xander widened his eyes, to look excited. "I should definitely go call her."

Giles tried to look put-upon, but Xander could see he was starting to smile. There was the look in his eyes that made Xander feel warm inside, and for a moment he didn't really care about seeing incriminating photos of Giles. He laid back against Giles, re-settling himself once again into the embrace, sighing when Giles squeezed hard, briefly.

"That woman is dangerous with a camera," Giles remarked.

"You said that after she showed us the pictures she took after our first trip to England."

"And I was right. You agreed with me, as I recall."

"Just because she sent a copy of the photo of us asleep to every relative we have." Xander was still of mixed feelings about that photo. One the one hand, he agreed with Maggie that it was sweet. He, asleep under the covers, and Giles curled up beside him. On the other hand, he remembered that night, and what had driven him to need Giles beside him.

What really disturbed him was because *he* could see, even if no one else could, just exactly what he wished the photo was. He hadn't looked at the photo since Maggie had sent it. Hadn't even shown it to Willow.

"It's probably a good thing you didn't make her vanish when you were eight, though," Xander said, trying to get back to the better part of the conversation.

"Yes, it is." Giles sounded like he was smiling.

"Think we can find a spell to make her camera vanish?"

~~~~~

Xander stayed on the couch, even when Giles picked his book back up. Xander held one of the books Giles was using to cross-check his translations, and thought absently about whether he mention the ending. He didn't care so much about teasing Giles, anymore, nor did he want to ruin Giles' fun. He considered going to get a book of his own to read, but didn't feel like moving.

Absently, attention still focused on what he was reading, Giles put his arm around Xander again, letting him lean against him. He relaxed, and glanced at the book Giles was reading. He remembered one or two of the words from when his grandmum had sent the translated page back. By the time Giles turned a page, Xander had picked out a third word he knew.

When the phone rang, Xander wasn't sure he wanted to move to answer it. But if he didn't, Giles would, so he finally leaned over and picked up the phone. "Giles residence. How may we serve you today?"

"Xander?"

Xander froze. He found himself being pulled back against Giles, heard Giles asking quietly, "Who is it?"

Xander just looked up at him, as he said, "Yeah?" into the phone.

"Am I... Is this a bad time?"

"No," he said automatically, though as he said it, it occurred to him he might have said 'yes'. Said 'yes' and hung up on her. He tightened his grip on Giles' arm.

Giles frowned at him and asked again. "Who is it?"

Xander mouthed 'my mom' even as she said into his ear, "Well, that's good, dear."

Giles straightened. "Do you want me to take it?" he asked quietly enough that Xander's mother couldn't hear.

He hesitated, but shook his head. Found himself asking, "What's up?" in a casual tone. Like he did when Willow called for the third time in one day, and there wasn't any reason, really, to be calling.

"I was... I thought I'd call..."

Xander could hear how uncertain she was, and found himself feeling sympathetic, in response. He opened his mouth to tell her everything was fine, but stopped himself. Somehow, though, he said instead, "I'm sorry about lunch." He didn't know why he'd apologized, didn't know if he meant it. But whichever way he wished it had gone, he knew he was sorry it had gone the way it had.

There was a long pause. "So am I," his mother said softly.

He bit his tongue over the well-trained polite habit he didn't know he had. Didn't want to invite her to try it again. Didn't want to keep sitting here, numb and awkward, either. He pressed himself harder into Giles' embrace. Giles' arms tightened around him and he asked with a raised eyebrow if Xander wanted him to take over.

"I called... to see if you'd like to try again."

And there it was. The question he knew he'd hear, the only reason she'd be calling. The only thing he hadn't known was whether she would pretend nothing had gone wrong, before, or actually admit it and want to do better. He still didn't know what he wanted to do. He glanced up at Giles, again, wondering if he wanted to hand the phone over or say yes or say no or just talk for a while. Giles raised his hand towards the phone, not taking it, but repeating his offer, allowing Xander to accept it without having to say a word. Into the phone, Xander said quietly, "I don't know."

There was silence. Xander couldn't bring himself to break it, and he waited to hear her respond. Or hang up. Or *something*.

Giles took the phone out of his hand. Xander watched as Giles first listened for a moment, then said in a very kind voice, "I think it best if you wait a bit longer. Perhaps Xander should call you, the next time."

Xander could hear the firmness in Giles' tone, that this was not a request. He wanted to grab the phone back and tell her he didn't mean it, that of course she could still... still what? Still call? Still meet him for lunch? Still pretend that he'd imagined everything, like the monster under his bed that had kept him awake when he was four?

He watched as Giles listened a moment longer, then said simply, "Yes. Good-bye, Mrs. Harris."

Giles handed the phone back, and Xander took it and hung it up. Stared at it for a long time, even after Giles pulled him close again and wrapped his arms around Xander's chest.

~~~~~

Xander flung himself across the bed, and ignored his boyfriend. Letting himself bounce on the mattress, he considered getting back up just so he could fling himself onto the bed again, and bounce. Get up, fling, repeat. Maybe he could get Spike to jump on the bed, so he could lie here and bounce.

Then he raised his head and looked at his vampire. "What?"

"Was wondering if you were listening." Spike smiled, but his eyes were narrowed, slightly.

"That would be a 'no'." Xander pushed himself up, enough to pull his legs up and sit on the bed.

Spike sighed, though it sounded a little forced. "Suppose that answers my question, then. If you don't feel like doing anything, wanna shag?"

Xander rolled his eyes. He opened his mouth to make a witty retort, and stopped. Reconsidered his witty retort. Looked at Spike. "Sure." He pushed himself upright, sitting cross-legged on the bed as he pulled his shirt up and off, then tossed it onto the floor.

He found Spike looking at him, blinking as though he hadn't meant the offer seriously. His hesitation didn't last, though, and he flung his cigarette away, sending sparks scattering across the floor. Then he began removing his own shirt, tossing it in a crumbled heap on the bed. Xander wondered what it was Spike had been saying -- he honestly hadn't been listening, hadn't even thought that Spike might have been talking to him. He'd been wandering around in a mother-induced fog all day, and he'd finally headed over to Spike's place in an effort to get rid of his fugue. It hadn't really worked until Spike said 'wanna shag'.

When he'd stripped his jeans off, Xander leaned back on his elbows, and let Spike indulge in some ogling. Sometimes the amount of ogling Spike wanted to engage in made him nervous, and he had to try to stop himself from covering parts of himself with his hands. But today, right now, letting Spike look, seeing the expression on Spike's face made parts of his brain shut down. Not enough blood to fuel the brain cells *and* the happy pleasure centers. From the look of things, the happy pleasure centers were in for a lot of happy.

Spike seemed to be feeling a bit happy, himself. His jeans were still on, but he was moving towards Xander's cock like he could smell the blood filling it, and wanted nothing more than to suck Xander dry. Xander gasped as the thought sent every last remaining ounce of coherency spiraling into arousal; his cock hardened until he thought he'd come just from Spike breathing on him.

Which he might have, if Spike breathed. As it was, Spike was going to get close enough to touch him, and Xander would already be counting down to round two. "Whacha thinking, Xan?" came a low, unnecessarily-seductive voice.

Xander blinked at the vampire, lying between his legs, face inches away from his cock. Naked, spread out beneath a half-dressed blood-sucker, half-dressed lover who had done this before a hundred times and still Xander's body reacted like it was still week one. Xander whimpered and let his head fall back.

"What," Spike moved closer, and Xander felt cool air brush his cock, "were you thinking?"

"You," Xander managed, not sure why or how he'd managed not to come, so hard he couldn't even twitch when Spike's fingers grabbed his thighs and spread his legs a little more.

"Me, what?"

Another almost-felt brush of skin on skin, something along his inner thigh and his balls, air or fingers or imagination. He could look, and see. He left his head down and watched the ceiling. "You... sucking. Blood, cock, suck... oh," Xander stopped, gurgled something he knew wasn't any language he'd learned to pronounce. Gurgled and lost all contact with his brain, because Spike's tongue was on him, swirling and licking and the faint scrape of not-tongue, up his cock and pressing gently on the head. He felt his legs shaking and his entire body tightening as the orgasm crushed his mind, closing in like the fingers on his legs holding him down.

He was still hard, and still breathing, and still being sucked when he regained what few of his senses he had. He tried to speak, heard only a groan.

Spike stopped what he was doing and raised his head. "Like that?"

He didn't know if it was the obvious question, 'was that what you meant' or the really stupid one, 'did you enjoy that'. He settled for answering neither, and panting. Air before voice, anyhow, he told himself. Had nothing to do with wanting Spike to do it again, and again, and again until Xander had spent hours doing nothing like thinking.

"Want me to do it again?"

Xander was able to nod. Vigorously. When Spike laughed and Xander felt the rumble through his legs and his groin, he almost came again.

~~~~~

Four hours later, Xander peered over towards the clock. Naked, exhausted, and sticky, he was beginning to think there was something he'd forgotten. Other than a shower, there was something he'd told himself he had to remember to do. Sex? Done it. Suck Spike? Done. Not think about things? Done... til now. Xander closed his eyes... and discovered he was too tired to think. Hooray for plans that go right, he told himself.

He turned his head to other direction and found Spike asleep beside him. Pale face almost soft, sleep having removed all the lines of anger and lust and nonchalance. Xander wanted to reach out and touch it, but he knew as soon as he moved he'd wake the vampire. If he hadn't already, just by looking for the time. Not too late at night, even though he couldn't stay. Couldn't stay tonight, or any other night until he went to LA and Spike went with him.

He felt his stomach tighten. That was what he'd forgotten. In all the confusion of his mother trying to make a place for herself in his life again, Xander had lost the question he'd been fighting with ever since Spike had told him so casually that he would follow Xander to LA. Follow him wherever he wanted to go.

Live with him.

Xander felt his stomach tighten again. No more sneaking out, sneaking in, wandering up to the roof and hoping the sound-muffle spell held. No more waking up alone and thinking about how many hours or days until he could think up a reason to go find Spike, or call, or wait til sunset and wait by the window to see if Spike would show. They were gonna live together.

Live together, and hope that when Giles or Willow or Buffy or his grandparents called, Spike didn't answer the phone. Hope that no one drove down for a surprise visit. Live together and hope that Spike's nature didn't find living with his natural prey to be more compelling than living with someone he could shag any minute of the day.

He didn't *think* Spike would do such a thing. 'Yeah, he'd never eat a human, right.' Xander closed his eyes and pressed his head very carefully back into the pillow. He wasn't afraid of Spike. Not anymore, not really, not enough that it mattered. He was more afraid of letting Giles down, than he was of Spike suddenly deciding that boffing Xander wasn't as much fun as draining him of the important stuff.

If Spike was going to change his mind, he'd have done so before now. Gone, last year, when Xander had asked him to, and stayed gone. Instead he'd come back and behaved himself and never even gotten near Xander's veins with his teeth. Never mentioned where he'd been when Xander showed up at the warehouse early, and Spike came in after him and walked off to brush his teeth before he'd let Xander kiss him.

Xander liked to think that meant Spike had no intention of killing him. Liked to think Spike wanted to pretend as much as Xander did, when Xander came by with the dust still on his jeans, when he had to ditch a few stakes outside the door, when he had to leave suddenly just as night was falling, because someone he didn't mention was waiting for him to join her on patrol.

When they were living together, would they still be able to pretend?

"Spike?" And was he stupid enough to actually ask?

"Yeah?" Spike didn't sound as though he'd been asleep, but Xander could never really tell.

"My mother called," he said, fishing for something less dangerous to talk about. He wanted to slap himself as soon as he said that, though -- ruining a perfectly good bout of forgetfulness, by talking about it.

"Uh?" Spike scooted around, a bit, and looked at him as though he had no idea why Xander was telling him.

"I told you how lunch went."

"Yeah? She ask you to try it again or say thanks for everything, my people will call your people?"

Xander frowned at Spike, then whapped him lightly on the arm. "This is serious."

Spike raised an eyebrow at him, then visibly composed himself. "Right. Then, mum called. She said...?"

"She asked if I wanted to have lunch with her again."

One eyebrow went up. "Because it went so well the last time?" Spike laughed. "She enjoys that sort of thing, eh?"

"Dammit, Spike!" Xander turned away from him, rolling onto his back and glaring at the ceiling. All right, granted, this wasn't what he'd really wanted to talk about. But Spike could at least pretend to be sympathetic.

Yeah. Towards the wife of the man he'd killed, for attacking Xander. Xander felt his stomach tighten again. "I just thought--" He stopped, and tried to figure out exactly what it was he thought. What he'd not been able to think since she'd called, despite having dwelled on it and tried so hard not to dwell on, all day.

He felt a hand on his stomach. "Come on, Xan. Give it up. What are you going to do? Tell her you're mad at her, and wait for her to say she's sorry?"

Yeah. That's what he wanted. He turned his glare back on Spike. Spike just leaned over and kissed him.

"Why not think about those of us who wanna have lunch with you? Or possibly on you?"

"Is that all you think about? Sex?"

Spike blinked. "You wanna talk about my plans for annoying Angel once we move to LA?"

"You're already making plans?" The question slipped out before Xander could realize what he was saying. He shook his head. "No, I don't want to know. My luck it'll involve tire irons and red hot pokers." He rolled over again, onto his side. Why did he feel worse, now, than he had all day?

"Xan?" Spike's hand rested on his shoulder, but then Spike didn't say anything else. After a moment his hand slipped down onto Xander's chest, and held him closely. Xander didn't respond, other than to close his eyes. After a few moments, Spike asked quietly, "Want me to bite her?"

"No. I don't want you to bite her."

There was a pause. Then, "Shall I threaten to bite her if she doesn't stop messing about?"

Despite himself, Xander smiled. "No." His tone wasn't as sharp as before, and Spike apparently heard the amusement. "No, I don't want you to threaten to bite her." He moved his head, found Spike's arm right above him and placed his head on the arm. Spike wriggled a bit, pulling him in closer. They lay silently for a minute. He still didn't know what to do.

He felt a nudge on his back. Spike asked, "You gonna roll over here and tell me what big eyes I have?"

Xander slowly raised his head, and looked over. Spike was looking at him, smirking ever so slightly. "You have big eyes?"

"All the better to see you, m'dear," Spike responded.

Xander wondered if Spike hadn't lost a few too many brain cells, himself. Could too much sex make you crazy?

Spike nudged him, and stage-whispered, "What big balls you have."

"What?" Xander sat up, and blinked a few times. Awake, or so he thought.

Spike sighed. "All the better to be sucked by you, m'dear."

"Are you turning kinky on me, all of a sudden?" Xander asked. Not that he objected to sucking Spike's balls, cock, or otherwise. But usually Spike didn't suggest role-playing. Especially not wolves and little girls. It made him think of Willow and Oz, and places he really didn't want to go.

Spike was raising an eyebrow at him, and Xander wondered if it wouldn't be better to distract Spike away from the conversation by grabbing said balls and asking if those were the ones he meant. "Did you wanna be the big bad wolf?" Spike asked, almost casually.

"No! And neither do you. Who wants to have sex with a wolf?"

Spike rolled his eyes. "Not a real wolf, git. But I *can* growl, if you like." He leaned forward, baring his not-sharp teeth, and growled.

Xander bit off his protest. He wasn't going to play at fairy tales, not to get sex. Didn't want to think about himself or Willow or anyone wearing a red cape. "Er?" as all he managed.

Spike looked at him, waiting.

"Growl again?"

Spike growled.

Xander shivered. "Um, what was that about big teeth?" He realized Spike hadn't actually said that part, instead had skipped right to the part that hadn't actually been in the story. Well, possibly in the original... But Spike elongated his teeth, bared them, and headed for Xander's tender pieces. They apparently didn't know they were in any danger, because they made Xander push his hips up, towards that mouth, towards the source of the growling and the sharp pricks in his... prick, and wanting everything he'd just been thinking had to be bad, somehow, sometime. Eventually.

Not now. Now he wanted more growling, more nibbling, and more, more everything, right there, right now, just like that... He didn't even notice when the fangs disappeared and it was only blunted teeth and tongue working him over.

He realized he was lying on his back, moaning and groaning and sounding for all the world like he was... being licked and nibbled and sucked. He threw his head back to let himself just shout and let everything go, when Spike engulfed his cock, and *then* he felt more fangs. Xander spasmed off the bed, sitting up and pushing Spike back, away from him, off his body and not at all because there had been a single thing wrong with what Spike had done. He didn't have a chance to explain that to the bewildered-looking vampire, as Xander grabbed him by the arm and threw him down. Face first.

"Wha--?" was all Spike had time to say before Xander wrenched himself around Spike's body, scrambled into position and slammed himself home, right where that slight pinprick on his cock had demanded he be.

He closed his eyes in relief, as he felt Spike's body encase him, pushed himself fully inside and heard Spike growling and shouting into the mattress, writhing beneath him and slamming himself further onto Xander. He grabbed Spike's hips and pushed him away, pulled him back as hard as he could. Not as hard as a vampire might be used to, or even might want, but that was Spike's fault for picking a human, wasn't it? He'd have to take what he got and Xander was, by god, going to give him everything he could.

Slammed in again, and watched as Spike tried to push himself up onto his arms, get his hands underneath him for leverage or better position or something. Xander scraped his fingernails down Spike's back, a warning if he chose to interpret it as such, and smiled as Spike grew still. Xander had to re-position his own legs, though, as he drew back to thrust in once more, trying each time and moving a bit more until he found just what he wanted. Braced enough against the bed to push as hard as he wanted, resting enough against Spike that he didn't have to hold himself the hell up. All he had to do was slam and slam and slam, and watch and listen as Spike shuddered beneath him.

He dug his fingers into Spike's hips, not caring that tomorrow there would be no sign he'd even touched him. No bruises, no marks, just a memory and a smirk on the vampire's face. Xander thrust as hard as he could, trying to put that mark on Spike's face. Wanting to put something there. Wanting something to come of this, no euphemistic puns intended, and Xander slammed again and again and wondered if he were ever *going* to come, or if he was going to cry out from frustration before he could exhaust himself.

He leaned forward over Spike's back, spreading his hands on Spike's shoulders, feeling the tensing and shifting of muscles as Spike held them up, held them still as Xander took him. It was that motion that did it -- that acquiescence and support and the doing what he'd been told to do, and making it possible for Xander to do it without a single counter-demand. Hunched there and bracing them both against the assaults; Xander shuddered once and thrust in again, feeling himself come only as his hands pushed against Spike's shoulder blades once more.

Xander was shaking as he peeled himself away from Spike, moving back onto his heels and blinking in stupor as he watched Spike remain where he was, only looking back at him quizzically. Xander realized he was panting, and didn't try to speak. A glance down showed him why Spike was still unmoving, still looking at him. Xander grinned. "Why doncha jerk yourself off?"

He didn't have to be told twice. One hand flashed to his cock, wrapped around it and began pulling at it, moving out of position only enough that Xander could see. Xander watched the pale hand wrapped so tight that he could have seen tendons standing out in Spike's arm, if it weren't moving too fast to focus, and if it weren't for his eyes riveted on the straining pale cock that looked so hard it couldn't possibly have not been hurting. He wanted to reach out and touch, but didn't.

Spike ground out a long, aching howl as his body shook, and Xander reached out a hand, placing it on Spike's leg. He squeezed, and Spike came all over his hand, all over his bed. He froze for a moment, then pushed himself to one side as he collapsed. Xander leaned over, lying on his own side behind him.

"Rrrg," Spike mumbled.

Xander didn't say anything, as he spooned up behind him. He closed his eyes and let himself fall asleep, and hoped that he didn't dream.

~~~~~

In the end, he flipped a coin.

It wasn't quite so simple as that. He'd had to narrow his choices down to two -- then he'd narrowed them down to several sets of two, before he'd started flipping the quarter. It worked, though, the way it always did. Halfway through the flip, as the coin began falling towards his hand, he knew which way he hoped it would end up.

He'd only had to actually *look* at the coin, once. Tails. That had meant *next* Saturday.

He'd managed to decide he wanted to call her, didn't want to go it alone, and would even call her this week. Probably. He'd opted to ask Willow to go with him, even though he had a list as long as his arm of people who had volunteered, singly and in groups, to go. He wasn't sure he wanted *everyone* there, though the thought had been amusing. He could have let his mother talk to him by passing notes, or whispering in the person's ear next to her, to get passed down to the next person, and so on. By the time he heard it, they would have been talking about ducks and radar dishes.

Xander didn't want to make this harder for her. Not appreciably, anyhow. One person, for moral support, who wouldn't seem to pose a threat to *her*. That left Giles off the list. He knew Giles would behave himself, but his mother would feel intimidated and the first time she said something *really* stupid, Giles would glare at her and it would be all over but the check.

He didn't want to do that to her. He actually wanted to have lunch with her, and see if it were at all possible for them to have a nice time. Distant, polite, friendly, whatever. Something other than accusing each other of ruining their lives.

So he'd decided on Willow. Someone his mother was used to hanging around, someone in front of whom she wouldn't feel like curbing her tongue -- except about the really true stuff. She wouldn't mention his father at all, in front of Willow.

Xander considered that a good thing.

Besides, the presence of Willow convinced Giles, Buffy, grandmum, and Joyce Summers that having lunch with his mother was a good idea.

"We'll get a table across the restaurant, and keep an eye on you," Joyce had said.

"Or right next to yours. We can pretend that we don't know you," Buffy had added, smiling.

"Or you can secretly take the place of the waiters and cooks, and keep us surrounded at all times," he'd joked, and had been worried when Willow had simply looked thoughtful.

Now, though, he was trying to carry out the rest of his decision. He'd decided on lunch, asked Willow to join him, had even picked a day he wanted to go. Now he just had to call his mother.

Maybe she wouldn't be free? Maybe she wouldn't be home. A message on her machine and he'd be off the karmic hook for making the first move... only then he'd have to wait for her to return the call. He closed his eyes and told himself he was too old to be scared to call his mom on the phone.

He could make Willow call her. Tell her she was his social secretary....

No, if he was doing this -- if he truly wanted to do this, he had to call. Had to not be too afraid to talk to her on the phone. That would kinda defeat the point of going to lunch, right? Xander told himself to pick up the phone, and dial. Easy. He'd done it before. He could even pretend he was telling her he was staying over at Willow's and wouldn't be home
tonight.

He could hear Giles in the other room. In a rush of embarrassment, he picked up the phone quickly. All he needed was for Giles to find him staring at the phone, and he'd be all understanding and supportive and do you want me to call her and you know you don't have to do this. He was dialing the number before he noticed that Giles wasn't coming anywhere near his bedroom -- then it was too late.

"Hello?"

"Hi." He was impressed he hadn't stammered.

"Xander?" She sounded surprised to hear from him. She sounded happy. Like they hadn't spoken in years...

"Yeah, hi. I was... I thought, that is maybe we could do lunch. Again. Next Saturday? If you wanted."

There was a long pause. But when she spoke, she spoke rapidly, as though she was afraid he was only kidding. "Really? Of course, I mean, yes. I'd love to. Do you want me to call for reservations? We can go to Logan's, or we could meet at the Pancake House if you'd rather."

He almost smiled. "It's OK, I'll do it. Um, Logan's. And, um, Willowmightcomewithme." He waited. Not holding his breath, if anyone asked.

"Oh. Oh, well, yes, that'd be lovely." Her voice was going into that polite tone, and Xander couldn't tell if he shouldn't have told her. Maybe he should tell Willow she couldn't go.

He waited, and she didn't say anything else. He didn't have anything else to say, either, so he finally burst out with, "I'll see you then, gotta go. Bye."

"Good-bye, dear. I'll see you Saturday."

Then he hung up the phone, and stood there. Stared at it and hoped, crazily, that it wouldn't ring. That she wouldn't think she had caveat to call whenever she liked. Surely she wouldn't? Did she have his phone number? Why would she have to call, anyway, except to cancel lunch or change their plans or just to chat with him when the safety of Willow wasn't
around?

He reached out and unplugged his phone.

~~~~~

"You're sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure!" Xander stopped himself from adding anything like "geez! I know what I'm doing!" because he was afraid he'd sound like he really didn't. He put down the shirt he'd been holding and dug into the closet. Maybe the green button up?

"I'm being overly protective, aren't I?" Giles looked mildly abashed.

Xander sighed, and set the green shirt on the closet's doorknob as a 'maybe'. "I know you just don't want her doing anything--" he couldn't quite say 'to hurt me'. "But she's my *mom*. The only one I have, despite everyone's offers." He ignored the way Giles' eyebrow went up at that, as if he hadn't known. Maybe he hadn't, and all that vaunted Watcher parental know all see all really *was* all so much hogwash. It would explain why Spike wasn't dead. Deader.

But whatever he didn't know, Giles did look like he understood. He even seemed to be trying to accept it. "You do know that if you change your mind--" Giles stopped.

Probably because he'd already said it twelve times. Xander found himself grinning. He *liked* over-protective Giles, as long as it didn't mean he had to stay home where no one could hurt him. He mentally blinked at the absurdity of the thought -- absurd because it wasn't. "If I change my mind, you can even say 'I told you so'."

"I wouldn't do that," Giles objected, though he was smiling a little.

"Oh, you would," he teased, picking up the green shirt again. Held it up against his slacks, and put it back in the closet.

"I wouldn't," Giles responded.

"Would." Xander grinned as he searched through what was hanging up. If he'd done laundry yesterday -- like someone had asked and there was no way he was going to concede someone might have been right -- this would be easy. Blue shirt, grey slacks, and off he'd go. WIth Willow, and with Giles safely at home where he could fret.

"Wouldn't. Er, Xander, what are you doing?"

Xander glanced over his shoulder. "Getting dressed?"

"Yes, but... the only time I've seen you make this much fuss over what you were wearing was when you were either going out on a date, or-- no, I take it back. Not even when you've gone out on a date. I've never seen you spend half an hour trying to decide on a shirt."

"Well, I wanna... look right."

"'Right'?" The teasing had gone out of Giles' voice, though he was obviously trying not to sound worried. Overly-protective.

Xander put the dark green shirt back and wondered if maybe he shouldn't have picked the blue pants. Maybe the khaki was throwing everything off. "Yeah." He suddenly felt silly, but explained, anyhow. "I wanna look good, but not great -- I don't want her thinking I've gone all high class on her. But I don't wanna look like I don't care about looking good. Without making her feel weird if she's just got that--" He stopped. Set the grey shirt back in the closet and picked up the green one again.

"Xander?" Giles' query made him realize he'd stopped talking, and was just staring at his shirt.

"I just don't wanna look like I'm trying to impress her," he said quickly. When what he wanted was for her not to be embarrassed because she was wearing the same sort of nice dress she'd worn for the last seven years whenever they'd gone out. "But I wanna look nice."

"Ah."

He waited, holding the green shirt and wondering if his mother would even notice the difference between his wearing the green shirt and his wearing the dark red. After a moment he realized Giles wasn't saying anything more, and glanced over. Giles looked startled, and one hand went up for his glasses, taking them off and giving them a quick polish. He kept waiting, wondering what could be distracting him from saying anything useful like 'it won't matter' and 'she won't care'.

"I assume Logan's doesn't have any sort of dress code?"

"Huh? No, they're pretty much a 'shoes, shirt, service' kinda place. Peanut shells on the floor and everything."

Giles was blinking at him again. "Peanut shells? No, don't tell me."

"We've never been there? I mean, you've never gone to Logan's? Giles, Giles, you are missing out on a classic American experience. I'm almost tempted to change my mind just so you can go."

There was a faint smile which looked forced. Xander knew it wasn't really forced, only fake-forced. "Thank you, no. There are some things about your culture which were meant to remain mysteries."

"You said that about professional wrestling."

"And I meant it."

"Weenie."

Giles raised an eyebrow at him. "I hardly think not wanting to watch grown, costumed men throw each other about and pretend to hit each other, counts as being a 'weenie'."

"But you don't mind watching grown, costumed women do it?"

Giles glowered at him. "I do not watch professional wrestling."

"Except when you think I'm gone for the evening?"

"If you're supposed to be gone for the evening, how would you know what I was watching?"

Xander opened his mouth... and said nothing. Blinked, and tried to frantically figure out if he was teetering on the edge of getting himself into huge amounts of trouble for doing something he couldn't right now think that he'd done, or not. How could he get into trouble for being *home*, though? Unless it was because he and Spike were up on the roof and... He
smiled. "I wouldn't."

Giles continued to glower until Xander wondered if he'd better start thinking up an explanation for whatever it was Giles was about to catch him at having done. Then Giles simply nodded. "The green one."

He looked down. "Really? You don't think it says 'hey, I just threw on the first thing that was clean?'" He took it off the hanger, anyway, and put it on.

"I think it says 'I am wearing a shirt so I won't be thrown out of this eating establishment'."

"Ha, ha. You're a million laughs."

"Thank you." Giles smiled, and this one was one of those funny ones Xander hadn't ever really figured out. He liked them, but they gave him the feeling that Giles was always about to say something that he never ended up saying.

"We could go to Logan's tomorrow," he suggested, in order to distract himself from finally asking what was up with that smile.

Giles looked surprised. "We could, if you'd like."

"You don't mind that there'll be peanuts?"

There was the smile again. "I think I can handle it."

"So if I hear you say anything that sounds like 'good god, there are peanut shells all over the floor'," he said it in his grandfather's best British accent, which made Giles' eyebrows go up again. "Then... you'll buy lunch?"

"You mean you'll buy lunch otherwise? Excellent."

"Damn."

Then Giles was laughing at him, and Xander decided that it was time to go over to Willow's, and help her decide what to wear. At least when she laughed at him, he didn't feel like making her do it, again. He gathered up his keys and wallet -- the one his mother had given him. Maybe a blatant move, but not using it was also blatantly something. He didn't know what.

It had been a long time since he had to worry about every little thing he did and how someone else would react to it.

Ready to go, he took a step towards his bedroom door, and Giles. He found his guardian looking at him, closely. "Xander, you know--"

He smiled. "Yeah. I do."

Giles nodded, and took a step aside. Xander moved forward and hugged him briefly, letting go and heading out of his room before they could have the 'change your mind' conversation for the fourteenth time.

As he walked down the hallway, he had an eerie feeling he was leaving something behind. He glanced back, but didn't see anything but his bedroom door, still open.

~~~~~

His mother looked surprised to see Willow. She hid it well, and she said hello as cheerfully as she ever had when Xander brought tag-along-Willow home for meals or home for going-out-to-meals-because-mother-doesn't-cook. Xander wasn't entirely sure why she was surprised -- he'd told her Willow was coming. Maybe she hadn't thought he was serious?

They headed into the waiting area at Logan's, and his mother smiled again at her. "Willow, I hardly knew you. It's been so long--" There was a pause which was probably meant to not be awkward, before she apparently decided to say it anyway. "Since I've seen you. You've become such a lovely young woman."

Willow smiled, and it made her look like the little girl Xander had known all his life. He took her hand, as the host walked up and invited them to follow her to a table. She turned the happy little smile on him, and for a moment he wondered what he'd been missing, all those years she'd had a crush on him. Maybe it was just the 'she's a girl' thing.

They sat down, passed out menus, and spent a few safe minutes just reading the specials. Xander was still staring at his, trying to figure out what he could possibly say that wouldn't lead to him walking out, when he saw his mother set her menu aside.

"So, Willow, you're going to college this fall?"

"Yes, I've decided to go to UC Sunnydale." Willow put her menu down and leaned forward. "I can't wait, I'm so excited!"

"You're not leaving home, then?" She sounded a little surprised, but Xander heard something else in her voice. Disappointment? He glanced up at her, but she didn't meet his eyes.

"Oh, I'm going to be living in the dorms, but I like Sunnydale, and the college here has everything I want, I don't have to leave... um, my boyfriend. He's going to UC Sunnydale, too."

"You have a boyfriend?"

"Oh--" Willow stopped, and Xander caught the sideways glance she sent him, but he kept staring at his menu. Baked potato or rice? Salad? Soup? Fork to the tongue? "Yes, his name's Oz. You never met him, did you?" Willow sent Xander another apologetic look while Xander's mother just shook her head, trying to appear as though this wasn't unusual. "He's a musician, and he's very smart, and he's adorable and sweet and he almost never talks but that's OK because everyone says I make up for that by babbling and it really hasn't been that long, we've only been dating well, um, three years I guess but it wasn't *serious* until the last Xander? Do you want to split a shrimp entree?"

"Huh? Oh, um, yeah, we can do that. But you're getting your own dessert. My cobbler ala mode is *all* mine!"

She gave him a pout, and Xander pushed the dessert menu towards her. "Find your own. They have chocolate brownie fudge swirl mega ice cream things here."

"Oo, chocolate?" She took the menu, apparently distracted. Xander wasn't fooled -- and it was why he'd be ordering the blackberry cobbler instead of peach. Willow didn't like peaches. That was OK - he'd be stealing part of her brownie fudge swirl thing.

His mother laughed, and they both looked over at her. "I remember when I'd take you two to Dairy Queen. You two fussed and fought and ate each other's food and everyone thought you were brother and sister. People used to offer their sympathy to me, for having to put up with two such energetic children."

Willow and Xander returned her smile, though Xander found he had to fake it. Had to fight back the thought that it had been rare enough that she'd noticed *him* -- how ironic that strangers thought she had to pay attention to two of them.

"Yeah, my mother used to get the same thing, when she had us both," Willow responded, and somehow managed to make it sound unaccusing. Since, after all, Willow's mother had babysat them both far more often...

Xander opened his mouth to add to the going-well conversation, and stopped. The first two things he'd almost said were 'yeah, Giles should have adopted you, too' and 'The sibling thing helped when your grandparents sent me Chanukah presents.' Neither would go over well... He ended up just grinning in support of Willow's more genial remarks.

That was pretty much how the entire meal went -- with Willow talking to both of them and very little actual conversation passing directly between Xander and his mother. But they had managed to be in each other's presence for a whole hour and no misunderstandings, fights, or sudden retreats by either of them had happened so Xander considered it a success. Especially when he pulled out his wallet to pay the check, and his mother looked over and smiled.

~~~~~

Willow made it easy. They actually had lunch together a few times, all three of them, and it was always pleasant. Bordering on... nice. Xander didn't know if it was because Willow made them polite, or because with her there it was easier for them all to say 'remember the time we' and have it only be the good things. She was also full of excited plans for the future, so whenever his mother looked uncomfortable with hearing about his own plans, Willow would distract them all by talking about the textbooks she was already reading.

Xander found that he almost enjoyed meeting his mother for lunch. They certainly seemed to end each one with a smile and a 'same time next weekend?' Giles had stopped double-, triple-, and quadruple-checking that did Xander really want to do this by the fourth time he'd met his mother and Willow for lunch. He hadn't stopped being home when Xander got back, and pretending he wasn't eager and ready to hear all about it in case anything had gone wrong. Xander didn't mind, partly because he had an excuse to share some of his and Willow's more fun -- but unembarrassing -- childhood escapades, and partly because he still liked watching Giles being over-protective.

He knew he was going to miss it. Talking about it over the phone wasn't going to be the same, even though he had a lot of practise, what with all his calls and emails to Maggie. But it wasn't the same, and as much as he didn't like to think about it... soon, he was going have to.

So for as long as he could, he focused on going to lunch with his mother every week, and practising saying 'chemistry' without the 'demonic' in front of it. He focused on keeping Spike awake when any sane vampire would have his head under a blanket or underground, instead of being shagged by his boyfriend. He didn't think Spike minded, since he'd noticed Spike very deliberately didn't sleep with any clothes on after the second time Xander had snuck into the warehouse, in the morning.

Xander also focused on helping Buffy patrol, and helping Willow talk herself out of trying to get her assignments from her professors early, and on hanging out at the Bronze and listening to the Dingoes play.

He focused on a lot of things, so that when the time came, it took him almost by surprise.

Then, however, it was time. Cardboard boxes showed up out of nowhere, and Angel called to say he knew of an apartment in a decent neighborhood.

~~~~~

Xander stood in the middle of the bedroom, and surveyed the piles of boxes. Almost as bad as when they'd lugged everything home from the library -- but only because he was buying most of his kitchen stuff after he got to LA. Otherwise he'd have three more boxes and Giles would be grumbling about who had stolen the good skillet.

"I can't possibly own this much stuff." He looked up as Giles stepped into the doorway. "I've only been here three years. Where did all this *come* from?"

"Your grandparents, I imagine," Giles replied with a faint smile, as if he'd had nothing to do with it. "Possessions do tend to accumulate, don't they?" he added with a tone of understanding.

"I wish I'd bribed Buffy into helping me move." Xander sat down on the bed and thought about hauling all this stuff into his new place.

His new place. Xander stopped thinking about the number of boxes for a moment. He had a new place -- they'd gone down to LA last weekend to find it. Cordelia and Angel and a friend of theirs had met them with a list -- Cordelia and what's his name, Doyle, had taken them around to each one, beginning with the cheapest and ending with the one Cordelia swore he should take if only to invite her to, over for parties.

It had made searching for a place a lot simpler -- and a lot harder. He hadn't been able to drag hs feet spending time dwelling over where to look and what neighborhoods to avoid, and by Sunday morning he'd picked a place out and was heading back to Sunnydale.

He'd tried all week to get used to the idea that he *had* a new place. An apartment, all his own, in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, whenever he spent more than ten minutes thinking about it, he started thinking about how long it would be before he started waking up with Spike in the bed, rather than under it, on a daily basis. Spike had agreed that it would be safer if they maintained separate residences. Xander was used to friends dropping in unannounced, and locking the front door never really worked for keeping them out. He didn't want Cordelia slaying Spike when all he was doing was raiding the fridge.

But that didn't mean they wouldn't be spending most nights, together.

"Angel will be there," Giles interupted his musing, an echo of something in his voice that Xander had been hearing all week. They'd talked about whether Giles would drive down with him or not -- and they'd finally decided on not. With no high school library in need of a librarian, Giles had no job waiting for him; Xander was secretly afraid Giles would get him to LA and find a reason to stay an extra couple of days, then a couple more, prolonging the goodbye that Xander already found to be the hardest thing he'd done.

He suspected Giles was thinking the same thing, because he hadn't really argued, once Xander had said it would be easier if they said goodbye here. Xander would drive to LA by himself, where he'd have vampiric assistance hauling his belongings up the stairs. Spike, of course, instead of Angel. But it was a little absurd to worry about lying to Giles about it, now. Xander re-focused his attention on the boxes. "Are you sure this is all mine?"

"It is. Unless you're stealing some of my books?"

"I'm not stealing *this* many." Xander gave Giles a smile. "Only two, and possibly a sweater and the good ax. Hardly more than have a box."

"Not all in the same box, I should hope."

"Umm." Xander glanced down at the box near his feet, with a mildly guilty expression.

"Xander, you haven't wrapped the ax in one of my sweaters again, have you?"

"Do we have another box?"

Giles stood there and gave him a 'we are not amused' glare, until he cracked.

Xander grinned as cutely as he could, and said, "Kidding?"

"You're trying to make me open the boxes and incidently re-pack them so nothing will break, while I try to rescue my sweater, aren't you?"

"I don't think I packed anything breakable," Xander replied, trying to think back on what he had packed. The computer, of course, was breakable, but it was already back in its original packing and locked in the trunk of his car. The CDs were only sort of breakable, and they were all in a bag in the front seat -- amusement on the long, two-hour drive south. Four if he got caught in traffic.

The rest was clothing and books, and the breakable books were still all locked up at his grandparents' house. The *ax* certainly wasn't breakable, not in the way Giles meant. He looked up, intending to ask if that's what Giles *did* mean, just to see if he could make Giles roll his eyes. But he stopped when he looked up to find Giles watching him, a sad/happy expression on his face.

Xander waited, not quite needing to crack a joke to break the mood -- not yet. Instead he stepped around one box, over another, and pushed a third out of the way so he could wrap his arms around Giles. Giles returned the embrace, holding him tightly enough that Xander suspected he'd have impressions from Giles' arms, on his back. "I don't have to go, you know," he said quietly, after a moment. He knew he wouldn't stay. He knew Giles knew it, as well.

There was a soft laugh, then Giles let him go. "Yes, you do." He cupped Xander's chin, briefly.

"Yeah, I know. But it sounded good, didn't it?"

Giles grinned. "Yes, it sounded quite good."

"You're... you're still coming down in a few weeks, right? Give me time to unpack and clean the place, first. Middle of September, you said?" He sounded a lot more insecure that he thought he really felt. But Giles was just nodding.

"I'll be there, fourteenth of September. Barring an apocalypse, of course."

"Of course. Maybe you can get them to reschedule, if so?"

Giles gave him a slight smile. "I'll be sure and ask."

"Um, and if not -- you'll call, right? I mean -- if you need help. With something. Anything."

"I shall call, if we need you."

It was the one thing that kept making Xander think he really shouldn't go. What if they needed him? But LA wasn't that far away, and Giles had promised -- and Willow had promised, and Buffy had promised, and Oz had promised. If they needed one slightly goofy, amateur demonic chemist, they would call. He just didn't let himself think about if they didn't have a chance to get to a phone.

"I'm quite proud of you, you know," Giles said, unexpectedly.

Xander forced a wide smile. "Yeah, I know." Giles rolled his eyes, and Xander grinned in triumph.

There was silence, then, and Xander tried to think of something else, think of the joke he'd opted not to make, earlier, because he'd been able to handle the force of his feelings. But now he couldn't remember it, and he was afraid he was going to look silly, standing here. It wasn't like he'd never left home before... except last time it hadn't really been home he'd been leaving. He dove back into Giles' arms, pressing his face against Giles' shoulder.

"I can come back, right? To visit, or--"

"You are always welcome here, Xander. This is your home." Giles' whispered in a rough, but determined voice. "You can always come back."

Xander didn't answer. He'd known what the answer was, known this was his home. But, somehow, hearing it made it a little easier to finally let go, step back, and pick up a box. He couldn't look over at Giles again, as he said, "I better get this stuff downstairs."

"I'll give you a hand." Giles picked up another, and together they carried the boxes out.


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