Jim smiled at Xander as he walked into the club before it opened. "Hey, got a sec?" he asked, pulling him aside. "We need to talk," he said quietly, his smile falling away.
"What's up, Jim?" Xander said, rubbing his hands down his tight jeans. "Am I a problem or something?"
"No, Darryl just showed up, almost a month early." He looked around them. "You need to come home."
Xander nodded, silently walking over to his boss and talking quietly to him. He was smiled at and patted, grabbing his new jacket on the way back to Jim. He waited until they were in the car before saying anything again. "What aren't you telling me?"
"He's been given another Sentinel," Jim said slowly, turning a corner. "He came to see you first."
Xander sighed, leaning his head against the door. "I knew it was too good to last." He watched the passing buildings. "So, he has to go back, right?"
"Yeah, he's been given a week to come close out his old life." Jim stopped in front of their building, touching the younger man's arm. "Go easy on him. He never asked for this." The young man nodded, sliding out of the truck and heading up the stairs.
Xander walked into the apartment, frowning at its emptiness. "Gee, he left already?" he asked the room.
"No," Darryl said from the connecting door. "I was getting her settled on Oz's bed." He shut the door, walking over to hug his lover. "I'm so sorry," he whispered. "I didn't know."
Xander sighed, leaning into the strong arms. "So am I," he admitted. "A female one?" He felt the small nod. "So, now what?" he asked, pulling back.
"Now, I want to have one last night with you to say goodbye," the younger man said quietly. He drew them over to the couch, sitting them both down. "I feel like we should talk."
Xander pulled him closer, kissing him hard. "All right," he said, looking into his eyes. "One last night." He stood up, holding out a hand. "It'll have to do both of us for a while."
"Not what I meant," Darryl said, leaning against his stomach, not getting up. "I wanted to talk and to hold you, not to cheapen what we had."
"Darryl, I felt love. Real, honest love, and nothing that we do tonight will dim that memory." He sat back down. "I know this isn't your fault, and I accept that fact. I'll spend most of the rest of the week curled up in a little miserable ball listening to Country music but I'll live with it. Neither of us is stronger than destiny."
The younger man smiled sadly at him. "It figures you'd have the perfect words." He brushed a thumb across his lips. "If you're sure?"
"I'm *so* sure," Xander whispered, clinging to him and holding him tightly. "What about her?" he said, pulling back suddenly. "Will this hurt your bond?"
"Nope," Darryl said, grimacing. "I refuse to sleep with her. I like women, but not enough to do that."
"I can just imagine what being pregnant would be like for one of us," Xander said with a small smile. "All that extra noise. And your skin stretching?" He shook his head. "Drive me nuts." Darryl poked his chest. "Hey, they'd expect it."
Blair cleared his throat from the doorway. "No they won't. They're not going to expect that from him." He shared a look with Darryl then refocused on Xander. "Go have one last night, guys. We'll be over here." He closed the door, locking it from his side.
"Nope, they won't. I was real honest with the Elders and they told me some things Blair didn't know." He stroked over the back of the hand he held. "Things like they're supposed to have a united household. Things like even the pairings that are sexually connected still get time off from each other during the dry season to make the Sentinel focus more on hunting when food's more scarce. Things like she's going to pick a wife and I'll pick a wife and a husband and we'll all live together." He leaned on the strong shoulder. "See, I'm supposed to reproduce, she's not ever supposed to get pregnant, mostly because you were right, it drives you guys nuts and kills you." He yawned. "Sorry man, long flight."
"Hey, understandable." Xander rubbed over the relaxed flesh. "So, you really get a husband?" Darryl nodded. "But you have to have a wife too?"
"Have to provide vital 'Guide's blood'," he did the finger quotes one handed, "to continue the line. Any and all of them will spend time both with my family here and down there." He looked up and smiled. "And I'll only top because real men do that."
Xander shook his head. "I'd have thought that they'd be more accepting."
"Oh, they are, it's just the custom in that society. To bottom is to become the femme one." He shrugged. "And a Guide always has to be seen as strong, fertile, and manly if he's a man. And sometimes if he's a woman." He grinned harder at the small poke to his side. "So, what's new with you?"
"Um, Darryl, you really don't want to know. Just don't ask that question."
"You know, my dad writes me all the time about how you're doing. I've heard it all already, Xan." He sat up, looking at his lover, kissing him lightly. "I heard babe and it's good that you protected them that way, no matter what anyone said." He stroked over the tender neck flesh, grinning at the small shiver. "So, take me into your room, studly, and let's make me some memories of being me, 'kay?"
Xander nodded and so they went.
Xander woke up the next morning, stretching as usual, and sighed as he felt the warm body next to him. He rolled into it, eyes still closed, and snuggled as hard as he could, wrapping his arms around the thin waist and hugging as his breathed in the deep scent.
That was what stopped him.
Not Darryl. Wrong scent.
He sat straight up, looking down at his Guide, blinking at him in confusion. "Um, did I crawl in with you or what?"
"Nope," the older man said, flipping onto his stomach. "Darryl's dad showed up to yell at him and he asked me to come in and spend some time with you because you hate waking up alone." He mashed the pillow with his head a few times and closed his eyes. "Not that I didn't already notice that, but I still felt it was my job."
"Oh." Xander lay back down, looking up at the ceiling.
"I didn't mind the hug," Oz said quietly.
"It's a good thing I noticed it was you," the younger man told him. His Guide pulled himself up to look at him. "It is. I was about to start in on our morning ritual of neck nibbling."
"That's a *morning* ritual?" Oz asked, raising an eyebrow. "Is that like every meal is breakfast because no one complains about what you eat for it?" That got a confused look. "That was Jim's theory when I first met them. Blair was majorly nagging him about his food choices so he started to call every meal breakfast because Blair never complained about what he ate for that."
"Oh. Yeah, kinda then." The younger man nodded. He flipped onto his side, giving the older man some more room on the small bed. "Nice nap, Oz."
"We could actually try something and talk."
"Hmm, how about classes. How are yours?"
"Freshman English sucks rocks and the teacher's mean." He flipped onto his other side, looking at his friend. "Physical Science is still pretty cool. Got the fun physics stuff right now." He shrugged. "My art classes are mostly spent over a table that's the wrong height as I work on drawings."
"Why is it the wrong height?"
"Because it's a normal sized table and only comes a little higher than my waist." He looked at the drafting table in the corner, his Christmas present from Blair and Jim together. "I do most of my work here anyway, just bring it in to do the detail stuff." He yawned again. "I guess it's their way of weeding out the non-serious students."
Oz nodded slowly. "Seems like a waste though." He rubbed down a tense arm. "How's the other stuff? Meet anyone you like in your department?"
"No, we're still pretty individual in there right now. We each have a mentor from a higher year to look at our work, and she's pretty cool, but she doesn't understand, she's a commercial person. My advisor and I have had discussions about my content and I all but told him to blow me." He laughed, smiling at Oz. "Darryl wanted me to warn you that he's going to be back in a minute and you're in his spot."
Oz sighed as he got up, shaking his head. "I didn't need the warning, but thanks." He stretched, listening to his back settle. "Want to start doing the lunch thing during the week?"
Xander nodded, pointing his schedule taped to his bulletin board. "Pick a day, most of mine are afternoon stuff. Except Figures and Shapes. It's a nooner."
The older man looked over the schedule and shook his head. "Same times free." He turned to look at his friend. "Any days you feel better about?"
"Well, sometimes I get caught up in my drawing classes so maybe not Thursday." He got up, walking over to look at the still unfamiliar times. "We could do a Monday, Wednesday, Friday thing if you want."
"With rides back on Tuesday and Thursday," Oz noted, running his fingers down those days. "If you'd be willing to wait for half an hour."
"Hey, beats the bus." Xander shrugged, turning to go back to his bed. "Hey, um, Oz, why aren't you uncomfortable right now?"
"Because I accepted that all this stuff was non-sexual for the time being. You're not naked now to entice me, but to entice your boyfriend." He saw the small wince so walked over, touching his shoulder. "Hey, what's wrong?"
"He's leaving again," Xander said quietly. "Like for good."
"I'm sorry," Oz said, hugging him to his chest. "I'm sure you'll find someone else eventually." Xander shook his head. "No?"
"No, I *liked* him, Oz, like really *liked* him." His friend nodded so he looked up, seeing the comfort in the gray eyes. "I'm sorry, you shouldn't have to hear this," he said, pulling back.
"Hey, friends do that," the older man said, sitting beside him. "It's not like you're doing this to get false sympathy or something." He brushed over a tense thigh, the lower half, to soothe him. "Just relax and it'll all work out. Eventually." He stood up, looking down at his Guideling. "Just let time flow for a while. Work it out in your drawings." He nodded at the door. "You'll okay for the last few seconds?"
Xander nodded, watching his friend go. He smiled weakly as Darryl walked into his room, holding out his arms so they could be filled.
Jim looked at the list of stuff needed that Oz had given him. "All this?"
"Yup." He looked at the walls in his room. "And if we're going to keep me in here, we're going to need to do something about the fire escape."
"Can't," Jim said simply. He walked out into the living room, frowning at the open space. "Could build you a little space under the stairs," he offered.
"Jim, that's the same as an airport cage to me. I need to pace and be able to move, even drugged, or I'll work harder at breaking out." He looked at the balcony doors, wincing. "This isn't the greatest spot for me not to escape from."
Blair sighed, looking up from his grading papers on the couch. "Oz, we only have this space."
"Maybe we should rent like a storage place or something," Xander said form his spot in the chair, pulling off his headphones as he turned off his walkman. "We could fortify it and everything as long as we keep the rent up."
Jim frowned at them. "How did you guys do this at home?"
"Library," Xander told him. "Big cage."
"Crypt, built another one," Oz ended. He shrugged at the dirty look. "Hey, SunnyHell had lots of crypts that were empty. Why should all of the good ones go to the creatures?" He looked at his Guideling, shrugging. "How?"
"I'd still go with the renting someplace thing." He pulled back on his headphones. "Or at least a cage."
Blair shook his head. "This is way too much guys." He put aside the papers, standing up to walk over. "You need a small, inaccessible space, right?" The werewolf nodded slowly. "Well, we both have storage areas downstairs."
"Very public," Xander said. "Then there's the noise factor. And a drain."
Oz grimaced. "Why don't we just build me a big dog house with a cage door?" he asked, walking into his bedroom and shutting the door.
Xander got up, handing his cassette player to Jim as he followed. "Not meant that way," he said from the doorway. "Was trying to be practical." He shut the door behind himself, sitting on the bed. "So, your problem, how do you want to deal?"
"I actually liked your suggestion of renting a cage. But maybe at Giles' instead. He's got the empty room and, except for the main living area, it has almost no windows that I could get out of." He stopped pacing to look at his friend. "Did we even bring the old cage with us?" The younger man nodded. "Then we could put it anywhere, right?"
"Not really. That thing was really cramped last time. We could probably get a bigger one, do the same thing he used to do with it." He looked out toward the living room, frowning at the conversation going on out there. He picked up his pad of paper and wrote down what the two older men were saying, handing it off, the only way they really got a private conversation unless they were alone.
Oz balled it up, tossing it away. "I know. I feel the same." He turned to look out the window. "We do need our own spaces." He turned back around. "I know you're working shorter hours, but could we go in together?"
"As long as it was big enough, yeah," Xander said. "Maybe nearer to the campus so I don't have a half-hour bus ride?" His friend nodded. "How do we look?"
"Easy," Oz said, patting the top of his computer as he sat down. "Lots of sites for apartments." He logged on, typing in an address.
Xander looked at Jim and Blair across the table, glancing at Oz. "Guys, we heard earlier." Jim's fork dropped from his fingers. "And we agree, Oz and my problems aren't as bad as they used to be. We should have a space of our own again." He took a sip of water. "And we think we may have found something. Close to school and work. Fairly inexpensive, all utilities paid, can come out of our leftover financial aid." He patted the back of Oz's hand. "We want one of you to come with us tomorrow when we look at it."
Jim frowned at him. "Guys, that was just a momentary gripe, really," he said. "We don't want you guys to leave."
"Jim, face it," Oz said, "we're not going to be leaving all the time. You're still going to be seeing us about as often. The place is only six blocks away." Xander grimaced. "But it's on the other bus line so you don't have to switch." The younger man nodded. "It'll give us the independence we crave and let you two have a life again."
"I still think this is too soon, guys. Jim was just tired of things for a few minutes. This semester's a big change for him." He frowned at his partner. "But if you seriously want to do this, then we'll come look at it with you. When is your appointment?"
"Six in the evening," Oz told him. "We found it in an online listing." He touched Xander's wrist. "And he's right, we can afford it and still eat full time, even if his hours get cut back because he can't work as often."
"As long as you guys have it figured out," Jim told them. He looked at Xander. "The next thing you wanted to do was drive, right?"
"Yup," Xander said with a small grin, "our second night there I was going to beg Oz to let me do some."
Oz and Blair shared a look. "Only if Oz is in the car," the elder Guide told him. "Even Jim has problems in traffic sometimes."
"Yeah, but I won't," Xander said, getting up to get some more water, even though his glass was still mostly full. "Blair, I'm not Jim. I'm not going to start counting heartbeats in traffic, I can't do that. I'm not going to have a sudden vision thingy when the sun hits me wrong because I don't have the vision thingys necessary to do so." He sat back down, looking down the table. "I've proved I can do well both under stress and alone while surrounded by people. I do it all the time at work. I think I deserve the chance to try."
Jim sighed. "Okay." He shook his head, getting up to go over to the key board, pulling down a set. "This is a *loan* until you can get your own. It's my old truck." He slid the keys across the wood. "Kinda beat up, he and I went through a lot in it." He cleared his throat. "We'll support you in this until you start having problems."
Oz nodded slowly. "Cyclical problems I expected but he's not going to have the same ones you did. He may have a resurgence of hormonal-related zoning once he gets over Darryl being gone," he patted the tense hand gently, "but he's not going to have the same stressors you two did."
"Which is a really good thing," Xander continued. "I don't think I want to be a cop. Way long and strange hours." Oz pinched the back of his hand. "Well, they are."
"Not at the beginning," Blair noted. "Then it's all shift work." He smiled sweetly. "And of course, you're still going to see us every day, right guys?"
"Yes sir," they said together, "we won't skip classes." Then they broke out in laughter, getting away from the elder Guide before he could beat them both with the wooden spoon that had been in a bowl of asparagus.
Blair looked around the proposed apartment, his mouth falling open. "Guys, I'm... well, I'm impressed. None of my places have been this nice." He turned to look at the two younger men. "So, why's it going so cheap?"
"Owner has a sick kid in Orlando," Oz told him, looking around the furnished living room. "She's in school down there and she's under some massive treatment so he's going down to be with her."
"Left two days ago," Xander reminded him. He headed toward the three-quarter walls that marked off the bedroom areas. "Hey, Oz, come look. A study and two bedrooms and a drawing room." He stepped back out of the hall, smirking. "It's like it was made for us." The older man followed him down the long hall, looking up at the odd walls. "I know, it's strange to see short walls, but we'll deal." He opened bedroom doors, then the study, then the last room.
Oz's breath caught as he walked in, hesitantly touching the small altar that had drawn his attention. "We shoulda invited Giles."
"I'm sure it's fine guys," Blair said as he followed them in. "Not everyone that worships at those is bad."
"And not everyone is good," Xander reminded him. He looked at the pictures on the wall, grinning at the architectural renderings of buildings. "Gee, he draws too." He looked at Blair. "I haven't seen a table yet so I'm going to put it in here." He looked at Oz, who was wandering around the medium-sized space, watching him for happy or not looks. "So?" he asked.
"Like it," Oz admitted. "Just gotta be quiet if we start dating," Oz told him. He looked into his Guideling's eyes, seeing the acceptance there and shrugged. "Okay by me. Blair?"
"Guys, I'd move in here with you if I could," he said dryly. "Of course we'd have to bring Jim and the cat, but still."
"Um, no pets," Xander said. He looked at Oz. "We gonna be okay here or do you want to look at the other one?"
"You guys picked out an alternate?"
"Yeah, a backup in case this place sucked." Oz turned around again. "I want to go see it at least. Like this place, but I have one of those itchy feelings between my shoulderblades." He walked out past them, taking a deep breath once they were outside, looking up at the darkening sky. "Three more nights," he said quietly.
"And we'll deal," Xander reminded him, walking up behind him to get into Jim's truck, behind the wheel. He waited until he was joined to pull out the other directions. "Here, you steer," he told Oz, handing them over. "Jim's told me too many horror stories about Blair navigating them to a place called oblivion." He started the truck, pulling away from the curb.
Xander and Oz looked around the wide open space, turning to look at each other and nod. "We like this one," they said in unison to Blair and Jim, who Blair had called to join them.
Jim silently measured the open area, wincing at the small echoes floating around. "So, where's the bedrooms?"
"Over there," Oz said, pointing at a raised platform.
"There," Xander said, pointing to a space in front of a huge, industrial looking window. Then they looked at each other and shrugged.
Jim shook his head. "Guys, this'll take renovation."
"And?" Xander asked. "I've watched tons of those shows too." He pouted slightly at Blair. "We have everything we need, including the killer shower, which is really small but works well. Could blow yourself clean with pressure alone. And if we do it right, we can hang tapestries or something for temporary walls."
"Quite possibly," Blair agreed. "No rats at least."
"Not your warehouse," Jim reminded him. "And I like this area. It's twelve blocks from the school, six from Xander's work. It's in a secure building. All utilities paid, except cable, and it's a big space. Really big space. What sort of factory was it again?" The boys shrugged so he went on with his critique. "They can each have their own areas. Oz can do his funky creating cage thing," he said with a glance to he realtor, "and Xander can have his work space. And artists need big spaces, Chief." He looked around and nodded. "I like this place."
"The other had furniture," Blair pointed out.
"So do I in storage," Xander said. Oz turned to look at him. "Hey, my last two places weren't furnished and I put it into a nice little storage place, paid it for a year and everything." He grinned. "Two ratty couches, a bed, a ratty recliner, and my drafting table."
Jim shook his head. "Guys, I think we have some extra. Blair's mother's friends all pitched in to give Blair all their old stuff and it's all in storage too." He moved away from his Guide. "Some of it was really nasty too."
"Jim, it was not," Blair said quietly. "And it was given in the spirit of helping someone starting over again, so I can give it to them." He looked at his keys, smiling suddenly. "And I could even get a new couch."
Jim shook his head. "But you liked that one."
"No, you liked that one. I wanted something less stiff and formal."
"No, you wanted pillows on the floor," Jim countered.
"Only in one corner." Blair grinned at Xander. "You like my couch, right?" Oz nodded frantically. "Cool, it's yours as soon as I get another one."
"Only if they move it," Jim called, walking over to where the kitchen area was. "Need a fridge too," he called back
"Don't have one of those," Xander said, then he shrugged. "We'll flea market or something. Oz?"
"Like this space more," he said slowly. "We can fix things here like we want them." He looked at the realtor, who was unfolding a piece of paper. "Okay, as long as we're clear on cleaning it."
"Hey, you do that. I cook, you clean, and I decorate." His Guide groaned. "What? I'm the one with the know-how." He walked over, signing the lease. He watched as his partner signed the lease also, then they smiled at their teachers. "So, guys, supper?"
"On us," Jim called. "You guys probably just spent a ton." He walked backwards, looking at the back wall. "Hey, Chief, what's with that wall?"
"It's tilted," Xander said, "and there's a ventilation system behind it."
"Please let it not be a drug lab," Blair said as he walked over. He chipped some of the white paint off, almost gasping at the black paint under it. "Hey, guys, apparently this was a college student's place before." He backed away from it too, frowning at the small bulge he could see. "Got to check that out."
Giles cleared his throat as he walked in. "Gentlemen, and ma'am," he said, shaking her hand. He pulled the two younger men aside. "Power places," he said quietly, "can lead to either great trouble or great pain." Oz looked at him. "Don't you feel it?" They both shook their heads. "This place has some great power built up in it." He looked at the kitchen wall that had drawn the elder pairing's attention, frowning. "Centered back there."
"So, bad or good power?" Xander asked quietly. "Is this a we should beg to tear up the lease type?"
"Not that I can tell," he admitted. "How long is it for?"
"A year," Oz said. He looked at the realtor. "So, haunted or otherwise?"
"No," she said happily. "Nothing of that sort was reported when the last person moved out. Of course they were a little odd but it was fine once we painted."
Xander walked over to the nearest wall. "Needs to be redone. No primer between coats." He scratched a flake. "Hey, Oz, like purple?" He stepped back to show the large, uncovered spot.
"Fine with me," the older man said. He looked at Giles. "Want to help us?"
"Of course I will," he said, patting his shoulder. "I'll even lend you my paint scraper and ladder if you need it." He concentrated on the wall and saw a few more paint flecks fall off. "Or not," he whispered.
Xander turned to look at his former mentor, eyebrow raised. Then he looked at the realtor. "Did we need to anything else tonight?" he asked, pulling a check out of his pocket and taking her pen to sign it over. Oz did the same and she smiled as she put them into her briefcase, waving happily as she walked out.
Giles concentrated harder on the walls, letting his energy merge with that flowing around them, concentrating on undoing the profanity done to the walls.
All the white paint fell off.
Leaving nice clean walls.
Complete with brightly colored murals.
And Jim passed out in shock as he watched it happen in the instant that it took.
Oz looked at Blair, whose mouth was open. "And you thought Buffy was strange?" he asked. Blair quickly shook his head, going over to help his Sentinel. Oz looked around the room, his own mouth open. "Gee, no decorating needed," he quipped, looking at Xander, who was grinning. "You still like?"
"Very much so. I even think I know who did it." He pointed at one of the murals. "I've seen his work in the gallery at Rainier."
END THIS STORY ARC.