Bad Timing by Voracity rating: R, for angst.

Xander got out of the car, unlocking the gas cap so he could slide the nozzle in and set it to fill the tank while he went to get his travel bag from the trunk. He stared in shock for a few seconds then bent down to check the baby, making sure she was all right. Serena stretched, yawning and wiggling her fingers. "Oh, you are in *so* much trouble," he told her, scowling.

"Hi Dada," she said, grinning. "'Prise!" She wiggled over the bags, grabbing him to hug. "Me come you." She pulled back to smile at him and the person walking up. "Me go him."

Xander turned to look at the attendant. "My step-child," he explained. He lifted her out, frowning down at her. "When did you sneak in?"

The attendant patted Xander's arm. "Trying to take a vacation without her?" He nodded, grimacing. "Well, I'm sure you two'll be fine." He walked around them, taking the hose out and putting it back on its hook. "Want to use my phone to call her Mom?"

"No," he sighed, "we'll call her from the cabin." He looked at his daughter. "But she could probably use some breakfast." He pointed at the open door, watching as she got into the car, before going into the little convenience store. The attendant headed after him and soon he walked out with a big bag. He got in, handing over a warm sandwich, still frowning at her.

"Me 'tay," she said, patting his arm, trying to make him feel better.

"I know you're okay, I'm just pissed." He started the engine, pulling the sportscar back onto the road. "Your Mom's going to kill me."

"Mommy no be mad. She love us." She took another bite of her hamburger, humming happily as they sped down the road.


Xander leaned against the side of the phone booth, listening to the other end ring as he watched his daughter ride one of those quarter-operated motorcycle rides. "Dominic," he sighed when it was answered. "Serena crawled into my trunk but we're fine." He smiled as she walked over, picking her up. "No, she's fine. I found her when I stopped to get gas." He handed her the phone, looking around at the other patrons of the small supermarket. He listened to her tell about the trees and took the handset back as she wiggled down. He handed her another quarter as he listened to the new, deeper voice on the other end. "Honestly, Derek, I don't know how she got in there." He crossed his feet, slouching a little. "I just opened up the trunk and there she was. Can you send me some of her clothes?" He snorted. "I'm sure she'd love that but I'd like to wear my shirts too." He nodded. "Okay, we should be there tonight. No, we're in the town and we're getting food now. We'll call Mom tonight before bed." He hung up, picking her up on the way into the store, his limp getting a little worse with the extra weight.

He was coming back out when he saw the two cops looking at his car. "Problems?" he asked as he walked over.

The officers looked at them then at each other. One leaned against the door. "Just wondering about some things we've heard." He waved at Serena and she grinned around her bottle of soda.

Xander's brow wrinkled then he shook his head. "I'm on vacation, she snuck into the car. Her Mom and I are together." The officer nodded. "I know how it looks, but we're not... I mean, she's like my own." The officer smiled, nodding some more. "Okay, I'm babbling, want the number to home so you can check?"

"No. Well, we do but we can do that later. Why are you here?"

"The organization I work for has a cabin up near here. I'm taking a much-needed vacation." He hopped the cart closer to the car, sitting on the hood to rest his very tired leg.

"What happened to your leg?"

"Gunshot." He got a surprised look. "Hostage situation." He looked at the other cop, watching him look at her. "Serena, finish your soda." She looked at him. "You begged and it's not going into my car." She pouted, looking up at him under her lashes. He shook his head. "Nope, not even."

The other officer chuckled. "I can tell you're a dad." He looked at the car in awe. "Fancy car. How do you manage with her?"

"Her mom and biological father have a van and an older Range Rover custom SUV." He ruffled the baby's hair. "She's part of a quad and she has a little sister." They both looked at him, mouths open. "Her mom and I are together but aren't married, she's commitment-phobic."

"Xandra?" Serena asked, eyebrows going up. "She good baby," she told the officer, nodding.

"Yeah, Xandra's a good baby." He leaned down, kissing her forehead. "Drink so we can go to the cabin. Mom and Uncle Derek will send you clothes tomorrow." She smiled, sipping happily.

"Okay, just give us that number. We can come up there if there's a problem." The officer stepped away from the door, holding the cart steady. He waited until everything was ready and Xander was about to get in before reminding him. "Mr. Harris? That number?"

Xander held up a finger, getting in to dig through the glove box. He stood back up, writing the number on the back of an envelope then handed it over. "Let it ring, the butler isn't always beside a phone." He recapped the pen, looking at them. "Anything else?"

"If there is, you'll see us again." They walked back to their cars, pulling away.

Xander got back into the car, looking at his daughter as he shut the door. "Hopefully, we won't get into trouble." He started the Jaguar, pulling back out onto the road.


Xander sighed as he opened the cabin door to the cops. "Didn't get an answer?" He turned, walking back into the kitchen. He turned down the pot of boiling stuff, stirring it before it could overflow.

"No, actually," the officer said, scratching his eyebrow, "we got one but the guy who answered thought she was still there." He leaned against the fridge. "Want to call them yourself?"

Xander poured the food out into a bowl, placing it on the table. "Food!" he called as he walked over to the phone. He watched her little t-shirt-clad body waddle in and crawl up into the chair shaking his head. "What did you do?"

"Toda," she said, pouting.

"Okay, I'll clean it up in a minute." He dialed, watching her eat. He hung up, shaking his head. "No answer." He slapped himself on the head, walking out to get his phone book to flip through. "Damn, don't have it. Must have forgotten to switch it when I switched books." He looked over his shoulder. "Get her some more milk please. I've got to find a cellphone number."

"It can wait until tomorrow," the officer said as he poured her some more milk. "I know what the law says but I've noticed that she's fine."

"Yeah, I've not beaten her yet for her earlier stunt." He walked back in, frowning at her. She looked down at her bowl, eating quietly. "With the way their work is, tomorrow might not be any better." He waved a hand at the table, kissing the baby's head before sitting down. "What do we do?"

"Well, for one thing, we keep trying." He took out his wallet, handing over a card. "I'll give 'em two days to call me then I'll have to bring you down to the jail." Xander nodded. "Here's the thing, I can't arrest you for it, but I can't let you go because they're still fighting over the law." He got a confused look. "The state has a new law that says that we have the right to detain people on probable cause for kidnapping. No matter for how long." That got a slow nod. "That means that it overrides the forty-eight hours to charge or release law."

Xander raised an eyebrow. "So, what happens to her?"

"We can't send her back without a parent in contact with us, also a loop in the law." He spread out his hands. "Wasn't well written but most people are willing to over look the rights violations so no more kids can be hurt."

"And if I just take her home?"

"Then, as soon as I find out you're gone, I'll have to put out a warrant for you." That got him a small shudder. "I see you know how damaging that could be." The younger man nodded. "Okay, so two days." He stood up, patting the little girl on the head as he walked out.

"Dada?" Serena asked, looking up and patting his hand. "'Tay?"

"Yeah, baby, I'm fine." He leaned over, kissing her cheek. "You finish supper, I've got to get Mom to call him." He stood up, walking over to the phone and hitting the redial button.


"Where we go?" Serena asked as she watched the bags be repacked into the car. She tugged on her father's pants leg as he walked past her. "Where?" she asked again, louder.

"We have to go to town," he told her, picking her up and carrying her back inside. He set her down on the couch, sitting down next to her. "Since we can't get hold of Mommy, we have to go see the officer again." She nodded, wrinkling up her face. "I know, I don't understand either, well I do but I don't know why they're picking on us." He kissed her forehead again. "I love you and I'll keep trying to get Mommy to call him and you'll be good." She nodded, tipping her head to the side. "Promise me that you'll be good."

"Me be good," she said, taking his hand and holding onto his thumb. "Why?"

"Because they might want you to go see someone else for a while." He brushed some of her hair out of the way. "Come on, let's get going." He put her down onto the floor. "Go potty so we can go." She nodded, letting him go and heading for the bathroom while he got up to try the house one last time. He put the receiver down gently when he didn't get an answer, letting his head hit the wall and closing his eyes.

"We go now," Serena asked, wiggling to get between him and the wall. "Mommy?"

"No, Mom's nowhere to be found." He bent down, picking her up to hug her tightly to his chest. "I love you, Serena, remember that." She nodded, laying her head on his shoulder. He stood there, hugging her hard for as long as he could. He only let go when he heard the knock on the door, easing his grasp a little as he walked out to let the officer in. "Still no answer?"

"Not a one now." He looked at them. "Listen, it's bending the rules a little but she can come stay with me and my wife. Our son's in college now and he won't mind letting her have his room." Xander just nodded, not able to say anything. "We'll do what we can to make it easier on both of you." He held his arms out, waiting until they were filled with a fussy baby. "Shh, Serena, we'll be fine."

"No, me Dada." She hit him but Xander stopped her, holding her hand. "No? No bad?"

"No, love, he's not bad. He's just doing his job." He looked at his car. "Want me to drive it in? It'd save having to tow it."

The officer nodded. "Sure. Do you know where?" He got a short nod. "Okay, park on the side of the building. With luck, we'll find them today." He turned, walking out with her. Xander followed them out to his car, following them down the small drive to the main road.


"Okay, Xander, here's the deal," Officer Stalier said, sitting down across from him and the baby. They had both tried all day to reach the house but there was still no answer so some plans had to be made. "There's still no answer, so we can't let you go." That got him a small nod. "But I'm not putting you in the general cells. I know you're not a criminal and you've just run afoul of that damnable law. We have a special cell in the back and I'll put you in there." He looked at Serena, seeing her watching him. "You're going to come stay with me tonight, okay?" She shook her head, clinging to her father's hand. "I know you don't want to but you have to." She shook her head again, sucking her thumb now, a sure sign she was really upset if you knew her. "I'm sorry, precious, but you have to. You can't stay with him while he's here."

Xander leaned closer, turning her head to look at him. "I know you don't want to but we have to until we can talk to Mommy, okay?" She shook her head, begging silently with her eyes. "I know, I don't want to do this either, but it's a nice big bed and I'm sure he'll have a stuffed animal or something for you to curl up with." She nodded, pouting. "Do it for me and we'll try to get Mom again in the morning." She nodded, removing her thumb to kiss his cheek. He hugged her hard then handed her over, keeping himself in check as they left.

He was led back to the private cell, waiting until he was alone to break down and cry.


Xander looked up as Serena came running in, smiling and happy. She held up her favorite bear from home, making him sigh in relief ad he stood up. They were being nice to him, but he was still being held like a prisoner. "Her stuff came?" Officer Stalier nodded, running a hand through his hair. "Not good enough?"

"We still can't verify where it came from. No return address and still no answer at that number." He waved a hand at the chair. "I know, two weeks and still nothing."

"I'm thinking they took the opportunity to take a vacation too," Xander said, sitting down and hugging her. "How much longer?"

"We've got to keep you here until we hear from one of her parents," he held up a hand, "biological parents since you told me what was going on." The younger man nodded. "I know, it stinks, but I can't do anything else." That got him another nod. "But, I've got a small compromise. I know you've been doing things around here to help and we're allowing you to keep on doing it. And she'll still keep coming in." He reached over to tweak her nose. "She's delightful to have around, she's a good kid. You've done a good job with her."

Xander smiled slightly, tipping his head. "Thanks." He kissed the top of her head, leaning back in the chair. "What else?"

"Well, my Chief, who's back in town again, wants to talk to you himself. He'll be in later today." He scratched his eyebrow. "He doesn't like that law either, mostly because of guys like you and single fathers and stuff." He shrugged. "We'll have to wait and see. I'm going to go try them again. Where's her bag of books?"

"In the other chair." He set Serena down, watching as she picked out a book. He put a hand on the officer's arm, stopping him from leaving. "You've been great through this, thanks," he sais quietly.

"Hey, I'm just sorry you have to go through this." He patted the hand before walking away, heading back to his desk.

Xander pulled her back into his lap, opening the book up to read it to her. "Goldilocks? She was warned not to go into those woods...."


The Police Chief looked at the man sitting across from his desk. "We're all real sorry about this." He shrugged. "Not my call though." He leaned back in his chair. "What do you do out there?"

"Security and some minor research while I go to school part-time." Xander shrugged. "It's a living. We live in the house and all." He turned to check on Serena, frowning at her chocolatey face. "No more M&M's for you, love. You've had enough." She pouted but he raised a brow and she nodded, sitting down to talk to her bear. He turned back to the other man. "Sorry, but we've got to watch her sugar intake or else she tears around the room." He *felt* normal, even if he was living in some alternate dimension now, his own personal theory for why this was happening to them.

The Chief laughed, nodding. "My own were that way too." He leaned forward. "How's your range scores?" That brought out a small, slow smile on the usually grim and depressed face. "That good?"

"My brother's a former Seal and I keep up with him." That got a grunt of appreciation. "Actually, I could use some time on the range to blow off some steam." He looked down at his hands. "Not that I don't like the weights or the heavy bag, but I'm a swimmer, not a boxer."

The Chief nodded. "I want to go with you. I'm not sure what you guys out there carry, but here, we carry nine millimeters." He pulled one from the drawer, handing it over. "How's that?"

Xander held it up, looking down the sight, feeling the way it fit in his hand. "Its weight's off to the right so it must have been fired by someone with a left-handed dominant grip to counter the pull." He grinned. "Nick told me that's what its called." He shrugged, weighing it in his hands. "Mine's a little heavier and probably has more range, it's a powerful German-made gun." He handed it back. "Not too bad though." He leaned back, glowing from the proud smile of the man across the desk.

"Boy, you want a job?" he asked.

"Please don't call me that," the younger man sighed in exasperation. "And no thanks, I live where I work and I'm usually needed there." He looked over his shoulder, checking on the baby again, seeing no one in the room with her. "What's going on?"

"Don't know, let me go check." The Police Chief walked out, heading out to talk to the secretary. He walked back in, grabbing his jacket. "Got a jumper."

"I'm a psych major," he offered, standing up. "And I know that sort of pain." The silent ‘real well' was heard by both of them but the older man ignored it thankfully. He looked at his daughter as he walked past her. "Behave for Sherry and you can have another handful of candy when I get back." He walked out the door, heading to where all the officers were standing, pushing past them to head up the stairs, ignoring them. He walked out onto the roof, not really high enough to kill her but more than enough to set off his phobia. He slowly inched closer, tipping his head to look at her. "Just don't laugh, I don't like heights," he said softly, holding onto her shoulder as he sat beside her on the edge of the roof. "Xander," he said, holding out a hand.

She shook it, nodding down at the cops below. "You one of them?"

"Nope, I'm the guy that they picked up because my step-daughter came on vacation with me." She turned to look at him, frowning. "I see you've heard."

"In a town this size? By the time he came back out to talk to you." She shifted away from him. "What are you doing up here? I want to be alone." She looked down at her hands.

"I know, but I don't think that you really do, not in your head you don't." He touched her hands, taking one in his. "See, I know alone and this isn't it." She looked at him funny. "Honey, trust me, this isn't alone. Alone is your mother deciding you ran away and not knowing how old you are." Her mouth came open. "Truth, really. She told the cops I was underaged when I wasn't. Almost nineteen when she did it too." She leaned closer to him. "Tell me about it? I'll just listen."

She nodded, letting it all spill out.

Xander walked her out of the building, handing her over to the Chief. "She needs someone there for her," he told him. "She's all alone and doesn't think anyone knows it." He rubbed her back some more, steadying her. "But we'll be fine now. I told her she could come talk to me if she wanted."

The Police Chief nodded, walking them both back to the office. He sat her down in a chair next to Serena, watching them talk quietly for a minute before pulling Xander into the office. "How did you know what to say?"

"Want the long or the short version?" he asked, very tense. The man looked confused so he went on. "I was almost nineteen when I went to work where I am now. My mother turned me in as an underaged runaway, seriously not knowing that she was wrong." The older man sat down heavily in his desk chair. "And that was one of the nicer things that year." He took the chair across the desk. "I really could use the time on the range, may I?"

"Sure," the older man said, handing over the gun from the drawer. "Whenever you want, but I want an officer in there with you." He waved one of them inside. "Go watch him on the firing range and bring me back the best target. Says he's pretty good."

Xander got up, following him out, smiling at his daughter as he walked past her. He put on the earmuffs they gave him and the glasses, taking the ammunition to check before loading it. He faced the target, squinting just a little as he pictured it as one of the bad things in his life, his mother. He fired the first round, getting back into the feel of the motion, letting his own pain flow through the weapon.


Xander looked up as Stalier walked up to where he and Serena were coloring. "Still no answer?"

"Oh, we got one but it was hurried and her mother and father weren't there. They're out on a case?" He sat down, watching her draw a vaguely animal shape. "What do you guys do?"

"We do private research on artifacts and we also do some community service helping people who need our immense and varied skills. We have a top lab and access to some of the best people in the world. Derek, Doctor Rayne, the head of the Luna Foundation, offers our services to some individuals who need it." He shrugged. "Did they say when they would be back?"

"A week. They're in Colorado somewhere and no one would give me their number."

Xander frowned. "I want to talk to Derek, he'd call them for you."

"I asked for him since you told me to but someone named Nick Boyle answered instead." He shrugged. "Sorry."

"My brother," Xander sighed. He held a hand out for the phone. "Let me." He dialed the house, tapping his foot in exasperation as Nick went through his usual greeting. "Bro, I need to talk to them now. You've got to have them call here." He looked at the phone. "Don't give me that crap, Nick, you know very well who this is." Long pause. "Let me refresh your memory. I have your niece, the nice one that likes me. I'm also in hot water here because I have her. I need Willow to call these people before they use me for bait. Starting to sound like a Boyle thing?" He nodded, hanging up. "He has the number from the caller ID and he'll call them later tonight and have them call tomorrow." He looked at Serena, seeing her looking at him. "Hey, we can go home soon." She nodded but frowned. "What?"

"Want to stay few days," she said, pouting. "Special coming on."

"Ah, yes, the TV show," Officer Stalier said, nodding. "I know you do, Serena, but if your Mommy calls us then you can go watch it at home with your family." She grinned. "She is yours, I have to admit." He looked at Xander, seeing the sad look. "What's wrong?" he asked softly.

"I don't know but I know this isn't over yet. Nick didn't sound right." He shrugged, leaning back, pulling his mask back on by force of will so no more emotions would show - those that he still could feel. "We'll deal. Derek has to come back sometime and so does Willow." He glanced at the officer who had helped him so much. "So, why aren't you freaking?"

"Huh? Oh, last night." He waved it off. "My nephew does the same thing. I'm just wondering how you got her so well trained."

"She's been like this since she was born. The only way we've ever chained her was putting her into a playpen." He looked around. "Not uncommon?"

"No, not really. About a quarter of the town's been bit. We just all worked it out." He pulled a journal/magazine out of his pocket, opening it. "This is you then, isn't it?" He held it out.

Xander looked at the paper and smiled, nodding. "Yeah, that's me and her mom and dad." He looked back up. "Did the information help?"

"Some, but I want to know how you deal with the aggression."

"See, when I was in high school, I was possessed by an animal spirit. I've used that to help me understand the animal in them. It's all a matter of pack behavior and establishing dominance." He looked at Serena, who was watching them. "She knows I'm her father and the alpha male so she listens. It's a natural occurrence for her to listen to me in either format. All you need to do is to establish a dominant force and stick with it. And expect some fighting. Her father and I do it all the time, it's just usually the silent pressure type." He crossed his feet, looking around. "Bring them down here tonight and I'll show you."

"We'd need chains."

"We don't chain her. We keep her in a room but we don't have to chain her because she won't bite us." He leaned over to kiss her. "Isn't that right?" She nodded, smiling again. "Who's that for?"

"'Tricia," she said, picking up another crayon to color it in.

"My wife," the officer elaborated.

"I know, I've seen her picture." Xander looked at his watch. "Take her home and feed her now, it'll ease the hunger later." He got a surprised look. "Works, trust me on this." He kissed Serena's cheek again, watching as she walked out. He took out his calling card, dialing the house again. "Nick," he said, nodding at the Chief as he walked by, waving his card. It was waved off. "No, I'm in real trouble. They have this law that says that they can arrest me if I look suspicious and guess what? A single guy my age with a kid looks that way." He looked at the phone in disgust. "No, don't laugh. I'm serious." He shook his head, hanging up. "I'll get you when I get back." His shoulders slumped. "If I get back."

He got up, going back to his cell to look at his pictures. He touched the faces in the group one, folding it again so he could only see the kids. "I'll be back sometime," he told them, putting it back where he'd be able to see it later. "And I'll always love you, no matter how long I'm here."


Xander looked down at the things his daughter was drawing, wincing at the loud gunshots from the next room. He looked at the young officer as he came back out frowning at the paper. "Still no good?" It was shown to him and he winced. "Want me to help you? I don't know what I could do but it might help." The other man walked into the office, getting him the spare gun, and they went in together, Xander having a quiet word with Serena to go talk to the other guys and not come in. He put on his earmuffs as he watched the officer shoot, shaking his head. He tapped him on the shoulder, removing one muff off each their ears. "You're doing it wrong," he said simply. "Everything really." He adjusted the man, moving him how he wanted him to stand then moving up behind him to adjust his grip. He helped him fire, watching the target. "See?"

The officer nodded so he stepped back. "Try it again." He replaced the muffs, watching as the officer did it right this time, getting a much nicer pattern. "Good," he said. "Now work on your aim." He grinned, leaning against the wall to watch until he could take his turn.

The Police Chief walked in as he was firing, watching him work the center of the target almost perfectly, with his now infamous icy precision that had only showed up since he had been trapped there by the younger man's own admission. "Was told you were in here," he said as Xander reloaded. "Help him any?"

The other officer showed up his best target proudly. "All it took was him showing me," he said, smiling. He patted the younger man on the back before he left.

Xander shrugged. "He needed the hands on approach." He raised an eyebrow. "Want it back?"

"No, I want to know how you do this." He leaned against the wall, waiting.

"I told you, my brother's a former Seal. He taught me." He put the gun down. "Why?"

"Because most people don't get that degree of accuracy without years of practice. Especially not with that sort of grouping." He lifted up the last target, holding it up to look at the completely blown out center. "You only missed the border."

"Nick and I shoot together every few days. He's helped me work up to that level of goodness." He crossed his arms, lounging against the wall, acting in his calm manner. "Why?"

"Because you work a security position but you couldn't shoot before you went to work?" The older man raised an eyebrow. "The world doesn't usually work that way."

"I could shoot before that, just not that well. And like I said, my brother is head of security. I was allowed a little slack to get better as long as I kept up with everything else."

"And you've published papers on animal behavior. You've talked a very hurting young woman down off a building. You've helped another officer's kid do his homework in Social Studies. You work well with the furry problem that we get on the full moon. You helped one of our daughters work on her lines for the school play and she was the best one there that night." He frowned, taking back the gun. "Who are you really?"

"Just me, Xander Harris, normal guy." He took off the protective gear, handing it over. "Nothing special." He walked out, heading out to take the candy away from Serena.

"And I'm the Pope," the Chief said after him.

Xander leaned back in the doorway. "Don't make fun, I know a priest that may be Pope someday." He walked back out.

He didn't even notice the shocked look on the older man's face, not really paying any attention to him at all now since his daughter was dancing around for him.


Nick Boyle opened his phone, frowning at the man in the bed. "Boyle," he said, pulling the phone away from his ear. "Willow, calm down." He looked at Derek, frowning. "Here, I'm giving you to Derek, hold on." He handed over the phone, sitting beside Philip. "She was not a happy person."

"Where is your sidekick anyway?" the Priest asked. "You've not said anything abou' him."

"He's been on vacation for the last month. Of course, Serena crawled into the car with him but that's what we expected to happen." He smiled, just a little. "After he was gone, we all took off for Hawaii on Derek's expense account. We needed some house rebuilding time." He grimaced, shaking his head. "I hope he's okay. He sounded strange when he called a few weeks ago to prank us."

Derek hung up, getting up to slap Nick across the back of his head. "That wasn't a prank. He's really being held because they think he kidnapped Serena." He looked at Philip. "Do you want to come with us or go home?"

"I'm coming," Philip said, sitting up and pushing Nick out of the way so he could get out of the bed and dress. "He only knows what you two'll get into when ya go get him."

Derek frowned, nodding. "You might need to keep Oz from hurting someone. They'll meet us there." He tossed the keys to Nick. "Go warm up the car, we'll be right out." The youngest man left, hurrying out to go save him.

"How long?" Philip asked quietly.

"The whole time it seems," Derek said. He sat down on the bed, watching his lover. "That new law that we all thought was a goot idea got him." His lover snorted. "My thoughts exactly. I wonder how he's holding up."


Xander shot off the last clip of ammo, putting down the gun before he could throw it. "A month," he muttered, taking off his glasses and putting them down. "I've been here a month and they only realize now." He looked around before throwing the spare clip at the target as hard as he could. Anger and icy coldness was all he could feel now and even he knew that wasn't a good thing.

"That doesn't work real well," Stalier said, walking up behind him to hug him. "I know, but I think they finally figured out it wasn't a joke. Matter of fact, I believe your family's out there now." He turned Xander around, looking into his cold expression. "Don't yell at them, they didn't understand."

"Yeah they did. They're both bright people. The third call for help should have tipped them off." He handed back the gun, walking out and going to his cell to gather his things. He ignored the pictures on the desk, picking up his jacket and walking out. He took his keys from the secretary, heading out to put his things in the trunk.

By the time he got back, Derek and Nick were waiting on him in the main room, both looking very worried. "What?" he asked, very testily. "Don't know how to check messages?" He stopped in front of Derek. "I'm going on my vacation now," he said quietly, letting all the anger that he'd held in come out now. "Take her home with you and I'll be back before school starts." He glanced at his brother before turning around and walking away.

"Not so fast," the Chief called. "Parents only, you know that." That got him an icy glare, one that made him step back. "I know, son, but I can't let you go yet." He leaned against the doorway, frowning at the visitors. "Just a few more minutes I bet. He," he nodded at Nick, "said they were right behind them."

The younger man just nodded, stealing a piece of candy to chew on while he waited. As soon as he heard the other car stop outside he raised a brow and got a nod. He turned to walk out, not expecting to be grabbed and least of all by Philip. "Let go," he said softly. "I'm not fighting with them in here."

"Xander," Oz said, walking up behind him and grabbing him, turning him around. The look he got sent him back a few paces. "We didn't know. Nobody even told us you called." The younger man remained silent. "Want to talk?" he offered.

"Not really, not here." He crossed his arms over his chest, looking at his lovers. "Not at all really." He looked down at his daughter, smiling warmly at her. "See, told you they'd come for you." She nodded, holding onto his pants leg. "Now, you can go home and I'm going to go visit the trees again."

"No, me go you," Serena said. She frowned at her mother. "Me go him."

"No honey, he needs time alone," Willow said, getting down on her level. "He wanted time alone to think and stuff." She picked her up slowly, hugging her tightly, looking over her shoulder at her lover. "I'm sorry too," she said.

"I know." Xander looked over his shoulder. "Take care of her, I'll be back before school." He kissed the back of the baby's head, walking out to his car. He'd just opened the door when he felt the hand on his arm. "No, Oz, just drop it for now."

"I want a hug, just to make sure you're all right," the slightly older man said, turning him around. "We really didn't know. We would have come if we had. I would have come." He stepped closer, holding out his arms. "Hug?" Xander shook his head. "Please, just one before you go."

Xander looked him over, noticing the new addition to his hand. "You married her," he said softly, his voice going emotionless. All the feeling drained from his body in that one second, leaving behind a numb spot. He shook his head, leaning against his car. "I guess you made your decision."

"No, we have one for you when you get back," he assured him, moving closer to him. "We didn't know. Derek took us all to Hawaii to work on becoming a house again after Buffy was almost killed on patrol. I guess no one checked the answering machine until Willow walked in and found it blinking and full." He laid a gentle hand on his lover's arm. "I didn't know, I would have come for you if I had."

Xander snorted. "You know, it's a good thing these guys were decent about this. If I had been put in the regular cells, I'd have been hurting." He scowled at the man walking over to them. "Aloneness?"

"In a minute." The Police Chief handed him a small envelope. "For all the work you did. City Council agreed to pay you last night." He smiled. "Thank you, for all of it. Oh, and the pictures you left are in there too."

The younger man nodded, reaching over to shake his hand. "Thank you for being decent to me. I know you could have treated me like everyone else that comes through your doors." He let go, sitting down in his seat and tossing the envelope over. "I'm going to go on my vacation now." He looked at Oz. "Later."

The older man shook his head. "Give me five minutes," he pleaded softly.

"He's coming back to the house," Derek said as he walked up behind them. He stared down Xander. "Isn't he?"

"I need a vacation, Derek. Even more so now." He slid his key into the ignition. "Just a few weeks then I'll come home."

"Come back for a night then and leave again," the Precept prompted. "See the kids." He smiled warmly. "Have the dinner we wanted to have the night you didn't want to eat." He pushed him mentally, focusing his sight on him. "Please, Xander, come home for just a night before you leave again. Give yourself a chance to rest."

Xander sighed, nodding. "Fine. I can do that." He glanced at Oz as he tried to shut the door. "I'll meet you there." He slammed the door before starting the car and pulling away.

The Police Chief looked at them. "He's quite a man, that one." He looked at Oz. "Come talk with me, young man." He led him out of the alley and into his office, waving him at a chair. "That boy, man, sorry. That man did more in the month he was here than I've done in ten." He got up to close the door, seeing the slumped shoulders. "Where were you?"

"Derek took us to Hawaii for a vacation. We left right after he did, that night." He slumped down in the chair, holding his head. "Then we had an assignment when we came back that took us to Colorado." He looked up. "Was he... was he hurt?" That got a small smile. "No?"

"No, we have a special cell for people like Mayors and officers who have done really horrendous things. We put him in there. It's private, in the back by itself." He leaned back in his chair. "He had free run of the place since he wasn't really arrested, couldn't do that without proof." He thought for a second, looking over the young man looking at him. "Let me tell you a story. We had a young woman here a few weeks ago, very nice young girl who'd lost her father a few weeks before. She was in so much pain she went to the highest roof in town to think on the edge of it." He cleared his throat. "Then one guy walked up there, pushing all of my guys out of the way to do it. He was deathly scared of heights but he walked out to where she was anyway, sitting down next to her and just listening to her. He told her a short story about something that she would understand. Now, all this time, he was only on the roof by about three inches of his behind but he still held onto her and helped her down. And when she came down, she had a new appreciation for all that she still had and all that she hadn't been through." Oz was looking really pitiful now. "When I asked him how he knew what he needed to say, he said he listened. That she needed to get it out of her and onto someone else. So he let her put it on him for a while so she could heal." He spread his arms. "You have quite a man and a wonderful child there."

Oz stood up. "Yeah, I do, and I see the point. I'll listen to him tonight." He reached across the desk, shaking the older man's hand. "Thank you for taking care of them."

"See that guy hugging your girl? He took care of her the whole time. She came in daily but he took care of her." That got him a slightly confused look. "Oh, and that article you three wrote together was most helpful for our quarter of the population." He smiled. "Quite a man there." He waved Stalier in, introducing him and watching the handing over of the child. "Go home, both of you. You both could use your mates."


Derek looked down the mostly empty dining room table, watching Xander playing with his food. "Xander, would you like some more rolls?" he asked, seeing that it was the only thing gone. He got a mute head shake so got up, walking down to sit beside him. "Would you like to talk about it?"

"Not really," Xander said, tossing down his fork. "Tell Dominic he did good, I just wasn't hungry." He got up, walking out of the room and up to his room. He shut the door softly, grunting at the body on his bed. "Aren't you in the wrong room?"

Oz shook his head as he sat up. "I wanted to have a real hug and listen whenever you're ready." He held out his arms but the younger man stepped away from him. "What?" he asked, hurt.

"Why the ring?" Xander countered.

"Because Derek and Giles talked sense into her. We wanted to wait until you were home but they insisted that paradise was the perfect place to do it." He shrugged. "We have one for you whenever you want it."

The younger man sat down in his chair facing the bed. "And if I don't want to?" The normally semi-expressive body curled in on itself, curling up on the bed. "Don't do that," he said softly.

Oz shook his head, not saying anything. He uncurled after a minute, getting up to walk over to his love, sitting on his lap to hug him. He buried his face into the soft skin, smelling him. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I didn't know and I'm sorry."

Xander wrapped him in his arms, comforting him. "I know but I'm not sure it's enough." He let him pull back. "After all this? I'm not sure if anything is enough anymore." He looked into the lighter eyes, seeing the pain he was causing. "You yelled because I protected them," he said quietly. "How could you think I didn't care?"

"Because you didn't tell us." He slid to the floor, looking up at him. "Tell me. I need to know."

"No, I shouldn't have to. You should know that I did." He got up, pacing around the room. "You should know by now that I care, always, for all of you. And even if I had told you, then what? You would have come home and probably fallen into it too. I mean, I was already alone and then I just got more alone. Then you tossed me out for protecting everyone." He stopped, looking down at his lover. "How could you think about me like that?" He sat down on the edge of the bed. "Everything I do is for or because of you and you thought I didn't care. I'm not getting it here, Oz, not at all."

"All we knew is that some of the houses were having problems, that's all that we were told. Marcus told us that our house was one of them and that you were central to it." He shifted some, looking down at the floor. "No one told us that you kept them safe or that you didn't tell us so we wouldn't come home. No one said that you'd been shot or that you could have died..." He choked up, hurrying into the bathroom to get sick again.

Xander started to get up but slid to the floor instead when the door was slammed. He leaned his head back, listening to him being ill because of him. "Okay, I'm guilty now," he said once the older man came back out. "You okay again?"

"It isn't that, you. It is, but it's my head, not you." Oz sat down across his legs, missing the sore spot on the younger man's thigh. "This isn't about you feeling guilty, it's about *me* feeling guilty. For not being here and for yelling at you and all that." He was grabbed and pulled closer, being held again, and he relaxed into the strong arms. "You've changed," he said softly. "You're not our Xander anymore and it scares all of us."

"Jail does that to one," he quipped. "Even when it's the nice version."

"It wasn't just that, even if there's a huge change now. Before you were different. Even before we left. You're not the happy guy we liked in high school." He closed his eyes, going totally limp. "I miss him sometimes."

"So do I," Xander admitted in a whispered. "Every day." He made Oz sit up, making him look at him. "I'm not happy, Oz, not by myself and not like this. You and she need to make a few decisions. The one thing I did have was time to think and I know I can't go on like this. One way or the other."

"I know, I don't like this either." Oz brushed over the stubbled jaw, frowning. "I want you to stay and I'm willing to change to do it. I can't speak for her though." He looked into the deep eyes, drowning in them and the pain they held. "I want you to be that happy guy again too. I miss hearing you laugh and play and stuff."

"Yeah, me too." Xander let him fall back against him, holding him tightly, gently relaxing under his healing touch. "I don't know how to get him back though."

"Easy, we make all the heavy stuff go away."

"Kids don't do that."

"It wasn't them, Xan."


Oz sat back up, looking at him. "I can't call you that?"

"It's too personal and I'm not sure I can handle that part again." He looked down, tensing as the body on his moved. "I'm just not sure." Oz leaned closer, kissing him, reminding him of what they had had. He had to open his eyes and look back up as they pulled apart. "I know we have that, but what about the other stuff? The heavy stuff." He touched the wedding band delicately, not wanting to but having to. "This stuff."

"Then don't have that stuff yet. We'll wait for you." He leaned back against the firm chest, letting his head rest under the rough chin. "Want to talk some more? I heard nice things about you."

"I know. I asked him not to but I know he did." He looked at the door, seeing his brother standing there. "Out," he said firmly. "I'm not even ready to deal with you yet." Nick nodded, walking back out and shutting the door. "You know, I talked to him a few weeks ago. He thought I was kidding." He rubbed over the suddenly stiff back. "He sounded drunk but he still thought I was kidding."

"He answered the phone before we left too, I just never put it together." Oz sighed, relaxing again. "We can deal with him tomorrow, okay?" That got a small nod. "Want to do this on the bed? I'm sure the floor must be really hard for you right now."

Xander got up, putting Oz onto the bed and crawled in after him. At the amazed look, he grimaced self-consciously. "I had to do something with the anger and the weights were there." He shrugged, laying back. "You sure?" He held up an arm.

"Just a hug," Oz told him, laying on his chest again, cuddling him with all he had. "What else did you do besides talk someone down?"

"Not much."


Derek looked up as Xander walked into his office, smiling at him and standing up to hug him. "Thank you for this," he said against the dark hair. "I think we all need this." He led him to a chair he'd placed beside his, sitting him down. "We all need to talk. The stress of your ordeal has weakened what we built while you were suffering." He frowned. "Which we are all sorry for."

"So I've heard," he said quietly. "And I'm still pissed at certain people."

"I thought you were kidding," Nick reminded him. "You're not the type of guy to get arrested and that sounded so far out of bounds it wasn't funny." He grimaced, looking down. "Which should have clued me off."

"And that first call from the Police? When you told them Serena was still here?" He raised an eyebrow, looking at him.

Nick looked up. "That wasn't me." He looked at Derek. "Wasn't that you?"

"No, it was you, Nick," the Precept said. "I heard you tell someone that she was still here."

"That was Buffy's mother. I never answered anything from the cops until Xander called." He looked around the room, then back at the young man in question. "Did they say who?"

"Just that it was a man."

Giles frowned. "When was this? If I remember right, the phones were forwarded for a bit there due to a computer mess-up." He looked at Willow, who nodded. "It could have been then."

Willow patted the papers she had in her lap. "I have the call logs here. When?"

"Early afternoon."

She flipped through them, shaking her head. "No record of the call." She handed them over to Derek, who was closer. "Must have been then. Who had it anyway?"

"William," Derek groaned. He looked at Xander. "Can we drop this point until we clear that up?" He got a short nod. "Thank you. As for Nick, I'm sure he's sorrier than he'll ever be again over that. I know he is since he's beat Philip in the guilt department recently." The Priest in question snorted. "He has." He smiled at his lover briefly before turning back to the topic at hand. "And the answering machine was my fault. I didn't feel up to dealing with it that first night back so I left it, then forgot about it." He shrugged, just a little. "I'm sorry, but it happens sometimes when things get hectic."

"I know," Xander said, "but this was all a little coincidental for me. You guys leave for Hawaii as I get arrested, the answering machine is never checked while you're gone or afterwards, then cases start coming in? Does anyone else here see a pattern?"

Giles coughed. "Yes, well, that very well may be and I do have an idea about that, still to be proven." He looked at Derek, who nodded for him to take it. "While you were gone, it seems someone spiked the water with something that made us all hallucinate for a day. All the records of that day are gone except for the call log." He waved at Willow's pile of papers, now on the desk. "No one wanted to mention this because none of us wanted to worry you further but it seems someone was looking into your records. They may well be responsible for some of that bollix up."

Xander coughed, bending over and choking. They all watched as Oz was instantly beside him, helping him calm down and steady himself again. "Thanks," he said, leaning into his shoulder. "Who?" he croaked, coughing a little more.

"We have no idea," Nick said. "All we know is that they were looking and not taking. The computer log shows no copied or sent files." Derek nodded as a second to the thought. "And yeah, that was the same day that I took your call."

"Which made you think it was a joke," Xander finished. He glared at Derek. "You were going to tell me this when? And that still leaves a week or more in there somewhere."

"When we had more facts." He cleared his throat. "We didn't want you to worry any more than you were but we weren't going to let you be harmed again." He reached out to touch a firm shoulder but it was drawn away from him. "We had nothing to do with your incarceration or any of that mess. Or with your personal problems with your mates. This was an additional worry on top of all that and I felt it best to not worry you unduly about it yet."

The youngest man nodded slowly then stood up, staring his boss down. "I would rather have known." He looked around at the rest of the room. "I don't care if I'm just out of brain surgery, I want to be told these things." He got a round of nods and Oz got up to push him back down into his seat.

"I made the decision, not Derek. He asked me and I told him to keep it quiet." That got him glared at again. "I didn't want to worry you more on top of that and the shooting and all the other stuff that we need to work over too." He took a deep breath. "We really need to work on this alone but I want to make one thing clear, we're not letting you be taken, stolen, or hurt again. We don't want to see you in the hospital or having to cope like you did when they were all out and we were gone. Even if you can do it, we don't want you to."

"I'm sensing a reason behind all this." Xander looked at his friend. "Why? We all know I'm not weak, feeble, or mentally deficient so why the worry?"

"Because Marcus told us what happened while we were under. That's why I checked the tapes," Nick said. He rubbed over his brow, making a face. "It seems you did almost go out too but didn't and we don't know why." He looked around the room, seeing the agreeing looks so went on. "We need to find out why you weren't put to sleep. We know it wasn't non-exposure because Buffy fell into it when she came back, so why not you? What made you strong enough to resist it?"

"Need," Xander said slowly, enunciating it carefully. "I didn't go under because then no one would have been up." He sighed, getting back up. "I fought my ass off to stay awake because someone had to. Is there some concern that I've turned or am about to?" A slow group nod. "Why?"

"Your behavior has changed," Giles pointed out. "Dramatically."

The youngest man threw up his arms. "Gee, you wonder why?" he yelled. "It couldn't be all the crap I've been through, could it?" He shot cold glares at everyone. "Gee, let's see, shooting Giles not too long after I got here and that whole thing. My predator coming out and the earthquake and, oh yeah, let's not forget the leaving incident." He frowned, waving at them. "Later, I'm going to go calm down." He glared at his lover as he started to get up. "No, stay and talk about me." He walked out of the office, heading for the garden.

Philip cleared his throat. "The boy's got a point. He's been through more'n all of us combined." He shrugged at Derek's icy stare. "He has. Be honest. What would you be doin' if you'd done all that?" He crossed his legs, getting comfortable.

Alex nodded. "I agree. He's been through too much to not change him." She looked at Oz. "Can you bring him back?"

"He's had massive trauma to the core of his self, I'm not sure anyone could." He shuddered. "That's part of what had me so scared, all the changes, and he and I talked about it last night. He knows and he wishes it hadn't happened too."

"We need a handy wish demon," Buffy told them. Willow frowned at her. "Well, just to correct a few things."

Willow shook her head. "Everything he's went through might have killed at least one of us." She looked around the room, then stood and walked out.

Derek sighed, leaning back in his chair. "What do we do now? We've just made it worse."

Willow walked up behind Xander, making enough noise to alert him, just in case. "Hi," she said, sitting down beside him. He kept tearing up the dried leaves. "You going to leave again?"

"Not sure yet." He glanced at her then back to his task. "Why?"

"Because I'd miss you."

"I'm not here anymore."

"No, you are, just a little deeper, behind all the pain." He grunted at that. "Can it be fixed?"

"Nope." He got up, wiping off his pants as he looked down at her. "No messing in my head either." He walked away, going off to find someplace more private. He sat down on the fallen log, watching the animals around him go back to what they'd been doing before he stomped in on them. All the little noises soothed him, letting his mind go back to where it had been when he'd been at the cabin. He noticed the absolute quiet as soon as it happened but didn't look at the person he supposed was walking up to him. "Go away Philip, I'm not going to talk to you either."

"That's nice," Derek said as he sat down beside him. "I told Philip to let me handle it." He took the rotten wood from the slender hand, dropping it back where it would do some good. "I would like to talk to you, if you wouldn't mind." He got a small shrug. "I know this hasn't been easy for you so far but we need you. Not only the Legacy, which needs more people like you, but we, your friends and family, need you just as much."

"No, they need who I was, not this guy who's taken his place." He looked at Derek, seeing the pain. "Maybe I should leave. I'm no good to anyone like this."

"I talked with the Police Chief in that town while you were running away again," he said quietly. "He told me about all that you did and the change that he could see come over you the longer you were there." He picked back up the fragile man's hand, holding it in his. "I think it mirrored your transformation into this stranger. All the pain and anger." He looked up to see a firm head shake. "But it does. Each time something happens, you hold it in and it builds until you snap. You and Nick are a lot alike in that respect. I've only seen him snap twice in all the years I've known him but both times scared me." He moved closer, putting the captive hand into his other one and wrapping an arm around the slumped shoulders. "You've only done it that once, after that first incident. You've not let out any of the pain that you've built up since then and because of this you scare me more than anyone else I know."

Xander looked up at him in shock. "I do?"

"Yes, you do." He pushed the head over to rest on his shoulder. "You don't let it out, Xander, and it's not healthy. I worry about what will happen when it does come out, who will be in its path and be destroyed by it. That's the part that scares me, who it will hurt." He went on as the younger man relaxed into him. "How did you used to get rid of it?"

"Don't know," he admitted. "Just did." He tried to bend back over to get his piece of wood that he'd been tearing apart but the firm arms around him wouldn't let him.

"That's just a part of the destructive urge, Xander, and I need you to find another way before you tear us all apart." He stood up, pulling him with him. "You can't wear it out in the pool anymore, we won't let you hurt yourself that way anymore. You can't tear us all apart, none of us will let that happen, so how will you let it out now?" He got a small shrug. "Let me help."

"How?" Xander looked up, plainly confused. "I don't know how so how could you?"

"Because I know how Oz did it last time." He pulled the younger man against his chest, just holding him. "He's too close to you now, he can't step back when you need it but I will."

"Derek," he said, trying to pull back. "I like you but you're like a father to me..." That got him a soft laugh. "This isn't that?"

"No, not all hugs are preludes to the wild exertions you three seem to favor." He smiled, letting him pull back to look up. "As a matter of fact, they are one of the most safe places in the world. If you let them be." The younger man nodded, relaxing back into him. "I want you to not worry about anything, all right?" That got a small nod. "I'm sending you on an away assignment, but with a switch. It will be you, Oz, and myself going this time and while we're gone, we'll work on your guilt, anger, and pain."

"How?" was quietly asked from the region of his shoulder.

"Easy," Oz said, walking up behind them and joining in the hug. "Like this. And talking about it and getting it out before you explode and make a mess of us all." He wrapped his arms around Derek. "All of us need it, we all carry too much guilt and pain around."


"Not this semester," Oz told him. "We're doing another paper and research semester. The Dean asked us to." He smelled them both, relaxing. "We need this, Xander, both of us. He was right about me being too close to help."

Xander pulled back, turning around to hug his love. "Yeah, maybe, but I still like talking things out with you."

"We'll have plenty of time to do that," his lover told him. "We're going to set up a temporary research house."

Derek smiled down at them, holding them both now. "It's on a mostly deserted island off the coast of Florida, one of the Keys. We're hosting an archeological dig there and I'm the Precept in charge of it so we'll be back and forth for a while." He brushed through Oz's hair. "He's not the only one who's changed. I believe your hair's been the same color now for over a year." That got him a small pinch but he still smiled. "All the workers will be there during the day only and access will be restricted. No one will hear or see us if we don't want them to."

"Can we skinny-dip?" Xander asked, licking the side of Oz's face as he unwrapped himself from him. He looked over his shoulder at his boss and friend. "And can Giles come down sometimes too? No offense, but he understands some things you don't."

"We'll all be going back and forth," Derek told him, letting his own smile come out. "And yes, you may skinny-dip if you want." He looked at the boys. "We'll go at the start of school. Willow will not be with you this semester, you'll be the only two excused. As a matter of fact, I have to remind Nick to help Buffy with her schedule. She's been most reluctant to start."

"She's still hurting over the spell," Oz told him. He looked at his lover. "We okay with this?"

"Yeah," he said, reveling in his new lightness. "I am." He smiled, not enough to be more than a hint but a definite start. "We need stuff if we're going to the sunny part of the world." He looked over Oz. "Less clothes and lots of lotion for you, my dear. Otherwise you'll be the same color as your hair." That got him tickled, making him shriek and laugh, but not fight back.

For now, he could just let it happen and enjoy it.