Digging In.

Oz listlessly opened the door for the deliverymen, pointing at the elevator. He walked up the stairs, pointing out the connections for the washer and dryer, then went over to go back to his reading. He looked up when one of the deliverymen handed him a clipboard, signing his name. He waited until they were gone to let himself go back to his resting.

Which is how Xander found him two hours later, still staring at the murals on the wall across from his bed. "Oz?" Xander asked quietly, sitting down beside him. The green eyes focused on him for a second. "Do you want to do something tonight? I can finally get into my money again." He put his part of the money for the washer and dryer on Oz's bedside stand. "There, when you go to pay it off, that's my part." When he didn't get an answer, he stroked through the slick red hair, withholding his grimace at it's texture. "Come on, let's at least go out to dinner."

Oz shook his head. "Not."

"Please? You're really starting to worry me." Xander shifted so he was laying behind Oz, holding onto him around the waist. "Oz, I know it hurts, but you've got to get out of the loft. It's time to do that."

"No, can't."

"Oz..." Xander stopped and shook his head. "Okay, I'll give you a few more days to heal first." He started to let go but his hand was grabbed. "Want me to stay?" He got a nod so he relaxed. "What're you reading now?"

"Tolstoy. It's depressing. Shh."

"Sorry." Xander rested his head on top of Oz's, letting his body and closeness comfort his friend the way he needed.

Devon walked out of the bathroom, glancing toward Oz's bed. He was stunned to find Oz actually in his own bed, but then realized that Xander was curled up behind him, so it wasn't that unusual. He shrugged and headed for the kitchen, pulling out a bag of blood to warm up in the microwave. He sipped on the hot bag as he looked around the loft, smiling at the new washing machine. "Yeah, I can do something to help." He walked into Xander's room, groaning at the piles of clothes laying spread around. "Huh, which one's dirty I wonder?"

"The pile on the left," Xander said, pointing. "The rest are going to be given away, they're too loose to wear."

Devon looked over his roommate's body. "You're too thin again. You need to eat more." He grabbed Xander, hugging him. "Let me do the laundry for a while, you comfort Oz."

"I tried to get him to go out, just to eat, but he wouldn't. He's still not really talking again either."

"This is Oz moping. He's got a right. Let it flow for now." Devon put the empty bag into the trash and bent to pick up the pile of laundry. "Cold?"

"Please. And separate out my t-shirts from the jeans. The jeans need to be washed on heavy, the t-shirts on delicates, unless it's the one I slopped paint and spaghetti sauce down, that can go in with the jeans." He pulled his sheets off the bed, balling them up. "Oz is napping so I'm going to clean in here." He watched as Oz wandered in and laid down on the bare bed. "Want to let me put on the sheets first?" Oz nodded so Xander got his spare set of sheets from his closet, tossing them onto the bed so he could concentrate on walking over his piles of clothes. By the time he got there, Oz had two corners on the bed and was working on a third. "Here, let me." Xander finished tucking in the bottom sheet, then grabbed the top one, spreading it over Oz's still body, picking up his blankets to do the same. He stripped and climbed in beside his friend and guide's body, pulling him closer. "Shh, I'm here," he whispered, holding him. "You're safe and you can get comfy."

Oz snuggled down, staring at the art spread around the room. He waited until he heard Xander snore to get up. He sat in the middle of the biggest mess of clothes, picking each piece up to fold it and make new piles of it. He looked up as Devon walked in, handing over a pile of dirty things for him to wash.

Devon sat down in the cleared space, looking at his oldest friend. "Oz, I'm starting to get worried now. You only clean when you're so upset that it's not a good idea to leave you alone." He reached over, touching the cool skin. "Why don't you go back to bed, let me do this?"

"No, I want to clean," Oz told him, looking at the mess. "I'll do the laundry if you want."

"No, I got it. I know how Xander likes everything washed." Devon stood back up, taking the clothes that Oz handed him. "Just these?" Oz shook his head. "Okay, I'll wait until you get the rest done." He walked out, shutting the curtain behind him.

Oz shifted over a few feet, starting on that mess.


Xander woke up and yawned, sitting up so he could look at the mess he should have cleaned. His eyes opened when he noticed that there was nothing on his floor. Not a single piece of clothing. Not a painting or a drawing. Not even any dust. He looked at the man in the bed beside him, getting a contemplative expression on his face. When Oz looked up at him, he blinked and made his expression go back to it's usual one. "Got tired of my mess?"

"Yeah." Oz wrapped an arm around Xander's waist, pulling him back down so he could rest on his shoulder. "Can I?"

"Can you what?" Xander asked, rubbing down his guide's back. "You can hug and you can cuddle, you don't have to ask about that."

"Need more," Oz said, rolling so he was laying on top of his friend's body. "Need grounding."

Xander opened his mouth then closed it, closing his eyes and shaking his head. "Oz," he said, stopping him before he could move. "I can't be used that way. Friendship, an occasional thing, just something that might happen, but not to take her place. That'll destroy everything else we have." He pulled the older man back into the bed with him, covering them both up. "I'm sorry, but that will kill both of us."

Oz nodded. "I understand. Sorry."

"No, sorry isn't an option. It was a bad thought that you didn't mention," Xander told him, going back to his soothing back rub. "You don't have anything to be sorry for, Oz, don't worry about it." He looked up as Devon walked in, looking at the book in his hands. "What's that?"

"Your photos. John dropped them off a while ago." He put the binder down on the cleaned off dresser, looking at the pair on the bed. "Oz, want to switch locations?" He got a head shake. "You sure? I can cuddle with you so Xander can do his math homework."

"Didn't have any, got it done in class," Xander said, frowning up at their roommate. "He's fine."

"Okay." Devon walked out, shutting the curtain with a yank.

Oz looked up. "He probably heard."

"I didn't so it doesn't matter what he thinks he heard you ask." Xander kissed Oz's forehead. "Sleep if you need it. I'm not moving."

"You have a photo project due in two days," Oz reminded him, laying his head back down. "I'll let you go if you need to."

"Nope, got it done. The slides are in my teacher's inbox at the school because I hurried up to do them today." Xander squeezed Oz tighter to him. "I wanted to be here when the washer came so they didn't bother you."

"Didn't. Were quiet."

"Okay." Xander shifted some and Oz sat back up. "Problem?"

"Was going to ask you that. Your back?"

"Is hurting a little but I'm fine. I just needed to shift my weight some."

"I can be on the bottom." Xander just looked at him so he lay back down, patting his chest. "Please?"

"Sure," Xander said, resting on his friend's chest. "We'll figure out what to do soon," he whispered. "Just nap now."

Oz nodded, closing his eyes.


Xander woke up to find someone nuzzling his chest and it felt good so he held the head against his flesh. When he started to really become aware of his surroundings, he looked down, watching Oz nibble his way across his stomach. "Um..." he started but a kiss from his guide stopped him. "You needed it that bad?" he asked, looking into Oz's eyes. The pain he saw in them was all the answer he needed to set aside his personal rules and let his friend sate himself with his body. "Go ahead," he sighed, waving. He closed his eyes as a gentle kiss was brushed past his lips. "Thanks."

"No, thank you," Oz whispered, moving down to kiss the end of Xander's cock. He grabbed the bottle of lube, preparing his friend as fast as he could, sliding in as soon as it was humanly possible to not hurt him. Even then, he had to pause while Xander got used to him and hissed. "Sorry," he whispered, kissing the young man's chest, unable to reach any higher. He moved smoothly in and out of his lover's body, taking what he needed to feel better, grounding himself in the soft growls Xander was making. "Shh," he whispered, kissing him again as he got off. He pulled out, rolling onto his side and cuddling his friend's chest. "I needed that."

"I know," Xander said, getting up. "I'm going to clean up." He walked into the bathroom, not looking at Devon as he walked past him. He locked himself in, leaning against the newly returned door. He shook himself, heading into the shower to clean himself up.

Devon walked into Xander's bedroom, looking down at his friend. "You could have asked."

"I didn't want to, Dev, I needed Xander." Oz sat up, looking at his best friend. "I'm sorry."

"S'okay, I understand. You guys got something deeper." He shrugged. "If you need me and all."

"Next time?"

"Yeah, next time," Devon sighed, walking back out. He tapped on the bathroom door. "Can I come in? I need to use it." The door was unlocked and he waited a few seconds so Xander could get back into the shower. "Hey," he said, shutting the door behind him. "You okay?" He saw the shadow on the curtain nod but didn't hear anything, which was strange considering who he was talking to. "Um, Xander? You wanna talk?"

Xander shook his head, standing under the water to rinse off. "No thanks." He shut off the water and stepped out, right into the towel being held for him. "Thanks." He wrapped it around himself and headed for the dryer, grabbing some of his laundry off the shelves beside the new machines. He pulled them on, not bothering to dry off first. He grabbed his keys and wallet, silently walking out. "Photo paper," he called so no one would worry.

Devon walked back into Xander's room, looking at the guide laying on the bed, watching his face as they heard Xander leave. "I told you not to do that to him," he reminded. "He can't take that sort of thing. He *needs* the emotions."

"I know," Oz groaned, sitting up. He pulled on some clothes, heading out after his sentinel. "Xander," he called, seeing both vehicles there. "Can we talk?" The younger man appeared from beside the building, heading back into the small park they had donated to the neighborhood when they had bought the building and the lot. He sat down across from him at one of the picnic tables, looking at him. "I'm sorry, I needed..."

Xander tapped the back of Oz's hand. "No big, Oz, get over it. I have." He stood up. "I still need photo paper, I'll be back later." He headed for his truck, sliding in and starting the ill-tuned engine.

He drove away and Oz's stomach started to sink. "I didn't want to ruin things," he whispered, getting up and heading back inside. He slammed the door behind himself, staring around the former industrial space. He walked over to where his guitar was sitting, plugging it in and starting to play something that had been haunting him for days.

Devon shook his head from the light table, closing his eyes. "Oz, headphones," he called. The music stopped and he went back to his photo project for class.


Xander walked into his favorite art store, nodding at the small woman behind the counter. "Photo paper," he said, heading for the racks of it. He stopped when she laid a hand on his arm. "I'm fine," he sighed. "Don't worry about it."

"You're not fine, none of you are fine."

He shook free. "I'm fine. It was my decision, we'll deal." He headed for the paper, where he picked up a box. He headed back to the register. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have snapped at you."

She smiled. "You're under great stress right now, it was the right action for the wrong reasons."

"Won't happen again," he said as he leaned on the counter. He looked at the mat knives under the glass. "No matter what, it won't happen again." She patted the back of his head, holding out her hand. He handed her his ATM card, watching as she ran it through the machine. He took it back after signing the slip, grabbing his bag. "I'm sorry."

"It's not a problem, young one. We all have problems and make mistakes." She gave him another smile. "Watch out for the blond one."


"No, one of us," she said, crossing her arms over her chest, flashing her feeding face. "He's looking for you, he blames you for it all."

Xander snorted. "Spike can blame me all he wants, I didn't make him come back to town." He waved and walked out, getting into his truck. He started it and pulled off down the street, having to stop about five hundred feet later at a stop light. He reached under the seat, grabbing his camera bag to check and see if he had a flash and film, then turned at the light, going out to do nightscapes.


Xander wandered back into the loft dragging his camera bag, his eyes bloodshot and his whole body ready to collapse. He walked around Oz, heading for his bed.

"Dev stole your sheets," Oz called after him. He watched as the young man headed for the rack of dried, unclaimed clothes, picking out another pair of his sheets to take into his room. "Where were you?"

"Taking pictures," Xander called. "Wake me before class."

"Too late," Devon called as he walked out of Oz's bedroom. "You missed math. You're going to get a grade cut now."

"Not if I can prove I was somewhere more important." Xander yanked his curtain divider shut, tossing his sheets down on his bed as he dropped his camera bag onto the pile of clothes beside the bed. He made the bed as well as he could and took off his shirt with a hiss, laying face down on the bed. He pulled a sheet up over him as he heard someone walking closer, making sure to cover the scratches and marks on his back, and pulled a pillow over his head. "Tell Giles I'll get the notes," he called. "Let me sleep."

"No," Devon said, walking in and shutting the curtain. "I smell blood and my Sire." Xander shrugged under the sheet. "Let me see?"

"Why? Cascade's finest have all seen it." Xander pulled the pillow off his head. "What's up?"

"I was going to ask the same thing," Devon said as he sat next to the young man he cared a lot about. "Tell me?"

"Nope." Xander pulled the pillow back over his head but the sheet was pulled off his back, making the vampire hiss. "Put it back," he said quietly, very serious. "Now, Devon. You don't have permission to touch."

"I know," he said, leaning down. "You're not okay. One of the stitches is already looking too loose." He kissed a clear spot on the flesh. "Wanna tell me so I can kick his ass?"

"Nope, they called *Jim* to defend my honor." Xander grabbed the sheet, recovering himself. "Out. I need sleep, not questions." He covered himself fully, not minding at all when the blanket was put across his body. "Thanks, Dev."

"Welcome," he said, touching the pillow. "Yell if you need me to look at it." He walked out of the curtained off area, pulling the curtain shut behind him. He saw Oz's worried expression. "He's fine," he lied.

"Dev, I have a more sensitive nose than everybody but him. What happened to him? He smelled like blood."

"Just got a few scrapes while he was taking pictures." Devon headed for Oz' s bedroom area. "I'm going to go to sleep now that we know he's all right. I'll check his film later."

Oz waited until he was alone to head into Xander's room, tapping on the heavy curtain before walking in. "Want me to salve the scratches?" he asked, knowing the younger man wasn't asleep. When he didn't get an answer, he sat beside him on the bed. "Xand? I didn't mean to hurt you last night, I really didn't."

"Drop it, Oz, it's forgotten. It didn't happen. None of last night did," was mumbled from under the pillow. "Go away and let me sleep."

"I want to look at these scratches, even I could smell the blood."

"Someone else did, drop the subject." Xander rolled away from him, keeping the sheet over himself except for one shoulder.

"Hell," Oz swore, moving the sheet when he saw the staples and stitches. "What happened?"

"Nothing," Xander sighed in frustration, moving the pillow. "Drop it, Oz, none of last night happened as far as I'm concerned." He looked over his shoulder, seeing the hurt look. "Do you feel better now?" He got a small nod. "Then go to class. I'm going to nap and if I actually get to sleep, I'll make it to Giles' class tonight and we'll talk later." He pulled the sheet and blanket up over his head. "Happy time in class."

"Sleep," Oz said, standing up. He walked out, meeting Devon in the kitchen. "Thought you were going to bed too."

"I was, then I heard you going in there to make it worse."

"Stop it," Xander said, walking out to stare them down. "Both of you, stop it now. Just leave me the *hell* alone and everything will be fine in a few days." He walked back into his room, shutting and tying off the curtains. "Good night!" he yelled.

Oz looked at Devon, who had winced. "What else did you get?"

"Spike," he whispered. "He smelled of my Sire." Devon rubbed his forehead. "Jim knows. We should go find him."

"Sunlight," Oz pointed out.

"And? He can come here. Blair'd give his own sentinel an excused absence, he does it all the time." He shrugged, handing over the handset of the phone. "Call the dude."

"Do it and die," Xander called from his room. "Literally."

Oz nodded then shrugged, walking into the living room to call the school. "Blair? No, can you make my excuses? No, Xander just came home and I think I'd like to stay home again today. No, I'm not feeling better, things are worse now." He hung up before the questions could start, looking at his oldest friend. "We'll deal, we always do."

Devon nodded. "I can only hope so. Losing Xander would kill both of you. I doubt either one of you wants to mope for eternity." He dodged out of the way as something very water-filled was thrown from Xander's room, hissing as the few drops burned his arm. "Hey!"

"It's not *your* concern," Xander growled as he walked out. "Neither of yours. Get over it and go do your own things. Oz, you haven't made it to class in over a week, I'm sure your teachers would like to know you're still living. Devon, aren't you supposed to be sleeping like the dead?" He crossed his arms across his chest, his face tightening in pain as the stitches on his stomach pulled. "I'm fine, this is my thing to deal with. *Drop* *it*," he said slowly and clearly.

"It's our job to be concerned," Oz pointed out, standing up to look at him. "We're friends." Xander just gave him a bland look. "I'd hope we were still friends." Xander shrugged. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to hurt you." He walked over, grabbing Xander's arms until he saw the wince. "Sorry, I ... didn't know." He looked over his sentinel's body. "I just want to help."

"Last night didn't happen," Xander reminded him calmly. "None of it. From the time I remade the bed until I got in this morning, none of it happened." He turned, his shoulder's slumping as Oz finally saw the marks that had been hidden by his jeans before. "Drop it, Oz, it's not your concern." Oz opened his mouth. "Say it and I walk out," he warned coldly. "For good."

Oz stepped back, nodding. "Okay. It's your deal. If you want us to help you clean them, then we will. Just ask." He watched as his sentinel walked back into his room, watching as the curtain was tied against his entry. He looked at Devon, walking into the arms he was holding open. "I screwed up majorly this time," he said softly. "I can't fix this one."

"You will. You'll have to. You need each other. Give him time to be pissed and yourself time to grieve for what you almost had." He let the young man go. "No matter what he says, last night happened and you can't get over it, Oz. You're just going to have to move on." He looked out the window. "Why is the one day I want to go out sunny?"

"It's being perverse," Oz said, sitting down at the table. He looked at the grain, tapping his fingers on it. "I want to go find out."

"Then go. He won't tell you and I doubt Jim will, but you could try." He watched as Oz stood up and walked out, silently looking around the loft. "Oh, man, why am I stuck in the middle?"

"I can fix that," Xander called. "Can't I sleep? For once in a day and a half?"

"Sorry," Devon called, heading for Oz's room. "Just don't stake me in my sleep, Xander, I'd appreciate a chance to look into your eyes as you kill me."

Xander walked out, glaring at him. "If I had wanted you dead, the holy water would have been a better shot." The vampire nodded, going to lay on Oz's bed for the day. "Thank you." He walked back into his room, reshutting and tying the curtain, finally getting to sleep.


Oz grabbed Jim's arm as he walked out of Blair's class, leading him down the hall before the other man could protest. "I need to talk to you." He shoved the older man into an unused classroom, locking the door. "He won't tell me."

"I wouldn't," Jim said, looking him over. "For some reason you guys are fighting and he's not feeling the usual amount of trust."

Oz nodded. "I know what I did, I was talking about what Spike did to him."

"If he wanted you to know, he'd tell you," Jim reminded him gently. He walked closer, pushing Oz against the blackboard. "I will give you this piece of information *once*, guide. You hurt the most important thing in your life. How you proceed now will determine if either one of you goes on. You know about Xander's past and how little he trusts, and you screwed it up. I'm not holding my breath for him to tell you, Oz, and I wouldn't if I were you. You don't look that good in purple."

"I'm trying to make what I did right," Oz told him, looking up into the piercing blue eyes. "I can't do that if he won't talk to me."

"I wouldn't hold my breath," Blair said as he walked in the back door. "What'd you do this time?"

"I don't even want to talk to you," Oz growled. "If it wasn't for you, none of this would have happened." He looked back at Jim. "I can understand you wanting to protect him, I want to kill the person who did that. Not because he's my sentinel, but because he's my friend and I care for him. If you won't tell me, fine, but do *not* bring your guide into this." He got free of Jim's hand on his arm. "I'll go now." He unlocked the door and walked out, slamming it behind him.

Jim turned into Darrien as he turned to face Blair. "We told you that allowing her to get closer was a bad idea, Guide."

"Hey, I just wanted them to be happy, you can't blame me for that." Blair glared at the Spirit Guide. "I tried my best to help those two. It's not like you've been guiding Xander. Wolf doesn't give me a damn clue. Get off your high horse and help if you want things to be better." He stomped out of the room, missing the smile.

"Oh, if you insist," Darrien smirked. He faded out, going back to his realm.


Xander rolled over in his sleep, wincing as the pain from the staples broke into his rest. He sat up, looking around his room, confused since his bed was now in a forest. He pulled his feet up next to his body, making sure his lap was covered, and waited to figure out what this meant. When he got tired of waiting, he cleared his throat. "Darrien, I need the sleep," he called. His Spirit Guide appeared at the foot of his bed and looked at him as he sat. "Want to share the news so I can go back to sleep?"

"No. I'm just watching one of the stupidest people I know." Xander flipped him off and laid back down. "Nope, not going to get away with it that easy. Why didn't you tell your guide about what Spike did to you?"

"Because, in his grief over Sascha, he did something about as bad as far as I'm concerned." Xander looked over at his Spirit Guide. "Get over it. I will and we'll be fine."

"Fine like you were when I found you?" Darrien asked gently. "Or fine like you were this summer when you started to fight?"

"Oh, don't even blame all that on me." Xander pushed himself back up. "I didn't make me go with him and be miserable. No one made me fall prey to the Initiative again. No one even *asked* your opinion on either so get over it." He glared at Oz's Spirit Guide as she showed up. "Oh, no, I'm *not* dealing with you. You want someone to talk to, go explain it to your charge." He covered his head with the sheets, smiling as he felt the normal world starting to fade back around him. He got out of the bed and padded out to the kitchen, looking around the loft in confusion. Not even Devon was around. "Huh." He shrugged and grabbed a small bottle of water, heading back to bed. That's when it hit him that he was really alone again.


Oz winced as the gate to the elevator fell behind him, but he continued to walk into their loft, looking around in confusion. He glared as he caught sight of a small furry creature. "Might as well change, I've already seen that act," he said coolly. "What do you want, Sascha?"

"I want to make amends." She walked over to sit in a chair facing him. "Sit, Oz, Xander won't wake up for a while."

"In other words, I'm not home."

"No, you're not home. Neither of you will be home again if we don't get this worked out." She waved at the couch and he sat. "Thank you. I'm sorry for not telling you, I didn't actually want to hurt you. Everything I told you was the truth, I do like you. I *asked* to be your Spirit Guide because I needed to be closer to you. You're the one man I could actually get close to." She looked at her hands. "I died a few years ago, Oz, and I was miserable since the time I could have started dating because none of the men in my life would live up to what I needed." She glanced up at him. "You're the first and only one who has. I was going to tell you anyway, Blair said to give it some time."

"So you let me become attached to you, to *care* for you, and then you break my heart?"

"It wasn't meant," she said, reaching out to him, but he didn't take her hand. "Oz, I wanted to be straight with you from the start. I wanted to tell you this summer before we got really tight. Darrien told me this would happen. Guess he was right." She snorted, looking back down at her hands. "You can't blame me for what happened between you though. I didn't make you hurt Xander by using him."

"I didn't..." Oz trailed off. "Where is he?"

"Darrien decided he needed a lesson in not trusting you again. He's still in his vision. He'll be back before the morning, or so he said." She looked back up, her eyes wet. "I didn't mean to hurt you, Oz, but you have to trust me here. Xander has to realize this lesson."

"Why should he trust me?" he asked, standing up. "I hurt him in a way I promised myself no one would ever hurt him." He turned to find Darrien there instead of her. "What? Changing forms again?"

"No, I sent her away. She can't be cold and analytical with you anymore." He shrugged at the dirty look. "Why'd you do it?"

"I needed grounded back into life, I felt like I was floating off." He faced off against the other Spirit Guide. "What business is it of your's? From what she said, you made her not tell me too. You're as much responsible for this as she is."

"No, you're responsible for destroying the trust in your relationship." He howled as a grey wolf showed up and bit him on the thigh. "Damn! I'm just proving my point."

"The Guide is right," Wolf said as he morphed into a not-Blair. "He is at fault, but so are you." He looked at the guide, looking him over thoroughly. "Guide, I am sorry these two have played with your relationship, but you cannot blame them for what happened between you and the one you guide. If you wanted him dead that much then you should have not come back." He disappeared, taking Darrien with him.

Oz woke up in the loft, staring at the picture on the wall of Sascha changing back into her other form. He shook his head, walking toward his sentinel's bedroom. "Xander?" he called softly, tapping on the curtain. He reached in and untied it when he didn't get an answer, walking in to find Xander stretched out on the bed, his cuts open to the air and spread out before him. Oz took a deep breath and walked closer, sitting beside him to touch the one that looked like handwriting. "Xander," he sighed, "I didn't want to hurt you. I needed you and you gave in. I'm sorry I let myself need you that way." He felt a cold nose against his leg, and when he looked down, it was Jaguar. "Go away," he whispered, "I need to talk to him, not to another one of you."

Jaguar turned into not-Jim and pulled Oz from the room. "You need to listen to me. Wolf sent me to straighten things out. Yes, you hurt him, but you could have found another way. You could have used the one you usually do."

Oz shook his head. "I can't keep doing that to Devon, our friendship is too fragile still." He looked over his shoulder, wincing as he caught sight of Xander's body. "So's ours though, I guess."

"Don't guess, Guide, know." He tapped Oz on the forehead. "You must fix this. He will not live if you don't. You will and you will suffer. His end will be swiftly coming. The one who hurt him comes back soon."

Oz's head snapped around to look at the not-Jim. "Spike's coming back?"

"Not now maybe, but soon. You must have all this fixed. He must trust you to come for him. Or else he will give up."

"He can't," Oz said, going back to sit beside Xander's body. "Tell me..." He turned to find himself alone and Xander waking up beside him. "Hey," he said softly, taking Xander's hand to hold onto. "Can I apologize?" His friend shook his head. "Please? I didn't want to hurt you."

"Yeah, but you did," Xander said, pulling away from him. "We seem to have this talk a lot, Oz." He rolled onto his side. "Where's my sheets?"

"They're on the floor on your side," Oz said quietly, standing up. "No more games," he said, looking down at the form on the bed. "You're not Xander."

"Oh, I am," he snorted. He shook his head. "By now you should know who I am." He grabbed his sheet and blankets, pulling them up over him. "Out, now, Oz. I don't want you in here."

"Xander, I thought you were a Spirit Guide. I've seen all four of them that I know in the last few minutes."

"Yay, Darrien locked me somewhere. Alone. Forever." Oz sat down beside him again so Xander yanked the covers out from under him. "Go away."

"No, I need you." Oz reached out but the younger man ducked his hand. "Xander, I need to apologize and I need to fix this. It's been pointed out to me that I need to fix this and that I can't blame the others for this." He looked down at the hard line of Xander's back. "Not even Sascha, who came to apologize."

"Good, go be with her."

"I want to be with you," Oz said, reaching out to him. He ran his hand over the soft shoulder. "I'm *so* sorry, Xander, I didn't mean to hurt you."

"No, you used me and expected me to like it," Xander spat, sitting up to glare at his guide. "Oz, go away. I don't want to hear this, ever. There is no reason why that had to happen. I shouldn't have given in and you should have found your music to ground you again. We'll get over this eventually."

"Jaguar said Spike was coming back," Oz told him quietly. Then he caught Xander as he turned pale and started to fall backwards. "Just tell me," he whispered, "let me start to fix this. Please, Xander. I can't do this alone."

"Yeah, you can. I'm not going back outside again," Xander said, shaking himself free. "Never again, Oz, you don't have that right anymore." The older man nodded and stood up, walking out. "Get over it, Oz, I will." He pulled the blankets over his head. "Eventually," he whispered, closing his eyes.

Oz sat down in the middle of the floor, looking at the grain of the wood. "I want to die now," he whispered. "This is my fault, not Blair's, not Sascha's, mine. I've now managed to screw up the one *good* thing in my life." He looked up as he felt a breeze flow around him, nodding at Wolf. "Was this a lesson? Please tell me this was a lesson."

"No, it wasn't. He's hurt. I can not get through to him to guide him. Even Darrien can't get through to him because he blamed *himself* for what happened. Guide, not even you can claim full responsibility in this matter. She bears much of it, as does the one I guide. As does Darrien, who told her it would cause Xander to back away from him."

"Guess he was right," Xander said, walking out to look at Wolf. "Go home. We don't want any of you here." He stared down the apparition. "Leave, now. I don't want your help."

"I do," Oz said, looking back at him. "I need it." He stood up, standing in front of his sentinel. "Have him assign you a new Guide if you want to. If you don't want me here, I'm gone."

"Too late," Xander said with a small shrug. "I'm moving downstairs." He looked in his bedroom. "I'll get my crap later." He walked around Wolf's still body. "Don't even think about coming down to torment me, any of you." He walked out the door to the stairs, letting the heavy metal door slam behind him.

Oz fell back down. "How do I fix this?" he asked almost silently, looking at Wolf, who shrugged. "Don't you know?"

"I can't tell. His guilt blocks us all."

Oz stood up, heading down to stop his sentinel from leaving him. "Xander," he said, catching him trying to get the bottom door open. "What happened was *my* fault, not yours." He pulled him away from the door, sitting him on the stairs so he could look at him. "I'm sorry I used you. None of that night is your fault. Not what I did, not what Spike did." He blinked as Xander started to waver, not realizing why. "Please be real."

"I am," Xander said, looking at him. "I let you, Oz, it's my bad this time. Don't guilt yourself to death." He jingled the keys. "I'll move tonight. I just have to find the key for the bottom door."

"No," Oz said, taking the keys. "If we need to split, I'll move down here." He waved at the door. "I'll set up down here. You need to be up there." Xander started to shake his head. "It was *my* bad, I should move so you don't have to look at me." He looked at the keys, flipping through them until he found one that looked familiar. "I found it," he said, looking up. He found Wolf holding a still Xander. "What happened?"

"He's zoned." Wolf let Oz pull the sentinel to the ground to hold him. "I'd be surprised if you could do it now, Guide. You might as well give up."

"I'm not giving up," Oz growled. "No way in hell." He looked down at his friend, running his fingers through the dark, sweaty hair. "Xander, please, don't do this. You don't have to escape this badly." He sniffed, wincing at the odor that hit him. "Xander, come on," he whispered, rubbing down the bare arms. "Please come back. I need you to forgive me. Sometime in the future maybe, but I need to be able to know you're all right." His breath caught as Xander shifted in his arms. "Please, Xander, come back. I'm *so* sorry. I'll do anything you want if you'd just come back."

Xander blinked, looking up at his guide. "Let me go."

Oz sat him back up, letting him go. "You zoned, I was bringing you out." He handed over the keys. "Whatever you decide, my life is in your hands."

"Pretty words," Xander said, standing up to look down at him. He looked down at his stomach. "Leave me alone, Oz, for good." He dropped the keys and headed up the stairs, not seeing Wolf sitting there. He slammed the door at the top of the stairs, locking it behind him.

Oz looked at the keys. "I was *so* wrong," he told them. "Why can't I make this right?"

"He still does not see your fault in the situation," Wolf told him. "Or if he does, it's not what it should be."

Oz shook his head. "That's not this. He's pissed at me, he knows I did it and I made the choice to start this." He grabbed the keys and walked up the stairs, opening the door and slamming it shut. "Xander, I'm going to talk to you, no matter how much you don't want it." His sentinel walked out of the bathroom, looking up from his dabbing of cream over the stitches. "Let me." Xander flinched away from him. "You can't get your back, let me do it." He took the cloth. "I still want to be forgiven for what I did. Even though I know it's a futile wish. I can't leave you to suffer though." He took the tube of cream from the limp hand, turning the young man around to dab the cream over the staples and stitches. "Why do you have both?"

"The stitches are in the deeper ones so they didn't have to torture me by trying to get the stapler in there again." He winced as a sore spot was hit. "Easy."

"I'd like to be, but I was testing for infection." Oz spread some more of the cream over the small cuts. "I fully admit I was needy and grossly imposed on you, but can you please forgive me?"

"Oz, I broke one of the rules I live by to do that for you." He tensed as the warm arms went around his chest. "Unless you're spreading more cream over me, get off."

Oz shook his head, turning Xander around. "I can't leave you. You'll die, I'll die. Our visions will come true. I don't want you to die."

"Oh, but instead, you're willing to leave me?" Xander pushed him away. "Get off. Don't touch me again. You have major faulty thinking right now. Until you have a clear head, I'm not talking to you." He watched as Oz sat down in front of him. "What are you doing?"

"I'm not going to move until you're ready to listen to my apology."

"Then you're going to be sitting there until I'm not mad anymore."

"You don't stay mad at me for long," Oz told him calmly, looking up. "This was totally my faultiness. I forced you to do something you didn't want to do. I made you break a rule to make me feel better and I didn't appreciate the gift you gave me like I should have." Xander made a 'go on' motion with his hand. "I didn't even stop to consider how that made you feel or why you were doing it. If I had, I wouldn't have taken you. I wouldn't have done it so fast that you didn't have a chance to protest. I would have let you take me because that's what I really needed to be grounded." He blinked, shaking his head as the light started to waver again. "I warped you so badly that you fell prey to someone who's worse than me, and he hurt you so badly that you had to call Jim, who you didn't want to talk to because you knew it would hurt me." Xander nodded, squatting down in front of him. "I can never apologize for what I made you do, for not taking your feelings into account before I asked, but I can try and I would like to have another chance."

"I think you earned it," Xander said as he sat in front of his guide. "Oz, you hurt me on a level I swore no one else would ever touch. Everything that I had begun to feel for you started to warp the second that you rolled over." He took the other man into his arms, holding him. "Shh, I should have stopped you." Oz shook his head. "You weren't close to normal, I should have stopped you." He let Oz pull back to look at him. "I bear as much fault as you do," he reminded quietly, wiping the few tears off the pink cheeks. "I want to start again too, can we?"

"Yeah, I want to start again too." Oz ran a finger over a red, angry cut. "Why did he do that?"

"He blamed me for taking Devon from him. He even blamed me for turning Devon in the first place. He came back to Sunnydale to get me and turn me after making me want him. Then the Initiative caught him."

"Dev's been turned since after high school."

"That was the first time he heard I was back in town. He thought Dev was going to be food but his mouthiness caught Spike's attention, making him think of me."

"So he turned him and is blaming you," Oz finished quietly. "Where is he?"

"He caught me out in the woods."

"Oh." Oz checked the clock. "Can you hear Dev? He should be starting to move around." Xander shook his head. "Think he went to take on Spike over this?"

"Or to kill Blair."

"Yeah, but I yelled at him earlier for Sascha. Did I tell you she apologized? That Blair and Darrien convinced her to not tell us."

"Gee, wondered why Wolf showed up."

"He bit Darrien when he was yelling at me." Oz slowly pulled Xander into a hug. "Can we be friends?"

"Yeah, we can be friends." Xander hugged him back. "But we're not getting that close again." Oz stopped him by kissing him. "Um, didn't I just say..."

"I had to," Oz told him with a weak smile. "Just one last time. I'll miss those."

"Oh." Xander looked at his feet, which were touching Oz's. "Why are we like this?"

"Because I'm ignoring all the pull I feel to take you into my arms and to pamper you for a few weeks?"

"Oh." Xander blinked when he looked at him. "You really like me like that?"

"If I were going to start going towards men, it'd be you. Not even Dev does the things for me you do." Oz brushed some of the dark hair out of the way. "Can you cover those things so you can shower?" Xander shook his head. "Can I wash your hair and your back then?"

"Yeah, I'd like that," Xander sighed, leaning into the gentle touches to his scalp. "This isn't the time for that."

"No, it's not, but we have to call in reinforcements anyway and I doubt you're going to be able to fight." He blinked as he saw Wolf appear. "Um, yeah?" he called.

Wolf sat down next to them. "I was wrong, I kept getting his motives mixed up with my guideling's." He gave Xander a lupine smile. "I'm happy that you worked it out, young ones. Now it is time for action. Your lives are entwined, even if you do not like the concept." He stared down Oz. "No matter how hard you fight it, you are together already."

"Then we'll be taking it at our own time," Xander said, standing up and pulling Oz with him. "Apology accepted, but we still don't want to see Blair for a while."

"You may need his help."

"Then we'll take it but we won't get close enough to get hurt again." He bowed his head. "Thank you for giving Oz the warnings you did. I know we can work it out now."

"Good," Wolf said as he faded out. "It's about time."

Jaguar popped in. "My guideling comes. You didn't talk to him today. Or me." He faded out too.

Xander shook his head. "I'm tired of this. You said we could get a cabin this weekend, why aren't we there?"

"Because I'm an ass?"

"Oh. Okay. Come wash my hair? You can call Willow on speaker phone and tell her. She'll bring Buffy and we'll go save Devon for his own good. Even if he doesn't want to be saved."

"There is that," Oz admitted. "He still has strong feelings for his Sire."

"Yeah, but I'm more tempting."

"You're going to let him have you?"

"Nope, but I might start to cuddle with him again. He's got to feel good against these itchy things." Oz stopped him. "Joke, Oz, I wouldn't use Devon that way. We came to an agreement that there was going to be nothing else between us but friendship after getting back this summer."

"Okay. Just wanting to make sure. Dev's as fragile as you are sometimes, especially over you." He walked into the bathroom, grabbing the bottle of shampoo and a towel to bring out to the sink. "Want a chair to kneel on?"

Xander nodded, walking to the dining room table to pull one in and set it in front of the sink. He knelt on the hard fabric, wincing as his knee popped. "Ouch."

"Want a pillow?"

"Only to sit on," Xander said quietly. He was instantly hugged. "He spanked me, Oz, because I wouldn't give anything to him. I wouldn't admit I liked him so he cut me, and when I said I may be gay but I wouldn't go for him, he spanked me."

"I'll stake him," Oz growled. "No one touches what's mine."

"Excuse me, yours?" Xander asked, getting off the chair. He looked his guide over. "Yours?"

"I'm feeling possessive all of a sudden," Oz said, looking down. "Sorry if that bothers you."

"It bothers me if Wolf or Jaguar, or one of the others since we're not sure what they actually are, created the possessiveness. I really only want real emotion from you, Oz. No matter what it is. This pretending hurts."

"Yeah, it does," Oz whispered, hugging him. "I've felt it for a while now. Since before you were dosed, the night you walked away from me actually." He gave Xander an embarrassed look. "All I could think of was 'he can't run, I won't let him run from me again'. I'm really sorry..."

"Shut up and don't apologize again," Xander said harshly, taking Oz's face into his hand. "I think it's kinda cute actually. I don't mind you being possessive, Oz, I really don't. You don't need to apologize for that. It's an endearing quality, sorta like how you teach me math." He kissed the blushing nose. "Now then, you promised me a hair washing?" He climbed back up onto the chair, going to his knees on the not-very-soft cushion. "Can we get on with soothing the stupid sentinel that wasn't paying enough attention to his surroundings so got caught?"

"Sure," Oz said, giving him a small smile. "But never put yourself down again. You were preoccupied by my stupidity, you're lucky you didn't have a car wreck."

"I did," Xander said dryly. "Spike rammed me into a light pole and took me from the car. That's why I ended up with the cops this morning."


"And since the doctor that examined me noticed that I had sex recently, I got to tell Simon, who was called first, that we had slept together."

Oz turned on the water in the sink, testing it against the back of his hand. "Am I going to have to duck him too?"

"Nope," Xander said as he leaned his head over the sink. "He said it was good that I could comfort you like that, that sometimes that was a part of a relationship." He groaned as the warm water flowed over his scalp. "Oh, nice." He shivered as soapy hands took the place of the water. "Can I grow hair so you do this more often?"

Oz chuckled. "All you have to do is ask, Xander." He shifted so his arms wouldn't get as tired. "I used to want to go to beauty school. I love playing with hair."

Xander hummed in appreciation. "Then go. I'd love to let you practice on me." He went limp under the gentle fingers massaging his scalp. "Can I pray to your fingers?"

"Sure," Oz said with a smile. He picked up the sprayer, making sure the water was still at the right temperature before rinsing the shampoo out.

"Again?" Xander pleaded.

"Later," Oz told him. "Washcloth bath next, then we're calling Willow."

"Oh, yeah," Xander said with a sated smile. Someone opened the elevator gate at the downstairs entrance. "Company. Clothes?"

"Might be good," Oz agreed. "Just a shirt though. I want to check all the cuts in a while." He wrapped the dripping hair in a towel. "We'll discuss these pesky feeling-type things later, okay?" Xander nodded, heading for his bedroom. Oz walked over to meet whomever was coming off the elevator, nodding at Willow and Buffy, pulling Devon into a tight hug. "You okay?"

"The better question is are you two?"

"Yup," Xander said as he walked out tucking his t-shirt into his sweat pants. "Does this mean that something was done about Spike?"

Buffy shook her head. "He ran before we could get there." She looked him over. "What's this I hear about stitches?"

"A few," Xander admitted, leaning against the back of a chair. "Thanks for going after him for me."

"I want us to be friends again," she said with a shrug. "How many?"

"Few," Xander said.

"Took a long time?"

"Yup, I kept having problems with the stapler they were trying to use. Couple of hours actually."

"Yeah, I guess someone as sensitive as you would have problems with that stuff." She looked down at the floor, kicking it. "Can we start the friends stuff again?"

"Sure," he said, patting her on top of the head. "I need Oz to wash between my stitches, so why don't you wander around in here and let Dev show you all the art?" He nodded toward the bathroom before heading that way.

Oz shrugged at Willow's bland look, heading after him. "He's got a few he can't cover." He walked after his friend, locking them in. "Ah," he sighed as he caught sight of the marks again. "If we see him again, he's mine." He ran a finger beside the largest cut, making his sentinel shiver. "Sorry, start the water while I look for a washcloth."

Buffy smiled at Willow. "See, we can start to rebuild things. He can forgive me for my badness while they had me."

Willow nodded. "And we'll make sure that you can build the friendship stronger this time." She looked around the room. "He didn't put up the stuff in the cage yet?"

"Not yet," Devon said, scratching his arm. "We've got to pull it all out though, so why don't we let Buffy walk around and gaze while we do that. Oz changes tomorrow night." He and Willow headed for the cage, grabbing the nearest art to pull out and drag into the big area between the couch and Xander's art area. "We can stack it over here until we decide what to do with it. Never know, he might end up sending some stuff over your way too. Giles and Blair sure have enough of it."

"Eep," Buffy said, holding her throat.

Willow looked over her shoulder, smiling as she saw the young woman in front of the sexual snapshots series between the windows. "He's really good, huh?" she called, turning to wink at Devon.

"Yeah, really," Buffy said, blinking. She dragged her feet as she moved on, going over to the other figure drawings. "Why are there so many naked people in art?" she asked as she moved past them to the more unusual stuff. "Wow, like this one," she said, touching a canvas board that held a picture of something she couldn't quite identify. "What is it?"

"Don't know, look at the back," Devon called as he carried out another stack of art.

"Huh," Buffy said after looking at it. "Doesn't look like a horse on a roof."

Willow got up to come look at it behind her, pointing out a blurry shape. "Horse."

"Oh." Buffy nodded.

Devon snorted. "The teacher told him he had to name it something so he just put that on there. It's actually a regurged twinkie." He sat down with the last pile of art. "Just a few more trips," he said, looking at Willow, giving her a sweet smile.

"Sorry, I was looking at the art." She walked into the cage, coming back out with the smaller canvas boards. "He uses these a lot. I didn't think these were sellable."

"They're not, but that's a dirty word in this house." Devon patted the ground beside him when Buffy walked over. "You can look." He looked over at Willow. "The first time he sold something, he came home and pouted. Oz had to show him selling his work was a good thing. Now, we have to be desperate for something for him to even consider selling. This building was purchased with his art."

Buffy picked up one of the larger canvases. "You can't tell what sex they are? Why'd he do that?"

Willow sighed. "So that he could show that love doesn't contain a gender." She pulled her feet up under her so she was more comfortable. "See, that could be a het couple, it could be two women, it could even be two men, all that's important is that they love each other that much." She brushed down the side of the canvas. "It's a lesson, Buffy, for everyone. It could have been Xander and Darryl, it could be me and Tara, it could even have been you and Angel. It's meant to show everyone that if it's love, it's good."

"Oh." She nodded and put the canvas back down. "That makes sense. And I guess it wouldn't offend people the way some types of couples would if you could tell."

"True," Devon said, giving her a little smile, "but it did offend the college president. She was offended that they were non-gendered, accused Xander of using children."

Buffy snorted. "Gee, they're fully adults to me. She's just biased."

"She heard he was gay and she didn't want his art to show it," Willow said softly. "I heard about that when I got in. Tara and I linked up with the local gay outreach program to meet other couples to go out with and they told us about that when they found out we knew him. Seems he's had a lot of problems with the gallery at Rainier."

Buffy shuddered. "At least them stealing his stuff wasn't us. I mean the former us," she amended at Willow's intense look. "Sorry, I still slip."

"That's okay. I understand," Willow said gently, patting her arm. "It's hard to readjust your thinking." She picked up a canvas she hadn't seen. "Wow, what's this?"

"Taken off one of the pictures he's taken." Devon got up to get Xander's photo notebook, bringing it back so they could look at it. "His first photo series was great, but he got a 'B' because his teacher's a dick." Someone knocked on the door so he headed for it. "I'll get it."

"It's John," Xander called. He looked at Oz, who was just holding the washcloth. "Want to let me do it?" he suggested.

"No, just enjoying the implications in my head, which then went off into a fairy tale." He wet the cloth in the water running in the sink, adding a little bit of the liquid soap they used. He wiped down the smooth back, watching Xander's face in the mirror as he cleaned the untouched flesh. "What does John want?" he asked, trying to keep him from zoning.

"He wanted to check up on me because I wasn't in my photo class and my math teacher called to complain to him." Xander shook his head. "Can I call him in?"

"It's your nudity," Oz reminded him. "I'm just bathing you, that's an innocent thing that roommates do."

Xander turned to look at him. "You're really unsure, aren't you?" Oz nodded, not looking at him. "Then I can wait until you figure it out one way or another." He kissed his friend's forehead then turned back around. "John, in here."

His advisor walked in, his ponytail bound up against the back of his head this time, wearing a jogging suit. "Oh, my, god," he hissed, reaching out to almost touch one cut. "Who did that to you?"

"Bitch of a person I used to know. He left town. He ran into me then used the opportunity to kick my ass. Literally." He looked down and winced. "They hurt, a lot, but Oz is nice enough to help me take care of them. Oh, this is my roommate Oz, I'm not sure if you met him before or not." Oz nodded and started to work over another section of Xander's back. "I'm not coming in today and I have my paperwork from the emergency room to go over my math teacher's head if I need to, not to mention the police who were nice enough to find me outside their building when he dropped me off." He grimaced as Oz's hand stopped. "I'm fine. He didn't hurt me that bad, none of them are that deep."

"Bet me," Oz said quietly. He looked up at Xander's advisor. "Is there anyway we can get him tomorrow off too? I've been having personal problems and he's been dealing with them. That's why he's been missing so many classes."

John considered them, leaning against the door. "I think I can talk to his math teacher, get her to listen to reason. What sort of problem?"

"My girlfriend lied to me, totally, about what she was. We broke up and I went silent and still for about a week."

"Oh. Okay." John looked him over. "I thought..." He shook his head. "Never mind. I must have been mistaken."

"No," Oz said, not looking up. "If I was going to go for men it would be Xander but I've only dated women before now. The last one was just a head trip waiting to happen." He glanced up. "She just totally *changed* one night, ya know?"

"Yeah, I've had a lover that did that, but alcohol was involved."

"Nah, no liquor here. We were eating supper and I asked her a question, that's all it took. Just like Sandburg knew was going to happen, he knew about it before and didn't tell me."

"Ouch. No wonder Blair's been wandering all over campus looking like someone ate his dog." John shook his head. "Okay, I can help by making excuses for each of you."

"I'll try to make it to my next math class," Xander said, "and I'll show up in her office to give her the paperwork from the hospital. And hey, if she doesn't believe me, I have plenty of proof."

John nodded. "Yeah, kid, you do." He shook his head. "I hope he's caught before he can do it again."

"Oh, he just blamed me for everything bad in his life because he couldn't have me," Xander said bitterly. "Apparently, he's made some decisions he's not real fond of now and he blames them on me somehow."

Devon walked in. "I'm sorry, man, if I had known..."

"No," Xander said, tugging him in to hug him. "This wasn't your fault. Spike is demented and this is not your fault. Though you taking up with him may have been mine, but this is in no way your fault." He kissed the top of the vampire's head. "Relax, we're still buds. Okay?"

"Yeah, cool," Devon said, standing up. "Gee, I didn't see those before." He touched a thin, long cut. "What was that?"

"His pocket knife. He sharpened it before he did that one." He looked over Devon's shoulder at John. "Okay?"

"Yeah, as long as you're fine we'll be okay," he said soothingly. "I'll go call your math teacher." He waved. "I left your last stuff from Bertranda on the table. He wasn't impressed."

"Yeah, but I had great feeling," Xander said, giving him a smile. "All that was due to math before Oz taught me."

"Yeah, I could see that." John waved and walked away, nodding at the women in the living room. He stopped to look at one canvas that caught his attention, smiling at it. "Gee, I didn't know he did almost picture quality stuff." He walked away from the windows, heading down the stairs.

Willow looked at Buffy, seeing her shock. "That's his advisor and chair of the Art Department. Tara's graphic design stuff is under him too." She got up to see which one he had been looking at, smirking. "Oh, Cordy's." She walked back over. "Wonder if she's seen that yet."

"I'd say probably not," Buffy said. "She'd have thrown a fit we'd all have heard by now."

"True," Willow said, giving her another bright smile, "she could be a little uptight about who saw her and how she was viewed." She tilted her head off to the side as she looked at a canvas next to Buffy's knee. "Of course, she's been in LA for a while now, working with Angel actually."

"We should call them and warn them about Spike," Oz said as he and Xander walked back out. "He's not in trouble over missing math today."

"I like the idea about calling Angel ... to warn him," Buffy added quickly.

Xander nodded. "Okay. We still have his number somewhere." Buffy rattled it off. "Okay." He handed Willow the phone. "You talk. I doubt he wants to hear from us after that night he came to guard us in Sunnydale."

"Repeat it again," she asked, and Buffy did, slow enough so she could dial it. "Oh, hey, Cordy. Yeah, it is. No, just some news. No, we had a run-in with Spike and he went psycho on Xander. No, he's here." She held out the phone. "She wants to talk to you."

Xander took the phone, sitting on his pillows in front of his easel. "Hey, Cordy. Did Angel come back okay?" He smiled. "That's good. If I had known that he would have done that, we wouldn't have begged him to come help us." He looked over his shoulder. "Just one, why? No, it's never been shown." He turned to look at his blank easel, frowning. "You sure? It's a personal thing and I know you wouldn't want it shown. No, it's never made it out of the apartment. Well, I take that back, it had been stolen for a while but I have it back now. Okay, I can ship it to you tonight. But I gotta warn you, it's not the sort of thing you want to show your parents." He smiled. "Sure. No, Spike tried to blame me for everything in his life. Seems he was trying to come back and turn me into Dru but things kept happening. No, he ran into me then cut me up a little. Just a few," he assured quickly. "None very deep. They did?" He looked at Buffy, raising one eyebrow. "Are you okay? Good. What did they want? Huh. Not a clue but I wouldn't help them. No, they're the reason I'm in Cascade and happy but that's not how they planned it." He nodded and handed the phone to Oz, standing up. "You tell her, I'm going to pack up her picture."

"So, was it Feds or Feds light?" he asked, smiling at Xander as he stopped to consider the picture. "No, I've got to say that you look really hot in the picture, Cordy. No, really. Even Devon says so. No, he's here, we live together. No, it's actually a small picture, most people don't even realize that it's on the wall. Oh, yeah, graphic might be a good word. Want me to scan a picture and send it to you?" He smiled and handed the phone to Willow. "You tell her about Spike, Angel just got up." He walked over. "Take it over to the computer first. She wants to see a picture of it."

"Is that wise?" Xander asked, looking up. "She's going to bitch."

"Yay. Someone at an interview recognized her face, all that was shown in the catalog for the sale they almost went into, and asked her about it. She didn't know anything about a picture until he mentioned your name." He nodded toward the desk where his computer was, letting Xander put his artwork onto the flatbed scanner for him, and hit the button to scan the image in. Xander whistled. "Yeah, it's got good resolution." He took the picture off the scanner and turned it around. "There, less lewd." He adjusted the resolution so the dark picture was a little more clear, then opened his email program, sending it to her addy, which he had bookmarked after this summer. They both turned to watch Willow, who suddenly pulled the phone from her ear. "Got it?" Oz asked, canceling the picture out.

Willow got up, walking over to hand Xander the phone. "She wants to talk to you," she said sweetly.

"Hi, Cordy. No, no one sees it but me, Oz, and Devon. And Oz doesn't look at those usually. No! No, I didn't mean to embarrass you. I didn't think you'd ever see it. You or the other few people that I did those for. Yes, I know you were never in that position, that's a fantasy piece. I don't know, just because I wanted you to be waiting on me one night to surprise me." He grinned. "Thanks. Do you still want the original?" He pulled the phone away from his ear. "Okay, I'll send it to you today. To the office?" He nodded and Oz handed him a pencil and scrap paper. "Okay, got the addy. It's a really good likeness, Cordy, even Oz was impressed. Devon used to sit there and mourn the loss of you in front of it." Devon shook his head. "Yeah, him. Um, hi, Angel. Yeah, Spike was up here. No, he decided I was the root cause of everything bad in his life. So he ran into me and cut me up a little. No, not deep. Lots of stitches but not badly." He popped his neck. "I don't know. Oops, call waiting beep, be right back." He pushed the button. "Yeah? Yes, this is he. Oh, hi. No, I was going to come in during office hours tomorrow to give you the slip from the emergency room. Yes, I was there. Yes, for a reasonable reason. No, I'm not sick, I was in a car crash and then was kidnapped. Yay, I'll talk to you tomorrow." He hung up on her. "Angel?" He smiled. "Yeah, well, the things he said weren't nice either. Apparently he kept trying to come back for me so he could make himself another Dru and bad things kept happening. No, he wasn't nice anymore. He was even meaner than your other half. And snarky. And still smoking because he kept blowing smoke in my face." He shrugged and handed the phone to Oz. "You tell him, I'm going to go see my math teacher before she has me tossed out of the school." He walked towards his room, pulling on his shoes and grabbing the papers from the Emergency Room. He walked out, waving. "Taking the bus, be back later."

"Okay, be safe," Oz called. "No, we're on the same coast. Cascade, up near Seattle. Yeah, that part of the world. That's not a problem, man, if we had known that Sunnydale was going to try and eat your soul, we'd never have begged." He smiled and hung up. "It's all okay and he'll be looking for Spike."

"Good," Buffy said. "How did he sound?"

"Fine." He handed her the phone. "If you have a calling card, you can hit the redial and talk to him, he asked about you."

She shook her head. "I'll write him a letter tonight."

"Her savings seems to have vanished into thin air along with the Initiative," Willow told him. "She'll be starting back on the educational walkway this next term."

"Cool. Want into parapsychology? Giles is teaching over there." She shook her head. "No?"

"No, having suffered through class with him, I can honestly say I never want to take another. I'm thinking gym teacher, something simple like that."

"Ah." Oz nodded and turned around to check his email. "Good luck."

"Thanks. I may need it."


Xander growled at his teacher as she balled up his excuse. "It's not like I didn't need to be there, especially since the cops *took* me there after they found me." She shrugged and he did the thing he least wanted to do, he kicked the door shut and pulled up his t-shirt. "See, I needed to go."

She hissed. "Who did that?"

"The guy that ran into me on purpose then took me hostage for a few hours." He pulled back down his shirt. "I'm sorry you don't like me needing to have close to three hundred stitches but I did. I got home about forty minutes before your class started, I think, and I hadn't slept for a day and a half. I decided sleeping off the anaesthesia that they gave me was more important than a day of math where I'm not learning a *thing* off you." He crossed his arms across his chest. "I really don't care if you do cut my grade, I'll retake it with someone else next semester." He grabbed his excuses and walked out of her office.

"Drama queen," she sighed. She opened her grade book and erased his absences. "I guess I'll have to accept it. I really don't want Sandburg on my case this time." She looked up as her student walked back in. "What?"

"Why would Blair be on you because I missed class?" She waved at the door so he shut it. "I don't answer to Blair."

"He had you admitted. We all know that there's something special about you but not what."

"Yeah, there is," he admitted, his brow furled. "Is that why my art teachers give me special attention?"

"I have no clue, but we all know that Sandburg could have owned this school after an incident with his last students. None of us want to cross his path. I'm sure your chair was advised of the truth when he got here."

"Oh. Okay. Don't worry about it, I don't go running to Blair for anything." He looked her over. "Listen, Blair admitted me, but I'm not his. I'm an *art* major. That's it. I draw and take pretty pictures. You never have to worry about Blair unless my roommate goes to him."

She tossed down his pencil. "I had hoped that you weren't one of those." She leaned back. "Is he your guide?"


"Never mind. You need to know that as soon as Sandburg's name was seen on your file, everyone suspected you were one, and if not one like his friend Jim is then something else having to do with his new discipline. Most of us are smart enough to realize that the man has some major power people over there." She touched her pendant. "My own daughter's Wiccan now and she said he was hoarding some strength over there. Just be careful and watch your teachers."

"I will. But from now on, I'm not Blair's student to you. I'm a usual art student. I don't expect special treatment and I hate when it's given as soon as I find out."

"Good. Oh, are we going to have a problem with you on the next test?"

"Oz has been helping me but I've pretty well understood everything he's reexplained to me." He shrugged and turned to walk out. "Don't call my advisor and tell him to run please."

She nodded, waving. "Oh, damn, Sandburg's going to kill me," she muttered. "He didn't want the kids he admitted to know."

"He's the least of your worries," Xander called back.

Xander tapped on John's door then stood in his doorway. "So, what sort of perks did Blair make you give me?" he asked. John looked up in shock so he walked in and shut the door. "John, I will say this once. I'm not Sandburg's student. I'm an *art* major and I expected to be treated as such. If we're going to have a problem because I'm one of his, then tell me now and I'll start school somewhere else next semester."

John put down his book and took off his glasses. "Not a one. Though Bertranda is curving you to fit into the rest of the class so you don't seem like a daisy among skunk flower thistles." He looked at his advisee. "You're here because you're good, Xander, I wouldn't have helped you otherwise. I don't care how much power Sandburg apparently has or how close he came to owning the school after a teacher tried to beat one of his students for zoning." Xander nodded for him to go on. "I chose you because you're good. If that bothers you, then I'll gladly hand you on to some other teacher. Bertranda even if you wanted."

"No, I like working with you," Xander said, sitting down across from him, "I just learned about the special perks program for Sandburg Students." John smiled. "I don't want them. From anyone. Yeah, if I zone in class, call Oz. Treat me like you would someone with a medical condition. Never give me special treatment."

Bertranda walked in. "Good. Your grade for your last assignment still isn't going up." He gave John a bland look. "You'll never guess who just walked in."

"Oz?" Xander asked.

"Jim?" John guessed.

Xander turned up his hearing. "Jim," he agreed. He looked up at his photography teacher. "I really don't care what grades I get as long as I'm happy with my work and I don't have to retake classes. If you want to institute a scaled curve according to the other grades to keep mine in line, do it. This is the first time I've ever been really good at anything. I just don't want to be shunned anymore." He stood up, nodding at his advisor. "We still going out for coffee tomorrow to talk about the next show?"

"Yes," John said quickly. "Hell yes, I'm not letting you get away." He frowned at his student. "Unless you don't want to do it."

"As long as it's based on my work, then I'm more than happy to show with you." He smiled at Bertranda as he walked around him, heading out to punch Jim on the arm. "Special perks for Blair's student's?" he asked quietly.

"Yes, and he wants to see you."

"Yay." Xander adjusted himself so he was slouched a little, but his whole stance said he wasn't moving. "I don't need special treatment, Jim, and I don't want it. Not from anyone. He can keep the perks to himself."

"We know, you're not getting any. He told the other teachers who asked him about them to not give you any." Xander gave him a 'get real' look. "He didn't know," he defended.

"Jim, Blair knows *everything* that goes on in my schoolwork. I doubt that, seriously doubt that." He shook off the hand. "No, don't touch me. I don't want favoritism. I don't want it here, I don't want it from Blair, and I don't want it from any of my other teachers. I'm not the ass kisser everyone thinks and I'll be damned if I want perks."

Jim nodded. "I'll tell him. He wanted to know how you were."

"Sore. I need to go take drugs." Xander thought for a second. "Tell him I'll see him in a few days. I'm not ready for this sort of stress yet." He turned, almost running into a few of the students. "Hey, guys." He walked around them, heading out of the building.

One of the art students looked at John as he walked out. "He was getting special perks?"

"No, he wasn't," John told her gently. "We tried to give him some. He demanded we curve his grades so they were relative to the class so you guys wouldn't be pissed with him anymore." He shared a look with the female student on the left end, another of his hand-picked advisees. "Xander has a great gift, but he's feeling really left out. He's ready to leave for somewhere he can pretend to be mediocre at." He walked back into his office. "Margaret, you have a project for me?"

"Yes, Dr. Hanes," she said, heading into his office. "I'll be right back, guys."

The other art students looked at Jim. "He's really one of Sandburg's?"

"Blair got him admitted, then he disassociated from us." Jim walked out of the department. "Later. Just don't treat him differently. That's what he really wants."

"Yeah," Margaret said as she walked out of the office. "He's always just wanted to belong. He's never pulled the 'I'm great' spiel like Turner used to."

The other art students nodded. "Maybe we were hasty," one of the guys said.

"Maybe," John agreed. "Go hang in the meeting room, not in the middle of the hall. I have to proof slides."


Xander walked into his loft, looking around in confusion at the lack of light. "Did we forget to pay bills?" he called. When he didn't get an answer, he walked toward the table, trying to work the lights, but nothing would turn on. He bit his lip, picking up a paintbrush as he passed the stack of them drying behind the couch, holding it wooden side first. "Dev? Oz?" He still didn't get an answer so he walked toward where he could hear movement. He pulled back Oz's curtain, then stood there in shock at the sight of Buffy and Devon. "Oh. Sorry." He closed the curtain and walked away. When Devon walked out, he waved. "I'm not here. Ignore me. Please ignore me."

"That's hard to do when you barge in," Devon said dryly. He walked over to hug Xander, giving him one light squeeze before letting him go. "Sorry, I guess I should have put a scarf outside the curtain or something." He glanced over his shoulder. "You okay with the subject?"

"Yeah, please, go have fun. You deserve happiness." Xander waved him on. "I'm going to paint or something. Why don't the lights work?"

"Pole went down up the street." Devon shrugged. "You might want to go check your last project, Bertranda gave you a 'C'."

"He's scaling my grade according to how the rest of the class is doing." Xander rubbed through his hair. "I don't have any film. Where's Oz?"

"He got called to the college by his advisor to answer for his absences. He said he'd be back later."

"Gee, that sucks." Xander sat down on the table, frowning at his feet. "My truck's going to need major CPR soon."

"Not to interrupt the whine, it's for a good reason and all, but I got a woman in there and I'd like..." Devon said, pointing back toward Oz's bedroom.

"Have fun," Xander said. "I'll be in my room." He walked into his room and shut the curtains, pulling over his headphones, snapping the long cord that went nearly the length of the loft so he could untangle it. He put them on and aimed his remote toward the stereo, trying to turn it on. When he realized the power was off once again, he took them off, closing his eyes. He fell into a gentle sleep, happy to be doing something.


Oz walked into the loft and stopped, looking around at the dark room. "Xander? Devon?" he called. He heard a groan so walked toward the sound, skillfully avoiding the furniture. "Dev?"

Devon came out of his bedroom, glaring at his other roommate. "What is this? Lack of Devon's privacy day?" He ran a hand through his hair. "Can't a guy and a girl do things without roomies busting in?"

Oz shook his head. "Not on my bed. Where's Xander?"

"In his room, probably sulking over the upcoming expensive CPR to his truck." Devon walked back into Oz's room, shutting the curtain. "This is my room too, go nap beside Xander for a while. I'll change the sheets."

"Hey!" Buffy said.

"I don't want to know," Oz muttered as he walked over to Xander's room, tapping on the curtain. He walked in, stopping when he saw how perfect Xander was, how he was highlighted by the moonlight so his skin looked like marble, how everything on his body was still for just that second. Oz wished he knew where the camera was but he didn't. He saw the bag and bent down to get it, but Xander moved, breaking the spell. He crawled onto the bed, brushing over the dark hair he had washed earlier. "Xander?" he whispered. The brown eyes opened to look at him. "How you feelin'?"

"Not great. I itch." Xander rolled over to lay his head on his guide's chest. "Can I have a hug?"

"Sure. We can even decide what to do about your truck."

"Needs major CPR Jim said when he came for me this morning. Simon agreed with him."

"Do we have enough money for that?"

"Not in my account. From the way they were talking, major was in the thousands of dollars. It might actually be cheaper to buy a whole new truck."

"We'll see," Oz said gently, rubbing down the covered back. "What can I do to make it stop itching?"

"Help me turn it down?"

"Sure." Oz looked down as Xander looked up. "Turn it down," he ordered calmly. "You can do this on your own now." Xander nodded, still staring, but he quit wiggling. "See?"

"Yeah, I guess I can, but it's still easier when you help me."

"Okay." Oz nodded, sliding down farther onto the bed. "Want to nap some more or would you like to paint by candlelight?"

"Neither. I want to go take pictures out in the woods."

"We can leave tomorrow morning," Oz reminded him. "I picked up the keys on the way home." He closed his eyes, breaking the intense stare. "I even got information on the Vocational Center's beautician program. It's expensive but I can get financial aid."

"Coolness. Gonna do that?"

"Not sure." Oz shifted so one of his legs was thrown over Xander's thigh. "What else do we have to do?"

"Do the artwork." Oz nodded. "I need film because Simon confiscated all that was in my bag in case Spike had taken any pictures."

"Did he?"

"No, but I was holding the strap so it sounded reasonable at the time."

"Okay. And?"

"And I need to think about the Sandburg Perks Program Rainier seems to have going. How can I take classes and know that I'm earning my grade when teachers are dancing with Blair?"

"Not sure. Do they?"

"My math teacher admitted that they do. I faced John with it and told him I refuse to have special perks. They're scaling my class work in relation to the other kids'."

"Seems reasonable, it'll make the other kids more appreciative."

"Maybe. I can only hope so. A few heard me yelling at John about not wanting special treatment. But we're still showing together."

"And if he wants to sell something?"

"I'll think about it," Xander admitted. "I still don't like the idea of selling my work."

"So sell the stuff that isn't personal to you." He kissed the side of his friend's head. "I know it's all personal to you but you have some stuff that's not real personal to you. Not like the pictures of Darryl sort of personal. Not like the snapshots personal. Sell those."

"Those are really bad," Xander admitted. "I was asked to show in the unknowns show again this year," he said suddenly, sitting up. "I could do that."

"If you'd like," Oz offered. "I'll support you in it. It's got to be better this time."

"Yeah, no ulcer." Xander smiled down at his guide. "Oz, I like us like this."

"Good. This is the perfect relationship as far as I'm concerned." Oz reached up to rub over Xander's shoulder. "I'd like us to stay like this."

"What about the other stuff?"

"I'd like to keep that 'if it happens, it does' for the moment."

"I think I could live with that," Xander admitted, lying back down. "You really think I should?"

"If you'd like to. Not for any other reason. Maybe, if you do sell this year, it could pay to fix your truck."

Xander snorted. "Maybe, but I'd have to put some of the more special stuff in there." He looked up. "I'd like to put one of the portraits in there, one of the ones I did of you."

"If you'd like," Oz said, giving him a small grimace. "I don't want to hang on someone's wall though."

"Well, unless we're going to start giving it away or open up our own gallery, I don't see an option."

"Point." Oz looked out at the pile of paintings on the floor. "We'll go through the piles tonight. Or Sunday night." Xander nodded, closing his eyes again. "Nap, Xand. You're safe and I'm here."

"Okay," Xander murmured, starting to snore softly.

Oz drifted off after him, just gently falling into a restful sleep.