actually, I think Xander would do well with Hephie actually...maybe mix in a little Aphrodite <G>. I think Xander would do well with Hephie...after all, as a maker (a construction worker/woodworker), his god would probably be Hephaestus anyway...<G>
And Xander with Buffy....yuck! Sic Buffy on Xena and/or Hercules and then run away to throw up (can you tell I'm not terribly fond of Xena, Hercules, or Buffy?).
Thanks to Otter for the Plot Bunny, and to Shamenka for letting me have it since it was thrown her way. Season 6 spoilers, namely that Buffy came back.
Xander brought in the mail that was breeding in Buffy's mailbox, tossing it at the revitalized Slayer, who was watching soaps on the couch. "They were having babies out there," he joked. "Thought you might want to watch them due to public decency."
Buffy smiled at him. "Thanks, Xander. What's up?"
"Dawn asked me to come help her with her homework." He leaned over the back of the couch. "See, Sunnydale just this year implemented a new program. Not only does everyone have to be tortured during their half year Home Ec, now they have to take Shop for the other half of the year. She wanted help with her project."
"Have fun. I was wondering why she was out back."
"Yeah. Anyway, yell if you need help fighting the evil mail." He stood up and went out back to help Dawn, with a small stop in the kitchen. "Hey," he said as he walked out the back door, with two sodas for them. "What's the project today?"
"A cutting board-slash-clock."
"A cutting board that can also be a clock?"
"Yeah," she sighed. "It depends if you want to spend all your allowance and buy the clock mechanism. Otherwise, it's a cutting board."
"Ah." He sat down next to her, looking at the piece of wood she was drawing on. "You know, I find drawing it out on paper first works very well. Then you can trace."
"I did. This is the design we're all using, I was just tracing it deeper into the wood. I have *no* idea what I'm doing though."
"Okay," he said calmly. "Let me see the template." She pushed over the paper, watching his face. Xander's mouth opened once then closed and he shook his head. "This guy can't draw, can he? What is this?"
"The state's profile, or so he said," Dawn said with a grin. "He traced it off a map."
Xander groaned. "All right. First of all, the state doesn't have a wavy line up near the top border." He pushed the paper aside. "Do you guys still have that massive atlas?" She nodded. "Good, go get it for me and some tracing paper." He opened his soda while she went to get the necessities. "Man, what *was* he thinking?" He shook his head and contemplated the very bad drawing of their home state.
In the house, Buffy was sorting through the mail during the commercials. She came to one with her name on it and frowned. "H. A.?" she muttered, flipping it over to open it. She read it through then tossed it aside as too strange, even for her. "Heros anonymous," she snorted. "Sure. There's *so* many of us these days." She tossed the letters with her mother's name on the table. Most of them were probably bills anyway and she didn't have the money to deal with them right now. Payday was in another few days, she could do it then. Her show came back on so she went back to watching it, but her attention kept coming back to the letter she had tossed away. She finally picked it up and reread it, wondering if it was for real.
Spike grabbed the mail he had picked up at the Watcher's house the night before, digging through the junk mail. "You'd think that not having a real house would mean that you didn't get the stupid stuff," he told himself, tossing another credit card offer into the trash. He came to a heavy envelope in a light gray color. He sniffed it, but it wasn't perfumed. He frowned and looked at the simple address on it. No postage. No return address. No cancellation from the post office. He put it in his lap, he could open it later. He went through the rest of the stack, making a nice pile of the junk mail so he could make paper airplanes with them later. He had to have something to do when he couldn't get to sleep. He had even started to attach little toothpicks to the front of them so he could send them out at night and irritate the awakening vamps in his graveyard.
He came back to that one letter, lifting it up to look at it in the weak light. He couldn't see through the thick paper. He opened it carefully, almost expecting a snake to jump out and bite him, but inside was a normal piece of paper that matched the envelope. He pulled it out and started to read it, his frown deepening. "No way," he hissed, balling it up and tossing it away. "No bleedin' way. That's too weird, even for Sunnyhell."
He thought about it, he couldn't take his mind off the contents actually, and eventually got up to retrieve the ball and reread the letter. "After all this time," he growled, squashing the letter in his hand, "and *now* they chose to do this to me?" He checked the level of daylight outside and his growl got deeper. He couldn't go out and trash anything. Not for another few hours. So he settled for screaming his outrage at the stone ceiling.
Spike stormed into the Watcher's office minutes after sundown, waving the mangled letter. "Do you believe the nerve of these people?" he shouted.
"What happened?" Giles asked patiently. "Did someone report you for stolen cable again?"
"No," Spike spat, tossing the letter at him. "Read that. It's outrageous!"
Giles smoothed out the letter and started to read, his brow furrowing the further he got in the short letter. "Well, it is most extraordinary," he admitted as he handed it back. "Did you not know?"
"No. Thought she was a shop keeper's daughter, I did." He reread the letter. "What good does it do now?"
"It did say that the temple had found some things of hers. You might write back and ask them to be sent to you." Spike glared at him. "I realize that reminders of your mortal life might be...uneasy for you to hold, but it will do no one any good sitting in their attic or wherever."
"Point," Spike agreed grudgingly. "There's no return address though."
"Not even on the envelope?"
Spike pulled it out and showed it to him. "It didn' come from a post office."
Giles took the envelope and looked it over carefully. "I have no explanation for this," he admitted, handing it back. "It was in the post box when I gathered up the mail the other day. Maybe they're from around here."
"My ma was only in London," Spike pointed out.
"Yes, but the temple itself may have moved and just taken everything."
"Then why'd they send it to you? If they're around here and they know who I am, they'd know I didn't live with you."
"Also a good point, which I have no answer for," Giles admitted, giving him a faint smile. "Just write a letter and put it in my box. We'll see what happens then."
"Fine," Spike said, storming back out of the office, no more happy than when he had come in. All he had now was an idea of how to solve this riddle.
Buffy finished her letter and looked it over, smiling at the neat handwriting she had been practicing recently. She didn't want these people, if they were serious, to think she was a slob. She carefully folded it up and put it in the envelope, sealing it down before she could change her mind. She slid it into the middle of the table so someone would mail it for her. If she had to send it herself, she'd change her mind and never mail it at all. She looked around and caught Willow's eye, giving her the puppy eyes look.
Willow walked over and picked up the envelope, bringing it back to put into her backpack so she could mail it for her friend. She looked over at Spike, who was mumbling to himself as he too wrote something.
"Hey, all," Xander said, ushering Dawn in with him. "We now have among us a girl who has passed her first shop test and managed to piss off the teacher."
"Dawn!" Buffy said, looking upset. "Why did you piss him off?"
"He's pissed because my version of the state looks more real than his does," she said happily, giving Xander a smile. "Thanks for helping me."
"Hey, always glad to lend a hand." He patted her and walked over to sit down at the table. "The project she had to work on had an outline of the state. The teacher's had all sorts of wiggles on it that the state doesn't. She and I drew out the real state and she cut it out today."
"Way cool," Willow said, grinning at Dawn. "Whatcha makin?"
"Something," she said with a grin. "It's going to end up a present." She walked over and hopped up onto the counter, looking at Willow's textbook. "What's the study for today?"
"Sociology test tomorrow."
"Eww. Sounds painful," Dawn noted.
"No, it's really pretty interesting. See, Sociology is a study of groups and cultures. You find out the 'why's of life."
"You mean like 'why do boys insist that girls are evil when they're little?" Buffy asked.
"Yup. There's whole groups that study social norms and the learned aspect of childhood development. See, there's two thoughts, that either things like that are learned, or that they're somehow in our genes which means it's necessary for our survival."
"So you mean that if girls liked us when we're little, we'd never breed?" Xander asked. Willow nodded. "Okay, not something I want to take if I go to college." He looked at Spike, nodding his chin at him. "What's up with him?"
"He got an important letter and he's framing a response," Giles said as he walked over. "I think you'd find part of Sociology fascinating. It's not only why the groups do things, but also how they structure themselves and why certain peoples set down the rules that they do."
"Oh, and how all cultures are alike in some ways," Tara added. "We went over that again today."
"They're all alike?" Dawn asked.
"So far as we know, every culture has had certain restrictions for the average person," Willow explained. "There's situations where the rules are bent, like within royal families, but mostly every culture has two rules. One of them is no inbreeding, or no incest."
"No babies from brothers and sisters, got it," Dawn said, nodding. "What's the other one?"
"That's why I'm studying," Willow said, pinching her on the arm. "I can't remember."
"She's got test anxiety," Tara confided. "There is a third one, but it's si..situational. There's one for treason, saying it's a bad thing."
"Which is totally understandable," Xander agreed. "Is the other one something like 'someone's got to raise the kids'?"
"No," Willow said, closing her book. "It's not, and I still can't remember what it is."
"I'm sure you'll have it by tomorrow," Dawn encouraged.
Spike looked up. "Don't worry, you haven't bombed anything yet. And even if you do, one score isn't gonna matter that much." He folded up his letter and stuck it in an envelope, getting up and putting it into Giles' hands. "Here."
"I'll put it out for you tonight," he agreed, watching the vampire practically run out of the store. "Was there a reason we were all gathered here tonight?"
"Nothing better to do?" Xander suggested.
"I see. One of those days. In that case, Xander, would you help me with inventory? I seem to be missing some things."
"Sure." He looked around as they walked toward the office. "The place isn't the same."
Giles looked at him. "I know, but you must keep going. She may not have wanted to die, but that doesn't mean that she should have taken off like that."
"Do you think she stole whatever we're looking for?" he asked the older man.
"Yes, I think so. It was a book of protective spells, though I think I'm missing a few of the less expensive weapons also."
"Okay. Want me to start with the weapons?"
"Thank you," Giles said, handing him the clipboard with the inventory on it. "While you're there please see if you can find my silver dagger. I seem to have misplaced it but I've seen it since Anya left."
"Sure, Giles." He walked out and plopped himself behind the weapons counter, opening it with the key hidden next to it, and flipped to the right page, pulling out the first dagger to check it off the list.
Giles walked out with the list of books he was supposed to have, heading over to the bookshelves. "If anyone would like to stay and help, it'd be most appreciated," he called out.
"I think I should go patrol soon," Buffy said, looking out at the early evening. "Dawn, home?"
"We'll take her," Willow said, not looking up from her notes. Tara smiled in agreement. "Have fun patrolling."
"Thanks," Buffy said, grabbing a stake from the bucket beside the door before going out to do her duty.
Tara got up to go help Giles, taking Dawn with her. They worked well as a team.
Xander lifted the slimy dagger and frowned. "Giles, when did you clean these last?" he called.
"Cleaning cloth's in the drawer," Giles called out.
"Oh, let me," Dawn said, giving Tara a grin. They both went to help Xander instead. Less climbing when you had to clean the weapons. She almost went back to the books when she saw the condition of the knife, but still, she could sit and chat this way. She took the dagger and the cloth, holding it while Tara cleaned the blade. Buffy still wouldn't let her touch a weapon.
Spike grunted as someone pounded on his crypt's door, getting up to answer it. "What?" he growled at the messenger. A box was shoved at him and the human ran away. "Whatever," he grumbled, dragging it inside. He sat down on his chair to open it, frowning at the pot on the top of the pile of stuff. "What?"
He found a letter a few pots later, sitting back to read it, snorting at the short missive. "Great. What do I need with pots? Even good ones?" He kicked the box. "I thought she didn't do anything in the store." He looked inside the box again, picking up one of the pots to look at. "Well, they're nice at least. Won't bring much. Wrong metal for today." He ran a finger along the cast iron pot. "Still, a few quid is always good. Maybe the Watcher'll give me some dosh for them." He repacked the box and hefted it easily, heading out into the late night to go get rid of the stuff. And if not, the Watcher usually had blood on him.
He found them at the Magic Shop, still working on the inventory. "Hey," he said, bringing Giles. "It came."
"I haven't even put out the letter yet," Giles said with a frown. "Were you at my house?"
"No, mine." He put the box on the table. "Didn't know my grandfather made pots, but so did my ma apparently. This was all hers."
Giles came over and lifted out the pan, nodding at it's heft. "These are very good."
"Oh, hey, cast iron. Those are valuable," Xander said as he climbed down from the loft. He handed over the clipboard and took the pan from Giles' hand. "Yeah, these are in fashion again." He swung it lightly. "Very good weight."
"You know about pots?" Spike sneered.
"Yup. Someone had to teach me how to cook so it was the nice people on the food channel. They all swear by these." He looked inside the box, noticing the full set of pots. "How much?" Spike looked at him in shock. "What? I could use them. All my pots seem to have disappeared when Anya left."
Spike shrugged. "Sure. Fifty?"
"In the interest of being fair," Tara said from behind the counter, "that one pan will bring at least twenty in a store."
"Hundred then," Spike said, shooting her a grin. "Cash."
"Deal," Xander said, pulling out his wallet. He frowned. "Settle for fifty now and fifty in three days?" he asked, holding out almost all the cash he had on him.
"Fine, but don't be late with it. Hate to ...." He groaned and rubbed his forehead.
"Don't worry, I don't want you to break my kneecaps any more than your chip does," Xander said with a big grin. "Help me get this home?"
"Did you finish?" Giles asked, looking at the sheets.
"All but the one box that you asked me to do. But Dawn can do it."
"No she can't. Buffy would not approve of her playing with weapons or magic books."
"Like we're gonna tell," Spike snorted.
"Okay, then sure I can," she agreed, coming over to the railing to smile down at him. "What's with the box?"
"Was my ma's. Someone found them, and me, and handed them over."
"You're sure you want to sell them?" Xander asked.
"Yeah. I have no use for pots."
"Point," Xander agreed, regaining his grin. "Come on, help me get this home. I'll give you a lift back that way since I live closer to Willie's than you do."
"Sure," Spike agreed, lifting up the box and taking it out to the boy's car. A ride was always nice. Once they got back to the boy's house, Spike helped carry the box up to his apartment. Anya had invited him a few days before she had left, so he even helped Xander put them away. "You've got to season them," he mumbled as he walked toward the door.
"I know. The Good Eats guy said so," Xander said, following him. "Want a ride over to Willie's?"
"Nah," Spike said, giving him a once over. "Have fun with your pots." He walked down the hall and stairs, heading out into the night.
Xander closed his door gently and went to finish unpacking his box. Down near the bottom he found a small wooden box. He thought about not opening it and holding it to give to Spike, he had only really bought the pots, but there was something in the box that wanted him to open it. So, contrary to all his training, he opened the box and pulled out the scroll it contained and started to read it to himself.
Across town, Buffy sat on her bed and reread the letter she had been sent. She only hoped this was on the up-and-up, otherwise she might be in trouble. She had explained what she was called to do in the letter. She heard the front door open and checked the clock. Not too late, she wouldn't go yell at Dawn. She listened to her sister getting ready for bed, smiling at the normalness of the younger girl's life. She had been about Dawn's age when she had been called.
Well, almost anyway.
But the point was, that Dawn's life was so normal. School, bed, Giles' to hang out. Friends to hang with and not worry about the fate of other people. And every day, she got to start the cycle over again. Never any worries about money, or about saving lives, or even about the future yet. Some days she wished she were still that young and uncalled. She could have done so much more than be an airhead back then. Why did she let that carefree time slip away from her? She laid back, the letter now forgotten on the blankets. She fell asleep dreaming of a simpler time, one when her only worry was conning her mother out of more allowance money.
Xander put down the scroll and looked at his clock, frowning at the time. "Crap, three hours to sleep." He stood up and stripped on his way into the bedroom. One of the nice things about having your own apartment was that you didn't have to watch where you tossed things like your underwear. He climbed under the covers after making sure his alarm was set, and was asleep within a few minutes, drifting off into a nearly dreamless sleep.
Out in the living room, a pale pink glow started around the scroll and the clothes were all picked up and folded on the couch.
Buffy looked up as someone joined her at the picnic table she was eating on. She looked the dark haired, very tough looking woman over, then put down her sandwich. "What?" she asked, not engaging in the staring contest.
"Are you the one known as Buffy?" she asked, her voice smooth and dark.
"We've been looking for you," she said, putting down a letter on the table. "Tonight, here." She stood up and walked away, not looking around at all.
Buffy watched her go, then looked down at the letter. "HA?" she whispered, picking it up. She'd only sent out her response a day ago. She tore open the envelope and pulled out the letter, reading what was essentially a broader version of the invitation the woman had given her. "Okay then," she sighed, tucking the letter into her pocket. "I'll be here, with extra stakes just in case." She picked up her sandwich and started to eat again. It was good to do normal things again.
Xander walked into his apartment, ready to drop from the day he had just been through. He managed to take off his tool belt before flopping down onto the couch and barely found the remote before his whole body went limp.
"Oh, sweetie," a high pitched voice said from behind him, sounding sympathetic.
Xander managed to jump up and turn around at the same time, though he was about ready to drop and his body was swaying. "Who are you?" he asked the pink-clad, barely, woman. "What are you doing here and how did you get in?"
"Here, drink this first," she said, handing him a mug that had definitely not been in his cupboard earlier. "Drink, it's just tea. It'll make you feel better. I'll explain it all after you drink it."
"How do I know it's not poisoned or something? Or drugged?"
She laughed. "Sweetie, I don't need to drug you. You prayed to me last night." She pinched his cheek. "Sit and drink, then we'll talk."
He did as she said, and he did enjoy the sweet, mild tea. He felt himself starting to relax and wondered if she had been lying, but no, it was just his lack of sleep and a ten hour shift coming back to haunt him. He yawned and she nodded.
"I understand fully. You need a nap. Don't worry, I'll be here." She wiggled her fingers and disappeared in a cloud of glitter.
"Not going there," he muttered as he put down the cup and headed for his bed, stripping off as he went. He figured she had probably already seen it if she had been here since last night so he wasn't worried about getting naked now. He fell onto his bed and was asleep before he could pull the covers up.
In the living room, Aphrodite reappeared and wrinkled her nose at the filthy, sweaty clothes. "Eww. Almost as bad as Hephie's." She waved a hand and they were clean and folded on the couch with the others. She giggled and went into the kitchen, going to prepare a meal for her first real worshiper in *decades*. She owed him one, he had brought her out of her boredom. Modern life was so dull!
Her husband popped in behind her, kissing her on the back of the neck as he wrapped his arms around her waist. "Hey, 'Dite," he whispered. "You left too fast."
"I know, but he prayed to me," she said happily.
Hephaestus looked around the small apartment, noticing the tools. "What does he do?"
"Wood work. Houses and stuff."
"So maybe he wouldn't mind both of us?" he asked hopefully.
"I'm sure he wouldn't," she assured him, kissing him on the cheek. "We can ask him tonight." She winkled her nose as a familiar presence walked down the street outside the building. "*He's* here," she groaned.
"It's okay, he won't pick on your new worshiper," he promised her. "I'll take him to task this time if he does."
"Thanks, Hephie," she said, relaxing into his arms. "We need to do nice stuff for this guy. He's had a *rotten* time with Love."
"Why doesn't your son like him?"
"Because he reminds Cupie of Strife probably. He does me."
"Yeah, I guess that'd do it. Do you think he'd mind if I came back after he was awake?"
"Sure, he's a nice kid." She grinned. "And you oughta see who he hangs with! Hephie, we've found Strife's last heir."
"Whoa. You're sure?" he asked, taking a step back to look at her. "You're really sure?"
"Yeah, all over his aura. And he's a Bacchae."
"Damn, after all this time, we finally find one and he's about to get stomped by Herc. That's not gonna happen." He looked up at the ceiling and sent a private message to his half-brother. Then he smiled at his wife. "Taken care of, sweet cheeks. Come play with me? I'll make you a pretty later."
She finished making dinner and put a warming cover over it, taking her husband's hand. They still didn't get much time together, even though Hephie really didn't have much work anymore.
In the bedroom, Xander snored on.
Buffy tapped her fingers impatiently on the tabletop while she waited. She had already done a quick patrol, and staked a vamp in the park as she headed over here, but now she was bored. Waiting was not her strong suit. She checked her watch again then started to get up but a big, tall, strong looking man stepped out of the woods and she stopped, looking him over. If he was a vamp, she might be in for a little bit of a fight. "Hi," she said carefully.
"Hi," he said, giving her a smile. "You're Buffy, right?" She nodded and relaxed a little. "I'm Herc." He walked over and stood in front of her. "Xena's having a little problem right now with a spirit so she sent me."
"The woman who told you to meet her here tonight." He sat down on the table beside her, plucking the stake from her fingers. "Crude but I guess it works in your job."
"Almost always," she agreed. "So, you're who? I've never heard of a male chosen one."
He chuckled lightly. "I'm not a chosen one, not like you. I fight evil because it's my destiny. That's why I was made so strong." He held out a hand. "Hercules," he reintroduced himself.
"You're Hercules? *The* Hercules?"
He nodded. "Yup. I get that a lot."
She shook his hand. "Buffy Summers, Slayer. Why did you guys send me the letter?"
"Because it's good to have people who understand," he said with a slight shrug.
"But I've got a Watcher and friends, they all understand."
"Do they? What it's really like to be you? To fight daily and know that some day it's not going to be good enough?"
She swallowed hard. "Been there, done that recently, came back without the t-shirt. But they fight with me."
"That's how we found you. Hades tipped us off that you had been brought back." He patted her on the shoulder, using a little of his impressive strength to test her reactions. "It's still different when you're the hero."
"Yeah, it is," she admitted. "Did you ever have to work with your enemies? Or keep them safe after they were hurt?"
"Not really," Hercules admitted. "Xena did. She had to help Ares a few times when he became mortal. It's not among her most pleasant memories, but it has been known to happen. You're doing that now?"
"Yeah, we have a vampire that got chipped by this totally obnoxious military group, so we work with him. He kills things for us and we feed him." She looked around the park and held up a finger. "Be right back. Gotta go stake something." She slid off the table and grabbed her stake, heading off after the vampire she could sense. She found her up a tree, being snarled at by some dogs. "Get down from there," she called up. "I can't stake you if you're up there."
Hercules walked over and shook the tree, knocking her down. He smiled at Buffy, then put on his most fierce expression and growled at the dogs, sending them running home with their tails between their legs. "Better?" he asked.
"Sure," Buffy said, walking over and staking the vampire. "Good, done," she said, brushing the dust off her pants. "Now what?"
"What would you normally do?"
"I'd go hang at my Watcher's shop and find out if there's anything big brewing and spend some time with my friends at the same time."
"Then let's go," he suggested, giving her another reassuring smile. "I'd like to meet the people who voluntarily took on the role of hero, even when they weren't meant to. Anyone special?"
"Well, there's Spike, the chipped one. There's Willow and Tara, witches."
"As in follow Hecate?"
"Yeah, but they're good witches, both of them are still training. There's Xander, but he's not special. He probably won't be there. He's been doing a lot of hours at work recently."
"Yes, but if he doesn't have any gifts," Hercules started.
"He gets in the way, a lot," Buffy interrupted. "He gets kidnaped and possessed, and I end up dealing with him after that; but sometimes he's in just the right place and he's the key person we need."
"Ah. Anyway, it must be nice to have friends that are there for you."
"Yeah, it is," Buffy admitted, giving him a bright smile. "It's something no other Slayer has had. I've outlived a lot of the former ones because of my friends."
"Hey," Willow said, bouncing up to them outside the shop. "What's up? Who's this?"
"This is Herc. He's a new friend. He and I have a lot in common," Buffy said, giving her a hug. "No Tara?"
"She's already inside. I went to check on Xander. Spike said he saw something glowy though his window as he walked past on his way to Willie's. He didn't answer his door so I used my key, he's napping," she said, giving Buffy a silly grin.
"Does he need help?" Hercules asked.
"No. He's fine," Willow said, giving him a smile. "Come on. It's time to go do the daily checking of the books." She led the way inside, giving her girlfriend a smile. "Hey, all, we're back."
"We?" Giles asked, looking up from his book. "Oh, hello," he said, smiling at the blond man. "And who might you be?"
"This is Herc, he's a lot like me," Buffy told him. "It's cool, guys, he fights evil too." She smirked at Spike. "And look, evil even comes to us."
"Funny," Spike said, replacing his cigarette in his mouth. "Hercules," he said with a nod. "What's a big bugger like you doin' here?" Part of his mortal education had been Greek society, he knew all too well who was standing in front of him. It was odd when his mortal life intersected his vampiric one.
"I'm here because we figured Buffy could use some company of other heros," he said, laying a hand on Buffy's shoulder. "Friends are good, but sometimes you have to have done the job to know what it's like."
Willow snorted. "I'd like to see you do a soul restoration spell from your hospital bed with a concussion. Or even to go out there and do what Tara and I do nightly."
"Spells?" Buffy asked, looking confused. Willow glared at her. "Sorry, but he's another hero. He didn't mean to get down on you guys, he just thinks that it's a hero-type thing." She gave her friends a hopeful look.
"That's all well and good," Willow countered, "but some of us were fighting this battle without powers longer than he's been watching you."
Tara coughed lightly. "Buffy, you might want to read up on your new friend."
"I'm not like that anymore," Hercules said stiffly. "I've been left in peace since the other Gods went into seclusion."
Tara took Willow's hand. "That's nice, but you still killed people too." She stood up and walked toward the door, taking Willow with her. "We're going home," she said.
Spike stood up and stretched. "Sorry, but I'm with them." He walked past, stopping to look at Hercules. "You sure they're all gone, mate?" he asked snidely before leaving.
"You must forgive Tara," Giles said carefully, staying where he was behind the counter. "She's got a minor in Mythology." He smiled at Buffy. "We will be having a discussion later. I don't appreciate such surprises."
"Sure," she said, waving a hand. "Anything going on or should I go back on patrol?"
"Have fun on patrol," Giles said, watching them leave. He went limp as soon as they were out of sight, taking a breath of relief. "What has she gotten herself into this time?" he muttered as he went back to his office to make a phone call.
Xander woke up to the smell of real food, like food that had been cooked and not taken from a bag, microwave, or plastic-wrap. He got up and pulled on a robe, following his nose out to the dining area, frowning at the elaborate meal sitting there for him. "Um, hello?" he called, hoping the woman would come back. Instead a man with scars down one side of his face and a severe limp showed up. "Hi," he said carefully.
"Relax, kid," he said, his voice sounding gravely, but comforting. "Sit, eat, we'll talk while you eat."
"Um, I think there's some sort of social nicety involving you eating with me," Xander offered.
Hephaestus smiled. "Sure. I like it when 'Dite cooks." He sat down across from the boy. "What do you think happened last night?" he asked after taking a bite to show it wasn't poisoned. The kid had very good survival instincts.
"All I know is that I read a scroll that was in a box," Xander said between bites, giving him a little shrug when the other man stared at him. "I didn't realize I was calling on anyone."
"So you didn't pray to her?" Hephaestus asked, his whole posture falling a little bit.
"Not that I wouldn't ever, but I wasn't aware that I was," Xander said, trying to cheer him up again. For some reason, he didn't want this man to become upset. "If you'd tell me who she was, I might have a better idea of what's going on. I'm clueless-boy here," he said at the stare.
"You haven't figured anything out yet?" Hephaestus asked. Xander shook his head. "Not at all?"
"Just that she's really pretty, and nearly naked, but that she can come and go with a bunch of glitter." He took another bite of the strange-tasting meat. It definitely wasn't beef. "And that she's a great cook."
Hephaestus smiled. "Yup, that about sums up Aphrodite." Xander choked and he got up to pound him on the back. "You okay, kid?"
Xander gulped some of his water. "Yeah," he gasped finally. "Thanks." His face scrunched up. "Then doesn't that make you Hephaestus?" he asked gently, cringing when he didn't immediately get an answer.
Hephaestus chuckled. "Yeah, that's me," he said, smiling down at the mortal. "You read one of Aphrodite's prayers." He sat down again. "Now's the time to tell us to butt out."
"Hey, you guys were the good Gods," Xander said quickly. "Can she fix my sex life?"
Hephaestus shrugged. "You'd have to ask her that. 'Dite?"
She appeared behind him, giving him a hug. "Sorry, I was reaming Cupie for messing with him. So, he's cool with us?" she asked, giving Xander a hopeful look.
"Hey, I was always taught you guys were the good Gods," Xander said, nodding when he saw her bounce in joy. "Um, hate to say this, but he might not like it if I can't move my eyes," he said, still following the bouncing globes of flesh. Hephaestus waved a hand and Xander could remove his gaze. "Thanks, man. So, what do I owe you? I mean, in return for liking me and all?"
"Just some little prayers," Hephaestus said gently. "We're not hard to get along with." He patted his wife on the rear.
"Or some hot sex," Aphrodite suggested. Xander started to choke again. "With another mortal," she sighed, rolling her eyes. "The days of the holy orgy are over, babe; pity, but they are."
Xander, finally able to breathe again, just nodded. "Thanks. Gladly do that if I had someone to sleep with. You, um, don't want me to risk disease and just pick up someone, right?"
"Nah," she said, waving a hand and grinning at him. "It'll happen, and when it does, you'll be praying plenty to me just by being like bunnies." She reached over and pinched his cheek. "This is *so* cool. You are such a studmuffin, just like in the old days with Curly."
"Well, there might be a reason for that," Hephaestus noted. "Who else would hang out with a descendant of Strife?"
"Huh?" Xander asked. "Strife? Like guy who played pranks?"
"Yeah, he did that too," Aphrodite said, jiggling again when she shrugged. "He was a lot more than that though. You're hangin' with a narly offspring of his. Blond guy, really hunky, killer cheekbones?"
"Spike?" Xander whispered, suddenly making a lot of connections in his mind. It just *fit*. "What about Dru?" he asked.
"Who?" Aphrodite asked.
"Druscilla, his former lover and sire?"
"Oh, her," Hephaestus said, waving his hand. "Not one of Strife's. We checked into this one's background." He leaned back. "Honey, maybe you should tell him about Cupid, before he gets a visit."
"What?" a new figure said as he appeared. His wings fluttered lightly in the still and silent air, and he glared at his step-father. "Who keeps talking about Strife?" He glared at Xander. "And, you, mortal, are in *such* deep shit." Aphrodite slapped him across the back of his head. "Mom!" he whined.
"Stop it. He hangs with a descendant of Strife's."
"You've put him through enough crap," Hephaestus said quietly. "Even back when it was just the praying mantis woman, it was too much. You could have killed him," he chastised.
"But, pop," Cupid pleaded.
"No, son, you have to quit punishing people because they remind you of what you and Strife were together. You can't punish him anymore, or anyone else, because they remind you of your honey." He stood up and grabbed Cupid, pulling him into a hug. "I know it hurts to think of him, but you can't punish Xander or anyone else ever again. Promise me, Cupid."
"I promise," Cupid said sullenly. He looked at Xander, seeing what he had done to an innocent. "I'm sorry, dude, but you look *so* much like my man that it hurt to look at you."
"So you're the reason I'm a demon magnet and that every bad guy likes me?" Xander asked. Cupid nodded and Xander stood up. "Never touch my life again," he said quietly, heading into his room and slamming the door.
Aphrodite winced but Hephaestus patted her on the arm. "You can't expect him to be thankful for the experiences," he reminded his wife and step-son. "What happened to him has been enough to put him off ever finding anyone ever again. And that Anya chick was too uncool, Cupid. Being used that way isn't good for anyone." He and the boy shared a look, Cupid looking away first and nodding. "I'd go fix it, son, before he never touches another person again."
"No, let me," Aphrodite said, kissing her son on the cheek. "You go look in on this heir of his. I think you'd like him. Bacchae or not." She disappeared, appearing on the bed behind Xander so she could give him a hug. "I'm sorry we've sucked so badly so far," she whispered. He shrugged and she gave him a light squeeze. "What Cupie did was totally unforgivable, but he promised to never touch your life again. Every love you find will be all because of you," she offered, hoping he wouldn't send her away.
"I'd just like a fair shot," he complained. He rolled over, getting a real hug, and it felt good, almost motherly. "Every real relationship I've ever had was based on a lie, or on being used. I was hoping Anya would grow outta that."
"But she didn't," she agreed. "She wasn't your one." He looked up at her. "Really, I promise. You do have a few good lovers coming, four or so, but she wasn't one of them. She wasn't meant to be here, and especially not with you." She brushed some of his hair around. "I think it'll be okay, Xanny."
"Xander," he corrected.
"You don't like pet names?" she asked, her face starting to cloud up.
"I don't like that one," he admitted. "It makes me feel like a little kid again. Willow used to call me that when we were five." He sighed and put his head on her shoulder. "Why couldn't I enjoy the good times while I had them?"
"Because you thought that everything would be okay in the future," she told him, rubbing his back. "Rest if you want, babe, I'll be here. Hephie took Cupid to see that Spike guy."
Xander snorted. "I'm not sure he's gonna like what he sees. Spike's very different than he used to be."
"Being fucked over can do that to someone," she agreed, letting him fall asleep on her shoulder. She'd do about anything for this kid, he hadn't sent her away and he didn't bitch out her son. Maybe there was some hope for the rest of time and the real world after all. Not everyone could be like that Buffy chick, and if more were like Xander, then there really was hope for the future and humanity going on for a few more centuries.
Cupid flashed into Spike's crypt, looking the drunk vampire over. He delicately delved into the vampire's memories, shuddering at what he saw on top of his thoughts. "Buffy?" he asked, crinkling his nose up. "Eww."
Spike glared up at him, opening and shutting his eyes to get the best of the fuzzy images. "Who're you, pillock?" he grunted.
"I'm Cupid," he said, bending down and flicking the vampire on the head to sober him up.
"Hey! I wanted to be like that!"
"I'll put it back in a few," Cupid said, standing in front of him. "Do you know that what you are is rare? So sought after that some of us have been searching for you for centuries?"
"Huh?" Spike asked. "What'd I do?"
"Not what you did, what you *are*," Cupid corrected. He continued to look at this new person. "You're a descendant of the man I loved," he said quietly. "Because his memories hurt me so much, I punish people who look like him." He crossed his arms. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't erase some of my pain by eliminating you?" he hissed.
"Because he might get pissed at you for wreckin' his memory?" Spike suggested. He knew he didn't have a shot of making it out of this if the God in front of him decided to take him out. "If ya do, just give me a few minutes chip free, 'kay?" he asked bitterly.
"Chip?" Cupid asked, looking around the crypt. "You don't need snacks. You drink blood, right? I mean, that's what the Bacchae I knew did."
Spike snorted. "Not those sorta chips, the one in my bleedin' head!" he shouted, getting pissed. This guy wanted to dust him because he was a long-lost descendant of someone he loved, and he didn't even know him?
"Who did that?" Cupid asked, leaning down and putting a hand over Spike's forehead. "Dude, that's just *WRONG*," he complained loudly. "They've gotta be punished. Strife would never have stood for that." He went tense. "Never mind. I can remove it, or I can break it, your choice, William."
"Spike," he snarled.
"Whatever," Cupid agreed, giving him a smile. "You're really like my Strife. He never let me call him anything else." He sat down on the table, looking at the vampire. "I'd like to make some of this up, my mother and her new worshiper got on me today about how heinous I've been, and I can see that they're right."
"You really want to help me? No strings?" Spike asked.
Cupid shrugged. "I'm not a stringy kinda guy, but I would appreciate it if you prayed to me if you ever found a decent mate. And no, I didn't mean Buffy. She's way taken right now with Uncle Herc and his ho, Xena." He shuddered. "And she's welcome to both of them."
"Hercules, as in killed his family a few times? That Hercules?" Spike asked, looking a little shocked and somewhat sick. He had known who the stranger at the store had been, but knowing and *knowing* were different. "He's got my Buffy?"
"Dude, she's never gonna be yours. She's way too nasty to be real. I bet she even fakes it."
"Don't they all?" Spike asked.
"Nah, some women enjoy it so much that they forget and really feel it," Cupid said, giving him a smile. "Can I fix that? Please? It bothers me now that I know about it."
"Sure. Jus' don't tell anyone or I'll be dust."
"Bet me," Cupid said cryptically as he put his hand back on Spike's head and burnt out the chip in there. "Now you can eat," he said happily. "Do yourself a favor though, don't go after Buffy, or anyone with her, they'll happily toast you, and don't go after that dark haired one either, my mom really likes him."
"Xander's in with your ma?" Spike asked.
"Yeah, he found a small wooden box with a scroll in it and read it, sending her a prayer. She was *so* happy," he sighed, looking through the wall towards Xander's apartment. He turned back to see a shocked vampire. "What?"
"Xander found it in my ma's stuff," he said quietly. "He never told me."
"They didn't really appear to him until today, and then I kinda traumatized him," Cupid admitted, looking down at his feet. "Xander's one of those that remind me of Strife, so I ...punished him."
"Anya?" Spike guessed, looking a little sympathetic.
"Yeah, her too," Cupid sighed. He stood up and held a hand out. "Wanna go over there?"
"Nah, I'll see him tomorrow," Spike said, standing up and giving the God a grin. "Got people to eat now."
"Just do it on the QT," Cupid warned. "You don't want to be caught by the holier-than-thou squad. They *will* dust you and then laugh at your ashes." He grimaced. "Buffy's even the type that'd piss on them. And I don't want you hurt," Cupid said firmly. "You're the last in Strife's line." He disappeared in a flash of blue light.
Spike grinned. "I can be quiet," he told himself. "Just a little nibble here and there," he told himself as he grabbed his duster and headed out into the night. He had some terror to make up for.
Xander woke up warm and snuggly, resting against a soft chest. He realized there was a warm body behind him too, but for some reason that was okay. He looked over the tanned shoulder at the clock and swore. "Work," he groaned.
"Your boss called," the male voice said from behind him. "A big water main broke on the site, they're bailing water today. He said you didn't have to come in." His arm moved around the boy's waist. "I hope you didn't mind, but I like to sleep with 'Dite whenever I can."
"Nothing happened?" Xander asked, not looking at him, almost afraid to.
"Nothing will unless you want it to," Hephaestus assured him. "We're not like that." He gave the waist a light squeeze, which made the mortal grunt. "Sorry, forget my own strength some days," he said, and his voice sounded like he was ready to laugh.
Xander rolled over, looking at this other man. "Why do you like me? You're over metals and stuff. I work with wood."
"Yeah, but you still create, and I'm kinda over that too," he told the mortal. "I'd like to become your God too. Can't promise this every night, but I'd be willing to come down and cuddle you sometimes," he offered, trying to sweeten the deal when he wasn't answered.
"Huh," Xander said finally. "You really like me?"
"Yup. You're a pretty neat guy. Got some great mental images too." The boy blushed. "Sorry, but we can hear dreams and yours were quite graphic."
"Thanks," Xander said, looking down at his bathrobe, which had somehow managed to stay tied during the night. "I think I could handle that. I mean, worshiping you too. You seem pretty neat yourself."
Hephaestus leaned over and kissed the boy on the forehead, putting his mark there beside his wife's. "Call on us if you need us." He started to fade out but the boy made a grab for him. "Don't want me to leave?"
"No," Xander said quietly. "I'd like some things explained to me. Not meaning of the universe stuff, but some simple things. Like why you guys left us alone? And...and why Cupid is so upset because I remind him of Strife?"
"The second's easier to answer than the first," Hephaestus warned him. "The first is more of a philosophical argument." Xander nodded so he went on. "As for why you remind him of Strife, it's partially because you look like him." He touched the dark hair, running a few strands between his scarred fingers. "You used to make jokes like him too."
"And let's not forget that he and Strife dressed somewhat alike," Aphrodite mumbled from her side of the bed. "Those Hawaiian shirts woulda been loved by the nephew for off-duty hours." She opened her eyes. "You used to live life," she told him, rubbing down his terry-cloth covered back. "You used to enjoy the hell outta everything you did. Then you met *her*," she said, giving her husband a fond smile as he let Xander roll onto his back. "In a lot of ways, you remind me of Strife still. You've got his wary air, his careful way of not letting anyone too close." She touched his chin. "You're not exactly like him, but in some ways you're a lot like him."
"When he died it almost killed Cupid," Hephaestus added. "Cupid went silent for *years*, refusing to come out of his temple. Even his son was given to us to care for because he couldn't deal with it."
"Why did he die?" Xander asked. "He was a God, right?"
Aphrodite nodded. "He was," she said sadly, "but no one recognized how important he was to the balance we had until then. They let him die and never did anything to help him come back." She glared at the ceiling. "Then almost everyone died. Hera did a lot about that, but she never brought Strife back."
"That sucks," Xander said quietly. "Can't someone petition her?"
"Yeah, but it's been too long. Strife's been dead for centuries, sweetie. He wouldn't feel comfy coming back now." She stroked her nails across his stomach. "We could petition for him to be reborn, that might work, but we haven't found a suitable candidate for a mother."
"He wouldn't really be Strife though, would he?" Xander asked. She shook her head. "Then that'll suck even worse for Cupid."
"Truly," Hephaestus agreed. "You have a pretty good handle on this."
"Thanks," he said, giving them a self-depreciating grin. "I've kinda had to deal a lot with death in the last few years." He looked at her hand, stopping it from moving anymore. "Thanks, but I kinda still feel really weird about that."
She kissed his cheek and gave him a bright smile. "That's okay, sweetie, I didn't mean anything by it." She blew a kiss at her husband. "He's all the man I need."
Hephaestus blushed. "Thanks, dear." He cleared his throat at the smirk Xander was giving him. "It's good to hear after being married for so long."
"I bet," he agreed, sitting up. "I should probably go take a shower, I'm sure I smell by now." He slid off the end of the bed and headed into the bathroom before he could embarrass himself. That kiss had felt *good*, too good. He didn't want to make the other guy pissed already. It seemed like they could be friends and he didn't want to miss out on that.
Aphrodite wrinkled her nose at her husband. "He's got some strange ideas about messing us up," she whispered as she scooted closer to him so she could get a hug. "I think you two should have a guy-like chat."
"Maybe," Hephaestus agreed. "I think he'd like to have friends, 'Dite. That needs to come first."
She snorted. "Tell me you don't find him drool-worthy."
"Oh, I do," he admitted with a smile. "I wouldn't mind putting him between us at all, but we've got to move slow. Cupid royally screwed his mind in the love area."
"Hey, *I'm* here now," she reminded him, pinching him on the nipple. "I can fix that."
"Oh, really?" he asked, pinching her on the nipple. "Without me?"
She kissed him. "Never without you, Hephy. I learned that lesson. He can be like Iolaus, 'kay?"
"Fine by me, dear," Hephaestus agreed. "I wouldn't mind having someone to snuggle with when you had to go to work, or someone to come watch me work even." He kissed her hard. "I think I can think of better ways of killing this time."
"Oh, we need to make him breakfast," she squealed, starting to get up, but he pulled her back down, making her laugh. "Gotcha!"
"Yeah, you do," he agreed, running his hands up her nearly bare midriff. "All of me that you can handle." He rolled her under him and began to kiss his way down to her ample breasts.
Xander came out of the bathroom at the girlish squeals, but when he saw them going at it, he blushed and went back into the bathroom. He could give them some time alone. He shivered as his mind insisted on giving him more pictures of what they were probably doing.
Aphrodite winked at her husband when she felt their new friend masturbating in the bathroom, giving it her all once the power from his offering hit her.
Hephaestus, never one to waste an opportunity, took full advantage of his wife's energy.
Giles looked up as the bell over the door rang, glancing at his watch when he saw it was Xander. "Didn't have to work today?" he asked, giving the boy a smile.
"Nah, the boss called and said the site was flooded. He said I could come in and bail but it wasn't gonna happen. I caught up on my sleep and had some *really* nice conversations with some great people." He sat down at the research table, looking at his mentor. "Where's everyone else?"
"Buffy's got a new *friend*," he said grimly. "Willow and Tara have classes about now." He brought his cup of tea over and sat across from the young man. "You certainly look more energetic than I've seen you since Anya left."
"Yeah, well, I got an explanation for that."
"Ah. Do you perchance happen to know Buffy's new friends?" he asked carefully. He thought fighting without any gifts might qualify one as a hero, but he wasn't sure if people like Hercules would think so. "You seem to have the same sort of glow around you as she did."
Xander shrugged. "I doubt it. They were really happy to see me." He grinned. "They're a couple, but they're very cute and nice to me. They even explained some stuff to me."
"A ...couple," Giles said slowly. "Are they," he coughed. "Are they *special*?"
"Very," Xander agreed quickly. He leaned closer, they hadn't said not to tell. He sent a quick thought toward Aphrodite, who had spoiled him rotten all morning by cuddling him. When she didn't send back a mean or nasty thought, he decided it'd be okay. "In that box of Spike's stuff I found a small wooden box with a scroll in it."
"I see," Giles said. "What was on it?"
"A prayer to Love."
"Oh." Giles' eyes went wide. "You met Aphrodite?"
Xander nodded, his grin getting brighter. "She's *way* cool, Giles, her and Hephie both. They talked to me like a real adult person and even explained things to me. And Aphrodite's a great cook. She made these killer omelets for breakfast."
Giles sipped his tea. "I see."
"You're pissed?" he asked, looking upset. "I don't want you to be pissed at me."
"I'm not," he said, reaching over to touch the boy's hand. "I'm not upset with you. Actually, I'm rather thrilled for you. She's always been highly talked about in most of mythology. Much better than who Buffy's hanging out with."
"Um, and that would be?" a light voice said as a scantily-clad woman appeared. "And no, sweetie, I don't mind at all," she said, giving Xander a hug and a peck on the cheek. "Who's *it* hanging with?"
"Your nephew," Giles said carefully.
"Hercy?" she asked, her whole face wrinkling in concentration. "Why is he here anyway? I felt him last night, but I didn't think he was staying. There's enough heros in town."
"Yes, well, apparently no one's one without special gifts," Giles said bitterly. "He insulted the rest of our group because we weren't destined from birth to be heros, with powers."
"Oh, he is *so* in for it then," Xander said, his voice getting cold. "Where is he?"
"He and Xena are on the edge of town," Aphrodite said, reaching down to squeeze his shoulder. "You're not going there. He'll kill you, and I refuse to lose you already." She stomped her foot. "If I have to, I'll get someone to run interference so he leaves with his ho." She brushed some of her hair back as two females walked into the shop. "Hey."
"Willow," Xander said, jumping up to give her a hug. "Are you okay? Did he hurt you? Or Tara?" he asked, giving her a hug too.
"We're fine," Willow said, staring at the woman. "Is she for real?" she whispered to Xander, pointing at the Goddess.
Aphrodite laughed. "Sure am, toots." She waved a hand in the air and sparkly lights followed her fingertips. "Goddess of Love here. You?"
"Witches," Willow said, coming over to look at the outfit. "Wow, it's even less covering than they show in some of the pictures, and that's just your hair."
"Willow!" Tara hissed, mortified.
Aphrodite laughed, harder this time. "You guys are so sweet," she cooed, pinching Willow's, then Tara's cheeks. "I like you guys." She looked between the couple, then squealed and hugged them both. "You two are so *cute* together," she said happily. "I like it when people find their meant- to-bes."
"You're smothering them," Xander pointed out, grinning at his Goddess, and new friend.
Willow glared at him. "Shut up, Xander. This is a perfectly nice hug." Tara pinched her and she grinned at her girlfriend. "You give hugs like her."
Tara hugged Willow, smiling at the Goddess, mouthing 'thank you'. She had prayed for Willow to love her, now she had her answer. They sat down at the table, next to Xander, who had joined them. "So, what's up," Tara asked, much more confident.
"Hercy's taken over what little of Buffy's mind is remaining," Aphrodite said, rolling her eyes. "He's always trying to *save* people," she complained. "Perfectly normal and decent people who just wanna be themselves."
"But why does he want Buffy?" Willow asked. "She's already saving the world, with us. And he dissed us last night," she complained.
"I know," Aphrodite said, giving her a sad smile. "He's been like that since Iolaus finally died for good. No one that's not a hero, with special gifts no less, should fight according to him."
"So, like the song, we should all be holding out for a hero?" Xander asked. She nodded. "Wow, way inefficient and a good way to die." He looked around the shop. "What does he think about the people who help and support the heros? Are they wrong too?"
"I guess it depends on how they support him," Aphrodite said with a shrug. "I think he expects all women to be thankful enough to fall on their backs for him, and the men to envy him enough to bend over and take it."
Tara looked interested but Willow shuddered. Xander said it best, "How gross. Can't he pay for it like everyone else?"
Giles started to laugh so hard, he choked on his last sip of tea. Aphrodite rushed over to pound him on the back. "Sorry," she said, giving him her best 'I'm sorry and cute, don't be pissed' look. "Are you okay now?"
He nodded. "Thank you. Xander, please, wait until my mouth is empty before saying anything like that next time." He got a nod and a grin. "Thank you. Should we try and take Buffy back?"
"I'm afraid to say it, but she might not want to come back," Willow pointed out, losing her good humor. "She became a lot more like him before she died."
"I had hoped she had changed," Giles sighed. "Now, I fear they're bringing her back to that way."
Xander frowned. "But she learned differently while she was dead, right?" Xander asked. Giles nodded. "Then why would she go back to it?"
"Think about it, Xander," Willow said, frowning at the bookshelf behind him. "If you found someone who validated your old attitude, the one she had, and it all suddenly made sense."
"Plus you found someone like you," Tara offered.
"Wouldn't you reevaluate to make sure your new attitude wasn't the wrong one?" Willow finished. "She might have changed after dying, but that doesn't mean that she's gonna stay changed. Not with someone validating her old attitude problem."
"Taking up with him might exacerbate it," Giles agreed. "We must get her away from them before they turn her into a self-righteous, pouting girl again."
"No can do on my end," Aphrodite said. "There's still the no interference rule from dear old dad." Xander gave her a pout. "Sorry, sweetie, but even I have rules I gotta follow." She tweaked his nose. "Besides, it's her decision to make. You can only talk to her."
"We'd have to find her first," Giles said grimly. "She left with him last night and never came home."
"Oh, they're together," Aphrodite said, grimacing. "And it's way grody sex too. Her and Xena, with Hercy doin' 'em both." She shuddered. "It's couples like them that make me wanna go do another job."
Xander patted her on the hip. "It's okay. I promise, lots of other people are having sex right now to counteract them and give you good vibes."
"Isn't he so *sweet*!" she cooed, giving Xander a hug.
Willow and Tara nodded numbly, taking a moment to get a good look at their friend. They'd never seen Xander like she did. Willow shuddered, realizing she used to see Xander that way, but something had changed. She looked at Tara and knew what had changed; Buffy had come to town. "I think we need to plan what to do if she leaves," Willow said quietly.
Giles stared at her for a moment then nodded. "As do I," he agreed. "There's not another girl coming out unless Faith dies in prison." He looked at Xander. "Do you have any idea what to do about this situation?"
"We pretty well proved last time that the town was in mortal danger if a Slayer's not here," Xander pointed out. "Not even the Buffybot helped a lot."
"Good point," Giles agreed. "I wish there was some way to get another girl."
"You could always contract someone to kill the Faith girl," Aphrodite suggested lightly. Everyone glared at her. "What? It'd work, wouldn't it?"
"It would," Xander agreed, "but that's a little cold." He looked at Giles. "So is the thought I've been having. Will Buffy be able to survive without you? I mean, you hold all the knowledge of how to kill, maim, and make miserable."
"She may," Giles conceded, "but probably not for very long. Hercules doesn't kill what she usually does. The only thing I can see by her association with them is some more intense training."
Aphrodite shuddered. "Eww, sweating. He's not gonna be nice and let her slack off."
"Which could be a good thing to shake her out of his grip," Willow pointed out. "She hates to train."
"Not as much as she used to," Giles said sadly. "I wish there was another girl available."
"Should you be calling the Council?" Xander asked lightly. "They need to know if she's really abandoned her post."
"We'll have to wait and make sure she did abandon us," Tara said quietly. Having a Goddess on their side was doing wonders for her confidence. It was nice not to be the target of a God's wrath. Aphrodite smiled at her. "How long do we have to wait?"
"We'll need to ...."
Everyone stopped as the door slammed open and a young woman walked in. "Hi," she said, flipping her blonde hair over her shoulder. She had to have been at least six foot, without the blood red stiletto heeled boots, her blonde hair a shoulder length swingy sort of style. Her outfit was a red leather catsuit, and the outfit only made her look dangerous. "I'm Ilaria. Are you Rupert?" she asked as she stepped down the few steps, looking very comfortable in the four inch heels.
"Yes, I am," he said, straightening up. "How may I help you?"
"You may train me," she said, giving him an infectious grin. "I'm the girl after Faith. I was called last night."
"How? We haven't heard that she died," Xander pointed out. Normally he'd be licking his lips about now at the beautiful girl, with her blue eyes laughing and full of life, but he found that he could appreciate her beauty without being a pig about it. Must have been Aphrodite's influence.
Aphrodite clapped and giggled. "I *knew* those two were gonna make cutesy kiddies together!" She walked over and hugged the girl. "I knew the originators of your line. They were cutesy puppies, and you look like them both!" she said happily.
The girl looked over Aphrodite's outfit. "Man, I could *not* get away with wearing that," she said, looking envious. "You're 'Dite, right?" She nodded. "Wow, I've got Iolaus' diary, he babbled about you often."
"Yeah, his and Jett's both. Jett only babbled about Strife though." She frowned. "I was not happy when Unc said he was dead."
"You've heard from Ares?" Aphrodite said, her voice trying to stay calm. "How? He disappeared *eons* ago."
"Yeah, but he's still around." She gave the Goddess a hug. "He told me to do that, and to tell you to beat Cupid quickly before he killed someone else." She grinned. "And he said I was not to take fashion advice from you."
Xander snorted. "Sounds like a big happy family."
"We are," the girls said together.
Giles shook his head. "How odd," he whispered. "I almost saw another over her face."
"That's because I'm a lot like my line's originators," Ilaria told him. "One was an assassin who went straight, and one was Hercules' side-kick."
"Oh, wow, and he's here right now," Willow said. She looked the girl over. "Is there a reason for all this activity now? Some sort of convergence?"
"Yeah, they planned to have a big family reunion here," Spike said as he came up through the basement. He whistled when he saw the girls. "Well, well, I've been missin' out on a lot. Whelp, how'd you find the box?"
"It was in the bottom, under the last pot. I thought about giving it to you." He pushed out a chair with his foot. "Sit, enjoy looking at the women types gush." He grinned, waiting until Spike sat down to touch him on the arm. "Thank you. It was the best thing I've ever done," he said quietly.
Spike nodded. "Good." He looked the new girl over. "Who're you?"
"Ilaria," Giles said, "the next Slayer."
"Oh." Spike blinked a few times. "Well, you gonna be like which one?"
"Me," Ilaria said firmly. "I don't wanna be like anyone else. But can you show me around tonight?" she asked, her dimples coming out when she smiled.
"Let's test you first," Giles said, his chair scraping as he stood up. He looked her outfit over. "Maybe you'd like to change?" he suggested.
"Why? I pick my clothes to fight in." She followed him back to the training room, giving out another squeal when she saw the dedicated practice room.
Xander looked up at Aphrodite. "I think Willow had a really good question. Is there some reason why the box showed up at the same time as Hercules did?"
"Mostly because there's gotta be a balance," Aphrodite said, creating a bench to sit on and using it. "There's gotta be a cosmic balance for most everything. This town was out of balance and he felt it, so he and the ho came to fix that. We were already on our way here," she said, reaching over to pinch him. "And no, I didn't choose you. You choose me, Xander."
He grinned at her. "And it was the best sleepless night I've ever had."
Willow and Tara gasped. "Xander!" Willow squeaked.
"What? I was up all night reading that prayer to her," Xander said, shooting her a grin. "You're right though, she gives *great* hugs, her and Hephie both."
Aphrodite giggled and wiggled her fingers. "Speaking of which, gotta go share this news with him. You'll be okay?"
"Yup. I'll go right home tonight and clean the place."
She waved a hand. "Don't worry about it. It's clean enough now." She disappeared in a shower of sparkles, taking her bench with her.
"Wow," Tara said quietly.
"Very," Xander said, nodding. "I got to see that last night too." He grinned at the girls. "I really probably should go clean the house." He started to stand up but Spike pushed him down. "What? Are you really pissed?"
"Nah, but I'd like to see if there was anything else."
"Yeah, there was," Xander said, pulling a little baggie out of his pocket. "I found these in the box too, but the box was kinda falling apart on one side so I didn't want to move it. You can come over and get it if you want. I'll even help you fix it."
"I'll be over later," Spike grumped, stuffing the baggie into his pocket. "Why's she here?"
"Because Buffy never came home last night," Willow said grimly. "Ilaria got called last night somehow and got told to come to us for training."
"Are we sure Slutty's alive?" Spike asked dryly. His talk with Cupid had made him see that his falling for Buffy was a desperate plea for help, and also to have someone with him, something about an innate need to not be alone. Willow nodded so he shrugged. "All right then. Now what?"
"Now, we wait," Xander told him, leaning back in his chair. "Giles is testing out Ilaria, so we should probably be here when he gets done with her."
"Who-hoo!" Ilaria's yell came from the back room.
"I guess she's having fun," Willow said, giving Xander a grin. "Wanna talk? I haven't heard anything about your life since Anya left."
"What was with her anyway?" Spike asked, looking at Xander.
"She decided she wanted to be mortal somewhere that didn't include mortal danger," he said with a faint shrug. "So she left, after ransacking the shop and my apartment." He looked out the window. "Oh, yeah," he said, reaching into his back pocket and pulling out his wallet. "I owe you money for those pots." He handed over another fifty, giving Spike a grin. "I wouldn't have found her or Hephie without you, man, thanks."
Spike looked poleaxed but he accepted the money. "Ta, mate. Always glad to be of service." He looked at the girls, grinning evilly at them. "Anyone want a beer?"
"No," Willow sighed, leaning down on her arms. "I can't drink. I've got another test tomorrow." She looked at Tara. "I still think that the teachers all sit down together and discuss when to hold all the tests."
"They all figure that these times are about equally distant," Tara assured her. "The calendar is getting you, not a conspiracy." Tara patted her girlfriend's hand gently. "We'll go home and study soon. We won't have to help Ilaria tonight. We'll go out with her tomorrow."
"Okay," Willow sighed as she stood up. "I'm gonna go tell Giles that we're going home to study." She headed back to the practice room, coming back very redfaced. "Never mind. Xander, you tell him," she squeaked, yanking Tara up and out the door.
"Thought you lot already knew about them goin' at it," Spike muttered.
Xander snickered. "Nope. Wanna head over to my place? I've gotta get it clean, no matter what Aphrodite said."
"Sure. I'll take the sewers."
"Um, you might have to break the basement's lock again. I think the Super replaced it. Either that or he did the one in the laundry room." He looked at his cohort. "Were you using our laundry room?"
"Yup. Had to do wash somewhere, right?" Spike said, putting his feet up. "Go home, I'll be there soon enough." He watched the boy go and settled in to embarrass Giles when he got done.
Xander finished taking out his trash and walked back into his apartment, right into a pair of wings. "Um, hi," he said, moving around Cupid's still form. "Watch out, don't wanna smoosh them in the door." He closed the door carefully, not understanding why the God didn't move. He walked around him, looking up into his blank face. "Hephie!" he called. A dull flash happened behind him. He turned to find a dark woman wearing a leather mini skirt, go-go boots, and a halter top sitting on his table. "Not who I called, but can you figure out what's wrong with him?" he asked.
"So, you're 'Dite's new toy?" she asked, looking him over. "At least you're cute and open minded." She hopped off and came over to look at Cupid, then shrugged. "He's frozen."
"Hephie?" Xander tried again.
Aphrodite came next, smiling at him. "He never listens when he's working," she said, giving him a hug. She snapped her fingers in front of her boy's face, bringing him back. "Quit, you're scaring the mortal."
"Sorry, mom, but I kinda felt someone familiar around here."
"Ilaria?" Xander asked, looking at Aphrodite, who was still hugging him.
"Probably," she sighed, flinging some of her hair back. "Discord, why did you show up?"
"Because I felt Cupid get happy. I thought maybe he knew something about my son."
Cupid shook himself. "Nah, I found his last descendant. And he's a bacchae."
Discord snorted. "Great. In this town, with a Slayer? How long is that gonna last?"
"He's working with us," Xander told her, stepping back into Aphrodite's embrace when she glared at him. "He is! He got chipped by the government and he came running to us for protection. We made him help us for blood money."
"Yeah, Gabby's little girl took off with all his stuff," Cupid told his mom. "Real bummer, but it's just like her."
"Dru?" Xander suggested.
Cupid nodded. "Yeah, the flaky one. She's *just* like Gabby later in life."
"Eww," Discord muttered. "Why'd he join up with her?"
"It was his sire," Xander told her. "She turned him and she was insane. He was the only one who understood her." He shrugged at her second dirty look. "He did. You could go ask him. He likes to talk about Dru and the two slayers he's killed."
"Hmm," Discord muttered, grabbing Cupid's wing. "Take me to him, flyboy, or I pluck you."
"Watch it," Aphrodite called after them. She frowned at the apartment. "I said it was clean," she reminded him when she saw the vacuum.
"But you deserve better than merely clean," he pointed out, stepping away from her. "You deserve so much more than merely clean." He pointed at the nook in the bay window seating area. "Would an altar there be okay? It's the only out of the way place that I can promise I wouldn't trip over."
She sighed and sat him down on the couch, looking down at him. "Xander, you don't need to put up an altar. I'm not going to demand tribute that way. We like you because you're you, kid. You're smart, you're funny, and you can be a smart ass when you want to. Hephie and I don't need an altar, we get enough prayers. We need a *friend*, Xander. Can you do that?" He nodded, looking hopeful. "Really? No more funny ideas about turning this place into a temple?" He shook his head. "No more funny ideas about worshiping us, beyond what we've already asked of you?" He shook his head. "Say something," she suggested lightly.
"Just tell me what you want and I'll do it."
She blew out a breath, looking up at the ceiling. This was going to be a *long* discussion.
Spike felt someone appear around him and he stopped to look around, but he couldn't see anyone. He picked a non-slimy part of the wall in the sewer and waited. They'd show themselves. When he couldn't take it anymore, he growled, "Come on now, I'm not that bad at the moment. I'll leave you in one piece if you show yourself." He sucked on his cigarette. "Clean death and all," he called.
Discord appeared, giggling at him. "I'm sure." She looked him over. "Huh, you took after the blond side of the family." She frowned at his roots. "Or not. Cute look and all."
"Who're you?" he asked after another drag on his cigarette. "By the way, Slutty looks better in that outfit than you do. You don't got the tits for it."
She looked shocked and then burst out laughing. "Oh, Cupid was so right. I'll have to reward him." She walked up to him, getting in his face. "I'm your line's grandmother, boy."
"Not a boy," Spike countered. He grabbed her and kissed her. "Hmm, nice bit a'fluff." She zapped him lightly. "Oooh," he sighed, wiggling to let the power settle down in his cock. "Even better. Wanna play?"
Discord smiled. "Yeah, you are *so* family." She pulled his head down for a proper kiss. "I'm Strife's mom," she said against his lips.
Spike pulled back. "Huh?"
"I'm Discord, Strife's mother. I came to check up on you." She looked over his body. "And what I see, I like." She shook herself and adjusted her stance so the wetness could be blown dry by the breeze. "So, where ya goin'?"
"To the whelp's. He's got some stuff of my ma's."
"Ah, the box," she said, nodding wisely. "Heard about that." She took his cigarette and sucked on it, blowing the smoke between them. "You're okay working for the Slayer?"
"For Slutty?" he asked, then shook his head. "It's a temporary arrangement."
"Cool. Though, I like the chaos you have the ability to sow. You do your line proud, William."
"Spike," he ground out, taking his cigarette back. "Where were you when I had the bleedin' chip in?"
"Honey, I didn't know you existed until Cupid told me. He didn't know until Aphrodite pointed it out." She put a hand on his cheek, slapping it lightly. "We'll talk tonight. I haven't hunted in a while." He shrugged and she smiled brightly. "Good. Now, I gotta go fill in for my bro. You be careful. And make friends with Ilaria. Her line's pretty cool and fair. Iolaus was like that." She disappeared, leaving him there in the sewer.
Spike took a second to enjoy the tingling his body was doing, then he shook himself and continued his trek to the boy's place. Maybe he'd get more answers there.
Xander pouted up at her. "But I *want* to," he complained.
She sighed and pulled him against her stomach for a hug. "I know you do, sweetie, but it's not necessary. Not every woman needs you to break yourself for her. In the old days, yeah, I woulda appreciated it, but not now. I don't *need* it."
"But why can't I do it anyway?" he asked, looking like you had just killed his puppy.
"Because it's not what we want," Hephaestus said as he appeared. "I got the message that he was calling for me. Big prob or little one?"
"Cupie went frozen and Xander was trying to cure him." She gave him a look then smiled when her husband caught the point. "Sweetie, I've got to go officiate at a wedding, can you stay with Hephie?"
"Sure," Xander agreed, grinning up at her. "I like him too you know."
"I know," she said, turning over her burden to her husband and giving him a kiss before she disappeared.
Hephaestus sat down on the couch, pulling Xander in next to him. "Really, kid, we don't demand presents and altars anymore. Matter of fact, it'll make people like Discord make fun'a us."
"Really?" Xander asked, looking upset. "But she didn't seem that bad when she was here."
"Yeah, but she was on her best behavior. She wanted information from Cupid probably." The boy nodded. "Ah, she wanted to know who Spike was I bet."
"I think so." Xander looked up at him. "You really don't want me to dedicate an altar? Not even a small one?"
Hephaestus shook his head. "Nah, it's not needed. There's plenty of the neopagans that'll pray to us. We don't need our *friends* to do it too." Xander looked like he understood. "Besides, 'Dite's pretty uptight about the presents she accepts. She hasn't accepted one from anyone but me in years."
"Oh." Xander thought for a minute then nodded. "Okay, so what *can* I do for you."
"Kid, do your other friends expect you to do things for them?" Xander nodded. "Damn, that sucks." He shifted so he could get more comfortable, his hip was starting to ache again.
"Oh, pillows," Xander said, hopping up to get him his special heated pillow. He plugged it in and handed it over. "Here, I use this when work's been too rough on me." He watched as the warm pillow was put under the God's hip with a sigh. "Good?"
"Very, thanks." Hephaestus patted the cushion beside him. "Come sit. We haven't had a chance to talk about guy stuff yet."
"You want to talk about my exs?" he asked.
"Not particularly. I got to watch as Aphrodite reviewed Cupid's mistakes with you." He patted the cushion again, smiling when the boy sat down again. "You're hyper."
"Yeah. I can usually control it now, caffeine helps a little, but I haven't really been able to control it all yet. I guess it'll happen as I grow up." The God of the Forge hummed. "Thanks for not laughing," Xander said, looking at his hands.
"Friends don't do that. You didn't make fun of how I look, why should I laugh because you're bouncy? And remember, I've had a two year old grandson before. One with wings that was bent on mischief."
"But Buffy used to laugh."
"She's not the best benchmark to gauge friendship by. Did that red-headed girl laugh?"
"Only sometimes. I used to make a lot more jokes."
"Yeah, it's a good defense mechanism," Hephaestus agreed. "I used to do the same thing. No one ever understood that I was still a man."
"But you are." He looked the God over. "You certainly aren't a fish, an ape, or a dolphin." He got a squeeze for it. "They were mean and nasty to you," he stated. "You shouldn't have done anything for them."
"Yeah, but you still help Buffy, even though she's been mean and nasty to you a few times."
"Point, but she needed me."
"So did the other Gods. Not a one of them could ever make their own weapons or jewelry, or temples." He shifted a little bit to get the warmth to a different aching part of his body. "This is a really handy invention."
"It's a heating pad sewn into the middle of a flame-retardant pillow. Willow helped me sew it."
"It's a very good idea," Hephaestus agreed. "Very good work, Xander."
"Thanks." He grinned. "Want to watch some TV?"
"Anything with breasts? I'm not really into cartoons or soaps."
Xander flipped on the television and went to the TV Guide channel, searching the listings. "Oh, yeah, major breastage," he said, switching the channel to Baywatch Hawaii. They both hummed as the woman ran in slow motion across the screen.
Ilaria decided not to change clothes before her first patrol, and Spike had grumbled but she guessed he appreciated the view as much as anyone else. She whistled as they walked through the park, smiling at her companion. "So, when did it come out?"
"Few days ago," Spike grumbled. "Can't tell though, don't wanna be dust."
"Hey, not an issue with me. As long as you don't cause me trouble, I'm all for it." She stopped and frowned at one of the side paths. "What's down that way?"
Spike took a moment to sniff, then wrinkled his nose. "Slutty."
"Okay, so let's go that way." She tugged on his arm, making him follow her. "Hi," she called as she walked through the tree line. She smiled at her predecessor, then raised an eyebrow at Hercules. She knew who he was, she'd read her Great-whatever's diaries many times. "Hi. I'm Ilaria, the new Slayer." She shook hands with Buffy.
"Can you run in that?" Buffy asked, looking at the heels. "I always wear sneakers or flats."
"I learned karate in these," Ilaria told her. "I *like* my heels."
"You look familiar," the dark haired woman behind Buffy noted, standing up. "Who's your friend?"
"That's Spike, he's harmless," Buffy said, waving a hand at him. "Totally outclassed. Getting the tour?" she asked the new girl.
Ilaria nodded. "Yup, they sent me to your Watcher for training."
"Oh." Buffy's face fell. "Does that mean I'm being kicked out of Sunnydale?"
"Only if you want to be," Hercules pointed out. "I'm sure there's enough evil to go around in this town."
"Not really," Spike said wryly. "Most of it's left after she came back this last time." He pointed at Buffy. "No real Masters at all right now."
"And we'd like to keep it that way," Buffy pointed out.
Ilaria shrugged. "Everything has a place in the universe. I was taught our job was to maintain the balance." She looked at Hercules. "But then, some would know more about that than others."
"How do you know me?" he asked.
"I'm from Iolaus' and Jett's line," she said simply, shrugging one shoulder. She tugged on Spike's arm. "Come on, you promised to show me that short cut to the cemeteries."
Spike put his arm around Ilaria's shoulders and turned her around. "We're off to do a patrol, the Watcher said so," he told Buffy. "He'd like to see you too." He led the new girl out of the way of danger, stopping her a little ways away to look at her. "That was dumb."
Ilaria grinned. "We'll have a *long* talk while we walk, Spike," she promised. She wrapped an arm through his. "Have you ever heard of the wish to be joined? Lovers wanting a child that was the better parts of them?" He nodded, letting her set the pace of their strolled. "Well, Iolaus and Jett did that, a very long time ago. Each generation in my family, the diaries get passed on to the one who's the most like their wish."
"And you got 'em?" Spike guessed.
"I'm the reincarnation of the first joined child," she told him with a wicked grin. "It's my sacred duty to annoy Hercules until he regains himself and learns to deal with regular people. It said so in the diaries." She winked at the bush behind her, where Hercules had been following them. "Later, Hercypoo," she called, waving her fingers at him as they walked on.
Buffy and Xena came up to where Hercules was sitting on the ground, Xena kicking him on the shin. "Is it her?" she asked her long-term companion. Hercules looked up and nodded. "Then we'll have to deal. She's got to have some of Jett's instability."
"And no fashion sense," Buffy put in helpfully.
Hercules shook himself and stood up. "If she's been called then we can't touch her. She's a chosen one now."
"Maybe not," Buffy said, frowning at the pathway. "Why would they send her to *my* Watcher? I'm still here and the rule is one girl, one Watcher." She tightened her ponytail. "Maybe we should drop in on Giles, make sure she's on the up-and-up."
Xena nodded. "Sure. I'd like to see this place. I've never seen real magic work."
"Oh, I have. The gang pulled me outta heaven to come back to Slaying." She grimaced. "I'd rather not talk about magic, every time Willow has to do some, it's usually because it's very necessary." She took Xena's hand and led the way to the Magic Shop. Little did she know that Ilaria had already called and warned Giles to be ready for them.
They found him sipping tea at the table, Willow and Tara behind the counter, studying as usual. "Buffy," he said, giving her a smile. "Good. Did you have trouble last night?"
"No," she said, walking down the few steps. "Why?"
"Because you didn't come home and you didn't call," he pointed out. "None of us knew where you were." He looked at the door as Xander walked in, giving him a bright smile. "Ilaria's out with Spike. Would you like to go help them?"
"Nah, I'm being messenger boy," he said, handing over a slip of paper. "*He* said for you to look that up tonight. He was really interested in Ilaria."
"Thank you. I'll do that in a few moments. Could you please get me the Codex?" Xander trotted off and climbed the ladder to get into the special box of books. "Buffy, do sit," he ordered gently. She sat across from him. "You do realize that we had no way of contacting you if something had happened? Or, Gods forbid, if something had happened to Dawn?" She nodded. "From now on, you will at least call to tell me where you're going and a phone number of said place."
"But I was safe," she protested. "There hasn't been anything going on in town, even Spike agreed that the evil level has dropped. And what's with the new girl, Giles?"
"The Council sent her to me to finish her training."
"So she's taking my place?"
"Not necessarily. I have no idea where they're posting her after her training's done." He folded the note and put it into his pocket. "The same as I have no idea if you're going to be removed from this town and sent somewhere more active."
"But I'm needed here," Buffy pointed out.
"No, a slayer is needed here," Giles corrected gently. "There are two of you, and as the senior girl, you'd be expected to take on the harder tasks as you've had the training she hasn't."
"Yeah, and she's fighting in heels," Buffy grumped.
"She trained in them," Giles told her. "I tested out her reflexes this afternoon in that very outfit, and she's quite your equal in all but experience." She started to pout. "Don't do that," he said, getting up. "What are your plans for the rest of the night." The dark haired woman coughed. "Yes?"
"Buffy swears that you have to deal with magic...." She didn't get to finish it because Willow started to chant a simple spell, one to shower the strangers with flowers. Delicate little blooms fell from thin air, covering the two stranger's shoulders and head. "Nice," she said, picking one off. "But is it useful?"
"It has been," Buffy told her. "Willow's a very good witch. She's stuck souls before and lots of other good stuff." She stood up. "Hate to have the broom," she noted, smiling at Tara.
Tara said something quietly and the blooms were all blown toward the counter, being swept along by a gentle breeze.
Buffy shook her head. "Still, better you than me on broom patrol."
"Quite," Giles said, sending a mock-glare at the girls to make them quit showing off. "Do clean that up please." He sat down again, having refilled his tea cup. "Buffy, you didn't answer me."
"I was going to go behind Ilaria and do a real patrol."
"I've sent her on patrol to learn the town," Giles told her firmly. "I want you to go through the more routine vampire hangouts that she won't get to for the next week and sweep them clean."
"Fine," Buffy sighed, walking over to the bucket to pick up a few more stakes. "Anything else?"
"Yes, be home by a decent hour tonight or call to give me a phone number," he called as she walked out the door, the two strangers following her.
Xander leaned over the railing, the crossbow held lightly in his hand. "Did you really want the Codex?" he asked.
"Yes, I do need it to do this research your friends have set me to."
"Sure." Xander disappeared and reappeared a few moments later with the important book. "Hephie also said to talk to her about the purpose of the diaries. Said something about a joining wish?" he said as he handed it over. "Need anything else?"
"Just to make sure that you're being very careful."
Xander sat down and looked upset. "They won't let me set up an altar to them or anything," he complained.
"Ah." Giles patted him on the arm. "I'm sure they're getting enough from you just by being with you. You shouldn't have to gift real friends with treats to make them like you."
"But I thought they'd expect it or something," he pointed out. "They're *Gods*."
"Yes, but they're still being prayed to," Willow reminded him. "Even today, the Greek Gods are one of the most popular pantheons chosen by pagans to pray to. They just wanna hang out, like we used to do." He shot her a grin. "W...would you like to do that again, soon?"
"Sure. Movies? Next Saturday's matinee?"
"Cool," Willow said, grinning again. "Which one?"
"There's only two, and one's going to still be from this week. We'll figure that out then." He stood up. "Do I need to go help Ilaria learn the town?"
"Spike's taking her out tonight, and the girls will go with them tomorrow night. Your night's to be Tuesday so that you have a chance to get some more rest." He smiled as the boy walked out, turning it on Willow. "Do you realize that your offer was the first one you've given him in weeks, if not months?"
She nodded, looking sad. "We forgot about him again," she said simply. "I hate doing that."
"Good. I'm glad to see you're taking initiative this time so that another split doesn't happen." He stood up and went to close the door. "Go wake Dawn up and we'll head home," he said kindly. Tara went to wake up the young girl. Giles gave Willow a hug. "I'm sure he knows you don't mean it."
"But he's so happy to have new friends."
"Yes, but I'd think that it would be obvious why. He's meant to be around people, Willow, he always has been. He would go find someone to take your place if you're not there." He let her go and went to take the money from the cash register.
Willow thought about it as she packed up their books.
Xander walked into his apartment and stopped in shock. Anya was sitting at the table. "When did you get back?" he asked, trying to stay calm. "Oh, and Giles wants back the stuff you took."
"I'll go see everyone else tomorrow," she said, standing up and taking off her jacket to show how little she was wearing. "I realize I was wrong to run," she said as she sauntered over to him. "And I wanted to come back for you."
"No," he said, pushing her away. "Not going there."
"Xander," she cooed.
"No! Out!" He opened the door and pointed at the hallway, which was filled with Spike and Ilaria. "Out, Anya. You left me and I want nothing to do with you. I'm over you now." She grabbed her jacket and stormed out, after growling at the new girl.
"Good one, mate," Spike said as he let Ilaria in and closed the door. "When'd she get back?"
"Apparently in the last hour or so," Xander said as he flopped down onto the couch. "Sit, be merrier than I am."
Ilaria gave him a hug, kissing him on the side of the head. "It's all right, I won't let her bother you."
"Maybe we can sic her on Hercules," Spike suggested.
"Nah, he'd kill her," Ilaria said, sitting down on Spike's lap. He pushed at her but she leaned back into his hands. "You don't mind, right?" she asked, giving him a sexy little grin.
"No, not at all," Spike said, smiling back at her. "So, Xander, she needed to talk to Aphrodite."
"Who called?" Aphrodite asked, appearing on the couch next to Xander. She gave him puppy eyes and pulled him in for a hug. "I'm sorry she came back. We left so she wouldn't see us."
"Worked with her before?" Spike asked.
"Once or twice," Aphrodite agreed. "I think she'd get the wrong idea pretty fast." She gave Xander a squeeze. "I know it sucks the big one, but she won't be here to harass you for long. I promise."
"Send her to Slutty," Spike suggested again. "Let Hercules take care of her."
Aphrodite wrinkled her nose. "Eww. Not even Anyanka deserves that punishment." She grinned at the new girl. "Hey, Ilaria, how much alike are you?"
"I'm the reincarnation of their first daughter."
"Oh, wow," Aphrodite whispered. "That's way cool. Does *he* know?"
"Yup, I let it slip after meeting Buffy and the ho." She wiggled on Spike's lap. "It was so cool, she got this totally disgusted look when she saw my outfit."
"Cool," Aphrodite agreed. She got up and gave the girl a hug. "I was so happy for those two," she told her. "That's why I helped them have the kids. Even the dark one." She pulled back. "You really got chosen last night?"
"Yup. Your Dad said hi and to leave his son alone."
"Oh, man," Xander sighed. "Now what do we do?"
"You let Buffy go on with her life. That's why there's not three of us," she said calmly. "She's gonna leave and I'm gonna stay. It'll be okay," she promised, grinning at Xander. "And I'm much easier to work with. No mood swings. No bad hair days." She twined a piece of hair around her finger. "I'm even nicer about people helping me. I realize I'm not that good, yet," she amended with another grin, "and I need you guys' help. Is that okay with you?"
"Great with me," he said quickly. "When is she leaving?"
"Sometime soon. I was told that Hercy was going to take her with him when he left."
"Which would be when?" Aphrodite asked.
"As soon as he sees that the balance is restored?" Xander suggested.
"Maybe," she agreed, coming over to sit beside him again. "So, Ilaria, how long have you been back?"
"Um, few weeks. Grandma sent me. Said something about making this town their newest home because of the nature of the power here."
"But it's bad power, pet," Spike pointed out.
"Not all of it," Aphrodite told him. "There's actually a lot of good power here. The type that the Witches tap into. It would be a perfect vacation spot for us." She kissed Xander on the cheek. "But Hephie and I came because you called," she told him, feeling his growing unease. "I promise, Xander, we're here because of you, and only because of you. No advance planning involved here."
"You've got to give him credit," Spike noted, "he lived through Anya." Aphrodite nodded. "All she ever wanted was presents and reassurance."
"She wanted more than that," Xander told him, glaring at him. "Box is on the counter."
"I saw. Said you'd help me fix it though."
Xander nodded, getting up to get the box. He brought it back over, showing Spike where the side had split. "I can fix this, but it'll take me a few days. If you want to help, bring a good clamp tomorrow and we'll work on it after I get off work."
"Good," Spike said, grinning at him. He patted the boy on the head. "Get back to your couch, mate."
Xander groaned but he went back to his seat, gratefully cuddling back into his friend's side. "Now what?"
"Now, we get her somewhere to stay," Spike said as he stood up, pushing Ilaria off his lap.
"Later," she said, wiggling her fingers at them and letting Spike lead her out of the apartment.
Xander looked over at Aphrodite, but before he could open his mouth, she kissed him. "Relax, Xander, it's all good. We're just being a trendsetter. I promise I'll tell everyone to leave the town alone. 'Kay?"
"Yeah," he said, relaxing some. He had a small thought, but decided it wasn't that important. He could think about why he was so very hard later. Much later, when he was less relaxed. He yawned and started to fall asleep, not even aware that he was going to sleep.
Aphrodite held in the urge to coo at the cutsey guy napping on her chest and instead concentrated on getting him to bed. "Poor baby," she sighed once she had him tucked in. "Work must suck for you, huh?" She felt someone pop in behind her and smiled at the Queen of the Gods. "Let's talk," she said, nodding at the living room. They both popped out of the couch and sat facing each other. "We can't overrun the town," Aphrodite told her. "He works with the Slayer and it's way tough for him right now."
"I can understand that," Hera said gently. "Why is he so exhausted?"
"He's a carpenter and they're working him too long at work." She shrugged at the frown. "Some of their guys have recently quit, or so Xander said, so he's been getting long hours and little else. Including food." She wrinkled her nose. "He was *so* thankful this morning for simple omelets, Hera."
"I know. Times are tough for the present crop of mortals." She looked around the small apartment. "At least he has a place to live."
"True," Aphrodite agreed reluctantly. "And he's got me and Hephie."
"Yes, that in itself might be for the best. Have you run into anyone unusual here?" she asked casually.
"You mean besides Hercy and his ho, Xena?" Hera frowned. "They've got the older Slayer wrapped around their dicks and are making her more like them daily. Oh, and I ran into Jett and Iolaus' first joined child." Hera nodded at that. "She's the newest Slayer. Said Zeus chose her."
"He did. I had hoped she would be here already." She looked around the apartment again. "Are you choosing him as your chosen mortal?" The Goddess of love shrugged. "You might want to think about it. Zeus has ordered that we each have a chosen mortal again. He thinks it'll make it easier for us to get along in this strange age." She stood up. "Take care of him, Aphrodite, he's a very special young man."
"They wanted to know if there was some reason for everyone showing up here," Aphrodite warned her. "Ilaria said that someone was thinking about making this the new vacation capitol of the Gods."
"To him or to the Slayer?"
"To him, and Strife's last offspring."
"He should have died long ago," Hera said, frowning.
"He's a bacchae. We had to fix something that was done to him, but Cupid, Discord, and him are really starting to like each other."
"Good," Hera said with a smile. "If only his line had continued."
"If only he had been allowed to come back," Aphrodite countered, then she disappeared, going back into the bedroom to hold the young mortal.
Hera frowned. "Then we never would have lost dominance and the mortals wouldn't have moved on." She disappeared also, heading for home to make a report.
Aphrodite blinked as she felt herself be shoved, glaring at the mortal looking down at her. "What?" she whined. "I still need beauty sleep."
"Hephie told me to come in and wake you up," he said, handing her the flower Hephie had given him. "He gave me this to give to you."
"Aww," she sighed, sniffing the bloom. She sent a thought out to her husband, smiling at the one she got back. "Come on, he's making breakfast and he always makes a really large one." She let him help her up and walked out arm-in-arm with him. "Hi, honey," she said, giving him a smile.
"I gave that to him," Hephaestus said, mock-glaring at the boy. "I've given her flowers, I found that one for you."
Xander took it back and looked it over, then grinned. "Wow. No one's ever given me flowers before." He got free and jogged into the kitchen, going to find a glass to put it in. "There, how's that?" he asked, hoping for approval, even though he had messed up.
"Looks good to me," Hephaestus said, bringing over a large pan. "Here, eat," he said, pouring some of the bacon out onto his plate. "You don't eat real food and it's going to make you sick."
"But I like chocolate," Xander said, grinning up at him. "What's wrong with chocolate for breakfast?"
Aphrodite snorted as she sat down. "Chocolate should be savored, Xander, not eaten for every meal." She accepted her portion of the food, giving her husband a cute grin. "Thanks for letting me sleep in."
"I like watching you sleep as much as the kid does," Hephie reminded his wife. He poured the rest of the pan's contents onto his plate and snapped his fingers, bringing the rest of the breakfast he had prepared over to the table so he wouldn't have to go get it. He watched as Xander nearly swooned when he saw all the food, then dove into the mass of plates and bowls. He nearly smirked when the boy looked up at him and mumbled his thanks through a full mouth, but he kept it in, knowing how fragile this mortal's self esteem was. He and his wife held hands while they ate, sharing a general conversation among the three of them.
Xander checked his watch and grabbed his glass of milk, swallowing it all as fast as he could. "Gonna be late. Love you guys. Have fun, thanks," he called as he grabbed his tool belt and ran out the door.
Aphrodite looked at her husband. "You did that on purpose," she accused.
"Yup. I heard what Hera said. Do you want to?"
"I'm not sure if he'd take it well," she pointed out. "Being a chosen mortal's a lot more binding than being a high priest. I'd like a chance to think about it before we ask him."
"Okay. If not, can I have him?"
"Sure," she said, giving him a smile. "Or we could share."
"Hmm," he hummed, leaning over for a kiss. "I like sharing."
She giggled and followed him back to their home temple, going to make some noise that wouldn't be welcomed by Xander's neighbors.
Xander wandered into his apartment, drunker than he usually got after spending some time with the guys after work, and barely made it to the couch before he flopped down. He giggled when he saw the flower bundle hanging upside down in front of him, reaching up to touch the soft petals. He pulled the bundle down to sniff and hold, curling up around it on the couch. "They're really nice," he told the flowers. "They like me, and they take care of me. But they're not parents." He shook his head at that thought, having dreams about sleeping with your parents was just eww. "I want to ask, but I don't want them to laugh."
"Ask us what?" Aphrodite said as she appeared. "Flowers?"
"Yup, they were hangin' there," he said, pointing at the spot where they had been.
"Oh." She lifted him up, letting him rest against her shoulder. "Drunk, huh?" she asked.
"Yeah, the guys went out tonight." He gave her a sloppy kiss on the cheek and held out the flowers. "They're very pretty. Thank you," he slurred.
She kissed him on the cheek, sobering him up a little bit. His thoughts had been reaching her very well at home, and she was curious about what he had decided, but being too drunk was not of the good.
"Hey, I wanted that," he complained, no longer slurring his speech.
"I know, but it's really hard to talk to you when you...." She had to quit talking, he had leaned up and locked lips with her, showing her exactly which decision he had made. When Hephaestus showed up a few minutes later, he just smiled down at them, until Xander attacked his mouth too. "Well, looks like he really does like us," she joked, standing up and helping Xander to his feet. "Making out should not be done on a couch, things get too uncomfy," she announced, leading him into the bedroom. She was dragged down with Xander as he latched back onto her mouth, wiggling under his heavier weight to get comfortable and fully on the bed. She knew her husband was watching them, he liked to do that sometimes, but she wanted this to be the both of them. They had agreed to share Xander if he ever got to this point.
Xander turned his head, smiling at his friend. "Coming along with her?" he suggested, giving him his best 'innocent little boy' look.
Hephaestus grinned and landed on the bed beside them, pulling Xander onto his stomach to play with him. "Of course I am. You wanted us both, right?" Xander nodded. "Good, then you get both of us." He rolled Xander under him, then got up onto his hands and knees, working on Xander's t-shirt. "Let's get these off, okay?"
"What about you?" Xander asked innocently.
Hephaestus waved his and his wife's clothes away. "What about ours, imp?" he asked.
Xander's grin got naughty. "Do you *have* to undress me this time? We can do the mushy stuff some other time if you'd like."
"Oh, I'm impatient enough to do that, but this makes me slow down and savor you," Hephaestus told him, right before he leaned down and captured a bared nipple. He finished removing the shirt by ripping it and tossing it aside, concentrating on the lightly haired chest. He moved down to the heavier line of hair, pulling lightly on it while he played with the skin underneath, and let his wife handle the top half of their new lover. Oh, he was going to have fun this time. "Are you a virgin?" he asked, right before he sucked the hard cock into his mouth.
"Yes!" Xander squeaked. Aphrodite chuckled. "He does that really well," he told her.
"I know." She kissed him. "So, are you?" He nodded. "Just to that part, right?"
"Definitely only to that part. Did it in reverse with Anya, but never done," he stopped and groaned as one finger entered him. "Oh, liking that," he told her, pulling her in closer to take control of her lips again.
Hephaestus smiled up at them, making a small tube of lubricant appear next to his hand. He wet down the finger he had been using, putting it back where it had been. He used his other fingers to play with the external skin, making his new lover wiggle. He pulled out the one finger and lubed down two of them, sticking them back in. It was harder this time, but it went in slowly. He tried to be as gentle as possible, but he knew it was going to hurt the boy a little bit. He went back to playing with the hard cock, keeping him in the mood until it was time. When he felt the muscles relaxing, he pulled out and blew across the damp hole, getting squeaky sounding moans in response. He looked up and Xander was staring down at him. "What?"
"That felt really weird," Xander told him.
Hephaestus laughed. "I know, that's why I did it." He stuck in three fingers, working them hard to get the boy ready. Xander looked a little uncomfortable, but he didn't complain. "This okay still?"
"If this is what it takes," Xander agreed. "I can live with that."
"Hurts?" Aphrodite asked, stroking her nails over his chest.
He shook his head. "Not really. A little uncomfy. A little stretchy hurts sorta feeling." He shifted as the fingers pushed in farther. "That hurts a little." Xander suddenly found himself lying down farther with his feet straight up in the air, being held there by nothing, but that felt like hands. "Um, was that you?" he asked.
"Yup," Hephaestus told him, shifting a little closer. "I'm having fun and you needed to be more relaxed." He nipped the side of Xander's thigh. "Aren't you having fun?"
"Definitely having fun," Xander agreed. He wiggled a little bit as the fingers did something. "I really like that," he noted. "Do that again?"
"In a few minutes," Hephaestus agreed, giving him a smile. He moved up between the spread legs, slicking down his cock with the lubricant. "Ready for me yet?"
"Very," Xander told him, giving him a smile. "You know," he said as the God moved closer. "This really is a new thing for me."
"You can stress over it in the morning," Aphrodite told him, kissing him, making him focus on her while her husband entered their new friend's body. She squealed with delight when Xander went limp. "Oh, I think he really does like it," she told him, going down to give her Hephie a kiss. "You two look so hot," she told him.
"Climb on, babe, we'll see what the guy's got." Hephaestus helped his wife straddle the awkward lap, holding the mortal's cock still so she could slide down it. "Ready?" he asked. She nodded and he pushed in hard. Xander screamed like a little boy and pushed up into her.
"Again!" Xander demanded.
Hephaestus did it again, earning a quieter squeal but just as much enjoyment for them all. He gave his new lover a hard ride, showing him exactly what it was going to be like between them from now on. His wife eventually gave her own little squeal and came, slumping down over her.
Xander pulled her off and pushed her onto her back, burying his face in her. "This is what I like," he mumbled into the wet flesh, going at it.
Hephaestus looked impressed. It wasn't often that men went down on women, especially not like they craved the taste of them. He pulled out and released Xander's ankles, letting the boy get into whatever position he wanted. There was something else he wanted to try, something he hadn't done with anyone since Iolaus. He used his fingers again, stretching the boy a little farther, watching him get busy with his wife.
Aphrodite, who was very happy at the moment, smiled up at her husband as she played with her own nipples. Her Hephie had such talented hands. She came for the second time, and the tongue did not stop. Oh, this was going to be one *good* mortal to have around.
Anya ran into Buffy on the streets the next night, and promptly started to sniffle. Her plan was working beautifully. "Buffy," she wailed, grabbing the Slayer and giving her a hug. "He dumped me."
Buffy patted Anya awkwardly, looking at the other woman with them, then down at the girl crying on her. "Didn't you leave him?"
Anya sniffed as she pulled back. "Yes, but I came back. He was supposed to wait, not take up with a floosy."
"Floosy?" Xena asked.
"Aphrodite!" Anya wailed, putting on a very good show. "She stole my man. She'll even let him do things that I wouldn't, like lick me. His wisdom teeth are coming in and it's making him very orally centered, and she's going to indulge him in that."
"She left him first?" Hercules asked.
"Why would Aphrodite be interested in her boyfriend?" Xena asked.
"Anya, it's late. Why don't you go get a room and we'll discuss this tomorrow, 'kay?" Buffy suggested, getting free of the clinging woman. "We'll figure out how to get Xander back for you tomorrow, after we all get some rest." Her 'and you get saner' was left unsaid.
"But she's boinking him right now!" Anya protested, stomping her foot.
"Why would Aphrodite take up with a mortal?" Hercules asked Xena. "She's still got Hephaestus."
"She is!" Anya protested. "I know it was her. I know her perfume, it hasn't changed in centuries." She looked at Buffy. "I just want my Xanny-pie back. Can't you talk to him?"
"I'll talk to him tomorrow," Buffy told her. "After we all get some sleep and can do it rationally."
"Maybe we ought to go over there tonight," Xena suggested lightly. "If one of the Gods are here, there's probably more than one." She looked at Hercules, who shrugged. "Good. We'll go talk to him tonight, you go find somewhere to sleep."
"And Giles wanted to talk to you," Buffy said as she walked away, heading for Xander's house. "Is this really bad?" she asked once they were away from the former vengeance demon.
"Maybe," Xena agreed. "What's her story? She's not fully human."
"No, she's been returned to humanity," Buffy sighed. "Former woman-turned-vengeance-demon- turned-woman, latched onto Xander. Has *no* tact or discretion. I heard *way* too much about Xander and her's sex life while they were together." She brushed her hair off her cheek. "She decided she wanted to be mortal somewhere that had a better chance of her living to be an old human and left, after stealing some stuff from Xander and Giles."
"Oh." Xena looked over at Hercules, who was walking on the outside of the sidewalk. He nodded slightly. "Then we'll go talk to this Xander."
"I think it might be best if we did it while Aphrodite was gone. There's no telling what my sister has roped him into."
"Oh, yeah," Buffy said sarcastically. "He's a guy. I've seen some of Tara's mythology books. I doubt she had to convince him of much before he climbed into her bed."
"Aphrodite's not as bad as the myths made her out to be," Hercules protested.
"But she did have a way of suckering in men," Xena pointed out. She knew that Iolaus leaving Hercules for the Goddess of Love, and Jett, still pissed him off. She still held a grudge against Aphrodite too; she had convinced Joxer to follow his heart, not her. "Maybe we should be tactful about this, for now," she told Hercules, who had given her a look. "We don't know how she's warped this boy."
"*Anya* warped him," Buffy told her. "I'm sure a strong woman would just do it more." She pointed at the building that was their target. "He's up there on the second floor."
"All right," Hercules said, looking in one of the windows. "It looks dark. Let's go, we'll do this tomorrow."
"They're up there," Xena told him, putting a hand on his arm. She could still tell when one of the Gods were around. "Her and Hephaestus both."
"Eww," Buffy put in. "Both of them and Xander?"
"Not necessarily," Hercules told her, giving her a tolerant smile. "Hephaestus isn't known to play around on 'Dite." He looked at Xena. "You're sure?" She nodded. "Then lets go. They'll feel us and come out to meet us."
"Or stop us," Xena said grimly, heading for the front door. She broke the lock and headed up the stairs, letting Buffy point out which door was his. She started to pound, but Hercules stopped her. "What?" she growled.
"It's one am, people are trying to sleep," he reminded her. He tapped lightly, and heard someone moving behind the door. "We can be polite." The door opened and Aphrodite stood there, wearing an ostrich trimmed pink gauzy bathrobe. "We need to talk," he said, pushing past her.
"Oh, no you don't," she countered, pushing him back. "You can come back at a decent hour or not at all." She slammed the door and leaned against it, bracing it in case Xena the Unstable decided to do something.
Buffy looked up at Hercules. "Tomorrow? Get him alone and talk to him?"
"Yeah, that sounds like the best idea," he agreed, leading the way out of the building.
Aphrodite sighed and walked into the bedroom, quickly sending a thought to her son to have him take care of them for as long as he could; she needed some time to plan. She smiled down at the picture her husband and Xander made, Hephie was holding the boy like he was his own personal teddy bear. "We need some higher intervention," she whispered.
Hephaestus opened his eyes and looked up at her. "Hera?"
"Chosen mortal?" she suggested.
"We'll ask him in the morning," Hephaestus agreed, pointing at the empty spot. "He'll be untouchable if he agrees."
"And if not?" she asked.
"Then we call on Dad," he said with a shrug. "He's tired of Hercules' attitude too."
"Okay." She snuggled in, getting comfort from her husband and the worn-out mortal.
Xander woke up warm and comfortable, which he was getting used to, and kinda sore, which was a new thing. He flexed the sore muscles, realizing where they were, and started to blush even before he opened his eyes.
"How cute," Aphrodite giggled. "He blushes while he sleeps."
"Not asleep," Xander mumbled, opening his eyes to look up at her. "Um, was...."
"Don't ever ask that with a lover," she told him firmly. "It ruins their image of the night before." She kissed him on the nose. "But I thought it was pretty great."
"Me too," Hephaestus said against Xander's neck. He gave the warm flesh a kiss. "Regretting it?"
"No," Xander said quickly, flipping over as fast as he could and hugging the God of Fire. "No, no regrets. Soreness, wonderment now that I remember the whole night, but no regrets." He got a relieved smile and gave a goofy grin back. "So, you're okay with me too?"
"Sweetie, you're not the first we've shared," Aphrodite pointed out.
Hephaestus laughed. "Matter of fact, Herc's old partner was one that we used to share regularly, even though he doesn't know about it." He pulled Xander in closer, content to hold him. "We've got to have a talk though."
"Hey, I can understand if you don't want me to share this part," Xander said quickly.
"Nope," Aphrodite said, snuggling up against his back, "we don't mind that. Only your friends would believe it anyway. We've got bigger problems, Xander."
"Big, like demony big?"
"No, big like Hercules is going to try and convince you we're evil and using you big," Hephaestus told him.
"Well, he can go leap. I *like* you two," Xander said firmly, nodding when Hephaestus looked down at him. "He can."
"That's about how we feel about him most of the time," Hephaestus agreed.
"But he's gonna try and ambush you sometime soon and *convince* you," Aphrodite said, stressing the important word. "And your friend Buffy is with him now."
"Ah. Now I get it. You guys are worried." He looked over his shoulder, nudging the head laying on his arm with his chin. "I promise, I can run away and scream like everyone else."
"Good," Hephaestus agreed, "but he's a persistent guy and we don't want to see you in the hospital when he loses his temper." He smiled at the kiss he was given. "Thanks." He gave Xander a squeeze. "We can protect you a little bit, but not fully."
"So I need to run really fast and scream really loud?" Xander suggested.
Aphrodite snickered. "No, Xander. We're trying to dance around a subject that would change your life, but would let us beat dear little Hercypoo up whenever he starts to come after you."
"What about the woman?"
"*No* one can control her," Aphrodite sighed. "Her father used to be able to, but he's on permanent vacation and has been since Xena was mortal."
"You can't find him?"
"Not at all," Hephaestus muttered.
"Ilaria talked to him," Aphrodite noted. Her husband looked at her. "He told her to not take fashion advice from me and to tell me to kick Cupid's ass."
"Ah." Hephaestus nodded. "That sounds like him. Did she say where?"
"No, and knowing Ares, she won't be able to."
"Um, Ares, as in blood-filled mind and weapon of mass destruction without needing a bomb?" Xander interrupted.
"He's not *that* bad," Aphrodite told him, pinching him lightly on the rear. "Myths stretched everything *way* outta proportion." She put her head back down on his shoulder. "Xander, we can protect you better than what we've already done, even though we can't directly hurt Hercy." She got a nod. "Okay, see, there's this whole 'chosen mortal' thing. They're supposed to act as a balancer and information source for us."
"And Hercules won't be able to touch you," Hephaestus added. "It's directly against Zeus' laws."
"What if he breaks them?"
"Then we can call on other family members to come help us stomp him," Aphrodite said coolly. "We've had to do it before and it seems like he's learned his lesson."
"What about Buffy?"
"Herc will probably restrain her," Hephaestus told him. "Xena is another one that got told to butt out the last time, when Herc went after a chosen mortal. She might have learned the lesson too."
"So, either this will make me a bigger target or it'll protect me absolutely from the bad guys that'll be coming for you?"
"More like from us," Hephaestus said dryly. "If you chose to allow us to make you our chosen mortal, then people like Discord couldn't wreck your life too much either."
"Oh." Xander put his head back down. "What's the down side?"
"If anyone wants to get back at us, that makes you a target," Aphrodite explained.
"So, I'm a big target?"
"Not necessarily," Hephaestus corrected. "It about balances out. In today's world, there's not many people that are like Caesar, ones who'd come after us for our power."
"See, it's basically a way of protecting our backsides," Aphrodite told him, making the mortal roll over and face her. "With you as a chosen mortal, we can come to you when your world gets to be too much."
"You could do that now," Xander pointed out.
She nodded. "Yeah, we can, but most Gods don't have people like that. That's why Zeus decreed we should all have chosen people, ones who'll explain the modern world to us and help us fit in a little bit better. He's just started this up again."
"Okay," Xander said slowly. "And what's the downside?"
"Mostly none in this world. The pantheon isn't bickering the way it used to. Most of the other Gods wouldn't dare think about starting a fight with another of us. There may be other Gods who'll try to hit on you to piss us off, but none of us would intentionally hurt you."
"Okay, so I'd just have to worry about mortals?"
"Basically, just like now," she agreed.
"What about the step-kids and half-gods?"
"They're the real problem. They've all gotten told to keep their hands off, but it's only enforced *after* they get into trouble."
"So I'd be a big, shiny target for them?"
"Maybe," Hephaestus agreed, stroking over Xander's back. "Is that so different than now though? You're a target to those that want your Buffy to fail and die."
"Yeah, but most of those are demons."
"Are they?" Hephaestus asked. Xander shrugged. "All you've seen are the demons. What about the power players behind them? There's a law firm in LA that seem to run a lot of the bad plans around here. Your old friend Angel fights them even now."
"Yup, we were not happy when they started to muck around in things," Aphrodite agreed. "So, can we?"
"Can I think about it?" He grabbed her when he saw her hurt look. "I'm sorry, but I need to think about this. It seems like it'd be a really big change and I don't want to rush into another big change right now. I've had a lot of them recently," he said, sounding panicked because her hurt look wasn't getting any better.
"He's right, 'Dite, he should have time to think about it without us pressuring him," Hephaestus said gently.
"Hey, I'm not feeling pressure, not from you anyway, but I'd like to think about it today while I'm at work."
"Mortal lives are so short," Aphrodite reminded him. "How can you take time to think everything through thoroughly?"
"Because the last time I made a major decision and jumped right in, I ended up tied with Buffy and having a few dead friends, some of their bodies can even be laid at my feet. I don't want to end up regretting something because I jumped in."
"Point," she sighed in agreement. "Later?"
"Tonight? You guys come over for supper?" Xander suggested.
"Sure, Xander," Hephaestus said, kissing him on the back of the neck. "You rest. We'll be back tonight."
"You don't have to go," Xander offered.
"Yeah, we do. We can influence thoughts."
"But you wouldn't do that," Xander protested.
"True," Hephaestus said, giving him a smile. "I wouldn't do that, but that doesn't mean someone won't infer it if Hercules does get uppity and we need to take care of him."
"Okay," he said grimly, watching as they left him alone on his big, lonely bed. He finally got up and went to go shower, and to take something for his aches.
Xander looked up when he heard something move near him, waving at Buffy, who was sitting on one of the construction crew's picnic tables waiting on him to get done for the day. "Hey," he said, sitting next to her, but facing her. "What's up?"
"We saw Anya."
"Yup, I did that too. Night before last. Did she ever get to Giles'?"
"No, but she did tell us that you've taken up with someone dangerous." Buffy shifted a little bit. "Tell me about these new *friends*, Xander."
"Didn't you already meet them?" he asked.
"No, but Willow did and even she said that your new womanly friend isn't very normal."
"Being a Goddess of Love doesn't usually entail normal," Xander pointed out. Buffy laughed. "What?"
"Goddess of *love*? Is that what she calls herself?" Buffy snickered. "Gee, another psycho for you?"
"And who's your friends, Buffy," he said shortly, standing up. "Hercules?"
"Hey, he's a hero, he's survived all this time and he's still fighting," she protested.
"Yeah, and?" he asked. "Has he told you anything else about his life?" He backed away from her. "Sorry to chat and run, but I promised I'd help Spike fix something of his mother's." He turned but ran into a hard-faced woman. "Get out of my way," he said calmly.
"They won't come running to save you," Xena told him.
"I don't need anyone to save me. I fought plenty of years beside Buffy, I don't need saved." He crossed his arms and looked her over. "I want to ask you something," he said, and she nodded. "Why does Aphrodite call you a ho?"
Xena screeched and took a swing at him but he ducked it and moved around her.
"Later," he called, heading for his car. He barely made it into the relative safety and locked the door when it was ripped off. "Hey! Are you gonna pay to fix that!" he shouted, getting out and glaring at the large man there. "Oh, you're *him*," he said calmly. "No wonder. There's all sorts of stories about you causing property damage, I guess not much has changed since you lived in Greece, huh?" he asked hotly. "You have no right to damage anything of mine."
"You're not getting away that easily," Xena promised.
"No, let me," Buffy said, walking up to him. She grabbed Xander by the ear and turned him around, glaring at him. "You will leave my friends alone."
"They attacked me!"
"No, we're trying to save you," Hercules said.
"By ripping up my car?" Buffy slapped him and he back handed her. "Never again," he told her quietly, wiping off the small trail of blood with the back of his hand. "You don't have the right to hit me. You will never touch me again." He looked at his car and decided to get in and gather his things up. Then he walked away from them, heading to Giles. He had to know. Anya was waiting for him almost a block away and he pushed past her, still going. She tried to stop him but he kicked her in the leg, making her yelp and let go. "Get off and go away," he told her, continuing a little faster now. "Giles!" he yelled as he walked in, startling a few customers.
Willow and Tara were behind the counter. "Not here," Willow called.
"Buffy just slapped me. I hit her back."
"Excuse me?" Willow asked, letting Tara take over register duty while she came over to help him. She saw the bruise starting on his cheek and winced. "Let me go get the ice pack. What's that stuff?" she asked, pointing at what he held.
"My car door got ripped off," Xander told her. "By her *friend*. Who was objecting to my friends." He looked up at his former best friend. "Did you say 'Dite wasn't normal?"
"I said she wasn't a normal girl," Willow corrected. "Which she's not." He nodded and she went to get him something for his face. When she came back, everyone was standing on one side of the shop, away from the three standing in the entry way. "Out," she told them. "Buffy, you know better than to bring people like them in here."
"They're like me, Willow," she countered.
"Yeah, we can see the resemblance," Xander noted. He took the ice pack and held it against his cheek. "Get away from me, all of you. I have nothing to say to any of you."
"Fine," Buffy spat. "We'll be talking later."
"No we won't."
"Oh, yes, we will," she told him, storming out, the other two with her.
Xander looked at Willow. "Can you go get some things from my apartment?" he asked quietly. She nodded and handed him some paper and a pen, watching as he made a list of everything he really wanted to keep and where it was, just in case. He watched as she left, then sighed and got up, heading over to the phone. "Is he at home?" he asked Tara.
"I think so," she said quietly, ringing up the last customer. After the person had left, she came over to check his cheek. "Who?"
"Buffy. I hit her back." He finished dialing. "G-man, me. *Big* probs with the Buffy." He grunted and hung up. "He'll be in soon." He looked outside then shrugged it off and called Spike. "Hey, me. Can you go help Willow ransack my place and save my stuff? Because I think Buffy's going to attack me there too." He hung up and put his head down, still cradling the ice pack against his cheek. "This sucks," he told the glass. "Eww, what was holding that thing?" He pointed at the slime-covered book.
"Don't ask," Dawn said from the training room. She looked around as she came out, then rushed over to give Xander a hug. "Are you okay?"
"Fine." He hugged her back. "They're picking on me because I..." He shook his head. "Dawny, can you watch the store for a minute, we'll be in the training room." She nodded so he pulled Tara into the back room to get her advice. It was often the next best thing to Willow's.
Aphrodite stared her father down. "So you're going to let him kill my chosen mortal then? Against your own rules?"
"He's not chosen yet," Zeus reminded her.
"We offered it to him, he's thinking about it," she countered. "Hercules *ripped* off a car door! He's dangerous, Zeus."
"He is," Hephaestus agreed from his seat. "He's letting the mortal little girl he's training do his dirty work for him." He frowned as he felt something off in the apartment, smiling when he realized what it was. "Xander's having his place packed up for him. Apparently he thinks Hercules is going to cause more damage."
"He won't," Zeus said tiredly. "I'll have a talk with him tonight."
"Might be too late," Aphrodite told him coldly. "If he comes near my mortal again...."
"You'll do *nothing*," Zeus ordered. "You know my laws."
"Yes, and I know that you're breaking them in favor of him again!" she shouted. "How much damage does he have to do before you step in and calm his psycho ass down! Does he have to kill another mortal? Or maybe just mine?" She shrieked when she didn't get an answer. "Fine, I'm going for outside help then. You want them living, I'd go talk to him now."
"Oh, let me," a quiet voice said from the edge of the meeting area. He walked into the light and stood beside Hephaestus. "Ilaria just prayed to me. Check him again, 'Dite."
Aphrodite and Hephaestus both looked at the mortal plane and blanched. "You sick bastard," she whispered. She looked at Zeus again. "Now that he's killed sixteen innocent lives trying to stop one from having a house, does that satisfy you that he's going wrong again?" she asked coldly. She looked at Ares. "Would you please help us?"
"A little," he agreed. He held out a hand. "Come on, he's not there. He's at the store, with the people who were packing up his stuff. Ilaria said the bacchi drug the witch out when he smelled the smoke, and pulled the alarm too. There's a chance some residents escaped." He took her, letting Hephaestus come as he chose. They appeared in the entryway of the Magic Shop, and he nodded. "Nice place here." He looked down at the young man quietly sobbing at the table, and let Aphrodite go comfort him. He felt someone pop in behind him and grabbed his son, giving him a long, hard hug. "Cupid," he sighed.
"Dad." Cupid glared at the old man and the vampire coming out of the back room together. "Turn him in," Cupid told them. "A stint in mortal prison ought to cure him."
"No," Giles said calmly. "He's already beaten up a cop who was trying to stop Xena." He bowed to Ares. "My Lord. You do us a great service by coming to our aid, even if you are only here to watch." He looked at Xander, then nodded at the back room. "Go get him settled. We've made up the cot." Willow nodded, letting Aphrodite help her bring Xander into the training room. "How do we stop him?" Giles asked quietly.
"It'll have to be a dual offensive," Ilaria told him. "I can't beat up Hercypoo or Xena, but I can sure give Buffy an ass-kicking that she'll remember." She smiled at Ares. "Thank you for helping us."
"It needs to happen," Ares said with a slight shrug. "Did anyone get out?"
"A few. Xena set the fire on the second floor. But on a brighter note, Buffy kept trying to get her to stop." She turned and left the store, going to do a recon of the old apartment building.
"You mean we can't kill her yet?" Cupid asked. Ares shook his head. "You're sure?"
Ares growled lightly, "I'm sure. We give her to Athena."
Cupid snorted. Then he thought about it, and started to laugh. "Oh, she's so gonna pay for what she's done."
Tara raised a hand and Ares smiled at her. "What about Anya? Xander said she sicced Buffy on him."
"The vengeance demon?" Aphrodite asked as she walked back out alone. Tara nodded quickly. "Oh, she's mine, sweetie, never fear about that." She and her son shared a cruel, cold smile. "We know what to do about her type."
Cupid nodded. "Definitely. Want me to go get her?"
"No, we'll take them on together," Ares said, coming down the few stairs to look at the bacchae standing in the shadows. "You really are Strife's last one," he said, grabbing Spike and pulling him into his arms. "We've been looking all over for you." He let Spike go, watching him try to appear calm. "There's a prophecy about you," he told the vampire. "You're going to bring Strife back to us."
"How?" Cupid asked, hurrying over. "Why didn't anyone ever tell me this?"
"It was one of Cassandra's prophecies," Ares told him, giving his son a tired smile. "He'll be back eventually. You always knew that." He patted the side of his son's face hard. "Never punish anyone else because they remind you of him, Cupid, you're dirtying his memory."
Cupid hung his head. "But it hurts."
"The pain's a positive thing," Spike put in. "Means you're alive."
"Point," Cupid agreed, giving Spike a smile. "So, what's my part in this?"
"You're going to work with your mother," Ares told him. He turned to look around the store. "We'll take on...Xena and Hercules. It's not going to be that hard to capture them and hand them over to be fixed again."
Aphrodite opened her mouth then shut it and glared at him. "You want to *fix* him?"
"No, but we won't be allowed to kill him. We'll demand that Hera does the fixing this time," he told her. She nodded, but she didn't look any happier. "How many people did they save?"
"Almost all of them according to the radio," Giles told him. "I heard the report on the way over and turned on the radio here as soon as I got in."
"So no one died?" Cupid asked.
"One did, of smoke inhalation. She was on the first floor, an older woman who was bed bound," Giles said quietly. "According to the reports so far, everyone else made it out alive. Whomever reported it only noticed Xena running away." Ares nodded. "Xander's quite distraught."
"He should be," Ares agreed. "I'd be really upset and pissed if someone had burnt my house down because they didn't like who I was friends with." He pointed at the table. "Can you get a map of the town?"
"We have one already," Willow said as she walked out. "He's asleep. Horribly guilty feeling but napping." She crossed her arms and glared at the God of War. "Are you going to kill her?"
"He can't. It's against the rules," Aphrodite told her. "We can hurt them, but we can't kill them."
"But we can put them in for reprogramming," Cupid told her. Willow nodded. "That's what we're planning. What can you do?"
"What do you need me to do?" she asked. "Tara and I are both witches with some very powerful spells under our belts. Point us at a spell and we're there."
"Good," Ares said, giving her a smile. "We'll need one to trap them. Something like a force-field around and above them."
"It's in the green book I told you never to touch," Giles told her, pointing at the loft area. "It's in the trunk." He watched while Willow climbed up there. "We've got weapons also if you need them." Ares smiled. "Or rope," he noted.
"We've got Hephaestus on our side?" Ares asked Aphrodite.
She nodded. "We both like Xander. He's a sweetie. Very nice guy." She turned and put her fist through the wall. "Who didn't deserve this," she ground out.
"Hey," Xander said, coming out to help her take it out of the wall and putting his ice pack on it. "Don't destroy the walls. In this town, they might get upset and attack back." He looked Ares over. "What do I do?" Ares raised an eyebrow. "Tell me or I'm going to follow behind you and jump in anyway."
"Good. You're the bait," Ares told him, giving him a bright smile. "Are you feeling up to it?"
"No, but I'll manage, I have before." He walked closer, keeping up his staring contest with the God of War. "Did you help me when I had to plan the assault at graduation?"
"No, but I was very proud of you," Ares told him, still not losing his smile. "I always wanted someone like you at my side."
"Mine," Aphrodite told him.
"Wasn't going there," Ares told her. "I always wanted a warlord that would stand up to me and tell me what he thought." He smiled at Xander. "I like you, kid, relax. Even if I didn't have an old grudge against Hercules, I'd still be here right now. What he let Xena do was wrong."
Xander nodded and looked away. "Okay." He turned to look at Giles. "What's my role now?"
"We'll need some help getting the spell components ready, if you're up to it," Giles added when Xander didn't move.
"I think you should go rest," Willow said from the loft area. "It's not up here."
"It's in the blue trunk, Wills," Xander told her. "Or it was when I did the inventory."
"Thanks." She disappeared again, coming back a few minutes later with a dark green book clutched to her chest. "Which one?" Ares held out a hand so she handed over the book, watching as he flipped through them, folding down a few page corners. "Those?"
He nodded. "One's a holding, one's a binding spell."
"I'll cast the binding," Giles told her, taking the book. "We'll need a few things we don't have," he said as he read down the ingredients. "Why do we have to use celery root?"
"Because the person who wrote it liked it," Ares told him. He nodded Aphrodite over. "I need you to go wake him up," he said quietly. She opened her mouth but he shook his head. "I need him, 'Dite, I don't have the energy to deal with Xena alone anymore."
She hugged him. "He won't want to be woken up for this."
"I think you'd be surprised. Joxer was a good God of Justice. Even the pain he'll feel when he wakes up won't stop him this time, not after Xena burnt a building with people in it."
"Oh, the pain was nothing like the burning screams to me," another male voice said from behind the small group. He smiled at Ares. "Surprise. The screams to me woke me up." He held out his arms to his consort, holding him tightly. "Never worry about waking me up," he told Aphrodite. "It's time for me to come back. Justice isn't a forgotten force anymore." He looked over at Giles, giving him a smile. "You will be the instrument of my will," he ordered, pointing at him, linking himself to the mortal.
"Um, we need him to cast something," Willow told him. "I'm strong, but I won't be able to cast both spells alone."
"Can't Xander cast?" Ares asked. Everyone shook their heads. "Why not?"
"Because he's not gifted that way," Xander told him, staring him down again. "And he won't be."
"You were ...." Cupid started but his mother hit him on the arm. "Ow!"
"Quiet. His mother bound him from touching it."
"Oh." Cupid shrugged. "Whatever. Sorry, dude."
"Huh?" Willow asked.
"My mother was a priestess of someone," Xander said, turning to look at her. "It's nothing major to worry about, but she bound me from ever touching an ounce of power after leaving her post. She refused to have me used like she was by her Goddess."
"Yeah, well, her Goddess could be a right snot," Cupid told him. "We can undo it."
"No," Xander said, shaking his head. "I'm not going there. If I have to, I'll take and hold Buffy for you. No binding spell needed for her."
Ares smiled at him again. "We'll figure that part out soon enough. Map?"
"On the wall behind the register," Willow said, pointing, gathering her ingredients together. "I need to run to the store. Xander, wanna come?"
"Nah, I'll do this part. Take Tara with you, or Ilaria if you can call her in."
"She's on her way in," Ares told him. "I called her back. She did say only the one person died."
"Which was too many," Xander told him firmly.
"Yes, it was." Ares nodded at the table. "Sit. You look like hell, kid." Xander sat down, looking up at him. "Now then, you know this town. Where do we get them to? Where's the best place to fight them without interference or others getting in the way accidentally?"
"The park," Xander said quietly. "Open areas, but there's plenty of places that are little grottos, sculpted to give privacy. We can easily stake any vamps that come that way." He got up and went to get his map of hunting areas, bringing it back to the table. "This area has always mystified me," he told the God of War. "Why make an area with only one entry, and a tree in the center?"
"It's Demeter's," Aphrodite told him. "We'll have to ask her permission. But you should be familiar with it. Your mother used to serve there."
"I know," he told her. "She told me one night while she was drunk." He handed over the map. "Can you ask her?"
"I've already sent a message up to her," Joxer told him, pointing at a chair. "Sit." The boy sat. "I'd like to delve into your memories, get a feel for what's been happening." Xander shrugged. "I promise to make it not hurt, okay?" Xander nodded. "You're very unusual."
Xander looked at Aphrodite. "Yes, I'll take it," he said, moments before Joxer's fingers touched his temples. Her squeal of joy followed him back into his memories.
Joxer pulled away a few minutes later, leaving Xander asleep. "He's torn, but he'll do it," he told his consort. "He knew she had changed, but she had changed back too. He wants her to be back the way she was."
Ares nodded. "Good. I knew I could trust him. He's like the warlord I always wanted." They shared a smile. "Any word from Demeter?"
"Zeus is demanding she refuses," Hephaestus said as he appeared. "She's shrieking like the harpy she is." He smiled at his brother. "Is he okay," he asked, nodding at Xander.
"He'll be fine," Joxer told him. Hephaestus noticed him and went pale. "It had to happen sometime," Joxer reminded him, still smiling. "I'm not really a forgotten force anymore. People are starting to believe in Justice again."
"No pain?" Hephaestus asked. He remembered carving Joxer's resting spot, the bed that held him safe until he could reawaken without the pain of an unjust world.
"Not much. It's much better now than it was when I had to go to sleep back during the Roman Empire." He shuddered. "It's a twinging pain. I'll need to reappoint the Justices but I'm sure I won't have a problem." He looked at Willow, who was staring at him. "What?"
"You're really Justice?" He nodded. "Did you need me to call on someone? And did you want me to put Anyanka in the holding cell with the others if she's there?"
Joxer thought about it then shook his head. "I don't want Anyanka. Vengeance took my place for too long."
"If she shows up, point her in my direction," Aphrodite told her. "She's mine to deal with. She screwed with the act of Love this time and it's time we had a discussion."
Willow swallowed hard. "Okay. If she shows up, I'll ignore her." She looked down at her list then double checked it, waiting on Ilaria to get back. She took some money out of the special box for their emergency needs as soon as Ilaria walked in, nodding outside. "Come on, you're escorting me and Tara. Tara?" she called, bringing her girlfriend from the back room, where she had been helping Dawn with her homework. "We'll be back within an hour." She and the Slayer walked out together, Ilaria's stiletto heels tapping on the concrete sidewalk.
"She's got fashion sense," Ares said, smiling at Aphrodite. "Why can't you dress like her?"
"Why would I want to wear a untiard and stiletto strap shoes?" she asked. "I *like* my clothes, thank you."
"So do I, dear," Hephaestus said, giving her a smile. "Did he accept? I thought I felt him accept the offer."
"Yup, just before Joxie went into his mind. He's so pissed," she sighed.
"Of course he is. Trust me, if it had been my place, Xena would be a big pile of ashes," Hephaestus reminded her. "Rules or not."
"Do they apply to her?" Cupid asked. "I don't remember Zeus specifically expanding it to all demigods, just to Hercules."
"He said we couldn't hurt any person who was helping him," Ares told him dryly. "She had been."
"Then he broke his own rules with Strife," Hephaestus said quietly, drawing everyone's attention. "Weren't we all working on the same side then? The need to kill Dahak?"
"I reminded him of that and he got pissed." Ares looked down at the boy sleeping on the table, frowning when another grunt came from him. "What's that?"
"Nightmares," Hephaestus said. "He has a few of them." He lifted Xander into his arms and limped into the back room, where Aphrodite had mentally shown him a bed. He put Xander down and laid down behind him, holding onto him. That seemed to help his nightmares.
Out in the other room, Ares got down to the serious planning. They were going to run out of time soon enough. Xena would try something that night, it was how she was.
Xander sat on the small bench in the grotto, waiting. He hated waiting, but he knew he wasn't going to have to wait for long. He had caught sight of someone following him through the park, and it wasn't anyone on his side. He jumped when he felt a small breeze hit his back, but there wasn't anyone back there. He looked at the entrance again, smiling at the woman standing there. "You must be Demeter, I thank you for helping us," he said formally. Aphrodite had coached him in this if he met her.
"Relax, I'm her daughter," she said, sitting beside him. "She's not allowed to be here to witness this, Zeus has so decreed, but my husband Hades has decided I'm to come and watch." She put a hand on his arm, reading him and opening him to her husband's power. "You're like Ilaria," she said quietly. "I've learned to read the signs."
"No, I'm not," Xander said, shaking himself and getting free of her. "I'm the son of one of your mother's priestesses. She used to worship here." He waved a hand around. "Here's where she bound me from the life she had lived."
"No, I meant you were of the same line," she said quietly. Her mouth started to open to say more, but it was stopped when Xena stepped into the grotto. "I've got to go," she told him, disappearing.
"Xena," Xander said coldly. "Did it feel good to kill that little old lady? The one who baked the whole building cookies and even helped me to learn how to cook?" He stood up. "How can you call yourself a hero when you kill innocents?" he spat. "You're not hero, you're a bully. You and the big jackass both."
"There's always a price to pay in any war," she said lightly. "I'm sorry about the woman, but she shouldn't have been there."
"She was bed-ridden. That was her home. Where was she supposed to be!" he shouted, throwing his arms up. "For that matter, what war?"
"The war against the Gods," she said, moving closer. "They never should have come back."
"Bet me," he said. "I happen to like Hephaestus and Aphrodite. They actually talk to me like a human being, something that your new friend hasn't done in a while." He crossed his arms, glaring at her. "You'll pay for what you did," he told her. "You and muscle-boy. Even Buffy will get hers eventually. And I can only hope I'm there to laugh my ass off and piss on your grave." He ducked her punch. "What? Can't take it? How many people have you killed because you're disgusted with yourself, Xena?" He just had to buy a little time. Enough to get everyone in place.
"Enough," Hercules said as he walked into the grotto. "She's sorry about the mortal."
"Yay, that's not going to bring her back to life!" Xander glared at him, stepping away from Xena to stand in front of him. "You're nothing but a bully either. Some hero, you helped her kill an innocent grandmother. Heros don't do that, villains do that." He started to walk out of the grotto but he ran into Buffy and Anya, who were waiting on him. "Get out of my way."
"No, you've got to get away from that floosy," Anya told him. "You belong to me."
"I belong to *me*," he corrected. "You can't own a person anymore, Anya. It's illegal and I'm not a slave." He pushed Buffy out of his way. "As for you, how did it feel to start down Faith's path?" Buffy screeched and lunged for him, but he ducked her, catching her around the waist and turning her around, letting her go off in Anya's direction. He didn't get a chance to duck Hercules' grip, but he did do a good job of kicking him until he let him go. "Bastard," he muttered, rubbing his now sore stomach. "You and all yours, a life-long death of emotion on you," he cursed. "May you never feel anything ever again." He spat at their feet, his blood mixed in with his spit, sealing it. He started to back away, able to hear Willow starting to chant. "Anya, move away from them or suffer like they will.
"No, they're right, Xander. Their's is the right way!" she said firmly. "The Gods use people."
"And you don't?" a calm, quiet voice said from beside her.
"Justice," she said, blanching. "You...you're awake?"
"Yes, the screams of their victim woke me," Joxer told her, pulling her out of the way of the spell. "Xander, you too," he noted, nodding behind him. Xander hurried backwards, still breathing hard. "Ares, check his ribs. Hercules grabbed and held him." Joxer looked at the group as the force-field formed, walking around the cluster of people trapped in it. "Xena," he said finally, stopping in front of her. "Do you have any idea what it took to wake me this time?"
"You're not Joxer," she swore. "Joxer died the day he took Ares' offer to become Justice."
"No, I didn't die," Joxer countered. "Though I did have a very long nap while Vengeance took over, helped by you I might add." He looked at the curse the mortal had stuck on them and shook his head. "Even that's not good enough," he said, removing it before it permanently engraved itself in their bodies. "You will be judged."
"By you?" Buffy snorted. "What are you? Some other freak?"
"That's Joxer, the former klutz turned God," Xena sneered. "He thinks he's Justice incarnate. What, no little Justices running around yet?" Her eyes widened as Giles stepped forward. "You imbued a mortal with your power?"
"All of the Justices are mortal," Joxer reminded her. He nodded at Willow and she removed the spell, letting him step inside and grab Xena, judging her soul. Buffy shrieked and went for him, but Cupid's arrow whizzed past her chest and she stopped cold. He was vulnerable then, but the others would give him time. "She's been living too long," he pronounced as he came up.
"What? She's immortal!" Hercules protested. "You don't have the right to touch any of us. Father!"
"Shut up," Aphrodite told him. "He knows all about it. We were arguing about you touching a chosen mortal earlier."
"He's not," Hercules said, pointing at Xander. "He wasn't then, and he's not now."
"He's accepted, we have to go through the ritual," Hephaestus said, stepping forward. He tossed Joxer two sets of handcuffs. "Here, you'll need these."
"You're against me too?" Hercules asked in shock. He nudged Buffy into Xena, waking her from the trance Joxer had put her in.
Xena yipped and ran past Joxer, heading for the other Gods. She stopped and stared when one stepped out of the shadows. "Ares?" she breathed.
"Yes, Xena, it's me," he said, stepping forward. He took a pair of handcuffs from Joxer and put them on her. "You will be judged on Olympus and your fate will be sealed." He kissed her on the forehead. "Go now." He handed her off, letting Cupid take her. "Hercules, you can fight, or you can go like a good little puppy back up to stand trial before the Council of Twelve. Your choice." He put a hand on the pommel of his sword and stared his brother down.
"No, I get retribution," Xander said, standing up. His face had an unfamiliar expression on it, matched by the one on Ilaria's face. "Herc, you've done it again," he said quietly, his voice changing pitch, becoming a little higher and more deep. "You've turned against the light again. You've got to go get it fixed again."
"Iolaus?" Hercules asked, looking at the boy. "How?"
"He's one of my line. Always has been." He turned his head and smiled at his daughter. "Same as she is, but now she's my strength." He bowed to Hephaestus. "Your timing is impeccable. Thank you for calling on me. Persephone and Hades agree with you totally." He looked back at his long-time companion. "Hercules, the Gods aren't bad, they're necessary. Haven't you figured that out yet?"
Hercules backed away from him. "You're not Iolaus. This is a trick. Ares, release the mortal!"
"Not my doing," Ares said with a shrug. "It's a long way down the line. It's almost totally out of him actually," he said thoughtfully, looking the boy over. "They've about bred Iolaus out of the world too." He looked at Aphrodite. "Did you know that?"
"No. But I can see it now," she agreed. "It was only that one time, not like the inbreeding that happened in Ilaria's line to keep it strong. A chance encounter started his line, and it's never met with another of itself again. He's got to only have one gene of Iolaus' left by now."
"Half," Athena said as she appeared behind them. "Hera has agreed to help him. She wants him now."
"Yay," Aphrodite said. "Let them finish this. It's been brewing for centuries. They never did get to finish it off."
"Point," her husband agreed, coming over to hold her. He knew that Iolaus had died with the regret of never getting to face down Hercules over his problems, or about the way the hero had abandoned him when Iolaus and Jett had taken up together.
"Is redemption even in you anymore?" Iolaus asked his old friend. "Or do you still think it's only for you?" He stepped a little closer. "Hercules, if you ever harm another mortal again, you'll never find peace. Like Xena, you've been alive too long and it's wearing on you. You can't do this anymore."
"You're not Iolaus," Hercules growled, punching the possessed mortal and sending him flying. "You're just a torment!" He rounded on Joxer. "It's your fault! You're punishing me and I haven't even been judged." He picked up the God of Justice and started to shake him, only letting up when he heard a few snaps. He tossed the injured body at Ares' feet. "You don't hold any sway here," he said, advancing on them.
"Whoa!" Buffy said, grabbing his arm. "Who gave you the right to hit Xander! He's mine to beat up!" She let him go, kicking him in the stomach. "You want to hit someone, you fight me first."
"Buffy, no," Willow called. "He's in a blood rage. He doesn't know what's going on." She started to cast another spell, this one to shield Buffy, but before the last word could be said, Buffy was flying through the air, landing against the holy tree, which broke under her. "Bastard!" she shouted, finishing that spell so Buffy wouldn't be hurt, and grabbing Tara's hand to start another, this one to harm the demigod. "You will pay! I brought her out of heaven, I can send you to hell!"
"No," Ares said, freezing her. "That's not your right." He stood in front of her, tipping her face up. "Go get someone to help the mortals. They need medical care." He released her, watching as she and her girlfriend followed his compulsion. He turned to look at the panting hero. "So," he sneered. "Some things never change I see."
"No," Discord said as she appeared. "Ares, don't. Zeus will kill you! He said so!"
"Then let him get his ass down here and save his little boy," Ares said coldly. "He wants him that much, he can either have his pieces, or he can come get him." He took off the power governor, the thing that had always kept him from really kicking the crap out of his half-brother in the past. The one thing that was keeping Hercules alive was now gone. "I voted to let you live as an immortal," he told him, shocking Hercules. "I seriously thought you might grow up and help the world. Apparently I was blind." He punched the stunned man, knocking him back into the holy grotto. "You'll pay now. You had no right to kill an innocent. You had no right to harm a chosen. You had no right to contaminate others," he said, kicking him with each statement. "You also had no right to help Hades chain Strife in Tartarus. But you'll take his place." He created a ball of power, turning his hand over the hero's stomach, holding it there. "Anything you want to say?"
"I'm sorry," Hercules cried as the power hit him. He blacked out.
Ares leaned down and put the handcuffs on him, then kicked him again for good measure. "Get him to Apollo before he dies," he snarled. Athena and Discord took him, each ready to kill him themselves, but not wanting the trouble Ares was going to have later. He straightened his vest and looked around, going over to pick up Joxer. "Apollo?" he called. "Joxer was almost killed by him!"
The Sun God appeared in a bright flash of light and looked at the bodies lying on the ground. He bent down to touch that one, then shook his head. "Take him to my temple. Hercules can wait, Joxer can't." He stood up and looked at the two mortals. "What happened?" he asked Hephaestus. He tended to ignore Aphrodite when he could.
"Hercules and Xena," Aphrodite answered. "The boy's our chosen in all but ritual and a side note to Iolaus' line. Iolaus possessed him. Jett got Ilaria." She looked around. "Where is she?"
"Hiding in the bushes," Hephaestus said, pointing at where she was. "The girl's Buffy, the older Slayer. She finally saw reality and stuck up for our Xander. She got Hercules and he got her back."
"Oh, man," Apollo sighed. "Okay. Is someone getting the mortal medical people?"
"A witch is," Aphrodite agreed. "Go save Joxer. He's got to judge Hercy and Xena."
"Deal," Apollo said, disappearing, leaving the mortals to their own people, who were coming.
Aphrodite changed her appearance, going over to help Buffy while Hephaestus helped Xander. She put pressure on the biggest wound, the one on the back of her head. She nodded one of the paramedics over. "She went into the tree," she told him. "She got beaten up by the person who set the fire."
"Oh, hell," he said, settling Buffy carefully onto the stretcher. "Did you hear anything break?" he asked as he put a cervical collar on her.
"No, but I came running at the yelling. I wasn't here when she hit the tree." She pointed at the broken tree.
"Hell, he musta been hyped up on something to get her this bad." He pulled the stretcher over to where his partner was, trying to get the trauma field a little closer together. They talked quietly and then called for some help.
Hephaestus met Aphrodite halfway and watched while the mortals were being worked on. They watched as Giles shook himself, coming out of the spell Joxer had put on him. He went to find Ilaria, going the way Hephaestus pointed. He pulled her out of the bushes and held her tightly, letting her shake in his arms. The witches came back together, leading the second paramedic crew, and holding a bag of stuff.
"These are his," Willow told the paramedic. "He takes them sometimes. I had to go clean out his apartment." She swallowed as she looked down at him. "They torched the building because he wouldn't follow their way."
"Who's way?" one of the new paramedics asked.
"The guys who torched the apartment building. They were trying to recruit him. He said no. They tore the door off his car and scared him. When he ran, they went for his apartment. He begged me to go get some of his precious stuff out of there." She bounced on her feet while she watched her friends be bandaged up and lifted into ambulances. "I'm his medical power of attorney," she said as she forced her way into the ambulance with Xander.
Everyone watched as the ambulances took off. Except Aphrodite, who was watching Demeter come down and examine her grotto. "Sorry about the sacred tree and all," she said quietly.
"It'll heal," Demeter told her, starting the work of healing her tree. "I still have a priestess around here who'll watch over it for me." She looked at the blood pooled near the roots. "Is everyone living?"
"Joxer's badly injured, Herc shook him. Our chosen and the person who hit your tree are on the way to get medical attention," Hephaestus told her. "We're all fine otherwise."
Ilaria sniffled and looked at him. "That was horrible. I don't want to be possessed again."
Giles nodded. "It's not something that's routine in your job. Xander's been through it twice before though. You and he both survived this time." His silent 'I hope' reached divine ears and the Gods nodded.
"Us too," Aphrodite whispered. She looked around the place they had fought. "Anything else we have to do?"
"Finding Xander a decent place to live might not be such a bad idea," Hephaestus suggested. "They're going to have to tear down that building."
"All right. We'll go do that in a few." She walked over and tipped Ilaria's chin up. "Listen, chick, it's all okay again. Got it?" The Slayer shook her head. "It is. Iolaus had his say and Jett supported him in it. They're free to pass on now."
"And Strife?" Discord asked as she appeared again. "Ares told Cupid about the prophecy. Is it time?"
"We do have the last descendant," Hephaestus agreed. "He'll have to call on him and give up part of his soul."
"Which he doesn't have," Discord noted.
"No, but I'd be willing to give up mine," Ilaria said, pulling herself back together. "They did name my prior incarnation after him."
Discord looked her over. "Yours won't do, dear," she sighed. "It's female."
"And?" Aphrodite asked. "It doesn't have to be male."
"For a mortal, no," Hades said as he appeared, coming over to take something off Ilaria, putting it into a little bag he put back under his breastplate. "For a God, it does matter, Aphrodite. It matters a lot." He looked at Discord. "Is there another of the line of love?"
"Our chosen's one of Iolaus' but it's a *long* way from a perfect match," Hephaestus told him. "He's only got a spark of the line and he's injured."
Hades nodded, looking at those around him. "Well, it might not be time then."
"His child's a bacchae," Aphrodite told him. "Can you talk to Bacchus, since he's down there and all?"
"I could try, but he doesn't hold sway with the demons anymore." He frowned and looked around the area. "Who's blood is that?" he asked, pointing at the blood around Demeter's tree.
"Buffy's," Giles said. "She finally snapped out of it and went after Hercules." Hades winced. "She's not...dead, right?"
"No, she's not passed over again," he said, giving him a smile. "I refuse to let her in for a while yet." He patted Ilaria on the head. "The only other way for Strife to come back was to be born again."
"But then he won't be Strife," Discord pointed out. "That's why we were counting on the prophecy."
"But if his child doesn't have a soul...." Hades pointed out.
"He might," Giles said quickly. "Spike is nothing if not a contrary vampire. He's shown the requisite soul for love, even if it was a twisted one." His face hardened. "If we have to, we can call his soul back and stick it in him."
"No more messing with the souls," Hades told him, glaring at him. "I had enough problems when you did the one for Angel." He shook himself when Demeter walked over to them. "Did you need 'Sephie? I'll gladly send her up for a few hours," he offered.
"No, the tree will heal," she said calmly. "Bring this vampire here," she ordered, pointing a hand, and Spike appeared in a portal, falling through and onto the wet grass.
"Eww," he said, standing up, wiping at the blood that covered him. He stopped to sniff some of it. "What happened to the whelp this time?" he shouted, glaring at Giles. "You let him get trounced?"
"No, he took on Hercules," Giles told him. "He knew better, but he was stalling for time so Willow could do her spell. He and Buffy both fought him, and they're both probably heading for surgery." He nodded him over. "Spike, there's a prophecy about you."
"About?" he snarled, none too happy that he hadn't been there for the fight.
"About you bringing my son back," Discord told him. "But it's about your soul."
"Which I lost," he reminded her.
"That's what we're trying to figure out now," Giles told him calmly. "You've always been an odd vampire, Spike, even you must admit that. What you had with Druscilla was not normal for your kind."
Spike shrugged. "It's been known to happen. Though, the Judge did say we stank of humanity, bloody blue prig."
"May we check you for the taint of a soul?" Hades asked him.
"If you find one, can you take it?" Spike countered. "I don't want it."
"No, but we can take even a piece of whatever you have and give it to Strife," Discord told him, then she slapped him across the back of the head. "Hold still!" she ordered.
Hades laid a hand over the unbeating heart and concentrated. "There is a piece anchored still," he announced. "It's not enough. He'll have to have a piece of love's line's soul." He looked at Aphrodite. "Cupid?"
"He went back to Olympus," she said, summoning him. "Son, we need part of your soul," she said as soon as he appeared.
"To bring Strife back," Discord ground out. "Spike here doesn't have enough."
"Oh. Sure," he said happily. "Whenever you want." He held his arms out. Hades came over to judge his, then shook his head. "No?" he asked, sounding almost pitiful.
"It's not the right type." He frowned. "It does explain why you two get along so well. Your souls are diametrically opposed. Equal opposites." He shook his head. "We'll find one," he promised Discord.
"Check Xander," Tara offered. "He'd give anything for his friends."
"I can't take it without his knowing agreement," Hades warned her.
"He'd do it," she agreed. "Step into his head if it works and ask him. He'll say yes." She looked at Spike, giving him a smile. "Then you won't be the biggest bad around." She bowed to Demeter. "My Lady, I am in need of something to do before I worry myself to death. May I watch your tree for you tonight? I'm well versed in plants, my mother made sure of it."
Demeter looked her over, then nodded. "Go ahead. Bury the blood while you're at it," she ordered then disappeared.
Tara smiled at Giles. "I'm going to stay here. Ilaria?"
"Sure. I could use some time pulling weeds." She walked in to guard Tara while she worked on saving the precious tree.
Giles coughed lightly. "Xander didn't seem to be that injured, though Hercules did punch him and sent him flying. He might not need surgery."
Hephaestus shook his head. "Broken jaw and clavicle. Few ribs that were questionable in their integrity. Possibly some internal bleeding from where Hercules grabbed and held him." He looked at Hades. "We wouldn't mind if you asked our chosen," he said, giving official permission. "If you do go, tell him we're working on the housing problem and we'll be in soon to check on him."
Hades nodded. "I will." He faded out, heading over to the hospital.
Cupid looked at his mother, then at Discord. "I'm sorry," he told his former mother-in-law. "I want him back as much as you do."
"I know," she said, slapping him on the arm. "You might as well head home. I think Bliss has got to be wondering what's going on. 'Dite?"
"I'm going to go work on the housing thing with Hephie. Xander needs a good, safe place."
"Later," Discord said as she disappeared.
Hephaestus and Aphrodite disappeared together, leaving Giles standing there. "Well, I'll be at home," he called to the girls. "Do be careful in there."
"We will," Tara called back. "Tell Willow where I am. She'll understand."
"I will," he promised them, heading for the parking lot where his car was.
Xander woke up and saw the man dressed in black armor standing over him. "Am I dead?"
"No, I'm testing your soul," Hades told him, then he nodded. He sat on the side of the bed, looking down at the mortal. "What do you know of Strife?"
"That he needs to come back before his mom goes nuts?" Xander guessed, starting to sit up but grabbing his taped body instead. "Ow."
"Yes, that's what usually happens when Hercules grabs someone and squeezes." He gently patted the mortal on the stomach. "You only had to have a few inches of intestine put back into you, feel thankful. I've seen him punch someone and send half of their intestines shooting out of their body."
Xander started to look confused, then he realized he was still sore in that one area. "Eww," he muttered. "Tell me they didn't have to..." Hades nodded, looking sympathetic. "That's sick."
"It's relatively easy. Some people have that sort of thing." He shifted a little bit. "Alexander, I have to ask you a very serious question. The only way to bring Strife back is to give him a new soul, one that would merge with his. Now, we can do that with a partial soul, but it'd have to be someone from his line."
"But I'm not."
"No, but you're a good donor candidate for the person from his line," Hades pointed out. "We could take a piece of yours and put it into Spike, letting him germinate it for a year so it'll take on his characteristics, then transplant it over." He coughed and looked away. "The best way to do that would be for you to have sex while a certain spell was running over top of you, but I can't force that decision on you."
"Me and Spike?" Xander asked dully. Hades nodded. "What makes you think he'd go for it?"
"Because it'd get rid of a little bit more of the soul that managed to stay connected to him. It's only a little piece, but it will halve also when it goes to Strife."
"We'll need to take a little less than half."
"I can live like that?"
"Definitely," he said firmly. "It happens when parents have children. They give up a sliver of their soul to each one. For those unfortunate enough to have seven of them at once, they give up about the same amount you will be."
"Um," Xander said, trying to think. "Tonight? Cause I gotta say that sending part of my intestines back up into me has left me a little sore."
Hades chuckled and gave him a smile. "No, the spell itself takes over a month to do. Your witch friends will have a very long time to prepare and it'll be the only spell they'll be able to cast during this whole time."
"In Sunnydale?" Xander said. "That's almost dangerous."
"The Hellmouth's not as powerful as it used to be," Hades countered. "They should be able to do it without endangering anyone." He smiled. "It's all up to you now, Alexander. You're the only person that I've seen in this town that's got the right sort of soul to be transplanted."
"Can I ask you a few questions first?" Xander asked. Hades nodded. "What was Strife like?"
"He was an annoying brat some days, but he was a very good God. He had full control over his area and everyone hated him when he came to annoy them. But that was his job," he said lightly at the frown.
"Then why couldn't he come back?"
"Because the Gods had to lose dominance over the mortal plane or you mortals would never grow out of what had been."
"Oh." Xander blinked a few times.
"Would you like some time to think about it?" Hades suggested, getting off the bed.
Xander shrugged. "Aphrodite said I reminded her of him."
"You do, you look a little like him and your thought patterns are very similar. Strife was a very annoying but very important God, Alexander. I won't lie to you, he was a trickster, but he did so much more."
"He made Cupid happy," Xander said quietly, looking out the window. "Okay, if this is the only way," he said, turning to look at the God of the Dead. "I'll do it."
"Good. I'll send Aphrodite the spell and what you'll need to know." He held out a hand, shaking Xander's when he put it out. "Thank you, Alexander. You'll make a lot of people very happy."
"But what about the dominance thing?"
"It won't happen that way again," Hades assured him. "Humans have partially gotten beyond needing us the way they used to, that was the reason we had to lose dominance."
"But we've found all new ways of needing you?"
"Yes, you have," Hades agreed, then he was gone.
Xander pushed the button for the nurse, giving her a pitiful look. "May I please have something for the pain? And some juice or something?"
"Sure," she said, going out to get his medicine for him.
*** Three Months Later ***
Xander, very nervous, looked across his warehouse and frowned. "Why do I get stuck with all the odd jobs in this?" he asked himself, going to clean up his bedroom area so they could do the spell tonight. Aphrodite had spent the last few weeks teaching him all he needed to know to not only take Spike, but to complete the spell and send part of his soul over to the vampire. They had made a lot of messes while practicing though, she didn't mind when he indulged in his oral fixation. He grinned at that thought, stripping the bed to put on clean sheets. Unfortunately, that night, it would just be him and Spike. And Willow, Tara, and Giles casting on the other side of the dividing curtain. He stopped to pull that around, making sure it was thick enough to not be seen through. He didn't even want to think about Giles, Willow, and Tara watching him boink Spike. He shivered. "Well, that was an interesting, yet disgusting thought," he told himself, tossing the sheets into the corner.
His new place, found for him by his friends, was in a safe part of town. It was a two-story warehouse, with both an elevator and two sets of stairs. It was brick, it would never burn down, and it had the best alarm system Giles could gift him with. He had spent a few weeks curled up on the couch, making sure no one came through the door to get him and finish what Hercules had started, but Hephaestus had picked him up one night and carried him into the bedroom, tossing him onto the bed. Then he had crawled in next to him and held him that whole night through all the nightmares. It had been the nicest thing anyone had ever done for him. He stopped to look around the second floor, nodding at the spacious area. Downstairs, his new car was sitting in it's parking spot, near his new weight set. Since his fight with Hercules, he had been going through an insane desire to bulk up a little bit. His boss was appreciative of his new tolerance for weight, but it wasn't doing him much good since he couldn't patrol.
Since that night, he only went out after dark if he had to, and he had to force himself to do that. Usually with Spike beside him. He was slowly working through his problems with nighttimes, and the fear that Hercules had sent someone to finish him off, but it was slow going. He had grown to like Ilaria though. The one time she had forced him to go on patrol with him, she didn't say anything at all when he had backed out after about an hour. Everyone was being very understanding of him. He used to wonder if this had anything to do with being possessed again, but Giles had told him it was all in his mind. Giles had even offered to get one of the shrinks that the Watchers used to see him, but he hadn't wanted to go that far. Just some nice anti-anxiety pills and he was good to go. Not that anyone blamed him. Even Buffy couldn't bring herself to go do regular patrols. Not that she was in much shape to do one, what with her head injury putting her into rehab for over a month, but she couldn't force herself to go outside at night either. She didn't even get the crutch of pills like he did, the medicine she took to control her former seizure problem would kill her if she took his pills.
They were getting through it, slowly, but it was going well. Willow and Tara had even talked them into going out to the mall together last week. Apparently being inside at night was okay, as long as it was a big space and their friends were there.
He shook himself, heading to get another set of sheets. It was amazing what you could buy when you got a decent paycheck and didn't have to buy presents every week. He made the bed, making sure it looked nice, then grabbed the sheets, going to toss them into the washer he had gotten used. A little tinkering and it was just fine, all it needed was a new belt and timer. Though, he hadn't replaced the timer; sometimes it was nice to have a six hour wash cycle, especially with some of the crap he got on him at work. He went to tidy up the living area, the half-level he and Hephaestus had put in together as a lounge. He smiled as he sat down on the plush couch, a present from Aphrodite, and put his feet up, turning on the tv. The satellite dish had been a present from someone, he wasn't sure who, but it was a welcome distraction right then. He jumped as someone rang the doorbell, getting up slowly to go down and answer it. His ribs and stomach still gave him troubles when he moved too fast. Willow and Tara were on the other side. "Come on in, you're early."
"No we're not," Tara said, stopping to give him a hug. "Spike's chain smoking outside. Giles brought him. They're talking, making sure Spike really wants this." She pulled back. "You?"
"I'm good with this," Xander told her, leading her further into the warehouse and up to the top floor where they'd do the spell. "Aphrodite made sure to explain it to me really well, and I agreed with her. It's time for this."
"All right. As long as you're sure," she agreed, getting down onto the floor to help Willow set things up. They'd been practicing for this night now for months.
Xander looked down as Giles, the only other person with a key, let himself and Spike in. "We're up here," he called down. Giles smiled up at him. "You're ready too?" he asked the older man.
"Yes, Xander, I've been ready for this." He started up the stairs, letting Spike take his time. He gave the boy a hug. "You're sure?"
"Yup. They convinced me it was really important. I'm more than ready for this." He grinned at Spike. "How about you? You ready to have more of a soul for a year?"
"Yeah, I'll be fine," Spike told him. "Can't be much worse. Your mates said it'd be about the same for me. Not connected or nothin'." He took off his duster and tossed it on a chair. "This is nice," he noted.
"It is," Xander agreed. "Hephie and I have had a great time getting it all worked out. Next, we're gonna put in a wall or two." He grinned at Giles. "Whenever you're ready, Spike and I are going to be on this side of the great divider." He nodded Spike into the bedroom and closed the curtains around the bed. "You're sure?" he asked quietly. "I don't want to hurt you or anything."
Spike snorted. "M'not a virgin," he chuckled. "Haven't been for years." He saw the shrug and smiled. "Thanks though, means you're too good for your own good. Don't have to worry 'bout you too much."
"Nope, not at all," Xander agreed. "Hephie's even set up an emergency shelter downstairs if you ever need it. It's a big hole in the ground, but it works. Got lights and a chair. We can even run cable if you need it."
Spike hugged him. "Thanks, mate, that's real nice. Got a room with the Watcher though. He said so. No chains this time, but we'll be mates again before too long."
Xander snickered. "I'm sure. I can just hear it now. 'Not that cup, Spike'."
Spike laughed along with him. "I'll make him let go yet," he promised. "He'll be relaxed by the time I'm done with him."
"I doubt it," Giles called through the drapes. "Do get yourselves ready, this only has so long a time frame."
"Sure," Xander called back. He stood up and took off his shirt, no longer self conscious around others. Being the love slave of the Goddess of Love had cured him of that. He sent a thought toward her, and got a laugh in return. She liked it when he called himself her love slave. Hephie did too. He sent a thought his way, and heard him appear downstairs. "Be right back," he promised, going down to get a quick hug. "Hi," he said happily, leaning into the warm body.
"Hi, kiddo," Hephaestus said, squeezing him lightly. He had learned how very fragile their mortal was. "Ready?"
"Almost." Xander looked upstairs. "Are you guys coming down tonight?"
"Nah, I think we'll let you and Spike cuddle for now, the spell will take too much out of you. We'll come down for breakfast." He stole a kiss. "Now go thump him into the mattress. We'll be listening and watching out to make sure no one interrupts." He disappeared, letting his pet mortal walk back up the stairs.
Xander headed back to his bedroom, sliding in around Willow, who was casting around the room to contain the soul piece in case it got loose. He grinned at Spike. "I was told to cuddle you later, because we're gonna need it."
"Great," Spike sighed, standing up and finishing his stripping. "Well?" he asked when the boy just stood there and watched him. "You gonna do this part too?"
Xander shook himself and finished undressing. When he was done, he nodded at the curtain. "You ready to start this show?"
"Sure," Spike agreed, lying down on the bed. "We're ready," he called. "Start burnin' the smelly stuff."
"Okay," Tara called back. The spell called for one female and one male caster, so she was there in case.
Xander grinned as he laid down, pulling Spike against his body. He took the ritual kiss, then he shrugged and took a few more for himself. Aphrodite had said that there was some wiggle room in the spell's actions.
"Hey," Spike said. "Not goin' at this for fun. Stick to the script."
"Okay," Xander sighed, "steal my fun." He went down to do the next ritual kiss, over Spike's heart. He came back up, letting Spike start his part of the ritual.
On the outside of the curtains, Tara nudged Willow, bringing her attention back to her part of the spell, which was coming up.
Xander panted, watching as the glow started around Spike. He wanted to scream, but he didn't have enough breath yet. He hissed as the pain increased, but the ripping pressure never quit. Not until he felt the snap, then Spike got to scream. He cradled the shuddering body tightly against him, waiting for Spike to calm down. "You okay?" he whispered.
"Yes," Spike ground out. He tried to get free, but ended up being held tighter. "I can go."
"Nope, I was told to cuddle you for the rest of the night. Hephie said so."
"I think that was supposed to be consensual cuddling," Tara said from the doorway. "Did it work?"
Spike nodded. "Yup, got a big piece o'the git in me now." He finally got free, and Xander was glaring at him. "Sorry," he mumbled, internally cursing this new part of him. A year like this? "I thought this wasn't supposed to affect me, I was just carryin' the egg."
"You are," Tara told him, "but it's got to have some effect," she said complacently. She grinned at Xander. "I'm gonna call for takeout. Chinese or pizza?"
"Something with meat," Xander told her.
"Chinese it is," she said, going down to make the call.
Spike flopped back down on the bed, one arm going across his face. "Now I know why the pouf broods," he said quietly.
Xander punched him on the side. "Quit. It's a nice soul."
"Exactly," Spike said, rolling to face him. "It's a *nice* soul, a *good* one. How'm I supposed to go feed and the like?"
"Um, baggies?" Xander suggested. Aphrodite had let slip about the chip. "You know, like you're *supposed* to be doing?"
"Yeah, there's that," Spike agreed, relaxing. He put his hands over his chest and concentrated on his body, trying to see if it felt any different.
"So," Willow said brightly as she walked into the bedroom, "do you feel pregnant yet?"
"What?" Spike spluttered. "Knocked up?"
"Sorry, the spell said you're gestating the soul, getting it ready for Strife. Bad joke." She didn't look sorry in the least. "You gonna stay with us or going home with Giles?"
"He'll stay," Giles called out. "I need to finish cleaning out that room." He came to the doorway but didn't look inside. He had no desire to see either of them naked. "Come over tomorrow night. And for Gods sakes be careful," he said, then he slowly headed for the elevator.
Spike snorted. "Not gonna get staked now. Hate to see the next person they get to do this."
Xander stood up and pulled on his bathrobe. "I'll have you know I'm very good in bed," he said stiffly, going down to join Tara in the lounge area.
Willow shook her head. "He didn't have to do this, Spike. He had to learn a whole lot of things to do this with you tonight." She walked away, letting him get dressed in peace. She found her two favorite people curled up together on the couch so joined them, taking up Xander's other side. "He's a vampire," she said firmly. "They're all mean, nasty, and grr."
Xander patted her on the arm. "I satisfy a woman of great skill and many loud moans. I know I'm good." He looked down at the menu. "What'd you want?"
"I'd like the delivery boy," Spike said as he walked down to join them. He flopped down onto a chair, looking at them.
"It's hard enough to get things delivered here," Xander said. "Eating the delivery guy won't make it any easier."
"We brought you some human," Tara told him. "I put it in the fridge."
Spike grunted but he got up and went to warm it up.
Willow looked up at Xander. "Didn't Aphrodite think that he was gonna be a nice guy for you to see?"
"Maybe. She never shared that part with me." He snuggled in. "Everything went fine?" he asked Willow.
"Seems to have," she agreed. "A year from now, Spike can give over the piece of soul and bring Strife back."
"A year of protecting him," Tara noted.
"A year of him living with Giles," Xander added.
"A year of having him asking to jump in between us," Willow agreed.
"Can we hurry it up?" Xander asked.
"Giles'll be insane," Willow agreed.
"Guys, it has to merge with what he is," Tara reminded them. "It takes a year to get to be more his than Xander's soul."
"There's no way to speed that up?" Xander asked, looking toward the stairs. "I feel like he's pregnant and it's my kid," he whined.
"Yup, that's what the spell said it would feel like," Willow agreed. She and Tara shared a look then broke into snickers. "Spike, pregnant," she giggled.
"With Xander's kid," Tara finished. "A little Harris that pops out and calls him a name whenever he tries to breast feed it."
Xander started to laughing, putting his voice up into the falsetto range. "Big Bad? Maybe Big Bad smell!" he mimicked. "Right after birth." The three of them cuddled together, shrieking with laughter.
Spike rejoined them, glaring at the trio. "Bloody tossers," he muttered. "I'm not pregnant," he shouted.
"Yup, that would take an act of a God," Hephaestus said as he appeared. He leaned down and hugged Xander. "You okay?"
"Very okay," he said, grinning up at him. "You guys gonna come cuddle after all since Spike refuses to cuddle next to me?"
"Nope, we've got Bliss again tonight. Cupid worked himself too hard to get everything cleared up for when Strife comes back that he's made himself sick."
"Oh." He pouted. "You can bring Bliss down. I'll read to him again."
"Nope, he's grounded. He got mad at Zeus and made him fall in love with one of Hera's peacocks."
Xander started to laugh again. "Oh, man," he gasped. "I want film of that."
"Nope. Zeus would have you killed if you saw it," Hephaestus said, but he was smiling. "That's how we found out about Cupid being sick." He patted Tara on the head, he liked her. She'd grown so confident over the last year, and was turning into quite a woman. "We'll still be down for breakfast. Ares promised to come get him in the morning."
"Okay," Xander said, smiling up at him. "I'll be okay tonight. If I have to, I have my little white crutch."
"Okay," Hephaestus agreed, standing up. "You know she doesn't like to hear about those, right?" he reminded his lover. Xander nodded. "Good. Don't use them in front of her, Xander. Neither of us will live through the next mothering fit she goes through."
"Yes, Hephie," he said, lifting himself up some, silently asking for a kiss. Which he got, right before his God left. He smiled as he relaxed, letting his burning stomach muscles quit protesting. He looked over at Spike. "Sure you don't wanna stay?"
"Are you still taking the sedatives?" Willow asked, starting to look worried.
"Only when I have nightmares. Maybe one or two a month," he told her, giving her a squeeze.
"Oh," she said dully. "It's not gone away yet?"
"No, I still have the feeling that someone's waiting for me to step out into the dark so they can get me and finish what Hercules didn't," he told her, needing to be honest. "It's really annoying too. There's been so many nights that I really wanted something, like a candy bar or a snack, but I couldn't step out the door."
"But we can't feel anything," Tara told him. "I've even checked, Xander."
"Which is why it's really odd," Xander reminded her. "Not even rational thought can make me step out that door right now." He looked over at Spike. "How about you? Wanna go out right now?"
Spike started to nod, but then he started to feel queasy. "No," he said sullenly. "Must be affecting me too."
"It's targeted," Willow said, jumping up. "It's got to be if Spike's feeling it too!" She pulled Spike up, letting him keep his cup as she dragged him down the stairs.
"Willow, we're supposed to be protecting him," Tara called, rushing after her.
Willow opened the door and stepped out, holding out a hand. "Come here, Spike. We need to know this."
Spike took a step out and started to shudder. He quickly went back inside, back inside the warehouse's shields Willow had learned from Aphrodite. "Can't." He glared up at the lounge area, seeing Xander looking over the back of the couch. "I can't go out."
"So it's a targeted menace," Willow said, stepping back inside and closing the door. Someone knocked after she got it closed so she opened it again, smiling at the Chinese deliveryman. "Gee, that was fast. Tara, do you have the cash?"
Tara stepped up and handed over the cash, taking the large bag. She frowned at the look in his eyes. "Vampire," she said, stepping back.
Willow frowned and picked up the stake hanging beside the door, showing it to him. "We kill vampires," she told him, watching him run away. She slammed the door and reset the alarm, taking the bag to go back up to the lounge.
"Neat trick that," Spike said in admiration. "Lots of people invite in deliverymen without thinkin'."
Tara nodded. "Yup. I've even done it once or twice while I searched for cash." They started to walk back up. "Did it feel like someone watching you or someone about to pounce?"
"The second," he said, taking a sip of his blood. "Like a big cat about to pounce on little mousy me." He finished his mug and went to warm up some more, knowing the witches wanted to talk about it.
Tara sat down next to Xander, taking the Mooshoo pork from him. "Do you feel like you're about to be pounced?" He nodded. "Can we test you?"
"Not tonight," Willow said with a yawn as she walked up the stairs. "I'm sleepy."
"I've got the extra foldaway," Xander offered. "Not the most comfy but it's still okay."
"Thanks," Willow said, smiling at him. "I might take you up on that." She looked down at Spike. "What about him?"
"If he doesn't want to cuddle up with me, there's always the new bunker downstairs. It's got a bed and everything. Even lights." His grin got brighter. "Hephie took out his frustration on a piece of work by digging a hole, then he decided it'd be a good thing for Spike."
"Where's the door?" Spike called up.
"The little ring under the stairs," Xander called down. "Pull it to the left." He listened as Spike went down to check out the bunker, yawning himself. "Nap?" he suggested.
"Sure," Willow agreed, helping Tara up and over to where Xander had parked his first new bed, a double folding cot. It was always made up for them in case they needed to stay over.
"Oy!" Spike called up. "This is huge!"
"Yup." Xander slowly got up, heading down to the bunker to look it over. He pointed at a door once he was standing beside Spike. "We even put in a bathroom."
Spike smiled, nearly a grin but you'd never tell him that. "This is great, Xander." He gave him a brief hug then grimaced. "Stupid soul."
Xander punched him on the arm. "Be nice or I'm gonna make you sit upstairs and not keep us awake."
"You said it had cable?" Spike asked.
"No, I said we could run cable," Xander corrected. "If you're going to stay over a lot, we'll run a receiver down here from the dish so you can watch porn all night." That got another of those near-grins. "Bed's behind the curtain. There's a little fridge in case you wanted to stock something," Xander told him, pointing at the little door build into the dirt wall. "It's all reinforced so it won't come down on your head too."
"S'great," Spike murmured, going to check it out again. "And I can have it?"
"Sure, you've got part of my soul, you can have part of my place too. This'll give Giles some time alone when he needs it and you'll still be safe so we don't have to put Willow through the spell again."
Spike nodded his agreement. "Yup, wouldn't want to have to go through that again," he muttered as he went back over to test the bed out. "Thanks, mate. Real nice'a ya."
"Welcome," Xander said, walking up the stairs, his whole expression saying he was not happy. He wasn't used to people not liking to sleep with him after they've done it once. He climbed up to his room, quickly stripping off the sheets so he didn't have to smell what they'd done, and remaking the bed as fast as he could. He curled up in the middle, a dejected lump of Xanderness. He knew as soon as he started to dose off that he was going to have nightmares, so he got up to take his medicine, making sure to take the right amount. He started to yawn as soon as he hit the sheets, quickly rolling himself back into a lump as he fell back into his mind and slept.
Tara looked down at Willow, who was frowning at the ceiling. "He knows best when he needs it," she told her girlfriend.
"Yeah, but if he was being cuddled, he wouldn't be having them."
"Neither did Buffy when she snuck in with us that time," Tara agreed, "but we can't take in Xander and Buffy. They've got to start moving on on their own."
"I know, but it sucks that he's got to be chemically dependant to sleep alone."
"Not all the time," Tara reminded her. "He said so."
"He's had to take them even when he's slept with us," Aphrodite said as she appeared. "It didn't work?"
"Nope, he had to take a pill," Willow told her. The Goddess frowned. "Not what you wanted to know?"
"No. Xander's supposed to be picking up one of his first good lovers around this time, like tonight."
"Spike snarked at him," Tara said helpfully.
"Oh, man," Aphrodite said, sitting carefully on the edge of the bed. She remembered quite well the time she had thrown Xander from it when it had tipped on her.
"Maybe it wasn't meant to be Spike," Willow offered helpfully. "Was it a specific time?"
"No," she said, starting to pout. "Not a specific time or person that the Fates would tell me." She glared at the bedroom area. "He had to take a pill?"
"He laid down and then got up and took one," Willow told her.
"That means he was seeing those funny mental pictures again," Aphrodite said thoughtfully.
"Oh, and we figured something out about the dark thing he has," Willow said, sitting up. "Spike's got it now. He said it's a pouncing feeling. Like he's a mouse and there's a cat watching and just coiling up to jump."
"Hmm. If Spike's got it too, then it's definitely targeted at Xander."
"What about Buffy's?" Tara asked.
"Hers is different," Willow assured her. "Buffy's actually become afraid of the dark. She can go out, but she doesn't like to."
"Sucks to be her then," Aphrodite said, standing up but catching the cot before it could flip. "Sorry, girls."
"It's okay," Tara said, hugging Willow. "I was about to grab her anyway."
Aphrodite smiled at them. "Good. That's what I like to hear." She walked up to Xander's room, sitting down behind his lump under the blankets. "You're such a sweetie," she told him, gently stroking his hair, knowing he couldn't hear her when he took his pills. He was too far gone to get up if there was a fire in his bed. He wouldn't even get up if she started to play with him, she knew, she'd tried it once. "I thought Spike was gonna be one of the ones for you, babe, but I guess I was off on my timing. I'll go check again." She stood up, smiling down at him. "I'll be back in the morning. You sleep good." She blew a kiss down at him then turned and ran into her son. "Hey, Cupid. Any luck with the Fates?"
"No, they said it'd happen but not an exact date." He sniffled some. Being worn down was very nasty for the Gods. "Did the spell work?"
"It did," she agreed halfheartedly.
"Then why so glum?"
"Because Xander was supposed to meet someone around tonight that'd be one of his ones. And it's not Spike like I thought."
"Ah." Cupid nodded. "I kinda figured that one out. Spike would never admit that he wanted him, it's too risky. But I doubt they'd get along either. Too alike in some ways."
"Point," she agreed. "So who is it?"
"Not a clue," he said, fading out. "Going home."
"Good, go rest, you sound worse," she called after him. She went down to check the alarm, frowning down at the bunker and the blond head she could see down there. "Spike?" she called as she headed down to join him. "Why don't you like Xander?" she asked bluntly.
"Because he needs stuff I can't give him," Spike said seriously. "He wants to cuddle and stuff and I'd never do that." He shrugged. "We're too alike, but not enough to make it work."
"Oh." She sat down, frowning at him. "I think Cupid was right, you won't admit it, even if you did want him."
Spike shook his head. "Nope, I won't. He's not for me. Can't see him living my life, can you?"
She shook her head. "No, I can't. Any idea who he was supposed to hook up with then?"
"Not a clue," Spike told her. "He's not seen anyone outside of work and grocery shoppin'." He rubbed his chest. "It transferred over. I heard the witches tell you, but there's more to the pouncing than that. It's almost like it knows who you are and what you are. Almost words but you can't hear anything."
"Hmm. I'll pass that along. Maybe someone will have an idea." She stood up. "Thank you, Spike. If Cupid doesn't get around to saying it, I will. You're saving my son's sanity." She headed back up to do her chore of checking the alarm then left.
Spike settled in for the night, comfortable in his new crypt. Even if he did have to think about all this.
Upstairs, a pale blue/gray glow started to show around the side of the bed and a ghostly hand reached out to touch the boy laying there.
*** Six Months After The Spell ***
Giles looked up as Spike walked into his shop through the sewer tunnel, nodding him toward the office since he was dealing with customers. "Thank you, come again," he told the woman who had just bought some fake robes. He stepped toward the office and smiled at the vampire. "How are you this evening?" he asked.
"Grumpy," Spike noted, putting his feet up on the desk. "This soul crap is bloody awful."
"I can understand that, but it's half over," Giles offered, leaning against the door frame. "It could be worse, we could have cursed you with one when you first came to us."
"Point," Spike agreed grudgingly. He frowned at the covered window. "Still haven't figured out what's out for the whelp's life?"
"Just that it has something to do with the attack that night," Giles said quietly, glancing behind him. Willow was somewhere in the shop getting herbs and the components she needed for a new spell and she had screamed the last time anyone had mentioned that night in front of her. "I haven't been able to figure out where it's coming from."
"The dead, or so I'd say," Spike told him. "Everyone associated with that night is either dead or on Xander's side."
"Point," Giles agreed, looking a little startled. He had never thought about that. "But those two aren't dead. Hephaestus said they were in suspended animation."
"Maybe," Spike agreed, "but did they have allies?"
"Possibly," Giles said thoughtfully, going to look at the history book Aphrodite had given him for his birthday. It should have something in there that could be useful. He found the book he wanted and brought it over to the register, reading while he waited for someone else to finally purchase something.
Spike grinned to himself. Getting the Watcher motivated meant he could go out and hunt sooner. And Xander could quit huddling inside his fortress. Maybe the boy'd even be able to get off his medications if the Watcher got this figured out. He hummed to himself, pulling out his knife to clean his nails. It was his turn to watch the store while Giles went out on patrol with Ilaria and Buffy; it was time to get Buffy back into the swing of things. She'd had enough of a break and was fully better now. They'd all taken turns going out with the girls, except him and Xander, who only worked on their training, trying to get Buffy back into shape to do her duty.
He heard a crash and jumped up, going to see what had happened this time. "Whelp?" he asked, going over to help Xander, who it appeared had slammed his fist through a window. "Let me see," he growled when Xander just stood there not moving. He pulled the limp hand out of the glass, looking it over for cuts, pressing down on the large one on the wrist. "Get some bandages," he called to Giles, who had headed for the training room. He led the young man over to the table, getting him sat down and arranged so they could attend to him. "What happened?" he asked.
"I..." Xander looked up at him. "I don't feel good."
"Obviously, you just put your hand through a glass door," Spike grunted, taking the wet washcloth someone was holding out to him. "Get him bandages," he told Willow, who was dancing around behind him. "Find the Watcher too. He's gone somewhere else."
"Giles?" Willow asked as she headed for the first aid kit.
"No, him," Spike said, pointing at Xander.
"Xander?" Willow asked gently as she came back to the table. "Are you okay?"
"I don't feel good," he repeated, looking at her. "I hurt." She nodded but he didn't go on.
"Do we need stitches?" Giles asked, bringing out the extended version of the first aid kit, the one they used after doing patrols and saving the world.
"Maybe," Spike told him, getting out of his way. "He's not talkin'. Just says he don't feel good."
"I have no doubt he doesn't feel good," Giles agreed. He unwound the washcloth from the damaged wrist and frowned at the shallow cut. "Yes, he might do with a few stitches. Willow, get me one of the sterile packs." He took the offered package, setting it on the table. He pulled on the gloves first, then opened the pack he had made up. It had everything he needed to do some minor stitching, including the bandages for after he was done. As he worked, he frowned at Xander's blank look. "Willow, do call on someone. This isn't normal."
Willow took a few steps back and lifted her head. "APHRODITE!" she screamed.
Giles glared at her. "I didn't say to yell," he chastised.
"Hey, it's all good," Hephaestus said as he appeared. "What's up?" He looked down at Xander, snapping his fingers in front of his face a few times. "What happened to him?"
"Don't know," Spike told him, pointing at the door. "He did that and then started saying he didn't feel good."
"I have no doubt of that," Ares said as he appeared. "He's in shock." He looked down at the neat stitches and nodded. "Very good field work." He tipped Xander's face up, looking down into his eyes. "Who's after you?" he asked, his voice quiet and seductive, trying to get the information out of him. "Who did this to you?"
"He got new medicines the other day," Willow reminded them, "but he seemed fine the next day."
"It's not that," Giles said shortly, clipping the thread and putting down the needle. He picked up the large gauze pad and unwrapped it, placing it over the stitches. "Spike, a hand?"
Spike grabbed the tape and put it over the edges. "There," he said, stepping back. He looked Ares over. "What's up with him?"
"I can't tell," Ares said. "Hecate, a word?" he called softly.
A tall woman appeared next to him, brushing some of her dark hair back. "What's wrong?"
"We don't know," Willow told her, thrilled and panicked at the same. "First it was the thing he senses in the dark that wants to kill him and now this."
"Something in the dark?" Hecate asked. "A watcher?"
"No, more like a cat," Spike told her. "Waitin' to pounce and eat us. I can almost hear it callin' out to me, but not quite."
"Ah, I think I know what that is," Hecate said gently. "And it would be consistent with this incident also." She laid a hand on Ares' shoulder. "Do you remember when Strife started to watch Bliss?"
Ares stopped then started to nod. "Yeah. I remember real well. We had to beg Strife to stop because it was driving Bliss insane." He looked down at Xander. "But his is only in the night and he doesn't go out."
"But it's the same principle," Willow said excitedly. "He's being watched, he feels it even when he's not outside. That itself could be driving him nuts."
"He went blank," Spike reminded them. "He still hasn't come back."
Hecate leaned down to look at him, then shook her head. "Yes, it's not all that, not this time." She straightened up and looked around. "Witch, I need some things," she said, taking Willow's hand and showing her what she needed.
"Um, we have all that except the root thingy," Willow told him. "We don't have any roots right now, it's the wrong time of the year."
"I can do it without it. Make this substitution," she said, showing her what she needed. "Will you do that for me?"
"Of course," Willow said quickly, heading back to get what the Goddess over magic needed. She came back with her arms full and went back to get the rest. "Here," she said after her second trip. "Everything you wanted." Hecate gave her a smile which warmed her insides. "Thank you for letting me help."
"You're welcome. Consider it part of your training." She started to set out the candles first. "A mortal and pestle?"
"I'll get it," Giles said quickly, hurrying to get his own. He handed it over, being very careful not to touch her. "The pestle has a fissure in the handle."
"I noticed." She picked up a few pieces of each herb and dropped them into the bowl, starting to crush them. As she finished, she took some of the mixture and rubbed it on Xander's forehead in a straight line. "There, now we shall be able to see," she announced, nodding at Ares to look.
Hephaestus pushed him out of the way. "Our chosen one," he reminded her. He took Ares' hand and together they looked into his mind.
Ares pulled back with a shriek of rage. "I knew we should have destroyed her soul," he muttered, flashing out to go do something about the woman tormenting this mortal, the one who meant he was getting his nephew back.
Hecate sighed. "I thought it might be such. Was this part of what's been going on?"
"No, she's been the one watching him." Hephaestus shook himself, pushing Xander's mind out of his own. "This is totally different, but somehow related." He bowed to her, marking the formalities.
"Good. Then I'll leave you with this." She turned into a cloud of smoke and disappeared.
Hephaestus tapped Xander on the forehead, bringing him a little closer to reality. "Xan?" he called softly. "Come on. Time to not run away from the pressure and the voice."
"He's hearing voices?" Willow asked worriedly. "Is he going more insane?"
"He's not insane now," Hephaestus told her calmly. Sometimes, she bothered him. "He's got some problems that have known traumatic origins which he needs medication for." He turned back to the boy, smiling down at him when he saw that he was coming back a little more. "Hey, Xan. Come on out and play with the rest of us."
Xander lunged up and held onto his lover hard. "I could hear the voice. It's getting stronger," he whispered.
"I know. Ares has went to have a *talk* with her." He pulled the boy up, sitting down and letting him curl up in his lap for a few minutes. "It's all right, I promise," he said quietly, trying to calm the shaking down. "Even when she had you hurt yourself, you did it the right way."
Xander looked down at his wrist. "I'm not in trouble?"
"No, you're not in trouble. Gabrielle is in trouble, especially once 'Dite hears about this." That got a faint smile. "You feeling better?"
"No," he said glumly. "I was coming in because I could hear the 'cat's' voice, taunting me." He looked up at Giles. "It's getting stronger."
"I realize that, but it's being taken care of."
"But Hecate said that..."
"Excuse me? She was here?" Xander asked.
"Yup, and she said this latest attack was only kinda related to the others."
"I'm sure the cause of this one will make itself clearer once the other is taken care of," Giles said, patting her on the shoulder. "I do believe you were shopping?" She nodded and started to take the materials she had gathered back, putting them back in place.
Giles gave Hephaestus a grim look. "Will it be able to be fixed?"
"Yeah, it's tied up in bringing back Strife too," he noted. "We'll deal." He pushed Xander up. "Want to go home?"
"No, I promised to help Dawn tonight." Xander looked around the store, trying to see if they were alone. "Um, hi," he told the woman browsing among the shelves. He looked back at Hephaestus but he was gone. "Okay. Giles, where's Dawn?" he called as he headed for the training room.
"In the study area we set up for her," Giles said, stopping him to give him a hug. "We'll get this settled soon enough," he promised. "Whenever you're ready, just tell me and I'll walk you home."
"That may not be necessary," Willow said as she came up to the register. "If Ares can fix this then he might not need it." Xander and Giles looked at her. "What? If he fixes it, Xander won't have a problem with nights anymore."
"Maybe," Xander agreed, heading back to the study room. He'd believe it when it happened, not before. Not that he didn't trust the Gods, but even they had to spend a little bit of time solving most problems. He slid into the second seat, pulling Dawn's book away from her so he could see what she was studying. "Sex Ed? You need help with that?" he asked, passing the book back.
"Yeah, I've got a test tomorrow." She grimaced. "Can you help me study?"
"Sure. What's the major problem areas?"
"Reproductive system first?" she requested.
He shrugged off his unease and nodded. "Sure. Male or female first?"
"What are you doing?" Giles asked from the doorway. "I thought I heard the word reproduction."
"You did," Dawn said, giving him a smile. "I've got a test tomorrow on human reproductive systems in Sex Ed." She nearly laughed as the older man went pale, all but his pinkened cheeks.
"I see. Well, let's just close the door then, so no one gets the wrong idea of course." He closed the door behind himself, hurrying back to the register.
Xander and Dawn looked at each other and snorted, shaking their heads. "Okay," he said, taking the book back. "Male?"
"Sure," she said, nodding. "Let's see, we start with the testes...."
Xander looked down at the chart, nodding as she hit each point and told him what it was for.
Halfway through, someone knocked on the door and walked in, interrupting Xander's correcting of Dawn's definition of ovaries. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said.
"That's okay, I need a break from studying for my test," Dawn said lightly, standing up and stretching. "Xander, soda?"
"Please," he said, giving her a smile. "Bathroom's the next door to the right," he told her. She nodded and disappeared. Quickly. He snickered but looked down at the very detailed diagram that he had been working from. "Why didn't we have this while I was in school. Biology class would have been much nicer if we had."
"We even get resin molds," Dawn said as she walked back in, handing over a soda. She wrote out a note and stuck it to the door, closing it and sitting down.
"What did that say?" Xander asked.
"Teenager working on Sex Ed homework. Please leave alone before you are hugged." Dawn grinned at his mock-shocked look. "What?" she asked innocently.
"Dawn!" Giles yelled through the door.
"We just shocked the lady looking for the bathroom," Dawn called back, still looking innocent. "I thought it'd be easier that way."
"To shock them, certainly," Giles said as he walked in. He handed over the note and took the offered piece of paper and pen, writing out one of his own and putting it on the door. "There. Please, try to be more tactful. Stores live on their customers." He shut the door again, going to make himself some tea. He really needed some tea.
Dawn smirked at her helper. "See, he needs a vacation."
"You won't catch me arguing," Xander agreed. "Kinda hard to do though, when you're him."
"Point," Dawn agreed. "But I lightened up his day some."
"And made his heart race no doubt," Xander said with a grin. "Okay, what's the ovaries again?"
Xander looked up as Dawn ran into his warehouse, waving her up to where he was lounging on the bed reading. "Hey, what's up?" he asked her, putting down his book.
She flopped down onto the end of his bed, pouting at him. "I have to do a paper on diseases."
"We're not talking colds or malaria here, right?" he asked. She shook her head. "Okay, so why come to me?"
"Because I need some help looking for resources and Giles about passed out, and Willow and Tara are still in class."
He thought for a minute then nodded. "Okay, but I don't have a computer, much less an internet connection. But I do have an idea," he said when her face fell. She looked at him when he didn't immediately spit it out. "Health Department. They're the ones who put out all those neat little booklets. They'd probably know where to look if they didn't already have the information."
"Cool," she said as she launched herself at him to give him a hug. "Can I call them?"
"Of course." He pointed at the phone. "Have at it. Which one did you pick?"
"I got given Syphilis." She laughed when he groaned. "Sorry." She skipped down, going to look up the County Health Department and give them a call. Maybe this would be easy after all.
Xander lay back on his bed, thinking about the time he had been given Syphilis by those Indian ghosts.
"At least you got better," a female voice whispered in his ear.
He nodded, smiling up at his friend. "Yup, I got better," he whispered back. "Bliss never showed up."
"He had to get bathed," Aphrodite said as she appeared, pushing some of her damp hair back. "He did something to make the temple hotter than the forge so we had to bathe him to cool him down." She laid down beside him, rubbing across his tense stomach. "It's okay," she promised. "Your check up tomorrow should okay you for everything."
"And if not?" He managed, barely, to keep his hands to himself. What he wanted to do to her wouldn't shock Dawn, but he didn't think she wanted to watch him indulge himself in her body.
"Hey, you and Hephy are having fun, no matter what you do," she reminded him.
"Yeah, but I miss what we used to do," he said, almost pouting. He hadn't been able to have real intercourse with Hephaestus since the night Hercules had pushed some of his intestine out of his body and it had to be put back in. He still had some stomach problems from that area, and his next appointment to check it was tomorrow. "Want to come with me?"
"Nope, he does." She gave him a light squeeze. "I promise, Xander, it'll be okay. Everything will be fine, no matter which way it goes."
He rolled into her, giving her a hug. "Thanks. You smell good sweaty."
She giggled. "I know. Hephie says the same thing." She pinched him on the butt as she heard Dawn coming up the stairs. "Hey, kiddo. How's school?"
"Boring, same as usual. I have to write a paper on Syphilis." She sat on the edge of the bed again. "What's the big? He not feeling good?"
"He's got another doctor's appointment tomorrow," she said. "They're going to look at his intestines."
"That's something that they never covered," Dawn said, looking at Aphrodite. "How do gay guys and lesbians have sex?"
Xander choked on his next breath. "What?"
"They never covered it in Sex Ed," Dawn explained. "I was wondering."
"Basically, for gay guys, it's like a het couple having anal sex, only with two men and a prostate," Aphrodite told her.
"Which would be how? They covered missionary and blow jobs, but only to remind us that flavored condoms are of the good," Dawn told her.
"Hmm." Aphrodite looked at Xander, then shrugged. "Let me go get permission and I'll gladly tell you anything you want to know, Dawnie." She disappeared, going to find Buffy and get her permission. Or Giles, whichever was more rational about it.
Xander looked at her. "Dawn," he sighed. "Why did you want to know?"
"Because I'm curious. I've been watching reruns of Loveline and Dr. Ruth." She grinned. "I wouldn't mind growing up to be her. She's pretty cool for such an old lady. Or that Morris guy on TLC that equates us all with animal reproductive urges."
Xander groaned and pulled a pillow over his head. "I don't want to know," he told her.
She giggled, enjoying his reaction greatly.
Aphrodite came back a few minutes later, smiling down at Dawn. "They're both being butts, but how about we go talk about this anyway?" she asked, holding out a hand.
"Can I be like Dr. Ruth when I grow up?" Dawn asked.
"Nope," Aphrodite told her, "you're not Jewish or short. But if you want her job, I'll gladly start you in that direction." They disappeared, leaving Xander alone.
Xander sat up and looked around. "I know somehow Buffy is going to blame this on me," he muttered, getting up to get himself something to drink. A little flying blur appeared behind him, latching onto his back as he hit the first step, giggling when he had to catch himself. "Hey, Bliss," he said, reaching back to tickle him. "Ready to be read to?"
"Sure!" Bliss shouted, wiggling on the back, more than happy to get a ride downstairs.
Xander looked up as Buffy stormed into the study room, giving her a bland look. "Dawn'll be back in a few," he offered.
"Not the point! I told her not to tell Dawn about any of that."
"Because she doesn't need to know," Buffy pointed out.
"All she's giving is information," Xander told her. "It's up to you and Giles to give her the moral code to go along with the information." He stood up carefully, his worry over his appointment tomorrow had wrecked his stomach again. "Get over it, Buffy, Dawn asked for the information."
"And what about that call from the Health Department? Your *friend's* putting her on birth control?"
"No, she's got a paper to do on Syphilis," Xander said dryly. "It was my idea to call them and ask them about different forms of information." He glanced out at the store to make sure no one was in close hearing range. "Buffy, hate to tell you this, but even if Dawn were on birth control," and he knew she was, she had confessed it to him after she had started the pill, "she's old enough to do that without your permission. It doesn't mean she's sexually going at it, but it does mean that she's a very careful young woman."
Buffy's eyes narrowed. "Yeah, real careful. Guess what I found last week in her bookbag?"
"Why were you snooping in her book bag?" Tara asked as she came in.
"I found pills!" Buffy complained, throwing her arms up. "My little sister is on birth control."
Tara nodded. "Yeah, she was having a problem with her acne becoming really bad so she was offered that as an alternative," Tara told her. "It's to clear all that up." Buffy opened her mouth. "Besides, we all know Dawn's not seeing anyone." She looked at Xander. "We got a message, did you help her?"
"I suggested she call the health department to get some help on her disease paper."
Tara stopped for a second, then nodded. "Okay. Willow was going to get her into the CDC's database to help her tonight." She smiled at Buffy. "Spike's here to take you girls on patrol."
Buffy sighed and stomped out, leaving them alone.
Xander mouthed the words, 'Aphrodite, even though Buffy said no,' and Tara nodded, understanding it very well.
"Good," Tara said. "She'd know more than I would." She nodded back out to the shop. "Want to come help me at the register? Willow was going to go on patrol with them."
"Sure," Xander said, picking up the study stuff and putting it away then following her out to help man the front of the shop. Dawn appeared a few minutes later, but not before Buffy and Ilaria had left for the evening. He nodded toward the training room. "She's in there." He stopped Dawn. "She found you anti-*acne* medicine in your *bookbag*," he warned her.
Dawn's eyes narrowed. "Great. A spy." She walked in there, glaring at her sister. "What were you doing searching through my things? It's not like I don't hand you in every note from every teacher and do all my homework. You had *no* right to go through my things." She put her hands on her hips, glaring at her sister. "Nor do you have any reason to tell me I can't learn things! I was just curious, chill!"
Buffy's mouth gaped open.
"Dear, we though it was best that you not learn that sort of material for a few more years. You're only fifteen."
"I'll be sixteen in a few more weeks," Dawn reminded him. "You know what we talked about? Why gay couples love each other and how they're no different, for the most part." She looked at her sister. "And you'd better hear me now, *sister*, if you go through my things again, I will do something horrible to you in your sleep. I've been around this shop long enough to know what sort of slimy things like you when you sleep." She turned and stormed out, heading out into the night.
Tara ran after her, going to try and calm her down.
Xander stuck his head into the training room. "Guys, overreacting is a bad," he reminded them. "Just because Dawn wanted to know what was up with gay couples doesn't mean she's going to turn that way." Buffy flushed, so did Giles. "Knew it. You guys, she's very straight. She's way into guys, and a few of them are even looking to turn into decent human beings once they grow up." He went back to ring up the customer. "Find everything?" he asked.
"Actually, I was wondering what that was about."
"Family squabble," he said with a faint smile. "Teenaged girl who wanted to know more than her big sister and guardian thought she should." He took the credit card and ran it through the machine, tapping in the amount of the sale. He tore off the slip and handed it over, watching as it was signed, checking it against the signature on the card. "Thank you. Come again." He turned around after the man was gone, giving Giles a smile. "At least she wanted to get information from a credible source. She could have just went out and tried it."
Giles blanched. "Yes, thank you for that."
"Not my thing, 'Dite offered after Dawn asked me and I choked." He grinned at Buffy. "And you, you know that Dawn's a very careful girl. She's not going to be backseat hopping like some girls in our classes were. Give her some credit. She only wanted information, and she got it without going out and figuring it out, possibly with ending up in the hospital."
"And what if she starts to like those ideas, huh?" Buffy asked.
"Then that's her way, Buffy," Willow told her. "You'll have to learn to live with it. There's plenty of women in the world who like anal sex, possibly even more women than there are gay men in the world. Any kinks she grows, she'll at least know how to do it carefully."
"She told me she had a serious like for Dr. Ruth," Xander offered.
"Eww," Buffy said, shuddering. "I can not see my sister going after someone that old."
"Not like that," Xander said, whapping her on the arm. "Like wanting to follow in her footsteps. And hey, Dawn can now be the one that everyone comes to for advice in school. Every class needs one of those."
Buffy didn't look very happy but she had calmed down. She nodded Ilaria outside. "Come on, let's go." Spike and Willow followed her out into the early evening, going to do a patrol.
Giles patted Xander on the shoulder. "You handled that very well," he congratulated. "Next time though, do take our wishes into account."
"Wasn't me," he reminded the older man, "not that I objected. I see nothing wrong with having the knowledge. At least she won't be backseat hopping to figure it out and getting badly hurt, or killed. Could we handle it if one of her partners roughed her up? Or Gods forbid, gave her a disease?"
Giles shook his head. "No, I wouldn't handle that very well. Thank her for me. I hadn't even thought about that side of the debate." He went back into his office.
Xander relaxed, the arguments he had worked on all afternoon had worked and Dawn wasn't going to get more than a lecture on morals when she finally went home. He smiled at the customer coming up to the register. "Find everything all right?"
"No, actually, I need some Willow bark."
"We just got a shipment of that, let me send someone to get some for you. How much did you need?"
"Maybe two pounds. I make my own aspirin."
"That's cool. Giles, we need two pounds of Willow bark and you haven't put it out yet."
"I'll get it," he called, coming out to go back into the storage area.
Dawn came into the store the next day, singing and nearly dancing. "I get to be Dr. Ruth when I grow up," she sang happily at Xander, who was standing behind the register. "Don't you have to work today?"
"Nope, we're between jobs on the site. Giles said I could come here and do this until they needed me again." He grinned at her. "How hard did they yell?"
"Not much. I got more of a lecture about being celibate until I'm eighty," she said with an eye roll. "I promised not to add any new members to the group until they had at least aged another ten years."
"Good. Though, a baby around here might be okay. Gives us something to fight for, and about," he admitted.
"I still wouldn't change it," Dawn told him, hopping up to sit on the counter. "That was my main reason for not adding to the group." She grinned at Giles as he walked in. "He was even pretty cool, asked me what I had asked about. Reminded me that if there was anything that I wasn't sure about, that I could come and ask you for advice and safety tips." Xander snickered at that. "He also said that your idea of me going to the Health Department for my paper was a good thing."
Giles stopped in front of them. "Well, it would seem like they'd have all that information around there, they have to deal with it more often." He smiled at Xander. "I must say, Aphrodite did a very good job of giving her information. Everything associated with each topic, including safety."
"That's my girl," Xander said, giving him a smile. "What else did you expect?"
"Nothing, but I had to make sure. It's that horrid parental instinct that keeps popping up," Giles said, matching his smile. "Now, how was your appointment?"
Xander shrugged. "I won't know for another day. They had to scope me again."
"Eww," Dawn sighed. She had mistakenly asked Willow what Xander had meant the last time he had been scoped, and had gotten a medical lecture. It had not been a pretty mental image.
"How soon will they know if everything's...normal?" Giles asked.
"Tomorrow afternoon, after they check the tape of the scoping." He shuddered. "Which was eww the last time they showed it to me. I did not need to know that much about my body."
Dawn patted him on the arm. "Just remember, some people like that."
He gave her a hug. "I know, I'm not one of them though. I prefer fingers, not medical equipment." Giles frowned at him. "What?" he asked, looking innocent. "She wanted to know about that stuff yesterday too."
Dawn nodded. "That was my first question. Aphrodite said it was like a het couple doing it that way, only with a prostate and two dicks."
Giles shuddered and headed for his office. "Please, Dawn, do not share that sort of information with us, me, again," he pleaded. He really needed a cup of tea.
Xander and Dawn high-fived, both chuckling as quietly as they could. Aphrodite was a killer friend, and if you wanted information, she gave it to you in the most graphic and reality-based format that she could. He wouldn't ask what else she had asked about, that would be snooping and he would leave that to Buffy. "Hephie," he said happily as his lover appeared, jogging over to give him a hug. "I'll know tomorrow."
Hephaestus hugged him back. "Good. Sorry I couldn't be there today. I had a special commission from Zeus."
"It's okay. They scoped me and the nurse was nice enough to hold my hand." Xander stepped back. "Are you done?"
"No, not yet," the God of the Forge sighed. "Not at all. For some reason, Zeus felt like he had to have more lightening bolts right now." He rolled his eyes. "He has a whole room full of them, but he needs more."
"As long as none of them hit us, I'll happily let you go," Xander joked.
"Good." Hephaestus gave him a hug. "'Dite's coming down tonight. Cupid wants to spend some time with Spike and she'll be bored with just Bliss."
"Hey, anytime, you guys know that," Xander reminded him quickly. "Should I wait on supper?"
"Nah. It won't be until later tonight." He gave the boy another hug. "Be careful tonight. I still worry about you." Then he disappeared.
"Aaaawwww," Dawn sighed. "You two are very cute together." She hopped down to come give him a hug. "I'm sure it's nothing."
"He's building up a weapons base," Xander explained, leading her back to the counter. "I don't want anyone I know to be hurt, not even by him."
"We won't be," floated down. "Relax."
"I'll try," Xander called back.
"Maybe you should take one of your 'just in case' pills," Dawn suggested. They'd had a major party when Xander got his anti-anxiety drugs moved back to a 'when needed' prescription. He had worked really hard to keep himself off them, but sometimes it wasn't a crutch, it was a necessity. "Giles has your emergency pill stash in his desk drawer."
"Yeah, maybe I should," he said, looking toward the office. Giles came out a minute later with a glass of water and one of his pills. "Thanks," he said, knowing they were watching him take it.
"It's all right," Giles told him, giving him a pat on the shoulder. "Sometimes you need to have a little help to step back and rationalize." He looked around the empty store. "Why don't you go home, Xander? Dawn and I can handle this."
"Sure, I've run the register before," she agreed. "This way, you can go clean up for Bliss."
"Point," Xander agreed reluctantly. "You're sure?"
"Yes, Xander. There's no one here." Giles watched as he gathered his things and walked out the door, heading back to his warehouse. "What was that about?"
"Hephie's making weapons for Zeus. Apparently the big guy got paranoid about how few he had, even though he had a whole roomful." Giles frowned. "Xan didn't want anyone he knew to be hurt."
"I can see why he's worried," Giles said, glancing around again. "That would worry me also, especially if I were as close to them as Xander is." He relaxed slightly, patting Dawn on the shoulder. "Yell for me if anyone should come in. I'm going to find my latest research project." He headed back into the office, trying to find his latest book so he could go back and read at the table.
*** One Year After The Spell ***
They all stood outside under a the new moon, Spike holding a candle and an earring in his hands, everyone around him just holding candles. It was finally time to do this. He lifted his face up to the weak light, smiling at the thoughts he was having about the rest of this night; he had some hunting to do. "I call upon you for the third time," Spike said, trying to stay not too obviously happy and have to do this again next month, like they had this one. "I call for you to come back to the plane you once ruled and to come to me for I have a gift for you." He blew out his candle, prompting everyone else to do so too.
A faint blue/gray glow started up next to Spike, and inside it you could almost see a slim form, but you couldn't tell what it was.
"Walk into it," Willow coached when Spike didn't move.
"It's him," she agreed.
Spike stepped into the glow, closing his eyes as he felt the soul be slowly peeled out of him. No ripping from this one. "I give this of myself to you. Make good use of it to keep the winged guy outta my hair," he growled as the last piece came free. He backed up and waited, watching as the dead God looked at the thing in his hands.
Suddenly, there was a bright light and Hades was there. "Nope, not quite," he said, taking the soul from the figure. "Sorry, she slipped out." He pulled her up and opened a large bag, shoving her inside. "This is Strife," he said, getting away from the glow that had followed him up. He handed over the soul. "He's your last child, Strife," he said when the dead God just stared from the soul to him and back.
Finally Strife looked up at Hades as he set the soul into his own chest, becoming more solid. "It's not all him, is it?" he asked once he could.
"No, part of it's mine," Xander said, ready for this. "I was asked to donate some of my soul to Spike so he could bring you back."
"Wow." Strife continued to solidify, glaring up at the sky every now and then. When he was all there, he tested his fingers, making sure everything worked.
"Here, got this from your Ma," Spike said, handing over the earring.
"Wow." Strife blinked at it, but it didn't move. "I'm a mortal, huh," he asked Hades dryly.
"Until you get some Ambrosia, yes," Hades agreed. "The sooner the better, otherwise you may start to die again." He lifted his head up. "Cupid!" he called. "Discord!"
"None of them have been around for days," Xander said helpfully. "Hephie said he had been called back to work on something for Hera."
"Bet me," Hades said, looking down at Strife. "Guard this one? I don't want him back yet. I'd like a few years of quiet."
Strife giggled. "Me? I was good!"
"You started a conga line with the souls waiting on the shores. They didn't want to come across," Hades reminded him. "Just stay here. Let me go figure this out." He disappeared, leaving them alone.
"Well, this isn't how I expected ta come back," Strife said finally, looking at everyone looking at him.
"Mine or yours?" Xander asked Giles.
"Yours. You have the extra room that's much safer." The older man bowed to Strife. "Welcome to Sunnydale."
"Better known as the Hellmouth," Buffy finished. "So what were you over?"
"Mischief," Strife said. "What are you?"
"Slayer. The older one." She glared at Ilaria, the cute, young, eighteen year old version. "She's the other." She looked at Spike. "You coming with us on patrol?"
"Nah, gonna go with this one. Feel kinda linked to him now." He grinned at Dawn. "You comin' with us?"
"No, she'll come see him tomorrow," Giles said quickly. "If there's something wrong, then there'll still be us as a safe place." He took Dawn's arm. "Girls, please escort us back. One never knows what's wandering around this town at night."
Buffy and Ilaria shrugged, Ilaria waving at Strife, then they escorted them back to the store, Willow and Tara going with them.
"Huh," Xander said once they were alone. "I guess they're worried after all." He looked at Spike. "Home?"
"Please." Spike pointed. "That way, mate," he ordered. "Follow the whelp to his car."
"Yup. It's safer not to walk at night in this town." He started off for his car, sending thoughts to his chosen Goddess and God, wanting to know what was going on. As he stuck the key in the lock, the thought hit him, making him freeze. "I'll be damned," he whispered, looking at Strife. "There was a reason Hephie was making weapons. Zeus doesn't want him back."
"Course not, the old fart's a sicko and I still know most everything he's ever done, even things Hera don't," Strife reminded him. "Can we go? This is a little open."
"Sure." Xander unlocked the door and leaned in to get theirs, coming up to look at the night sky again. "Huh. They're back out." Then he climbed into the car and started it, barely waiting for Spike to close his door before taking off. "We've got major big probs," he told Spike. "The message I heard said to look up at a certain pair of stars."
"Huh?" Spike asked.
"When the two *heros* were chained up, their resting place shined like two twin stars," Xander told him. "They're gone now. Aphrodite showed them to me one night while she was telling me what they were like as humans. Back while I was still healing." He turned a corner sharply, beeping at the group crossing down the street. "The stars are gone."
"So they're out," Spike said grimly.
"Tell me we're not talkin' about Herc and his Xena slut doll," Strife asked.
"Yeah, we are," Xander said, pulling up in front of his warehouse. He thumbed the garage door opener, but the door didn't open. "Spike?"
"On it," Spike said, getting out to open the door. "S'locked," he noted.
Xander stopped the car and got out, tossing over the keys. They did get inside the regular door portion, getting the nearly-God inside. "Wow," he said as he looked around at the mess. "Not nice. This was clean earlier. I wonder who's breaking the rules now?"
"Oh, I don't know," a familiar female voice said from beside them. "Not all rules are good and some should be broken."
"No, they're not," Xander said, turning around to face Xena. "But I'm still a chosen mortal and you still can't touch me or my things." He waved a hand around. "Welcome to my things."
"Ah, but this time, we're doing it on orders," she said, stepping up to him, chucking him on the chin. "Strife," she said coldly.
"Whore," he said back. Her eyes narrowed and she growled at him. "What? You were. You slept with Unc for your job with him, and you started doin' it with Dumbo over there as soon as you were put together as immortals." He looked at Hercules. "You still can't touch me, by Godly writ. Cupid declared that if I had to come back a mortal, I'm his chosen."
"Fuck, we need a demon about now," Spike muttered.
"Yup, might be nice," Xander noted. He glared at Xena. "Get out of my house and never come back. If you do, I've got weapons now and you can still be shot."
"I'm not here for you," she said, pushing him out of the way.
Xander flashed back to that night in the park, starting to shake as he remembered being nearly killed by Hercules. Instead of lying there, remembering, he consciously forced himself to get up and grab the nearest weapon, wanting, no needing, to work this out of himself. "I'm not scared of you anymore," he told her, slapping her across the head with the metal rod from his barbell set. "You're not welcome here and I won't let you hurt him. I gave up too much to get him back." He hit her again, while she was shocked. "You can eat shit and die for all I care but you will go away!" He hit her a third time but Hercules intercepted it, holding the rod in place.
"We're not here for you," he said calmly.
"You weren't 'there for me' when you neatly shoved six inches of my intestine out of my body either," Xander said coldly. "Or when you nearly killed me with my broken ribs and the intestinal bleeding they found a few days later. You weren't 'there for me'," he spat, "when I had to start taking medication because the very night itself started to remind me of you and I couldn't sleep. Or even when her little friend," he said, pointing at Xena, "tried to kill me for you two. You weren't 'there for me'," he noted his voice getting colder, "when I suffered for the last year because of you and your stupidity and muscular lack of brains. Get out, or I'm killing you both." He dropped the rod and backed up, heading for the rifle he had once put beside the door, taking it out and making sure it was still loaded. He flipped the safety off. "Out, or die."
Spike shook himself out of his own fear and looked at the boy. "Good one," he noted, pulling Strife behind him, mumbling something only he could hear. "Now," he said, pushing him, getting him to run over to the ring in the floor. Xena shook herself and started to go after him, but Spike tripped her. "Now, now," he said coldly. "Not nice." He glared at Hercules as soon as he heard the bolt lock in place. "I'm ready to die to see you leave this town," he told him. "And I will if I have to."
"Me too," Xander agreed. "I've already died once inside because of you. Dying physically won't be that different."
"Huh?" Hercules asked.
"I've already died inside, asshole. What you did to me changed the young man I was into this cold man standing in front of you ready to kill another human being. Aren't you proud."
"But...we're not here to get you. All we want is Strife. We have to keep the Gods from regaining dominance."
Xander laughed. "Really? Because when I asked Hades, he said it couldn't happen that way again. That humans had moved beyond that need in most ways and needed them in whole new ones." He cocked the rifle. "Out, or I'm shooting. Now!" he screamed when no one moved.
"Going," Xena said, moving towards the door. She did a lunge at him and found herself with a bullet hole in her stomach.
"I warned you," Xander whispered, backing up. "I warned you and you didn't listen! I warned you!"
Spike ran over to him, taking the gun and cradling the lost-looking little boy. "Get out," he said coldly, "before I call someone to take care of her."
"You need to do that anyway," Hercules said.
"Discord!" Spike shouted. "Xander shot the ho! Come laugh!"
Ares appeared, giving Spike a bland look. He stared down at the boy, then at Xena, then back at Xander. "Get him into the bathroom before he throws up there, then get him into bed. It'll be okay." He glanced around, then looked at the floor, making sure Spike caught his look. Spike nodded. "Thank you." He turned, standing between them so Spike could pick Xander up and move him. When they didn't move, he called that advice out to them, "Pick him up and move him if you have to."
"He's bleedin," Spike noted, picking Xander up. "That happens now when he gets too stressed." He carried the young man into his bathroom, taking the phone with him. "Giles, me, get over here now. Because *they're* here. Xander's made himself sick by shootin' *her*." He hung up, tossing Xander, clothes and all, into the bathtub before turning on some warm water. He walked back to the doorway, watching Ares lean down to look at Xena's wound. "He kill her?"
"A mere bullet won't," Ares called. "Why did he start bleeding?"
"Every time he gets stressed, he starts bleeding in his intestines." He made a decision, coming out but closing the door behind him. "Thanks to Herc, he's got a wonderful little spot inside, about six inches up, that's very weak. He can't even touch Hephie, it hurts too much, exposed an open nerve there or somethin'. He went to the doctors a few months back, gave him permission to have sex, but they still can't because it hurts too much."
"And Aphrodite didn't call Apollo why?"
"She said she talked to him but there wasn't anything to do." Spike shrugged, looking at Hercules. "Thanks to you, Buffy almost died that night. You gave her seizures. You gave her brain damage. She's slow now, much too slow to do her appointed duty by herself. The Council themselves nearly had her killed thanks to you and her. Proud of yourself?"
"It didn't have to be that way," Hercules said coldly.
"Yeah, you coulda controlled yourself," Spike noted. "You didn't have to use that much force. Half of what you did to Xander happened when you squeezed him 'round the waist." He pulled out a cigarette and lit it, blowing the smoke in Hercules' face. "Pity you never learned way back when. You'd be a happier sod now if you had." He looked at Ares. "Xander wanted them gone. He picked up the gun to make them go away before he lost it again."
"Go back to him, Spike. People in his condition aren't always rational."
"No pills in the house anymore. The only ones there are, are locked by Aphrodite's hand and he has to ask her for them." He took another drag. "I'm gonna go downstairs."
"Not yet," Ares warned. "Apollo?" he called. "Your father sicced them on the boy and he shot her, you fix it," he finished coldly.
The Sun and Medicine God appeared, looking down at Xena's abdomen. "Do you think I care?"
"No, but neither do I." Ares stood up, brushing himself off. "Take them both out of here or I'm going to remove them from life."
"Or, if you'd like, come look at Xander. He's doin' that funky bleedin' thing again," Spike offered.
"Yeah, I wanted to check that out. Aphrodite said something the other day that bothered me about that." Hercules put a hand on his arm and he glowered at the hero. "What? And I'd remove it."
"Fix Xena," he ordered. "Zeus sent us."
"Yay. Personally, I want Strife back. I'm tired of having to drug Cupid every few weeks." He looked around. "Where is he?"
"Downstairs. Whelp's in the bathroom."
"He's in shock," Ares said helpfully.
"All right, let me go check on the chosen then I'll look over Strife." He flashed out, heading into the bathroom, making Xander scream. "Shh," he said, pulling Xander in for a hug. "I'm sorry, I should have realized," he said, sending calming vibes toward the boy. "I'm Apollo," he said, pushing Xander back some. "Ares and Spike wanted me to look you over." Xander still looked scared so he let the boy's arms go. "There, how's that?" he asked once Xander was calmer.
"Aphrodite said you couldn't do anything, said you had my medical records and everything."
"I did, when you first got hurt, things may have changed since then," he said, staying calm. Even he could smell the blood. "Can I touch your stomach?"
"Yeah, but, um, the injured part's further back."
"I know. It'll be okay, dude, just relax." Apollo lifted up the wet shirt, laying his warm hand on Xander's stomach.
"Wow, something medical that's not cold," Xander joked weakly.
"That wasn't my idea. I've always thought warm was more soothing." He searched for the broken blood vessel, frowning at what he found. "Huh, that sucks." He removed his hand. "I can fix that for you, everything'll be like it was before you ran into the idiot out there."
"Can't you make him go away?" Xander pleaded.
"I can't, but I'm sure someone who can has already been called on," he said grimly. "Will you let me fix this for you when it's all over with?"
Xander nodded. "Please. I miss what Hephie and I had."
"Okay then. Let me go out there and be forced to take care of the ho. You want to come out?"
"Can I... can I have another weapon?"
Apollo felt his heart break when he saw how scared the boy was. "Sure," he said, making a dagger appear. "How's this?"
"Too close to use it," Xander said. "A gun? I don't want to get that close to them again."
"Sure." Apollo changed the dagger to a small handgun, handing it over. "Feel better?" The boy nodded so he let them both out of the bathroom, letting Xander walk beside him. "I can fix him, now," he told Ares. "I was right about what they did to him." He looked at Xena, then at his father, who was just now appearing. "Take them home, father, I'll get one of my minor priests to deal with her wound."
"You'll take care of it yourself," Zeus told him.
"No, you'll get her out of my house. I never invited her in and she trashed the place," Xander said boldly, hiding behind Apollo. "I'm chosen and I know that gives me special privileges about the Gods not coming in to hurt me."
Zeus glared at him. "Mortal, I'd be quiet and go away now," he warned.
"Or what, you're gonna finish what your son started?" Xander asked, getting a little braver. "I'm not scared of you. If you break your own rule, you're still subject to it."
"Who'll know?" Zeus said mildly. Ares raised his hand and so did Apollo. "You'd side with a *mortal*?"
"Yup, over your son," Ares said. "Gladly, every time. Hercules already almost killed him once and since he's protecting this town, and is chosen, he shouldn't be punished."
"Fine, then let no God but his chosen help him," Zeus said coldly.
"Bet me," Apollo said. "Aphrodite and he have both asked for my help and I'm gonna do something about it. If you don't like it, blow me." He put a hand on Xander's shoulder, calming the shaking he could feel. "Just because you're a fucker doesn't mean your son should be allowed to run rampant and kill whomever he likes, like he used to."
"I didn't kill anyone that didn't deserve it," Hercules ground out.
"Oh, really? Like your family?" Apollo asked snidely. "What did they do to deserve it? Be there? Exist?"
"You leave them out of this," Hercules threatened. He stared in awe as the gun the young man was holding was pointed at him. "You won't shoot me!"
"Why not, he shot her," Ares said, smiling at him. "And I totally agree. You sent them to break rules that they're not allowed to break either, knowing that they'd be destroyed for it." He crossed his arms. "Bet me that I'm going to let you take Strife out again, Zeus. Callisto told everyone in Tartarus that a voice told her to kill Strife, and that she recognized it. As your's." He smiled, all ice. "Apollo, send them somewhere else, before they traumatize the boy more."
"I'll be okay once they're gone," Xander said semi-bravely. "Just make them all go away."
"They're going," Apollo told him, trying to keep him calm. "Just don't point that thing at me, okay?" He walked over to Xena's moaning form, putting an energy bubble around her and sending her back up to Olympus. "We agreed to keep them chained up for five hundred years," he told Xander.
"Gee, does time run that differently up there?" he asked Ares.
"No, it doesn't," Ares said. "Not that much." He looked at his father. "Get out. Your own rules say that you can't hurt a chosen mortal."
"They never did the ceremony," Zeus snorted. "I can't see it at all." He watched as the boy rolled up his sleeve and showed him the mark. "Oh." He glared at him. "How dare you order me around, mortal," he yelled, his voice shaking the warehouse.
"How dare you come down here and endanger my life," Xander countered coldly. "You have no rights over me. I don't pray to you. My mother was Demeter's and my father is Baptist. My chosen Gods are Aphrodite and Hephaestus." He pulled the gun up. "Get your assholes and get out of my home. I don't want to hurt anyone, but I will defend myself."
"Agreeable," Ares said. "May I stay?"
"Yeah, you're nice," Xander said, looking hopeful. "Can you get mine too? I really could use them right now."
"Sure. They're locked in Aphrodite's temple." Ares disappeared, going to find someone to stabilize that boy before he made a *big* mistake.
"If you fire that, you take yourself outside of any protection," Zeus warned.
"Where was your protection when I was fifteen and had to stake my best friend? Or how about when your son nearly killed me last year? Huh? Where was your protection when my mother locked me away from supposedly ever knowing any of you?" He coughed to clear the lump in his throat. "Where were you when your son tried to kill me for protecting my friends?"
"Was your friend worth protecting?"
"Considering they named her a hero with them, and that was before Xena torched the building and the little old lady, yeah, I think so."
Zeus looked at Hercules. "Is that right?"
"You sat in judgement because of it," Apollo said lightly. He looked at the mortal. "Xander, I promise, he won't hurt you. If he does, he's going to be very sorry, if only because of Hera."
"You called?" Hera asked as she appeared, holding Bliss. Xander whimpered and reached out for him. "No," she said sharply. "Not while you have that weapon in your hands." Xander quickly dropped it and was given the little Godling to hug. "Aphrodite wanted to know why you couldn't fix it before?"
"Because when they fixed it, they did it wrong and fixing it would have caused more problems in that area of his body, but tonight when he got so upset, he retore a small section. I can fix that correctly and he shouldn't have any more problems."
"Good," Hera said, nodding. "I approve." She looked around. "I can feel Strife."
"He's safe," Xander said, sitting down to hug the little boy better. "I missed you," he whispered.
"Let him," Hera warned when Apollo started to get down there with them. "He needs some comfort. I'm sure Aphrodite and Hephaestus are on their way down too." No sooner had she spoken their names had they appeared and sat down to cuddle their mortal. "He's had a great shock?" she asked the vampire.
"Seein' your step-son was enough to do this to him," Spike told her. "Is Strife in trouble? I'd like him to live."
"I would too," she agreed. "We're not going to be able to take over dominance of the mortal plane, even with him here." She looked around again. "Where is he?"
"Downstairs," Spike told her. "Hidin' from the bullies." He snorted. "'Scuse me, heros who beat up people for being mortal an' not agreein' with them."
"I know," she said calmly. "Apollo, fix him now. Then go see to Xena so she and Hercules may be re-chained." She glared at Zeus. "No matter how much you want dominance, time has taught even me that it's not going to happen again. They don't need us that way anymore, Zeus. You need to move on with reality. Times have changed and life has moved on."
"Police," someone yelled from outside. "Open up."
Hera waived a hand at the door. "Come in," she said.
"Ma'am, we have reports of a gunshot?" he asked her. He looked at Xander. "Is he okay?"
"He's in shock. This man terrorized him and he came home to find him back in here," Hera told him.
"He was threatenin' him with the gun and it went off," Spike told him. "He burned down that building by the way."
"He did?" the cop said, looking Hercules over. "We only had reports of a female."
"I tried to talk her out of it, but when I found out I couldn't, I walked away, going to get some help for her," Hercules said stiffly.
"So you left a dangerous psychotic with arson on her mind knowing she was going to burn the building?" the cop asked. He pulled out his handcuffs. "That's accessory in this state. Against the wall."
"Now wait a minute," Zeus said. "My son..."
"Were you in this, sir?" the cop asked.
"No, we were elsewhere. We came down to apologize for what the great lumbering idiot had done to this young man," he lied as he scanned him. He didn't want to have to do something to this mortal too, but he would.
"Where's the woman?" the cop said as he grabbed Hercules' arm and spun him around into the nearest wall. "We've been wanting you both."
"She's long gone, and will probably stay that way," Hera told him. She nodded at Hephaestus to do something to him. So he put a manacle around Hercules' wrist, keeping him from using his powers. Hephaestus also laid a hand on Zeus' arm to make sure he couldn't do anything.
"Thank you, mother," Hephaestus whispered. He stood up, tugging Xander with him. "Come on, you need to get dry. Why did you jump into the shower?"
"Spike put me in there."
"He was in shock," Ares said as he walked out of the bathroom. "I turned off the water." He nodded upstairs. "Go get him comfortable. He's in great shock." He pushed Xander's face up. "Thank you for helping my nephew. I missed him."
Xander smiled at him. "Didn't seem fair that he had to be gone," he said quietly, going with the gently urging hands. "Can I keep Bliss for a while?"
"Sure, sweetie," Aphrodite called after him. She looked Spike over. "Feeling better?"
"Yeah, less souled. Still got some though," he grunted in annoyance.
"It happens to the best of us, champ," she said, going to open the hole and let Strife up. "Come on. They won't hurt you." She frowned when Strife hadn't appeared. "Strife?" she asked, walking down the few stairs. She smiled when she found her son curled up around the mortal, tightly holding him down. "Bring him up whenever you're ready," she told Strife gently, giving him a wink. "I think we can fix something up to help you." She jogged back up, leaving the door open. "Hey, Hera?" she asked as she walked back over to her. The cop coughed so she froze him. "Strife?"
"Will be allowed to come back, if he wants," she agreed regally. "What had been necessary at first has not been necessary in centuries." She looked up, feeling eyes on her. "Yes, dear?"
"Strife said Zeus didn't want him to tell what a freak he was," Xander said from his bedroom balcony.
"Strife's not a freak," Aphrodite said.
"Wrong man," Hera told her. "I have no doubt that Strife knew things about Zeus' behavior that I didn't. If that's what this has been all about, Zeus and I are going to have a *talk*." Xander nodded and disappeared into his bedroom. She unfroze the cop. "Now, please get him out of here. The longer he's here, the more certain it will be that Xander will need the medication we've recently gotten him broken of."
The cop nodded. "Gladly, ma'am. This guy'll earn me a promotion." He led Hercules out, kicking the door shut behind them.
"Mother?" Ares asked.
"He'll get his ambrosia as soon as I can get some down here and you can get Cupid off him," Hera told him.
"And my boy?" Aphrodite asked, clearly begging.
"He had to defend himself against Xena, and against his own fear. Why would I punish someone for defending themselves?" she asked.
"Cupid, let Strife up so he can come have a snack," Ares called.
"Yeah, the rest of us want a hug too," Aphrodite called down.
The couple's heads appeared out of the trap door. "What?" Cupid asked, well, whined. "Mine, get your own."
"We're trying to make him yours," Ares told him. "Let him come up here."
"Where's Xander?" Strife asked.
"Upstairs shaking," Ares told him, pulling him in for a hug. "I'm glad you're back," he said quietly.
"Me too," Strife joked. "Though, I had a killer thing started in Hades' realm. Gonna get a major energy boost from it." He looked at Hera. "I will get my powers back, right?"
"Yes, dear," she said, giving him a smile. "I had no intention of you not getting them back."
"Don't you dare," Zeus warned, and a lightening bolt appeared in his hand as soon as he shook his step-son off his arm. "If you do, you will face my wrath."
"Do it and face mine," Ares warned him coldly. "I wasn't idle while I was gone, *Father*," he spat. Zeus gave him a cold look. "So be it." Ares tipped his head back. "I call upon the warriors that protect this plane to protect my nephew," he called out.
A smallish, Asian man appeared beside him. "You called, oh lumbering God of War and Grumpiness?" he asked lightly.
"That's Strife," Ares said, pointing at him. "He gets fed Ambrosia, and if the old guy over there," he pointed at Zeus, "tries to stop it, then there will be another war between the Gods. You protect Strife."
"All right," he said, looking at Zeus. "The Master said I was going to get an easy assignment tonight."
"He knew?" Ares asked.
"Of course. The guy's been following you around for months. The kid upstairs too." He grinned. "He likes Ilaria to take a place on the team."
"Cool by me," Ilaria said as she walked in, bowing to Ares. "You called on me?"
"Protect the mortals," he said, nodding up at the bedroom. "And Bliss."
"Of course." She too faced off against Zeus.
"I called you, girl, I can send you back," Zeus warned.
"Go ahead. I miss my fathers greatly. And my brother," she said after a little bit of thought. "And Uncle Joxer. We were just talking by the way. Said something about subverting Justice means that you share the punishment of the person that you helped escape from his punishment."
Joxer appeared behind Zeus. "Yes, he will," he said, sealing Zeus inside a bubble of energy before he could protest. "Where's the mortal?"
"He didn't do anything," Spike protested. "'Cept protect himself from Xena."
Joxer held up a hand. "I have to look at him to tell that. Hercules called on me for Judgement. I will look at him."
"Okay," Xander said from the top of the stairs. "Do I have to walk down there?"
"Bliss is up there, he's not coming up to do anything in front of him," Aphrodite said, glaring at Joxer. "How could you?"
"Relax," Xander called, heading for the elevator. He rode down on it, walking slowly over to stand in front of the God of Justice. "Whenever you're ready," he noted.
Joxer put a hand on the boy's head, then nodded. "I see no reason for punishment. Maybe for a job offer..."
Aphrodite squealed in rage, "My mortal!" She created a big rolled up newspaper and smacked Joxer in the head with it. "Mine, bad you."
"Don't hit him," Ares warned her, taking the rolled up paper.
"I can see who's been watching Bliss the most," Joxer said dryly. "I was going to ask you first, Aphrodite. Quit worrying. If someone asks, I have to check and see if I have to punish them. It's the rules." She opened her mouth. "Quit now and I'll forget what you did last night," he told her.
She shut her mouth and turned around, helping Xander back upstairs. "Come on, sweetie, you need your rest so Apollo can fix you."
"He just did, but I'm still sore," he told her, stopping to give her a hug. "I like you too, lots."
She smiled. "I'm glad." She got him onto the elevator and pushed the button to go up. "You never say that you love me," she noted quietly.
"Remember the last time I tried?" he asked. She shook her head. "You stopped me. I do love you," he told her, giving her a hug.
"Mine," Hephaestus said from the entryway, grabbing Xander much to his shock.
"We agreed to share," Aphrodite reminded him, giving him a smile. She hugged Xander from the back, snuggling him between them.
"I like this, but I'd like to be laying down," Xander mumbled into the hard chest. "My butt kinda hurts."
"Sorry," Aphrodite said, leading him over and tucking him in, smiling when Bliss planted himself firmly on top of the mortal's chest. She laid down on his left, letting Hephaestus get his right side, and they cuddled him together.
Downstairs, Ilaria was grinning up at her Uncle Joxer. "Am I done here?"
"Not until Buffy's better," he told her, giving her a hug. "Soon, my little dancer, soon." He handed her over to Ares to give a hug, and turned to look at Strife. "Hey. You feeling okay yet?"
"I was okay when I came back, just kinda weirded out by the whole mortal thing."
"Here," Hera said, waving a hand and bringing the tray she had made up as soon as she had felt the spell begin. "Eat it all, Strife. Do not share it with Cupid."
"Yes, ma'am," Strife said, picking up the first piece of ambrosia to nibble on. "Great, thanks," he told her, looking upstairs.
"Ah, yes, the other stipulation," Hera noted. "You will get a chosen mortal soon. There's much for you to catch up on."
"I've been watchin' the mortal realm," Strife told her. She remained unmoved. "Okay. Think I could borrow theirs for a bit? He was always pretty fun to watch over." He looked at Cupid, who shrugged.
"I don't mind. He's pretty cool and he babysits Bliss for me." He looked upstairs. "Hey, mom, can we borrow Xander as our chosen until Strife finds one for himself."
"Sure," Xander called down. "They're presently arguing, but I wouldn't mind having more friends."
"As long as it stays that way," Hephaestus called down. "I remember when we all shared the same mortal."
"Hey!" Joxer called. "It wasn't my fault that you guys got jealous of each other and Ares had to steal me from you four."
Hera and Ares shared a secret smile. They both knew what the Fates had planned for this boy. Even if Aphrodite hadn't figured it out yet. "We'll be going now," she announced. "Strife, we'll expect you back at sunrise tomorrow for the formal reintroduction." He nodded, still munching through the tray full of ambrosia. "Good. Do remember what happened the last time you played with your food," she said cryptically before leaving.
Ares waved. "I'll see you in the morning too. I want to spend some time with my consort. Joxer?"
"Coming," he said with a grin. "Let me go put him somewhere safe until I can formally pass judgement." He waved Zeus away and took Ares' hand, giving his niece a smile. "See you soon, Ilaria, be careful." They disappeared together.
Ilaria looked at the young man, nodding as she liked what she saw. "Wanna go talk to my boss? He's a Watcher."
"Sure. Rayden said I was gonna be here for a while and he'd come get me when it was time to go home." He followed her out the door.
Discord sniffled as she appeared, giving her son a quick hug. "Welcome home," she said, giving him a pinch on the arm. "Don't get dead again, okay?" He nodded and she gave him a small smile before disappearing.
Strife looked at his lover. "You ready for bed?"
"We've got room if you want," Hephaestus called down. "Xander said so."
"Nah, we'll be down there tonight," Strife called back. "We'll need privacy."
"Door latch is on the wall beside the stairs," Spike told him.
"Good," Cupid said as he grabbed Spike, following behind his God as they all went downstairs and shut the trap door.
Upstairs, Aphrodite giggled in Xander's ear. "Spike didn't expect that," she told her husband.
"He's a vamp, they're always ready for it," Xander said sleepily. He yawned and snuggled into the arms. "Thanks, guys."
"We love you," Aphrodite reminded him.
"No more nightmares," Hephaestus agreed.
"And no more pills?" Xander asked, opening one eye to look at him.
"You won't be needing those anymore," Aphrodite promised him. "Hercypoo and Xena aren't coming back, ever. Joxie'll make sure of it. He's a sweetie like that."
"Cool," Xander said through another yawn. "Can I jump you both in the morning?"
Hephaestus' eyes lit up. "Anytime you're ready," he agreed.
"Cool." Xander rolled onto his side, smooshing Bliss between him and his honey, and letting Aphrodite curl up against his back. "This is nice."
"Cool." Aphrodite shared a mental conversation with her husband, who nodded.
"Me share my job," Bliss said sweetly.
"We'll see, sweetheart," Hephaestus told him, stroking down the edge of one of his wings. "We'll see."
Strife walked up the stairs, smiling at the pile of Gods and the mortal lying there. He zapped the mortal, waking him up, grinning down at him. "Hey, wanna come talk with me?"
"Coffee?" Xander mumbled.
"Sure, I can do that now," Strife said, helping Xander out of the tangle of limbs and over to the elevator. He waited until they got down to the kitchen area before saying anything else. "So, you sure you're willin' to be my chosen mortal too?"
"I do it for Hephie and 'Dite," Xander pointed out. "Are we talkin' the full part of just the friends and info portal part?"
"Well, I was hopin' for the full one," Strife said, giving him a grin. "You gave up part of yourself for me," he said, reaching over. "That awes me. No one's ever given things up for me before."
"I'm a good guy, that's what I do," Xander said, patting the hand. "Coffee?" he pleaded.
Strife giggled and created a pot of really good coffee, pouring them large mugs of it. "How's that?"
"Good," Xander said, waving a hand in front of his mouth to cool it off. "Really good. Tastes 'spensive." He took another sip. "Thanks."
"Welcome." Strife considered him. "You really wouldn't mind the full job of being my chosen mortal?" he asked quietly. "I've shared a mortal with 'Dite and Hephie before, but it kinda got screwed when someone made us all jealous." He glared at the basement.
"Why did Cupid do that?"
"Because he wanted the attention." Strife grinned at him. "This time, we come as a package." One eyebrow went up and the mortal put down his cup. "That is, if it's okay with you. I mean, Tartarus, Hera even suggested I give you ambrosia last night."
"Wouldn't that make me family?" Xander asked dryly. "And make everything else incest?"
Strife thought about it then nodded. "Kinda, more like an in-law. But hey, we're like that. Hera and Zeus were brother and sister."
"Which is eww to mortals today," Xander pointed out.
"Point," Strife agreed. He jumped up as he heard a groan coming from downstairs. "Um, gotta go check on Cupie. I think Spike just bit him." He ran down to stop his lovers from getting some without him.
Xander shook himself, sure he would wake up sometime soon and that last conversation would all seem like a dream.
Strife walked onto the construction site, smiling at the workmen he walked past. He stopped by the guy giving orders, giving him a pleasant smile. "Xander forgot his lunch," he said, holding up the large paper sack.
"He's upstairs. Harris!"
"Yeah, boss?" Xander called down, sticking his head out through an unfinished window. "Hey, what's up?" he asked.
"Lunch, you forgot it," Strife told him.
"Be right down." Xander's head disappeared.
"So, you related to the blonde chick?" the boss asked. "She usually brings his lunch."
"Kinda," Strife agreed. "She's a cousin." He grinned at Xander. "Here, you forgot this. I made it special."
Xander opened the bag and his mouth fell open at the amount of food that was stuffed down in there. He looked up at Strife, giving him the open-mouthed look. "Way big lunch," he said finally.
Strife grinned. "So I went overboard, kiss me," he said happily.
The boss looked down in the bag. "I'd kiss him for that lunch," he told Harris.
Xander shrugged and kissed him. "Okay. Thanks. I'll see you when I get home, at five. Right, boss?"
"Yup, no overtime for you." He looked between them. "Go back to work," he warned Xander. "Now, before I give you a permanent vacation."
Xander saluted him. "Yes, sir," he said, heading up to go back to work. "Later," he promised.
Strife sighed. "It's not easy wooing that boy," he noted, then he left, leaving the boss, and everyone nearby, shocked.
Xander walked in and right up to Strife, pulling his head down to kiss him. "Never say things like that in front of my boss again. I got razzed all day." He took another kiss then headed for the bathroom. "I'm going to shower," he announced.
"Bliss is in there playing," Cupid called out, looking at his lover. "Why did he kiss you?"
"Because I brought him lunch," Strife said. "Your mom taught him real good." He pulled Cupid over, giving him a kiss too. "See?"
Cupid licked his lips. "Yeah, I can see." He laid a hand on Strife's cock. "I can see quite a lot."
"Not in front of the baby," Hephaestus said as he walked out with a wiggling bundle of dripping feathers and towel.
"Let me," Strife said, taking Bliss and working on getting him dry. "Wanna story?" he asked, hoping to calm Bliss down.
"Can Xanner read it?" Bliss asked through the towel.
"Sure, we'll do it together," Strife agreed. "But you gotta be dry and dressed when he comes out. Mortals can be picky about that sorta thing."
"We've broken him of that habit," Aphrodite said as she appeared. "Joxie's sitting in judgement today, we should stay out of the way." She wiggled her fingers at Bliss. "So, how'd it go?"
"I shocked him enough that he kissed me at work," Strife said proudly.
"Good job," she praised, kissing him on the cheek. "I knew you'd get along well. He's such a cutesy puppy."
"Yes, he is," Hephaestus agreed dryly. "And a very cute mortal guy too." She slapped him on the arm. "Oww," he complained, joking.
"Sorry," she said, leaning in to give him a kiss. She snapped her fingers back at the bathroom. "There, now he's got comfy clothes too. We'll all cuddle tonight in front of the tv since he still can't do anything."
"Apollo said I could try," Xander said from the doorway. He held up the pants. "What are these?"
"Lounging jammies," Cupid told him. "Good for tonight."
"But I'm supposed to be helping Dawn tonight."
"She's coming over," Aphrodite said with a wave. "I stopped in and saw her. She's got another Sex Ed test. I figured we could all help her with it."
Xander nodded, heading back in to change. He still wouldn't get naked in front of Bliss, no matter how many orgies the baby claimed to have been at. He came out a few minutes later and went over to answer the doorbell, letting Dawn in. "Hey, what's up?"
"My teacher called me a know-it-all," she complained. "I corrected her on lubes." She shrugged and kicked the door shut. "Anyway, Buffy laughed in her face."
"Good." Xander put an arm around her shoulders. "Let's go up and lounge with the rest of everybody."
"Really?" she asked, she really liked Cupid and Strife, they were neat. "Hey, all," she said, bouncing over to give everyone hugs. "I had to correct the teacher on lubes today. She was telling someone that vaseline was an acceptable substitute."
"Not with condoms it's not," Xander agreed. "She said Buffy laughed in the teacher's face." He sat down next to Aphrodite, squeezing in on the end of the couch she and her husband were sharing. "Did she threaten Buffy at all?"
"Yup, and I looked at her and said I had asked someone who knew more about these things, and had actually had anal sex, and told my teacher that I knew what safety with a condom was. I even reminded her that vaseline can eat condoms. She wasn't impressed."
Xander snorted. "They never are," Aphrodite told her, giving her a pat. "Go sit. You're way jumpy tonight."
"I've got the final tomorrow in Sex Ed."
"Ah. That little thing."
"Yeah, and since she turned me into the school's counselor for being a little too knowledgeable, I'd better pass the thing."
Hephaestus nodded. "I can see the benefits of that. Do you think you know it?"
"Probably," Dawn told him. "I'm a little fuzzy on which disease is which but otherwise, I'm doing okay." She put down her bookbag and sat beside Cupid on the other couch. "It's just really depressing. The school counselor said I shouldn't have shown her up, even if I did know better. So I reminded him that the other kid was going to be put into danger by using vaseline."
"Did you tell him hand creme?" Aphrodite asked.
"I suggested something slimy with an aloe base," Dawn told her. "That's so easy to get, you can get a little tube of that stuff at any store these days."
"Good point," Xander said. "It's non-absorbable but it's easily cleaned up."
"It's also an okay substitute. We used it for years," Aphrodite told him. "That and massage oils."
"Which you can't use with a condom," Cupid reminded her. "You did good, Munchkin," he said, ruffling her hair. "Did the Buffy monster come out?"
"Yup, and she told the teacher off! It was so cute," Dawn said with a grin. "Anyway, she banished me over here to study so she didn't have to look at my book."
"That's fine with us," Hephaestus agreed. "We'll help you study while we veg."
"Oh, food," Dawn said quickly, pulling out a note that had landed on the counter while she was sitting there. "This came while I was in the store." She handed it over to Aphrodite, who would make sure Xander stuck to the diet.
"Hmm, this is very doable," she said, snapping her fingers and creating a small table of food next to the railing. "There, eat," she said, folding the paper up and putting it in her bra.
"What'd it say?" Xander asked, craning his neck to see if he could see any writing. He reached in but she smacked his fingers. "What?" he asked, putting them in his mouth and giving her a hurt look.
"Apollo sent down a note about your diet. He says you need to eat more seafood." She kissed him on the cheek. "Try the mushroom things. They're very good."
He got up to examine the food, smiling after eating one of everything. "Did I ever tell you that I loved you especially because you can cook?" he asked, giving her a grin.
She rolled her eyes, but she was smiling too. "I know. Come sit. We'll veg and then help Dawn study." She watched as he loaded up a plate of food and came back over to squeeze in next to her again. "What should we watch?" she asked.
"Porn?" Cupid suggested.
"Um, no, not with the kids in the room," Hephaestus noted.
"I'm sixteen," Dawn pointed out. "Old enough to be married in some states."
"Only with parental permission," Xander told her. "You'd better not even be thinking about that either, young lady. Giles would have to scare him and then hand him to Spike."
"I know," she sighed. "It's so unfair. Buffy doesn't even want me to date."
"Yeah, she didn't get in a lot of that," Xander agreed.
"Which is why she's so sucky in the 'ship department," Dawn piped up. "Which is why I should be allowed to date now. How else am I gonna learn which guys are assholes and which are okay types for me?" She looked at Cupid for support.
"Hey, I agree," Cupid said. "You're cute, you should be allowed to date."
"When did Buffy say?" Strife asked.
"Eighteen," she sighed. "Which is so totally unfair."
"Yeah, by then you could have your own apartment and be having orgies," Strife told her.
"Oh, that's a *great* argument," she said happily. "I'll have to use that one the next time we get into it over my dating." She checked her watch. "Speaking of which..." Everyone but Xander waved her off.
"Remember, they've got to patrol near the date spots," Xander told her. "And carry your pager," he called after her. He snuggled into Aphrodite's side. "That was kinda cute," he admitted. "I feel like a big brother now."
"We'll, you're definitely big," Strife joked, "but you're not a brotha."
Xander chuckled. "Gee, thanks for reminding me of that."
"Not that I mind," Strife said, getting up to come over and sit in Xander's lap. "You're kinda neat in your own way."
"Hmm," Xander hummed, considering the implications of what was happening. He looked at Hephaestus, who nodded enthusiastically. "Does that mean you're not going to dump me?"
"Honey, we agreed day before yesterday to share you if you wanted it that way," Aphrodite told him, giving him a kiss on the cheek. "Trust me, none of us here have any hangups about this but you."
Xander thought about it, knowing that they would let him make his own decision. He weighed everything he had with his present ones, and everything he might have with the other two. Then a thought, that sounded suspiciously like it came from Giles, reminded him that Aphrodite had said he'd have four really good lovers throughout his life. He looked at her. "When you asked the Fates, did they give you any other clues?" he asked her.
She sat up straighter, shaking her head. "No. Why?"
"Because you once said I was going to have about four good lovers through my whole life. Or that's what I heard you say anyway, what I remember you said."
Aphrodite started making the connection and frowned at the ceiling. "Sneaky women," she complained. "You could have told me."
"Then you wouldn't have figured it out for yourself," Hephaestus reminded her gently. "Besides, I like being one of his four or five."
"Five?" Xander squeaked. "I could wrap my mind around four, but five?"
"Who knows," Strife said, grinning down at him. "Was that a yes?"
"Yes, but I have to be careful for a few more days," Xander told him. "My body's still healing from what Apollo did to it."
"I'm sure we can find *other* things ta do," Strife said, his grin turning wicked. "You really want to watch TV?"
"There's some really interesting stuff on TV today," Hephaestus told him, flipping the channel with a wave of his hand. "Take Bliss up to bed," he told Cupid. "I doubt he needs to watch anything like this."
"Oh, Baywatch," Strife said, tipping his head to watch the woman run across the screen in slow motion. "Almost as good as porn."
"With half a plot," Aphrodite said, sending Bliss upstairs to the bed so they could be alone.