Jim frowned at the note in his hands, looking up at his Guide as Blair carried in his bags. "How'd they know we were back?"
"Not a clue, where are they now?" Blair leaned over Jim's shoulder, one eyebrow going up at the message on the note. "Okay then. Ready for the rough waters?" Jim handed it to him, sitting down. "What?"
"Should we be getting in the middle of his fight with the Art department? Or even into this Buffy person's problems?"
"Do you really want to go visit them in the hospital?" Jim shook his head. "Then yes, we should." He sat down beside his Sentinel. "And yes, we will."
Xander sighed as he opened the door to his and Oz's, and most of the time's Devon's as well, loft, smelling the stale air. "Eww, forgot to clean the fridge," he said, walking over to open a window, then shutting it when the rain tried to get in. "Um, Oz, wasn't there art on the walls?"
"Nope, we locked it all in Jim and Blair's storage space if you remember." He frowned at the newly whitened walls as he walked off the elevator with his bag. "Damn, when did we pay the rent up to?"
"Um, Christmas." Xander picked up the phone, nodding at the dial tone and called the number on the card taped next to it. "Hi, this is Xander Harris..." He frowned. "We paid you until Christmas." He snapped and Oz came over, so he handed him the phone. "I'll go find the check."
"Hi, yes this is. No, we deposited a check with your secretary for the correct amount for rent until December." He sat on the edge of the couch. "That's not our problem. Oh, no it's not. We have the canceled check, we can show it to you if you'd like. We paid you, it's your problem." He hung up, taking the check from the tired fingers. "We've got to call Giles to make the paint...." He smiled as Devon knocked on a wall and most of the paint in the loft fell off. "Nice job, how'd you do it?"
"The thing under the bulge in the kitchen helps. She doesn't like white." He shrugged, heading for the part that was Oz's bedroom. "At least she left the furniture." They all turned their heads as the elevator started. "Company," the young vampire said ominously, laying down and covering his head.
Oz walked over to meet the woman that he'd just been speaking with, handing her the copy of the check. "As I said, we paid you, it's your problem." She frowned at him then at the walls. "Oh, don't even."
Xander cleared his throat. "You know, we've already retained a lawyer on another matter, we could always go to him for advice." He watched her slowly blanch. "Didn't think you'd like that. So, how do you know the Art department?"
"The secretary's my sister," she admitted, pulling out the original check and handing it back. "I can't rent to you boys anymore. I'm sorry."
"Hold it," Oz said, frowning at the piece of paper. "That's against the law." He looked up at her, raising an eyebrow. "We will sue you for that."
"The building's for sale guys, if you don't like it, buy it." She shrugged, walking out. "You got a week to decide or leave."
Xander waited until they were alone. "What do we have for assets?"
"After the last few weeks? Not much probably."
"Well," the younger man said, sliding down onto the sofa and grabbing a pillow to hug. "We'll need some accounting type person to figure this out. Want to call Giles or Blair and Jim?"
"Neither. Let's handle this on our own." Oz looked at the bare walls, then at the younger man, who simply shrugged. "You sure you're okay with that?"
Xander got an idea, staring at his Guide. "Yeah, I'm fine. And we'll be fine." He stood up, pulling a card out of his wallet and dialing the number on it, a very grim expression on his face. "Hi, this is Xander Harris..." He smiled, sitting back down. "Yes actually. I just got back from one. No, not too bad, but I've now got a lot of new art and no place to put it and I liked your ideals last time. Yes, of course you can. I can have them up later tonight and school doesn't start for another week so anytime will be fine." He nodded and hung up, dialing Jim and Blair's. "Hey guys, need to come steal our artwork back." He smirked. "Oh, don't even. No, we're back fully and going to the lawyer's tomorrow." He nodded and hung up again, looking up at his Guide. "They'll cart it over tonight in their new SUV, since Jim crashed Blair's car, again, right before they left." He leaned back. "I like that one guy. He's got a decent reason to buy my stuff and he likes what I stand for; and he said he'd heard that Mary was putting pressure on the art community to banish me for the slight to her." He patted the couch. "Sit man, got to figure some things out."
Devon stood up. "Did either of you realize we left the van's doors open or that the back of the truck is filled with art stuff?" They both shook their heads so he walked out, shaking his.
Xander smiled at the man walking off the elevator, rinsing his brush out. "Hey, nice to see you again." He held up his painty hands in apology for not shaking his then went to wash them off. "Look and see man, I'll be back in a second." He closed the bathroom door behind himself, leaning against it for a second as he drew in a deep breath to calm himself for the ordeal selling any of his artwork had become to him. He washed his hands, coming back out to look at the cultured man wandering around his space, looking at the unfinished pieces. "Those are from my recent trip." He opened his curtain, showing the piles on his bed. "The not so good stuff and the not really satisfied that it's done stuff."
The older man walked over, looking at the various pieces and sketches, putting a few aside. "You have an interesting choice in what you choose to paint," he said quietly, looking around at the walls. "Is this your work too?"
"Nope, the walls were done before we got here. They were actually the prior tenant's work." He shrugged. "Wouldn't keep paint over it either when the landlord tried."
"So, why are you suddenly changing your mind?"
Xander sighed, leaning against the wall. "Mary's talked to our landlord and she's going to kick us out because I'm screwing with the department. We're going to buy the building." He frowned at the small smile. "It was the only choice we had, this place is special to both my roommate and myself." He looked at the nearest wall. "I touched up some of the paint on the murals and gave it a little of our own personalities. Oz is a musician and he loves to practice here because of the acoustics. Our occasional roommate is his lead singer and they're always working in their part of the space. Plus, with what we pay in rent, it's not that bad of an offer to buy it outright."
"So you need the ready funds?" The younger man nodded. "How much is it going for?"
"Just under fifty grand." He saw the small wince. "But that's for the lot around it too, including the parking lot and the grassy area we were going to give to the neighborhood as a park." That brought out a small smile. "So, what do you do anyway? I mean besides hedge the art market?"
"Well, I teach and I do research." The man picked up his choices, going back to the wall. "How many of these are up?"
"Um, anything except the little pictures or that dark skinned guy. He's my last boyfriend and he never signed a release." The man looked over his shoulder. "Sorry if that disturbs you."
"No, I'm more amazed at your openness." He touched the canvas of one of the dark skinned young man. "You really should work on more canvases and fewer boards but I really do like this one."
"I'd have to check with his dad. He's out of the country right now." He waved at the couch. "Sit, please, I'll call him." He picked up the cordless phone, Oz's gift to him for when he was alone. "Would you like some water? I'm afraid that's all we have at the moment." The older man shook his head. "Hey, Giles, me. Is Simon still there at the party?" He walked into the kitchen, pulling out a bottle of water and popping it open. "Hey, me. Um, you know that big canvas of Darryl? Yeah that one. You sure? Thanks man for understanding." He hung up. "Okay, deal. His father has the mirror one and he said Darryl liked the idea of his paintings being given to people who understand my art." He patted the bulge in the kitchen wall, a habit he'd gotten into recently for some reason. He turned to find the man across the breakfast bar, looking at the lump. "We don't know what it is but it's become something of a good luck charm for us."
"Goot luck is an artist's best friend," the older man agreed, handing over a check. "Just make it happy so you keep it." Xander gasped at the amount. "Well, for six paintings, and two of the drawings that I'll have to have mounted, that's a little much for someone starting out but I feel this place should be yours." He picked up his artwork. "Call on me again if you want to get rid of any more of your work."
"Well, um, yeah, actually," Xander said, walking over to where Oz had blown up some of the pictures from his zoning. "These disturb me. I apparently painted my roommate in my sleep and these were the result." He looked at the pictures and shuddered, seeing the clear progression. He looked at the man now standing behind him. "We have the negatives but something just told me to show them to you."
"What sort of animals are those?" he asked, leaning closer to look. "Very odd."
"They're Spirit Guides I'm afraid," Giles said as he and Simon walked in, smiling at the man. "Yes, by all means, he should have copies of those, Xander." He patted the young man on the bare shoulder. "And thank you for not painting like you usually do."
"Oz reminded me." He looked from the older man to Giles and back. "Um, do I want to know?" Giles shook his head. "Okay then, have them. We have the negatives and the original tapes." He pulled them down off the clothespins that were holding them up, handing the small stack over. "I trust Giles so they're yours."
"Gee," Oz said as he walked in, "a blanket statement of trust." He and Giles shared a look and he nodded. "Okay, whatever. Xan, got to come eat with us."
"Sure, let me stuff the check somewhere safe."
"No, we'll deposit it on the way," Oz told him. "Much safer at the bank as long as Devon doesn't get into it." He reached around his Guideling, pulling Giles closer to him. "Want to explain?"
"Sometime in the future perhaps," he said gently. "This isn't something you need to know."
"Go ahead and tell them, Rupert, I don't mind."
"He's a paranormal researcher, such as I am, and yes, he does collect art. That's why he should have the pictures of the Spirit Guides' warning."
"Oh, okay," Xander said nodding. "This is a case of whatever. I still trust you and he still seems to like my stuff for the right reasons." He shrugged at the people looking at him. "What?"
"Nothing," Simon said, patting his arm. "Go put on clothes, we're taking you out to eat so you can tell us about your trip."
"Okay." Xander walked into his space, tossing a board out into his work area since it had been on the floor in his way. He pulled the curtain, forgetting that there was a pile of art hidden behind it, the stuff he and Oz had agreed to keep, and got dressed in some of his former work clothes. He came back out to find the pieces they'd hidden earlier out on the table, frowning at his roommate, who shrugged. "Giles," he called, motioning him toward the kitchen. "That was *our* stuff, the keep it here because it inspires stuff." The older man simply nodded. "Okay, so what's up?"
"He wanted to look them over, possibly take pictures of some of them." He pulled the young man out, settling him into a chair beside his roommate and Simon, smiling at him. "Sleep, Xander," he whispered, putting him into the same state the other two men were, and turned back to his old friend. "As you can tell, it's most extraordinary. Even Doctor Sandburg thought so."
"Ah, Blair, how is he?"
"He's fine," Oz said, shaking himself free and standing up. "I should hurt you," he told Giles. "And I will unless you have a damn good explanation."
"This man is what I said he is, Oz, a paranormal researcher. When he first saw Xander's work, he thought there was something odd about it."
"I do like it, make no mistake about it, but some of this work is highly inflammatory. Well beyond the normal scope of usual artistic ability."
"So he's doing a siren thing of art?" he asked, looking at his former mentor. "Like what you mentioned in class?"
"Yes, and I had hoped that you might have caught that and asked. I promised myself to stay out of your affairs, both of yours, as much as I could. Until I saw that piece at the club, or actually a picture of it. Then all the mess with the Spirit Guides came up and I knew it was more than I was used to handling. You see, he does both sides while I concentrated on the dark side of the paranormal. He's here to make sure that nothing overly harmful or overly special can get out and harm someone."
"Like that picture of the woman?" Oz asked, his brow furled with worry. "The one that the Art department refused to give back?"
"Yes, quite like that one. You see, some of this comes from his subconscious, some of it from the music he listens to while he paints, and some of it comes from the both of you."
"So, he's buying it to hide it?"
"To put it somewhere where it can be seen but not harm anyone," the other man corrected. "I have no intention of hiding it in a vault. People deserve to see his work."
"So, how do I stop this, Giles?" he asked, crossing his arms. "How do I kill this problem before your friend goes broke?"
"I don't think that will be a problem and I'm sure we can fix this satisfactorily soon enough," the man said, smiling at him. "Relax, he's not doing anything wrong, his gift just can't be let loose without someone knowing what's going on." He picked up a few more of the canvases, piling them together. "What he has is a special gift and if it manifests again, then it does. The average person won't be affected. If it doesn't, then we'll know something's wrong and that Giles will have to interfere with him. But if it does, I do wish you would call me first." He and Oz shared a look.
"Go look at my wall man, the rest are in my room hiding." He turned his back, looking down at his Guideling. "Xander, what are you doing wrong?" he asked quietly.
"A little too right actually," Giles told him, putting his hands on his shoulders, looking at them. "It's nothing wrong, no more than Blair's voice is or your music is when you're in the same state and he's around. It's the both of you together that creates this specialness and it's actually quite amazing. Never doubt that this is a good thing, Oz, because it is and will continue to be. We'll just have to be careful about what works get out to the general public or that can be sold."
"He's been doing that more and more," the Guide admitted quietly. "Almost all his stuff from summer is like that." He looked over his shoulder at the older man. "What do I do?"
"You let me look at them and ward them before anyone might buy them. General looking isn't a problem but for certain receptive people owning one may be. That's what's happened with Blair and Jim, and Philip by extension since something now hangs in his office. As long as he's comfortable working like that and doesn't notice a difference, then everything will be fine. If he tries to force it then something bad may come of it." He gave the thin shoulders a little squeeze. "Go sit down, when they wake up things must appear normal." Oz did as he said, watching the other man go through the things in his room.
The other researcher walked out, handing Giles a few more of the paintings, taking out his checkbook. "I feel it's only fair to compensate him for it." He wrote it out quickly, handing it to Giles and taking the artwork. "Just let me know if any of it's about to be sold." He got a small nod so gathered his things with Giles' help and left them alone.
Simon snorted, waking himself up. "Hmm, must have been more tired than I thought." He looked around at the walls. "Pretty bare guys."
Xander looked at his Guide in silent communication then back at the father of his ex-boyfriend. "I can always paint more," he said. He stood up, stretching. "I believe you were offering supper?" The older man nodded so he walked into the kitchen, patting the bulge before he put back his water, and put on his shoes which were sitting in the middle of the floor. "Okay, lets go."
Oz stopped Xander before he could get into Simon's car. "What did you hear?"
"All of it," he admitted. "And I'm thinking. I don't want to be harmful."
"Then don't be." He shrugged. "Don't let those get sold." He helped the younger man into the back seat and crawled in after him, tapping Giles on the shoulder. "You got both checks?"
"Yes," he said, patting his pocket. "Lets go put this into the special account and then go eat. I'll come with you tomorrow when you visit the realtor's."
Jim uncorked the champagne, smiling at Blair as he poured the first glass. "Boys, I'm very proud of you both," Blair said, toasting them. "Not only have you come much farther than we did in under a year but you're still healthy and have created a sanctuary for the neighborhood children and provided parking on a street that was always complaining about having none." He took a sip, looking around at the newly christened park. "Very good work you guys."
"What's going to happen for an encore?" Jim asked. "You going to fix the budget problems of the city? Maybe destroy Rainier before they hurt you again?"
"Court date is in three days," Xander said, looking up at the newly transplanted trees. They'd been brought in from another park that was being relandscaped. "And yes, the preliminary meetings have all went well. Our lawyer assures us they'll even have to pay court costs." He sipped his glass of champagne, Oz reminding him with a poke to limit himself. "Yes, dear," he sighed, rolling his eyes, "just this one glass."
Oz shook his head, walking over to where Blair was. "Do you have this problem?"
"I thought we agreed that we couldn't ask this question," Xander said quietly. Jim looked at him. "Well, I'm not you, we don't have the same problems, and while you two are great teachers, Oz and I have to start working on our own stuff now. Blair's research from a *police* setting won't help us much in an art or a school one."
"True," Blair noted, nodding and patting his Sentinel's arm. "I agree. We'll back off some from the parent roll." Xander beamed at him. "Good. Now then, I do believe we have presents...." He laughed as he was hugged. "Yes, for you both. Or actually all three of you since Devon is still sleeping in your house."
"Hey, he's an old friend," Oz reminded them. He looked around. "Where did deadboy junior go?"
"Hunting," Giles told them. Both boys made a face. "I'm sure he didn't mean humans."
"Please stop," Xander said, holding up a hand. "I don't need any more knowledge." He looked at his Guide. "Save me?"
"Sure, you know that." He patted the younger man's arm, looking at their mentor. "Stop it, Giles, before you sicken him with the thoughts."
Giles smiled, taking a sip from his own glass. "Of course. Wouldn't want to mar this occasion with work."
"Speaking of which," Xander said, heading for the back of Oz's van and the canvas he'd hidden there earlier. He pulled it out, bringing it and it's covering back to the gathering. "This is staying in this family," he told them, holding it so Oz could uncover it.
Everyone gasped so he looked down at it, frowning. "Devon," Xander sighed. "The real one's upstairs still. Our houseguest must have switched tarps."
"Not me," Devon said walking up, "but I came home to an unlocked building again." He took the canvas, looking at it. "Whoa, bad dreams?" He recovered it, carrying it back to the van. "We'll find it later," he called.
Xander blushed. "Sorry about that guys, that was supposed to have been a portrait of the family." Oz patted his arm. "I will find it later."
"Okay," everyone agreed, nodding.
"So," Simon said, looking around. "Where did you stash the little kids? I distinctly remember hearing them screaming earlier."
"Oh, them. They're going to be back later tonight. Parents said we could have an hour alone." Oz shrugged. "Was nice of them."
"Very true," Devon said. "Um, Xander, speak to you for a sec?" He pulled the artist away from the group. "Man, I mean it, I came home to an unlocked house tonight and it was freaky. Some of the pictures were switched around on the walls." The younger man frowned. "You want me to mention it?" He got a small nod so he motioned Simon over. "Man, I came home to an unlocked house and I know what's on those walls like the back of my hand. There are things that were switched and I think a few are missing. The little ones, Xan, I'm sorry."
Simon walked toward the building, pulling out his cellphone. Devon walked back over to where Blair and Jim were frowning. "I'm sorry man, had to do it. Some of the *little* ones were missing." Blair hissed. "Yeah, those." He rubbed down Xander's tense arm. "You need to go up and take a good, long look, dude, before they get here."
"Thanks, Dev," Xander said, hugging him. "I'll even forgive you for stealing my ATM card again this morning." He walked back toward the building, followed by everyone else. "I need to see if anything else is missing," he told Simon. "I'll be careful."
Xander signed the last form the officers handed him, frowning at it. "What's this? I won't sue you if you damage them?"
"Basically. It's standard procedure when it's something valuable. Ever since Simon knocked over a Ming vase in his rookie year." Jim smiled down at him. "Just sign it, they won't harm any of it on purpose." He looked at the barely populated walls, shaking his head. "How many again?"
"Sixteen that I know of," Xander told him, putting down the pen and looking up at him. "You'd have to ask Devon if there were more."
"One," he said. "The portrait's not here." He pointed at the wall where it'd been resting earlier. "I checked through all the stuff and it's not there."
Jim picked up the pen, making note of it on the forms. "Then we'll have to find it, won't we?" He walked back over to Simon, handing it to him. "First paperwork I haven't minded in a while," he said lightly, tapping Blair on the shoulder. "The portrait he wanted to give us is gone too."
"I'll help him crucify the Art department if it was them." He turned back to watching Oz absently strum his guitar. "This has got to hurt him too."
"Yeah, but we've just got to get them back before they disappear." Simon walked out, followed by his two consultants and occasional officers, letting the roommates be alone for a while.
"Was it them?" Oz asked, taking off his headphones.
"No, wasn't any of my teachers. I know their smells, that's how I categorize while I paint so I know who not to flinch from." He looked around. "Who did this? Not even my advisor is this bad."
"What'd he do?" Devon asked.
"Oh, he thought I was claiming someone else's work, that's what he said about all that I put out."
"Did you tell him the truth?"
"That I was so focused that I went into a painting zone where things just happened without my knowing? Yeah, but only that far." He looked at the wall where the snapshots, the small, highly intense, pictures of his lovers, had lived and shuddered. "Someone's going to kill me if they see those."
"I don't think Cordy's going to go to art shows," Oz pointed out. "And I'm sure Anya won't. That other guy shouldn't. Blair still has his. And whomever the last person was, is she anywhere near here?"
"Nope. New Mexico."
"Then relax. Let Simon and the ‘rents do it." Oz pushed his roommate down into a chair, looking at him. "How many were like *that*?"
"Almost all," the younger man admitted. "The snapshots, the portrait, three others."
"So, ten of the sixteen?" He got a small nod. "Then we'll just have to let Giles know that part."
"Why?" Devon asked.
"Because together we do something special," Oz told him. "That's why those paintings are so mesmerizing." He saw the confusion but shrugged. "Don't ask, I don't know."
Xander walked out of the courtroom, frowning at his roommate. "Well, she's denying everything about the break-in but the judge granted Simon's request to a recess so he could talk to her." He leaned against the wall beside him. "I didn't break down and cry at the pictures of my work in other people's hands."
"Good, I'm proud." Oz patted his arm. "Let's go have a snack downstairs."
"We only have a few minutes."
"So? Pretzel stand."
"Sure. You buy."
"Why didn't you enroll again?"
"Because they wouldn't let me." Xander looked around at the empty corridor. "I got the lawyer to have her admit that she had told the Registrar not to admit me again because of all this. And the stuff about the building. The judge was most pissed that she was waging this sort of war against us."
"Um, Oz, did you check the mail today? You got another letter from the school."
"Yeah, I know, and I know what it is. I'm only getting medium level fall out over this. Not at all what you're getting." He paid for their snack, walking back toward the courtroom. "Xan, come on."
"Shh," he said, catching up. Xander tuned into the quiet conversation of his teachers, the one he'd caught a sound from as he had turned, a hand on his Guide's arm so he could fool with his remote, that was what had replaced his old levers.
//But that's so ridiculous. He knew that was risky. No matter how much work an artist does, he knows his own pieces.//
//Yes, but it was worth the risk. And we can get rid of both of them if we do it right.//
//No, we need to keep him around. The judge is sure to make us.//
//Or not, we might win.//
//You *heard* what he proved a little while ago.//
//So he flunks out. Who cares? He'll be well enough off, I'll even tell the world that I was wrong and to admit him to showings again.//
Xander looked at Oz, nodding toward the bathroom. He checked to make sure they were alone, turning down his hearing again as he did so. "They want to get rid of me and someone else. They know they're going to lose and the plan is to flunk me out of Rainier."
"Then we'll switch schools." Xander shook his head. "No?"
"No, I want those two. And they know who did it." The younger man grinned, a very mean one. "Come on, I need to go to talk to shark-man and Simon." He walked out with his Guide right behind him.
Simon smiled at the judge, whom he had pulled out of the courtroom before he could declare that it was back in session. "I have an overheard conversation that I need to check out. May I ask her questions off the record?"
"You may ask her, but I do wish you'd not do it in the courtroom. Use my office again if you want."
Simon nodded, walking out to get the Chair of the department. "I need to talk to you again," he said quietly, pulling her up by her arm and walking her back to the judge's chambers. He closed the door behind them, turning to face her. "I overheard you in the hall, lady, I know you know who did it. I'm prepared to tell the lawyers that so they can ask you questions on the stand." Her face fell for a second then got hard. "Now then, who has the paintings and what's going on? A ring of some sort?" She snorted, sitting delicately in a chair. "You do know that if you try to harm that boy that I will be all over you, right?" She nodded blandly. "And that I have started an investigation into your department?" Her eyes got a little wider but she still didn't say anything. "Accomplis to robbery, grand theft probably, is five to ten per charge in this state. If I find you had anything to do with the theft of Xander's work, you'll be doing sixteen counts at the least." He leaned over her. "Do I make myself clear?"
"And if I turn him over?"
"Then I'll call you a witness depending on what part you played. If you only knew and you came forward, I can have a deal cut. If you planned or participated, you'll get a lesser sentence."
Mary crossed her hands on her lap. "Yes, I do know who did it. It was his advisor and his helper. They signed his work." She looked up, grimacing. "I tried to tell them differently."
"Wait right here, let me go get your lawyer." Simon walked out, glancing at Xander, who shook his head. He nodded, walking into the courtroom and having a talk with the other attorney, heading back to the office to deal with her.
Xander looked at the work he'd gotten back, frowning. "I had wondered how Darryl's portrait got in there," he said quietly. "Is it evidence or can I take it home, Simon?"
"No, we need it for a while longer." He patted the young man's shoulder. "Where are you going to go?"
"There's a nice small, private college on the other side of town, I can start there in January. As a matter of fact, I have a full ride scholarship there if I want to accept it based on my work." He looked at the older man. "Seems one of the people at the show was one of their teachers and she recommended that I go there."
"What about your studies with Blair and Giles?"
"I know more than they seem to think," he sighed. "I'm not going into the paranormal research field. Oz can do that, I'll help him." He looked at the door right before Jim came in. "Stomping?"
"Just to give you fair warning. Is everything here?"
"Yeah, and all the little mysteries of the art shows are here too." He pulled a small canvas up, looking at the signature on the bottom. "How do I get that off?"
"Repaint it," Jim suggested. "And start signing your work, kid." He ruffled the dark hair. "Blair said to come over tonight, we'll eat his cooking."
"Cool." Xander put back down his work, looking at the stack of it. "I want a nap first."
"Sure, kid, we'll come get you." Jim and Simon both watched him walk out. "He's pretty torn up about this."
"He's been offered full ride at the little bible college." Jim winced. "Yeah, I didn't think he's figured that part out yet."
"Yes I did," floated back through the door.
Simon laughed. "And I thought you were bad."
"Painting in God's image?" Oz read over his Guideling's shoulder. "Please tell me you aren't serious." The younger man shook his head. "Good. Then what are you going to do?"
"I'm going to go back to Rainier. I had a call from the President personally inviting me to come back. I'm not majoring in Art, of course, but I'm not joining Blair's department either."
"So where then?" Oz said, sliding down onto the cushions. "Business? Humanities? General?"
"One of those three," he said with a small smile, "but probably business. Mary was right about one thing, art is a business. We could turn the downstairs into a gallery and give you some room to do research stuff," the younger man suggested.
"Well, that *sounds* nice, but are we staying in Cascade for the long haul? Businesses are long time things, like lifetimes. Are you willing to stay here?"
"Not really," Xander sighed. "Could go to LA."
"Not really, thanks." Oz made a sour face. "East coast?"
"Work for Disney," Xander suggested. "Make the monsters real looking and spread the truth." Oz nodded. "Okay, let's plan on doing that." He snuggled in against the welcoming shoulder. "Or we could go to DC, become lobbiers."
"No, thanks. Don't like power hungry people. Like rich people but not power hungry ones." He reached around his friend's body, letting him rest against his chest so he could be hugged. "You okay?"
"You haven't painted in weeks."
"I tried and I scared myself."
"Ah. Okay. Can I see it?"
"Later. Let me nap."
"Sure, you nap," Oz said quietly, soothing and comforting his friend into a nap. When Devon got up, he nodded at him to go get the last painting Xander did so he could see it, looking at the dark images in confusion. There was no clear figures, just shadows. "What's that?" he asked, pointing at a blurry shape.
"Person," Xander muttered, shifting some. "Could have asked."
"Didn't want to upset you."
"Wouldn't have," the younger man said, sitting up. He looked at his painting. "I just think that the way it turned out was worrisome. How often do you see shadow people?"
"Point," Oz started but then Devon cleared his throat, handing them glasses of water. "Thanks, what's wrong?"
"Need to do some groceries again. This is all that there is."
"Okay, we'll go later," Xander told him. "Where's my ATM card?"
"It's on your dresser, same as it was yesterday," the young vampire said, rolling his eyes. He headed back over to Oz's side of the large, open space, lying down on his bed. "We should go do something tonight."
"Like?" Oz suggested.
"Don't know, something to help Xander clear his head and you to concentrate on important things like class."
Oz grunted, looking down at his sentinel. "Want to go have fun tonight?"
"Could," Xander suggested. "Want to go visit my artwork at the Flame?" He pulled himself up, looking at their walls. "I feel like it's unfinished."
"It was," Oz told him, "there's got to be an aftermath. Try painting it here first. Later, when we get back, you can paint the ending to it."
Xander nodded, heading into his space in the loft to put on clothes. "We should call Sascha," he reminded. "She doesn't have our address."
"Yeah she does," Oz called back, "I gave it to her while we were cleaning Blair's office and running off papers for the semester." Xander peeked around his curtain. "Really."
Xander walked out, pants undone but up around his hips, his cock framed nicely by the zipper. He bent to pick up a shirt, glaring at Devon as he heard his camera go off. "Hey!"
The vampire walked closer, taking the shirt from him. "No, this is a good picture, Xan. Lean against your easel." He positioned the younger man, walking around him to snap a few pictures off. "Very pretty," he said, as he moved closer, stopping right in front of his occasional plaything. "I just had to capture that virginal confusion look you do so well."
Oz groaned. "Groceries, guys, not foreplay."
"Shh," Devon said. "He's pretty."
"He's very handsome," Oz admitted, "but I don't think this is the time or the place for this."
Xander ran a finger down the front of Devon's shirt, looking into his blue eyes. "You think so?"
"Very cute," Devon told him. "I'd jump you now if Oz wouldn't complain and get hyper about it."
"Oz isn't going to get hyper about it if that's what Xander wants," Oz reminded them, getting up and heading over to his bedroom, pulling his curtain closed. "Have fun and don't make me listen."
Xander kept looking into Devon's eyes, smiling at the lust he saw there. "You really think I'm cute?"
"Very cute, especially when you're trying to look innocent and good." He smirked. "I think you have half the city fooled, but I know you're not a good boy." He leaned in, kissing Xander gently. "You're not a good boy, and you want so much to be."
Xander shook his head. "I am a good boy," he said with a small grin. "A very good one. Otherwise you'd be on your knees already." Devon fell to his knees, nuzzling the opening of the young man's jeans. "Good, Devon," he said, patting his hair. "Keep it up and earn a reward."
"Ooh, like those." Devon looked up, taking a small lick over the exposed head. "When can I get you to take me?"
"Dev, you know I need feelings for that," Xander said, pulling away. "Like lots of them. And safety feelings too." He did up his pants. "I don't have that with you."
The vampire stood up, pouting. "So I'm good enough to blow you but nothing else?"
"Not what he said," Oz called. He peeked around his curtain before walking back out. "Devon, Xander's one of those that wants a ring, a commitment. He actually believes in love."
"So I'm a toy," Devon said, hurt.
"No, you're not a toy, I don't *use* you," Xander explained, grabbing onto Devon and giving him a hug. "I just don't feel the feelings I should feel to let you closer to me. Touching, groping, and even the occasional meal, is a lot less than the night long process that I like making love to be. We don't have that stuff."
"Oh," Devon said flatly. "So I'm an okay guy for a short time but not forever?"
"I'm sorry, Devon, but I thought I had told you that before."
The vampire nodded with a long sigh. "I guess you did, I just forgot." He stole a small kiss. "I just feel so lonely now. No one wants to touch me because I'm cold."
Oz hugged him from the other side. "We love you, even though you're a vamp, but we don't love you enough to sleep with you. You're our best friend."
Devon nodded, getting free. "You guys shop without me," he said, heading into the bathroom.
Xander looked at Oz, who simply opened his arms to him, and moved in for a hug of his own. "I feel bad," he admitted quietly. "Like I should go in there and give myself to him just to make him feel better."
"That would cheapen what you've already shared," Oz told him gently, rubbing down his back. "Devon'll find someone permanent sometime soon. Or at least a long-term partner for more than a week. He's just expecting everyone to think he's the same when he's not."
"Because he's a vamp," Xander finished. "Somehow that seems prejudiced."
"It is," Oz sighed, "but it's a natural one. You're not going that way, you're not sleeping with him because he's a vamp, right?" Xander shook his head. "Then we'll just have to find someone who wants him in spite of his being a vampire."
"Not because of?"
"No, because of would be there just for that and they would end up hurting him. In spite of would see him for himself and like him anyway."
Xander pulled back and grinned at his guide. "I think I know someone but she's a girl."
"Devon's ever changeable when it comes to lovers. Who?"
"A student in one of Blair's classes. She's a lot like Giles, and she knows about vamps by now since she's his assistant."
Oz pulled away, looking at his sentinel. "She's a because of person."
"No, not really. She'd find it fascinating, but otherwise nothing else."
Oz nodded. "We'll introduce them and see what happens." He looked toward the bathroom. "Come on, Dev, let's go shopping."
Devon walked out of the bathroom, wiping his face off. "I'm not willing to be dragged around the stores tonight, guys, sorry."
"No, come on," Xander said, walking over to take the towel and pull Devon behind him back over to Oz. "We've just decided to introduce you to a nice woman and now we have to shop." Oz cleared his throat and pointed down, making Xander look. "What? I'm not hanging out."
"Shirt, Xan," Devon said, giving him a small nudge. "They won't let you in unless you have on a shirt and shoes."
"At least his pants are done up," Oz reminded them. "They'd never let him out of the house otherwise." He looked at his lead singer, considering him. "Why don't you take some classes with us, Dev? There's still time to register, you've only missed the first class so far."
Xander nodded, grabbing the shirt he had been forced to drop earlier. "Photography's looking for people. And there's a night section."
"And it's a good skill if you're going to be around for a long time," Oz reminded him. "Gotta eat somehow."
Devon smiled at them, wrapping his arms around their shoulders. "That's such a killer idea, I'll look into it." He pinched Xander's ass, whistling as he walked toward the elevator. "Come on, or all the good steaks will be gone."
Xander rubbed his rear, walking after him, Oz stopping to grab the ATM card and the keys.
Xander looked across the meeting room at his advisor and the new Chair of the Art Department. "Why was I called down here?" he asked.
"Because we want you back," the Chair said, a nice looking young man. About thirty, long dirty- blonde hair that reached his waist, soft clothes in pastels, as always for as long as anyone in the department had known him, and four silver bracelets, including a bangle. "You're a credit to the department and we would like to have you back. Matter of fact, if your advisor is willing, I'd like to take you on as my own protégée."
Xander leaned back, turning up his sense of smell using his new remote that Oz had helped him put in, considering the men in front of him. John, the chair, was serious. His advisor was angry bordering on furious, and leaking fear. He turned his nose back down, looking at their body language. "I need to talk to someone first. What's the other catch?"
His advisor pushed over a piece of paper. "That you agree to drop the suit against us. We're willing to settle with you, allowing you back into the program with full apologies and compensation for the work we couldn't get back, but no money."
John cleared his throat. "The department is critically broke, Xander, and your lawsuit is making sure that we can't get grants. That's not why I want to take you under my wing, but it's the reason to do this now instead of in a month when everything's calmed down again."
"I want to talk to my best friend first, and get our lawyer's opinion." Xander picked up the paper, folding it before putting it in his backpack. "I'll give John my answer in a few days?"
John nodded. "That would be great, thank you." He stood up, holding out a hand. "Xander, we believe you have a great gift and I would like to see you use it. Actually, I was hoping to get you to branch out some, to explore all your depths."
Xander blushed lightly. "I was looking at the jewelry program over break," he admitted. "As an alternative to the Art Department."
"It's part of the Art Department," John said, "but that was just one thing I was thinking about. Also photography and drafting. Letting you find a niche where you can do some upper division shows for us in a year or so." He smiled. "We'd really kill for you to do one of those."
Xander chuckled. "Let me talk to my friends and I'll let you know, but that does sound great." He waved and walked out, heading over to Blair's office, a short thirty feet away. He jogged up to the third floor, the elevator being out still, and tapped on the door. He walked in, grinning. "They want me back. John, the new Chair, wants to take me under his wing and broaden my horizons." He sat down in front of his guide, the senior guide teaching them, Blair, and his guide's girlfriend, Sascha.
Sascha whooped and leaned over to hug him. "Xander, that's so *great*," she said. She pulled back to look at him. "What do they want?"
"For me not to sue them. Basically," he said, reaching into his backpack to pull out the paper, which he handed over, "they'll apologize, readmit me, give me some compensation for my lost work, but no money."
Blair took the paper, shaking his head. "You'll end up paying court costs," he said, tapping it a few times, "and any other expenses." He handed over the phone. "Call your lawyer and have him look it over, you can negotiate some of it." Oz took the phone and dialed. "Gee, reverse protecting?"
"No, I deal with this end of this," Oz said simply. "He does the hard stuff."
Sascha snorted. "Hard? Hardly. Blair, did you know that anything Xander makes tastes suspiciously like paint?"
"Hasn't recently," Oz noted. "He's not painting right now." He looked over at Xander. "We've got to get you over that one .... Hi, yes, this is Mr. Osbourne... Thanks." He pulled the phone out into the hall with the settlement proposal, closing the door after him.
Xander looked around the smaller office. "Why'd they move you guys anyway? The other building was better."
"Because they want to hide us," Blair said simply. "Why aren't you registered in any of my classes, young man?"
"Because I don't want to be you?" Xander suggested, giving him his best innocent look, which made Blair chuckle and pat him on the back. "I'm sorry, Blair, but I really didn't feel like taking more paranormal stuff. We did plenty of it this summer."
"Ah, yes, you were supposed to write me a journal," Blair said, rubbing his hands together as the dark blue book was pulled out of Xander's backpack. "How comprehensive is it?"
"Not totally," Xander admitted. "We had some pretty bad fights and I didn't write about them."
"Or when you ended up in the hospital," Sascha reminded, reaching over to rub down Xander's arm.
"Hand's off my sentinel, get your own," Oz said as he walked back in. "He'll come get the paper on his way home tonight," he said as he handed the phone back to Blair. He sat down beside Xander, rubbing down his arm. "What isn't in your journal?"
"The fights, the feeling of being in the wrong place. My trip down memory lane with the serum." Xander shrugged. "Pretty much the fighting stuff."
"Okay, so we'll tell him about that, right?" Xander nodded, leaning a little closer. "Hey, what's wrong?"
"I'm hearing someone down the hall. They're talking about Sandburg's freaks and how they're taking over the building of real humanities."
Blair snorted. "Stupid idiots. At least we claim to use science for our own purposes. Just once, I'd like to show those guys what's really real."
"We could bring in Devon," Xander suggested. "We're going to introduce him to Giles' assistant anyway. He needs someone nice and there for him."
Blair smiled. "That sounds good. Want to call him over tonight? I'm pretty sure she's working since he has the late class tonight."
Xander nodded. "Yeah, we could. I have a late novels class for English."
"You know that means you have to both read and discuss, right?" Oz asked. Xander nodded, giving him a patient look. "That's most of your grade, and occasionally a paper."
"I'm not lost in my art this semester," Xander reminded him.
"Why?" Blair asked, glancing up from Xander's journal. "Are you blocked or is it something else?"
"He drew a scary painting and it's spooked him," Oz explained. "Scared me too, but he's not painting until he figures it out again."
"I'm pretty sure it had something to do with the vision I had this summer," Xander offered.
"Vision?" Blair's head popped back up. "You had a vision? Of?" He leaned closer. "Do you have pictoral representations this time or just verbal?"
Xander and Oz both nodded. "Was pretty strange actually. I'll bring it to you Friday. I don't have class tomorrow." Xander checked his watch. "Oops, gotta go downstairs and pretend to learn." He picked up his backpack, hurrying out of the room.
Oz waited until they were alone to shake his head. "This summer was interesting, but I don't think either of us want to do it again. He wasn't happy, I found Sascha but otherwise I wasn't happy."
"How very diplomatic," she said, kissing his cheek. "Was it because he wasn't happy?"
Oz nodded. "Yeah, pretty muchly. He didn't smile for two weeks." He picked up his own pile of books. "I should go join him since we have this class together." He waved as he headed out of the office. "Later."
Blair turned to Sascha. "So?"
"They're nice, but they need to be together. I think I'm a buffer right now but they'll end up together somehow."
Blair nodded. "Me too." He reached over and patted her shoulder. "Don't worry, you'll still be friends."
"And Xander's keeper," she joked, smiling.
"And Xander's keeper," he agreed. "The boy needs one and Oz is busy."
"Yup, my busy little guys." She changed forms, morphing into Oz's Spirit Guide, giving him a little barking laugh. "At least my mother got over seeing me again," she said before she disappeared.
Oz walked into the loft, looking at the bare walls. "Xander, why can't we find the normal setting?"
"Because we don't have a normal setting?" the artist called from the bathroom. He came out covered in red stuff. "Sorry, had to clean this. Someone broke in and splattered everything with blood."
Oz winced. "Wonderful." He looked toward the bed. "Where's Dev?"
"Not sure, he didn't come in last night." Xander disappeared into the bathroom, coming back out with his canvases. "Here, put these somewhere. I wiped as much as I could off, but I'll end up scraping it later."
Oz looked over the paintings, frowning. "Who'd break in to spread blood around?"
"Don't know, but don't sit on the couch," Xander told him, heading for the bathroom again. "Some was on there too and I sponged it off."
"I'm calling the cops," Oz said, picking up the phone, shaking his head and putting it back down when he didn't find a dial tone. "Did you call them?"
"Yeah, I did. Reported the break-in, the blood, but not Devon." Xander walked out with a stack of his canvas boards. "At least most of these were in your cage so the splatter was minimal and reserved for most of the top ones," he said, putting the pile down beside the canvases. "Can you start arranging them?"
"Sure," Oz said, picking up the first one. "Um, some of these are running," he said, handing one over. Xander jogged it into the kitchen, blotting it with a wad of paper towels. Oz hung as many of the paintings as he could on the walls, sighing when he didn't see his favorite ones. "Are we missing some?" he called across the cavernous space.
"No, they're still in your cage," Xander called back. "I was going to wash the walls today and this happened." He came back out with the painting, dropping it beside his drying rack. "That one's wrecked."
"So repaint it on a real canvas," Oz suggested but his sentinel shook his head. "No?"
"I don't do that well, copying myself." Xander picked up a large picture of Darryl, hanging it back in it's spot. "It never turns out the same."
"Okay," Oz said, nodding. "Good to know."
"Yeah, it is," Xander said, stepping back to look at the paintings. "I need a new subject. I want to do nudes," he said suddenly, turning to look at Oz in alarm when he started to cough. He patted his back. "You okay?"
"Yeah," Oz panted, catching his breath. "Just a shock. How do you want to do nudes? Offer a price for a model?"
"Nope," Xander said as he headed back into the bathroom. "Sascha said she'd let me paint her whenever I wanted. Even if I wanted to do the figure stuff."
"NO!" Oz yelled after him. "Not her." Xander stuck his head out of the door, frowning at him. "Anyone but her. I don't want to see six thousand little drawings of my girlfriend around the campus."
"Won't be," Xander said, walking out far enough to lean against the doorway, crossing his feet. "I'm not getting rid of anything else for a while." He tipped his head and blinked. "Why are you so uptight about her? She offered before I asked."
Oz shook his head. "That's too much like sharing her with you."
"I'm not going to touch her," Xander said, pouting slightly.
"You need to touch to paint a figure," Oz reminded, pointing at the little sexual pictures between the windows in the livingroom area.
"That's different," Xander said, waving him off before heading into the bathroom. "This'll be like bowls of apples, only with people."
"No," Oz said firmly. "I'd still feel like I was sharing."
"She offered," Xander reminded him.
"No!" Oz said, his voice getting harder. He headed for the bathroom, walking in on Xander using it. "No. No nude drawings of my girlfriend, no matter how willing she is."
Xander shook his head, shaking himself off and tucking his cock back into his jeans. "Oz, I'm not trying to steal her, I just wanted to paint her. Geez, get uptight over nothing." He walked past his guide, heading for his room. "No sharing involved, but if you're that upset over it, I'll put an ad out for a nude model. Some of them work cheap."
"Thanks," Oz said. "That thought just bothers me."
Xander nodded, then shook his head. "It's not that bad. Oh, and Tara and Willow are up here. Tara called from Giles' just as I was walking in. I hung up on her with a girly-scream when I saw the paintings." He looked down. "She's taking an art class too."
Oz reached over to rub across his shoulder. "You can do clothed ones of Sascha, okay?" he said, trying to compromise. What they had was too important to hurt over a few drawings of his girlfriend.
"Thanks," Xander said, giving him a hug. "Ah, daily hug quota." He stepped back, walking around his guide to get back to his artwork. "Come help me," he called after a few minutes alone in the loft.
Oz growled but calmed himself, walking out. "You have a quota?"
"I need at least one," Xander said, turning his head to look at the slightly older man. "Sorry," he said when he saw the anger. "Didn't mean it like that."
"Then how did you mean it?" Oz asked, leaning against a corner of his cage. "All I got was a put down for not giving enough."
"Nope, was kinda meant to be a joke, but it's also the truth, I need at least one hug a day." Xander backed out of the cage, handing over a larger painting. "Put that back please?"
Oz looked at it then back at the artist. "It's got brown flecks on it."
"I know, I'm going to work on it out in the light, I'm just separating out the ones that need lots of work and the ones that could use a little scraping." He handed another one off. "That one too, please."
Oz nodded, going to put them in their places on the wall. He came back to find Xander giving one a very sad look. "What's up?" he asked, touching his shoulder.
Xander flinched, then held up the painting. "That one's probably ruined," he said quietly.
Oz looked over the picture of Darryl, Xander's ex-boyfriend and another guide, who was now in Peru with his newest sentinel. "It's saveable," he said, scratching at the blood flecks.
"No, it's not. I can't fix it without scratching up the skin color and that was the perfect one. I've never been able to duplicate that shade." Xander took back the painting, looking down at it. "It's the first one I did of him," he said quietly.
Oz scooted closer, giving him a hug and pulling him against his body. "I'm sure he wouldn't blame you for it." Xander shook his head. "I know you loved that one, Xander, and that it was important, but you can fix it."
Xander put the painting aside. "Not without scratching it up." He leaned into Oz's body. "Who'd do this to us? We're not bad or things. Why did they have to come in and wreck the only really great thing I've done?" He got up, heading to his room. "Just leave them, I'll work on them later."
Oz watched him go, waiting until the curtain around Xander's bed was closed to pick up the painting so he could look at it. "Maybe," he said, getting up to grab a pin from their sewing kit, "it's less hopeless than you think." He sat down in front of the cage in a spot of light, carefully picking at the blood with the pin. He smiled as he finished, noting the one scratch was down near the bottom and was actually on the shirt Darryl was wearing. He walked over to the easel and put it down, arranging it tastefully so Xander would immediately see it when he woke up. He smiled at his own good deed for the day, heading out to the living room to see what else he could do to help.
Xander woke up, yawning and stretching same as usual. He walked out of his bedroom area, looking at the canvas on his easel then he sat down hard, looking up wordlessly at his guide as he walked over, jumping up to hug him tightly. "Thank you," he whispered, giving him an extra squeeze. "So very much." He realized he was clinging to his guide so let him go, giving him an embarrassed grimace. "Sorry, got carried away."
Oz pulled Xander in, giving him another hug. "S'okay, I liked it." He let his sentinel go, walking him over to the wall of paintings he had managed to clean off. "I did scratch some of them, sorry, but I got most of the ones you separated out."
Xander ran a hand over one of the smaller paintings that had a large scratch off to the right side. "I can fix these," he said quietly. "Just couldn't do that one." He looked at his guide. "That one meant more to me than almost everything in the room." He grinned. "I think you're the only thing in here that's worth more."
Oz blushed, waving him off. "No more mushy stuff. Got to go be mushy with Sascha later and have to save up."
Xander yawned again, and stretched up over his head. "Okay, tell her I said hi."
"She's coming here," Oz reminded him, poking the bare stomach. "Go put on something."
Xander looked down at himself. "I'm wearing boxers." Oz gave him a dirty look. "Yes sir." He headed for his bedroom, pulling the curtain closed. "Do I need to cook?" he called.
"No, she's ordering. She wants anti-painted food tonight." Oz looked up at the paintings he had been able to save with a proud look, smiling slightly as he went over to answer the door. "Willow, Tara," he said, waving them inside. "Wow, surprise."
"We thought we should come check on Xander, he sounded really upset earlier," Willow explained.
Xander peeked around his curtain. "We got splattered with blood. Be right out." His head disappeared and all of him came out from behind the curtain a few minutes later, tucking in a t- shirt. "Someone broke in and splattered everything with blood. I had it in Oz's cage so I could clean the walls."
Tara looked up from the painting she was looking at. "Wow, you're great," she said, pointing at the snapshot. Xander blushed. "Sorry," she said.
"No, those are really special to him," Oz told her, patting her shoulder as he walked past. "We have food, for once, would you like something?"
Willow shook her head. "Not for me, unless Tara wants something." She looked at her girlfriend, who also shook her head. "No thanks, Oz." She walked over to the easel, looking at the painting on it. "Who's he?" she asked.
Xander walked up behind her. "That's my ex, Darryl. We met through Blair but he's in Peru with his sentinel." He hugged her. "Thank you for caring."
"Of course we do," she said, whapping him on the arm. "Now then, I've heard you have a *lot* of artwork and this doesn't look like that."
Oz snorted, pointing at his side of the industrial space. "In the cage. Most of it was missed."
Tara squealed as she sat on the couch, standing up and giving the cushions a dirty look. "Sorry, forgot to warn you," Xander called, shrugging. "Really sorry." He looked her over, then motioned her into his bedroom, silently handing her one of his biggest t-shirts. "You've got blood on you," he said quietly, leaving her alone to change. He ran into Willow, giving her a one-armed hug. "So, what's up on your end of campus?"
"I'm in the same building you are," she said, grinning up at him. "Just two floors down."
"He's over in the Chem building mostly," Oz said from the kitchen, turning off the tap he was using to get a glass of water. "Photography and drafting classes."
Xander grunted. "The drafting guys don't like me," he said, glaring at the window. "They think I'm spoiled."
"Not hardly," Willow said. "Oz wouldn't spoil you that much."
Oz nodded. "I tried but he wouldn't let me." Xander gave him a dirty look. "I did," he justified. "I gave you all sorts of space and encouragement to become spoiled. Not my fault you never took the hint."
Xander shook his head. "Maybe you should drink the purified water before the chemicals in the tap water rot your brain," he suggested sweetly. Tara snickered as she walked out of his bedroom so Xander turned his head to look at her. "Everything else okay on your end of the world?"
"Just peachy," she said, hopping up to sit on top of the table. "How's Sascha? She seemed nice."
"She is," Xander said. "She's thinking about mothering me so Oz can have a break from nagging for a few hours a day." Oz snorted, heading over to his bedroom and pulling the curtain shut. Xander leaned closer to Willow. "I did one of you and him," he whispered. "It's in his room on the wall."
Willow smiled and held a hand out to her girlfriend. "Xander's done one of me, want to go look?" Tara nodded so they walked over to Oz's bedroom, tapping on the curtain before walking back. Willow squealed, looking around the edge of the curtain but Xander was gone from the room. "That .... *man*," she said, walking back out between Oz and Tara.
Oz sat down at the table. "That was something he did his first semester. Since then we've had to give some away." He waved around at the semi-bare walls, ending up at his cage. "He's prolific, to an extreme."
Tara smiled as she looked around. "But this is a very positively charged space, especially over where his easel is. It almost feels blessed."
Willow sat Tara down beside her, patting her hand. "I'm sure it was probably Giles." Oz shook his head, pointing at the lump on the back of the kitchen wall. "What's that?"
"Not a clue but it likes us." Oz shrugged then looked at Tara. "I'm sure he wouldn't mind if you went into the cage and looked." Both of the witches headed into the cage, giggling occasionally as they looked at all the paintings.
Xander walked back into the apartment swinging a bag. "Hey, they leave already?"
"Cage," Oz said, pointing. "Shopping?"
"Yup, thought we should celebrate our all being together again." He pulled out two bottles of fermented grape juice. "Not alcoholic but still okay enough for the party."
Sascha walked off the elevator, smiling. "Hi," she called, waving.
"Don't sit on the couch," Xander warned. "We were sprayed earlier."
"With?" she said, walking over. She smiled and waved at Willow and Tara as she sat at the table. "Who won something?" she asked, touching the bottle.
"We're celebrating being all together again," Willow said as she walked out to join them, giving Xander a hug on the way. "I should beat you for hiding how good you were from me. But I'll forgive you if you come paint a mural on our walls."
Oz groaned, hiding his head. "Not another mural. Those are really scary."
"Only when you're there," Xander reminded him. He looked at Willow and shrugged. "Maybe, I'll have to see what the space says to me, otherwise it may not turn out right." He grinned at Sascha, hugging her. "You should show them Giles' pictures of my work at the Flame."
Oz stood up, taking the bottles of grape juice and heading for the refrigerator. "No art tonight," he called. "And no pouting over it."
Xander snorted. "I'm not."
"No, you're not creating," Sascha said, pulling Xander down into her lap to hug him. "And that worries us."
"I'll paint again soon," he reassured, giving her a good hug. "Don't worry so much about it. You'll start to look like Jim."
Oz pulled Xander off his girlfriend as he walked past them. "Behave," he said quietly, patting him on the arm, "or else no painting trip this weekend."
"You promised," Xander said, frowning. "You said you'd go with me."
"I will," Oz reminded him, "but not if you don't behave tonight."
"I'm not *five*, Oz," Xander hissed, stepping away from him. "I don't need approval and punishments." He turned around, heading for his bedroom. "Tara, want to come see some of my drawings? I have a bunch in here."
The brunette witch followed him, waving at Willow as she disappeared into his room, wrapping the curtain around the area.
Willow and Sascha both hit Oz on his arms. "He's not a child," Willow said heatedly.
"He really just needs love and support," Sascha said. "And I agree, he's not a child."
Oz threw up his hands. "I just wanted him to be good tonight."
"He's not usually bad," Sascha said, getting up to stand in front of him. "Nor is our friendship getting in the way of *our* relationship." She waved between them to emphasize her point. "Get it now?"
"I'm bad, as usual."
"No, you're not," Xander said, walking out. "Guys, excuse us for a minute, I need to talk to Oz alone, downstairs." He grabbed Oz's arm, dragging him toward the elevator, closing the door and starting it but stopping it between floors. "What's with you tonight? You promised to stop that crap."
"I don't know," Oz said softly, squatting down in a corner and holding his head. "I don't even know why that came out." He looked up. "I didn't want you to scare them off, I didn't mean it that way."
"Oz," Xander said, kneeling in front of him, "I'm not a kid. I'm not breaking you and Sascha up. I'm not even going to try and steal Willow from you. Why are you so uptight when we're here at home?" He looked up at the roof of the elevator. "Is it just here?"
"No, it's the whole city," Oz said, putting down his arms to look at his sentinel. "I'm sorry, Xander, I didn't mean it that way. I'm worried about Devon and I'm uptight about you."
Xander sat down, staring at a wall. "Maybe our one 'sometimes' wasn't the right thing to do." Oz grabbed his chin and turned it around. "You've been possessive since then."
"It's not that," Oz told him, shifting closer. "It has nothing to do with that. I'm not sure why but I know it had nothing to do with us."
"So is this just a momentary 'pushing my boundaries' thing? Because if it is, you need to stop it. I still can't take too much."
"No, not that either," Oz said, reaching out to hug the younger man. "I don't know what it is, but it's not really anything between us." He relaxed in the arms that came around his body. "I don't know what it is."
"I do," Willow called down the shaft. "It's a territory thing, you're feeling like the pack alpha again." Tara's light giggle floated down after the sound of a kiss. "Sorry, privacy is good," Willow apologized a few seconds later.
Oz looked up then back at his sentinel. "It may be that. Jim has a 'protect the whole tribe' thing and I have a pack thing because of the wolf." Xander looked thoughtful and nodded. "So I guess I'm seeing you as the beta male and I'm trying to keep you in your place."
Xander snorted, shaking his head. "Oz, I'm a protector, a pack hunter. And hey, almost the Shaman some days according to Blair."
"Guides do that," Oz said dryly.
"Not always. Blair's letter this summer said Darryl was taking lessons from the Shaman to take over his job, that his Sentinel wasn't going to be able to do that."
"So, you get the Shaman duties and I get to Guide? Gee, imbalance here."
"Not really," Xander said, sliding down the wall to sit and look up at his guide. "Not at all. Yeah, I have the senses, and possibly this, but you have the strength and the will. It's almost like we share the extra Shaman duties."
"Okay," Oz said, sliding down to sit. "I can accept that." He winced as a buzzer went off below them. "In a second," he called. "We're discussing."
"Let us come up first," Blair called up, "we have something heavy."
Xander reached over, hitting the button to release the elevator. They stayed sitting as the doors opened, admitting Giles and Blair, who were carrying something that looked like a light table. "Cool, what's that for?"
"For your pictures," Giles said, smiling at them. "Are we discussing something in particular?"
"The Shaman duties between us." Blair stopped the elevator and Oz gave him a dry look. "Had something to add?"
"Yeah, I do," Blair said, sitting down and leaning against the light table. "What we found out this summer seems to fit you guys a little better. Xander seems to be covering that area well, but Shaman's often have a link to reality."
"Like a Guide," Giles added, leaning against the wall to look at his two former students. "What they do is maintain a focus and a balance, not letting them get lost in the other world."
Oz snorted. "So that's why he has the visions and I have the ground wire?"
"Unfortunately, not quite," Blair said gently, patting his leg. "You seem to have some of the Shaman qualities too. I'm not sure if you'll end up having them as well as Xander or if it'll back down to only one of you having them. It could even be that however you're going to choose to fix this situation will take the gift away from both of you. No one's sure. But you need to talk to Darrien since he seems to be the dominant Spirit Guide of your pair."
Xander looked at Oz and shrugged, getting one in return. "Okay, we'll let you put us under tonight," he said as he struggled to get up. "We've got company, and a wet couch, so we should probably do that later."
Oz nodded, standing up by gripping Xander's arm to pull himself up. "We need to finish sorting the art too, maybe let you set up to fill in those scratches." Xander nodded, leaning closer to him. "It's all right, we'll figure out who did this."
"I'm worried about Dev," Xander said.
Blair shook his head. "He knocked on Jim's door right before dawn this morning to talk to him. Seems someone screwed with his emotions." He looked at Xander, raising one eyebrow.
"Wasn't intentional," Xander explained. "I've been real upfront about telling him it wasn't more than fun for me." Oz squeezed his arm. "I didn't mean to hurt him," he said, looking down.
"You didn't, not that much," Oz told him quietly. "The man's not that fragile. He's lonely because no one likes to sleep with vampires. He just let the fantasy get carried away."
"Which is what Jim and I told him," Blair said, reaching over to brush a piece of hair off Xander's forehead. "He realized you weren't playing with him, he's just hurting because he let himself get into you too deeply." Xander nodded. "Hey," Blair said, pulling him into a hug. "It'll be okay. You guys'll talk and everything will be fine."
"I guess," Xander said quietly, leaning into Oz's body. "I just didn't want to hurt him."
"You didn't," Oz assured him. "I'll help you talk to him." He squeezed the arm he held again, then pushed in the button with his elbow. "We'll talk later when he comes home."
"Tomorrow," Blair told them, lifting up the gate on the elevator and turning to pick up the light table. He grunted, then looked at the boys. "You guys do this, it's yours." Oz grunted, moving to one end, making the older guide smile. "Thanks, guys, knew there was a reason you're younger." He grinned at Giles. "Now maybe we can get to the root of the other problem."
"The 'who sprayed us with blood' one?" Xander asked as he picked up the table with a groan. "Damn, didn't think these things were this heavy." He nodded at Oz to start walking and they carried the light table out of the elevator. "Over by the windows?"
"You'll get shadows," Oz said, putting the table next to the bar separating the rest of the former industrial space from the kitchen. "Here, and you can get a stool." He waved at the plug-in. "Yours, have fun with the toy." He turned to find Sascha looking over his shoulder and Giles and Blair looking at her. "Guys, this is Sascha. I think you've both talked to her by now. Especially since she's the other one of Blair's assistants."
Blair grinned. "You were just too busy with Xander to be full time." He shrugged and looked at Giles. "She's very organized without being pushy about it like Jim and Oz are."
"I had talked with her while they were gone for the summer," Giles said, holding out a hand. "Rupert Giles."
"Sascha. I'm not real formal." She smiled at him then looked over her shoulder at Xander and Oz. "It was nice of you to get Xander a useful present, one that he won't have to paint."
Blair snorted. "Since it's borrowed for the semester, he'd better not paint it." Xander grinned at him, trying to look very innocent. "I mean it, John'll be pissed."
"My chair, John?" Xander asked, looking at the table.
"Yes, your chair, John. He seems to like you, a lot. We've all sat down together and worked out your settlement so you won't have any more problems." Blair pulled out one of the kitchen table chairs, sitting down in it. "Blood?" he asked with a frown, looking around.
"I had all the artwork in the cage so I could clean," Xander said, looking at the table. "I came home and the top ones were ruined and the bottom ones had splatters." He glanced over his shoulder. "This'll be handy for photography."
"Just don't develop in the loft," Oz said, heading toward the kitchen. "Drinks anyone?"
"Please," Willow called from the cage. She stood up and walked out, giving Xander a hug. "You're great. I should still beat you for not sharing your gift with me though."
Xander beamed, hugging her back. "Thanks, Will."
"You're welcome, it's greatly deserved." She waved at Giles. "Hi."
"I found your note on the refrigerator," Giles said with a smile. "Is Tara still in the cage?"
"She's happily staring at the non-gendered people." Tara walked out of the cage, patting Giles arm as she passed. "See, I didn't drive her away."
"I was sure you hadn't," Giles said, smiling at his former protégée. "Though you are both correct about Xander's talent. He's gotten quite a bit of comment about his work, most of it pleasant."
Xander grinned at him. "Those others were just bitter," he said, putting his chin up.
"No, you're not spoiled," Oz said, handing him a bottle of tea. "Not at all." He looked at Blair. "Of course it's all your fault."
"Of course it is, I just pumped his self-esteem," Blair said, smiling at Oz. "Isn't that right, Xander?"
"Enough of this," Giles said with a mock-grimace. "Xander's ego doesn't need any more inflation today." He smiled at the young artist. "Though, I do appreciate all the artwork now gracing my condo. It does liven the place up a bit."
"Where's the dirty one?" Tara asked with a grin.
"It's in his bedroom," Blair said. Xander and Oz both looked at him in shock. "I helped him hang them." He rolled his eyes. "It's not like that, guys, he's my underling."
Oz started to shake his head then gasped, grabbing the edge of the counter. "I know why." Xander looked at him. "I know why we were sprayed. Remember yesterday?"
"Yeah, the guys talking about us not being real scientists?" Oz nodded. "You don't think..."
"Oh, I do," Blair said, grinning. "I even probably know who did it." He stood up. "Giles, we should go cure that problem and let the young people enjoy their evening." He waved toward the elevator. "Come on."
"In a moment," Giles said. "I have something to discuss with the boys." Blair nodded and headed out of the loft. "Boys," he said, pulling something out of his pocket and handing it over. "I was sent this today and I think it's for you."
Oz opened the envelope. "Oh. Buffy's doing well," he said, passing the letter over after he read it.
Giles frowned. "Her Guide, or so it seems, is most harmful to her. He's called her delusional, psychotic, and has demanded that she totally change who she is to what he expects."
Xander sat down, shaking his head. "That's just wrong." He looked up. "Does Blair know?"
"He didn't set them up, he just happened upon her in the airport. Joyce didn't quite realize what was going on and before she could stop him, he had Buffy spirited away to somewhere that she can't find."
"And you want us to find her?" Xander suggested, still staring at him.
"I do think that it be best that one of the pairs here in Cascade do so, you and Oz just have more personal experience with her and how she is."
"Which is why I'm not wanting to go," Oz told him. "After how she hurt him this summer...."
"Oz, she was doing as she was ordered," Xander said quietly, reaching out to pull his guide over and hug him. "I'm not going to not help her if she needs it over that. They got her too."
Oz grunted. "You're too generous." He looked at Giles, staying in Xander's firm arms. "Where is she?"
"She's in the city, he picked her up from our airport." Giles took off his glasses to clean them, looking at his former students. "I don't know more than that."
"I can hack..."
Xander shook his head, turning to look at her. "Blair and Jim are consultants with the local Police Department and Darryl's dad is their boss. We can ask." He looked at Giles again. "Do you know his name?"
"It's Max, Max Weeselman." He put back on his glasses. "He lives somewhere out near the lake."
Oz nodded. "If Xander's comfy with it, then we'll work on saving her. We can even ask Jim and Blair for help if we need it."
"We should be able to do it ourselves," Xander argued.
"I don't believe getting them involved is the wisest of ideas," Giles argued over top of Xander. "Them being involved in her calling could harm them greatly. I'd like to see them still alive in a few years."
Oz snorted. "Unless Jim blows them up in a car chase, they'll still be here. Dev's the only vamp that's show any interest in their existence."
"Whatever charmed shield that surrounds them could well be broken by helping Buffy," Giles countered. "I really don't want to see them hurt, this isn't their area."
"We'll do it," Xander said calmly. "We'll go through Darryl's father and we'll get her back for you. Do we drop her off at your place?"
"Yes, I do believe Willow and Tara have decided to work with her together." Giles smiled at the female couple. "As long as they're still amenable."
"We're fine with the topic," Tara said, smiling back at him. "I think we could fix her very well."
Willow patted Tara's arm. "Buffy can be stubborn but we can handle her." She looked at Xander. "Tell me and I'm there."
"Of course you will be, in the truck," Xander said, standing up. "Sascha, want to order us food?"
Oz's girlfriend looked up from where she was reading in the corner near Xander's easel, staying out of the discussion. "I already did, I told them to deliver it at nine." She looked at her watch. "Which is in half an hour." She put down her book and stood up, walking over. "I'd like to help, but I'm not sure if I can be of any."
Oz pulled her over, hugging her tightly. "You're not going, this is a group thing. You'll be here waiting to patch Xander up, that's your contribution to the event."
Sascha patted the side of his face. "I'm not feeble."
"No, but you're not that special either," Xander said, hugging her from behind. "Willow and Tara are both witches, and well, I'm me. Even Oz isn't going to go farther than the truck."
"Bet me," Oz said.
"You're staying in the truck," Xander said firmly and slowly. "Don't argue." He glared for a second then turned back to Giles, giving him a small smile. "Give us a few days."
Giles reached over to pat Xander's shoulder. "I knew you wouldn't let me down. Just call when you've got her and are on your way. I'll be waiting and a room will be set up." He turned, heading for the elevator. "I'll be doing my usual routine, I'm easily found." He waved as he stepped onto the elevator, closing the door behind him. "Goodnight," he called.
"'Night," everyone called back, looking at each other.
"So," Tara said, looking at Xander. "You, and us?"
"And me," Oz added.
"No!" Xander turned to glare at him. "If you come at all, you're staying in the truck. I'm not sitting beside your hospital bed the way Jim does Blair's." He crossed his arms. "There's no way in *hell* that you're coming in with us."
Oz rolled his eyes, shaking his head, as he pulled out a dog whistle, blowing into it. Xander grabbed his ears and screamed, going down to one knee. "Argument ended, I'm going." He put the whistle back. "Any other discussion?"
Tara smiled. "Got to remember that trick." She waved at them. "We're going to go leer at Giles' pictures, call us when it's time." She pulled Willow behind her, over to the elevator. "Night!"
"Night," Oz called, helping Xander back up. "I'm sorry, but I had to prove a point."
"What? That you could hurt me? You've proved that one real well," Xander groaned, sitting in one of the table's chairs. "That you're going in with me, not a bit." He looked up at his guide. "That you're never doing it again? Oh, you'd better not." He reached into Oz's pocket, grabbing the dog whistle even though Oz was trying to get away from him. "No more of these," he said, putting it into his own pocket. "Sascha, he's yours for the night, I'm going to play with my new toy." He stood up, stiffly walking over to the light table and plugging it in.
Sascha shook her head. "Fix it, Oz, he needs you."
Oz rubbed over his face. "I know." He walked the few feet, touching Xander's shoulder gently. When that didn't get a response, he pulled the younger man around, hugging him. "I know you're trying to protect me, but I'm not feeble or helpless. I can do it too."
"You're not going," Xander said, trying to get away from him. The stronger arms held him mostly still, making him look down at his guide. "Let go," he said calmly.
"Not until you see I'm not trying to hurt you."
"Guys," Sascha said, walking up beside them, pushing their heads together until their lips met. "Kiss and make up." She turned and walked toward the elevator. "I'm going to go wait for supper. You've got about twenty minutes."
The boys never heard her, they were involved in a deep, possessive kiss, Xander clutching Oz's hair in his hands and Oz latched onto his sentinel's back. Xander pulled back first. "Wow," he whispered, leaning his forehead against his guide's. "What was that?"
"Just us," Oz told him quietly, licking his lips. "I want to go."
Xander growled. "Shut up. You're not." Oz kissed him again, taking control of his mouth. "Still not going," he panted when he could breathe again.
"Yeah, I am," Oz said, rubbing over Xander's crotch.
Xander backed away from him. "That's manipulation, which is wrong, don't do it again, Oz."
"Sorry. I won't do it again." Oz turned away from him. "It just seemed right for me to do."
Xander took the few steps and pulled his guide into his arms. "It felt right to me too, Oz, but the timing was suspicious. It was like you were trying to distract me."
"Was," Oz admitted, "but not that much. I had this sudden craving."
"To touch me?"
"To touch you," Oz agreed quietly. "I should fight those harder." He got free, heading for the kitchen. "I'm sorry, Xan."
"I'm not," Xander said, walking over to stand behind his guide. "I'm really not. But you're still staying in the truck." He groaned. "I sound like Jim," he moaned.
Oz turned around, patting his chest gently. "Don't worry, I'm sure it's temporary."
The End, until the next one.