Giles looked up as his office door opened, this familiar routine making him smile. "How are we this morning?"
"Fine," Xander said, sitting on the couch. "I did okay on my test, thank you for helping me study."
Giles put down the book. "You knew it so well this morning, why didn't you do better than all right?"
"Because I ended up sitting next to Buffy, who snapped her gum the whole time and shifted to distract me."
"Maybe she was worried about passing it herself."
Xander shrugged. "Doesn't matter, I know I got a decent grade." He looked at the door, and the man standing in it, then back at the desk. "Want me to go?"
"No," Oz said, taking a deep breath, "I came looking for you." He looked at Giles. "Can I steal him to have a talk with him?"
"As long as he makes it back to his next class."
"Um, it might take longer."
"I can skip the next one, I have a sub." He stood up, looking at the older man. "I promise not to skip the one after though if I can help it, I like my art class." He walked past the smaller man, their arms brushing.
Giles looked at Oz and nodded. "Just say it, I'm sure you'll work it out." He waited until he was alone. "Eventually." He picked up his fork, eating some more lunch while trying to find another reference for later.
Xander sat at the picnic table, tapping the top, looking at the other man. "Oz," he started when nothing was said for ten minutes.
"I'm not good with words," he said. He looked into the dark eyes, seeing how much had changed and how much hadn't. "I'm glad that we're talking. I wish we had done this earlier though."
"We could have, you said you didn't know me." He shrugged, looking around. "Not her," he groaned. He waited until his former girlfriend had turned away from them, walking to the other side of the lawn. "At least she's not going to add to it," he muttered, turning back to find Oz watching him. "What?"
"I was just wondering how much you've worked through this. Will and I have done a lot of talking, about you and us, and we're fine. Buffy was taken to heel the other night by Giles. But the pain's still in your eyes." He put his hand closer, just touching the younger man's. "And I know part of it is my fault."
"I really so much wanted to yell at you," he admitted. "I mean, how could you even think I'd be more than a passing fad for her? She *loves* you." He looked into the light eyes, seeing the pain there. "But I am sorry I couldn't control myself. I kissed her, not the other way around. The first one was started by me."
"That's funny, she said the same thing."
"She's trying to spare us more pain."
"And that's your job?" He raised an eyebrow when he got a shocked look. "What? You're the one feeling guilty as hell, but she started it too. She could have pushed you away and remembered we were dating but she didn't." He didn't look up as the bell rang. "We're okay, we can get an excuse from Giles if we need it." He looked around, seeing the Principal coming toward them. "Or not." He leaned back a little when the annoying man came up to them. "What? We need to discuss."
"You both have a class I believe." He looked at Xander. "And I know you need to be there."
"No," he said quietly. "I need to work this problem out before I have another screaming fit at the edge of a cliff with a gun in my hands." He looked at Oz. "We need to talk, willing to risk detention?"
"Sure, it's just a homework time." He looked at Snyder, who was staring, open mouthed at him. "What? You heard him."
"I did," he said, backing up, "I just never figured it out." He turned, heading back for the school.
"Counselor," the two guys said together, then grinned.
"That's okay," Xander said, "I actually expected Giles to turn me in before now." He looked around the lawn. "Thank you. For pulling me back and all."
"Hey, that was Angel. You wouldn't listen to me." He touched the hand again. "Not even when I tried to talk you back down some. I just couldn't let you go."
"And for that we're all grateful," Willow said, sitting next to Xander. She turned to look at him. "Can we do this soon too?"
"Sure, just let us work it out first," Oz said. "That way, I can get between you two if I need to." He got stereo confused looks. "That kissing thing wasn't the only thing, right?" The younger man nodded. "Then there's tons more stuff in there probably."
Xander nodded. "He's right. There's other stuff I needed to work out with you but haven't been able to yet." He brushed some of her hair out of the way. "We'll talk some other time, after I get it worked out with him. We need much longer than a period." She nodded, getting up and going inside.
"I know she used to be your only support person but you do still have me. When you need me that is." He looked up as a large, heavy man walked toward them. "Snyder runs like a little girl."
"He can't walk that fast," Xander corrected. He grinned. Then turned to the other man. "I don't need your help, I have his and Giles'."
"I know," the Counselor said, "but I still have to get involved since it was reported to me." He sat down on the bench, making Xander shift over. "Now, would you two like to talk?"
"No, we were doing fine on our own," Xander said. "We've actually gotten a lot of it worked out already." He looked at Oz, who nodded. "See, just fine."
"Okay, but I want you to know that you can come to me if you need me." He handed over a card. "Anytime, preferably before nine."
"I know but I'd prefer someone who knew me, like Giles and him." He put the card into his pocket. "I'm better now."
"As long as you acknowledge that there was a problem."
"Oh, I know that there was."
"And if I had been paying more attention, then I should have too." Oz looked at the younger man. "Just your eyes should have clued me off, that's why I came after you after you ripped into ... her."
"Ah, wondered why you ran after me and stopped me."
"Felt I had to. You're my friend and we do that." He touched the hand again then stood up. "Let's go talk in the van. It's shady." The younger man hopped up and walked after him, getting into the back to sit across from him. "He's gonna yell at Giles."
"No, he won't. Snyder will yell at Giles. He's been doing a lot of it recently." He shrugged, leaning back against a pile of blankets. "Why did you come after me?"
"I knew something wasn't right, but not what." The older teen shifted, getting comfortable. "I knew you needed me, or someone, and that you needed them now." He shifted again, moving something from under him. "Just the way you tore into her told me that. Then Willow told me to stop you, telling me really."
"Ah. Yeah, I just couldn't hold it in anymore."
"That's the root of all the problems. You shouldn't hold it in."
"I got tired of hitting the mirrors." He made a face, smelling something, then sat up. "What's that?"
"That is Devon, after a gig." He patted the carpet beside him. "He smells, I know. It's all the women he does."
Xander giggled a little, crawling over. "So I've heard. But he didn't get Cordy. She's still pure."
"Not really." He coughed a little. "She got tanked at a party and got some. Doesn't remember it too much, someone slipped her a drug or three, but that's how she met Devon. He did the whole chivalry act and took her home." He smiled a little. "But I have the tape to prove it. Stole it."
Xander started to laugh. "Oh, that's so mean," he said, leaning against the door. "Too bad I can't use it at her next fit."
"I was going to ask you not to mention it. She doesn't know that there's a tape at all." He turned to face him. "What snapped you? That final little thing?"
Xander sobered up. "No one saying thank you." He looked down to pick at the carpet. "I got yelled at for saving you guys, and even when you stopped me you didn't say it." He didn't look up, not even when Oz touched his hands, stopping them. "I just couldn't take it anymore after that. I was alone, unwanted and unneeded and that just proved it more. I just couldn't handle that." He made a face at the teary feelings that started.
Oz forced his face up, making him look at him. "I'm sorry, I was still pulling myself back together. I meant to say it." He moved a little closer. "All those times you helped and stuff."
"I know, but it wasn't said, ever. I could go save the whole world and all I'd ever get was a nod. Not even a happy smile that I was still living."
"Then we were all bad." He ran his hands through the dark hair, trying to calm them both down. "I'm sorry I didn't say it. Thank you." He held him as the tears broke through again, letting them spill on him. "You do mean a lot to us, all of us," he whispered. "Willow wouldn't be her if it wasn't for you. She might not even be here if it wasn't for you." He let him pull back. "You better? At least a little?"
"Yeah," he said, wiping off his face. "Sorry about that. I'm having horrible mood swings right now."
"If you wouldn't hide it so hard, you wouldn't have them." He caught a stray tear, wiping it off. "Let it out more often. It's healthy to do it."
"I can't do that." He shook his head. "I can't go through that lecture again."
"None of us will lecture if you yell at the stupid blonde. Hell, I was about ready to applaud when you did." He grinned, just a little. "Will woulda clapped if she had heard it all." He pulled his friend closer. "None of us even knew that you were having a build up. You didn't even give us a clue. And I couldn't tell her what caused it when she asked me."
"I wasn't trying to hide it."
"But you did. From all of us. None of us noticed a difference until you laid into Buffy." He brushed over the tense cheek. "Why couldn't you yell at us instead?"
"Because. I caused that," Xander finished softly.
"No, we all did. I didn't have to react the way I did. She didn't have to forget that we were dating and that she wasn't supposed to be kissing you. Your hormones might have been controlled. And yeah, I know you love her too. That's why I acted so upset. You are and have always been the person I had to measure my life against with her. You're the yardstick that she measures anyone she dates against. And I felt like I was failing fast before that kiss."
"You weren't. You've made her happier than I ever could or will." He frowned. "I couldn't be half as good to her as you have."
"No, you could. She's not Cordelia, her standards are much lower. She'd even take Cordy if she acted right enough for a while." He saw the head shake. "Yeah, she would. She's not real secure in the reason that people like her so much. She's always been your friend, even when you were fighting. She's told me about how she always thought you two would end up together, just because no one else wanted her."
"But she's beautiful and sweet and nice." He frowned at him. "You'd better not hurt her. I will protect her. She deserves to be a princess and have people worship at her smart little toes."
"You'd better." He looked out the window. "It's almost time to change classes."
"Miss it, let's talk."
"I have to go to my last one, I have a quiz." Oz nodded. "But I can miss art class. Even if that's the one I'm doing the best in."
"So I've heard." He pulled his friend in for a hug. "So, now what?"
"I didn't mean to scare you or draw you into my nightmare," Xander said against the shoulder. "I shouldn't have let you follow." He got a slap across the back of his head for it. "What?" he asked, pulling back. "It's hurt you."
"You not being here woulda done it more."
"You said you didn't know."
"Willow clued me in and told me." He leaned back a little, resting against a blanket covered something. "She was so insistent and didn't say but did in that way of hers."
Xander coughed a little. "How did she know?"
"She's known you for how long?" He leaned closer to him again. "And it was obvious once I saw your eyes. Even the demon saw it, that's why he backed away from you." Oz hit himself on the forehead. "Damn, you gave us clues then and none of us noticed." He got a confused look. "Didn't realize it?"
"Don't remember saying 'I'm going to go shoot myself like a real man'." He got another slap across the back of his head. "Hey, I got enough of that at home."
"I know, just trying to get you to stop that, how would you like me to?" He got a head shake. "You really don't remember? You said something about a Colt fixing your problems. The demon said you needed someone stronger than him to help you before you left him in the cage." He paused, thinking. "You stopped to see if there was anything else, then said goodbye, talking about leaving. You never say that. You say things like I'm going, or going home or stuff." He took a hand in his, looking at the lines. "There's a cut on your lifeline. Maybe that night was it."
"That was a fishing accident. My father took me and made me cut bait and clean my own fish. And his, but it was mine that I slipped on. That was infected for about a week."
"That's not what I meant. I meant in the reading palms way. A cut on a life line that interrupts the line can mean that it's going to almost end." He looked up. "And it almost did. You would have done it."
"I almost did," he admitted. "Angel was too strong, I couldn't shift enough to pull the trigger."
"Why a gun?"
"Because I was told that only real men could do it that way." He sighed, leaning forward. "I was fed tons of crap like that."
"Then I want to go beat your father harder."
"Can I watch?"
"If it makes you happy." He pressed the face into his shoulder. "Promise to talk to me if you get that upset again?" He felt the nod. "Out loud please."
"You and Giles must read from the same book. He said the same thing when I told him I wouldn't try again." He cleared his throat. "I promise to come find you if it gets that bad again. Okay?"
"And I'll listen, but if it seems like I'm not, then feel free to haul off and hit me. I'll get the point."
"I will." He looked out the front window, feeling watched. "Buffy," he groaned, pointing her out. "Will you walk me back to class? I don't want to deal with her at all." Xander snorted. "That's not real manly either, having another guy fighting for you."
"You'll have to sometime. You're not always around people that'll protect you." He picked up his bag. "But I will if you want. Think of it as Championing someone who can't fight as well." He raised an eyebrow. "We still need to talk about your manliness issues though." He stopped him from moving, putting a hand on his arm. "Do you think I'm not one?"
"No, I think you are. A very strong one that I'd like to be like." He watched as the t-shirt was pulled up and a scar was highlighted in the dim light. "What's that?" He started to raise a hand to touch it with his fingertips but let the hand fall back to the carpet instead.
"That was my attempt in Junior High, before I found music. A simple knife wound. Missed my lung by three inches." He pulled his shirt back down. "You need to forget everything that thing that calls himself your father ever told you about men. It was all wrong." He patted the arm, letting it go. "Now, come on, we got about ten minutes to get you to class." He waited for the door to be opened.
"Did you mean it? The I can come to you part?"
"Of course I did. How often have you heard me say something I didn't mean?" Oz stepped out, turning to close the door. "Anytime, day or night. You know where I am most of it so just yell and I'll come." He turned him around, heading them back toward the school. "Come on, let's get to class before I flunk again."
"How did you do that last time?" Xander turned to look at him, grinning just a little. "I know, it was all an act to stay with Will."
"Yup," Oz said, nodding. "Just don't tell her that." He steered them around where Buffy was sitting, heading back inside. "Okay, now go to class and I'll see if I can't come over to help you research later. It'd be nice to sit on a soft chair to read."
"Okay, if Giles says it's okay anyway. Just remind him I need a book." He headed down the hall to his next class.
Oz watched him go before going on to his, much happier at the moment. He kissed Willow as she met him in the Lounge area, walking with her at his side.
Giles walked into the apartment and sniffed the air. "Hmm, pizza," he said. He walked toward the kitchen where the two younger men were reading and eating. "Please don't get sauce on the books," he said, picking up a piece before walking back out. "I'm heading up to my room."
Oz looked at Xander and raised an eyebrow. "You were worried?"
"He's really careful with me still. He yelled because I did a load of his laundry and told me that I didn't have to do stuff." He marked his spot and turned to his friend. "I'm not that fragile. I can do stuff still. I just need some more thinking time."
"He knows that, that's why you don't have to do stuff around here." He stole a chip from Xander's plate and turned a page. "Have we found anything in the last hour?"
"No, but I'm liking this. This quiet friendship stuff is okay."
"Yeah, it is, isn't it." He patted the hand. "But we need to justify it to him. Otherwise I might be made to stay in the library for a while." Out of the corner of his eye he saw the book reopen and the dark head bend back down over it. "What do you think it'll look like?"
"Like one of the gross creatures from that Harry Hamlin movie where he had to cut off Medusa's head to save his woman."
"Hmm, classic. Might be." He turned a page. "Had to get their ideas from somewhere."
"Yup." Xander ate a chip and kept reading. "How's Will?"
"I explained some things to her and her exact words were 'that's dumb'. She's never been unappreciated though so don't blame her." He looked up, seeing the slight frown. "Well, she hasn't. She's always been praised and stuff. She's never had anyone that didn't graciously thank her for her help. Not even Buffy."
"I know, that's what I was thinking. Did you get her to understand or do I still have to cover that hurdle."
"Not sure," Oz said, stealing another chip then laughing when the plate was moved between them without the younger man having looked up. "Thanks."
"There's more pizza."
"Too true. You'd think Chef Boyardee would make better sauce but he slouched on this one." They both looked over as Giles cleared his throat from the doorway. "Hi, we're not keeping you up, right?"
"No, I was actually enjoying both of you acting like normal teens for a change. Have you found anything?"
"Two whole pages earlier," Xander said, handing it over. He waited while they were looked through. "That's what we need, right?"
"Yes, it is. It's actually very helpful. I hadn't thought that book had much to say." He looked at Oz, who offered his own notes. "Or that one," he said after reading them. "Very good work, both of you." He sat down at the table. "I know that the others have been told to take tomorrow off. If you'd like you could too."
"I have to play," Oz said. "So that means that Willow will be at the Bronze with me." He looked at Xander. "You can come. I'm pretty sure Buffy will leave you alone."
"Maybe." He looked down at the book as he marked his spot and closed it. "But I really don't want to even be in the same building as her right now."
"Me either," Giles admitted. "She's gotten a bit... shall we say stuck up recently. I do believe Faith was a horrid influence on her far too long. I've had a few discussions with her about her attitude but I don't think it's doing any good yet." He looked at his young charge. "You can go have fun if you'd like. I think it'd be helpful for you to do so. Give you a break from your thoughts and all."
"Okay, but don't be upset if I come back early."
Oz shrugged. "You do that if you have to and I'll come pick you up. We can go have fun afterward."
"Okay." He grinned, standing up. "Let me clean."
"Xander, sit," Giles said. "You have no more need to clean up this very small mess at this moment than you do of turning into a cat." He waited until he was sitting again. "You don't need to become a maid to make me happy. I'm happy just to not be alone most of the time." He touched the back of his charge's hand. "Really. There's no need for you to clean, cook, or do the laundry, even though I do appreciate all of that." He saw the slight nod. "Just do it because you're feeling generous, not because you feel you have to." He looked at Oz. "But, if you felt like cleaning up this mess I would be most pleased not to have to do so in the morning. Where did you get the mix?"
"Store. I had to buy some stuff for the snarly time, get cravings. I just saw it and decided it might be fun to eat while studying."
"Then it's a good thing." Giles stood up. "It's now past midnight. Clean this up and talk quietly for a while longer if you want, I'm going to go to bed." He walked out of the kitchen.
Oz nudged Xander. "Told you so."
"Yeah," he said, nodding. "I'll get used to being around nice people yet."
"I'm going to beat your parents," Oz said, getting up to put the rest of the pizza away. "Just your father maybe, but I will hurt him soon."
"Don't, it's a waste of effort." He carried their plates to the sink, laying them in it. "Want to talk?"
"Sure, about what?"
"About the guy stuff that you said I need to forget."
"Sure." Let me put back the foil and get another soda." He did so then walked back to the table, waiting for him. "Come sit," he said softly. "I won't bite, I'm not that mean." That brought a small smile. He looked into the brown eyes, gauging him by them. "You look a little better now. Not so dead or scary."
"I did before?" He sipped his soda, choking at the nod. "When?"
"That night, the next day when we brought you clothes." He ate a chip slowly, thinking. "Angel said that he'd seen more living corpses after being shot by you."
"I didn't know."
"Yup, your eyes looked dead, very flat. Now you can see some depth to them again. I can see..." He paused. "You know those sayings about eyes being the doorway to the soul? Well, yours are, usually. Before, I couldn't see one in them."
"Maybe I'm better after all."
"Getting there at least." He tapped the top of a book. "Why are you still helping us, even when you were so pissed at us?"
"I wasn't angry, I was upset."
"Anger was part of that." He took his hand. "All that unappreciated stuff was anger. Really stiff anger at that. So, why help?"
"Because it was the right thing to do. I just couldn't sit in the same room with you." He put his head down on the table. "I'm messed up."
"No more than the rest of us." He let the hand go, smoothing over the back of the dark hair. "We're all messed up from fighting and stuff. You're just carrying around a lot of other stuff on top of it. Once it's gone, then you'll be back at our level of messed up."
Xander turned his head to look at him. "You're really wise." He got a head shake. "No, sometimes you say things that are so right on target, even when you don't have a clue that I feel that way. Something in you just *knows* what I need to hear and lets it out at that time."
"Don't know what, but okay." He shrugged, still stroking over the hair. "Do you mind if I do this? Before the moon, I get really touch starved."
"No, this is nice." He sat up. "We could go in the living room, get really comfortable though. That is, if you wanted."
"Sure, that'd be great." He stood up, carrying out the sodas and chips, Xander getting a little neater look to the table then following. Oz patted his lap. "Lay down, I'll rub your head while you figure things out." He saw the happy nod and shifted some to let him get more comfortable. "So, what sort of things did he tell you about men that are so wrong that it defies words?" He stroked over the forehead hair. "We may have to switch, I can't reach most of it now."
Xander scooted down the couch, sitting up suddenly to catch the lamp before it fell. He bent his knees, laying his head on a small pillow where Oz could reach most of his head. "Better?"
"Yup." He started at the part and worked his way to the sides. "So, what?"
"Well, besides the normal non-emotional things, I got told that thing about the gun." He cleared his throat. "One of his friends from work knew someone that overdosed and he told us all at supper that a real man wouldn't do that." He closed his eyes, enjoying. "This is nice."
"Yeah, it is. Why did he tell you that? Scare tactics?" He switched sides, taking another drink.
"No, he's always been trying to beat what a real man does into me. Things like all real men know how to hunt, even if they don't use it. And fish, let's not forget that." He turned his head a little, letting him work on a sore spot. "Then there was the one about real men always paying their own way, even if it killed them. He used to snort at the fairytales my mother read me and say that men didn't do things like that."
"Beauty and the Beast?" the older teen suggested.
"That one and the one with straw to gold and some others. He used to nag my mother about reading to me. Said that if I wanted to know stuff, I should learn how to do it myself."
"How old were you?"
"Four, I think." He handed over his own soda. "Here, I can't drink and enjoy the head rub." Oz took it, rubbing a little harder. "Oh, nice." He closed his eyes. "I learned how to read that year because all my books disappeared until I did." He heard a quiet choke from upstairs and shook his head. "It's not that bad," he called. "They could have really gone away."
"Hey," Oz said. "Don't wake him up."
"I heard him, he's listening."
"Don't worry about it. He'd have to hear about it sometime." He wiggled his fingers a little against the younger man's scalp. "That was crappy treatment though, I agree with him."
Xander opened his eyes, looking up. "But it made me learn how to read."
"Yes, but you don't enjoy it, do you?" Oz moved his hand back to the other side. "Reading should be fun and informative, not something that's a torture. You might not have learned how to read at all. Then you'd have to play football."
Xander grinned, closing his eyes again. "Not really. Willow taught me. She was always reading to me but then she got laryngitis and the doctor said she couldn't for a while so she taught me." The fingers stilled. "What?" He opened his eyes, tipping his head back.
"Nothing. Just wondering what she was like back then."
"You know how shy she was when you first met? Until you really got to know her?" He saw the nod. "She was like that, only with a curiosity hotter than a forest fire and a mother that gave her stuff that no kid should be able to read." He tipped his head back down. "I learned to read the Tao of Pooh first." The fingers went back to his hair and he grinned. "Then I learned the real Pooh. Saw it on tv."
"Was that your sitter?"
"Most of the time. Mom was always too busy with stuff to sit and be with me. I learned a lot from flipping the channels." He wiggled his eyebrows. "That was just about as cable started to get big. Used to watch the Playboy Channel for hours because I thought it was a great big tickle fight."
"What was the second book you read on your own?"
"Hmm, I remember something about fairytales but not which one. It wasn't mine, it was Willow's. Mine was still gone then. I had to sit and read a story in the sports pages to prove I could to earn my books back." Oz grunted. "Wasn't bad. Hockey, if I remember right."
"What else did he tell you?"
"That all men like sports, the more violent the better. I used to like to watch ice skating and stuff but he said it wasn't a sport for men. Hate football now though." He sighed, moving into the hand. "That's so nice. Where did you learn to do this?"
"My mother used to have bad headaches. It helped her." He finished off the other can of soda, setting it on a table. "What else?"
"That men like to do things in groups. That no man should be alone for long periods of time, it makes us think up bad things." He coughed. "He used to say that Hitler was left alone too long, that's what was wrong with him and why he came up with the Holocaust." He opened his eyes when the fingers stopped. "Sorry, I didn't mean to...." His mouth was covered.
"Hitler had a father like yours. That's what was wrong with him. It's been proven that he had a bigoted and evil parent." He removed the hand, putting it back into the soft hair. "I'm just glad that you came out normal. Most kids wouldn't."
"I'm not normal," he said quietly. "I'm alone too much, I don't have lots of friends, and I'm not real well liked by anyone. I'm weak, I'm not smart enough to be good at hardly anything not using my hands or involving fast food, and Willow's the reason I'm this normal." He looked up. "She is. She kept me from turning into him for the longest time."
"I know. That's what she said. That she'd always been a cushion between you and the rest of the world. Which sucks when you're little."
"I know. It does." He took the hand from his hair, looking at it as he rubbed over the lines. "I still don't know why she did after all the mean stuff I did to her."
"She said it was her responsibility." He made a fist, closing in the fingers playing with his hand. "No one should need a shield. No child especially."
"You do the same for her," Xander pointed out, pulling his fingers away. He looked up, seeing the frown. "You do, you cushion her from the rest of the world. She'd have been destroyed if you didn't."
"You did it before I came though." He looked down at his friend. "It's true, you're right, I do shield her as much as I can." Oz let his hand fall. "That's strange. I never really felt that over-protective before."
"But you do it so well," Xander said, picking back up the hand to play with it. "Why don't you have a cut on your life line?"
"Because I wasn't that close." He looked at his other hand. "Here, I have one here, near the end." He showed it to him.
Xander looked at both of his hands, seeing a few cuts. "Gee, I'm in deep if that's true." He held them up. "A few different cuts."
"Not really. None of these seem to interrupt the line like that one did." He leaned closer, pulling a hand to him. "Nope, pretty shallow interruptions to your life."
"Then I guess I'll live for a long, long time."
"I'd hope so." Oz looked down at him, seeing the concentration. "What?" he asked softly.
"Just thinking about what would happen if they knew what I really did all those long nights. My father would either praise me or commit me, I think." He shuddered. "Not that I want to find out."
"I'm not telling them." He leaned a little closer. "I think you've been very brave for all the stuff you've been through, even the bad stuff." He sat back up, looking at the clock. "It's almost one and we have school in the morning."
"Do you tell your parents?"
"No. I told my mom about Willow and her being a witch but not the rest. She was really happy that I'm dating someone so in touch with herself." He stood up, stretching. "I'm going to go to bed too unless you want to talk some more."
"No, thanks Oz, and night."
"Anytime, I told you that." He reached down to get his shoes from under the table. "It's not like you're going to call me at three just to talk about spots on the wall." He turned his head. "You're not, right?"
Xander grinned. "Nope, not me. I'm used to talking *to* the spots on the wall. They're comforting and tell great stories."
"That's the spirit," he said, grabbing his bag. "I'll see you at lunch?"
"Yeah, probably." He got up, following him out, waiting to lock the door until after he heard the van pull away. He turned around, running into Giles. "Sorry, didn't mean to keep you up."
"You didn't," the older man said, hugging him. "I just worry about you." He let go and walked back up the stairs, shutting his door gently.
"Wow," Xander said, lying down on the couch. He pulled the blankets over himself, snuggling down in to them and falling asleep, comforted now.
Willow looked up as Xander sat down, grinning. "Good, you do exist." She took his hand. "We can talk now?"
"Sure, how about after we eat. I don't want you skipping meals." He picked up his corn on the cob and bit into it, making a face. "Never mind." He drank his milk, looking around. "Oh, hell. I'll meet you outside if it gets too bad, okay?" She nodded, looking confused. Then Buffy sat down. He ignored her, picking up his notebook to look through it. "Do you have a marker from the last holiday thing? I wanted to put it in my little bag of stuff."
"Sure," Willow said, after swallowing. "I have a few of them. And some other stuff that you might want to put in. I kinda noticed that you haven't been putting things into it recently so I saved some stuff I thought you'd like."
"Yeah, not really."
Willow looked at Buffy. "How are you today? You look tired."
"I had a bad night. Faith came out to taunt me." She looked at Xander. "Listen, I'm sorry for what I said. Everybody that knows who I am has torn into me over you, including Faith for some reason. She's feeling real over-protective about you right now." He flinched at her name. "What?" she asked, eyes narrowing. "Are you going to her side?"
"He's..." Willow started, but he touched her hand and shook his head.
"I don't want to talk about her. I'm really not wanting to even hear her name." He looked up as Oz sat down beside him. "Hey," he said, taking his hand back. "Wasn't that. Promise. Just avoiding the subject of Faith."
"I know. I heard." He looked at Buffy. "Hey," he said, then kissed Willow's cheek. "We still have free time tonight?"
"Yup," Willow said. "Want to come with us to the Bronze, Xand? We could talk and stuff there." He nodded, his mouth full of milk. "Okay."
"Sorry, I have to patrol, I'll be late," Buffy said, getting up. "I'm going to go somewhere and thaw." She took her tray, walking away.
Both of the others looked at Xander. "I'm not ready to deal with her yet," he said. "She's only sorry because everyone tore into her about yelling at me." He looked at Oz. "When did you get to her?"
"Later that night. Will and I both tore into her." He looked at his girlfriend, who nodded. "We'll mediate when you're ready for that one."
Xander nodded. "Thanks." He looked at his watch. "I got to go get stuff for afternoon classes. I'll see you later." He stood up, walking away.
"Where is his new locker?" Willow asked, watching his back.
"Special Ed wing. He asked to have it changed his first day back." He took her hand. "You'll work through it. We have." She nodded, taking her hand back and eating some more of her lunch.
Xander looked down when his pants leg was tugged. "Hi, Melody," he said, grinning at her. "You okay today?" She nodded, grinning back at him. He removed her hand and got back down to her level. "So, what are you doing today?" She held up her paint smeared hands. "Ah, art class. I have that later today." He pulled down his sketch book, opening it to a cartoon he was working on. "See?" He showed it to her, earning a smile.
"Melody," her teacher called, coming out. She stopped to look at them, shaking her head. "I'm sure he has more important stuff to do than to talk to you," she said, pulling her away. "Thank you. She likes you."
"She's a sweet kid," he said, standing back up. He waved at her, earning him another one. "We were just talking about art." He showed off his cartoon, making her grin too.
"So I see." She looked down at her student. "But we have to get back and get her cleaned up. Her mess shouldn't be spread around."
"It's okay, art is its own good." He watched as they walked away, then grabbed the rest of his stuff as the first bell rang. He closed the locker and jogged back down the hall, going back into the main school.
Giles looked up, then looked at his watch as Xander walked through the doors. "You never made it to lunch. Did you and she have a talk?"
"Not really. Buffy came and apologized because you tore into her for yelling at me." He sat on the couch in the office, tossing over his notebook for notes. "Found something else while I looking this morning before class. A few things actually. Start at the red pen mark." He looked down at his pants, seeing the little red marks on the seam. "Melody," he sighed.
"Who?" Giles said, looking up. He looked at the paint smears. "A child?"
"Yeah, one of the kids down in the Special Ed classes. Didn't know they had kids that young down there, but she likes me so came out to say hi. They were painting today and she got a little on me." He wiped at it then checked his finger. "It's dry, I'll get it out later." He looked up to see a huge smile. "What?" he asked, suspicious.
"Brown hair, likes to hide in the shadows? Doesn't speak?" He got a nod. "She's the handful they have down there. She's temperamental, throws fits, and is most unpleasant to be around some days." His smile got wider. "Her teacher, Ms. Harmon, remarked that she had changed recently during a staff meeting. Probably since you go there."
"I just talk to her. She's sweet to me." Xander shrugged. "I like her. She's a good kid."
"Now," Giles amended, going back to the notes. He looked up. "I'd like to go over that book with you tonight, I'm not sure where you're seeing it."
"It's subtle, like between the lines. I'm in the personal stories stuff and he's saying but not saying. It just jumped out at me. It's on the table still I think." He stood up. "Am I reading it wrong?"
"No, I think you may have something, but it was something that I hadn't seen. I'll try to look at it like that."
"You're just too hard-science oriented. Sometimes you just have to feel the art and words." He grinned and walked out, then back in. "I'm going to the Bronze tonight after all, so Will and I can talk. I may still be home early though." He saw the raised eyebrow. "Problem?"
"No, I had a date tonight and was thinking of bringing them back for some quiet conversation after dinner."
"Hey, I can go hang at the mall. Not a problem. I'll be home late then, no matter what." He left the office again, walking out of the library.
Giles shook his head. "That boy," he muttered. "Quite a puzzle some days." He picked the notes back up, rereading them. "But he may have found the clue we need this time."
Principal Snyder looked around the teachers gathered. "All right, as you know, this is the time to turn in probable names for flunkies." He looked at them again. "Let's hear them."
"I don't have any," one teacher said. "All of mine look like they're going to pass."
"Even Summers and Harris?" he asked her. She nodded, smiling. "Okay, anyone else?"
"I have one name, but it's neither of those," the English teacher said. "She's not doing so well this term but her overall grades are enough to let her pass. Harris," she glanced at Giles briefly, "has been doing great recently. His work's been highly scored, his paper was readable and enjoyable for the most part. His homework has even been done." She shrugged. "Why the extra concern about those two?"
"One's a troublemaker and the other's been having trouble."
"He's fine now," Giles said. "He's working through it all and he's come a long way."
"As long as he doesn't blow up the school." He looked at the Math teacher. "Yours?"
"Three, but I agree. Harris has been more focused now than ever. That must be your doing, Rupert."
"I just gave him a quiet spot to do it in and help when he asks me too." He looked around. "Is there some concern about him particularly?"
"Just that he's changed a lot in the last few weeks. We were all wondering what the magic potion was," the Math teacher said. "He actually got an A on a test which Rosenberg didn't when she took it."
Giles smiled. "Did you tell him that?" He nodded. "That's what his good mood was then." He cleared his throat. "The only thing I've done differently was to show that I had an interest in his well-being. Which had been lacking from his life for some time I believe."
"That would do it," the English teacher said. "I read his past file but couldn't understand how a smart kid like him did so badly. You've just cleared it up for me." She looked at Snyder. "Maybe we should have someone here that did that all the time."
"We have a counselor." He leaned back in his chair, putting his feet on the table. "He should be good enough."
"I believe we have a miscommunication here," Giles said. "I believe his degree makes him a *guidance* counselor, not a *human* one. He's not been taught to deal with the problems of teens, has he?" He looked around to see the head shakes. "Most schools in the state have started a program with a real, qualified counselor to help the students with the problems that they face. I have no problem helping this one but the next one might be a bit harder."
"He's got that job too," Snyder said. "Next teacher. Who's flunking out this year?"
Giles slammed through the front door. He saw the startled look of his friend and sighed. "It's not you, although you were brought up." He sat down beside him. "I've heard the most excellent things about you this afternoon."
"I feel a but coming on," Xander said, closing his book.
"No, well yes but not really." Giles took a deep breath to calm himself some. "The school's counselor was brought up, mostly by me so I shouldn't be upset over it really, but he's trained more for the career end of things, not the dealing with students end. I thought that someone should be doing so, bringing up a state policy to add real counselors into the schools. Snyder said he had that job also, even though he wasn't qualified." He leaned back, covering his eyes.
Xander was really confused but it must be something bad if Giles was so upset that he wasn't making sense. "How did you guys go from my name to counselors? Or don't I want to know?"
"No, someone asked what I had done to make your work so exemplary lately and I said that I simply cared. One of the other teachers said that she had read your file and it now made sense why such a bright student such as yourself did so poorly before. That's I brought up the counselor."
"Oh," he said, relaxing. "Okay. So, I'm not going to go into school tomorrow and everybody's going to know?"
"Not unless Snyder told them." He turned his head to look at the younger man. "I didn't tell them, if that's what you're implying."
"I knew you wouldn't but sometimes things slip out during the fight for a righteous cause." He shrugged, leaning back. "What else happened?"
"I may have let something else slip." Giles took a deep breath. "When I said that I simply cared, I said it had been about time." He felt the nod, but really felt the pillow that hit him.
"I didn't want everybody to know that my family life sucks, thanks though." Xander stood up. "I don't want anyone's pity or some false coddling because everyone thinks I'm going to blow."
"Snyder said just as long as you didn't blow up the school." He cleared his throat. "He brought up what you told him, without mentioning specifics, and I told him that you were working through it. He said as long as you didn't blow up the school."
Xander stopped pacing to stare at him. "He didn't say what, right?" Giles shook his head. "Then I'm okay. I'll only get a little false sympathy from the teachers." He threw up his hands, heading up the stairs. "I'm going to hide in the bathroom, tell me when it's time to go fight at graduation."
"Damn," he muttered, getting up. "I didn't mean any harm," he yelled.
"I know that," Xander said, coming back to the top of the stairs. "But think about how they're going to react when I go back in. I'll get all those sorrowful looks and sympathy grades and things like that. Then one will let it slip and everyone will know and I'll be picked on even more now. And *then* I get to spend the rest of my senior year being pitied by everyone. Not a future I want to live." He slammed the bathroom door as he went into it.
"At least he's letting his anger out now," Giles told himself, going up the stairs. "I'm sorry," he said, knocking on the bathroom door. "I didn't mean to cause you more problems." He turned, tossing his tie into the chair.
Xander came out. "No, I am. You didn't mean to let it slip, it was an accident. I shouldn't have yelled." He headed back down the stairs. "I'm going to go back to my homework."
"Wait," Giles called after him. He waited until he was back facing him again. "You had every right to yell. That was something that I should have kept closer to myself, not a secret I should have the liberty of telling. For that I'm sorry. And if those incidents happens, then you can yell at them." He saw the slight head shake. "Please don't be upset with me over this." He moved a little closer. "I didn't mean to make more trouble for you."
"You really don't think I've healed at all, do you," the teen said, looking up. "You'd never give me that sort of apology if this was before then." He raised an eyebrow. "Right?"
Giles took a deep breath and thought about the present accusation. "That might be true, but still.."
"No, no but stills. You don't think I'm better at all. You're still worried that I'm too close to snapping so you're watching what you say around me so it doesn't happen because of you." He moved closer. "I'm tons better now, I'm not fragile, not as much, and I'll be *fine*. I don't need coddling, or any other word like that. Yeah, a friend is nice, but you're doing the same thing that they would if they knew." He turned and walked back down the stairs. "Have fun on your date, I'm going to the Bronze." The outer door slammed.
"Oh, hell," Giles said, sitting on the bed. "Have I been like that?" He shook himself, walking into the bathroom. "I'll just have to stop it then."
Xander walked into the Bronze, pulling out his wallet to make sure he still had money. He ordered a cup of coffee as he sat down to watch Dingoes rehearse. When the song was over, Oz walked over to him. "You're not done yet, get back up there before Devon's stare kills you," he said. He looked up at him, seeing the shock. "I don't need coddling from you either. I'm getting better now and all the eggshell stuff is wearing you out."
Oz nodded. "I didn't know I was."
"Both of you are." He looked up at the stage. "We can talk later, go practice." He watched Oz walk away. "It's natural," he said, loud enough to be heard. He saw the nod so dropped the subject.
A few hours later, Oz came back over, taking his seat back. "It might be natural, but there's a reason for it."
"I'm not that tender anymore." Xander looked around at the few people in there. "I'm doing okay," he said, leaning closer. "I'm not that fragile, I even yelled at Giles earlier when he let slip about my family. I'll live."
"But I'm not sure of that yet so I'm still going to treat you more carefully."
"But that makes it worse. It makes it more apparent that there was a time before. I just want to be treated normally."
"Do the words cliff and gun have a meaning to you?" Oz said, leaning a little closer so he could talk softer. "I'm not treating you different to be careful about you, this is wholly about my guilt and the problems I have with accepting that you're getting better. Not to do with you really."
"Then you'd do it to someone that you didn't know?"
Oz snorted. "I'd not be having this conversation with someone I don't know. And I do know. I really have tried hard not to but I can't help it, it's natural. If I try to control my behavior around you, it'll just be more obvious."
"Then what do I do?"
"You relax and let it flow back to the naturalness that you used to have." He sat back up, wincing. "Too long bent over," he said. "Willow's been guarding her words *about* you, hoping that they don't get back to you."
"I noticed that at lunch. That and her protective instinct's back on high." He sighed, looking at the grounds in the cup. "How long does this go on?"
"It slowly flows back to normal and you never really notice it." He patted the hand, making him look back up. "That you noticed at all is a good sign that you're getting back to fine though. It's a huge milestone in your recovery." He stood up. "I'm going to go eat with Devon and the guys. We'll talk some more after the show."
"Yeah, thanks." He watched him go, popping his neck. "A normal reaction at least." He felt hands go around his neck, rubbing it. "Um," he started, then Willow walked around him. "Hi," he said, patting the table. "What's up?"
"I just showed up to admire Oz from a distance." She arranged her skirt, sitting down. "Why are you here so early?"
"I had a fight with Giles about being treated differently." He sipped the last little bit of his coffee. "I should go call and talk to him."
"He called me," she said. "He said he wants to talk to you when you get home so don't make it too late. He also said that he was sorry, but he didn't realize he what he was doing, so he doesn't know how to stop."
"It's apparently normal. Oz agreed with me on that part." He looked at the waitress, pointing at his cup. She nodded, pouring him another. "Want something?"
She leaned closer to him. "I get an allowance and you don't," she whispered, "let me do the liberated thing and pay." She sat back up, taking some money out of her purse and handing it the waitress. "Can I have a latte please?" She got a nod as the waitress walked away. "Okay, so let's discuss this." She waited until he took a sip and she had her coffee. "Why did you feel like that?"
"It's not something I can explain to someone that's never been wanted." He looked at her. "You've always been wanted and needed. I'm the guy that comes attached to you." She nodded, sipping some more. "Then *that* happened and it just got worse."
"So it wasn't just that?" He shook his head and she took his hand. "You know I always wanted you around, right?" He nodded. "Then what's the problem?"
"The part where everybody polled about his name said he's 'Willow's friend'," Oz said, coming back over. "And he's right, it's not something that you're going to be able to understand on a personal level." He sat down between them but on the other side of the table, maintaining his air of neutrality. "I should be jealous but I'll let it slide this time." She started to pull back her hand. "No, leave it. It's keeping him calm." He looked at the younger man. "Did you try to explain the rest yet?"
"No, I was going to wait until there was more noise." He looked around, seeing the frowning lead singer again. "He's going to beat you soon," he said, waving at him.
"He can go leap," Oz said, still looking into his eyes. "Tell her the rest. I know there's more."
"Yeah, there is." He turned to face her and took a deep breath. "Do you know that I always felt like your very needy little kid? Like you had to take care of me like I was some sort of accidental pregnancy that you felt you had to keep but didn't want to?" She frowned at him. "All our lives, I've been Willow's 'something'. Even to my own mother sometimes. It's been bad trying to forge my own identity and I did a bad job but it's still there, even though I still need you to be Xander. No matter how much I really want to not need it, your life has to be in mine to make me me." He took a deep breath. "You can exist on your own, but I feel like one of your cardboard dolls some days. I'm nothing unless you play with me. And that hurts and pisses me off majorly."
She looked confused, then shook her head. "I never saw you like that. You were always my best friend, someone that I needed to help and take care of." She looked at Oz. "Is he saying what I think he is?" He nodded, giving her a bland look. "Then maybe I shouldn't have shielded you so much as a child." She turned back to look at him. "But you needed me, and that's been a fundamental force in my life." She frowned at him, then hit his arm. "Why didn't you tell me sooner?"
"When?" he asked. He rubbed his arm where she had just punched him. "Nice hit. I was always the one that protected you from the people that made fun of us. If I lost you then, then you'd be hurt and I'd be the cause of it."
"And you'd be alone," Oz added.
"That too. That's one of the things that's driven me for so long to protect you. I don't have an alone yet. I might not ever have one. I'm like a third hand to you." He took her hand again. "When we ... kissed, it wasn't just that I woke up and saw you as something other than the surrogate mother you'd been to me, but you saw me as who I was. And your needing to be needed reacted to it." He wiped off her cheek. "Please don't do that to me. Not here and not now." He looked around, seeing more people. "That's just part of it though. You thought I was slipping away, hence all the comments about my dating Cordy."
"But she was bad for you!"
"Did you just hear that? Those words that you said?" She wrinkled her nose. "You're going to make a hell of a mother, Will, but you're not mine. I'm supposed to make mistakes, that's what teen guys do. We date the wrong women, we do bad things, we learn boundaries that way." He kissed her forehead. "I can't do that. You coddle me like I'm five and I'm trying to eat a caterpillar again. You don't let me breathe some days. Sometimes I love you for it, but sometimes it's stifling." He kissed her forehead again. "Understand?"
She nodded. "Yeah, I do, but I don't know how to fix it." She wiped off her cheeks. "How do I fix it? Do you want me to leave you alone? Do you want me to watch you from far away? What?"
Oz took her other hand. "He needs you to be there but you need to step back out of his life a little. If you're going to be around him, you shouldn't have to make sure he eats. Or that he's done his homework. He's a big boy, Will, and he's proven he can take care of himself part of the time." She nodded. "He's not saying leave him alone, just some distance so he isn't the baby."
"I can do that," she said. She looked at her friend. "Can you tell me when I get too much again?"
"Sure," he said, pulling her in for a hug. "I can do that, now. I even think I can learn to ask when I need you to step closer." She nodded so he let her back up. "We better now?"
"If that was all of it."
"We still need to talk about some things. Things like doormat times." He grinned. "But that can wait."
"I don't do that." She looked at him. "Do I?"
"Sometimes," Oz said. "It's hard to hear about somebody you love's relationship with someone else." He looked at Xander. "And I'm guilty of that too."
"Hey, I can take that. I don't mind the occasional 'explain her mind to me' calls. I just don't want to be your therapist." They both nodded. "Okay, now go make us pretty music, Oz, and Willow and I will talk some more."
"He didn't ruin your concentration, right?" she asked.
Oz got up, stepping closer to kiss her. "Nope, it's actually cleared it some. I don't have to worry about him so much." He headed for the stage, climbing up on it.
They sat together, talking about nothing in particular, watching the show.