Xander looked up from his sorting, grinning at the young redhead in the doorway. "Hey, back again?" He stood up, pulling her into a hug. "What's up?"
She shook her head, stepping away from him. "Oz will be back in a few days." She looked up into his darker eyes, frowning. "What's really going on?"
He shrugged, going back to his milk crate seat and the boxes in front of it. "Not a clue, Will. I called him when I found out about Miri and he showed up." He looked briefly at her then pulled out the next thing, putting it on the shelf. "He left then came back then you got snatched by someone."
"Someone that thought he was a Fed." She hopped up on the counter, looking at the sleeping baby. "Is she ever awake?"
"Yeah, just not all that often right now." He put another box up, not looking at her. "So, what was it?"
"They wanted his former boss and something he had but they knew he wouldn't come for me, just for Oz, so they took me to get him." She wiped over her damp cheek. "Why does this happen to us?"
"Hellmouth," he said simply, moving his seat and the boxes over to start another row. He pulled out a glass candleholder, carefully setting it on the shelf. "How's things between you two?"
"We didn't talk. I got to see him come in and that's it. I was knocked back out and when I woke up I was on Giles' couch and he was staring down at me." She shuddered. "Not the most pleasant waking thing to see." She turned to look out the window. "So, he's coming back to help?"
"With Miri and the store." He looked at her then out the window. "Hmm, Giles and Buffy," he muttered. "It's open," he yelled, bending to put another holder on the shelf. "What's up?" he asked as the bell rang.
"Um, Oz is back," Buffy said. She looked at Willow and frowned. "And you're supposed to be in bed."
"Buffy, it's Spring Break and I'm fine." She shook her head, running her fingers through her hair. "What did he say?"
"Only that he'd see you later." She glanced at Giles before weaving through the boxes. "Want help?"
"Nope, I've got it," he said, starting another row. "I'm being fussy about it." He looked over his shoulder, holding the next piece to go up. "What do you think?"
"I think it's a small store and that it might go very well." She smiled at Giles. "So, would you be needing summer help?"
"Not right now," the older man said. "I'd like to see us turn a profit first." He looked at the younger man. "Xander, when was the last time she was changed?"
"When she got up about an hour ago." He put up the last candleholder and stood up, stretching. "She's fine. I'm not ignoring her." He walked over to his daughter and looked down at her. "She's eaten regularly, she's been changed every few hours. She's had numerous baths. I'm doing an okay job here." He looked at the older man. "Did you want to fuss over her tonight?" "Yes, I would love to watch her tonight," Giles said with a smile. "We could watch that special tonight." He looked over his shoulder at the two young women. "I'd be alone otherwise."
Buffy turned to look at him. "It's not my fault you watch boring stuff." She frowned at him. "Just because I'm a girl doesn't mean I like ballet."
"Me either," Xander said. "I didn't like the one I've seen so I'll leave the cultural stuff to your special touch." He grinned, turning to rest against the counter. "It's coming together okay I think."
Giles nodded. "Yes, it does appear to be cohesive at least." He looked at the empty cases. "The books come when?"
"Tomorrow." He looked out the window. "Fed Ex," he said, pointing. They watched Buffy walk out to grab the heavy box and sign for it. "Thanks dear," he said, taking it from her and setting it on the floor to look inside. "Hmm, the semi-occult books." He pulled out one. "Or the starter set for people who want to know, as you called it." He handed it to Willow, who was grinning.
"I remember these," she said, happy. "I've read a few and they were great and informative."
Giles shook his head. "They're for the people that want to know, not for experienced people." He took it from her, dropping it back into the box. "We should go out to eat. Leave this stuff for now," he told the younger man, picking up the baby carrier. "Come on, my treat."
Xander nodded, grabbing his keys and patting his pockets down for stuff, removing the box cutter from the back one. "Okay, free food I won't pass up."
Willow shook her head. "Let's make it someplace that has a buffet. He'd bankrupt you otherwise." She patted her friend's arm in appeasement. "Just kidding."
He nodded. "I know but you're gonna stop saying that soon. I'm not a walking stomach." He looked up and down the street. "Where?"
"Um, there's a nice family run place," Buffy said. "Around the corner and all that." She looked up the street. "Are we gonna call your place, Giles?"
Willow blushed and looked at the ground. "Let's not. I'm not ready for that yet. I don't think I could be civil."
Xander sighed, pulling her to his side. "He needed to get away and think. It wasn't you and he didn't want to go." He pulled her face up to look at him. "He didn't want to hurt you at all. You're gonna have to talk to him eventually." She nodded so he let her go, stepping back. "Now, let's call him and see if he wants to come."
"His cycle starts tomorrow," Buffy pointed out. "He probably would want something meaty and not real well done." Willow nodded, walking up to stand beside her. "Let's call him from the place and he can join us." She took her best friend's arm, walking with her down the street, talking quietly.
Giles waited for Xander to make it to his side. "Most unusual." He got a small nod. "I meant that you're not usually that soft and concerned with others. She's done good things for you."
The younger man nodded slowly. "Yeah, she's changed a lot of stuff about me." He looked at his daughter. "Want to take her for a while so I can think?"
"I thought I was going to do so anyway tonight?" He stopped, looking at the silent form next to him. "What's wrong?" he asked softly. "I'll help any way I can."
"I know but I'm confused and need some space." He looked up into the deep eyes staring at him. "It's just hitting me. It's been a month now and I've not screwed up too much yet and she's happy but I'm not *me* anymore." Giles nodded. "I've changed, but I'm not sure who this father-type person is and if he's a good guy or not."
The older man nodded. "Of course. I'd think that was something every new father would have to work through." He smiled kindly. "I'll take her for tonight and bring her back tomorrow to help you put up the books." He shifted the carrier, putting an arm around the younger man. "It's no big deal to be confused. A child does that to one and she's more demanding because of the way she came into your life. It's normal to be confused and unsure. Usually you'd have a mother there to deal with it, but I'll gladly take care of her for a while." He put his other hand back on the carrier, as he felt it start to slip some. "Now, let's go catch up to them, shall we? Before they get into trouble and eat me out of my apartment. Then I could come and live on your couch for a while." He saw the slight grin and took a deep breath. Everything would be fine now.
Xander looked around his newly painted apartment and sighed, drinking his highly illegal beer. He flopped down onto the couch, watching the world through his window, concentrating on feeling like himself. He missed the happy fun guy, wanted him back badly. Really badly. He took another sip, watching the street lights come on. "I'm not me, so who am I?"
"Insane," Oz suggested from the doorway. He walked in after the startled little jump, carrying over his leftovers from supper. "Sorry, didn't know if you wanted answered."
"No, it's fine. Just make more noise. I don't need the scare." He watched the older man tear into the steak and shook his head. "How are you doing? Got a cage and everything?"
"Yup, checked out my old one in the cemetery and it's not being used so I'm okay." He put down the plastic fork, looking at his friend. "Changes just hit you?" He saw the head nod in the darkened room. "Thought it might be that. Every other parent I know went through the same thing. That feeling of responsibility and the weight. It's worse for single parents though." He licked off his fingers then reached over to steal the beer from the still figure, drinking from it. "It'll ease off until something happens. It's some sort of cycle."
"Then I'll always be not me." Xander sighed, covering his eyes. "There's a few more in the fridge. Have them."
"Well, she's not here so you can do this." He got up to throw out the empty, grabbing two more and turning on a soft lamp across the room on the way back. "Here," he said, handing one over. "You can do this, she's not here."
"I don't need to be my folks."
"Then don't." Oz sat back on the floor, looking at his food. "Want to talk or just think?"
"I don't know." He took a small drink, wincing at the bitter taste. "I'm just not me anymore. No more jokes, no more happy funny guy, no fun."
"Then have fun."
"Hey, Giles and I would both sit if you wanted to go to the Bronze some night to let it out."
"But that's just a night. I want to be *me* again."
"Yeah, but you have cares and worries now."
"So I can't be." He turned to look at his friend. "Oz, why did this happen to me? Even the slaying stuff? I can't understand how I was drawn into it, how this guy got here."
Oz thought for a few minutes then sat up straighter, putting down his beer and taking the younger man's from him. "You got here because you had to be here. Some event in the past called Faith and made her a bad girl wanna-be. When she snapped here, you were in the way. It could have easily been me or Giles or even Wesley. He might have been more likely if Giles hadn't protected him so hard because he was innocent." He blinked a few times. "She picked you because you could be culled from the herd. You were a target and an easy one at the time with everything else." He laid a hand on the still arm. "And some of that blame has to come to me and the rest of us for making you a fringe dweller."
Xander shook off the hand. "No, it wasn't your fault. I kissed Willow and that started those events. It brought me nothing but pain, and it still is." He stood up, walking around the still body beside the couch. "It's not your fault you were pissed, you had every right to be. I'm being punished for my action and I have to take responsibility for it now." He flipped on the overhead light, flooding the room with weak light, breaking the former mood. "Want to do something?"
Oz turned his head then stood up, walking slowly over to his friend. "You're not being punished. God wouldn't have given you Miri to make you sorry for kissing Willow. He pissed us off to make you sorry for it. Miri is a gift to make up for all the crap we've been through so far." He pulled the younger man closer, rubbing over his tense arms. "Never think of her as a punishment. Not for the weakness of not fighting off Faith better and not for the incident with Willow." He looked into the dark eyes. "She's not a punishment. You did nothing wrong. You just weren't that strong."
"Then I shouldn't have been there at all. I chose to go talk to her, she didn't capture me. It's my fault and has been." He looked down at the floor. "Now I'm paying for it."
"You never got to deal with that did you?" He stepped closer, pulling his friend into his arms, holding him tightly, hoping to get through to him before he collapsed under the guilt. "She did the bad, not you. Yeah, you chose to go over there but you didn't ask her to... hurt you." He still couldn't say that word. "You didn't ask for her to be stupid enough to hurt you and not use protection. You didn't make her *bad*, she did. The minute she picked up that stake and hit the person. You didn't bring this on." He pulled back some. "Maybe you should talk to someone about it. Before you end up hurting yourself again."
"Or Miri," Xander said quietly, backing up. "I can't... I don't want to hurt her with this. I refuse to tell her where she came from." He rubbed his arms, trying to stop the heat from his friend's hands from leaving him. Then he started to rub at his throat. "I can't hurt her."
Oz watched him, trying to figure out what to do. "Xand," he said, moving closer again. "You've got to get some help for this. You need to talk to someone more professional than me." He took a step closer, catching the younger man and pulling his hand away from his throat. "You won't hurt Miri. She'll never know why she came to be, never know how bad her mom was." He entwined their fingers, squeezing slightly. "And she won't turn into her mother. You won't allow it." He saw the faint light in Xander's eyes start, and moved just a little closer, needing more contact now. "You won't hurt her. You're not your parents and you won't let this taint her."
"How?" Xander shook the hands off his, trying to move away but he was captured in the strong arms that hadn't let him go that night, when it all began. "How do I get the taint from her?"
"You raise her right, with lots of love." Oz held on, not willing to let him go. "And you talk to someone."
"I can't tell anyone."
"You don't have to give details."
"They'll take her."
Oz tipped his head, considering it. "Then we'll talk. You, me, and Giles."
Xander nodded, wiping at his face and letting his head rest on the shoulder under his chin. "You sure?"
"What friends are for, Xand. We don't let them go just because something bad happened." He brought a hand up to run through the soft, dark hair. "Now, you need to rest and I need to get things ready for tomorrow. Want me to check the chains over here instead?" He felt the slow nod. "Okay." He stepped back. "You go lay on the couch and count the stars and I'll go get the chains." He took another step away, watching the dark eyes for a sign that it was okay. He walked out the door when he heard the sigh and the younger man walked back to the couch.
He came back to find Xander asleep, Miri's blanket in his arms. "Yeah, we'll talk and you'll be fine and so will she." He set the chains on the floor, trying to not make noise, then sat down to finish his steak from earlier.
Giles looked up as the two younger men walked down the back stairs and into the store. "Up late this morning?" Xander nodded, brushing past him to start putting more stuff up but Oz looked at him then toward the back, hinting strongly. "Xander, I'm going to make some tea, would you like some?"
"Yuck," he said softly.
"All right. Oz?" He turned to look at the man, seeing the head shake. "All right, well, how about coming to get the rest of those books. They've packed them into huge boxes and I can't lift them. The delivery man dropped them next to the door." He motioned at the pile, then followed him over. "What?" he asked quietly.
"He needs to talk," Oz said quietly. "He still has to deal."
"I'm fine," Xander said. "It was a momentary thing." He turned to look at them, putting his hands on his hips and frowning. "It's not going to keep going."
Oz shook his head. "You need to talk about what happened. You were right about something, it will start to color your relationship with her." He hefted a box, grunting as he carried it over to the shelves where they'd decided to put them. "Just informally."
"I'm *fine*!" Xander said again, walking out of the store, slamming the door.
Giles looked at Oz, frowning. "The incident that night or the other before graduation?"
"That night. Angel called me after he'd saved him. He didn't want to deal with it himself so it was you or me. Xand chose me." He shrugged. "He couldn't tell me what happened then and he won't work through it now. He's terrified that he'll hurt her because of it." He popped open the box and looked over the contents. "We're selling kid's books?" He picked one up to show it off.
"No," Giles said, rubbing over his face. "They must have bollixed the order. Go find him and I'll call them." He picked up the manifest, heading for the counter, phone, and sleeping baby.
Oz walked out, looking in both directions, trying to figure out where he went. He saw the park so headed over there using a fair guess - Xander probably wouldn't want to be confined to a building right now. He found him watching the kids playing on the playground. "Hey," he said, sitting on the other end of the bench. "They screwed up the book order. We got kiddie books."
"At least it's not porn. We'd never hear the end of that."
"There's nothing wrong with porn, we're just not selling it." He turned his head to glance at his friend. "You need to talk. It'll never go away unless you do."
"I don't even know what happened that night. I was unconscious."
"I saw the bruising and know the strength. What do you remember?"
"Just her, taunting and saying things." He turned, putting his hands together and resting an arm on the back of the bench, pulling a leg up between them. "I tried to convince her to come back, that we could help her. She shoved me to the bed, taunting some more, and then started to choke me." He shrugged. "Next thing I know, Angel's leaning over me, slapping my face gently and working the buttons on my shirt with the other hand."
"So, you don't know what really happened?"
"No. So I can't talk about it."
"Men don't do that."
"Only in the narrow view of manliness that includes not liking to hold your daughter." He turned, patting the hands. "Now, spill. You need to work through this." He watched, waiting.
Xander closed his eyes and wet his lips lightly with his tongue. "She hurt me, Oz. Really deeply. I didn't feel vulnerable before that. I'd seen *death* but I still had that feeling that I was immune."
"It's called the immortality complex," Giles said, walking up behind them and setting the baby between them. "I'm going for lunch, we should eat out here as it's a nice day."
"There's a nice picnic spot on the other side of the park," Xander said. "Really private and stuff." He reached down to stroke over his daughter's forehead. "She's mine, isn't she?"
Giles nodded, patting him on the shoulder. "She even eats like you." He looked at Oz, then at his watch. "Tonight?"
"All set." He looked down at the baby, moving to zip up her jacket some more. "It's over by the sculptures. There's a little side path out to the old slides. We'll be over there." He picked up the carrier and stood up. "Xand?"
The younger man stood up, still looking at his little girl. "Let me, I can carry her."
"Of course you can," Oz said, handing her back. He started to walk away, putting his hands in his pants pockets. "Come on, let him go get food."
Xander followed his friend, silently thinking and watching where he was going. When they stopped near the old slides, he set her back down, smiling at her open eyes. "We need her bag."
"Giles had it." Oz moved closer. "It's normal to feel powerless and violated. It's also normal to hate people, think you're weak, and to hate yourself but you don't have that luxury anymore." He rocked the carrier slowly, trying to get her back to sleep. "You have to be strong for her and for yourself. This is going to be a tough time."
"And I'll deal." He looked into the light gray eyes, seeing the pain and determination in them. "You do know this too, don't you," he said quietly.
"Yeah, I do. Was drunk, didn't forgive myself for a few years." He patted the clenched hand. "I'm here when you're ready but make it sooner. She, and we, need you."
"Sure," Xander said, grinning. He glanced at the still open eyes. "She's just up, Oz. Not even you singing to her will knock her back out." He looked at the older man. "Thanks, for all this."
"Hey, what friends are for." He reached over to pat a shoulder but stopped to look over the younger man's shoulder. "Who's there?" he yelled.
A young man walked out of the bushes, heading for them. "Just me," he said.
Giles walked down the path and stopped. "I don't believe this," he said loudly. "Go away. She's fine." He finished his walk over to the family grouping.
Xander figured it out. "You're from the Council, right?" The young man nodded, sitting down near them. "She's mine, go back to them and tell them that."
"We're just making sure." He looked over at Miri but Oz moved her, setting her between himself and Giles. "I'm not here to hurt her," his accent turning into an unpleasant whining tone.
"I don't care," Giles said. "Go home." He handed out the subs and drinks, then pulled open the diaper bag to get her a bottle. "We're fine, thank you." He looked at Xander, who nodded. "All of us."
"Yeah," Xander said. "We've got it well in hand." He traded sodas with Oz, drinking some of the caffeinated liquid. "You're not wanted or needed in her life."
"Ah, but we've decided to keep an eye on you." He looked at Giles, smiling slightly. "Rupert, didn't you tell them about the phone call?"
Giles shook his head. "I don't see how it makes a difference since she can't have her back." He looked at the younger men. "Faith woke up for almost an hour last night." He sipped his bottled tea, making a face. "Gross stuff, this."
"Yup," Oz said. "Mostly." He looked at the Watcher. "She can't have her, even if she stays awake. All he has to do is bring up her conception and what her mother did."
"Then it would make life worse for your Buffy, wouldn't it?" He smiled sweetly. "Xander, we're more than happy with the present arrangement but we'll back her if she wants Miriam back."
"Then Hell will freeze," the father said simply. "'Cause I'll tell everyone what she did and what she was. Buffy can hide herself." He bit into his sandwich, faking the calm he didn't feel. "Now, leave please. This is our first break in a few days."
"Ah, yes, the store. How is it coming? I'm sure the Council will want to know."
"Much better than you will be if you're not gone in a few moments," Giles said. He looked at the younger man. "I'd not hesitate to back him up on this. Faith will not get her back." He set down his food, looking around them. "Now, I suggest you leave. You've given me indigestion."
The man stood up, brushing off his pants. "Of course. Have a nice lunch." He walked back down the path, leaving them alone.
"Just when you thought they were gone," Xander muttered, taking another bite. "Will they take it all back?"
"Not if they want her to become one of them." Oz bit into his sandwich, chewing for a second then swallowing. "It was a fear tactic. Do it our way or we'll take her and everything else away."
"We need to get the store running and making a profit," Giles said. "Then we can buy it off Miri and make it our own. Once it's going well, there shouldn't be so many worries." He looked at Xander. "I'd help you tell," he said softly. "I don't want her to leave either."
The youngest man nodded, grinning. "I know. She's like your own." He looked at Oz. "Both of yours." He picked back up his food and ate some more. "So, we're opening when?"
"Two weeks," Giles said, swallowing quickly. "And our book order will be in tomorrow, that was supposed to have gone to the other bookstore." He finished his food, taking the bottle from where he'd rested it on the carrier's handle. "Come on, Miriam, time to eat properly." He picked her up, holding her against his chest and replacing the bottle, earning him a happy grunt and wave. "I do believe she's happy here."
"Yeah," Xander said, smiling at them. "She is." He looked at his food, then at Oz's. "Gonna finish that?" It was handed to him with a small grin.