Oz walked into the laundromat just as Devon and Xander started their water gun fight, frowning at them. "Kids," he called, then ducked behind a set of washers. "Hey!"
"Hey, Oz," Xander called, sneaking around a set of dryers to hit Devon on the back of the head, disappearing quickly as soon as he had made contact, smirking as he passed his guide. "See, they do come in handy for something."
Oz snorted and stood up, glaring at his best friend. "Squirt me and sleep outside tomorrow."
"Not," Xander said, standing up and squirting him. "Ha! Got the Ozman." He ran away from his guide, who had grabbed Devon's squirt gun to chase him. "Hey! I was nice, I didn't hit you in the head!" was called from behind a high stack of out of order dryers.
Devon snickered, heading over to their dryers to check the clothes and add another quarter. When no sound had been heard from them he walked over to the last source of noise, heading out the door he found there. "Guys?" he called softly. Then he screeched as he was hit with twin shots of cold water. "Dudes! Stop it!" He waved them off, running back inside. Then he had to stop and run back outside, away from his sire. "Spike," he gasped as he hid behind Xander.
"Yay," Xander said dryly, heading back into the laundromat. "Spike," he called, shooting him with the remains in his gun, Oz right behind him to back him up and give over his gun. "Out!"
"Hey! This is public." He looked around then glared at them. "I don't have to be nice ya know. Not even ta my own childe."
"Screw yourself, sire," Devon spat. "I told you to never come back." He turned around, leaning against Xander's back. "I found myself something better."
Spike's cruel laugh echoed around the room. "Oh, have you now?"
"Yup," Xander said, turning slightly to pull Devon beside him. "He has. A nice *warm*, *living* something better that actually makes him do fun things." He sneered and kissed Devon, hard and possessive, to prove it.
Spike grunted, glaring at the pair of them. He looked at Oz. "And you accept them doing that?"
"I don't control Xander, I just guide him." He shrugged and tapped Xander on the shoulder. "Mine?"
"Yours is the same place it's always been, babe," Devon said sweetly, pulling him in to kiss him. Oz pulled away from him. "Not me?"
"No, like yours, but I crave one from Xander." He turned around, grabbing Xander roughly and dragging him closer to claim his mouth. He pulled back, giving him a small, private smile before looking around. "Huh, gone."
Xander cleared his throat. "So's my breath." He headed for their dryers to check the clothes. "Dev, quarters?"
"What was *that*?" Devon said, leaning against a washer as he pulled some change out of his pocket. "Only got two left. Anything dry?"
"It's all at that almost stage that means it'll have to be hung up for a few hours." He shrugged at the dirty look. "What? Blame the dryers."
"I've got a dollar," Oz said as he pulled it out of his pocket. "Go ahead and get more quarters. It won't take that much longer."
Xander squinted at the digital countdown. "Got fifteen minutes, we may be okay."
Devon put the quarters back into his pocket. "Now try the other question."
"It was nothing," Oz said as he stuffed the dollar back into his pocket. "Why were you squinting?"
"Because it felt right?" Xander guessed, hopping up on a changing table, ignoring the growl and stomp by the woman who was watching the laundromat. Oz gave him a 'get real' look, making him sigh. "I need my eyes checked. Okay? Happier now?"
"Almost." Oz walked over to stand in front of him. "How long?"
"Long time. Get over it. It comes and goes."
"You're going," Oz told him quietly.
"We can't afford it this semester," he reminded.
"Xander, stop it, your eyesight is important. There's not many blind painters in the world." He rubbed over the tense leg. "We've got it covered, we're paid up on the rent and the emergency fund is doing okay. We even have some in the bank still. Actually, we're doing okay money wise, we just have to be careful about overspending."
"Like I do at the art store," Xander finished for him, hoping down, ignoring the rub their bodies did when they connected. "I thought we were almost poor."
"Not quite," Oz told him. "We got the old rent check back today and I canceled it. Six months of rent was a big check. We've got enough to even support your art habit for a few more months. At least until Monday when you get money."
Xander nodded. "I'll go find out who's having the sale." Oz stopped him giving him a questioning look. "Photography class is more expensive than the usual art stuff and I'm doing more pictures than needed."
"It probably balances out," Oz reminded him. "Some of your painting stuff was really pricey too." He subtly rubbed down the younger man's arm. "We'll go tomorrow to get your eyes checked. The money's in the account and we have enough to get you decent glasses." He looked over his shoulder at the dryer. "How are they supposed to get dry when it's not spinning?"
"Forgot about that," Xander said as he reached over to turn back on the dryer. "Thanks."
"Welcome," Oz said, turning to lean against the folding table. "We really are fine. I promise."
"Sure we are," Xander said, glancing at him. "When was the last time we said that?"
"Right before something bad happened," Oz admitted. "But we'll still be fine."
Xander shook his head. "Never say that, Oz, really." He opened a dryer that said 'cool down', pulling out the extra-warm clothes. "Dev, come get warm and fold at the same time."
The vampire walked over, taking the clothes out. "Thanks, man."
"Anytime, you know that," Xander said with a small pat to his back. "This means I don't have to handle hot zippers."
"Point," Oz said, standing up on his own again. "Where's the truck?"
"In the shop. It started making funny, high cost part noises."
"Ah. Van's outside in the parking lot." He headed for the door. "I'll go pull it around so we don't have to walk to so far with the warm clothes."
Xander looked at Devon. "You'd think that we were rich. We still need to be careful. My money might have been miscalculated."
"True," Devon agreed, "or it could be perfectly normal. You shouldn't worry about money. One of you has a job and the other could find something."
"Or he could go learn a practical trade," Xander said, turning to look in the empty dryer. "There was an ad in the school paper for an artist looking to learn tattooing."
"No," Oz said as he walked back in. "Not going to happen. You'd get practiced on and they hurt." He grabbed the first basket, carrying it out. "Spike," he yelled.
Xander strolled out, pulling a stake out of his pocket. "You really want to end your life, right?" he asked, pushing the point into the vampire's back. Spike slowly turned around. "Yeah, you. Dev said to leave him alone and he meant it." He took the stake, heading toward the van. "Oz, you living?" he called.
"Vaguely," Oz said as he sat up. "Just a bump on the head." He rubbed the back of his head. "Dick."
"And that's about it," Devon said as he walked out, handing over the hamper. "Just one more load and we'll go home," he promised.
"Pull it out now, we'll head home and get him some ice." Xander stood between the Master Vampire and his friends. "Leave or else," he warned.
"Like you'd kill me," he muttered. "I'm too nice."
"Not anymore," Oz reminded him, standing up. Xander spun and grabbed his hand to look at, ending up turning him so he was resting against the van. "It's nothing, just a bump," he sighed.
"You're bleeding," Xander said softly. His voice dropped into a growl as he turned toward Spike, looking him over. "You hurt him. I'll kill you." He lunged at the vampire, stake raised about chest height. He fought against the unfamiliar hands trying to grab him, trying to get at the creature that had hurt his guide. "Die," he growled, taking one last lunge as he was pulled back.
Oz walked around in front of Xander, holding his chin to make the younger man look at him. "Stop, now," he commanded softly. "I'm not that hurt." He looked at the cops just pulling up next to them. "That blond guy that's running away tried to mug me," he explained. "Xander was trying to defend me." He put a hand over where his head was bleeding. "Xander, clothes."
"Got 'em, dude," Devon called, walking back out. "One more load and we can get you home." He took the stake, tossing it back onto the ground. "You don't need that anymore," he said quietly, watching Xander blink at him. "Hey, back again?" he whispered.
Xander nodded. "Yeah, thanks." He looked at Oz. "You're really okay?"
"I'm going to have a rotten headache soon, but otherwise, yeah." He looked at the cop watching them. "He picked the piece of wood up."
"Okay. And this guy that mugged you?"
"The bleached blond you saw running when you pulled up." Oz pointed in that direction. "Stupid, pale, nasty." He shrugged. "I wasn't getting a great look at him, I was face down in my van."
"Okay. Do either of your friends know him?"
"His name's Spike," Devon said as he carried out a hamper. "Xander, get the last pile would ya? It fell out."
Xander nodded, walking into the laundromat to pick up the small pile of clothes that were on the floor, quickly checking and refolding them. He carried them out, handing them off. "Gonna check the dryers or me?"
"You do it," Oz told him. He watched Xander walk back inside for a moment then turned back to the officer. "He was just protecting me."
"So I've noticed. He yours?"
"He's my roommate and friend, that's it," Oz said carefully. "There's nothing else there. He's his," he pointed at Devon. "Any problems?"
"No, it's just that lovers are usually the ones who defend each other like that." He wrote something down on his form, handing it over. "Sign that please and we'll search for him. Put your address and phone number on there too." Oz did so and handed it back. "Okay. Have a nice night. If we see him, we'll catch him." He walked back to his car, tossing his notebook in before he got in.
Xander walked out with an armful of clothes as the cop car pulled away. "That was fast."
"And nice too," Devon said. "Is that ours?"
"I'm not sure but it was in our dryer and there's no one else in there." He handed over the clothes with a shrug. "Go check my checking while I look at Oz's head."
"I'll clean it later," Devon said quietly, dropping the clothes into the back and jogging back inside the laundromat.
"Snack," Oz suggested.
Xander snorted, giving him a faint grin. "Treat at least." He pushed Oz into the passenger's seat, buckling him in. "Stay." He got into the back, waiting for Devon to come back out before closing the door. He accepted the last armful of clean clothes, setting them in his lap to fold as the door was closed for him and their roommate headed around the van to get in and drive.
Devon took one last lick of the small cut on Oz's scalp and licked his lips, grinning at his best friend. "There, all better." He stood up, scratching the side of his throat. "Man, missed that sensation." He wandered toward where Xander sat at the light table looking at negatives and pictures, plopping his head on the young man's shoulder. "Interesting?" he whispered in his ear.
"Not really. The final flower slides." He pointed at the small stack. "And my first project." He rubbed Devon's head with his. "You can have the table in a sec."
"That's cool, I got all night to work." He rubbed down Xander's back, gently moving the flesh. "Your back's gotta hurt by now."
"Is, ten more minutes, Dev."
"'Kay." Devon walked toward the kitchen, pulling out a bottle of water to sip on. "Oz, you should see his stuff, his first project's great."
"Cool, I'll look at it in a while," Oz called from the bathroom. He came out with a small swab of alcohol, working it over the cut with a hiss. "Help me do this."
"Oz, it won't infect, really," Devon sighed as he put down his water near the table and went to help Oz with the cleaning of his newest cut.
Xander pushed his stool back, rocking the table and bar slightly as he used it for leverage. The bottle tipped and Xander yelped, trying to catch it. Everyone looked at him, then at the bottle and the puddle of water lying on the light table.
Devon rushed to get paper towels as Oz grabbed the stuff off the table, putting it on the regular table. He helped mop up the water, taking the bottle from Xander's still fingers. "Xander?" he asked, tapping him on the shoulder. "You still in there?"
"No," he moaned, looking around. He got up, heading over to where his slides were, checking each against the overhead light, shaking his head. "No."
Devon walked over, wrapping an arm around the young man's shoulder as he took the slide from his fingers. "Don't worry about it, it's not ruined. I promise, it's not ruined."
"Why did you put your water..."
"Stop!" Oz interrupted. "Not going to start throwing blame. It's not worth it." He walked into the kitchen to drop the soaked towels into the trash, picking up the dish towel to finish wiping off the light table. "Were they really hurt?"
"Could use dried," Devon told him. "We need to check them after they're dried though."
"I'm supposed to turn it in tomorrow," Xander said, looking at him.
"I'm sure you still be able to turn it in," Oz said, coming over to pull Xander away from his project. "Let us help?" Xander shook his head. "No?"
"No, I wanted this one to be a surprise." He looked over his shoulder at the small pile of his work. "I'm screwed. I can't get slides remade before tomorrow morning."
"It'll be fine," Oz reminded him, sitting his sentinel on their couch. "Just relax and let Devon work to save them. Then you can evaluate. You may not need to worry." Xander nodded. "No, Xander, don't worry."
"Shh," Oz said, laying a finger across the younger man's lips. "Don't worry. Let us check them while you panic." He got a nod so walked back to where their roommate was doing a final swipe at the table. "It okay?"
"Yeah, the water didn't penetrate the table." Devon looked over at the slides. "I don't think that they'll be hurt any, but we need to blot them. Don't rub." Oz nodded, heading into the kitchen. "Man, he's got to be torn. He's been working on this for weeks now, all the time."
"I noticed," Oz said as he sat down with the roll of paper towels at the table and started to sort out the slides. "He's not been sleeping, he's been working too hard to appease John."
"John's not his teacher, he's mine and we're in different classes. His is the Bertranda guy, who doesn't think he should be trying to do more than paint. He figures Xand's found his area and should concentrate on that instead of trying new things."
"Get perfect in your own space before venturing out into new worlds?" Oz summarized.
"Pretty muchly. And he's been real hard on Xander's work so far, the stills that he's had to show. Even our teacher's come in muttering about Bertranda."
"Then he wants it to be perfect to show him," Oz said softly, looking at the man curled up on the couch. "Xander, take a short nap while we check these over."
"Wanted them ...."
"We know, I'll check them," Devon said. "I won't let Oz look at them."
"'Kay, thanks," Xander said, shifting until he was lying down on the couch. "Wake me when you're done."
"We will," Oz assured him. He looked at one of the slides, frowning. "I think this one's okay." He held it up to the light and frowned. "I don't get it."
"And you won't," Devon told him. "Not until you've seen the whole thing in bigger pictures. It's a really neat concept." He took the slides, checking each one, handing a few off to be dried better. "Only one ruined," he sighed as he handed the last one over. "And it's the one he was most proud of."
"Does he have a negative of it? Can we make another slide?"
"Not before morning. I don't know how to work that machine." Devon looked toward the couch. "Xander?" The younger man's head popped up. "Good news, you'll only have to recreate one slide in the morning. And I'm pretty sure you have the negs for it."
Xander got up and walked over, taking the slide over to the light table to look at it. "This one?" he asked.
"Yup, I'm sorry, man." Devon walked over, hugging him hard. "But it's only that one."
"Is fine," Oz said, handing over the strips of film he had been blotting dry. "As long as it's here, you're good."
Xander shook his head, looking through them. "I'm not sure where that negative is." He took the last strip of negatives, looking at it. "Not here," he sighed after examining each one. He looked up. "I'm *so* screwed."
"Maybe not," Oz said, looking around and grabbing an envelope off the counter. "You said you had the final proofs done for them all, right?" He handed over the envelope. "Can you retake the picture or make it from here?"
"I'm supposed to hand in slides," Xander said, searching through there, coming up with a smile. "It's in here." He handed the envelope back to Oz. "See my newest project?"
Oz sat down at their diningroom table, looking through the pictures he pulled out. His breath caught as he saw the one of himself, very solid but a second and third image, both a little more shadowy than the first partially turned from the front view overlapping him without making the main one blurry. "Wow," he said, putting that one down to look at. "How ..."
"Not sure, it was an accident," Xander said with a small shrug and a pleased smile. "But I like that one too. Yours and Blair's." Oz searched through the remaining photos, stopping when he found Blair's, a little chuckle coming out. "Yeah, that's what I felt like too. He hides his playful and shallow side behind that too-serious exterior." He got up, coming over to look at the pictures with him. "I'm really proud of my work this time."
"Bertranda will love it," Devon told him. "Even if he is a dick."
"He may be, but he's got a point. I should stick with painting until I'm great at it before I divide my attention between mediums." He looked up at the young vampire. "Same as you should stick to photography for a while."
"And I will," Devon told him, "but you shouldn't listen to Bertranda. He's got you all wrong. You can do both, you're that talented. You may not do good in sculpture next semester, but in these two media you're doing great." He rubbed over Xander's shoulder. "Just relax about it and get John to help you as soon as he walks in tomorrow morning. I'm sure he knows how to transmit it back to a negative, he's a photo person." He picked up the evil bottle of water, walking it over to the trash and throwing it out. "There, no more water tonight."
"Thanks." Xander gave each of the men a hug. "I need a nap," he sighed, heading for his room. "Night. Just leave those there."
"We will," Oz called after him, waiting until he heard Xander settle into his bed. "Wow."
"Very wow. He's got a great talent, Oz. John wants to take him on as his protegee and help him get over some things. Bertranda's really jealous that someone else does what he does so well. Actually, Bertranda's jealous of John because John's 'untraditional'," he did the finger quotes, "and doesn't make everyone start back at the beginning with the basic still life."
"So Xand's caught in the middle of another politics battle?"
"Nope, this is new guard versus old guard. Bertranda won't penalize Xander for being new guard but he won't take him as a protegee or congratulate him for it. John's willing to openly accept Xander and all he can do, and then he's going to go cry out to the world how great he is." He tapped the photo envelope. "John's seen a few of these but not the whole set. I think he's going to start panting after our Xand when he does."
"Maybe," Oz said, glancing toward the tapestry curtain that was Xander's bedroom wall. "I just hope that he's nice about it."
"He will be, he's a nice guy," Devon told him, giving him a little grin. "Now put the pictures back, and don't get fingerprints on them, then go do your guide stuff. Xander could use a hug." He got up, taking the pile of negatives and slides off the table and over to a small wooden box to store them.
Oz slid the pictures back into the envelope, forgetting one under it, then stood and headed into Xander's bedroom, silently laying down beside him. He pulled his sentinel into his arms, just holding him. "It's all right," he whispered. "I loved mine and no mean teacher's going to get on you over it." He kissed the back of Xander's head. "You sleep, Xander, you're going to have a long day tomorrow."
Xander nodded, snuggling backwards into the strong arms, falling into a gentle, restful sleep for the first time in a week.
Xander tapped on John's door and stuck his head inside. "Help," he whispered. John waved him in, frowning at the phone he was holding. Xander sat down in the chair across from his advisor's desk, looking at him.
"No, Madam President, I'm sure that'll be fine with all of us. Yes, I know how sensitive some of the surrounding community members are. No, my work wasn't that controversial." He grunted. "I'm sorry you feel that way, ma'am, but some of us are like that." He hung up.
"I said about the same thing one time to her. 'Some of us are like that and we'd like to have our work shown also' I think it was." Xander handed over the ruined negative. "I don't know how to fix this. Dev's water bottle tipped onto the light table and ruined just that one."
John held it up to the light and winced. "It's not real healthy looking. The film's warped." He handed it back. "Due today?"
"I arranged with Bertranda to hand in the slides today." He patted the envelope between his books. "I have the full pictures but not that one slide."
John nodded. "Let me call Bertranda." He picked up the phone, dialing the four numbers to the office down the hall. "Hey, it's John," he said lightly, leaning back. "No, one of your students is asking me how to fix a major accident with a slide that got warped due to water exposure. He has the pictures done but not that one slide." He looked over at Xander. "Yeah, it's him. No, I like his project, it's a very interesting look at the people in his life." He grinned. "You think?" He nodded and hung up. "Bertranda said go down to his office and show him the pictures. He'll forgive the accident if he thinks it's good enough."
Xander sighed. "Thanks, John. I just panicked last night when Dev's bottle tipped. Oh, the light table's fine by the way. None of the water leaked into it."
"Good. Though that one has a short in it sometimes anyway." He shrugged with a small grin. "I'm getting a new one with a bigger work area."
Xander sighed. "You're so lucky to be making money." He stood up, checking to make sure he had the envelope, and walked down the hall. He met Oz in the hall, frowning at him. "What's wrong?"
"One wasn't in there," Oz told him, handing it over. "It was on the table when I got up." He patted his sentinel's shoulder. "I'm going to be outside, come and yell for me when you're done." He walked away, heading out to enjoy the unusual bout of sunshine.
Xander slid the photo into the envelope, making sure it was where he wanted it, and almost walked into his teacher. He looked up with a guilty smile. "Hi." He handed over the envelope. "My roommate tipped a bottle of water on top of our light table. But I have the actual pictures done and the slides to prove that I did them, it's just that one that's ruined."
"Go wait in my office," the older man said, his voice deep and serious. "We'll see how untraditional you've been this time."
"Oh, very, but it's interesting at least." Xander walked into the crowded office, leaning against a clear spot on a table. When his teacher walked back in, he smiled hopefully, but didn't get an expression in return.
"I'd like to know how you did this," he said, sitting down.
"I'm not sure. It was an accident the first time." He shrugged. "I don't know why it did it, but I figured out that I wanted it after seeing the first test picture."
"It's an interesting look at the people, though some of your compositions are a little strange."
"But that's how those people are. Blair's, for instance, he hides his playful side behind his serious teacher-guy one. He never lets it out to play, or at least hardly ever." He grinned slightly. "I've seen it once I think."
Bertranda looked up at him. "All right. I'll accept this and I'll forgive the absence of slides." The stack was handed over to him. "I thought you said that you ruined them."
"No, I ruined one and I couldn't figure out how to get it back. And I can't find the negative anymore." He picked the top one up to hold it up to the light so he could see it. "This one was on the bottom. Some of the others got their paper holders a little wet but this one is almost irreplaceable."
"Oh, all right." Bertranda looked at the ruined slide, frowning. "Water?"
"Bottled water that spilled on top of the light table that I and my roommate are borrowing off John."
"Ah." He put the slide down. "I'll accept these as a full set then." He leaned back, giving his student a small smile. "I have to admit, you've done some good work here, Xander. Has anyone else seen these?"
"My roommates, I showed the one in the pictures last night. Blair's not seen his yet, but John's seen Blair's and one other."
"Hmm, I'd like to show yours as a reference point for the other students. May I?"
Xander nodded, grinning broadly now. "As long as I'm not 'mistake number one', sure. That'd be great." He nodded again. "Wow."
"Good. Now go enjoy the day. I'll even let you off the hook for class today if you have your flowers." They were handed over to him, the small stack in the proper notebook holders. "Thank you. Go have a nice day."
"Thanks, Dr. Bertranda," Xander called, turning and jogging out of his office, running into John in the break room and hugging him. "He accepted them and liked them. He wants to show them off to the other students." He jogged out to tell Oz the good news.
John watched the whirlwind that was his advisee, then slowly headed down to his coworker's office. "That good? I've only seen two." The envelopes were handed to him and he sat down, hard, in a chair full of books, wincing. "Whoa. How did he do this?"
"Not a clue," Bertranda said as he got up to come look at them again. "I don't have a single clue how the kid does these things. He used to be able to capture things in paintings that looked very real, now he's got the same gift in photography." He looked at his chair. "You keeping him?"
"Oh, yeah." John handed them back, stopping at his. "He's got a good eye," he whispered, looking up. "I'd about do anything to keep that kid here."
"Oh, you may just have to," Bertranda reminded him. "He's one of Sandburg's."
"Yeah, but Blair had him admitted over here. As long as Sandburg's happy with his progress, we'll be fine." He reached over to pick up the phone, dialing Blair's number from memory. "Hey, Blair, it's John. Would you like to come see Xander's latest project? No, you're in it and he's got a very interesting way of portraying you." He nodded and hung up. "We'll make sure Blair wants to leave him over here." He stood up, giving his coworker a small smile. "At least he wants to be here."
"Good point. Though we have to keep him away from Russell, she hates him."
"I think the feeling's mutual," John said as he walked out with the pictures. "He's getting a 'B'?"
"Maybe. I'm doing a scale depending on the other student's work for him. He's got potential but he's not doing the basics as well as I hoped."
"Okay." John smiled at the man walking into his department, waving at his office. "Blair, you'll *love* these."
Xander ran into Sascha, literally, in the Student Union, pouncing her in her usual seat behind where he and Oz ate. She patted his back until he let go, giving him a dry/amused/what happened this time look. "My project came out great, Bertranda forgave me for having a ruined slide because the pictures were great, and I'm being shown to the rest of the class!" he said happily, bouncing on his knees on the bench seat.
She squealed and hugged him. "Xander! Congrats!" She pulled back to ruffle his hair. "I'm so proud of you." She looked over his shoulder as Oz walked in. "Come hear the good news," she called to her boyfriend.
Oz strolled over, putting down his tray. "Xander, food," he reminded gently.
"In a minute," Sascha said with a wave-off of her hand. "Xander's got good news."
"My project was accepted with the ruined slide and he's showing it to the other students."
Oz smiled up at his roommate and sentinel. "Congrats. I knew it was going to be great." He picked up his soda and took a sip. "John stopped by to check on Dev's progress as I was leaving."
"He was being harassed by the President when I walked into his office."
"Ah." Oz picked up a fry, eating it. "You still have to eat something," he reminded.
Xander rolled his eyes and scooted backwards, heading up into the line to get something to munch on.
Sascha threw a nut at him. "Can't be happy for him?"
"Am very happy for him, I expected him to get good grades on it when I saw it last night." He ate the nut, giving her a small, secret smile. "He's got a great gift, Sascha, I can't enthuse over everything, I'm not that emotional."
"Just as long as you're happy for me," Xander said as he slid in next to her. "I can understand restrained Oz emotions."
"Am very happy for you," Oz repeated. "Knew you were going to be great at it when I saw those pictures that you took to work figures from." Sascha blushed. "Oh, no, you didn't," he said, staring at his sentinel.
"Um, a few," Xander admitted, shifting so he could escape if he needed to. "Not her head," he added, dodging the fry that flew at him. "She said it was okay!"
"It's my body, Oz," Sascha told him quietly, firmly making her stance known. "No one's gonna know it was me and no one else will be seeing the pictures. Get over it." She sipped her shake, smiling at the man walking towards them. "Hey, Giles." She waved at an empty nearby table. "Pull up a chair and tell Oz he's overreacting to me being a model for Xander."
"I believe I'll stay out of that one," the older man said as he pulled a chair over. "I here I'm to congratulate one of you on having an almost perfect first photography project." He squeezed Xander's shoulder warmly. "Blair said mine came out very well also."
"Did," Xander said, nodding. "All of them came out great. They're being shown to the rest of the class." He looked around. "I was worried about being shown as mistake number one but Bertranda said it was all good."
"He's on cloud gloat," Sascha explained to Giles with a tolerant, motherly smile toward Xander. "But he deserves to be. It's not often that many people impress Bertranda with a new technique."
"Especially not one that was an accident," Xander added. "But it came out okay." He looked up as one of his fellow art students came over, grinning at him. "Hey, what's up?"
"Hey," the other guy said, leaning down to get next to his ear, "Bertranda wanted to know if anyone knew how you did that. I told him no." He stood back up. "Still gloating?"
"Just happy and surprised and happy." He grinned at his friend. "Oh, this is Oz and Sascha, and Giles, he's a teacher." They all nodded. "No one minded?"
"No, but some of us were really jealous. You got plans for your second project?"
"Um, not yet. That one just kinda was an accident with one of the flower pictures and it hit me." Xander looked around. "Has he set parameters yet?"
"Only that it has to be different subjects." The student nodded at them. "Try not to gloat so loud, Xander, a few people are *really* jealous and wondering how you got the thing done so quick." He walked toward another table, sitting down next to a young woman, kissing the back of her hand.
"Jealousy," Oz muttered. "They shouldn't be. They're not you."
"Oz, he's right," Xander said, much calmer now. "It does look bad to the other students when I get shown off like that. They get compared to me and it makes them mad and hurt." He leaned back, picking up a pizza roll to nibble. "I can understand where that comes from. I used to be compared to Willow all the time in school. It was never fun or easy to get past, and it hurts." He looked over at the table. "See, they're all a group, all the art majors except me. And one other guy actually, but I think he prefers to be shunned like that." He leaned closer. "See, when something like this happens, it just pushes them more into the 'not-liking me' side of the ledger because they're getting compared to someone else when we each have our own style."
"They're seeing you as a suck-up and that you have it easier," Sascha said quietly, looking at Xander, who nodded. "But you're getting lower grades than most of them."
"But they never hear that part."
Oz shook his head. "I'm sorry, Xander, I didn't know." He reached over to pat his friend's hand. "I'll just be happy quietly for you, same as you will, and we'll work to keep you out of the spotlight for a while, okay?" Xander nodded. "Good. Now eat."
Xander grinned. "Ah, normal life." He picked up another pizza roll to nibble. "Giles, you're awfully quiet. Is something wrong?"
"No, I was just thinking about what you said. It's been like that since education began when one student rose above another one and garnered attention. I'll try to make mine less obvious in the future." He pulled an envelope out of his pocket. "This came for you to my office," he said, shoving it under the young sentinel's tray. "It looks like Riley's handwriting if I'm not mistaken." He stood up, putting the chair back. "I'll expect your paper to be done on time, Oz," he said in a normal tone. "Good day."
Xander slit open the envelope with his pencil, taking out the paper to read it slowly. "Huh," he said finally, putting it down. "The serum did have more side-effects." He looked over at Oz, his eyes starting to tear up. "I'm going to go home." He got up and left them alone, leaving the backpack he had dropped before pouncing Sascha.
Oz picked up the letter to read, frowning at the short sentences. "I'll kill him," he muttered, folding it up and putting it in his pocket. "Sascha, would you mind taking this stuff to our place and putting it in the fridge for us?" She shook her head, biting her lip. "Don't worry about it, I'll cure it." He got up, grabbing his backpack, staring at Xander's. "Take that with you too, I doubt he'll want his sketch pad again today." He followed his sentinel out of the building and across the grass, tracking his scent easily. He found his friend sitting in the bus shelter, curled up on the metal bench. "Just because it may happen doesn't mean it will. It could even be something that Blair already knows about with Jim," he said as he sat down beside him. He shook his head at the approaching bus, letting it pass them. "I drove, we'll go."
"You have a test," Xander said, putting his head down on his knees. "I'll see you later tonight."
"Yeah, I will."
"Nope, not leaving." Oz reached out a hand but Xander moved away from him. "Xander, you're not insane, you're not having delusional paranoia, at least you weren't until a second ago, and you're not going to die like that guy did."
"His brain *exploded*, Oz."
"Has yours?" Oz tried patiently.
"And I bet it won't. Your skull's too hard." He reached over again but Xander flinched away again. "Something you wanted to tell me?"
"Yeah, I don't want you caught in this anymore." Xander stood up, looking around. "I'm going to go for a walk."
"You're not leaving me," Oz told him, looking up at him. "Never again." He stood up, grabbing Xander's arm to pull him over to the nearby parking lot. "Come on, we're going to go somewhere and talk." He frowned as a Campus Safety officer started watching them. "Roommates," he called. "Fighting over chores." He unlocked his van, pushing Xander inside and locking the door after him. He walked around, getting into his own seat and starting the engine. "Lake?"
"Please. I want to watch the water," Xander said softly, looking out the window. "Why is he watching us and talking into his headset?" he asked himself, turning up his hearing. "Damn, Oz, you might as well turn off the engine, they think we're having a domestic dispute."
Oz shut off the engine and groaned. "Can this day get any worse?" He looked at Xander. "You going to tell them we are to get away?"
"No, but I still want to be alone for a while."
"Then we'll be alone together." Oz rolled down his window as another officer, this one armed and from the City, walked over to them. "We're roommates, he's had some bad news and we're going to talk about it. No fights between us."
Xander looked at the officer, giving him a small smile. "I just got some really bad news about a family member. I'm having a small crisis of thinking. Can we just go?"
The officer nodded. "As long as you're not having a domestic problem."
"No, he did the dishes this morning," Oz said, starting the engine. "Thanks for your concern though." He rolled back up his window as the engine warmed up, pulling out of the parking lot. "Turn on the radio if you want. It's going to take us a while to get there." He saw Xander reach over to turn on the radio out of the corner of his eye as he turned onto the main street going past Rainier. "We'll call when we get to the lake?"
"Later," Xander said softly, "when I can explain it." He leaned his head against the window, watching everything go past. "Are we going the right way?"
"I'm going to this place Blair took Jim and I to picnic. It's secluded but it's got an outhouse nearby."
"Okay." Xander rolled down his window to give himself some fresh air. "We should call Dev and warn him too."
"We will," Oz soothed, reaching over to touch his friend's shoulder. "Just relax for a few minutes and we'll be there in about an hour."
Oz checked his speedometer and sped up a little, outdistancing the surrounding traffic.
Giles looked up as Blair stormed into his office. "What's happened now?" he asked, standing up. He stopped the younger man from pacing, making him face him. "What happened?"
"The boys left campus." Blair took a deep breath. "The Campus Safety officer that was out giving parking tickets turned them in for having a fight. A *domestic dispute*," Blair spat. "The officer recognized Oz from one of the times he came to visit Jim so called him to make sure he made the right call and to have Jim *check* on them." He growled and turned to kick a chair. "They're gone now."
"Xander was feeling a little left out earlier," Giles admitted. "His recent project's success has pushed him farther into the spotlight and some of the other students seem inclined to harm him by not seeing him as human." He shrugged. "Unless it was the letter I gave him earlier, I have not a clue what else it could be." He looked around Blair's vibrating form as someone knocked on his door. "Yes?" he called.
Sascha walked in, frowning at them as she handed over Xander's backpack. "I'm storing this here until I head home tonight." She put their boxes of food under it, setting them all beside the desk. "He read the letter and went really *still*." She looked at Blair. "Who's Riley?" she asked innocently, knowing very well who he was.
"He's the one who got him the serum," Blair said, waving it off. "Shouldn't be that."
"He's the one the letter was from," Giles said quietly, looking up at his Chair. Blair glared at him. "What? I'm not in the habit of reading other's mail."
"You're right," Blair said, tossing up his hands. "Did Oz ever make it to his Math test?" She shook her head.
"I thought you were in different sections," Giles said, giving them confused looks.
"Show him," Blair said, turning to close the door. He turned back in time to see the young woman Oz was dating turn back from a small mixed-up prairie dog-looking creature to her usual form. "Explain it now?"
"Definitely," Giles said as he took off his glasses to clean. "Who else knows this?"
"Those of us in here." Blair glanced around the office. "Where would Xander head?"
"He's a water guy," Sascha said, tucking back in her shirt. "He'll want to head for somewhere he can be alone and think without a lot of extra noise. When he's upset his hearing still spikes." She snapped her fingers. "Oh, and they ran into Spike the other night too." She turned and walked out. "I'm going to file those tribal reports, Blair."
"Thanks." He looked at Giles. "Somewhere secluded?"
"The lake perhaps?"
"That's a big ...area." Blair got a beautiful, bright smile on his face. "I know where they're going. I have a favorite thinking and picnic spot up near the lake that I showed to Oz. We'll head up there." He patted down his pockets, eventually turning and running for his office. "Jim!"
Jim opened the door, catching Blair before he could be run into. "What's wrong? Are the boys in trouble?"
"More than you think," Willow said from her seat beside Blair's desk. She handed over the letter she had been sent through the nice Federal Agents that had dropped her off a half-hour earlier. She shifted some in her seat to nudge Buffy where she sat on the floor staring at her chipped nail polish. "Find them and make sure he's wrong. Xander got more than that when they had him the first time."
Buffy shuddered and looked up. "That's such a bad image. I want mental mouthwash to clean it out."
Blair scanned the letter, getting pale. "You're sure?"
"He had at least seven doses while they had him the first time," Buffy told him, standing up to look at him. "They were trying to provoke more senses to come online, Doctor Sandburg, and they weren't nice and comforting about it. They told him it was something to make the other senses be quiet. I know he got at least seven, I was there for them but I wasn't there all the time."
"He got another the day we left," Giles said as he walked in. He took the letter from the limp fingers. "Oh, dear." He looked up at Jim. "Can you find his picnic spot? He thinks Oz may have taken Xander up there."
"Not really. There's this one turn off I can never find." He nudged Blair, who looked up at him. "You've got to drive, you've never been able to give directions to that place." He pulled his guide's face up to look into his eyes. "It's been how long and he's still fine?"
"Point," Blair said quietly. "I'd just feel better with someone more knowledgeable testing him for those things." He took his keys from Jim's hand. "We're taking your SUV, Jim, my car's not big enough. Willow, are you two coming?"
"Yup," Buffy said, nodding. "I'm not leaving Xander alone again." She beamed at the smile Giles gave her. "It's time I started to remember what friends are and he's a great place to start because he needs me."
Willow patted her back. "Okay. Go wait beside Jim's SUV, it's the green one." She waited until they were alone. "Xander's not going to be happy, he may even run from us."
"We'll give him some warning that it's us," Blair assured her, patting the back of her head. "Jim, coming or not?"
"Sure, I'll get you to excuse me later." Blair slapped himself on the forehead. "Want me to stay and teach your 101 kids and the class tonight?"
"I will," Giles said gently. "Tell him I lost the coin toss and that I'd like to see him later." He picked up the materials Sascha handed him. "Thank you. We'll be talking later." He walked out, heading for the stairs.
"Okay," Jim said with a small shrug. "We can do this. Two sentinels to track one is a good ratio." He followed Blair out of the office. "Sascha, take messages and I have my cell on," he called as the door closed behind him.
"Gee, being a spirit guide is much less fun than I thought," she muttered as she sorted papers into piles by continent and tribe. "I always expected just to be cryptic and to visit in dreams. Filing *never* came into the job description." She looked up as she heard some very male laughter. "Darrien, Xander needs you," she whispered, "he just got some *real* bad news about the serum. Things like exploding heads and cancer." The laughter stopped and the dark haired, dangerous man appeared in front of her. "The Initiative guy, the one you've been watching over, he sent them a letter with all sorts of bad things in it."
"He's not been listening. He's been too busy doing his art things." Darrien sat down in front of her, giving her a small smile. "We all do things for the calling, my dear. Yours is filing." He held out a hand. "Come on, they're at the lake, not where Blair expects, but I'll tell Jaguar to tell Jim. Oz needs you just as much right now if that's true." She took his hand and they both disappeared.
Oz turned off the engine, looking around. "Not quite the same place but it's secluded and we can look out over the lake. This okay?" he asked when he didn't get an answer. Xander slipped out of the van so he followed him toward the water, pulling the letter out to reread once they found a spot to sit. When he finished, he nudged Xander, looking over at him. "This says it happens within six months of getting it, you're out of the range," he whispered, knowing Xander's hearing was still up. The radio in the van had been on so low even his werewolf-enhanced hearing hadn't picked it up.
"That was the distilled serum, I got the raw stuff not even three months ago," Xander pointed out. "There's no way I'm not going to be affected, is there?" he asked, not looking at his guide.
"I'm not going to take a negative attitude with it," Oz said, shifting over to pull Xander into his arms. "I'm not going to let you be hurt by the Initiative's stupidity. I didn't let them hurt you this summer and I won't let them get you now."
"Oz, this summer, you did what you had to do." Xander looked at him, his eyes very flat again. "You're not going to be able to stop it this time." He turned to look back out at the lake. "You can't come on this trip, Oz, it's best that you..." He was stopped by a hand over his mouth.
"I promised, Xander, and so did you. We're not doing the breaking apart thing again." The younger man shook his head so Oz cuddled him closer. "I'm not leaving, not even if it turns you funny colors and everyone laughs. I'm not leaving you at all."
"Bit of a difference between changing colors and heads exploding, Oz," Xander whispered, taking the offered comfort by sinking into his guide's arms. "I can't go through another bout of the Initiative."
"Then we won't. Buffy's helping stop them and so will we if we're asked."
"We won't be, we don't have any up-to-date information for them." Xander glanced up. "Oz, if it happens..." He was stopped by a gentle kiss. "No, not going to happen," Xander said, pulling himself up so he was sitting by himself. "I can't do that to you."
"I'm not leaving," Oz reminded him. "No matter how hard you push I'm not going to run away screaming. Not even your scary paintings can do that to me." He pulled the younger man back into his arms again. "All this is is comfort, Xander, nothing more."
"Feels like more."
"Nope, just comfort. Much as I'd like to make out with you, I'm still het and I'm still taken."
"Okay, just checking."
Oz kissed the top of Xander's head. "I think Blair's found out by now. We should call."
"Probably." Xander didn't move. "It's pretty out here."
"Yup. Your camera's with Sascha, you left your pack in the Student Union."
"Oh. Whatever." Xander pushed himself up. "Oz, if something happens to me, help Blair, okay?" He got up, heading down to sit closer to the lake. "Stay."
"Not a dog," Oz reminded him, getting up to follow. He plopped down beside where Xander had seated himself. "I don't even look much like a dog those three days a month. Do I?"
"Big and furry with a drooling and growling problem but otherwise no," Xander admitted. "My art will rise in value if my head explodes," he said mock-cheerfully, "you'll be set for life."
Oz groaned and laid his head on Xander's shoulder. "Shut up. Your head's not going to explode. Neither of ours is." He glanced up. "Now, Dev's, when he hears about this, it may pop but it'll be like a big zit."
"Sorry. That's what he told me would happen if his head popped. We were thirteen or so and watching Trancers 4 for the first time."
Xander chuckled but there wasn't any feeling to it. "I used to like that movie. Now, I think I'm never going to watch it again."
"We'll figure it out, Xander," Oz said, taking his hand to squeeze. "Your head's not going to become a big zit."
"Thanks." Xander lay back in the dry grass. "Car."
"And Willow. She's still wearing the same perfume." Xander looked over his shoulder. "Wonder how they found us."
"Spirit Guides," Jim called as the SUV stopped. "Mine's really worried about you." He jogged down the hill, skidding to a stop beside the young pair. "Come on, Blair's arranged to get you checked out." He held out a hand, but Xander just looked at him and Oz wasn't going to move unless Xander did. "What?"
"Because we don't want it to happen to you. Come on."
"Now," Blair called, sticking his head out the door. "Willow's going to drive the van back to Giles' place. We'll meet there later."
Jim pulled Xander up, walking him up the hill. "Bring the letter, Oz," he called over his shoulder.
"Like I'm getting rid of it," Oz muttered, following the group. He climbed into the back, pulling Xander closer since he was once again leaning against the window. "It's going to be okay. We'll figure out what to do to stop this. Blair knows everyone who might be able to help us, he'll fix this. Won't he?"
"Yeah, he'll do his damndest to fix this thing before something happens to Xander," Blair told them both, turning the SUV onto the main road through the forest. "How'd you find that place?"
"Same way we did," Jim said, looking out his window. "They took a wrong turn because none of us can follow your directions."
"Funny," Blair said dryly. "I traded in my directional sense for the ability to help you."
Xander looked at Oz. "What did you give up?"
"But you do."
"I meant living without it," Oz told him, squeezing his hand. "We heading for Marcus?"
"Yup, the ex-roomie is going to read the letter and take Xander to some of his friends that he trusts to have a bunch of tests done."
"Who's paying for it?" Xander asked. "I didn't even remember to pick up my disbursement today."
"We got it," Jim said, patting his pocket. "We'll let you sign it and put it in your account for you while you're being prodded and poked."
"Coolness, then Dev can go buy laundry detergent," Oz noted, squeezing Xander's hand again, for his own comfort this time.
"Maybe another squirt gun too," Xander told him, looking at him. "We left one in the laundromat last night." He looked down at where their hands were joined. "Um, coping a feel?"
"Yup, wanted the touch stuff." Oz leaned his head on Xander's shoulder. "I'm scared," he admitted softly. "This is *way* out of my league." Xander simply leaned into his guide's body, clinging to him the way they both needed.
The tall African American man that was Xander's Psychiatrist walked into his office with a thick folder and sat down in front of the young sentinel/guide pair with a small smile. "We can't find a trace of anything." He flipped open the folder one-handed, passing it over to Blair, who was leaning against the near wall fidgeting. "There's also a chemical analysis of the original serum in there. The stuff that Oz had shipped back for me to check was handed to my favorite lab person at the University and they identified everything in it." He smiled at Xander. "We'll keep a closer eye on you for the next few months, but you may have been the lucky one. When I called and read off the symptoms in the letter, he said that all were possible, though the exploding head was a bit much. He thought it might have been some sort of embolism and seizure combination." He spread his hands. "You're fine, Xander. No need to worry right now, everything looks the same as usual."
"What about what the serum's already done to me?" Xander asked quietly, his hand reaching over to Oz's. "I've suddenly got sight capabilities down instead of up in range. Everything got more sensitive without giving me deeper depth. And I've been having dreams again, but it's all in paintings."
"Well," Marcus said, sitting back and scratching his smooth, bald scalp, "he did say that the serum would make your senses heightened temporarily. My friend also looked over some of Sandburg's old research notes that I had and figured out that to be activated like you were, you had to be predisposed toward the sentinel abilities already. Basically that means that you had to have been able to have been you before you became you, Xander. The drugs couldn't have made you a sentinel by themselves."
"So through some genetic fluke they activated a real sentinel when they gave everyone at that party the drug?"
Blair hit himself on the forehead. "In a town like Sunnydale, you'd almost need a sentinel." He closed the folder and handed it back to Marcus. "What about the other kids?"
"More than likely, they were the ones that had the hallucinations and things, like it was described in the letter." He patted the top of the folder. "That was most likely the beginning side effects for those that aren't genetically predisposed toward the ability."
"So the other kids who got the drug went psychotic and died because of it?" Xander asked, frowning. "That doesn't seem fair. I bet their parents weren't even told about it after they developed the hallucinations. If they weren't actual things from their senses overloading."
"There were a few still living last we knew," Blair reminded him. "Most of them were comatose and may have one or two senses," he admitted, "but some were still living."
"So they're not sentinels?"
"Not really," Marcus said quietly, closing his eyes. "Not in how I understand it. Though a guideling maybe, someone who needs a guide but isn't a sentinel." He shrugged at Oz's curious look. "The term came out of one of Xander's visitations. The Spirit Guides called him a guideling."
"Oh. Okay." Oz looked at Xander. "Feeling better?"
"And a lot worse. If they dosed all those kids at the party they must have gotten close to five hundred of us. Just to find me and maybe one other person?"
"Less than one percent," Blair quoted. "Actually about a hundredth of a percent or so."
"So they couldn't even be sure that there was someone there with the markers?" Oz asked, squeezing Xander's hand until he got hit by him. "Sorry." He let go, rubbing his thumb over the back of the squashed hand. "Why...how could anyone do something like that? Be so irresponsible and cruel? I thought we were better than that in this country."
"Because they got funding?" Blair asked snidely. He shook his head. "Boys, the government funds many irresponsible things, including itself. We've got bigger questions to answer."
"I bet Buffy could tell us how many got dosed," Xander said quietly, looking at Oz.
"If she was really in the loop she might remember an estimate sent around."
"Whoa, she's *here*?" Marcus said, sitting up straight in a whip-like motion. "You're letting her get near you both?" He looked at Jim. "Did you know about this?"
"She was dosed this summer," Oz explained gently. "She needed our help as a person and as our former friend."
"The guy that was calling himself her guide was abusing her, telling her she was delusional and things. That she had to forget everything that she had ever supposedly imagined in her past to remake herself in his image."
"Which when you think about it could have been the Initiative all over again," Jim noted quietly.
Marcus shook his head. "Tell me this doesn't have anything to do with purple smoke." He held up a hand at the opening mouths. "Better yet, don't." He looked up at Blair, giving him a pitiful look. "I'm not seeing her, right?"
"Not unless she needs you to," Blair agreed with a bright, naughty grin. "Just think about all the trauma in her past," he stage-whispered, leaning closer to his former roommate's ear. "Think about all she's seen and done and how it's affected her and her reasoning capabilities. Think...."
"Enough," Jim said with a smile of his own. "Leave poor Marcus alone. You're teasing him like he was Simon."
"Speaking of which, we should probably call him soon. He wanted to be kept in the loop about all the sentinels so he knows who to blame when the next one tries to blow up the city or hops a helicopter to catch someone."
"Funny," Jim said dryly, glaring at his guide. "And who was it that followed blindly, without a vest, every time?"
"Like I had a choice," Blair snorted. He looked at Xander. "There are really only six people in the loop about you. John, who doesn't know why just that you were admitted by me, us three in this room, Simon." He paused to think for a second. "Oh, yeah, Frick and Frack Federal guys know about you specifically too." He gave him a 'sorry' look.
"And they know about Summers," Jim pointed out. "They took care of her."
"True," Oz said, turning his head to look at Jim, who was sitting on the couch behind them. "Who knows about me?"
"Just us," Marcus said quietly. "Unless Simon knows."
"He knows Oz is special also but not why." He considered the younger guide. "He could know if you think it's going to become necessary. Simon's actually asked to be more in the loop so we couldn't surprise him anymore."
"If you feel it's necessary, you can bring him over this month," Oz said, gripping Xander's hand again. "Just keep a low profile on it, there are still hunters out there. A few of which that are really looking for me those three days because my pelt would be expensive."
Xander winced. "We need a better security system then." He looked over his shoulder at Jim. "Do you know someone who could do that? We could explain it with the couple of break-ins we've had."
Jim nodded. "I think I know someone. We can get you a system that'll warn you if Oz might get out and that will also give off a very nice alarm if someone tries to break in."
"We've got to give Dev the code," Oz reminded everyone. "He knows all but he's not real trusting of others still."
"Would you be?" Xander asked, looking at his guide. "I mean, with what he is and everything? People would panic if they knew about him being real."
"Same as they would me," Oz pointed out.
"Yeah, but you're only like that three days a month, Devon's a vampire all year round. And an unhappy one I bet."
"Could be." Oz reached over and grabbed the phone, dialing their home. "Hey, it's me. We'll be home in a while, we're going over to Giles if you want to show up. No, bad news. Yup, that sort of bad news." He went pale and slowly hung up the phone, looking at Jim. "Dev found a listening device in the loft," he whispered.
Jim got up and started to search the office, watched carefully by Xander. When he got to the phone, he unscrewed the various parts, holding up a small device he found in the base. He handed it to Blair, who eyed it critically then dropped it into his cup of cold coffee. "We'll get it examined later," Jim told them as he sat back down. "That should tell us whose it was."
Marcus cleared his throat. "Okay, so now someone else knows?"
"Maybe," Oz said, standing up to look down in the coffee cup. "That looks pretty standard issue. Could be the guys who already know."
"Or it could be our buddies," Xander pointed out. "The Initiative has proven itself to be this sneaky."
"Good point," Marcus said, standing up. He handed Blair Xander's folder. "I think I'll drop by your loft tonight," he said, looking at the plain tan piece of stiff paper. "I think that I have some things that belong to you."
Blair nodded. "If you feel more comfortable that way, then please do." He shook Marcus' hand. "When you need me, yell."
"Do the same," Marcus said, pulling Blair into a hug. "We'll plan for a safer spot next time," he whispered in the elder guide's ear before he stepped back. "Go have fun, guys, really. I think you've all earned it."
Jim nodded, herding the younger pairing out of the office. "Yell if you need *either* one of us, Marcus."
Blair clutched the folder to his chest. "You'll be okay?"
"Yup." He handed Blair his coffee cup. "Give me some fair warnings next time before you spring a big surprise like that on me."
"We'll try," Blair said with a grin as he walked out to Jim's SUV and climbed in. "Okay, going to Giles?"
"Call and warn him," Oz reminded them. "That way he can sweep the place before we get there."
"Let Buffy do it, I'm sure she could use the exercise," Xander suggested. "She should be able to do that, right? Willow said she's got sight and hearing."
"Then she should be able to do that," Jim agreed, picking up his carphone as Blair drove them past the University. "Willow?" He smiled. "Good, I need you to get Buffy to sweep your place for listening devices. Yeah, them. No, they should hum on a low frequency or they should give off another unusual sound. Or have her look for things that have recently been fixed." He sighed and hung up. "Buffy's in a zone, been in one now for almost an hour." He looked over his shoulder at Xander. "Remember the day I ran you through that drill?" The younger sentinel nodded. "Then you'll be in charge of finding them when we get there. Even if Buffy's searched." Xander nodded again. "Okay. You okay?"
"Fine," Xander said with a small yawn. "It's been one of those days."
"Yeah, it started off on such a good note," Oz said quietly, rubbing down his friend's arm. "Relax and let the day happen, Xander. You're not sick, so it can't get any worse unless we're arrested."
Blair pulled into Giles' parking lot, turning off the SUV to look at them. "I don't think that'll happen. The cop that questioned you called Jim to check on you. I think he'll leave it in our hands." Blair started to open the door then looked out and groaned. "Jim, tell me that's not a news van hiding in the other building's parking lot."
"Can't do that, Chief," Jim said quietly. "Want me to call and ask why?"
"No. I want to go inside and have cocoa," Xander said as he slid out of the back seat, leaving Oz there. He glared at the reporter and cameraman that were jogging toward him. "Get in my face and I'm using the camera to make you need surgery," he warned. He pulled his keys out of his pocket, opening Giles' door and closing it in the reporter's face.
"Hmm, Cheryl Church," Jim said in appreciation. "That was a nice technique." He slid out of his seat, closing the door and holding Oz's open. He nodded at the reporter, giving her a bland look. "Why are you bothering innocent citizens this time, Cheryl? You aren't planning on leading any terrorists here, right? I'm off duty and I just wanted to make sure." He walked behind Blair and Oz as they headed for Giles' condo, making sure he covered them even as he listened to their earpieces.
//Damn it, get Ellison's comment on shielding a spousal abuser.//
"He's not," Cheryl mumbled, her voice a little husky and deep to be natural female. "There's no bruises or anything and that's the couple."
//Do I sound like I care? Make up shit! This is news, not a party of polite people!//
Cheryl groaned as her earpiece went dead. "Okay, let's go bother the cranky one." She headed for the front door. "Detective? Detective Ellison? May I have a comment? Just a second of your time?" He stopped before crossing the threshold into the condo, glaring at her. "We have a report of you hiding spousal abusers from the law. Would you like to make a comment?"
"*Where* do you get this crap?" he asked, looking over her rig. "I don't hide anyone from the law and especially not those who beat their significant others. Get whoever told you that to give you the real story, Cheryl; do the world a favor and get it right for a change." He walked in and slammed the door in her face.
Cheryl looked towards the camera and shrugged. "I guess that's all." Her cameraman nodded. "I'm ready for a beer." She rolled her microphone cord up as she walked toward the van.
Jim leaned against the door, eyes closed as he listened to her retreat. "Oh, Blair," he called nicely, brining his guide running. "Did you know that we're hiding spousal abusers?"
"Oh, right," Blair snorted, patting Jim's chest. "Sure we are, and I beat you nightly." He turned and walked back into the condo's main livingroom. "Okay. Anything?"
"Three," Xander said as he came down the stairs and handed the little metal devices over. "All hidden behind artwork."
"I got one in the phone," Jim said, picking the cordless phone up and unclipping it's battery compartment to take one out. "That makes four. Think Rupert will be unhappy with this?"
"Only if whomever's listening doesn't like parapsychology," Blair pointed out. "They've got to know he knew before this." He glanced at Jim. "Our office?"
"I'll have it checked in the morning." Jim slid the battery cover back on and turned on the phone, dialing the station. "Simon. Yeah, I've heard. No, someone at the school thought Oz...." Jim sat down on one of the three couches, giving the younger pairing a small smile. "Really? Good. But Cheryl Church was just bothering me about it too." He nodded and hung up. "The Commissioner heard and started to chew Simon a new one so he got told what happened this morning to Xander. The getting a bad letter part and that Oz was dragging you somewhere to talk," Jim finished quickly before Oz's mouth could finish opening. "They brought in the officer who had talked to you guys and had called me. He vouched that neither of you were abused, Xander was just depressed looking and Oz was being nurturing." He looked up at Blair. "The Commissioner called it a wise move and he's covering for us too."
"Wow, the system does work for us sometimes," Blair muttered. He looked at Jim, giving him a silent apology. "What time is it, I forgot my watch on my desk at home this morning."
"It's about six. Giles will be home soon." Jim stood up when he heard movement upstairs, looking up at the ceiling. "Gee, reindeer?"
"Not," Xander said. "That's Buffy doing a kata. She does them to relieve tension. She started after Oz left Willow and everything in town went to Hell, almost." Oz looked at him. "Willow and Tara are up on the roof watching her, but she knows it's us down here." Xander wiggled a finger in his ear. "And Giles is home. Willow yelled his name."
Everyone turned as the front door opened and Giles frowned at them all. "Is everything all right?"
"Found bugs," Oz told him.
"Like the sort that crawl on the counter or ants?" Giles asked as he took off his sports coat and hung it up beside the door. He walked over to join them on the couches. "Or are we talking about another sort all together?"
"Nope, the someone's listening sort," Xander told him. "And the letter had things that happened when you *first* got the serum so I'm okay, but we're watching me closely." He grabbed his head as a door upstairs slammed.
"Hey!" Oz shouted. "Easy on the furniture."
Giles smiled at him. "Thank you. Though that door does stick." He turned his smile on Tara as she walked down the stairs, patting the seat beside him. "How went your day?"
"Fine. My classes still suck." She sat down and looked at everyone. "The phone company was here earlier to check the lines. Buffy said you needed to know who was here while we were gone. Willow let them in because they had a valid work order and Giles' phones weren't working the other day."
"Feds of some sort?" Willow suggested as she walked down the spiral staircase. "Buffy's becoming femme smelling again." She squeezed in next to Xander, hugging him. "She told me those were really what all the kids got when they first got the shots. Are you okay still?"
"Yup," he said, wrapping an arm behind her head. "We just have to watch for anything strange to start happening for the next few months."
"You mentioned dreams," Blair said suddenly, sitting up. "Like visions, only in paintings?"
"Something like that. More like a flash of what I'm doing finished. Sometimes a flash of what I'll be doing that day while I'm in an art zone. It's more like the paintings are lining up for my approval." He glanced at Oz, who relaxed. "We've been pretty good at not having visions lately."
"You," Oz reminded him. "I don't get the visions, you do."
Giles looked out his stained-glass window to think. "Maybe it's a part of your subconscious acting to show you what you see while you're in the art zone, Xander. It's a previously unheard of experience as far as I know."
"Sometimes Sentinels will go into zones while they decorate their guides to show ownership," Blair admitted, "but nothing like the artist over there." He looked over his shoulder as the door opened again. "Hey, Dev, come join the discussion."
"Cool." Devon strolled over, handing Jim the bug he had found when he had woken up. "It was laying in a bowl of fruit, like they wanted us to find it."
"They might have," Oz said, making room for him to sit beside him. "That way you wouldn't look for any others." He patted the vampire's hand gently. "We'll search later. Xander's pretty good at finding the things."
Buffy trotted down the stairs, giving everyone a smile. "Hi." She walked behind Xander, grabbing his neck to hug him. "I'm so glad you're okay again." She continued to walk around the group, heading for the kitchen. "I'm getting water, anyone need anything?"
"Put on some water for tea," Giles called after her. "A full pot please so the others can have coffee if they want."
"Water please," Devon called. He leaned around Oz to look at Xander. "I hear congrats are in order, dude. I got called by one of the other art students and she said you were bragged about by Bertranda. Oh, and that he's giving you a 'B'."
"A 'B'?" Blair asked, shaking his head. "The guy comes up with the perfect representation of all of us and he get's a 'B'?"
"A 'B's fine," Xander reminded him quietly. "It means someone else can get an 'A' and be in the spotlight for a while. Then I can quit being the teacher's pet."
"He's being shunned because he's good," Oz explained, "and because the other teachers show his work off as examples. The other students are getting jealous and snooty."
"They are not, they're just scared of being compared to him," Devon said, looking at his best friend and guitarist. "Would you like to be compared to someone like Steve Vai?"
"Not really," Oz admitted, leaning into Xander's still form to help him regain his center. "I guess it's a valid point, but I still wouldn't shun him because he's good. I might be tempted to learn from him but I wouldn't make him an outcast."
"But they like to say things about the teachers and they're not sure Xand won't repeat it to them. He's being considered the ultimate teacher's pet. They actually *asked* him to come back into the program, something unheard of at Rainier."
"Which means Xander's going to be shunned, even if he suddenly stopped being the favorite," Blair finished for Devon. "Being the major's pariah isn't that fun, Oz, really. Trust me on this. When I was in the Anthro department as a grad student, I was loved by over half of the teachers because I could fill in and I was quick to learn and defend my own views, but the other students didn't really like me unless they needed something like someone to fill in for their teaching assignments." Jim coughed. "When the whole blow-out about the Sentinel thing happened, all the other grad students were *real* pleased I was going to be kicked out. The teachers fought for me, which is why I was able to get my doctorate after the Feds stepped in and declared anything I might have classified before they even really looked at my proof. The other grad students refused to sit in the same meeting room with me. I actually had a few supposed friends who left meetings because my position was being discussed."
"Though it wasn't much easier on me," Jim added. "I was suddenly put on suspension as soon as Cheryl Church found out Sandburg's diss was classified instead of tossed out. Every case I had ever worked on came up for review. Simon had to tell a few people the truth so that some people wouldn't have a chance to appeal over my methods of obtaining evidence." He cleared his throat, turning his head and covering his mouth. "There was a lot of resentment when I was put on as a consultant instead of kicked off the force. Blair and I were actually in protective custody for almost a month when our loft was broken into and vandalized by some other cops."
"The guys we worked with on a daily basis in Major Crimes were decent, after a few days," Blair told everyone. "We had to come clean to them but told them it was in the absolute strictest of confidence. We invited them over for poker one night and during the last hand, Jim put down his cards and told them the truth. All but one person stormed out and she's known something was going on since she came up for the Officer Exchange program. A few days later, there was a loud knock on the door and three of the main guys were standing on the other side with Simon and Darryl behind them. They must have asked questions for ten hours and, man, I tell ya, it was creepy. They had noticed something was going on but never put it together so all the little inconsistencies came back to haunt us."
"That's when we found out Darryl was a guide," Jim reminded him. "That's the night when one of the young sentinels just showed up for no reason other than to be around people who understood. Darryl and Simon both went into Guide overload, which made him run back to his family." Jim and Blair chuckled quietly, staring at each other. "Then Rafe showed up and told us he wanted proof, so I gave it to him."
"Which is why he needed rushed to the hospital," Blair pointed out. "You scared the poor guy half to death when you said he had a heart problem."
"But he did, he had a faulty valve that hadn't been picked up at his last yearly physical. They did say that if it hadn't been found in a few months after that night, it would have started to affect his performance."
"He almost had a heart attack, Jim."
"Hey, he asked for proof and that was the best I could do. I could have pulled out my 'what you had for breakfast' routine but that just slipped out when I scanned him."
"Rafe, he's that eternally well-dressed, godly looking guy, right?" Oz asked, looking back and forth between his teachers, who both nodded. "Wondered why he used to watch me so hard when I started coming in with you."
"He thought you were Xander," Jim said with a small smile. "We told him you were a guide in training and he decided to watch for your sentinel. Of course, Darryl and Xander dating threw him off for a few days, until he learned they were just dating."
"At least he didn't lecture me about my lover," Xander said, frowning at his hands. "Got enough of that already."
Blair leaned back and relaxed. "Nope, he used to think Jim and I were together. He used to try and put us together when he found out we weren't. Rafe's always been like our own personal Cupid."
"Who didn't realize Jim was straighter than most trees?" Willow added.
"Yup," Jim said with a short nod. "He even offered to stand up for us if we ever got married."
Xander gave Blair a naughty grin. "Like Blair's ever going to take part in a ritualized, *legal* ceremony to bind yourself formally to another soul."
"Oh, he might one day," Blair said as he took a cup of tea from Buffy, who was carrying a tray full of cups from the kitchen, "but it's not going to be with Jim."
"Um, can we please not talk about relationships?" Buffy asked. "I'm really not comfy with the subject and I hate to run and hide because covering my ears and hiding in the closet doesn't work anymore."
"Shut up," Tara said firmly and Buffy did. "You've accepted that we're together, accept that Xander's bi and that Oz is Oz and that Devon is whatever. Even though Jim is straight and Blair is bi and Giles is just waiting to pounce on someone."
"Eww," Willow whispered. "I hate when you do that." She blew a kiss for her girlfriend's cheek. "She apologizes if that offends, it's part of her gift."
Tara nodded, looking down. "I didn't mean to hurt anyone."
"No, it's cool," Blair told her, rubbing down her arm. "Gifts should never be ignored. Though you were right about a lot of things." He gave her a charming smile, one that usually got him anything he wanted. "If you want to learn more about training methods, just yell in my direction, Tara, I have some fascinating books on the subject."
"I'm sure," Jim said dryly, "but they're as old as sand." He sipped his iced tea, looking at the pair on the couch next to him. "Boys, what're you going to do tonight?"
"Groceries?" Devon suggested.
"We have money now," Xander admitted, "but I just deposited it this afternoon through Blair."
"Glasses," Oz reminded Xander.
"Sears," Devon said cheerfully. "Then we can look at washers."
"I know someone who's selling one," Blair suggested. "It's one of the industrial sized ones though. She has five kids and two husbands presently. Not to mention a few dogs." He smiled sweetly at Jim. "I'm sure you could even talk to the rock over there and get him to help you move it."
"Why?" Devon asked, looking at him. "Part of what I am is really strong."
"Only if you've been feeding," Oz pointed out. "Which you haven't. When Spike jumped me the other night, you almost went off there trying to lick my head."
"Um, Spike?" Buffy asked, frowning at Devon. "As in dead, easy target with a chip?"
Devon nodded. "Yup, my Sire. He showed up the other night while we were doing laundry."
"While some people were having a squirt gun fight," Oz corrected.
Willow blinked at Xander. "You? Being irresponsible and happy and playful? Nah." She grinned at him. "Have fun?"
"Very much fun. Then Oz and I teamed up to get Dev, which is when we found Spike playing with... Are those extra clothes his?"
"Yup," Devon said with a small nod, "and it was nice of him to get me new clothes." He grinned and winked at Willow. "Parents, gotta love 'em sometimes."
"Sometimes," Willow agreed. "My mother's still throwing a fit about my switching schools away from one where she has tenure."
"Living in a *large* shadow again?" Xander asked, patting the hand that was laying on his leg.
"Yup, and getting compared to her too. Apparently I'm conforming to the new social norms because I switched from Oz to Tara when we broke up. Oh, and my Wiccan stuff? It's part of the new movement so I'm not abnormal there either."
"We got told we were playing at being witches, just like most adolescents," Tara said quietly, looking at Xander. "But her mother was ashamed of you because you're bi."
"Oh, fun," he said dryly, shaking his head. "Willow's mother always wanted us to marry so she could rule Wills through me. She liked Oz because he didn't fight her for control of the house but she thought I was going to take her little girl and give her grandchildren while letting her rule my life too." Oz snorted. "Let's just say I heard the lecture when I first started dating Peter across the grocery store." Willow blushed. "Not you fault, you were just telling her how happy I was." He leaned down and kissed her temple. "And I was, most of the time."
"Until he tried...." Xander shook his head so she stopped in mid-sentence. "Do you think he was Initiative?"
"Looking back? Maybe, but I think that sounds paranoid. He was a scientist at the University in the bio-chem field but he wasn't cruel and mean just because people were different or not people. He actually almost walked into Willie's, the demon bar, one night just to see what was going on when he saw a demon walking in. Personally, I think that if he was, he wasn't doing of his own free will."
"I think that would be a little paranoid," Oz commented, looking over at Willow. "Why? Was he?"
"Peter?" Buffy asked, looking at Xander. "Wasn't that the guy that you dated and that you broke up with?"
"Yup," Xander said with a small, sad smile. "He was trying to rush me when I wasn't ready. We were doing okay until he got pushy."
"Pushy lovers are often bad," Blair told him. "From the paperwork I've seen on the so-called experiment, there was only one Peter mentioned and he was one of the drug people."
"Peter L-something or other that sounded Jewish," Buffy said, smiling at Willow. "She would know."
"Yup, she would," Willow said softly. "Blair, do you have copies of the papers?"
"Nope, I was shown it when they tried to force me to fix their own people that got dosed. I got to read over the process that the drug used to build the senses and the ingredients but not everything else related." He opened the folder he had carried in, flipping through it until he came to the listing of the serum that Xander had been given's ingredients. "Um, Jim? This isn't the same thing." He handed it over. "The other one was much more chemical instead of herbally based. That looks more like the base for something else."
Oz shuddered. "Okay, so he's gotten two different serums?" Xander leaned into him a little more so he reached over to rub down his thigh. "You'll be fine. They're not getting you."
Jim looked up. "I can't decipher all of this but it looks like the base to what he was given the first time according to your notes. I could call Serena at the lab and ask her to give you some time and help."
"No, I'll go begging tomorrow," Blair said quietly, staring at Xander. "Are you feeling any addiction signs? Any twitching, nervousness, something like a craving?" Xander shook his head. "You're sure?" The young sentinel nodded. "If it happens, I want you to come to me *second*, right after you tell Oz. Got me?" Xander nodded again, giving him a patient look. "Good."
"Like I would keep that from you," Xander said in disgust. "I'm not that stupid. You're probably the only one who might be able to find a cure."
Buffy cleared her throat softly. "Um, what he got this summer was the new and improved serum, guys. The first one had too many side effects so they switched formulas to make sure that we kept what we were given."
"Why were you given it?" Tara asked her.
"Because I started to protest what they were doing. So one night my whole team was doing the fancy dinner thing and in our glasses of wine with our mutton was the new serum. Most of them died that night from the hallucinations. Riley didn't, he's got one sense active, and two other people didn't, but they died within three days." She subtly wiped her hands off. "My Slayer healing saved me. The hallucinations were horrible but I was saved because I was different." She looked over at Giles. "They used me and then tried to throw me away, just like you told me they would."
Tara moved over to hug Buffy, silently offering her comfort and forgiving her for all she had done. "They aren't coming back," she crooned, "you're safe now. Both of you."
"Yeah, you are," Oz assured Xander, leaning into him for a hug. "I'm not letting them back into our lives again."
Everyone just looked away as the two young people healed for the moment.