Sandy Places in the Soul

Part One

Health class was almost over. Xander was restless, sitting too near the window to avoid giving him an excuse to stare off and tune out the teacher.

He'd been doing a lot of tuning out, and they'd only been back in school a week after winter break. No one was saying anything; at least if his teachers were demanding his attention, he hadn't heard them do so. He'd missed handing in homework this morning in English, and since he had no idea if they'd been assigned homework in his other classes, he suspected he'd be missing more.

But every time he turned his attention to the teacher, to class, and whatever was right in front of him, his thoughts would start to freeze and his gaze would just drift back to no kid's land.

When the bell rung, he looked down to gather his books, and found that he'd been doodling something. He quickly stuck the piece of paper in a book, so no one would ask why he'd been writing, over and over, "He's dead." He looked up to find Buffy waiting.

"Coming?"

"Sure."

Next class was trig at the far end of the school. The walk was made mostly in silence. Buffy asked him a couple of things and he answered by reflex, but judging by the look she shot him, his answers hadn't made much sense. He saw her say something to Willow as they took their seats, then Xander was staring out the window again.

He tried to listen to Mr. Cullins, once or twice turning to look at the chalkboard. He caught Willow looking at him, worriedly. He didn't like to see that expression on her face -- brow wrinkled and sad eyes. He told himself to try harder.

He actually managed to watch the chalkboard and Mr. Cullins, the entire rest of the class period. He wasn't sure what Cullins had said, what he'd been supposed to learn. But at least he'd been trying to pay attention. When the bell rang this time it was Willow who waited for him until he gathered up his books.

"Hey, Will." He had the feeling he hadn't seen her much today. She was still looking at him with that worried expression, so he tried smiling.

"Hey." She smiled back, though her eyes still looked worried.

"Um, can I borrow your notes?" he asked as they left the classroom.

"Sure." Willow paused and glanced at him. "For the entire week?"

He grinned, sheepishly. "Yeah. Well, actually I heard Mrs. Drobisher's lecture from... um... whatever day it was. On excited electrons."

"Tuesday." She smiled and nudged him as they walked. "I'll give you those notes, too. Just in case."

"Thanks." He felt better, being able to talk with her. Even if it was about school. He was glad she was here walking with him, glad she had-- Xander stopped. He had P.E. next. Boy's P.E. He gave Willow a suspicious look.

Willow gazed back innocently. Too innocently.

He could call her on it, but he knew she'd just say something reasonable and supportive and look at him with those big Willow-eyes. Rather than make her look cute at him, he just smiled.

She walked him right to the door of the locker room. "I'll see you next class."

"Thanks."

He went in, didn't bother changing into his gym clothes. The coach had had him doing other things all week -- until his ribs healed, he wasn't allowed to do anything P.Eish. There was a time when he would have loved it, but this week, standing around for 45 minutes was more than his brain could handle. With nothing to distract him, he couldn't even pretend to be paying attention.

No one complained when he didn't actually write down any times on the clipboard. He stared at it, thinking vaguely that he should be paying attention, should be doing something other than sit there and not think about things.

He handed in the clipboard at the end of class, trying to ignore the look he got from the coach before gathering his things and heading back out into the hallway. Idly, he wondered who would be waiting for him.

He wasn't terribly surprised to see Oz hanging in the hall. They *did* have next period together, and Oz's last class was only just down the hall. It almost seemed like happenstance that he was standing here, waiting.

Oz just nodded at him and fell in at his side. Luckily, Xander felt no pressure to talk to Oz as they headed for class. It didn't stop him thinking, though, that it ought to be weird. Being escorted from class to class -- they'd been doing it all week, he suddenly realized. He hadn't even asked or said anything to make them think he needed it.

They were doing it anyway.

It should have made him feel suffocated, coddled. Instead he was just glad to have friends that cared that much. It didn't help him concentrate in class, but it did give him something else to try to think about.

How long should he make them do this? They'd done it a week already. Pretty soon they'd start wanting to get back to their own lives -- Willow and Oz would want to hang all over each other, rather than taking turns with him.

Surely he could manage to walk from class to class by himself, couldn't he? He resolved to do so -- realizing that this was the last class of the day, and any such resolutions would have to be tested tomorrow. Or was today Friday?

He frowned, thinking harder. Yes, it was. Which meant he wouldn't have to give up the support for a whole two more days. He'd be able to handle it then, for sure. He might even be able to remember what day it was. Maybe after a week of that, he could start listening to his teachers again. Tiny steps. Don't want to be too ambitious all at once.

He was repeating his resolution to himself -- a better mantra than 'he's dead', he supposed -- when the bell rang. He gathered his books and looked around for whoever was taking a shift as his keeper.

Cordelia walked up. Xander gave her a smile. "Hey, Cordy. Your duty?"

"Duty? I don't know what you me--" She sighed at his look and waved off the lie. "All right, yes. I drew the final class to the library walk. Can we hurry? I have cheerleading practice."

"You know, it's OK if you go on. I can make it that far by myself." He figured it'd be like a trial run -- see if he wanted to go without, or not. Besides, he needed to stop by his locker first, and that was in the other direction from the gym, where Cordelia needed to go.

Cordelia looked uncertain. "I don't mind--"

"It's OK," he said again, not quite believing he was saying it.

"Well, if you're sure..."

"Go. I'm a big boy, I can walk to my locker on my own." If he'd had any doubts, they were allayed by the relief on Cordelia's face.

"All right. Thanks." She turned to go then spun back around. "But you go straight to the library. No side trips."

He rolled his eyes. "Where am I gonna go? The cafeteria?"

She just looked at him.

"They served meatloaf, Cordelia. Do you really think even I would go back there today?"

A worried expression crossed her face. "That was yesterday, Xander."

"Call it a vivid memory." Xander shrugged easily, even as he tried for a bit to remember what *had* been for lunch today.

"Maybe I should..." Cordelia began, but was interrupted by someone down the hallway calling her name.

Melanie, one of the other cheerleaders, came running up. "Come on! We're going to be late! You'll never guess who's in the gym," she said in an excited, gossipy tone.

"I..." She glanced back at Xander, undecided.

"*Go*." he shooed her along.

She started towards Melanie but kept looking over her shoulder at him. He smiled at her, then turned and headed for his locker, acting like it was the most normal thing in the world to do. He managed to keep it up until she had vanished from view.

Then he hurried. Head down, dodging other students from long practice of having a personal space much larger than most. He made it to his locker, concentrating on grabbing the rest of his books and folders and getting to the library. She needn't have worried about side trips.

It took him three tries to get his locker open, then he dropped everything onto the floor. It was only when he knelt to pick it up that he realized his hands were shaking.

He cursed under his breath, and gathered up his books. It took a couple tries to get everything into his arms, then he fumbled with his backpack. Frustrated, he shoved everything into his locker and slammed it shut. Then he turned. He needed to get to the library.

It seemed so far away, though. And the hallways he walked every day suddenly seemed cold and intimidating.

Dangerous.

Too full of people to properly keep an eye out. He searched frantically, hoping to see someone, one of his friends, a teacher... god help him, even Principal Snyder. "Larry!" He stepped through a group of seniors towards the football player.

"Huh?" Larry turned at the sound of his name.

He was conveniently headed in the right direction. Xander joined him, trying for casual. "How's it going?"

"Fine." He was looking at Xander perplexedly.

Xander forced himself to relax, act calm. Natural. OK, so 'natural' usually didn't involve intentionally seeking out the company of the guy he'd accidentally outed.

"You?" Larry asked after a moment.

"Yeah. Great. So--" His brain failed him, then, leaving him without anything to say. But they were walking still towards the library.

"So... Broke your arm, huh?"

"Yeah. Bruised some ribs, too. Good thing the swim team no longer needs me."

Larry nodded. "I cracked some ribs last year. Hurt like hell."

"Yeah. I hate how I forget about 'em, cause they aren't hurting and I do something perfectly normal and *pow*."

"They were still bugging me over a month after I hurt them."

"Oh, thanks. That's something to look forward to." His doctor had said as much, but it sounded truer coming from someone who'd been there.

"So... um..." Larry was looking at him weirdly.

Xander glanced over. Was he imploding and hadn't noticed? He gave himself a quick mental once-over.

"Was there something you... wanted?"

Xander blinked. They were still down the hall from the library. He thought quickly. "No? Just... um... wanted to say 'hey'?"

"Oh. Okay. Hey." Larry still looked confused though.

Xander smiled. He was starting to get nervous again. At least now the library was in sight. He could make it alone if Larry decided to ditch. But Larry kept walking in the direction of the library so he kept walking with him.

He tried to think of something else to say, but the only thing that was coming to mind was, 'So, how's being gay?' He so did not want to start talking about that. Willow was the only one who knew -- Larry thought he knew, but Xander had always tried to pretend he knew nothing.

Following that thought made him slightly dizzy.

"Was there something you want to ask?"

"Huh? No. No, just being friendly, you know?" Xander grinned. Wondered if that had been the right thing to say when Larry smiled kinda shyly, back.

"Okay. Friendly is good."

Two more steps and he was at the library doors. "Well, this is my stop."

Larry stopped for a moment. "See you around?"

"Yeah," he stopped himself from saying 'definitely'.

With a nod and another shy smile Larry left.

Xander sighed. He'd have to diffuse that, somehow. Maybe if he just ignored and avoided, he could pretend he hadn't just been leading Larry on. He turned and pushed the library door open.

The place was quiet and empty. No immediate sign of Giles. He took another step in, looking around. He didn't see anything. Firmly, he told himself Giles was probably in his office. He walked forward enough to look. Nope, not there. He took a step towards the stacks. Maybe he was-- alone in the library.

Heart pounding, he spun, back towards the doors. Closed. No one had snuck in behind him.

Which left him with a choice -- leave? Hide in Giles' office? Check the stacks? Didn't matter, he discovered, since he couldn't make his legs work. This was ridiculous, he told himself. It was just a room.

Just a room he had almost been beaten to death in.

He heard himself give a half-strangled cry, then his legs gave out and he sank to the floor.

"Xander?!" Suddenly Giles was there, kneeling beside him.

He looked up. He wanted to grab onto Giles, but his arms were wrapped around his legs and weren't letting go.

Then Giles' arms were going around him, pulling him close. Protecting him.

He gasped, trying for air. This was bad. This was very bad. He let his head fall against Giles' chest, hiding there. "Wanna go home."

Giles didn't say anything, just nodded and somehow managed to get to his feet with Xander still in his arms. Xander slung his right arm around Giles' neck.

If they went by people in the hallways, Xander didn't see them. He didn't particularly care either; he was too busy fighting the horrible de ja vous that kept replaying his feelings from *that* day. Even his ribs were hurting, sharp pains as though the kicks were only just landing. Could hear the loud snap of his arm breaking, hear his father's voice screaming at him...

Giles' voice murmuring low words of comfort drowned out the screams in his mind and he desperately focused in on that. It was hard to make out exactly what he was saying, at first. Then the air changed and they were outside, and Xander heard him say "going to set you down for a moment". He tensed, then pried his arm from Giles' neck.

He was gently set on his feet by what he realized was the Citroen. Giles smiled at him encouragingly then fumbled for his keys to unlock the car. He stepped aside, staying too near Giles as the other man moved to open the door. Then Giles' hands were on him again, helping him into the car.

He had another brief upsurge of panic when the door was shut and he was alone for a moment, but Giles getting in behind the wheel mitigated it a little. Sitting miles away on the other side of the car wasn't exactly a good thing, but the car pulling away from the school was.

Giles glanced over at him every few seconds, the reassurance in his expression not quite hiding the worry and concern. Xander figured it wasn't helping that he was rocking back and forth in the seat.

"Can you make it until we get home?" Giles asked, nothing judgmental in his expression or his face.

He nodded, rocking harder. Home. Going home where it was safe and no one but Giles would be there. Giles was safe. Wouldn't look at him funny if he hid under the bed. Wouldn't yell if he tore his closet door apart.

Giles muttered something mostly under his breath about hitting telephone poles and drove faster.

Xander heard himself say, "Not gonna implode," but his voice sounded distant. He made a noise, then, an odd sort of squeak and whimper and suddenly things in his chest began strangling him.

There was a sharp jolt as Giles pulled the car over to the side of the road and then he was being held again. He found himself crying, shaking violently in Giles' arms. Still rocking, wanting to strike out and break something, shove this fear away. He heard himself starting to say it again.

"He's dead, he's dead, he's dead."

Giles was silent, just tightening his embrace. Keeping him from flying apart. It pushed him off balance when things he'd never felt starting surging. Anger, fear, and guilt. If his father had just not hurt him, if he would have just not had to... do those things, he wouldn't have died. Wouldn't have made Spike kill him, and oh, god, did that make him
responsible?

Even if his father had deserved it, wasn't he still to blame? If he'd stayed home, if he had gone home when they had told him to... could he have avoided all of this?

He became aware of Giles repeating over and over, "It wasn't your fault," in a fierce tone and only then realized he'd been speaking some of his thoughts out loud.

"He's dead," he said again. That had to be a bad thing, somewhere. Because now, for the first time since he'd left his parents' house, he could remember other things.

Good things.

"I know."

He kept saying it, feeling the shock of actual grief hitting him. He remembered his father coming to his room, once, when he'd been very small, and killing the scary spider on his wall. Remembered him taking him into the back yard and teaching him how to juggle.

Here and there, memories of the father he might have been, the father he was when his head was clear enough to try. And he'd died because he'd tried to kill him. Xander screamed.

Giles held him tighter in response, his voice still ringing in Xander's ears though he could no longer make out the words over his own thoughts.

It just went on. The voice, the images, the shattering in his heart. He tried to bury himself in Giles' embrace but it didn't help. He couldn't escape. There was nothing he could do but hold on and try to keep from losing himself completely.

What felt like an eternity later, he found himself calming down. Not because the feelings had gone, but because he hurt too much to keep going. His ribs and head ached, and he wanted to just close his eyes. Taking the first deep breath since he'd begun this... implosion, he came out of himself enough to notice Giles still holding him. Running a hand through his hair, whispering in his ear.

With a start that felt much like shock, he realized that Giles' face was wet too.

"Wanna go home," he managed again. At least someplace more comfortable than squeezed sideways in the front seat of a Citroen.

"All right." Slowly, Giles released him and turned back to the wheel. But he kept one hand in Xander's the entire time.

Xander made it easy; he scooted over, sitting partially over the break between the seats where he could lean against Giles. If it made driving awkward for Giles, he didn't say anything.

When they finally got home, Xander found a resurgence of energy -- just enough to get himself out of the car and headed for the stairs, once again with Giles' hand on his shoulder.

Once inside, Giles guided him to the couch and settled him there. "I'll be right back," he promised then headed to the bathroom. Before Xander had a chance to react he was back, handing Xander a glass of water and two of the painkillers he hadn't needed for the last few days.

He took them, downing half the glass of water. It made him feel better, made it easier to breath deep again. He collapsed against the back of the couch and stared up at the ceiling. "I forgot..."

He'd forgotten what he'd intended to remember.

"It's all right." Giles sat down beside him, reaching out to brush his hair off his forehead.

"Do I have to go to school tomorrow?" he asked, hearing himself whining a little and not caring. He didn't want to leave the house -- might not leave his bedroom, as soon as he reached it.

"Tomorrow's Saturday."

"Oh." He had a feeling he'd remembered that already.

"And we'll see about Monday when it comes." Giles tone was as soothing as his touch.

Xander closed his eyes, and let Giles' voice wash through him. He'd never once raised his voice at him in anger. Never once said anything horrible to him. All he'd ever heard was how good and capable and smart and loved he was.

He wanted to wrap himself in that voice.

"You're tired."

He nodded. He could slide sideways and go to sleep, but then he'd probably roll over in his sleep and fall off the couch. He'd done it all the time when he was a kid.

Giles tugged gently on his arm, pulling until he was leaning against him. "Rest then. I've got you."

He let himself relax. He knew he wouldn't fall. He wondered if he could ask Giles for a story, to let his voice follow him like Willow's did to keep the dreams at bay.

He probably could.

"Could you... talk to me?" he asked, sleepily.

There was a pause and then Giles asked, "How about this?" Clearing his throat, he began to sing softly.

Xander smiled, wide enough that it woke him up slightly. He snuggled in, and listened.

He wasn't even aware of when he drifted off.

When he woke up, his first thought was, yeah, didn't fall. Giles was still holding him. On the heels of that thought was wondering when supper was. It was the first time in a while, as far as he could remember, that he'd actually felt hungry.

"Good evening," Giles greeted him quietly when he saw he was awake. He didn't, however, let go.

"Hey." Xander turned slightly to free his right hand so he could rub at his face. He still felt like his muscles had been turned to rubber, then stretched beyond recoil. But the aching numbness had passed, and he could think again.

"How are you feeling?"

"Better. Don't you get bored, just sitting there hanging onto me?" He couldn't see any books within arms' reach.

Giles shook his head. "Not in the least."

"Huh. Must be a Watcher thing. Trained to sit and... er... watch." Xander carefully dragged himself up-right.

"Among other things." He loosened his grip enough to let Xander sit up, but otherwise didn't move away.

"So, um," Xander tried to figure out why he was feeling nervous. Unless it was just the basic awkwardness of having been exactly where he wanted to be.

"Would you like something to eat?"

"Always?"

The smile Giles gave him -- a little sad around the edges -- made him think he hadn't been fooling his guardian at all the past week or so.

Xander amended, "When I'm not zombie boy?" He couldn't even remember anything they'd had for supper the past week. He had a vague recollection of walnut pancakes for breakfast.

"You've had a lot to deal with," Giles said diplomatically.

He nodded. He hadn't even begun to think about what he had to process -- it felt like it would be simply too overwhelming to admit he had things to deal with. Hence the last week spent in la-la land. He suspected it was time to start dealing, though. Only he hadn't a clue where he could start.

Giles answered that for him. "Supper," he said, getting up from the couch and pulling Xander with him. "And after... we'll talk."

Xander had a brief sensation of being led to his doom -- then he forced it away and followed Giles into the kitchen. He tried to focus on what he might actually want to eat. Besides chocolate.

Giles opened a cupboard and pulled out a couple of cans. "This all right?" he asked, turning around to face Xander. "I don't think either of us is up to something that requires a great deal of preparation."

Xander found himself grinning. He hadn't even known they had any Chef Boyardee, much less the Beefaroni. "Do we have any crackers?" he asked, moving forward to peer into the open cabinet.

"In the bread cupboard." Giles nodded towards the cupboard on the end where the bread was usually stored.

"Of course. What was I thinking?" He went over and found, incredibly, there was half a box of soda crackers left.

The food was quickly heated up and they sat down at the table to eat it. Xander found himself hungry enough and interested enough in eating that as he cleaned his bowl, he was wondering what else there was. Specifically, whether there was any chocolate. Or more pasta.

Before he could ask, Giles was dishing him out a second helping. "Nice to see your appetite back."

"Nothing like a--" he cut off the word 'cuddle' and replaced it hurriedly with, "week off to make me hungry, I guess."

Giles nodded. "Imploding has a tendency to do that."

Xander looked up, mouth open to ask -- then realized it might be none of his business.

"You can ask me anything," Giles encouraged, seeming to read Xander's uncertainty.

"You, um, just sound like you... have experience with imploding. First hand."

"I do."

He shifted in his chair, wondering if he needed to know the details. "How do you... stop?"

"It isn't easy."

He set his spoon down, only halfway through his second bowl. But he was less hungry, now. He could feel himself poised to go, again, let everything spin away -- and didn't want to let it. There ought to be a way to at least get a hold of one tiny piece of himself.

"You have to let it out. Face it. Put a name to your feelings and accept and deal with them."

"But I don't even know what I feel." As he said it, he knew it wasn't entirely true. The problem was that he wasn't sure he should be feeling anything besides relief.

"Don't you?"

Xander looked up again, found Giles watching him calmly. He had an eerie feeling that Giles already knew everything that was inside him. That made it both harder, and easier, to say. "I don't want him dead. I'm not sorry he's dead -- but I am. I wished him dead a thousand times, and--"

"And now you feel guilty for that?"

He nodded.

Giles was silent for a moment and then said carefully, "It's human nature to take responsibility and feel guilt for things outside our control. I won't tell you you shouldn't feel guilty because feelings do not respond to logic, but I will tell you it wasn't your fault. You weren't to blame, Xander."

He was, though. He couldn't explain that to Giles, but he knew if he hadn't been... whatever he was -- dating sounded so prosaic -- with Spike, then Spike would never have killed his father. It wasn't like it was Spike's fault he'd cared enough about Xander to want to kill the man who had hurt him.

Xander looked at that thought again.

Kinda like Giles had been. And Buffy. And Willow, though none of them would have gone as far as actually killing his father. He thought.

However, looking back at his memories of the night he was attacked, fuzzy as they were, he couldn't say for sure that Giles would've stopped if Xander hadn't needed him. It suddenly wasn't so bad, thinking about Spike killing, to protect him. Thinking of Giles doing the same thing. Completely apart from whatever he felt about his father being dead -- it was nice, knowing someone would go so far for him.

"When someone dies, it's an ending," Giles continued. "Even if the relationship wasn't a good one, as long as someone is still alive there is a chance, however small, that it will improve. That the person will change and make amends. That you can still win their approval. But once the person dies, you lose that chance. It's perfectly normal to grieve that loss."

There was no way Giles hadn't been through exactly this. Either that, or Watcher training was a lot more encompassing than Xander had thought. Everything he'd just said resonated exactly with how he felt. "So, it isn't him I'm grieving? It's... that now he's never gonna--"

"You're grieving the father he could have been. The one you wanted him to be."

"But I don't need him," Xander protested, confusion overwhelmed by anger. "I haven't needed him being my father for years. Why would I care if he can't, now?"

Giles looked at him for a long moment. "None of us ever totally grow up, especially when dealing with our parents. Somewhere inside you is the child Xander, who needed his father to love him."

Xander found himself standing, knocking the chair back hard. "I don't." He balled his good hand into a fist, wanting to yell at Giles for daring suggest he would want...

Even if he was right. The anger spilled out, leaving that child inside him who simply wanted to scream. Xander sniffed, and looked at Giles -- who was watching him with an expression made up of compassion and understanding, love and shared pain. That last came as something of a shock, though he wasn't sure why. Giles was hurting because he was. Wasn't that the way love was supposed to work?

It made him want to stop hurting, just so Giles would, too. Only he hadn't any clue how to do that. He felt himself starting to tear up again, and wiped at his face. Then Giles was standing, opening his arms and inviting him in.

"It's gonna stop, right?" he asked as he moved forward into the embrace. He sometimes felt like he did nothing but live in Giles' arms. It occurred to him that wasn't such a bad thing.

"I won't lie to you, Xander. The regret is probably always going to be there. But it will get better. Take on its proper perspective."

"It'll stop hurting? I won't feel like..." His voice dropped and he tried to keep talking. "Like everything he did to me is finally hurting? It never used to hurt like this. It didn't."

Giles' arms tightened around him. "It will stop."

And that, despite everything he could feel, made it better. If Giles said it got better...it had to. He buried his face against Giles' chest, and let Giles hold him together while he let himself fall apart.

~~~~~

Saturday morning, Xander dragged himself out of bed and headed for the bathroom. He was long over feeling weird at waking up in Giles' bed, though he wasn't sure he'd be so blase about it if he ever woke up with Giles still in the bed with him. After his stop at the bathroom, he followed his nose to the kitchen.

"Good morning," Giles said with a smile, looking up from his cooking.

Xander went over to peer around Giles at the stove, leaning against Giles as he did so. Then he blinked. "You would be making what?"

His guardian chuckled. "This would be porridge."

He looked at it again. "You're having me on. You're making boiled, mushed Chinese radishes, aren't you?"

"Would I do that to you first thing in the morning?"

"By the time I go shower and get dressed, it'll be fourth thing in the morning. So, yes." Xander stayed where he was, leaning just a little more against Giles -- until it was almost completely impossible for Giles to maneuver.

Giles didn't say anything about it, just gave him a smile. "Would you like to help?"

"Nope."

That earned him an eye roll and another smile. A moment later, Giles' arm casually wound its way around his waist. Xander moved a tiny bit so he could rest his hand on Giles' shoulder, and his head on his hand and still be not completely out of the way. Then he saw a jar of oatmeal flakes sitting on the counter, and stiffened. Giles gave him a questioning look.

He untangled himself from Giles, and walked around to his other side. Picking up the jar, he looked from it to the pan -- making the very obvious connection. "This is porridge? Before it turns into mushed radishes?"

"You didn't know?"

"This is stuff you make cookies out of!" Xander grinned suddenly. "You've been feeding me cookies?"

Giles blinked. "I suppose you could look at it that way."

Xander chortled. "You know what this means?" He went over to the cabinet behind them and began rummaging.

"I shudder to even guess."

"Chocolate!"

Giles rolled his eyes again, but didn't say anything.

However, he didn't pull out a candy bar, as he figured Giles was expecting. Instead he had the chocolate syrup in hand, for chocolate milk. Chocolate milk of the "would you like some milk in your chocolate?" variety.

"Ah, of course," Giles murmured. "Cookies require milk."

"D'uh." He paused as he got a glass down, setting it beside the syrup and milk. "You want some?"

There was a long pause. "All right."

With a triumphant grin, Xander grabbed a second glass. For a moment he considered preparing Giles' milk the Xander Way, then relented and left the second glass of milk un-syruped.

"This is almost done if you want to set the table."

"Setting shall commence." He moved to get bowls, trying not to grin at the odd look Giles sent his way.

It wasn't long before they were sitting down and eating. "What did you want to do today?" Giles asked.

The manic energy which had been slowly building crested, and left him flailing for a moment. Plans. For the day. Xander found that his new-found ability to think didn't quite cover things beyond the next ten minutes.

"I thought perhaps we could go out," Giles continued. "Do... something."

"OK. Sounds do-able." He'd let Giles decide. Unless he suggested the grocery store at ten am on a Saturday morning.

"We could invite Buffy and Willow along..."

Xander nodded. Stirred some more cinnamon into his porridge. It was good stuff, he admitted to himself. Never tell Giles he liked something quite so good for him. But good stuff, especially with chocolate syrup milk to go with.

"Do you want to call them then? Or do you want me to?"

"I can call Willow." He started to stand up to go do so, then realized he might as well finish breakfast first. He recognized the feeling trying to creep into him, and tried to decide if he wanted to. Implode again.

He sighed. He was too tired to implode. He ate another spoonful of porridge and asked, "Do we know where we're going? Or should they just meet us here and we can sit around for an hour trying to decide what we wanna do?" He was almost smiling again by the time he'd finished asking.

"Hopefully it won't take quite that long, but we can decide when they arrive."

"You've never spent a Saturday morning with Willow, trying to decide what to do. Trust me, an hour is nothing. We've been known to spend all day trying to decide on something."

"I will try to step in decisively if it begins to draw out," Giles promise with a tiny smile.

Xander laughed. It wasn't exactly funny, but he suddenly had an image of he, Willow, and Buffy, sprawled around the living room, doing the 'I dunno, what do you want to do?' and Giles, standing there with a determined look, saying, "All right, that's final! Flu shots for everyone!"

Xander lost it, and began laughing harder.

"I suspect I'm missing most of the joke here," Giles commented, smiling fondly at him.

Xander nodded, still laughing. When he was able to calm himself down a little, he went to go call Willow. Nothing like giggling over the phone at her to make her think he was really doing better.

After a relatively short time, they decided to go to a movie then just... wander and see what presented itself. Xander gave Giles a knowing look when Giles had agreed to 'just wander'. But truthfully, it sounded wonderful. Perhaps it was just knowing he didn't have to decide, didn't have to be responsible for entertaining anyone. He suspected he'd have agreed to go almost anywhere, if all he had to do was be there.

The others seemed to sense that and he wasn't asked to decide anything more complicated than if he wanted extra butter on his popcorn. Willow attached herself to his side, acting as escort and go-between and general "I am your brain today, do as I say".

It was Buffy, though, who ended up steering them to the arcade. Giles was tapped for money for tokens, then surprised them all by heading towards the games, himself.

What was even more surprising was that he was actually good. When Xander said as much, Giles just looked at him and muttered something about a not entirely criminally misspent youth. Then he gave Xander more tokens and sent him off to find his friends.

Xander noticed, though, that Giles was never that far away. Not exactly hovering, but being near. Just in case Xander needed him.

He didn't have to wander far -- Willow was only a few games away, at Ms. PacMan. Buffy was across the room -- Xander caught sight of the game she was playing and went over. "Vampire gophers?" he asked, as she whapped another one.

"Teachers who give homework on the weekend," she responded, whapping two in quick succession.

"Nice shot." He almost asked who had given them homework, then decided he didn't need to make Buffy give him one of those worried looks. It occurred to him that his homework fairy probably already had it done for him.

"Thanks." She glanced at him in between whaps. "You think we could get Giles to add this to the training regimen?"

"The bop'em gophers or the whole arcade?"

"The whole arcade. We're talking mucho hand/eye coordination and reflex development."

"I like the way you think." He looked around and spotted Giles near another video game, something with a steering wheel and pedals -- and from the look of it, either Giles was on the slalom race, or he was forgoing the 'stay on the road' rule.

One final dead gopher and the game ended. "You think we can talk him into it?"

"I think we can. Come on."

She grinned and followed him across the arcade.

They walked up to stand beside Giles, gathering Willow along the way, who gave them a curious look. They waited patiently for Giles to kill himself against a large rock.

Then Xander asked, in as casual and doesn't-this-not-sound-planned voice as he could, "Dad, can we do this again next Saturday?"

He watched as Giles got what Xander was beginning to think of as the "fatherhood" expression. "I suppose we could..."

"Cool! Thanks." Xander took Buffy and Willow by their arms. "You two owe me a game of Bomberman."

"Does that work with anything?" Willow asked when they were out of Giles' earshot.

"So far, yeah," Xander admitted. He enjoyed the impressed look on Willow's face, which then turned thoughtful.

"Be careful to only use your power for good," Buffy teased him. "Or chocolate."

Xander grinned. After Xander put a few tokens in the Bomberman machine and he and Buffy took up their places, Willow asked, "Xander? There's this book Giles won't let me borrow. Do you think you could--?"

"Consider it done."

~~~~~

By Sunday evening Xander was feeling almost human again. Not completely -- he had spent several hours over the weekend staring into the darker recesses of his brain, hoping nothing came out. But he'd also relaxed some, both out with his friends and at home, with Giles.

He'd been considering the question of school the next day, and was thinking he'd opt to go -- if only because classes would give him something to do. Giles was leaving the decision up to him, but making it clear that he didn't need to go if he wasn't ready. Actually, his guardian seemed more nervous about it than he did.

Every time Xander mentioned school, Giles would reiterate that he needn't go if he didn't feel up to it. Xander had half-way decided to take the day off, if only because he could. But he was a little afraid of staying home all day with nothing to distract him from thinking about why he was staying home.

Giles stopped himself in the middle of yet another spiel and looked closer. "You want to go, though."

Xander shrugged. "I missed a whole week already."

"That isn't important. But if you want to go..."

He was close to teetering on his decision to go. But he said, "I think I do. But I can change my mind in the morning."

"Yes, of course. Or even later. If you go and decide you're not ready."

Xander tried not to smile at Giles' determination to prevent him from upsetting himself. Perhaps if he let Giles spend the rest of the evening pampering him, he'd relax...

Sounded good, anyway.

They spent the evening not doing much beyond TV and the occasional 'could you get me a snack?'. The next morning, Xander got up and got ready for school. Giles was still hovering, worriedly. He was trying to hide the worry, but Xander could still see it, mostly in the way he kept glancing at Xander when he thought the younger man wasn't looking.

He was tempted to stick his tongue out during one of those glances, but in the end just went to school, promising the entire way that he wouldn't stay if he didn't want to.

"You can leave any time," Giles told him, over and over.

"I know," he said, patiently. Again.

"I'm repeating myself, aren't I?"

"Not more than a couple dozen times." He gave Giles a smile. "I appreciate it, though. Really."

Giles looked embarrassed. "I just don't want you to be pressured before you're ready."

"I know. And believe me, I am glad you're trying so hard. But I won't stay if I don't want to. I mean, listen to me -- demanding to go to school?" He laughed once. "I must be crazy."

"That is a bit out of character," Giles admitted with a smile. "Though not as much as you'd like to pretend."

He sniffed haughtily. "I never pretend to dislike school."

"No?" Giles sounded amused.

"Um." He thought back over what he was saying. Didn't want to lock himself out of ever skipping school in the future. With permission, which was more fun and challenging than simply not showing. "I never pretend I don't want to not to go to school because I don't not want to." He had no idea what he'd just said, and hopefully Giles wouldn't either.

"Nice to see such enthusiasm for learning."

He counted back over his negatives, and still had no idea what he'd said. He nodded. "See?"

Giles threw back his head and laughed.

~~~~~

By the following Saturday, Xander hadn't even felt a twinge from his ribs for three days. The doctor had tentatively said he could resume his usual activities, as long as he was careful. Xander didn't ask if demon-slaying counted as usual -- from the look Giles had given him, he suspected he was going to be benched for a couple more weeks until his guardian felt he was up to dealing with it.

That is, until Giles was up to dealing with Xander helping Buffy on the front lines. Xander had teased him a couple times that morning, testing the waters. Giles was still trying too hard not to twitch when he mentioned it, so Xander figured he wouldn't push. Yet.

He did, however, get an afternoon free from supervision. He'd sworn he'd be good and promised to call and agreed to be home well in time for supper. All in all nothing more than he wanted to do anyhow, but he *was* glad to be finally free of watchful eyes for a few hours.

He went to the warehouse straight away. He'd managed to call Spike three times since his visit, kept him as updated as Xander wanted to risk, on his progress. Something told him that if he weren't careful, he'd end up with a chaperone at his window while he slept. That wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the fact Xander knew he wouldn't be sleeping if Spike were staring at him all night. He grinned as he entered the warehouse without bothering to call out for Spike.

"Hello, luv!" He heard the cheerful -- and very close by -- greeting a half-second before hands were around him and a mouth was on his. He smiled into the kiss, welcoming the 'intrusion' as sorely-missed. He wrapped his arms around Spike, his cast offering only minimal hindrance. It'd be off soon, but it was nothing to keep him from being here now.

When Spike let him go, Xander gave him a smile. "Miss me?"

Spike growled. "Not any more. You're here all afternoon, you said?"

Xander nodded.

"Good." Spike gave him a predatory grin. "Dru's sleeping at a friend's house. Well, crypt. Won't be back til... possibly next month. I've seen her friend." He leaned in and began licking Xander's neck Xander shivered. "So if you want to stay a week, I won't mind."

"Can't," Xander said easily. He knew Spike knew he wouldn't say yes -- but the thought of staying, being here for days on end, doing nothing but sleeping and having sex...

"Oh, yeah... love it when you do that."

Xander pressed himself against Spike, his erection already stiffening. "Love it when you make me, too." Xander groaned, and took Spike's mouth in another kiss. He continued the kiss, rubbing at Spike's mouth with his tongue as he felt hands beginning to tug at his slacks. He shifted his weight back a bit, giving Spike's hands access to the zipper they were so clearly after.

He moaned as fingers brushed across his cock as his slacks and underwear were pushed down. Spike leaned back, grinning at him, and crouched to finish removing them. Xander stepped out of his shoes, then swallowed as Spike merely stayed where he was, looking up at him.

"You gonna-- ooooh." His wit failed him as Spike licked the tip of his cock. He closed his eyes, concentrating on maintaining his balance. He opened them again wide, when Spike stood back up and took his hand. "Wha--?" he managed, then simply followed as Spike led him to a bed.

He had time to notice the covers were already pulled back, and wondered just how long ago Spike had started getting ready for his visit. Then he was being laid on his back and Spike was leaning over him, and his thoughts were switching back over to guttural moans.

Spike crouched at the foot of the bed and looked at him. He nudged at Xander's leg, and Xander spread them, as requested. Spike watched him, staring at Xander's cock. Nervously, Xander reached down to touch himself.

"Yeah," Spike whispered, and Xander began to rub himself. He could feel Spike's exhalation on his leg as he spoke again. "Just like that, Xan. Show me..."

Xander whimpered, and repositioned his legs, pressing his feet against the mattress. Spike wrapped his hands around Xander's legs just above each ankle, and held on. The strength of his grasp made Xander shiver again, knowing that if he asked Spike would... might let go. His hand moved faster, and his legs trembled with the conflicting desire to pull free and remain firmly held.

He stopped his hand, suddenly, and looked at Spike. Spike's eyes were widely dilated, obviously struggling to refocus his gaze from Xander's cock to his face. "Eh? What...?"

"Come up here," Xander invited. He could easily bring himself off this way, but he wanted to feel Spike against him when he did. More than just his gaze; he wanted that body pressing on him.

With an eager look, Spike crawled partway up the bed and hovered above him, head even with Xander's crotch. "Yeah?"

"Yeah," Xander nodded. Spike reached down and moved Xander's hand away, took firm hold of Xander's cock and resumed the fast, hard jerk. Xander swallowed his cry reflexively, pushing himself upwards towards Spike, farther into his grip.

"Like that?" Spike asked in a quiet voice, and Xander could only produce monosyllables in response. The moans turned sharply into panting, strangled breaths when he felt Spike's other hand slip underneath him, fingers working their way between his cheeks.

As if of their own volition, his legs came up, both begging for more and granting easier access. He heard Spike's chuckle, then Xander's entire body tensed as he felt a single finger slip in. It wriggled a bit, and Xander pulled his knees towards his chest, offering incoherent thanks to whomever that his ribs no longer hurt.

There was a brief moment when the finger left, then there were two, pressing inside him. He began panting harder, wanting to grab Spike and force him to do more.

"Somebody's ready," Spike said, sounding amused.

"Been... practicing," Xander managed when Spike left his fingers and other hand still. Xander took advantage of the respite to inhale again, and give Spike a glare. "You stopped."

Spike wriggled his fingers in reply, and Xander let his head fall back again, returning to unintelligible moans. He grabbed his right leg, holding it up under the knee; his left leg he couldn't quite get a grip on. Spike moved a bit and gave him a shoulder to drape it over -- then leaned forward, pressing his leg in, holding it there.

The only movement Xander could feel was Spike's hands. One on him, one in him; Xander pushed as well as he could from the position he was in, against both. Again the fingers left briefly, then this time there were three. They sank in easily and Xander cried out, pulling Spike towards him with his left leg.

Spike chuckled. "You have been practicing. Been getting ready for me?"

Xander nodded. He'd been playing with himself, carefully, indulging in fantasies he hoped to play out. Sometimes when he'd wake from one of *those* dreams, he'd masturbate to furiously replaced images of Spike. But right now all his brain could see were lights, exploding.

"You want me in there?" Spike near-growled, and Xander nodded, unable to voice any of the pleading he knew had to be written all over his face. God, he just wanted to feel-- and he shouted, as Spike hit that spot, brushed it once and then again and then... Xander tossed his head from side to side, trying to move and unable to against the heavy weight of Spike, holding him down. Holding him down and open and fucking him... He heard himself making sudden, loud noises, and felt a nip at his leg.

"Spiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiike," he begged.

For one horrifying moment everything stopped. He opened his eyes and focused.

"You're sure?"

"Fuck me, dammit!" If he wasn't sure, he'd have said so ages ago, or kicked Spike when he'd first dared touch him. Spike's hungry smile reappeared and he moved away, towards the side of the bed.

When he returned, he was already applying a generous amount of lube to his cock. Xander blinked, wondering just when Spike had unzipped his jeans, decided he could care less. Spike was still otherwise fully dressed, but Xander wasn't about to call things to a halt just so he could strip.

Spike returned to his previous position, slightly adjusted so he was right between Xander's legs. He touched Xander again, lightly, with a ghost of a finger, then he was raising Xander's hips just enough-- and slamming himself home.

Xander screamed, pulling his legs up and out as hard as he could, already moving up and down in tiny movements. The sensation was more than he'd ever felt, home alone with only his hand for enjoyment. Though the pain was unexpected, the sight of Spike, fully vamped out above him, shocked him from thinking of calling for a moment to wait. He whimpered as Spike moved, feeling his body starting to split open. Then Spike leaned down and bit his leg again, not quite breaking skin and Xander felt his cock screaming for its own release.

He was still panting, still making those stupid half-cries that were echoing in the huge, empty warehouse. Anyone wandering by would think he was being killed. Spike held him down, hands on Xander's hips, and thrust again. His ass reacted, spasming around the cock inside him, and Xander let his head fall back again and took it.

The moment he relaxed, Spike thrust in again. Again, and again, and somewhere in those thrusts Xander began whimpering and pleading, for the pain had somehow vanished, swarmed over by the feeling each time the head of Spike's cock hit his prostate. Every thrust made it build, coiling inside him until Xander felt as if he had to scream or the feeling would tear him apart from the inside out.

Instead he merely panted, gasping for air and clutching at the sheets beneath him. He could hear Spike again, growling and snarling and his head was thrown back for a single, long howl. Xander stared at him, feeling everything freeze.

Then Spike moved again and Xander's world turned black.

He opened his eyes to find Spike lying beside him, one arm draped over his chest, one leg snaked between his. Spike smiled when he saw Xander look at him, and leaned in for a kiss.

"Mrugh," Xander said.

"Thank you." Spike kissed him, then lay down beside him and snuggled in.

Xander woke up a while later, held in place by the weight of a sleeping vampire. Spike had an arm and a leg thrown over him and his face buried in Xander's neck. It was vaguely comforting until he started wondering if Spike ever ate in his sleep. Spike chose that moment to stir slightly, tightening his grip a little... and nuzzling.

"Yipe," Xander said, holding perfectly still.

"Mmm?" came a sleepy response. Otherwise Spike didn't move.

"Teeth. Neck. Bad."

There was a pause. Then, sounding slightly more awake, "Bad?"

"Your teeth. My neck. No hickeys, remember?"

Spike sighed. "I wasn't doing anything. Nibbling, maybe," he added.

"Nibbling. No nibbling. Nibbling bad." He could imagine himself trying to explain that to Giles: "It's all right, he was just nibbling on me." Somehow he didn't think that was going to go over well.

"Nibble, nibble, mousey..." Spike muttered in what almost sounded like singing. But he made no further move to put his teeth on Xander's skin.

Slowly, Xander relaxed again, only realizing when he did that he had tensed in the first place. Spike, on the other hand, was still laying there, limp as a impotent cock. Showing no interest in moving for the rest of the day, Xander knew from experience.

He was having more trouble getting back to that boneless, mindless state. What if he hadn't been awake? Would Spike have "nibbled" on him? Would he have stopped?

Xander swallowed hard as he realized he didn't know. Worse, he didn't know what he could have done if Spike hadn't stopped. Basically nothing, since he'd long since stopped carrying anything anti-vamp when he came over here. He felt a sudden chill.

"Xan?" Spike was looking at him, again, once again barely-awake.

"I gotta go," he heard himself say.

"Hm?" This time, Spike sat up. "Go?"

"Yeah." He sat up as well, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. Trying to not seem like he's running away.

"You don't have to," Spike offered. There was the slightest bit of... hope? Disappointment? in his voice. Or maybe he was just still half-awake.

"Yeah, I do. Don't want to worry Giles. I've just got him out of over-protective mode." Where were his pants?

"He is," Spike said, with an odd inflection. He pointed towards Xander's pants, scrunched on the floor, halfway beneath a chair.

"Thanks," he muttered, retrieving them and putting them on. "Yeah," he said, continuing what he'd been talking about before, "He's been hovering over me, making sure I'm okay. Living up to that title of Watcher; that's what's he been doing: watching me."

Spike's eyes traveled the length of Xander's body. "Yeah, I can see that, I guess."

Xander blushed, as much from the thought of Giles looking at him like that as from Spike's gaze.

"Suppose if you have to go..." Spike walked forward, touching Xander's back before he could put his shirt on. Trailing his fingernails lightly down his skin, Spike leaned in. "Or you could stay."

He shivered as parts of him heartily seconded that suggestion. "I--"

Spike kissed his shoulder. Licked his way up towards his neck...

And the next thing Xander knew he was across the room, breathing hard. He looked back to find Spike blinking at him. He started to frown, then, inexplicably, laughed. Anger bubbled up inside Xander. "What?" he all but yelled.

"Jumpy, aren't we?" He was still grinning, looking for all like he had that first night Xander had met him. Except for the being naked. "Come on, I'm not going to bite you. Told you that."

"Yeah." He finished putting on his shirt, his movements jerky with anger -- at Spike or at himself, he wasn't sure. "I gotta go."

He didn't get an answer this time. When he looked over, Spike was still just watching him. Almost like he didn't care. Which made Xander feel even more like an idiot than he already did. He turned on his heel and walked out.

~~~~~

The sun was bright and warm when he stepped outside. He stopped for a moment -- fully in the sun -- and tilted his head back. He had to do something. Only he didn't know what. Talking to Giles was out. The only one who knew about Spike and him was... Angel. Could he...?

Possibly. If not, at least he wouldn't go running to Giles. Might hound Xander to do so, but not do it, himself. And if things got really bad, he might even help Xander--

Both against Spike and with Giles, because if things got that bad he would have to tell Giles about it. Then he'd spend the rest of his life under armed guard against his own stupidity. But lectures and holy water dousings would be nothing compared to turning his lover to dust because he'd suddenly become untrustworthy.

Xander wanted to smack himself. There had to be a reason he got himself into these things. With a sigh, he headed off, to see how... if he needed to get himself out of this one. It had to say something about his life that he was spending the day visiting the undead. He wasn't sure he wanted to know what.

When he reached Angel's apartment he hesitated before knocking. Doubts and second-guesses starting running through his mind. There was everything reason to think-- he knocked.

There was a silent pause before the door swung open and Angel, half-naked and hair mussed with sleep, looked at him. "Xander?" He sounded worried. Then looked alarmed.

"Um, hi." He nervously ran a hand through his hair.

"Are you all right?" Of course, he knew where Xander had been. Xander could tell by the way Angel's eyes were looking dangerous. Like he might go break something.

"I'm fine," he quickly assured him. "I just... can we talk?"

"Of course." Angel stepped back to let him inside. "Come in."

Xander stepped across the threshold and went into the living room, turning to face Angel and bouncing nervously on the balls of his feet.

"Spike?"

He nodded. "Or maybe it's me. I don't know." He sunk down on Angel's couch.

"What happened?" Angel asked sternly. It made him sound completely in control. Xander found it reassuring.

"He... nibbled." It didn't sound nearly as daunting saying it out loud as it had in his thoughts.

"Are you all right?" The way he asked made Xander feel not quite so stupid for saying it. There *was*, despite the emotional wiggins, the actual physical danger. Which was part of the emotional wiggins. Or the entire.

"Yeah." He tilted his head to either side. "Not even a hickey. It just... freaked me out a little."

Angel nodded, leaned back against the wall. Arms folded, he looked at Xander. Waited. He could almost hear the "told you so" that Angel wasn't saying.

"I'm probably being unfair, I mean he didn't *do* anything--"

"Except almost bite you."

Xander felt a sudden pull on his leg. Not almost. But he hadn't *taken* anything... had he? "He promised he wouldn't," he said softly, wrapping his arms around himself.

"Xander... Spike's word is good only as long as he wants it to be. That can be ten minutes or a hundred and twenty six years, at last count. I know he cares about you. But that doesn't mean he's safe. Or that he'll decide this is a promise he'll keep forever."

"I know." He did. But that didn't explain the disappointment he felt at Angel's confirming it.

Angel moved forward, then, and crouched in front of him. "Xander. He might care about you as much as he can care about anything. But that won't change what he is. It won't make him into one of the good guys. He can love you, and still be evil. Still--" Angel cut himself off, but from the way he was looking at him, Xander thought he knew what else Angel wanted to say.

Still kill people. "I know."

"Xander, believe me, I know what it's like. You equate love with being hurt, and you--"

"What? No, I don't!"

Angel just looked at him.

He didn't. Equate love with being hurt? That was ridiculous. He knew what love was, it was... It was hugs and porridge, good grades put up on the refrigerator, and being sung to sleep.

It was Giles.

It wasn't broken promises, it wasn't being laughed at. It wasn't fear. But... it was, too. Because Spike didn't hate him. If anything, he thought little of him -- but why would he have gone so crazy at the thought of Xander being hurt? Kill, for him? Yeah, it was twisted and sick and maybe... not loving. But it was love.

Of a sort.

"I don't equate being hurt with love," he repeated, but admitted, "Maybe I don't find the two mutually exclusive."

"There was a time when I thought Darla loved me. Because she'd given me a gift beyond my wildest dreams." Angel's eyes darkened as his focus left Xander for something far, far away.

Xander shivered. "Some gift," he muttered.

"Yeah. Some gift." Angel stood, and walked away a few steps. "Xander... I may be the wrong person to be saying this, but even if Spike does love you -- is it worth it?"

"If I knew the answer to that I wouldn't be here."

Angel nodded. After a pause, he asked, "Did you want my opinion? Or just someone who could listen without staking you?"

He smiled a little at that last. "You're just going to tell me I should give him up."

"You won't, though, until you're ready. Or it's too late. I can't make that decision for you."

"I'll think about it." That was all he could promise.

Then there was silence, neither of them speaking, and neither of them moving. Angel suddenly looked awkward, like he had reached the end of his skills as a host.

"Um... so, what's been happening with you?"

Angel half-grinned. "Same old. Buffy, patrolling, and brooding. I'd, uh, offer you something to drink, but I don't really have anything. I have water."

"That's okay, I'm fine, thanks." Another silence fell and Xander shifted in his seat. "So how are you and the Bufster doing?"

Angel shrugged. "Well enough." He didn't sound particularly enthused.

"That doesn't sound like a happy well enough."

"Oh, don't get me wrong -- I love her. Whenever I'm with her, I just want to-- kiss her all night." He sounded a lot more enthusiastic.

Xander grinned. "I can understand that. Buffy is imminently kissable. Not that I've kissed her."

Angel returned the grin. Then it faded. "I just wish..."

"What?"

"I don't know. Sometimes when I listen to her talk, I find myself thinking..." He looked guilty again.

"What? It can't be any worse than me letting Spike nibble on me..."

"Have you ever had Buffy pout at you?" Angel countered.

"Not directly. I've seen her pout at Giles, though." He put on his most sympathetic face. "She's been pouting at you?"

"Not yet. Not... as much as she's capable of. But -- I know girls. She twists me around her little finger like I'm not old enough to know better. I find myself agreeing with things before I even know she's asked me for something." He shook his head. "It'd be great, if--" He sighed. "If I didn't find myself thinking I don't..."

Xander looked at him encouragingly. "Don't...?"

"Sometimes I don't think I love her."

Oh. "Um... that's, um..."

"Not what you expected to hear?" Angel half-smiled.

"That was so far from what I expected to hear, we're talking different dimensions."

Angel's half-smile melted into a real smile. "Believe me, sometimes I think I'm in another dimension from where I think I am. Or ought to be. I mean, Buffy loves me. With everything that she is, and I--" He stopped, obviously trying to think of what to say. "I'd be a fool not to just want that. Forever."

"But you feel what you feel." There was a familiar ring to that.

"Yeah. When I'm with her, it's all I want. To be with her, forever. She makes me feel... things I've never felt in my entire life. She makes me feel loved."

Oh, yeah, he knew that feeling. "That can make you a little crazy."

"I don't want to lose her," Angel said quickly. "And I do... care about her. Sometimes I even think I love her. Sometimes I think I love the idea of her."

"So basically we're both screwed up in love."

"Basically," Angel agreed.

"Nice to know I'm not alone."

"No, you're not alone."

Xander had a feeling he was talking about more than being screwed up. "Are we having a Moment?"

"I think so. I'm not sure -- it's been a long time since I had a Moment," Angel said, almost seriously.

"How long?"

Angel started to think about it, then the silence dragged. His expression turned more thoughtful. Finally he said, "Spike."

"Spike?"

"Spike. Was my last Moment. About a hundred years ago."

This he had to hear. He looked attentive.

Angel looked embarrassed. "It was after I got my soul. I... found Spike and Dru, wanted to apologize. There was no way, of course. But I had to try something."

"What did you try?"

If anything, he looked even more embarrassed. "Um. I... well, Dru was easier. She was insane," and a dark look passed over his face, darker than Xander ever wanted to see again. "I brought her presents, and she said she forgave me. She didn't, but she was happy."

Willfully ignoring the insane bit, Xander asked, "And Spike?"

In a quiet, almost dead voice, Angel said, "I told Spike he could ask me for anything. And I'd give it to him."

"What did he ask for?" he asked, just as hushed.

"He asked me to go away." Angel's gaze flickered up at him, met Xander's gaze for a moment before falling away again.

"Um... don't take this the wrong way, but as Moments go, that pretty much sucks."

"Oh, that wasn't really the moment. It was just after. He told me to go away, so I turned around and walked out -- he ran after me. We... didn't talk much, and he ended up saying that that was what he really wanted. But... for a few minutes, we... had a Moment."

"Complete with dramatic exit."

"Of course. I'm a vampire - can't expect anything less." The smile was back, sardonic and not quite hiding a long-felt pain.

"Yeah, but I bet you have it in you to be a trendsetter. Break out of the stereotype."

Angel shook his head. "I don't know. I'm not really good with risks."

Xander shrugged, feeling a bit like philosophy boy. "Even I know that life is all about risks. Or, in your case, unlife."

"Yeah, but it's easier not to take risks, when you've seen what can happen if you do." Angel shrugged, and made a visible effort to lighten the mood again. "Besides, I have time. I can take a risk next century."

"Being a vampire gives a whole new meaning to long-term planning."

"And investment payoffs."

Xander blinked. He'd never thought of that. "Hey, does that mean you're the man to hit up for a loan?"

"Probably. Except Giles has more than I do -- shouldn't you be asking him for loans?"

"He does? Hey, how would you--"

Angel gave him a casual shrug. "I knew his grandparents, briefly. His family still has the money."

He wasn't going to ask, he wasn't going-- "How much?" Okay, maybe he was.

Angel blinked. "Giles hasn't told you?"

"It... hasn't come up in conversation?" It had, once, but he hadn't gotten a real answer.

"I think this is something you should ask him about. It really isn't my place--" Angel stood up, then, and it was that moment before the conversation was over, time to go. Take it, or change the subject. But it was getting late and he had promised Giles he'd be home before dinner.

There was no awkwardness when he stood to go. Angel gave him a look of concern and asked, "Is everything going to be... well, with Spike. If you need-- anything. Ask me. I'll help."

"Thanks. That makes it... easier." Still incredibly confusing, but easier.

But Angel nodded, and walked him to the door. Nothing more was said, and, as Xander left, he felt like something important had occurred. Something like... making a friend.

~~~~~

By the middle of February, Xander had established a nice, safe, routine. He was dealing with school, more or less. Taken his semester exams a couple weeks later than everyone else, thanks to Giles, and had managed to pass all his classes with Cs and one B -- trig.

His friends had taken to keeping him company on weekends, whether he was helping Buffy train, or helping Willow stand groupie duty for the Dingoes, or just hanging out at the Bronze or at home, Xander was never left alone unless he wanted to be.

He'd even, after a week of silence, called Spike. Kept things carefully neutral, and made no promises to come over -- claiming homework and Giles and anything else that didn't sound extremely lame. He didn't know if Spike knew he was digging for space, but regardless, he had it.

His father was banished to the safer reaches of middle-of-boring class space-outs and nightmares at 1 a.m., both easily handled through long practice and the occasional snuggle. The only difficult part was the one thing he hated having lost, and the one thing he was working at the hardest to recover: the library.

It had always been a sanctuary, had became even moreso after Giles had adopted him simply because it was Giles' domain. And his father had taken all of that away. He couldn't relax in there anymore; even the thought of being left alone in there made him start to shake.

Luckily, he hadn't been left alone in the library since he'd had a complete mental breakdown from only *thinking* he was alone. He hadn't been able to go into the library again until a week ago, and although Giles had been right there, it had lasted all of ten minutes.

He was now trying, every day, to spend more time there. Work his way up to a good old fashioned all-night research party. He shivered at the thought. Maybe in a couple more months.

Giles was nearby reorganizing the card catalogue, or at least that was what he was pretending to do. The rapidity of his movement to Xander's side when he shivered sort of belied any possible claims of concentrating on the task at hand.

"Good reflex," Xander said easily, hiding both the reason he'd shivered and the recent desire to be allowed to react to things without Giles *over*-reacting. "How are you on the balance beam?" He told himself he didn't need to crawl into an embrace at the mere thought of being here for ten hours.

"I think the pertinent question is how is your balance?" Giles' eyes searched his face.

"Fine. Stablising. It's OK as long as I don't poke at it," he babbled his way to near-truth.

Giles smiled faintly. "Which you can't resist doing."

He grinned, sheepishly. "Call it morbid curiousity. Or don't, considering the Latin root of the word and I am so not into dying of curiousity. Or curious about dying. Can I shut up now, or should I -- hey!" His eyes narrowed as he remembered something he'd meant to ask about. As he stopped for breath though, he registered the look on Giles' face. "Two," he answered, before Giles could ask.

Eyes narrowed, Giles asked, "And how many chocolate bars?"

"Um?" Xander looked cute. Truthfully, one of the cokes he'd bought for Willow, only to find her already sharing one with Oz. It wasn't like he'd *intended* to drink two cokes and eat three candy bars.

"That's what I thought." Giles paused, then asked seriously, "Do you need to leave?"

"No. I'm doing OK." Then he narrowed his eyes again and returned to his earlier unasked question. "Hey."

"Yes?"

"Are you rich?"

Giles blinked. "Didn't we already have this conversation?"

"Yes, but I seem to recall you leaving me with the impression you could buy me clothes and a car, not 'richer than a vampire with two hundred years' worth of interest'." He had a sudden image of out-buying Cordelia, even if just once.

"Does it make a difference?"

"I'd just like to know if I'm supposed to be an elitist snob, or just freely comfortable. Um, not that you're a snob, but I'm in high school -- I have to have *something* to flaunt before my peers. Besides a tendency to attract bullies."

The look on Giles' face said clearly he was about to launch into lecture.

Xander spoke quickly to forestall it. "Or at least pay for the window."

Giles stopped, and blinked. "What window?"

Xander gave him a confused look. "What window?"

Giles opened his mouth to answer, then shut it again without saying anything. "Either you've had too many sodas or I haven't had enough," he finally declared.

"*I* only had three. Um, two." The ones Willow gave him never counted. He grinned, then took up the stack of cards Giles had set down. "So! Dewey decimal system."

"Um, yes." He had that uncertain, I-know-I'm-going-to-regret-whatever-you're-planning tone in his voice.

"Filing?" Xander asked, in a 'surely nothing can go wrong, you must be paranoid' tone of his own. Rather than the 'isn't that a Borgora demon behind you?' tone which he'd used up the previous night.

"That's what one usually uses it for, yes."

Xander moved around to start helping with the reorganization of the card catalogue, then asked, "Why didn't Huey and Louie get credit for helping with this?"

That earned him one of Giles' Exasperated Looks, but no verbal answer.

He worked in silence for a moment, wondering if Giles was just ignoring him because he'd reached his quota of hyper Xander for the day, or because he didn't get it. Brits were so tricky, sometimes. "Ducks?"

There was a pause before Giles said, "I'm going to assume you're talking about waterfowl and not addressing me that way."

Xander rolled his eyes, and muttered, "Brits." Then he shook his head. "Ducks! Huey, Dewey, and Louie! Donald's nephews; geez, what planet did you grow up on?"

"Ah. Yes. Ducks. How... non sequitur."

"Non sequitur?" Xander asked, surprised.

"Yes. Not having anything to do with the conversation..." Giles paused. "On second thought, that tends to be normal for you."

"I know what it means. I just meant, it wasn't. Dewey decimal system, I asked why Huey and Louie didn't get credit for it, then asked if you knew who I meant."

Another pause as Giles replayed their conversation. "So you did."

"So?" Xander asked a few moments later. He knew Giles would have no clue which question he was asking for the reply to.

"So?" Giles repeated.

"Why didn't they get credit? Do you know who they are, and have you been to Disneyland? Willow went one year and told me all about it."

"In order, they had nothing to do with the system, yes, I do and no, I haven't."

"You ever see DuckTales?" It was one of the things he actually liked about his parents' house. Saturday mornings, no one ever moved before noon. He'd have the house to himself for junk food and cartoons.

Giles looked at him. "I'm assuming we're not talking the rear end of the duck."

Xander grinned. "Cartoon. Um, starring Huey, Dewey and Louie, so still sequituring."

"I believe the word you're looking for is 'babbling'." Giles smiled faintly at him.

Xander was trying to decide between amusement and insult, when the library door was jerked open and someone was shouting. Xander spun and was pressed back against Giles before he had time to process that he'd recognized the voice calling out Giles' name.

Giles' hand came to rest on his shoulder and squeezed reassuringly. "Please try to remember this *is* a library, Buffy," he said mildly.

"Oops, sorry," she winced as she saw Xander. "I was kinda distracted." She gestured to the girl who had walked in with her.

"Who is this?" Giles asked, his hand still on Xander's shoulder as the strange girl looked at them with wide eyes.

"Giles, Xander, this is Kendra." Buffy looked to each of them with a fake-happy smile. "She's a Slayer."

~~~~~

It was dark. The moon was half-full, and the clouds were thick and dark. There was a cool breeze stirring the leaves, and the scents of freshly turned dirt and rain were in the air.

"Now *this* is vamp staking atmosphere!" Xander said, appreciatively.

"Definitely," Buffy agreed. "All we need are the vamps."

Xander took a look around the cemetery. He was still expecting to see Giles in the distance, keeping an eye on him. He grinned, wondering if Giles would run into Spike, off in the bushes. Yeah, like that was what he needed. "Here, vampies, vampies," he called -- quietly.

"Does that ever work?"

Xander looked at her, surprised. "I got it from you, 'Slayer'."

"I never do that." Buffy looked sideways at him uncertainly. "Do I?"

He nodded. "You do. I'm sure it's a highly refined, secret Slayer technique which you've practiced for months."

"Nervous tic."

Xander gave her a careful look. "Nervous? What is there for you to be nervous about? They're just vampires."

"Breaking a nail?" she tried.

Xander grabbed her hand, and looked at it. "Already filed down. Try again? Love the blue sparkles, by the way."

She grinned. "Thanks. Just call me the slayer trendsetter."

"Slayer Trendsetter," he repeated, dutifully. "Pretty soon all the Slayers will be wearing short skirts and wearing blue nail polish." He eyed her slacks. "That was a hint, by the way."

"Uh huh. Hint noted, but not necessarily taken."

"Can't blame a guy for trying. Huh. I wonder if Kendra takes hints."

"I'm not sure she'd even recognize hints. She's still a little overwhelmed by the whole girl-boy interrelation thing."

"You're kidding. I thought that was just an act. Makes her all the cuter, so it's working." Xander heard himself starting to babble. He stifled it, though there was no reason to avoid making Buffy think he thought Kendra was cute. She was. The only one he had to not let know was Spike -- and how often did Buffy chat with vampires?

OK, before she staked them?

And the thought of Buffy and Spike actually having a conversation was just way too problematic to dwell on.

"Nope," Buffy was saying, and he yanked his attention back to the conversation at hand. "Her watcher apparently kept her sequestered. Can't let things like boys and fun and having a life interfere with the slayer's duties after all."

"Oh. Huh." Xander walked for a bit, watching the quiet graves and thinking.

"We lucked out with Giles." Buffy's voice was soft.

"More ways than one." Xander found it was harder to say than he'd have thought. Then again, there were a lot of things he couldn't say -- most of them to Giles. But he thought Giles knew them already. Xander pointed. "Vampires."

Buffy smoothly pivoted and punched one running vampire in the face, staking him an instant later.

Xander leapt to the side, drawing the attention of a second vampire while Buffy went after the third. Xander ducked a loping swing, then threw a foot into the vamp's stomach while dropping to his back. As the vampire sailed overhead, Xander grabbed the stake from his jacket.

"Aw, widdle vamp fall down go--" Xander said as he scrambled around to drop the stake into the vampire's heart. "Whoosh? What kinda sound effect is that, anyway?" He looked over to see Buffy, vampless.

"So," Buffy said as they resumed walking. "We need to get Kendra to loosen up some."

"Co-ed naked twister?"

~~~~~

Xander was staring at his history textbook, not at all amused at having to study recent history of Great Britain. Reading about things that had happened in England a little over a century ago was not helping keep his mind off last night's phone call.

He was having trouble coming up with reasons not to visit Spike, and last night had finally agreed he'd come by. He'd done it to avoid an argument, but ever since he'd been unable to stifle the fear.

"--der?" A hand took the book out of his hand and he blinked upwards dazedly at Willow.

"Yes?" He blinked and tried to look attentive.

"I've been talking for the last ten minutes. Where were you?"

"Um..." He tried frantically of something to say. He knew what she'd be thinking -- off in father-zone-land. But he couldn't tell her what he *was* thinking about. "Sorry. Romance troubles."

Why did he ever bother thinking he wasn't going to tell her anything?

She sat down again beside him. "You mean with the... who's still in the..."

"Yes, and yes." He scooted back on the couch, suddenly insanely glad they were studying at Willow's house. If her mom overheard them, chances were she wouldn't even understand what she'd heard, much less repeat it to someone. Like Giles.

Willow turned to face him, pulling her legs up under her. "What kind of romance problems?"

"Um, of the 'how do I tell him things aren't working out' without... pissing him off to the point he does something stupid." Dangerous. Stupid would be *his* part, of the dating a vampire in the first place variety. It wasn't that he cared any less, or wanted any less to *be* with Spike. He just couldn't shake the niggling of fear every time he spoke with him. Every time he thought about seeing him again.

"Things aren't working out?" She sounded as disappointed about that as he was.

He sighed. "They are. That's the problem."

"Umm...?"

He half-grinned. "Doesn't it make perfect sense? In the world of Xander, I mean." Then he took pity on her. "Things are working out, only I have to tell him they aren't, because I-- think we should break up."

This wasn't fair, he found himself thinking. He could barely understand what he felt and what he should do, and now he had to spell it out without saying anything that would give him away. Talking around something when he didn't even know what he was saying... Xander sighed again. 'Welcome to my life.'

"Is it because of the still in the closet thing?"

"No. Honestly, that isn't really a problem. It isn't like I need to bring him to school dances or drape myself over him at the Bronze." He had a sudden flash of Spike at a school dance. No. Bad thought.

Spike in a tux.

Bad, bad, ill-timed thought!

"Then what is it?" He knew that tone of voice. That was her maybe I can help you figure it out voice.

He wished she could. Only he knew her solution to the real problem -- let's stake the evil vampire so he can't hurt anybody. Finally he said, "He... isn't someone you'd approve of." He struggled for a way to explain, not sure he wouldn't just make it worse. "And he's promised not to do... things. I'm afraid he isn't going to keep his promise, in which case I'd have to break up with him anyhow, only--" It might be too late.

Willow laid a sympathetic hand on his arm. "Drugs?"

Xander sighed, and figured he might as well let her think that. "The thing is, I don't wanna stop seeing him. I just don't think... It isn't always safe."

She was silent for a long moment. "This conversation is awfully familiar."

He looked at her. "Huh?" He could only remember telling her about Spike once.

"You not wanting to leave someone you love but who is hurting you." She gave him a significant look. "Sound familiar?"

Xander wanted to glare at her. Why was everyone saying that? Spike was *nothing* like his father. Just because Willow -- and Angel, who knew both Spike and abusive fathers -- had come to that conclusion. It wasn't like Spike was hurting him.

He was just afraid Spike might kill him. Turn him, rather, which was more likely if Spike really *did* care about him.

Carefully, he said, "He isn't hurting me. He's never hurt me." The bites on his leg hadn't even broken skin. Everything else, well, it was *supposed* to hurt the first time, right?

"Then why are you afraid?"

There was the question. The one he'd been trying to find an answer to which would allow him to keep seeing Spike.

"And from where I'm sitting, he is hurting you. Maybe not leaving bruises, but in here." She reached out and touched his chest.

"Isn't love always supposed to hurt?" he asked harshly, thinking of Angel's words. Love her, even when it hurts. He didn't see Angel leaving Buffy anytime soon.

"No! It might not always be easy, but it's not supposed to hurt. No hurting. Hurting is bad."

He let his head fall back, contemplating the safety of a blank white ceiling. "I don't want to break up with him." What if *that* were what pissed him off enough to break his promise? Xander shut his eyes. Why couldn't things be easy?

Why couldn't he be Dick Grayson, instead of Xander Harris, boy... whatever he was.

He could feel Willow watching him. "You're afraid to break up."

He didn't flinch, but he felt himself freeze, just a tiny bit. Having a best friend who knew you this well was sometimes a bitch. He glanced over at Willow, who was looking at him all worried and scared for him, and felt immediately bad for the thought.

"You never have the easy problems, do you?" she asked.

"Where's the fun in that?" he managed, aiming for lightly. It came out sounding sarcastic and self-deprecating.

She moved closer and hugged him. "That's our Xander. Always a challenge." She made it sound like a good thing.

"Heh." He accepted the hug gracefully, knowing it didn't mean he was off the hook. Only that she didn't think he was hopeless.

Willow pulled back a little, her eyes downcast. "And you're probably going to get angry with me, but I can't let you stay in a dangerous situation. Last time I didn't say anything and you kept getting hurt until Giles stepped in. I'm not going to make that mistake again."

He sat up, fast. "Will, you can't." Except she could. She had every reason to think she should. There was no way he could convince her otherwise... "Please," he begged, anyway. Echoes of conversations years before made him slightly sick to his stomach.

Eyes overly bright with unshed tears, Willow shook her head. "I can't see get you hurt again because I kept silent."

"I'm not gonna get hurt," he argued, and still the echoes played. "What if I agree to break up with him? Will you keep quiet?" It was exactly what he didn't want to do, except that it was exactly what he thought he had to do, and wasn't-- didn't-- couldn't... All he knew was that he wanted to be safe with Spike.

Which was never going to happen. Vampire. No soul. He'd never be truly safe.

"You told me last time, he'd stopped."

Nothing like a big white lie to come back and bite him in the butt. He closed his eyes. "I can't. Not Giles. Please -- I can't have him knowing how badly I've screwed up."

"Xander..." Her anguish was clear. She didn't want to do this, but he knew she would if she thought he was in danger.

"You can tell anyone else," he offered, wanting her to know this wasn't about keeping a secret so he would be hurt. That made him think of a solution. He turned to her. "Angel. He knows, I mean, sort of, mostly. What if I take him with me? Make sure he-- nothing happens? I break up, don't see him again, and Giles doesn't have to know?"

"You'll take Angel with you?"

He nodded. Truthfully, he felt better taking Angel -- if anyone could protect him from Spike, it would be him. Or Buffy, but that led to all sorts of questions he was supposed to be avoiding.

Willow stared at him for a long moment then nodded. "All right -- but I'll be checking with him."

"OK. That'll be fine." he glanced towards his history book. "I can go talk to him now. Not like there's any chance of us getting any more work done."

"We don't have to study," Willow said quickly. "I mean we can watch TV or something..." She looked at him hopefully.

It made him smile. He relaxed back against the couch. He could agree to watch TV... or they could spend an hour trying to decide what to do.

"Not mad at me?"

"Not mad at you," he said softly. He wasn't convinced he could ever be mad at Willow for more than a few minutes, and then only if she didn't do the Sad Face.

"Good." She retrieved the remote control and settled in beside him. Handing it to him, she said, "Your choice." He knew it was her way of apologizing for earlier.

"Ooo. I can channel surf at 2 channels a second?" He clicked the TV on, not surprised when PBS came up.

"At least until I start getting motion sickness."

"At which point I promise to slow down to 4 channels a second." He began clicking up through the channels.

"My hero."

He gave her a lop-sided grin. "Always, my fair wise-woman-in-training."

~~~~~

Xander didn't know whether to pace nervously or to find a spot and sit to work up the nerve to do this. He'd clenched his hands into balls tightly enough that they were starting to hurt. He'd asked Angel to wait some distance away -- not that Spike wouldn't know he was there, but to have Angel standing right beside them would be like slapping Spike's face. He didn't want to hurt Spike. He just wanted to call things off.

Safely.

"So where do you want me?"

"Um, out of sight? Not out of earshot, in case--"

Angel nodded. "I'll stay close."

"Thanks. Um," he turned to Angel, trying to stifle the need to start babbling. They'd actually talked about this only briefly -- all Xander had had to say was 'help me tell Spike' and Angel was agreeing to be here.

That didn't completely calm him down, but at least he would be safe -- as safe as he ever was, at least. Living over the Hellmouth did wondrous things for your reflexes.

Angel was watching him now, not saying anything. Not accusing, no I told you so's, nothing like that.

"Thanks." If he could just get out of this, unscathed, he'd be willing to promise never ever to do anything like it again. He knew better than to actually *make* such a promise -- Hellmouth again -- but he'd be willing to.

"It'll be okay."

Xander nodded. Kept telling himself that as he left Angel at the edge of the cemetery and headed to where he'd asked Spike to meet him. He'd told the others he and Angel were just patrolling -- Willow knew better, but had said nothing, as promised.

Spike was waiting for him right where they'd arranged, leaning against a tombstone and staring out into the night. When Spike looked over at him, Xander felt his heart stutter. Spike knew. He might not know why, but he knew.

"Um, hi," he fumbled, stopping about five feet away. Trying to keep from wrapping his arms around himself protectively.

"So," Spike said casually, reaching into a pocket for a pack of cigarettes. "Can we do this the easy way?"

"Depends on what you mean by easy."

"I mean, you tell me why you're doing this. I decide whether I think you're full of it, then we either make-up and go home for some shagging, or we... don't." He lit the cigarette then tossed the still-burning match onto the ground.

Xander had been thinking about what he was going to say ever since the talk with Willow made this confrontation inevitable. He couldn't tell Spike the truth. Not all of it, anyway. "I can't do this anymore."

Spike didn't react. Then he shrugged. "Figured. First you avoid me, then when you *do* see me it's not 'come to the warehouse and talk or shag in private' it's out here, with--" His eyes glanced in the direction Xander had come from, where Angel would have been waiting. "Didn't reckon you were planning a surprise party."

"Yeah, well..." He looked down at his feet.

In a mixed tone of anger and disbelief, Spike asked, "You not even gonna tell me? Just say 'hey, get lost' and that's it?"

"It's not that easy! Do you think I want to do this?" All his conflicted feelings came to the surface, causing his voice to crack.

Spike looked at him, something on his face that made Xander want to say yes, it had been all a joke and he would never really want to stop seeing him. But Spike's voice was hard when he asked, "Then why do it? Come on, we can sneak you into Da Barge and mess with their yuppie little minds by snogging in the corner booth."

"I'm tired of sneaking." Without conscious thought he started pacing. "Most of my life I've had to sneak, had this secret I couldn't let anyone know. I'm tired of having secrets. I don't want to have to lie anymore."

"So you ditch me because you can't take me home to see daddy?" Spike sounded only surprised.

"Because I want to be able to still look Giles in the face."

Spike blinked. Stared at him for a moment. Then he sighed, flicking ashes away from a cigarette he'd taken barely two puffs from. "Yeah, well. Guess I can't say I'm surprised."

"I'm sorry." And he was, sorry that Spike was what he was, that he was what he was.

Spike looked at him again, and Xander was struck by just how hard it was to read his expression. "Yeah." He seemed to give himself a shake. "Just as well. Dru's been after me to take her to Spain. Might be a bloke there who can help her, you know?"

"I hope you find what you're looking for," he said, even if it felt like a betrayal to the slayerette part of him.

There was a tiny almost-smile on Spike's lips. "Yeah. Send you a postcard."

He could just imagine Giles' face if that came to the apartment. "Send it to Angel. He'll see that I get it."

Spike sniffed. "Like I want *him* reading my mail." He'd said it in a carefully raised voice.

"Better him than someone who can ground me until I'm fifty."

"I don't mind waiting."

His emotions surged at that, both fear and the other one he wasn't looking at too closely. "Spike--" he began.

"One last kiss before we call it off?" Spike asked breezily, giving him no time.

"Just a kiss?"

"No nibbling." There was a hint of something, again. Sadness?

He didn't want to think about that. This was hard enough as it was.

Spike dropped his cigarette, crushing it beneath his boot. Then he stepped forward. Xander swallowed hard and also moved forward. Spike tilted his head just enough, then leaned in and kissed him. Short, and light -- their lips had barely pressed together when Spike leaned back again.

It was the most chaste kiss Spike and he had ever shared and it brought Xander perilously close to breaking down. "I gotta go," he said, quickly backing up.

Spike let him go.

Xander turned and walked away quickly. Not looking back, because he was afraid he'd try to un-do or just re-do this whole thing, and he had a feeling this was as good as he could have asked for. He headed back to where Angel would be waiting. Maybe they could walk around for awhile, actually do some patrolling, and give him a chance to convince himself he didn't want to run back and tell Spike... Well, there was nothing left that he could tell Spike.

Then Xander saw who was waiting with Angel. He froze in his tracks. Possibly not too late to run back and beg Spike to take him to Spain, too. He saw Giles catch sight of him and realized it was too late after all.

If he ran now, they'd probably assume he'd been turned and wouldn't that be embarrassing when they caught him? Besides, hadn't he sworn to stop running away from Giles? Despite this entire 'trying to keep it a secret' thing, which, how the hell did Giles know? He'd have to face him to find that out.

Or he could run, find Willow, and ask her. The look on Giles' face was making him think that might be a good option. Except now Giles was walking over, since Xander hadn't moved since he'd come to a halt.

"Are you all right?" were Giles' first words.

He nodded. He realized it was an utter lie as soon as he did. But he didn't take it back.

He watched Giles let out a breath in relief, his expression reflecting that feeling for a moment before settling back into the blankness it had been in before. "Come on. We're going home."

In the back of his brain, he let out a whimper. He didn't have to wonder what Giles knew. How he knew. He knew enough to be extremely, exceedingly, 'wait until I get you home' pissed off.

Giles turned to Angel, who was standing by quietly. "Thank you for looking after him."

Angel nodded, shot Xander what might have been an apologetic look. When Xander glared, he shrugged. "I didn't promise."

Xander realized then that he *had* kept quiet about the rest of it, then. The parts he had promised never to talk about. It gave him a second of relief before he glanced at Giles again.

Even without all the facts coming to light, he was still in trouble.

He tried to remind himself that this was Giles. Not his father -- there would be no dragging him home for the beating of his life. Or the week. This was Giles, who only ever yelled or glared when he was angry, who would only sigh regretfully and be disappointed in him.

He'd rather be beaten.

Meekly, he followed Giles back to the car parked nearby. Neither said a word on the drive home. By the time they pulled into the parking lot Xander was ready to beg Giles to just hit him and forego the rest, let it be over and done with.

The silence continued until they entered the apartment. "Sit," Giles said, pointing at the couch.

Xander sat.

Giles paced for a moment, then stopped and looked at Xander. "How long?"

He knew he wasn't going to help his cause any by telling the truth -- but lying would be bad. Unless he thought Giles would actually *believe* his lie, which he doubted. "Almost a year."

"Did he ever hurt you?"

Xander shook his head 'no'.

"But you were afraid he would."

Xander hesitated. Then he nodded, and felt obligated to explain. "Not until recently. Before, he was--" dangerous, but not to me. Bad things to say to Giles.

"You liked playing with fire."

Xander looked down. Hearing it that way made him feel suddenly ashamed. Like toying with something that could kill him had been the headgame he'd been after.

But it hadn't been-- had it?

A hand touched his shoulder gently and he looked up into Giles' gaze. "I don't want to see you get burned."

Frowning, he looked up. "He wouldn't--" He clamped his jaw shut as he realized Giles was speaking figuratively. Too long on the Hellmouth. "He wouldn't have hurt me," he found himself saying.

Giles just looked at him.

"He promised he wouldn't."

"Like your father did?"

Xander snapped, "What *is* it with people thinking he's like my father?" Spike was *nothing* like... that is, Spike actually cared...

Spike hadn't ever hurt him.

Giles was still looking at him, calmly. Or just very controlled. "You tell me. You're talking about fear and danger under the guise of love."

"And you're trying to tell me he doesn't love me. Just because there's danger."

Giles shook his head. "That isn't what I said. But sometimes love isn't enough."

He knew what Giles thought he was saying. But he didn't want to hear it. Things were confusing enough without Giles' trying to give his 'listen to me for I am wise' input. Spike was gone. Going to Spain and who knew if he would ever even come back to California again.

"Xander--"

"I broke up with him, all right Isn't that enough?"

"Is it?"

Xander looked away. "I suppose." He didn't want to argue, there was no point in fighting about it. "Look, just ground me or whatever and get it over with."

There was a moment of silence. "I've been where you are, you realize."

Dating a vampire? Xander looked up, confused. No, he didn't know about that part so-- "What?"

Giles wasn't looking at him. "You know some of this, about the kind of things I was involved with in my early twenties."

"So? I thought you *were* the boy mothers warned their kids about." It wasn't like Spike had any reason to be scared of *him*. That thought made him feel even worse.

"Ethan--" Giles cleared his throat and started again. "That was what Ethan wanted me to be."

"Huh?" Ethan of the Ethan Rayne 'destroy Sunnydale for a profit'? "You two weren't just demonic-worshippers? Or was that-- I don't need those details, do I?"

"The demonic worshipping was a result, not a cause. Ethan was -- still is -- a pain addict. The demon worshipping came when I wasn't enough. Wasn't enough." He stared into nothingness and smiled humorlessly. "It was already far too much. I became Ripper and lost myself."

Watching Giles' eyes change, Xander wondered if this was something he wanted to know. If it was something he *needed* to know. It was OK for *him* to get mixed up in things beyond his control and dangerous, but Giles... was supposed to be above all that. Better than that. Giles' brief foray into delinquency wasn't supposed to be scarier than Xander's entire life thus far.

Because Spike hadn't ever *hurt* him.

"There was a time, at the beginning, when I almost walked away. I *did* walk away, but Ethan came after me and I went back." He met Xander's gaze for the first time since he started talking about this. "I don't want that to happen to you."

Suddenly he wanted to laugh. That was what it came to, didn't it? He'd had to leave Spike before it was too late. But he didn't laugh, didn't want to hear anymore. Didn't want to think about what it meant that Giles had gone back. Didn't want to think about any of it.

He needed to just go to his room and listen to country music until his brain stopped trying to think.

Giles sighed and leaned against the back of the couch, looking drained. "No grounding."

Xander flinched. He didn't want to know what Giles considered worse punishment. He wasn't going to offer suggestions, either.

"I'm going to make some tea. Would you like anything?"

Xander shook his head. His guardian looked at him for a moment, then went into the kitchen. Xander stayed where he was. Hadn't been dismissed, and he knew he wasn't out of trouble by a long shot. He wasn't sure why Giles was taking his time about it -- unless he was trying to figure out *what* to do with him.

When Giles came back he was carrying two mugs, one of which he handled to Xander. Startled, Xander accepted it. As he brought it closer, he saw -- hot chocolate. He looked back up at Giles, baffled.

"You looked like you could use something in the way of comfort food. Cookies would've taken too long."

He looked at the mug. "But--" It was hot chocolate. He looked up again. "But I thought you were mad at me."

Giles shook his head. "I'm angry at the situation."

Xander hadn't thought that it was possible to be more confused. But he was. Well, first things first. "Am I in trouble?" he asked, cautiously.

"I think it would be more accurate to say you got yourself out of trouble tonight. I wish you had been able to confide in me, but--"

"I'm sorry," he whispered. "That's why I broke it off -- because I couldn't."

That seemed to take Giles aback. He stared at Xander, his mouth slightly open.

Xander found himself continuing. "Every time I wanted to see him, I had to lie to you or someone else about where I was. When he called I had to pretend it was someone else. When-- he gave me that CD for my birthday. That you thought was from my folks? I actually like it, but I can't ever listen to it when you're around because you'll think I'm... He gave me that duster I wear all the time. And every time I wanted to tell you what I was doing, I couldn't. I couldn't ever bring him home, couldn't even tell you I was seeing someone. Couldn't ask--" Xander gripped his mug tighter and told himself to hush.

"Couldn't ask what?"

He should have stopped talking sooner. "About... stuff."

"Stuff."

Great. On top of everything else, he was about to instigate *that* talk, if he wasn't careful. "Just stuff."

Giles' eyes widened a little. "Ah. Stuff."

Xander uttered his regularly uttered silent prayer of thanks that he wasn't the blushing type.

"Is there... um... anything... you needed to know?" Giles was looking everywhere but at him.

"No, I got it figured out, thanks." At least he'd known enough to find out beforehand if vampires carried STDs. Additionally, thank god Giles wasn't tearing his head off for dating a *guy*. Lord only knew what his own father would have said to that...

"Well, if you ever have any questions..."

He laughed, once, fear and confused vanishing for the moment. "Yeah, I can see you're just *hoping* you get to have *that* talk."

Giles blushed. "I just... uh... want you to have the... um... proper facts."

Xander heard himself saying any number of things that he would have to shoot himself afterwards for -- all involving Giles, and the proper facts. Surely this night was not going to be so bad that he admitted to lusting after his guardian *to* his guardian.

He drank some of his cocoa. Full mouth gathers no foot.

"Right. Um. Shall we watch some TV?"

"I think I'd rather just go to bed." Crawling under blankets, headphones, and several hours of darkness before he had to emerge again.

"All right." Giles looked like he wanted to add something else but he didn't.

Xander paused, wondering if it was something he should chase after. On the other hand, he could count his blessings and head for cover. "Giles?"

"Yes?"

Maybe he'd just count them. "Thanks."

Giles nodded and smiled faintly. "You're welcome."

~~~~~

Xander crawled out of his bed early. He always woke up before five when he went to bed before eight -- a little trick he used to his advantage when he had to be awake that early. He crept down the hall silently, not wanting to wake Giles.

Last night had been... rough. But it could've been a lot worse. He was simply glad that, for now, it was over. He had no doubt there would be repercussions -- but for the moment he could tell himself that everything was going to be OK.

Wanting to show his gratitude, Xander headed for the kitchen. Every other time he'd made breakfast, he'd chickened out on making the waffles. But he was determined he was going to go through with it this time. The fact that he still couldn't remember what ingredient Willow had had to remind him to include didn't daunt him. Surely once he got everything assembled, he'd be able to tell.

Fifteen minutes later, he had a bowl full of batter and still couldn't remember. He dipped his finger into the bowl, and concluded that was not a good testing method. Was waffle batter *supposed* to taste that little like waffles?

He considered the batter, debated tossing it all out and going for cereal. But he'd already made the it. Might as well try one.

He poured the batter and closed the iron. After checking to make sure the little light was on, he busied himself getting the table set. When the light went off, he opened the iron... and stared. It was in pieces. And rather flat pieces at that. He poked at one of the pieces and watched it... act nothing like a waffle. "Damn it."

He heard someone walking towards the kitchen. Great, Giles showing up just at the most spectacular moment of his failure. At least there was no need for a fire extinguisher. He closed the lid to the iron, though, before looking up.

"What's this?" Giles asked, with a faint smile.

"Garbage," he muttered. He picked up the trash can, and re-opened the iron to dump out the pieces.

"Ah." Moving over to the counter, Giles checked the batter. "What ingredients did you use?"

Xander pointed to everything still sitting on the counter. The waffle-like-object fell easily into the trash. He set the iron down, and wondered if he should dump the batter in the trash can, or down the sink.

"How many eggs did you put in?"

He stopped. "Eggs?" Damn. *Now* he remembered Willow saying 'eggs'.

"We can still salvage it then. Can you get two eggs from the fridge?"

"We can?" Xander asked, even as he went to the fridge.

Giles nodded. "Just mix those in."

"Oh." Xander went to break them, and glanced over. "You'd think a guy could leave a recipe lying around somewhere." He felt a little unsure that teasing Giles this morning was such a brilliant idea -- but he'd never really been known for being consistently brilliant.

"I think I have one in a cookbook somewhere." He leaned back against the counter and watched Xander fix the batter. "I could always write it out for you, if you'd like."

"Or I could just stay in bed and let you cook breakfast."

"That does have a distinct air of familiarity about it."

Xander poured a waffle, closed the iron, then carefully gave Giles a piteous look. "I made breakfast once." Or maybe that had been the hint -- he did his chores as asked, but maybe he was supposed to be doing more? Goodness knew it couldn't be an easy job, raising him.

"I remember." Giles gave him a fond smile.

The fond look stopped him for a moment. He had to stare at the waffle iron, watching the little red light glow. "I'm sorry if this isn't... exactly what you'd been hoping for. Um, not that you ever said you wanted a kid -- but, I--" He lifted the iron, peeking at the waffle. It started to pull apart down the middle so he closed the lid again.

"Xander." Giles hand closed on his arm, urging him to turn and face his guardian. "I have never regretted having you here, quite the contrary actually. I thank whatever gods there are every day that you are in my life. Don't ever apologize for that."

Knowing it wasn't true, he asked anyhow, "You aren't just saying that because it means I'm not with my folks?" He was almost smiling, though, as he said it. He stepped forward and hugged Giles, before he could answer.

"I'm not just saying it," Giles reiterated, wrapping his arms around him tightly.

Xander settled himself happily into the embrace, telling himself that a well-cooked waffle was a good waffle. He had no idea how long ago the red light had gone out, and he didn't care.

"Whatever happens, I'm going to be here for you, you know that, don't you?"

Xander just shivered.

"You *do* know that, don't you?"

"Yes," he said in a small voice. He knew -- at least he didn't doubt it. But he hadn't thought that *hearing* it would hit him so hard.

"Good."

He sniffed. The waffle was getting a little *too* well-done. But he didn't want to-- He grinned, and reached out with one hand to open the iron, while otherwise staying right where he was.

"Avoiding the need for a fire extinguisher," Giles commented with a smile of his own.

"I gotta do *something* right."

"You do a lot right, Xander."

"But not, it seems, when it comes to cooking." He held up the waffle on a fork. The middle was dark brown. Very, very dark brown.

"I distracted you." Giles handed him the bowl of batter. "Try it one more time."

"That's about all we have batter for." He moved to scrap it into the iron, then stopped, deciding to hell with it. He gave Giles his best Willow-trained puppy look. "Unless someone makes more?"

"And by 'someone' you would mean me."

He turned up the wattage, slightly, on the puppy-face. Gave it the ever-so-subtle 'but you *love* me' tone.

Giles sighed and turned to the counter to start making some more.

"Thanks, dad," Xander said, and poured the rest of the first batch into the iron.

There was a very slight pause. "You're welcome."

Xander waited a moment before asking casually, "Can you put chocolate syrup in waffle batter?"

~~~~~

Xander found himself in a good mood when they reached school. Giles left him to go find his friends, with one last and probably fruitless admonishment against eating any more sugar until eleven o'clock. Xander had promised, though, and headed towards the courtyard. He caught sight of Willow and headed over. He still had to scold at her for telling on him.

She saw him coming and waited, her eyes downcast. Any actual anger he would have had, would have died an instant death at the sight -- which made Xander consider stringing her along for a while. Instead he went up to her and ducked his head down so he could see her face, and smiled.

"Um, hi?" Willow said uncertainly.

"I'm not mad," he said. "Not really; I know you meant well--"

"I didn't tell him. I didn't." She sighed. "But you know how lousy a liar I am. He asked if I knew if something was wrong with you and..."

"Said 'yes'." He could just see it. Willow would have stood firm for almost half a minute, before crumbling to eggless waffle pieces.

"Well, not exactly. I didn't say 'no', though."

He raised an eyebrow.

"Well, I did, sorta, but even I didn't believe me." She gave him an apologetic look.

"I'm not mad," he repeated. "I know you... thought it was best."

"I wouldn't have told him on purpose. Not after I promised. I didn't, really. But I might have said Angel knew."

"I know. It... it wasn't so bad that he knew. Afterwards."

She looked up for the first time. "Yeah?"

He nodded. "Yeah." Then he sat down, and set about distracting them both from the slings and arrows of his love life. 'Arrows' being a metaphor, and not... Xander wrenched his thoughts back to 'distracting'. "So. Tell me all about the happy state of your love life. Or Buffy's -- I missed our last late-night gossip-a-thon."

"You haven't heard?"

"Heard what? Dingoes got a contract and you're going to be a professional roadie?"

"Buffy and Angel. They broke up!"

He blinked. "They what?" He'd actually done it?

"I was on the phone with Buffy most of last night. Angel told her they couldn't go any further."

Xander blinked. "By 'further' you mean, not dating, or not *further*?" If this had happened last night, why hadn't Angel said anything? Besides the obvious reasons that Xander hadn't been listening, too wrapped up in his own break-up.

"Still be friends but not going to... um... do anything, no further."

"And by 'um' anything, you mean-- oh." He took pity on Willow and didn't spell it out. Even if it was fun to see her blush. "Did Buffy say why?"

"Just that Angel said he wasn't ready. Which was followed by a long rant about how if he's not ready after 250 years... well, she wasn't very complimentary."

"Huh." Xander frowned. He wondered what Angel had really said, to be changed into this after two translators. Or if he'd gone the "lie through my fangs" route to avoid hurting Buffy.

Like he'd done. Except he'd hurt Spike, anyhow.

"So mentioning Angel in Buffy's presence today is probably a big no-no," Willow continued.

"Got it. Thanks for the warning." He sat there, then, for a few minutes trying to think of something else to chat about. Something other than, 'so, you breaking up with your boyfriend, too?' "Guess it was just a good night for it," he said, bitterly.

"Considering she doesn't know you even *had* a boyfriend..." Willow glanced at him. "She doesn't know, does she?"

He frowned. "I don't think so. I don't think Angel would have mentioned it causally while he was--" He smiled, sort of sickly. "Hi, Buffy."

She frowned. "Mentioned what? And don't talk to me about him. Mentioned what?"

"Um, about the thing you don't want us to talk about," Willow quickly put in.

Buffy gave them both a suspicious look. Xander found himself almost caving, then told himself sternly he could resist. On the other hand, would he rather commiserate with someone who was happily still Ozed, or with someone who had just broken up with a vampire, too?

His ex's sire. How family was that?

"You talked to him about that? Not that I want to hear it." Buffy still looked more mad than anything.

"I didn't, actually," Xander explained. "That's what I was saying. That he didn't mention it." Was that what he had been saying? He wasn't sure anymore. But it sounded good.

"Oh." Buffy suddenly looked subdued. Xander reflected that she looked rather like he felt. Except that she ought to be looking like *Spike* felt and-- yes, that made him feel even better. Xander reached out and took her hand.

She glanced at him questioningly.

"I wish I could say it'll get better, but I've never done this before, myself."

"That's the traditional opening," she told him, smiling faintly.

"I thought the traditional opening was 'Dear John'." Xander tried to smile back.

"Only if you're the one doing the breaking up." A pause. "And only if you're breaking up with someone named John."

"No, actually, the tradition is that when you write to your boyfriend who's a soldier, you address him as 'John'--" Willow stopped and looked at them both, apologetically. "Not important now, moving on."

"Thanks, wise-woman," Xander couldn't help smiling at her.

"Fount of useless information, that's me."

"It isn't useless. If either of our boyfriends had been soldiers, it would have been very useful."

"Yeah." Buffy blinked, then stared at him. "Either of our boyfriends?"

Xander blinked back. "Um. You didn't get the memo?"

"Apparently not."

He ditched levity and simply said, "I was... dating one, too. Um, a boyfriend. Broke up last night."

She was staring at him. "You're..."

"Exed." He knew she was gaping at him for the 'boy' part. But at least she wasn't thinking about Angel for the moment.

"Exed from a..."

"Guy." Technically, of course, Spike wasn't a boy. Hadn't been for over a hundred years. 'Not the part to share,' he reminded himself.

"Um, that's good. I mean the breaking up part is bad, but the guy part..."

"Yeah, that part was good." He looked away. It had been good. He wondered if Spike and Dru would have left, yet. Then he stomped down on the wondering -- no good would come of wondering such things.

"Does Giles know?"

"He found out yesterday." He tried not to glance at Willow.

"And he's okay with you being...?"

Xander nodded. "He's a little annoyed with the rest of it, but he's OK with that part." Xander thought back. "I think. He might have just been more upset with everything else." No, because Giles had said -- more or less implied at hinting, rather -- that he'd slept with Ethan. That rather assumed a certain acceptance of the whole guy-guy thing, didn't it?

Buffy was looking at him, confused again.

"Maybe we should do something tonight," Willow put in.

"Ice cream and foreign movies?" Xander looked from Willow to Buffy. "An evening of the scorned - plus chaperone, unless we ask Oz to scorn Willow for the night, so she can fake it."

"The Dingoes have a gig so I'm technically scorned."

"Excellent!" Xander clapped his hands together. "Scorned by our men, though technically *I* did the scorning-- doesn't matter. We can drown our sorrows in ice cream and chocolate syrup and whipped cream and--" He looked at Willow's wide eyes.

"I see your appetite hasn't suffered any," Buffy said almost cheerfully.

"He always eats when he gets depressed." Willow was giving him a "I didn't know you were *this* depressed" look.

Xander shrugged, trying to maintain his grin. But he was thinking again about the look on Spike's face right before they'd kissed. He looked down at his hands. "It hurts."

Willow moved closer and hugged him. "I'm sorry."

He let her hold him for a moment before moving away. Buffy was giving him a sympathetic look of understanding. "So, chocolate?" he asked.

"I can do chocolate," Buffy replied. "With extra whipped cream tonight."

"And chocolate sprinkles," Xander added. "I'll stop by the store after school. Stock-up. I only hope I don't scare Giles."

"Horrify him, maybe." Buffy was smiling slightly now.

"Maybe we should do this at Willow's place?"

"We can if you want."

"What Giles doesn't know won't horrify him," Xander managed a weak-smile.

"Good plan."

"After patrol, then?" Xander asked, trying to get back into faking cheer.

Buffy nodded. "It's a date. So to speak."

"Yeah." Xander stood, Willow getting up as well, and together they headed for class.

~~~~~

A week and a half later, Xander was standing at his locker, trying to think of ways to get an advance on his allowance. It wasn't that he didn't have anything saved up -- he had rather a bit saved up. But he hated getting into it, especially for something like a middle-of-the-week, sneaking-out-of-school-for-lunch extravaganza.

However, since simply asking for an advance would involve telling Giles what he wanted it for, he was left either asking to borrow money from Willow -- which he hated doing, since her allowance was less than his, or borrowing from Cordelia. All that would entail would be inviting Cordelia to the Great White Sneak-Out...

Which would be OK, if it weren't for the chance she'd tell someone, who would tell someone, and before anyone knew it, their lunch hour away from home would become Junior Skip Day. No, it was probably best if he gritted his teeth and dug into his savings. It was only lunch after all. How expensive could it be?

Three hours later Xander snuck down the hallway on his way to class, trying not to think about just how expensive it had been. However, they'd timed their return well -- Devon had way too much experience at that, according to Oz. They'd arrived between classes so no one had noticed them sneaking back in. Xander kept trying to act calm and sedate, as if he hadn't just spent two and a half hours eating pizza, guzzling cokes, andplaying video games.

"Did you have a good lunch?" A familiar voice came from behind him.

He froze. Closed his eyes long enough to whisper a prayer for benighted teenagers afflicted with parental types who noticed where you were. Or weren't.

He turned to face Giles with a sheepish grin. Giles was looking at him with a faint smile. "Um, maybe?" It occurred to him that maybe Giles didn't know, and he was just asking. It could be, right? To stop him in between classes like he'd never done before, to ask how was lunch?

"Did you break your high score on Mortal Kombat?"

He sighed, and hung his head. Then he looked Giles in the eye. "No. The game was out of order."

"Pity."

Slightly confused, but growing more sure that this *was* just a friendly encounter with his local neighborhood guardian, Xander started walking towards class again, with Giles moving alongside. "So, I'm not detecting any fire or brimstone?"

"No brimstone. As long as this doesn't become a habit."

"How many times can you do something before it becomes a habit?"

"In this case, once is enough."

Xander sighed. "How come *you* got to play hooky a dozen times, and I only get once?"

"How did you--?" Giles broke off with a sigh. "My mother."

Grinning gleefully, Xander said, "You're going to regret ever giving me her phone number. Grandmum says you even played hooky all day, once, went all the way to some beach--?"

"I see I'm going to have to call and have a talk with her."

"You think she'll stop telling me stories?" Xander asked, dubiously. He stopped right outside his classroom.

Giles made a show of considering. "Probably not, but I could get lucky."

"You just keep telling yourself that, Poppers," he grinned, then ducked into the classroom before Giles could catch him. He'd been after Giles' mother for weeks, now, asking for embarrassing childhood nicknames. He wasn't exactly sure what this one meant, something about Christmas crackers Giles had stolen from the dinner table.

Glancing back over his shoulder, he saw Giles open his mouth to say something, then close it again, shake his head, then walk off, muttering. Xander giggled, and headed for his desk -- wondering much too late if he had brought the correct textbook.

~~~~~

"Oh, man, what time is it?" Xander looked for his watch, found it on upside-down. Michael had done that, when he'd wanted to see Xander's watch and couldn't, from his angle. He'd calmly taken it off Xander's wrist and put it back on the other way, then read the time. Now Xander had to hold his arm upside-down and try to read Tweety's hands.

It was a lot harder than it should have been. He didn't remember the numbers on his watch being quite this small either. And the second hand kept distracting him.

"Hey, Dev, you got a watch that doesn't keep moving?" He gave up, turned to his right where Devon was sprawled on the couch. They were at Devon's place, having a much better time doing nothing than they were supposed to be having in school.

"There's a clock radio over there." Dev gestured vaguely.

Xander peered over, and focused. The numbers were, as promised, not moving. He crawled over and stared at it for awhile. "Hey," he said, shaking the boot of whoever was behind him.

"Whayawan?"

"Isn't it four thirty?" He picked up the clock and showed it to the others.

There was a good deal of blinking at the clock before there was a general agreement.

"So?" Devon asked. "Oh -- isn't Space Ghost on at four thirty?"

"No," Xander shook his head and got to his feet. "Four thirty is 'late late late for getting back to school so no one notices you were absent all afternoon'."

"School?" Dev asked dimly.

"Yeah. That place we left right before lunch?" Xander stood up and looked around for his backpack. Giles was going to yell at him.

He'd managed to either not get caught, or not get Giles annoyed, the last couple of times he'd skipped. Granted, once was only a single class -- hanging out in the storeroom for forty-five minutes wasn't like actual hooky. The other time they'd been gone all morning, but Giles had been busy with some public school teacher employee meeting or something --
Xander had been back before Giles had.

This time he had meant to be back for last class. Or at least by the time school was out. But Dev had pulled out a joint and... Somehow it become four thirty without him realizing it.

He found his backpack, and sighed. He wondered if he should call the school, or home, or just head out. They were supposed to be meeting in the library after school, but these non-emergency, contingency research things often ended by five.

Oh, hell. Maybe he'd get lucky and he'd be able to talk his way out somehow. Use his temporary phobia of the library as an excuse maybe. But first, he had find the front door.

He found the phone, instead, and called the school library. When no one answered, he realized he'd have to head for home. He said his goodbyes, and headed out -- grateful it was still daylight, and that he hadn't had to call for a ride home. Besides, the walk home would clear his head.

Giles was waiting for him when he got home.

"Um, hey." Xander set his backpack down, trying to gauge Giles' mood.

"Where have you been?" Giles voice was sharp, his accent more clipped than usual.

"Devon's."

"You cut class again."

Xander swallowed. "Yeah." It wasn't like there was any point in denying it.

Giles' nose wrinkled. "You smell like--"

He almost said 'sage'. But Giles would probably know the difference. Even if they *did* smell a lot alike, and he wasn't feeling stoned any more, anyhow. He said nothing.

"You're grounded."

Xander nodded. Wasn't like he was surprised. But-- "Does that include patrolling? I'm supposed to give Buffy a night off tomorrow."

"Yes. I'll take your place." Giles turned away, heading for the kitchen, then paused. "And you are not to see Devon again."

"What?!" What did hanging with Devon have to do with anything?

"You heard me. It's obvious that he's a bad influence."

"He's a bad influence?" Xander laughed. For a year he'd been sleeping with -- and more -- a vampire with no soul, and Giles thought *Devon* was a bad influence. His laughter died quickly when he saw Giles staring at him. "Fine. No hanging with Devon." The guy wasn't a good friend, anyway. Mostly he'd just been a guy with wheels.

Giles seemed satisfied with that. "I'll start dinner."

Xander looked up, interested. "Dinner?"

"Ah, yes. I'd forgotten about the munchies."

"The who?" Xander followed Giles into the kitchen. Hey, maybe they had some of those chocolate graham crackers.

"The--" Giles stopped and shook his head. "Never mind."

Xander snacked his way through dinner, and clean-up, and through staring at his homework and not actually doing any of it. At one point Giles had threatened to cut him off from the kitchen, but by that time Xander was starting to grow more interested in bed.

He was feeling a little dizzy, and had endured dry British witticisms when he mentioned it. With a muttered good night, he headed to bed an hour before the usual time.

He crawled into bed a bit gratefully, feeling exhaustion hit as soon as his head got near the pillow. Darkness stole over everything, and for a long while, nothing moved.

It surprised him when he woke. He hadn't noticed falling asleep; though now, lying in his bedroom at half past one, shaken awake by a nightmare he didn't want to think more about, he knew he must have -- and didn't want to, again. His first instinct was to get up and go to Giles' room. But he stopped before he had even got the covers thrown back all the way.

Giles was angry at him.

It wasn't a huge mad, even though Xander knew he deserved more mad than Giles had expressed. Two weeks of being grounded and no real lectures -- but Xander had known, from the look in Giles' eyes all evening, that he was still angry.

He curled up in the blankets once more. He'd be wide awake all night if he didn't go to Giles, and he doubted somehow that Giles would let him skip school tomorrow to make up for the lost sleep. He lay there and stared into the darkness for what felt like about ten years only to glance at his clock and see only 5 minutes have gone by.

If he tried to lay awake all night, he was going to go insane. He pulled the blankets back again and carefully got out of bed. Maybe, even if Giles was too mad, he'd at least say something or give him a hug before sending him back to his room.

Even so, it took several minutes' silent urging to get himself to the door of his bedroom, and more even still to get himself across the hall. He pressed his hand to the door, not yet knocking. Leaning against the wall, he wondered why he managed to mess up just when things were becoming... bearable, again.

Finally, he just knocked softly. There was a brief silence, then Giles opened the door.

Feeling self-conscious, Xander said, "I know you're still mad at me, but I--" His courage left him in one fell swallow, and he managed, "I'm sorry I woke you."

Giles didn't say anything, just opened his arms. Xander hesitated before stepping forward. When he did, he found it difficult to relax, even though the embrace was as warm and comforting as it had ever been. "You thought I would turn you away?"

"You're usually not angry with me." It was weird, but standing there in the dark, Xander couldn't quite remember why he'd wanted so much to skip school all day.

There was a long pause, then Giles said softly, but with determination, "Xander, the one has nothing to do with the other."

He tried to figure that out. After a minute he just shook his head. "But you're mad at me."

"And you think that means I won't be there for you?"

He thought the answer to that was obvious. Whenever someone was mad at him, they either wanted him to avoid them, or they wanted him around to torment until they got over it. Maybe Giles wasn't really mad at him? He thought back to the previous evening.

No, Giles was definitely mad.

Giles sighed and his embrace tightened. "Of course you do," he muttered half to himself. "It's never been otherwise for you." Gently, he tugged Xander further into the room. "Come here."

Bewildered, Xander went. Maybe Giles was over being angry already. He certainly didn't look mad, and he was acting like all Xander deserved was comforting, not grounding.

He was directed to sit on the bed. Giles knelt in front of him, his expression serious. "I will always be here when you need me, it doesn't matter if I'm angry or not. There is nothing you can do that would make me angry enough to turn you away."

Xander tried to listen, but he was suddenly distracted by the image before him. He held himself tightly still, against the perverse chance that he would actually reach out and touch. He couldn't not stare, though.

He blinked when he realized Giles was still talking, and he had no idea what he'd said.

"--understand?" Giles met his gaze expectantly.

He shook his head. Even if he'd heard it, chances were he wouldn't have believed it.

Giles sighed again. "All right. Bottom line: you need me, I'll be here. Angry or not."

Xander swallowed and looked away. He felt bad, making Giles do this. Making him say this. "I'm sorry."

A hand gently turned his face back. "I'll accept your apology if it's for cutting class and getting stoned. If you're apologizing for being uncertain of your welcome, there's no need."

Xander nodded glumly. "I was... about the cutting school." He had meant the rest as well, but mostly, right now, he was sorry he'd made Giles mad at him -- if he hadn't, he'd already be tucked in Giles' embrace, sound asleep right now.

"Apology accepted then." Giles stood up. "But you're still grounded."

"I figured." He hadn't actually been thinking of weaseling his way out of that. "I probably have enough homework to get caught up on I won't even notice I can't leave." Then he wondered if Giles had mentioned knowing how often he'd skipped, recently.

"I wouldn't mind having more A's to celebrate," Giles observed.

Xander smiled, weakly. He was getting tired, again, finally relaxing. He yawned suddenly, his entire body being drawn into the yawn.

Giles smiled faintly, affectionately at him. "You think you'll be able to sleep now?"

"I'd like to see anyone stop me," he mumbled. He got to his feet and headed for the door. Nightmares aside, he felt a bit uncomfortable staying. The way Giles was looking at him, love in his eyes -- the image of him kneeling there.

"You don't have to leave."

"I... I know. But I'm OK now." And he found that he was. Better enough to go back to bed and sleep with other dreams he didn't want, but still oh so more preferred... "Thanks, though."

Giles nodded, but there was something very much like disappointment in his eyes. "If you're sure..."

Xander nodded, determinedly. But he stepped forward for one more hug, pleased when Giles seemed to appreciate it as much as he did.

"I'll be here if you need me," Giles told him one more time as he let him go.

"I know--" He stopped, and ran the automatic response back through his head. "Most of the time I know it. The rest of the time you gotta remind me."

Giles gave him another slow nod. "I can do that."

That made him smile -- a wide, genuine smile. And stifle a sudden urge to kiss the other man. He hurried instead back to his room.

~~~~~

He had no idea why he'd come here. Spike and Dru's warehouse. They'd have been gone for almost a month, now, if they'd really left the same night Spike had said they would. The warehouse was empty, no other denizens of the blood-sucking set had taken the place over. Xander was glad; even if he had no idea why he was here, he was glad he could be.

He'd been trying to behave since the 'coming home from cutting school stoned' fiasco, did his time on grounding without complaint, got caught up in his homework. But he was still... restless.

Hence this, his first day of freedom. Coming to pay homage, or something, he figured. Confirm that yes, Spike was in fact gone. Nevermind his phone still worked. Xander had let it ring a dozen times when he'd called.

He picked his way through some of the mess the two vampires had never bothered to clean up when they'd moved in. Xander headed for the area Spike had claimed for his own, and looked around. Everything was gone.

Almost. Laying on the table near the now stripped bed was a crumpled pack of cigarettes. Xander flopped down onto the bed. It smelled dusty now, smelled like the rest of the warehouse. He idly picked up the pack of cigarettes and found it was still half-full. Odd, that Spike would have left them.

He spotted a book of matches, and decided to indulge in a bit of curiosity. He'd smelled second-hand smoke for years, and had never understood why anyone would want that smell in their lungs. Images of Spike assaulted him as he lit the cigarette. He inhaled--

And began coughing so hard he wouldn't have been surprised to see his lungs appear on the mattress.

OK, curiosity satisfied; he shook his head as he held the cigarette out over the floor while he struggled to stop coughing. He still had no clue why anyone would do this. He looked at the burning 'fag', as Spike called it, and he could hear his lover's voice in his ear. "Bloody hell, Xan, what are you trying to do? Give yourself a heart attack?'

No heart attack, just making a passable attempt at suffocating himself, he told the voice.

The voice continued, more helpfully this time. "Don't inhale, then. Just suck the smoke into your mouth, then blow it out. Makes you look cool -- since you aren't yakking up internal organs."

Keeping the internal organs inside was a definite key point to looking cool, he agreed. Cautiously, he put the cigarette to his lips again, being careful to not inhale deeply this time.

It still tasted totally unlike anything he really wanted in his mouth, but there was no coughing. Xander grinned. Score one for the phantom voice in his head. He tried it again, and was about to call it quits as an experiment gone well, when he realized what it *did* taste like.

Once, when Xander had stopped in and surprised Spike during the day, he'd grabbed his lover and given him a long, hard kiss. Spike had tasted of smoke. He pulled on the cigarette again, almost desperately, reaching for the memory, for how it had felt.

It had been an uncomplicated day. Xander had teased Spike about something stupid, and Spike had responded by flipping him onto the bed and crawling on top of him. Xander had laughed, and Spike had growled playfully -- Drusilla had been watching them, a smile on her face as she spoke quietly to something she held in her hands.

Xander had then leaned up and caught Spike's mouth in a kiss, the taste of smoke exploding over his tongue. He'd pulled back and made a joke about kissing an ashtray before Spike had growled again and kissed him back.

The rest of the next hour had blurred into what Xander now found himself aching to recall. Spike had been on him, fast and hard and continually teasing him by kissing him harder, 'sharing the joy of smoking'. Xander closed his eyes, and could almost feel him, the press of his body, and the scent of his coat, the feel of his tongue. He finished the cigarette without even noticing and automatically reached for another.

He stayed there only another half hour, slowly smoking his way through the second fag and remembering all the silly things he and Spike had ever said to each other. Then he got up, slipped the pack of cigarettes into his pocket, and left. Spike wasn't here anymore -- but neither was he totally gone.

~~~~~

Giles was on the couch reading something when he got home. "Have a good afternoon?"

"Yeah, mostly." Xander took off his jacket and slung it over the back of a chair. He'd been fighting becoming totally depressed, and just enjoying thinking about things. He still hadn't decided, and was hoping that coming home would distract him from either. "When's dinner?"

"I thought we could go out and grab a bite. To mark the end of your 'imprisonment'." Giles smiled faintly.

Xander grinned. "Yeah! Sparkys?" Then he frowned. "I never called it that when you were within earshot." He gave Giles an exaggerated suspicious look.

The faint smile blossomed into a full grin. "The watcher sees all and knows all."

"Have I mentioned how not fair that is? I mean, unless it's working to my advantage." He headed towards the bathroom, asking as he went, "How soon can we go eat?"

"As soon as you can get ready."

"Cool!" Xander hurried to the bathroom. He gave his shirt sleeve a sniff, and decided that warehouse dust was no scent bad enough to require changing before dinner. He came back out, heading for the living room -- and stopped.

Giles was standing there with Xander's coat in one hand -- and the pack of cigarettes in the other. Xander glared, starting to get pissed that Giles had gone through his coat. The look on Giles' face made him keep quiet.

"I was moving your jacket and they fell out of the pocket. Would you like to explain?"

Xander shrugged. "I stopped by... Will's place. He was gone. They were the only thing he'd left. That and an empty pizza box."

Giles expression softened a little. "Will being your..."

"Ex." Funny, how it hurt to call him that. Like he was no more.

"Leaving aside your going over there for the moment, you picked these up as a souvenir?"

Xander walked over and reached out for the pack. Giles let him take it. "Sometimes when we kissed, he tasted like smoke."

"Ah." The look Giles gave him was full of compassion. "Just as long as you're not taking up the habit yourself."

Xander smirked. "I like my lungs where they are, thanks." Just to let him know that yes, he'd tried one and let him think that no, he wasn't taking up smoking. He had no intention of doing so, anyway.

"All right, then."

Xander took his jacket back, and slipped the pack back in the pocket. Then he took his jacket to his room, tossing it across the bed. He came back out, asking, "Dinner?"

"We have to talk about you going over there, first."

"Huh?"

Giles looked serious and forbidding. "Why did you go there?"

"He said he was leaving town. I wanted to... I don't know. See if he really did, I guess."

"And what if he'd been there?"

"Oh." Yeah, no wonder Giles was glaring at him.

"You didn't think about that, did you? Or were you hoping he would be there?"

He hadn't thought about it. But he knew Spike wouldn't have been there. He wasn't going to say it was because he'd called -- but somehow, he'd known. Spike really had gone. "Can we go to dinner before you ground me again?" he asked quietly.

"Xander..." Giles sighed. "I don't want to ground you-"

"You got any other methods for teaching me not to do stupid stuff?"

"Other than long, boring lectures, you mean?"

"Oo, I bet one of those would work." He suspected he'd sounded a bit too enthusiastic, when Giles just looked at him. "How about you look at me sternly and tell me never to do it again?"

"How about you help me at the library next Saturday?"

"Yeah, I guess if I'm there, I can't be someplace else doing anything stupid." He tried to look suitably put-upon. Truth was, he was getting more at ease with being in the library, and the thought of spending the day with Giles sounded wonderful.

"All right then. So... dinner?"

"Sparkys?" he asked, tentatively.

Giles smiled. "Sparkys."

"Just don't order the corned beef again, okay?"


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