Title: Bringing the group together.
Author: Voracity
Email: to list or bookwrecker@yahoo.com
Pairings: S/X, O/W, B/W, O/X, GILES/JOYCE, B/X, W/X and in talking about A/S.
Rating: NC-17
Fandom: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Summary: An AU version of the first year of adulthood, seen from Xander's apartment and insecurities. Will the rest of the group give him what he needs or will he push them away in some version of protecting them from the consequences of his life.
Disclaimer: not mine, poor so don't sue

Warnings: three (minor?) character deaths spread out. Het and slash relationships contained.

Notes: For Bast, because she needed something to make her laugh and because she was great about forwarding stuff when I can't get it to you. And for Belynda, who was in dire need of something to distract her from real life. Thanks tons to the Cheshire Cat, whose help has turned this from a guessing game to a very *long* piece of work. As always, to Sarah, who was my inspiration, and Mary and Dine, my beta/Goddess who makes it all sound good. Also, I messed with Disneyland a little bit. I wanted there to be a ferris wheel, damn it, so there is.

Notes Squared: When I wrote this, I hadn't seen the end of season three yet, almost none of season four, and season five hadn't been leaked yet. Now that I have, please consider it an AU starting around the Prom with mild spoilers for season three. I assumed a few things as this was written in between seasons and I didn't have a clue about the newest one. Forgive all errors in cannon. This was my first ever Buffy fic, written mostly during classes and lunches.

Notes Cubed: This was written back when I couldn't see the purpose of Wesley, or the reason for Angel to have come back from Hell. My attitude has changed since then but I'm leaving them not very nice in this one. Otherwise I'd have to change a whole lot of the story <G>. This is rebetad from the zine printing. Not many things have changed, but there's a little here and there. This is probably the world's longest fic written for the internet so I hope you enjoy reading it and have fun.

Bringing the group together.
by Voracity

"Alexander, if you're not going on to college or a training school, you're going to have to either become a productive member of this family or move to the basement so one of the others can have a chance."

Xander turned to face his parents, who had just said this out of the blue. "Huh?"

"The basement," his father said slowly, hoping his son would get it this time. "It's yours and you need to get a job."

The younger man nodded, then threw up his arms and went to what used to be his. He flopped down on the bed, looking around, resigned and already planning how to do this. He decided to deal with it later and picked up the phone. "Hey, Giles, do we have a meeting tonight?"

' ' ' '

Xander dropped the large and dusty tome onto the table, then looked up when everyone looked at him. "What?"

"We're just trying to figure out what's up," Buffy said. "So, you want to spill it or should I beat it out of you?"

Xander shook his head and stretched upwards, letting his shirt ride up just a bit. "Just thinking." He looked around. "I am allowed to do that, right?" Everyone nodded, almost stunned expressions all the way around the large table from the outburst. "Good. So, we're planning on spiking some almost dead bodies?"

Giles cleared his throat as he pushed across his hand-drawn plans. "Yes. This is the area," he circled a part of the map with a finger, "and it appears that this clearing would be the most likely starting point of their attack."

Wesley Wyndam-Pryce snorted. "Why would they attack in the open? The buildings are a much better bet." He pointed out his choice. "They would have cover for their actions and a ready egress."

Buffy shook her head. "They don't think like that. They take the easy route to food."

"Just like most predators," Willow said. "They strike in a convenient place and then drag the food back to eat it at their lair."

Xander looked over at his oldest friend. "You've been watching the Discovery Channel again, haven't you?"

Buffy shook her head at the banter between her friends. "So, we meet here just before dusk, right?" All the teens nodded. "Okay, so let's go have some free time."

"Have happies while you can, for you may be injured tomorrow and not be able to have happies for a while," Oz said.

Buffy and Willow looked at him. "Exactly," they said.

' ' ' '

Xander stopped outside the door of the Bronze and looked around, taking a firmer grasp of the stake he always carried now. He started the walk home, looking around carefully. He sidestepped the kissing couple at the end of the alley, ignoring the slurping and sucking noises with all his might. The female of the couple said his name and he started, spinning around, bringing the stake out to hold in front of him, ready for the attack.

"Xander Harris?" she said again. He nodded, struck dumb. "Cool, we wanted to talk to you." She motioned him closer.

"I don't think so." He stepped back and started to turn away.

"I'm not one of them," she said quietly, "and I just want to talk. You pick the place and time if it'll make you feel better."

Xander turned around, mouth open. "About what?" She shook her head, looking around. He ran a hand through his hair. "Park, bridge." He turned and walked off.

She smiled at her partner and followed the young man. They met in the center of the bridge a half-hour later.


Xander shook her hand. "So, you asked for this meeting?"

"Yeah, I have a proposition for you." She smiled, leaning against one handrail. "I know you know about the, well let's just say others, who live here too. Matter of fact, we've been watching you."

He leaned against the railing, trying to appear comfortable and calm. "Hold it, who's we, and why have you been watching me?"

"We are the people like me who provide a service to the ones that don't feed on humans like animals. We are people like me who give them, freely and happily, what they need so they don't hunt and run into your happy little group."

"Why come to me?"

"We want you to be one of us," she said quietly, looking around. She stepped closer. "You see, some of us are leaving for college soon and we want someone good, nice, to replace us. And I think you'd make a great feeder. Actually I think you'd be perfect."

Xander looked around, wishing for the one of the others to show up magically and bring him back to a normal reality instead of this strange place that he was currently inhabiting. Even Cordelia's sarcasm would be welcome right at that moment. "So, you want me to give up my friends and go join your happy little group to *feed* them?"

Sue smiled. "Not exactly. The Mistress, the one that runs Sunnydale's group of non-combatants, thinks that it wouldn't really interfere with your current profession."

Xander snorted. "Yeah, that'd go over great. 'Hey guys, I'm feeding some of the same people we're after'." Sue hit his arm. "Ow!"

"Just listen. These ones have pledged not to hunt. They can't have a sponsored feeder unless they've not hunted for thirty days." She pulled aside her neckline, showing him a dark bite mark just below her collarbone. "They don't take much, the acts that happen before hand relieving most of their need."


She smiled and leaned toward him. "They're great. Tender, comforting, loving, all for you. They take their time because it doesn't work unless you get off." She leaned back. "All I'm asking is that you talk to the Mistress. We can't and wouldn't force you, you have to come of your own free will."

Xander looked down, confused. He was sure this wasn't going to go over well, but he needed to do something and for some reason this didn't sound all that bad. And maybe he could just talk to whoever this Mistress was and just find out some things first; he was sure Giles would want to know. "I'm not sure that this is going to be kosher with everyone. I need some time to think." He looked back up, but Sue was gone and there was a card where she had been standing.

He looked around before picking up the card and going back to his basement.

' ' ' '

Xander wrapped a towel around himself so he could go back down to his room. He laid down on the bed, looking up at the posters he had put on the ceiling. "So, that was a nasty fight," he told himself, brushing aside the ideas he had come up during the fight, he couldn't do anything with them so they were worthless daydreams.

The fight earlier had been bad. Twice as many vamps showed up, Buffy had run out of ammunition because they had gotten hold of her stash and taken it with them. They had saved the people the vampires had been sent out to catch for the ceremony, but at a cost. Buffy had been carried home, her back thrown out and in spasms. Willow and Oz had gone to Willow's house to clean up his bruises and tape her broken fingers. Giles went home, ever-present handkerchief pressed to the gash on his head. Xander hadn't escaped the injuries himself, he had a bruise the size of a watermelon on his back and what felt like a bruised rib also. His jaw still ached from where he had been kicked but then so did his groin for almost the same reason.

The young man rolled over onto his side carefully and was faced with the card he had picked up the night before. "Sue Harrington," he read out loud. Of it's own volition, his hand moved to pick up the phone, starting to dial. When he realized what he had been doing, he put down the phone, last number still unpushed.

He decided he could call it tomorrow if the urge was still that strong, right after he talked to someone who would know.

' ' ' '

Xander knocked hesitantly at the door and waited while the one person who could answer his questions answered. "Hey, can we, um, talk?" Xander asked.

Angel nodded, waving him in, shutting the door behind him. When nothing was said for a few minutes and Xander was still standing there, fidgeting nervously, Angel decided to make the first move. "You wanted to talk?"

"Yeah." He looked around and sat down. "I had this, well I guess you could say it was a run in, with a woman who propositioned me." He looked down and started to pull the card out of his pocket.

Angel smiled sarcastically. "Do we need to have that talk?"

Xander frowned and handed over the card. "No, thanks. I've already had that one and done it, that is not the issue here."

Angel looked down at the card and frowned. "She was the one that talked to you?" He looked up to see Xander nodding, silent. "So, did you just talk to her? Or did she offer you her position?"

"Both," he said quietly, getting up to move around so he could work off some of the tension he felt. "I mean, she told me why she had been watching me and what she wanted, but I'm not sure and this is *such* a temptation right now for some reason. I just don't know."

Angel sat down. "Sit, Xander, I can tell you what I know." He waited while the kinetic teen sat and got comfortable. "This is an irresistible offer for one like you, and by that I meant not a lot going on in your life right now. They're not asking you for much, just a little of your blood. Given over freely." He tapped the card a few times on his hand. "Most of the feedees, for want of a better phrase, are good people who happened to be turned. Most of them can fight off their demons for a while, trying to return to a semi-normal lifestyle using a feeder to help them stave off the hunger. They take just a little, a couple pints at the most, at a time and for that privilege they provide for their feeders, take care of them."

"Like how?"

"I don't know. I guess some get a stipend to spend. Some would get taken on shopping trips maybe. Some of them get the ultimate compensation and fall in love with the one they feed." He shrugged. "I had one for a few years, back before Buffy came to town. We worked it out between us. I taught her things to help her get into a good college far from here and she fed me weekly."

Xander looked down at the card Angel had handed back. "So, they're not going to hurt me? Drain me? Turn me?"

Angel shook his head and sat back. "No, there's not a case that I know of that happening. The only bad things I've heard are that a few of the feeders, after becoming chronically ill from something like cancer, have asked for and been granted a sweet and painless death." He shrugged. "A side benefit you might call it."

Xander looked up. "So, they were turned?" Angel shook his head. "Just dead?" He thought for a few seconds. "Yeah, I can see the appeal of that. My Grandma died of cancer and she used to beg too." He sighed and looked back down at the card. "So, do you think I should?"

"That's one decision that no one can make but you. Part of the pact is a 'given freely' clause."

"Like contract?" Angel nodded. "Thanks man." He got up and patted Angel's shoulder. "Oh, can we..."

"I won't tell her," the vampire said.

Xander nodded, going for a walk to think. He headed out to the park and wandered around for a while, turning the idea around in his head. When he finally realized where he was again, he was on the bridge and Sue was standing there. She nodded, her smile hopeful, and he returned it, following her back to wherever.

They ended up at a big, old mansion near the end of town. She opened the door to walk in, holding it for him. He stepped in slowly, unsure of what he would find. He never expected to find a robust looking woman taking tea in what looked like an English drawing room, or at least it did to him.

"This is Xander," Sue said, introducing him.

He shook her hand. "Hi," he said.

Sue walked out of the room, closing the door to give them some privacy.

"So, you're the young man that Sue said would be perfect?" She looked him over. "Tea dear?"

"No, thank you." He looked around. "Those are nice paintings."

"Thank you, one of my favorites did those." She smiled and held out a tray of sandwiches. "Food?"

"Yeah, that was kinda why I was here." He looked back and blushed, taking a petite triangle of food. "Sorry."

"That's perfectly understandable, young one. It's normal to be nervous in new situations and I would bet you've never even dreamed of being here, right?" He nodded, his mouth full. "Take a few more, you look like you haven't eaten all day."

He smiled. "My mother can burn Jell-O." He took another bite as he grabbed a few more of the delicate sandwiches. "Thank you." He sat back. "So, I hear you wanted to talk to me?"

She looked him over, squinting one eye slightly. "Yes, actually, I do believe Sue was most correct this time." She took one last sip of her tea before putting the thin cup down. "So, tell me about yourself. You've graduated?"

"Yeah, just a few weeks ago. I'm not going to college or anything, I didn't really like school all that much." He shrugged and finished off another sandwich before going on. "I live with my parents, in our basement right now." He shrugged. "What else would you like to know?"

"Well, for one, where do you see yourself next year?"

He thought for a second. "I don't know. I know I should know, but I don't have a clue most days."

"And those others?"

"In my fantasies? One day I'm like Bu..., sorry my friend, and the next I'm a doctor working on some top secret project for the government."

She smiled and leaned forward. "We do know about your friend, don't worry. She's one of the reasons no one here would ever hurt you." She winked and sat back. "Believe it or not, I do think that the last one would suit you better. I can see you as some spy, or to be more precise, the technical guy who always has just the right thing for the job." She smiled. "I can also see you as a future trainer of people like your friend. Maybe not like Mr. Giles, that yummy librarian friend of yours, but someone that arms her and teaches her to fight better."

Xander sat there, mouth open. "How, if I may ask, do you know about us?"

"Well, let's see." She ticked off points on her fingers. "Careful observation of your group in action. First hand reports from one of us that works in the high school. General knowledge of what that man does from a friend who used to be one of them." She gave him a dazzling smile. "We have our ways."

Xander swallowed. "I'm going to become one?"

She laughed. "Oh, no dear. You have a much higher calling if you choose here. You would become one of the cherished ones that helps keep us sane and focused on living." She smiled. "No, here you would be the one that was counted as special and necessary."

Xander swallowed. She had known just what to say to him to shatter every argument, had hit the deepest desire he held. "Really?" He swallowed again, his mouth becoming dry. "So, I would feed one?"

"Yes dear. To them, you would be one of the most important things in their life. Their hold to a normal reality and to sanity. Here *you* would be the special one, the one that had the skills and what it took to get things done."

Xander shivered, the words running through his heart and easily finding their mark. "So, what would I have to do?"

"Well, let's see. Are you a virgin?" He blushed and shook his head. "Not totally then, right?"

"No. Yes. But, I mean, I've never..."

She smiled and sat back. "That would be up to you. You could have a female that fed off you or a male, or both." She waved around. "Whatever makes you feel comfortable."

Xander nodded, stunned. "How are you doing this? Hitting me right where you know I'll agree?" he asked quietly.

"Because you're not the first my dear boy. After five hundred years of this I can see the desire in your eyes, can see what it is that you covet. You covet an interesting life, some excitement. You crave a stable home where you're wanted and known for who you are. You hold in your deepest heart desires that everyone has told you are wrong." She leaned closer. "I'm here to help you achieve those and all it will cost is a small price."

"My blood."

"Yes, your blood. A small amount a few times a week." She leaned back and thought for a moment. "If you would agree, you would be under my direct control. I would oversee who would come to you and who couldn't. I would take care of you, set you up in an apartment and give you a living stipend, pay all your bills associated with living." She smiled. "You can think about it for as long as you want, the offer stands." She stood up and walked out, giving him some privacy.

Xander looked around before standing and leaving the house. He headed back towards his friends, knowing where he was going. Oz was over at Willow's tonight and he would be a good sounding board.

' ' ' '

"So, you're asking me if you should become a kept man?" Oz asked, tuning his guitar on the back porch of Willow's house. "What's the catch?" This was probably the longest conversation they would ever have, but this was a good time for it.

"Um, it's personal?"

"Sex?" Xander nodded. Oz was quiet, strumming a few notes while he thought. "So, what's the real catch, 'cause you wouldn't ask me if that was it. Your teen male hormones would have already forced your answer."

"It's .. it's complicated." He looked around, but not at his friend.

"Is it something that I wouldn't approve of?"

"Yeah, probably."

"Is it another guy?"

Xander shrugged. "Don't know?"

"You don't know," Oz said carefully. He cleared his throat. "How could you not know? Didn't this person approach you? Personally even?"

"Um, yes and no?" He looked back and smiled. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you. Let's say it's nothing harmful or dangerous and only on a gray area morally."

Oz nodded. "Okay." He looked down and started to play a song he had heard on the radio the other day. Finally he stopped and looked back up. "I'd be careful. This sounds kinda strange and out there, you know?" Xander nodded. "So, what do you have to do? Menial labor? Prostitute yourself? Become a gracious host?"

Xander snorted. "Me? Who'd want me?"

Oz pinched his arm hard. "Many people, namely the young woman who cares tons about you that's trying very hard not to listen at the window."

Xander looked down. "Sorry, I didn't mean to bring that up again."

"S'okay, not a big." He looked out, seeing a few stars. "Why are you nervous about it? You have good instincts usually, maybe you should listen to their voices."

Xander thought for a few minutes. "I'm not. Not really, anyway. I'm .. it's like I'm looking for someone to say 'no, don't do that' or something." He leaned back. "Really, the thought excites me and I can still be with all you guys too."

Oz nodded. "Well, it sounds like your mind's made up." He smiled. "Have fun, tell me what's going on. And if you ever need it, remember that we're still here for you." He clapped Xander on the shoulder and stood up. "Tomorrow? Library?" he asked, reverting back to his mostly non-verbal self.

"Yeah, library." He stood up and looked at his friend. "Thanks man, you've helped me lots." He walked around the house and left the yard, going back to the mansion. When he got there, the Mistress opened the door personally. "I'll do it," he said.

She smiled, pulling him inside. "Good, I thought you might. Let's go work out the details, shall we?" She led him into what could only be a library, one that Giles would kill to have as his own. She sat behind the desk to pull out a few papers, handing them over one at a time. "This is the standard consent form."

"The 'I do this freely' paper?" She nodded so he read it, signed it and handed it back. "So, how and when?"

She laughed. "You can move in a few days and if you want, we'll do your virgin bite in three days when most everyone is here." He nodded. "There are just a few things. You have the right to request a new feeder, and the responsibility to make sure they don't hurt you." She held up a hand to stop his interruption. "I know that most of us wouldn't hurt you anyway, and your little blonde friend makes us even more hesitant, but some of the newer members do have a temper that comes out every now and then, and some of us revert on occasion. We don't want you hurt, and if that happens, you are to tell me immediately." She shuffled a paper around. "I will be the one to give you the three drops of blood, the thing that makes it easier for us to not take as much. You can't be turned by it and it won't hurt you." She leaned back. "The other thing is about who you feed. Your virginity, partial though it is, is a precious and powerful thing. So powerful that many have their's taken during a special ceremony. Would you like that?"

Xander swallowed, hard. He could see it in his mind, him being taken like he had dreamed about last night and most of the nights since he was fifteen. The man stroking him lovingly as they moved together and biting him as it ended, a passionate and inviting scene. But acting on those dreams would be something he would have to think about for a long time before doing it. "Um, I'm not sure."

She smiled. "If you do decide to do that route, we have a few minor things to be worked out. Your first three times at a new thing like that are special and powerful. It's usually taken during a ceremony in front of the community of those like me by ones who have fought and won the privilege."

The young man shivered. "You mean in front of people?"

She nodded. "Yes, unfortunately it's not the romantic interlude most of you young folk imagine. It lasts most of one night and you'll be with three different people, one who might end up being fed by you. At the end of the night, the person you feed will claim you as his. You'll be blindfolded throughout so you can't form a bond with them, as it hurts the bond you and the person who will claim you will build, and your body will be hidden by a large piece of gauzy material to protect your identity for the most part."

Xander nodded. "So, then, I'm going to be taken by three men? On a table in front of everyone?"

"Well, not everyone." She smiled, just a little. "It's not that bad. I have a tape that one feeder has agreed can be shown." She opened a drawer and took out a remote, the screen appearing on one of the bookcases at her button push.

He watched as the young woman was taken, not harshly or hastily, but it seemed patiently and with love. It was fast-forwarded so he could watch the pertinent parts. When it was over, he looked over at his new Mistress. "So, that's going to be me? Only with men?"

"If you decide to go like that, yes. Otherwise, you'll just be claimed at the end. Someone else has her first time that same night, in three days, so you wouldn't be the only one there." She spread her hands and grabbed a folder suddenly, tossing it over to him. "This is your benefits package. Study it well today and get back with me tonight."

"I have a meeting in the early night."

"Dear, I'm here *all* night." She smiled. "Think about it, young one, and decide if that's what you want. You still have time to not go farther."

Xander nodded and got up. He leaned across the desk on a whim to kiss her cheek before walking out the door.

The Mistress leaned back in her chair, tipping it back easily. "He'll do so well with my favorite, they'll mellow each other so well. And he's so like the other one that my favorite shouldn't balk too much."

' ' ' '

Xander looked at his family and decided not to tell them. They wouldn't even notice he was gone for a few days, probably. He went downstairs, seeing all the things in his room still almost fully packed. "So, tomorrow is my time to move on," he told himself. He sat on the bed to look around the dark and damp place. "No more of this *and* I get a future." He laid back and looked up at the bare ceiling, thinking back at all that he had gone through for the last day.

He had decided to let it happen, let a man have him for the first time, and then he would decide which sex he wanted. She had agreed, telling him there was one of each available and waiting on his decision. Last night, he had been taught all he needed to know to begin with a man, shown it all not only with a demonstrator but also personally and by film. He remembered the feelings he had had when he was prepared for the first time, all the emotions that had come crashing down on him and how she had talked him through it. How all the fuzzy feelings and the happy feelings and the scared crapless ones had come rushing forward to overwhelm him to the point where he thought he would quit breathing. Then, like a big shiny knight, she had been there. She had stroked his hair as she held him close, something no one had ever really done for him when he needed it. She had patiently explained to him that what he was feeling was normal and good and right and how he should be proud to be able to get past them and still go on, but how if he wanted he didn't have to continue down that path.

"Boy, we need to talk," his father said from the stairs.

Xander rolled onto his side and looked up. "Yeah?"

"I found some things of yours. A packet of information. I would like to know what's going on."

"I've found someone that wants me," he said quietly. "And why were you going through my stuff?"

"I needed to know what was going on."

"Privacy, it's a good thing." He shifted some, getting comfortable. "So?"

"What were those papers?"

"Mine. None of your business. Just the outline for my life." He rolled away.

"Lying isn't going to get you out of this."

"I'm not."

His father got mad at the continual dancing around the subject. "You can't do that, that's a whore's contract and you can't whore yourself and live in this house," his father spat. "I'll not allow that to be shown to your siblings."

Xander shook his head. "That's not what I'm doing and it's a moot point anyway. I'm moving out tomorrow."

His father laughed. "What sort of job comes with housing? Huh?" He finished coming down the stairs and grabbed Xander's shoulder, shaking it. "What have you done to my good name, boy?"

Xander waited until the punishment stopped. "Nothing. I've signed up for a place. I've signed up to go to the Technical Center and take classes in Electronics. I've gotten a job and it's going to pay for it," he said quietly, trying to calm his old man down. "It's nothing."

"That's not what those papers said. It said that all that was part of your benefits. I'll not have you doing anything like that while you're living in my house and only a whore gets that sort of thing." He frowned. "Or a kept man."

"Yup, that's me, a kept man." He sat up and pushed his father back by his proximity. "That's why I'm moving out tomorrow. You've never understood me or who I was. Now you're going to lose your chance." He stood and looked at the man edging back toward the stairs. "I want nothing from this family after I've left tomorrow, absolutely nothing."

His father backed up the stairs. "You'll see how wrong you are, boy. You *need* us, we're your family and you can't run away from that."

"No, but I can leave it and never look back," he said. He waited until his father was gone before running up the stairs to lock the door. He came back down, grabbing the phone to call Buffy's house, hoping to get her mom since she was out patrolling; her mother never needed to ask questions. "Ms. Summers? It's Xander and I need a big favor."

' ' ' '

Xander dropped the last box and looked around his new home. Joyce stepped up behind him, looking at the furniture sitting in the center of the large, open room too. "So, would you like help moving it around?"

"Nah," he said, turning his head to smile back at her. "I've got it. It'll give me something to do tonight since the cable won't be on for another day or so." He turned. "You and your daughter are always welcome here, but please don't tell my family where I am."

"What happened anyway? I mean, all this is a quite a lot for a young man just starting out." She waved a hand around. "This apartment alone must be more than you'll make at your job."

Xander flopped down on a chair and waved her toward one. "It's included." He opened his bottle of soda. "That and my enrolling in the technical school are the benefits and obligations of my contract." He took a drink, watching as she thought about it.

Joyce Summers took a drink of her water. "What field?"


"So, you'll be able to fix VCR's?" She looked at him skeptically.

He shook his head. "I've been told that if I excel in that then I get to go on for some other training to learn how to design." He shrugged and killed the soda, squishing the bottle once it was empty. "It's a few years from now and I'll have to wait and see."

Joyce nodded. "Well, it seems like you've found your path at least." She looked around one last time. "Dinner tonight and you know you're always welcome to come over, do laundry, or to eat, right?" He nodded, grinning. "Okay. I've got to get home, Buffy's back in bed because of her back." She grabbed her purse before looking at him one last time. "You know that you can talk to me when you need to, huh?"

He nodded, watching her walk out, leaving him truly alone for the first time in his life. "You've got to lie better, man," he told himself. He got up and threw away the bottle, looking over all that was now his. "So, how should we do this?"

' ' ' '

Oz stopped Xander outside the library. "I guess you did it?"

Xander grinned and nodded. "Yeah, I did." He leaned against the building. "It's okay. You and Will are always welcome over."

Oz nodded. "So, what's the real deal?"

Xander shook his head. "Top secret," he whispered then walked away. Tonight was his night, he had somewhere to be that was more important.

Oz watched his friend go, feeling the two females' arms go around his waist. "We'll find out what he's got himself into," Willow said from one side of him.

"Yeah, we'll watch and see if he needs a hand," Buffy said from the other side of Oz. "'Cause this is strange, even for us." Willow looked around her boyfriend and gave her a questioning look. "My mom helped him move and said it was a nicer place than she and my father had for the first three years of their marriage."

Willow smiled. "Our Xander? Living in the lap of luxury?"

Oz nodded. "Yeah, but at what price?" They all went back inside, determined to help him when he needed it, no matter what he had gotten himself into this time.

' ' ' '

Xander stood in front of the Mistress, ready for what would come. He had been bathed in warm, scented water, cleaned thoroughly inside and out, then robed in this small silk robe. She motioned for him to kneel before her, which he did, before she picked up the ornamental knife sitting on the tray beside her. She pricked her finger and then his wrist, dropping three drops into the shallow cut. He waited for some sign that he had gotten something, but everything seemed normal. She smiled down at him and licked the cut, making it heal faster.

Xander was hooded and helped up. He was turned slightly and led out of the small chamber into a larger, and more drafty, one. He was helped up onto a table and arranged for easiest entry. He was told quietly to lay there until it was time. He could hear the fabric being lowered as he felt his robe being removed.

"We have not only one deflowering tonight, but two. This young man comes to us to feed us. He has given his consent, three times as dictated by the laws, and is now ready. His first three have been chosen by ritual battle and are prepared also." The Mistress paused and he heard the sound of someone walking out was heard by him. "This is the first one, the other two are waiting behind him." As her voice faded off into the distance Xander couldn't hear anyone around him except the some shuffling that came from the man between his feet. A hand stroked up his leg, and he shivered. A quietly accented "relax" floated up to his ears and he did, letting the man check him to make sure he was ready. He was stroked all over his chest, the firm hand learning his body and it's responses easily. Then a firm pressure was entering him so he took a deep breath as he had been taught and pushed back. Soon, he was filled for the first time and all those feelings that had come when he had been taught came rushing back. The small thrusts and pushes to get deeper stopped and he was caressed gently until he had his emotions under control, then they came back.

The man above him thrust in and out of him, stroking what skin he could reach the whole time. Xander started to get into it, rocking back down to providing a counter thrust. The man made a happy sound, moving faster, tickling his balls at the same time. Xander groaned and arched up to give him better access. The ride wasn't that long, all things considered, but it seemed eternal at the same time. Soon, he was close to the peak, then he couldn't help it, he had to go over. He felt a small pain just under his collarbone and it helped push him over farther, making him yell his pleasure for all those assembled. By the time he was aware of his body again he could feel the little licks to the wound, cleaning him up.

The man withdrew and the crowd cheered, clapping and yelling. Xander relaxed into his new role, resolving to enjoy this next one even more.

It happened a second then a third time, a man coming up to him, being gentle and caring. Taking him carefully and gently. Building up to the peak of his pleasure, then taking a little nip of his chest as he climaxed. Again and again Xander went over, each time better than the first until he didn't know anything but the cycle of pleasure. He knew now what path he would take in his new life. When it was all over he was lifted off the table, carried back into the earlier chamber. His hood was removed so he could face his benefactor. "I liked that," he said quietly.

She nodded and smiled that serene smile. "I noticed, as did everyone else. Your person is waiting, but he has a request. It seems, and I didn't know this, that he has run into your happy little group in the past. He has asked that you remain unaware of his identity for a while longer."

Xander thought about it. "He's reformed?" She nodded. "We wouldn't be coming after him unless we knew he was doing something."

"I would hope not, but his reputation proceeds him, I'm afraid. He's more than willing to take that risk though, and has agreed to it only if you remain masked for a while longer. There are others around, ones who would happily take his place if that isn't to your liking."

Xander thought about it, relived the night prior, how all the sensations had been greater because of it. The thrill of not knowing what was going to happen. "All right, as long as he tells me soon."

She nodded and he was shown into a darkened room. From the shadows a deep voice said, "I claim you as mine." Xander was handed a bracelet to put on.

"As you are mine," he said, the words binding them as tight as any couple's marriage vows.

' ' ' '

Xander looked out his peephole and smiled, opening the door to the manager. "Hi? Am I being too loud?" It had been almost two weeks since he had moved in, and he had tried his best not to annoy anyone. He absently rubbed at the slightly sore spot on his upper chest, feeding his vampire last night was making it itch.

The older, foreign man shook his head, handing over a box. "No, actually your neighbors said you were courteous about the hours of your music. This was delivered for you while you were shopping earlier."

Xander looked down at the box, seeing the address of a certain mansion. "Thank you. Do I owe you for a tip?"

The manager shook his head, smiling. "No, just make sure your friends are as nice as you."

Xander nodded and closed the door after the older man had walked away. He sat down on the couch, tearing the brown paper off so he could get down to a shoebox. Inside was a very nice, very expensive wallet with two credit cards and an ATM card. Inside the full bill compartment was a note.

//This is yours, your first month's stipend. Use it wisely. Your bills have been paid for six months. All you have to pay for is pay-per-view events and food. Have fun, invite your friends over and have a party.//

It was signed 'the Mistress'. Deeper, behind the wallet and under some tissue paper, was a videotape. He looked at the label, proudly proclaiming it to be his 'first time' and a huge grin broke out over his face. He got up to hide the tape, then grabbed his new wallet on the way out the door.

When he got to the library, everyone else was already there and waiting on him. "Sorry, guys, had to open a delivery." He sat down at the table. "So, what's the plan for tonight?"

"Actually," Giles said, cleaning his glasses, "we wanted to talk to you." He put them back on to look at the young man. "It seems I've been remiss in asking you what was happening in your life."

Xander almost blanched, but kept his reaction hidden. "Nothing. Well something, but not really anything. I've moved out, signed up for a nice job, got a good place." He looked around. "You know you're all invited over, right?"

They all nodded and Willow leaned forward. "Xan, we're just concerned that you're doing something that could hurt you."

He shook his head. "Nope, nothing bad. I *like* what I'm doing."

Giles nodded. "As did I when I was a feeder."

Xander stood up, his chair pushed over in his haste. "How? What?" He took a step back, not wanting to be closer if they were mad.

"Sit," Buffy said quietly as Oz got up. "We're not mad, just concerned."

Oz picked up the chair, settling Xander back into it. "This is what you were talking about?" Xander nodded. "And it's not harmful to you or anything?"

Xander cleared his throat. "No. Not at all. They don't take much. Besides, it's not like I didn't talk to people who would know before it happened."

Giles nodded. "Yes, he was there when you were bound just in case. He knows who you're bonded to and he was concerned for your safety." He scribbled something on the paper in front of him. "Xander, I know, I've done that a few times myself, and no it's not harmful. It's actually quite pleasurable and nice." He looked down the table. "Not anything that would make your friends shy away from you." He looked around to see all the teens nodding. "We just wanted to make sure that you knew that your person, the one that you feed, is a little on the unpredictable side and you could come to harm."

Xander nodded. "Okay, I get that part. So, why does this look like intervention for a person with a habit?"

"Because it is," Buffy said. "Giles said this could become addicting and we're worried that you're getting too caught up in it." She looked at her friend. "We only want you to be all right."

"I'm fine," he said, "and I'm happy that you guys are concerned, but it's a good thing." He got up. "I'm going home. I'm sure you all have the addy by now if you want to find me." He walked out of the room, throwing the library door aside as he went.

They all watched him leave, his hurt becoming theirs.

"Maybe we should have done it differently," Willow said. "You know, more personal and less therapyish."

Buffy nodded. "Yeah, maybe. Let's go." She stood and everyone followed her.

Oz drove them over to Xander's apartment making it there before he did because the younger man was walking. They waited on the stoop, nodding to the people that passed by. When Xander finally got there, they stood up as a group, nervous about how he would deal with them now. "So, pizza?" Oz asked breaking the tension with the slightest of grins.

Xander laughed and opened the front door to the building. "Sure. Just none of that funny stuff."

"On the side, I promise," Buffy said. She smiled. "Besides, we wanted to see your new place."

They went up the stairs, Xander first, and into his apartment. Everyone looked around, seeing the nice relaxation area with the two couches, matching bookcases behind them. The lounge area with the TV and VCR and a few very nice futons. Willow looked into the bedroom and blushed, making Oz and Buffy look in. There they found a huge bed, much bigger than a king size.

"So, um, Xan, what do you need such a big bed for?"

The young man blushed. "It was here when I moved in."

Oz shook his head. "You're just an active sleeper and need the space, right?" Xander nodded, taking the excuse with silent thanks. "So, pizza?"

Giles picked up the phone and handed it over. "I haven't a clue where to call."

Oz made the order, getting a few pizzas and some 'real food' for Giles when he asked. By the time he hung up, Willow and Buffy were planted on a futon and were watching a comedy show. Giles was looking at the view across the park and Xander was looking around, a pleased and contented smile on his face like all was right with his world at that moment.

"Parents'?" Oz asked the younger man.

"Not an issue," Xander replied. "Never to step foot in here."

Oz nodded as he grabbed part of a couch. "Hmm, hide away. She must be expecting you to have company."

Xander sat down. "I don't know, but if you guys ever want to stay, just drop by. Besides these two, the ones in front of the TV fold out and the bed is huge." He shrugged. "Any late nights or anything it's okay with me."

Oz nodded. "Thanks. That may come in handy. My mother's been making anti-music noises again."

Willow groaned. "Did you stop her?"

"No dear," Oz called back. "She's still making them. Why do you think my guitar is at your house along with me?"

Buffy laughed. "Because you'd never get to see it if it was anywhere else?" Oz threw a pillow at her. "Hey!"

Willow started to laugh, until Buffy hit her with it.

Giles and Xander watched as the three of them pillow fought. By the time the fighting had gotten down to pushes, shoves, and tickles the two men were talking about their newly acquired commonness.

"You did it in London?" Xander asked.

Giles nodded, smiling fondly. "Yes, well, it was good while it lasted. My calling got in the way you see."

"Aaah," Xander said. "Yeah that could put a major wet blanket on the fun and games."

Giles looked over at the younger man. "You remind me so much of myself at your age," he said quietly. "So sure you have the world now and everything will go according to her plans."

"So, it *was* her when you were there? She took you on too?"

Giles looked in astonishment at the younger man. "*She* took you on?"

"Yeah, she gave me those three little drops and all. I feed someone else, but she said I'm her's."

Giles shook his head in amazement.

"Prob guys?" Buffy asked, sticking her head over the back of the futon she was sharing with the happy couple.

"No, no, not at all. Just a bit of a shock." He wiped his brow. "The Mistress, a truly powerful woman in the vampire community, is the one that took him on."

"So, he feeds her then?"

Xander shook his head. "Nope."

"So, then, she's like your protector?" Oz asked.

Xander thought about it and nodded just as Giles answered. "Yes, she's his protector and sponsor. She's the one that is to teach him, correct him when he makes a mistake, help him through all the various problems and all." He measured the younger man with his eyes. "I'm sure whomever she gave you to was one of her favorites."

"Yeah, I saw some of her paintings by them."

"Them?" Buffy asked. She looked at Xander. "Is there something else you might want to share?"

"No," he said casually, mimicking what he didn't feel. "I'm keeping my lives separate, one from the other."

Oz nodded. "Good plan. Hope it works better than some people's did." He looked at Buffy. "But then, some could tell you more about that than others."

Buffy had the grace to look down at the nicely patterned carpet. "So, anyway," she changed the subject, "who is your feedee?"

"Nope, not going to divulge secrets. No matter how much I'm tortured." He grinned. "I'm not really sure yet anyway."

"Surely you were claimed as one's," Giles said, looking at the bracelet. "Angel did say you had been but hadn't divulged their identity. Ah," he said, putting it back down after feeling a section. "Never mind, we won't be asking that question again." He looked around. "Surely the food must be here by now."

Oz grabbed the phone. "I'll call." He gave Xander a look that plainly said they would be talking later.

' ' ' '

Oz stayed after the girls were gone. "So, feedee?"

Xander shook his head and silently offered the older teen a soda by holding his up. Oz nodded so he got another out of the fridge and brought it over to the relaxation area. The two teens sat across from each other and quietly contemplated the other over the rims of their cans. "So," Xander said, wanting desperately to break the silence, "how's the band? Any competitions coming up?"

Oz nodded and put his can down, getting comfortable. "Yeah, a battle in a month or so. We're working hard, I've got a few new songs started and all."

"I guess Will's kinda a good muse then."

Oz grinned. "Will is just such a font of inspiration, but not all of it's good. Someone in the band, who shall remain nameless lest I go and smite him Buffy-style because I remembered he exists, said she was too smart to be human and my muse just took it and wrote a song about it. She was less than pleased, but she lets me play it." He looked over at his friend. "So, is this a cushy job?"

Xander laughed. "Oh, cushier than this couch." He looked around. "She treats me well, my feedee is nice to me. He ..." He stopped and blushed.

"So it is a he?" Xander reluctantly nodded after a second. "That's cool. I've never been able to take that step. Wanted to, but haven't."


"Yeah, me." He picked up his soda and drained it, placing the slightly squished can back down. "I've always been like that, but I've never had anyone I wanted to take that final step with."

"Anyone you were interested in was straight and the ones that weren't didn't do it for you?"

Oz looked over at him. "Hiding it for long?"

"Tired of hiding it. I used to dream and think about it, but it never coulda happened without some interference." He waved a hand around. "They've both, the Mistress and my feedee, been great boosters to my self-confidence. You know?" Oz nodded. "They showed me I didn't have to be scared to ask for what I wanted or how I wanted things. She told me what I wanted that first night and she was right on."

Oz nodded. "I'm guessing this Mistress is old?"

"Five hundred or so."

"Hmm, then she's probably seen other men that were having the same problems, the same unsupportive environment that spawned you." He looked over. "Sorry, bad choice of words."

"S'okay, I'm not offended. My parents, now they would offend me." Xander finished his soda. "Not a chance do I want them to know where I live or even that I still exist."

"Father threw a fit when he found out you were leaving?"

"Nah. He called me a whore and told me only a whore would be getting the benefits he found out I would be getting." He shuddered. "He had to have been through my things to find the benefits package."

"So, we'll keep it quiet. Only us, Giles, and Buff's mom will know. Will's mom might let it slip and mine doesn't know I have friends beyond Willow."

Xander patted his arm. "I understand, really and truly I do. I would call and have to *identify* myself to my parents." He started to laugh. "You know, if it wasn't pitiful it'd be funny. I have a mother who can look at a pot and ruin it, a father who couldn't even guess about his son and who he really is, and in general a family that can't stand to be around each other." He started to shake with the laughter. "It's so pitiful that I'm wondering when the siblings are going to shoot them like the Menendez brothers."

Oz switched couches to hold his friend while he poured out all of his hurt. He pretended not to notice when the laughter turned to tears, all the pain of a forgotten childhood coming out now that he was safely away.

' ' ' '

Buffy looked up and smiled at the undead, but still gorgeous, man coming through the doors. "Hey."

"Hi." He touched her shoulder and sat at the end of the table to face the group. "So, I guess I need to tell you all I'm leaving in a few days."

Buffy, who had been told earlier, stiffened but didn't let her pain out. The others went through various stages of shocked expressions, from gasps to protesting the inevitable. She watched as her friends one by one looked over at her for a second, then started to protest the move harder.

"Guys," she said. "I knew about this earlier today. He's leaving because he needs to; he can never atone here for what he's done."

"Not enough anywhere, but I've got to try." Angel looked around the group. "I'm going to come back every now and then and I'll only be in L.A.. I can't make up for what I've done without helping people, and there's not enough here to wash away even a microscopic portion of my past. You guys have it pretty well taken care of."

"We'll miss you of course," Giles said. "I'm sure you'll be a great help in that city."

Buffy laughed. "Oh, yeah, it could use a few more good men." She quietly got up and left the library, going to where she could be alone for a while.

Xander wasn't home tonight, but they all had keys now. She let herself in, nodding to the Manager who came out to check on the sound of the door opening, and headed up the stairs. She opened the door, making sure it was tightly locked behind her, then collapsed just inside to give way to her grief. She laid there on the floor, crying her heart out. All her fears, her loneliness, came up and she let it go; she grieved now, where no one could see her, and gave voice to all the feelings she had ever had for Angel.

When Xander got home, stumbling over Buffy's prone form in the dark, he just sat down beside her, gathering her into his arms. When the storm of her emotions was over, he got up, carrying her into the bedroom to settle her onto the far edge of the bed. He covered her and laid down, holding her when she snuggled closer for the comfort of his warmth.

' ' ' '

Buffy opened her eyes and looked at the slightly familiar room. She groaned as she sat up, pushing the hair that had come down back from her face.

Xander handed her a can of soda and a plate, sitting on the bed beside her. "So, what's up?"

"Angel's leaving," she said quietly, pushing the scrambled eggs around. "I'm not hungry."

"Eat or I'll tell your mom," he threatened.

"Not," she said. She took a bite, chewing it slowly. "Happy?"

"Not really." He finished off his soda before sitting back against the pillows. "Are you going to be okay?"

"Yeah, I just wanna hide here for a while." Xander nodded and grabbed the phone off the bedside table, handing it to her. "Yes, dear, I'll call home to tell my mother where I am."

He grinned as he grabbed his things, heading off into the bathroom. Buffy watched him go, not sure why she had allowed him to hold her all night, but knowing this could change everything between them. When he came back out to grab some clothes for the day, she cleared her throat. "Why?"

Xander turned to look at her, then sighed as he sat back down next to her. "Because you needed it. I'm a friend and that's what we do, right?" She nodded. "Nothing happened, and no one has to know if you don't want them to."

Buffy smiled. "No, I think that would be bad, telling certain people that I slept here and was snuggled all night because I couldn't pull it together enough to act normal."

He pushed back a strand of her hair. "That's not the reason and you know it. You needed the warmth of another person there. Someone to show you that you aren't alone." He smiled. "Besides, I'm a great pillow."

She laughed and swatted his shoulder. "Yeah, okay. But I slept on a couch or something."

"*I* slept on a couch and you slept in here. You're the guest."

She frowned. "I would hope not."

"Okay, so let's amend that to usual inhibitor of the space and facilities." Buffy smiled and nipped his fabric-covered arm. "Hey, that's not what a slayer is supposed to do. You're not supposed to *bite * me."

She smiled. "Yeah, but I'm an unusual slayer and I *destruct* those rules about proper conduct." She patted his arm, soothing where she had bitten. "Go get dressed so you can walk me home?"

He nodded, getting up and grabbing his clothes off the foot of the bed, stopping to grab a shirt he still lacked from the closet. He headed back into the bathroom, closing the door gently.

Buffy smiled, moving around to get off the huge bed, wiggling over to the edge. She stood and stretched, her little shirt riding up. That's how Xander found her.

"Um, Buff?"

She quickly put her arms down and tugged on her shirt. "Sorry. Thought you would take longer."

He shook his head. "I am *not* Cordelia." Buffy laughed and they gathered up their things to leave. "Hey," he said on the way out, "if you want, you can keep a bag here and stay over when you're out late. Not a big thing."

She turned and smiled at him. "Me? Inhabit your very male space?" She paused to consider. "Okay, I'll grab a backpack of stuff later and bring it over as a just in case." She held the door for him. "Shall we go and let my mother yell at me for worrying her?"

They walked back to her house slowly, enjoying the cool morning air. Buffy had her key almost in the lock when her mother pulled open the door.

"Grounded. You know that right? You are grounded, young lady. So very grounded that you will not see the inside of a cemetery for another year at least."

Buffy sighed and walked in the door, moving aside so Xander could follow her. "Mom, chill. I was at Xander's having an emotional problem. He made me stay."

"Sure, blame it on the guiltless one," her mother said. "I'm sure he tied your hands so you couldn't call too." She threw up her hands and pinched Xander's cheek. "Make sure my daughter calls next time."

He very wisely just nodded.

' ' ' '

Buffy looked around the empty mansion with a sigh. Angel had been gone about a week now. "Who am I kidding?" she asked herself. "He left to give me a better life and a chance at happiness and to move on with his life." She looked down at her watch. "All of two hundred and sixteen hours ago," she paused, checking it again, "and thirty four minutes." She sighed again, giving one last look around the abandoned mansion before leaving to go over to Xander's, the new official hangout of the slayer and her slayerettes. She buzzed for entry, not having her keys with her, and was let in. She made sure sure she closed the bottom door behind her before trotting up the stairs, the sound of music, fun, and life flowing down to her from the open door.

She walked into the room, seeing her friend bent over the stove, peering at the something in a pot. "Some heritages are hard to lose or hide from," she reminded him, closing the door.

Xander started, then turned around. "Yeah, but a man's got to eat." He went back to stirring. "Your mom got me this great cookbook for newly single people so I'm trying to overcome the heritage."

Buffy laughed. "Yeah, that sounds like my mom, always the practical gift." She grabbed a bottle of water as she sat on one of the counters. "So, how're things besides that?"

"Oh, all right. My father somehow got hold of my number and called me. I was letting the machine get it because I was looking over my books for the tech center as it starts in another week." He stirred some more then took it off the heat, putting it beside the sink to cool. "Did you know there was *Math* in electronics?" He looked at her, seeing the downness in her eyes. "How's your day been? Besides missing deadboy."

Buffy swallowed her drink. "Slow. I miss him. I'm still at the minutes stage of missing him."

Xander smiled. "I got a video if you want to watch it. It doesn't have to go back until tomorrow." Buffy shook her head. "But it's one of those funny/supposedly scary ones." He pouted, just a little.

Buffy laughed, hopping off the counter. "Thanks." She hugged him, moving aside so he could finish cooking. "So, what is it?"

"Pasta Parmigiana, Harris style." He dished out some and handed her a plate. "So, eat?"

She nodded, poking at a noodle to make sure it was dead before taking a bite. "Hey, this is good," she said, mouth full.

Xander smiled as he pulled her out to the futon, flipping on the TV before sitting them down. "Yeah, the skill skipped a few generations." They sat there and watched the news for a while. "When do you go out on patrol next?"

She smiled. "Tomorrow night. Supposed to be some big and important night on someone's calendar." She set the plate aside to lean against his arm. "Movie?" she asked, little kid's voice full force.

Xander grabbed the other remote and flipped the VCR on, starting it. "Yup, three stooges meet the invisible man. I think."

"Or something like that," she said as she saw the title.

They watched the movie, or really Xander did. Buffy fell asleep on his arm almost ten minutes into it and stayed there, clutching his hand, a common sight in that last week. When the movie was over, Xander rewound it and sat there, comforting his friend by his very presence, not something he was used to yet. When he had to get up or risk losing his life to a burst bladder, he moved his shoulder, earning him a punch to it. "Hey! Meany. You'd think by now you'd be used to waking like that."

Buffy snorted, looking up. "Oh, god, I'm sorry Xan. I didn't mean to crash on you like that again." She looked around, then grabbed his wrist to turn it so she could see his watch. "Mom's going to have a litter, gotta go." She kissed his cheek before racing out the door.

Xander shook his head as he carried the dirty plates into the kitchen, then made a stop before hitting the bed.

It was a little while later when he heard the noise. A someone's breaking in type of noise. He carefully picked up the stake beside his bed and walked out into the living room, flipping on the lights to scare whoever it might be.

His parents stood there, shock written on their faces. "Son," his father said.

"I'm going to call the cops if you don't get out," Xander said, clutching the stake to his chest for protection, a talisman against whatever they could say to hurt him.

"Son," his mother said, "come home. We want to help you leave this life." She held out a hand, her eyes falling to her son's neon tropical fish boxers. "This isn't normal and it can't be healthy."

"Mom, Dad, get out." He stood there, waiting while they decided on their next form of attack.

He didn't have to wait long. His parents moved to flank him, trying to grab him. He dodged them, grabbing the phone to speed dial the manager. "Hey, could I maybe get you to come up here and help me?" He got an answer and hung up. "You might want to leave now. The Manager's on his way up. I'll get him to throw you both out."

His father laughed. "Son, we're your parents, you can't have us thrown out."

"Oh, I don't know about that," the manager said from the doorway. "You having problems with them?

"Yeah, somehow they got in." He stepped away from them and let the manager lead them out. He waited until the older man came back. "How did they get in?"

"They taped the lock when someone left." He shrugged. "Happens sometimes. So, would you like to tell me about this?"

"My parents drove me away and now they want me back." Xander sat on the back edge of the futon. "We had words before I moved out, my father and I, and now he wants me to come back and help me live their mediocre, plain lives over. Not something I relish."

The manager smiled. "Ah, the strength of youth. Just remember that you can't run from your family, they're part of you as long as you have genes." He closed the door behind him, going back to his cat.

"Now if only I could change that," Xander said to himself, locking the door so he could go back to bed. Not to sleep, but to read. And when that didn't even work, he called the Mistress to talk.

' ' ' '

Xander looked over at the clock and smiled. Tonight was his night to feed his vampire again and he still had to get ready. "Two hours until sundown, just enough time," he said quietly. He got up and was heading for the bathroom when someone, a female someone, let themselves in. "Hey Will. Probs?"

"No, needed someplace Oz-proof until he gets over whatever crawled in him and died." She flopped down onto one of the futons, letting her head tip back to rest on the cushion. "Can I stay for a while? I know you have to go out tonight."

"Sure, you know that." He smiled as he finished heading into the bathroom. He didn't bother to lock the door behind him, knowing Willow wouldn't come in, and started to set out his stuff for his later activities.

He had just laid down on the towel on the floor, the one he kept specifically for his cleansings, when someone turned the knob and started to walk in. "Hey," he said, loudly.

"Just me," Oz said, sticking his head around the door. "Oh, um, sorry." He quickly left, pulling it shut behind him.

Xander shook his head, relaxing again before releasing the clothespin, letting the warm water flow in. He relaxed under it, feeling every little trickle and drip, letting the warmth fill him full. When it was done, he voided, then started the shower but he moved closer to the door before getting in, not sure what was going on, but thinking Oz might want to come in and talk to him while he cleaned his outsides. "Hey," he said, poking his head out the door. Oz was laying on the bed, guitar across his stomach clutched like a security blanket. "Did you need to talk?" The older man nodded. "Cool, you can come and tell me while I shower if you want." He withdrew his head but left the door open slightly.

Soon enough, Oz was sitting on the toilet, telling him about his and Willow's latest misunderstanding.

"She's not mad," Xander pointed out, "she's just wondering why she's not enough."

Oz looked through the clear parts of the fish covered curtain. "That makes sense. Thanks man." He tapped the curtain then left the bathroom.

Xander shook his head. "That's something I'm sure I'll not have to deal with soon." He rinsed off then wrapped a towel across his waist, getting out of the tub. He opened the door carefully, not knowing who might be in his room. When he found he was alone, he walked over to the closet, pulling out an approvable outfit and then over to the dresser to get some underwear. He was sitting on the bed when Oz came back in. "So," he asked, bending over to pull on a sock, only in his underwear.

Oz took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "Um, she's said she's considering." He swallowed hard. "Do you, um, want me to leave while you dress?" He made a motion toward the door.

Xander heard the tight quality to Oz's voice so looked up. "Why?" Then he remembered what the older man had shared with him. "Not unless you want to," he amended.

Oz nodded as he sat down next to the door, pulling his knees up to his chest and wiggling around on the carpet. He watched as Xander slowly pulled on a soft pair of well-worn jeans and a clean button up shirt.

Xander was doing up the buttons slowly, looking down to make sure he got them in the right holes, when his gaze happened to hit the man against the wall. The panting and sweating man against the wall. He finished getting dressed, stepping into his sneakers and grabbing his wallet and keys, before stopping next to him. "You can use the bed, but if you get it dirty, you got to change it before I get back around two," he said quietly. "Things are in the bathroom cabinet."

Oz nodded, watching as the younger man kissed Willow's cheek before left. Xander was hardly out the door when he pounced on his mate.

' ' ' '

Xander knocked on the mansion's door and waited. When someone finally came to answer it, it wasn't anyone he recognized, but he was shown into the library. But why was Giles was sitting there?

"Xander, sit down."

"Giles, I thought we agreed, I won't tell them what went on here and you'd all stay away."

Giles nodded. "And we will, but there's been a problem." He pushed across a group of papers.

Xander read the heading. "A will?" He read farther and started to choke up. "What happened to her?" He looked up. "When and who?" He was more than ready and able to do something about that person, and he would if Giles would tell him.

"She was ill," the vampire that had let him in said. Xander turned to look at him. "It was something that had been with her since she was mortal."

"What?" Xander asked hesitantly.

"A rather large tumor it seems," Giles said. "In her intestines and it seems to have started to grow again, a uniquely abnormal occurrence."

Xander slammed the papers back down onto the table, standing up to loom over his boss and friend. "Damn it, I saw her four days ago and she was fine."

Giles nodded. "Yes, she seemed so but she'd been taking massive doses of painkillers, not knowing what else to do. She consulted a doctor, telling her everything, and was told it was hopeless." He looked down and pushed the papers back toward the younger man. "She asked to have it ended last night. She's left you a letter, I'll give it to you in a moment, but first we have to talk."

Xander sat back down. "What? And why did they call you?"

"Because she was your sponsor," the vampire said. "She's left you something. We went to him to have him help you with it because he understands." He left the room.

Giles looked at the papers pointedly, making Xander pick them up again. "You should read it."

Xander read through it as well as he could, not understanding much of the legalese involved. "Which part?"

Giles walked around the desk and flipped to the last page. "Here," he said, pointing it out and going over to look at the books to give the young man some privacy.

Xander read and then reread the words, trying to translate it into English. "So, I inherited a trust fund as long as I try to finish the tech program?"

Giles came back over. "Actually that and more. She's set up this house and most of what's in it as a refuge for those that want to feed as you feed one." He cleared his throat. "Besides a few other personal bequests, it's mostly yours. The books have been given to me so I can use them to help another girl; train and teach her that there are both good and bad in the vampire community. She gave Buffy and Oz each an antique sword, she sees him as a phenomenon called a 'male slayer'." He took off his glasses. "She's left you some of her jewelry and some money to help you live and get a good start. The qualifiers being that you try your hardest at your studies and that you learn to help me teach Buffy."

Xander swallowed the growing lump in his throat. "She said she saw me as someone who could train her how to fight, not like you do, but to defend and to kick butt." He swallowed again. "This is... is a bit much for me right now. I've, um, got to go..."

"Yes, of course." He waved a hand toward the door. "I'll keep this copy for you and we can discuss it tomorrow after you've had time to absorb the shock." He laid a comforting hand on Xander's shoulder. "I know you were close to her."

"Yeah, she was like the mother I always wanted. She always knew and understood me." He got up, running up the stairs, going to his usual room. He opened the door and closed it gently, falling onto the cool body on the bed. "Hold me," he asked quietly.

The vampire lifted him onto his chest, soothing him as best he could, an unfamiliar sensation for him to say the least.

It was quite a few hours later when Xander looked up, only to have his head averted. "I know who you are, the accent kinda gives it away," he told the man.

Spike laughed. "Did it now? You know I'm not the only British vampire around here, right?"

Xander nodded and laid his head back down. "Yeah, and even that first night I knew."

Spike nodded. "I still think it's better if you didn't know."


"Cheeky tonight are we?"


"Well of course you are. We used to talk about you all the time. She thought of you as the son she didn't get in me."

Xander laughed, a short and soft sound. "I always thought of her as the mother I had wished for."

"I had heard." They laid there silently for a few more minutes, Spike stroking over the smooth flesh intermittently. "So, do you just want to be held? I know that sounds insensitive of me."

Xander shook his head and rolled onto the mattress. "I don't know."

"Let me tempt you, love," was whispered into the dark and the bed moved as the vampire got up. The sound of a drawer being opened and something soft and heavy being pulled out.

"I don't want that tonight, I need to feel connected."

The vampire kneeled on the bed beside the young man. "I know, but it's necessary. Many of you can't take our true face when we go to bite you and it upsets everything." He held the soft piece of velvet closer to Xander's face, almost touching his cheek with it. "It's only a blindfold, all the rest will be uncovered."

Xander nodded and reached for a button, but his hands were grabbed.

"No, let me." The blindfold was tied on, carefully so Xander wouldn't be hurt. A button was undone slowly, a tender touch given to the newly exposed area. "Gently tonight, we both need it that way." Each button was undone slowly, the same attention given to each new piece of skin exposed. When the full chest was uncovered, it was stroked with all tenderness, the specialness of the young man clear by the vampire's actions.

Xander sighed and lifted his hips. "Naked, for now?"

Spike nodded, even though Xander couldn't see it, before taking off his own shirt and pants, straddling the younger man's legs so he could work on the button and zipper. He undid them, sparing no few touches to the tender skin. He pushed them down some, making Xander arch up again so he could pull them off and toss them across the room.

They lay there, side by side and naked, holding each other tight as the grief they both felt washed through them.

"So this is where you've been hiding," a female voice said from the corner, "and with one of them too."

Spike looked up and snarled. "Go away, Dru, I'm not playing with you any more."

Xander shivered from the cold intensity of his voice.

"No, I want you to come back. I miss you." She pouted and walked farther into the room. "Let's share him this time then go after his friends." She gave him her best smile, hoping he'd come back to her again.

"No, ducks, not a chance. I've given up hunting for a bit." He took a lick of Xander's cheek. "I'm doing this now."

She snarled and moved closer to the bed. "I'll make you come back to me again," she promised as she left, swirling her cape out behind her.

Spike sighed and removed the blindfold. "So, what would you like to do now?" He looked down his body. "There's no way I can do this, not after that."

Xander rested his head on Spike's chest. "I understand." He traced little figures over the smooth flesh. "We could do that the other way," he suggested.

"Hmm, you've never done that to a man, I know." He smiled. "It was such a shock to find out you were such a responsive little bugger." Xander laughed lightly. "And as much of a thrill it would be to take that part of your virginity from you, I still am not in the mood."

"I can understand that." He looked up, "And I would understand if you wanted to go out and hunt her down too."

Spike laughed. "Oh, don't tempt me love, really, don't." He pulled the younger man up for a kiss. "Besides, if I did that, then she would win. I wouldn't be able to see you for a month."

"Not if you didn't feed on her."

"I'd still be hunting."

"I thought that only counted with mortals."

"Nah, predators are some of the sweetest food." He licked his lips. "That's one of the reasons we all want to have a slayer." He looked down. "No offense."

"None taken. I know you're not going to go after her right now if she doesn't come after you." He lay his head back down. "And I've also heard that you're willing to risk her just coming after you on general principles too."

"Who, me?" Spike laughed. "I'm not that altruistic Xander."

"Oooooh," he said, shivering, "say my name like that again."

Spike broke out laughing, all the tension from Dru's earlier visit gone. When he had gotten down to just chuckles, he rolled them over, pinning Xander on the bottom. "So, you wanted me to take that one last vestige away from you?"

Xander nodded. "Yeah, I've done that to a woman, but not with a man."

Spike looked thoughtful. "You know, you could probably claim to still be a virgin in that area." He licked over Xander's adam's apple. "I'm not really a man."

"Really? That's funny, you don't look much like an animal." He craned his head up to look down Spike's back. "Nope, no fur or a tail. And you don't look like an amphibian or a fishy."

Spike smiled. "That's not what I meant and you know it."

"So? Bite me." He thrust his hips up and bumped them into Spike's. "Come on, prove to me what a man you are."

Spike shook his head. "You're too much some days, you know that?" Xander nodded. "Good, just making sure." He bent down and nibbled on a nipple. "So, how many bites tonight? Hmm?" He traced the turgid little bud with a fang. "Just the one or should I nibble a bit more?" Xander started to pant, excited by this new tactic. "Do you want a little pain to spice some things up, love?" The younger man bit his lip. "Ah, I can see that you do." He reached over and grabbed the blindfold. "Here we go then." He slipped it on. "So, now where were we?" Xander arched up his chest. "Ah, yes, I was just wondering if you wanted a little bit of pain with your pleasure." He scraped the tip of a fang over the tip of the little pink nipple, making Xander arch again and groan. "But you never answered me."


"Please what?" he asked, sliding down the firm, teen body below him. "Please let me take that one last piece of innocence away from you? Please bite you before you're ready and take too much? Please what Xander?"

"You can't?"

"Oh, I can nip a bit, but if I start in on the unprepared blood then I'll have to go back to hunting."

Xander rolled them over, sitting on Spike's hips. "Never mind then. I don't want to take those odds." He ran his hands down the smooth, cool chest and found the nipples by trial and error. "So, does that mean that I can't have you either?" He leaned over and suckled on one, bringing it to a hard peak and nipping it hard.

"Well," came the breathless reply, "you can or we can do both. After all, who says the first time tonight has to be the last?"

Xander looked up, still blindfolded, but Spike could well imagine the look in his food's eyes. "You did," the younger man said simply.

Spike smiled, knowing that Xander really just wanted them to be connected so he could forget that one of the few people in his life that cared was gone, after all he felt the same way. "No, not this time. I think we both need it." He grabbed the mobile hips and started to enter. "Are you prepared?" He stopped when the head was barely in.

"Yes," Xander sighed and pushed down, taking his lover deep within him. He lay down over Spike's chest, listening to the slow, erratic heartbeat.

They lay there for a time, connected through their union and enjoyed the sensations. Finally Spike couldn't take it anymore and started to push up, the tight muscles holding him firmly, caressing every inch of him. Xander pushed back down, not moving his head and chest. Spike sat him back up forcefully so he could thrust up hard. "Now, please? I can't take much more of that sort of all-body hug."

"Oh, all right." He smiled and pushed down, starting a rhythm which could easily be followed. They moved together, reaffirming their bond as feeder and the one who got fed, using it to build the sparks that were flowing between them. After a while though, his thighs started to hurt. "We need to change around some," he whispered.

Spike grunted and pulled him off fast, tossing him onto the mattress. He spread the younger man out the way he liked him before pushing back in hard, settling into a punishing, pounding, stroke, getting his grief out all at one time and showing his innocent feeder that there were many other ways to be connected. The younger man showed his pleasure at the hard ride, yelling his pleasure for all nearby to hear.

Spike smiled before adding a small slap to it, hitting the firm, rounded flesh with his fingertips. He continued to pound into him, thoroughly using what was offered and loving it. When he was almost done and Xander was begging to let go, Spike spanked him with both hands, pulling his cheeks apart to get deeper and extended his fangs. Xander yelled and started to go over the edge, Spike taking the chance to bite him hard, embedding his teeth deep into the younger man's shoulder muscles. Xander yelled again and pushed back one last time, pulling Spike over the edge with him.

When they had calmed down, Spike licked at the bite wound, cleaning it up. "I'm sorry, I don't know what came over me."

"I do." Xander rolled his head to the side, too tired to actually move, the blindfold having been rubbed off. "You're just as upset as I am right now and you needed it." He smiled. "Not that I minded, because I didn't. I liked it. All that hard pounding of me and all. We ought to do that again sometime." His smile faded into a grin. "So?"

"So what?"

"When I recover may I return the favor?"

Spike laughed. "Not now, young one, I've got to recover too and I take *much* longer than you do; it's the price of age." He smiled as he stroked over the bite. "You're going to be sore tomorrow."

"It's just the first time, it always makes you sore."

"Oh, were you sore that first time?" Xander blushed and nodded. "Took a long hot bath that morning didn't you."

Xander smiled. "Oh, yeah. For many hours on end. I actually fell asleep in it." He remembered how tired and sore he had been. "But it was a good ache, like the one I'm sure to have in the morning." He looked over at the clock. "Which would be about an hour from now." He yawned. "I do believe that's our longest session yet."

Spike smiled. "Yes, but we both wanted it. Didn't we?"

"Of course we did." He grabbed the cold hand, intertwining their fingers. "I did, and I'm supposing you did too."

Spike leaned over and whispered, "I've dreamed of doing that to you. That and more."

Xander smiled. "Really? What else have you dreamt of?"

"Many things." He smiled as he rolled off the younger man, pulling him onto his chest. "Tapes, so I could watch it again later. A leather hood, maybe with a zipper where the mouth should be. Teaching you how to blow me and then making you do it. Ropes."

Xander swallowed. "Ropes?" Spike nodded. "Um, not anytime soon, okay? I've been kinda tied up before and it was a bad thing then." He swallowed again, hard, remembering the last time he had been tied up.

"I know, that's why that will always stay a fantasy." He brushed the soft dark hair aside, tracing over the outside of an ear. "I should go be a terror of the night again." Xander laughed. "What?" he asked, hurt.

"I can't see you like that anymore."

"Only in here am I different." He pulled on the ear and sat up, making Xander do the same. "Come on, get dressed and let's get you home. I don't want you out there walking around with Dru loose."

Xander nodded, wiggling to the end of the bed, sitting on it and grabbing his shirt. "Where'd you throw my jeans?"

"By the closet." Xander padded across the room in his socks and nothing else, walking slightly different now. Spike groaned as he got up, the sights spread out before him bringing him back to full erection and need. He pushed the younger man against the wall, slipping back inside the wet and slightly looser hole, taking him easily. Xander pushed back, making Spike grab his hips to hold them still while he pounded into the young mortal.

Xander rubbed himself against the wall, knowing his lover didn't want him to touch himself during this. He bent his head to one side in a silent offer. Spike growled, lifting him off the floor, turning him in mid-air, and wrapping his legs around the cold waist. He snarled, giving a few more pushes to send Xander over, then bit down in his usual place, the mark under the edge of his collarbone. Xander just smiled, pushing Spike's head closer, letting him take more as he finished too.

' ' ' '

"Hey, Xan," Willow said from one of the couches. "Late one tonight?" The younger man smiled as he wandered toward the bedroom. "Um, Oz is in the bathtub."

"Okay," he called back, stripping down to nothing so he could crawl into bed. "I'm sleeping." Oz quit humming in the bathroom. "I liked it," he called and the music came back, along with a nervous chuckle from the doorway. "Give me a sec Will, let me put on a sheet." He pulled one over him, smiling at the new and crispy clean one that his friends had put on for him. "So, you wanted to talk?"

She sat down beside him on the bed, giving him more than enough room to lay however. "Yeah, I, um, thanks."

Xander nodded. "You're welcome. That's what I told Oz before I left." He looked over to where Willow was staring. "My bite?"

She nodded before getting up and going into the bathroom, after a perfunctory knock with the door half open. She came back out with the first aid kit. "Let me clean it?"

He nodded, laying flat on his stomach, letting his oldest friend work on his newest marking. "It's a deep one, we had a bad night."

She nodded as she smoothed some alcohol over it, wiping the gel with a piece of gauze. "I heard, Giles called and told us your sponsor had died." She smiled. "Guess he didn't figure you would spend all last night there."

Xander yawned. "Yeah, well, there was that when I got there, so I was just held for a while. Then we had an interruption and then we did that." He lifted his shoulder some. "Some of that Neosporin too?" She waved the tube in the air. "Thanks."

"Interruption?" Oz asked from the bathroom doorway. "Dru?" Xander turned his head to send a frown. "Buff ran into her last night," he explained quickly. "She thought the crazed one might have been trying for you since she came from that direction."

"Oh, yeah," Xander said. "Yup, she was there, I was there, she offered to finish me off, to actually share me." He smiled. "My feedee was pissed and told her off."

"Hmmm, sounds like a bad night all around." He came over to sit on the other side of Xander. "So, you're going to nap while we fool around?"

"Ooooozzzzzz," Willow said. He smiled at her and licked his lips. She shook her head, bandaging the bite mark, motioning him to roll over. "Do you have another one?"

He nodded and pointed to the mark on his shoulder. Oz whistled, making him look down. The small bites had pulled, he knew that, but he hadn't realized that they had become one small gash. Willow just spread some more of the gels over it, bandaging it as she had the first.

When it was all done, and the first aid kit was on the floor, she cleared her throat. "I, um, probably shouldn't be in here. Not with two naked men." She blushed, hearing her own words, then hurried into the living room.

Oz looked at Xander. "So, nice night?"

The younger man smiled. "I never knew it could go like that." He shifted some, his rear still sore from where it had been opened, pounded, and spanked. "How was yours?"

The older teen smiled. "Oh, it went well." He nodded toward the bathroom. "I cleaned it using the stuff in the bottle." Xander raised an eyebrow. "I, um, convinced her to do it for me."

"To you?"

Oz pinked just a little. "Yeah." He grinned slightly. "It was great."

"Tell me about it." The two men laughed, eventually falling together side by side on the bed. It was quiet for a while. "So, you decided you liked it?"

"Yeah, pretty muchly, and so did she." Xander sat up, looking down at his friend. "She so liked being in control."

Xander flopped back down onto the bed with a grin. "Well, it would be a first for her." He got pinched. "What? Her mother's a little on the domineering side when she's there and paying attention. They've practically mapped out her future for her. She's not had a ton of say in her life, except for her online one."

Oz nodded. "Yeah, I'd heard." He moved just a little closer. "So, would you like to talk?" Xander nodded, and yawned. "Later, right? You sleep, I'm going to go in the living room."

"You can nap in here," came the quiet, almost asleep, reply. "The bed is huge and I don't usually cuddle."

Oz smiled. "In a while, I'm making Will breakfast."

"Bad milk," the younger man warned as he fell asleep, his eyes drifting slowly closed.

"Yeah, we figured that out," Oz said, getting up carefully so he wouldn't disturb Xander. "Sleep, we'll talk later." He walked out into the living room and dropped his towel. "So," he said, leaning over the back of the futon, "you were saying something about fooling around?"

She tipped her head back and grinned. "No, I think that was you. But I'll go along with the idea." She patted the seat next to her and he walked around the end, showing her exactly what he had for her. She snuggled down against his chest with a smile. "Tonight you're going to be fuzzy?" He nodded, playing with her hair. "Okay." She closed her eyes and snuggled harder, digging her head into his chest. "That towel had better be close, just in case, 'cause I'm not moving."

Oz grabbed it, pulling it closer. "Right there in case Buff or someone walks in." She nodded then fell asleep on him, feeling at peace.

He picked up the remote with his toes, turning on the TV once he had it in his hand, then set the closed captioning to on, and turned it to A&E.

' ' ' '

Joyce Summers knocked on the door then used the key her daughter had given her when no one answered. She started to turn on a light, but she could see a teen sized shape reaching for something, so she waited. When she did, she saw Oz, one of Buffy's newest friends and that nice girl Willow's boyfriend, sitting on one of the couches in nothing but a towel, cradling his girlfriend's head on his chest.

She smiled, kind of, and moved closer. "Buffy wanted me to check on Xander," she said quietly.

Oz nodded. "Willow checked him over pretty well when he got home. He's asleep," he whispered back. "It was a long night all around."

Joyce nodded. "I'll just peek in."

"He's only wearing a sheet," Oz warned her.

"I won't look too closely then," she said, walking softly over to the bedroom doorway and looking around it. Inside, on the bed, Xander was laying belly up, in all his nude glory, and humming softly in his sleep. She blushed and backed away before she could get too close a look at him, going back to the living room. Willow was awake now, stretching and smiling at her man. "He's fine," she said, "or at least it looked like he was. Is he? She'll want to know."

Oz and Willow both nodded. "Yeah, no major trauma from last night, at least physically," she said. Oz looked at her. "What?"

"She doesn't know," Oz reminded Willow, whispering it in her ear. He looked up. "Nothing major happened last night. He did say he had a run in, but nothing but words were thrown." He snapped his fingers. "I've got to remember that line, it would go so good in that new song."

Willow handed him her ever-present notepad. "So write it down before you forget it." She looked over at Joyce. "He does this for days on end sometimes."

"And you are such a muse starter," he countered. "My music muse just looks at you and starts to spout poetry."

Willow shook her head. "Now you know why I love him," she told Buffy's mom. "He's such a sweetie."

Joyce nodded. "I'm sure he is, dear. When would be a good time to release my daughter from her mandatory room cleaning?"

Willow looked at the clock on the VCR. "Um, this afternoon definitely. She needs to have some fun before patrol tonight and we're all going to be at the library most of the night anyway."

Joyce nodded. "Then I'll assume she's staying here tonight." She looked around. "I'm guessing something pulls out."

"All four of the couches," Oz said, not looking up from the words he was writing.

Joyce nodded. "All right then, I know she'll be safe here." She turned. "Oh, yeah, Willow, your mother's looking for you."

The young woman nodded. "I'll call her. If you hear from her first tell her that. By lunch or so."

Joyce nodded. "Okay, I'll do that." She smiled down at them. "Young love, what a rare treat it is. Enjoy it." She patted their heads and headed out.

"Make sure the bottom door closes," Oz reminded her.

"I will. Grab some clothes before I release the pitifully acting one please." She closed the door behind her.

Oz looked down at his girlfriend. "It's a good thing we decided to leave some things here too."

She smiled. "Why? I'm not the one that's naked." She pinched him before wandering toward the bathroom.

Oz shook his head, following her in, grabbing their bags from behind the bedroom door. He checked on the bathroom, making sure Will was going to be in there for a while, then took the opportunity to do some comparisons. Xander was still laying stomach up, but he was slightly hard and Oz could see where just a dribble of liquid was running back out of him. He thought back to what had happened the night before and wondered what something that size would feel like. He shook himself from his thoughts, grabbing his clothes, opting to join Willow in the bathroom while she showered so he could dress instead of wonder about his best friend.

' ' ' '

Buffy walked into the library and looked around, setting down her backpack that had the things she needed to get a head start on the new semester's homework. Something wasn't right. There was no noise whatsoever. No snarling, no whining, no rattling cage, no body sitting at the table to watch over Oz. She hurried over to the cage, hoping he hadn't gotten loose, and stopped. The cage door was open and Oz was lying on the floor, apparently asleep. She could see his chest moving, but it looked awfully slow. "Wesley," she yelled. "You better have a real good explanation for this."

The new Watcher came out of Giles' office. "I tranquilized him so he couldn't hurt anyone."

"That's the whole idea behind the caging thing." She walked in and knelt down beside him. "How much did you use? An elephant dose?"

"The appropriate amount for an animal his size."

Buffy walked out and stared at him, anger shining from her eyes. "That's about three times too much. He's not an animal." Her voice alone caused him to back up. "I suggest you put your little British ass back into that office to call both Willow and Giles." She grabbed a bottle of water and headed back into the cage, pouring it onto the bottom of Oz's T-shirt. She wiped his face off, testing his gums with the wettest edge. It was mostly dry and a horribly unnatural pink color that said he was dehydrated. She looked at the bottle, then at the snout, then tipped it up carefully, drizzling some of the liquid down his throat.

Wesley watched all this with interest. "What are you doing?"

"He's dehydrated and you had better hope you've made those calls."

"Right away." He hurried back into the office to call the others in.

Giles showed up first, going directly to the cage when he saw it open. "Let's get him onto the table," he told her. He grabbed Oz's legs, waiting for Buffy to get his head. They carried him out to their usual work table and laid him down gently, not wanting to hurt him any further. "What did you do to him?" he asked his replacement. "Did you try to kill him or was it just gross stupidity?"

Wesley sputtered a bit then moved as a very angry Willow and her mother walked in, the younger woman pushing him aside roughly.

Her mother stopped at the checkout desk to stare at the hairy creature on the table. "Willow, you do know what that is, right?"

Willow, too angry to censor herself, turned to frown her mother off. "It's Oz, Mom, and he's not an it. You came along because you wanted to know what I did suddenly. Well, this is what I do." She went back to cradling his head. "What happened?" she asked Buffy.

"Stupid human," she said. "Too much tranquilizer for his body." She handed over the bottle of water. "He needs it."

Willow nodded and proceeded to slowly pour it down her boyfriend's throat.

Giles looked up. "I've not found a book yet on werewolf physiology, we need to call someone."

"Who?" Buffy asked, "A vet? A regular doctor wouldn't know what to do."

Willow's mother reached over the counter for the phone. "I know one. He's the one we patronized and he's used to unusual circumstances." She waited until the line was answered. "Hello?"

[Yes, this is Doctor Allen..] He was cut off.

"I'm sorry to be bothering you, but I have a case we need some help on. I'm handing you over to the one that was here." She handed the phone to Buffy.

"Hi," the teen said. "We have a ... dog that's been over tranquilized. We think somehow an old dart found it's way into him and it had probably three times as much as he could take."

[Okay, so what sort of breed is he, how much does he weigh, and how long ago?]

"Um, he's a mixed breed, I think. He's kinda been given to us and we're not real sure. He weighs somewhere over a hundred pounds and all. As for how long? I'm not sure, I only walked in a few minutes ago and he was laying there. I gave him some water, his gums had that sickly pink/dehydrated look." She looked at Willow. And shrugged.

Willow nodded her head for the phone. Buffy gladly handed it over to go back to doing what she could. "Hi, this is Willow Rosenberg, our group's pet, that's who's sick."

[Oh, yes, I remember your fish. So, this dog, do you know what tranq was given?]

Willow looked at Wesley and snarled, "Which tranq?" He quickly went to get the bottle for her. "Um, it's a barbiturate compound. I can't pronounce it." She looked down, stroking the muzzle that was dear to her. "What do we do?"

[Well, the water was a good idea. Is the dog seizing? Has he made any movements at all in the last little while?]

"Um, no and no." She looked over at Buffy. "Has he moved?" She shook her head. "Buffy said he hasn't been able to move. She found him on the floor."

[Okay. Do you want me to come over? Or are you going to bring him in?]

Willow looked around, panicking. "No, um, no. I think that would be bad, he's really aggressive around strangers."

Doctor Allen took a deep breath. [Willow, I know this isn't a crank call because it's you, but I can't really help without being there with him. I need to give him something to take the edge off before it sends him into a permanent sleep.]

She looked around. "Hold on, let me ask." She covered the phone. "He needs to come over and give something to ease the effects."

Giles blanched. "I don't think that's in the best interests here." He looked down at the furry creature that was one of the children he had come to care about. "I'm not sure what..."

The sound of a whistle blowing came over the phone. Willow uncovered it and put it back up to her ear. "I'm sorry, we were discussing."

[Willow, listen, I have to ask you a question that's going to sound nuts. Your friend, the injured one, he's in an animal form now, right?] he guessed.

Willow swallowed. "Yeah, he is. Um, how...?"

[My wife, she was turned a few years back. Every full moon she would turn into this gorgeous fuzzy creature and snarl for hours on end.]

Willow smiled. "Yeah, we're having the same problem. Someone here decided to tranquilize him with enough for an animal his size though."

[Where are you dear, I'll be right over.]

"High School library." She hung up. "He's on his way over."

"Willow, I don't think that's not the best of ideas," her mother said.

The girl nodded. "Yeah, but his wife used to do the same thing so let's leave it to the experts." She leaned down and kissed the still dry nose. "You're going to be fine, just hang on Oz." She stroked the hair around his face. "The Vet's on his way and he knows and understands."

Buffy and Giles looked at each other and shrugged. She picked up the phone to dial Xander, not getting an answer. "He's not home."

"Who's not?" the young teen asked, coming in the door. "I got a message on the machine saying Oz had been injured."

Wesley sneered. "I don't think we need your help here." He looked over the younger man with contempt.

Buffy spun, kicking the center of his chest, knocking him back a few feet. "Leave him alone or else." She pulled Xander over to the table, letting him get the other side of Oz. "We're keeping him hydrated and letting him know we're here so he doesn't slip away until the Vet can get here."

Xander nodded. "Sounds like a plan." He looked around before handing over his bottle of water. "Here, Will, yours is almost gone." She nodded, pouring some more down in slow intervals.

Giles looked over Xander. "So, how was your night?"

"Will reading. Some hand holding. Some tears. We all miss her." He looked down and touched the end of one of Oz's fingers. "Not something I want to go through again."

Giles nodded. "She was a miraculous woman. She hadn't hunted in over three hundred years, a record."

Xander laughed. "I'm sure. The first night I was there, she was drinking tea and had little sandwiches in front of her."

Giles nodded. "She was always a gracious hostess."

"Not to interrupt old home week, but we have to do the 'here, now' thing for a bit," Buffy reminded them. "I'm sorry about her dying Xan, but right now I'm more worried that Oz is going to follow."

The younger man nodded. "Okay, we can talk later." He took the furry hand in his and squeezed. "Hey, man, you've got to stay. I can't hold Will together if something happens."

Willow nodded. "Yeah, I wouldn't trust myself not to follow. You can't go." She leaned down to kiss the tip of his nose again, missing her mother's shudder. "You've got to come back," she whispered.

Buffy turned as someone else walked into the room, the doors slamming open. "Let me guess, you're the Vet?"

The older man nodded, coming over and putting down his bag beside the table. "Yes, I'm Doctor Allen. And this would be your friend?" He did a quick check of the werewolf's vitals.

Willow nodded. "Oz." She handed over the vial of tranquilizer that had been used. "He used that."

The doctor read it and took out another vial and a syringe from his bag. "Let's give him something to counter-act it, shall we. He should be fine in a while." He drew some down into the needle and quickly injected it into a strong arm muscle. "I wonder if they're all gray."

"I don't know, why?" Buffy asked, slightly distracted by her thoughts.

"My wife was the same color," he said. He smoothed down some of the hair and motioned toward the cage. "You might want to put him back in there. Just in case. He could start to come around any time now. He's not going to be dangerous, but it's always better to be safe."

Giles nodded, motioning for Buffy to come up and get his chest so he and Xander could get the ends. "Here we go then." They carried Oz back into the cage, setting him gently back onto the floor. Willow sat down beside him, the doctor coming with her, bringing his bag and setting it down beside him.

Buffy and Giles walked back out. She saw the cause of their problems sitting in a chair calmly watching them like it was a show they'd just put on for him. She ran over and kicked the chair over, sending him rolling onto the floor. "If I wasn't me, you'd be dead," she promised and kicked his side.

Xander ran out and pulled her off him before she could land another kick. "Hey, he's an idiot, but you can't do that. Call the Council and have him removed." He held her until she calmed down.

"She can't do that," Wesley said. "Only I or the Council can remove me."

"You're going," Giles said, the need for action finally making it to his mind. He picked up the phone and dialed a once familiar number. "Hello? I need to speak to the Council Head at once." He waited. "Yes, this is he, but there's been an incident and I need to tell them." He waited again. "Speaker phone, of course, give me a second to figure out how." Willow came out and pushed the appropriate buttons then hung up the phone. She went back to her wolf-side vigil.

"Hello," the voice from the phone said. "Mr. Giles, why are you calling us?"

"This is Buffy Summers. I want the overblown, egomaniacal, British guy removed before he kills someone." She took a deep breath.

"Now, I'm sure it's not as bad as all that."

"One of my friends is a werewolf. You know that."

"Yes, we do. Did something happen to him?"

"Nothing that Wesley didn't make happen," Giles said. "He tranquilized the young man in question, enough to have killed him if Buffy hadn't gotten here sooner." He took off his glasses. "He has systematically tried to isolate her from the group that aids her in her mission. Just tonight he has tried to provoke one of them into fighting him. I do believe she's correct and it would be better if he was removed so she doesn't attack him again."

"Remove him or I will," she promised.

"Now see here. I was trying to keep the poor boy calm. As for the other one, I don't believe she needs to be around a feeder or a witch, it skews her perspective."

"A feeder you say? Was he under the Mistress."

"Yeah," Xander said. "She was my direct sponsor." He swallowed. "But he's never liked me, or anyone else here, even before he found these things out. Buffy and Giles are right, he's trying to isolate her and it's going to get her killed."

"And you are..."

"Alexander Harris."

"Oh, yes, I remember you." He cleared his throat. "Is ... I hate to say this, but..."

"I'll go sit with Will and the Vet," he said, going back to the cage, after giving Buffy a hug.

"Listen, either he goes and I get Giles or someone like him or you can get another chosen one. I'm not going out again until he's back in the mother country."

"It's not Russia," Giles reminded her gently.

"I don't care which country spawned him, and I'm sure you're a good example of the people they breed there, Giles, but if he's here still tomorrow the world can go to hell."

Giles nodded. "Quite I fear." He turned back to the phone. "I do believe it would be in the best interests of everyone if he would leave. Buffy can't do her job when he's offering her bad advice and training. He can't fight, in a real world situation he's useless. And I fear if he stays, she will hurt him for this."

"I see. He's never mentioned that in his reports."

"Would he?" Buffy asked. "I know I wouldn't write anything to you that makes me look like him."

"Nor would I. It would be most embarrassing to find out that the old watcher had to save your rear repeatedly." He cleared his throat. "Not to mention that he's had some questionable methods since getting here. Telling her to skip class for fight practice. Telling her that vampires care about who would see them most of the time, that they care about their images of all things!"

The voice on the other end of the phone sighed. "I see. I'll bring this before the council. Wesley, you are to reappear before us to answer to these charges. Do you have any evidence? Any hard evidence?"

Buffy looked over at Willow and mouthed 'evidence'? The younger girl said "training tapes" and looked back down.

"We've made some training tapes, at both of the watcher's insistence."

"You only have one, my girl."

"I have one, and it's Giles or someone just like him. A clone maybe, but it's him. He's the one that got me through everything, including dying and coming back. He's the one that I trust to help me, teach me, and unless you can come up with an unfired version of him, I'm not going back out there." She walked over to the cage to sit down beside Willow. "Any change?"

The younger woman shook her head.

Giles looked down at the phone, shifting to rest his elbows on the check-out counter. "She can be a bit high strung but she's correct in this case. This man you sent has repeatedly endangered her with bad advice and ideas." He cleared his throat. "I'm sure if you sent a reasonably capable person to do the job, she would accept them, but it's going to take a while to gain her trust."

"So I heard." There was a short pause, followed by some quiet conversation that didn't come through the phone clearly. "We've decided to let the matter of her watcher rest for a while. You're to come back over with Wesley, escorting him back to the Council. At the hearing we'll decide what to do about her watcher situation." He cleared his throat. "Can she handle it on her own for a week or so?"

Giles walked over to the cage. "I've been called before the Council. Can you handle things for a week or two?" They all nodded. "Good, I'll leave tomorrow night. We'll get most things set up in either Xander's apartment or at Willow's house since her mother now knows or someplace." He walked back out. "They said they can deal with it for a week or so. We'll be leaving tomorrow night so I'll have enough time to transfer some things over to her possession and help get their friend settled for another night."

"Of course. We'll book you on the flight at 8pm tomorrow night, your time, and you'll be here by late the next afternoon, our time. You'll have a two-hour layover in New York, waiting for the Concord, and then the traveling time. We'll start the hearing that night."

"That would be fine." He looked around, seeing Wesley, "And I'm sure it'll be fine with him since he has no ties to the area outside of his apartment."

"Good enough, we'll see you then. Bring those tapes with you and we'll view them on a break." The connection was hung up.

Giles turned and said, very simply, "Pack." He walked back into the cage, watching as Wesley walked out of the library. He looked down at the worried young people. "It's going to be fine. I'm sure you've caught it in time."

Willow nodded, wiping at her cheek. "Yeah, but it's taking so long."

Doctor Allen looked in Oz's eyes again. "Good news, he's starting to react. We should probably start to pull back some, in case he has a violent reaction upon waking." He put away his penlight and scooted back a little before looking around. "How long?"

"A little over a year," Buffy said. "His nephew bit him. Or something like that."

The Doctor nodded. "My wife was attacked in a park almost ten years ago." He pulled out his wallet to show them pictures of her in both forms. "She was beautiful."

Buffy nodded. "What happened?"

Doctor Allen smiled sadly. "She got loose one night and a hunter shot her."

"Big guy, nasty clothes, teeth on a necklace?" He nodded. "Yeah, he came after Oz too. His second night as a wolf. Giles and I ended up beating him and sending him away. We tranqed Oz and brought him back here the next night when we found him again." She waved around. "He seems to like it here most nights."

Willow smiled. "If he was like the guy in that movie, it'd be nice, but he's been much calmer lately."

"Only when you're here," Giles said. "It seems he recognizes you even when he's gone over."

Doctor Adam's smiled, fondly remembering. "There's a reason for that. Forgive me for being so personal, but has your cycle recently changed to reflect his?" Willow blushed slightly but nodded. "He thinks his mate's in heat."

Xander laughed. "So, he's trying to get with her and make little werewolves?"

"Mostly, yes. You see, he's not going to react violently around a female he's trying to mate with. He's going to be nice around her, snarl less and try to get out more."

Giles nodded. "Last night when Willow came in, Oz started to rattle the cage door, but he quit snarling at me."

"So, then, is it going to matter if Buffy's in the same shape?" Xander asked. Willow shot him a dirty look. "What? He's not got higher reasoning functions right now. All he'd smell was a female in heat."

Willow nodded. "That does make sense, even if I don't like the implication."

"I'm guessing here, but I would think that would depend on how he saw her. If he saw her as a member of his 'pack' then yes, he would. If not, he might react to her as an outsider trying to get in to take over control from him and his mate. He might become more aggressive towards her." He looked over at Buffy. "And I would assume that you're more than used to the strange things that happen around here. You covered very well earlier."

She smiled. "Oh, you might say that. I'm kinda a "strange crap R us" person. Let's just say this isn't new to me here."

Oz snorted and started to roll over in Willow's lap, sniffing. Giles, Buffy and Xander all retreated as did the doctor, if only to the doorway. The two teens and the older man went back to the table, straightening up to give the couple their privacy. They all turned as Willow giggled, but just sat down to wait for their reappearance.

The doctor came over and sat down. "He's fine, now. Actually right now, he's bathing his mate's face with his tongue." Buffy smiled. "Tomorrow night, someplace different?"

"We're not sure where yet, but yeah." Xander scratched his head. "We could be at my apartment or possibly in Giles since he's not going to be there. Buffy's mom's is a possible too."

Buffy nodded. "Yeah, yours or Giles. Mom's getting company tomorrow so not a plan." She looked over at the slightly gray faced woman leaning against the check-out counter listening to her daughter's quiet conversation and laughter. "And I think that Willow's is out too."

Giles looked around. "It would be best to be at my place for the time being. You could say that you're apartment sitting while I've been called home on a desperate situation. I have a small room and it shouldn't take much to make it werewolf-proof."

"Also, all your stuff; the weapons and all. It wouldn't look too strange for you to be taking home your own things that you didn't want to risk leaving here," Xander said. "Besides, I live up more stairs than you do and haven't got an Oz proof area."

Willow came back out. "Giles' seems to be the best. If we have to, we could do the bedroom for him."

Giles nodded. "Quite. There's not much in there beside a few pieces of furniture right now."

Doctor Allen pulled out his prescription pad and wrote two out. "Okay, this is a tranquilizer, a safe one. He's to take a dose before he changes, it'll only calm him down so he's not snarling at high volume." He handed the other to Willow. "This is a pain killer for in the morning or when he needs it for a major injury. It's written out in lap muffin strength and won't hurt him. He's going to have a very nasty headache in the morning and is going to want it." He smiled at her. "I suggest you hand it and a cup of water to him before he's fully awake."

Willow nodded and bit her lip. "I can do that." She took both prescriptions and headed over to her mother. "Can we go to the all-night pharmacy? I need to get these for him."

Her mother nodded. "Of course, but we're going to have a talk on the way. A very long talk, daughter."

Willow nodded and they left.

Oz snorted from the open door of the cage and was motioned over. "He's not dangerous right now," Doctor Allen said. "He's still got too much of the original dosage in him to do more than growl, and that's mostly in pain." He patted Oz's arm. "I'm Doctor Allen, Oz, and we're going to get to know each other in the next little while so I can help when this sort of thing comes up again."

Oz looked down, then around the room, sniffing the air. He sat down between Buffy and Xander, putting his head on one of their thighs, and kept moving it back and forth. The Vet looked over the edge of the table. "Pet him, I'm sure he'd like that." He smiled. "It's soothing to even the fiercest beast with a headache."

Xander nodded, stroking the springy fur as it was laying on his lap at the time. There was a soft growl but the head didn't move.

Doctor Allen stood up. "I should be getting back to the office. Thank you, call me when you need me, and have him stop by the office soon so I can talk to him about this." He handed Buffy a card. "Willow can come with him, she knows the way." He gathered his things and left the library, going back to his office.

Buffy looked down and smiled. "His tongue's hanging out, I guess he likes it." Xander smiled, lifting his hand, earning him a grunt before Oz moved back over to her lap. She stroked over his head, being careful not to put too much pressure on him. "We're going to be fine now and you're going to be okay again, and we've found a new friend too." She smiled and combed her fingernails through his fur. "Yeah, it's all going to work out in the end."

Giles cleared his throat, motioning for Xander to get up and help him. They worked back and forth, Giles and one teen packing, the other sitting to pet their hurting friend. They'd gotten most of the weapons out to the car when Willow came back, minus her mother.

"Hey," she said, putting the bag onto the table. She looked over to where Xander was sitting on the bottom step, cradling a painful wolf head in his lap, petting it. When she sat down, Oz immediately moved his head, making snuffling noises into her waist and head butting her. She started to pet him, earning herself a lick over her stomach.

"Definitely his alpha female," Buffy said. "We didn't get anything but head butts."

Willow smiled. "Yeah, but I'm his mate." She looked down, stroking carefully.

Buffy handed her the Vet's card. "He said Oz needs to come in to see him in the next few days to talk." Willow nodded and tucked it into her front pocket.

Buffy and Xander got the rest of the things loaded that wouldn't be safe to have left here unguarded for a week. They got all the stuff moved to Giles' and put away, then came back.

Willow was back in the cage with Oz, as it was almost sun up, and they were both asleep on the floor.

Buffy smiled, hanging her coat so Oz could redress in privacy, followed by Xander, then they all went back to the table to discuss plans for the next week or so. Almost an hour later, Willow woke up with a small shriek and an "Ooozzzzzz!"

Buffy looked over her shoulder and smiled. "They're up."

Xander shook his head as he went to put on the coffeepot. He had just poured two cups when the couple came out, all dressed and looking normal. He handed over the bag of drugs and the cups before going back to planning.

Oz dug through the bag on his way over, sitting down while taking the first pill and a sip of hot liquid. "Hmm, still bad, but better." He pulled Willow down into his lap. "Where's the asshole?"

"Gone," Buffy said. "Recalled to the Mother land."

Oz nodded and Giles frowned, shaking his head. "We've both been called before the Council. Me to testify, him to face charges stemming from last night."

"Among others," Xander said. "I heard you commenting on his fighting abilities, better known as the scream like a girl and run method." Buffy punched his arm. "Hey, I didn't say all girls, just some of them."

"Didn't you do that a few times?" Willow asked, smiling to take the sting out of the words.

"Yeah, but I got over it. A lot faster than he did. By the third fight I was in there, I was trying to fight."

Buffy nodded. "Yeah, you were. So, should we go nap? Or should we breakfast now? My mom's up."

"My mom's pissed and worried, doing the trying hard to forget thing." Willow smiled. "She said, 'as if a musician wasn't bad enough?' then started to laugh and cry at the same time."

Oz buried his head in Willow's shoulder. "I'm sorry, I never meant for her to find out."

Xander stood up. "It's not like you expected Wesley what's his name to come in and try to kill you." He grabbed his jacket. "So, food?"

"Coffee," Oz seconded.

The girls looked at each other and shook their heads, a silent 'men!' between them. Buffy looked over at Giles. "Coming?"

He nodded, grabbing his coat out of the office. "I had better drive also. Oz doesn't look well enough to and I refuse to ride with Xander if he's driving."

' ' ' '

Buffy's mother looked at the assembled people and groaned silently. She had been called at four this morning by Buffy's new watcher, told many things that she couldn't credit as being true, then had worried the rest of the night that they might be. She started the batter for pancakes, setting the bowl in front of Xander so he could stir it while she pulled her daughter out of the room. "So," she said, once they were in the living room. "Would you like to tell me about last night?"

Buffy groaned as she sank down from the chair's arm to the seat. "What did the creep tell you?" Her mother gave her a look. "He's being brought up on charges, Mom. I'll tell you what I can, but you're not going to believe some of it."

Her mother nodded. "Then I guess most everything was true." She looked up as Giles came in. "You knew?"

"Yes, mostly. Buffy and I found out that it was Oz that was a werewolf almost a year ago, we started to help him then." He stood behind Buffy's chair. "It's been a trying night all around, Joyce, and I'm sure you two need to talk."

"No, not really. I've already gotten my answer. I'm just concerned about some things." She got up, going back into the kitchen. She walked over to where Xander was pouring plate-sized pancakes and moved his shirt collar.

He turned to face her, moving his shirt to show her the bite mark. "It's here." He looked at her. "She's not involved."

"I know. It's against her calling. So, is this how you got the apartment?"

"And the living stipend. My sponsor recently died though."

Joyce hugged him. "I'm sorry, Xander, I really am. I'm just worried about you. About all of you," she said, turning back to the group. "Wesley called me early this morning and told me everything. Are you all right Oz?" The young man nodded. "I'm glad. Now what?"

Everyone shrugged. Except Giles, who took off his glasses to clean them in his agitated/thinking about something way. "Well, he and I are being called back to England to discuss the matter."

"I'm sending him home marked defective goods," Buffy said. "You're going home to be told you're my watcher again."

Joyce nodded. "That would certainly seem to be for the best." She rubbed her hands together. "I'm here if you need to talk or anything, but I'm going to pretend I never got that call if it's all right." Everyone nodded and she headed back upstairs.

Oz looked at Buffy. "No offense or anything, but your mom's real deep into our secrets now."

Buffy smiled. "Yeah, but people just keep telling her things."

"Besides," Xander pointed out, "if we're going to have a parent on our side, it's good to have the one that's been in the loop for a while." He flipped the pancake out of the pan and put it on a plate in front of Willow. "Ladies first."

"None for me," Oz said.

"Medical orders said to eat with the pill," Willow reminded him, mouth full, "and I want to eat with you for a change. We never eat breakfast together."

He nodded, taking the next plate away from Buffy and taking a bite.

Buffy kissed the top of his head as she walked behind him. "Oz, we're just glad you're still here enough to steal food." She grabbed the next plate, fixing it her way.

Xander slipped another onto Oz's plate. "Yup, all of us are. The beast master Will, Merlin the Watcher, the Slayer and me are all glad you're still here."

Oz looked around with a grin. "Yeah, me too."

' ' ' '

It was a few days later when Xander called over to the Summer's house to check and make sure he could still come over and do laundry.

"You know you're always welcome," Joyce said, opening the door for him.

"I know, I just wanted to make sure that you weren't doing any, this being your day off and all."

She snorted. "Me? That's work and would defeat the purpose of a day off." She smiled, grabbing one of the bags to carry downstairs. She leaned against the washer, watching as Xander threw things in. "Want to talk?"

"About?" She looked pointedly at his collar. "Oh, that. Sure, let me get this started." He poured in some detergent and started the machine, smiling when she turned it to another setting, then followed her upstairs. They sat at the table, drinking sodas. "What would you like to know?"

"Are you still doing it?"

"Yeah, twice a week I feed and sometimes I'm over there to help with a new feeder." He played with the moisture rings from his glass. "It's not bad. He's a nice guy around me. He's good to me. It's exciting and fun." He looked up. "It's great sex."

Joyce swallowed quickly. "Huh?"

"Well, the ones that feed do it this way. They've not hunted in a month and need less blood. Sex adds a special chemical to it that makes them need even less. Most of the time I don't give as much in a week as I would to the Red Cross." He shrugged. "Or was the question for the 'he' part?"

"No, although I'm a bit surprised at it." She smiled and touched his hand. "Cordelia, Buffy? You chased after both of them."

"Yeah. I've known for a while that I'm basically bi. I like women, but I love to be the bottom." He grinned. "You can't imagine."

She laughed. "Oh, you'd be surprised. Remember, women usually do that part." They both laughed. "I'm just making sure that you're safe and you're not being hurt."

Xander nodded. "Nope, no hurt. Only consensual pain." He pulled aside his shirt to show her the newest bite mark, a little pulled again. "He's a little rough with me but I like it. Not a big."

Joyce nodded, looking at it closer. "That needs cleaning."

"I know. I'll do it when I get home. I cleaned it before I came over, but it always looks bad the first day."

"So, then, you've been doing this since before you moved?"

"Since I moved. The next night to be exact. My first time, in ceremony, was a great one." He smiled, remembering. "Such a nice time."

Joyce shook her head. "I still can't see you doing it."

"At first, I thought of it as a way out of my house. Then I found out that I liked it, then I figured out that I would gladly do this without the stipend."

She smiled. "I'm wondering if Buffy has ever."

"Not that I know of. It'd get in the way of her calling. Of course, she might have fed Angel once upon a time, who knows." He shrugged.

"Have you heard from him?"

"He's protecting people that need it down in L.A." He finished off his soda. "He's supposed to be good at it." The washer's buzzer went off. "Be right back." He ran down the stairs and switched over the clothes, setting a new load to wash. By the time he came back upstairs, Joyce wasn't in the kitchen. He headed toward the living room, where he could hear voices, and stopped outside the door to see if he should go in.

"You can't shield him from us, he's our son."

"He's a grown man and you need to leave now."

Xander went back to the kitchen and dialed his apartment, knowing Oz and Buffy were both there. "Hey, it's me. My parents are here harassing Buff's mom. You might want to come over." The phone was taken out of his hand.

"Calling your little friends, boy?" his father said, hanging it back up. "Come into the living room and talk to us."

"You have nothing I want to hear." He stood his ground, but was pulled along and pushed down beside Joyce.

"Now, we heard some of what you said to her," he pointed at Joyce. "And we want to know some things."

"Nope. National secrets." He tried to get up, but was pushed back down. "Leave. Now. I'm nineteen and you're not entitled to any answers anymore. You're not welcome in this house if Mrs. Summers wants you to leave."

His father nodded, before hitting both of them. "Yours was for disrespecting me, hers was for your not answering me. This is how it's going to go."

Buffy walked into the room. "No, it's going to go this way. You're going to leave because I just called the cops and I'd rather see them hunt you down for assaulting my mother and my friend." She smiled. "It's not like you have a choice between leaving in handcuffs and walking out freely."

"It's your fault my boy's done this," Xander's mother said. "He was normal until you came."

Buffy laughed. "Normal? Do you mean like you? 'Cause I don't think he's ever been that." She nodded toward the door, letting Oz let the police in.

Xander's father just stood there as he was cuffed. An officer took both Xander's and Joyce's statement, then gave them a number to call in case they came back. They left with him, going back to the station and Xander's mother followed behind in their car, moaning all the way about ungrateful children.

Buffy got her mother the ice pack she used and handed another to Xander. She sat between them, giving hugs and physical comfort.

Oz came back in, setting the first load of clothes on the coffee table. "I switched them." He sat down beside Xander to check his cheek. "Hurt much?"

Xander smiled. "Yeah, and I am *so* glad you guys came when you did." He looked around Buffy to Joyce. "I'm sorry you had to get caught in that."

She waved it off and smiled. "At least I know now why you had to escape."

Xander laughed. "Yeah, but that's only the tip of the iceberg. I *like* eating regular and identifiable meals."

They all laughed and both the college kids called off their plans for the day to just hang together.

It was later that night when it hit Xander, what had truly happened at Buffy's. He started to shiver, cold in the warm apartment. He flipped on the lights and padded down to the building's front door to make sure it was closed then went back upstairs to fix himself something warm to drink.

He sat on a futon, drinking cocoa and watching infomercials all night, not ready to lay back down.

' ' ' '

It was a few nights after the attack when everyone was gathered over at his apartment again. Willow cooked, Oz and Buffy brought over his Playstation and the games she had rented. Xander was watching everyone, not really wanting to participate.

Willow came over with some soup for him to taste, making him eat it. When he told her what he thought, she sat down beside him. "So," she said, "nightmares?"

"Yeah," he said, nodding in time to his rubbing of his forehead. "A few. Why?"

She looked over him. "You look bad, Xan. Like you haven't slept in days."

"Well, that might be right, I've lost count. Except for my nap today in class that got me sent home." He looked down. "This semester's just been a killer to start and I'm tired."

"Ah," Oz said, "but you would be getting breaks the same time we would so we can just veg for a while."

Buffy shook her head. "Mom wants to go visit her sister over the main one."

"You can stay here," Xander offered. "It's not like there's no room."

She smiled. "I've suggested that and she's agreed. She was going to ask if you would guard me while she's gone the next time you came over."

Xander snorted. "Guard you? You're going to guard me."

She nodded. "Oh, if I must." Oz hit her with a pillow, earning him a smile.

"Seriously though, anytime you guys need to stay over, just drop by. It's not like I'm going to be doing things here."

"Yeah, we were wondering when you were going to bring some nice person home," Willow said. "You've not dated in over half a year now."

Xander smiled. "Ah, but I have something better than dating." He looked out the window and his smile fell away. "I'll be back guys." He jogged down the stairs and out into the park across the street. "Hey, man. What's up?" He stopped in front of Spike and looked around before grabbing a kiss.

Spike let him lean back some. "I need you, tonight."

Xander looked down. "What's wrong?" Spike tipped his head back. "You don't usually need more. Unless you've gotten into a fight."

The vampire nodded, opening his jacket to show the young man a gaping, messy, bloody hole. "Wasn't your friend at least. Dru did it."

Xander nodded. "Let me go get ready."

"Screw ready," he snarled. He set Xander back. "Now, here, or at your place, or at the mansion." He put his hands on his hips, waiting for an answer.

Xander bit his lip. "Okay, let's go. You can come in once they're gone." He pulled Spike back to his place, having him wait in the dark corner beside the door for a second. "Hey, Buff?" he called as he walked in the door. "Dru's out attacking people."

The blonde one turned her head. "Again? Who this time?"

"The one I feed." He shifted his stance. "Could I, um, impose and ..."

The three young people came over, giving him a hug. "Bring you back something?" Oz asked. Xander smiled and shook his head.

Willow turned down the soup. "It'll keep for a few hours, then I'll need to add some water." She kissed his cheek. "Be safe." She ran down after Oz, jumping on his back from a few steps away from where he was standing.

Buffy stood in front of him. "We'll talk later?" She nodded, prompting him to. "Good. I'll add a me too to Will's be safe." She walked out the door, sparing a glance toward the shadows.

When everyone was gone, Spike walked in, shutting and locking the door behind him. He pulled Xander to him as he took off his jacket, switching arms effortlessly. "Bedroom?"

Xander pointed. Spike pulled him in and threw him towards the large bed. He watched as his feedee stripped, almost ripping his clothes in desperation and he slowly peeled out of his sweats and T-shirt.

Spike smiled, licking his fangs, his true face out. "Get on the bed." He watched as Xander did as he was told, settling on his knees, holding out his arms. The vampire snarled and raced across the room, landing on top of the young man, spreading him lengthwise across the bed as he held the young man's mouth hostage.

When Xander needed to breathe or die, he pulled on Spike's hair, raising his head. "Lube," he asked quietly.

"No, tonight we go all the way, love. I need it that bad." He smiled, licking over one swollen lip. "Lube is for later, much later." He nipped the lip, then moved down, nipping and sucking his way down to the well-built chest. "After I've had all of you." He laved his tongue over the bite mark, a permanent dark marking to his body, before moving down.

Xander shifted some, spreading a wrinkle that was under his back out, and arched up as his nipple was pierced by a sharp fang. He shivered as the hot mouth lapped at the sore spot, sucking it back up to a plateau and then pushing a fang down into the center again. And again. And again. Each time getting more and more tense and sore, Xander wiggled some trying to get Spike to switch sides.

"Oh, no, love. Tonight you're mine and I'm going to treat you to the full me." He licked over the sore bud again before switching sides. He went back to sucking and laving the soon to be sore bud, making it feel good before plunging a fang down into the center suddenly.

Xander arched up and yelled. He had been hard before, but this was making him lose it; even though he liked it hard and a little rough, but he wasn't sure if he liked this. Spike growled at him to lay still and started to lick again, this time around the edge.

"Have you ever thought about getting something done to you?" Xander nodded, wondering where this was going. "Well, I've thought about some things too. Doing things to you, having them done to me." He smiled. "This is your only chance to say no. Otherwise I'm going to use you like I need and you may or may not like it." He stroked a hand down the hardening shaft. "You may like some things, but will hate others by the morning." Xander nodded, opening his mouth to say something. "No, let me finish. I'm going to bite you tonight, again, but I'm going to do it in a couple of different places and you may not like it. You'll be filled before our time is done, but it's going to be hard and punishing." A twitch from the cock he held. "Ah, you like that thought then." He smiled and leaned over slowly, tongue extending to the newly sore nipple. He turned his head slightly and bit, hard, into it, piercing it with his tooth.

Xander almost yelled, but muffled it, his chest arching up at the pain. He saw Spike take something out of his ear and put it down on his chest. Then he felt the sting of the bite soothed by the cold metal of something slipping through the bite mark. He looked down, his nipple now pierced.

Spike didn't give him time to react, he just moved lower. He licked and dragged his teeth down Xander's abdomen, stopping only to play with his navel. He licked and sucked at the inner rim, getting it ready for the next bite, the same care he had taken with him that first night. He slowly, oh so slowly, sank his fangs into the tender flesh, making Xander scream. He pulled back and reached for his jacket, pulling two things out. He slid the blindfold down, covering Xander's eyes, and slid the piece of leather into his panting mouth to stifle the sounds that would be coming from it soon. When he was sure Xander wouldn't bring anyone running, he went back to the young man's navel, slowly sinking his teeth down into it, not to draw blood but to add the fear chemicals he needed to survive the next few days into the blood he craved.

Xander was panting above him, wondering what was next he knew. He switched tactics, stroking the satiny hardness to bring it back up. "Not so innocent, are we Xander?" Xander panted harder as he squeezed the hard cock a little. "No answer, my innocent little one?"

"No, I'm not," he mumbled. He tried to roll away, but was caught.

"It's a need now, young one. You need the excitement, need the thrill of the blindfold, the mystery of what's next." Xander nodded and Spike grinned, just before taking him down his throat quickly, making him cum hard. He could taste it, drank some of it greedily, before moving to taste what he needed. He bit the inside of Xander's thigh, sucking greedily at the artery.

Xander moaned and started to pull away, but Spike pulled off and flipped him over, burying his face in the crack of Xander's cheeks. "Do you want this?" he asked the warm flesh. Xander wiggled, nodding. "Good, then I'll give it to you." He dipped his tongue in briefly, tasting him, before taking some of the still dripping blood and spilled semen up to lube his lover up for his entry. Spike got him stretched well enough to get in and then pushed in steadily.

Xander moaned and laid there, rigid with the pain of entry. Spike was fully inside, he waited almost long enough for the young human to adjust before attacking his body with the same ease he had always used when they were gentle. He pounded, attacked, the tight hole, offering all he could give and taking what he still needed. Spike looked down at the hole on his chest, it was almost healed now. He slowed down some, making it good for his very young and very innocent feeder, doing any less would be unkind of him, something he needed to do. He stroked over the firm flesh, loving the feel of it under his hands and knowing this was the last time he would feel it.

His pounding soon brought Xander over the edge, the long awaited bite coming to the muscles that held the neck upright. His yell could still be heard above the gag, making Spike finish quickly so he wouldn't be caught by Xander's friends. He pulled out, licking over the wounds so they would heal better before getting dressed. His last act was to pull a sheet up over his feeder, covering him so his friends wouldn't know unless he told them. "I'm sorry," he said quietly, "but I needed it to go stop her. I'll see you on the other side." He released the gag and the blindfold, giving the young man one last kiss. "I'll miss you." He left the apartment, making sure to close the door and lock it behind him.

Xander rolled over and winced, all the abused muscles complaining now. He picked up the phone to dial the mansion. "I need to talk to someone," he said quietly. "Spike's left me."

' ' ' '

Oz knocked on the door before he opened it with his key. He couldn't hear anything, so he slowly walked around the apartment, looking to see if he could figure out if anyone was still here without going into the bedroom. "Hey, um Xan, is it safe?" His answer was a groan, so he went into the bedroom to check on him to make sure he was all right, figuring the younger man was sleeping it off. He never expected to have to take the phone out of his hand or to see the marks on the soft skin that said he had been gagged. Xander might like it a little rough, he had told him that himself during an 'guys only' session in front of TV, but this was more than a little rough. He hung up the phone and hesitantly moved the sheet aside to see if the bite mark would need cleaning soon; then it became a matter of which one. Oz quickly went for the first aid kit and a few wet cloths. He came back, seeing Xander had turned, and hissed at the mess his upper chest had become. He sat down beside him, spreading out the things he would need, then started to wipe some of the accumulated blood away.

It soon became clear that there were a few bites, some serious, some painful, some dangerous. Oz had bandaged both nipples and had spread some extra gel on the bites in Xander's navel when he couldn't figure out how to cover them, but now he was looking at the huge bruise on the inside of his thigh. He didn't want to look closer or more inward, fearing what he would see. He heard a key in the lock and covered Xander and the supplies up, hurrying out to stop whoever was coming in.

"I was just coming to check on him. One of the neighbors told me he had heard some yelling. Is that boy all right?"

"Yes, sir. He's going to be fine."

The manager scratched at a dark mark on his chest. "Trust me, I know the difference between all right and the amount of blood on your hands. The one he fed left him?" Oz shrugged. "If it was savage and brutal, it was the last time. They'll make sure of it."

Oz nodded. "I found the phone in his hands." He waved the older man into the bedroom and watched as he hit redial.

"Hello, yes, this is. You're still good, Dominic. Yes, he's living and one of his friends is cleaning him up." He looked over at Oz. "Can I check him?"

Oz looked around. "I'm not sure, I think he would be embarrassed, but I'm not sure in this case."

The manager nodded. "Have you looked over his injuries? Are they bad?"

Oz made a decision, closing the bedroom door he was resting against, waving a hand. "You tell me. Some of them look bad and one is looking dangerous. I don't have a clue."

The older man nodded as he put down the phone. He quickly peeled back the sheet and looked him over, rolling him slightly to look at his back and the bite mark. He recovered him and picked up the phone, talking to it and Oz at the same time. "He's fine. None of the ones on his chest looked too bad, they'll heal with minimal scaring. His navel's the same way. He's got an inner thigh arterial bite and a muscular one in the neck muscles. They both look healed over and badly bruised. Young one, don't worry, he's going to be fine. They look worse than they are." He hung up, hearing an answer. "His problem's been dealt with. They went out and tried to find him, but your friend's feedee ran into the slayer first, getting killed already." He shrugged. "I have some things in my apartment that will help heal the bruising and I'll send them up to your woman. Get him into a bath but don't tell them anything, it's for the best."

Oz nodded and stepped away from the door. "Thank you."

The manager patted his face. "Any time. I've been doing the same thing he has since I was your age and this only happens when one's going off to do battle and needs both the fear and the love." He looked back at the prone young man in the bed. "He'll get a good one next time if he wants one."

"He's taking some time off," Xander said. "How bad is it?"

"Not bad, go take a hot bath to ease the stiffness and the muscle bruises." He shrugged. "He both won and lost. I'm sorry, young one." Xander nodded and he left, making sure the door was locked behind him.

Oz came back over and sat on the side of the bed. "So, how does a hot bath sound?" he asked, trying to sound cheerful.

Xander held up an arm. "Can I have a hug first?" He got it then was helped into the bathroom. Oz ran the water and sat beside the tub on the floor, after changing the sheets, and they talked.

"Buffy got him," he told the younger man.

Xander nodded. "He was going to go fight Dru. She had tried to stake him earlier and missed. That's why he did this."

"Your manager seems to think it's when they go out and fight each other, but I guess that would fit now." He poured some of the warm water down Xander's chest. "It's not like this usually, is it?"

"Nah, for the first few months it was soft and gentle and touching. The night that the Mistress died, he turned a little bit harder. He rode me for hours that night, pounding me hard, driving out his grief. And it's pretty well stayed gentle like before the rest of the time." He shrugged, wiggling down deeper into the water. "Thank you for earlier."

Oz nodded and ran some more hot. "Not a problem, but I never want to have to do it again." He pulled the younger man's head around to make sure he understood.

Xander laughed shortly. "Me either." He opened his eyes and looked over at his friend. "Were you sickened?"

Oz shook his head. "No, I know things happen and that the display he put on you wasn't normal. I didn't figure you were into that. It *did* turn me off of ever trying it."

Xander smiled and ran his damp fingers through the older man's hair. "Yeah, me too mostly. I'd like to still work with the new kids, but I don't think I could ever go back to feeding."

Oz sighed in relief, then heard the door opening. "Damn, it's Buff and Will." He stood up, pulling the curtain closed, and went out to meet them. "Hey, guys."

"Hi," Buffy said, cautiously. "How is he?"

"In the bath. We were just talking."

Willow nodded. "Did something happen?" She looked around the room. "'Cause we ran into some people who were being fed and they were most unpleased when they found out what had happened."

Oz shook his head. "He's fine, just a little bruised. He's thinking about giving up the feeding part and just working with the new feeders." He shrugged. "Go get dinner ready and I'll bring it into him."

"Why?" Buffy said. "What's he hiding."

"His body," Willow reminded her. "I doubt he's taking a bath in his clothes."

Buffy blushed just a touch. "Um, yeah, sorry. I just want to make sure he's all right."

Oz pulled her into the bedroom and showed her the room. "See, no damage done." She snorted so he knocked on the bathroom door. They could hear the shower curtain moving and a tired 'come in', so they did.

Buffy kneeled down beside the closed curtain. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah and I've got to get something against that corner to block the sound." He smiled. "I'm fine, just hungry."

"All right, but I want to talk to you later about your choice of feedees." She tapped the curtain before standing up. "I'm sorry, Xan, he didn't give me a choice. He came at Willow in full feed mode."

The younger man nodded. "I understand and I'm not mad. Just don't tell the Watcher dude. I'll never hear the end of it."

Buffy leaned down to kiss the top of his head. "We're staying tonight. Will's calling her mom and I'm going to go call mine. Soup now, lots of protein later, and a good night's rest, you should be okay."

Xander smiled. "I'm not going to class tomorrow. I don't think I'd make it and I'm sure he'll understand. Damn," he swore. "I'm supposed to take a test in the morning."

"Then one of us will go with you," Willow said from the doorway. She handed him a coffee cup of soup and smiled. "And I agree about the soundproofing thing. You could use it. I heard." She physically moved her boyfriend out of the way and then Buffy. "Now then, we're going to talk."

The two others wisely retreated, closing the bathroom door behind them.

Willow took the cup back, setting it on the back of the toilet. "Let me see."

"Dear, I love you, but there are things you're not going to see of me."

She held up a little pot. "I need to spread it on the bruises."

He sat up some. "The other's under the water."

She spread out the thick, smelly gel out over the neck mark then helped him sit back. "The other's where?"

He reached for and grabbed the cup of soup. "My thigh."

She hissed but pushed aside the curtain, looking down. She tried hard not to look at the area he was trying to cover, but at the bruise. "So, I'm guessing he went for the artery." Xander nodded, shifting his leg out some. "I can do this when you're dressed," she said suddenly, standing up. "Whenever you're ready." She backed out of the bathroom, hurrying out to her usual territory, Oz's lap.

Xander decided to rest for a while, the warmth of the water filling in the cold spots that had been created earlier. He finished the soup and sunk just a little lower in the water, resting his neck on the little neck pillow Willow had given him after he had moved in. He closed his eyes, trying to think pleasant thoughts.

All that would come were the thoughts of what had happened and what he had lost.

' ' ' '

Giles pulled over a chair, after politely asking the person at the table where it belonged. "Unfortunately I don't have good news this time." He looked around at the friends gathered for their weekly lunch date. "It seems there's a third girl that's been called."

Buffy looked up, startled. "A third? I thought Faith lost hers."

"So it would seem, but that's the call I just got. There's been a third girl called and she's disappeared."

"Where?" Willow asked. "Like around here?"

"Canada. Small town on the Eastern Seaboard I believe." He cleared his throat. "Can you find her? Sense her somehow? She's supposed to be extremely special for some reason."

Buffy shook her head. "I haven't felt anything funny in weeks." She shrugged. "Unless that was her being called."

Giles nodded. "That's around the right time." He looked over at the couple, holding hands and looking concerned. "Don't worry so much, I'm sure there's a perfectly normal explanation."

"A sudden insurgence where she lived?" Willow suggested.

Xander nodded. "It might have been a survival reflex." He finished off his salad then looked down at the empty bowl. "I really don't want to make a habit of college food."

"It's no worse than the crap at the Bronze." Oz snapped his fingers. "We ought to go celebrate passing midterms. I play tomorrow night."

Buffy smiled. "That would give some of us the much needed time to catch some sleep."

"You're not supposed to cram," Giles reminded her. "You're supposed to spread out your studying."

She patted his hand. "It's been a while since you remembered college, hasn't it?"

Giles smiled. "No, not really, but you would think in all that time newer students would have come up with a better method than cramming." He got up. "I'm going back to work, I just wanted to let you all know and have you start to watch." He looked around. "Congratulations to all of you for passing another part of your first semester and to you, Xander, for getting through another month; I must say, your school work's been better than ever." He patted the young man on the shoulder then left.

"Yeah," Willow sighed, "gone is the carefree teen that used to scoff at homework."

Xander smiled. "Yes, but he was replaced by one that won a full ride academic scholarship into the electronics technology program for next semester." He looked around. "It helped that I picked it up so well. I'm guessing it's one of those cases where I found my area. Even some of my wacky ideas are being looked over now. It's nice to find your spot in life."

Buffy nodded. "Yeah, I've done that too. Even if I don't like it all that much."

"Hey, all you get is simple addition and subtraction and table reading," Willow said. "I've had to take higher maths and learn to like it. You've not lived until Calc two. And I've got more coming soon."

Oz patted his girlfriend's arm. "That's okay, we understand. Most of us would cringe at the mere thought of that, but you're the one that wanted to go into the computer stuff."

"Yup, you'll teach music, I'll design computer stuff, Buffy will do our taxes and Xander will come over and do all the electronic stuff we need." She smiled over at Oz. "Or we could all still be living at his place then."

Oz checked his watch. "Unless I get home, I'm might have to." He kissed Willow's cheek then got up, waving at everyone. "Later."

"My house, pizza party," Xander said quietly. "Early celebration if you get up."

Oz nodded. "Okay." He left the building, going home.

Buffy and Willow looked at each other. "So," the Slayer said, "now what?"

"Sleep," Willow groaned.

Buffy laughed. "Let me add an amen to that." She got up, pulling Willow with her. "Come on, I'll drop you at home. I've had more nappings."

Xander tossed his napkin down. "Nope, the Harris taxi service is in operation. Let me get you to your door safely." The two girls nodded and they all left.

Xander got them home then went back to his place, meaning to clean it up before anyone else got there. He pulled into his parking spot and noticed Oz's van parked a few spots down. He arched an eyebrow up but got out, making sure to lock his door. "Hey," he said, walking up to the window. "Didn't make it home?"

"Nope, wondering if you'd mind a houseguest until I can find my own place." He got out, going around the back. "My mother gave me an ultimatum: music or their house."

Xander grabbed a bag out of the back, picking up the spare guitar case also. "You're staying," he decided. "No place of your own. It'll be nice to have someone to talk to again."

Oz nodded. "For now."

"Nope, not even close." He set down the bag and unlocked the bottom door. "You're staying." He held the door so Oz could go up, then followed. "It'll be nice not to be so isolated again. This semester's been hard, nobody's there most of the time and it's too quiet."

"All right, but I get a couch."

"Oz, I don't care if you want half the bed, you're staying."

Oz opened the apartment door and looked in. "My, the place has changed." He looked around at the accumulated mess.

"No reason to clean," Xander said simply. "Pick a spot to store it until we can get the closet and drawers settled."

Oz stepped over a small stack of pizza boxes to carefully lay his stuff in the corner. "I'll go get the rest, you clean."

"That's what I was going to do anyway." He watched the older man leave and patted his shoulder. "Yes, not so alone anymore." He grabbed the trashcan and a few bags, getting to work so the place was habitable.

' ' ' '

Oz looked up from the futon and nodded at the manager through the open door. "I'm sorry, I burned something."

The old man nodded. "Are you living here now too?"

Oz nodded. "Xander insisted."

He shrugged. "Okay, just no loud music after eleven on the weekdays. Most everyone else is a daytime worker." He went back downstairs.

"Not a problem, we have our practice space." He checked his watch. "And I need to get there." He wrote out a note, sticking it on the fridge, and closed and locked the door behind him. He took the copy of the lease on the way out.

' ' ' '

Xander looked up and smiled through the open door. "Hey Giles, come on in."

The older man came in and sat down. He looked back at the door in a silent question.

"Oh, that? The neighbor's cat is in heat and it's driving Oz nuts. We're circulating the air in the apartment." He put his book aside. "Problems?"

"Of a sort. Did you know that your trust fund may be running out?"

Xander looked around. "Well, I got that letter and then I took it to the attorney who's supposed to be doing periodic audits of it for me. He did another and someone's up on embezzlement charges." He looked at the librarian. "It's not a big thing. I've got it back and all it took was a week."

Giles sighed. "I'm glad. I only got the letter today." He handed it over and watched as Xander read it and then dialed the number on it.

"Hi, I'm Alexander Harris and I've just been handed a letter by a friend. Were you trying to get hold of me about my trust?" A short pause. "Yes, that was settled, but this is a different letter and dated two days after that was settled." There was a long pause while the secretary connected him to the lawyer. "Hi, it's me again and I've just been handed a second letter regarding it?" A longer pause. "Oh, all right. And was that settled also?" Short pause. "Well, thanks, no I had no idea. No one had told me I had been included." He hung up. "Apparently when my grandmother died, she left me a small amount of money and it's just been turned over to his care. Minus a few thousand in interest." He sighed and sat down. "My parents have been sucking it dry."

Giles patted his shoulder. "At least you know now. Are you going to do anything about it?"

"I'm letting the law handle it." He crumpled up the letter. "She left me a few boxes of stuff and the money, payable once I was in college or younger if I was in trouble." He looked up, seeing the pain in Giles' eyes for him. "My parents were recently forced, during their bankruptcy hearing, to hand it over to a responsible attorney and mine was watching the trial to see if it would affect me. He showed up to claim it in my interest. They've turned over most of it, except some of her jewelry and a few other things they could sell, so I need to go pick it up."

Giles nodded. "I can go with you if you want."

Xander nodded. "Just let me go change." He walked into the bedroom, pulling out a nicer shirt to go over his jeans, buttoning it on the way out. He looked up to see Giles looking at his chest, and the silver bar on it. "He gave it to me that last night."

Giles nodded. "I had heard, but I would have thought you might have taken it off in this last month."

Xander shook his head. "It's a reminder to me, of that life and all that's gone now." He pulled on his sneakers. "Of all those people that cared about me and are dead now."

Giles nodded. "I have a necklace, a pendant really, that she gave me when I was forced to leave." He pulled it out, showing it off. "Said I was to remember having a free will and that she would be seeing me again."

Xander smiled. "Did she?"

"No, I wasn't even aware she was in town until you joined her and then I felt it would have been awkward to go visit." He shrugged. "I missed out."

Xander patted his shoulder. "Yeah, I almost did too."

They headed out, going to the lawyer's office to pick up what the younger man was due.

On the way back, Xander kept looking at the back seat and the boxes there. Giles pulled into the McDonald's drive through, ordering for them both, having to nudge the younger man to make him realize the food needed to be taken.

They made it back to the apartment and carried the boxes up, to be met by Buffy at the door. She made room for them, moving aside her schoolbooks so they could set them down. "Shopping spree?"

"Nah," Xander said. "Just found out that my parents kept more stuff from me." He opened one box to look down in it. "My grandmother left me this and some cash in a trust. They've been stealing it."

Giles looked at the texts. "Good choice. I love Shakespeare."

"You know, I think we kinda assumed that," Xander said. "After all, we've found you reading his sonnets a lot recently. Any reason for reading poetry about love and lust?"

"I like them," Giles said sternly. "None other."

Xander smiled. "If you're sure." He started to pull things out. "Let's see. Remnants of a less troubled childhood." He pulled out a quilted blanket and a few stuffed animals so he could see the bottom, then put everything back in and opened the other box. "Grandma stuff, pictures, jewelry box." He opened the last, pulling out a smaller box. "And Grandma's wedding set." He put it all back and closed the box, pulling them both into the bedroom. Buffy and Giles looked at him. "What? I'll go through it later and see if I remember any of it or if I've blocked all of my childhood out." He shrugged as he sat down, only to be hugged by Buffy.

"So, she was which grandma?"

"Maternal." The young man sighed. "She was this great, free-thinking, free-living person that turned my mother away because of her choice of husbands when she refused to listen to how bad he was." He shrugged. "Not that I don't agree with her on that. She used to live on a commune. She was a great lady, one of the few things I could count on in my childhood. She used to love Willow too."

"When did she die?" Giles asked.

"When I was eight. My father came home and said someone had come to see him and, I quote, that thing that had spawned my reasonable mother, unquote, had died. Had cut them all out. Except for me apparently and they were taking it."

Buffy nodded. "It sounds like you got it just in time."

Xander smiled. "Yeah, a few more years and it all would have been gone." He shifted some. "Thanks for taking me," he told Giles.

"Whenever you need one of us, we'll be there for you," the older man reminded him. Then he changed the subject. "Are you taking classes during your break next month?"

"Nope, I'm taking a martial arts class. I'm fulfilling her dreams for me. The last part of her bequeathal mandates, as the lawyer put it."

Buffy looked over, confused. "Huh? English? You used to speak it, I know you did."

Giles smiled fondly at his young charge. "Part of the Mistress's will, and a requirement for his continued solvency, was that he learn how to aid me in teaching you. Not in the daily teaching things, but in fighting."

"She told me once that she could see me as the technical support guy for spies." He smiled. "But it's what she wanted and we all know I could fight better."

Buffy nodded. "Okay. I'll spar with you anytime you need it." She went back to her Shakespeare. "Hey, Giles, will you translate some of this for me?"

"It's in English," the older man pointed out.

Buffy snorted. "Sure it is."

' ' ' '

Xander looked around the apartment with a sigh. He was alone again tonight, Oz being away at a band competition for the college and Willow having followed to deal with the fuzzy times that would happen during the trip. Buffy was out on patrol, Giles was probably pouring over his books, making obscure comments about things he would never understand.

He got up to drag one of the boxes he had gotten earlier out, bringing it out to the couch. He opened it carefully, taking out the quilted crib blanket that his Grandmother had made for him to it lay aside. He lifted out his stuffed animals, settling them onto the bookshelves, then dug down farther. He ran across a framed picture, bringing it out to see which one it was. There stood his Grandma, arms around her mates. "You know I miss you. You would have made sense out of all this." He carefully laid the picture on the bookcase so he could look at it while he dug for some more memories, not seeing it glow faintly as he dug into the boxes.

He pulled out some of his baby pictures and a few more of her and him together as a child, putting those aside until he could get an album for them. At the very bottom of the box was a book, with Willow's name on it. He pulled it out and tried to open it, but the pages must have been stuck. He put it aside, bringing a golden cord and some cloth. He put those on top of the book, because it felt right for them to be together, and tipped the box up. What fell out was two lockets. He opened the first one to see it had three blank spots for pictures, the other was full of the three people in the picture and his grandma. He slipped it around his neck and hitched the clasp. For whatever reason, not knowing it then, he put the empty locket on the book, cloth, and gold cord. Then he went out to get an album for the pictures.

He walked out of the Photo shop with two albums, right past four guys with suspicious looking bulges, then stopped to pick up some take out on the way home. He ignored all the glittering noise and people, trying hard not to think about his first Christmas alone. As he climbed the apartment building's stairs, he heard music coming from his house and wondered at it. He knew he hadn't left anything on. He opened the door carefully, not expecting deadboy to be sitting there looking at his pictures. "So," Xander said, feeling uncomfortable, "I'm guessing that the manager let you in and offered you the solitude of my apartment?" He set down his packages and pulled the picture from Angel's fingers. "Private."

"Sorry. Was that your grandmother?" Xander nodded. "She was a nice woman."

"I know. How do you?"

Angel smiled. "I was there when they were married." He looked down at the book. "She gave it to Willow?"

"She liked her." He shrugged and brought over his container of Chinese food to sit across from the vampire. "Buffy's on patrol. Oz and Will are at a band competition for the school. Why are you here?"

"Because I heard." He pulled out his wallet, showing off an old, fuzzy grained picture of Xander's grandmother. "She was a great woman, told me how best to try and atone."

Xander nodded. "I always knew she was gifted. That seems to have skipped a few generations too." He took another bite. "I'm guessing that was her book and the cord she used to join her mates to her."

"And an empty locket so that when you're married, you can fill it." He tapped the locket's outline showing through Xander's shirt. "That one will protect you until you get this one filled. She always told me that one of her grandsons would follow her path." He grinned. "She used to feed too."

Xander arched an eyebrow and sat straighter. "She did?"

"Um-hm, the Mistress herself actually." Angel smiled. "I'm guessing that she recognized you."

"Well that would explain her calling me her 'dear boy' that first meeting." He smiled. "She was the mother I always wanted."

"She could have been if she had been fertile." Angel shrugged. "Your Grandmother offered to adopt her."

Xander laughed. "Yeah, I'm sure that would have went over well. But then, the whole family shunned her anyway."

"You didn't get many people back then believing that four should make a couple." He picked up a stuffed animal that had fallen. "Did your parents keep you from her?"

"Nah, she used to come visit to make sure I remembered her." He smiled. "She always said she could see Willow and I together." He laid his clean plate aside. "She always wanted to adopt her and raise her right."

"She saw the power Willow holds in check." He shook his head. "Oh, speaking of power, Amy showed up in L.A. and was trying to show how powerful she really was to the locals. She got her ass crunched up and is currently an Angora rabbit. They asked that she become something fuzzy and harmless."

Xander smiled. "Much better than a rat."

Angel shook his head. "I'd forgotten about that until she was turned this time. They asked if I wanted to care for her. Told them no." He smiled. "Made a lot of new friends in that community."

Xander nodded. "Why else are you here?"

"Well, I'm on vacation and I'd thought I'd visit." He set down the animal and leaned back, putting an arm across the back of the couch. "I missed you guys so I thought I'd show up. Saw Giles already, he's working on finding that third girl. Oh, the second one is in London now." He smiled. "The Watchers about pitched a fit when they found out a Priest had been teaching her instead of them."

Xander smiled. "Good. We finally got rid of Wesley after he tried to kill Oz with a tranquilizer." He leaned back, settling in. "I can page Buff if you want."

"So you guys still talk?"

Xander laughed. "Oz lives here so Willow does sometimes. Buff's over here most of the time now since her mother's gone on an extended trip to get some art from someplace in the Middle East." He waved around. "Yeah, we're still tight."

Angel nodded. "I'm glad. You guys just seem to fit together so well." He stretched and yawned. "I hate flying."

Xander shook his head and grabbed the phone, dialing Buffy's pager. He waited and then answered. "Hey, Buff. Angel's here on vacation." Short pause, some yelling. "Oh, all right, need help?" Long pause. "I'll take that as a no, well unless you want us there." He looked at the phone and hung up. "She'll be here in a minute, just one more to get and she's over in the park." He dropped the handset back into the charger. "It's been kinda slow recently."

"It should be. This Hellmouth is smaller now. The hole in London has grown and there's talk of one in Asia someplace, near Tibet or India." He looked around. "How have you been holding up?"

"Spike's been dead now for a little over a month. I've got two classes to pass this semester and it's not going to be a problem. I've already got a job lined up for the summer, I'll be designing toys." He shrugged. "Willow's got a summer job lined up, it's a work from home thing like mine."

"I'm in accounting now," Buffy said. "With only one class that I have to worry about passing." She kissed Angel's cheek. "So, how's L.A.? Or have you moved on?"

"No, I'm still in LaLa land. Still helping, still guarding and trying to atone." He shifted some. "Amy's become an Angora Rabbit since she came down, trying to push her weight around. Cordy's on the East coast, doing some soap or something." He shrugged. "Just a quiet and normal life." He shifted forward. "So, how have things been here?"

"Quiet. It's almost like they're all leaving."

"Not all of them will, but most. London's Hellmouth has become active again and there's talk of one in Asia; mostly everyone's headed for London, for the nightlife, culture, and all. The second girl's in London, she was trained by a Priest instead of the Watchers."

Buffy laughed. "I'm sure that went over well."

"Nope, not really." He leaned back. "I'm taking a vacation and thought I'd drop in and catch up."

Buffy nodded then looked down at some of the stuff she was moving around in her nervousness. "Xander, is this you?" She held up a picture.

"Yeah, me, my Grandma, and Willow as, let's see, five year olds." He took the pictures, gathering up the rest he had left scattered around. "I was going through one of the boxes."

Buffy nodded. "Good memories at least?" He nodded as he dropped them back into the box. "I'm glad, everyone should have some good family members."

Xander kissed her on the cheek. "You *are* my family." He got up. "Soda? Tea? Water?"

"Water," Angel asked.

"Soda, caffeiney please." She turned and looked at Angel. "Why are you really here? You never just visit out of the blue."

He held up a hand. "You caught me. I thought Giles would like to know those things. Catching up with you guys is just an added bonus."

She nodded and took her glass of soda. "You know, I'm not feeble, I can get up and get it." She looked up at Xander. "You promised to make me do that sometimes."

He pushed her shoulder and sat back down beside her after she had moved over. "Yeah, I did, but that was when we were alone." He took a drink. "Want me to leave for a while?" He checked his watch. "I have class in a while that I don't really have to attend."

"Nah, not if you don't want to." She looked out the window, seeing the contrast of lights and shadows in the park. "It's your place."

"Our place," he corrected her. "Always has been." He finished off his soda. "Don't touch that stuff, I want Will to help me put them in the books." He grabbed his backpack. "If they should show back up before I get back, that book is hers." He walked out the door after checking his pockets to make sure he had everything. "Later."

Angel and Buffy nodded, him waving. They sat there, staring at each other for a few minutes, quiet. Finally she couldn't take it anymore. "So, what else is new?"

Angel reached around her to pick up the framed picture of Xander's Grandmother and her mates. "I knew her. I just found out that she had left Xander some things."

Buffy nodded. "How?"

"She used to be a feeder, was the Mistress's for a while. I met her before that, was there when they were joined together." He passed the picture over. "She was a remarkable and powerful woman, Xander's inherited some of it. He's a lot like her."

Buffy shook her head. "Willow can't work around him. She's tried here in the apartment, but it won't work."

Angel shook his head. "Not like that. It's in him, only to be passed on." He shrugged. "I don't even pretend to understand, but there's a reason all your friends are drawn to you. Let's face it, how much did you and Willow have in common when you met?"

Buffy thought back. "Not much. She was asked to help me get along my first week or so." She took a drink and put the glass down. "We did kinda hit it off."

"Yeah, that's her doing. She blessed Xander to find someone that he would be not only useful to, but also able to help."

"Are you saying our friendship's been a magically induced thing?" She bit her lip worrying about what that would mean.

"No, what I'm saying is that's why you were drawn together. The relationships that have developed since then has been all about you guys. She just led to that attraction that led to that first conversation." He smiled. "After all, how did Oz and Willow meet? She did the same blessing on her from what I heard."

Buffy shook her head. "I asked him that and he said he kept noticing her and wondering who she was." She smiled. "Sort of every time he saw her, she captured his full, complete attention and the world revolved around her."

Angel smiled. "True love, it's a wonderful thing." He finished off his water. "I'm going to go find a place for the night. Meet you at Giles'?"

"That's where we'll be. Oz still turns fuzzy every month."

"Okay." He waved a hand over her face. "Remember this night not, only in your dreams," he said softly, touching the book.

Buffy's eyes glazed over and she looked around. No one was in the room, but she had sworn she hadn't been alone. She shivered, just once, and got up, heading for food.

' ' ' '

Xander walked into Giles' apartment and stopped. No Angel. He pulled the Watcher aside. "What happened to Angel?" He had been looking forward to talking to him more about his Grandmother.

"He was in town?" Giles asked, clearly confused. "I wish he had stopped in and talked to me."

Xander shook his head. "He did. At least he said he did." He looked around, searching for Buffy. "Where's Buff?"

"She's out on patrol again, there's been another murder and she went to investigate." Giles pulled Xander into the hallway near the door. "You're sure it was Angel?"

"G-man, he was sitting on one of the couches. He told me things about my Grandmother. He told me things about the two other girls and about how the Hellmouth was shrinking." He looked around. "He told me what happened to Amy, who's now an Angora rabbit."

Giles shook his head. "Something very strange is going on here. Would you please write down what he told you about those things? Did he talk to Buffy also?"

"Yeah, they were staring at each other as I left for class. What's going on?"

"She never mentioned him." Giles sighed. "Very well. Just write that down for me if you would. And don't mention him to the others, there's probably a reason why we don't remember him being here."

Xander pulled off his backpack as he sat down on the couch, facing Willow, who had a lightly tranqed Oz's head in her lap, stroking his fur. "Hey." He took out his notebook and a pen, then snapped his fingers as he remembered what he wanted to talk to her about. "Would you like to help me put pictures in an album when we get home?" he asked her. "Some of my Grandmother's things contained pictures and she left you something too, but I wanted to spend some Will and Xan time while I remember."

Willow smiled. "Sure. I miss her. She was always so nice to me. Used to make me cookies and things. What did she leave me?"

"A book that I can't open." He looked around, making sure they were alone. "In the box was a few pictures, her book of spells- and I'm guessing at that-, a cord and cloth, an empty locket, my locket that has pictures of her and her mates." He showed it to her, opening it up. "And my stuffed animals and crib blanket. The other had a few other pictures and her jewelry box." He quickly wrote out what Angel had told him. "Some of them are of us and I wanted you there when I put them together."

"Sure, anytime tonight or this afternoon, after I get up." She looked around. "What are you doing?"

"Writing something down I heard for Giles in the face of another something strange." He tore out the page to hand it over.

Giles read it and 'hmm'ed then went into his bedroom to use the phone.

"So, then, everything's at my place."

"You could have brought it over," she said. "We could have done it tonight."

"I wanted it to just be us, no questions of 'who's that', you know?" He smiled. "We've not been spending a lot of Xan and Will time together and I miss just hanging with you."

Willow smiled. "Yeah, this semester's been hectic for us too." She looked down. "He's gotten so possessive recently."

Giles walked out to sit down next to Xander. "Yes he has, but this is a time of great changes." He turned to look at Xander. "You were right and I would have to accept what happened." He turned to Willow. "What would make both myself and Buffy forget Angel was here?"

Willow shrugged. "Angel was here?"

"It must be some sort of spell or hypnosis." He looked down at the sleeping Oz. "He may be very right, things may be changing. When Angel was here earlier, he told Xander some things, then it seems he told me some things and Buffy some things, then he made us forget about them. All except Xander."

Xander fingered his locket through his shirt. "He said it would protect me," he said quietly.

Willow leaned over, making Oz growl. "Let me see?"

Xander pulled it out and opened it for her again. She looked it over before touching it, getting a spark. "I'm guessing it's got a spell on it?"

"A protection one." She looked down at her finger. "Cast by the people in it out of love and concern. Wear it more often." She sat back, going back to petting her boyfriend. "We lost, by the way."

"Sorry to hear that." He looked down at the open eyes of the werewolf. "And how are we tonight?" Oz growled at him. "Okay, I'll move away from her." He sat back, and the growl stopped. "He still doesn't like me in this form."

Giles smiled. "Maybe he sees you as a rival." He shrugged. "What was it Doctor Allen said when we first met? That Oz was reacting in a pack building manner? You're another male in the pack, I would imagine that he thinks you're going to try to take control."

Xander leaned closer. "Oz, I won't fight you for control. You're the Alpha here."

The werewolf quit growling, licking his hand.

' ' ' '

Xander laid back down on the floor beside Willow, setting his bottle of water well out of the way of the pictures she was organizing. "Do you recognize any of them?"

She nodded, sorting until she found one. "This one, it was taken right before that Halloween that neither of us remember really well because of food poisoning."

Xander smiled. "Yeah, Mom's caramel apples sent us to the hospital again." He took it out of her fingers. "I'm kinda glad the city council banned her from handing out anything else she had made."

Willow laughed. "Yeah, but it still didn't save us."

"Good thing *your* Mom could cook. Otherwise I would've starved to death." He pulled the bag closer, pulling out an album. "So, where do we start?"

"How 'bout the oldest first?" She held it up. "I think this is a marriage picture, or right before the ceremony. Look at how they're dressed."

Xander nodded, placing it in the center of the page. "Okay." He pressed down on it to make sure it connected well then spread the plastic over it. "About one a page unless they're small?"

"Sounds good to me." She handed over the next one. "That one's definitely a marriage picture. See, the cord is still around their hands." She pointed it out.

Xander got up to get the cloth and cord. "Should we put them in?"

Willow held out her hands to take them, feeling and 'feeling' them. "No, they belong in a box, an all natural wood sort of box to protect them."

Xander nodded, laying them carefully aside. "So, was I right about the book?"

"Yeah it was." She handed over the next picture. "Why do you still wear it?"

Xander looked over at her to see what she was talking about. He looked down at his wrist, where his bracelet was showing and sighed. "Because." He took a deep breath. "You know those people that get divorced but still wear the ring for years? Usually until they meet their next mate?" Willow nodded. "It's like that, a sign that I was claimed at one point in time." He twisted it around his wrist. "I'll take it off when a) I'm ready to accept that I'm alone or 2) have someone to replace him."

Willow kissed his cheek for the Xanderism that she hadn't heard since Junior High. "I can understand that. I just didn't realize that you two had been so closely bound."

Xander nodded. "You remember what Buffy said when you guys confronted me? That it could become addicting? Well, it was like that. I grew to like the attention, the specialness I had then. And I miss that." He twisted the bracelet again. "That's why I still have the piercing in."

Willow silent 'huh' echoed around them, so Xander sat up and took off his t-shirt. She looked at the small silver bar decorating his chest. "Oh."

He smiled as he put his shirt back on. "Only me or the one that claims me next will be able to take it off." He laid back down. "I miss it and the jewelry reminds me that it not only happened, but that it could happen again."

Willow nodded. "Okay." She handed over the next picture. "They looked so happy." She looked over at her friend. "You know, you never looked that happy. You looked like you were having fun, were interested, but you had the same look that you used to give to Cordelia. That mildly in like with you one." She put the picture onto the page and sealed it in. "Nothing at all like that."

"Yeah, but not all of us can have a love like that. Not everyone can be fulfilled and have everything that they've always dreamed of in a mate." He turned the page before picking up the next picture. "I know you have it, but for Buffy and I it may never happen."

"She had it with Angel, almost." She flipped the plastic over the page. "So, would you like to explain the man thing to me?" She smiled. "You know, you never said anything about it or even seemed to be looking at another guy."

Xander nodded. "I look, I'm just not obvious about it. And I haven't found anyone that I like enough to approach." He rolled onto his back. "They'd almost have to be one of us to understand what we have. Not only the friend thing, but also the group thing we have around Buffy and Giles." He turned his head to look at her. "Besides, I do like women too, it's not like I ever stopped that. I'll find someone eventually and settle for what they can give."

Willow hit his arm. "Never settle." She smiled. "Then you don't have half the happiness."

Xander smiled. "Yeah, but not all of us will find that sort of love." He rolled back over to pick up the next picture, placing it in and sealing it down. "What are the odds of finding someone that loved me, cherished me really, and found me to be special?" He shrugged, quickly grabbing his water to hide his feelings.

Willow nodded, taking her time picking out the next picture. "Yeah, I guess. I know I'm lucky to have found Oz, especially at that age, but I want it for you and Buffy too." She placed it and sealed it in, turning the page to the next one. "We really should be captioning these so we can remember what they are when we're old."

Xander laughed. "Willow, I don't think your memory's ever going to go like that. But you're right, we should caption them just so *I* can remember them in a few years." He grabbed a package of index cards before flipping back to the first page, writing out a card for each one and sealing it in.

Willow picked out the next picture and Xander wrote out the card. "So, this is nice. We haven't been spending all that much friend time recently." She sealed the plastic over it and turned the page. "We need to all take part of the summer off to just be friends again."

Xander sealed the next picture, along with Willow's card. "Yeah, we should and it's a good thing that we all applied for internships early so we can start planning now." He thought for a moment. "Oz's job wouldn't start for a few months after Spring semester is over with. Mine won't start for about a month, yours and mine are both stay at home or work anywhere things. What about Buff's?"

"She's not starting for a few weeks at least. She wanted some time to veg and remember being young, or so she said." She grinned. "Are we old now?"

Xander held her face in the light, looking over it carefully. "No wrinkles. Must not be."

Willow started to laugh, bopping him on the arm. "You're so bad."

"That better be all he is," Oz said from the doorway. "How's the album thing going?" He set down his box, pack, and guitar case. "I brought over Buff's pics that she had stashed so we could all do that."

Xander nodded and smiled. "Yeah, that sounds good. We were just contemplating remembering our youth this summer. Would you like to help?"

Oz laid down on the other side of Xander. "Our youth? You mean like a few years ago when we had fun some nights and not a whole lot of homework?" Willow and Xander both nodded. "Sounds good to me. My student teaching won't start until around August."

"I got a month at the beginning of summer," Xander said. "Will's and my job are both work anywhere things as long as we have the stuff we need." He shrugged. "Buff's got some time too."

"Good. Let's just party then, revel in the mystery of life and aging." Oz got up, heading for the bedroom. "Have fun, I'm going to go in here and play alone." He picked up his guitar case, closing the door behind him.

Xander held up the next picture. "Are we staying here? Taking a trip to the lake? You plan, you never forget things like reservations."

She wrote out the card and sealed them in. "I don't know. Let's bring it up during the picture session tonight." She looked over at her friend, who was looking at a picture with a sad look. "You'll find the perfect person for you," she promised him. "I know you will."

He choked up, but he didn't want her to know so he made a joke. "Just don't conjure him up. I don't want him to really be a rat or a toad or something that turns back when I kiss him." He smiled and raised an eyebrow. "Or have you already done it and are waiting to introduce us?"

Willow laughed. "Me? Meddle like that? Nah." She shook her head. "I know better. I'm a rule follower, not a meddler. I was taught better than that."

Xander nodded. "I know. How's your Mom anyway? Haven't seen her in a while."

"She's avoiding Oz like he's ill and it's contagious." She sighed, pressing the next piece of plastic over the picture and card. "Apparently she's still angsting over what she saw earlier this year, she's nervous about him giving it to her or something."

Xander pulled on a piece of her hair. "She'll get over it." He got a bright little twinkle in his eye that made Willow groan in anticipation. "So, Will, what's going to happen when you have kids? Can I be the beta-male guardian?"

She hit his arm then started to laugh. "I've thought about that, but no one's sure what will happen. Doctor Allen's wife had one, but miscarried, and it's not written anywhere. It's something we still have to talk about." She twisted the small ring on her finger. "He only proposed last week."

Xander handed her the cord and cloth. "Use it. I'm sure my Grandmother would want you to."

Willow nodded, choked up. She kissed his cheek and took it into the bedroom, closing the door gently.

Xander went back to placing the pictures into the albums, writing out the little cards as he went.

It was a little while later when Oz came out and laid down beside him on the floor, picking up a picture of Willow and Xander's Grandmother. "Are you sure? I'm sure she wanted you to use it."

"With?" Xander said, taking the picture and putting it in, not looking at his friend.

Oz nodded, going back in the bedroom, closing the door.

Xander sighed and put the next picture in, sure he wasn't going to have a use for it, probably not ever.

' ' ' '

Buffy looked around the apartment and sighed. She had supposed that someone would be here tonight, they hardly ever forgot a special occasion. She looked around for a note, but nothing was there. She sat down on one of the couches and looked out the window, wondering what was going on this time. Why had her friends forgotten her birthday?

The light outside turned dark, the shadows lengthened, the street lights came on, and still she sat there. It was almost midnight before anyone came to the door, it was her mother.

"Hey," Joyce said, sitting down next to her daughter, "where is everybody? I thought you guys were going to get together tonight and celebrate so we could have your actual birthday."

Buffy nodded. "I don't know. No note, no nothing." She looked around the apartment before picking up her purse. "Let's go. They're not coming anytime soon."

Her mother nodded, quickly writing a note saying Buffy had been there to leave on the table, then followed her daughter out the door.

' ' ' '

Willow knocked on the Summers' door and waited. Eventually Buffy came to open the door, walking back to the kitchen. She followed the younger woman, nodding at her mother. "We're sorry," she said, pulling Buffy over to the table. "Xander's in the hospital and we were with him."

Joyce and Buffy both looked stunned, the elder Summer's woman coming over to sit down.

"What happened?" Buffy asked.

"He somehow got hold of some very strong alcohol and drank some, but since he doesn't drink, it hurt him." She shrugged. "I didn't even try to pretend to understand what the doctor was talking about, I wasn't listening." She looked down at the table. "Oz got kicked out, he started to yell at him when he finally woke up."

Buffy nodded. "Why was he drinking? He doesn't." She looked around. "What possessed him to do something so stupid?"

Willow looked down at her hand then held it out.

Joyce pulled the hand over to look at the new ring gracing the third finger. "Oh, god, Willow. He proposed?" She looked up to see the younger woman nodding silently.

"Oh, hell," Buffy said, "of course he was drinking. Just that once because he needed to kill the pain." She got up. "I'm going over. I'll be back after visiting hours, mom." She kissed her cheek. "That means that the cake will be done then, right?"

Joyce looked up and smiled, sadly. "Just because I didn't get home in time to have it finished for supper doesn't mean it won't ever be ready, dear."

Buffy smiled as she grabbed Willow's hand. "I know, just checking." She pulled the younger woman out the back door to her car. "Come on." They drove to the hospital in silence, each young woman thinking their own thoughts.

Finally, when they had just parked, Willow couldn't take it anymore. "Are you upset too?" she asked quietly.

Buffy sat back to think. "No. It makes me feel lonely, horribly lonely, but I'm not upset about it. You not asking me to stand up for you, now that will make me upset." She kissed Willow's cheek. "I understand and I accept. He does too, he just needed the one night to get over it probably."

Willow nodded, brushing off her cheeks. "He's been awake and complaining." She got out, leading Buffy upstairs, heading directly to Xander's room. She waited outside while Buffy went in, not quite ready to face her friend.

Buffy sat on the edge of the bed and pinched the end of Xander's nose until he woke up. It hurt her to see him in this bad of shape. "Hi. Were you trying to hurt them or was it just a coincidence?"

He rolled slightly. "Bad choice of alcohol. If I had stayed with beer or something, I wouldn't be here." He looked around. "I hurt her, huh?"

Buffy nodded. "Pretty muchly. Her and Oz both." She looked around. "She's still sitting outside."

Xander cleared his throat. "It wasn't intentional."

"I know, but it was still stupid." She looked down and plucked at the blanket. "Did you have to do it then, that night?"

Xander rubbed her arm. "I did it the night before. They brought me in that morning. I just wanted to drink enough to forget for a while. I didn't mean to miss your birthday or to hurt them. I just wanted to forget."

Willow slapped him, hard. "Well, you did." She walked out of the room, tears streaming down.

Buffy followed her, pulling her into the bathroom, letting her cry it out. They stood there for a while, one comforting the other, then switching roles.

When they went back, Xander was gone, the bed remade. Buffy headed out to the desk, to be told that he had checked himself out against orders. They hurried back down to the car and back to his apartment, but had missed him by a few minutes, at least that's what the manager said.

Buffy went into the apartment to look around, trying to find a note, knowing that he would have left one. She found it on the bookshelf, her name on it alone, in between his stuffed animals.

//I've gone on a little trip to get straightened out. Tell them I love them too much to stay and hurt them again. I'll call Giles to tell him where I am over the next week. Your present's in the cabinet.//

She looked up at Willow. "He'll be back in a week, so he says." She refolded the paper before looking around. "Hell, this is a good time for all of us to split," she muttered. She took out her cell-phone, calling first Giles, then her mother, then the Police. "Hi," she told them, "my friend just checked himself out of the hospital and he's not acting real rational at the moment. Is there any way I can get you guys to stop him from leaving town? Maybe stop his car or something and bring him home?" She waited while they asked someone in charge. "Yes, thank you. RG1014, yeah, a blue Celica. Thanks tons." She hung up. "They'll stop him. Tell him that he can't leave town."

Willow nodded and sat down, touching the edge of one of the photo albums they had put together just a few days before. "Why?" Buffy handed over the note as she called Oz on his cell phone while she read it. Willow slammed it down on the table and walked into the bedroom, slamming the door.

Buffy looked around, watching the night progress as she had the night before.

' ' ' '

The officer led Xander back into the apartment and pushed him toward a couch. "Stay this time." He looked at Buffy. "What happened to him anyway?"

"Alcohol poisoning, then he checked himself out." She looked up and smiled. "Thank you."

He nodded and left, fortunately before Buffy made it across the room to slap Xander hard enough to send him off the futon he was sitting on.

"Feel better?" she asked him. "Do you?" He shook his head and got up. "Sit!"

Willow came out of the bedroom to pull her away. "Leave him alone. Go sit and talk to Giles." She pushed her toward the bedroom before sitting down on the futon and patting the seat beside her. "Sit, talk to me," she said quietly.

Xander moved back, slowly and carefully. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..."

Willow held up a hand, stopping him. "You did. Not only night before last, but tonight. Since when do you run from a problem?"

"Since it would be better if I wasn't here." He looked down at the floor. "I needed time to think, to figure things out and to deal with it."

Willow nodded. "That would be a good idea." She laid a hand on his arm. "I know this is hard for you to watch, I can only imagine what I would be feeling if it was you." She swallowed. "And I don't want to make it harder on you. I'll understand if you don't want to see us for a while, or if you don't want to attend. I can't understand why you decided to pick some of the strongest and most lethal alcohol in the world and drank a quart of it."

Xander nodded. "I asked someone at the store's opinion. Told them I wanted to forget for a night. He suggested it." He traced the carpet patterns with his foot. "I didn't mean to hurt you and Oz, or Buffy, but it seems I've grown good at that."

Willow sighed and moved his head so he had to look at her. "You're only hurting you now. Our feelings may be hurt, but it's not a reason to run away."

Xander swallowed. "I wanted us all to cool down, get past some of the hurt before I came back. You know if I'm here it will only hurt worse."

"Not as much as wondering if you're still living does." She looked around. "Do you want us to leave you for a while?" Xander got a very panicked look in his eyes. "I'm guessing not." She stood up. "I'm going to go call Oz. Stay."

Xander put his head in his hands and leaned over like he was in pain, which he was. All the present pain in his friends was his fault, hurting him more than the headache was. His stupid mistake had almost caused them even more grief. He still didn't want to face them right now, but Willow wanted him to stay, so he would. Until it was time to leave.

He looked up as the door opened. Oz and Giles walked past him, into the bedroom, but didn't say a thing so he got up and grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge, swallowing it to try to make some of the pain in his head and his chest go away. It didn't help, but the cold felt good going down to join the rest of it that had taken residence in him. He didn't turn when someone walked up behind him, not able to face them still.

Giles turned him around. "Tell me it was an accident."

"It was. I bought the wrong stuff and didn't realize how strong it was. It was suggested when I asked for something that would make me forget for one night," he said quietly. He didn't look the older man in the eyes. "I didn't mean to hurt myself or them. That wasn't the idea or even a remote possibility as far as I knew."

Giles nodded, pulling him over to the couches and sitting down with him. They waited until the others came out of the bedroom, their discussion finished.

Oz sat down across from him, Buffy and Willow by the window. He took Xander's hand to make a shallow cut, then one on his own. "You are the second most important person in my life and I'm not going to lose you," he promised, putting their cuts together. "Nothing you do will change that." He pulled him into a tight hug. "We never stopped to think how this was going to hurt you and we're sorry."

Xander pulled back, getting the point quickly. "You can't call it off. It's the right thing for both of you." He looked at Willow. "I mean it." He went back to looking at the floor. "I just didn't want the pain for a night, you know?"

Oz nodded then made him look up. "I do. Hell, I'd do the same thing if it was either you or Buffy, but we're still putting it off for a while."

"NO!" he said, standing up. "You can't do that. This isn't that important and ... and... well you just can't." He grabbed his jacket and pulled out his wallet. "Do you see this picture," he said, flipping to it and showing it to Oz. "This is the way it's supposed to be." He slammed it down on the table and went to his room, locking the door.

Oz picked up the picture to look at it. It had him and Willow as a grouping, hugging each other. Xander and Buffy were standing on the ends, but weren't being held onto by them or anything else, just watching the couple play. He laid the picture down and went over to the door, kneeling in front of it to do something to the handle. He walked in, slamming the door behind him.

Buffy and Willow both looked at the picture then thought about what it meant not only to them, but to the two men.

' ' ' '

Oz knocked on the bathroom door, and tried the handle again. "Don't make me do this lock too, Xander," he said. Something soft was thrown at the door, but it wasn't unlocked so he knelt and jimmied the lock again, walking in and sitting down against the tub next to his friend. "Xander."


"Listen to me." He made the younger man look at him. "We didn't want to hurt you as much as you didn't want to hurt us. This was never planned." He released Xander's face and it went back to visually inspecting the tiles. "That picture, that's only part of who we are."

Xander shook his head. "It's the definition. Buffy's pushed apart because of her calling, it makes it hard for her to get close to people. You and Will are a couple. And I'm alone." He shrugged. "Now, I would like to sulk in peace, please."

Oz shook his head before he launched into the longest speech of his life. "That picture's not a definition, not who we are. It captured a moment in time, and it's true that that's part of who and what we are to each other, but it only defines a little of our relationship. You're as connected to the two of us as Buffy is and we are to each other." Xander shook his head. "Yeah, you are. You're Willow's best friend, the one that she counts to be there no matter what. She knows that nothing can take *you* away from her, not like me. I may get out and get shot while I'm turned, but you won't do that."

"Thereby making me a crutch. Not any better. Friends are more than that."

Oz shook his head. "You're not getting the point here. You're as important to me and to her as we are to each other. The same with Buffy. You're as important to her as each of us is. It's a symbiotic relationship." He looked around. "It's not like this bathroom, which presently appears to only be mine, but like those fishy-thingies that live on the whales. They need the whales just as much as the whales need them."

"They're still a parasite," Xander pointed out.

"And you feel the same way?" Xander paused, but nodded eventually. "But you're not. You're the strong base that allows me to be creative and her to work in comfort. You're the base of the pyramid, allowing the others to reach higher. And boy did that sound bad." He blew out a breath. "Sorry, I didn't mean it like that." He stopped to think for a minute. "You're like the body of my guitar. It's what allows the strings to actually make a sound. Without it, the resonance of the strings wouldn't have the same depth or quality. It would just be a vibrating string and that's not music. You know?"

Xander nodded. "But it doesn't make it any easier." He shifted some, moving away slightly. "And I'm not like that. I don't add depth to yours and Will's resonance. I add another note, a discord, and it sounds wrong."

Oz shook his head, bouncing up onto his knees. He grabbed Xander's shoulders and started to shake him. "That is the stupidest thing you've said to me all year," he said, finally letting go. "You're no more a sour note to our harmony than Buffy is. It's just something that turns a duet into a chord." He sat back down. "Sorry, felt I had to."

Xander nodded. "That's okay, I already had a headache, it's actually a little better now." He looked around and sighed. "You guys take the place." He got up, only to be pulled back down, partially over Oz's lap.

"Not a chance, this is yours." He grinned slightly. "We may switch and make you take the couch, but this is your place."

Xander shook his head. "No, it was my place. It needs love and it's not in me." He stood back up.

Oz stood up too and slapped him across the back of his head. "This is *our* place. It's always been *our* place, ever since you moved in. You've always made sure we were welcome here and we are. You're not leaving."

"You and Willow need your privacy. I'm the one with the trust fund, so I'll move and give you the place." He shrugged. "It's not like you can have a relationship with me here all the time."

Someone threw something against the outside wall. Oz looked over at the new dent and raised an eyebrow. "You want to bet?" He looked over at his friend. "Even if all of us were living here, it's not going to change much. We're still going to try to fix you both up, Buffy's going to go out on patrol, you're going to design toys and work on your circuits. I'm going to make music, Willow will do her computer stuff, we'll make love. Nothing different."

"Privacy is a good thing for every relationship." Xander turned and started to walk out, only to be stopped by Willow, who pushed him back in and against Oz's chest. "It's true and you both know it."

She shook her head right before she hit him, full out punched him. Xander slid down, knocked out. Oz smiled at his fiancee. "Damn, now I *know* I'll be sorry I taught you that." He picked up the younger man, carrying him out to the bed where Buffy was tying straps to the bedposts. "He's not that tall," he reminded her. "That bed's awfully big."

She held up the rope. "Plenty of room. Put him in the center." She waited until Oz had stood up on the bed, helped and steadied by Willow, and dropped Xander down onto the center of the massive bed before tying one wrist with the rope. The four limbs were quickly done. They stepped back to admire their work. "Now then, I do believe I have a cake waiting for me at home. Have fun sorting this out. Nice punch, Oz."

"Willow," he said.

"Really?" Willow nodded. "Really good punch, Will." She kissed her cheek before walking out of the apartment, inviting Giles over for cake on the way out the door.

Oz went out to throw the locks that Buffy hadn't been able to get from the outside and walked back in, stripping off his shirt. "I was pounding a brick wall there for a while."

Willow watched him with interest. "A sweaty Oz hmm?" He nodded, coming over to stand behind her so he could take her in his arms. "So, now what?"

"Now we wait then we talk." He walked her over to the bed, pushing her down onto it, stomach down. "Or we could wake him up."

Willow turned her head to smile. "You've actually woken him up before? I could never get him up with a phone, and he had a loud phone."

Oz kissed her deeply, taking possession of her mouth. "You never used to scream my name in his ear either." He reached around to undo her shirt. "I'm betting that if you do it now, he'll jump."

Willow smiled. "I know a better way." She wiggled away from him, settling next to Xander's prone body. "Learned it from Cordy during an 'all men are animals' whine." She undid the top button and frowned. "He's taken it off?"

Oz climbed up on the bed to look where she was. The piercing, the one that Spike had done to him on their last night, was empty. Xander never took the bar out.

Willow looked around the room. "He said he'd never take it off until he found someone to replace it." She looked for the bracelet, not finding it either. "They're both gone."

Oz went over to the dresser, opening Xander's Grandmother's jewelry box. "He laid them in here." He opened the little box they were next to. "Right beside her wedding set."

Willow shook her head. "The day he handed me the cord, he told me he was wearing it like a divorced person continues to wear their ring. A symbol that they once belonged." She looked at Oz. "You don't think he's found someone, do you?"

Oz put everything back before coming back to the bed. "No, he thinks he doesn't belong." He laid his head on Xander's stomach and cradled Willow's body against his. "And it's up to us to teach him how wrong he is." They waited for a while, but the younger man didn't wake up. Oz looked down at Willow. "Want to wake him?"

Willow took a lick of a spot on Xander's side, remembering it from many tickle fights as a youngster. He shuddered and opened his eyes.

Then started to fight the ropes.

"It's us, Xan," Oz said. Xander started to fight harder, making the couple look at each other. Willow got up to untie one arm, but the knots had all been pulled too tight by the struggling man. "Go get a knife, we'll undo opposite sides of each." Willow nodded, jogging out to the kitchen, coming back with a sharp knife. "Xander, stop it so we can cut you loose."

Xander quit struggling, mostly, and waited for it. When he had one arm and one leg free, opposite ones, he tried to sit up. He started to pull again.

Oz handed back the knife, motioning for Willow to move back some, just in case. He straddled the younger man, pulling his head over to look him in the eyes. "It's us, stop it. We won't hurt you." He still continued to struggle so Oz had her cut the other arm rope, while he held the strong limb still. Willow stepped back just in time, Xander started to buck and twist under him. Oz did what he thought would be best. He grabbed onto Xander's jaw and squeezed. "Stop it," he said calmly. "It's me. It's Oz, calm down." Xander shook off the restraining hand and started to look around, trying to figure a way out. "Will, has he been tied up before?"

"As in bad thing?" She nodded. "We all have. A couple of times."

Oz got off quickly and grabbed the knife letting Xander go fully. He handed it back. "Go out in the living room and wait. I'm going to bring him back from whatever funky remembrances he's in and he might hurt you by accident." She walked out, closing the door. Oz sat back down on the edge of the bed. "Xander, its me, it's Oz. You're at home now. In your bed." He waited to see if it worked, and when it didn't he moved closer. "Xan, it's me. Oz." He held onto the strong hand. "Come on back to the here and now. I need to talk to you."

The younger man settled down and tipped his head. "Oz?"

"Yeah, man, it's me. Come on, wake up for me."

Xander rubbed his eyes, then tried to move his other hand, noticing that it was being held. "You're enjoying that?"

"Oh, just a bit. You want me to let go?"

The younger man rolled to settle on his side. "Only if you really want to." He looked at the rope attached to the bedpost. "Ropes were for what?"

"Well, not for the flashback they caused, but to keep you here while we talked to you." He pushed some of the soft hair back off Xander's face. "Want to talk about it or something?"

"Neither really."

Oz laughed. "I know. Why do you think we tied you down?" He looked around. "Willow's in the living room."

"All right."

"I actually planned for you to wake up tied and us laying on your stomach, sort of a touchy-feelly way of showing you that you belonged." Xander nodded his head. "But then you tried to fight so we had to let you go." He looked up, expecting Willow to be coming in. "What's she doing?" He looked down at Xander. "Stay or be tied again." He nodded his consent, so Oz went in search of his girlfriend, who he found in meditation before some candles. "Will?" he asked.

Willow opened an eye. "You do it, he'll take it better from you."

He squatted down, rubbing her back. "I wanted it to be us."

"It is, but he's not wanting me right now."

"And you can tell this why?" Xander asked from the doorway. "Drink," he said when Oz frowned at him. He grabbed a bottle of water and went back to the bedroom.

Oz watched him go. "Willow, it'd be better if we both faced him and told him."

She sighed and turned to face him, pulling his face closer and kissing him deeply. "You're mine, but so's he. I'm not going to choose. Go in there and tell him that, he'd rather hear it from you than me."

Oz prevented her from turning back around, sitting down to pull her into his lap. "I know that, but why don't you want to be there? Are you scared of what he'll say?" He thought about all the changes he had caused in the one shy young woman he had met, but underneath it all, she was still there.

She smiled. "If that was it, I'd have left. This place isn't exactly soundproof." She waved a hand around. "I just think he'd take it better from you, that's all. You and he are best friends, you talk all the time; he and I haven't been doing that in a while." She shrugged. "It's just a case of who's closer."

Oz nodded then gave her one last kiss, setting her back onto the floor. "Don't get too deep in, I may need some help." He walked back into the bedroom, finding Xander under the sheets and blanket. "Oh, no you don't." He pulled back the covers to get under with him, moving close but not touching their bodies. "Wake up. Come on, we need to talk."

Xander yawned. "Not really. I heard. And I need a nap."

"Then next time, don't drink like that." He pulled Xander's head up. "You're as much a part of us as we are. We're all going to be here together for a while, in this bed if we have to, and we're going to stay together." He pushed some of the errant hair away again. "Get it?"

"I'm staying, you're staying, she's staying, all of us here. I'm to be tortured by sounds of you two having sex whenever I'm not in the room and we're all going to be one big happy couple." His arm was pinched. "Hey, careful, that's a shot site."

"We're not that bad and who says we're going to do that?" He stroked over the tender arm. "Why did you try to leave tonight?"

"So... so I could go away for a while and work on it in my head and come back better." He closed his eyes. "I figured that the hurt would be a little less in a week or so."

"Open your eyes and tell me the truth." He waited while Xander tried not to. "Better. Now would you like to try that lie again? This time with more feeling?"

"I didn't need to be here for a while and it'd be better if I wasn't. I needed to sort out my feelings on the subject of your wedding and I couldn't do that here with you two boffing every six minutes." He closed his eyes. "Better?"

"Well, closer to the truth, but not quite it. Let me give it a try. You were hurting, my proposal showed you how much love we had, but you're not having any was killing you. Hence, you not only drank yourself almost to death the first time you tried it, you also ran away so you didn't have to face the pain." He gathered Xander into a hug. "How's that?"

"Kinda close," Xander admitted eventually.

"Do you know what Buffy said when Will asked her if it hurt her?" Xander shook his head. "She said it showed her how lonely she was. Did it do that for you?" He thought about it, then nodded. "And it made you remember all those people that cared that have left, right?" He nodded again. "And the pain of all that came back and just piled on too, making you think we were leaving?"

Xander sighed and tried to move, but was stopped by arms that were used to lugging around heavy gear. "Yeah, it did. I miss them, her, all of them, and when you told me, it just brought it all home. It hit me, you know?"

Oz nodded. "That's what I figured and I'm sorry about yelling at you at the hospital. I should have realized it sooner. Like last week." He shook his head. "We never meant to bring back the fact that you're alone, make it hit you. We wanted you to share in our happiness, have you absorb some of the joy flowing off us in rivers." He rubbed the tense muscles in the younger man's back. "We never meant to hurt you, as much as you never meant to hurt us. Or yourself." He let him move back some. "Understood?"

"Yeah." He rolled onto his back. "But can I be alone?"

"Never again," Oz promised. "You're as much a part of us as we are." He held up his hand, showing him the cut from earlier. "I meant it. You're the second most important person in my life. Third most important thing." He grinned. "And I *know* you know what the others are and that they've just been there longer." He patted Xander's head before getting out of the bed. "Sleep. I know you have a headache. Yell if you need something."

He nodded as he rolled away from him. "Night Oz, and thanks."

"Night." He turned off the light and closed the door, going back out to where Willow was pretending to watch TV. "He's taking a nap." She nodded. "Want company or you in deep thought?"

"Both." She held up an arm letting him know she wanted him to lay across her lap. She sighed and wiggled her hips some. "So, can we talk now?" Oz nodded, turning to face her, moving back some so he could actually see her. "Are you pack building? I mean I know the subject has come up, but you've never really answered it. Wolves aren't solitary animals and they don't always mate for life. They take the strongest female as the Alpha and all the others get his attention, but it's not the same."

Oz frowned. "What brought this on? You know I'm not going to do that. You do know that, right?"

She nodded. "Yeah, but this last full moon, you were sniffing Buff like you do me usually. And you've been treating Xander like a beta-male again."

Oz nipped at her stomach. "She was in that part of her cycle and I'm not full of thought at that point." He looked around. "Do you see anything that would say that I'm going to be or am unfaithful to you?" She bit her lip and shook her head. "But you still worry?" She nodded. "I want to beat your mothers, you know that right? Your's and Xander's?"

Willow laughed. "Yeah, I know. I feel the same sometimes. Especially about his parents." She nodded her head toward the bedroom. "But that doesn't change the facts here. Sometime in the future it's going to become a fight between us, me and Buffy, and then you and Xander will probably fight for dominance too. The day before you change and the days that you do, you tend to act like a human version of your other persona."

Oz chuckled. "It's not my fault, and I thought you liked to see that primitive side."

She raised her eyes to silently ask for strength. "It's not that. I'm worried that this will not only pull the four of us apart, but the *two* of us too." She tapped his forehead. "I can't and won't compete with either of them for you."

"I'm not asking you to, nor do I plan to. But if it should appear to be that way, you have my permission to knock me out like you did the man in the next room." He lifted his head. "Who's puking right now." He got up, going into the bathroom, steadying Xander while he was ill. Then he helped him back to bed, giving him the small glass of water Willow handed him and watched him drink it slowly. "Better?" Xander nodded then rolled onto his side. "Okay, you sleep. We'll be back in a minute." He followed Willow back to the kitchen.

"Are we sleeping beside him tonight?" she asked. He grabbed her and spun her around, hugging her tightly, back to chest. "I'll take that as a yes."

Oz nipped her ear. "Only if you're okay with it." He took a lick of the softly curved and slightly pink earlobe. "But I would probably wear more than you did the last time we slept."

Willow slapped his arm. "I only wear that for you." She turned her head to steal a kiss. "And I left it at Mom's."

He groaned. "Just don't make me go get it."

She smiled. "All my stuff's packed. All we need is your van."

"Our van."

"If it's our van, you're getting something cleaner."

"Just so long as it's not a minivan and I can carry the band's stuff in it."

Willow shook her head. "When is Dingoes going to get its act together and go big so that they can get their own van?"

"When the lead and the drummer run off and start a relationship in Vegas." He licked Willow's neck. "Oh, I forgot to tell you. I got that song accepted. She's going to do it."

Willow smiled. "I like that profession better. I didn't like all those girls looking at you."

"Me? Why would they look at me? I'm only the guitarist. They look at the lead." Willow shook her head. "You mean I had *girls* checking me out?" She laughed and nodded. "That's cool, but they still can't compare to my number one fan."

"Nauseating," Xander called. "Belongs on a Hallmark."

Willow and Oz walked back into the bedroom. "You think?" he said. "That's supposed to be a good job and poetry like that is just like lyrics."

Willow punched his arm. "Don't listen to him. He loves getting kids into music. Says he's got the next teen sensation in the class he's observing now." She pulled off her shirt, making Xander roll over. "It's nothing you haven't seen and you might as well move over instead. We're inhabiting part of this shamelessly large bed." She dropped her pants then turned to help Oz with his.

"Just don't have sex," Xander begged. "I couldn't take it."

Oz was finally stripped and climbed in, over top of Xander, stopping to kneel across his body and ask, "Why? Disgusting to you?"

"That's mean." He shook his head. "Torture. Of poor sick me."

"Never do it again?" Oz hit his side of the sick man to rest his head on the tired chest.

"Never," Xander said, holding up a hand. "Toss me out the window the next time I want more than *a* beer or *a* wine cooler." He looked at the people surrounding him. "Isn't one of you on the wrong side?"

Willow leaned up to get her bedtime kiss, bracing herself on the sick man's chest. When she finally came up for air she shook her head. "Why? You need a cuddle and we're giving it. We're also doing this so you can't get away during the night."

Xander closed his eyes. "Torture, I knew it." He soon started to snore again, rolling onto his side.

Oz shook his head before moving up behind him, taking Willow's hand across his body. "Night," he said quietly. "I love you."

"Love you," Willow said, yawning. "Always love you." She laid her head on Xander's shoulder, falling quickly asleep.

"Me too," Xander said in his sleep. "Love you both." He moved slightly and started to snore again.

' ' ' '

Willow's mom knocked on the front door again and sighed when someone finally came to open it. Of course she never expected it to be Joyce Summers, but hey, she was in. She walked in, taking off her jacket, laying it across the back of a couch. "By perchance," she said, "you wouldn't know if my daughter was here, would you?"

Joyce smiled. "Yeah, they're all in the bedroom but mine." She held the other woman back. "Xander was sick last night and they slept around him to make sure he'd be all right." She nodded so Joyce let her go.

Willow's mother looked around the edge of the door and frowned. She came back to look at the other woman. "What happened to him? He looks bad."

"Alcohol poisoning from what I understand. Apparently he was hurting from Willow being proposed to so he decided to take his first and last drink."

Willow's mother frowned. "She's engaged?"

Joyce coughed and looked very embarrassed. "Yeah, I saw the ring last night when she came over to explain to Buffy why they missed her birthday." She looked around. "I'm guessing that they spend most of their time here, just like she does. She might as well live here anymore."

Oz came out, rubbing his eyes. "Morning," he said quietly. "Keep it down? This apartment is nowhere close to being soundproof and we want Xander to sleep for a while longer." He looked at Joyce and pouted. "Coffee? Really?"

She poured him a cup. "Here. Eat this morning, your ribs are showing." She motioned him to go back in there before turning back to Willow's mother. "Xander usually cooks, but Oz says he makes rotten coffee."

The other woman nodded and sat down at the table. "Maybe I need some things explained to me here. I know Xander's been living here since right after graduation. I know Willow spends most of her time here, but I was under the impression that something pulled out. Not that they all slept on that 'built for an orgy' bed in there."

Joyce smiled. "The two couches in front of the TV are both futons and they pull out." She pointed to the couches between the bookcases. "Those two are sleepers. I was worried at first too, but Buffy usually comes home pretty well rested and the nights she's not it's because she's got something else first." She shrugged and held up the coffeepot. "Want some?"

Willow's mother shook her head. "No, just a long talk with my daughter really."

Both women looked toward the bedroom at the shriek, obviously Willow, and the groan, Xander, that came out. Joyce poured another cup, waiting on the second, not sure if Xander would be up to one or not. Willow came rushing out, tucking in a shirt.

"Mom, what are you doing here?"

Her mother gave her a very dry look. "Shopping? Sound familiar? Mother-daughter bonding at extortionary prices?" She looked pointedly at Willow's hand. "But I'm assuming we were going so that you could tell me something."

Willow nodded. "Yeah, I was. Then I was going to ask you to take me fabric shopping for a new robe."

"Robe?" Joyce asked.

"For the wedding ceremony." She twisted her ring. "It's an acknowledgment in the faith that we're married." She looked anywhere but at her mother. "We could do it nude, but it might embarrass some people, namely Buffy." She smiled nervously and Joyce handed her the cup she had poured. "Thanks. Teach Xander? Please?"

Willow's mother shook her head. "How can you be so complacent about this? You're marrying a shape-shifter and you're happy! How could you do this to me?"

"Mom, it's my choice when, if, and *who* I marry. Not yours and not Dad's. I love Oz, enough to join our lives together before everyone and everything we hold dear." She took a drink and smiled. "Brown sugar and cinnamon in the grounds?" Joyce nodded, smiling still. "Mom, this is me and who I love. I love Oz and we're getting married in the Spring." She sat down across from her mother.

Oz came out to stand behind her, putting his hands on her shoulders. "Next Spring, at the right moment, I'm going to join my life with hers. Forever. We would like you both to attend, but if you're not comfortable then we'll understand and not expect more than a card with well wishes." He looked directly at Willow's mother. "And if you have any more concerns about what or who I am, I wish you would take them up with me first. Willow doesn't need that sort of pressure."

Willow's mother held her head, covering her eyes. "She's not pregnant is she?"

"No, we're not planning on that happening for quite a while. Until we've decided we're ready. But before then, both of us are going to be working full time, even if she'll be able to do it in her underwear or pajamas really," he cleared his throat, kissing the top of his fiancee's head, "and I'll only be working ten months out of the year." He looked at Joyce. "Thank you for not telling her first thing. It might have been bad."

Joyce smiled. "I didn't mean to spill it Oz, it just popped out."

"Morning mouth," Xander said from the door. "I have it all the time." He trudged over to the kitchen, dragging his feet, and made a sign to ward off evil at the offered coffeepot. He pulled out a coke, guzzling it down before grabbing another and heading back to the bedroom. "I'm showering," he warned.

Willow jumped up and beat him to it, using it before the younger man could stay in there for an hour or more. She came back out, drying her hands. "Sorry, he takes forever."

"Not when he had a class four minutes after he gets up," Oz pointed out. "Then he was a marvel of morning speediness."

Willow's mother looked at him. "And you would know this how?"

"I've been living here, literally," he nodded at Joyce, "for almost half a year now. My mom gave me the ultimatum of music or living in her house so I chose a more supportive environment." He looked toward the bedroom. "The only time he ever complained was when he had a test. Then he would ask me to turn it down some."

Willow nodded. "He's been really supportive of both of us, well Buffy too of course, most of the time. Even when his own future might have been in trouble, he was always there for us." She started to look like she was going to cry again. "Until the other night."

Oz pulled her close, letting her bury her head against his chest. "It's okay, he's fine now and we're going to make sure that nothing will ever hurt him like that again."

Willow sniffled and nodded. "Yeah, we will." Joyce handed her a napkin so she could blow her nose, watching as she tossed it effortlessly over the counter into the trash from much practice. "Nothing we do will ever make him feel like that again."

Joyce looked over at them. "Made him remember all that was gone from his life and how alone he was?" The couple nodded. "I can understand that. Buffy came home later that night and told me about the same thing, but I imagine that Xander had to be feeling it more, having actually lost them." She finished her cup of coffee. "Well, the presently aware but not awake one's first words this morning were "gee, I wonder how Xander is" and now I can go back and tell her." She grabbed her purse. "Tell him she'll be over later this afternoon, after she gets over the rum cake/too much worry/Giles stories from last night." Willow winced. "Weren't too bad. No flesh eating things this time." She shuddered. "I didn't need that nightmare again." She kissed each of the teen's cheeks, giving an extra one to each so they could pass it on. "Have fun and be safe, guys. Buffy will be over after she's aware enough to drive." She left.

"Let me get this straight. Xander's lost somebody?"

"A few," Oz said, "then he got some stuff his Grandmother left him."

"You remember her, Mom, she was the one that wanted to adopt me."

The older woman nodded. "I thought she had died a while back."

"She did, but his parents kept it, and his inheritance, from him." Oz shrugged. "He and Willow spent one afternoon putting her pictures into albums." He finished off his coffee and hurried toward the pot before it could get ruined. "Will, what time is it?"

Willow looked down at her wrist, then when no watch was sitting there, over at the VCR. "You have about fifty five minutes to make it to your orientation lecture." She looked at her mother as her fiancé hurried into the bedroom. "The class he's observing is going on Christmas break in a few weeks, but he's already got to get integrated into the local school system so he can work some on his student teaching while the regular teacher's out sick."

"Meany," Oz yelled from the bedroom. He came out, buttoning his shirt. "You make it sound like I'm sort of a cloned teacher."

"In this school system? That could happen, we'll watch for funny behavior." Xander said, walking up behind him and turning his collar down. "I'd get one that's been ironed, but that's just me." He handed over the shirt he had picked out. "Besides, this one looks better on you." He leaned over and kissed Willow's mother's cheek. "Morning." He looked at his watch. "McDonald's or real food, Oz?"

"No time." He started to switch shirts.

"No lunch either," Xander reminded him. "Sit, ten minutes and you'll have food you can eat in the van." He took out a pan to start some eggs and ham cooking. He popped open a tupperware container of biscuits, setting them into the oven to warm while he flipped the sandwich makings. Willow came in to help by making her man a lunch, and setting out some tinfoil for the breakfast sandwich. They were finished at roughly the same time, her putting them together and handing it over with a kiss and a shy smile, mindful of who was in the room.

Oz pulled her closer, possessing her mouth in a good-morning/good-bye kiss of breath stealing proportions, claiming her in front of her mother to show how serious he was about her. He walked over to the younger man, pulling him in for a hug and a quick lick to his cheek, making him smile. "Two or three. I'll see ya then." He headed out to his first day as a semi-tax paying adult.

Xander looked over at Willow. "Should I or should you be vacuuming in pearls and heels?" She cracked up laughing, sitting down on the floor and rolling around. He just shook his head as he leaned on the counter. "So, would you like to partake of the morning meal with us?"

Willow's mother smiled. "Please. Joyce said you could cook, but I'm wondering if that skill is really recessive in your family."

Xander smiled. "Yup, all the way around I am recessive." He looked over at Willow. "Aren't I?"

She sat down in her chair with a smile. "Yeah, you are Xan. Want help?"

"For breakfast? Are you expecting a three course meal?" He looked around, then down at himself. "I don't think so, not during break."

Willow nodded. "Okay, I'll do dishes."

"No, I'll do dishes, you're going shopping with your Mom," he reminded her. "At least that *was* the plan."

"No, it still is," her mother said. "My offspring and I need to have a long discussion, and what better place than at the mall as it will defeat the sound of the Muzak." She smiled. "That doesn't mean you're off the hook though, dear."

' ' ' '

Buffy walked into the apartment and smiled when she saw Xander bent over a drawing. "Hey," she said, walking up over to stand behind him. "Making the next teen craze?"

He turned slightly to pull her into a hug. "Nah, getting down a drawing of one of my animals before I forget that I wanted to do it." He turned back around to add a few more marks before holding up the original. "What do you think?"

She looked from the drawing to the original and back then patted his shoulder. "Electronics. Say it with me."

He grinned. "Yeah, but I wanted a record of it, just in case." He set the sketch aside and pulled out his latest schematics. His teachers had gladly given him all the help he needed to bring out all his little ideas he had every day and put them down onto paper, even going as far as showing him where each needed work. "Now this, this is the newest hot thing in a year or so."

Buffy looked at it and frowned. "Okay, I don't have a clue what that is besides what you told me to help you study. What's it for?"

Xander smiled. "A new gaming helmet. The wrap around goggles or the actual helmet are too bulky. This is a unit that will be attached by a lead to a pair of, well, basically sunglasses that have been darkened and had screens added." He pointed out a part. "This is the interactive chip that will go on the board and make it all work right. It'll actually work on a newly developed theory. The chip came out in the last few months, I saw it in a computer trades magazine that was sitting on my teacher's desk."

She nodded. "Okay. So instead of that heavy gear at the Science Museum, you can use this instead and it's like wearing glasses and has a box attached to your belt or someplace else that's handy?" He nodded. "Cool, that helmet was a pain on your hair."

He pulled her back into a hug. "Don't ever change."

Buffy smiled. "Me? Change?" She shook her head. "Not likely." She pulled a chair over. "Would you like to talk to me too?"

Xander looked down. "You know, I never meant to do that. And all the stuff it's made happen, well it's been different, strange really. I just don't know what to think."

Buffy nodded and tipped his head up. "No more alcohol in mass quantities. If you do, you're going to deal with me and I'll be in full, big, mean, Slayer mode." Xander nodded. "Good, now that that's settled, come sit and watch tv with me, I need to veg." She pulled on his hand until he joined her on the couch. "Do you remember this summer? How I used to fall asleep on you?"

"Yeah," he said with a big grin. "You always picked the same spot on my shoulder to rest on." He patted it. "It's still comfortable if you want it."

She shook her head. "No thanks. I heard Giles stories last night while ingesting Rum cake. Not a good combination." She shuddered. "No flesh eating monsters though. He's gotten better about what he withholds." She settled against the back, resting against his arm. "Hit me when I get too personal."

Xander nodded and put his arm around her. "Sure, anything, you know that." They watched the tv, flipping back and forth between the soaps for the next few hours.

Willow walked in, whistling, until she saw the pair on the couch and her man laying in front of them on the floor. She closed the door quietly so she could sneak over, checking over Xander and Buffy before laying down next to Oz.

He snorted then looked at her, big smile coming out. "I was just dreaming of a beautiful woman coming to make me love her. Now here she is." He squeezed her tightly. "Have a good time?"

"My mother wants us to call it off until we can consider the 'ramifications of our actions' as she put it. But she wants me married in their faith if I persist in going through with marrying you."

Oz groaned. "Nope, I want us to do it our way. No stuffy people telling you that you have to wear some big frou-frou gown with all those nauseating sparklies on it." He shook his head. "Simple robes, a cord, a High Priestess to join us and our friends. If she doesn't like it, she can jump." Willow hit his arm. "Tough, I don't want to be told how to love you, not by anybody."

She smiled. "Does that mean I can't give you directions in bed?"

Oz groaned. "It's like driving, you know that right?" He gave her that sexy little grin of his, the one that told her she was his. "You have more permission than you need to give me directions to do what makes you scream my name again." He licked her lips. "Same as I get to tell you."

She nodded. "Okay." She looked up to make sure the couple were still asleep. "Let's nap." She put her head down on his chest to take a lick of the sweaty flesh before closing her eyes. "Then I'll do you until you beg."

Oz groaned and closed his eyes. "Incentive to sleep. It's a good thing," he repeated to himself a few times. He kissed the top of her head. "I love you Willow, and always will, no matter how much stranger our lives get."

It was a few hours later, just before dark, when Buffy woke up and looked down. She nudged Xander awake, silencing him with a hand over the mobile lips. She pointed down and they smiled and "aahhh'ed in unison. Willow and Oz both woke up, looking up.

"What?" she asked, rubbing her head on Oz's chest. "We needed the nap too."

Xander's smile got bigger. "You know, there's four other surfaces in this house to sleep on. You could have used one. Besides, we were looking at you because you were cute."

Buffy shook her head, rearranging her hair. "You were. It's just such a warm and fuzzy cuddle-fest with you two." She leaned down. "We couldn't resist. It's like looking at a cute baby."

"Gee, we think you're cute too." Oz pulled Buffy down on top of them, rolling her some so she wasn't resting solely on Willow's back. "So, how 'bout supper? Want to cook or order?" He hugged both the women to him. "This is nice."

Willow grunted. "Let me get on top and it will be." She wiggled some, landing Buffy squarely on top of her man. "That's better, she was smooshing me." She laid down on top before wiggling a finger at Xander. "Come on, you can play too."

Xander frowned slightly before smiling again.. "Nope, this is your play time." He sat back. "I'm going to watch."

Oz shook his head and held out his arms. "I'm going to pout if you aren't down here soon." He waited but Xander stayed up on the couch. He put Buffy over onto Willow so he could crawl up onto the couch, planting himself in Xander's lap. The younger man looked around his friend, but Buffy and Willow were talking. "You were being defiant?" Oz asked.

Xander shook his head. "You shouldn't do that, she'll get the wrong idea and get mad at me," he said quietly. "Besides, if you knew what I was thinking, you wouldn't be so quick to crawl into my lap."

The older man shook his head, leaning closer. "I can *feel* what's in your mind and it's never bothered me. Why can't you get over that?"

"Because you're taken," Xander reminded him.

Buffy pulled Willow up. "Looks like a guy talk thing. Let's go veg in on the bed and make some plans for a summer vacation." She pulled the younger woman into the bedroom. Once she had closed the door, she turned and faced her friend. "What's that about?"

Willow shook her head. "Not a lot. Not even a fight for dominance, more like showing him he has a place. We slept curled around him last night too." She shrugged as she sat down on the bed. "He's changed the sheets?" she wondered.

"Xander does that?" Buffy asked. Willow nodded. "Okay. I never thought of that as a particularly male or Xander thing, but it's a good thing. I guess."

Willow pulled her down onto the bed and laid on her shoulder. "Not necessarily. Not when you're trying to forget." She closed her eyes, trying to listen to the quiet conversation of her mate and friend.

' ' ' '

Oz waited until the door was closed before trying another tactic. He leaned back down, slowly inching toward Xander's face. "You know that you're ours. We've claimed you." He kissed him, hesitantly. "We both have now."

Xander swallowed and pushed him back. "You shouldn't be doing that," he reminded the older man. "I'm not willing to break you two up."

Oz sighed as he sat down, fully resting his weight on Xander. "You're not. You're going to add to it." He tapped the small forehead. "Get it now? You're ours, we're claiming you until you find your 'one and only.'"

"I don't want pity," he said tightly. "I couldn't stand our relationship being hurt by this." He waved a hand at the both of them. "I'd rather go without forever."

"Willow's decided that she's not going to do this any other way." He grinned, eyes getting that little mischievous twinkle. "And she said she'd reward me with you if I was a good boy." He licked his bottom lip.

The younger man shook his head. "That's not the way I want this." He pushed Oz off so he could get up. "That's not me and it's not us." He grabbed his jacket, walking out of the apartment, heading over to the park.

Oz got up, grabbing his jacket. "We're going across the street," he called. He followed Xander out the door and across the street, catching up to him under a street light. "Come on," he said, spinning him around by grabbing his arm. "We never meant that."

"It's something else, right?" He shook the restraining hand off and walked off the path, heading for a quiet spot he knew, someplace that couples often went to make out actually. He stopped on the big flat rocks to sit down in the shadow of one.

Oz stood at the top to look down. "You're too big to hide in a shadow, my friend."

"If I was that, you wouldn't have put me in that position." He looked up. "Go be with her, I need to think."

Oz walked down and sat down beside the younger man. "She told me she wouldn't, couldn't, choose and I agreed with her. This had nothing to do with pity or anything else remotely like it." He took Xander's hand, feeling how cold it was. "You're cold."

"I grabbed the wrong jacket." He shrugged. "I'll live."

"I'm sure you will," someone said from above them, "but will your friend?" Two men jumped down and turned to face them. "We don't think you should be here."

The older man nodded. "That's nice. I'm trying to hold a discussion and you're blocking my view of the moon. Would you mind leaving?" He paused. "Please."

Xander shook his head. "What do you want?"

"To make you go away. This is *our* turf. And we don't want anybody to use it."

The young man smiled snarkily. "You've told this to half the high school, right? Because they all come here to make out. We're only here to talk. No harm, no foul, no fight needed."

"Bet me," the second man said. "We want *you* to leave."

"And we've both spent the last few years doing nothing but fighting. Not that it should matter, but we're not the easy people you think. Leave us alone before we take umbrage."

"Umbrage?" Xander said.

"It means get upset," Oz told him. "Giles uses it a lot."

He rolled his eyes. "I *know* that, I just never expected to hear it from your mouth." He turned back to the men. "He's right though, you really don't want to mess with us."

"Oh, little Xander Harris," someone else said, coming up and standing in front of him. "I always knew there was something strange about you and your little group."

"Brad," Xander said. "How nice to see that you're not in jail still. How's your cell mate?" He smiled. "I know it must have been tough for you to readjust, but this is a bit stupid even for you. This violates your parole and sends you back. Do you really miss him and his attentions that much?"

Brad sneered. "What makes you think I was the wife?"

"Because you always struck me as one that would enjoy it." Xander shrugged. "It's still stupid to mess with us." He looked around. "You never know what might be here."

Brad looked around. "How did you know there were more of us?"

"The silence," Xander said. "My teacher said it was an indication. Oh, and I'm sure there's less of you now. You remember that problem that we had at school with people disappearing? Well, I think that some of your friends may have done just that." He scratched idly at his shoulder as he continued to look around.

Oz looked at him. "Your bite tells you? Like an itch or something?" Xander nodded, distracted. "Guys, go, I'm serious. Saving lives is something we do."

"Then why aren't you leaving? Huh?" Brad asked. "You would be running too if there was any real danger. At least Harris would be."

The younger man stood up, taking possession of his hand again. "At least two, non-feeders." He searched his pockets. "Damn, did you bring any?"

Oz patted his trench coat's pockets down. "Yeah, I have two. At least it feels like two. Do I need to call home?"

Xander shook his head. "No, I think we can take them. Only one's old. The other's real new." He turned and faced one side of the rock. "Brad, take your friends and run, now. You know about what happens around here. More than enough to not get your friends killed. Stay in the lights."

Oz stood as he handed over a stake. "Here." He watched as most of the bullies left, some running out of the woods. Brad was still standing there, looking at them. "Brad, he wasn't kidding. Go, be safe, and live to taunt another day."

Brad swallowed and left, running away.

The older man looked the opposite direction, sensing the vampires closing in around him. "Two? You think?"

"Or three, yeah." Xander stepped forward and shouted. "NO! Put her down." He ran toward the scene he could see through the trees.

A vampire was struggling to bite a young child, a screaming little girl of about five or six. Xander raced over to kick one of its arms, making it let the girl go.

Oz got her out of the way. "Run home. Go straight there, stay where there are lights and people. Okay?" She nodded and ran off. He turned to guard Xander's back, watching the fight with interest.

Xander was being held, his face being pulled closer to the vampire's mouth. Then he kicked it in the gut, making it belch and let go. "Whew, man, you guys need doggie biscuits for that breath." He staked the creature easily. Then turned to face Oz. "Behind you." He moved closer.

Oz turned to face the older vampire that was coming out of the trees, clapping. "Oh, well, we didn't think he had it in him anyway." He snarled when he saw the dark mark on Xander's shoulder. "And you dare to hunt us with that?" He pointed. "How could you break your oath?"

Xander smiled. "My *oath* was to protect those that don't hunt to feed. You missed that part I guess." He nudged Oz and nodded backward.

Oz turned and braced against Xander's back. "Oooh, another big ugly one. Who gives you those faces?" He waved the vampire on. "Come on, if you want me, come get it."

Xander shook his head. "And getting him angry does what?"

"Puts him off balance."

"If you say so." He turned back to the oldest vampire. "Leave. We've been trained to handle you."

"Ah," the vampire said. "I'd heard that a slayer was still here, and that she had friends, but I never expected to run into any of you." He smiled and licked across his fangs. "How delightful."

Xander shook his head. "You guys have got to get better lines."

The vampire charged, the other doing the same. Both the men fought, each one grappling with a problem, staying back to back so they wouldn't have a weak side.

Xander staked his in time to turn and see Oz get knocked down. He threw his stake, hitting the creature mid-chest, a little off the mark. "Damn," he said. He picked up Oz's stake to hit him again, while he was looking stupidly down at the one already in his chest. He looked up before he turned to dust, a questioning look on his face.

Oz stood, brushing himself off. "Well, that was fun." He looked around, making sure no one was around, before he pulled Xander's head over, taking the kiss he had been trying for earlier. "Thank you. Again."

Xander nodded as he licked over his lip. "You do that good. You just got to remember to pivot on your other foot."

Oz laughed. "Gee and I thought the compliment was for something else."

Xander smiled, a sexy and tiny little look given across the narrow width between them. "Oh, it was. You do that *very* well." He put up his stake so he could put his arm around the older man's shoulder. "Home, food?"

"Home, maybe food," Oz corrected. "Talk definitely."

"If we must." He pulled back some, but he was pulled back in line. "You really want me? I'm not going to destroy what you and Willow have?"

Oz shook his head. "Her idea. Not that I *objected*, 'cause I didn't. I *liked* the idea way too much to ever object. Or couldn't you tell that this morning?"

Xander shook his head as he searched for his keys, taking Oz's out of his hand. "Okay, we'll discuss this then. Later."

"Later," Oz promised. He headed up the stairs after him. "Do you think they missed us?"

"Nah, they're having a girl talk." He turned and sat down on the stairs, pulling the older man close. "If you're sure you want this, I do too, but I refuse to hurt either of you again."

Oz smiled that little beautiful grin of his and placed a gentle kiss on Xander's forehead. "Okay." He looked down between them. "And I'm sure."

' ' ' '

Willow waited until she heard the door shut before turning to look at Buffy. "So, what were you going to do tonight?"

"Well, there had been some reports of a few new vamps in town, but I'm guessing it was a 'to be soon' thing." She waved around. "I'm all for hanging here. Giles said he would call me if he got anything concrete on them." She smiled sadly. "It's not quite as seemly, his words, for a future accountant to go running around the alleys of this town as it was for a teen."

Willow smiled. "Then let's talk." Buffy nodded. "Have you ever wanted anything, were curious about anything, strong enough that you wanted to try it?"

Buffy swallowed hard. "Hmm," she cleared her throat. "Yeah, but it's not happening anytime soon."

Willow looked up through her lashes, something Oz had told her made her look irresistible. "What?"

"Um, kissing."

"I thought you would have done that with Angel."

The older woman smiled gently. "Not what I was talking about." She pulled Willow's head closer, giving her a soft kiss on the mouth. "You're always kissing me, on the cheek but still. Is there a thing here? Between us?"

Willow's smile could have lit the apartment. "Why do you think I do it? Oz has made me search out whole new areas of myself and one day I found this. So I just started to kiss you, kind of give you a hint."

Buffy nodded. "That's what got me thinking." She rolled onto her back, hand falling automatically to her stomach. "I actually started to dream about it before I knew what it was. I mean, I like guys, really like guys, but this just feels right. You know?" She turned her head to look at her friend.

The younger woman nodded. "Yeah, that's about what I did. Oz revealed a fantasy to me and my answering one just sort of sprung out that night, after I had fulfilled his." She looked around. "He's everything I want, but sometimes I want someone softer and more ... delicate I guess."

Buffy nodded. "Yeah, the strength they have is a great thing, but sometimes you just want someone that knows what you're needing."

"Oz comes pretty close to that. He can play my body like his guitar, and I enjoy it every time, don't get me wrong, but I like to be the aggressor and want to experience some more before I'm married and settled."

"Will, trust me, you will never be settled down. Not like our parents are. You and Oz are both too free to do that. Even when you two have kids, you'll still be you and unsettled." She smiled. "Are you going to do that? Have kids I mean."

She nodded. "We're going to try for one in a few years and if it's normal we'll decide then if we want more."

"And if it's not?" Buffy asked, biting her lip.

"Then odds are that I'll miscarry." She shrugged. "It's the best guess we could come up with."

Buffy started to stroke her stomach, unaware of what she was doing. "I would like a kid someday, but I don't see it happening. I can't see me being able to settle down like that." She sighed as she rolled back onto her side. "What with the slayer thing, it's kinda tough to get to know someone and get with them."

Willow smiled. "They would have to understand you perfectly. Maybe a younger Watcher or someone like that. Or someone that knew and understood."

She nodded. "Yeah, but when I think of Watcher, all I see are older guys. Ones with grey hair and accents." She shuddered. "That would be a bit on the bad side." She turned her head and smiled. "I just can't see myself with someone like Giles."

Willow's grin got sweet and tasty looking. "I've been reading the Chronicles and it's happened." Buffy shuddered again. "A few times really."

Buffy held up a hand. "Thanks, but details are a bit much. I don't see it happening." She looked back up at the ceiling. "Wonder what's taking them so long?"

"Oz is talking to him, finessing him to his side."

"How would he be doing that?"

"You haven't noticed his magnetism? That when he's focused on you it's like being part of a constellation that's being formed?" The other woman shook her head. "He's so intense, so focused on you, that it can seem like there's no one else in the world and all the light comes from his eyes and those beautiful words he says to you."

Buffy smiled. "I'm guessing that's why we didn't talk our whole senior year during that period we all had free?" Willow laughed and nodded, curling again up on Buffy's shoulder. "I guess that would also explain that look that plainly said, 'did you say something too'?" The younger woman nodded and took a lick of the uncovered ear next to her face. "Will, stop it unless you want me to be between you two."

"You're not going to be, don't worry. I asked if I could seduce you into this big bed and he said I could." She took another lick, working her way across Buffy's cheek, making it to her mouth to stop all future protests. "Give in to me Buff, let me ease that loneliness."

Buffy held out her arms, content to let Willow lead them for now. "Only if I can have cuddles afterwards and you promise to still talk to me."

"Who said this was a one time thing?" She undid the first button on the other woman's shirt.

Buffy bit her lip, smiling and laughing at her friend's playfulness. Until Willow grabbed both sides and ripped the shirt open. But she wasn't given a chance to protest because the other woman had moved down to explore the newly uncovered territory. Soon she was gasping as Willow nipped her body, following down the curves of it and tasting the flesh every few inches.

"Oh, God, Will, yeah, play me." She tipped her head back as the younger woman started to stroke the damp flesh, taking her time to learn every little response. She could only arch up as her pants were taken off, never even realizing that Willow had gotten up to strip herself. "How did you...?"

"Books," Willow said against the tight flesh of Buffy's stomach. "It's amazing what you learn by looking in the right spot." She took a lick. "I want an answer, do you want this?"

Buffy groaned and arched up. "More?"

She smiled. "I'll take that as a yes." She moved the tight cotton panties out of her way and took a lick and that was the last thing Buffy knew for quite a while.

Willow looked up as Oz peered around the door. She was stroking over Buffy's arm while she slept the sleep of the deeply fulfilled and sated. He blew a kiss to her so she got off the bed, coming over to take a taste of his mouth. "Hmm," she whispered. "What happened to you two?"

"We got jumped in the park." He nodded at her. "Can we come in or should we pull out one of the beds out here."

Willow pouted. "You had better not sleep out there all night." She looked over her shoulder. "Come back in later after she's dressed." She kissed him one last time, taking control of his mouth. "Do you need anything from in here?" Oz shook his head and took a lap of a spot she had missed in her cleaning. "Night."

"For now," he promised. "Did you put that tube of lube someplace?"

She walked into the bathroom, handing it over as she came out. "Have fun. Fulfill the fantasy."

He nodded, walking out to watch Xander move the coffee table and pull out the beds under the couch cushions. The younger man tossed the throw pillows up at the top and took off his outer shirt before crawling in.

Oz stripped down to his briefs, crawling across the joined beds with the tube in his teeth. Xander smiled, holding up an arm, prompting Oz to fall under it. The older man tossed the tube off to the side before snuggling down. "They're napping like Buffy's not had it in years."

"She hasn't," Xander reminded him. "It's been since Angel turned bad that she's had any." He shrugged. "It's not that hard after the first few months."

Oz looked up. "And how long has it been for you, Xan? Since the night Spike died? Almost three months now?"

The younger man nodded. "Yeah, something like that. I don't even really think about it anymore except when I'm complaining to you about not getting any while you're doing Willow until she can't sit."

The older man hit him on the chest lightly. "That was her first time." He stroked the slightly reddened area. "I'm sure you were sore the morning after your first time."

"Yeah, I was." He smiled. "I fell asleep in the bathtub during a long, hot soak. Got yelled at for that too. Have the tape to prove that I should have had a right to be sore."

"The Mistress yelled at you? For what?"

"Sleeping in the tub." He shrugged, lifting Oz up slightly. "It wasn't a big thing, but she didn't want me to drown."

"Yeah, I can imagine how pissed I would be if you drowned in the tub that day." He stroked a little lower. "What would you like to do? What fantasy can I fulfill for you?"

Xander shook his head. "This isn't about that, at least that's what you said." He made Oz look at him. "Is it?"

"No, it's not. Although this has been my fantasy." Xander relaxed so he moved to lay on top of the younger man. "I've had a few of them really."

"Such as?"

"Such as, you remember that night you went out and told me to use the bed? I had watched you dress." Xander nodded. "I imagined that it was you and Willow was guiding you into me."

Xander smiled. "It couldn't have been me then, not while I was with him." He looked around. "See that picture?" He pointed to one of his Grandmother and her mates. "I always imagined that I had that with him. That's what I've always wanted and craved. The excitement, the pleasure, was great, but it wasn't as fulfilling now when I look back on it. It was just sex, almost a service, and an end to a means."

Oz nodded. "I can understand that, had a girlfriend like that actually. Dating me was a means to an end for her. Dating me got her out of the house where she could have a life."

"Basically, yeah, that's about it." He hugged the older man to his chest. "But I've always wanted more."

"What more?" Willow asked from the doorway. "We're both awake if you want to come in." She walked back in.

"Does Buff know?" Oz asked. Xander shrugged. "Do you want to stop for now? Until she's gone," he whispered.

Xander stroked down the firm back muscles. "Whatever you want. I'm not hiding it. I've never hid it." He traced a finger down the perfectly straight spinal column. "Whatever you're most comfortable with."

The older man grabbed one last kiss before getting up. He rearranged himself and looked over his shoulder. "Race you to the bed?"

He got off the joined beds. "Why? We're going in the same direction." He pulled out a tape, one he had carefully hidden. "Want to watch it later with me?" He showed him the title. "I haven't had the courage to do it yet."

"Sure, anytime you're ready to discuss it." He took the tape, putting it back, and slung an arm around his friend's waist. "So, into the bed with the women?"

Xander took one last kiss before walking in there, pulling Oz by the hand. He pushed him down beside Willow, landing behind Buffy so he could watch the older man. They all settled down together for the night, each one taking another's hand to hold throughout the dark time just for the comfort of having someone there.

' ' ' '

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