Xander danced through the crowd of people, smiling and nodding at the ones he knew. He took the glass handed to him by his date, gulping it quickly so he could get back to the party. He shook his head as the potent tasting alcohol entered his system, making him feel woozy. His date grabbed him, saying something but he couldn't hear her anymore, his ears were ringing.

But he shook it off and went back to his fun time, well away from his usual friends that couldn't care less and didn't know he went to these things.


Riley looked at his girlfriend's support group and grimaced. "You sure he can't be here?" Buffy nodded, looking irritated since he had pulled her away from her soaps. "Okay then, let's get started. A few nights ago, at one of the local warehouse parties, a rogue scientist with the Initiative handed out some very bad drugs." He cleared his throat. "We're not sure who got it, or really how it affects people, all we do know is that it gives them sensory spikes."

Willow frowned. "You mean like a your whole body tingles thing?"

He shook his head. "No, much worse. Like you can feel the wind when there's barely any but you feel like you're in a sandstorm. Or like your hearing gets so sensitive you hear voices that are whispering across the room."

"Oh, like Lucy in the last Dracula version, the really good and smutty one," Willow said with a small nod. "So, why tell us? None of us go to those. And we shouldn't have to deal with those people, right?"

"Because," Riley said patiently, "you are dealing with one right now, and we've already had someone go psychotic and jump off a building." Buffy frowned at him. "Yeah, I was there and yes, I drank some and didn't know it either. I've had massive tactile stimulation since then. It's been so bad I couldn't stand clothes, a breeze, or water at times. And since things are like they are here, you'll probably end up dealing with a kid that got it."

Giles cleared his throat. "What should we do if we do run into someone?"

"The local hospital was told about it. All the sufferers are being hospitalized until an antidote to return them to normal is found." He grimaced, scratching his elbow. "Damn." He sat down suddenly, pulling off his shirt, flinching away when his girlfriend went to touch him. "Just don't," he groaned and pulled a needle from his pocket, quickly injecting himself. "I'm the only one allowed loose since I might recognize people who were there."

Giles nodded, leaning back in his seat. "Then we'll watch out for it." Buffy nodded, sitting close to the suffering young man but no longer trying to touch him.

Shiny New Futures by Voracity

Giles hung up the phone, his face showing absolute worry. "Oh dear," he said as he sat down, holding his head in his hands. "What do I do with this knowledge?" He stood up, walking over to grab his coat on the way out the door. "I can't leave him there," he told himself, locking the door behind him. "That boy will be the death of me yet," he told his steering wheel, aware he was really very worried if he was talking to his car. He drove across town to a part that most citizens, him included, tended to forget existed or wanted to forget existed. He stopped in front of the warehouse his caller had told him to come to, getting out and going inside to rescue one of his charges for his own good.

He saw his target sitting in a corner about to stick a needle into his arm. "No," he said softly, walking over, but the boy did the strangest thing. There was no way he could have heard him through all the ruckus but he looked up. Directly at him.

"Hey," he said listlessly, "gotta make it go 'way. They won't stop talking and touching me." He injected the clear fluid quickly and smiled a peaceful smile as he fell sideways.

Giles simply picked him up and carried him out to the car, setting him into the passenger's seat as gently as he could. He slammed the door, looking around to make sure no one saw him, and walked around to get in, sighing at the covered ears. "I wish I hadn't known about this, Xander," he said as he started the car to take him home and dry him out.


Xander started to pant, trying to cover his ears as the voices started again. "No," he moaned, sticking his fingers in his ears. "Stop it! Stop yelling!" He threw his pillow against the door, wincing at the loud noise it made and curled up in a little ball, crying as the noise overwhelmed him again. "No, make it stop," he whispered over and over again, curling up as tight as he could stand, the sheets making his bare skin crawl.

Giles looked away from the monitor as he turned it off, shaking his head as he turned to Riley. "He's gotten it, hasn't he?"

"Either that or he's suddenly gone psychotic, yeah." The soldier sat down with a small sigh. "And from the looks of things, he's gotten more than one dose." He looked over his shoulder as the scientist in charge of his own rehabilitation walked up. "What can we do for him?"

"Shooting him would be the kindest," the small, wiry, dark-skinned man said, pushing back his glasses. "He's got three senses going off right now: hearing, tactile, and taste. We can't even get him to drink anything besides absolutely pure water." He handed Riley his little cup of medicines, watching as he took them. "We've only seen cases of two senses affected so far, and both of those were rescued off a high place then went catatonic. No one knows what to do for your friend."

Giles cleared his throat. "I'd like to do some paranormal research," he said quietly, well aware that his voice tended to set Xander off and the boy was only the thickness of a wall away. "There may be some paranormal thing that could stop or lessen the effects." He looked at the scientist. "May I take him home? You obviously can't help him."

"Can you lock him up so he won't kill himself?" Riley said pointedly. "He's not sane, Giles, not by a long shot and we know what happens when they start to get overwhelmed. Even I got that bad a few times."

"Yes, well, an unfamiliar environment might be aiding in his downfall so I'd like to take him home with me. Now, if you don't mind," the former Watcher said coldly.

"His funeral," the scientist said, handing him a syringe and a set of keys. "I'd sedate him on the way there, engines seem to send him over into the catatonic state faster than most sounds." He tugged Riley up, walking him away, talking quietly.

Giles walked into the room and over to the bed, stepping as lightly as he could. "Xander," he whispered.

"They want me to die so they can dissect me," the young man said. He rolled over to look at his friend. "I can still hear them."

"Then we won't let that happen, will we?" He waved the needle in the air. "Would you like some drugs?" He got a nod so handed it over, well aware that the young man was now more knowledgeable about the procedure than he was. "Come then, let's get you home." He helped him up, walking him out of the warehouse the Initiative had converted into an emergency storage facility when this had all started.

"Giles, I feel funny," Xander said, leaning against the side of the car. He started to throw up, clutching his body as the heaves started to get worse. "They gave me more," he ground out, falling to his knees. "God, shooting me was a good idea," he said when the nausea stopped. He looked up at his friend and mentor and begged for his life to end. "Please?"

"No," he said softly. "I can't do that." He got him into the car, buckling him in. "We'll fix this together and none of the others will know."

"Buffy does," the younger man noted, closing his eyes as the car started. "Heard her voice last night. She said it was a pity I was now so psycho but what did she expect from me after all that had happened." He swallowed as the car went around a corner. "You sure you can't shoot me?"

"Yes, Xander, there is no way I can shoot you but I may know someone who has an answer. He's had sensory spikes himself." He pulled up in front of his apartment and got out, going around to help the younger man out and inside to the bathroom. "Try and take a bath," he said. "I hope the still water would be less irritating to your skin than a shower. Use the products in the blue bottles, no preservatives or the like, while I go make this call." He closed the door, walking out into the living room, meeting Buffy there. "Why did you say such things about him?" he asked her, walking around her tense body.

"Because it's true. He's gotten weird over the last year that we've been split up." She sat down in the corner chair, watching Giles search for the number. "What do you think that you can do for him that Riley's guys couldn't?"

"For one thing, I'm sure I won't be giving him any more of that drug." He made a small pleased sound as he found the postcard, tapping it against his hand. He turned to find her gone. "Good, I don't believe we need your input," he muttered, picking up the phone. "Oz? It's an emergency and I believe you may be the only one to handle it. Call me tonight. Xander's been given something that mimics your sensory spikes before you change." He hung up, looking around his apartment to see what else he could do. "Xander," he said in a normal tone, sure the boy could hear him. "Would you like some food? Some oatmeal perhaps or some toast?" He heard a small splash so went to check on him, finding the boy in that nearly catatonic state he'd fallen into that first night he'd rescued him, the one that had sent all his cautious instincts flying and made him called Riley's ‘friend's' for help. "Oh, Xander," he said, touching his arm. "Come out of your head, I'm sure Oz will have a suggestion or two." He sat beside the tub, rubbing the younger man's arm until he came around, long after the water had gotten too cold and he had let it out, long after it had become dark. Long after whoever had walked through the bushes outside his apartment had come in and was now sitting on his couch.

Xander opened his eyes, blinking. "Did I do it again?" he whispered. Giles nodded at him, smiling kindly, and helped him out of the tub. "I started to smell something really nice and it drew me into a pretty light." He flinched as the towel touched his skin but closed his eyes, enduring the numbing pain from the gentle toweling. "I heard you call Oz. Is he the one eating the pizza?"

"I believe. I haven't been out there since I found you." He handed the young man his clothes, a fleece sweat suit, as soft as he could make it. "I'll go check on who it is while you dress, how's that?" The younger man nodded. "I was about to ask you about some food when I found you. Would you like some toast or some oatmeal? Both are fairly bland and shouldn't upset your newly sensitive system too much."

"Oatmeal please. Plain if you have it. The other stuff is too strong, even when you make it like soup. They tried there and I couldn't get it down." He hugged his friend, clinging. "Can you make it stop? Have it stolen or something?"

"Not that I'm aware of but Oz may have some ideas about that. He's been known to have hearing and smell-related spikes just before he changes." He helped the younger man out to the living room, a hand not quite touching him but ready in case he needed it. "Willow," he said softly. She looked at him in a quizzical way, tipping her head to the right to look up at him. "He's one that got the drug," he whispered, leaning closer. "He's having some trouble with his hearing."

"And smell," Xander noted, sitting across from her. "Can you, um, not eat that around me? All I can smell is the grease from the pepperoni and it's real strong." She nodded, getting up and taking it outside, coming back and washing her hands. "Thanks," he said softly, taking the bowl of instant oatmeal, trying to eat it.

"So," she said in a normal voice then covered her mouth. "So," she started again, whispering, "when did you get it?"

"Party," he said. "And your voice is okay right now. Just as long as I'm concentrating on another sense the others don't go wacky." He looked up and smiled at Giles, taking another bite, clearly forcing himself to eat. "Better than they had," he told him.

The older man smiled, sitting on the couch. "Willow," he told her, "I want you to go do an internet search on heightened senses. There should be something about people who have a sense that's abnormally sensitive. Perfume and coffee manufacturers use them to control their product." She nodded, getting up and walking over to her oldest friend to give him a hug under their watchful eyes.

"We'll find a solution," she told him, hugging him as gently as she could. He nodded so she left them alone, careful not to slam the door.

"Maybe we should tell her it comes in waves," Xander said, eating normally now. "It turned itself off again," he said in explanation.

"Good, then I'd like it if you would eat a full meal while you can. You hadn't been taking in nutrients at all while you were in custody and I'm sure your body must be about ready to collapse." He stopped to think. "Come to think of it, that might be a solution to controlling the surges. Your body doesn't run its best when it's starved and you wouldn't be able to control yourself as well when you're that hungry." He smiled at his charge. "See, we're already finding a solution. Anything in particular you want?"

"Protein, I want meat. Pork maybe, it's subtle." Xander stood up and stretched. "It feels good to be out of that cycle for a few hours." He grabbed his head as a car outside backfired. "Never mind," he moaned, falling back into the chair.

"No, I think you should force yourself to eat something," Giles said, handing over a small pill. "I had these left over from my last surgery. It's a nerve pill, it might dull the responsiveness of your new abilities until we can control it."

Xander looked at it. "Tried that approach, ended up puking on the bathroom floor. That's why I turned to the harder stuff." He took the pill anyway, making a face until he'd drank a whole bottle of water to make the residual taste go away. "Someone's here," he said, pointing at the door between sips. "Smells familiar but I don't know who."

"It could be Oz, but he would have had to have made great time."

"Or flew," Oz said as he walked in with another man. "This is Prof. Sandburg, he was there when you called and heard the message. He knows about this stuff." He knelt in front of his friend. "Hey," he said softly, taking a hand in his and rubbing the back in small circles. "How's your head?"

"Cross between an airplane taking off and a motel air conditioner." He looked at the other man. "You were there, I remember your smell."

"They co-opted me, then didn't listen to my advice," the other man said, sitting on the floor beside the chair and pulling back his hair. "What senses are overloading?"

"Taste, smell, hearing, and my skin." He shook his head. "No funny visiony things but lots of strange noises. They kept asking about my vision too." He looked up at Giles. "You need to have your stomach checked out, I think I wrecked it." That got him a small smile from his caretaker. "I'm Xander," he said, holding out a hand to the other man.

"Blair," he said. "Blair Sandburg. And I've already helped a few people just like you, only with all five senses naturally heightened." He smiled gently, taking a small bag out of his jacket pocket and handing it to Giles. "You're British so I'm assuming you can steep tea?" He got a small nod. "Good, take a pinch of these herbs, including the green thing that looks like a twig that's off to the side, and brew him a cup." He turned back to look at the young man. "It tastes gross but it'll cure some of the sensory spikes, and will even the cycles out."

"You really do know," he said, moving to hug him. "Help me?"

"Sure, kid, we'll both help you. That's why Oz brought me." He looked at his student. "Actually, he's going to help you while I supervise, how's that?" He got a small nod from the tired body in his arms. "Oz, after he drinks the tea, take him into the bedroom and put him down. Block as much of the sensory input as possible; no lights, no noise, no air flow." He got a small nod. "You still have the white noise generator?"

"In my bag," the younger helper said. "I'll go start that now." He grabbed his bag and walked toward the bedroom, closing the door behind him.

Blair looked up at Giles. "You know my mother, right?" he asked with a small smile. "Naomi? You got this look of sudden understanding when you heard my last name."

Giles smiled, handing him the cup of steeping tea. "Yes, actually I do. She's a most remarkable woman. If you're at all like her, I'll trust you with him completely."

"Good, because this is going to be a fight. They'll want him back to study him."

"Want to dissect me," Xander corrected quietly. He sat up and smelled the tea and gagged. "I have to drink this?"

"It'll help. It does my partner all the time."

"Drink it for me," Giles said, taking Oz's former place near his feet. "Please?"

The younger man nodded, gulping the foul tasting stuff down as fast as he could. "Gross," he said, wiping his mouth. He looked down at his arms, frowning at the only bare part of him that wasn't his head. "Why don't I feel your breaths anymore?"

"Because the herbs in the tea dull your senses. Same as the drugs you probably took to kill the voices did." Blair took control of the hands, looking at the needle marks. "How long were you using?"

"Two weeks," the youngest man admitted then yawned. "Wow. This will put me out?"

"Yup," Oz said, coming back out. He took the cup, handing it off to Giles, then helped his friend up and into the spare bedroom. He sat him on the pulled back sheets, tucking him in and handing him a sleep mask. "Here, and these too," he said, handing over earplugs.

"I can't do ear plugs, my ears get really sore," Xander said, yawning again. He closed his eyes, not even getting the mask all the way down. "Night," he murmured, curling up around the soft blanket that had been placed there for him.

"Night, man, sleep well. I'll be in the next room." He finished sliding the sleep mask down then turned on the white noise generator, walking out as the sound of a waterfall started to fill the room. "Sleeping," he told Blair, sitting next to him on the couch. "I need answers here if I'm going to take care of him."

"He have the plugs in?" Blair asked. He got a small head shake. "Ear infections?"

"From what he said, yeah. He went out so well, I had to finish slipping the mask on." Oz took the glass of juice with a small nod. "So, now I'm officially a Guide; now what, teach?"

"Now," Blair told him with a small pat to his knee, "you learn to work with him, help him avoid stimulus that will set him off again." He looked at the bowl of oatmeal coagulating on the coffee table. "Wasn't eating, I'd say, and he's probably scared poor Mr. Giles to death when he zoned."

"Would that be the catatonic state he goes into when everything gets to be too much?" Giles asked.

"Yup. He goes to play in his head to escape," Oz told him. "We've got to bring him back with us. Can you handle him for three days while I go get my place ready?" The older men nodded serenely. "Good. I've got a flight back tomorrow morning and I'll have a safe place set up in two days for him to learn how to use his senses."

"That's cool," Blair said. "I've got classes again in three. But then so do you, young man. And no more unannounced absences. I don't know what it is with you but I refuse to allow it anymore. That kid in there is more important than you sleeping in." He gave his student a pointed look. "Got me here?"

"Yeah, but there are still some things that you don't know about me, teach." Oz got up, nodding at Giles. "I'll explain it next cycle. I'm going to go curl up next to him. Night Giles, and thanks for calling me."

Blair waited until they were alone. "What was he taking?"

"Something clear that was shot into a vein." Giles shrugged. "I'm not up to date on my drugs anymore. It knocked him into a fairly pleasant and calm place from the look on his face, and it took immediate effect when he shot up." He rolled his neck around. "You can have my bed if you want or the couch, I'll let you decide."

"I'll take the couch. Can't be worse than the bed I used to have at Jim's." He snorted then covered his mouth. "Should call him," he said. The phone was pointed out to him. "Thanks, I've got my calling card." He walked into the kitchen, dialing quickly. "Hey, Jim, yeah, I do still exist and no, I didn't run away." The young man leaned against the wall, frowning. "No, one of Oz's friends from home got dosed with that stuff that they called me about." He chuckled lightly, playing with his ponytail. "Yeah, well. He's fine, now. We came right in the middle of a cycle and he's not been able to eat." He straightened up. "They have? Tough crap, man, I don't want to hear it. What they did to these kids was inexcusable and locking them up as Schizophrenic isn't right." He shook his head. "No more than you are when you're listening from across the room." He tapped his foot a few times. "Yeah, I think you'll like this kid, he reminds me of you a little." He snorted. "No, not that way. He's only got four of the five so far. And Oz will make a killer Guide. You were right about that part." He smiled. "Me too man, three days. Got the number on caller id? Okay, I'll be here until I'm back. No, I have a couch available and Oz will be back tomorrow." He frowned. "James," he said in warning, "you know better than to even think that. We'll be discussing this when I get home, do you understand?" He frowned at the phone as he hung it up. "Static my ass. Jealous Sentinel is more like it." He turned to find a pile of sheets on the couch and himself alone in the living room. "Okay, Sandburg, off to bed, you can work the kid up tomorrow." He made himself a bed and lay down, closing his eyes and thinking of his partner.


Xander looked around Oz's apartment and grunted, rubbing his eyes. "Much nicer than my last place," he commented, dropping his single bag beside the door. "Where should I put my stuff?"

"Hall closet," was called from the bathroom. "Be right out. Get comfy." Oz walked out to see Xander lying on the couch with a folder sitting on his chest and a note attached to it. "Teach," he said quietly, shaking his head. He picked up the folder, reading the contents and outlines very carefully. This whole Guide/Guideling thing was still so new to him, he needed his hand held but he knew that what Blair and his partner, Jim, had gone through wouldn't work for him and Xander. "Hmm, eating would be a good start."

"Blair made me drink some more tea and then fed me cheap hamburgers," Xander said from the couch. He opened his eyes and tipped his head up. "Works way better than the drugs."

"True, but it is still a drug. Just a legal, natural one instead of the chemicals you were taking." Oz knocked the younger man's feet off the couch, sitting in their place. "We have few house rules here, but the first is all shoes are abandoned at the door." He pointed at the mat. "Not only is it less mess but it's healthier when I don't trip over them on the way to class." His friend nodded, sitting up and taking off his shoes to carry them over to their newly designated spot. "Rule number two, you will follow orders." He got a short salute. "Good, I see you remember the drill. Consider Blair a General and me your commanding officer. Jim is Blair's Tactician and helper. You'll meet him later." That got a small nod as the younger man sat back down. "That means that even when you don't feel like eating, you will if I say you will. And no bad drugs in the house. You start to jones, tell me and I'll fix it for you." That got a small smile.

"I've been clean since Giles came for me. Those nights and a week and a half in the Initiative so almost three now, and I only used for two so I'm not hooked." His arm was picked up and the marks looked at. "See, not so bad," he assured quietly.

"Good, one less worry for me to deal with. Now, for the big one, you're going to have to get a job. My financial aid pays for the place and enough so I can almost eat spaghetti-o's every day but your care is going to become expensive. We okay with the concept?"

"Sure and I still have some savings left." He handed over the passbook to his account. "I'll start looking tomorrow." Xander frowned and got up, heading for the door. He opened it, looking at the imposing man standing there. "Gee, you smelled like Blair," he muttered.

"Hey, Jim," Oz said, waving him in. "Xander, this is Jim, who was a Detective." He got a small smile. "What are you again?" He snapped his fingers. "Oh, yeah, a lowly college student like myself."

"Yup and Blair still plays favorites," Jim said with a small glare. He held out a hand to Xander, watching as it was cautiously taken. "Hey, clean start and all that good stuff. I don't care as long as it doesn't come back to bite us."

Oz cleared his throat, looking at the calendar on the wall, seeing the circled date, today's. "Funny you should say that," he said quietly then nodded at Blair as he walked in. "Can you guys stay around tonight a little past dark? There's something you have to know if we're going to be working this closely."

Xander gave him a dirty look. "You sure you want to do that?"

"Yeah, they're cool with the strange stuff. Relax." Oz patted the sofa next to him and Xander came back to sit down. "Come on guys, relax."

Blair set down his grocery bags. "Sure we will. Does this mean I'll find out the meaning of your mysterious absences?" Oz nodded slowly. "Okay, I'm down with that." He looked at Jim and frowned. "Shut the door and come help me. Xander couldn't eat for over a week and I bet they didn't even think of giving him an IV."

"Couldn't, I screamed any time a needle got *close* to my skin." He looked back at his friend. "What can I do to help?"

"Nothing much. I've learned that an interrupted Blair in the kitchen is a pissed teacher at the next class so we just sit here and watch."

Xander leaned closer to him. "You gonna tell them the rest before or in the morning?"

"Morning. I figure they'll be wigged tonight."

"Rest of what?" Jim called from the small kitchen area. Oz nodded so Xander got up, walking over as he took off his shirt, showing off the three bite marks he'd gotten the last time he'd seen Oz, when the older man had snuck back to see him in the hospital. Jim looked at the marks and frowned. "Look like teeth."

"Holy shit," Blair said, moving closer to touch them, shoving Jim out of his way to do so. "Thought that's what I saw in the cab." Oz gave him a small nod. "You were bitten?"

"Yeah, and tortured and almost turned." He looked at Jim. "Sunnydale is the capital of strange crap. Never doubt what you see, it's probably real." His marks got touched again by the older man. "There are some very bad creatures in Sunnydale and they all seem to like me, so fair warning I guess."

"And some not-so-bad creatures that like you," Oz reminded him. That got him a real, true grin, one that he hadn't seen much of. "Help me get the chains?" he asked the younger man, standing up.

"Whoa," Blair called. "No S&M around us please. I've been kidnapped *way* too many times for that." Oz just snorted. "Do we have to wait for this mysterious information still?"

"Yup." He and Xander pulled out the set of chains coiled up on the closet floor, checking each link side by side on the floor.

"Heavy," Jim said, walking over to look at them. "With manacles. You planning on torturing your Guideling now?"

"Nope," Oz said, hitching his set to the ring in the wall. "This is all part of the to-be-explained at sunset thing." He took the set of chain and manacle from his friend, hitching those to the other ring. Then he got up and tugged on them. "Still secure," he noted, going back to the couch. "Xan, come sit. Let's figure out what you're going to do tomorrow while Blair makes you a welcome to the family dinner."

"I thought I was going to look for a job," he said in confusion. "And what's all this 'Guideling' stuff?"

"Well," Blair explained, "you're not a Sentinel like Jim is but Oz is still your Guide and since we don't know what to call a person with only four heightened senses we're just calling you a Guideling until we figure it out." He handed Jim the plates, knowing exactly where they were from long experience of working with his assistant. "See, Jim has all five senses heightened naturally. You may have had a predisposition for heightened senses so the drug worked that much better on you."

"That's why I have four and the rest only got up to two?" Xander asked. He got a brilliant smile from Blair and a small nod from Oz. "Okay, so why does it matter how I got it?"

"Sentinels are a natural manifestation," Oz told him, rubbing down the tense arm. "One that's chosen by genetics to guard the tribe."

"Like Buffy?"

"Sorta but not quite. There's no rotating list, if Jim dies then the next isn't called. You're either born a sentinel or not and your abilities would manifest sometime in your life under the right circumstances."

"So I may have this genetic whatever and the drug may have just kick-started it or it may just all be something that the drug did?" Oz nodded, giving him a rare half grin. "Okay, I can deal with that. But how do we find out?"

"We compare your genetic tests against Jim's for the markers," Blair told him. "Right after we make sure the drug is out of your system."

"Call me curious and a former detective...." Jim started.

"Curious and a former Detective," Blair and Oz said dryly and in unison, making Xander laugh.

"Come on guys, he's supposed to be curious. Like the monkey in those stories. That's how he solved cases." He looked up at Jim and grinned. "Isn't it?"

"That too," he said, sitting on the free end of the couch. "Who's Buffy? Another sentinel?"

"Nope, the Slayer," Xander explained, only to get his arm hit. "Ow! You're not supposed to hit me. Blair said so."

Oz shook his head. "She's a Slayer of the ones who bit him and similar creatures." He heard a muttered 'and demons' so added it. "And various demons."

Jim simply nodded and stood up, walking over to his castle of sanity. "Did you meet this serial killer, Blair?" he asked, getting his worried look.

"Yeah, but I'm not a vampire, or even remotely Goth, so I'm fine. She is an interesting case study in lack of anything but muscles though." He gave Jim a pointed look. "But we know people like that, right?"

"Harass your Guideling in your own home," Oz said, getting up to go to the bathroom. "Xan, you may have a soda. No more tonight."

The youngest man hopped up, heading for the fridge. "Thanks," he called. He rested against the counter. "Buffy and I didn't always get along and she wasn't real forgiving of everyone else's flaws but she was needed and she helped us, gave us a purpose and a way to survive really. I have to respect the kid, even if she's one annoying cunt." Blair choked on thin air. "Sorry," he looked down, going back to the couch.

Oz cleared his throat. "Language, young man. This is a proper establishment, not a home for drunken sailors." He got a small nod. "Thank you. Even if I did agree some days. And I'd heard that she'd gotten worse."

"Yeah, she and Riley almost got bipolar there for a while. It was all either cuddlesome and nauseating or the throwing things through the windows thing. Even Willow got tired of it." He blushed, sipping his can of soda to cover it.

"Ah, my ex. How is she doing?" Oz asked, sitting beside his friend, nudging his shoulder. "I don't mind if you talk about them. I've gotten over that sadness. My leaving her was for the best as it turned out and I only really regret losing you, Dev, and Giles." He nudged him again when he didn't get an answer. "Xan," he called softly and got a small nod. "What's going on in that head of yours?"

"Nothing. Just wondering what they're doing." He took a deep breath. "I told them goodbye last night and no one even seemed interested so I don't know why I'm worried and stuff but I am. Giles seemed really ready to cry but I gave him a nice hug and he said he'd write."

"He has the phone number," Oz pointed out. "You can call him later."

"Don't have a phonecard yet."

"So? Just pay your half of the bill." Oz scratched his shoulder lightly. "Damn, it's early tonight." He stood up, heading for the chains. "Just do me a favor and stay until I'm calmed down. If you try to leave before then I'll think you're prey and try to eat you." He snapped on the manacles, looking at his Guideling. "Bed's yours, behave tonight, get to know Jim and Blair and learn from them." He got a small nod from Xander. "And call Giles. I'm sure he'd like to hear from you." His head went back and he started to pant in pain. "Damn," he muttered, sitting down. "Hate this part."

Jim and Blair watched in amazement as the boy they knew changed in front of them, becoming very hairy and snarly. They looked at Xander, who shrugged. "We told you Sunnydale was strange," he said, getting up and heading for the table. "Come eat. He's calm now." He dished up some of the salad, handing the bowl off to Jim, who was still staring. "His nephew bit him while teething. Way back when, in high school." He took the bowl of pasta from Blair's limp hands, dishing up some of that too. "We all watched him those three nights back then."

Blair hit himself on the forehead. "His usual absences." He looked at Jim, taking the salad from him and dishing it up for them both. "Eat," he commanded. His Sentinel ate mechanically, watching the werewolf for sudden movements. "So, Xander, anything strange we should know about you?"

The younger man shook his head. "Nope, I'm a normal. I was cannon fodder and donut guy, and desperate humor guy too, let's not forget that important function." He put down his fork, getting up and heading for the bathroom, shutting the door gently.

Jim looked at his Guide. "He's upset, I can hear him still. He's got the white noise generator on too." The younger man bopped his arm with the fork. "Hey," he said, wiping it off. "You'd think we were married or something."

"Privacy is still a fundamental right of life," Blair told him. "And from what I saw over the last three days of fighting off Buffy's advances, I'd say he had a right to be in jail for killing her." He cleared his throat as Xander came back out.

"Sorry, had to, um, wash my hands." He sat back down in his seat. "You two aren't...?"

Jim shook his head. "It's not necessary for a Guide to be paired that way with his Sentinel. And even though we share those feelings, I could never put up with him like that. Most everyone thinks we are though."

"Yes," Blair said with a sigh. "He's straighter than the earth and I'm curved like the sun." He got a small frown. "The legends say that pairings on a sexual level are great for the tribe but not all pairs have them. Many Guides needed that sort of extra hold over their Guidelings and used sex to do it. I've long since gotten past needing that level of control over stud-boy here. Now all I have to do is either pout or order and he follows me like a puppy dog."

"Chief," Jim warned, glaring. "Don't give the kid ideas."

"I'm almost twenty," Xander said softly. "And yeah, there were days when I wanted to hurt her too. She's good at her job, some say the best Slayer ever, but she can be a miserable person to be around if you're not fully in with her little clique of two." He shrugged, eating some more salad. "I'm not Willow or her boyfriend so I'm not in that well."

"Which sucks," Blair said. "How about you, are you leaving anyone behind that you'll really miss?"

"Giles. He's been like a dad and a teacher to me. Willow and I have grown so far apart in the last year I wouldn't have thought it possible before she moved those two miles away." He put down his fork. "That's about all I ever had. Oz was always there though. Even when we were having problems because I kissed his girlfriend, we were still able to be civil and be there for each other." He looked over his shoulder at the wolf watching them from his napping position. "He's been the one constant since we met in high school. Him and Giles." He looked up, leaning back. "I'll call him later."

"Hey," Blair said, patting his hand, "they're not throwing a party because you're gone. Maybe because you're going to be okay now but not because you left." Xander just nodded, going back to his eating.

"What do you like to do?" Jim asked the boy, changing the subject before Blair got up and *walked* down there to beat his former friends; the signals for such an action flowing freely from his Guide now.

"I like to draw but I'm not that good at it." He swallowed, looking at his bag. "I worked some bad minimum wage jobs for the last year, switching about every three weeks." He smiled slightly at Jim. "You remember what it was like, right? The not knowing what you wanted to be?"

"Well, my future was pretty much mapped out for me by my father, so I went into the military instead." He patted Blair's hand. "Best mistake I ever made."

"Yeah, I am," Blair said, smiling. "But I'll tell my mother you agree with her."

Xander got up, heading for the bathroom and locked himself in this time, not even bothering to turn on the noise machine to cover it up.

"Damn," Blair said. "He's going to take all my Psych knowledge and every trick I've ever learned."

"Just get him to trust you and don't break it," Jim said. "He's a lot more like me than you think. The me you first met. You just have to get past the defenses. Have Oz help you. It's obvious they're close."

"Not like that," Blair told him. "I asked and Oz doesn't do men. He was pretty sure Xander didn't either but he couldn't be sure because of school rumors. I think he's just worn out from being the strong one. We'll have to teach Oz how to wield the power gently."

"I think he knows," Jim told him. "He sounded like he was doing okay earlier." He ate some of his supper. "Xander, come eat," he called. He winced as something hit the door, sounding very much like a head. "Flip you?"

"Jim, I'll defer to you since you want to go to him more." He waved his Sentinel on. "He'll listen to you where he won't me."

Jim got up, going for the bathroom, careful to leave enough room around Oz. He knocked on the door then walked in, watching as the young man slumped against the cheap door again. "We flipped for the right to come talk to you and I won."

"Don't you mean lost?"

"No, we only flip for things we *want* to do." He sat down on the ugly linoleum floor, touching the younger man's leg. "Want to talk about it? I'm sure I could understand some of it. My own father was a bastard too." The young man shook his head. "Okay, when you're ready." He stood up. "Want to show us some of your drawings?"

"Didn't bring them, they weren't any good," Xander said and he could tell by the look Jim gave him that he knew he was lying. "They're in the bag, in the very bottom, rolled together. You can look if you want to." He closed his eyes, moving away from the door but didn't expect to be hauled up and hugged. "Hey, get off me," he said, pushing weakly at the older man. "I hate being hugged."

"Do I look stupid to you? Never mind, don't answer that. Come eat. We'll look at your stuff later, okay?" He got a small nod so wrapped an arm around the younger man's shoulders. "And you can consider me a mentor if you want." That got him another small nod. "Good, now let's go eat before Blair decides he's mad at us and tosses it all out."


Blair looked at the drawings and shook his head. "Xander, these are really good. I could introduce you to the graphics design people at the college if you want." He got a small head shake from the chair the younger man was leaning back in. "Well, you're going to have to be in a more controlled environment and Rainier's the only place where we both are daily where you can be."

"But I suck at school. Hated it." The elder Guide gave him a dirty look. "I did. I barely passed with a 'C' average." The young man shrugged. "High school wasn't fun and informative for me. I'm more the physical than the thinking type." He was still getting that look so got up and headed for the fridge. "Want something?"

"Oz said no more sodas until we can determine the effects of caffeine on you," Jim reminded him. He was frowned at as the younger man sipped the can of cola, staring directly at him. "Hey, have another sensory spike, I know what they feel like."

"Not quite," Blair told him. "It's different for everyone if you remember. The only usual thing is the headache afterwards." He looked at Xander. "You might want to cut back on the soda though, it tends to send Jim's senses off the charts from the chemicals."

"I like the chemicals. My body needs them now to survive." That got a small smile from the Guide. "Jim had that too?"

"There's this nice fast food place called Wonderburger..." Blair started, accepting the pinch to his arm with grace. "Not to mention Mr. Tube Steak." He smiled at his Sentinel. "Finally got you cured of that too, huh?"

"Not really," Jim admitted. "I still crave hamburger."

"Jim, people destroy the rainforest for cows. Your tribe keeps getting moved because people take their land for cows. I'm sure they'd be thankful if you quit feeding the industry that's soon going to have them living on a postage stamp sized piece of land."

"Am I expected to become a vegetarian too?"

"Not one myself so I don't see why," Blair told him. "Neither's Oz. Just eat chicken and pork instead. And red meat, while satisfying to some inner barbarian, tends to send Jim's tactility off the scale recently so we want you to be really careful."

"Told you it was the spices you were using."

"Jim, I always used them. I use them in other things and you never had a reaction. But a hamburger with nothing on it made you start itching because you could feel the hairs on your arms growing and I'm not sedating you again this week."

"Wow," Xander said quietly. "How long have you guys been together?"

"Eight years," Blair told him, almost whispering it. "Six of it in semi-Hell."

"Hey, I told you they liked you," Jim said with a frown. "And if you've noticed, you've been kidnapped since then too."

"That was a hold-up Jim, not some psycho after you." Blair flipped drawings, smiling at the very dirty picture. "Ah, I see you do like men. Oz didn't think you did."

"Yeah, well, there's a lot of things Oz doesn't know about me," Xander said, sitting his soda down. "And I'd like to keep it that way, okay?"

"Sure," Jim said. "But lying to your Guide is a really bad thing. It makes them leave or yell or..."

"Or beat you," Blair added. He looked at the younger man from over his glasses. "Trust me on this, your Guide is your lifeline and your sanity. You're his protector and helper but he is *your* protector. You are to follow what he says and to do what he asks with little complaint."

"You can have little grumbles," Jim cut in.

"Yes, you can have minor complaints, but your emotional stability is dependant on that man and your senses work better when you're emotionally stable. Okay?" He got a small nod. "Good, that's about the first chapter of the handbook; it's called Your Guide is Your Life and You Shall Follow Him." He gave Jim a pointed look. "I had to write it out for mine but you seem like a reasonable person so Oz shouldn't have to beat you with a pillow."

"They were hard too," Jim said with a grin.

Blair walked over to the couch, picking a throw pillow up and testing it. "Yeah, they are, aren't they?" He looked at Jim and smiled. "I gave him our old ones."

Jim shook his head. "Come sit down before you give him the impression that all Guides are abusive."

"Nah-uh, Oz is a good guy, really quiet and careful. And gentle and nice and kind." He looked at Jim. "But I think we're related."

"He's changed a bit from the last time you saw him," Blair said as he sat down, pillow in his lap. "He's had to figure a bunch of stuff out so he could keep being sane. I want you to be really careful about him for a while until you two get to know each other a lot better."

"I can do that. I plan on getting my own place," he caught the head shakes, so quickly amended with, "nearby. He can't afford to keep me and I can't ruin his life."

"Xander, a Guide's calling is forever," Jim said softly. "Same as ours are. Our senses may go off sometimes but our jobs are still there." He looked at Blair and took his hand. "Even if my senses went offline today, he'd still be my Guide, and I know that if we tried to split up farther than a floor, they'd come back with a vengeance and drive me over the edge until he came back." Blair nodded, backing him up. "It may be different for each pairing but you and Oz will always be close to each other. Even when it's hard to do that."

"So I've already ruined his life?" Xander said softly. He got strong disagreement from the older men. "But if he can't have his own life then I have. He'll never be able to have his own life again."

"This is his life," Blair told him gently. "Same as it is yours. Even if you don't want it, it's happened and you can't ignore it."

"But I don't want to hurt him..." Xander started, stopping when Jim took his hand. "I can't hurt someone else because I need them." He shook his hand free and went into the bedroom. "Night, I'm going to lay in here and read. Don't try to pet him, it upsets him and he starts howling."

Blair followed him in, shutting the door behind them. "Listen, I know this is hard, but you've just got to accept that he knows the price he paid for helping you." He sat beside his newest trainee. "He knew that things were going to be different, that he was going to have to make some changes in his life to accommodate you." He brushed through the dark hair, seeing the small wince. "Try to get some sleep. Our number's on the speed dial." He stood up, looking down at him. "Any other questions before you guys come over tomorrow after class to practice using your new skills?"

"Just one, why did they do this to me?"

"Because they were selfish and wanted something they didn't have." He smiled gently. "Sleep, kid, you'll need it. I'm a tough teacher."

"Oz said you were a big fuzzy puppy but I can't sleep. If I do then Oz might get out and eat someone. I'll nap tomorrow while he's in class."

"Nope. You'll be in my office tomorrow with Jim. He's going to start testing your ranges instead of coming to listen to me lecture." He patted the slumped shoulder. "He took some tranqs and he got along fine without anyone knowing for almost a year." He turned and walked out, turning on the white noise machine as he passed it. He looked down at the yellow eyes that were following him around the room. "You behave and be good to him. We'll see you tomorrow night." He started to reach a hand out but drew back when he remembered being told not to pet the werewolf. "Night, man, see you in class." He and Jim gathered their things and walked out, closing the door behind them.

Xander walked out, locking the door and throwing the extra chain and deadbolt. "Night, Oz, he said, sitting down on the couch and lighting a candle to save electricity, a habit he'd gotten into when he had his own place. He picked up a magazine, flipping through it quietly, going to as low of energy usage as he could. He remembered wanting to call Giles so picked up the phone, dialing from memory. "Hey, it's me and I'm living." He let his hearing roam some, listening to the party going on at the other end of the line. "Having a good time?" he asked. He shook his head. "No, Oz is safely locked up about ten feet from me." He turned his head, watching the werewolf watch him. "No, we're fine. I met Jim tonight and they're both going to help me. With any luck I'll be home eventually." He hung up, not able to listen to the party on the other side anymore. "Yeah, sure they aren't throwing a party because I'm gone and they're free of me. After all, what use was I?" He went back to his low energy state, staring at a wall.

He never even realized he was zoning again.


Oz woke up, looking around at the cleanliness of his apartment, which occasionally even met Jim's standards. He slid the manacles off, getting up to do that first stretch, so important to remind himself he was human and walked upright, then looked around. He saw the small pile of wax on the stone table and shrugged, walking over to where Xander was staring at the wall. "Next time blow it out before you go to sleep," he told him, making it around to his front, catching sight of his very vacant expression. "Damn, you did it already? And on the day I have early classes too." He shook the younger man and when that didn't get a response, he leaned over, tapping him on the forehead. "Hey, you still there or you dead?" He got a small flicker of life in the brown eyes so tried harder. "Hey, Xan, want eggs or toast for breakfast?" The body slumped so he reached out to catch him, laying him down. He covered his eyes, concentrating on another sense to bring him back. "Xander," he called softly, kneeling beside the sofa. "Come on, don't do this to me. Not today. Please?" He grunted in frustration, standing back up. "I'm going to shower, you stay lost for a few more minutes. I'll work on you while I cook." He headed for the bathroom, turning off the white noise maker. He started to shave and cut himself. "Damn," he swore softly, holding a washcloth to the bleeding spot.

"Hey, you all right?" Xander asked walking in, not ten seconds later.

"What? I have to cut myself shaving to get you out of those? We've got to find a better way." He checked his neck in the mirror, looking at his friend. "How long were you out? I'm sure they'll want to know."

"Right after they left, I guess, I didn't look at the time." The younger man looked down at himself. "I'll wait for you to take a shower then I'll do mine after you've gone to class. Blair wants me in his office today."

"Yup, early this afternoon. I think he expected us both to sleep in." Oz went back to his shaving. "How's your head?"

"Okay. I had a long talk with them last night, learning how I was supposed to protect you from the evils of dull razors and things." He smiled, leaning against the doorsill. "I'll clean up a little while you're gone then go out looking for a job. Okay?"

"Yup, just be at Blair's office by one." Oz started on the other side of his face. "Um, Xan? Privacy?" he said after another few minutes of being watched.

"Sorry." Xander walked out, heading for the kitchen. "What do you want for breakfast," came from the kitchen.

"I got it. Go grab a paper from the place on the corner." Oz waited until he was alone to call his mentor. "He zoned after you left." He sat on the back of the couch, shaking his head. "No, my voice didn't. My swearing when I cut myself shaving did. Huh? No, he's getting a paper." He nodded and hung up, heading for his shower. "So, we'll work on that."

Xander tried really hard not to listen to the phone conversation, trying to ignore the quiet words and the even quieter replies. By the time he made it outside, he had finally broken free of the phone call but his hearing was still too sensitive. He hurried to the small grocery store on the corner, walking in and grabbing a paper and a pack of fruity gum. He paid, popping a piece in immediately, his taste buds going psycho on him but allowing his hearing to go down to normal again. "Ah," he sighed as he walked back into his new building. "Much better." He smiled at the woman walking down the stairs with her kids as he jogged up them, getting to the fifth floor pretty quickly. "I'm back," he called.

Oz came out of the bedroom, taking the paper and separating it out for them. "You can have the comics after I'm gone. Need a laugh before Philosophy." He sat down at his plate, eating the toast slowly, looking like he enjoyed it.

Xander put his gum on the side of his plate, aware that Oz was really watching him. "So, any good suggestions of places to start?"

"A few wait jobs in the neighborhood. Might try the bar two blocks down but it's a mixed club." He looked at the pile of papers he had removed from the table. "I didn't know you drew."

"Yeah, there are lots of things no one knows about me." He finished his eggs, walking his plate over to the table and picking back up his gum.

"That bad?"

"No, just had a hearing spike on the way... on the street so I bought some of that nasty gum to turn it off." He shrugged, sitting back down. "I'll try for the wait jobs, I'm not sure I can handle all the noise in the clubs yet."

"Well, if that method works to control the spikes, you might be okay." Oz handed off the comics page, looking at his friend. "So, what did you zone on?"

"Nothing. Called Giles, talked to him, started to stare at the wall to conserve energy while you were changed in case you needed me and I just went under, I guess. Didn't feel different than my usual staring at the walls." He laughed lightly at the Far Side strip and put it down. "What's your schedule like today?"

"Ours is pretty packed for the next week or so. I've got school most days until four or so, I'll write it out for you later and post it on the fridge with a map of the campus, then we'll be at their house tonight and tomorrow night until you can control the spikes without the diabetic breath gum." He ate the last piece of toast, standing up. "Can you do dishes for me? I'm late already?"

"You know I can. Go tell the teacher he's wrong." He watched his friend leave him alone for the first time since all this had started and steeled himself to deal with it. He got up, heading for the sink, and ran some water.


Xander walked into the small, family restaurant, or so it proclaimed on it's sign, and nodded at the person behind the register. "Can I have an application for the wait job?" She smiled and walked into the kitchen, coming back with a balding man, kinda heavyset and dressed in stained polyester from the seventies. "Hi, I want to apply for the wait job?"

"Well, we normally only hire girls for that but let's go back to my office and see what we can work out." He led the way to a small, closet-sized, room crammed with a desk and three chairs. He took the one behind the desk, looking the young man over. "New in town?"

"Yeah, I'm here to study at the University next semester," he lied easily. "I live just up the street with a friend, until I can get my own place."

"Rainier has rules about living on campus."

"Not if you're claustrophobic and can prove that small rooms will keep everyone in the building up while you scream." Xander smiled. "I can bus or wash dishes also. I had some experience at home, have a job list if you want." He handed over the piece of paper from the folder he carried. "I know I switched jobs a lot but some of those changes were beyond my control. That last restaurant burned down when a gang of kids torched it. The construction gig got canceled due to finding an archeological site." He leaned back in the chair, projecting confidence.

"Okay, I could use a dishwasher. Twenty hours a week to start, okay?"

"Yeah, fine. I've got some stuff I'm working on to get into the program I want right now so anything is fine." He took his sheet back. "When can I start?"

"How about tonight?"

"Um, nope, sorry. My friend, the one I'm staying with, has already promised my help to the teacher he's a research assistant to. Lots of papers to grade and collate. I can start tomorrow though. Any time."

"Sure, kid, we can do that. Be here at six pm, that's when the place really gets going." He stood up and shook the younger man's hand. "Tomorrow and be on time."

"Yes, sir, always." Xander walked out and went back to Oz's apartment, going up the stairs. He saw the note tacked to the door and frowned, carrying it inside. This sort of thing never meant good news as far as he knew. He read the paper, his frown getting worse. He dropped his things off, heading downstairs to the Super's apartment, knocking politely. "Hey, I just picked this up for the friend I'm visiting. He doesn't have pets."

"We keep hearing howling and panting and the neighbors have complained." He leaned against the door, looking his visitor over. "Why you up there?"

"I'm visiting," Xander lied. "Looking around to see if I want to go to school here." He crumpled up the paper. "Listen, I was there last night and there was no howling beyond a movie we watch every full moon. It's a thing we started back in high school." The Super nodded. "You can come up and check if you want."

The guy shook his head. "Consider it a warning. And don't stay too long or we'll have to up his rent." He closed the door, shaking the thin walls.

Xander headed back upstairs, kicking the door closed behind him. He saw Blair sitting on the couch and frowned. "How did you get past me? I was in front of the stairs."

"Back door to the parking lot. I'll show you when we leave." He looked up from his grading, frowning. "Where were you?"

"Talking to the Super about the warning he left on the door. Animals. Someone turned him in." He sat down beside the older man, stretching. "Found a dishwashing job, start tomorrow."

"That was fast. Where?" he asked, turning to face the younger man, looking interested. "But that's a pretty safe bet as long as we can keep you from zoning. Not too much external stimulus."

"Small family restaurant down the street." Xander shrugged. "Why?"

"Because, if it's the one I think it is, the guy runs a brothel above the restaurant and you need to be careful about getting assigned extra work." He looked around the apartment. "I offered to help Oz find a better place but he's being stubborn. Now that you're here maybe he won't be for long."

"Yeah, but I think we should still get separate apartments. Our habits are going to get in each other's way. Even ones in the same building or across the street," he offered quickly at the growing frown.

"You can try but I'm not going to offer up much hope for it any time soon." He rubbed the younger man's head. "Come on, I'll buy you lunch on the way back to my office. Why was Oz talking about gum this morning?" He was handed the pack of nauseatingly sweet gum and grimaced. "Playing one sense off the other?"

"Had to, had a hearing spike earlier." Xander picked up his jacket and looked down at himself. "Good enough or should I change?"

"A little overdressed for my office but otherwise okay." Blair shrugged. "Be comfortable, wear less if you want." He watched the younger man hurry into the lone bedroom, counting the seconds it took him to come back out, vowing that it if took him more than a minute, he'd go in there to check on him. Just as he started for the bedroom door, the younger man came out, tucking in his shirt. "Okay, let's go." He waved at the door, watching as Xander picked up the keys Oz had left him and walked out in front of him.


Jim looked up as Xander continued to sort the stones by grade - flawless or not. He saw a few he missed, handing them back. "Try these again."

"It's inside," Xander said. "The surface is clean but I could tell there was a weakness." He handed them back. "Why is Blair in the Parapsychology Department if he's an Anthropologist?" Jim blushed. "Oh, okay, never mind."

"Well, you see, a few years ago, someone outed me," Jim said quietly. "It got a lot of media attention and Blair was forced to say it was all a lie to protect me. But that same afternoon, I went to his Chair and talked to him in private, telling him all about why it wasn't a lie. His dissertation was not only accepted but classified, which brought more media attention when a small local station caught wind of it while I was suspended pending an investigation. Since then, Blair's been over here, chairing the department." He shrugged. "It was the best solution. He can't really be an Anthropologist anymore. Too many people know him."

"Wow. Guess I must have missed that." He handed over the first pile to the older man, letting him check it. "Okay, now what?" he asked when he got the nod.

"One thing, be careful at your new job, kid. We don't want you sucked into the underbelly of the city."

"Hey, I'm a good guy and I can watch out for myself. Did it all summer, two summers ago, on my road trip and since then. I won't let him suck me into anything and if I have to, I'll turn him in." Jim gave him a pleased smile. "Deal?"

"Yup, we just don't want to have to rescue you, or Oz, from the bad guys. I do enough of that for Blair."

"I heard that," Blair said as he walked in. "Just be careful and we'll all by happy." He stepped aside so Oz could walk in with his stack of papers. "Intro paper day," he said cheerfully and sat down with a sigh. "What a trip. I've flipped through a few. One guy's taking Business to become a better drug dealer than his father is." He grimaced, tossing the few he held over. "Here, you'll love these."

Jim snorted. "As a student or as a consultant to the police department?"

"Both," Blair said with a small smile. "Two are funny and one I'd like to turn in." He looked at his newest trainee. "So, how's that test going?" he nodded at the pebbles.

"Fine," Jim said. "He's got a good sense of tactility. And he caught a few that, by sight, I would have said were cracked when it's just under the surface." His Guide nodded slowly. "That's as far as we got. He zoned twice."

"Gum didn't work?" Oz asked, laying a hang on his Guideling's shoulder.

"Not enough."

"Well, we can put some nice shiny dials into your head, young man, and make it all better."

"But I can't see stuff in my head," Xander protested. Blair gave him a dirty look. "Sorry, it's like the lightbulb blew and no one's been able to get in and change it." The elder Guide rolled his eyes. "What?" he asked with a small hurt pout.

"Nothing," Blair said. "You're not the first to say that, it just makes it more difficult. But you both described it the same way. Can you see darker outlines? Like there's something there but it's just too dark?" He got an enthusiastic nod. "Okay, we can work around that using your breathing." He rolled his head to look at Jim. "Yours or mine?"

"Yours, my place has no food."

"Told you to go shopping," Blair complained. "But then you get to cook."

"Okay." Jim looked up from reading. "This is one sick puppy."

"Too true, that's why you have the paper in your little hands." Jim nodded at the door. "Yeah?" he called.

A young secretary, pretty and pregnant, popped her head in. "The Prez wants you, Doc. Want me to tell her to blow you again?"

"No, I'll actually go see her this time and make the suggestion to her face." He looked at his desk and the pile of papers on it. "Xander, I want you to start attending classes, even part time. May I take your work to our Graphic Design or Art department?" He got a small head shake. "You can come with me, talk to them, make a decision." Another negative shake. "Okay, how about an undecided major?"

"But I hate school. I suck majorly at it."

"You can still learn fun things. Underwater basket weaving for example," Jim joked, getting a dirty look. "Hey, I just suggested it to the Scuba club, don't give me that look."

Blair rolled his eyes. "Come on, I want to enroll you and there's a special form for you to fill out since you're one of my inductees." He held out a hand, wrapping the arm around the younger man's waist when Jim and Oz made him stand up. "Come on, I want to take you on a small tour of the school." He walked them out into the hall and around the corner.

Jim looked at Oz. "He like that in High School?"

"Worse. It wasn't pleasant for him. Too many bad things associated now."

Xander looked at Blair and grimaced. "That isn't why I don't like school. I didn't like being forced to learn things. If I want to learn something, I'm good at it, otherwise I'm bored and nothing gets through." Blair just gave him a big, bright smile. "You understand?"

"My new, impressionable young student, I've been here since I was sixteen and it took me three semesters to realize that everyone else had to study for everything while I only worked at things I liked." He walked them down the hall, heading for the front door. "My advisor looked at me at the end of my second semester and gave me this look and shook his head. His exact words went something like, "even if you don't like it, you have to know it to prove that you're not an idiot savant." Xander chuckled. "Well, I was insulted then, I mean a genius like myself, about to flunk out? So I went and actually looked at the books for all the classes I had been skipping and passed that semester. Since then, I've been pretty much a straight A student." He guided the young man outside, into the quad. "This is the hangout spot during the day. And no, you don't really have to worry about nights, only the sickos inhabit this town and they're an all hours crowd." He led him toward the main building, the one that graced all the posters and things about the school. "I'll let you fill out your admission stuff while I talk to El Presidente, she who barks, then we'll go talk to the art department." He showed off the papers in his hands, something the younger man hadn't noticed. "I'm sure you'll be well liked and happily accepted. Even if your tastes are a little odd."

"Hey, it happened," he said. He pulled the papers into his own hands, flipping to find one of a person about to be eaten by a giant bug. "That was almost me. She was a substitute teacher."

Blair sighed. "I'd like to hear about that, but I really don't need more nightmares. We'll just leave it as a vivid thing between us, okay?" Xander nodded, a tolerant smile on his face. "See, if we have to start sharing then I'd have to tell you about the people that have kidnapped me and I really don't want to think about them." He opened the door, letting the younger man walk in first. "Ah," he said loudly, "if it isn't my favorite resident artist." He leaned across the counter, kissing the older woman's cheek. "Xander Harris, this is the person I was taking you to. She's head of the Graphic Design and Art departments. Mary, this is Xander, he's one of mine." They shook hands. "Look at his stuff," he said with a small wave as he walked into the office.

Xander blushed as he handed the papers over. "I'm not very good," he said but she gasped. "Yeah, I know, pretty rotten but I can do better."

Mary looked up at him, blowing a silver hair that had fallen into her eyes away, and made fish mouths at him. "Half of my *staff* can't do this. Bad my ass." She grabbed a form, filling it in quickly and handing it to him. "Do this now and we'll get the rest of the stuff worked out in a minute."

He sat down at the small desk and filled out the form, frowning the whole time.


"I hate being suckered," Xander told Blair as they walked out of the building. "You enrolled me in under ten minutes."

"Yup," the older man said with an unrepentant smile. "And I called her to come meet us too." He stopped the young man, turning him to look at him. "You need to be here, I need to be able to monitor you daily in case Oz has problems dealing. He's real new to the concept of Guides and mistakes can be fatal if not corrected. You can quit in a year or so if you really want, but give it a try. Mary is one of the best people, tough when you need it but encouraging and back-patting most of the time. You obviously need positive reinforcement and now you'll get it. Got it?" He got a small nod, with a really heavy frown. "Listen, kid, I'm arranging things right now for what's best for you. You need as little stress as possible while you learn how to work with yourself again. All I'm doing is clearing obstacles. Everything else is up to you, but I would be gratified if you graduated with honors." He wrapped an arm around the boy's waist again. "Come on, I can hear Jim tapping his nails from here."

Xander focused in on the office, calming himself as he'd been taught before he was shipped up here. "Nope, I hear quiet talking but I can't make out the words." Blair gave him an amazed look. "Or it could be from a building in between."

Blair pulled out his cellphone, dialing his office. "Jim?" He looked at Xander, who was looking really scared. "Give me a sec," he put the phone down. "What? Did or didn't hear it?"

"Yeah, I did," Xander said softly. "And your friend. She thought I was okay." He started walking again, chewing his gum as hard as he could.

"Hey, Jim, we're on the quad and we're on our way back. No, he just heard you two talking and I wanted to check it." He hung up, catching up. "Mary says okay when she means fantastic. Her first year as a teacher, everyone got a C or below because no one lived up to her standards. Most of the department's staff isn't as good as that." He rubbed over a tense arm. "Come on, let's let Jim feed us then we'll work on your head."

"Okay," the younger man said, watching his feet as he walked.


Jim watched Blair make lesson plans, silently contemplating what to say. "Maybe we shouldn't push so much," he said finally.

"I thought about that but he has such low self-esteem nothing would ever get done." Blair looked up and shrugged. "He's going to need some special handling and I'm starting to think Oz was the wrong choice. Maybe we could introduce him to Darryl."

"Chief, after the disaster with his own Sentinel, I don't think that's wise. He's still pretty torn up."

"Yeah, but he may be able to help them out." Jim nodded slowly then smiled. "Getting it now?"

"We're old?" he guessed.

"Well, yeah, that too, but Xander's just different enough to need some creative solutions that Oz isn't coming up with. I never thought of giving you gross gum to play one sense off another. It's a brilliant strategy for emergencies." He put down his papers, curling up to face his Guideling. "Think about it this way, that boy has got about as much potential as you have, he's only missing one sense, and he's got a wider range if not as sensitive a depth. He could probably work in crowds when you can't, your hearing would go down to the molecular level to get away from the noise but his would spread out thinner. It's a great gift and it needs gentle tending."

"So, we're just going to be the gardeners this time?" Jim shifted uncomfortably. He remembered quite well trying to pull Darryl's Sentinel back from the edge of that building when they had their split. And failing to do so. "What about his emotions? I don't remember being that touchy."

"Yeah, you were a block of ice though. This kid is getting everything that you felt and more. He never had them as a kid. He's been through just as much but he's not had an outburst of talent before. As far as he's concerned, he's gone from barely human to superman and it's scaring the hell out of him. The only thing that will help him is some gentle Guiding back down to human with some major ego building on the way. And *that's* why I'm worried about Oz. He's gotten a lot harder in the last year, especially if you listen to Xander describing him. He used the words gentle and kind. How much does that match the Oz we've come to know?"

"Not much," Jim said. "You think you can work with him still?"

"I think we better or both of them could die. It was too close with Darryl, Jim, and I refuse to see another pair go through that depth of pain." He took his partner's hand, squeezing it. "We may have to get tough with them, make Oz see this new reality and boost Xander until he's able to do it on his own, but we'll keep them both around until it's right between them."

"Yeah, no more buildings for me." He leaned closer, laying his head on his Guide's shoulder. "But I think the ice cream thing you had me do with Tony would help me and the kid bond."

"Jim, you've got to watch that. Guys at that age hate being called kids. They crave recognition as an adult."

"You maybe, I was a man by then." He looked up and grinned. "We could send him to boot camp."

"I don't think so, he doesn't seem like the taking orders type." Blair frowned. "We'll work it out and help them see it but we're just the architects, they're the construction team. Got it?" Jim nodded, closing his eyes.


Xander shifted on the couch, trying to do what Blair had taught him earlier about using his breathing to calm his body. He shifted again as the cushions started to get scratchier instead of less, closing his eyes tightly. He heard Oz walk out but didn't look up at him.

"Want to come sleep on the bed?" the older man asked quietly. He got a small head shake. "I have softer sheets than this couch and I know you won't try anything."

"I'm fine, Oz, thanks," Xander said, rolling onto his side. "You should get to bed. It's your first normal night of a new month and you need it."

"Yeah, I do, but your shifting is keeping me up so come sleep beside me. It'll calm you, a lot." He reached down, touching a newly tense shoulder. "I'm sorry but it's true, Guides calm their Guideling by being there as a physical anchor."

"I'm fine," Xander mumbled, pretending to fall asleep. Eventually the older man caught the act, going back to the bedroom but leaving the door open. He rolled onto his back, watching the ceiling and the reflection of the lights from the signs on the street. He started the breathing exercise again, concentrating harder this time, and soon he was asleep. He didn't even hear Oz as he got up to go to class.


Blair looked at his faithful assistant. "So, what's your plan on dealing with him?" He leaned back in his chair, watching the younger man think.

"We need to go sheet shopping," Oz said finally. "Get him something to cover the couch with." He yawned, stretching a little. "Since it's his first payday, I thought about taking him out for a treat."

"Ice cream?" Jim suggested from his corner of neatness, his personal goal was to organize Blair's office until he wasn't offended by it. "Pretty safe place and he seems to respond well to offers of food."

"Or you could take him out clubbing," Xander said from the doorway, smiling as he waved his check. "Those extra hours paid off." Blair frowned. "Don't give me that look, they needed a waiter on a really busy night so I got to go out and do that job too." He patted his friend and Guide's shoulder as he walked behind him. "The boss was even nice when he asked me if I wanted more hours." He looked at Jim, who he had been talking to. "Oz, instead of a treat, why don't we go look at apartments for me? I need to be able to run around naked sometimes and you want your life back. I know it'd have to be nearby but there was one open across the street." He looked hopeful, hoping really hard he hadn't offended him.

"Sure," Oz said calmly. "After supper, okay?"

"Yup, fine. What am I cooking since it's my turn? We have the Mexican stuff in the box or mac and cheese or Ramen noodles."

"Whatever, you're the one that has trouble keeping down food." The younger Guide stood up, stretching. "I have class downstairs in a few. See you down there, teach." He gathered up his bag and walked out.

Jim spoke as Blair opened his mouth. "We talked about it, he wants to feel independent and not so, how did you put it? Moochy?" He got a small nod. "If our situations had been reversed, Blair, I would have done the same thing."

"Jim, it's too early."

"No, Blair, it's not," Xander corrected. "I feel like I'm depriving him of life. He should be able to go have fun and not worry about waking me, or play his guitar and not worry about my hearing spiking in the middle. Or even worry about whether or not I'm cleaning up my own messes."

Jim shook his head. "I can't stand messes. It offends my senses. Blair's room was the worst thing in the world." He looked up and smiled. "But I got you to fix that, didn't I, Chief?"

"Yeah, you sure did. You got me doors so you didn't have to look at it." He smiled at his partner then went back to frowning at the young man in front of him. "I still think it's too soon but we'll just have to work around it." He gathered up his Jim-gathered pile of stuff for class, heading out of the office.

"Didn't you do what I said and talk to Oz privately first?"

"I mentioned that I wanted to have some independence and give him his life back and he said 'that's good' but he apparently didn't think I meant now. I'll talk to him later."

"Xander, words from someone who's been there, don't let it fester. It kills people." Jim went back to working on his files. "Go start with your drawings, young man. I know Blair said they wanted you to come in with a portfolio." The kid saluted him and left, making sure he had his check in his pocket. "I'm not pulling anyone else from a building," he promised himself.


Oz looked around the dive across the street from his slum and shuddered. "Not a chance. Not even Martha Stewart could make this livable."

"Do you ever get the feeling that she's going to snap one day and start killing people with florist's wire?" Oz snorted at the small joke. "Yeah, me too. But this was in my price range."

"We could always get a bigger one together," Oz conceded after a few minutes thought. "Next semester. I have a lease until then."

Xander picked through the debris on the floor, going over to look at his friend. "Oz, even you said we needed space before we hurt each other. I work late and you have to get up early. We like different music. We can't live together without going insane and me zoning. This is the only option."

"No it's not," Oz said quietly, removing the hands that had found their way onto his shoulders. "There are plenty of options other than this place."

"Not in my price range. I can clean it, paint it even. It'll be okay with some work."

"Xander, take a look at this place, use your senses. Even I can hear the rats." He jumped as a trap went off. "See? I won't allow you to live here and I'm your Guide, your guardian. We'll find you somewhere else."

The younger man gave up trying to convince his friend, not really wanting to live here either but he hadn't seen any other way. "If we can find me something on the block, okay?" His Guide nodded and they left, careful not to carry anything from there home.


Blair did his best to control his smirk as Oz told him about the place. "So, can I put my unlimited skill to finding you two a bigger place that you can live in together?"

"He doesn't want to. He thinks it's impossible for us to live together." Oz looked over his shoulder as Jim walked in. "Did you give him that suggestion? It was a deathtrap. And it had *rats*!" Jim nodded, grinning. "Don't do that to me again. I would hate to have to eat you."

Jim laughed, going to his organizing place, continuing to spread the neatness out into the room. "Then we'll just have to find you two a place together."

"I know," Blair said with a mischievous smile. "Xander can move in with me and Oz with you. The neatness levels match!" he yelled as he jumped up to get away from his Sentinel. "But it would be good for them!" he yelled, running out into the hall.

"No thanks," Xander said as he walked in and sat down in Blair's chair. "I got fired today so the apartment thing is going to have to wait." He handed Oz his last paycheck for a while. "To help cover expenses."

"What happened?" Jim asked, not looking up.

"Raid. Seems the owner was not only running women upstairs, but men too and that affronted the police." He grimaced at the look Jim gave him. "What? Men can't be prostitutes, only women? We deserve an equal opportunity to ruin our lives."

Blair nodded as he walked back in with a cup of coffee. "It always seemed stupid to me. I mean, who do women go to when they have needs and no boyfriend. Or a bad one that doesn't understand the concept of foreplay. And before you start, Jim, I know all about the societal prejudice against women obtaining sexual pleasure."

"You," Jim said simply. He dodged the tossed pen without looking. "You still need to fumigate after that last one, Chief, I'm afraid to nap on your couch." He looked up at the displeased grunt, giving him a small smile. "I'll buy the stuff to do it and help if you want."

"Jim, you are *so* close to having to fend for yourself again." Blair sat back down in his seat, moving Xander from it first. "Jim and I were just talking about having you and Oz shack up with us. Mixed pairs of course." He looked at his assistant. "No offense man, but you are way uptight over your apartment. Way too much like Jim."

Xander shook his head. "Blair, you'd kill me the first time I walked out of the bathroom naked."

Oz choked on his water, spitting it across his teacher. "You've been doing what?"

"I dry off first and you're not there," Xander defended. "And I dry off first." He blushed at the intense stare. "Sorry, I'll stop that. It just felt good."

Blair nodded. "Amen," he said softly. "You sure? I have an extra bedroom, same as Jim does, but mine is much nicer."

"It is not. I've painted the spare bedroom since you moved out," Jim defended, spreading his neatness another inch as he moved his chair out of the cleaned corner. "Got nice wallpaper now too," he offered, looking at Oz. "Cheap rent, half what you pay and your half of the bills. Got cable."

"Now, that sounds promising," Xander said, looking at his Guide. "You'd know where I was," he pleaded when he saw the small head shake.

"No, Xan, we already take up most of their free time." Oz looked at Blair and frowned. "Don't tease him like that."

"I wasn't," Blair told him. "It was an honest offer that I feel he should think about. It'd give you back some of your free time."

"Blair, if he moves that far away I have to, remember? You and Jim tried that half-way across the city thing and it didn't work, Jim kept zoning."

"How about I help you guys look for a decent place then?" the elder Guide offered. "A nice building with two open apartments, with no rats or bugs, and where we aren't worried about you guys dying." He picked up the phone. "I know someone, I think."

"That doesn't solve the me no job problem," Xander reminded him. "My savings plus this check won't equal enough for a decent place's first and last plus deposit." Blair shook his head. "No, it won't. My check is only sixty and I only have three hundred in the bank." Jim tossed him an envelope. "What's this?"

"Your financial aid stuff," Blair said. "I talked to the department head and she said that you qualify for independent status. All we need is a letter from your parents saying that they don't support you and proof that you lived on your own." Xander started to shake his head. "No?"

"I rented from my parents and when I called them the other day they said they wouldn't write a letter saying I had been living on my own. And I threw all that stuff out."

Jim sighed, getting up. "Xander, you have too many complications. Simplify. Talk to the woman and tell her that. Get your friends down there to write you a letter or something."

"Utility statements," Blair offered. "You could call and ask them for them." That got a small head shake too. "Efficiencies?"

"Yeah, it was cheaper." Xander slumped in on himself. "This is too cruel."

Oz cleared his throat. "What's the difference between the two, Blair?"

"Um, a few grand usually," the Professor said, shifting in his chair to look at Jim. "Let us deal with your parents?" The youngest man of the group shook his head.

"No?" Jim asked.

"They won't even talk to someone they don't know. They made it quite clear that I'm not college material so they won't help me get in or help support me." He looked at his Guide and nodded. "I'm going for a walk." He handed off the letter and walked out.

Jim rolled over to touch his Guide's shoulder. "You want first crack or me?"

"Guys," Oz said. "It's no use. His parents are bad about this stuff. There's a reason I knew him for two years before I met them and I wish it had been longer." He looked at the window. "I'd go after him but he wants to be alone."

"If you say so," Jim said, moving his chair out a little farther, spreading his message of clean and orderly filing. "But I think he might like a friend right now. Maybe not a Guide, but the friend he said he counted on since he met him." He looked up briefly, watching the young man get up and walk out, deep in thought. "I think you're right," he said quietly. "He's not the same person Xander remembers and that's part of his problem. He doesn't know this new person and it scares him almost as much as his abilities do."

"Jim," Blair said after a second, "I wasn't kidding." He turned to look at his Sentinel. "They both can use our help and steadying influence." Jim sighed and nodded. "You want to go talk to their landlord or shall I?"

"You. This will need the Sandburg touch." Jim looked down at his filing. "You sure about this, Sandburg? I know Oz will see it as a breach of trust."

"Not if you and I do it right," Blair said with one of his all-knowing smiles.


Xander looked around his new room and frowned. "Blair? Why are there animal skins on the bed?"

"Fuzzy is a good feeling," was called from the kitchen. "Just don't spill stuff on them. They were a gift from a tribal elder."

The young man nodded, setting down his bag. He knew Blair had meddled to get him here but he was almost relieved. That much exposure to this new Oz was bothering him, it's like he wasn't the man he used to be and that other guy was no where to be found. Oz didn't even laugh at his jokes anymore. He unpacked, making sure to keep his things at least a little organized, then walked out to join the people he could hear in the kitchen. "What can I do to help?"

"Go sit," Blair said. "This is a family dinner and I'm the head cook here." He smiled at his new housemate. "Or go cheer Oz up." He saw the nod and the worried look but let it go until they were alone. He looked at the door that joined his and Jim's apartments, frowning as it stayed closed. "Not in there?" he asked when the younger man didn't move off the sofa. Since he didn't get a response, he walked over, shaking his head. "How many times have I told you, emotional control leads to fewer zones." He walked over, knocking then heading for his old room. "Oz, go bring him out," he called, heading up to Jim's bedroom. His Sentinel smiled at him, putting down his book. "Took less than three minutes, start to finish, how's that for Tony's record?"

"Blair, if we're going to keep taking in pairs, we're going to have to move to a big house." That got a bright smile. "Together Blair, as in both of us and my girlfriend, who still thinks we're sleeping together, by the way."

"Well, she should know better. She's seen me dating a man, she works where I go to hang." He snapped his fingers. "Maybe I'll take Xander clubbing with me." He looked over his shoulder as someone walked up the stairs. "Hey, that was quick."

"I was thinking deeply, not zoning." Xander sat on the edge of the bed. "Could I? I mean come clubbing with you. Some fun might make me feel better."

"Or a visit to a shrink," Oz told him, joining them up on the bed. "I turned down the pan that was warming, Blair." The older Guide headed back to his own apartment. "So, what's the bright idea here, Jim? Divide and conquer fears or separate us for our own good?"

"A little of both. Xander's progress has been a little slow and I was worried about him. Blair was worried about your life as much as your Guideling was so we talked and did for you what we did for the last pair we helped hook up." He cleared his throat. "We'll introduce you to Darryl next weekend at the picnic his father's hosting. He was a Guide too," he said softly, looking at a picture on his bedside table. "His Sentinel, a full one, went off the deep end, not able to make the transition to control, and I couldn't pull him back off the building."

"All pairings have critical turning moments," Blair said as he came back up. "Fortunately not all of us have as drastic of ones as Jim and I had." He smiled at his partner. "I am *so* glad they decided to take the fountain out after all."

"I'm still sorry," Jim said, shoulder's slumping as he pulled himself in a little tighter. "I promise not to react like that again."

"Yup, you won't." Blair looked at the younger pair. "Jim sensed a bad Sentinel in the area and went ballistic, but unfortunately I draw trouble like Xander seems to think he does so she came for me. I tried to tell her I couldn't guide her but she ended up braining me with a gun and I drowned. Then Jim realized how stupid he was and he came for me." He smiled at the older man. "Such a nice thing to happen at the end of that day." Jim nodded, picking up his book. "But, because Jim didn't learn quickly enough, I was stupid enough to follow him after her and saw them making out so I got to stop her myself." Jim grunted, pulling a pillow around his ears. "But, it was good for Jim. He got to lose control totally. And he got to see what being Guideless was like." He looked over at the muttered, 'never going to do that again,' and smiled. "Yes, that's right, you won't." He glared and Jim must have gotten the point because the older man got off the bed and headed over to Blair's apartment. "Anyway," the older Guide said. "'Twas not a pretty picture and when you have critical crisis, just remember to trust your partner." He stood up, looking down at them. "Now then, let's go make plans for fun stuff as mixed pairs. Xander and I want to go clubbing this weekend, Oz, so how about you and Jim do something?"

"Movies," Jim called up from the doorway between apartments.

"Cool," Oz said. "He and I like the same sort of films." He looked at his Guideling, who was napping now. "Well, I'd say this was a good idea." He got up and headed down to his room. Blair dropped a blanket over the sleeping man and followed his student, not bothering to knock. "Come out onto the balcony, we need to talk, Oz. Now." He walked out, towing his student behind him to make sure he was followed. "Do you know that first night he was up here we talked about you?" He got a small shrug. "Well, we did, and the man that the *kid* upstairs described is nothing like the one before me now and I'd like to help if you'd let me, but I can't *force* you to do this. I have three other Guide candidates if you feel you can't handle him, because of past friendship or whatever reason, but you need to tell me now." He leveled his best caring but firm look at the younger man when he didn't say anything. "You heard Jim talk about Darryl and Tony before, you saw the picture, but what you weren't here for was the keeping Darryl alive so he didn't follow his Sentinel part, the helping him regain his sanity part. I don't want him traumatized, either of you, but I won't let that kid upstairs be hurt, not by you and your problems or even Jim's and mine. Got it?" Oz nodded, still silent. "Now would be a good time for a statement."

"I thought you trusted me."

"I do, that's why you still have access to him, but I'm wondering why he's asleep right now like he's exhausted. Or why he looks like he's not been eating again." He looked through the door, seeing Jim walking up the stairs, by his body language not very calm. "Let's go, your Guideling is apparently having problems. We'll be discussing your role in his return to sanity later." He walked inside, jogging up the stairs at the hurt whining sound the young man was making. "Hey," he said softly, kneeling behind the young man. "Xander, it's okay, you're fine now," he whispered.

"Blair, get away from him," Jim said. "That's not your job." He glared at his Guide, making sure he knew what he meant. He looked down at where Oz was still outside. "Go get him up here, it's his job now."

"Jim, I think I made a big mistake with these two," Blair said as he got off the bed and walked over to his Sentinel. "And I'm scared," he admitted. "More than I was when Darryl came to us." He was hugged tightly, his partner giving him the comfort he'd learned was a natural part of life. "I think he's using again," Blair whispered into the firm chest. "This is way strange."

"Yeah," Jim agreed, turning his senses on the man lying in his bed. "I don't know what to tell you. No chemical smells, no off-beat rhythms, no drug symptoms."

"It's nightmares," Oz said as he walked up the stairs. He walked over to the bed, sitting beside his Guideling to pet the back of his head. "Bringing us here made his fears greater, Blair, not less. He's already feeling lost and you've made it all the more apparent." He looked down at the now open eyes. "I'm right, right?" Xander nodded. "You gotta know I won't leave you."

"The Oz I knew wouldn't. The one that snuck back to see me in the hospital, the one that still talked to me when I kissed Willow, but I don't know you and it's hurting me. I don't know you."

"I'm still him, just a little less fun." He moved so he could look at the younger man without hurting his neck. "Why do you think I'm different?"

"If I got hurt now, would you even come see me? Not come to Sunnydale if I was there, but come visit me if I was here?" He got a curt nod. "You sure about that?"

"Yeah, I am. We're still friends."

"Then why am I suddenly bad for something I can't control?" Xander got up, heading over to his room. "I'll be out later," he told Blair as he passed by the couch where he and Jim were sitting and talking. He slammed his doors, laying down on his bed and pulling the headphones over to listen to the radio.

Oz walked down Jim's stairs slowly, thinking. He walked into Blair's apartment, sitting down across from them. "Guess you heard that, huh?"

Jim shook his head. "I can control privacy things now." He patted Blair's arm. "My hearing went down as soon as we walked away."

"He thinks I'm not his friend anymore."

"Not the one he knew," Blair corrected. He got a blank stare. "It's kinda obvious, Oz, he's scared of this new guy. He's probably not been well liked his whole life and you were his *one* trusted friend almost as soon as you guys met, or at least I'd bet on that anyway. Now he's got to depend on you for his whole life and that's a scary concept, but having to rely on a stranger is much worse."

Jim nodded. "I tried everything to make Blair leave me, I was so scared of what he held in front of me, the carrot he got me to work with him with. He held my sanity in his hands and he was my only link to the reality I knew. It was so much harder because he was someone I didn't trust, didn't realize I could trust. All I saw was this hippie grad student that held my sanity in his little hand and could steal it back at any minute." He turned up his hearing. "Shit," he said, jumping up and going into the bedroom. He brought the younger Sentinel out with him, tossing Blair the bottle of pills. "Two, just like it says, but not what you wanted him to take."

"It helps," Xander said softly, curling up in the chair Jim had put him into. "They help keep me calm so I don't zone." He didn't even look at Oz as he got up and walked over to his room. "I'm sorry, I should have told you."

Blair nodded, reading the instructions. "Yeah, this might help, but I have something herbal that would work better and you could take all day long." He tossed back the bottle. "I've had it, you're both going to the doctor's." Xander got a very scared look. "Chill, he knows about Jim, he's the one I go to when I need a medical explanation for something Jim's going through." He looked over his shoulder as Jim stirred something in the kitchen. "Grab the phone for me and drop in the onions and mushrooms please." He was handed the cordless and dialed quickly. "Yeah, hi, I know it's after hours but is Philip in?" Short pause. "Oh, yeah, it could be said to be an emergency. This is Doctor Sandburg and I think he's left..." He smiled, turning to watch Jim follow his directions. "Oh, and add the can of tomatoes too please." He grunted as his/their stray cat landed in his lap. "Hey, Philip, yeah, it's me. Yes, it is important. I've got another young one here and he's been taking ..." He snapped his fingers and the young Sentinel passed back the pill bottle. "Anti-anxiety drugs to keep calm." He nodded, making agreeing noises and nodded in thanks as Jim handed him his appointment book. He snapped his fingers as he saw a dark blur walking through Jim's apartment, making him go stop the young Guide from leaving. "Um, no that won't work. How about three?" He smiled. "Thanks man, yeah, both of them. I think they could use you badly in your usual field." He hung up, looking at Xander. "Three tomorrow so be in my office by one." That got a small nod as the younger man curled up in the chair. "Go to bed, we'll call when it's time to eat."

"Not hungry."

"I'm sure but you still need to eat," Blair said gently, coming over to pat the top of the young man's head on his way over to Jim's. He slammed the connecting door. "Three tomorrow." He looked at his assistant and protegee. "You aren't running out on him, Oz, get over the fear. You try and you won't be coming back and neither will he." That got him a small scared look. "Yeah, him. He who is taking anti-anxiety drugs to keep him calm enough to deal with this. He who is in the next room curled up in a chair asleep."

"He who can hear you," Jim reminded him. "And probably needs the sleep." He sat down across from the young Guide, looking him over. "Oz, we've known you about a year and I know you have issues of your own here, but this isn't you. Blair can't do your job, it'd set me off and force a conflict between us. Xander won't be able to go on without you for very long, he'd end up dead or permanently zoned. And yes, the overloads do make you want to reach for a knife to slit your own throat but you realize it would hurt more than just going out and laying in the middle of the interstate. And those are the pleasant ones, which there aren't many of." He cleared his throat, looking at Blair. "If you can't handle it, tell us now and we'll work on weaning him from you and onto someone else but now's the only chance you have. This is your only option of escape."

"And we never thought you'd take it," Blair said as he slid from the arm of the couch down to sit beside his protegee. "I know every cell in your body is screaming about the responsibility you've been hit with, telling you it's too much and you can't do it, but it's on you now and no one else would be able to do as good a job." He patted the strong shoulder. "Been there, done that, brought back many t-shirts for Jim and Simon." He smiled sadly. "I don't think you're a quitter but I'll understand it if you want to run now. Take tonight off and let us deal. Just take your pager in case something happens." He stood up, nodding back at his place.

"I'll be there in a minute," Jim told him. He waited until they were alone. "Oz, I'm not going to lie, Xander wasn't using drugs to make the sounds and senses go away, he wasn't going to live through them. I saw the medical records Blair brought back and he had enough drugs in his system when the Initiative got him to kill a normal man. In two weeks he worked himself up to that. Give me a clue here about what you want to do."

"I want...." Oz took a deep breath. "I want to work on this with him but he doesn't trust me."

"Would you?" Xander said from the doorway. Oz turned to look at him. "Would you? Simple question, think about it. Blair said he needs some help in the kitchen Jim, and for you to lock us in here." The older man nodded and got up, walking past him. "You know," Xander said when they were alone, "it's a funny thing about this hearing thing. It instantly seems to go toward anyone talking about me. Some sort of selective thing I guess, but that's not my area." He walked over to the couch. "I heard most of what Jim said, and yeah, Blair told me he'd seen my records."

"Xander, that much? I thought you said you're not hooked." Oz leaned back, relaxing, or appearing to. "That's too much for a casual user."

"Not for someone that had built up a pretty good habit over the two weeks. Oz, I used for two weeks straight. I didn't have more than ten minutes down because that highway thing Jim said was true. Too little but very true. When Giles took me from the Initiative and I was totally clean, I *begged* him to shoot me. Many times. I zoned a few times to see if it would make the sounds and feelings go away. *Nothing* worked. Then you and Blair showed up with a small ray of hope and it's about as dark as where I was before. All I'm sure of is that I can't keep using those pills, they don't work that well and neither do yours." The older man frowned. "Yeah, I took one of yours earlier and it worked well enough to keep me from panicking. I know how Darryl's Sentinel felt, a tall building's looking pretty good to me here." He sighed. "I feel better," he said softly. "But I'm not telling you this to put pressure on you. I don't want you to have to stay and baby me. I don't want you to feel obligated or feel like you *have* to be here, some duty thing like Buffy has. I'll live, maybe find someone else." He looked at the wall separating the apartments. "They're talking more and more about me meeting Darryl so maybe that's the answer. All I know is that I don't have one and you're not the same guy that I used to trust with my life." He stood up, heading over to the balcony. "We're both different," he said softly. "I didn't expect you to be the same but I did expect you to have some similarities with the guy I used to know." He turned to look for his Guide and found him sitting on the stairs.

"Maybe this is our critical crisis," Oz said quietly. "We have to work this out or we don't keep going."

"Either of you," Jim said as he and Blair walked in. "We discussed this and no, it's not. Critical crisis usually involves someone almost dying." He looked at Xander. "No more until tomorrow at the doctor's. Okay?" He got a small nod so looked at the young Guide. "He's right though, we can work him into accepting someone else." Xander shook his head. "Yeah, we can, and we both think you'll like Darryl. You and he might fit pretty well."

"Your decision, Oz, take tonight off and think. If you want to be his Guide, then be at my office before we leave for the doctor's at two. If not, I'll introduce them tomorrow night." Blair tugged on Jim's arm and they walked back to his apartment together.

Xander waited until they were alone to look at his friend. "Take it and run, man, I'll understand. You shouldn't have to be responsible for anyone but yourself." He walked out onto the balcony, looking up at the stars. He felt a warm body behind him and shrugged off the warm hands. "Pretty, aren't they?"

"Yeah," Oz said quietly, "they are, but not as much as what we had. Which I'd like to get back." He leaned against the firm back, noting the strength to it, and the bones he could feel. "When was the last time you ate?"

"I'm not your kid, Oz." Xander shook him off again. "Go think."

"I've made my decision, Xander, and I'm not leaving." He turned the younger man around, looking up into his eyes. "No matter how much I want to or how much you want me to, I'm not leaving you. You need me."

"No, Oz, I need my friend back and you're not him anymore." He started to walk away but his arm was caught, sending him to the concrete, panting in pain as his tactility spiked. "Let go," he whispered.

The Guide let him go, kneeling beside him. "Breathe through it, concentrate on your touch going down again," he whispered, knowing that the younger man tended to play his touch off his hearing, the same as he played his hearing off his taste. He got a small nod so helped the young Sentinel up and onto a chair. "What set it off?" he asked, handing over a piece of gum.

"Emotions." Xander leaned back, chewing slowly, making a gross face as it started to work. "I let myself get too worked up over it." He looked at the older man. "Your choice, still."

"I'm staying and I'll work on getting myself straight."

"Oz, it's been a year, why didn't you figure it out yet?" His Guide shrugged. "Oh, that reason." He closed his eyes, swallowing hard. "Damn, help me up." He was helped up and steadied, heading for the bathroom. He slammed the door in Oz's face, throwing up almost immediately.

Oz leaned against the door, listening to the younger man deal with stress in his own way. He nodded at Jim as he walked over to check on them. He got a worried look. "Stress," he explained. The older Sentinel nodded wisely and left them alone. "Let me in," he said with a small knock when he heard the sink be turned on. The door was opened for him and he walked in, locking it behind him. "Strange place to do this but works for me. Want to finish this?"

"Oz, I don't think I can stand up that long," Xander said, leaning against the sink. "Couches were good inventions."

"So sit. A third of the world sits on grass mats, you can sit on tiles." He matched his Guideling, sitting across from him. "I know I've screwed up, but can I have another chance?" He got a small nod. "Thanks. Now, truth, what else have you been taking? You been shooting up? Blair thinks you've been using," he explained at the hurt look.

Xander shook his head. "No, not enough money to put myself back into the fog." He looked at his friend. "Oz, I don't want to be a burden."

"So don't, get a job and stay with me. Becoming a vegetable would be a burden. The occasional zone is nothing compared to adult diapers." That got a slight grimace. "Trust me here, adult diapers are just as bad to think about and work with as the infant ones." He grinned, just a little. "Listen, I know I've changed, become less Oz-like and more Buffy-like, especially since you got here, but I didn't mean to. What you said really made me think and I do need some time to do so but I'm not leaving. Skipping out for a few days sometimes maybe but not leaving." That got him a small nod. "I also think it's possible to make you more independent without jeopardizing your health, mental or otherwise. So, let's start over and work our way up to something that we can both live with." He held out a hand. "Deal?"

"Very," Xander said, shaking it.

To be continued....