New York Cover


New York
by Dr Squidlove
drsquidlove @@@ livejournal.com

Xander is thirty-seven. Divorced. Two kids. 4000 miles from Sunnydale and his Hellmouth childhood. Also, straight. Only someone forgot to tell Giles. In fact... where the hell is Giles?

Giles/Xander, long meandering life/friendship story with developing relationship. Angst, Action/Adventure, Romance, a bunch of other stuff.

Pack a lunch, kids. This is a long one: 142 733 words. This story can also be read broken into 43 chapters on livejournal.

Rated R for sex.

Warnings:
Officially, these are the things I warn for:
Sex: Yep. Including a little (just a little) het.
Violence: A little bit of ass-kicking, nothing more traumatic than standard Buffy fight scenes.
Sexual violence: None.
Underage sex: Not even close.

I don't generally warn for anything else, but... Um, children. Two children. I'm sorry. I know how annoying they are, clogging up perfectly good slash stories, but they were kind of necessary. Also, lashings of het. In fact, actual het, if I'm going to be perfectly honest, with an OFC. And sort of a long haul before you get any payoff whatsoever. Seriously, if I found this story on an archive, I wouldn't read it. But if you're very good boys and girls, then I will get you where you need to go.

Also, give me a couple of chapters to get to Giles. Trust me, he's coming. I just have to set the pre-Giles mood, okay?

Splits off from the Buffyverse after Normal Again (which is the episode after Xander and Anya's failed wedding). Minor references to the same point of Angel.

The Buffy universe is the property of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. Borrowed with all due love and respect.

Feedback ohgodyesplease.

Please ask before archiving.

Thanks to gloriana and antennapedia for incredibly helpful mid-construction betas, and lunabee for early through middle chapters, and to huzzlewhat for final checking on the run. And gloriana again for major late-construction revisions. They are the reason this story and characters made any kind of sense, and that Xander didn't annoy you with Commonwealthisms. Also to F, Anna, Laura, Barrie & Silver for research assistance.

New York
by Dr Squidlove
January-June, 2011


New York chapter 1:
Life


"Katie!" Xander yelled up the hall.

"Don't call me that!"

"Your mom's here!"

"I'm coming!"

"Get your fat ass out here!" added Jen, helpfully.

"Jen!"

Jen didn't look up from her phone, eyes hidden behind the fall of straight black hair.

"Are you ready to go? Jen?"

She didn't answer, but as Xander came closer he saw the duffle by her feet. Fine. She was packed. "Get your feet off the table." Of course she didn't, so he picked up a book and gave her a smack across the toes.

She huffed and dropped her feet, lowering herself to spear him with two seconds of glare before she went back to ignoring him.

"And don't speak to your sister like that," Xander added, for all it was worth, as he headed to open the door. "Hey, Mary."

"Hey Xan." She followed him in. "You girls ready?"

"*I* am."

"I'm ready!" Kate came spilling down the hallway, pretty much literally.

"Honey, you're going to lose your books." Xander met her halfway and started shoving books back in her bag. "Do you have your data tablet for school? Did you charge it?"

"*Yes*, Dad."

"Did they get their homework done?" Mary asked.

"Yes," the girls chorused.

"Where's your jacket?"

"I don't need it."

"Kate, it's February."

"It's March."

"March, whatever." He grabbed a jacket out of the closet and held her bag while she wormed into it. "I'll see you next Friday," Xander told them. He smoothed Kate's mess of curls back and then picked her up and she hugged him hard while Jen slipped past and started for the elevator.

Mary watched her go with a raised eyebrow, but Xander waved her to quiet before she could demand Jen get back here to say goodbye.

He pushed Kate to arm's length. "Are you wearing your cross?"

"Yes, I'm wearing my cross like a big freako evango."

"Good girl."

Mary gave her a nudge out the door. "Go wait with Jenny." Kate offered her bag up to her mom and trotted after her sister. "What terrible thing have you done to our daughter?"

"Just because *he* doesn't have any friends, he doesn't want me to, either!" was yelled down the corridor, and Xander winced. Hello, neighbours, this is the hermit in #7B.

"She wants to start catching the subway like all her friends."

He knew the exact shift Mary's face would go through at that. "You know, Xander..."

"No. I don't want them on the subways, and I don't want them wandering the streets at night. You want to live in this death trap of a city, and you've got your way. All I've ever asked is to keep them out of the subways, and off the streets at night."

He could tell she wanted to keep arguing, but they'd been round and round on this one a thousand times, building on it since the girls were in diapers and Mary and he were still married. She let it go. "You have a good week, Xan."

"You too."

They kissed on the cheek, and she headed down the corridor, heels clicking on the tiles.

As soon as they stepped into the elevator, Xander closed the door, tipping his head against it. He hated this part of the week. He'd learned better than to stay home, so he waited a few minutes and then grabbed his coat and scarf and headed down to the street.

Joyce Summers. God, they'd had no idea how amazing she was, knowing what was out there and still letting Buffy and Dawn out of the house. If he'd ever believed New York's various factions of evil were actually gunning for Jen or Kate - or Mary, for that matter - he'd have locked them in their rooms and nailed the doors shut.

He'd taught the girls to look both ways before crossing the road, and he'd taught them that boys lied, and that marriages failed, but he'd kept his mouth shut tight about vampires and demons and the way the world teetered constantly on the brink of hell. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the world got through life just fine not knowing anything about what roamed the streets in the witching hour, and his girls were going to live obliviously in the middle of that statistic.

That left all the worrying to him.

Wind stung his cheeks as he stepped out on the sidewalk, and Xander hunched deeper in his coat. Cold sucked. For a second he was ready to go back up and order in, maybe dig through the freezer, but the apartment was way too depressing on Sunday nights, so he hailed a cab to Little India.

Xander dodged icy puddles as he wandered along Sixth Street, ignoring the guys waving him over to see their menus. He'd been in pretty much all the restaurants at least once, or maybe he'd just been back in the same one thirty times. Every time he thought he was learning to tell them apart, the seasons changed and the whole street seemed to rearrange like a puzzle. The only real difference between the restaurants themselves seemed to be how seriously they took your request for 'spicy' when you ordered vindaloo.

He skipped one decorated with white fairy lights and jogged down into one lit with red Christmas lights. A dim, warm corner would suit him just fine.

The waiter greeted him like he was a regular, and Xander smiled back. Water and a menu appeared. Xander pushed the menu aside. "I'll have samosas and lamb korma. With poori. Please." The waiter bobbed his head and whisked the menu away, leaving Xander alone with the soft Bollywood muzak. He hoped this place did the complimentary pappadums. That was the other variation between restaurants in Little India, and an important one.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander dragged his work boots off at the door, dropped his lunch box on the kitchen counter and grabbed a soda. He cracked the top and took a good long drink before pulling the leftover milk to pour down the sink.

Monday evenings were a scavenger hunt. As usual, Jen had left hair ties everywhere and socks scrunched in balls, jammed down the sides of the cushions. Two days, they'd been here, and he found one pair of socks and five flying solo. Kate's trail was books. Bang! How the universe began, Planning the Endeavour Mission to Venus, Yuri to Gene: the Space Race, The James Webb Telescope. Always three or four at once, like she was running out of time to learn everything she needed to know.

Xander loaded up and carried it all through to their room. Hair ties in the drawer, books stacked on the bursting shelf - he'd have to build another one, soon - and socks in the hamper. As he stripped the sheets, he found the book Kate had had her nose buried in all weekend. Unscience: the battle against make-believe. He snorted and took it with him as he threw his own laundry in the hamper along with a bottle of detergent and dragged it all out to the elevator.

He threw the load in the washer and flipped through the book as it cycled. If he'd had a beer, he could have made a game of it: a drink for everything he'd seen, drain the bottle for anything that had knocked him flying. Except, of course, this book didn't just debunk vampires and werewolves like a normal ten-year-old's science book. This one covered alien abductions, homeopathy, moon landing hoax theories, ah - telepathy, check. Hauntings, check. Animal possession, check, exclamation mark.

While the laundry dried he went back upstairs and read as he ate dinner. Frozen Chinese, just like momma used to make.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander stopped by the post office to check his mailbox. X-Men latest and a handwritten envelope. He smiled to himself. Tara.

She was the one real link he still had. It was just a short note three or four times a year, and that was how he'd learned that Dawn had married, that Buffy hadn't. That Faith was out of jail and over her strangling people phase. He supposed they'd learned through Tara about his marriage, his girls, his divorce. Little handwritten notes to sum up his life to people who'd become strangers. Tara had been to Dawn's wedding about ten years back, and it sounded like she'd seen them a few times since, so they were probably still close enough for phone calls.

He saved the letter until he got home, drained a juice box and settled on the couch. He ran his finger over the seal, back and forth. One day, one of these letters was going to tell him someone was dead. Maybe Buffy, maybe Dawn. If something happened to Tara, there wouldn't be a letter at all.

He slipped his finger under and peeled it open, felt the tension bleed out as he read. No bad news today. Tara was fine. The coven was trying a few new things.

Buffy and Faith had defeated the latest stirring evil; the gang was tying up the loose ends. Guilt rose, automatic and familiar, but that was just the way things were, now. The world would live or end, and Xander wasn't going to have a say in it. The world would live. Buffy had saved it, like she'd been saving it without him for years, probably more easily without him underfoot.

Dawn's oldest had won a prize for some drawing competition. He slid back on the couch. Her oldest was about eight. He could imagine Dawn as a mom, no-nonsense and full of warmth. He would have liked to see it, but he wasn't tempted to step back into that world. He'd found a normal life, normal job, normal kids, normal ex-wife.

Tara never mentioned Anya. Xander didn't know if she was skirting his old wounds or if she just didn't know. No Giles, either. He seemed to have escaped Sunnydale even better than Xander had. Or maybe Tara just didn't talk about him. Maybe she was even more pissed than Xander was that Giles never bothered to show for Willow's funeral.

Back in the Sunnydale days, he'd never imagined how Giles - or anyone - could walk away, but in the end he was surprised by how easy it was. A hell of a lot easier than going back; enough that it softened the grudge he'd had against Giles for skipping the wedding-that-wasn't. Softened, but didn't cure. The guy could have sent a card, at least, so it wasn't all forgiven.

Xander let the letter fall beside him. He'd write a postcard back next week, something just as general and distant. The girls were fine: Kate was still crazy about space and now was working her way through books Xander couldn't understand, and Jen had picked up two new kinds of dance, one which would have got them kicked out of the Bronze in their day. He'd started working on a new high-rise on Madison that was going to be forty-eight floors. Pleasantries on one side, New York skyline on the other.

There wouldn't be anything about how tired he was of the crush of the city, or how few friends he had, or how much he dreaded the girls becoming adventurous teenagers. He wasn't going to tell her about overhearing Jen on the phone on Saturday, complaining that she couldn't come out because her dad was scared of the world and totally overreacted to everything. He wished he could, because Tara would have understood.

He'd never been close with Tara, but these days, he missed her most of all of them.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Every second Wednesday, Xander had an early dinner with Mary. It had started during the divorce after a fight that Jen and Kate had overheard. She'd called him afterwards, and they'd decided to keep talking out of sight of the lawyers and the girls while it all got sorted out. They weren't going to turn into other couples, bitter feuding with Jen and Kate in the middle. It had worked, too: a few more arguments in the beginning, but their dinners and Mary's patience made the separation work better than the marriage.

So at the moment it was every second Wednesday at a cafe in the East Village while Jen had jazz hip hop funk something and Kate hung out with her friend Kitty. The lawyers were long gone, and these days it was Kate's grades, or how many dance classes they could afford for Jen. They talked about Mary's occasional dates, too, or some movie Xander had seen, like they were kind of friends, again.

Today, they were talking about the subway.

"Taxis will take her anywhere she needs to go."

Mary leaned back in her chair, twisting her necklace around her finger. "I'm not talking about giving her a Metro account and setting her loose in Queens at night, Xander. I just think she's old enough to catch the A train to school with her girlfriends."

"She's thirteen."

"Yes, thirteen. Teen. It's time to start getting used to the idea of subways and late night parties-"

"She'd better not get used to the idea of late night parties."

"Not her," Mary retorted, as frustrated as he was. "You. She's going to be in high school before you know it, and try enforcing a 6pm curfew then."

Didn't he know it.

"God knows how you can walk six-inch steel beams at 800 feet for a living and then get all squirrelly at subway tunnels." She shook her head. "It hasn't really mattered up 'til now, so I didn't bother to fight you on it, but the time has come for you to get yourself sorted out."

Xander's jaw cramped. "I don't know what you mean." He knew exactly what she meant.

She knew it, too, and that made the pitying look in her eyes all the worse as she leaned forward and covered his hand. She used to touch him a lot when they were married. In the early years. "You need to get counselling, Xander. Talk to someone. There's no shame in it."

His cheeks burned. I don't need counselling, he wanted to say, but then she'd point out that normal, healthy people caught the subway all the time, and he couldn't tell her that normal, healthy people didn't know what lived in the world of tunnels beneath the city. He was used to people thinking he was nuts. Mostly he didn't care, but from Mary, it still hurt. Jen's phone call echoed in his head: 'He won't let me have any friends 'cos he's crazy. Clinical. Medicationable. Worldophobic paranoia.' She was just getting to an age of grasping what mental health was, and hearing her diagnose him stung in a horrible new special kind of way.

Mary's neatly manicured fingers squeezed his hand. "How you live is up to you, but I don't want you making them afraid of things, scared of the dark and tunnels and strangers."

"You don't want them to grow up like me."

"Do you?"

No. He really didn't. Everything that mattered in his life was making sure the girls grew up in a totally different world to Sunnydale High.

He could have played that card, vague references to his dark past. It used to work. She'd lost patience with it over the years, though, and now the best he'd get was big sad eyes and more urging to go see a therapist, to work through his childhood traumas.

At last she sat back, pulling away her hand. "Please? Just... consider it."

Xander nodded. It wasn't like there was anything else he could do.

Relief washed over her face for the victory, and she tore off half of the last piece of bread in the basket. "You should try yoga. Nothing bothers me after yoga."

"My legs don't go behind my head."

"Have you ever tried?"

"Only for recreational purposes."

She laughed. "Maybe you should try dating."

"I'm better at the legs-behind-the-head thing."

She nodded in a way that said she thought he was right about that. "Are you coming to Mom's sixtieth next month?"

"Your mom doesn't want me at her birthday," Xander said automatically, taking the last piece of bread. Ex-laws made for a better topic of conversation than his need for a padded cell.

"Of course she does."

Xander shot her his best impression of Jen's 'Are you kidding me?' look.

"Mom wants you there. At least, she doesn't mind. It's Dad who..."

"Thinks I'm batshit crazy and hasn't forgiven you for marrying me?"

"Yeah." She grinned. "Though it was more the getting me pregnant thing, which he still sees as in no way my fault. Mom knows how much it means to the girls, having you at the big Tanaka family stuff."

"Someday you're going to find yourself an actual, current guy to take to these things." Not that Xander was looking forward to that, exactly. He was ready to see Mary with someone else, kind of wished one of the pile of guys she'd dated would make her happy, but another man playing father to the girls... that terrified him.

She'd dated Eli for a while, a polished, suave, writer guy from her magazine, but the time came when it had been long enough that she could have introduced him to the girls, and she never did. He'd faded slowly out of the picture, and Xander had felt bad for how relieved he was.

"You'll still be welcome. I may curse you blind, but you'll always be family."

"That's what I always liked about you. You have such a rosy view of the way things turn out."

Her face fell, hurt. "Xan, you know I hate that you miss so much of their lives. I hate it for them; I hate it for you. I don't know if there's anyone else out there for me, but I'm never going to marry someone who'd get in the way of the girls' relationship with you."

Xander nodded, unable to answer. He wished she wouldn't say things like that.

"Come to her birthday. It's at Rick's house, neutral ground, and he's got the solar installed for the pool, so the pair of you can shoptalk as if you know anything at all about solar heating, and Mich and I can make fun of you both."

She was going to win this one, and they both knew it. Mary's brother Rick and sister Mich were good people. As long as Xander was all right in Mary's eyes, he was all right in Mich's, and Rick did a pretty good job of pretending. Anyway, if he didn't go, she'd make him explain to the girls why he didn't.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 1: Xander has two kids, who stay with him on weekends, and an ex-wife with whom he dines out every second week. She wishes Xander wasn't so paranoid about the subway. Xander got a letter from Tara, the only contact he still has in the Sunnydale world.


New York chapter 2:
Scenes from adolescence


"Hey, Harris, did you catch the Rickman and Kelly death match?"

Xander shook his head. "Something happen?"

There was a roar of laughter from the guys gathered around the other table. "You are something else, mate," Toby declared. "A couple of twats almost throw each other off the eighth fucking floor girders; only you could miss it."

A grin and a shrug was enough to send them back to figuring out what started the scuffle. Xander hadn't missed it. The actual punches, yeah, but he'd seen it brewing for weeks now, Kelly steaming about Rickman's smart-ass sense of humour and how much time he spent on his phone. Xander kept his mouth shut because you didn't fade into the background when you were in the know. He left it to guys like Toby to make up their own stories. Sometimes they were better than the truth. Not always.

"Xander."

"Sam." He lifted his beer in welcome as she slid up on the stool beside him and then topped her up from the pitcher. Thursday nights was drinks at the Landsman, and she always found a few minutes for him, long enough to make him not look like a creepy recluse.

"You really should have seen it, Xan. I thought Kelly was going to knock him flat. How are the girls?"

"Great. Peter?"

"Working hard to send me into bankruptcy. What is it with guys and their cars?"

"Don't ask me. I taxi everywhere. He's having problems with the Mustang?"

"Pontiac. And when isn't he? Now he's muttering about expanding the garage for more workspace. Wouldn't have to expand it if he'd throw out his crap."

Sam prattled on, making Xander smile. She was one of the best connectors around, strong enough and a big enough smartass to win over even the worst neanderthals on the crew. She never made wisecracks about being a wallflower or urged him to put himself in the middle of the group, for which he was eternally grateful. It was enough for her that he came out, and made the fringes.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander punched in a tip and swiped his phone over the taxi's scanner when they reached Canal Street, giving the guy a nod before he climbed out. He shuddered as the wind cut through him. Damn. He'd drunk a little more than he'd planned.

He usually stuck with bottles of beer. No one topped those up when you weren't looking. He was a good way off drunk, but he hated being out at night with anything less than all his wits. It wasn't like he had many to spare.

He just had to pick up bread and milk for the girls tomorrow and walk the block home, but he wasn't into wearing the 'Suck me, I'm drunk and alone' t-shirt. He looked around; nobody to be seen, which was good. Or bad. He hurried through the slush into Jimmy's.

Jimmy asked after the girls, talked him into picking up the latest movie magazine. Raved about the film marathons coming up at the Tribeca.

Xander threw a couple of candy bars in the pile and promised to check out the schedule.

A streetsweeper rumbled past as he stepped out into the cold. It was dark tonight. Heavy clouds, and a streetlight was out; he just needed the sound of a bottle being kicked along the sidewalk or a cat knocking over trash cans, and he'd be replaying scenes from his adolescence. Being alcohol-buzzed was not helping his paranoia.

Cold down his back, and his heart skipped until he felt another drop. Rain. Probably sleet. Maybe Mary wasn't completely off-base about the counselling thing.

He'd tried it for a while. She didn't know about that. After the separation, he'd seen some woman in a poky little office. It had helped a little, having someone to talk to, but in the end, she was just another person Xander had to dance around his past with.

He hitched up his collar and picked up the pace, trudging down the icy pavement, clutching his grocery bag in front. He'd taken California weather for granted.

Glass rolled across concrete behind him, and Xander's blood went cold.

Paranoia.

Only paranoia.

Paranoia was why he'd reached his twenties, let alone his thirties. He reached for his- Shit. Didn't have his stake. Where the hell was his stake? He patted his pockets down again. Jen was just a baby last time he came close to something that needed staking, and he still never - almost never - left home without one. Wishful thinking that he could successfully stake anything, of course, but it would have been something to do with his hands at least.

He carefully kept his speed steady, even though his nerves were screaming for him to run. Okay. Grocery bag: milk, bread, magazine, chocolate bars. Nothing to kill a demon unless it was diabetic or lactose intolerant.

Nothing on the street he could use as a weapon. Suburbs had picket fences and letterboxes and twiggy bushes. Soho had rats and bulging black bags of soft squishy trash and nothing else that wasn't bolted down.

He could hear footsteps behind him now, and knew, with his Sunnydale survival instincts, that it was no random local on his way home. It was following him.

Run or stand. He was still half a block from home, too far to run, but without a stake, or a knife, or a halberd, he might as well serve himself up with a side of fries.

Headlights swung around the corner, and with them the friendly yellow of a taxi. Safety. Xander hurried out to hail-

"Xander!"

He swung around, dropping his bag, fighting stance, and there was... "Giles?"

"It is you. Thank god."

Xander looked about, heart still pounding, not ready to believe Giles was the nightmare pursuer. Or that Giles was here at all. He wasn't sure that Giles was safer than whatever he'd been ready to run from.

The taxi honked, and Xander jumped around, barely restraining himself from clutching his chest. Safe from vampires, man dies of heart attack. He waved the driver off with a shrug of apology, not totally sure he shouldn't have just jumped in and escaped.

He turned back. Giles. Jesus. His face was in shadow, but that was definitely Giles, looking just the same, light glinting off his glasses, wardrobe all English as ever. "What are you doing here?"

Somehow Giles managed to look surprised at the question. "I'm looking for you."

"Now?"

"I'm back."

So? Xander wanted to say. After sixteen years, so the hell what? "Okay," he replied, instead.

"It's me," Giles said, urgently.

"Yeah, I got that. Giles. You're back. What do you want?" He didn't mean for it to come out so rudely, but he honestly didn't care all that much. Giles was back? Well, Xander was gone, so if Giles wanted to be back he could just damn well go to California and be back there. Why now? Why here?

As Giles came closer, Xander could make out his frown. "Xander? What's going on?"

"That's what I'm asking you."

"You don't... You didn't notice I was gone?"

Round in circles. "You've been gone for years."

"Yes."

Xander snapped. "Well, we had the streamers and balloons on hand for your glorious return, but we put them in storage back when we gave up caring when you'd show up."

Giles was staring at him, mouth hanging open, but no way was Xander going to feel bad. What did he expect? The silence gave Xander time to get a better look at him. He looked ragged, like he'd just stepped off a fifteen hour flight with a stopover in hell. Or Chicago. Finally he shut his mouth, and swallowed. "Haven't you all been wondering what happened to me?"

"You split." Xander checked his tone, and sighed. He didn't want to deal with this. He didn't want Giles or anyone from Sunnydale hammering their way back into his life. Especially Giles. "Look, I don't know what prompted you to start looking up old friends, but it's a bit late now, don't you think?" He started walking.

"You don't- You never..." Xander couldn't help looking back, saw Giles rubbing his forehead. "We need to talk. You live up there?" He jerked his head towards the corner, where Xander's building was, and started trailing after him. "Invite me up; we'll talk."

"No, we won't," Xander threw back over his shoulder.

"Please. I need your help." Giles sounded desperate, and it just worried Xander all the more. Desperate watcher spelled the kind of trouble he didn't deal with.

"Please," Xander stopped, and matched his tone, "don't do this to me. Whatever it is, leave me out of it. Can't you just-"

"No." Giles grabbed him by the shoulders. "Let's go up."

Light fell across Giles' face, and Xander stopped breathing. Giles looked just the same. As in, the same. As in, he hadn't aged. And suddenly it was horribly, horrifically clear why Giles had disappeared for sixteen years.

And twice as clear that Xander hadn't been wrong when he'd thought his mystery follower was going to suck him dry.

That's why Giles wanted to be invited up to Xander's apartment.

Adrenaline surged; Xander knocked Giles' arm out and caught it as he twisted it back. Off balance for a second, long enough to realise he was going to have to shove a stake through Giles. Long enough to realise that he didn't have a stake to shove and that he was going to be killed, by Giles. Long enough to realise that Jen and Kate would never know what happened. And then pain cracked through his skull and Giles was sitting on top of him, crushing his chest, pinning his hands to the wet frozen sidewalk.

Shit.

Xander braced himself for Giles' face to slide into the hideous folds of a vampire. "Don't turn me," he whispered. "Kill me, eat me, just don't turn me."

"What the hell?" Giles' voice was clear, not sharpened by teeth, and his forehead stayed smooth.

"Don't turn me. Don't turn me. Anything else. Just don't turn me." He was chanting it, like it was some Willow-charm. God, Willow. I'm gonna be killed by Giles. "Don't turn me."

Giles' hand went for his neck and something snapped and Xander's eyes squeezed shut. Don't turn me.

"Open your eyes!"

They opened against his will to see something flashing in Giles' hand. Xander's chain. His cross. Oh god, Giles took the only protection he-

Giles wasn't smoking.

He waggled his fingers, making the cross bounce across his palm, then clenched his fist and opened it again. No burns. No vampire.

"I'm not a damned vampire," Giles sniped in a tone way too reminiscent of high school.

"Not a vampire," Xander repeated, stupidly.

"Not a vampire."

But from here, six inches under Giles' furious eyes with a bump splitting open the back of his brain and slush soaking his neck and his ass, Xander could see for dead sure that there was no way this man had lived sixteen non-demonic years. In that time, Xander had gained forty pounds, picked up plenty of grey hair and - clearly - surrendered the few fighting skills he'd had. Giles' hairline was right where they left it, and the lines of his face were just the same. He didn't look like he'd gained any weight at all, though Xander's ribs were ready to contest that ruling.

Eventually Giles sat back slightly. "If we get up, can you restrain yourself from killing me?"

Xander nodded, carefully. Still not entirely convinced this wasn't an evil variation on a Giles theme. He accepted the hand up anyway, noting that Giles' skin was faintly warm. Not a vampire.

"I haven't slept or washed properly in weeks, so for the love of god, can we please go up to your apartment so I can explain?"

Xander wanted to say no. There was nothing of Sunnydale in his apartment except crosses and holy water and a lot of wooden carvings with strategic pointy bits on them just in case. He wanted it to stay that way. After trying to kill someone, though, however unsuccessfully, refusing to invite him home seemed to be adding insult to injury. Or injury to insult.

"Come on then."

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 2: Xander went out for drinks with his work friends, where he is the perpetually awkward outsider. He came home, and was accosted by Giles. Or someone who looks like Giles. The alleged Giles is not a vampire, but he's yet to explain why he hasn't aged a day in sixteen years, and Xander really isn't pleased to have him around.


New York chapter 3:
Sodium


Xander hated the way Giles stared around the apartment. Yeah, it pretty much looked like he'd just moved his parents' basement across the country and shrunk it to shoebox-size. Cleaner, but just as not-homey. Turned out life wasn't all about moving up in the world. Xander pushed off his scarf and jacket and hung them up, not offering Giles a space in the closet.

Giles didn't try to take off his dirty old parka anyway. In the light he looked like a homeless man, rough-shaven, hair sticking in every direction, nothing like the fussy old Englishman Xander remembered.

"You're hungry?"

"God, please." Giles settled gratefully into one of the counter-stools.

"I'd offer you a sandwich, but I left the bread somewhere out on the street." The freezer had... "Beef and black bean, chicken nuggets, hot pockets-"

"I'm really not fussy-"

"Pick."

"Beef and black bean, then," Giles replied, meekly. "Please."

Xander dropped it in the microwave and then turned, arms folded. "So why now? And why do you look like you've been doing laps in the fountain of youth?"

"I've been gone."

"No kidding."

"I didn't fall down the back of the couch," Giles retorted, snottily. "I got caught in another world. Another dimension. I was tracking a Hewarth demon, and I stumbled right into its world."

It took Xander a minute to realise that was the end of the story. "You've been trapped in another dimension for sixteen years?"

"Yes," Giles said, and he didn't add 'you imbecile' but it came through loud and clear, "though it was little more than a month, as I experienced it. I came back, and it wasn't 2002." He rubbed his temple. "I knew time would likely have passed differently, of course, and I had a very real fear that my return could be much, much later. Decades may have passed, generations, perhaps, so I'm actually somewhat relieved that it's only been... sixteen years."

Wow. Things like that didn't happen in Xander's world anymore. "Where were you? How did you... How did you get back?"

Giles shook his head. "I stole the magical key back from the demon I'd followed in and located a portal. Did none of you wonder where I was?"

No. They just figured he'd let go, and wasn't coming back. Or so Xander figured. It wasn't like they'd ever talked about it.

"Christ." The curse sounded alien from Giles. He looked away, jaw working. "I imagined you all would assume I was dead, not that you'd simply not care that you never heard from me again."

"I didn't not care, Giles. I was mad as hell. You left, and it wasn't a demon that dragged you out of Sunnydale, so you can't blame us for thinking you kept right on going."

Giles' mouth opened, and his expression was so wounded that Xander almost took back his words. But he'd been angry for years, and it wasn't like he could just stop. It didn't matter; he didn't need to stop because Giles wasn't welcome to stick around. Why hadn't he gone and dug up Buffy? She was still in the fixing things business. Why Xander of all people? Xander didn't want this in his lap. It probably would have been polite to ask what happened in the demon dimension, and how long Giles had been back, the stuff you asked someone after they'd taken a vacation in the Tardis, but every question would just drag Xander in deeper.

The microwave beeped, and Xander jumped. For a split second, he considered tipping the dinner out onto a plate, but Giles was a problem, not a guest. Xander dug out a fork and slid both across the counter to him.

Giles peeled back the film and took a bite, closing his eyes gratefully. After a few more mouthfuls, he lowered the fork. "How are you? How's Anya?"

Wow. Giles had asked it gently, like he'd already figured out this wasn't the sort of home she would put up with, but her name hadn't twisted Xander's gut like that in a long time. "You weren't around for the wedding, then."

"Do you really think I wouldn't have been there?"

Giles said it so matter-of-factly, it took some of the fury out of him. "You weren't," Xander said, in exactly the same tone.

"Nobody wondered?"

"I had my own issues at the time," Xander said, irritated. Maybe Buffy and Willow wondered, but Xander hadn't gotten any further than being hurt that Giles never replied to the invite.

"What happened?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing?"

"No wedding. I chickened out. Dumped her in front of everyone. In her wedding dress."

"Oh, Xander."

It had been years since Xander had heard any sympathy, and it took him off guard. For a moment this was Giles, like he'd never left, and the whole wedding disaster was fresh, and Xander's chest hurt. "Yeah, well. I didn't stay in Sunnydale much past that."

"I can imagine. I'm sorry."

Xander shrugged, not liking the stroll down memory lane. "It was a long... You've been gone a long time." It was starting to sink in. Giles had been gone for years. As long as Xander, except without a life to pad out the meantime. "It must be a shock." God. The things he wouldn't know...

Giles nodded as he chewed, and swallowed. "I knew there was a chance that my return would find you all dead and buried, so when I landed in a New York that looked very much like the New York I knew, I dared hope that no time had passed at all." He rolled his eyes. "That lasted until I took a closer look at the cars, and a quick check of a news magazine threw cold water over any hopes that remained."

"But why here? Why New York? Why me?"

A minute passed before Giles replied, voice cool. "I tried all of you as focal points for the spell. I suppose you were nearest a portal; yours was the only spirit I found." Lucky Xander. "I fell through two days ago and took until today to find you - I saw you just as you climbed into a cab this morning."

"You're been on the streets for two days?"

"It wasn't such a trial after a month in the wilderness... I at least managed a shower at a shelter yesterday. It's probably good that I didn't catch you any earlier."

Xander tried to imagine Giles begging his way into a homeless shelter and couldn't even get close. It was freezing out there. "So what now?"

Giles pulled off his glasses. "I have no cash, no identification."

No way. He could see where this was going. "I can't help you. Look, I'm out of all that, okay? You can crash on the couch tonight, and tomorrow I'll get you a hotel room or a ticket to LA, whatever you need, but I haven't used a stake since I was a kid, all right? I haven't stared down a Hellmouth or fought for my life or buried anyone in years. I've left the demons to the superheroes, and everyone's way better off."

Giles met his stare for a long time before he looked down. "I suppose it isn't only a few months for you since we weathered the summer together without Buffy."

"No, it's not." That summer was a dusty, fuzzy memory. "I'm sorry. I'm being an asshole. Look, if you think you need help, I'll bet Buffy'd take you in. I mean, god knows what she thinks happened to you, but Watcher-Slayer bond, that's family, right?"

It took a second to realise Giles was three pages back. "Buffy's alive?"

"Yeah."

"But it's been... No slayer has survived so long. She'd be, she'd be thirty-seven. I didn't dare... I just assumed." It was amazing, how he came alive at the news. "It's been so long, and you didn't mention her... How is she? Is she well?"

"She's in LA now. They closed the Hellmouth years ago, but there's plenty of stuff to kill in LA."

Giles was smiling, the first time he'd smiled tonight. "Is she married? Does she have children?" Slightly less of a smile. "Is she with Angel, then?"

"He's around there sometimes. I don't know what the deal is. No kids. I'm not really... I dunno."

"Right. I suppose I can see her myself, soon enough." He touched his lips, blinking hard, and Xander's own eyes burned in sympathy. It really was miraculous that Buffy had survived so long. He remembered that every time he opened one of Tara's letters. "What about the others?"

There wasn't all that much that Xander actually knew. "Tara's good. Kind of a Wicca den mother down in San Diego. Dawn's married, three kids."

"Three!"

"Angel was with Cordelia for a few years. That was disturbing."

Giles' head kept bobbing, and then the last part sank in and he stopped, and his eyes narrowed. "You're pulling my leg."

"Honest to god."

"The same Cordelia Chase as once informed me that the Hellmouth was visited upon Sunnydale as a worthy and justified punishment for post-Labor Day white."

"The very same. Or at least, that's how I heard it from Tara. They could still be together for all I know."

"I believe I can finally say I've heard everything." Giles slipped his fingers up under his glasses to rub the bridge of his nose. It was only when he pulled his hand away that he hesitated. Xander could see him ticking off the names in his head and coming up one short. "What happened to Willow?"

"Magic. She lost control. It killed her."

He stared down into his beef and black bean. "Dear lord. When?"

"August 2002."

"So soon."

Xander had been gone for two months when he heard. Part of him had still thought he was going back, that Sunnydale was in some kind of holding pattern while he got himself together. When he got the call... his strongest, dearest tie was gone. Without Will, without Anya, without being able to look the rest of them in the eye, there wasn't enough left there to call home. It was shockingly easy to let Sunnydale go.

"Did she, was she... I don't know what to ask."

Xander didn't want him to ask anything. She died fighting, like they were all supposed to. What else was there to know?

"Do you know-"

"Faith's around. She's decided she's one of the good guys, stuck with that for a pretty long time, now. I think she works with Buffy, sometimes. And Wesley's still alive if you can believe that."

"That's quite unbelievable." Giles was watching Xander now, so Xander stared back, all the threat he could manage.

Minutes passed until the silence got too awkward, and finally Giles played with his fork for a moment, and then got back to eating. His beef and black bean was probably stone cold and half-congealed by now, but it beat staring at each other. Xander picked up the sponge and rubbed circles on the clean counter. There was no way this was happening. It was unreal. Since Willow's funeral, he hadn't heard any of their names spoken aloud. He'd just had letters from Tara, and now Giles was in his kitchen, and they were talking about Wesley Wyndham-Price.

Xander turned away for three seconds to rinse the sponge and when he turned back, Giles had picked up Unscience. Xander had left it lying on the counter after dinner last night. He shamelessly leafed through to where Xander had left the receipt to mark his place. In the middle of animal possession.

"It's Kate's," Xander said, tightly.

"Kate?"

He hadn't meant to do that. Xander reached over to snatch it back, afraid Giles would contaminate it with demon-attracting germs. Giles was left holding air, looking surprised all over again.

"I don't have Buffy's number. Or anyone's, actually. I'll have to write to Tara."

"You don't have her number?"

Xander was too tired to fight. "I told you, I'm out of it. I haven't had to kill anything bigger than a New York cockroach in a long time. Finish your dinner; I'll set up the couch for you." Xander was in no way running away when he headed out to get a sheet and blanket.

Lucky for Giles, Xander had started furnishing back when he still couldn't sleep alone in an empty bed. The couch was stupidly big for the apartment, but long enough that he could pass out in front of the TV sometime between the does-everything kitchen appliances with free steak knives and the super-collapsible exercise machines.

He dipped into the girls' room for a pillow. Jen's plain pink one won out over Kate's Mickey Mouse print. Xander pulled their door shut behind him. Giles didn't need to know anything about his family.

Xander almost dropped the bedding when he came back in.

"You have daughters?" Giles was by the shelf, holding a framed photo of the girls when they were little, matching black pigtails and willing to hug for the camera. He said it with a kind of wonder, not surprised but somehow surprised, like he'd just realised all over again how much time had passed.

"Yeah." Xander took the photo from him and put it back.

Giles ignored the hint. "How old are they?"

"Ten and thirteen."

"They're beautiful."

Xander paused. "Yeah, they are," he said softly. He'd never had a chance to show them off for someone who knew the old Xander. He grabbed another photo from the other side of the room. "This is the most recent. From a couple of months ago."

Giles took it reverently, like it was one of his super-old scrolls. Xander had snuck the shot at Six Flags while they were arguing over which ride to go on. He liked it more than the happy, posed shots; this was his girls, Kate looking like she was about to launch into a lecture, Jen mid-eye-roll. "They're almost grown," said Giles. "I'm sorry I've missed it." Giles smiled at him, and Xander felt more like an ass than ever. Giles hadn't just drifted apart from the rest of them. Except he had. He chose to walk out on them. "What are their names?"

"That's Kate, and that's Jen."

"Kate with the science book?"

"Yeah."

"She's a scholar, then?"

Xander laughed. "No way. I mean, she's smart, seriously smart, but anything she doesn't care about isn't worth her time. Jen manages pretty steady Bs, but Kate's reports are all over the place. Jen's into dance and clothes, and playing on her phone. Kate's into looking down on everyone else."

"I can see you in them."

"They look like their mom."

"She's... Korean?"

"Japanese. Her parents, anyway. She's never even been there." Kate had Xander's waves, but both of them had Mary's black hair and almond eyes. And he didn't mean to be telling Giles all about them. He pulled the frame gently out of Giles' hands and set it back on the shelf. "So what are you going to do now?"

Giles scratched his neck, looking away from the picture reluctantly. "I don't know, really. I suppose I should contact the Council, see about getting my paperwork in order. Presumably I've been declared dead, and I'm certainly not in the United States."

"I meant with the others. Are you going to contact Buffy?"

"In truth... I think I'd rather see her. Show up in person."

"You're not going to get on a flight," Xander realised. "If you don't have any ID... They're pretty strict about that these days. Even long-distance bus tickets need a current licence or passport."

"I suppose I'm stuck here, then."

"Not here. Look, you've got the couch tonight but my girls'll be here tomorrow."

It was strange to see Jen's 'Can I have extra allowance?' look on Giles' face, but that's exactly what his expression was saying, and Xander braced himself just the same for his, "I'd love to meet them."

"No."

Jen did that look, too.

"I'm sorry, Giles. I've made a home here. It's a million miles from Sunnydale and a million miles more from everything that happened there. They don't... They don't know the first thing about what we did, who I... god, they think my obsession with making them wear crosses is some weird compulsive crucifix fixation leftover from a trauma from my days in the mafia."

A frown overtook his growing pout. "The mafia?"

"It's their running joke for why I don't talk about my past. I think it's got to the point where they half-believe it."

A smile at last. "I have a recipe for a truly amazing spaghetti sauce."

Xander was about to argue when he registered exactly what Giles had just said. "Be still my heart - did you just throw me a movie reference?"

"Yes, I've seen a few of the classics."

Xander snorted. "Look, so you can crash on the couch tonight, but I'll sort something out for tomorrow. Get you a hotel room or something."

"I can't take your money,' Giles said reluctantly, but he knew as well as Xander that he didn't have any of his own. And really, Xander didn't have a secret fortune stuffed in his mattress, either. He shouldn't be throwing money around for a hotel room for a week, especially when he didn't know how long Giles would be stuck here. If Xander had any friends, he could have sent him there, but there was no one. Sam and Pete in New Jersey were the best he could think of, but he didn't much like that idea, either. Xander knew that dropping Giles into his life was like dropping sodium in water, and the further he kept the two worlds apart, the better it would be.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 3:
Giles explained that he'd been sucked into another dimension for a few weeks of other-dimension time, 16 years of Earth time. Hardly his fault, but Xander still had some difficulty letting go of his anger. Xander explained his big wedding failure with Anya, and got a lot more sympathy. Xander updated Giles on the Sunnydale crew, including Willow's death. He offered Giles a bed for the night, but insisted that no way was Giles going to bring his Hellmouth-cooties anywhere near his daughters.



New York chapter 4:
An old friend


Xander woke in the night and waited. Silence - New York silence, anyway - nothing that could have woken him. Something was off. Xander untangled himself from the sheets and pulled a t-shirt over his head, padding barefoot out of his room into-

Jesus. Oh yeah. Giles.

Giles was sitting up, elbows resting on his knees, mood-lit by the lamp behind him. It took a moment for him to look up at Xander, features lost in shadows. "Willow's dead." He sounded so sorry, like he was the one breaking the news to Xander.

Xander sat in the armchair. "Yeah." He leaned back, closing his eyes. He never did find out all the details. No one seemed ready to talk about how it happened, and there was already a strange kind of distance that had grown in the two months since he'd left. He was an ex-Scooby, and they all knew it. "There was some sort of end-of-the-world crisis, and Willow tried to fix it."

"Did she? Fix it?"

Xander wondered if that would have made it better. "No. Buffy and Dawn and Tara did." He'd tried to imagine a thousand times what that had been like for Tara, going ahead and saving the world without Willow in it. He'd barely been able to stop crying long enough to buy plane tickets, but she'd kept herself together enough to cast spells and do whatever else Buffy needed.

The battle was a bad one, by the looks of them at the funeral. Tara was bruised all over, Dawn's arm was bandaged, and even Buffy was still stiff. Afterwards everyone went to Willow's parents' home, and Xander found out that Buffy and Dawn's house had been destroyed. So had the Magic Box, and Anya had already left town.

Xander could have helped them then. Even if he'd failed them with the apocalypse, he could have stuck around and helped them survive what came after. If they'd wanted him. But they hardly spoke to him: he was an outsider already, and none of them looked the slightest bit surprised when he had to leave for his flight back. Only Tara hugged him goodbye.

"I don't suppose you have any whisky?"

Xander shrugged. "I don't really keep alcohol in the house. The only visitors I have are more about the milk and cookies. I'm not really into the whole 'drinking alone' thing."

Giles' chin dipped, and Xander remembered Giles used to sometimes do exactly that. Foot, mouth. Great. He sounded like he was sixteen again.

"She had so much potential. Such a brilliant mind."

"She got me through high school. And junior high. And elementary. She was forging my mom's signature for me by first grade when I was still doing my 'e's back-to-front."

A tiny smile pulled the corner of Giles' mouth. "I find it hard to believe she was signing notes to get you out of class."

"No way. She signed my homework - mostly homework she'd done - and permission slips and stuff."

Xander hadn't ever had anyone to mourn her with. The funeral was too soon; they were all numb, so numb he hadn't even been as terrified as he should have been that Anya might have shown. Except for the occasional calls to his parents, where her name never came up, he hadn't spoken aloud to anyone who knew Willow since that day.

Giles stared past the blank television, eyes near-black in the dim light, and Xander watched him. In Giles' world, it was less than a year since the two of them dug Buffy's grave together. Willow wasn't going to be doing the second tour.

Giles was probably thinking about Willow, but Xander was stuck thinking about Giles while Buffy was gone, and before that and after that, everything he did for them. Xander couldn't turf him out on the street.

"Stay."

That got Giles' attention. "I'm sorry?"

"I can't stick you in a hotel room, and you should, you should meet them. I want you to meet Jen and Kate. Stay tomorrow night, and I'll try to figure something out."

Giles grinned, a sudden sort of pleasure Xander barely remembered seeing back then. "Thank you. I would love to meet them."

This was going to be world-class weird.

"If I'm going to get out of your hair soon, I'll need to place a call to the Council in London to find out if I'm alive or not."

"Yeah."

"I looked around your apartment for a phone, but..."

"Oh, yeah. No one uses landlines anymore." Xander didn't want his cell phone in the Council records, one more link back to the old world. "I'll get you a disposable phone tomorrow."

"Disposable phone?"

"Yeah, it's not disposable exactly. It just means you don't have to give your details."

"Right. And Buffy?"

"I'll write to Tara. See if she can put you in touch."

"All right." He heaved a short sigh, and sat a little straighter. "This is going to be an interesting few weeks."

"Yeah."

They fell quiet. Xander scratched his elbow and looked around the room as if he didn't see it every day. He nodded towards the coffee table where Robinson Crusoe was lying. Interesting choice. "First book in two months?"

"Oh, yes. You've built quite a respectable literary collection." He waved a hand towards the wall of floor-to-ceiling shelves.

"Shocking, huh?"

"I didn't mean to imply-"

Xander shrugged. "There weren't any books in my house when I was a kid."

"Nothing at all worth reading?"

"Seriously, no books. None. I never saw either of my parents with a book in their hands." Giles stared at him like Xander had said his dad beat him or something. "I mean, Willow's house had more shelves than walls, and Buffy's house had books and even Cordy - I think her mom just bought ones with pastel covers, but still, books. My house didn't even have the TV guide. I think that's part of why I was the dumb kid."

"You weren't the-"

"So I didn't want my girls to grow up like that. I started buying books as soon as Mary and I had a place. I gotta tell you, Giles, kids' books? Way more awesome than the stuff you made us read. In fact, pretty much all books in existence are way more awesome than the stuff you made us read."

Giles shifted around to face him better, with a teasing smile. "Are you telling me that if I'd furnished you with a good mystery novel, I might have turned you around?"

"I don't know about that. But Dr Seuss and some Roald Dahl might have done the job." It still wasn't like Xander was a big reader, these days, but with Jen on his lap, chubby hand reaching for Yertle the Turtle, he'd discovered the appeal. Best of all, Kate was a total book-snob, paperbacks over e-books every time, and Jen picked things up when they interested her. They were both pretty smart, so hypothesis confirmed.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"They don't know anything, okay?"

"Understood."

"I don't just mean vampires and hyena possession and Halloween personality disorder."

"I understand."

"They don't know the first thing about Buffy or Willow or you. They've never met my parents."

"I understand."

Xander snatched up his phone, looking around frantically to see if there was anything else he'd forgotten. "Nothing. They've never heard of Sunnydale."

"Xander, I understand. I'm an old friend of indeterminate origin and relationship."

"Right." It suddenly dawned on Xander that Giles was standing in the middle of his living room in borrowed undershorts and a tank. "Oh, damn, you're gonna need clothes. Just a second." Xander hurried back to his own room, snatched a pair of track pants and a shirt out of the drawer. They'd be a little baggy on Giles, who was the same size as sixteen years ago, unlike Xander, but they'd do. He saw the clock and swore, hurried back out. "You can wear these while you wash yours. There's detergent in that cupboard, laundry room's down in the basement, everything works the same as it used to. When you want to eat you can scrounge anything you want out of the kitchen. There's a few dollars in the jar on the kitchen counter if you want to go down and grab a coffee - stand on the corner's great - but I don't really keep cash around anymore." Lunch, shit; Xander hurried back to the fridge to grab his lunch box, talking all the while. "I gotta go. I'll cut out of work early, be home around one or two, well before the girls."

"Who don't know anything."

"Yeah. Don't tell them anything. Just, we used to know each other. They're gonna want to know, but-"

"My lips are sealed."

Out the door. Damn, he was late. The door almost shut behind him when he realised - shit. Back inside."You can't do laundry. I don't have time to key your fingerprint to the door. You won't get back in."

"I can wait."

"Sorry. See you at two. Or one."

He bounced on his feet as the elevator slowly sank to the lobby. What idiotic idea possessed him to keep Giles around? Hey, girls, here's a mysterious stranger from my mysterious past, hope you don't have any questions. Jeez. This was going to be the day his whole life unravelled. It was going to be like that night with dead psycho Jack O'Toole and his knife and his dead friends, except this time, Giles was the bomb in the basement and the world was going to come tumbling down.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

There was a pip from the door unlocking and then the girls barged in, Jen lecturing her sister on something. "All you have to do is keep your big mouth shut so-" Speaking of big mouths, hers opened wide, a sure sign of who Kate wasn't supposed to be talking to. Xander made a note to wheedle it out of one of them later. "Dad. What are you doing home alr-" She cut off again, as she noticed someone standing behind him.

"Girls, this is a friend of mine, Rupert Giles."

The girls stared at Xander. A quick glance at the stranger, and then more staring at Xander. His cheeks warmed. He'd never had anyone home to meet them before, sure, but it wasn't like he didn't have any friends. He had plenty of friends.

"It's a pleasure to meet you." Giles offered his hand, and they stared at that, and then Jen finally shuffled forward and took it solemnly.

"This is Jen, and this is Kate."

Kate hung back, shy, until Giles bent forward to her level with a gentle smile. She quickly shook hands and then scuttled back behind her sister.

"You're a friend of Dad's," Jen said in about the tone Xander guessed she would have asked if Giles was from the planet Melmac.

Xander folded his arms. He had friends. Okay, not many, but that was just another thing they never told you about divorce. That as well as the property and the kids, you divided the friends, and Mary definitely came out ahead on that one.

Jen seemed to catch his frown and back-pedalled. "Are you from Dad's work?"

"No, no, I'm an old friend."

The girls' eyes widened, first Jen's, and then Kate's a second later. Xander could see the questions spinning in their heads and dreaded the interrogation.

"Mr Giles is in town for a couple of days, so he's going to be sleeping on the couch." They looked even more surprised at that. Neither of them seemed to have anything to say, too surprised or maybe just not old enough to know what small-talk to make with a friend of their dad's. "Why don't you girls go drop your bags and start on your homework?" Xander suggested. "If you finish early, maybe we can see about taking Mr Giles out to dinner instead of fighting over what movie to download."

Nothing like the promise of food not cooked by Xander to move the girls from dumbstruck silence to eager squeals. At least, that's how it usually was. This time it was only Jen yelping "Chinese!" as she raced down the hall.

Kate was right behind her, but without the expected cry of 'Pizza!' He hadn't realised she was so shy of strangers.

"I think dinner should be up to Giles," Xander said, loud enough for them to hear.

Giles was staring down the hall where they'd disappeared. "You're the native. Tell me what's good."

"Sixth Street it is," Xander called to the girls and got the expected grumbling.

"You always want Indian," Jen sighed, hauling her half-pound school tablet to the kitchen counter like it was a bag of foundation cement. "I'm sick of Indian."

Kate followed in her wake, unusually quiet. She dragged the other stool around to the kitchen side of the counter, well out of Giles' way. Hm.

They grumbled because they liked grumbling, but no one could clean a plate of tikka masala faster than his girls. Xander was particularly proud of that. "Sixth Street is the home of good Indian. You're okay with Indian, right?"

"London is the home of good Indian," Giles corrected, "but I'd be glad to keep an open mind."

"Are you from London, Mr Giles?" Jen asked, pushing her tablet aside without turning it on. Too much to hope anything would get done with a visitor in the house.

Giles sat back down on the couch, stretching out his legs. "I'm from the Lake District, originally, but I've lived in London for most of my life."

"Is that where you knew Dad?" she asked, oh-so-casually.

"I've never been to London," Xander jumped in, just as casually, letting his eyes sell the warning that she should skip the follow-up question.

"How come you're wearing Dad's clothes?" Kate asked, suddenly.

Uh-oh. They hadn't thought about how to cover that one.

"The airline lost my luggage," Giles lied, smooth as a professional. Impressive.

"What airline?"

"United."

"Who?"

It took a second to realise who he'd meant. United Airlines, who went under years ago. "United Arab Emirates," Xander supplied. He'd been so worried about the girls grilling Giles for information about Xander's past that he'd never thought about the minefield of everything in between. Where do you live now, Mr Giles? Why are you sleeping on our dad's couch? What do you think of the President Kwoh scandal?

"All Giles' clothes are somewhere in Australia, so I'm going to have to take him shopping tomorrow."

"Shopping!" Jen cheered.

"Menswear," Xander retorted.

"But I-"

"Your clothes are your mom's department. I got Sixth Street in the divorce, she got JC Penney."

"I don't wear anything from JC Penney."

"My wallet wishes you would."

"Are you taking Mr Giles to JC Penney?"

Giles looked afraid.

"No, I think he's earned Macy's. Me and Giles will go first thing; you two can sleep in. If you get your homework done. If I don't see it tonight, I'll wake you at seven and you can get to it then."

"That's not fair!"

"Sounds fair to me."

Xander waited until things had quieted and their heads were down, before he wandered round to Kate's side to pull a curly black pigtail. "You okay, kiddo?"

She nodded, but her lip was flushed from being bitten. Her arms wrapped around him, ear pressed to his chest. He hugged her back, surprised. Definitely some cling-issues going on. "You sure?" Another nod, though she didn't give an inch, so he just held on and dropped a couple of kisses in her hair. Maybe it was wrong to enjoy her fear, but there's no way Jen would do this anymore so he only had a year or two at most to bask in being Kate's big protector guy.

"Whatcha working on?"

"I have a history project." Even with her face buried in his shirt, he could hear her eyes roll.

"History's important," he said, just to get a rise. He forgot that he'd get a bonus rise from Giles' wry look. Xander wasn't used to having people around who remembered his resentment of all things educational. He couldn't help smiling back over Kate's head.

"History's dumb," Kate whined, muffled.

"It's fundamental. It's how we learn who we are." Score for Giles' silent chuckle, and his own smile became a grin.

Frustration won out over whatever was upsetting her, and she pulled away. "Not this. This isn't even American history. I have to pick some stupid boring ancient culture that has nothing to do with America to do a project on."

"An ancient culture? You know, Giles is pretty good with the uber-history. I'll bet he could get you rolling on some place that isn't boring."

Kate glared. "It's all boring."

"I don't know," Giles said. "I have some fairly rivetting stories of royal scandals. Wars? Plagues? Natural disasters? Human sacrifices?"

She shrank a little and said quietly to Xander, "Boring."

"Anything on planet Earth is boring according to Kate," Jen explained. "Know any ancient cultures from her home planet?"

"Shut up. Astronomy's way more important than some dead people millions of years ago."

"How about astronomy by dead people thousands of years ago?" Giles asked.

She was curious, but she set her jaw and turned on her tablet. "No thanks."

Giles sat back, obviously disappointed to have failed. Xander would have thought he'd remember how much you couldn't impress kids with your encyclopaedic knowledge of everything. Especially since failing to impress Xander was only a few months ago, for him.

Oversized track pants weren't exactly going-out fashion, even for Sixth Street, so sending Giles downstairs to the laundry was the perfect chance to talk to Kate properly. Xander leaned on his elbows on the counter, planting his face right in front of hers.

"Are you okay with Mr Giles visiting?"

He could feel Jen's piercing gaze on him. Kate wasn't the only one worried.

"Sure," she said, still looking at her blank screen.

"You've got one wash cycle to talk out of his hearing."

She glanced at the door and straightened, but it still took her a second to work up her courage. "Is he... Is he..." She looked to Jen for back-up. "Is he a bad man?"

"A bad man?" Xander barely caught his laugh. "Giles? When did we catch the train to crazy town?" She shrugged, embarrassed, so Xander looked to Jen.

"She wants to know if he's a hit man or something. If he's come to get you."

A hit man. By all the little... "You girls know all that mafia stuff is a joke, right?"

They nodded, eyes down, not meaning it at all.

Of course they believed the stories. He knew they half-believed, and he'd used that shamelessly to keep them scared of strangers and dark alleys.

It was a terrible fear to put in their heads, but somehow it got out there, and it was better than the truth, safer than any other lie, and Xander had latched on. With something so obvious laid out for them, how else would a pair of little girls justify their father's secrets?

Xander opened his mouth to dismiss the story and stopped. It wasn't like he had a better one. More than that, the little voice that had been warning him that Giles would drag the demon world in the door with him wasn't ready to retire just yet.

"Giles is a good guy," Xander said at last, feeling guilty as hell. "I'd never bring anyone home that would put you girls in danger." He made sure to look at both of them in turn, two pairs of wide brown eyes, trusting him completely. "You can trust Giles, all right?"

"Okay," they said together.

He was the worst dad ever.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 4:
Reminiscing about Willow softened Xander up, and he invited Giles to stay while he got his paperwork started. Xander's daughters were shocked to find out their father had a friend. Right now they're probably trying to figure out who played Giles in the Godfather movies.



New York chapter 5:
The City


Luckily, Giles didn't mind taking the front seat of the taxi. Kate still had to hold Xander's hand all the way to dinner, only letting go so she could swipe his phone at the end of the trip. Not so scared of Giles, now, but just a little more sure than she was yesterday that her dad knew hit men. Great.

When Mary caught wind of this, she was going to have a fit.

Kate insisted on sharing Xander's side of the booth at the restaurant, but having moved Giles into the 'not gonna kill my dad' column, she was digging up the courage to talk to him now. Before the pappadums were gone, Giles had her enthralled with tales of Babylon and eclipses and some guy who figured out the earth went around the sun fifteen centuries before Copernicus.

Xander was reminded again how unnaturally smart Giles was. Packing that much information in one human brain just didn't seem possible.

Xander was kind of awed by Kate, too. She was smart, of course. He knew it, in a whole lot more than just the obsessively-proud dad sense, but the way she was soaking up everything she was hearing, he realised for the first time that maybe she was Giles-sort of smart. Room in her head for everything, if she wanted it.

This was still definitely going to end in calamity, but for now Xander was enjoying showing off his daughters for Giles. 'Look what I did,' he wanted to say, because there was no one else who knew what a big thing it was, for Xander Harris, high school dork, Scooby loser and all-round failure, to be even a little bit responsible for how these two were turning out. His heart clenched as the feeling got crystal clear. He wanted Giles to be proud of him.

He'd never got this feeling calling home. He called every couple of months or so, updates just as bland as the ones he gave Tara. In return, his dad told him to keep an eye on his money, make sure he saved, and his mom told him he didn't call often enough. He always hung up depressed that he didn't care more.

He polished off the last samosa. "I'm going to the bathroom." He mussed Jen's hair as he stood, just to make her glare. "Don't eat all my vindaloo when it comes."

"Not without a fire extinguisher."


Xander was winding his way back to his seat when Kate saw him coming. "Dad! Mr Giles believes in ghosts!"

Xander froze. The couple at the next table looked over at Giles and Kate, grinning. Two minutes. He'd left them alone for the time it took to piss, and Giles was already breaking his promise? He strode up, fists clenched. "What's he telling you?"

Giles looked up innocently.

Kate kept right on going, voice not dropping at all. "I asked, 'Do you believe in ghosts?' and he said, 'Yes.'" She turned back to him, nose in the air. "What about telepathy?"

"Of course."

Xander relaxed enough to sit down when Kate gagged. As long as he wasn't going to make a case for any of it.

"Fairies, I suppose?" she asked, sarcastic.

"Kate..." Xander wasn't liking her tone.

"Oh, most definitely."

"Oh." Kate deflated. "You're one of those."

"One of those?"

"One of those people that thinks ten year-olds are idiots."

Xander grinned. She deserved that. She was getting way too snotty for her own good.

"Not at all," Giles said airily, reaching to tear off some naan.

"But you believe in ghosts and telepathy and Santa Claus and astrology."

"Ah, no. Now astrology is a load of bunk."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

They'd finally run out of excuses for one last trip to the kitchen, the bathroom, goodnight hug (that one was just Kate, of course), and Giles and Xander were sprawled on the couch.

"They're lovely girls," Giles said.

"Hard to believe they're mine, right?"

"I'd know them as yours in a second."

Xander twisted his head to see Giles' expression. He was staring absently off in the air.

"Kate sounds just like you, and Jen has your mannerisms and expressions exactly."

Really? Kate's Xander-like rambling was infamous, but he'd never noticed anything about Jen's gestures. He hoped it was true. Sometimes it seemed like he had nothing in common with Jen; since she'd outgrown snuggling up to him on the couch, he'd started to wonder what he had to offer her.

"I knew I'd be coming back to a changed world, but I must say, it's hard to grasp. A week ago you were barely out of high-school. Now here you are, a father."

"I'm good at it." Will and Buffy had their talents; it'd taken a while, but Xander had found his own. "I used to be scared that I'd be like mine, you know, but I'm not."

"I would never have doubted it. You always had an empathy, a generousness of heart, that would make you a wonderful father. They're lucky girls."

Xander swallowed. He didn't remember Giles being this open with his compliments.

Giles had cocked his head. "You remind me of Joyce, a little."

It was a long wait for his next breath. "That's about the best thing anyone's ever said to me."

Giles was watching him. He looked really serious, at first, and then his whole face softened in a smile.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"I suppose a pair of trousers and a shirt or two should be sufficient," Giles said as they stared around menswear.

Xander wished he could make some grand gesture, tell Giles to get whatever he wanted, but he was past believing in the magical fortune that they all seemed to assume was in their future when they were kids. "It'd get you through, but if you think the Council's going to set you up, and this is just going to be a loan, I can spring for more. Rent's not 'til the end of the month."

"At the very least, I ought to have some things tied up in the Council's care. As soon as I'm no longer dead, I should be able to repay you."

"You called this morning?"

"That was an interesting call." Giles smiled to himself as he started pulling pants from the rack. "They rather thought I'd simply cut all ties, as well. I have to wonder how I gave everyone the impression that I was so utterly fickle."

He'd never been like that. Giles was as far to the opposite of that as existed, and as stupid as it was that the Council wouldn't wonder why one of their watchers disappeared off the face of the earth, it wasn't nearly as stupid as Xander assuming it. "I'm sorry," he said, softly. What happened to them, that they let Giles go so easily? "We should have looked."

The smile warmed, making Giles' eyes sparkle. "It seems to me you weren't in a state to be wondering about me. But thank you." As he turned back to the rack, his expression fell.

Xander's shoulders fell with it. He still wasn't getting this right. It was easy - sort of - to apologise for stuff that happened, or didn't happen, sixteen years ago. Giles deserved better than that. "I'm sorry I was such an ass when you showed up on Thursday." He couldn't help shrugging as he said it, feeling like the idiotic screw-up teenager that he used to be.

Giles draped the pants he'd collected over an arm so his free hand could squeeze Xander's shoulder. "You had good reason to be worried."

"Don't say it like there's an excuse for treating you like that," Xander said, irritation sneaking into his tone. Irritated with himself, not Giles, but it's not like that was in any way clear. "After everything that happened back in Sunnydale, with all of us, everything you did for us, everything we did for each other, it's not even remotely okay."

"No, it's not." There was that hollow look again, and Xander felt like a total bastard. "It may have been a rocky beginning, but I've truly enjoyed the last couple of days. I'm glad I found you."

Some of the guilt lifted at that. "Me too."

Xander sat on a stool outside the changing room while Giles tried the clothes on. Listening to the sweep-sweep of Giles taking his pants off was weird.

"Henry - from the Council - said they should be able to get my paperwork sorted in a week or so," Giles said loudly, like the flimsy three-quarter door might muffle his voice, "at least far enough that I can catch a flight home to organise the rest."

"Home, England? Not to see Buffy?"

There was a pause before Giles answered, but maybe he was just busy checking the fit. "The paperwork really is quite urgent. Coming back to life is a complicated business. I'm sure I can get it out of the way in just a few days, and then I'll, I'll make my way to, ah, to LA."

Finally Xander figured out what was behind all the shadowed looks. Giles was worried about seeing her. Xander didn't have the guts to summon any sort of pithy encouragement. Maybe Buffy's welcome would be just as heart-warming as Xander's.

Maybe Giles was pissed at her for not coming to find out what happened to him. Buffy didn't have a wedding-that-wasn't on her mind. Xander could think of plenty of other stuff that had been piling on her head, but maybe it was that she was just as angry as Xander about Giles abandoning them.

But he didn't know; he didn't know Buffy at all anymore, and that was one Giles was going to have to find out for himself.

He didn't even hear the door latch; Giles was just suddenly standing in front of him. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah." Xander stood. "You got pants?"

From pants to shirts. Giles rifled through racks and piled stuff into Xander's arms, picking just as quickly as Xander did. It was kind of surprising; Xander was used to shopping with the girls, and before them, Mary. Jen took longer to pick pants than Xander did to sign the lease on his apartment.

If anything, Xander would have guessed Giles would be the sort to browse through the various patterns of tweed, evaluating every shirt for creasability and Britishness. Instead it was a Xander-style drive-through: a pair of good pants, a pair of jeans, a short stack of grey and white t-shirts, two button-shirts and couple of packs of socks and briefs. Kind of a bare minimum for February, but with the jacket he was borrowing from Xander it'd be enough. The only thing Giles frowned and muttered over was sweaters.

"Get the green," Xander suggested.

"The green?"

"Looks good on you."

That got an owlish blink, but Giles folded the others back and led the way to the counter.

Xander swiped all the clothes through the scanner and paid, Giles watching like it was the most interesting thing ever. Xander was slipping his phone back in his pocket when he realised. "Man. We thought you were behind the times back in high school."

"I have a feeling I have some sudden learning curves to face."

Xander piled the clothes into the bag he'd brought before he went on. "The bad news is you're pretty much stuck with computers, now, unless you want to move to a cabin in the wilderness of Maine. And then you'll need an uplink."

"What's the good news?"

"TV on demand, anywhere, anytime."

"Just what I've always wanted."

They stepped onto the escalator together, and Xander slouched against the rail. "Pretty much everything that used to be in your wallet's in your phone, now. Actually, everything's on your phone. You pay with your phone, then you can check your account on your phone. Directions to anywhere. Driver's licence and all your shopping loyalty cards. Your camera. When I leave work in winter, I can tell my heating to kick up so it's toasty before I get in. Best thing ever."

"Is anything the same?"

"The Rolling Stones are still touring."

Giles did a double-take. "You must be joking."

Xander grinned. "Nah. They're all dead, except Keith Richards. I swear, he's still going."

"Those in the know widely suspect he's immortal."

This time, it was Xander's double-take. "Seriously?"

"No. But perhaps it's time to begin speculating."

Giles led the way through the doors into the blast of icy wind on 7th Avenue and then stood in the way of the crowd, looking one way and the other. Finally he looked back at Xander as the city washed around him.

Xander pointed. "This way first." He caught the sleeve of the jacket Giles had borrowed and tugged him into the stream of people headed uptown. "There's a great bagel place on 34th. They've got salmon you've been waiting for all your life. Paper-thin. I'm talking Gideon Bible paper, not that old scroll stuff."

As they pushed their way up to 34th under the roar of people talking on phones trying to drown out honking taxis, Xander did a quick overview of the last decade and a half. The technology, the politics, the big news. Giles had disappeared before blogging and internet phones and the second Iraq war, before Bond went blond and Twilight made vamps sparkle.

In the crush waiting for the lights at 33rd, Xander looked at Giles. "What were gas prices when you left?"

Giles frowned, thinking back. "$1.20? $1.30, perhaps?"

Xander snorted. "It hit $8 for a few weeks last year." He nodded as a couple of taxis rolled silently by. "Good for the electric car industry. Oh, and Pluto's not a planet anymore."

"I'm sorry?"

The lights changed, and Xander took Giles' elbow to keep him close as the crowd washed across the street. "It got demoted around ten years ago? They were tough times for small celestial bodies. I mention this one because if it ever comes up with Kate and you fail, you fail big-time."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

When they got home, Jen was tapping on her phone on the couch, and Kate was sprawled across the floor with a book, the pair of them still in their nightgowns.

"We have bagels for anyone who can dig me up some proof of homework."

Jen tapped a couple of keys and showed her checked-off submission page and then went back to whatever she was doing without ever looking up. Kate sighed like Xander was the most unreasonable dad in the world and swapped her book for her tablet.

"So what are we going to do today?" Xander asked as Giles stowed his new bag in the corner.

They both shrugged without looking up.

"Don't you want to show Giles around?"

Jen stopped typing. "Have you been to the city before, Mr Giles?"

"To a city?"

"The City."

"She means New York," Xander explained. "Other cities don't count. Or the other boroughs."

"Manhattan," Kate agreed.

"Ah. Just once, a long time ago."

"Did you go to Coney Island?"

"Did you go to the Statue of Liberty?"

"Did you go to the planetarium?"

The girls' list of most important tourist attractions were fired at him.

"What about Central Park?"

"Times Square?"

"I didn't get to see much, I'm afraid. I was searching for a friend."

Buffy. It was when Buffy ran away. Vaguely, Xander remembered New York being one of the first failed leads. That was only four years ago, Giles-time.

"Did you ride the subway?" Jen asked last, eagerly.

"I did ride the subway."

"Didn't get attacked, did you?"

There was a telling pause before Giles didn't exactly answer. "I survived."

"See, Dad? People do manage to ride the subway and live."

Xander started pulling plates out. "Yeah, well, don't think you're one of them."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Once the girls found out Giles had never been to Central Park, Saturday morning's plans were set. The skating paths weren't exactly where Xander would have thought Giles would want to hang out, but he seemed enthusiastic enough once Xander promised him that everyone over the age of thirteen would be wheel-less on the grass, spectating.

If he'd been a couple of weeks earlier, it could have been ice skating, at least, but the Wollman rink was closed, and the paths were clear. Though it felt cold enough.

Xander pulled his collar higher, wishing he'd brought his scarf. "Jen..."

"She can do it!"

"Jen, no."

"I can!"

"No, Kate."

"Da-ad!"

"You want to turn around and go straight home?" The girls shut up. He lowered his voice for Giles. "See how they get exactly the same expression when they can't have what they want?"

Giles was smiling as he watched them. "I remember it from school."

"I never looked like that."

"You looked exactly like that."

"Name one time."

"Often enough around Buffy. Briefly around Cordelia. For a while around Willow."

"Okay, okay. Shut up, now."

Giles chuckled. It was a warm, easy sound, still kind of foreign to Xander. Jen had stopped trying to teach her sister how to do jump turns, and they were having a not-much-safer game of photo tag. "I can't believe roller skates have made a comeback," Giles said.

"Mary took them to a roller derby last year."

"We're gonna join a team!" Jen yelled as she swung past.

"That's right," said Xander, "when you're forty."

"Da-ad!"

Xander ignored the whining chorus, spoke to Giles instead. "Roller derbies make slaying look like a non-contact sport."

Giles winced as Kate grabbed Jen's scarf and yanked. "Whatever they're doing now makes slaying look like a non-contact sport."

Kate squealed, covering her eyes and skating blind as Jen tried to pull her around, waving her phone in her face. "Photo tag," Xander explained. "The idea is to get the ugliest photo of the other one. They fired me as judge when I declared every photo beautiful." He grinned. "'Cause seriously, how could you get a bad photo of either of those faces?"

"Da-ad!"

"I'm very sure it's not possible."

Xander grinned, pleased. "I love dragging them out here in winter, all bundled up. You should have seen them when they were little, flopping around like the Stay Puft Marshmallow guy from Ghostbusters."

"I wish I had," Giles said, softly.

They stayed for nearly an hour until Xander couldn't feel his toes and Giles was starting to look a little blue, too. Xander declared they had the Central Park experience covered, and it was time to move on. He let the girls skate to Eighth Avenue and then made them switch to boots.

Giles leaned on the fence, eyeing a hot dog stand on the corner.

Xander took Kate's skates and helmet while she laced her sneakers, and wandered over. "You want one?"

Giles jumped, and stared at him. "Are you being serious?"

"They're really good. Jen, Kate, Giles has never had a New York hot dog."

Their eyes widened like he'd never had an inwards breath. "Never?"

"I assure you, I've never had a hot dog at all."

"Never?" they chorused again.

"Before you start lecturing my daughters about the evils of American food, you'd better remember you're from the nation of a thousand and one uses for offal."

"And you're living in the nation with just one." Giles drawled, turning his back on the hot dog guy.

"So what next?" Xander asked as the girls staggered up, boots on.

"Madison Avenue!" they yelled, predictably.

"Seriously, girls, there's nothing to see. We're barely past the parking levels."

"We wanna see!" Kate bounced.

Jen turned to Giles. "Do you want to see Dad's building?"

"Your building?"

"Dad's building a skyscraper!" Kate said.

"All by myself."

"Sounds like quite the project. I would love to see your building."

"Sucker." He looked back to the girls. "Fine. Madison, and then?"

"The museum!" they yelled.

Giles' eyebrows almost shot off his head.

"You take Giles there, and you'll never escape again."

"You voluntarily go to museums?"

Xander thought about getting defensive for about half a second, and then he broke into a sheepish grin. "It's the way of the divorced dad. Cheap and free cultural attractions are the go. Museum of Natural History's got tons of stuffed animals, reminds me of my Uncle Rory."

Just like Xander had warned, there wasn't much to see of his building except the gig posters that were already plastered over the hoarding and the cranes stretching above. "It's going to be forty-eight floors, mostly residential," Xander explained to Giles. "From the upper floors we'll see right over Central Park into the West Side. There's a building boom on at the moment - it's a good time to get into the industry, if your other thing doesn't work out."

"Thank you, but I work better with a roof over my head."

After all the nagging, Jen and Kate were entertained for about three minutes, and then they were ready to get across town to the Asian People's Hall and the Hall of Meteorites.

In two days, they managed to squeeze in the Museum of Natural History and the Met, which Giles liked a lot, the top of the Empire State Building, where he was way more interested in listening to Xander's architecture babble than the girls had ever been, and the neon craziness of Times Square, where Giles got to play the mothbally old English snob of Xander's youth. Thank god Giles backed him up when they passed the half-priced tickets and the girls argued any trip to New York needed the latest Teenage Drama the Musical on Broadway.

The girls didn't notice that Giles was more fascinated by how much the girls used their phones for information and Xander paying ten dollars for coffee than the landmarks.

Xander couldn't believe how much fun he was having. He couldn't believe how much fun Giles seemed to be having, even if half of it was smug satisfaction when Xander's references to Bono and X-Files fell flat and then when Xander got completely confused listening to Jen explain some online reality show celebrity's scandal. Giles was learning his way around 2018. Xander was realising how it felt to be Giles in 1998.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 5:
Giles disappointed Kate by calmly believing in all sorts of things. Giles and Xander went clothes shopping, and Xander realised Giles was worried about meeting Buffy after all these years. New York tourism featured full-contact roller-skating, a view of Xander's mid-construction high-rise, and museums, which Xander now visits voluntarily.



New York chapter 6:
The fit


Giles was in the middle of humiliating everyone at Monopoly while simultaneously grumping about the swipe cards and computerised board replacing paper money and the shoe piece when the door buzzed on Sunday.

Xander opened the door. "Mary? You're early." He leaned back to check the clock. "Hours early."

She frowned as she tried to see past him. "Xander, what's going on?"

"What?"

She stopped trying to look into the apartment and shot him a scathing glare.

"There's nothing going on."

"I spoke to Kate on the phone. She said you had a friend visiting?"

"Yeah." Huh? "Is that a problem?" Sure, he didn't usually have friends around when the girls were there - or any other time - but it wasn't against any rule he knew of.

"An old friend." She emphasised old. Oh. "Can we..." She gestured into the hall, like they could talk out there. Show for the neighbours? No thanks.

"How about my room?"

He introduced her to Giles, and they shook hands politely as they sized each other up. He couldn't tell what Giles decided about her in those few seconds, but Mary seemed to have been expecting something that wasn't a formally polite Brit in jeans and a button shirt.

Xander led the way to his bedroom. "Mary?"

Her head jerked up, and she took a couple of seconds to work up to, "What's going on, Xander?"

"I don't... He's an old friend. He needs a place to stay for a few days, so I-"

"Don't lie to me."

He hadn't expected the anger. She hadn't raised her voice at him in years, and his apology came automatically, before he knew what it was for. "I'm sorry."

She pushed her hand through her hair, and Xander realised it was shaking.

"Mary, it's just a friend-"

"Just a-" She whipped around to point a finger at him. "All these years, Xander. All these years. You've kept me in the dark. Afraid of I have no goddamned idea what, and I damn-well let you."

"Mary-"

"And now, I find out from Kate - from Kate - that 'Dad's mafia friend' is spending the weekend with my daughters."

"He's not in the-"

"You don't think that's something I had a right to know?"

He waited to see if she'd ride over him again, but apparently he was allowed to answer this one. "You've never asked me to sign off on your friends."

"You think that's the same thing?"

"I can't have friends?"

"Is there anything you want to know about Stacy or Bergen or Fran? All you have to do is ask. But that man out there... Will you tell me how you met him? What he does for a living? Where he's been, for the past fifteen years?" She barely paused, knowing there was nothing he'd say. "You've never told me a damned thing about your past, except to be afraid of it, and I let it all go because I believed you when you said it was behind you."

"It is."

"It's sitting in your living room bartering for railroads with your children!"

Xander rubbed his head. He didn't know what he could say. He didn't even know if she was wrong. He trusted Giles, of course, but for all he knew, Giles was tracking psychic vibes like mud through his home.

"Why now? After all these years?"

'We ran into each other,' rose in his throat, but he'd never lied to her. Never lied outright. "Can you please just trust me?"

She huffed, disbelieving. "I've trusted you for years. Absolutely, completely, unquestioningly. When are you going to start trusting me?" Hurt crept in. "Have I ever given you any reason to believe I wouldn't support you?"

She'd given him more than he'd ever had a right to ask. She'd married him and had his children, and she'd never forced him to tell her anything.

"Did you and that man rob banks? Spy for the CIA? Tell me the mafia jokes are real, and I'll accept it. Give me something."

Xander couldn't look up. "Mary. I wish..."

"Don't say you wish you could tell me-"

"I don't. I don't want you or the girls to ever know." It wasn't about trust. People who knew got dragged in and they spent the rest of their lives fighting.

He forced his head up because he had to meet her eyes as he said this. She was full of fire, fists clenched, jaw hard, but her eyes were red. "We weren't bad people. I swear that to you. There are bad... things in the world, but it wasn't us."

"That's all you'll give me."

"It's all I can."

She didn't move for a long time, thoughts racing behind her eyes. "If you do anything to put those girls in danger, you can forget everything I said about keeping you in their lives."

Xander's blood ran cold. "What?"

"If I have to start wondering if they're safe, I'll do whatever I have to do to protect them. If they see him again, if I hear of any more old friends stopping by while they're in your care, you can get yourself a lawyer and bring your secret damned past to the courthouse to get access."

Xander stepped closer. "I don't deserve that."

"I don't give a damn what you deserve."

So this really was about being petty. "Maybe you're just jealous of him." He'd said it to hurt, but the look on her face... He hadn't meant it like that. "I'm sor-"

"Just jealous. Why should I be jealous of someone who knows my husband of ten years better than I ever did?"

They stood there, panting, letting the anger settle in the cracks, soak into their bones.

Finally, she spoke. "What do I deserve, Xander?"

She deserved better. Tons better. He couldn't say it, though. He couldn't say anything, and that's how it was left when she walked out the door.

Distantly, he heard the girls' wails of complaint as she herded them back to grab their stuff and then the clank of the closing door, and the apartment was silent.

Xander knew he should go out there, but he couldn't bring himself to stand.

If she ever sued for sole custody... She probably wouldn't win, but the fight would be worse than the divorce. The relationship they had now would be over. And the girls... They'd be monsters, to put the girls through that.

Giles knocked and opened the door without waiting for an answer. He hovered in the doorway, but Xander didn't look up.

"Are you all right?"

"Yeah." Might have been more convincing without the raspy voice.

Xander wished he'd go, wished Giles'd give him a minute, but he couldn't bring himself to say it. The longer he sat, the more it felt good having him there. Part of Sunnydale, there in the flesh, someone who'd be on Xander's side. If other people taking sides meant anything when parents fought.

"She, Mary, called her, called her Jenny."

Xander's throat closed. No one had ever asked. No one had ever had a reason to ask. Jen had been the centre of his world for thirteen years, and Miss Calendar a part of it for less than one, so long ago that it was Jen's name, now. "I wanted to remember. Everything, not just her. Willow was... I couldn't call her Willow." When she started walking and talking, being her own person, he couldn't call her Jenny, either.

"I think Jenny would have been honoured." Xander wondered how Giles looked as he said that, if his face matched his tone.

"I wanted to leave it behind, but I didn't want to forget." He felt like apologising. He hadn't thought about Miss Calendar for years. He never thought of her when he looked at Jen.

"Do you need me to leave?"

"How long did the Council say they'd take?" Xander didn't want him to leave.

"They should have enough to put me on a flight home by Friday at the latest. If I need to get a hotel room, I'm sure they'll-"

"No. No, you can stay here. We've got until Friday, anyway."

"She doesn't want the girls near me."

"She doesn't know who you are. You're part of some horrible past I refuse to talk about, and now I won't tell her who you are." It sounded so reasonable like that, that Xander had to be explaining it wrong. There was no way it was fair to threaten to take Jen and Kate away from him.

Neither of them spoke for a while. Just hung out, being silent in Xander's bedroom, and that was weird.

"Let's get out of here." Xander stood and yanked a jacket out of his closet. "I never stay home on a Sunday night. What do you want for dinner?"

"I don't-" Giles seemed to remember how much Xander hated what he was about to say. "Do you know where to find a good steak and chips?"

That was easy. "The best."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

After dinner they found their way to a bar on 14th & 8th, an English-style pub-kind-of-thing Xander knew. Partly because Xander thought Giles would appreciate the taste of home. Mostly because he liked the idea of having a drink with Giles. He wanted to take a photo and mail it back to himself in junior year.

He let Giles pick, and they ended up with a couple of glasses of something dark and foamy and pretty good sitting between them on the heavy wood table.

"So what do you think?" Xander waved vaguely, in the air. "Authentic?"

Giles smiled into his glass. "Not in the least." He licked the foam from his lips. "Though they do know how to pull a pint."

Xander picked up the little menu-stand. "They do fish and chips. Isn't that what English people eat in pubs?"

"I don't eat fish."

"Really? I didn't know that. Me either since the swim team thing." Giles never haunted the UC cafeteria with the rest of them, and research meetings always went with pizza or donuts. He remembered that Giles liked the jelly donuts, so that was something. "So, between the eight different kinds of shock and then Kate and Jen, you never did tell me about your crazy trip to wherever the hell you went."

"I tracked a Hewarth demon into a snow dimension."

"Yeah, you told me that. But not the rest of it." Xander never would have asked Giles for the emotional share back in Sunnydale, but after two days sightseeing the Big Apple like old friends, they pretty much felt like old friends. Xander pushed Giles' foot with his own. "You were alone there a pretty long time."

Giles blinked at him a couple of times, and then stared down into his glass. "I suppose I had grown used to it in Bath." He chuckled and covered his eyes with his hand for a moment. "My word, that sounds pathetic, doesn't it?"

It sounded lonely.

Giles sipped his beer. "I did have friends; I'm not entirely a lost cause, but after years of having you lot traipse through my door at all hours without knocking, adjusting to a world where I actually had to call and arrange to meet people for a pint was a surprising effort." He lifted his eyes to the ceiling with a wry smile as if he was expecting Xander to agree it was stupid.

But boy, Xander knew that one. "Sounds like here. It took me more than a year to realise I didn't know how to make friends on my own. Except for Mary, I still haven't made any friends like Willow and Buffy. I don't know if it's because high school's the window, or if most people in the world never have friends like that because they never get the apocalyptic team-building events." He sipped his beer. "Maybe high school's a daily life-or-death situation."

"There was certainly a bond between us that you won't find trading rounds down the pub." He smiled. "It's not nearly so pitiful as all that. I did have friends - old friends, good friends. The trouble was, even those few still living in Bath had their own lives, their routines. Five and a half years felt like a long time to have been gone."

"Now it's sixteen."

"Yes." Giles nodded, and then suddenly his eyes widened. "Most of them will be in their late sixties."

"Whoa."

He slouched back in his chair. "Their age honestly hadn't hit me until now." He frowned, eyes flickering as he reassessed everything about his home and then looked at Xander. "I have an older sister."

"You have a sister?" It seemed weird, the idea of Giles having a family. Weird how Xander was kind of jealous.

"An older one, now. Amelia. I was four years senior. Good lord, she must be teetering on sixty herself."

"Whoa."

"Very."

They both fell quiet. Xander wondered if Giles was wondering why Amelia had never asked where her brother went.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"It was cold there. This is balmy in comparison." Giles tugged the collar of his borrowed coat tighter, never taking his eyes off the ferry cutting back to the dock. "It was all my own stupidity, I'm afraid. I knew what I was dealing with, knew I should have called someone to let them know what I was chasing, but I didn't want to lose a moment." He rubbed his forehead, such a familiar Giles-gesture that for a split second, they were back in the library, Buffy showing off her latest crazy shoes. "I never even considered the time differential until I followed it home, and it still had fresh dishes sitting on the table from its last meal." He looked at Xander. "I knew it had been in Bath for at least a fortnight. It heard me curse, and that's when a simple plan to slip in and steal the dimensional key became a month trying to escape what felt like Greenland in a nuclear winter."

Xander digested that a while before leaning in to bump Giles' shoulder with his own. "You curse?"

His lip curved. "When the situation warrants it."

Xander kept being surprised, over and over again, at how comfortable things were. He kept finding himself touching Giles the way he touched Jen and Kate, the way he used to used to be comfortable with Buffy and Willow all those years ago. A little nudge here, a shoulder-pat there, and Giles didn't seem to mind like Xander would have expected back then.

They hadn't run out of stuff to talk about the last few days, but Giles' rabbit hole adventure had been a big eerie silence until now. Xander had dragged Giles down to Battery Park after work to enjoy the icy wind and the view of the Statue of Liberty in the failing daylight, to check another box off the good tourist list, and out of nowhere, Giles had finally started to talk.

Xander leaned on the railing, resting the toe of his boot on the concrete ledge "I would've curled up in a corner and cried."

Giles shot him a long look. "You would have careened through with some thoroughly insane, half-formed plan and been out of there with the key in a matter of days. A matter of days, incidentally, was how long I lasted until I found a dank corner and a good deal of self pity to wallow in. What purpose was there to fighting my way home only to arrive a thousand years from now when everyone I knew was gone and the world was far beyond me?" He picked at invisible lint on his sleeve. "I might have escaped being an alien in a foreign world to find myself playing Neanderthal Man in the land beyond tomorrow."

"Have no fear. As long as there's football, Giles, you'll never be the biggest neanderthal in the world."

That won a smile. "I suppose not."

Xander turned to rest his back on the fence, to watch the tourists and evening joggers crossing the park. "So what got you back on your feet?"

"I looked around me. God, Xander, it was a miserable place. There'd been a war, something, I'm not sure, but more buildings were collapsing than not. At most a quarter of what remained was occupied. At least there was no shortage of draughty, leaky shacks to hide in."

It sounded lonely. Two months without anyone to talk to.

"Unless there'd been an honest-to-god, successful monster takeover, Earth had to be a better option." He dipped his head, taking a moment. "That was another of my nightmares: returning to a demon-infested wasteland."

"You're not exactly optimist-guy, are you?"

Giles chuckled. "A lifetime of planning for worst-case-scenarios. A habit, I might add, that comes in handy when one needs to see sixteen lost years as a minor inconvenience."

Xander watched him watching the boats, his focus a little too sharp. "You seem to be taking it all in stride."

The corner of Giles' mouth lifted. "Well, then, as long as it doesn't appear that I am hiding in Soho with you, dreading the day I have to start rebuilding my life."

"Hiding? Nah. Regrouping. Totally valid. Or like a goldfish, getting acclimatised."

"A goldfish?"

"We had fish for a while. Just long enough to teach the girls that stuff dies. When you bring a new one home in a bag full of water, you stick the whole bag in the tank for a while, so the fish doesn't get shocked by the temperature change."

Giles stepped away from the rail, gesturing that it was time to get moving. "That sounds considerably better than hiding."

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 6:
Mary was unimpressed to find a piece of Xander's scary mysterious past playing Monopoly with her daughters. Giles realised how much his English friends and family must have aged in his absence, and finally began to talk about his otherworld vacation.



New York chapter 7:
Whistling


"Jen would have just stayed in the bathroom crying until she calmed down enough to call Mary, but Kate being Kate had to come straight out and announce it along with a refresher of everything I'd been repressing since Mrs Cotter's biology class. So of course, I had to pretend it was all no big deal for a dad to know all the new intimate womanly workings of his daughter's body."

Giles chuckled helplessly, and Xander covered his eyes.

"I've seen Mary through two pregnancies, and I've crossed into some pretty non-guy territory, but for the first time in my life I found myself in the women's stuff aisle at the supermarket, trying to decide what a twelve year-old girl needs, and suddenly boys didn't seem like such a bad idea, after all."

Giles' handkerchief came out to wipe his eyes, and Xander started laughing as well. He gouged a spoonful of ice cream out of the carton, big enough to make his teeth freeze.

"It sounds terrifying."

"Ekshactly!" Xander threw up his hands, almost losing his spoon. "Mary didn't get it. She didn't see what the fuss was about! Do you have any idea how many different kinds of girl-things there are?"

"Thankfully, no."

There. Xander always knew a guy would understand. He'd definitely been in need of a guy in his girly universe.

Giles was still chuckling in little bursts, making the couch shake, and of course he'd moved on to cleaning his glasses. Except for the grin, this used to be Xander's dictionary picture of 'very old'. The grey, receding hair, the lines around his eyes. Now Giles didn't seem very old at all.

"Did you ever want kids?" Xander asked, suddenly. He'd never wondered before if Giles had any plans other than them. Buffy.

Giles seemed startled. "No, I..." He thought as he carved out a more British portion of ice cream. "I suppose I did. I never really planned, as such. I think I assumed that if I found a partner, everything else would follow in its own way." The way he used past tense was kinda sad, like he'd already given up on the idea. "Once Buffy came into my life, the idea faded. Buffy seemed like enough." He shifted the carton to the coffee table and leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "What about you? Is this what you dreamed of?"

That was the trouble with breaking personal barriers. Somehow, though, it was getting easier to talk. "It's what I dreamed of with Anya. Not the divorce part, obviously. No one plans to be a weekend dad when they grow up." He shrugged. "I wasn't ready with Anya, and it all went to hell. I was even less ready with Mary, but she got pregnant, and being ready wasn't really important anymore."

"Life rarely goes according to plan."

"It was good for a while. Mary's great. I don't want you to think... I mean, I would have married her eventually, just, later. I sometimes think... you never know, it's never one thing, but..." Xander trailed off. He was apologising again, and not even for something that had anything to do with Giles. Maybe he could have kept it together if he'd been able to tell Mary about Sunnydale, or maybe then he just wouldn't have something that neat to blame it on. He didn't want to dissect his marriage.

"Xander - do you think I'm disappointed in you?" Something in Giles' tone caught Xander's attention.

"No!" He realised that was a lie as soon as he said it. "Maybe."

There was a long pause, long enough that Xander actually wondered if Giles was considering listing the disappointments. "You've got two beautiful girls who adore you. You've built a life for yourself. You've survived a divorce and come out the other end with a friendship. None of those are easy things."

Xander wasn't going to remind him about the whole running away from Sunnydale thing. Not when he could just bask in the warm glow for the rest of it.

Giles looked away, staring at the blank TV as he said softly, "Believe me, Xander. I'm impressed."

Xander's cheeks warmed. "That means a lot. Coming from you, I mean." It was way above what he'd expected. "It's getting late."

Giles looked at him again, strangely, and then twisted to see the clock on the bookcase. "Very late, for someone who has to be up at six."

Xander didn't really want to go to bed. Giles was going in a couple of days, and Xander could have stayed up for hours as long as the conversation wandered in a new direction. But he didn't have algebra to nap through like he did after the research marathons in the library in high school.

Giles followed him into the kitchen with their coffee cups from three hours ago and then propped himself against the cupboard. He looked at home, hands shoved in his pockets, perfectly relaxed.

Xander loaded the cups into the dishwasher, grabbed the plates and forks out of the sink and bent back down to the drawer. "Did you see where I put the plate from-"

A hand rested on his back as Giles reached past him. Only just on his back, so low it was almost his upturned butt, palm on the bump of his spine, fingers stretched out towards his left hip. There was a serving plate in front of him in Giles' other hand. The plate he'd been asking for. Right.

Xander took it clumsily, grabbing it with both hands, trying to remember where he'd just made space for it.

Giles' hand pressed as he moved back, and then it was gone, leaving a strange electric tingle.

"Thanks." Xander dropped the plate in a gap and pushed the drawer shut and stood, turning to see if Giles had noticed the weird moment.

He'd been right behind him, so suddenly they were nose-to-nose. Xander had never got such a good look at Giles' eyes before: they were mostly green but a little brown. Xander was staring. "Sorry." Xander edged sideways, wishing he hadn't swallowed so many awkward pills. "I told you I'd be late tomorrow, right?"

"Drinks with work." Was it his imagination, or did Giles look disappointed?

"Yeah, I won't stay long, just, it's Carson's birthday, so-"

"Of course, it's fine."

"Do you want to meet up for a drink after? One last night on the town, drinking it up with a former student before you head back to face the Council?"

That got a smile. "I'd like that. Our faux-English pub?"

Drinks at the Landsman got going at five, forty-five minutes there, forty-five minutes commute just to be safe... "Six-thirty?"

"If that's not too early-"

"It's a date."

Giles gave a slow nod. "All right, then."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Ten minutes later, Xander stared at his reflection while he brushed his teeth.

The place where Giles' hand had rested still tingled. Xander wondered if it was a magic-thing, but Willow never left a charge, and he'd touched her plenty of times. In fact, he'd hugged Giles when Giles left the first time, and he didn't remember anything weird about it.

It didn't seem like a magic-sort of tingle.

Even so, as he stripped off for bed, Xander couldn't help glancing in the mirror to see if Giles had somehow left a mark.

Nope, just plain, pale butt, and the crinkle-print from the elastic of his shorts.

Maybe Xander just needed to get out on a date.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Most of the crew were gathered around Carson's table. Eric and Radek were sketching out plans for a tree house on piles of napkins, debating the best structural points for the load-bearing beams. Kelly and Diaz were arguing union politics by the dartboard. For some reason, Toby was headed for Xander's table.

"I'm just having a quick one today, Toby. I've got a friend staying." He waved his one and only bottle.

"Ha!" Toby hopped up on a stool and swung around to face the bar, propping his elbows back on the table. "That's a tenner, Pearson!"

"Huh?"

"Bollocks!" Pearson yelled back. "Gimme a second." Xander's lanky boss swiped his phone and then wound his way through the crowd, pitcher in one hand, stack of glasses in the other.

Toby grinned at Xander. "I knew it. You've been smiling like a man up to no good."

Pearson's glasses banged down on the table. "It's true? You got yourself a lass, Harris?"

"What? No." How did Giles get cast as a girlfriend?

"'Bout fecking time."

"Told you, man. Whistling. Only the recently-laid whistle."

"A girl?" Sam popped up at his elbow, looking indignant. "You didn't tell me? I thought we were men, Xander. I thought we shared manly things."

"No! There's no girl. No girlfriend."

"You're full of shite, Tobes." Pearson snatched back the ten dollar bill he'd been offering to Toby and put out his hand for another one.

"You said you had-"

"A friend staying. An old friend's in town. A guy friend."

"Boyfriend?" Toby suggested, not ready to reach for his wallet.

"Friend. A friend with no romantic or pornographic intentions whatsoever. A pal."

"That's a damned shame."

"Wait. Pearson, you bet ten bucks I didn't have a girl?"

Pearson looked shamefaced, but he didn't have a comeback. Great.

"I had faith in you, Harris." Toby flicked his Hamilton across the table. "Fat lot of good you did me."

Xander gulped his beer. "You and the site super are having bets on my romantic life." He didn't know whether to be more bothered by the attention or that he was so pathetic that him having any life didn't even rate odds.

Toby pushed an empty glass over for Pearson to fill. "You've been unnaturally jolly all week. Got to be something up. Guessed it was your cock."

"He's right," Sam said. "You laughed at Pearlman's jokes. Not natural at all."

"I did?"

"You encouraged him, you bastard. We'll all pay for that." Pearson shook his head and poured himself another beer.

After a few more minutes trashing Xander's sex life, Toby and Pearson drifted off to Carson's table to offer birthday punches, and Sam planted her chin in her hand, looking up through innocent eyes. "You know, if you'd let me-"

"No." Xander raised a finger. "First rule among men: we don't set each other up on dates. If you're gonna be one of the guys, you don't get to do that."

She screwed up her nose. "It was Pete who said she'd be perfect for you."

"No."

"Chicken." She slouched back on her stool, and Xander tried not to look disappointed. He always said no because that's what you were supposed to say, but he kind of hoped she'd push. Nag a little, the way all the other women in his life did, so he could eventually cave and go out on a date. It wasn't like he was any good at getting himself a social life.

He really did need a girlfriend if having Giles around was making him whistle. If he could still feel the exact shape of Giles' hand every time he remembered the touch.

"Fine. Who's your pick for the FA World Cup?"

She was far too good at being a guy. "That's soccer, right?"

She lifted her hands, clueless. "I think so. So who's this friend visiting?"

Xander grabbed a handful of pretzels for time to think. He didn't need to make a thing of keeping his past secret for work; guys didn't dig all that deep. Didn't mean he was going to tell Sam things he wouldn't tell Mary. "Someone I knew back in high school. Haven't seen him in years."

"You should have brought him. We could have badgered him for Xander Harris, the early years."

"My early years are classified."

"Uh-huh."

"Seriously. There's a government file. It's marked never to be re-opened."

"Uh-huh."

"I helped bring down a secret government initiative to build a race of super-beings. They were pissed."

"Drink your beer, Xander Harris."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander got to the Turk's Head early to find Giles had already staked out a booth in a dark corner, and had two foamy beers waiting. Nice.

He slid in, and they smiled at each other. Xander wondered what Giles would think if he knew how completely obsessed Xander was with that stupid touch from last night.

"How was work?

Xander pulled the bowl of peanuts closer. "Great. Turns out the guys have been taking bets all week about my sex life." As soon as he said it, he wished he hadn't. Giles didn't need to know how pathetic he was.

"Really." Giles popped a peanut in his mouth. "What did you tell them?"

Xander shrugged. "It's a bunch of macho guys. I try not to feed them too many details about my life."

"I can understand that."

"How was your day?"

Giles took a careful sip. "Good, good. I picked up the rest of the papers I need. I'm all set for my flight out tomorrow afternoon."

Oh. No surprise delays, then. "I wish you could have another week here. After the way I acted when you showed up last Thursday, it really didn't turn out the way I expected."

Giles looked at him oddly. "No." He picked up a coaster and turned it in his fingers. "It certainly hasn't been what I expected, either."

"So now, I know you'll have to stay in London to get everything sorted out, but do you know when you'll head to LA? I suppose you'll have to talk to Tara first, find out the deal with everyone."

"She still hasn't called?"

"The place where she is, it's kind of a retreat. Middle of nowhere. It sounds like they only pick up their mail once a week, so I guess it'll be soon." Xander didn't know why he was babbling, but he seemed to be doing it a lot lately. "You're kind of nervous about seeing Buffy, aren't you?" Funny, he would never have dreamed of asking Giles something like that a few days ago.

He looked down at the table. "Is it so obvious?"

"Hey, you never know. She might be as happy to see you as I was."

"One can only hope." He heaved a little sigh. "I have no idea what to expect, except that anything I expect I'm sure will be wrong."

"She's just gonna be glad you're alive."

"She was angry when I left."

"Yeah," Xander said, softly. "We all were."

Giles turned his glass around and around. "I really did think it was for the best."

"We couldn't understand that. Not until we had kids of our own, anyway." Xander traced a condensation ring on the table. "It's tough, letting them fall over. Or go out of your sight."

"You've all been angry with me for sixteen years. That's a lot of resentment to overcome."

"I don't know. Maybe she did get over it."

Giles watched him carefully. "You don't think she would have searched for me?"

Yeah. Xander was pretty sure she would have. "Maybe she did. I haven't been there; I don't know what she's been doing."

Giles gave a little 'hmph'.

Xander would have heard if Buffy had known Giles had disappeared. Mad or not, if she'd bothered to look hard enough to find out her watcher had been sucked off the face of the earth, she'd have raised every kind of hell.

"She's going to be an altogether different person," Giles said, at last. "She's going to be a grown woman."

"No older than me. And I turned out okay."

"Yes." Giles sounded extra-sincere. He slouched back in his seat, letting out a breath. "I know it will be fine. I know it will be wonderful. I just need to get through the first meeting."

"You'll be fine as soon as you see her."

He cheered a little at that. "Are you sure you don't want to come with me?"

"No thanks. I'm a mild-mannered east coast guy now." He may have enjoyed this little escape with Giles, but he wasn't ready for the rest of them. He wasn't ready to let go either. "Maybe you can stop by on your way back through to California?"

Giles' smile was startling. "I'd like that." He pushed his glass aside, laying his hands flat on the table. "I've, I've had a lovely week. I'm glad I had this time to, to, to adjust. With you."

"Me too." Xander sat forward, deciding they'd covered enough grim and depressing. "Was I New York enough? Did I show you my city and gloat?"

Giles smiled. "It's not bad for something built last week."

It struck Xander, as they started hashing out the merits of New York versus London, that they'd talked more this week, about more things, than they had in five and a half years back in Sunnydale. Even counting the first few months out of high school when Xander spent way too much time at Giles' house until Anya took over his life. Who would have guessed that Giles got claustrophobic under skyscrapers or that he'd spent a year in Paris?

It didn't seem like all that much time had passed when the light bounced off Giles' watch. Xander reached over and picked up Giles' wrist, turning it for a better look. "Oh, shit."

"Is it late?" Giles asked, not bothering to take his hand back to check for himself.

"I really don't know how I'm doing all this whistling at work on three hours sleep."

"Whistling?"

"So they tell me." Giles was shipping out tomorrow, and Xander didn't want the night to end. He let go of the watch and drained his glass. "Come on."

They picked up their coats at the door. Giles got stuck halfway into his, and Xander gave up knotting his scarf to help, used to stuffing the girls into their jackets. It was probably some kind of faux paus because Giles flushed and muttered a strained thank you at the floor. Fine. Xander stepped away and pulled the door open, bracing as the first gust of wind swept in, and then following Giles out.

Giles headed left.

"Wait." Xander caught Giles' elbow to turn him back and suddenly Giles was in front of him, gripping Xander's elbows for balance. There was the most intense look on his face, like he was trying to remember Xander's name. It made Xander self-conscious, especially with how close he was, and his hand came up to Giles' chest. It took Xander a second to remember why he'd stopped him. He looked up and down the street. They'd be better off pinging cabs on Eighth. "Let's get home."

Giles looked around as well and pulled back with a warm smile. "Lead on." His hand lingered on Xander's arm for the first few steps, almost until it got weird, and then it dropped. They were walking close enough to brush against each other. Xander wanted Giles to put his hand back. He missed him already. Even if Giles stopped in on his way to see Buffy, it wasn't going to be like this. Not this comfortable. Not a whole week of hanging out. It made Xander want to hold on to him, just to keep him close.

"What are they doing?"

Xander glanced up the street to see a couple making out against the rail of the subway entrance. "Once upon a time, I might have believed you were old enough not to recognise that."

As soon as he finished the sentence, what Xander was seeing shifted in his mind like one of those old magic eye puzzles, and he realised the woman wasn't sucking the guy's mouth.

Xander's stomach plummetted to his knees. Oh god.

Distantly, he felt a hand close on his arm in warning, but thanks very much, already caught on.

He wanted to just keep on walking. The guy was probably already half-drained, nobody would know. Xander could just keep on pretending he was one of those people who didn't see.

"Do you have-"

"Yeah." Maybe if Giles wasn't there, he might have, but now he didn't have a choice. He pulled a stake out of his pocket. "You?"

"Habit of a lifetime."

Xander's hands were shaking, and the wood was loose in his cold fingers. He didn't do this anymore. He couldn't do it anymore.

Giles went straight for her back like she wouldn't know he was coming, and her foot connected with his jaw and he went reeling.

Xander was still rooted to the spot but she dropped her victim and came for him. Something sprung up the subway stairs and suddenly there were two of them. Two vamps against Giles and Xander. They were dead men.

Xander managed to block a couple of punches before the vampire chick got serious, and then he was useless. Blows rained on him. He'd totally lost track of Giles. He was just rolling with it, dodging what he could and absorbing the rest, not caring about anything but keeping the stake in his fist. This was how it ended, and Buffy wasn't coming to save him. A knee in his gut and a fist to his shoulder and he rolled back, ass over head, a brutal kick to his back drove a grunt out of him as he went. His girls would never know what happened to him.

His feet hit the ground and he threw himself forward into her, there was a puff and he was falling into empty space, breathing dust. He hit the ground hard, face in a freezing puddle. He couldn't get up. There was scuffling and thudding and grunts behind him, Giles needing him, but he couldn't move. Sucking in one breath after another took everything he had. It was back. Everything he'd hidden from for all these years had caught up with him, and he was being dragged back into the underworld.

"Xander!" Giles had to say it again before Xander struggled up on jello legs. Giles was pinned on his back, hands around the throat of the vampire. His face was boiling red with the strain of keeping it away from his neck.

"Xander!" His elbows bent further with his cry.

Startled, Xander lurched forward, no plan in mind, but just as fast as the kick that started it all, he was thrown to the ground, and the vamp was heavy on his back, and his stake was rolling away across the sidewalk, plink-plink into the gutter louder than the growl in his ear. Knees in his back, foul breath across his cheek, and then there was a thud and he was free as Giles tackled it.

They went sprawling into the wall, and Xander jumped back on his feet just in time to see two more coming at them. A body shoved hard into him and he went back, way back. He had a split-second to wonder where the ground went when his shoulder hit the sharp edge of stair, and they were rolling together down the steps into the subway, bashing elbows and ribs and jarring his teeth in his head until they hit the ground.

Xander had always known on some level that he was going to die fighting. He'd known it since the moment Jesse first bared his teeth.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 7:
Xander and Giles chatted like Xander hasn't chatted with anyone in a really long time. Xander was confused by a casual touch, but it didn't seem to leave any permanent marks. The work crew were taking bets on whether Xander had a girlfriend. Since he doesn't, Sam tried to set him up. Giles and Xander considered Giles' fears about his upcoming reunion with Buffy. On their way home, they found their way into a fight with a bunch of vampires, and it didn't go well.



New York chapter 8:
Below


Xander came to in darkness.

He moved his hands in front of his face. Total darkness: he couldn't make out his fingers. And Jesus, that hurt. Everything hurt. He squirmed, giving everything a little twist and stretch, standard post-fight check for broken bones. Plenty hurt; nothing broken.

It was warm here. It smelled strange, musty but not damp, dead things and a hint of old piss and the metallic edge of burning electrics.

Because he wasn't in the sewers. It was 2018, and those were the smells of the 1, 2 and 3 trains to Brooklyn, and Buffy wasn't going to pull off a miraculous rescue.

The last two decades settled into place, and the last few hours followed. Fighting vampires with Giles. Oh god.

Xander jerked to sit upright. "Giles?"

"You're awake."

Relief that Giles was still alive got swamped by fury that Giles had brought this on him got swamped by relief that he wasn't down here in the dark alone. "How long was I out?"

"I don't know. I'm suddenly wishing I had a luminescent watch."

Xander fished around in his pocket for the phone. 4:32am. "Four hours since we left the bar."

"Phone," Giles muttered, remembering he didn't need a luminescent watch in the twenty-first century. His voice sounded strange in the dark, like it was coming from everywhere at once. "We seem to be in some kind of tunnel."

"Subway." There was a distant rumble, right on cue. "There are disused tunnels all over the place. Think Sunnydale sewers times a million. Manhattan could have sunlight 24 hours a day, and it wouldn't cramp their style at all."

"Of course." Giles was over to the right somewhere, a couple of feet away. Xander didn't turn his head. "How badly are you hurt?"

"I'm fine." That was the biggest lie Xander had told in a long time, maybe ever. He wasn't even close to fine. He climbed slowly to his feet, extending and embellishing his list of injuries as he went. A sticky spot on the back of his head, grazes on his elbows through torn sleeves, bruises all over. He'd bashed his knee pretty hard, but he could stand all right and that's what counted. He started to turn and froze as pain bolted down his spine along with the memory of a foot. That was going to be with him for days. If he was lucky enough to have days.

Sounds of Giles getting up beside him were proof enough that he was fine, too. Xander wasn't going to ask.

Cell service bars were too much to ask for, not that Xander had any idea who he'd call, but the phone display gave enough of a glow that Xander could make out vague shapes as far as a couple of feet away, starting with the brick wall. He rested one hand on it and limped forward, shining his phone ahead. They edged a few yards along until his foot hit a bunch of rags that he instantly knew wasn't a bunch of rags.

Giles slid past him, going to his knees to examine it by his own phone's light. "There are two here," he said, sounding serious and curious as he ran a hand along the dried-out skin. Like he was discussing new library books.

Did dead bodies really use to be this normal? The detached tone sounded familiar, but Xander couldn't believe he used to be that okay with dead bodies, sixteen years old and listening to clinical descriptions of what made them dead.

"They've been kept." The blanket was pushed back, bringing a whiff of death, and Giles' phone roamed, showing bites, some partly-healed, along vein and artery lines, between torn seams of their clothes.

When Xander was sixteen, this would have been the time when he cracked a joke about running and hiding, or about vamps playing with their food.

He lifted his own phone to see. One was a homeless guy, beanie pulled low over his unshaven face. It was hard to tell how old he was. Older than Xander, probably. The other was young, a scrawny boy, maybe twenty years old. He was wearing a Red Sox jersey. His face was getting sunken, like he'd been there a while.

"There are more."

More bodies beyond them, tangled together. The ripped cuff of a woman's business suit, a flash of reflective vest. Xander picked his way forward and was yanked backwards by his shirt. Pain flashed down his back and through his knee.

"Careful!"

The phone's light hadn't caught the shaft, stretching down into total blackness. Behind him, Giles bent and picked up something to toss down. They didn't hear it hit the bottom.

Giles hadn't let go of his arm, so Xander shook off his hand and moved safely away. He let his phone go dark and rested back against the wall. He didn't know what came next.

"Xander?"

"Hang on." Not dying came next. They had to get out of here before something came back to the big vampire snack vending machine. "Let's try the other way." He wondered how many hours were in the phone battery like this. Should carry a LED flashlight, he supposed. But then maybe that would be lying in a gutter up top beside his stake. "Don't suppose you still have your stake?"

"I'm afraid not."

Surprise of surprises, six yards this way got them to a heavy metal grate.

"It looks like we wait," Giles said.

"Yeah." Xander walked back down the tunnel a little way, to be further from the grate but not too near the bodies, and slid down the wall to sit. He slipped his phone back in his pocket, wedging it as deep as he could before he pulled his good knee up to rest his chin.

It was a little while before Giles shuffled back and settled opposite, turning his own phone off as well. "I wish I could say we've been in tighter binds than this."

Xander laughed, except it didn't sound anything like a laugh. "Shut up, Giles. Just... shut up."

It was a long time, maybe an hour, or maybe that's just how long it seemed in the blackness, before Giles spoke. "Would you rather have left that fellow to die?"

Of course not. Except the little part that did. Xander wasn't about to ask Giles if he had a chance to see if the guy they were trying to save got up and ran away while they were having the hell beaten out of them.

Giles seemed to take his silence as a yes, and he sounded incredibly sad when he continued. "The young man I remember would never have stood by while someone was in danger. You talked a lot of running, but you were always the first to step up when you could help. Always the first. I don't believe you've changed that much."

"I didn't have kids, then. We were kids ourselves, and we were invincible. I didn't have slayer powers or witchy mojo. I didn't have anything to lose."

"You thought you were disposable?"

Disposable. Invincible. All the usual teenaged things. And in that crowd, he was, but he wasn't anymore. "Nobody died and made me Slayer. I have girls who need a father."

There was a long quiet, but he knew Giles wasn't done. "I hope there's someone more willing if one day Kate or Jenny is in need of assistance." Maybe the blackness was a mercy, that Xander couldn't see the sharp, cruel eyes that went with that tone.

To hell with him and his preaching. "You're sitting in the same dead-end tunnel as I am, so I guess you're not gonna have to be the guy who sits them down and tells them their dad's body's been found."

He'd skittered hard away from those thoughts since he woke up, but now there they were, in technicolour. What if he never came home?

Jesse's parents came to his house, after. His hair was still damp from washing Jesse's dust out of it when his dad called him to the kitchen to talk to them, so they could ask him if he knew where Jesse was. He was Jesse's best friend, and he should know where he was. If he was up to something stupid, or if he'd run away, then Xander should tell them, and they wouldn't be angry, they just needed to know.

Xander was sure he'd looked guilty enough that they knew he was lying, but they never did get angry. They stopped looking after a while, and then they stopped leaving the house, and then one day they were gone and their house was up for sale.

What would happen to Jen and Kate if they were left not knowing what happened? What would it do to them, the wondering? Wondering made some people hard and some people empty, and the girls were just kids. This would shape the women they became.

Mary would know - she'd never tell the girls, but she'd know - that it was Xander's fault, that his past finally caught up with him. If she wasn't sure when he disappeared, then she'd know for damned sure when his secret bank account was unlocked. And then she'd be twice as pissed at him. The money would help keep them afloat, but it wouldn't fix the girls.

It wouldn't let him see Kate off to college or take Jen to auditions for Broadway. He was never going to scare their boyfriends into submission or walk them down the aisle or hold his grandchildren. His chest hurt so much he had to grit his teeth to bear it.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander checked his phone. 5:54am. He was going to be late for work. He snorted.

"I hear something."

Xander shoved his phone back in his pocket, bracing himself, ready. Ready, sure. Ready to die.

"Listen to me," Giles whispered. "By the looks of those bodies, they were fed off for weeks. This won't be our only chance."

"You think we should let them?" Xander exclaimed, forgetting to whisper.

"I'm saying we shouldn't take unnecessary risks," Giles said, answering Xander's loud question with more whispering. "We'll escape now if we can, but there will be other opportunities."

To Giles it was a calculation. A chance to gather knowledge of his opponent and make plans, balanced against the advantage of fighting at full strength.

Yeah, well. For Xander it was try to escape now or choose to let his girls think he was dead for a couple of days. Calculate that. "I hope they eat you first."

There was a whole lot of satisfaction in how much that sounded like Kate, age five.

The scrape of the grate made him jump, and he couldn't see it but he was pretty sure Giles did, too. Metal dragged along concrete, the sound sliding down his spine, a loud reminder that Giles wasn't the enemy down here. Not top of the list, at least.

The somethings in the open doorway chittered, as if they really needed sound effects to up the creep factor. Xander slipped into a crouch, hands on the wall behind him for balance. Amazing how certain death could knock out pain.

They had to be vamps, right? Xander hadn't got too close to the wounds, but he considered himself pretty much an expert on bites of the vampire kind, and that's what they were. So why did it seem like the chittering things were scuttling along the wall?

A whoosh of air and it hit Xander's chest, feather-light but surprise sent him sprawling. He was tangled with scrawny limbs, small clawed hands closing around his wrists. What the hell- It was small and light and strong as anything, holding tighter as Xander flailed. He managed to roll and another one jumped on his back and there were more of them coming, more over there where Giles was.

"What the hell are they?"

"I don't- oof!"

Xander yelped as fangs sank into his shoulder.

"Xander!"

No strength like fighting for your life; Xander managed to flip onto his back and the thing squealed in his ear. "Vamps," he yelled. Maybe these didn't hang out in bars wearing stylishly long coats but they were pretty clear on the sucking thing.

All the struggling kept their teeth from latching on but it didn't come close to shaking them off. They were going to keep their claws in until wore himself out, and he could only lie there while they ate.

No fucking way. He threw an elbow and bared his teeth in a grin at the squawk he got. He was taking as many as he could.

He wanted light. He had to know where they were, to see if any bit of their scrawny bodies looked like it could be ripped off the other bits. He wanted to know how many more were coming. The phone wasn't going to be enough, but without Willow and a sunlight spell, it was the best he was going to get.

Teeth scraped and he punched out and flipped over again, trying to land on it, kicked out at the one by his ankle.

He couldn't drop the phone. If he dropped it, it was over. Better to be bit, he told himself; keep the phone. He rolled again, got a hand in his pocket, and as soon as his fingers touched it, he got a way better idea. He could do better than a dull two-foot glow. He closed his eyes, as if it made a difference, and imagined the menu, struggling to fight one-handed. That key. That key. That key, he hoped. He pulled it out and opened his eyes and hit the camera button.

Everything white and his ears were pierced with shrieking.

The sound curdled his blood. He wanted his fingers in his ears, anything to muffle all these things screaming around him.

The white glow in his brain slowly resolved until the after-image settled. They were pale and winged and three foot high at most, and they had huge black eyes and they'd recoiled from the flash.

Suddenly he realised nothing was holding him. "Giles!"

"Run!"

By some miracle he hadn't dropped his phone. To check the door he hit the camera flash again and there was more spine-clenching shrieking, but this time he wasn't blinded and Giles was ahead of him, and out of their prison another flash was all they needed to pick left, and they kept right on running.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

A ladder caught in the faint phone-screen light was the most miraculous thing Xander had ever seen, even if he had no idea where he found the last drive of energy to drag himself up it or to push the manhole cover open on grey daylight.

He rolled out onto the wet street, nothing left in him to stand. It was raining, and the road was icy under his cheek. Gasping didn't get the air in. It was like there wasn't any air at all.

A horn blasted behind him, and Xander rolled under the spray of wet tyres and a torrent of abuse into the gutter. This wasn't Sunnydale. It was New York, with silent electric taxis and hordes of Slayerless vampires under the streets. Something touched his shoulder and Xander flipped onto his back, fists ready, before he realised it was just Giles. Just Giles, kneeling on one knee, heaving in all the air that Xander couldn't.

"Are you all right?" Giles braced against his knee to stand, and then he offered a hand for Xander to use to get up.

"You fuck." Xander spat the words. "You fuck." He slithered backwards in the wet gutter until there was room to stand without touching any part of Giles. "I knew you'd bring it with you."

Giles recoiled. "I didn't-"

"Nothing! Nothing in all these years, until you came! You fuck."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander pushed his head against the wall, pressing like he could force his forehead right through the tiles. The hot spray high on his back wasn't doing a thing to calm him.

He couldn't hear anything from the other room over the sound of the water, but he was imagining it just fine. Soft, neat sounds of Giles packing up his bag, the slide of the zip, the click of the closing door.

Why did he let this happen? He'd managed to get the second chance nobody ever got. He'd been happy, the sort of satisfied-happy nobody really believed in, in Sunnydale. He'd been safe, and his family had been safe, and he'd known that it was all over the second Giles stepped back into his life.

Now he was scared, terrified, that it was too late. He could kick Giles out, but he couldn't make the vampires go away again. It was a miracle he'd managed to escape once. You didn't escape a second time.

He didn't know what he could do. He couldn't let it touch the girls or Mary, but the thought of keeping away from them made him feel like he was going to throw up. Mary had been right to threaten him; he knew it better than she did, but it wasn't even a possibility.

He moved, and the water stung his shoulder. It was grazed from the wall. Maybe from the ground. On the other side, he was still bleeding from a bite. The back of his skull stung like hell, but he'd get away without stitches. He couldn't twist his back at all, and his knee was the size of a watermelon. Aches and cuts from a thousand showers, a thousand fights, so long behind him. He felt like he'd been scraped open.

Xander soaped up and rinsed off and twisted off the tap, and just breathed a moment.

In the silence, he heard the front door creak and thunk closed.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 8:
After being tackled by his first vampires in years, Xander awoke in a tunnel stuffed with human husks. He ranked Giles pretty high on the blame list. And though they managed to escape, Xander realised this was likely just the start of the slide back into the Sunnydale lifestyle, and he kicked Giles out.



New York chapter 9:
Above


At least Xander had March weather. Just what the demon world ordered to justify the long-sleeve shirt. He had to hope childhood blindness would keep the girls from noticing how stiff he was. Even so, he couldn't wait to see them. He was going to latch on the second they came through the door, and he didn't know how he was going to let them go.

Except it didn't turn out like that.

They came in bickering about some girl at school, and they saw him but they never stopped, neither of them sparing breath for so much as a 'Hey Dad,' as they dumped their bags in the doorway and carried their argument into the kitchen.

He couldn't hug them. He felt dirty. He couldn't get up from the couch.

"Dad, you forgot the milk!"

Xander's jaw locked. They cared about milk. "So drink the two per cent."

"Ewwww, gross!"

"Then go without!" he snapped.

There was an awkward silence, and then the faint hisses of the girls whispering between themselves.

Xander stood. "I'll go down and get some." It didn't sound anything like an apology, but it was the best he could do.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"Dad, you don't need to wash my-"

Jen slid to a halt in the doorway, mis-matched red socks in the corner of Xander's eye.

He hadn't seen a Metro card in years. Who used a card when you could pay your fare with your phone just like everything else?

Only little girls who didn't want their fathers to know they rode the subway.

"That's not my-"

"If you lie to me right now, it's going to be worse." His voice sounded wrong in his own ears. He didn't know how it could be worse.

She fell silent.

Xander still couldn't look up. He'd been sitting on her bed staring at this card for at least five minutes. Ten minutes, maybe. Seemed like an hour. "Does your mother know about this?"

"No," she replied, timidly.

That was something: Mary wasn't letting them away with it behind his back. It was only a moment of relief, though, because Jen was riding the vampire-ridden subways behind both their backs.

"Jenny..." For once the name lodged in his brain along with the face of Jenny Calendar. Lifeless eyes and her body on Giles' bed, which he'd never actually seen, but she had always been just as clear in his mind as if he had. "I don't know what I can say." He'd been snapping at them all weekend over stupid things, little things, unwashed bowls and hair in the shower drain, and now he couldn't summon it. He was helpless.

"I'm sorry."

"You're sorry you got caught. I've told you and told you to stay out of there-"

"I'm not a little kid, Dad." Mutinous and fierce, like she'd decided this was the day she was all grown up. "Everybody else catches the subway. It's what normal people do."

"And if everybody else jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge..." He couldn't believe that came out of his own mouth.

"But other parents don't let their kids jump off the Brooklyn Bridge! Other parents don't let their kids do dangerous stuff, but everybody I know's allowed to catch the subway! Everyone except me, because my dad's crazy!"

It wouldn't have hurt if she hadn't frozen as soon as she said it. All kids threw words like 'crazy' around, but other kids didn't freeze with guilt because they didn't really mean what they said. His thirteen year-old daughter thought he was clinically unhinged.

He stood, pain tearing through his knee and his back from his own trip into the subway. It stole his breath, and it was a few more seconds before he could speak. "You don't get to decide what rules to follow. You're a little girl, and you do what you're damn-well told." He was too loud, voice raised like she was on the other side of the apartment and not backed up against the doorjamb. But if he couldn't make her afraid of empty bodies piled in subway tunnels then he was going to make her afraid of him, better afraid of him than dead. "You're grounded. You're not going anywhere unless your mom or I take you, you won't be going to all your dance classes, you won't be going out with your friends."

"That's not-"

"If I hear the word 'fair' out of your mouth, I will turn you over my knee."

Her mouth snapped shut, eyes filling with tears. "I hate you! I hate you and your stupid crazy rules!"

"I don't much care!"

"They should put you in the mental hospital! Everyone thinks so! I don't have to listen to you 'cos you're a crazy delusional schizo!"

"I'm your father!"

"I'm not coming here anymore! I'm staying with mom! You're crazy, and your rules are crazy, and they're all you care about!"

"You don't know how lucky you are to have parents who give a damn!"

"You can't make me do anything!" She yanked her chain from her neck and threw it at him, cross and all. "I'll run away and ride the subways all night long!" She burst out crying, and he was done. He went for the door, and she flinched as he went past, and then she rushed to throw herself onto her bed and he slammed the door.

Kate was peering up the hallway through wide, terrified eyes. He ignored her, cutting straight to his room to slam his door as well.

All he could see was the little pieces of clothes on the bodies, ethereal by phone light. Layered rags and Red Sox jersey and business suit and safety jacket, and god knew how many at the bottom of the shaft, how many years they'd been piling there, sucked dry and thrown away like chicken bones, and now Jen's slight, bangled wrist was there too, peeking through between the others.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

An hour passed before Xander calmed down enough to make his way out to the living room. Jen's door was still shut. Kate was curled up in the corner of the couch, eyes red from crying. God. Xander took how rotten he was already feeling and ratcheted it up a few notches.

Kate had never seen him like that. He'd never seen her like this, scared of him. "I'm sorry, Katie."

Her lip trembled.

He came over and sat beside her and she scrambled into his arms, tiny body wrapping tightly around him with Buffy-strength. He shifted into the warmth she'd left, and she burrowed closer, face buried in his neck. It undid him. All the fury and fear of the last few days crushed his chest. Thirty-six hours ago, he thought she was going to grow up without him. "Shh, baby, it's okay." He stroked her hair and held her so tight it must have hurt. Better that than to start crying and scare her even more.

He needed to hold Jen like this, but she'd never let him. Even less likely right now.

It was a long time before he loosened his grip and settled her back a little so he could see her face, splotchy red and snotty and damp. So beautiful, his girls. He brushed her hair out of her eyes, curling it behind her ear. "Kate, did you know Jen was riding the train?"

She sniffed. "Yes," she admitted in a whisper.

Xander rubbed his head, blinking hard when he hit one of the lumps. He didn't know what to do, but he was pretty sure the yelling had to stop. "Thank you for telling the truth. I know you thought you were protecting her, but that's my job. Do you understand?"

Kate nodded, not having a clue what she was agreeing to.

"Getting in trouble isn't the worst thing that can happen to her or you. I'm only angry because I want to keep you both safe. I need to protect you." To at least pretend that he could find the right thing to say to keep them from being dragged into a subway lair.

"Okay." She sniffed again, hard, and he pulled her close so she could wipe her nose on his shoulder, and because he needed, more than anything right now, to be held. Safe in a ten year-old's arms.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander pushed the pillows up to the headboard and sat on the bed, phone in his hand. He could hear the girls' voices floating from their bedroom, complicit whispers which meant Kate was agreeing with whatever Jen was saying. If he tried to listen in, he really would go crazy. He was glad they had each other. They fought at the drop of a hat, but when things went wrong, they held tight. Like Buffy and Dawn.

Mary picked up right away. "Xander, what is it?"

Xander drew a slow breath. He had to stay calm through this. "I found a Metro card in Jen's pocket when I was doing the washing."

"Oh." She paused. "You knew it was bound to happen eventually."

"I've grounded her. I told her she's not allowed to go anywhere unless you or I give her a ride, and she's going to miss most of her dance classes."

"Oh." And that 'oh' was much heavier. "And how am I supposed to do that? I have a job, too, you know."

"I'll take time off work if I have to."

She didn't say anything. He could almost hear her wavering between arguing the practical side of babysitting a thirteen year-old and deciding this was the time to counsel her ex-husband on his Issues.

He'd make it easy for her. "I really lost it, Mary. I've never, I don't think I've ever yelled like that at anyone. I'm sorry." He scrubbed his eyes.

"Oh. God, Xander. What do you want me to say?"

"I don't, I just thought you should know."

"Is Jenny all right?"

"She's fine. Probably. She hasn't come out of her room since."

He could hear her sigh. "In the next few years she's going to start dating and going to parties with alcohol and being offered drugs you and I have never heard of. Is this really what you want to be fighting battles over?"

"Yes." Yes, and he'd host co-ed parties and supply the beer and drugs and condoms himself if it guaranteed that she'd keep far away from the subway forever, but that wasn't the argument to be making to Mary. "You have to back me up on this."

"I never said I wouldn't," she retorted. "She's been sneaking around behind our backs, breaking rules that were perfectly clear. That's not what I mean, and you know it. I'm talking about you."

"I'm fine."

"You're not fine. You just told me you lost it on a thirteen year-old girl over a train ticket. She's locked in her room, sulking, Kate's probably crying, and you're calling your ex-wife who wasn't there to apologise."

"She flinched away from me when I stormed out of her room," Xander said, softly. "She flinched like I was going to hurt her." He couldn't breathe as the silence stretched.

"You can't imagine how scary an angry man is to a little girl. Even a dad. Especially Dad."

"I'd never hurt her."

"I know. She knows."

"She hates me."

"Xander..." He could almost hear her rubbing her face. "All kids say that stuff. Don't you remember hating your parents when you didn't get what you wanted?"

The back of Xander's throat burned. "I remember how I felt about my dad. I don't want them to feel like that about me." He pulled a thread. "I'm sorry."

"You're not fine, Xander." She drifted off, but there wasn't much else he could say to that. He wasn't fine. "I'm sorry about the trouble with your friend."

After a terrifying moment, Xander realised she wasn't talking about what happened down in the subway on Thursday night. She was talking about her ultimatum last Sunday.

"No, you were right. He didn't belong here."

"I'm still sorry. Look, Xander, I have to go. Let's talk on Wednesday, okay?"

"Okay." He sounded like a little kid himself. "I'll see you tomorrow."

She said goodnight, and they hung up. Xander tossed the phone onto the bedside table and lay back on the quilt.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Jen didn't leave her room all Sunday except to use the bathroom. He delivered her meals to her, and she didn't meet his eyes. She didn't talk to him again aside from a grunt when he told her he'd be picking her up from school on Monday.

In the living room it was just him and Kate, who was clinging more than usual. More guilt, for being so close to Kate while Jen was holed miserably in her room, alone.

The quiet was awful until Mary took them home Sunday night and it grew quieter still. Xander had no idea how he ever lived in this silence. On Sundays he always went out, but he couldn't bring himself to go, tonight, in the dark. Instead he wandered around the apartment, picking things up and putting them down. Half-hearted tidying, none of the girls' things making it all the way back to their room because he wanted signs of them here.

He felt helpless. This wasn't going to keep Jen out of the subways. He could only play shadow for so long, and sooner or later, she was going to be back down there, blowing off her dad's idiotic paranoia, hiding her Metro card better.

Xander wandered into their room and sat on her bed. On top of all that, now Giles had got Xander re-listed in the demon yellow pages, it went somewhere beyond tempting fate into seducing it.

Damn him.

Xander had warned him. Funny how the famed demon magnet hadn't attracted a single demon in years, since he cut all his Sunnydale ties, then in walked Giles and one week later Xander was fighting for his life.

There were towns out there somewhere, with hardly any vampires. Xander didn't know where, but he was pretty sure that if he looked he'd find them. Places where the same number of kids graduated school as started. Of course, then he'd have to find out if they survived through some demonic pact by feeding tourists or old people to giant snakes. Even if he found a safe place, no power in the universe would move Mary or the girls there.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Ivy asked after the girls as she took their order. All the staff knew them here. It was the sort of regular place where Xander ordered a chicken sandwich and didn't need to say no mayonnaise.

When she'd gone, Mary leaned forward, folding her arms on the table. "How are you?"

There were a whole bunch of answers to that. The most honest ones would get him locked up in a funny farm. The semi-honest ones would lead back to the counselling conversation. The lies wouldn't fool Mary for a second.

"Jen still isn't speaking to me," he hedged. He'd picked her up from school this afternoon and taken the taxi with her to Mei Li's house to be babysat, and she'd stared stonily out the other window the whole time.

"She's angry," Mary agreed, "but I don't think she's as shaken as you." She pulled her napkin out and started folding it and unfolding it. A sure sign that she was about to say something he didn't want to hear. "What were your parents like?"

"My parents?" It sounded like a simple question, but she may as well have asked it in Latin for all the sense it made.

She pushed the napkin aside. "I'm not asking for the deep dark secrets of your past. I'm just trying to help figure out why you're acting like a man who's just seen his father in the mirror."

Wow. It was scary how well she read him sometimes. "They were parents. I don't know what you want me to say."

"I want you to be honest."

"But what do my parents have to do with it?" He wasn't like his dad. He couldn't remember a single time his dad yelled because he was afraid for Xander's safety. His dad yelled because he was drunk and bitter, because Xander hadn't taken out the trash, or because he thought Xander was taking his mom's side in a fight.

Her face creased in frustration. "Did your father hurt you?"

"No! God, Mary. Why would you say that?"

They froze up when Ivy arrived with drinks and cheese fries. Xander managed a grimace of a smile at her. Mary thought he was abused? Why would she- Was there something wrong with the way he treated the girls?

As soon as Ivy was out of earshot, Mary leaned in. "I don't know, do I, Xander? I have to let my imagination run wild."

"My parents didn't beat me." They had a lot to answer for, but he wasn't going to let them hang for that. "They drank, they yelled. They made me believe my life was going to be just as crappy as theirs."

"You're running from more than parents who yell too much. Yelling parents don't give people nightmares or make them afraid of the dark."

"Why does this have to be about them?"

"Because I think I'll sound ridiculous if I ask you if you were a spy for the CIA!" She flashed her eyes around to see if she'd drawn any attention, then continued, strained. "I lived with it when we were married, and I've put up with it since, but when you started inviting old friends home, you rewrote the rules. I never used to be afraid that whatever it is you're hiding from was going to fall in on our heads, and now I'm going crazy thinking about it."

He forgot sometimes, how much he was asking of her. "I'm sorry."

"Stop being sorry! Fix it!" She slammed down her fork. "Tell me the truth so I can deal with it, get counselling instead of yelling at a thirteen year-old, stop inviting dangerous men into a house with my children!"

Xander cowered in his seat, but his mouth opened, and out came, "Giles isn't dangerous." If he owed his parents some defence then he owed Giles a thousand times more, even if it was absolutely the worst thing to say right now.

"I don't know that. And you don't, either."

"I do know it." He straightened a little. He didn't like what Giles dragged in, but he was sure of this. "He's a good guy."

"You haven't spoken to him in how many years?" she snapped. "Maybe he used to be, but you don't know who he is anymore. You don't know anything about him."

How dare... "He was tortured once." Words slipped out, terrifying cracks in the dam. "Stuff was done to him for hours, and he didn't give up anything. He's one of the good guys. The best of them. A better man than me."

"Jesus, Xander." He looked up and realised she was pale, literally pale, like people went in the movies. "What the hell were you involved in?"

Xander's fingers locked on the table. What had he done? He needed to fix it, backtrack, make a joke of it, but his mind was stuck in shock.

Mary's mouth opened and closed, opened again. "It was part of whatever it is you're hiding, wasn't it? Part of your life? That's not just something you heard about, that's... my god."

This was the chance to turn it all around, make her believe it was something else: Giles was in the army before he knew Xander, Giles was a spy, anything, but he'd never told her a lie, and he didn't know how to start now. He didn't know how to form words, right now.

"Xander, you can't just-"

"I'm the one who pulled him out of there." He shouldn't do this. "I took him to the hospital." He had to stop. "He was tortured for hours." She got paler and paler, and Xander's mouth was running. "He lost more than any of us, and we didn't realise because he was the adult, and we were stupid selfish kids."

"He's not that much older than you," Mary whispered.

Finally he choked himself off, feeling like he'd scooped out his insides all over the table in the middle of the restaurant. Quietly, careful to control the words, he replied, "He seemed a lot older, then."

She just stared at him, stunned.

He had to end this before he said something worse. He looked her straight in the eye, measuring every sentence. "I can't tell you about any of it. Even if I could, I wouldn't. I don't want you or the girls to know." He shouldn't have said what he did, but now he had to use it and never come back. "But Giles is a good guy. If anything ever... If you ever need someone, you can trust him."

She nodded.

"And I don't want the girls on the subway."

"All right." She looked as raw as he felt, and it made him want to cry.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 9:
Xander was still shaking from his and Giles' vampire adventure when he found a Metro card in Jen's laundry. Yelling ensued. Mary was torn between frustration with Xander's phobias and fear of his secret past. He helped her out by letting slip that the secret past included rescuing Giles from torture. The confession didn't make him feel good.



New York chapter 10:
Bodies


Xander sat curled in a corner of the couch. His body was desperate for sleep, but he'd raised the memory of the night Giles was tortured, and it wouldn't go away. The horrible snap of his own arm breaking in the library, coming to in a whole world of agony to find Kendra dead, Willow unconscious. Realising in the hospital that Giles had been taken. Of course Xander had thought of all the worst things, but he hadn't really believed them. It was Giles. Stuff didn't happen to Giles. Not really.

The sight of Giles tied up, body bruised and bleeding, head sagging, was one of the top five things that haunted Xander's nightmares.

Stepping out into the lightening night, Giles a dead weight against his side, it was the first time he really *got*, in the real life, adult-knowledge sense, the sort of price they could pay for what they did. They might die. They might break.

He'd never really imagined what torture could do to a man. Heroes in the movies limped for a while and made self-deprecating jokes. Giles stopped joking altogether and threw himself into one heartbreaking dead-end after another, and Xander changed his definition of heroic.

Xander had been so goddamn angry at Buffy for running. Her boyfriend had tortured Giles, and then Buffy left him for dead.

Xander missed Giles. Keeping Giles around last week had been a colossal mistake, but Xander didn't know if it could be undone so easily. He'd never seen the other danger of having Giles here. Giles had brought the demon world, sure, and there was a good chance it was going to stay, but he'd brought friendship, and now that was gone.

It was finally sinking in that Thursday night drinks with the crew and a regular dinner with his ex-wife didn't actually count as having friends. It wasn't just about having someone who knew where he came from, though god, that was... That was like not knowing he was in a desert until he reached the ocean. What really sucked was realising that there wasn't anyone in the world that he could talk with about the divorce and Jen getting her period and letting Kate believe he was a mobster and even about how to cook steak and the way your body hurt when you got older. Not like that.

Jesse was supposed to be that person, and then it was Willow and Buffy, and then it was Willow and Buffy and Anya. And then, for a long time, it was Mary. Now he was alone.

On a whim, he went to his room and started digging through his drawers. Somewhere in here, deeper, he hoped, than the girls' prying eyes, he had- There.

The envelope held the only remnants of Sunnydale in his home. Xander hadn't opened it in years, and the glue had re-sealed, so he had to work it open. Four photos, no names or dates on the backs.

Buffy and Willow and him, sprawled on the grass in sophomore year. Crazy-young, already inseparable from a few hundred near-death experiences. Buffy was in the middle, beautiful and ready to take on the world, and Willow was hanging over her shoulder with a grin, yet to discover her witchy powers, or kiss Xander, or die. He slid it to the back.

Cordy laughing, the crumpled wallet-sized pic he used to carry when they were dating.

Anya beaming at the camera, money clutched in her hands, from the day Giles gave her a job. Full of life, and joy, and love.

The last photo was of all of the gang crowded around the table in the Magic Shop: Buffy and Dawn mock-wrestling, Willow and Tara arm-in-arm, Xander holding Anya in his lap. All the gang, but not Giles. Giles must have taken it. He wasn't in any of them.

He'd never totally been part of the group. They'd counted on him for the important dates and the life-or-death moments, but when the gang had met up for lunch or just wanted to hang out, they'd never called him. He wasn't in the photos of each other they'd all had framed around their beds. Who'd been his best friend, Xander wondered? Who had he told about his day? It was just another thing Xander could have talked to him about in this new friendship they'd had, and Giles would have opened up like he never did in those days, and they would have understood each other.

Xander slid the pile of photos back in their envelope and buried it at the bottom of the drawer.

That wasn't going to happen.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander was sitting in the middle of the crowd for once, trying to be part of it. Kelly and Rodriguez were trading stories from Iraq. They were funny and heroic and everyone was laughing. The older guys a little less, because they'd noticed these were stories about nineteen-year-olds fighting in a war.

Xander managed to grin where he should as the banter bounced around him. He had plenty of funny war stories, but it was hard to segue from heavy fire in Baghdad to a midget Halloween demon in a frat house. There didn't seem to be any gaps for him to join in anyway.

It was getting seriously clear that Thursday night drinks weren't going to be the cure for the way he'd been feeling all week. He missed Giles.

Everyone roared with laughter and Xander realised he'd missed another punch line. There was a running joke about Australians that must have been from some conversation he hadn't been part of.

He slipped off to the bathroom, and when he came back the stories had sobered. "Four of them, in the tunnels," Rodriguez was saying. "She never came back."

Pearson lifted his head suddenly. "Hey, did you lot catch the news about the bodies they found last night?"

Everyone chorused a no except Radek and Sam. "The ones in the subway?"

Xander's head jerked up.

"Aye. Story broke this afternoon. Twenty-six people. Serial killer's been working for four or five years at least."

Serial killer.

"Twenty-six in five years? Christ."

"Where was it?"

"How did he kill them?"

"How did they find them?" Xander asked.

"Do they have any leads?"

Sam was fishing out her phone. "Here. Twenty-six bodies, by the 1,2,3 line near Canal... Men and women, various ages and ethnicities, etcetera, etcetera... No discernable pattern."

Xander put a hand on her arm. "How did they find them?"

She scanned down the screen. "Anonymous tip."

"Probably from some homeless guy in search of a condo," said Kelly.

Anonymous tip. Giles must have phoned it in. Xander had never thought of that, too wrapped up in getting back his own life to give a damn about those people.

"My kids ride that line."

"In Florida, we'd find the bastard and fry him."

"See? Harris was right."

"Harris?"

"Harris hates the subway, don't you?"

Xander shrank in his chair, really not wanting to be the focus of attention right now.

Rodriguez took Sam's phone to read it. "'Subway Psycho', great. Those newscast bastards really know how to take shit seriously."

"That the Fox feed, Sam?"

"Fox'd do better than that. 'The Satanic Pitchfork Killer, trademarked.'"

"They're all just as bad. The piranhas are gonna feed off this for months."

Radek settled onto a tall stool, sitting half a foot higher than the rest of them. "One of the men was the brother of my neighbour."

That shut everyone up.

"He was a subway worker. He went missing one month ago. I met him one time, when they moved in, and he was helping with the furniture. He was a funny man."

"Imagine your brother dying like that."

"How's your neighbour doing?"

A subway worker would have worn a reflective vest like the one they saw down there. Xander had never thought of getting someone down there to find the bodies. He'd managed to forget that things were still happening to other people. Other people were waiting on news of their brothers. Wives in business suits. Maybe even the homeless guy.

Giles was totally right. Years ago, Xander never could have stood back and let other people do the fighting. The disgust in Giles' voice finally sank in, and Xander cringed. It hadn't stopped happening. The demons hadn't popped back up like Giles had wound the crank. Xander had just gotten good at ignoring the signs, clawed his way back to being blind like all the Sunnydale parents. Like his parents. Jesse's.

He wasn't one of the superheroes and he was okay with that, but what an asshole he was, to be angry at someone who was. Giles had never done anything but protect them, fix their messes, and the first time he'd needed help, Xander had kicked him out of his house.

And back to being completely selfish, since that was what he was good at, he'd kicked out his first real friend in years. It wasn't like Xander could see Giles tomorrow in the library or the Magic Box and pretend it hadn't happened, and wait for it all to go back to normal.

"Xander?"

"What?" He looked up to find everyone staring at him.

"So what is it with you and the subway?"

"Can't be claustrophobia," said Carson. "Not with how long you spend in the can."

"I don't like tunnels," Xander said. "Old war trauma."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

As he was pushing his way into the apartment, Xander slipped out his phone to check the time.

Damn, he'd missed a-

From Tara. Tara had called. Xander's fist closed hard around the phone. Life was one big roller coaster these days. Tara Maclay on his phone, like a real person, in the real world.

She'd left a message: 'X! Is something wrong? Call me. T.'

He rubbed his thumb over the screen. He did want to call her. Tara. God, he'd love to hear Tara's gentle voice. But that was one step closer to Buffy and Dawn and a whole lot of stuff Xander was getting really bad at keeping away from.

It was a complicated enough fuck-up with Giles. He owed Giles a huge apology, and he had no way to say it. It wasn't like he could just drop over to the other side of the world for a cup of tea and a quick "Sorry I'm an asshole," and he couldn't just call to say...

But he had to call Giles anyway, to give him Tara's number. And Giles would have to take the call because chances were he didn't know how to pick up messages, yet.

He pulled up the number, not knowing what he was going to say except it was going to start with 'Sorry.' Until London time flashed up... okay, not going to call at five in the morning. That meant instead of calling right now and just being sorry, he was going to not-sleep all night rehearsing.

Maybe that was better. This was going to be a huge apology.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander got up early, brushed his teeth, checked the time, showered, checked the time, dressed, checked the time. He had no idea what Giles was doing over there, what was a good time to call. But he was going to have to leave for work soon, so now... 11am-ish in England... would have to do. He fidgeted, bouncing back and forth as the phone rang. And rang. And- "Hello. Xander."

Relief that he'd picked up even after seeing caller ID was choked out by the neutral tone. Xander really wished they could do this face-to-face. "Giles."

"How are you?" came after a pause.

"I'm, um... I'm sorry?" Xander rubbed his head, ruffling his hair, and shifted his weight onto the other foot. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have kicked you out. Blamed you. Yelled at you. Any of it. I'm sorry."

There was a loud, long breath from the earpiece. "No, you were right. I should never have-"

"Don't flake out on me now, Giles. You were always the one who told us when we were being idiots."

There was a puff of laughter. "Don't be stupid, Xander. I didn't comment even remotely near to all of the times you lot were being idiots."

A grin spread across Xander's face. He couldn't believe that it was okay so easily. His knees felt weak, enough that he took a couple of steps backwards and sank onto the bed. "I'm apologising, here. How often do you hear me apologise?"

"Thank you. I can't tell you how, how relieved I... I wasn't looking forward to never seeing you again." He sounded warm, and Xander could picture the smile that went with that voice. He couldn't believe it was this easy. "I will see you again, won't I?"

Xander stubbed the toe of his left foot into his right heel. Bump, bump, bump. He should put an end to it. Giles would understand even if he didn't like it. He just had to say no. "I got a message from Tara. I'm sending her number to your phone."

"Thank you. How do I-"

"You touch the button on the screen that says 'call list'. Then you pull up Tara and hit 'call'. LA time will come up next to her number. But then I suppose you're pretty good at time conversions, by now."

"Thank you. And yes. Fairly good." There was a little pause, like a swallow. "How are things with you?"

Xander squashed his automatic 'Fine.' "Quiet. Not as good as having you here."

"I, I, I... liked being there, with you," Giles said, softly. "Just the break I needed before I came to face this." There were a lot of layers of meaning there, Xander thought.

"How is London, anyway? Still English, I suppose?"

"It's..." There was a nervous chuckle. "Strange. Luckily, the Council are reluctant to declare someone dead without a body or earthly explanation, so my accounts and the like are intact, but most of the people here had given up on me."

"But there you are."

"Here I am," Giles agreed. "It looks like I may be able to squeeze in a couple of days in Bath while the Council reanimates me, so I'm looking forward to that."

Neither of them spoke, but that was okay. Xander found a loose stitch on the quilt and scratched at it. Giles wasn't pissed at him.

"How are the girls?"

"Fine. Good. Well."

"Fine, good, and well? All at once?"

"Jen's been riding the subways. I found her Metro card, and I blew up."

Xander lay back and looked up at the ceiling as he told Giles about last weekend. Giles didn't blame him one bit, didn't think he was crazy or overreacting. He just listened and made little noises of shock and worry where Xander needed to hear them.

They glanced over the news story about the bodies and talked about things that were different in England from sixteen years ago, little things like extended shopping hours, and all the Polish restaurants that had sprung up, and how King William had changed stuff in the royal family.

Xander's back tingled, and suddenly Giles' handprint was there, and Xander realised he was blushing. Giles rambled on, blissfully ignorant. Was it weird for Giles, he wondered, them being friends? Was Giles enjoying it as much as he was? Giles had probably had guy friends before. All Xander's best friends had been girls - since Jesse, anyway. And all of them he'd been in love with in one way or another. Nothing like this. Maybe this was a friendship he'd been missing longer than since the divorce.

Xander stretched, twisting his head to look at the clock. "Shit!"

"Shouldn't you be leaving for work soon?"

"Twenty minutes ago. Shit, I've gotta go."

"Go. We'll talk another time."

Xander was up, patting down his pockets. Couldn't find his goddamn phone. "Thanks, sorry." He bawled out Rickman yesterday for being late. Where was his phone? ...oh. Yeah. He was talking on it. Idiot.

"I'm glad you called." And there was that warm voice, again.

"Me too." He really was. He felt better already. A hundred times better. Even though he had to call work right now to let them know he was late. "Okay, I'll-"

"Xander?"

He stopped in the doorway. "Yeah?"

"May I visit? Perhaps I could stop through on my way to see Buffy, probably the week after next? I'll get a hotel room, if you could just find time for dinner-"

Xander nodded at the bare hall wall. "That'd be... Stay. I mean, with me. It can't be a weekend, but if you're coming through mid-week-"

"I'll be sure to arrange it that way. Thank you."

"All right." Xander smiled. "I've really got to go now."

"I'll call you."

"Cool. Bye."

He hung up, and he waited a few more minutes before calling work.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

He'd lived with the nagging fear all week that Mary really would sue for sole custody after getting a glimpse of Xander's life, but the girls showed up that afternoon as usual. Jen was still barely talking to him, Kate oblivious to pretty much everything.

"Butter or Kettle?" Jen yelled from the kitchen.

"Kettlecorn!" Kate yelled from their bedroom.

"Girls! We have neighbours!"

"Evil neighbours," Kate said as she came traipsing out in her oversized slippers, dragging her blanket after her. Kate liked to watch movies in comfort.

"Exactly. So unless you want Mrs Aardvark to curse you, keep your voices down. And don't put the popcorn in yet. We're not watching the movie until I'm done with the news." Xander turned back to the computer.

"Why didn't you download it earlier? On your phone like a normal person?"

"Because child services insist I have to cook you dinner before letting you loose on the junk food."

She dumped her blanket beside Xander and headed on into the kitchen, where the popping had started. Xander skipped through the menu. There was really only one story he was after. 'Subway murders, full.'

Twenty-six bodies. Eleven identified so far, four names released. There was Radek's neighbour's brother. He'd been a scoutmaster. Some of the older bodies would need a few days for tests.

The murders were described as 'ritualistic', but the reporter didn't mention bites or missing blood or that these people had waited days to die.

Police were investigating, typically vague about leads, but they were combing every inch of the place for clues.

"People died in the subway?" Kate asked.

Xander clicked it off. "Yeah." He couldn't help looking to the kitchen, glad to see Jen looking back at him. Scared he'd say something, not scared by the news. His look was enough.

Mary must have said something because most of Jen's attitude had dropped off in favour of grim silence. She'd hardly said a word all evening, not a single sarcastic comment about Kate's choice of movie or any backtalk at all. Nothing friendly, either, but Xander would take what he could get.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Work was the highlight of the week. Better than getting home.

It felt like he was opening the door at night on a place that no one lived in at all. On Monday he left the talk-channels running on the computer just to have voices in the background. With the volume down so the politics they talked didn't drive him nuts.

Late that night he ended up tidying the girls' room and remembering they needed another bookshelf, which pretty much saved him. On Tuesday he scrounged through the scraps at work and then stayed late on Tuesday and Wednesday to work on it. This was what he'd loved to do when he was with Mary, and they'd had room for him to work. Furniture from second-hand wood, old screw-holes and scuff-marks polished up into something that looked like it had been made with hands. A little creative work on the jigsaw to take out old joins, a good sand so he'd just need to varnish it at home. Soothing, mindless work that distracted him from the empty apartment and gave him a few hours of forgetting Giles.

The rest of the day, in between poring over blueprints and debating delivery schedules, he kept wanting to call Giles and then not calling him. The times were wrong, and Giles was probably busy, and Xander didn't really have anything to say. Except he missed him. It wasn't like he could call up and tell him that.

On Thursday Radek was off work, and he came to drinks still in his tie and jacket from the funeral. Everyone wanted to know what it was like, how the family was doing. Stories were starting to come out about the victims who'd been identified: a middle school teacher, a woman who'd lived alone with three cats, a kid from one of the scarier parts of Queens. All ordinary people who'd been snatched up and dragged into the tunnels just because something thought they looked tasty.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Everything was finally back to normal with Jen, which meant instead of sulking and cold-shouldering her dad, she was fighting with her sister.

"Kate, shut up!"

"You shut up!"

"You shut up!"

"Make me!"

"Stay out of my stuff!"

"As if I'd go in your stupid stuff!"

Jen marched out into the main room where Xander was laying long, even strokes of varnish on the new bookshelves. "Why do I have to share that poky little hole with her?"

Kate rushed after her. "Why do I have to share with her?"

He dipped the brush, dragged it on the lip of the tin, and laid another long, straight line. "You have to share that poky little hole on weekends because my pay check goes to paying for each of you to have a room to yourselves in a really nice apartment with your mom five days a week."

"It's not fair!"

"Or," he looked up, "I could move to New Jersey, get you both rooms, maybe even a yard-"

"I'm not spending my weekends in Stink Jersey!"

"No way!" added Kate. It was good to see them agreeing.

"Then you share, or you take turns sleeping on the couch."

"I hate coming here!" Jen turned around and marched back to their room.

Xander lifted the brush and gritted his teeth. He really hated it when she said stuff like that.

Kate went to follow, but the door slammed, and she stopped and huffed and threw herself on the couch, arms folded.

Xander went to dip his brush again, but his phone rang.

"Hello!" He caught himself from saying Giles' name just in time. Not in front of Kate.

"Hello," Giles said, sounding taken aback by Xander's enthusiasm.

"Can I move in with you?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Do you have space for a roommate? If I move in with you, then that frees up my room, and the girls won't have to share." He caught the edge of Kate's glare.

Giles laughed. "I don't have a home, but that aside, it sounds marvellous to me."

Xander laid his brush across the pot and pushed himself to his feet, ruffling Kate's hair as he took the call to his room. "So are we going to catch up this week?"

"How does Monday sound?"

"That soon?"

"I can fly into JFK Monday afternoon, head on to California on Tuesday."

"Yes. Do that."

They sorted out the details and rang off, and it was hypothetically possible that Xander did a little dance, but no one saw it, and he wouldn't admit it under torture.

Xander tapped the phone against his chin after he hung up. He'd tell Mary tomorrow that Giles was stopping by so she couldn't accuse him of keeping secrets, and hope that the fact she hadn't said anything about the torture since dinner the other week meant she wasn't going to file for sole custody thanks to Xander's scary past. Her mom's birthday was coming up soon. He'd throw that in for maximum credits.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 10:
Telling Mary about Giles being tortured dragged Xander back down Sunnydale memory lane, made Xander feel more alone than ever. The news broke about the subway bodies, police assuming a serial killer. Xander called Giles to apologise, and Giles wrangled a return invite, perhaps against Xander's better judgement.



New York chapter 11:
Prodigal Son


Xander cursed, grabbing for a tissue to stop the blood. Thirty-seven years old, he should be able to shave by now. A nick would go nicely with his eighties rock hair. He glared at his reflection, trying to smooth his cowlick down yet again. And the middle-aged paunch. Giles didn't have a paunch. Giles was a forty-eight year-old book-geek with the body of an athlete. Xander worked eight hours of construction a day, and look. He turned sideways, smoothing his hand over his stomach. Paunch. Eat a salad once in a while, Harris.

He finished his chin and wiped off the cream, craning his neck to check the time as he went down the hall. He had time. Plenty, in fact; he'd started rushing to get ready the minute he walked in the door.

Linens were sitting in a pile in the corner, bathroom was clean, Assam tea in the cupboard and a Merlot in the fridge. He was going to make up for being such a shitty host last time. Giles preferred whisky, but Xander couldn't quite come at that. He'd downed a few bottles of it after Anya and he just... wine was a big enough addition to his cupboard. It was a good red; Giles'd like it.

Xander picked his shirt up from the bed and slipped it on, had it halfway buttoned before he caught his reflection. Not that shirt. He yanked it off and rifled through the cupboard. Not that one, not that one. Maybe... No. He shoved it back in and shut the closet. He wasn't going on a date; he was meeting Giles at the airport. T-shirt, done. No more mirrors. He scooted out the door.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander got to JFK way too early and ended up killing the slowest hour ever in Starbucks. Enough time to get through a couple of ventis and set the caffeine high to 'high'. He was vibrating by the time he got to baggage claim.

There he was. Xander waved until Giles caught his eye and waved back with a smile that went all the way to his eyes. Before Xander reached his side, he had his bag on a cart and was strolling up to meet halfway. There was a weird pause as Xander tried to figure out if this was a hug-moment. That was what you did at airports, but this was Giles and he'd only ever hugged him once, the first time he left Sunnydale. Which was at an airport. But he didn't really shake hands with Giles, either, and it seemed like they should- It ended up being sort of a shoulder-squeeze, which was awkward. To hell with it. Xander tugged him closer, and they hugged, so tight Xander could barely draw breath. Just enough breath to notice Giles smelled right, like he'd found his old soap or aftershave back in England. Only Giles could smell this good after a flight across the Atlantic. Giles held onto him for a long time.

As they pulled apart, Giles' hand lingered on Xander's back, and Xander mentally smacked his nerves.

"You look good," said Xander. Like he'd spent a month on a shady beach, not two weeks doing paperwork.

His smile softened. "So do you."

He'd got his hair cut in England, back to classic Giles. He was wearing that green sweater, and he had a stud in his right ear. If he'd shown up looking like this the other week, Xander would have thought he'd aged backwards.

"How was the flight?"

"Packed." Giles tipped his chin towards the families crowded around the luggage carousel. "With small children."

Xander laughed. "I'm sorry." He took Giles' shoulder-pack and led the way towards the taxis. "The weather's finally picked up for you. It hit sixty-five today."

"Sounds like paradise. Is there a plan?"

"You have options."

"Excellent."

"Option one, we could eat here. Airport food, but it's easy and it's now. Option two, you've only got one bag, so we could just go to a restaurant in the city. Option three, if you can wait, there's a little Chinese take-out half a block from my place, good food, and we could kick our shoes off and eat it in-"

"Three," said Giles before Xander finished speaking.

"Lucky Joe's it is." Perfect. Exactly what Xander had hoped for. He didn't want to catch up across a laminex table in a crowd of strangers. Not when he only had one night.

Traffic wasn't too bad, and they were home soon enough. Giles turned down Xander's offer to fetch dinner while he showered, saying he wanted to stretch his legs after the flight. They left their jackets at home and wandered down together, took their time browsing through the menu screen, Xander pointing out his favourites. "It's good food, and I've never once seen it on a Katie Couric expose."

"Two servings of fried dumplings?" Giles asked, when Xander tapped the screen.

"Breakfast. There's bread at home for toast, if you-"

"Thank you. I prefer to save pure lard until after the sun is over the yard-arm."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

They'd abandoned the couch for the floor, so the coffee table was just the right height. It made Xander feel young, trading food back and forth, talking through full mouths (Xander, anyway) as Giles finally started telling him about London.

"Bringing me back from the dead was a doddle for the Council. Rather disconcertingly, I'm now born in 1970."

"They say if you remember the sixties, then you weren't really there."

Giles pulled his passport out of his back pocket and tossed it on the table. Xander picked it up. The Council really did know a thing or two about forgery. It was worn and battered like it had been around the world a few times, and it had the visas to prove it.

"Quentin Travers died almost ten years ago. His replacement's replacement is someone who was six years behind me at Oxford."

"Now older than you."

"Quite." His eyebrows crept high, and he shook his head. "I've been through so much with you that finding you closer to my age is... not so jarring as it might be. Over there, there are all these wet-behind-the-ears upstarts from my early years with the Council, who are now my seniors. They're... battle-hardened and grey-haired and wrinkled. They've had some terrible incidents these last few years."

The earring kept catching Xander's eye. He must have seen it back in Sunnydale; it wasn't like it was new information that Giles had an ear pierced, but Xander couldn't remember seeing it back then. On Giles it seemed kind of wild: not Xander's old Giles at all.

"You were 'The' Watcher. You've still got watcher's cred."

"Very true." He lifted his wine glass in salute. He was happy with the Merlot. He had one knee, the one near Xander, bent up and the other stretched out down the side of the coffee table, and Xander boggled again at how comfortable he looked. How comfortable they both looked: Xander was slouched so he could balance his carton on his chest.

"So what's next? You may be a decade and a half out of the demon-world loop, but considering the age of most of your books, that must be, like, taking time out for a cup of tea, right? And you weren't really on the best of terms with the Council, but they did fix up all your paperwork, so presumably not the worst either-"

"Are you asking if they're offering me a job?" Giles pushed his glasses a little higher.

"You can get surgery, now, you know."

"I'm sorry?"

Whoops. One topic at a time. "For the glasses. Your eyes. It's like getting a filling these days. In and out."

"Right."

"Yeah. About the job. What I was asking."

"Right." Giles gave him a little eyeball. He'd never give up the glasses. Too fond of being withering through them. "Yes. There are options." He smiled to himself. "They're still looking into what suits my expertise, but there will definitely be work for me if I wish it. I told them I didn't want a final list yet."

"Until after Buffy?"

Giles dipped his head. "That's one reason."

"Do you think you'll stay with her?" He had no idea why he hated that idea, but he really did. Scooby party without Xander.

"I don't know. Bath is home, but it was hard enough resettling after five years. Now... I don't know if things will work out with Buffy or not, but even if they do, that doesn't mean that's the right place for me, either."

"How could there not be a place for you?"

Giles suddenly reached for the bag, shaking the fortune cookies out into his hand. He tugged the plastic to smooth them out. "She's a grown woman. She hasn't needed a watcher in a very long time."

"She probably needs friends. She definitely needs the book-guy."

"We'll see." He sent one of the cookies skittering along the table to knock Xander's rice box.

Xander took the hint. He pulled it out and cracked it open. "It is a poor workman who blames his tools," he read.

"In bed," they chorused, just like in those post-high school days of unemployment, and grinned at each other.

"I promise you my tools are the very best quality," Xander said, mock-indignant. "But if you get something about how librarians do it quietly, I'm going to declare these cookies officially disturbing."

Giles broke his own. "Explore the world together with your friends."

"In bed," Xander added.

Giles' grin softened into a crooked smile, and this time he wouldn't meet Xander's eyes. Still embarrassed by the sex.

It could have been fun to poke him about which friends, to see him squirm some more, but Xander took pity. "I haven't asked you about your call. How's Tara? Are you going to catch up with her, too?"

"I'm flying down to San Diego, and we're going to drive up together. Tara hasn't told Buffy and Dawn that I'm back; she's determined to see their faces." He sounded grim, not quite so sure that it was going to be a hugfest.

Xander wanted to say something reassuring, the sort of thing Giles would say to him if Xander was the one heading out on the reunion tour, but if he was so sure it wouldn't suck, then maybe he'd be going. Well, no, he wouldn't. "What if Buffy thinks you're evil and tries to slay you?" Lame humour, much safer.

"Then she'll likely be more successful than you were."

Oh yeah. He'd forgotten about that.

Giles sat forward. "Are you certain you won't come? I would dearly love to have you with me."

"Another target in the vicinity, you mean?"

"No," he replied, entirely serious. "Tara said she would love to see you, and I'm sure Buffy and Dawn would be thrilled. You could meet Dawn's children. And as strange as this sounds, it would be an immense relief to have one familiar face in the crowd."

"Giles..." The very idea of it petrified him. "I'm sorry."

Another factoid on the list of new things Xander was learning: Giles had one hell of a kicked-puppy face. "If you change your mind..."

"One prodigal son at a time, my friend."

Giles sighed, the sort of sigh that said he was giving up for now, but Xander hadn't heard the end of it.

Xander started sorting the boxes into leftovers and scraps. "So what about the rest of Team Slayage?" he asked, just to be sure he was heading the subject off.

Giles piled the wrappers and excess sauces into the dregs of the Kung Pao. "Tara told me that I could ask them myself, soon enough. It doesn't sound like Buffy's dating, though, so we shouldn't be heading into any major crises."

Xander did a double take. That was not Giles-like. That was about the exact opposite of Giles-like. He always backed Buffy's boyfriends, no matter how evil. Maybe this was part of the new Xander-Giles relationship, with a few of Giles' layers peeled back.

Giles was staring into his trash-box, not noticing how much he'd surprised Xander, so Xander was going to pretend he wasn't surprised.

"Hey, it's not all about Buffy's love life. The mayor was totally an independent bad. Unless you know something you're not telling me, in which case you should continue not to tell me ever."

Giles chuckled. "No, I think that sprang from an altogether different set of problems." The humour slowly faded from his eyes, and he did that staring thing again.

"What's the worst that could happen?" Xander asked.

"She might despise me. Still blame me for leaving. Not need me. View me as some quaint aberration from her past."

Xander reached across and covered Giles' hand on the coffee table. "Even if all that happens, you'll still have me."

Giles looked at him and there was all the fear and hope and other things swirling around in there. It was only half a second, but it was enough. He was terrified of seeing Buffy. Xander squeezed, and Giles turned his hand over and squeezed back. His hand was warm and dry and solid, and Xander held on for a few more seconds.

Talking like this... touching someone like this... It made him miss Buffy and Dawn and all of it more than he had in years. It made him ache for wishing he could trade jokes about Giles' fear of computers over the library research table or play board games with Anya and Dawn or sweep the cemetery for things that could kill them. The way friendship used to be. But he wasn't stupid enough to believe it would be just like that if he went back. They were strangers now. At best, it would be awkward. At the far more likely end of the scale, it would be all about Willow's death and how Xander wasn't there, and sixteen years of apocali that they stopped just fine without him.

Xander let go of Giles' hand. He wiggled out from under the coffee table, waving Giles to stay put, and started gathering boxes to carry to the kitchen. "Did you get to see your sister?"

"Yes. She's... very old." He smiled. "It was good to see her. We're not... I don't think I explained before; Amelia and I were never terribly close. I had a destiny to live up to and then to rebel against, and she never fared well on either count. I'd just begun to mend things with her before, well. Disappearing."

"Didn't she wonder where you'd gone?" Xander called back over his shoulder, as he stuffed things in the fridge.

"She did. At least enough to ask the Council. But I'd broken up with Christine, and she assumed I'd just flittered off again."

Xander stuck his head up over the fridge door. "Christine?"

Giles squirmed. "I dated someone briefly."

Wow. He really had been getting on with his life. Of course that was what he'd been doing, but it still made Xander uncomfortable, the idea of Giles having someone so far away, like a man who didn't plan on coming back. "Good for you."

Judging by the way Giles looked at him, Xander didn't manage to keep the discomfort out of his voice. "It was, it didn't, last long. Just a few dates, really. I thought I knew what I was looking for, but..."

"In the end, it's not about what you're looking for so much as who you never see coming."

"Yes."

Xander came back and plopped down on the couch beside Giles. "May I point out: a lesser man would be afraid to quote from one of Jen's million favourite romantic movies."

Giles snorted. "It does seem to be true."

"So what about your friends in Bath? What was it like, seeing them?"

"Honestly..." Giles looked sheepish. "I didn't actually... I did mean to contact them but-"

"Wait- You chickened out of seeing them?"

"It's been sixteen years! What was I supposed to do, drop by for tea? Perhaps I could dye my hair white to cut down on explanations, get a walking stick for appearance's sake." He seemed to run out of air.

Xander opened and closed his mouth a few times. "I just assumed all your friends knew."

"A few. I don't have a great many close friends in the Council ranks. Most of my friends simply thought I did research at the university." He pulled himself up to share the couch. "It was difficult enough coming home in 2002 when they thought I'd chosen to spend five years surrounded by vapid teenagers in a dead-end American school for no discernable reason."

"No discernable reason? Bet they all thought it was a mid-life crisis."

Giles' long look said Xander had hit that nail right on the head.

"Still, they welcomed me home. We went out for drinks, spent a few weeks ribbing me for how American I'd become, and then they drifted back to their lives and I drifted back to wondering if I'd made a colossal mistake." He looked sadly at Xander. "I was looking forward to coming home for your wedding."

"Sorry about that. And kind of not sorry. I'm really not good at relationships, Giles."

"I hear one gets better with practise," Giles said gently.

Xander tipped his head to look. "How are you at it?"

Giles raised an eyebrow. "I could use more practise."


It got later, before Xander finally stirred to start cleaning up. "Bed's ready for you this time." He pointed to the linen pile beside the couch as Giles looked sharply at him, and then back to the linens.

"Oh, right. I, I see."

Xander took first turn in the bathroom since he was the one who had to get up in the morning. Giles was waiting when he came out, towel hanging over his arm in front of him. He wasn't wearing his glasses, and he looked different like that. "All yours." Xander waved him in with a flourish and headed for his room.

"Xander?" Giles had paused in the doorway. "Do you think I should get my eyes fixed?"

He'd forgotten all about that conversation, but now he took the time to look at Giles' bare face. "I don't know. It'd probably make your life easier. I'd miss the glasses, though."

That was a genuine smile.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 11:
Xander picked Giles up from JFK. Over Chinese, Giles showed off the passport he got from Council: The Next Generation, and worried some more about seeing Buffy. Turns out he didn't catch up with all his English friends, because many didn't know about his secret life.



New York chapter 12:
Going


Xander twisted his head to see the clock. 1:54am. He dropped his head back onto the pillow, staring into the darkness.

He was slowly coming to realise that the gnawing ache in his stomach, the one that churned a little when Giles talked about his plans, was jealousy.

He hadn't really believed that's what it was back when he was crawling into bed, but some time between 12:31 and 1:16 he'd stopped pretending. He missed them. He missed Buffy mooning over guys that weren't him, he missed Dawn badgering her sister to let her come along, and he missed Tara... He missed who Tara was now, the Tara who still included him with letters and asked after Jen and Kate.

He missed who he was around them - not the most vital member of the Scoobies, but he mattered. He did things that mattered. And the idea of going home with Giles, being one of them again... He wanted it like he hadn't wanted anything in a really, really long time.

It had been easier living in New York before Giles came back. No, it wasn't just that it had been easier; it was that it hadn't even been a thing. Sunnydale had been another life, and that life was over, and what he had now, beautiful girls and a job he was good at and a life without pants-wetting fear, was all he'd needed.

Now, though. Giles had him remembering the good times and the loyalty and having friends who'd rescue you from praying mantis-women and syphilis and cloning spells. The sort of friendships that ran so deep, you knew they'd last forever. They had to.

It had to be worth finding out. What if he went?

Xander pulled the bedcovers up over his nose. Just a few days. He actually felt his heart bump and quicken as he started to think about it seriously. If it was a total disaster, it's not like they could talk to him less than they did now.

And there was the slim, slim but sweet hope that it wouldn't be a disaster. A little tiny 'maybe...' voice in his head that said maybe sixteen years were enough that Buffy would shriek when she saw him and throw her arms around his neck like he'd just been on a long summer vacation.

Imagining it made his eyes burn. God, Buffy. Beautiful, passionate, self-absorbed, generous Buffy. After everything they'd been through, Buffy should have the right to see him even if it was just to slap him.

If she did slap him and tell him to go back to New York, then Giles would be with him. Giles was right about strength in numbers. They'd have each other, and that would make it survivable.

And Dawn. All grown up, but he'd bet she was still sassy and uber-smart. Dawn's kids. He'd get a taste of how it felt for Giles, getting to know parent-Xander. He could tease her about the crush she used to have on him.

He couldn't get off work with this little notice, but if Mary would keep the girls, then he could get over there for the weekend, and he could just go.

He sat up. One weekend, not signing up for active service. He could just book his ticket and get on a plane and face them. Let it all crash down on his head, and maybe then it would be done and over, and either he'd have his friends back or he could just put it all behind him. They'd all be better off.

Xander was going. He was really going. He had to tell Giles. He swung his legs out and saw the clock. 2:18am. Okay, maybe he'd tell Giles in the morning. He had half a mind to go out there and wake him up. Xander had butterflies of the roller coaster variety, and no way was he going to sleep now. He was going to see Buffy. Crazy.

Xander lay back down and sat up again. Way too awake. He used a toe to snag up his shorts. He could use a drink of water.

He opened his door softly and padded to the bathroom, the chill of the tiles numbing his toes. He pissed and then cupped his hands under the sink for a long drink. The water was cool and sweet.

As he slipped back into the hallway, he heard, "Xander?" He turned and headed out to the living room where Giles was sitting up, blanket twisted over his knees, blinking owlishly through bare eyes. His hair stuck up funny, and it made Xander smile, then pat his own hair down self-consciously.

"Sorry, did I wake you?"

"No, I was awake. Nervous." He scratched his bare chest. "I think I have every possible contingency for meeting Buffy planned. If I had a typewriter, I could show you a hundred potential conversations, all scripted out."

I'm coming, Xander wanted to say, but he didn't. He'd have to figure it out, first. Make sure it was doable before he told Giles. Something could come up: Mary might not be able to take the girls, or there might be something on this weekend that he'd forgotten about, or maybe, actually, it was extremely likely, that he'd chicken out, and he really didn't want to disappoint Giles again.

Xander sat on the armrest near Giles' toes, not sure what to do. Neither of them were sleeping, but if he listened to all Giles' fears for seeing everyone, Xander would skip the trip to hide under his bed.

On the other hand, the pair of them sitting here in their shorts, not talking, was pretty weird.

"Wanna watch TV?" he said, suddenly. That's what he'd be doing if he was home alone and not sleeping.

Giles looked relieved. "Sounds perfectly distracting."

Xander slid down to the seat and reached for the remote. "Do you have a channel in mind, or should I just go for brainless flipping?"

"Flip away."

Flip he did, volume turned low, lingering a little on some show about concrete engineering on the Hoover dam and then, to be fair, a little on the History Channel.

Soon his eyes were drooping, every muscle in his body sliding into a gentle stupor except his remote finger. Cooking, weather, Kevin Trudeau out of jail again, selling another book. Kate would have been throwing things at the screen if she was here. Straight past sports, lingered on the kids' channels. At some point Giles pushed the end of the blanket towards him to share, and he pulled his own legs under.

Mindless and soothing. He drifted, maybe. Seemed like MTV-Junior's new boy band had been on a while. Kate liked them, he was pretty sure. Or used to. Or maybe it was a different lot; they all looked the same to him. Sounded the same.

Giles had fallen asleep, head lolling sideways against the headrest, mouth open, breathing in little sighs. His legs had straightened as he slept until his toes poked Xander's thigh, toasty-warm under the blanket. Xander ignored the TV to watch him instead. It was still weird, how much younger he looked than in high school. Obviously it was partly Xander redefining 'older' as he hurtled towards the forties himself, but he didn't think that was all of it. Giles'd started getting younger back then, after they graduated, especially after he bought the Magic Box. Like the waistcoats and stutter were a disguise that he'd let go of as they'd gotten older. Like when they weren't kids anymore, he could stop pretending to be the grown-up and just be himself. Now it was the same, but more. Xander rested his hand on the bump of Giles' feet against his leg. Buffy was going to love this Giles. He'd be a closer friend now than he was even then. She'd love him more.

Xander drifted a little longer, never quite asleep, never quite awake, but warm. Cosy. He felt cosy, all snuggled up on the couch with Giles.

4am. He sighed. He needed to make some attempt to sleep properly even if he wasn't sure his bed would be any better than sitting here. In the end, only realising that there was a good chance he was going to wake up slumped on top of Giles, drooling in his lap, forced Xander to move. He wiggled out from under the blanket, careful not to disturb him.

Of course, walking twenty feet to his own bed woke him up just enough that he wasn't going to sleep. But all that time half-asleep on the couch had left him with the stirrings of wood and that was pretty much a two birds, one stone kind of situation.

He shucked off his shorts and slid under the comforter, spread on his back with his knees propped. Room to work as he pulled his cock, sighing. Yeah. This was exactly what he needed.

Should just get off and get to sleeping, but his hands lingered, rubbing his balls, working his cock slowly, stopping every now and then to pinch the head, build it slow. After the couch, he was in a cosy, mellow mood, and that, like that, felt good.

He squirmed up until he was half-propped on the pillows and tightened his hand, enjoying the ride. A couple of extra minutes to get off wasn't going to be the reason why he couldn't keep his eyes open at work tomorrow. Long strokes, a little pressure just behind his balls to feel it more deeply. He groaned, gripping tighter, hips lifting to meet his hand.

God, yes.

Giles was here. Xander froze. He'd forgotten, and he'd been groaning out loud and he hadn't - he checked - nope, he hadn't even remembered to close the door. The door was wide open. God, please let Giles be completely asleep. Way, waaaay asleep, not listening to the sounds of Xander jerking off. Xander's hand squeezed, and his lip stung as he bit into it.

This was a dilemma. The door was open, but it was far away and Xander had a hand full of very happy cock. He really should close it so there wouldn't be a 'Giles in the doorway to check he's all right' incident, but his hand was already moving again, pumping hard, and he didn't actually have the power to stop it. Or to lose the visual of Giles in his doorway, squinting, hair sticking up in all directions.

He had to grit his teeth to swallow the moan as he found the perfect speed, quick hard strokes, and he wormed his finger back a little further to press at his ass, pushing like he might slide it right in. A grunt slipped out and he sucked it back. Silent, Giles outside, had to be silent, and that only made it more intense, mouth tight shut so he was panting through his nose, which seemed ridiculously loud.

Harder, faster, needing relief, wave building up behind the wall of silence, needing, god, he pushed his finger in just enough to feel the pinch and it was like electricity crackling up his spine, two more strokes and a tiny high cry escaped as he came, and it tumbled through him like a breaking wave, shaking and squeezing him, knocking the breath right out of him.

He heaved a sigh as his head flopped back on the pillow, dragging a finger through the puddle on his stomach. Yeah. He was going to sleep well now. He barely had the energy to reach back and grab a wad of tissues to clean himself off before his eyes drifted shut.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So what Xander hadn't thought of in his giddy midnight plans was how he'd bring this up with Mary. If the idea of Giles gave her the wiggins, what would she say if Xander told her he wanted to skip his precious time with the girls to dive right back into his nightmares? No, really, Mary, everyone's going. The woman who tried to choke me to death for sure. Even the guy that tortured Giles might be there. He's sorry about that, by the way. He's sorry for a lot of stuff he did in the last couple of centuries. Maybe I could bring the girls back some Mickey Mouse ears?

He figured this out as he leaned back against a pallet of boards outside the site office at lunch, sandwich in his lap, thumb resting on the call button.

The thing was, she was his good conscience. She was going to ask all this stuff, and he didn't have an answer for any of it. He couldn't tell her what she wanted to know about where he came from, and he couldn't tell her who he was going to see.

She'd threatened to take the girls away. That was cruel, to throw that in his face. She'd never been like that. She'd never forced him to be like Toby, pouring money into lawyers just to be able to get Saturdays with his kids.

He couldn't tell her that it wasn't dangerous to stick his toe back in the hellworld he came from because it was.

Pearson walked by, yelling into his phone about a late delivery, and Xander moved his thumb off the call button. He wasn't thinking about going for a dirty weekend in Cape Cod. He was thinking about delivering himself to demon central, and since there wasn't a single holiday, birthday or school dance in Sunnydale that went to plan, it was totally ridiculous to believe their sixteen-year-reunion would end in anything other than sixteen years worth of demonic chaos all at once. That was the luck they had.

Xander didn't have a single good argument for why Mary should be okay with it. Which meant he couldn't be okay with it either. A weekend hoping to recapture the good bits of his adolescence versus the safety of his kids. It wasn't even a question. He put his phone away.

So he wasn't going to find out if Buffy minded that he was going to dance concerts and science museums while she took on the end of the world single-handed every second week. He wouldn't find out if she was still angry that he left Anya at the altar, or that he wasn't there when Willow killed herself trying to save the world.

And he wouldn't find out if Dawn never invited him to her wedding because she hated him for leaving or because she just didn't care enough to bother.

And he wouldn't see Tara, the only one he was totally sure would be happy to see him, to tell her he missed her and to thank her for the letters.

He was always going to be alone like this. His eyes stung, and the back of his throat pricked.

No. No way was he going to get emotional sitting in the corner of the worksite, surrounded by crew. God, he missed hanging out with women. Hugs and talking about real things and being noticed. He was going to be an arms' length from everyone for the rest of his life, and right now that seemed like a horribly long time.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

They made it to the airport early and ended up killing time in a dim booth down the back of TGI's, sharing chicken strips and mozzarella sticks.

"Appetiser," Giles snorted. "This could feed a British family of four for a week."

Xander waved a mozzarella stick at him. "British families don't eat anything this awesome. It's all liver and kidney pie, and frog in the hole. That's why nobody cleans their plate over there."

"You say that because you've never had my toad in the hole."

"Not yet." Xander liked that, the idea of Giles cooking for him. "You cook?"

With a sly smile, Giles leaned over the table. "Wait until I do you breakfast. You'll wonder how you ever lived without gammon and eggs."

"Do I even want to know what gammon is?"

"It's bacon. In steak form."

"Whoa."

He cocked an eyebrow. "I thought you'd like the sound of that."

Xander slumped back in his seat. "You'd cook me breakfast?"

"It's in my plans."

"You know the way to a guy's heart."

"You can be rather transparent."

"And I'm okay with that."

They sat there grinning at each other, until Xander had to go for another chicken strip.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"Well. Guess this is it." Xander wondered if he could hug Giles, but Giles just did it, strong sure arms holding Xander tight. He was scared as hell of this reunion. Xander clutched him back, burying his face in the soft skin of his neck. He smelled like home and safety. Giles lifted a hand to to Xander's head, which was weirdly intimate but nice, too. Incredibly gentle, nothing like the strength of the arm around his waist. Xander could still be startled by the shifting boundaries with Giles.

He had no idea when he was going to see him again. He'd been so crazed about whether or not he should go face Buffy himself that he'd forgotten this could be a long-term goodbye. And never mind that Giles was getting on a plane back to the vampire world full of everything that scared Xander pantsless.

Loosening his grip was the hardest thing ever, then he saw Giles' eyes were a tiny bit glassy and he wanted to hug him again. "You'll be fine," he said and then cleared his throat. "She'll be happy to see you."

"One last chance to come with me? I could go buy you a ticket right now." Doubtful, but still hoping.

"I can't." This time, he didn't try to hide the 'I wish,' in his tone.

Giles dipped his head. "I do understand. There's time to change your mind later."

He had changed his mind. Twice. Xander shuffled backwards. "Stay safe. And tell the guys I said... 'Hi.' Or something less lame."

Giles picked up his bag. "I'll tell them you miss them, but you aren't ready to come home."

Xander couldn't speak to answer. That's exactly what he needed to tell them. He needed to tell Giles how much he loved him, but didn't know how to say it without it coming out sounding gay. He had to say something. He put his hand on Giles' wrist. "I'm sorry I've been so... I'm sorry it's been awkward, with us. I haven't had a, a friend like you in a long time, Giles. Or, I mean, a guy, like, ever. But I want to. I mean, I want- I'm really bad at saying stuff."

Giles' eyes sparkled, and he put his other hand over the top of Xander's. "We'll take it slowly. I'll teach you. If that's what you want. Just tell me when you're ready."

Xander laughed. "Oh, I'm ready." He gave Giles a shove, before they ended up hugging again."Go get your plane."

Giles looked like he was about to say something else, or hug Xander again, but he gave a nod and stepped away. As soon as he'd disappeared into the security line, Xander found a window where he could watch planes taking off.

Another plane slipped silently into the sky, and Xander pulled out his phone, hit the speed-dial. "Hey, Jenny."

"Hey, Dad."

"What are you up to?"

"What?"

Xander watched a plane climb, banking south. "What are you doing?"

There was a beat of silence. It didn't seem like a difficult question.

"Nothing."

"Nothing?"

"I'm with Grace." Snippy.

"That's good. How's Grace?"

Another few seconds passed. "She's fine. We're not on the subway."

Ah. That's what she thought. "That's not why I-"

"We're shooting up shabu into our arms. Is that all right with you?"

"That's fine, honey, just don't share needles."

"I don't need to be checked up on."

"You do, but that's not why I called."

Her voice was muffled as she pressed the phone to her chest to tell Grace what an idiot her dad was. "Then why did you call?"

Xander smiled. "Just to say hi."

"Right. Is that all?"

"That's all."

"Okay. I'm busy."

"Drugs to shoot up."

"Yeah. Bye."

The call ended and Xander closed his phone, feeling a whole lot better.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 12:
Watching Giles fuss about his upcoming trip back to Scooby-land finally tempted Xander into deciding that he could go, too. All excited about the possibilities, Xander climbed out of bed and ended up snuggled on the couch, channel-surfing with a sleepy Giles. Back in his own bed, Xander had an overwhelming urge to jerk off. All-in-all, a very good night. But back in the real world the next day, Xander realised he really had no right to go. So he saw Giles off to the airport and gave him a big hug goodbye, then called Jen for some daughterly comfort.



New York chapter 13:
Heat


Lunchtime in the corner again, but this time he hit dial.

"Hey, Xander."

"Hey, Mary. Do you mind if I cancel dinner tonight?"

There was quiet on the other end.

"Mary?"

"Is he there?"

"No, he's gone." Giles was on PCH somewhere between San Diego and LA, trading life stories with Tara.

"Did something happen?"

"No. Nothing happened. He left, and the city's still standing."

More silence.

He shouldn't have snapped. She sounded worried, not angry. She'd been tiptoeing around for the last two weeks, since Xander blurted out what Angel did to Giles.

"Will he visit again?" she asked, gently. He wished she'd sound angry so he could stay defensive.

"Maybe." He peered up at an exposed beam. "Probably not." They'd joked about Giles cooking breakfast, but probably that was never going to happen.

"I'm sorry."

Xander shrugged, even though she couldn't see it.

"You deserve to have friends."

He didn't know what to say to that.

She sighed. "I'm sorry, Xander. You scared me."

"You know I'd never let anything happen to the girls."

"I'm not worrying about them right now. I'm worrying about you."

"Can we not talk about this while I'm at work?"

"All right. You're still coming to mom's birthday on Sunday? I promise we don't have to talk about it there, either."

He rubbed his head, wishing that was as easy to avoid. Sort of glad it wasn't. "I'm driving your car, I suppose?"

"How else will I get rip-roaring drunk?"

He smiled a little, glad she was trying. "Do I need to bring a barf-bucket?"

"Only if Rick's barbecuing shrimp legs again. He said he's got the pool open and the fancy new solar on, and there's supposed to be some kind of heat wave this weekend, so bring your swim trunks."

"It's April."

"Weatherman says low eighties. Bring a towel."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Sam drained her glass and banged it on the table with a sigh. "God, I needed that. If this is April, summer's going to be a killer."

"No fucking joke," said Rickman. "Thought I was gonna slip off the beams in my own puddle of sweat, plummet to my death."

"At least wait until we crack twenty floors, give yourself time for a view on the way down."

"Nah, it's bullshit summer," said Kelly. "We'll just get the winter clothes back in the closet, and it'll freeze our balls off again."

Xander was back in the world of normal people who worried about weather and mortgages and traffic. Sure, Rodriguez collected for the Veteran's fund sometimes, and Pearlman did that thing for Doctors Without Borders, but there was no saving the world here, no near-hell experiences.

Toby raised his beer. "Here's to global warming. Heat wave one day, snow tornado the next."

Xander wasn't sure how he felt about living in the normal world today. Giles was in LA now, and Buffy was either celebrating his return or giving him the biggest cold shoulder of all time.

Or five thousand previously-unknown demons had descended on the city after someone accidentally doodled a magical symbol in the margin of a cursed book, and they were alll fighting for their lives. Historically speaking, it was probably that one.

Giles would call if there was an apocalypse. Probably. Xander took another drink.

Sam refilled her glass. "What do you say, Xander: going to spend the weekend spring cleaning?"

"Nah, got a family thing at Mary's this weekend, then the girls for a couple of extra days over spring break."

Toby did a double-take. "Mary, your ex?"

"Her family's all right. My brother ex-law's got a heated pool, so it's already open."

"Harris, you are not a normal human being. I would suck Rickman's sausage on this table for all to see before I would spend an afternoon with Becky's family."

Kelly leaned over to tap his glass to Toby's. "And I'd watch that before I'd spend an afternoon with Leticia's demon clan."

Demon clan was probably hyperbole. Xander hoped it was.

He wondered how Giles was doing.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander was passing out on the couch again. It was a bad habit to get back into, but the TV took Xander's mind off worrying. Giles hadn't called.

There was no reason why he should have called, and anyway, Tara would have called Xander if Giles had gone missing between New York and San Diego, and Xander didn't want to be checking up like an over-protective parent, but there was a big fat sixteen-year reason why Xander didn't want to leave it too long before making sure Giles was okay. Xander was going to call in a day or two.

In the meantime, sleep by television.

It turned out there was a British archaeology show on at 1am each night, a bunch of upper-crust English guys on a dig getting all excited about plate designs and bits of pots, and it put Xander to sleep like a baby.

Well, that and a good slow tug on his cock. A wank, one of those English voices would have called it. Xander hadn't jerked off this much in years.

He missed sex, of course, but lately it wasn't fucking on his mind. He ached to be touched. Every night he was on this couch with his eyes half-closed and his hand in his shorts, pulling his cock and imagining how good it would be if he was in someone else's arms, someone else's hand closing around his. Slowing him down, speeding him up. Kissing his neck.

Xander let his free hand run over his chest. He wanted legs tangled with his, someone who'd push his hand aside and take over with a confident grip, breathe hard in his ear as she worked him, cock and balls, whispering that he was attractive and wanted.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander roared as he burst out of the water, sending the kids scattering. Aiko was laughing so hard there was a serious danger of her drowning so he dove in and came up beneath her, lifting her high in the air. She squealed until he dropped with her into the water, squeezing her against his chest for safety.

There was a mass of splashing, and suddenly fifty slippery hands were on him, clutching at his wrists and arms, more underwater at his legs and ankles, one mischievous fist hanging off his shorts. Xander could barely stand for laughing, and then broad shoulders crashed into the backs of his knees and yanked him under.

Xander came up spluttering to hear "Uncle Xander!" "Drown Uncle Xander!" "Get him, Ricky!"

God knew when Rikuto the Juniorest got all adult-sized. Xander had skipped the President's Day thing, and all the kids were ten years older than they'd been at Christmas. Callie had her lip pierced - giving Kate ideas - and Aiko was dog-paddling around without swimmies.

Xander grabbed for a passing limb and found Kate's leg, hauled her in and lifted her shrieking above him. "Whatcha gonna do now, kiddo?"

"Go for his ribs!" yelled Mary from the sidelines, and Xander whipped around.

"Hey, no coaching!"

But they had him, and he was helpless, dropping Kate and swallowing water as he laughed as hard as the kids swamping him.

"Incoming!" Squeals and an enormous splash behind him, then more squeals from the sidelines.

"Uncle Rick! I hate you!" Jen sat up, cursing.

"If you're going to lie beside the pool, Jenny..."

"Mo-om!"

Xander took the distraction to sneak out of the kid-pile. He swung out of the pool and bent over to shake his hair on her.

"Daa-ad!"

"If you're gonna lie beside the pool, Jen..." He grinned at her glare and turned to reach for his towel.

Mary and Mich were grinning at him, in a scary sort of way.

"What?"

"Nice ass," Mary leered.

Xander blushed, which was kind of ridiculous. "You can't comment on my ass anymore. You signed the papers. Paragraph fourteen, sub-clause b."

"I can," Mich retorted, letting her eyes slide southwards.

"You're a lesbian. Also, I don't want Petra dragging me off to one of her secret military prisons."

"I'm not close-minded. Not around asses like that."

Xander snorted. "Doesn't the new navy make you ladies take classes on social sensitivity and the evils of sexual harassment?"

"Mich failed all of them," Petra said from the spa where she was lounging with Rick's wife, Hitomi.

"Would you all please stop traumatising me?" Jen yelled from under the arms she'd wrapped around her head.

Xander turned away. He really didn't need Mary leering at him when she was lounging back in a scrap of yellow bikini, bronze skin gleaming, silk-black hair fanned out around her face. She looked smoking.

Besides, early summer or not, it really wasn't warm enough for lying around in a damp bikini, and he could see her nipples sharp under her suit.

Rick and Hitomi's house was in New Jersey, with their four kids and the sort of yard that deer sometimes wandered through. Winter family gatherings were at Mary's parents' place in Boston, but the summer ones were at Rick's, around the pool. And if Xander was going to be honest, it was always a good time. He may have been the guy who failed to make Mary happy ever after, but everyone was always friendly. Rick genuinely liked Xander, and her sister Michiko liked everyone. To his six nieces and nephews he was Uncle Xander, same as always, and it was impossible not to have a good time with eight kids water fighting. Seven kids, anyway, while Jen tanned and preened on the side. He didn't want to know when she downsized to the micro-bikini.

It was a good time, but there always that lingering feeling that something wasn't quite right. He never examined it too closely because if he did, he remembered it was him.

He wandered over to the table for a handful of stale corn chips. This was the future he'd once imagined with Anya: domestic backyard, Buffy and Willow bringing their kids over on holidays. Dreaming of a monster-free life, kind of like being eight years old and dreaming of superpowers or about being adopted by rich parents with a private jet and their own toy store.

He'd moved to New York looking to disappear for a while. He met Mary and he was still there, missing in Manhattan. There was plenty to love in the city, but he missed the suburbs. Wished the girls knew what it was like to camp in the backyard or to know every family on the block. They were growing up city kids, and the very idea of moving would have horrified them. Especially Jen.

He made sure to wipe his feet extra-well before he went inside. Never mind that the kids had trailed half the pool in here through the afternoon, slapping in and then back out, popsicles in their fists.

Mary's mom was at the sink washing dishes, her husband Rikuto waiting behind her with a tea towel.

"I'm pretty sure there's a law against doing dishes on your sixtieth birthday, Satsuki."

She smiled politely. "I like doing the dishes; you know that."

"Is there anything I can do?"

"You're doing a fine job of keeping the children entertained."

"I tagged Rick. He has sea monster duty." Xander didn't particularly want to stick around in here, but he always felt he should be doing something to make Mary's parents think he was less of a jackass. He'd been out playing in the pool while someone - presumably them - had cleaned up all the mess from lunch.

Rikuto took another dish from the rack and started drying it, expressionless. Okay, probably offering to help when the work was already done wasn't going to earn him any points.

"I'm sorry I didn't help with-"

"Don't be silly." She smiled a little more warmly. "I've been listening to my grandchildren squeal for an hour. Why on earth would I have preferred to have you under my feet?"

The last part was scathingly honest, but so was the first, so Xander didn't mind too much. "Let me at least take care of the slip'n'slide you have going here." He grabbed the mop Hitomi kept by the fridge for exactly this and gave the floor a wipe.

He was putting the mop away when the door rattled open and more wet feet slapped in. "Dad!" "Hey Dad!" "Dad!" "Can we go in Uncle Rick's boat?" "He said we could come!" "Mom said ask you, so can we?"

"Please, Uncle Xander!" piped up on the end.

"Girls, it's-" he twisted his head to see the kitchen clock, "-almost five. Time to head home. You don't go boating at this hour."

"Tomorrow," Jen explained, way too condescendingly for someone asking a favour. "Uncle Rick said we could stay over."

"You may be on spring break, but your mom and I have to work in the morning." It was a pity - Xander would have loved a day on Rick's boat himself, and the girls never had enough time with their cousins. It was the sort of big family life Xander had always wanted himself, as a kid.

"Mich and Petra are staying over," Mary said from the doorway. "She said she could drop the girls home." She looked apologetic. "I know you're supposed to have them tonight, but-"

"No, that's... That's good." Somehow it had all been settled. "No, it's great. As long as Rick and Hitomi are-"

He was drowned under a chorus of thank yous and slippery wet hugs and just as suddenly abandoned as the girls bounded outside to crow about getting permission.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander put the music on low and tapped the nav control, running a mental check to be sure he was okay to drive. He was drained and dried out and still baking a little from the sunburn he could feel across his shoulders and neck, but he was awake enough. He'd sleep like the dead - or in fact better than a lot of the dead - when he got home.

He'd had a good day. He was glad the girls had family like that, weekends in the pool with their cousins, an uncle and aunts who'd invite them to stick around without Xander or Mary. It made him feel weirdly like he was doing something right even though it had nothing to do with him. It was just another thing he had to thank Mary for.

Mary had fallen asleep before they even hit the highway, head twisted against the window. Her olive skin was flushed across her forehead and nose, black hair tangled in a knot from her brief dip in the pool. She never would have headed home like this back when Xander first knew her. She would have been showered and changed, hair groomed silky and straight before she stepped foot out the door for the car.

Luckily no one had to get out to charge the car in New Jersey because she hadn't even pulled her shorts back on, just slipped on a shirt and thrown a towel between her bathing suit and the upholstery. She was going to be cold once the heat of the day wore off.

Xander had to stop looking at her legs.

That was the drawback to days like this, one of the reasons he'd dreaded coming. Because they always made him feel like family, like when he got home Jen would barely wake enough to wrap her legs around Xander's waist, and Kate would sprawl slack in Mary's arms as they rode up the elevator. They'd carry the sleeping girls to their beds, and he'd lock up the house and find Mary already under the covers, drifting, but not so deep that he couldn't wake her up for a little while longer.

The parenting and teasing and being a family had been so easy today, so exactly how it should be that he didn't understand why they weren't married anymore. Plenty of couples had problems just as big as theirs, never had days as good as this, and stayed married.

He knew it wasn't as simple as that, but he had a two hour drive and Mary's smooth thighs stretched out beside him, and he'd been weirdly horny for days, and it was hard to remember why it wasn't.


Xander shook her shoulder gently when he finally found a parking space. She writhed and blinked. "Where are we?"

"My place."

"Oh." She yawned as she reached her arms over her head for a long, cat-like stretch that tightened her damp shirt over her breasts. "Guess it's time for me to take over."

"No way. Come on. Come up and have some coffee or something before you get behind the wheel and fall asleep again."

That opened her eyes, and she grinned. "That sounds great. Let's just pretend I did the polite insistence that I don't want to intrude."

"And then we can pretend that I ignored your protests and pocketed the key." Xander waved her key and slid it into his shorts.

"Mmmkay." She slid out of the car and stretched again, closing her eyes in pleasure as her arms reached over her head, shirt lifting to show a sliver of stomach. Oblivious to the eyes that had spent almost as much of the last two hours on her legs as on the road.

He ripped his gaze away just as she let her arms drop and grabbed the towel off the seat to wrap around her waist.

Up in the apartment, Xander made coffee while she went to the bathroom. He ignored her complaints when he steered her away from the couch to a counter stool. "I'm trying to wake you up, not send you deeper."

"You tired?"

Yeah, he was tired, but still a little buzzed from paying attention to city streets. "I've got a while." He poured juice for himself and took a long drink before leaning on his elbows to face her across the counter. "Drink your coffee."

"Tell me about your friend."

"Huh?"

"While you're sleepy and easy to prod."

"Mary, I told you-"

"I'm not asking for state secrets, just..." She leaned forward, playing with her mug. "You've been different since he showed up. Happier. Sadder. Crazier. More... sure of yourself. Like you, I don't know. Went through something." A quick look up and then down again. "You don't have many friends, Xander, and never any that mattered like that."

It was all true. And Xander was wrung out from a good day, and Mary felt like his wife tonight, and there was no one else he could talk to about how much he missed him. "He's smart. Like, smarter than anyone you've ever met. I don't think... He didn't think much of me, back then - you can imagine what a dumbass I was as a kid - but he put up with me, with all of us. We were kind of... I guess him and me were family before we were friends."

When the girls went to college, Xander had tried to hang out, but they weren't really buddies even then. It was Anya who'd made them friends, he realised. Anya started working with Giles, and that shifted the whole adult-kid dynamic they'd had going before that. It wasn't like he could explain all that to Mary. "He likes old stuff. History. Like, ancient history. Name something four thousand years old, and he'll reel off everything you never wanted to know like the audiopedia. There was this one time..." He trailed off. He couldn't talk to her, either, didn't know how to dance around what he could and couldn't say. He sipped his juice.

She looked so serious. "I don't know you at all."

"You know me better than anyone else."

"Not as well as him."

Xander opened his mouth to say Giles only knew who he used to be, but that wasn't true. He understood Xander better now than ever.

"I'm sorry." She scrubbed her hair and then wrinkled her nose at the post-swim tangles. "I don't get to be jealous anymore. It's just that today was a really good day."

"Yeah."

"I love watching you with the girls. I don't get to do that so much anymore." They looked at each other for a long time.

"I'm glad you have family for them," Xander said at last. "They're good people."

She watched him, thoughtfully, and he guessed she was wondering about his. He tried to imagine Kate and Jen at a Harris family gathering, his parents' drunken fighting, Uncle Rory explaining the finer points of taxidermy. Yeah, he was happy they had Rick and Mich and a truckload of cousins.

She swigged the last of her coffee. He could hear her swallow in the quiet. "I should go."

"You're sure you're awake?"

"I'm fine." She smiled to show everything was okay between them, and he held his sigh of relief.

He tipped the rest of his juice down the sink and she brought her cup over. He could smell her behind him. Nobody on earth smelled as good as Mary. Even with the lingering chlorine in her hair, her scent did things it shouldn't anymore. He closed his eyes and breathed, didn't jump at all when her hand settled on the small of his back. Right where Giles had touched. What was it with this kitchen?

"Should I go?" she asked softly.

He wanted to be touched so badly, it hurt. He turned and pulled her into a kiss, hungry like he'd been waiting on this for weeks, and she clutched him back just the same. Her lips were dry from the sun and soft and tasted like the same vanilla lip balm she'd always used, and inside was bitter from coffee.

This was a bad idea but they were adults, and they'd survived worse ideas than this. And no way would a man who'd already spent countless nights with Mary resist her hands slipping up under his shirt. All the way up his back, under his collar to rub the back of his neck where it made his knees weak.

Kissing felt just like how he remembered in the dusty filing cabinets in the back of his brain. Maybe he hadn't blown their first kiss up into more it was, when he was babbling in the car and she leaned across, awkward as hell but the whole world had stopped. Before he started panicking, anyway. Or the one on the night he spilled a whole batch of meatballs across the kitchen floor, and she laughed until she couldn't breathe anymore. Or that one when she told him she was pregnant for the second time (which went a lot better than the first time), and he kissed her against the wall.

God. He needed not to be doing this. He wasn't good at being divorced to start with; remembering this side of things was a bad, bad idea.

Except there wouldn't be consequences until morning, at least, and right now her towel was giving way, and he had her ass in his hands, smooth bare skin and a little scrap of suit. He lifted her, stomach and mound and thigh dragging over his cock until he settled her on the edge of the sink, her quick hands unbuttoning his shirt, pulling her own over her head while he shook his free.

God she was beautiful. Perched on his sink in a swimsuit like a men's magazine fantasy, smiling like a dare. He slid a hand up the thigh he'd been watching since New Jersey while he worked his fingers inside the cup of her top to find her nipple pointed and hard. And if he hadn't been hard already... And then her ankle slipped between his legs and pressed his cock, and he groaned.

This was going to go all the way.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 13:
After seeing Giles off, Xander begged out of Wednesday dinner with Mary and went back to sleeping in front of the television. A really good day with Mary's family raised memories of how good it felt to be married, which segued into... some of the other benefits of being married.



New York chapter 14:
Happy endings


Xander bumped up her nose and stole a few more light kisses, moaning as he finally slipped out. He rolled off onto his side, propping his head on a hand, grinning stupidly. "Does it count as irony that we're getting better at that?"

A puff of laughter lifted her glistening breasts, and his eyes rolled over the curves. "Few women out there realise what a tragedy it is that you're such a hermit."

"Yeah?" His grin widened, and he drew his finger down between her breasts, over her stomach, towards her- A hand slapped down on his.

"I'm already persuaded." She lifted his hand and pressed his palm to her lips, then put it on his hip.

"Gotta say, the yoga? Great hobby."

"Good for flexibility."

Hells, yeah, it was. He'd thought they'd covered a good variety of positions when they were married, but he was duly humbled.

For a little while she just breathed, and then she twisted her head to face him. "You are a hermit, right? You're not just keeping your string of conquests a secret?"

"I'm perfecting the art of self-abuse. Working on a doctorate." He slipped an ankle over hers, so they pressed all the way up their calves. "You make me want to switch my course of study." He felt amazing, fixed, like a good screw was what had been missing from his life.

"I know I shouldn't ask, and you can tell me to shut up, but... you have condoms."

Xander wrapped a hand over his eyes. "Yeah. Old hopes. God, I should have checked. They're probably out of date."

Mary snorted a laugh.

Xander propped himself up on his elbow. "That's funny?" He had no idea why, but it made him want to laugh, too.

"I was just thinking what poetry that would be. Another accidental baby. Would you ask me to marry you again?"

Xander grinned, teasing. "Would you?"

She stopped, quirking a puzzled smile at him. "You're not asking, I hope." She thought he was serious.

He had been for a half a second. She was so beautiful and laughing and in his bed, just like when she used to love him, and he missed it.

"Don't get confused, Xander-"

"I'm not. Just... It was good for a while. It wasn't a mistake."

She smiled gently, and that smile made him ache, too. "Yeah, we were good. There's no one I'd rather have had my children with."

He ran his hand over her stomach. A little rounder, now - kind of like his - like a reminder of when she was pregnant. God, he'd loved it when she was pregnant. He'd never imagined what a fundamental and sexy thing it was to see your children growing inside your wife. Major turn-on. He'd wanted more, hoped for three or four until he realised they were on a long slide down into something that couldn't be fixed.

He pulled her close and kissed her, her sweet familiar mouth, her long neck, her soft breasts.

A hand settled in his hair, not quite stopping him. "I don't know about this, Xander."

"We took all our clothes off. Let's make it worth our while."

It used to be one of her favourite sayings in the early days, and he knew it would work.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Mich and Petra dropped Jen and Kate off on Monday afternoon, the two girls talking a million miles an hour about the seagull that stole Beth's whole bag of chips and the fish Yoshiyo caught and how Uncle Rick let them each steer the boat and about some totally gross enormous piece of seaweed Rick Junior chased them with.

Xander nodded a lot and hoped he hadn't left some clue lying around that he'd had sex with their mother last night. Starting on the counter where Kate was now pouring herself a juice.

He wondered what Giles would think, if he'd shake his head or chuckle at the holes Xander could still dig himself into. Xander would have to ask if he ever had a chance.

Giles still hadn't called.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Crap. Crap. Crap. Xander didn't know why he bothered to turn on the TV. He couldn't have picked a movie if his life depended on it.

He used to spend his whole week alone, perfectly happy to entertain himself, and now he was crazy bored. He wished he had some excuse to call Mary over again. Booty-calling your ex-wife was probably not a great habit to get into.

He'd felt great yesterday morning, and then the girls had been the perfect distraction last night, but now they'd gone home... He didn't remember sex having a come-down like this.

It all felt... wrong, in some weird, indefinable way. Like he'd treated Mary badly or she'd treated him badly, except Xander had been right there the whole time, and that totally wasn't it. All parties willing and eager.

So why did Xander feel battered and dirty, like he'd felt all year after they first split?

He missed Giles like crazy. All day he'd been wondering what Giles would think, if he'd be disappointed that Xander did something so stupid.

Maybe Xander should just call Giles. Yeah, because after reuniting with a sixteen-years-older Buffy and Dawn and Tara and finding his place back in the Scooby fold, surely Giles would have nothing better to do than to help Xander figure out why sleeping with his ex-wife was a big mistake.

Maybe Xander did need to date. Call Sam, see if she'd line him up with whatever sort of woman she thought Xander matched. Whatever sort that was. He was scared to find out what sort Sam thought he'd like. Or who'd like him, which was a scarier thought.

At least it would be something. He was a single adult. He was passable-looking, and he didn't smell bad, and he ought to be a reasonable bedding option for someone other than his ex.

To hell with it. Xander turned off the TV.

He wandered around snapping off lights while he brushed his teeth, switched on the bedside lamp and tossed his phone on the table. He rinsed his mouth, came back and stripped off his shirt, was undoing his jeans when the phone rang. He almost fell over in his rush to check who- Giles! Xander hit the button and then took a second to take a breath and kick his jeans into the corner before he spoke.

"Hey, there." Good, he managed not to sound too desperate.

"Hello. I hope this isn't too late; it's the first chance I've had alone all evening." Giles sounded so relaxed; his voice was almost a purr.

A grin spread across Xander's face. "You've interrupted some important nothing, but I'll try to get caught up on that later."

"I'm honoured."

Giles called. He called, he called. Xander sat on the bed. "You sound good. I'm guessing it hasn't been a huge disaster, then."

"It's been wonderful. It's... wonderful."

"Really?" Xander had hoped stuff would work out well in the end, but he hadn't expected it so soon. What about the awkwardness? And the regrets and the bad stuff?

"Really. Everyone is... If I could have glimpsed this future from Sunnydale, I'd have slept far more deeply."

"All happy endings on the good ship Buffy, then?"

There was a little gap before Giles answered. "No. There have been some hard times, I think. They lost someone recently... I don't know if you knew Fred Burkle?"

Xander shrugged. "I've heard of her, but..."

"They're still a little shell-shocked from that. But the women they've grown into..." His voice rasped, and he cleared it. "I'm incredibly proud of all of you."

Xander rubbed his neck and ducked his head and suddenly was acutely aware that he was practically naked. Glad he wasn't on a video phone. His knee started bouncing. "So, tell me. How's the Buffster?"

"Erm. Intimidating." He chuckled, warm and happy. "In a rather lovely way. I think I'm being given a lesson in how you all viewed me back in high school."

"Stuffy?"

"All-knowing."

"We thought of you as stuffy, more than all-knowing." Xander couldn't wipe the smile off his face.

"With all that she's seen and done in the past sixteen years, it makes Sunnydale all sound like a practise run."

"It's gonna take me a while to lose the visual of Buffy in a tweed suit."

"As long as you're not visualising me in a halter top and mini skirt."

Which of course Xander's disobedient brain immediately reached for, but it just didn't have the gymnastic capability. "So Dawn?"

"Loving being a mother. She's wonderful with them."

Xander lay back to stare up at the ceiling, hand rubbing his stomach, smiling. "That's exactly how I imagined her."

"She's teaching history at the university now. She knows more languages than I do. Jay spilled his soda on the carpet and Dawn cursed him in Etruscan. And Tara..." Giles took a moment to find the words to explain. "Remember what I said about the young upstarts at the Council becoming my seniors? I feel that I should be sitting at Tara's knee, learning the wisdom of the ancients."

Yeah. That was Tara. "Willow was one powerful wicca, but it seemed like... I think Tara got it, more than Willow. What it was about."

"I think that's more than fair. I wish Willow had realised it."

They both fell quiet.

"Tell me more," Xander urged. "All the good stuff, like it's a happily ever after."

"Wesley has the Council... I believe 'whipped' was how Dawn described it."

"Wesley?"

"You wouldn't recognise him; he's quite serious, very steadfast. Faith and Buffy together are a sight to see. They still bicker like an old married couple, but the bond between them is solid. I think I understand why they're both still here."

"Sounds great."

"I wish you could be here. I understand, of course, but I miss you." His voice went soft as he said it. "We all do."

Xander already felt like he had his nose pressed to the donut store window.

"They've been asking after you. I'm not sure what I can tell them."

He didn't answer. He didn't know what he wanted them to know. It was weird, the idea of them talking about him.

"I told them you're doing well," Giles continued when he realised Xander had nothing to say. "That you like your job, that you seem settled. I'm afraid I may have rambled a little about the girls and how much like you they are."

"Oh. Right."

There was another awkward gap. "Is, is that all right? I didn't go into details, I just-"

"No, it's cool. Just weird."

They were quiet again, but not so awkward. Xander scratched his chest. Giles was on the other side of the country, probably tucked in a spare room at Buffy's LA place. It was all weird.

"Where are you now?"

"I'm sitting out in Buffy and Faith's gazebo. The house is a little raucous, and it's a lovely evening."

"Gazebo?"

"Someone thought to ask why watchers receive a salary from the Council and slayers don't. The girls claimed back-pay and have quite a nice home."

"So they're living together? Buffy and Faith?" So, like Sunnydale but way, way not.

"They like having a home base. It's large enough for both of them to have their space, and guests, and Faith's rather enviable motorcycle collection."

"Wow."

"It takes some getting used to."

It didn't bother Xander nearly as much as he thought it would, hearing about them, listening to Giles prattle on about Dawn's research and his day-trip out to see her library. They really were okay, and he was glad. Giles sounded okay - better than okay, he sounded happy. Xander realised he was smiling up at the ceiling as he listened to the growly baritone of a man totally at ease. "You sound really good," he said, when Giles paused.

"Really?" he replied, sounding happier still and even growlier.

"I'm glad you called."

There was a strange, long pause, and Xander thought he could hear Giles shifting. "Where are you right now?"

"In bed. Or, technically, on bed. I was just getting, um, ready for bed when you called." Xander played with the band on his shorts. Giles was three time zones away and one hundred percent dressed, shoes and all. "It's not all fancy like a gazebo."

Giles let out a little puff of breath, like a laugh. "I wouldn't mind being in bed right now. Or on bed."

Xander laughed. "I never figured you for a seven-thirty bedtime."

"It rather depends on the circumstances."

"Yeah." Suddenly Xander remembered the mood that had had him heading for bed before Giles called.

"Xander?"

"It's fine." Everything's suddenly lonely and weird. "I did something kind of stupid last weekend."

"Oh?"

I just slept with my ex-wife, Xander didn't say. Right here in this bed. The words got stuck somewhere in his gut. He wanted to say it, to hear something reassuring in reply, but he held back. What could Giles do about it anyway? "Doesn't matter. The girls are on spring break, so I took them to see a comedy improv group last night."

There was a long wait, but finally Giles decided to let him change the subject. "Sounds perfectly awful."

"It was great. You would have hated it."

"How was your weekend visit with the in-laws?"

He'd forgotten that he'd told Giles about that. "Good. No, great. It was a really good day."

"Good," Giles said softly. "Just a moment." The phone muffled, and Xander vaguely heard, "I'm just talking to- to- a- to a friend... Won't be long... All right." And then, unmuffled, "I should be going."

Had that been Buffy calling him in, Xander wondered? "Sure. Call me again sometime?"

"Of course." He made it sound like the most obvious thing in the world.

They said their goodbyes, and Xander hung up smiling like a fool. He called. Giles hadn't left him behind. Everyone was okay, and it seemed like they were dealing just fine, saving the world as always. That was good. It was great. Straight from Giles' mouth, not reported in Tara's fancy cursive, and a little bit of lingering guilt lifted as he finally believed it.

Wow. Buffy and Faith sharing a house instead of trying to kill each other. Dawn really a mom. Wesley being somehow not a complete loser. Xander wished he could see it, but at the same time, there was a new kind of peace having heard it like that. Maybe he didn't need to see it as long as he knew it. As long as he knew Giles was going to keep on calling him and not disappear along with the rest of his past. He needed Giles now, and the call had made him realise just how much.

He needed connections in his life. Kate and Jen might be the most important things, but he needed more than them, and it started with Giles, but Giles couldn't be where it ended. Everyone back in California had each other, and Xander remembered what it was like having friends. He needed to get back in the world and talk to people. He didn't really know how to start, except not by dragging up the bones of his relationship with Mary.

It was time. Way past time.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Carson had drawn Sam into a game of darts, and Xander was left in his own quiet corner to rehearse ways to ask her to set him up without sounding like a desperate loser. Kelly and Rodriguez tried to include him in their conversation about Ashley Olsen's boob job, and possibly Xander was as grateful as he'd ever been that he had established his hermit cred well enough that it only took a mutter and a shrug to send them away.

He nursed his beer through their dart rematch and then their post-game drink, held his breath when Pearson offered to take her on. Maybe he should just head home, ask her at work tomorrow. Except he'd already put it off four times a day since he decided to swallow his pride and most of his dignity, and if he didn't do it soon he was going to do something stupid like hitting on Mary again. He needed a date.

Thank god, Sam turned Pearson down and wandered over. She slid in beside him and clinked her glass against his bottle.

"You won?"

"Don't know why he thinks it's going to change."

"There was that one time..."

"...that I'd gone through three tequila shots and a walk-me-down."

"So I'm okay with the setting-up thing."

"Pardon?"

Xander Harris, king of smooth. "A girl. That girl, you were talking about. If you still want, I mean, you were gonna, you offered. A girl." It sounded like he wanted her to pick him up a hooker.

"Belinda?"

He had no idea. "Sure. I guess."

She let out an entirely unmanly squeal. "You'll love her, Xan! She's a lighting designer, works off Broadway, no kids. Went to college with Pete's best friend."

"Sam, Xander, I'm opening a sweepstakes for the iTunes awards. You in?" Toby planted himself on the seat opposite.

"You're what?"

"A twenty buys you one celebrity, thirty bucks for two. Whoever's celebrity makes the biggest cock of themselves at the ceremony takes home the pot. Televised humiliations only, winner determined by vote, Olsen twins are off the table, just to keep it open."

Xander was fishing out a twenty for Bono when Sam bounced in her seat. "Xander's letting me set him up."

"Sam!" No, no, no, no. This was not going public.

"Really?" Toby leaned back in his stool, spreading his arms. "You should have told me you were in the market-"

"I'm not in the market."

"-Cause I bet I could find you something."

"No, no, really-"

"Ellen's... no, Ellen's back with the coin collector." Xander did not want Toby organising him a girl. He'd seen how Aaron's bachelor party ended up. "Beth's got another two months before she's allowed to make life changes... Sara!" He slapped Xander's arm. "Oh, yeah, Sara'd be perfect for you!" He pulled out his phone to dig out her number, oblivious to Xander's helpless gaze and Sam's indignant glare. "She should be home-"

"No!" Xander grabbed the phone before she could pick up. "Just... give me her number. I'll take her number, okay?" and never ever call it.

"All right, Harris. Keep your panties on."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"I really need to get up," Xander pleaded into the carpet.

"No." Kate gave a little bounce on his hips, and the air oofed out of him.

"Look at this one!" squealed Jen. "Oh- Daaaaad! Stay still!"

"Ouch! One layer at a time, Kate!"

"Sorry!" Kate didn't sound sorry at all.

The phone rang, and Xander's momentary hopes of escape were dashed as Jen dived for it. "Hello, Xander Harris speaking!" she said. "Oh, hey, Mr Giles."

Xander reached out a hand. Didn't look like Kate was getting off him.

"I'm good, thank you. Yeah, he is. ... Yeah, I can. ... Oh. Sure." She passed it over. "It's Mr Giles."

"Yeah, I had that one figured. Hey, Giles." He laid his head back on the floor while Jen's fingers went back to work on his shoulders.

"I'm sorry. I didn't think you'd be home with the girls, yet."

"The girls are on spring break, so I took the day off to hang out. I'm just being peeled."

Kate giggled. "Like an apple!"

There was a curious pause. "Peeled?"

"I didn't mention my sunburn last weekend, did I?"

"No."

"Yeah, well. The girls just noticed the evidence, and I'm being pinned down and pillaged for my skin. Like a baby seal."

The girls giggled crazily, fingernails picking at him.

The next pause was longer. "That sounds quite disgusting."

Xander laughed. "You underprivileged English. If you were here, I'd let you help."

"It's ours!" squealed Jen.

"Thank you, but I'm sure I could find more appealing ways to spend our time."

"A-peel-ing?" Xander asked with the extra emphasis.

"Oh, dear."

"So how's things over there?" Xander wanted to tell Giles about his new getting-a-life dating plan, but he kept it general, knowing the girls were eavesdropping.

Jen, especially. Kate wanted to know every single astronomical fact she could get her hands on but barely cared about the kids in her own class. Jen was fascinated by people, what they did and why they did it, every scrap of gossip she could get her hands on. If she got the slightest hint that her dad was seeing new women, she'd want to know everything.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 14:
After a night of really great ex-sex, Xander had a depressingly lonely come-down. Giles finally called to say everything in LA was great, which helped a lot. Xander decided it was time to get a dating life, with some help from Sam and (unfortunately) Toby.



New York chapter 15:
Starting over


"Dad, Dad, look at this one!"

"Is it different from the last forty-eight?"

"Don't be stupid. It's a star nursery."

Xander dutifully wandered out of the kitchen (again) to see. The latest batch of photos from the James Webb telescope had been released, and Kate hadn't left the main screen all day. The first few pictures were pretty damned spectacular, but Xander was starting to get over it.

"All the new stars make ultraviolet radiation that makes the gas visible. This is six times the size of the pillars in the Eagle Nebula. See that supernova? That's SN 2017adq that exploded in December, which is how they found the cloud. Except not in December, of course. It exploded twenty thousand years ago, and that's how long the light took to get here."

"Uh-huh." Xander wondered, yet again, if Mary had had an affair with some smart guy. No way this girl could be his.

"Boring."

"Jen..." Xander sighed.

"It's boring."

"These are real stars," Kate retorted. "Not like your boring celebrities."

"Boring," Jen repeated, scrolling through pictures on her phone.

"Are your bags packed?" Xander asked.

"Over there." Jen jabbed her phone in the direction of the door without looking up.

"Kate?"

"In a sec."

"Kate. Your mom's due any-"

The door buzzed.

Jen was up and throwing it open before Xander had a chance to brace himself, and there she was. Her lip pulled to the side, and he ducked his head, and they were both grinning like they'd been caught making out behind the gym.

She cleared her throat. "You ready, Kate?"

"Just a second." She'd clicked on another picture.

Xander sighed. "Kate, turn it off and get packed."

"You're not packed? Move it, I'm in a loading zone."

Kate grumbled as she stomped down the hall.

Jen flopped back on the couch, nose in her phone, leaving Xander and Mary to avoid each others' gazes.

"How have you been?" Xander asked.

"Fine." She dipped her head, chanced a direct look at him. "You could have told me Monday morning was street sweeping."

That took a few seconds to process, and then Xander's jaw dropped. "Shit! I forgot! Did you get-"

"No. Thank god, he was still scanning in the car before mine. Two minutes later and I'd be mailing you the ticket." She gave him a secret smile, a little like the one she'd had last weekend, and Xander's cock stirred. Bad idea. Probably a bad idea. Her breasts looked great in that tank top.

"Let's go!" Kate yelled, stomping towards the door, backpack over her shoulder.


Minutes after they left, Xander was on the couch, juice box in one hand, phone dialling in the other.

Giles picked up on the first ring. "I've been waiting for you."

"I just packed the girls off."

"Do you have any skin left?"

"Not much." Xander swung his feet up on the couch. "So tell me the gossip. What have I been missing over in Sunnydale Mark II?"

"You're missing some lovely, bland Californian weather. I went on a long ride with Faith and Wesley on Saturday to the old mission in Santa Barbara."

"On horses?"

Giles laughed. "I'm not sure I could see Faith on a horse. No, on motorbikes."

Giles on a bike was harder to imagine. "You in leathers? That I'd like to see."

"I'm sure it could be arranged." That was Giles' dry voice.

"I've never been on a bike."

"I'd forgotten how good it feels, how utterly freeing." He paused. "I would love to take you sometime."

Xander imagined clinging onto Giles on the back of a speeding bike, and his stomach did a little somersault. "Sounds terrifying."

"It was good to get out of Los Angeles. The three of us had time for a long chat, and they filled in some of the gaps. Angel is human."

"Say what?"

"Indeed. And you were right about him and Cordelia. He was given his humanity a few years ago and he chose to chase Cordelia, which rather hurt Buffy. They're somewhere in Asia, these days, in an on-again, off-again relationship that caused Faith to roll her eyes so much I started to wonder if her eyeballs were detached."

"Wow." Xander chewed on the straw of his juice box. He'd heard it, but he hadn't really believed it.

"I'm not entirely sure, but I also suspect there's something going on between Faith and Wesley."

Juice exploded down Xander's windpipe, and he spent the next two minutes doubled over, choking.

"Xander? Xander?"

Xander waved his hand as he struggled for breath, which didn't do anything to relieve Giles.

"Xander?"

"There's no way you are not making that up," he wheezed at last.

"I did say I wasn't sure."

"Milady de Winter and the Nerdbot."

"My, you have been reading."

Xander slowly inhaled, hand on his throat. "They still make books into movies, you know. And I can only take so much relationship weirdness before my head explodes."

"They've changed as much as you or I."

"My head's pretty full on you and I."

"A fair point."

"So what other adventures does the city of Los Angeles hold? How fares the Buffster?"

There was a pause, that Xander's head filled with vampires. He didn't want to know about those sorts of adventures.

"Buffy took me shopping, determined to get me a current wardrobe."

Xander grinned. "Oh god."

"Do you have any idea how many shops there are in this city?"

"It's a goal of mine never to know."

"In that respect, she hasn't changed in the least. Even Dawn and Tara refused to come. I spent a good deal of the day arguing that I did not need shoes with pointed toes."

"All the guys in Jen's movies wear shoes with pointy toes."

"Which is most certainly the demographic I aim to emulate. How are the girls? How was their vacation?"

Xander never turned down a chance to talk about the girls.

His biggest news - other than sleeping with Mary - was the phone numbers burning in his wallet. Giles would probably be glad to hear he was trying to have a life, but somehow Xander couldn't find the right conversational gap to mention them. Maybe he didn't want to jinx himself by talking about it beforehand. He'd tell him afterwards, and hopefully by then it would be a 'Hey, I met a woman, and she didn't try to eat my head off!' instead of a big pile of pathetic insecurities.

It hadn't escaped Xander's keen perception that Giles still hadn't explained where Buffy thought he was all these years. Xander wondered how that conversation had gone. It couldn't have been too bad, if Giles was this happy.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander had, honest-to-god, no idea how this dating thing worked. He wished he'd got a glass of wine while he waited, instead of a beer. Giles wouldn't be drinking beer on a date. Xander had never dated, exactly. He knew how to make out in janitor's cupboards, and he was an expert at sex-first, everything else later.

Getting ready to meet a stranger and spending the next couple of hours trying to decide if he wanted to get romantic with her was whole new territory. Mountainous territory, with dragons and giant snakes in it. The whole time she was going to be sitting across the table, trying to decide if he was vaguely attractive or worth getting to know. Oh god, Xander had been so worried about what Toby was getting him into, he hadn't thought about what she'd think of him. No wonder he'd been happy in his bleak little life all these years.

Xander idly wondered if Mary would be willing to write him a reference for being good in bed.

Still. He'd managed to survive calling them both. Squeezed the calls into lunch break today, just to make sure they were quick, and both went okay. Belinda had agreed to meet up with him tomorrow, and tonight was Toby's friend, Sara.

At least, if she showed up. Xander checked his phone. 7:23pm. Should he call and check on her, or did that count as nagging?

"Xander?"

He jumped to his feet. "Sara." She was... wow. Stunning. Long blonde hair, make up perfect like she'd just stepped out of a fashion ad. Did Toby really think this was Xander's league?

"Lovely to meet you." She bent slightly to kiss his cheek and took the other chair. "I don't come down to this part of town often. My ex-husband loved Soho, so I've tended to avoid it."

"Oh. Sorry." That was a fast fuck-up, even for him. "Did you want to go somewhere else?"

Sara laughed. "God, no. I don't want to face that traffic again. My taxi driver took the longest route I've ever seen. Get me a drink, and let's get to know each other."

Xander caught the waiter's eye and began his first date in fifteen years.


"There were others as well, I'm sure. There's a reason he went through so many, and never one was over twenty-five or remotely plain." Sara speared the last tomato of her salad and popped it in her mouth. "There comes a point when you have to accept that things don't change. I vowed I wasn't going to go near any more men in jobs with personal assistants. You can't fight personal assistants; they know more than you do, they have more access than you do, and when they're twenty-five with a career ladder to climb, and your husband is playing the part of the rungs, you haven't got a chance."

Xander nodded, dragging a piece of bread through the sauce on his plate. He didn't know what the etiquette was as far as counselling your first date on her dating issues, but he hadn't really wanted to interrupt anyway. Sara had been talking for a while, now. Since she arrived, pretty much.

"President Bennett needs to be doing something about the Asian crisis."

He didn't know when they'd moved from her ex-husband on to international politics, but they'd been through the shortcomings of all her colleagues, the poor quality of the food (Xander thought it was pretty good), the lack of good movies in the summer releases, the bad taxi-ride she had to get here, everything that a bunch of celebrities never Xander heard of were doing wrong, and how ugly the new Virgin Tower was going to be. For a while he'd been sympathising, but he hit overload a good hour ago, and now he was about ready to get to the part where she turned out to be a demon and tried to sacrifice him.

Xander had faced certain doom without this much doom and gloom. Was there such a thing as a misery demon?

"Has the waiter gone home? My water's almost empty. I hate it when they don't keep your water full."

Xander took a drink and crunched his ice.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

On Wednesday night after date number two, Xander said his floor into the mic and slouched back against the wall of the elevator. Who was he kidding? Get out there and start dating, and he'll suddenly be the popular social guy he never was? No woman was looking for a second-hand guy with a laundry list of weird paranoias and a big fat mysterious past who couldn't even be pinned down on what high school he went to.

He pulled his tie loose, wishing he was home and inside already. Belinda had been great. It had taken about two minutes to realise Sam was way better at the set-up thing than Toby, and it wasn't going to be like last night with Sara. He'd turned on the charm, and by some miracle it had actually worked. Belinda had laughed at his jokes, ordered more wine, played with her hair. She'd been the one to suggest they wander through Little Italy to find some dessert, so things were definitely going well at that point.

No, it was perfectly clear when everything went south. Belinda stuck her spoon in her lemon gelato and asked him where he went to high school, and suddenly they were on the highway to date hell, and oh look, her exit was coming up on the right.

He had half a mind to call Mary and ask her how he'd ever gotten her to come out with him. He was the damaged goods that fathers warned their daughters about. No way were Jen and Kate going to be dating any guy who couldn't account for the first two decades of his life.

He had his jacket off before he reached his floor, tangled in his hand with his tie, bag in the other. Down the corridor; he was twisting to get his fingerprint on the lock when his phone started ringing, and he almost dropped everything. As soon as he was in far enough to let the door close behind him he let it all hit the ground and fished the phone out of his pocket.

"Giles! How are you doing?"

"Very well indeed. You sound in high spirits."

Really? Yeah, he did, all of a sudden. "Well, it was a crappy day, but now you called, and it's a hundred times better. How's-"

"I'm sorry. What happened?"

Where was Xander going to start? "I tried to be sociable. You may find this hard to believe, but I'm not very good at it."

A warm chuckle trickled over the line. "Did you try small talk, or did you cut straight to attempting to kill people?"

Xander grinned. "I figured I'd go for small talk this time."

He made a thoughtful noise. "Well, then, there's your error. You started out by attempting to kill me, and see how much better that turned out for both of us."

For both of them. That sounded cool. "I like how it's turned out with us."

"You do?"

"Of course I do. It's complicated, but it's... It's good." Xander suddenly didn't want to tell Giles all about how he was the same dating lame-ass Giles remembered from before his little time-leap. He sort of did, but he mostly didn't. "How's Chez Buffy?" Xander scooped up his bag to dump on the kitchen counter, hooked his dropped jacket and tie on a free finger and headed for his room.

"It's beginning to settle down. Dawn and Tara have headed home, so now it's just the locals and myself."

"Is that weird?"

"Quite. It's not... It's easier than I expected it would be, I suppose. Buffy is as eager as I am to make up for lost time. Wesley's been catching me up on a lot of what I missed, and I was actually useful to communicate with a demon, a Barrock, a couple of nights ago."

A shiver slipped down Xander's spine. Demons. That's just how it was in Buffy's world. A day at the office. Xander wasn't going to let on how much that worried him. "So it all worked out."

"It did indeed."

"You found a home after all." That was good. Giles' heart was with his slayer, wherever she went.

There was a pause, long enough for Xander to shake the creases out of his jacket and hang it up. Was there something he'd missed?

"Actually," Giles replied at last, "I wanted to talk to you about that."

"Oh?"

The next pause was even longer. Xander closed the closet door and leaned against it, waiting.

"It's, it's, it's, been wonderful, truly wonderful being here."

The stutter was never a good sign, and 'wonderful' really should have sounded a little happier, to be convincing. "But?"

"I'm not looking to settle here."

"Oh."

"Right. I, I... Please don't misunderstand my loyalty to Buffy; I will always be here when she needs me. I was right, however, to expect that she would no longer depend on me. She no longer needs a mentor, and she has Wesley and Dawn for research. I can't help feeling that I would be extraneous here."

They sounded like excuses to Xander, but he didn't think he could call him on it. "Where else would you go? Back to England?"

Xander could hear Giles' breath down the phone, a little heaved sigh. "The Council has offered me a, a, a range of positions. Here, of course, is one option, in the hopes that I might restrain Wesley if you can believe that. There is always plenty of work in London. There are projects in Dubai, Singapore, Australia..." Xander sank further with every option. Those places were really far away. Really far. "Also, however, there is the possibility of a post in New York."

"New York?"

"There's an opening with the Metropolitan Museum. It would be a good position: well-paid, fascinating work. Though, obviously, I don't want to presume-"

"You'd really move to New York?"

A soft, nervous laugh breathed down the phone. "I can't tell you how much I enjoyed my time with you, Xander. It was a, a revelation. Of course, I'm making plans, and I'm not even certain how you feel about-"

"Do it." God. Xander shoved off the door and bounced out to the other room. Giles here, Giles who actually knew everything about the world and Xander, and plenty more nights of sitting around, shooting the breeze, unguarded.

"Are you sure?"

"Do I really need to tell you how I feel, Giles?"

"I don't want to jump to-"

"Jump away. Take a huge, flying leap. Come to New York."

"That's... I can't tell you how much that means to me." He sounded out of breath. "I know it's complicated, and I wasn't sure about the situation with Mary-"

"I'll sort it out." To have Giles in New York, Xander would sort out the details. He could talk Mary around, or set boundaries, or something. She couldn't begrudge him one real friend. "I've been locked up alone too long."

"You're sure about this?"

"I'm signing your phone up to the rental listings right now. You want East Side or West Side?"

Giles laughed aloud. "How about I come to New York next week, and you help me search? You can give me the local perspective."

He grabbed the pen off the kitchen memo pad. "Give me a date, and I'll get the day off." The Met, that was up on 82nd... "You'll be working at the museum?"

"Most of my work would be at their clearing house in the Bronx."

"You'll probably want East Side. Or up in the Bronx... I've heard of people who live outside Manhattan." It was going to depend on how Giles was doing for cash, but Xander imagined a guy with sixteen years of untouched savings and no child support to pay probably had some options. "So... So you'll be kind of a librarian again?"

"Not really. Though I suppose, in a way. It's actually something quite similar to what I did at the British Museum, evaluating and cataloguing new finds, keeping a particular eye out for materials of interest to the Council."

"Demon stuff." Of course that's what the post meant. He was a watcher, wasn't he?

"Quite."

Xander doodled a vampire, and a big stake through him. "I'm not coming on patrol with you."

"No patrolling. It would be strictly analysis work, though I may still be inclined to bring home translations for Buffy's sake. I will have access to a whole host of books currently out of Wesley's reach."

Xander's head was swimming. He'd really thought it all out. This wasn't something he came up with an hour ago. "Have you told Buffy you're leaving?"

There was a moment of quiet, and when he spoke, Giles' voice was soft. "We talked for a long time, last night, just the two of us. I can't tell you how well she's grown up, Xander. She's an extraordinary woman."

"She's cool with it."

"She said I should follow my heart." Xander's skin prickled. "It's been a long time since I had the opportunity to determine the course of my own life, to make a decision that is truly selfish. Perhaps... perhaps my skills could be better used here in LA, but this is what I want."

Xander had to swallow a couple of times, to get his words out. "New York's the city of second chances."

"That's my hope. And I hope... I know you're not ready to talk to Buffy right now, but I hope that sometime, you will. She has things to say that you should hear."

Yeah, he could imagine.

"Not what you might imagine."

"Did I say that out loud?"

"I think I'm just getting to know you well." Giles' smile crept into his tone, and it made Xander smile too.

"Better than anyone," he said, echoing Mary.

There was a strange lull on the other end. "I hope so."

Long after they'd said their goodbyes and hung up, Xander sat staring up at the ceiling. This was really what Giles wanted. To move to a new city where he knew one person, to start over. It didn't seem like much of an opportunity. But maybe he wanted a quiet life like Xander, more microwave meals and fewer near-apocalypse-misses. Whatever his reason, Xander was just going to be grateful to have a friend shipped into his life like a mail-order bride.

And there was a visual to store for the future. Xander laughed and headed for the shower. He still had time for his archaeology show before bed.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 15:
Mary picked up the girls on Sunday, which after all the sex, was a trifle awkward. Giles caught Xander up on the post-Sunnydale gossip; Xander did not catch Giles up on his impending dates. The dates were not particularly successful, but everything was made better by a phone call from Giles, and better yet, the news that Giles wanted to move to New York.



New York chapter 16:
Two women


Xander spent most of Wednesday lining up his defence for Giles moving to the city. There were plenty of good reasons, but most of them came under the 'I can't tell you but trust me,' subheading. By the afternoon, his best argument was 'Please, please, pretty please.' It worked for Jen and Kate sometimes, so he was ready to work with it.

He was so absorbed in mentally defending Giles that it wasn't until he looked up and saw Mary greeting Ivy on her way in that he flashed back to her lips slipping over his cock and he remembered this was their first moment alone since their night of naked debauchery. After all the not-meeting of each others' eyes on Sunday night, this was set to be one awkward evening even before Xander got on his knees.

Xander made a note for himself: keep away from 'on your knees' metaphors with Mary for a while.

He stood up and she gave a rueful smile as she leaned in to kiss his cheek. "How are you doing?"

"Good. You?"

"Great. I'm doing great." She was doing great. She settled down and tucked her handbag beside her. "Let's get it out of the way."

"Huh?"

She checked around them and then leaned forward, dropping her voice. "It was really nice. Really nice. And we don't regret it. But we're not trying to bring back something that's over, and we don't want things to be awkward between us. How am I doing?"

Xander's mouth opened, and closed again. "Um. That's good." He could live with that.

"Is that what you were going to say?"

He shook his head. "I wouldn't have been so good with the words."

She looked uncertain now. "But that's...Is that how you feel? If you're, if you-"

"Relax." Strangely, he felt better, realising that behind the well-rehearsed speech, she was as nervous as he was. He caught up her hand and kissed the back. "I'm not gonna go crazy with all the re-wooing, or anything. I- I had a really good night, but I'm not confused." There'd been momentary confusion, but that had to be forgivable.

She let out an enormous breath. "Okay."

"I've even been on a couple of dates this week."

Blink. "Really?" Another blink. "How, how was that?"

"Disastrous. Hideous."

She burst out laughing. "Oh, Xan."

It was hard to be offended when she was laughing like that. "I don't know how you do it."

"Who was she?"

"Two shes. Sam at work was setting me up, and Toby overheard, so he had to offer as well."

"You let Toby set you up?" That brought another peal of laughter. She was starting to bruise his ego now. "Dear god, you must be desperate."

"I was trying to be open-minded."

"Toby who organised Aaron's bachelor party?"

"He didn't order me a stripper. He gave me his friend's number. And she was nothing like you're imagining."

She didn't look the slightest bit repentant. "Was she the disastrous, or the hideous?"

"She was the eighth plague." Xander covered his face, so he couldn't see her enjoying his pain. "Seriously, the frogs and rivers of blood didn't work, so god sent Sara, the plague of misery. It wasn't a date; it was a two hour shopping list of things that made her unhappy. The food, her coworkers, local crime, her ex-husband, taxi drivers, the wallpaper in the restaurant... You can bet she spent yesterday telling everyone everything that was wrong with me."

Mary laughed shamelessly. "And the other woman?"

That sobered him. "She was... I liked her."

"But?"

Suddenly, he wished he hadn't brought them up. "She really will go home and tell her friends what a nutcase her date was."

"Ah."

He didn't need to explain why, and that was telling. He felt his phone vibrate and secretly slipped it out to check. Great timing, Giles. He'd call back later. He put it away again.

Finally Ivy came to take their orders, which was as good a chance as he was going to have to make this conversation not about him. "What did Rick say about his day at sea with the girls?"


They got right through the meal without Xander finding the courage to tell her about Giles. He was running out of time. Unless... "I'm gonna get cake."

Suspicion switched straight on to full. "You never get dessert here."

"Have dessert with me."

"Xander, what happened last week-"

"I'm not hitting on you."

"I'm supposed to pick Kate up at-"

"They have chocolate orange pie this week. When have you turned down any kind of chocolate pie?"

She never had, and she didn't now, but while he ordered she watched him like he was about to swipe her purse. As soon as Ivy was gone she raised both eyebrows, and waited.

Maybe he should have rehearsed a speech like she did.

His phone rang again. Giles again. He skipped the call again. Get the message, Giles.

"You're not going to like this," he began, "but I want you to hear me out. I promise, this won't involve the girls. They don't even need to know-"

"Your friend is moving here."

"On weekends I won't have anything..." Wait. Back up. Oh. "Yeah."

She leaned back and looked out the window. He couldn't see what she was studying, but there was nothing to do with this out there. Finally she nodded just slightly. "Right."

"This isn't the start of me swinging back into my past. I just, he just, he liked New York and the museum has-"

"I said 'Right,'" she cut in.

Xander looked around, wishing an interpreter would pop out from behind one of the potted plants. "I don't know what that means." Because no way was it that simple.

"What else am I going to say?" She was angry, but she had that set to her chin that promised she wasn't going to go ten rounds. "It's a free country, Xan, and he can move anywhere he likes."

All Xander's carefully-prepared arguments collapsed under her surrender, but it wasn't exactly satisfying. He wanted to keep arguing, persuade her to be okay with it.

Instead it was cold and quiet waiting for dessert, and the cake was hard to swallow. Mary wolfed her pie down and immediately reached for her phone. They always took turns paying for Wednesdays, and usually that seemed comfortable and easy. Today it made Xander feel like a bully.

"Can I..." He had no idea what. Do anything at all to make this feel less awkward.

"No, Xander, you can't. You've told me more than enough times you can't."

"What am I supposed to do?"

"Nothing. The same thing I'm supposed to do, nothing. I have to live with your life, so you'll just have to live with me being unhappy about it."

Maybe he shouldn't have eaten the cake.

She stood up and he followed her to the door, not knowing what to-

Oh. God.

His stomach somersaulted, like he'd just gone into freefall. Maybe he had.

Mary was talking, words spilling into the gap between them, and he wasn't hearing any of it.

"Ahn-" He forced in air, and tried again. "Anya."

Distantly, he heard Mary's tirade trail off, and he should, should do something about that, but it was really her. Anya. He had a thousand images etched in his mind, but he hadn't remembered how seeing her for real could squeeze the air from his chest. She'd grown her hair long again, darkened it. Even now, out of nowhere, glaring like she was summoning just the right way to smite him, Anya was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.

"You're married," she said, flatly.

It echoed around his head a few times before he actually heard her. "Yeah," he managed. "I mean, no. Divorced."

God. She looked... In another life, Xander could have woken up beside her this morning. Or maybe he would have divorced her, too.

He couldn't move, and she didn't seem to want to, pinning him down with magical powers or maybe it was just Anya.

"Xander?" Mary's voice, and she might have been calling his name for a while. He only heard it now because Anya turned to look at her, and it finally struck him to worry what might happen.

"He married you," Anya said.

"Who are you?"

Anya examined Mary like she used to study potential shoplifters. "How was the wedding?"

"It was a long time ago," Mary said, not giving an inch.

A long look at Xander. "How long?"

"Who is she?" Mary asked.

"Anya-"

"I'm Xander's ex-fiance." She bared her teeth in a tiger smile, and a whole lot of air was sucked out of the world.

"What is she talking about? You almost married someone else?"

"Almost," Anya said, voice sharp, looking back to Xander.

"Xander-"

"Stop. Just, stop." He didn't know it was possible to feel sick with dread and so desperately excited at the same time. She was well and beautiful and here and this was going to go horribly, horribly wrong. "You look good." Understatement of the century, but the safest place he could think of to start.

"You look old and overweight."

Oh, Ahn. "Life does that."

"You have children." She meant it as an accusation, and he didn't care.

"Two girls."

"Buffy said the oldest child is thirteen."

And there was the oncoming train. It wasn't complicated math. "Do we have to-"

"When did you marry her? It's not like it's a difficult question."

Xander couldn't answer, so Mary stepped up. "2004."

Anya deflated, her expression so perfectly like that day that Xander could see every detail, the creases in her veil, the way her blonde hair had curled. He could almost feel the rain soaking through his tux, freezing his spine. He didn't know if this was where he explained or apologised or ran away and hid. It seemed really bad that what he wanted to do was touch her face, stroke her hair and kiss away the hurt.

He needed to tell her that he changed a lot in those two - and a half - years, and even with Mary he hadn't been ready for any of it. He didn't.

And Mary was waiting; he could feel her gaze, but he couldn't meet it. This was the past she thought she wanted to know.

"Is everything here all right?" asked Ivy, reminding them they were still standing in the doorway of the cafe.

Mary shook herself. "I'm sorry. We'll go." She led them the few extra steps out onto the sidewalk, and there they stopped, not knowing what came next. The lights had just changed, and people were swarming around them, chatting on phones and messaging and clutching bags, oblivious to the cataclysm catclysing between them.

Xander touched Anya's back, recoiling when she jerked away. "How did you get here?"

"I teleported."

Mary snorted.

Xander had wondered, in the back of his mind. He'd been sure she must have gone back to her roots, but just as sure that if she had her powers, he'd be suffering some unimaginable hell. Maybe it was coming now. Maybe justice was overdue.

But justice didn't come. Nothing did, just a horrendous cone of silence.

The buzz of Xander's phone in his pocket made him jump, and they both stared at him. He pulled it out just because he couldn't think of anything better to do.

Giles. No prize for guessing why he was calling for the third time.

"Hey."

"Am I too late?"

"Little bit." But it was good to hear his voice.

"She showed up a couple of hours ago when she heard I was back, and then your name came up, and then I mentioned Jen being in middle school, so stupid of me... Is it terrible?"

"Pretty bad." Mary's eyes narrowed.

There was a pause. "Is she there right now?"

"Yeah." Anya turned her back on him and stared down at her shoes.

"This is perhaps not the best time to talk, then."

This was the best time ever to take time out to talk to Giles and figure out what the hell he was supposed to do, but he didn't have demonic powers to teleport out of here. "Maybe later?"

"Anytime. As late as you need. You know that. I'll wait up." Xander did know, but it was a relief to hear it.

"Thanks." He hung up and faced the women. Mary and Anya didn't belong in the same world. It didn't sit right with the laws of nature. And yet. Here they were, the two people Xander had treated the worst in all his life.

"Ahn, this is Mary, my ex-wife. Mary, this is Anya, who I left at the altar the year before I met you." His life, in two introductions.

Mary stared at Anya, shocked as he'd ever seen her; Anya kept looking at her shoes.

"Do you know the things I could do to you?" Anya asked him.

He felt Mary stiffen, and stepped forward. "I remember. Vividly."

"I'm not soft anymore. There was a man last year that-"

"Anya." She finally looked up, mouth opening to keep right on going, and he raised a hand to hover over her lips. "Mary's a civillian."

She glanced over, surprised, and Xander had a chance to see Mary's mouth close, expression turn to stone. "Some marriage," Anya said simply, and Mary flinched. Damn.

"Don't." He needed to talk to both of them, and there was no way he could do it with them together. Or here in the middle of the street. "Could we, maybe, go back to my place to talk?"

"What could we possibly have to talk about?"

Sixteen years. Where she'd been, who she'd been with. Why she'd come now. How sorry he was.

"You came here," Xander replied.

"And I can go."

He caught her arm. "Are you going to do anything? If you're going to- I need to know."

Her lips pursed. "Then I definitely won't tell you."

The air shifted, and he knew what was coming so he let go and pulled Mary's elbow to turn her away before Anya disappeared, right in the middle of the sidewalk.

Mary shook him off and turned back with a double-take. "Where did she go?"

He had no way of knowing. "She moves fast." Lame.

Now it was just Mary staring at him.

"I'm sorry," he said, wondering if two words could possibly encompass everything.

She ignored it. "Is she one of those things I couldn't know for my own good?"

No. Except in all the ways she was. "I was a stupid kid."

"But you were ready to swear vows to me two years later?" She took a step backwards, bumped into a guy and didn't even notice. "Did she know you, Xan? Did she know all your secrets?" She waited a beat for him to deny it. "You're such a goddamn asshole."

"What was I supposed to do?"

"It's all fucking lies with you."

"What lies?"

"Everything's a fucking lie. Our whole marriage was a fucking lie."

Xander felt like he'd been punched in the gut. He'd never lied. Never told her a single lie.

"Is everything okay here, people?" It was a cop stepping in, hands resting on his belt.

"It's fine. I mean, not fine, but it's just..."

"Ma'am?"

Mary nodded, jerkily.

"Then maybe you two could take this show somewhere private."

"I'm leaving." Mary turned and stalked to the kerb, waving down a taxi.

"You okay, sir? .... Sir?"

"Yeah."

"Do you need me to hail you a cab?"

"I've got it. Thanks."

Xander trudged away. He wanted to walk home, but he wasn't in any state to pay attention, so he flagged a cab. He'd never lied. Even before Jen happened, he'd told her he couldn't talk about his past. Back then, she'd liked the mystery.

Did she think he didn't love her? He'd loved her. Not like Anya at first, not when he proposed, but he did fall in love with her. By the time he saw her holding their baby girl in her arms, they were the only two people in the world that mattered. It hadn't been like she was planning until death did they part before the stick turned blue, either. But it did, and it had turned out that not stepping out of the shower to get a rubber was the best mistake he ever made.

He should have told her about Anya. He didn't hide Anya to keep Mary safe - he did it because it hurt too much. It had been so easy to fold her in with the rest of his secrets, but he shouldn't have done it. Anya was his lie of omission.

'Some marriage,' Anya had said, and she was right. Mary didn't know the half of him. Who would, and would still love him?

So now he waited, to find out if Mary was going to take the girls away. And he waited, to find out if she should. Anya's greatest hits were playing through his head as he paid the driver and made his way up to his apartment. Eviscerations and humiliations and fifty ways to castrate your lover. Is that what she'd been up to since he left her? God, she'd looked beautiful. He had to find her and tell her how sorry he was, make sure she knew it had been him, his stupidity, his issues, his mistakes, never her.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 16:
Mary soothed over the awkwardness from their one-night stand, and then found Xander's failed dating exploits absolutely hilarious. The good mood dissolved when Xander told her Giles was moving to the city, but that was nothing on the unexpected appearance of Anya. Finally, Xander's two worlds crashed together, and burned.



New York chapter 17:
Moscow-Washington


Xander waited until he got home, until he was curled up on the couch, to call Giles.

Giles picked up right away. "Hello. Hold on a moment, will you?" Xander heard him excusing himself, female voices replying. Buffy? The other one sounded like Faith. He wasn't ready for that, right now.

Which Giles seemed to understand, as the voices grew distant and then there was the click of a closing door and they were alone.

"I'm sorry. I tried to call earlier, but I couldn't get through."

The calls he'd ignored. He was never going to do that again. "Thanks for trying."

"Are you all right?"

Xander traced a juice stain on the cushion with his fingers. "Define your parameters of 'all right'."

"Has Anya altered the fabric of the universe?"

"Just mine. I think." You never knew, really. There'd been one guy: the woman he'd cheated on wished that every time he jerked off he'd catch fire. Now that was going to haunt Xander.

Giles cleared his throat. "She heard I was back, so she came to see me."

"Yeah." Of course she did. Giles and Anya had been friends, too, back in Sunnydale.

"The five of us were all sharing stories, and then Faith mentioned Dawn's children, and I said... She didn't know you had married."

"She does now." He swallowed. "They really hit it off."

He heard Giles' intake of breath. "Good lord. It's Wednesday, isn't it?"

"I'd never told her, Giles."

"Never told who?"

Xander sank his fingers into the cushion. "I never told Mary about Anya, about the big wedding failure."

"Xander." There was all the disappointment Xander had been waiting for. "Why ever not?"

"When was I supposed to tell her? When she was just the rebound woman, or when she got stuck marrying me?"

There was a moment of quiet. "I imagine she's not taking it well, then."

"No. Not well."

"Is there anything I can do?"

Xander scrubbed his face. "I just wish you were here right now."

"I could be there by Monday."

His hand froze in his hair. "Really?"

"I have all the paperwork I need to sign a lease. I'm looking forward to starting anew."

Giles, his knight in shining tweed. Xander uncurled, stretched his legs along the couch. "You're teasing me?"

"No teasing." Giles sounded warm, like his lips were curling up.

Hope lodged like a rock in his chest. "You know I don't think I could handle disappointment right now."

"Anytime you need me, Xander. I'll be there on Monday. I'll message you my flights."

"Message?"

"Buffy's been training me."

"That's our Buff. Stomping in where others fear to tread."

There was a quiet moment, and Xander didn't know if Giles was smiling or worrying. Finally, Giles asked, "Do you need to talk about it?"

"I don't know." He didn't have a clue what there was to say. "No." Her face, all crumpled, make-up smudged. "I need to talk to Anya."

"She hasn't come back here."

"If she does, can you tell her?"

"I can try."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander had no idea what he'd say to Anya if he did get the chance. Sorry I humiliated you. Sorry I left you. Sorry I never looked back.

Except he had looked back, all the time.

He hardly remembered anything of those first few months. He'd wanted a city to get lost in, and LA wasn't far enough so he ended up in a studio a few blocks off the G train in Brooklyn. Back in another parade of nowhere jobs like his first year with Anya, except this time without her. Sleepwalking through the day and drinking into the night.

He'd never known how much it could hurt, physically hurt, to miss someone. He'd wanted to go back so badly to find her, as if there was anything he could ever say or do to make things the way they used to be. Like she'd beam when she saw him walking into the Magic Box and bound over to tell him the day's profits before suggesting a quick orgasm behind the counter.

He'd planned out plenty of ways to apologise to her, but even in his own head, playing both parts, he could never find the right words to make her feel better or forgive him or want him back.

When he went back for Willow's funeral and she was gone, he'd known it was over for good.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"So I've got Sara in my ear all last night, asking why you didn't call," Toby said, sliding up next to Xander at the bar.

Sara. It took Xander a moment to figure out who that was and a few moments more to realise the date had only been three days ago. "She wanted me to?"

"She said you were interesting. Then there was a tirade about men being pigs who didn't call."

"She thought I was interesting?" What was she judging by, his choice of entree? "She was miserable the whole night."

Toby made a disgusted sound and waved that away. "That's how she is. You gotta push past the talking."

"Past the talking?"

Toby looked at him like he was an idiot. "You saw her, right? You haven't been struck blind?" He waved a hand in front of Xander's eyes, testing. "I handed you a sure thing."

"I'm pretty fond of conversation. The dialogue kind."

"Oh." That took a couple of seconds to process. "You should have said." Toby frowned down at his pitcher. "Okay, so I know another girl-"

"Never again, Toby."

Sam popped up on Toby's other side. "That's what Belinda said. Never again. What'd you do to her?"

Why on earth had he thought it was a good idea? "I didn't do anything. Please, Sam-"

"So why is she pissed at me?"

"Guys!" He fought not to cover his ears. "This has been one of the worst weeks of my life. And believe me when I tell you that you wouldn't believe some of the weeks I've had. I don't need to round it out with a post-date analysis of my social inadequacies. I've got an ex-wife for that." He picked up his beer and headed to his dark corner, determined to be left alone long enough to finish his drink and go home.

He shouldn't have come tonight. He'd only dragged himself out because it might distract from the endless Anya- and Mary-loops in his brain. Replaying how hurt they'd both looked and hoping Mary would give him another chance, and wondering where Anya lived now and what she was doing and if he could find her. What he'd say if he did. He hadn't been ready for either of them last night, but if he could perfect a couple of speeches, get them to hear him out for five minutes before Mary called him out on Anya's threats or Anya turned him into a human party popper, then maybe they'd hate him less.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

He couldn't pull Anya out of the air, but he could do something about Mary. He waited until he got home to call her and waited as the phone rang.

Just when he thought it would go to message, she picked up. "Yes?"

"Hey, Mary."

"What is it?"

It didn't help the performance anxiety. "Can we talk?"

"If it's not about the girls, I don't want to hear it."

"Oh."

"I'm going to be tied up on Sunday, so you can just put them in a cab."

"All right."

The line clicked and went silent.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It was two weeks to Mothers' Day, so for some extra sting the girls decided it was time to pick up supplies and make a weekend of it.

When they were little, Mary and Xander had convinced them that hand-made presents were the best, and ever since they'd made it a tradition to make a complete mess of the living room in pursuit of art. Xander was going to be stepping on beads and bits of wire in the carpet for weeks, endless needling reminders of who the parent of the year was.

On Sunday night he finished off Saturday's pizza as he vacuumed up the beads and picked socks out of the couch cushions. He'd stowed the half-finished jewellery in a drawer - Kate would finish hers next weekend, and Jen would decide hers was totally old and start over again.

Giles was going to be landing at JFK in the afternoon, letting himself in while Xander was still at work. He was going to crash here while he looked for a place. Xander sucked up a hair tie, glad no one could see him looking this happy with a vacuum cleaner in his hands. Giles was gonna be lookin' for a place. Doin' a bit of the ol' apartment hunt in New York, New York. Makin' a home and bein' an east coast guy.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander couldn't help the stupid grin on his face as he let himself in. He'd been grinning pretty much since he clocked out at work. "Honey, I'm home!" He stopped as the door swung closed behind him. Oops.

Giles looked up in surprise, and then smiled like he hadn't noticed he had a towel clutched around his waist, and nothing else. "Xander! It's good to see you." His hair was damp and kind of curly, eyes bare, jaw smooth, and there was a steamy, soapy scent in the air. Giles was just out of the shower.

Yes, Xander, you're a genius.

Giles straightened, clothes tucked in the corner of his arm. "I made myself at home."

"Good. That's good." Xander had never realised how fit Giles was. He was all... lean and muscles. His chest hair was mostly grey, but it didn't look old, especially on that chest. His legs were still wet.

Xander jerked his eyes up to find Giles watching him. Not jumping to cover himself or stuttering or being British like Xander would have expected, getting caught half-naked in Xander's living room. Just watching him, eyes unusually bright. Probably only seemed that way because he wasn't wearing glasses. Or because of all that wet skin.

The silence was getting weird. "How was the flight?"

"Fine. Work?"

"Same."

"Do you want..." Giles' gaze dipped, finally. "I should get dressed."

"Probably a good idea."

He nodded and reached down to grab something else for the clothes pile in his arm. Opened his mouth to say something and then headed towards the bathroom, and then stopped again. "I wasn't... I didn't expect you so early."

He thought Xander minded him taking a shower? "It's fine, Giles. My casa is your casa. I'm going to get a shower, too, then let's talk food."

He smiled. "Sounds wonderful."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander stepped into the bathroom with the steam from Giles still lingering. That scent of his was heavy in the air. His toiletry bag was on the back of the sink, beaded with condensation that rolled away under Xander's finger. Would he mind? Probably not. Xander wasn't prying, exactly. He unzipped and peeked in, fished out a little bottle of English-brand aftershave and sniffed.

It tickled Xander's nose, made his lungs tingle from this close. That was it. Eau de Giles. Part of the Giles eau de package, anyway. Xander screwed the lid back on and zipped up the bag and flipped the shower right up hot, didn't have to wait to step in.

He soaped away the dust and sweat and hard-hat hair, let the water beat at his shoulders as his hand travelled down his stomach. It was meant to be a quick shower, but his cock was up. This didn't need to take too much longer. Xander wondered if Giles had jerked off in here before him. Giles was a guy; he might have.

Xander closed his hand around his cock and sighed as he worked himself. Apparently having company wasn't going to cut in on his jerking off time.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander pulled on track pants and a t-shirt and gave his hair one last violent rub with the towel before heading out to the kitchen where Giles was brewing himself tea.

"You found the teapot. See how I bought an actual teapot to make you feel at home?"

Giles lifted it up. "It does appear to be shaped like a London bus." He turned and paused a moment when he saw Xander, and Xander self-consciously smoothed whatever he'd done drying his hair.

"Just like home."

Giles snorted, and poured. "Did you want a cup?"

"Nah, got juice." Xander grabbed himself a glass, and then they spread themselves on the couch.

Xander and Giles, chilling on the couch. Xander was going to get used to this. But first... "I guess- You would have told me if you'd heard from Anya."

"No word, I'm afraid."

"Right."

"She'll show up."

She probably would, but would it take another sixteen years? Even if it did, that might be faster than he got back on Mary's good side.

After long minutes of silence Giles finally asked, "Are you going to tell me what happened?"

"On Wednesday?"

"No, not Wednesday." Giles gave him a long look. "The wedding."

Xander's stomach shrivelled into a little ball. Way to kill the mood, Giles. "I'm sure you've heard by now."

"I haven't. You've never told me." Giles sipped his tea, fresh brewed for dramatic pauses. "You never told Buffy, either."

"Yeah, I did." Xander tried to remember how that conversation went. "I must have." He didn't get to explain to them at the wedding. He just told Anya and bailed. Then when he finally made himself go home... "You're right. I didn't. They didn't want to hear it."

Giles was waiting patiently, not looking like he believed that even a bit. But he wasn't there.

"I showed up after, I think it was a week, I really had no idea, found them at Buffy's house and they gave me a hug because that's what they were supposed to do, but it wasn't like one of the post-apocalypse-I-thought-you-were-dead hugs, you know? Or a fight-and-make-up hug, or a you're-my-best-friend hug. I know the hugs, Giles. They gave me a squeeze and then went back to the dining table and sat down, and... Everything in my whole life was ripped apart, and I did it. I knew I did it, I did it all to myself, but..." It made him feel tired and old, to remember. "I figured Anya had told them, or they'd pieced it together, or there'd been a press release, or something. Xander Harris is a complete jerk, full details at 10. I thought that was why they never asked. And then Buffy tried to kill us, and everything was back to normal. For them."

"All Buffy knew was that there had been a demon, one of Anya's old victims. He said something to you?"

It was hard to believe they hadn't seen it coming. A thousand years of vengeance, and they never imagined one of the guys would come back for a little vengeance of his own? "He showed me the future. Or a future. He made it up to hurt her, but it wasn't wrong. I didn't think it was wrong. I didn't exactly get home-schooled in how to make a good marriage, you know? It could have been real."

Giles looked right through him, pierced him. "He said you would become your father."

Xander felt like he'd been punched in the chest. "How did you know?"

"That's what I would have done if I'd wanted to hurt you."

Yeah, Mary, Giles really did know him best. "Anya showed up a few days later, but I couldn't fix it. The way Anya saw it, either I was ready to get married or I wasn't. Everything I said just made it worse. I figured I needed time away, so I packed some bags and headed east. It was supposed to be a few weeks."

"I'm sorry I wasn't there for you."

"I wish you'd seen her, Giles. Anya that day. I didn't know anyone could look like that in real life."

Giles' smile was soft as he gave Xander's hand a quick squeeze, and then took Xander's glass and his own mug to refill.

Xander closed his eyes. It actually felt good, telling the story. He hadn't expected that. "The day I married Mary, I spent half the morning throwing up."

The fridge opened and closed; liquid was poured into a glass.

"Anya at least had some idea what she was getting into, marrying me. Mary was just... stuck with me."

Giles sat down again, closer this time, and they sipped their drinks.

"How are things with Mary?"

Xander rubbed his temples. "Moscow-Washington, circa 1975."

"You have vivid memories of 1975, do you?"

"Your passport says you were five, Mr Snarky-Pants."

"I was deeply politically astute for my age." Giles put his tea aside and turned to face him better. "How are things with Mary?"

Xander wished Giles would let him hide for once. "She called me a liar." He tipped his head back to watch the ceiling do its thing. "Then she left. I thought I was done making her cry."

"It sounds like you handled the meeting remarkably well, considering."

"If I'd handled it well, she'd be speaking to me by now."

Giles shook his head. "Do you honestly believe that? That there are any magic words that could have repaired that in a matter of minutes?"

"I'd settle for magic words that could repair it now."

"I'm sorry I can't help."

"Believe me, Giles. You're helping."

The corner of Giles' mouth lifted, and he reached over to squeeze Xander's shoulder. It helped a whole lot.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 17:
The disaster of Anya and Mary's meeting was partly soothed by Giles' promise to be in New York by Monday. Only partly: neither Mary nor Anya is sticking around to hear Xander's excuses. An interrogation from Sam and Toby about Xander's failed dates earlier in the week added to Xander's general sense of inadequacy. But Giles arrived - freshly showered (oh, you readers are so cheap and easy) - and he did want to hear about where the wedding with Anya went wrong. Giles makes things better.



New York chapter 18:
Ghosts


The apartment search wasn't what Xander expected. He'd staked out listings in his own price range and a little more. Giles patiently checked out everything the agent showed them and then bumped up the price. Xander didn't quite catch by how much, but the way the agent's interest piqued, it seemed a lot. And what he showed them in the afternoon... Xander didn't know there were apartments like that in his neighbourhood. He suggested maybe Giles should try out somewhere a little further uptown, but Giles insisted he wanted to be close by, and that was fine by Xander.

Besides, staying around here got him a really nice apartment. Old building but three bedrooms, all of them almost the size of actual bedrooms, and a balcony big enough to squeeze two people on if neither of them had eaten a big meal. Way too big for one guy, but as Giles reminded him, maybe a little cramped for one guy and his library.

Close enough to Xander's that Lucky Joe's counted as his local Chinese, too, and they ended up deja vu-ing on the floor of Giles' brand spanking new apartment for Wednesday dinner. No coffee table, this time - no furniture at all. But it was nice to be stretched out on the carpet again, throwing back General Tso's and talking decor ideas.

And later, when they'd shoved their empty boxes aside and ended up backs on the wall beside each other, Giles turned his head to look at Xander, green eyes sharp. "Buffy thinks you blame her."

"What? For what?" Xander hadn't seen her in sixteen years. He barely knew a single thing that had happened in all that time. Did Giles mean for the wedding-that-wasn't?

"For Willow's death."

Xander's mouth opened. He was... He shuffled through the options and went with 'flummoxed'. "That's... Willow knew magic was dangerous. We all took chances. We were all kids messing with things that wanted to kill us, every night." Xander had blamed himself for Willow for a long time, but he'd known for even longer that it wasn't his fault. It was amazing any of them made it out of there alive.

Giles didn't answer. There was more to this.

"Did I miss something?"

"Did you know that Willow was..." He looked down at his hands. "She was out of control. Using magic too much, using it for her own purposes..."

"Yeah." He hadn't realised how bad it was until Tara split after that stupid amnesia thing, but by then he'd been wrapped up in Anya and the wedding and a whole lot of deep breathing exercises. "But she was doing better. I mean, she got worse after you left, but then she broke Dawn's arm, and she stopped."

Giles nodded. "That's what they told me. She was clean for months, but she began to slide. And then this battle cropped up, and Willow said she knew just the right spell to fix everything. Buffy and Tara didn't want Willow to use magic. Apparently they fought quite hard."

In this big empty room, Xander and Giles had somehow ended up close enough that their arms were touching, shoulder to elbow. It made this easier. "Well, Willow was pretty powerful. I mean, I know she'd been trying to give it up, but if there was an apocalypse-"

"Buffy had another plan. She didn't need Willow delving back into her powers. It seems Willow decided Buffy was not the only one who could save the world, so she went ahead and attempted to do it herself. Against Buffy's wishes, and Tara's."

"And died."

"And she died in the attempt."

Xander wanted to be surprised, summon some good old-fashioned outrage, but he couldn't. On some level he'd known she wasn't fixed, but Buffy had been the one Willow turned to about the magic. Xander hadn't been her go-to-guy for a couple of years at that point, so he'd let them be.

Giles rubbed his temple. "I knew she was out of her depth when I left, but I pretended she'd work her way through like I did. Preferably better than I did. I thought perhaps Tara's influence would be enough."

Xander knew the tune, had it in Apple 4-D Audio. "When I left, I didn't think about her at all." Giles' mouth opened to start spilling excuses for him, so Xander tunnelled on. "I didn't think about anyone. She was my best friend, and I just split."

Giles got the message. He shut his mouth.

"She was doing better before... before the wedding. You know Willow and Tara broke up when you left, right?"

He nodded.

"Will went off the rails after that. A lot worse until she got Dawn in that accident. That seemed to snap her out of it. It really scared her. She went cold turkey; she and Tara were friendly again... It was better."

"Apparently not." It sounded like a rebuke. Except of course it wasn't. Not from Giles.

"Buffy thinks I left because I blame her for Willow's death?"

"She thinks that's part of it."

Because it wouldn't be about his own life falling apart. Same old self-obsessed Buffy. Weirdly, it made him miss her more. "Nobody talked to me at the funeral. I didn't know any of that. Nobody told me anything. I wasn't there for the latest crisis, and I wasn't part of the gang anymore." He'd been okay with that for a long time.

There was a long silence before Giles said, "Maybe they blamed themselves just as much as you did. It's not their fault. It's not yours, either."

God. Xander let his head drop back against the wall. He'd cried himself to empty for Willow sixteen years ago, and he wasn't going back to Buffy tomorrow, and there was so much that had already fallen on his head lately. "Giles. I've had as much Sunnydale as I can take this week. Can we not?"

"All right."

Xander ignored the tone. Giles couldn't seriously expect that he was going to peel open a few wounds and reunite the gang. Xander wished them all the best; he hoped Buffy could get some peace like he did, but he was done. "Buffy told you all this?"

"Dawn, for most of the details. I drew Buffy out as well as I could, but she didn't talk about it easily."

Xander was sure there was enough trauma in her life without dredging up the old stuff. There certainly was in his. "We should be getting home; I need to sleep."

"Of course."

Giles stood and offered a hand to pull Xander to his feet, and they made for the door. Tomorrow Giles would be shopping for furniture; tomorrow night he'd have a bed or a couch, something to crash on, and there'd be no more sleeping over. It made Xander sad. Giles would be there anytime he needed him, but it wouldn't be the same. Visits instead of living together. Xander was going to miss him.

On the other hand, Giles was going to be living two blocks away permanently. And that was pretty damned cool. Xander could live with the Sunnydale baggage.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander almost skipped the Landsman on Thursday, but he was supposed to be expanding his social life, not cutting it down. He was glad he went: they'd put the concrete down on the twenty-fourth floor so Pearson had declared it a halfway party, and most of the guys who worked on the site showed up for drinks. Xander even managed a couple of games of darts before declaring himself way too sober for the crowd and begging out.


When Xander let himself into the apartment, Giles was on the phone, sitting on the one and only chair, surrounded by furniture boxes. Xander tried not to gag at the flat-packs. It wasn't like he had a space to build Giles good stuff. He could have made him a killer desk.

Giles ended the call and looked over the pile. "I know. It's just a few basics until I get something solid."

"Am I that transparent?"

"Don't ever throw your savings into professional poker. How was drinks?"

"Two games of darts says my hand-eye coordination hasn't improved since high school. Was that Buffy?"

Giles headed for the kitchen. "Give me a few weeks to teach you, and you'll be fleecing the competition. And yes. She says hello."

Xander followed him. "Has she seen Anya?"

He stopped, hand on the fridge door. "No, I'm afraid not."

"Has she been looking? Maybe I could ask Tara to try some kind of spell."

"She's looking. Tara's helping her." He came closer and put his hand on Xander's shoulder. "But if she doesn't want to be found..."

"I just need to talk to her."

"I know."

Xander leaned into Giles' hand, half-tempted to burrow in against his chest. "You know what makes it funny?"

Giles looked like he couldn't imagine anything funny.

"I left Anya because I thought I was going to be like my dad. And it was all wrong. I'm better than him."

"Of course you are. Xander, you are nothing like your father."

Before he remembered Giles was English, Xander had hugged him. Giles had never met his dad, but it meant something to hear him say it like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

Giles hugged him right back. Xander could feel his breath against his neck, and it made him shiver.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"Anata wa niwatori no shiri desu."

"Say what?" Xander looked up from the desk design he was sketching.

"Exactly." Jen thumped her tablet on the counter. "When am I ever gonna need Japanese?"

"It's your heritage."

"Mum doesn't speak it. She's never been to Japan in her life. She wouldn't know a kimono from a rice paddy." True. Mary had been about Jen's age when she started insisting on being 'Mary' instead of 'Mariko', and she seemed to think the girls could make up for it - at least in her parents' eyes.

"Where's my book?" Kate demanded.

Xander turned to see Kate standing at the start of the hallway, arms folded. He was willing to fake a little deafness for her manners if it got him out of answering Jen. "You've got hundreds of books."

"The one I was reading."

"Once again-"

"Unscience. It was in my room."

Xander was about to launch into a tirade about all the things lost in their room when he remembered he actually did know that one. "It's by my bed. I was reading it."

She heaved a sigh and went looking.

"Anata no okaasan wa kurage desu."

Xander tapped his pencil on the page, wondering how you went about putting secret drawers into a desk design. "You'd better not be saying stuff about my mom."

"Hey, Dad, who are these people?" Kate called. People? She came out, shuffling through- oh, crap.

Xander jumped up from the couch.

"Oh, wow, is this you when-" She froze, suddenly doe-eyed. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to-"

"It's all right. I left them out." He'd been going through the photos each night, and had never gotten around to putting them away. He took them from her hands. She'd been looking at the one from junior year with his head in Buffy's lap, Willow grinning behind them. He could feel the girls staring at him, waiting for a reaction. "Yeah. This is me. In high school."

Jen slid off her stool to come see.

"Were they your friends?" Kate asked.

"Yeah."

They wanted to ask more, but they just kind of hovered on either side of him, scanning the photo for clues. There wasn't much to see.

"You look..." Jen trailed off.

"Thin?" Xander offered.

She shook her head, which could have been an insult to him then or a compliment to him now.

How much harm could it do? He pointed. "That's Buffy. That's Willow."

"They're pretty," said Jen. After another quiet moment she reached, and he let her take them out of his hands and flip through. Straight past Cordelia, barely a glance at Anya, until she found the other photo of all of them.

Him with Anya in his lap, and now there were two pairs of eyes switching back and forth between him and the photo.

"Who's she?" Kate asked at last.

"Anya." The name sounded strange, alien, said aloud in front of his girls. Like she wasn't real. All these people were ghosts.

"Was she your girlfriend before Mom?"

"Yeah."

"Where's your friend Giles?" Jen asked suddenly, checking the pile to see if she'd missed any.

"I don't have any of him." It was probably lucky Giles wasn't in them, looking all stuffy and even older than he looked now. There'd be some explaining to do.

Kate tugged Anya's photo from her sister's hand for a closer look. Xander wondered what she saw. A stranger in a Chinese leopard-print dress waving a pile of money and grinning madly.

"How come?" Jen pushed.

Giles. "I don't know. He was... I don't know." He couldn't tear his eyes from Anya. He needed to find her, explain or apologise or something.

"Did he know these people?"

"Yeah. He probably took the photo."

"Mom said we shouldn't see him."

That caught him. "She told you he's here?"

"She just said not to see him. He's here? In New York?" Jen stared hard at him. "Why not?"

Great. So now technically it was Xander that blabbed. "Because we said so."

He gathered the pictures back before he was tempted to say too much. He wanted the girls to know that was Dawn, who used to think he was the most amazing guy ever, and Tara, who still wrote him letters, and Buffy, who saved the world a hundred times and who he'd saved just once, and Willow, his best friend since kindergarten and cautionary tale against messing with things you shouldn't.

He had to tug Anya out of Kate's fingers. He wanted them to know that she was the second-most amazing woman he ever met, after their mom.

Kate grudgingly let go. "What happened to her?"

He wasn't going to explain Anya in a million years. "I was a bad boyfriend."

"Why?"

Xander sighed and laughed at the same time. "All guys are bad boyfriends. You should keep away from them." He ruffled her hair and kissed the top of her head, then gave Jen a quick squeeze just so she wouldn't feel left out. Surprisingly, she let him. "When your homework's done, we can see about some ice cream before you get back to grinding beads into the carpet for your mom."

That lit Jen up. "Vosges?"

"Coldstone!" yelled Kate.

It wasn't the first time Xander had sent up a prayer of thanks for the distractive properties of ice cream, but it may have been the most fervent. "Homework first."

"Da-ad," Jen whined.

"That's Dad-san to you. I'll dig out your book, Kate."

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 18:
While chowing down on the floor of Giles' new New York apartment, Giles revealed that Willow's death was a not as straightforward an accident as Xander had always assumed, that in fact there'd been a fair amount of ego in her bid to save the world, and Buffy had her own luggage-set of guilt. There was still no sign of Anya. Kate and Jen stumbled across Xander's little stash of Sunnydale photos, featuring Xander's pre-mom girlfriend, but not Giles.



New York chapter 18:
Threats


"So? How was it?"

Giles half-opened one eye. "It was a first day." He was lying on a new couch, tie loose and a couple of buttons open, grey hair poking through. He'd left his shoes by the door and his classy charcoal suit jacket had been slung over a box, glasses and ID lanyard dropped on top.

The last time he looked like this was the grand opening of the Magic Box when they'd all looked like this. Except Anya, who'd been bubbling like a new bottle of champagne at all the money.

Anya. Xander had promised himself he wouldn't ask if Buffy had found her today.

He dropped on the floor by Giles' legs since Giles hadn't left any space. "Did all the old things wear you out?"

A socked foot nudged Xander's head. "Never got as far as the old things. Was meeting staff and filling in paperwork, except paperwork isn't paper anymore."

"How were the staff?"

Giles grunted. "Let you know in a month or two."

His breathing was slow and even, one arm curled up to rest, palm-up, on his forehead.

"Sorry," Giles slurred. "'M not much company."

"It's kinda cute," Xander said without thinking.

Both Giles' eyes opened, head lifting to see Xander better. "Cute?"

"Um, you know. In a manly way."

"I can live with that." He closed his eyes again, smiling now. "There's room up here if you want it." He pulled his feet up to make space.

Xander figured he should probably head home if Giles was this tired, leave him to sleep, but he'd been looking forward to coming here all day. And he kind of liked watching Giles like this, so he slid up to sit on the couch, and soon Giles' feet were resting against his thigh.

His suit pants were going to wrinkle. Xander reached to smooth them and then realised that would be a totally weird thing to do, so he pulled his hand back into his lap. It still kind of wowed him how fast everything had become comfortable with Giles. It wasn't teacher-student, anymore, or even Watcher-Slayer's friend. It was almost like how things used to be with Willow and Buffy, like he could have just snuggled down, and Giles would have curled up with him. And maybe it would be okay to smooth the wrinkles out of his pants.

Xander liked Giles' face in sleep. It softened. There was a hint of a smile on his lips, like he knew a secret. Not that Giles didn't know a whole ton of secrets, but this seemed like a good one. Some joke that Xander wasn't in on yet, but maybe Giles'd tell him later.

"How 'bout you?" Giles asked, not opening his eyes but apparently not actually asleep.

"Delivery screw-up, going to be held up almost a week hanging iron. Everyone spent most of the day bitching. You want a drink?"

"'M fine."

Xander grinned as he got up and helped himself to the fridge. There were a couple of bottles of the iced tea he liked that Giles thought were blasphemy. Guess that made them Xander's. On his way back in he noticed a stack of photos sitting on an envelope on the table by Giles' head. The top one was of Willow and Tara.

Xander picked them up and sat back by Giles' feet. Apparently he wasn't the only one pulling out old pictures. "You've been thinking about Willow, too?"

He wished he hadn't said anything when Giles' face tightened, all the happy lines twisting into something else.

"You told Buffy, right? That I don't blame her?"

"I told her that while I was there. The whole incident was..." Xander waited for the end of the sentence to come, but Giles seemed to have forgotten he was talking. He looked guilty, Xander realised.

Xander fought the urge to put his hand on Giles' shin, just above the hem of his trousers and the thin black sock. "No one's to blame. I wish I hadn't been so wrapped up in my own stuff, so I could have noticed and said something, but I can't see everything. No one can."

"I noticed." Giles' voice was thick, and after he spoke his whole body swelled with his next breath.

"Huh?"

The hand on Giles' forehead slid down to cover his eyes. "I noticed. I knew exactly how bad it was."

"What do you mean? You weren't even there."

"I told her she was arrogant and amateur. I told her she was dangerous." His lips pressed together. "She threatened me."

"Willow?" Acid burned the back of Xander's throat. "When?"

"When I came back from London. After she raised Buffy."

"We raised her togeth-"

"The hell you did!" Giles sat up, eyes shining. "You were part of it. And you were wrong to do it, you knew you were, but that spell, the power behind it, the darkness, that was all Willow's, and I bloody-well told her so."

Xander couldn't imagine Giles yelling at Willow. Giles had never been mad at Willow. He never used to get mad at anyone except Xander. "Then what?"

"And then she threatened me."

"Maybe she didn't mean it like-"

"She meant it, Xander."

Xander swallowed. "What did you do?"

"Nothing. I'd gone too far, and so I just... stopped. When I was in her position, high on power, no authority figure could have curbed me. So I buried my head, and I hoped Tara could fix her."

It was like that whole year shifted three feet to the left. "Was I in another dimension when all this happened?"

All the anger slid out of Giles, and he lay back down. "You were in another room, off at work, I don't remember. It was in Buffy's kitchen, all charmingly domestic."

Xander had had no idea. He hadn't even known Giles was worried about her. He hadn't known a lot that was going on, those days. "We used to tell each other everything. I don't know when it all changed." Deep down, he'd always suspected the secrets started with him and Willow kissing. Except before that was Buffy hiding Angel's return and Xander and Cordelia's secret closet-thing and Giles' leather-jacket past. "She threatened you?"

"In so many words." He rubbed his temple. "Honestly, she frightened me."

Xander couldn't even picture it. Little Willow who cried at Kleenex commercials? "She practically worshipped you. She had a big weird Giles-crush all through high school." Which didn't seem so weird now.

Giles swung his legs around and sat up. "She'd surpassed me. She was rocketing towards destruction of one kind or another, so I made my displeasure known, and I left her to it." He picked up the photo of Will and Tara. "She was the only one of you glad to see me go back to England. I'm quite sure... I know... that's why she lied about calling me."

This whole conversation was giving Xander whiplash. "Lied? About calling you when?"

Giles froze. "I didn't tell you."

"Nope, I'm pretty sure lying is new to the discussion."

Giles thumbed the photo, looking torn whether to talk. Like Xander would give him a choice this far into the confession. "It happened not long after you'd left for New York. The troubles were building, and Buffy wanted my help, but she was still angry that I'd abandoned her. She couldn't quite swallow her pride, so Willow offered to call me."

"So Willow called you. But, wait... She couldn't call you. You were in the Land of Oz."

"I was. And yet somehow Willow came back and told Buffy that she'd spoken to me, and I'd insisted they were on their own."

"Why would she do that? Why would Buffy believe it?"

"Buffy wasn't inclined to give me the benefit of the doubt at that point. I imagine Willow never even tried to call me. Perhaps she tried once and gave up."

"I can't imagine Willow doing that."

Giles snorted. "I can. Remembering how Willow was before I left, whether it was through spite or sheer bloody ego, I can imagine it easily."

Xander had done his best to bury those memories of Willow under all the better ones. Vomiting up snakes, stealing memories, partying away as Tara moved out... Maybe it wasn't so hard to believe Willow didn't want the Watcher over her shoulder.

Xander wanted to time-jump back there and shake her. "So Buffy never came looking for you because she thought you were the one who cut all the ties. She blamed you for Willow."

Giles dipped his head. "Buffy was rather a mess herself that year. More than I realised when I left. Worse afterwards." He picked up his glasses and slid them on. "Whether it was right to leave Buffy... I don't know anymore. But Willow... that was unforgivable."

"It was a long time ago."

"Seven months. Not so long."

Seven months in Giles-time. Not so long at all. Xander kept forgetting how fresh this was for him.

Giles shifted in his seat and lightened his voice with an effort. "And leaving you... that was foolish also."

"I was pretty wrapped up in Anya at the time." It wasn't like Giles could have talked sense into him anyway.

"I didn't mean-"

"I know."

Giles' eyes were soft, fixed on Xander. "Things were different between us then. I don't think either of us would have seen this future."

Living in New York, married to someone else, divorced, Giles as his wacky buddy-movie pal... "Nope. Definitely didn't see any of this coming." He smiled. "And you definitely take some getting used to."

Giles smiled back. "Take your time. There's no hurry."

Xander sat forward on the couch, not ready to let it go while Giles was beating himself up. "Do you realise I was sixteen when we met?"

He winced. "I realise."

"And part of me - mostly the father part - can't believe you let a bunch of sixteen year-olds do all that stuff. I mean, seriously, if I found out you were taking my little girls out hunting vampires behind my back, I think I'd kill you. A big messy, bare hands kind of death."

"I wouldn't do that."

"I know. I trust you. But see, that's what I'm talking about. Because at the same time, the way you trusted me back then, that was the best thing I had going in my life. Do you know that? Before that I'd never met an adult who thought I was good for anything. My parents didn't. And my teachers... The first and last teacher that ever noticed me wanted to molest me and then bite off my head. Suddenly there was you, international traveller, smartest man in Sunnydale, and maybe I pretty much got on your nerves, but you still wanted my help with the research and the whole superhero gig. I can't believe how much I sound like a cheesy Hallmark card as I say this, but you kind of made me the man I am."

He finally stopped talking, and there was a weird silence.

Giles swallowed a lot and rubbed his jaw. Xander could hear the rasp of his five o'clock shadow. He said quietly, "Then I'm honoured."

"So you shouldn't blame yourself for Willow. You trusted her the same as you trusted Buffy and me, and we came out better for it. She fucked up, not you. You can't carry it around forever."

A sort-of half-nod was the best Giles could manage, but it was good enough for Xander. Xander was sixteen years ahead of him on letting go; he was willing to cut the guy some slack.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"Hang on."

Xander set down the shelf and pulled the drill out of Giles' hands, putting it safely on the ground as he picked up the phone. "Hey, Mary."

"Xander."

The flat tone brought him down hard. For almost two hours he'd forgotten he had tomorrow hanging over his head. He looked up to apologise to Giles, but Giles just waved him towards the bedroom where he could take his abuse in private. "What's up?"

"I can't make it tomorrow."

Right. "You can't."

He heard her huff. "I'm meeting up with friends."

Xander rubbed his hair and sat down on the end of the bed. "We tried the not-talking thing back during the divorce. It didn't work so well."

"Back then, there were things we needed to talk about."

"Jen and Kate. They're still here."

"Is there anything you can tell me that you couldn't have told me two weeks ago?" She barely paused. "Yes, that's what I thought. I'll talk to you later." The phone clicked in his ear.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

They'd been heading down the I-95 to Philadelphia for her Uncle Hideyo's funeral, Mary at the wheel, when she finally got the words out. "I want a divorce."

Xander had just said, "I know." Maybe he should have mustered some kind of reaction. Looked away from the window, given her wide eyes or a little shock, but he'd been waiting so long that it felt like an old conversation already.

"Did you hear what I said?" she'd asked, angrily.

Xander had blinked, unable to tear his attention from the passing landscape. "You've wanted one for months." Every evening he'd felt sick coming home to their cold house; every night he'd laid awake beside her with his stomach twisted.

Months caught between the weight of his miserable marriage and terror at the idea of living away from the girls, waiting for Mary to make the break he wasn't man enough to make himself. But even that was old by then, and he'd stared out the window, not feeling much of anything at all.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander stayed in Giles' bedroom for a while before he could bring himself to head back out.

Giles was pouring himself tea. He lifted the pot, cocking an eyebrow as if to ask, and Xander shook his head. He was ready to get back to the shelves, but that was going to have to wait for Giles. He sat instead, closing his eyes and tipping his head back. "I don't know what to say to her."

The spoon clinked, Giles tapping it on the side of his cup, and a moment later the cushion sank as he joined Xander on the couch. He was sitting almost close enough to touch, which was pretty much exactly what Xander needed. It could only be better if Xander could turn and bury his face in his chest, get another big old Giles hug like last Thursday. Probably not a good idea. Giles probably had a two-hugs-a-year limit or something.

Xander sighed dramatically. "My life is a trail of angry women." He looked over through one eye. "Feel free to argue."

"No, I rather think it's self-evident just now."

"Thanks."

Giles looked like he was building up to something.

"What is it?"

He pulled off his glasses and took his time polishing them. Not reassuring. Xander waited until they were gleaming and back in place, and Giles finally spoke. "Buffy managed to find Anya."

Xander sat up. "Is she okay? You waited this long to say something?"

"She's fine. She's rather angry."

"Did Buffy tell her-"

"She doesn't want to talk to you."

"But I-"

"Xander." Giles' hand came down on Xander's, surprising enough to shut his mouth. "She doesn't want to talk to you."

Xander felt sick.

"She'd put you behind her, content to assume you had failed miserably in your life."

"And now she thinks I just moved on, like she didn't matter."

A thumb rubbed over Xander's fingers. "Buffy made sure Anya won't do anything to you."

What the hell? "What did she do to her?"

"They talked. Just talked." He looked sideways. "Perhaps there was some threatening."

Xander pulled his hand from Giles', fighting the urge to shove him. "I don't want people threatening her. You used to care about her. She was your friend, too."

"Yes, she was - is - but we're not going to let her hurt you."

He sagged back into the cushions. "I hurt her."

"A long time ago."

"Not so much. And nobody punished me."

"Would it be too cliche to point out that you've done a fine job of that yourself?" Giles rearranged himself to face Xander. "You don't get make Anya feel better. Perhaps that's your punishment."

It was a punishment fit for a vengeance demon.

"What you did was... harsh, but it was the right thing."

"It was cruel."

It took Giles some time to answer. "Yes, it was. But still the right thing."

As if right was a good enough reason for cruel. "Was it the right thing that Mary found out in a cafe on Mercer?" He twisted his head to see if that was what it took to disappoint Giles, but nope. He was just staring thoughtfully at the opposite wall. He sipped his tea, and Xander wished he had something to occupy his own hands. He wanted to get back to the shelves.

Giles cleared his throat. "You never really fall out of love with anyone, do you?"

Mary. Anya. Willow. Buffy. Nope, he never did. "Is that bad?"

Giles smiled, sudden and warm. "I find it reassuring."

"Great. Someday we're going to have to sort through your relationship wreckage."

"That would be ugly indeed."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander dragged his dinner out of the microwave, hissing as he tossed it on the counter. Mitts were for sissies.

Of course, since at that very moment he was happy that he was home alone facing a Stouffer's chicken pot pie instead of Ivy's chicken parm with a side of Mary's anger, maybe it was time to get a pair. Of mitts.

There was a knock at the door, and Xander cursed again. If that was Piotr from next door returning his screwdriver, he hoped returning it was going to be a quicker conversation than borrowing it. He was hungry. He was licking his fingers as he opened the door.

Giles, still in his suit from work. And Jen, in track pants with her hair pulled back like she was on her way to her dance class. Together. Like that was somehow okay.

Xander couldn't think of a single thing to say. He was too floored even to panic.

They stared right back.

Jen looked guilty as hell, so Xander focused his death-ray glare on her. "This story had better be incredible."

She shrank a couple of inches.

"Shall we come in, perhaps?"

Away from the neighbours. Sure. Xander stepped aside to let them through, but he was having trouble letting go of the door handle. Giles wouldn't be this calm if he'd just saved Jen from some sort of attack, but he couldn't possibly be walking in the door with her for any other reason. She was supposed to be at dance class.

He closed the door, hard. "One of you had better start talking before my imagination starts breaking out the best of Michael Bay."

Giles looked down at Jen. Not an attack then. Just a badly-behaved kid. He heaved a sigh, relieved. And then not, because he knew how to fight monsters. Monsters could be killed, problem solved. He had no idea how he was going to save Jen from herself.

"Start talking," he ground out.

She dipped her head lower and muttered something groundwards.

"Look at me."

"I was following him," she repeated.

Following? "Why?"

She shrugged, and Xander reminded himself that you were not, absolutely not, supposed to shake your children.

"Giles?"

"Jenny tailed me for over an hour."

Tailed him. Xander gaped for a full minute before he could even form a question. "How did you find him?"

"I followed you yesterday."

"This was a multi-day project?" And wait, back up. What did Giles say? "What do you mean, over an hour? If you knew she was there-"

"I was curious as to how well she'd do. I led her on quite the merry chase. I must say, it was rather fun." The pair of them smiled at each other until Giles felt Xander's telepathic fury and sobered up.

"You think this is funny?"

"I recall you were rather a curious teenager yourself."

"Shut up." Let's make this worse with a trip down Hellmouth Lane. Giles thought it was a joke. "Mary's gonna kill me."

"Mom won't kill you."

"No, she'll kill you," Xander retorted. "She'll just cut off my access." His stomach rolled. She really might.

Giles put a hand on his shoulder. "She wouldn't do that."

Xander shook him off. As if he knew! "She already said she would! She'll take my kids away from me!"

"How could she possibly-"

"Jesus Christ, Giles, you think she couldn't pull me to pieces in family court?" His voice rose and rose.

"She couldn't do that, surely. You're a good father."

Had Xander really thought Giles was smart? The man couldn't walk his big brain through a custody case? And Jen... "What the hell were you thinking?"

Giles and Jen looked at each other, and then Jen meekly asked, "Which one of us?"

"You! And you! Both of you. Start with you, Jen. What does it matter where my friends go?"

"If it doesn't matter, why is it secret?"

"Don't you dare get smart. You don't go spying on people."

"You're always keeping secrets! You never tell us anything!"

Xander grabbed his jacket off the couch. She wasn't taking him seriously. Let her see Mary blow up, then. Mary would give her one hell of a show. "Come on. I have to get you home and explain this to your mother." Mary had to see this wasn't his fault. He yanked Jen towards the door by her sleeve and shot a look at Giles. "I'll be yelling at you later."

And that was best case scenario, if Xander managed to calm Mary down. If he couldn't, if Mary tried to cut him off from the girls, then he didn't know what he was going to do. Never speak to Giles again. Beat the hell out of him. Or maybe cry on his shoulder, because he had no one else. If Xander couldn't have weekends with Jen and Kate, he didn't have anything.

They slunk behind him into the elevator. Jen slouched in the corner, Giles watched the numbers tick down, and Xander steamed. He wanted to strip pieces off Giles, but he couldn't do it here in front of Jen. He was supposed to be Xander's friend. "I don't suppose you at least used your adventure to check if she'd follow you onto the subway?"

Giles looked at her, then at Xander. "I'm not particularly inclined to enter the subway myself."

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 19:
Giles began his museum job, which pretty much wiped him out and left his tongue loose enough to admit his own guilt over Willow's death, for ignoring Willow's post-Buffy-raising threats. Which then lead to the revelation that Willow's lies were the reason why Buffy never searched for Giles. Buffy found Anya, who was still pissed, but apparently is not going to extract vengeance. Mary's still pissed, too, but her dinner cancellation may have been premature: Jen played hooky from dance class to follow Giles around the city. Giles was considerably more amused by her antics than Xander.



New York chapter 20:
All the eggs


Xander caught Jen before she could unlock the door and pointed to the buzzer. He'd had the whole ride here to let his anger into the Force and work himself into feeling barf-worthy sick with worry. Three weeks ago, he and Mary were screwing and laughing together. Now he was praying to the gods of any dimension that she wouldn't sue for sole custody.

The door opened and Mary's eyes widened and then narrowed. "What are you doing here?"

He gave Jen a little shove, and Mary let them shuffle inside.

"Why aren't you at dance class?"

"Our Jen's too busy starring in The Bourne Dominion."

So began an hour of explanations and recriminations with the bulk of Mary's fury falling on Jen, thank god. Mary had no trouble at all convincing Jen that she was in world-falling-in territory. In under ten minutes, Jen was pretty much beyond doing anything but cry and nod. The nodding happened a lot for the next hour.

She was still sniffling as she finally shuffled off to bed, casting longing looks at her phone in Xander's hand.

Mary heaved a sigh and rubbed her temples. "Do you need the codes?"

"Nah. Got them in my phone." A quick message was all it took to authorise him so he could lock all her music, her games, her vid subscriptions, and then start picking through the contacts file, blocking her friends' numbers. "I feel like a monster."

"My parents used to confiscate my modem."

"My parents never did anything." He felt her gaze, but he didn't look up. Abby, block. Ariel, block. Cara, block. Dad, keep.

"What happened?"

"I know what you know. I opened the door, and there they were-"

"With that woman. Your almost-first wife."

He stopped. All right. Xander tipped his head towards the couch. "Maybe this is a sitting down conversation."

She held a second and then nodded, but she led them to the dining table. Not too comfortable. Probably not a good idea to suggest coffee. He put Jen's phone down.

"I was crazy about her. We'd been together since just after high school, and I was, I really was sure when I proposed. I was sure. But then, I mean, of course there were jitters, but... Something happened at the wedding. I guess you could say I got a glimpse of the future."

"With her?"

"With me."

Her expression softened the slightest bit. "I don't know what you mean."

"Don't you?"

She looked down at the table. She did.

"I didn't want to be like him. My dad."

She folded her arms, leaning forward. "I don't know your dad except through you. Seeing what you're afraid of. And I don't think you're like him at all."

He choked up. He'd had no idea how much he needed to hear anything kind from her right now. He had to force his throat to open, to say, "I'm not." Giles said so.

"So what about her?" The sympathy was gone, her voice cold again.

"What do you mean?"

"The things she could do to you. The threat, Xander. She threatened you, and you didn't exactly seem surprised. You remembered. 'Vividly,' you said. What could she do?"

"She won't." He had to trust Buffy on that one.

"How do you know?"

"She won't."

"And I'm asking how you know. But what right do I have? I'm just a civillian, whatever the hell that means."

"Mary-"

"Apparently it means it's none of my business when my children's father is threatened right in front of me."

"It's not-"

"Go to hell."

Xander stopped talking. She glared at the wall.

Finally he said, "Someone spoke to her. An old friend of mine who... who has power. Anya won't do anything."

Mary didn't answer.

Xander didn't know what else she wanted to know, but the silence stretched out. He started back on Jen's phone, reached Kate (keep) and Kylie (block) before Mary leaned forward.

"Would you ever have married me if it hadn't been for Jenny?"

He should have said 'yes of course,' like it was obvious, but he waited a beat too long, and that was long enough to see her shoulders pull in, to realise this was the part of the conversation that mattered most, and he'd already blown it. "Yeah, I would have. Might have taken until I was forty to find the courage, but I would have gotten there."

She gave him a look that said 'Thanks for trying but I see right through you.' "So you really did only marry me because I was knocked up and you were trapped."

"No, no, no. Mary, it wasn't like that."

"So it was pity? Obligation? Fear of my father?" She glanced up for half a second, and he realised her eyes were shining, and he felt like the biggest asshole ever.

"How about dumb luck? I was terrified of growing up, probably would have screwed up with you as bad as I screwed up with Anya if I hadn't had a kick in the pants from Jen. Marrying you was the best thing I ever did." He was dead sure of that. If he hadn't married Mary, he'd still be the same lonely loser who ran away from his wedding. "Our marriage wasn't a lie, Mary. It was rushed, maybe, but it wasn't a lie." He ducked his head and finished working his way down the phone list.

When it was done, there didn't seem to be anything else to say. He pressed up from the table and headed for the door, not surprised when she didn't stop him. She followed to see him off, though, and that was something.

She put her hand on the door handle. "I don't suppose she's the worst of your secrets."

He shook his head. "Are we... are we going to be back on for Wednesdays?"

"Yeah. Let's just... Let's try somewhere else."

He breathed out a sort of a laugh. "Sure." He was never going to look Ivy in the eye again.

She opened the door, and he quickly kissed her cheek before walking away.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander didn't stay long at the Landsman the next day. A quick beer, a few minutes with Sam, and then he was on his way.

He wanted to help Giles some more with the settling in. Also on the schedule, some stern words. Even if Mary had taken the adventures of Jen better than he expected, there was a whole new can of worms that Giles had opened. Except it was more of an old can that Xander had forgotten in the back of the fridge.

Turned out there'd been a delivery, and there were cartons everywhere. Giles straightened, looking relieved, and then he saw Xander's expression and looked ashamed. That was better. "How did things go with Mary?"

"Better for me than they did for Jen."

He winced. "Will she be allowed out of the house ever again?"

"Maybe if there's a fire." Xander dropped into the new armchair. "But let's talk about you."

He adjusted his glasses. "I really am sorry, Xander. I honestly thought... Once I realised she was following me, I suppose I slipped into old habits."

"Yeah." Old habits was exactly what he was worried about.

"Xander?"

"Before I put Spells of Love and Chaos on the shelf, I need to check you're never going to let my daughters through that door."

He shifted back, surprised. "I told you I wouldn't do that."

"Really?"

"Of course not."

"You let us do all kinds of stuff behind our parents' backs." He hadn't really imagined Giles would do the same with his kids until Giles led Jen on her merry chase. Now he couldn't stop. The idea of Jen and Kate plotting in the Sunnydale library, patrolling cemeteries at night, messing with Faith and Angelus and Glory... All last night and today he'd been replaying high school with Jen and Kate in starring roles, and it had been making him crazy. "How do I know it's different for them?"

Giles looked hurt. He came closer and sat on the edge of the couch, as close as he could get, hands clasped in front of him.. "I wouldn't do it to you, Xander. You have my word."

"But why? How do I know?"

He seemed to struggle for a response, but finally looked Xander straight in the eye. "Because it's you."

Something about the force of it tickled down Xander's spine. He believed Giles completely, but he still didn't get the why. 'Because' wasn't really an answer. The girls didn't think so when he used it on them.

Fingers touched Xander's knee, and then Giles' whole hand settled there. "Do you really doubt my loyalty?"

"Not loyalty. It's not..." If the hand on Xander's knee was meant to get Xander's attention then it was working, but it really wasn't doing a lot for his thought processes. Xander's skin was suddenly hot all over. Maybe the hand on his knee was meant to distract him because the un-Gilesy touchy-feely approach was... it was okay, good even, but totally weird. Even if it wasn't the first touch since Giles got back. Hell, it was becoming a pattern. Xander could map- Xander was supposed to be worrying about the girls. "You've got a world to protect."

Giles squeezed his knee and let go. Suddenly he stood up and wandered back to the cartons he'd been unpacking when Xander came in. "I came here because this is what matters to me." He gestured, taking in the apartment and the city and even Xander. "I won't pretend I'm about to entirely turn my back on the world, but you must understand what it means that I came."

"I do. I mean, I sort of do." He'd said he wanted to do something selfish, but Xander hadn't really believed he could walk away like, well, like Xander did. "And I'm glad you're here." Xander still didn't completely get it, but he was well and truly convinced Giles wasn't about to start recruiting his family, and that was all he had a right to ask. He smiled. "Really glad."

Giles smiled back, dipping his gaze. "As am I."

There was a silence after that, stretching on long enough to get uncomfortable, even if Giles seemed happy enough watching Xander like he was waiting for something.

Waiting to get back on with unpacking, Xander guessed. "Where do you want me?" He looked at the chaos in the room, turned back to find Giles hadn't moved. "C'mon. I'm hankering for some alphabetising."

Giles' smile was crooked. "Why don't you start over there?"

It was a long time and a lot of cartons emptied and shelves filled before the atmosphere got comfortable again. Xander tore the tape off another box and pulled back the flaps. "More magic books. Cycle of the Moon, Monthly magicks, Occult of Fertility. Wait." Xander checked a little deeper. "Are these all..."

"Appealing to feminine menstrual powers, yes."

"Oookay. I'm not going to ask you why you need these ones."

"The Slayer-"

"Said I'm not going to ask."

Giles chuckled. "Right then."

Xander pushed the box towards the magic shelves and ripped the tape off the next. "Speaking of changing the subject, I can't believe these got all the way here from England already."

Giles shifted his glasses, frowning into another box. "Well, no, actually. These were in storage in California. I'm glad I chose the fixed rate plan."

Xander examined the leather-bound brick in his hand. It was stamped Aggressive Demons of the Western Americas. "You left all these in California?"

"I didn't want to ship everything. Not until I was sure."

Xander snorted. "You're not exactly an 'all your eggs in one basket' kind of guy, are you?"

"Not usually." Xander didn't know what the long, significant look was supposed to mean, so he took a gamble and smiled. Giles smiled back.

He'd seemed so certain when he left. Goodbye, I'm done. Come visit me in England some day. Xander wanted to be at least a little mad that he'd faked it, but sixteen years. And he was here now, and tonight was turning out to be a really good night.

"Just like old times." Xander dragged his open box towards the first shelf by the door and hefted the book in his hand, then slid it in place. "Alphabetical?" It was twenty years since they sorted the books from the school library onto Giles' shelves. There was something nicely circular about it.

"Alphabetical." Giles smiled a little, like he remembered. "Different to old times, though."

"Yeah, you're not paying me."

There was a trail of empty boxes, and it was starting to look like someone lived here. Xander really should have been heading home, but it turned out that when you were past the thirty year milestone, sorting books was soothing. Or maybe it was just the company. By some bizarre twist, Giles had become the drama-free side of his life. Aiding and abetting Jen aside, anyway. When he was with Giles, they could dredge through what was going on with Mary and chat about Buffy, or they could just talk about the museum and whether dark magic books needed a locked cabinet when you didn't have teenagers traipsing through. Or they could work in silence, brushing against each other as they slipped books into place.

Xander had to admit there was a charge in the air, and it was kind of, well, sexy. Not like, actual, sexual tension of the guy-girl resolvable sort. Sometimes Giles would put a hand on his back to let him know not to step backwards as he reached past Xander to put a book on the shelf. Sometimes Xander would touch Giles' elbow to show him a book if he wasn't sure where it went.

It was like the sort of simmer there used to be when he was married: not sex exactly - obviously - just comfortable. It was nice, being close enough to touch. Like having a close friend-who-was-a-girl again. Xander wondered what Giles would do if Xander turned around and gave him a long, squeezy hug for no reason like he used to do with Willow.

"What are you smiling about?"

What if he did? Giles was waiting, eyebrow raised and all warm-looking with his quizzical eyes and his soft, fuzzy sweater. It would almost be worth it to see how he reacted.

"I've decided I like sorting books. Does that make me old?"

That smile again. Xander could spend all night tweaking that smile out of Giles. "Positively ancient. We'll have you fitted for dentures in no time."

"Arthritis care first." He turned to slide a book onto the shelf, tipping his head from side to side, stretching his neck. "Man, I am old."

He jumped when warm, dry hands settled on his shoulders and squeezed.

"Oh."

Squeezed up his neck, and rubbed back down.

"Wow."

Magic fingers found the knots where his neck met his shoulders and started drawing circles. Xander had been exaggerating the ache for effect, but lordy, once Giles' fingers started working... And no, he hadn't failed to notice the weirdness of Giles giving him a neck rub, especially when Giles was standing so incredibly close behind him. Or that he, Xander, and this was the weirdest part, was just a little bit hard. Not a full salute, of course, but there was definitely a shortage of space in his jeans.

He needed to try harder to find himself a woman because Giles' strong hands were doing all sorts of tingly things. Thumbs dropped down and then pressed up the bumps of his spine, up his neck, pushing his head forward and digging in at the base of his scalp. Xander barely choked back a moan of pleasure.

It was just a neck massage, nothing wrong with a neck massage between friends, but it felt like they were about to get caught doing something not-PG. Possibly, that feeling had something to do with the stirring in his pants.

"Um. That was good. Thanks." Giles' hands slowed, and slipped away down Xander's back. Xander resisted the urge to shiver. "I'm, wow, it's, past twelve."

"It is late," Giles agreed.

Xander turned to face him. He looked intense, like he was finding the mood weird as well. Not just Xander, then. Xander's hand found its way to Giles' arm for some reason, and Giles leaned forward, about to whisper in- and his mouth was on Xander's. Dry lips dragging over his, and Xander's mouth opened, probably to ask what was going on but suddenly Giles' tongue brushed inside, touching his own. Stubble scraped his chin, and he realised he was kissing Giles - no, Giles was kissing him - and stepped backwards into a box and plummetted straight down on his butt. Which damn well hurt.

"What the hell?" What the *hell*?

Giles blinked down at him, not seeming to realise he was licking his lips and not answering.

"What was that?" Xander's voice cracked. He could taste Giles in his mouth.

Giles just stared, brow all furrowed like Xander was the crazy one. "This couldn't possibly be moving too fast."

"Too fast? What moving? You just kissed me. Why did you do that?"

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry." Giles' hands waved like he was trying to calm him, which just wasn't gonna happen. "I thought... I know you want to take this slowly, and I'm trying, but if we could at least... Honestly, Xander, I'm not trying to rush you into bed. It was a kiss."

Xander shot to his feet. Bed? Whoa. Kissing was bad enough, but bed, as in the international codeword for sex? No, no, no, no, no. Somehow they'd channel-surfed straight into the middle of someone else's Lifetime Channel movie-of-the-week. "Stop. Just, stop."

Giles stopped.

Right. That was a guy-on-guy kiss, from Giles.

Xander pointed with both hands. "You just kissed me."

Giles took a step back, starting to look angry now. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to press. I don't know what you want from me. If you could just talk to me, say what it is you want-"

"I think it's clear that it's you with the wanting. The wanting is all you."

"You don't." He swallowed and tried again. "I don't understand."

"We've got that much to share." Xander pushed a hand through his hair.

"You gave me every indication-"

"No, no, there were no indications. There was no indicating. I am an indication-free zone. I likes the women. Married, remember? Twice, almost. I thought you were my friend." Xander choked a little on that, and suddenly he was madder about that than anything. "You were my friend."

"Then why lead me on? Why the games?"

"I never-"

"All the things you said-"

"No way. With you? Never. Never ever. Not in a million years."

Giles went fire-red. "Get out. Just get the hell out of my house." The bedroom door slammed behind him before Xander even knew he'd moved, and Xander was alone in the mess of unpacked boxes.

What just happened?

He wasn't staying here. He shoved his way out the door and took the stairs down because he couldn't stand still long enough for the elevator.

Giles just kissed him.

And you kissed back for a second there, said a little voice in the back of his head.

It was just surprise. Someone kissed you, there were instincts at work. Apparently even if it was a guy kissing you.

Or just Giles.

Xander slammed through the door into the lobby and hurried out into the night so he wouldn't have to stop to make nice with the doorman.

Stake, check. Good, he was walking, then.

Giles thought they were boyfriends. Giles had somehow come to the conclusion that Xander was gay, and wanted Giles, and wanted to take their big gay love affair slowly. Xander was pretty damned solid-sure that he'd remember if he'd told Giles he wanted to take it slowly. It would jar his memory on the grounds that it would be crazy to say that.

Something like it had been said. At the airport. He couldn't remember exactly but it was something about being friends - not lovers - and Giles said they'd take it slow. They'd been talking about being friends.

No way had he suggested Giles be his boyfriend. Giles decided to move here, and Xander was glad about it. He was pretty rock solid on that conversation.

When the hell did Giles go gay, anyway? Xander knew about the many-guy-orgy thing with that demon that came back and possessed Miss Calendar, but that was the seventies, and guys did stuff in the seventies that they didn't do in other, straighter decades. Sometimes Xander had thought even he might have given the guy thing a whirl if he'd lived back then.

Xander jittered on the kerb while he waited for a bunch of cars to pass. He was full of energy and out of breath and hard.

Fine, he was hard, and his skin was jumping; that's what happened when you kissed someone and everything went haywire, and Xander had been feeling kind of pervy for weeks.

Xander's apartment didn't look how it looked when he left this morning. It felt all wrong. And he forgot to bring his lunch bag home from Giles', but he wasn't going to go and get it.

He was hard still, and he was going to get himself off, and it didn't mean he wanted Giles. That's what guys did when they were hard, wherever the erection came from.

He stripped off his clothes and let them fall on the floor, wavered for a second over getting in the shower, but it was almost one in the morning and he couldn't be bothered so he just dropped on his back on the bed and took his cock in his hand and worked it. A handful of lotion made it better, and he didn't think as he squeezed, steadfastly did not think about how angry Giles had looked, or how there'd been hurt behind it. He jerked harder and didn't search through the close moments they'd had in the last few weeks that Giles might have misunderstood. And no way, no way in hell was Xander thinking about that kiss when he bit his lip and came.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 20:
Xander dragged Jen home to her mother, and Mary was perfectly able to convey how much trouble Jen was in for tailing Giles around the city. While Xander grounded Jen's phone, he finally explained to Mary his failure to marry Anya. He promised her that Anya wouldn't follow through on her threats, and he left on better terms with Mary than he'd arrived. Xander seeked reassurance from Giles that the merry tailing games were not the beginnings of a Scoobies New Generation, and after that, their evening settled into a thoroughly comfortable book-sorting session. Right up until, completely out of the blue, with absolutely no warning, Giles kissed Xander. WTF? Xander panicked, insulted Giles, and escaped.



New York chapter 21:
D-minus


Xander needed to get to bed, but he couldn't quite summon the will to turn off the TV and get up. As weeks went, this had been about a D-minus. Passing grade only because no one died.

Just one uncontrollable daughter, one angry ex-wife, and Giles recruiting for the gay lifestyle. Not wanting to be left out, Kate was back to complaining loudly about wearing her crucifix.

At least things were better with Mary. She was going to be cold for a while, but that one he actually deserved and understood.

"Why are you and mom fighting?"

Xander looked up. "Jen?"

She was standing at the end of the couch in her scrappy little-girl nightdress, arms wrapped around her waist.

He wanted to deny it - us? fighting? - but he'd always hated it when his parents yelled at each other and then acted like it was nothing. Fighting parents wasn't nothing. "I'm sorry you heard us. We've made up now." He clicked off the TV and pulled his legs up so she'd have room to sit beside him and tossed her a cushion which she clutched in her lap.

She was looking down at the cushion so her hair fell forward, a black curtain covering her face. "I'm sorry I made you fight."

"It wasn't- We were already mad at each other. What you did was just another log on the fire."

"How come she doesn't like Mr Giles? He seemed nice to me."

"It's not that, exactly."

She lifted her head and frowned a little at his not-answer. "Is it because he's one of your secrets?" She read his surprise. "I'm not a little kid."

"Could you pretend a while longer?"

"Dad." She dumped the cushion and pulled her knees up, stretching her nightdress over them. "He was nice. He... He didn't seem bad."

"He isn't bad, honey. What happened on Wednesday?"

She shrank some more, but a gentle poke with his toe did the trick. He'd learned it was always easiest to get the real story if you prodded the girls a few days after the shouting died down. "I followed him up Sixth and then in a taxi."

"You got a taxi to follow his?"

She shrugged. "Yeah." Like that was perfectly normal.

"You just got in a taxi, and said, 'Follow that car!'"

"I told the driver that was my dad and he'd forgotten his phone like Trixie did in Mystery in the City."

Stupid Hollywood. This was why other parents censored their kids' movies.

"He got out near Penn Station and walked to Times Square and wandered around, and I followed him until I lost him in Toys R Us, and then suddenly he was right in front of me, looking at me like, like..."

"It's all right. I know the face." He could picture it exactly, eyebrow up, mouth pursed. Same old Giles. The old Giles, not the new, gay one.

"I thought he was gonna grab me and drag me off to... But he just said, 'How about we share a cab back to your father's?'"

"What did you talk about in the taxi?" It didn't matter, but he was curious. More curious when she started picking at the worn cotton stretched over her knees. "Jen?"

"We got a milkshake first."

Xander tipped his head back and let out his breath. "He took you for a milkshake."

"He said I was in for a firestorm when you and mom found out, and I should... fortify myself first." She peeked up at him. "That was supposed to be a secret."

It would be easier if Xander had another reason to be angry with him. Being kind to Jen wasn't going to be the reason. "I won't tell him."

"What would he do if he knew I said?"

Xander snorted. "I hope he'd cower somewhere, terrified of my fatherly wrath."

Now she was looking scared of him.

"You don't have to be scared of Giles. He'd never hurt another person." Xander crossed his fingers behind his back and mentally specified 'humans who didn't use magic'. "Not unless they hurt you girls, or me. That doesn't mean you can use him to play Trixie Belden."

"I'm sorry." She really meant it for the two seconds before she opened her mouth again. "But how come mom's 'heritage' is so important I have to learn stupid Japanese, but yours doesn't matter at all? Except for big stupid evango crosses, and you're not even a Christian."

"Because you're too young to drink beer and curse."

"What?"

Xander kicked his parental censorship dial up a little higher. "I wish I could give you that, Jen. I don't have a heritage to brag about. My family growing up was-"

Willow. Buffy. Giles. Anya.

"Was what?"

Xander had to swallow a couple of times. "Wasn't my family."

Jen was looking at him with way too much pity for a thirteen year-old.

"I had Giles and my friends," he said, trying to sound like less of a sad case. And he had a few thousand years of adopted Slayer heritage, but he wasn't about to pass that on.

"So Mr Giles is your family."

"Jen..."

She slithered off the couch. "That's why I followed him." She didn't look the slightest bit sorry now.

He should have known she'd do something like that. Well, not like that - car chases through Manhattan were pretty well out of the realms of what Xander expected. He should have known she'd be curious and ready to snoop.

Xander stood, hoping to wrestle a little dignity out of the moment. "Come on. Bed." He curled a hand around her neck, tugged her in to kiss her head, and then led her to the hall. That had been a pretty grown-up conversation. It felt kind of nice.

At the door to her room she stopped and yawned wide, jaw stretching like a snake. "It was funny. He called me Jenny like Mom does, not Jen like you."

One day he'd tell her why. An edited version of why. A long time from now. "I have to go do something in the morning. Should be quick, but don't worry if I'm not here when you wake up, okay?"

She shrugged and disappeared into the dark room, closing the door behind her.

He had nothing left of then, if he lost Giles. Willow was dead, and Buffy and Dawn were left behind, and the twice-annual calls to his parents left him cold.

Xander had no idea what Giles had been thinking, but he wasn't mad anymore.

So what if Giles was gay? He didn't care about that, so why should he care that Giles wanted him? Why couldn't he have just told Giles that he was flattered but no, instead of overreacting as if Giles jumped him in the high school library? He closed his bedroom door. At least he shouldn't have to worry about Giles crushing on him after that little performance. The things Xander said... Now he was just going to have to hope that Giles didn't hate him.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Giles pulled open the door and stood there, blinking. He was wearing a dressing gown, and his hair was sticking up. He hadn't even grabbed his glasses.

"Hey."

"It's early, Xander."

"I had to sneak out before the girls woke up. I didn't want to wait until tomorrow night."

Something played through Giles' expression. Xander really hoped it wasn't hope. So totally not what Xander was here for.

"To apologise," he said before Giles could get any ideas. "I'm sorry. I could have handled that better. I really, I swear, I had no idea. We're way off the radar. I can hardy believe you want to be friends with me, and I found out you wanted more, and I freaked."

"But what you said at the airport about never having a male friend before-"

"A male friend. A guy. Who's a friend."

The twitching muscle in Giles' jaw said he wasn't persuaded, and the biting tone pretty much agreed. "Take a huge, flying leap, you said. Come to New York."

Xander lifted his hands. "Well, clearly, I meant more of a manly vault to New York than a prance."

"You said-"

"Anything I said, I swear it was innocent."

"All the touching? The hugs?"

"That's how I am with friends."

"Is that how you are with the men on your site?"

Imagining cosying up with the crew was half a second's wild distraction. "They're not really my friends. God, Giles, you're the only good friend I've got in the world. You're the best thing that's happened to me in years. I'm not gonna fuck with that." Not the best word choice.

Giles stared down at the floor.

"I don't want to not be friends because of this." Xander wondered if his begging tone was too much.

"Don't make more of it than it was."

More than what? More than Rupert Giles kissing Xander Harris? That was pretty more-ish, however you sliced it.

"It was just a lapse, a, a silly whim. Not a declaration of, of... anything."

Okay, whoa. Nobody said anything about a declaration. Though somehow Xander wasn't too hot on the 'whim' thing either. Giles did this to them on a whim? "But the stuff you said, about moving too fast, and..." Xander could barely remember what was said in all the freaking, "... and now... it sounds like you thought we were boyfriends or something."

"Don't be ridiculous. It didn't mean any such thing."

This was how dogs felt when they'd been smacked on the nose with a newspaper. "You just thought you'd take me for a spin."

Giles looked for a second like he was going to slam the door. "You're not a child anymore, Xander. Sometimes adults just..."

"I don't." Xander realised too late how preachy that sounded. "I know other people do, and that's okay, but I need it to mean something." Even a one-night stand with his ex-wife had left him feeling seedy. He'd had enough of the being used sort back in high school, thank you Faith. Who was - did Xander really need to remind the studio audience? - a girl. One of the opposing gender pool, from which Xander chose his partners. And he couldn't believe he was having this conversation with Giles, Rupert-the-Watcher-Giles, standing out in an apartment hallway.

A door opened further up, and a kid came out in a Starbucks uniform. She stared at them as she trudged past, and they waited until she stepped into the elevator.

Xander turned back to Giles. "Look, you can't blame me for being shocked. You're Giles. I mean, Jesus, were you watching my ass in the library in Sunnydale?"

"You were sixteen, Xander," Giles snapped. "I'm not a paedophile."

"Well, I don't know, do I? I mean, I know you're not a paedophile. That's- I'd never think that. I just have no idea where this came from. It's weird enough being friends, you know?"

Giles didn't answer.

"What are you going to do?"

"I don't know." His expression didn't shift. "I have an employment contract. I'm not going anywhere."

Going? Who said anything about going? "Good. I mean, I'm glad. Can we start over, then? Could we do something this week?" The sooner they could start pretending things were normal, the better.

"Perhaps." Giles rubbed his eyes, looking even more tired. "It's early, Xander. I'll call you."

It wasn't a fix, but it was a start. "All right."

The door started closing, and Xander put out his hand to stop it. "I'm really sorry."

Giles looked somewhere past him. "No, I should be the one to apologise. I was out of line. It won't happen again."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It was Mother's Day, so Xander only had the girls for half the weekend. He dropped them off on Saturday night and came home to dig beads out of the carpet again, got to spend all Sunday sitting at home alone, debating the merits of asking Toby to take another go at setting him up on a date.

Giles didn't call.

Xander pulled the sheets off the girls' beds. He'd spent pretty much the whole weekend replaying every conversation he could think of, trying to figure out how Giles jumped to his big gay conclusion. Occasionally thinking all the way back to Sunnydale, looking for clues in the early years. Xander was pretty sure Giles hadn't wanted him back then. Giles hadn't thought much of him at all back then. And Giles hadn't had any boyfriends they'd known about, or any even any guys who were friends.

He stripped the cases off the pillows and bundled the laundry out into the hamper.

Maybe he'd been having all meaningless sex like he'd said on Saturday morning. It's not like Xander would have looked for clues that his stuttering librarian was taking home random men.

Of course, now Xander was imagining Giles with random men. He felt like a total hypocrite. Last year he called Rodriguez a Neanderthal for making comments about gay men fucking. Xander had gone off on a big lecture - for the work hermit, anyway - about how Rodriguez didn't talk about cocksucking every time he saw a straight couple together, so why make gay people all about the sex? And now here was Xander, plagued with visuals of Giles naked with guys. Giles was a good-looking guy, knew which forks to use, had a cool accent. He probably took home whoever he wanted. Xander wanted to know if Giles cruised bars or personals, how often he picked men up. If he liked giving it or taking it up the ass. Xander wondered what Giles pictured doing with Xander. He wondered if Giles had liked kissing him before Xander fell on his butt. What if he thought Xander was a bad kisser? Xander had been too shocked to show off his skills, so Giles probably thought he was a dud.

Xander didn't want Giles thinking he was a dud-kisser. Worrying about that didn't make him gay.

Giles had tasted like tea. Which wasn't exactly a surprise, but Xander had noticed that. He'd taken long enough to react that he'd felt Giles' tongue sliding lazily over his, and now he was pretty sure a hand had been sliding up his back. Is that how Giles was with guys? All firm and persuasive?

Xander practically heard the 'click' in his head as he realised. Giles wanted him. And yes, that wasn't really news, now, but... Giles wanted him. They'd been eating dinner and hanging out on the couch, and Giles had been waiting for the chance to get Xander naked and touch him. Probably pulling his cock at night, thinking of Xander.

Heat crept up Xander's neck. It had been a long time since anyone wanted him. Gay thing aside, that was kind of cool.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 21:
Jen filled Xander in on the details of her Giles-stalking adventure and their post-stalking milkshake. Xander went back to Giles to apologise for freaking out, to salvage their friendship. Giles explained that it was just a whim, nothing for Xander to get his knickers in a twist about. Xander remains entirely not gay.



New York chapter 22:
Jagers


Xander had forgotten what Mary was like with a new menu. They could still be here for the late night specials if he didn't poke her along. He smiled up at the waitress and ordered the Venezia pizza, then put a finger on Mary's menu and pulled it down. "Take whatever you're looking at right now."

"Gnocchi with sausage in a garlic gorgonzola cream sauce?" Her eyes practically glowed. "I'll have that. Large. And we'll get a serving of bruschetta to share." She flipped her menu shut and passed it up to the waitress. "And a glass of your house white."

The waitress looked at Xander. "I'll have a Sam Adams."

She scratched it down and walked away, leaving Xander and Mary looking at each other. Xander wondered what she'd say if she knew. Giles hadn't called yet. It had been a week since Giles tried to kiss him. It was their one-week freakiversary.

Mary nibbled on the end of a breadstick. "This place seems all right."

"Yeah." The decor was loud, but the music wasn't. Xander could have done without the three foot gleaming statue of two naked men wrestling that was looming in his line of sight.

He smiled at Mary. Now they were supposed to start talking.

"How are your yoga classes?"

"We had a rat running around the classroom on Saturday."

"That's probably not conducive to finding your centre."

"New York, New York."

There was another awkward lull.

"Kate found out about some eclipse next month," Mary said, suddenly. "She wants one of us to take her to Death Valley where she'll get the best view."

Xander laughed, and it didn't sound too forced. "Is she going to wash dishes at Gringo's to pay for the airline tickets?"

"I suggested the noodle bar on Spring Street."

Giles was wrestling naked with a man in the basement of Xander's brain. They were oiled up, and sometimes the other guy looked like Xander.

Xander took the breadstick out of his mouth.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander held tight to the handle as he pulled the bathroom door open on blasting music. Tighter, as a couple of boys pushed their way in, hooting about some ugly girl who'd hit on one of them. They didn't look old enough to be in here. No one looked old enough except the crew jammed in the table over by the giant flashing palm tree. They all looked way too old.

It was a really long way over there and a whole lot of bouncing, writhing, mating, in between.

Another kid bounded in, shoving Xander into the door, banging it open. He got his feet back and edged along to solid wall. There was no way he could make it across the dance floor.

The crew roared with laughter, loud enough to be heard over the noise, as if they didn't stick out enough. This was bar five? Six? There'd been a lot of bars. Xander had never been to a bar where they had the girls with toolbelts full of shot glasses and and backpacks full of rum, but there was one there right now, laughing and pouring another row on Toby's tab while Carson tried to chat up her chest. No way did she get paid enough for that.

If Jen or Kate ever got a job like hers, he'd move to an apartment with a basement and lock them in it.

"Are you all right?" Sam. That was Sam shouting over the noise. And as much as Xander didn't want anyone to know how drunk he was, he kind of thought he had to own up.

"I think that round of Jagers was a mistake." Just naming the drink made his stomach turn over, and the alcohol burn back up his throat.

She giggled, well past drunk herself. "Told you not to try to keep up with Toby. God, I am done."

Xander took a step forward and drew a slow breath, hoping the air might soothe him a bit. Good air. "I think I need to go outside."

She looked closer. "Yeah, you do. Come on."

The lurching definitely did not help, or the forty people who jammed their elbows in his ribs along the way, but it got them outside, and night air was the best thing invented ever. Cool on his cheeks and in his lungs, and the brick wall against his back, bringing just enough sober to make him feel like a complete moron. "Sorry." Thirty-seven years old, drunk like a college freshman.

Propped against a wall in between a pack of college freshmen, it looked like. And whoa, not looking that direction again. If Jen or Kate ever did that in some dank alley, he was moving to an island with dungeons to lock them in.

"Don't worry. There aren't many who'll remember tonight."

That was true. Xander wasn't even close to the worst off, thanks to some horse in some race that had Toby shouting rounds of shots for everyone all night. Plenty of people had fallen off the bender before they even got to the Meatpacking District.

Everyone had joined in on the drinking, which meant Xander drank too or he sat alone in his corner, thinking about Giles, so he chose drinking and hadn't thought about Giles at all until right now.

Giles hadn't called all week. He'd said he would, and Xander didn't want to push, but he hadn't. Xander bent forward, hands on his knees while he tried to decide if he was likely to throw up again. Giles hadn't called even once. Giles probably hated him.

Sam's hand settled on his back. "Are you about to puke?"

Right then a girl on the other side of the alley did exactly that, bending over in five inch heels and a four inch skirt to hurl all over her friend's shoes. The friend made soothing noises and rubbed her back. No way were either of them twenty. Xander would have dumped them in a taxi and sent them home to their parents if he had any credibility right now.

"No. Maybe. I don't think so." He wished he could, so it would be done, and he could move on. Except not here, outside the bar near all the work guys with Sam rubbing his back. He wished it was Giles rubbing his back. He stood up again, and the world spun, closed his eyes and it was worse so he opened them again. "'Mall right."

"Maybe it's time to go home?"

Xander nodded. Yeah. And if there were any demons out there with some teleporting magic up their sleeve, Xander was ready and willing. Where was Anya when you needed her? He needed Anya.

"Will you be all right while I go get my purse?"

Anya hated him. Even after sixteen years. That's how much he hurt her. What did Sam say? Oh, yeah. "As long as this wall's here, so am I."

So here he was, alone in the alley, thinking while intoxicated.

From there, it wasn't a huge leap to calling while intoxicated.

"Are we still friends?"

"Hello?"

Xander's hand tightened on the phone. Giles didn't even know who he was. "I'm sorry."

"Xander?"

"Yeah." Okay. Not forgotten.

"Where are you?"

"Outside. I want to tell you I'm sorry. I didn't mean to fuck things up."

"Hold on." A few seconds passed, and something clicked, and then Giles came back, stronger. "Are you drunk?"

"You're my best friend. I haven't had a best friend for a long time."

There was no answer. Shit.

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that."

"It's all right." Giles' voice was so soft, it barely made it down the line.

"You didn't call."

"I've been busy."

"You were the best thing that's happened in... I fuck everything up."

"Where are you, Xander? Are you with your work friends?"

"They're inside. Can I come see you?"

"I don't think that's a good idea. Maybe it's time to get a cab home."

"I could come to your place. We should talk."

"Go home."

"You're angry."

"Xander..." He was pinching the bridge of his nose; Xander was sure of it.

"I'm sorry."

"No, no, no, no!" Sam yelped, leaping towards him. "No drunk calling." Suddenly Xander's phone was in Sam's hand, which wasn't right, but Xander couldn't get much beyond frowning. "Hi. I'm a friend of Xander's. I'm going to take him home." She listened for a second, head cocked, and then giggled and brushed Xander's hair off his face. "Yeah, he's okay. A whole lot of us are going to be hurting tomorrow. ... No problem. It's good to see the oh-so-reserved Xander Harris embarrass himself for once. ... Right. Bye." She checked the screen before closing the phone and dropping it in Xander's pocket. "Giles, hmm? Your friend has a sexy voice."

"Yeah, he does." The 'ah-hah' spread across her face, and he realised how that sounded. "Not like that."

"Uh-huh." She magicked two bottles of water out of her bag and shoved one in Xander's hand. "Here you go. Start chugging. Are you going to be able to keep it down for the ride home?"

Xander thought very carefully, took stock of all his insides. "Yeah."

He only had to lean on her a little to get up to the street. Past those girls, sitting in the gutter now, nowhere near twenty. That could be Jen in a few years. "Gonna get a basement," he told Sam.

"Sounds good," she said, shoving him into the taxi. She gave his address, then Penn for herself, and let him rest his head on her shoulder the whole way home.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

No job in the world was worse for a hangover than construction. Summer picked Friday to lay it on with a vengeance; it was hot by nine, but at least that gave Pearson some kind of excuse to shut down all the heavy (loud) machinery. The guys that had been on last night's crawl were a sorry bunch. The few that showed, anyway, and Xander wondered why he had as he refilled his bottle for the fourth time. He'd taken one sick day in years, so one self-inflicted-

"Hey."

Xander jumped, and sighed, and winced. "Hey, Sam."

"You look like crap."

"That's great, because that's just what I told the stylist I wanted." He leaned back against the wall and downed half the bottle, and then rode out the heave. His hard hat felt three sizes too small. "Would you think me unmanly if I curled up in a ball and cried?"

"Nope. I think I just saw Rickman doing exactly that behind the Porta-Can. First, though..." She tugged his drink away and took a swig. "First, I have to take advantage of your vulnerable state."

"Wha?"

"Who's Giles?"

"What?" Red alert.

"Your friend you call and apologise to when you're drunk and maudlin?"

"The friend I- I didn't." He did. And there was the rising nausea. He did call Giles last night, and he'd been sad and pathetic, but he couldn't remember what he'd said.

She grinned. "Yeah, that's the one. With the sexy BBC voice."

"What did I say?"

"I just arrived for the fawning apologies."

Xander rubbed his face, wondering if he should feel humiliated, horrified, or just more desperately sorry than ever. A cocktail of all three was way too much to be piling on his throbbing head.

"Old ex? Mistaken one night stand? A wish-you-could?"

"No. He's a friend."

"Liar." She jabbed his chest, which was totally unnecessary. "I saved you. I staged a drunk-call intervention. That deserves some credit, and you should reward me with gossip."

He tried to hide behind his hands.

"You probably should have given me some more specifics to work with when I was setting you up."

Xander dropped his arms. "It's not- I'm straight. Your specifics were just fine."

"It's okay to be gay."

"I know it's-" Xander dropped his voice. "I know it's all right. So I'd say if I was. But I'm not. He's a friend."

"Boyfriend?"

"Old friend."

"How old?"

"Sam..." Xander was not up to sparring. "My oldest. And apparently I humiliated myself last night, so could you let it go?"

She finished off his water and offered the bottle back. "You can't humiliate yourself in front of old friends. By definition, old friends have already seen the worst."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It was hours of torment until lunchtime, but it gave him time to figure out a strategy. As soon as Giles picked up, Xander rode right in. "I have no idea what I said last night, but I'm sorry."

"Hello."

Xander swallowed. "Hi." Nobody had hung up. Good sign.

"How are you feeling?"

"Like someone poured a gallon of acid down my throat and then dropped me on my head. I'm really sorry."

"What do you think you said that is so terrible?"

Oh. "I don't know."

"Stop fretting. Have a good weekend."

"Can I see you next week?"

He could practically hear the sigh. "I'm rather busy this-"

"Don't disappear on me, Giles."

There was a long pause, Xander bouncing on his toes. "I'm at the museum on Tuesday," Giles said at last. "Why don't you come meet me after work?"

"All right. I'll see you then."

He hung up, feeling vaguely unsatisfied. Giles hadn't said he didn't say anything bad. And he might not have seemed angry, but he'd been quiet and kind of distant.

Of course he sounded weird. He had a big man-crush on Xander.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Mary had told Jen that Xander was volunteering to take her shopping for a dress for the seventh-grade dance. That was her way of telling him she might have mostly forgiven him, but she hadn't forgotten.

Two days being dragged around clothes shops, Kate grumbling as she played on her phone. Xander was forced to pay attention and give opinions. It was slightly better than worrying about seeing Giles on Tuesday.

"Dad, you said 'It's fine,' about the last ten!"

"They were fine."

"I don't want to look fine. I want to look hot."

"Then we have very different goals." He'd started checking them all before he let her take them to the change rooms. Seriously, who was designing tramp dresses in size thirteen-year-old? Willow's vampire-double would have blushed at some of them. "Come on, it's almost five. I need to get you girls home."

"But-"

"It's not going to get carried out by bluebirds in the next three minutes, Jen. We can get back to this next weekend."

"No!" Kate exclaimed, yanking out her headphones. "Two weekends of clothes! That's not fair!"

She had a point. "Maybe we can squeeze in the Hayden, too."

Now Jen looked outraged. "I don't want to go to the stupid planetarium!"

"Well, I didn't want to look at ugly dresses!"

Xander dug his fingers into his temples, and promised he'd never make Mary mad at him again.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 22:
Xander and Mary resumed Wednesday dinners. It was awkward, but not too bad. Giles made a total of zero phone calls to Xander through the week. Toby from work won on the horses, leading to a pub crawl of epic proportions, leading to a stumbling drunken call to Giles, their first contact since the Saturday morning apology. Sam intervened, and put Xander in a cab home. Xander forgot about the call until Sam reminded him about the sexy BBC voice. It was a major lowlight to his hung over morning. Xander called Giles to apologise (again) and wrangle solid meet-up plans at the museum. Mary's attitude seemed have softened, but somehow Xander found himself dress-shopping with the girls. Oh, the humanity.



New York chapter 23:
Utu and Enlil


The museum cafe was loud and public, not exactly prime real estate for a conversation, but it was something. Now Xander had to find a way to make things somehow normal between them again. No biggie. Step one, don't talk about anyone's feelings. "How's the job working out?"

"Good, good. I rather feel like I'm standing beneath an avalanche."

"The good kind of avalanche."

"The clearing house in the Bronx is twice the size of Sunnydale High, and the contents of most of the rooms have had only a cursory admission. I suspect I'll be working a great many long days until I have at least the bones of a working system in place."

Subtle. No time for you, Xander.

"When that's done, I am looking forward to settling in to study pieces in detail. There is a tablet that caught my eye the other day; I suspect the script is early Elamite. And there is a selection of Sassanid plates with rather intriguing designs."

"Kid in a candy store?"

Giles snorted, and Xander won a quick smile. "Yes, quite." And then the smile was gone, and Giles was poking at his salad.

Xander took a bite of his focaccia - the closest thing he could find to a sandwich in this place. Giles had barely met his eyes since they met in the lobby. Which was probably good because Xander was having plenty of trouble looking away.

No way was Giles being totally honest that morning after. Cautious Man, risking a friendship on the off-chance Xander would be up for a one night stand and then able go on like getting naked and sweaty and gay for a night with Buffy's Watcher was no big deal? Not much of a chance of that.

He kept trying to picture whatever it was Giles had been picturing between them. Except he didn't know what Giles had been picturing. One crazy night? Friends with regular benefits? Snuggling up on the couch? Figuring out their joint deductibles? Okay, yeah, there were degrees of crazy in there.

If Giles had suggested any of that to Sunnydale Xander, Sunnydale Xander would have... well, actually, New York Xander couldn't even begin to imagine. But he wasn't a kid anymore, and Giles wasn't unreachable, and those things weren't weird for the same reasons they used to be.

"Your staring doesn't help in the least."

"Sorry." Xander didn't know how he'd missed the glare while staring Giles straight in the face. "I'm sorry. Still in chapter weird, I guess." He rushed on as Giles' jaw set. "I promise I'll get us back to normal. I'll fix it."

Giles laughed, but it sounded kind of pained. "Fixing this really isn't within your purview."

"There must be something I can do."

"You can stop looking at me like that."

"Like what?"

"Like I'm a puppy that someone just stomped on."

Xander turned his attention down to his focaccia. He couldn't let this be weird. He pasted on an indignant look and shook his finger at Giles. "You should be gentle with me. I spent the weekend dress shopping." It got a little smile, so Xander soldiered on. "School dance dress shopping: so not for the faint-hearted. This is Mary's way of getting revenge, see. She told Jen I volunteered. It's diabolical."

"What did Kate think of that?"

"She was brimming with joy to have something to complain about other than me making her wear a cross."

"A cross?"

"She takes exception to wearing a crucifix."

Giles frowned. "So don't make her wear one."

"Did you just make a funny? That and keeping them out of the subway is about all I've got on my side, and you've seen how well I'm doing keeping them out of the subway. That serial killer news story isn't going to cut it forever. They're not scared of anything."

"Not scared of anything?" Now Giles looked at him like he was an idiot. "Xander, you spent your teenage years battling vampires and every other kind of demon with the occasional full-blown apocalypse, and you charged head-first into all of it. At what point did you stay home and hide under the bed?"

He never did. He'd wanted to, but... Oh. "You're not helping."

Giles waved him off with his fork. "Christians don't have a monopoly on holy symbols. If Kate objects to wearing a cross, there's always the Jewish Tetragrammaton or the Ankh of Ancient Egypt... There are any number of faiths you could draw on." He scratched his nose as he thought. "Yggdrasil might suit her well."

"Seriously? I could just pick something else?" Couldn't someone have told Xander that back in Sunnydale before he launched himself into years of religious arguments with pre-teen girls?

"Of course. Obviously it would need a certain degree of sacred power... Leave it with me; I'll see what I can come up with."

Giles went back to his salad.

They managed normal for a while, well enough that Xander didn't notice they'd finished eating. Giles started stacking his plates together and Xander realised he was getting ready to go, and that would be it for the day, probably a whole new tug-of-war to get Giles to come out again.

Xander screwed up his napkin and threw it on his own plate. "So, do I get the exclusive tour?"

Giles looked startled and then kind of reluctant. He checked his watch. "The museum's closing now..."

"Don't tell me this job doesn't come with after-hours privileges."

"Do you really want to see it? Museums are hardly your, uh..."

"Are you kidding? I'm crazy about dusty things." Yeah, that was the climbing eyebrow that Xander was pulling for. "Okay, so maybe not, but I could stretch my attention span to check out the Giles wing of the Metropolitan World of Things I Don't Understand." He was still looking sceptical. "I want to see what you do. Since I'm not sixteen anymore, is that really so off the charts?"

Apparently it was, but Giles finally nodded.

They headed upstairs and stopped at the offices so Giles could grab Xander a guest pass, and he came back with a wrinkled little woman who examined Xander like he was an artifact. Giles introduced her as Dr Bahameen Madari, curator of the department.

"Are you a student of ancient history, Mr Harris?"

Xander laughed. "Studying, not so much the Harris forte. I escaped as soon as high school was done."

He could practically see the shutters come down.

"Xander's in construction," Giles explained.

Her attention slid from Xander's face down to his shoulders with a knowing "Hm," that jammed Xander's teeth together as she turned away and started talking to Giles about some museum in Kuwait that was thinking about selling stuff.

He didn't know whether to be madder that she dismissed him, or that she thought Giles was the sort of guy who just liked a bit of blue collar rough. He wasn't precisely sure what it was that Giles liked about him, but he was pretty sure that wasn't it. Pretty sure.

Giles didn't seem to notice at least. Which was kind of rude, but Xander was grateful, anyway.

He couldn't stay sour for long. Not watching the way Giles came alive. They were talking over each other like Jen and Kate quoting the Trixie Belden movies. Sumerian sculptures and Elamite tablets and deacquisitioning and government trade laws. This was the side of Giles they'd never got to see back in Sunnydale, banging around ideas with someone just as smart as him. Suddenly Xander wondered how he'd stood it all those years, stuck with a bunch of kids who weren't interested in anything he cared about, where the closest thing he had to a mind like his was Willow. Who'd been plenty smart, but she was a high school bookworm, not an Oxford post-grad archaeology genius.

Dr Madari led them through a staff door into a storeroom, and Xander caught up with something she'd said on the way up about showing some new artifact to Giles. Giles pulled on cotton gloves while she opened the box.

"Nice cup," Xander said.

Her sigh was pure Giles circa 1998. "It's a sacrificial vessel from the third millennium BCE."

Giles turned it carefully and stepped closer so Xander could see it, giving him a meaningful look.

What? Xander took a closer look at the design, a fiery knife-waving guy. Ha, he knew this one. "Ooh. That's Utu. And snake. Storm-guy. Enlil." There was writing around the bottom, which meant nothing except... that symbol was death, or something. Something about death. And that was future, or forever? He pointed to the writing. "Forever... Death... Utu and Enlil are fighting over someone's fate."

The surprise on her face was worth a little gloating, or maybe a lot, but way better than that was Giles' little smile, which was kind of gloaty, too. That snake research after Glory's serpent-o-gram had left a few bits and pieces strewn through the back of Xander's brain.

Dr Madari took the cup out of Giles' hands for another look. "That is not precise, but you are close. You have studied Sumerian cuneiform, then?"

"Just what a man needs to get by. 'Which way to the bathroom?' 'How much is that ziggurat snow globe?' The basics."

She was looking at his face again, thoughtful now.

"I was planning to take Xander through the exhibition if that's all right?"

"Of course." She smiled and waved them towards a door. "Make sure he sees the Stele of Ushumgal."

Xander held his grin until they'd left her behind. "You were showing off." You were showing *me* off, was what he meant. Giles had been showing off Xander's smarts.

"I was simply conferring with an old colleague."

Whatever. He was showing Xander off, and Xander liked how that felt. When he wandered up to a display case to look at an angry-looking deity-guy, he couldn't help wondering if Giles was checking out his ass. He wouldn't mind if he did.

Giles came close behind him. "We're not sure who this fellow is, but we're fairly sure he's smiting someone."

Xander looked at the case, checked out the ones to the left and right. "Have you had a chance to go over these? Anything likely to be key to saving the world one day?"

"God, I hope not. We'd never be able to get it out of here."

Xander leaned back slightly. For a moment he was leaning against Giles' chest, and then Giles was gone, hovering over the next display case.

Xander wouldn't mind having someone - Giles - to scoot up to on the couch. He'd noticed the extra touching even if he hadn't figured out what it meant, and he'd liked it. He missed it.

The sex thing, though: not so much. Sure, Giles was a good-looking guy. If he'd been a woman, maybe Xander wouldn't have turned him down. Even with the friend thing. And if Xander was ever going to experiment with touching another man's penis, then Giles wouldn't be an unreasonable candidate except for that whole facing him the next morning issue. That was a big issue. Xander had never had the guy-urge, but he wasn't such a liar that he could pretend he wasn't curious now that he'd found out that Giles wanted to order a slice of the Xander Harris pie.

Xander took a long look at Giles' profile, the line of his jaw and his throat bobbing as he swallowed. Giles was dressed for the museum, kind of trendy with a black tie and shirt under his formal grey suit jacket. Jen would approve the style choice. It wasn't impossible to imagine pulling his tie loose, unbuttoning the crisp starchy shirt. He'd never seen Giles without a shirt. He wasn't sure he'd ever seen Giles' elbows.

Yes, he had. The memory slid into Xander's brain like a photograph, of coming home to find Giles just out of the shower, in a towel. Hairier than Xander but not really hairy; leanly muscled, damp.

Giles looked him straight in the eye, expressionless, and Xander jolted back to reality. "So. Um. Swords." He pointed, wishing he could bash his own head on the glass. For a few minutes there, things had been looking like they might get back to normal.

Giles wandered back over and glanced down. "Sickle sword, Middle Assyrian, 1300BCE. What are you doing?"

"Looking at swords. Just checking out the swords."

Giles was standing closer than he really needed to. Did Xander have to be able to smell him?

Xander was open to new things. Three years with Anya, he'd tried some things that weren't in the standard manual. And Mary had a wild streak. Sex with a guy had never been on his radar, but when he really thought about it, he wasn't horrified by the idea. He didn't object. But hey. This wasn't theory. This wasn't 'a guy' like Xander'd pick up for curiosity's sake in a Greenwich Village bar. This was pretty specifically Giles standing on top of him like he was about to give Xander a kiss or a grope or just press him backwards over the glass display cabinet and-

Who was Xander kidding? He was more than curious. He remembered how the kiss felt two weeks ago, how his back tingled for weeks after Giles' casual touch, and he wanted to know what Giles would be like in bed. Sure of himself, probably. That'd be intimidating.

Xander's legs started backing away before the rest of him decided, and Giles' lips thinned.

Come on, Giles. Do it. If Xander was half a man, he could have stopped backing up and said it aloud, but this was way out of the land of things Xander was okay with, and Giles was going to have to push. If Giles pushed him, then maybe-

"I think we've seen enough. Security will need to lock down, soon." Giles was suddenly halfway across the room, headed for the door, and Xander almost slid to the floor in relief.

He trailed after him, heart beating like he'd just been yanked off a cliff.

Maybe the normal thing might take a while.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander stretched out on the couch, flipping through channels. Lifetime, Hallmark, Nickelodeon. It had been five... six? weeks since he did this with Giles. Xander had thought Giles was awake worrying about seeing Buffy, but maybe he'd spent the whole time working on the courage to slide a hand under the blanket to Xander's thigh. Xander would have flipped out if he had. Would've been a great way to send him off to see Buffy, Xander's freak-out ringing in his ears.

Spanish soap, Spanish news, Spanish infomercial.

But he must have been thinking about Xander at that point - a lot - because apparently he already thought Xander was digging him. So why had he held off? Why not snuggle up that night? Slide up the couch, wrap an arm around Xander's shoulders and pull him into a last-night-together kiss? He must have thought Xander would be up for it, ready to kiss him back until they ended up horizontal, necking like teenagers (teenagers except Jen and Kate, who weren't going to be horizontal until their thirties).

Sitcom, baseball, bobsledding.

Xander could barely remember what that felt like. He remembered it was good, kissing for hours, like nothing existed but the two of you, all the time in the world to press thighs and explore under shirts... except that was with Mary, or Anya, or Cordy. There were breasts under those shirts. Not Giles.

His finger froze on the remote as an image flicked up of two guys in bed. Hollywood buff, sheet artfully covering what was way-obviously one guy's hand on the other one's cock. Both of them way-obviously enjoying it.

Thank god this hadn't showed up that night to give Giles encouragement. Xander would have been embarrassed enough before Giles' foot slid up under the blanket to land in his crotch.

The guys rolled onto their sides, chest pressed to back, the pair of them gasping as their hips pushed together.

Is this what Giles thought about? Did he picture Xander sweaty and writhing like that guy in front, groaning 'please,' and 'come on,' like he couldn't wait for Giles to fuck him? Did Giles think a lot about fucking him? Xander's ass puckered up tight.

Up to this point, Xander had managed to keep his thoughts about Giles' thoughts mostly PG-13, more chick-flick romance than pay-per-view because it was Giles, tweed and tea and stammering horror every time Anya chose to share details in the Magic Box. But now... was that because he was repressed and British, like they'd always thought, or because... wow, had he been jealous?

Jealous. That was just... How long had Giles been lusting after him? Had he been playing - the guys on screen moaned together as they thrust extra hard, and Xander felt his eyes widen - *that* in his head when Xander was with Anya? Or, wow, back in high school, even, late nights researching and Giles imagining cornering Xander behind the stacks for dirty, illegal things? Giles said he didn't. Xander couldn't imagine Giles back then thinking like that, but he didn't know if he couldn't imagine it because high school Giles was too moral-compass-guy, or because he was old, sexless guy. Giles had called that paedophilia when Xander did his early-morning apology for the freak-out, but maybe that was just what he said because he was embarrassed.

The guys onscreen laughed, and the one behind reached forward to brush his partner's damp hair off his face, kissing his shoulder and murmuring things. Was that what Giles thought about when they were together? One of them a little older, one a little pudgier, grinding and laughing, totally comfortable with being naked and gay together. Xander shifted around to sit up straighter, gathering the blanket over his lap like there was someone around to see.

What if Giles had reached for him that night, and Xander had let him? What if there was some magic spell where they could do it and no one would remember the next day? Maybe there'd be a chance Xander would do it then. If he could find out, no consequences. While Xander was staring drowsily at the History Channel, if he'd felt a hand burrowing its way into his shorts, he could have let it. Slouched back a little to give Giles room to work him, to wrap a hand around his cock and work it like this. Xander closed his eyes, hand sliding up and down slowly like it was someone else's hand. A guy's hand wouldn't be that different than a woman's. More like his own. Xander would have had his eyes closed before a mouth settled over his, dry lips testing him, soft familiar breath drifting over Xander's tongue. Xander might make some noise of resistance, not sure, but Giles wouldn't pay any attention at all except to squeeze a little like this, shift close enough to slide a leg between Xander's knees. Xander made a sound that wasn't anything like resistance.

Xander had seen Giles roughed up from fighting evil plenty of times, so it wasn't hard to picture him sweating and panting, mix in a smile and a spark in his eyes. A scattering of hair on his chest that Xander had seen that afternoon in the towel and glimpsed a few times when he was half-buttoned to be patched up for one thing or another, and he didn't know if he should feel guilty for using that while he- He was really getting off, thinking of Giles.

Xander stopped, waiting for the freak-out.

Nope, no freak-out, but he didn't feel too good about it, either.

Xander let go of his cock, picked up the remote instead and changed the channel. He wasn't going to get off thinking about Giles.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 23:
Giles and Xander had dinner in the museum cafe: yet another of Xander's comfortable relationships turned awkward. But Xander soldiered on and persuaded Giles to give him a private tour. Xander was most pleased when Giles showed off Xander's rusty research knowledge, enough that Xander didn't mind so much if Giles checked out his ass. Back home, Xander channel-flipped alone on the couch until he stumbled across gay porn. Okay, so he's a little curious. But not gay.



New York chapter 24:
Gold stars


"Beer?" Toby lifted his pitcher, sneering as everyone moaned. "You're a pack of little girls."

"Says the man who didn't make it to work last Friday."

"Couldn't show up to work. Needed one hand for my friend Mr Johnny Walker."

A second table had been pushed up against Xander's traditional corner and everyone had piled in, mostly loaded with sodas and ice water. Between them they were piecing together what they could of last week. It seemed they'd accidentally left Rodriguez behind at bar three or four, Pearson had lost his phone in a taxi that was yellow, and there was some question about the age of the girl Carson ended up grinding with. There'd been karaoke after Xander and Sam left, and a strip joint.

The stories had been racing around the site all week while Xander was wrapped up in his Giles obsession, and as usual he was completely out of the loop. No call from Giles. Apparently the awkward was here to stay.

"You two disappeared all of a sudden." It took Xander a moment to realise everyone was looking at him. A few more moments after that to rewind and realise Rickman was talking about last week when Sam took him home from the bar. Sam wasn't here; she'd gone to the bathroom or something. Xander half-rose from his seat. "Fuck off."

"Hey, who among us hasn't had a drunken-"

Xander had him by the collar before he could finish. He was gonna wipe the smile right off the guy's face. "Don't you talk about her like that." He could feel hands on his shoulders, warning, but they weren't making him drop the asshole. "She's married."

"You're a scumbag, Rickman," someone muttered as Xander loosened his grip.

Pearson shoved Rickman back into his seat. "She tolerates enough from us without you crossing the line."

The conversation got jerkily back on track, but Xander felt the glances. Rickman didn't bother to hide his stare. Hauling the guy across the table hadn't actually done anything to prove him wrong, but it seemed too late to drag the topic up again.

Xander pushed his chair back. There were too many people here, and there was way too much attention on him. He came on Thursdays to be part of the crowd, not the main attraction. He had to shuffle along the wall, bumping everyone's chairs to get out, feeling one pitying glance after another. He had to get out of here.

Halfway to the door, Sam appeared out of nowhere, grabbing his arms."Ha! I knew I could get you on your own. You're going to tell me about this friend of yours and why you neglected to be more specific about gender when I was setting you up."

Every single person at the table behind Xander was watching them, and he really doubted many of them were making any attempt to hide it. "I'm heading home."

"Already?"

"I think last week was enough socialising for a while."

Sam straightened as she made eye contact with someone behind him. "You seem to have gotten their attention."

Yeah, he'd bet he had. "I'll see you later." Xander pulled out of her reach and headed for the street.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It was sometime after lunch on Friday that they all heard the smack, and a few seconds later Rickman went stumbling past, hard hat under his arm, red-drenched shirt lifted up to his nose.

It wasn't all that surprising when Sam followed him out, looking furiously around until she found Xander. "You should have hit him. And you should have told me." She looked down at her fingers and hissed. "Wow, hitting people really hurts."

"You want some ice for that?"

She just shot him a glare and stomped off to the first aid kit.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"Hey, girls."

"Hey, Dad!" Kate didn't look up from her phone, but Jen threw herself into his arms. "Dad!"

"That's the kind of welcome home I've been demanding all these-"

"Mom said you were gonna put everything back on my phone."

"And I'm feeling the love."

"Will you?"

Xander gave her an extra squeeze while she was indulging him. "Yeah, when all these groceries are put away."

"Thank you!" Jen grabbed half the bags and ran to the kitchen.

"Kate?"

"I don't need anything put back on my phone." She still didn't look up from her flying fingers.

"I can make it so you do."

With a sigh, she dragged herself up and plodded over to take the rest.

"Vosges!" came a squeal from the kitchen. "You got Red Fire Vosges!"

Xander grinned to himself as he headed to his room, unbuttoning his shirt. "Felt like a night for a treat." It was pretty much a celebration of not being alone tonight, kicking off a whole long weekend of nagging and squabbling and mess and, finally, Giles on Monday night.

If Giles didn't cancel on him. Xander had called, sober this time, and fought his way through a pile of excuses to get Monday booked, and he'd only wrangled that because it was a public holiday and Giles couldn't pretend he was working.

"I'm going to have a shower. That ice cream better still be sealed when I come back out."

At least his girls didn't change. He grinned to himself as he stripped and grabbed the towel off the back of the door. He wrapped it around his hips, opening the door to find Jen lifting a fist to knock.

"Jen..."

"You said." She offered up her phone. "The groceries are away, and I folded up the bags. I even helped Kate with hers."

He took the phone. "Sure." He went back to sit on the bed and transferred the codes from his own phone, unlocked it all while she bounced on her feet.

All done. He gave her his best dad-glare. "Are we going to have to talk about this again?"

"No, Dad."

"Good." He handed over the phone and almost got knocked over by the exit blast as she scampered off to her room. Lesson forgotten, probably. This parenting thing was tough. No wonder his parents never bothered.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Monday was Memorial Day, so Xander took the girls up to see the ceremony at the Intrepid like he did every year. Their Aunty Mich and Petra had drummed respect for the military into them both, and they stood straight at attention for the gun salute as if they were soldiers themselves.

All the men and women in uniform looked like kids. Too young for pointing guns at other people or seeing their friends killed. It was hard to believe they were older than Xander and Willow and Buffy when it all started. He wondered where Riley and Sam were now, and the survivors from Riley's Sunnydale unit.

Memorial Day always got to Xander. All the flags and the ribbons pinned on chests, stone-faced vets with patches on their caps and jackets, all the civilians who gathered to pay their respects to generations of unknown strangers who'd fought wars and died to protect them.

Probably no one else in this crowd was thinking of fallen slayers, of Kendra or Jenny Calendar or Willow, but Xander was. When the planes roared past in the fly-by, Xander squeezed Jen's and Kate's hands.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

That night Giles and Xander were back in their steak and fries restaurant in a corner booth. Apparently Monday night was awkwardly romantic candlelit night at the Gloucester Grill. Cosy booth thrown in for free. Xander hoped - a lot - that it was just bad luck and not some elaborate seduction set up. He figured not, judging by the way Giles was squirming in his seat, but there was no way to get out of Gloucester Grill's den of love without turning it into an even bigger thing, so they were going to have to sit here and pretend that neither of them had noticed.

Giles licked his finger and thumb and pressed out the candle. Okay. Or they could do that. Couldn't complain about the man's practicality. Giles swept the candle off to the side and folded his arms on the table. He was wearing that green knitted sweater he bought when he first came to New York. It looked good on him, made his eyes sharper.

"How are things with Mary?"

"No horrific confessions, no mystery guests. Generally okay. We talk about the girls, and the girls, a little about Kate, a little about Jen, some more about the girls..."

"Safe topic?"

"This month, it's about the only one."

"How is Jenny coping in the doghouse?"

The girls were a safe topic for everybody. "We gave her back her vidzines and her music. It's all unlocked, and she somehow survived." Xander eyed Giles. "It's a pity I couldn't ground your phone, too."

"Mine?"

"You took her for a milkshake?"

Giles grinned, eyes crinkling at the corners. "She's a tattletale."

"She was in trouble."

"With you, not me." No conscience at all. "I'm nobody's parent these days."

"I could ground your phone." Xander folded his arms, mirroring Giles, and leaned over the table, challenging. "You wouldn't know how to fix it."

Giles reached under his sweater to pull his phone out of his shirt pocket and laid it on the table between them, nudging it to the middle. He didn't look the slightest bit guilty. "That sounds fair. Block all the vid whatsits and music that I have no idea how to put on there in the first place."

Xander slouched back in his seat. "You suck." He picked up his big wood-handled steak knife and waved it. "You're supposed to cower before my fatherly wrath."

"I find your fatherly wrath quite charming."

Oops. That was over the line. Xander put down the knife, and Giles did that shifting eyes, dipping his chin thing that he did when he was uncomfortable.

Xander cleared his throat. "Is it just me, or is it self-conscious in here?"

Suddenly the waiter was sliding a plate of best-timing-ever mozzarella sticks in front of them. Xander was going to tip huge.

As soon as he was gone they both reached for the same stick, and froze, and then reached for other ones and dipped and ate and stared around the restaurant.

Apparently Giles wasn't planning to just get over it. This was going to ruin their friendship. Second verse, same as the first, over to you, Willow.

Xander wondered if Giles was imagining stuff right now. And if he was, then what kind of stuff? He could picture sex with Giles now. There'd been pictures aplenty stockpiling in his brain since that late-night porn. He was secure enough (now) to admit that quite a few of those pictures had the power to get his attention. For curiosity at least.

Total honesty? Part of him sort-of wanted to know what it was like with a guy.

But waking up the next morning? 'Hi Giles, my once-librarian and once-watcher of my once-best friend. Got any Cap'n Crunch?' Except it would have to be 'Hi Rupert,' if they were all doing the sex thing, and no way could Giles ever be 'Rupert' in Xander's head. Some things were sacred.

Xander dunked another cheese stick. "I've told you about my friend Sam, right?"

"Erm, I... Your work friend?"

"Yeah. She punched one of the guys on Friday."

Giles managed a small smile. "Demon?"

"Jerk."

"As long as it was for a good cause." The smile widened, and Xander wondered what it would be like if Giles kissed him again. Just to find out. Just theoretically. No, he didn't wonder. He didn't want to know. Xander looked away from Giles' mouth to his hands. Wondered where Giles wanted to put them. He wasn't going to look at Giles' hands. He looked around. Behind Giles, a couple had scooted close on their booth seat, shoulders touching, his hand out of sight under the table. She was talking in his ear, and they were both smiling. They looked happy together.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"I told you, Xander, I really don't have time to socialise tonight."

"Hi. Nice to see you." Xander took in the mess of paperwork across the desk as he walked into Giles' apartment. Yeah, Giles said that on the phone, but Xander had thought it was just another excuse to avoid him. There'd been plenty of overtime excuses over the last few weeks. Guess he hadn't been making them up. Xander wasn't going to cave, though. They were going to cruise the subtext until things got back to normal. "Hey, it's Giles with a laptop. Isn't that tied into one of the end of the world prophesies? Famine, Pestilence, War and Giles gone wireless?"

"Piece of bloody rubbish," Giles snapped. He kind of looked like he was ready to throw it against the wall. Yeah, that was a little more like Xander's own Giles.

"They're making you get up to date with the modern world? I'm not kidding, you should check they're not another demonic cult gunning for an apocalypse."

"Apparently, quills and papyrus are no longer standard record-keeping equipment."

There was more than the usual sharpness in his tone. Xander stowed his witty banter. "Is that your sarcasm or someone else's?"

"That would be the fellow who was next in line for my position, who builds computers in his spare time and wasn't the least surprised to hear about the dig in Al-Chibayish four years ago."

Ouch. "There's some stuff you missed in the last sixteen years."

"You think?" His mouth twisted. "Apparently half the Middle East is democratic and China has rovers on the moon. My colleagues think I'm an ignorant fool, and they're dead right. I literally don't know the first thing I need to know for this job. I'd be better off quitting and going back to London."

"No!" No way. Xander was not giving him up.

"You don't understand. I am entirely out of my depth." He rubbed his face with both hands, as strung out as Xander had ever seen him. When did this happen?

"No, we can figure it out. What are you trying to do?"

"Xander-"

"What are you trying to do? Maybe I can help. Give me a chance, at least."

Giles glared at him, but Xander wasn't backing down. No way was Xander going to let him quit that easily. Finally Giles grimaced at the screen. "I'm supposed to be setting up new entries for the data system. Adding artifacts, loading basic information, assigning serial numbers."

"The card catalogue."

"Yes, I suppose so. It's basic work - apparently - technically the duty of my assistants, but I need to understand how the system operates."

"Let me have a look." Xander leaned over Giles' shoulder and started dragging through the screens. "Looks like a pretty standard file base. Shouldn't be too hard to learn. Your best friend's going to be the system wiki-"

"The who?"

"The wiki. It's a 'what'. Don't ask how it gets put together; it'll give you nightmares." Xander scanned through the menu until he had it and skim-read the overview. "Yeah, we can figure this out."

Giles had twisted to watch him instead of the screen. "When did you become a computer whiz?"

Him? A whiz? "Nah, sorry to report, this is standard knowledge now. Kate'd find her way through this quicker than I could. And Jen's computer classes... I think she's programming nuclear war, or rebuilding the stock exchange, or something."

"I'm a bloody dinosaur." He threw his glasses on the table, hard enough to make Xander wince.

"We'll figure it out." He squeezed Giles' shoulder as he straightened, and went to drag the other chair around. "Shove over."

"It doesn't make any damned sense." Giles only shuffled over as Xander's chair bashed against his own.

"If it makes sense to everyone else at the museum, then it probably makes some kind of sense. We just have to figure it out."

Giles looked at him.

Xander played back what he'd just said and smiled. "That's what Willow used to say when she was coaching me in chem. And maths. And everything really. Now I do it to my girls."

"I hate this."

"So now you know how the rest of us feel. For once, you're going to be a mortal who has to work to be smart. Now quit your whining, put your glasses on, and let's try again."

That startled a laugh out of him, and Xander felt like he'd just won valedictorian. They'd figure this out in no time.

It wasn't the most streamlined system in the world, but it wasn't that impossible. Once Xander stopped him cursing, Giles remembered he was a genius and started figuring out most of it himself.

"I see..." Giles tapped the screen and grinned as the entry filed neatly into place. He raised an eyebrow at Xander. "You're very good at this."

"Computers?"

"Teaching."

"Sure. Years of pretending to understand algebra so Jen would figure it out for herself. I'm a master faker."

"There's nothing fake about it."

Whatever he wanted to see. Xander watched him shuffle through a big stack of paper notes, finally picking one out and searching through the system for it. That was a really big stack. "Can I ask..." Xander paused, hoping that asking wouldn't ruin the good mood they had going. "How long have you been struggling with this?"

Luckily, Giles just looked sheepish. "Since the first day."

Three weeks. "Why didn't you ask someone there?"

"I'm supposed to be qualified for this job. It was hardly in my interest to reveal that my previous museum engagement used electric typewriters."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

From sheepish to ashamed. Giles actually hung his head. "I hate to look a fool."

"Yeah, 'cause the sky'll fall in if I find out there's one single thing I know that you don't."

"I don't know anything."

"You're the smartest person I ever met. In high school, I seriously thought you knew everything."

"Hooray for me. Intellectually superior to a bunch of American seventeen-year-olds."

Wow.

Giles caught himself, like he'd just rewound what he said. He rubbed his neck. "Sorry I'm being like this." He really did sound sorry. "It's been... Finding my feet in this job hasn't been quite so straightforward as I expected. My colleagues are not... It doesn't matter."

"I guess it's been a long time since you weren't the smartest guy in the room by a few hundred degrees." Giles didn't answer, probably not wanting to sound like he was sneering again, but Xander could tell he'd hit the mark. "It's okay. Welcome to your mile in my shoes."

Secretly, Xander liked it. Okay, the snotty tantrum was pushing it, and it hurt a little that Giles thought Xander would look down on him, but all that was seriously trumped by Xander Harris teaching Rupert Giles something. Xander wished he could pick up a phone and call Willow to tell her. Hey, Will, the Xand-man is coaching Mr Oxford Brainiac. Send gold star stickers for both of us.

Best of all, in all his frustration, Giles seemed to have forgotten his lust-issues and things felt like before the kiss happened, two guy friends with their chairs pushed together.

Xander had forgotten, too, for a while there. But now he'd remembered, and now he was conscious of how they'd pushed their chairs together. They'd been pressed up against each other, brushing elbows and knees for the past hour. He wanted to put his hand on Giles' leg.

It was just one of those urges, like when you leaned over the edge of a tall bridge and wondered how it would feel to jump off, or when you stood by a fire and wondered how deep you could put your hand before reflex pulled it out. He didn't really want to do it; just wanted to know what would happen, how far things would go if he did. If he just moved his hand four inches to the right onto Giles' knee, dragged it from his knee up his thigh.

Would Giles rear up and walk out, or would Xander wake up in his bed tomorrow, piecing the evening together back to this moment, wondering why in god's name he'd jumped? Or maybe they'd just kiss, and it would be like that other time with a little less freak.

"What is it?"

Xander realised he'd been staring, and he almost said, 'Nothing,' but suddenly he was worn out with pretending it was nothing. "You really like me like that?"

Giles' face dropped. "Xander..."

Clearly he didn't want to talk about it, but Xander didn't want to just bury it and finally make it so they were friends again but it was too late to find out what the hell had been going on in Giles' head. "You do like me, right?"

"I should think that was fairly well established." His tone was hard as rocks.

"Why?"

"Why?"

"Why would you like me?"

"For goodness' sake, Xander." He pushed his chair back and walked into the kitchen.

Xander followed. "You're a good-looking guy." Giles couldn't help glancing over at that. "I bet you could have anyone you wanted. Why would you want an overweight dork?"

Giles faced him, surprised. "You're not overweight."

"I don't look like you."

"And I don't look like I bench press building equipment all day." He blushed, honest-to-god blushed. He pressed his lips together for a moment and then said, "You make me laugh. You're charming, you're caring, you're a wonderful father." He waved half-heartedly towards the desk. "A patient teacher."

"Oh."

"You are unquestionably a 'dork'." There was a crooked little smile on his lips that went straight to Xander's gut. "Now I would deeply appreciate it if we could change the topic of conversation, perhaps to you now figuring your way through the inter-museum database."

Xander could have stood to hear a few more of his attractive qualities, but he let Giles key him into the new system and they got back to work.

Xander used Giles' bathroom before he headed home. He hadn't really paid attention to it before. It was a guy's bathroom: a couple of dark towels, a mat on the floor, shaving cream and a toothbrush on the sink. No flowers or seashells or candles. No one did make up in here, and more time was spent on jerking off than styling hair.

There was a plain, clear curtain around the tub. Giles jerked off in there, thinking about men. Thinking about Xander. Xander squeezed his cock a moment and then tucked himself away and zipped up.

It hadn't escaped his notice that most of the stuff Giles had said about him wasn't strictly just sex-stuff. Though the bench pressing building equipment line was pretty cool. Xander couldn't help flexing (just a bit) in the mirror as he thought about it. Giles thought about his body and liked it. You didn't decide you wanted to screw a guy because he knew how to pack a school lunch. That was stuff Giles just liked about him, and that was pretty cool, too.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 24:
Xander found out what it was like to be the centre of attention with the work guys when Rickman suggested he'd had improper relations with Sam after the pub crawl. Sam solved that by punching Rickman. Jen thought Xander was the best dad ever, since it was time to un-ground her phone. I wedged Memorial Day in there, really just to give a sense of time passing. Xander and Giles had dinner, which was only slightly less uncomfortable than the museum visit. Giles didn't feel the least bit guilty about having a milkshake with Jen. Xander dropped over to visit Giles at home, and discovered Giles was drowning at work thanks to his sixteen year disappearance. Xander sat him down and helped him get a grip on the computer system, and for a while things were back to normal. It felt nice enough that Xander finally found the courage to ruin the mood by asking Giles why on earth he was attracted to Xander.



New York chapter 25:
Bang


"They have Peroni," Mary said as the waitress wandered off.

Xander shook his head. "Toby won on the horses the other week. It's going to be another decade before I drink again."

"I don't suppose he put it all in a mutual fund?"

"Did his best to buy Manhattan dry. Turns out I can't drink like I- Nope, I never used to drink like that."

She blew a 'pffff' through her lips and dipped a piece of bread in the oil pot. "If he'd grow up, maybe his ex-wife would be easier to get along with."

That wasn't fair, but they weren't going to argue today, and definitely not about Toby. Of course, the only other thing going on in Xander's personal life was the total world-flip thanks to the man they absolutely definitely weren't going to argue about today. "How about you? Been burning your way through booze and boys lately?"

"Lisa and I went out on Saturday. You should get out there; it's a guy's market."

"Not gonna happen."

"That scene is brimming with hot, desperate women and bald men who live with their mothers. You'd be Aragorn in a land of hobbits."

"I'm really not into sword-wielding quests these days." And come to think of it, he wasn't much into women either. When was the last time he even fantasised about a woman? Definitely not in the last few weeks.

She put her elbows on the table. "Don't you get lonely?"

"I'm fine." And this conversation was starting to stray away from what was Mary's business.

"I may not have found anything permanent, but I've had some fun."

"Don't be tempted to share details."

She sighed. "At least it would get you out of the house. Don't think of it as trying to date. Think of it as looking around. Seeing what's out there."

Xander opened his mouth to protest, and closed it again. "Can we go back to talking about the girls?"

Why not see what was out there? Not the sort of looking Mary meant, obviously, but... He was suddenly curious about men, so why not go look around where there were guys who weren't his closest friend and weren't pulling sleighs full of mutual baggage?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander skipped the Landsman on Thursday. He didn't need to spend a whole evening paranoid that everyone was watching to see if he was spending too much time with Sam or avoiding her too much or acting weird and self-conscious, so he was just bailing. It had been a pretty good system at work all week.

Besides - he had a plan B.

So, okay. This was a gay bar, as evidenced by the big pink triangle motif and all the well-dressed guys with great hair. Xander must have walked past this place a thousand times since he moved here after the divorce, and it had never crossed his mind to come in. Most of the tables were filled, but it wasn't exactly packed. Early crowd, he supposed. Xander hesitated inside the door, waiting for someone to point him out and announce there was a lost straight guy on the premises. Nobody did.

It was a bar, right? Xander knew how to act in a bar. That part was pretty much in his genes. Head to the counter, order a drink. He hiked himself up on a stool, got a bottle of beer, and took about twenty seconds to decide this had been a colossal mistake. Because now he was just a guy, sitting alone at a bar, scoping out the clientele.

He didn't want to sleep with any of them. Sure, the blond over there was good-looking, but Xander didn't want to rub up against him. And the older one down the other end of the bar - he even looked a little like Giles if you squinted, but Xander wasn't interested at all.

"Hello."

"I'm straight."

The guy paused, halfway onto the stool. "Okay. You got a problem with gay people?"

"No!"

"Then you mind if I sit here?"

"No. Sorry. No, I didn't mean to... Sorry."

He smiled, a shining white smile in dark skin. He was a really good-looking guy. Xander didn't want to have sex with him. "You seem nervous." He was huge. Bigger than Pearson, so thank god he hadn't taken offence at Xander's big mouth.

"No, I'm, uh, always like this."

The barman slid a tumbler in front of the guy, and he accepted it with a nod, stretching his hand out. "Beah."

"Xander." They shook. "I, um, live around here. Off Canal. And I've never been in, so I figured. You know. Beer."

Beah gave him a look that suggested he sounded exactly as stupid as he thought he sounded.

"Where are you from?" Xander asked, pretty sure they were better off if Beah was the subject of conversation. He had a trace of something exotic in his accent that sounded like it might be more interesting than Xander's bumbling. To Xander, anyway.

It was. He'd grown up in Sierra Leone, which Xander knew was in Africa, but he didn't have the guts to ask where. He'd look it up when he got home. It sounded beautiful when Beah described it, except for the recent stuff that Beah didn't describe very much at all.

The bartender brought a second round, and Xander lifted his bottle in toast before drinking. "Hard to believe there are worse places in the world than where I grew up."

"Calgary." Beah shook his head. "It's a hell-hole."

Xander laughed. "So you don't mind straight guys wandering into your territory?"

Beah grinned. "Nah. I've met plenty of straight guys here." He gave Xander a speculative look. "Banged plenty of them, too."

Huh? "No, I'm not like that, I'm not, you know, closeted or... I like women."

"Right."

"No, seriously. I'm all about the women. Breasts, and legs, and... women."

"That's why you're alone in a gay bar."

"I just... I wanted to see."

His eyes narrowed, suddenly way less friendly. "Like a zoo."

"No!" It was hard to see how this could get more awkward, but Xander had full confidence in his own ability to pull it off. "I wanted to see if I... Because there's this one guy."

Beah's face changed to that 'I see,' nod, and Xander shook his head. He didn't see at all. But at least he wasn't looking scary, anymore.

"It's one guy," Xander insisted. And what the hell. Beah seemed ready to listen, and Xander was never going to see him again, and who else was there? He ran his fingernail down the edge of the label on his bottle and took a breath. "So I've known him for years. Or, really, I knew him years ago, and he's just moved to New York." Beah was still listening. Okay. "And I didn't even know he was gay, 'cause I'm so un-gay I didn't even get the gaydar installed, I mean, seriously no idea, but a few weeks ago, he um, you know. Kissed me. And since then..."

"Since then you've been thinking about banging him."

Yeah. Oh god, yeah. "Kind of."

"And what about before that?"

"Before?"

Beah leaned back on his elbow on the bar. "You never thought about men before."

"Never."

"Never thought about him before."

"No way." God, if Xander had ever got wood over Giles back in high school, there would have been the freak-out to end all freak-outs.

Beah sipped his rum or whatever it was, clearly sorting through all the different ways to not believe what Xander was saying. "Not one confused, dirty, shameful chubby for the guy until he laid one on you."

Well... And how long had the barman been polishing away at the totally clean bar beside him?

Beah laughed. "You wanna bang him, man, and it's not just because he kissed you."

Damn. He was right. "Okay, yeah, so there's a certain level of unexpected mutual interest, but-"

"What's the but? He wants it, you're gagging for it-" okay, but 'gagging for it' was a bit of an overstatement, "-so what we have here is what the lawyers like to call 'mutual consent'."

"Because he's a friend. He's my best friend."

"Thought you hadn't seen him in years?"

"I hadn't, but... I don't have a lot of friends."

Beah nodded, thoughtfully. "You want my advice?"

"It's the only advice going at the moment."

"Bang him."

It took Xander a second to realise that was it. "Bang him."

"Just do it. Maybe you'll satisfy your curiosity, and he'll get a night of ecstasy with a fairly hot piece of ass, or maybe you'll realise that you've been missing cock all your life, and all the brothers win."

"No way, pal." The barman stopped pretending and threw the towel over his shoulder. "You don't want to be messing with that." He folded his arms, eyes boring into Xander. "My first crush was my best friend. We grew up together, learned to tie our shoes and climb trees and ride bikes together, and when we got to that age, we started figuring out other stuff together. Ended up being all we did until he found girls, and suddenly there was nothing left."

"This ain't junior high, Mike."

"Doesn't matter. You don't fuck with your pals."

Exactly. Xander threw up a hand. "That's what I'm talking about. What happens the next morning? What about when I want to talk to him without imagining him naked? Hard to be friends with a guy when you can't meet each others' eyes." How long had it taken to fix things with Willow? Maybe it was never the same.

Beah made a sound of dismissal. "So how long ago did he kiss you?"

"Three weeks? And a half?"

"And how's it been since then?"

The barman shook his head. "Beah-"

"Just asking, Mike. How's it been?"

Terrible. And sometimes good. Sometimes really good. Figuring out the computer was good. In some ways it had all been really good. For the first time in his life, he knew for sure that Giles liked him, and, yeah, it was a little too much and sort of the wrong way, but it wasn't like the old days when Xander didn't know if Giles actually liked Xander at all or if he put up with him because he was Buffy's idiot friend. "It's been weird. With a generous helping of bizarre and a side dish of uncomfortable."

"So how's banging him gonna make it worse?"

Yeah. How could it be... Xander saw Mike's gloomy face and realised that was a dumb thing to wonder. "In all manner of unforeseen and very bad ways."

"Like how?"

"Unforeseen ways. They're unforseen. I don't foresee them." He saw Giles packing his bags pretty clearly though.

"I'll make you a list," offered Mike.

"Ignore Mike. He's a bitter old queen who doesn't get laid enough."

"All true, but I got friends."

"That's right, Mike, you do, and here we are!" A couple swung up on the other side of Xander, the one who'd spoken leaning over the bar to give Mike a peck on the cheek. "What's news?"

He was blond, slim and styled and good-looking, of the unreal sort like he'd just stepped out of an ad for jeans. And his partner was dark-haired and dark-eyed, broader, like he'd come from the underwear catalogue. Xander remembered his original mission in coming here and toyed with the idea of getting their clothes off. Maybe? Nope.

"Xander here is thinking of climbing on the good ship pride."

Xander opened his mouth and shut it again. What was this, group therapy? Live feed from Dr Phil. How's that working for ya?

The new arrival made a show of looking Xander over. "Put me down as one hundred percent in favour. We could stick this one on the prow." He smiled at Xander, oblivious to the rising panic, and reached back to pat his partner's hand. "What do you call those things, love?"

"Figurehead."

"Yes, figurehead. You could be our one of those."

Great. Xander hoped he was talking figuratively and not planning a float in the parade. "I'm not-"

"Open-minded is good enough to start," said Beah. "You want to look back ten years from now, wondering?"

Wonder like this for ten years or more? Hell, no.

Mike put his elbows on the bar, looming over Xander. "You wanna look back ten years from now on how you trampled all over your friend's feelings for you?"

"No! But it's not like that. He's not in love with me."

"You reckon?"

"He made that pretty clear. Just wants to, you know."

"Bang you," Beah said.

"Yeah. I guess."

"It is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable," said the jeans-ad guy, throwing his arms wide.

"He isn't on the open market, Corey. He's got his eyes on a prize."

"So what's the hold-up? Jump that man's bones, honey. And speaking of hold-ups..."

"Coming right up." Mike wandered down to grab a couple of bottles of beer.

Corey propped his chin on the bar like he was after a bedtime story. "Catch me up."

Maybe it was time to go. "Thanks, but I was just-"

"Xander's buddy made a move on him, and Xander's hung up on thinking he's straight."

"I am straight!" Xander drained his beer. "Mostly." Mike took his bottle and spirited another one in front of him with a wink. An actual wink. Xander had to get out of here.

Beah gave him some eyeball. "There's nothing wrong with being gay, my man."

"No, I know that-"

"Nah, maybe you think you know it, but you don't know it. You think being gay makes you less of a man?"

"No! God, no! I mean, look at you." Xander waved his hands. "You're way more manly than me."

Jeans-ad guy waved them off. "Gay, bi confused, horny, what the hell does it matter?"

"It matters because they're friends," said Mike. "He doesn't want to ruin the friendship."

"You sound like a fourteen year-old girl."

There was a murmur of agreement from the... oh god, how many people were listening, now? Xander half-turned to find more guys standing behind him and swung back to make himself as small as possible.

"Don't do it," said Mike.

"Mike's right," said Corey's partner. "You don't experiment on friends."

Mike pointed to him. "Bingo."

They were right. That was why he'd come here, so he could see if he wanted to experiment on someone else. But it turned out he didn't. Not even with the clothes catalogue couple.

"That's bullshit," said Beah. "His friend made the move. It's on the table."

That was true. Giles seemed to be okay with it. Giles hadn't seemed to care if Xander would mind being experimented on.

"As long as he's upfront, he should go for it." That came from someone behind him. "Tell his friend he's down with a one-nighter, no promises, and if his friend's okay with that, what does it matter if he's a queer or a breeder on Monday?"

"He's gay."

"He's bi, retard."

"Does he want to suck a man's cock? He's fucking gay."

"The latest studies from Berkeley-"

An argument broke out behind him, Xander's sexuality being hammered out by a bunch of guys who'd never seen more than the back of his head. Maybe an ear. Xander was ready to offer a hundred dollars and, hell, even a kiss, to anyone who could drag the conversation onto NASCAR.

He got poked in the side again. "Tell you what, honey. If you wanna get some practise in, Lou and I got some room in our schedule. You don't want to be sucking cock like an amateur."

Beah threw a coaster past Xander's head at Corey. "Don't listen to him. Save that virgin mouth for your friend; he'll go off like a firecracker."

Xander was getting straighter by the second.

"Better than messing around with your friend," said the partner. Lou.

"He doesn't want to bang you two," said Beah. "Eyes on a prize, remember?" He pulled Xander around on his stool. "If he wants you, if he's the one who gets you hard, then don't waste it on them."

"Don't listen to either of them," came from the older guy at the end of the bar. Everyone quieted, like a gravelly-voiced Yoda had just broken in on the conversation. "Tell me about your friend."

Suddenly Xander was liking it better when the conversation all went on without him. "Tell you about him? Like what?"

"You tell me."

Xander huffed. Sure. It's not like this could get any more surreal. "He's smart. Like, genius smart. We're basically talking the opposite of me. He likes old stuff. In the ancient sense of old, you know?" Everyone was listening. "Is any of this relevant?"

"Keep going."

Right. Giles for strangers. "He's English."

"Cute?" someone asked.

"Yeah. Or, handsome, really. He's older, so not like the guys in the magazines, more..."

"Hollywood mature?"

Hollywood mature, Xander liked that. "Yeah. Nice eyes - he still wears glasses; he's kind of retro. Good body. He can swordfight." Xander looked to the old guy, who just gestured for more. So what really mattered about Giles? That was obvious. "He's a good guy. Like, old-fashioned morals and ideals and loyalty. Like Jean Luc Picard in an everyday world. He'd face down the Borg and then make sure he got his library books in on time." Picard wasn't a bad comparison when Xander thought about it. "Then he'd have a cup of tea. But not Earl Grey. Giles likes Assam." Xander realised how stupid he sounded and ground to a halt.

Everyone waited silently for the old guy's advice. He nodded, looking thoughtful as he took a long drink from his whiskey. "Bang him. It'll turn out all right in the end."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander dropped on the bed, counting rings until Giles picked up. "Save me." He heard Giles' eyebrows rise.

"Demons?"

"Small, female ones."

There was a warm chuckle. "Jenny and Kate."

"And Cara and Sara and Kitty. It's a demon swarm. Cara and Sara totally had to come and stay the night so they could search online for Jen's dress for the school dance and watch Blue Dreams. Which wasn't fair on Kate, so Kitty had to stay over, too."

"And your role in all this?"

"Make snacks, provide bedding, and then hide in my room so I don't embarrass them."

Xander was totally in favour of the insta-party. Five squawking girls left no room for obsessing over whether Xander was going to do anything with Giles. Okay, well, not 'no' room, because Jen and Kate kicked him out, and the crazy part of his brain had decided Giles would be the perfect distraction from Giles.

"What are you up to this weekend?" Jerking off, thinking of Xander?

"Working my way through the computer files. Compiling a list of objects to look into once I dig my way out of the backlog."

There was a cheer from the other room, and Xander closed his eyes as he telepathically apologised to the neighbours.

"Are you hosting the World Cup as well?"

"Cynthia just dumped that jerk Adam so she could go stag with her friends to the prom."

"Oh."

"Don't worry. Their nice-guy friend Cheng, who Tabitha doesn't realise she's in love with, will hire a cool car to take them in, and Adam's less-jerky friend will dance with Josie, and Maria's boyfriend who's a college freshman will unexpectedly show up halfway through the speeches."

There was a long pause. "This is all planned out?"

"All the girl movies Buffy couldn't make me watch are back. With a vengeance and a score to settle. Except they seem way stupider now than they did back then. Just for you, I'm going to say it: I can't believe the rubbish young people are watching these days."

Giles' laughter heated Xander right through. He jerked his hand away from his cock. He hadn't meant to do that. Mind of its own. It didn't seem right to be handling himself while he was talking to Giles when Giles wanted to handle him and Xander wouldn't let him. But damn, he needed to- Xander sat up and grabbed a fist full of bed sheets instead.

"You are becoming quite the curmudgeon," Giles said.

"Damn right. I curmudge all the time." Xander rolled onto his side, wriggling for a comfortable spot. "So has it been better? Work? Now that you've been hauled into the digital age?"

"Better, definitely. I feel far less like a fraud. Though there is more to learn - I hope I can trouble you for another tutorial?"

"Of course, my Padawan!" Xander tried to not to squeak with the happy. "I'll be straight over after work on Monday." Better Monday than Sunday, to keep his nerves under control while the girls were still around.

He managed to nudge Giles into talking about the politics going on at work, which sounded way too much like Sunnydale High for Xander's liking though he managed to keep himself from saying so. It didn't seem like Giles had too many allies at the Museum.

It lasted until something nudged Xander's caution-meter. "Hold on a sec." He went to crack the door open. It was way too quiet out there. "What are you girls doing?"

"Nothing," they sang back in chorus.

"Shit, sorry, Giles, I've got to go."

"What is it?"

"I don't know, but they're up to something. 'Nothing' is girl code for 'Nothing we want to tell you about.' I'll see you Monday, okay?"

On Monday, he was going to figure some stuff out for sure.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 25:
Mary pushed Xander to try dating, so Xander went to check out a gay bar where he found out what it was like to be the centre of attention of a gay Greek chorus. There was considerable debate as to whether Xander should protect the friendship or just bang Giles. Xander hosted a sleepover for his girls and curled up in his own room to call Giles. He might, possibly, be a little bit gay for Giles.



New York chapter 26:
The caboose


Xander was back to teach Giles everything else he needed to know for the twenty-first century. It was all convenient for dragging his chair close again, and this time it was no accident that Xander had to lean across every few minutes.

Giles was buoyed by a few days of actually doing his job and typing up the notes he'd been hiding in notebooks, but he still wasn't willing to embrace the next learning curve. "I don't see what's wrong with subscribing to paper journals."

"For starters, most of them don't exist anymore, especially the specialist stuff. Seventeenth Century BC Babylonian History Nerds' Weekly isn't stamped on dead trees and homing-pigeoned to your cave three months later when researchers can upload for themselves and get torn apart by other researchers in real time. Just wait 'til you see the sarcasm banging around in the discussion forums; you'll be converted."

Giles stared at him, confounded. "How do you know what's going on in historical circles?"

"I'm on a couple of construction journals." And a couple of comic forums, but no need to bring that up. "It's all the same, my friend."

"When did this happen?"

Xander shrugged. "Over the last five years or so?" He patted Giles' hand. "For your own constitution, I'd suggest not asking what's happened to bookstores."

Giles had a general idea of which journals he needed for his museum stuff, so Xander got him on and showed him how to use their search engines to get himself up to date. A bunch of the news sites had 'year in review' tags they could pull up that turned out to be useful for filling the world stuff. Once Giles forgot how much he hated keyboards and monitors, he was hooked on all the crazy masses of information already cross-referenced in hotlinks for him, and new tabs were opening faster than he could read them. Xander finally threw himself in front of the screen and taught him how to mark them for later. Looked like the man wasn't going to be going to sleep for days. It was scary - and kind of fun - to watch.

Xander glanced over the desk. It looked like the high school library table, mid-crisis. Not Giles' office back then - that was always in order. Xander started pushing stuff around, seeing what was simmering. "Soon you'll ditch your paper ways. None of these old..." Rolls of old maps. Xander frowned as he unrolled one. They weren't Aramaic-old, just... diagrams with labels in copperplate. New York subway blueprints. Sewer systems. Service tunnels.

Goosebumps rose on Xander's arms. "You can't go after those vampire things."

Giles' hand froze where it had been reaching for them. "I'm only tracing attacks. There seem to be areas of high activity. It's possible there are gangs, or clans, territorial disputes."

"You were going to keep an eye on the artifacts, do some reading for Buffy. That's what you said. Not open a new battlefront." Now Giles sounded just like he used to in the library. He wasn't listening. "Seriously, Giles. You're one guy, and they're, I don't know, an evil swarm."

"Xander-"

"Maybe I am a coward, but that's suicide."

"You're not a coward," Giles snapped.

"Whatever. You can't-"

"I never called you a coward."

"Are you listening?"

"Are you?"

They glared at each other.

Xander opened his mouth, and Giles rode straight over him. "I'm not planning to wander the streets alone at night with a stake and a crucifix. I'm gathering information."

"But for what? You think Buffy can stop by for a weekend and clean up a city of ten million people?" Giles couldn't know stuff and not do something.

"What would you have me do, Xander? Stick my head in the sand?"

Like him. Xander shoved his chair back as he stood. "Not everyone's a superhero. I'm sorry I can't put my daughters second to the fate of the world and every stranger out there."

Giles jumped up as well. "I wasn't bloody asking you to!"

He squeezed a laugh from somewhere. "Oh, sure. So I'll just go home and watch TV at night while you're out there getting eaten by hell knows what." Xander felt sick. "I didn't get superpowers or a superbrain or a calling. I'm never going to be the one to save the world, so why can't I just be an ordinary family guy like everyone else out there? Wasn't it enough to give up half my childhood to pee-in-your-pants terror?"

Giles' anger dissolved. "It's more than your share," he said, quietly. Said the guy who gave up his home, lost his lover, got tortured, got sucked off the face of the earth for sixteen years, and still pressed creases in his boy scout uniform.

I don't want to be you, thought Xander.

"I'm not trawling the streets, putting myself in danger." He reached out to rest his hands on Xander's upper arms, just above his elbows. "I'm simply gathering information from news sources - more of them now that I have some understanding of what's available on that awful machine. I've been talking to... someone, a group, that may be able to help, but I wish to impress the urgency of the situation on them, build them the groundwork they need to start."

Xander's skin burned under Giles' hand. He couldn't think of anything to say, just stared at Giles, the appeal in his eyes.

"Do you think I want you or your girls living amidst a plague?" His grip loosened, and his hands slid down Xander's arms a little way before he let go. "This is what I can do. I can research. I can wrangle people. I can make a difference without throwing myself to the wolves." They were inches apart, close enough that Giles barely needed to raise his voice above a whisper. "Trust me, please."

Xander was hard. He wanted Giles to drag him closer, hold him and promise that he wouldn't get himself killed, or hospitalised, or scratched or bruised or overly worried. Xander's fingers were twitching with the need to touch, to slide up under that shirt and make Giles real, to make Giles feel needed for something other than research. He could taste him.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander walked into his apartment and threw his jacket over the couch. This was ridiculous. He had to figure out what he wanted. This wasn't Larry in the locker room. He was an adult.

He unbuttoned his shirt on the way to his bedroom. Simple question. Did he want to have sex with Giles? Yeah. Yeah, he did. He kicked his jeans off and headed into the bathroom, threw the tap straight to hot.

He thought about the way Giles grabbed his arms tonight, imagined he'd kept right on going and dragged Xander into a kiss. Not waiting to test the waters this time, just dragging it out of him, one hand sliding down to grab Xander's ass. If Giles had pushed, just a little tonight, Xander would have let him. He imagined Giles crowding him back against the table, not asking so much as taking, saving Xander the trouble of deciding, grinding his hard cock against Xander's. Giles here now, climbing in the shower with him. Naked and slippery and tugging Xander's hand around his swollen cock as he pressed Xander up against the cold tiles.

Xander braced himself against the wall, letting the spray pour over his head, down his face and back as he worked himself. No jury required. He wanted it. He wanted Giles to push him down to his knees so he could find out how Giles' cock tasted, felt in his mouth. Find out if he could be any good at it.

Xander let go of the wall and reached behind him to slide a finger in his ass. He wanted to know how that felt, a thick hot cock stretching him, hands clamped on his hips.

Xander cried aloud as he came, and it echoed through the empty bathroom.

Finally spent, he pressed his forehead against the cool tiles. The old guy from the bar was right. Things were already awkward. It was time to just do it.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

If Xander had thought dressing for a blind date was hard, he'd obviously never thought about how one went about dressing for sex with someone he'd known for most of his life. 'Not ratty' narrowed the underwear options fast when no one saw you in them except your kids. That just left black, white or coloured, which turned out to be a twenty minute decision. He tried on six different pairs, settled on black.

Thank god Mary had once purred about how good his ass looked in the dark jeans, or there'd be another half hour gone on pants.

So now he just needed a shirt.

Giles had muttered and puttered and tried to postpone when Xander asked him to come over, as if it was unreasonable to have dinner two nights in a row. Xander steamrollered right over that idea. No way was he going to give himself time to lose his nerve. Besides, they used to hang out three or four nights a week, and it wasn't too much then.

At least Giles had been down with coming over to Xander's. Xander didn't want to sit through another awkward restaurant meal, mentally composing excuses to drag Giles up here.

Xander's bedroom was cleaned and Febreezed, and the bed was made like a catalogue photographer was on his way. Except for the pile of discarded shirts. Too big, too childish, too nineties, too-tight cuffs that would be hard to unbutton when they were trying to - oh boy - get naked. There were fresh rubbers in the nightstand. And lubricant.

Xander was going to do it. Whatever it was Giles had in mind, they were going to do it tonight.

The ass-hugging jeans needed more crotch space.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander smoothed down his shirt - red, half-buttoned to show his white t-shirt underneath - and opened the door.

Giles was in a brown jacket and blue jeans and didn't seem to have dressed up at all and still looked - it was okay to think it - hot. Giles looked hot. Xander could definitely have sex with this man.

Of course, he hadn't exactly decided on a game plan. He could announce he was on board, or he could step up and kiss him, or he... he could just stand uselessly holding the door long after Giles had come inside. Giles looked at him funny, so he pushed it closed. "Dinner's almost ready." So the game plan should probably start after dinner. "Do you want a drink?"

Giles held up a brown paper bag. "I brought some beer; I hope that's all right."

"Of course!" In fact, probably helpful if it would stop Xander squeaking like that and get him to relax. For the sex. Xander took the bag, kind of snatched it, and went into the kitchen to search out glasses that didn't have cartoon characters on them.

After a strange pause Giles said, "Dinner smells good."

"Lasagne, made fresh from the freezer section at Whole Foods."

Giles smiled. "Sounds good." He was still standing in the middle of the room. Making Xander nervous. Nervouser.

Xander brought out Giles' beer, was extremely proud of himself for not jumping when their fingers touched. Giles looked at him and the room temperature shot up ten degrees. Maybe it would happen right now. If he leaned in a little... Giles was gone, wandering over to sit in the armchair, and Xander felt cold again.

He wanted to say something, but his brain was suddenly empty. He couldn't even remember what happened at work except that most of it was spent wondering if experiencing blow jobs was a good enough qualification for giving them. A blow job was on Xander's list for tonight. Mostly, though, he just wanted Giles to take over, show him what it was all about.

They used to hang out three or four times a week and they never ran out of things to say then. So how come it felt like they used up all the topics of conversation yesterday? Xander wandered back to the kitchen, laid out plates and forks just for something to do, ended up hovering in there because if he went back out he was going to stand out there not speaking while he stared at Giles' crotch. This wasn't going to plan, so far.

The oven pinged. As Xander pulled out the lasagne, he felt Giles come to hover on the other side of the counter. Xander settled it between them, picked up the serving spoon and waved it over the dish. "You like the middle or the crunchy burnt edge?"

"I can't do this."

Xander hesitated. "Eat lasagne?"

His tongue flicked across his lips. "I'm leaving."

Xander stared at him, and down at dinner. "I cooked."

Giles' hand came up to rub his forehead, made an aborted move for his glasses, and then settled flat on the counter. "I'm leaving New York."

"Because I won't have sex with you?" Xander blurted. He was about to fix that. They could skip the lasagne, cut straight to the sex, except not if that was all Giles wanted from him. "I thought you were my friend."

Giles dipped his head, looking hurt, even though he was the one leaving. "I don't want to be friends, Xander. I'm in love with you. It's not going to work."

Love. If there'd been any chance that Xander hadn't been paying close enough attention to catch the audio, it was written all over Giles' face.

All Xander could manage was, "Really?"

A bitter little smile passed over his lips and disappeared. "My life has been entirely turned upside down, my museum career is hanging by a thread, and yet all I can think about is you. What you'll think about this and when I can tell you about that. I sit on my couch with a book, and I wish I was here watching late night television with you. I go to bed and I..." His hand lifted like it might sign the end of the sentence, and dropped away.

Watching television?

"I was so sure we were... I was convinced I already had you. I left my home and Buffy and ten better job offers to move to New York because I thought you were waiting for me, and I can't simply let you go and pretend we're friends."

"Really?" Xander swallowed and tried again. "You moved here because of me?"

Giles laughed, and it sounded harsh and awful, and he shook his head in disbelief. "You can't possibly be that obtuse."

"Oh, I'm obtuse, all right."

Giles gazed in wonder at Xander's obtuseness. He was in love with Xander Harris. It was the most unbelievable thing Xander had ever heard, and his high school commencement speech had finaled with a giant snake eating his principal.

Eventually Giles dipped his head, seeming to read his speech off the countertop. "I hope that we can be friends one day, Xander. I would like that a great deal. But I really have tried these last few weeks, and I can't- I need some time. I plan to hand in my notice at the museum. I have to hope it doesn't do what's left of my professional reputation too much damage to resign so soon after starting."

"Really?" This time Xander could barely squeeze even that word out.

His shoulders dropped. "Really."

"Where are you going?" It didn't much matter if it was somewhere else.

"Buffy said I'm always welcome. I, I, I think that may be what I need, for a while."

There wasn't even a 'really,' this time. There was nothing to say at all.

Giles seemed to think so, too. He backed away, almost fell over the coffee table, and picked up his jacket. "I'm sorry about dinner. I'm sorry I've made such a fool of myself."

The door closed behind him, and Xander realised he was still holding the spoon over the uncut lasagne. He had to sit down.

Giles just broke up with him, and they hadn't even had sex yet.

Xander dropped the spoon and headed out of the kitchen. It felt like he was swimming, the air was so thick. His legs gave way when he reached the couch.

Giles was in love with him. As in, *love*. It had never crossed his mind. Friends, sure. Attracted, okay, that was wild, but a bit of imagination, and wild was okay. What could Xander possibly have done to make Giles be in love with him?

The suck of it all was that Xander wanted the rest of it. He wanted TV on the couch, and he was ready and willing to give sex some practical experimentation - they could do it on the couch in front of the TV if Giles wanted - but none of that could happen now. Not if Giles was expecting a big relationship.

Usually Xander actually *had* some kind of relationship with someone before he ripped out their heart. Usually he was in the driver's seat, watching the oncoming train. This was his first time in the train wreck caboose.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 26:
More computer coaching went great, until Xander realised Giles was researching New York's own demon world, fighting the good fight while Xander hid from it. Xander couldn't stand how much that scared him, and it was no longer possible to pretend he didn't want to get naked and gay with Giles. Decision finally made, Xander cleaned the apartment, pulled on his best underwear and got ready to man-up. The plan and their lasagne dinner came to a clunking halt when Giles announced he was leaving New York. Because he's in love with Xander, and playing at being friends just wasn't enough.



New York chapter 27:
Beady eyes


There was no way Xander was going to sleep. He'd gone to bed early because the apartment was too silent and empty to stand, but that just meant that ever since he'd been staring at his ceiling, listening to the traffic and the occasional shouting and distant sirens and garbage trucks, and all he'd learned since his eyes adjusted was that he needed to wave a broom up in the corners.

He didn't want Giles to leave. Welcome to understatement central.

If he had any way to persuade him, Xander would be over there right now, banging on his door. Couldn't Giles just get over it and stay?

Couldn't Giles just find some uber-smart, demon-fighting straight woman or gay man or whatever, someone a little more appropriate than Xander to foist his feelings on?

And then Xander could have the rest of him. Someone to talk to about his life. Someone to hang out with. Someone to... okay, Giles loving someone else would probably rule out the sex.

That was fine; Xander hadn't wanted the sex in the first place. He did now though. He wanted the touching, too, the hugs and casual hand on his back...

Xander wasn't stupid. Not as stupid as everyone - including Giles - used to think he was. He knew there was a really big, really scary thought sitting in wait. He just wasn't going to look it in its beady eye. He wasn't ready for that.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

On Thursday Xander went to the Landsman and found a different corner to sit in. He didn't know why he'd come at all. Sam said hello, but she didn't seem to want to stick around and set the rumour mill going again. A couple of the guys were friendly, but Xander wasn't in the mood.

He barely touched his beer. If he'd forgotten why mixing this kind of mood with alcohol was a bad idea, then Toby's bar-marathon had done its job of reminding him. God knew what idiot thing he'd say if he called Giles drunk tonight.

He'd been dragging up memories of scraps of conversation for clues how he'd read this whole thing so totally wrong. Okay, so all that stuff Giles had said on the phone about wanting to be sure Xander was on the same page as him about moving to New York was reading kind of differently now. But there had to be more than that.

There was the way Giles touched him. They hung out plenty those few weeks between Oxnard and Anya, but Giles probably didn't touch him even once the whole time. For sure Giles never curled up on the couch to sleep with his feet against Xander's thigh.

All yesterday and today, Xander had found himself thinking about Willow, more than he had in a long time.

He'd never asked Willow how Tara happened. One day she was pining for Oz, and the next she was sniping to Buffy about Buffy being weird about her having a girlfriend. She'd never pulled Xander aside and said, "Hey, Xander, big change in my life: I have a girlfriend now." She never sent him the gay memo, so it never seemed like he could ask.

She never told him.

It was hard to believe that after all these years that could come back and hurt even more than it did then, but suddenly Xander was maybe looking down the same rabbit hole, and he would have given anything, anything to be able to talk to Willow about it the way they used to talk about everything.

But she was gone. And Giles was going. Xander hadn't felt this yawning pit in his stomach since he drove away from the Sunnydale funeral home.

All these people from work: good guys, one good woman, and none of them were his friends. Not even Sam, not really. Not friends like fought apocalypses together, or shared secrets, or could hurt each others' feelings.

If Xander left tomorrow, he wouldn't miss them. Not even the way he sometimes missed Oz or Riley. And never with this vinegar-burn he felt right now for Will. Buffy. Anya.

Xander blinked, fighting the sting at the back of his eyes. He had to get out of here. He left his bottle, didn't bother to say goodbye to anyone as he headed for the exit.

At least he wouldn't have to cook tonight. It was going to be leftover lasagne for the rest of the week. Dinner for one. He used to be used to it.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander turned all the lights on when he got home but the apartment still felt dark.

He should have called Giles last night. Since he didn't last night, he should have called him today. Xander had no earthly idea what he was supposed to say, but he knew for sure this big gaping silence wasn't what was supposed to happen when your best friend dropped something like that.

But here he was, sitting on the couch with his phone in his hands and 'Giles' lit up on the screen, and he still had nothing. Probably there ought to be some sort of apology.

No, there definitely should be an apology. It wasn't okay to pretend anymore. He'd been leading Giles on ever since the kiss, leaning into him and doing the flirty banter because it felt good to be liked, never thinking even once how that must feel for Giles. All the signs that Giles had real feelings were there, loud and clear, and Xander had ignored them because he didn't want to see it. An apology sounded pretty lame after that.

Even now, Xander was aching to call and tell him sorry because he wanted Giles to forgive him and like him even more. If Xander really cared, he'd put the phone away so Giles could remember what a selfish ass he was and get over him.

All Xander had to do was wait, and Giles would pack up his apartment and leave New York, make his new life in Sunnydale with Buffy where he belonged. She could put her arms around him, lay her head on his shoulder and tell him magical words to make it better. In the long run, that would be better for everyone.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"You haven't told him yet," Kate said, pointing at a homeless guy sitting against the wall, "or his dog."

Jen glared daggers at her sister. "Shut up, Kate."

About thirty feet on, Kate waved at a couple of women waiting outside Starbucks. "Hey, do you want to hear about my sister's dress?"

"Dad!"

"Kate." It was the best Xander could do without cracking a smile. Jen had spent the whole weekend on the phone describing her dress for the school dance to every living person in New York. In the afternoon, Xander had almost offered to call Giles so she could describe it to him until he remembered he couldn't, and that had ruined his mood for a while.

He still hadn't come up with a good argument to keep Giles here. Not unless 'I want you to stay,' counted. Xander hadn't called him. It seemed like the calling window was closed, and he still didn't know what to say or how to apologise for not calling earlier. At this rate Giles was going to disappear out of his life without a peep from Xander. As if Xander hadn't been crappy enough to him already.

"You haven't told them." Kate pointed at an open-top tour bus.

Xander couldn't help his smile, and Jen huffed when she saw it, stalking on ahead.

Xander understood Jen's dress for the dance was 'pink' and 'long'. Jen had words for the material and the kind of neck and where the seams were and other stuff, which bits were like Tabitha's dress for the prom in Blue Dreams and which were more like Kimiko Inoue's dress from the Oscars. There was giggling and squealing on every phone call, and even Kate's peanut gallery comments couldn't dent her mood for more than a few minutes. On Friday night after each call she'd tried describing her friends' dresses to Kate and Xander in the same foreign girl-language, but it hadn't taken her long to give that up as a lost cause.

Somehow every description had come back to Blue Dreams though, and Xander was starting to have an idea.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

On Sunday he said goodbye to the girls, grabbed his phone and got out of the empty apartment as soon as he could. He was down on the street before he realised even the idea of food made him queasy. He couldn't go back home, though. Which left him standing on the kerb, wavering like an idiot. He shoved his hands in his pockets and started walking.

There were people everywhere, guys in t-shirts and girls in summer dresses. And maybe he was crazy, but it seemed like every single one of them was half of a couple and looking happy about it.

Xander paused by Starbucks, half-thinking of getting a coffee just for a reason to be here, but the kid behind the counter was lean and tall, with a strong chin, and he smiled at the customer he was flirting with by lifting one side of his mouth.

Xander kept walking until he found himself looking up at a big pink triangle. Why the hell not?

It was quieter tonight. Xander hoped that meant a different crowd than Thursday nights because running into the therapy panel was way-not on his plans. Which probably made it a stupid idea to be in here, but just as he turned to go, Mike the barman saw him and waved him over.

"Sam Adams?"

Xander nodded.

A minute later he was served up a cold bottle and the same look Willow used to give him when she wanted to know if he'd done his homework.

Xander shook his head and Mike gave an approving nod and shuffled down the bar to pour someone else's drinks. Xander watched the guys down there, turned on his stool and looked around the crowd. One thing he'd figured out about the whole sort-of-attracted to a man thing: it was Giles. He didn't want guy, generic if available.

God, what if he'd done it? What if he'd taken Beah's advice, and they'd done the whole naked thing and woken up next to each other, and then Xander found out he'd taken a wrong turn into a love story? He could have hurt Giles even worse than he already did. Mike was a wise, wise man.

Maybe if he'd taken that wrong turn, Giles wouldn't be leaving him. Xander took a long drink.

"Sundays are quiet. If you're looking for nightlife, it's the Albion." Mike shoved a bowl of peanuts his way.

"Nah. Just a quiet beer."

"Without the Oprah show?"

Xander lifted his beer in a silent toast to that.

"Glad you decided to pass on your friend."

Yeah, Xander was a real great guy like that.

"Sometimes, guys'll tell you they're just after sex. Like it's only women who've got feelings."

"Yeah."

Mike hesitated, like he was wondering whether he was out of line. Xander looked at him and waited. "Keep an eye on your friend. Sometimes there's more going on than you realise."

"Yeah. I will. Thanks."

Xander hoped that would be the end, but Mike took it as encouragement, leaning on his elbows on the counter. "And if you don't mind me saying so... I don't know what's going on with you. I can see there's something."

Xander couldn't help meeting his eyes.

"You're not ready. You figure out who you are first, then you figure out what you want. If it's him... maybe he'll still be waiting. But you're not ready."

No kidding. Xander nodded into his beer until Mike went away.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

On Monday, Xander dragged his work boots off at the door, dropped his lunch box on the kitchen counter, and then stood in front of the fridge. Didn't want soda. Didn't want juice. Didn't really want anything, but it was a while before he closed the door.

He went out to the living room, and he stood there a while. Didn't want to watch TV. Didn't want to get on the computer to browse around the forums. Didn't want to sketch furniture designs he was never going to make. He didn't want to clean either, but at least then something would be done. He grabbed the hamper out of his room and pulled the girls' sheets, topped it up with all the living room socks, and left it by the door.

Hair ties and books went back to the girls' room, all the scraps from Kate's attempt to make an astronaut suit for her doll went in the trash, a random pair of dice and unfamiliar green plastic thing went in the 'random game pieces' box in the third drawer.

Back to the fridge to pour out the leftover milk and check for anything else that didn't need to stick around. Right down the back there were still two bottles of Giles' fancy imported beer from Wednesday. Xander took a shaky breath, and then he dropped one in the hamper and headed out to the elevator.

He threw the washing in the machine and jumped up on the laundry-folding table to crack his beer. Lasagne, beer, sex. That was supposed to be the plan. That had been Xander's plan. Giles had brought this as goodbye beer. Xander took a sip. It was bitter enough.

"Will, if you wanted to haunt me right now, that'd be okay." It was probably strange that with all the years of paranormal stuff, he'd never once expected Willow to pop up from beyond the grave. He didn't now.

He tipped his head back to stare up at the mess of pipes under the grey popcorn ceiling. "How'd you know, Willow? How did you go from crying over Oz to knowing Tara was the one?"

If Willow was around, she'd punch his arm and say, "Stop talking to dead girls and pick up the phone, silly."

He hadn't called Giles. It had been five days, and he still hadn't had the guts to call Giles up and say 'Sorry for being stupid and obtuse.' Or 'Good luck with stuff.' Or 'You're not the fool here, Giles, except for having such lousy taste in guys.'

Or even just, 'Sorry. I'm a coward.'

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 27:
After the revelation that Giles was in love with Xander and leaving, Xander lay awake and wished Giles would stick around and not be in love with him. He went to work-drinks, and wished Willow was around to talk to. He went home, and felt bad about not calling Giles yet. Jen acquired a pink dress for the school dance, and was happy about it. Xander went back to the gay bar to avoid being home alone, and Mike the barman unwittingly delivered a 'told you so'. Xander did laundry and drank break-up beer and still didn't call Giles. Because he's a coward.



New York chapter 28:
Zombie apocalypse


"You're the best, Mr Harris!"

"Thanks, Mr Harris!"

"Thank you, Dad!"

Xander was caught off-guard by Jen's last, enthusiastic hug, but he got his arms around her thin shoulders for a squeeze. She was wearing Mary's perfume.

Lots of Mary's perfume.

"You look beautiful, Jen." Just as fast she was back with her girlfriends, all of them looking like twenty-five year-olds as they balanced their way up the stairs into the school. Xander still didn't understand what a princess neck was, but her long pink dress deserved all the rave reviews. She looked amazing.

Cara's parents were picking them up and hosting the after-dance sleepover, so Xander's work was done. He waved at Mrs Klein on the door and climbed back into the car. He'd won some good dad points tonight. Cara and Sara thought Jen was cool, which meant for tonight, Jen thought Xander was cool. And he got to drive a Pontiac Firebird. He petted the dash. This was a nice car.

He turned the ignition, and it growled to life. A very nice car.

It was two years later than the model Cheng drove the girls in to the prom in Blue Dreams, but Jen didn't know the difference between the '67 and '69, and neither did Cara or Sara. Xander didn't know either, but he'd listened while Sam's husband Pete explained the differences in detail last night in exchange for letting Xander borrow it. The girls had mocked him when he showed up in a tux at Cara's apartment, but they all squealed when he brought them downstairs and they saw their ride to the dance.

He'd barely recognised Jen when the three girls came giggling out of Cara's bedroom, their hair swept up and curling around their faces, make-up perfect (Cara's older sister insisted on doing it for them), dresses long and sleek. You could only tell they weren't real models by the way they all wobbled in their heels.

Xander was man enough to admit - inside his head, anyway - that he'd teared up a bit when he saw her. She looked like a woman.

And then Sara belched, and the three girls had to clutch each other to stay upright in their shoes as they laughed.

He'd teared up wishing Giles could see her. That was pretty much what he'd been thinking all evening. Hey, Giles, look at my little girl. I did this.

And a little part of him had been thinking, 'Hey, Giles. Like me in my tux?'

The last time Xander wore a tux was the not-wedding. It had been nagging at him all night like his too-tight collar, but it was only as he drove away from the school, alone with his thoughts, that he couldn't push it away anymore.

It was just a suit and tie when he married Mary; she didn't want to be white and flouncy and five months pregnant, and it wasn't a big wedding anyway. Her family, a few of her friends, none of his.

His first date and his last with Anya were in tuxedos. Before that, him and Willow kissed when he was trying on his Homecoming tux.

Sometimes things happened when you wore a tux, big things that were out of your control.

Xander couldn't say how he found himself double-parked outside Giles' apartment. The kitchen light was on.

He didn't want to go from suave, polished, best dad ever, to sitting in his shorts in his empty apartment. He could head up now, say he was just in the neighbourhood, just stopping by to ask Giles to stick around in New York, and oh? This tux? Just a dumb idea for Jen's school dance.

He was an asshole for even thinking about it, but he wanted Giles to see him all polished up and look at him again like he did last week. And then he wanted Giles to stay, and not make this complicated.

He wanted Giles to catch his sleeve and pull him close, to straighten his bow tie and then tug it undone and kiss him, undress him, need him.

He wanted to leave a trail of clothes through the apartment like they couldn't get close enough fast enough, feel Giles' skin under his hands, hear Giles listing all the stuff he liked about Xander.

Xander wanted to show Giles how hard he was right now, make him understand that he was the only guy who'd ever made him that way, and then let Giles take over, let him do anything he wanted.

And then when they woke up tomorrow, sticky and aching, Xander wanted that to be enough.

The light in the window shifted, like Giles was moving around up there. Making tea probably. Or boxing up his stuff.

Xander's jaw ached, and his throat burned.

This was one of those life-shifting moments: seeing Jesse vamp, making Anya cry in her wedding dress. Clearing his toiletries out of the bathroom cabinet from between Mary's and the girls'.

Putting Peter's Pontiac in gear and heading home.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander pressed his finger to the lock and trudged inside the apartment. Shoes by the door, bow tie slid out of his collar, and then through to his room to get the tuxedo off as fast as possible. He stripped to his shorts and pulled on a t-shirt, hung the suit up carefully, straight back on the hangers, lining up the seams so it looked exactly like how it came from the rental place. Until that was done, and then he had nothing else to do.

Xander wandered out into the main room. It was spotless after Monday's aimless wandering, tidying expedition. He couldn't remember how he filled his evenings four months ago.

The trouble with only having one close friend was there was no one to talk to when that friend decided he was in love with you. Xander needed to talk to someone, and the past week had proved it wasn't going to be Giles. Aside from Giles, Sam and Mary were all he had. He wasn't all that close with Sam, and she was too eager to dig for gossip. Mary was his ex-wife and would be happier if Giles disappeared.

Screw it. He was going to talk to Sam. He thought about waiting until the bar tomorrow when he could pull her into a quiet corner to talk... where all the guys could raise their eyebrows and jump to some more conclusions.

So tonight then.

He grabbed his phone from the nightstand and came back to drop on the couch. Hi, Sam. Sorry about not punching Rickman. Thanks for getting your husband to loan me his car. I know we've never discussed anything deeper than bitching about the school system, but my friend's in love with me, and I don't want him to leave.

Yeah, this call was going to be great. He scrolled up his call list until... one name below.

He couldn't. His lungs hurt when he tried to breathe in. He couldn't.

Tara. Her number was there from when she'd sent it for Giles. Tara, who still sent him letters even though he barely managed more than the occasional postcard, who hugged him after Willow died. She helped Giles when he came back.

There was nothing in the world Xander wanted so much as to talk to Willow, but Willow wasn't in the world anymore. Tara was as close as there was. She was close enough.

"Hello?"

It took too long for Xander to swallow the lump in his throat, and she said, "Hello?" again just as he croaked out, "Tara? It's Xander."

"Xander! Is everything all right?"

Pretty much nothing. "Yeah. Yeah, I just wanted... to talk to you."

"It's so good to hear your voice!" She bubbled with joy, and it made him uncomfortable and happy and so relieved his eyes pricked. "I've missed you! When Giles came over and we all got together, there was a big Xander-gap."

Xander nodded, the best he could do. "I wish..."

"Giles explained. We understand." There was a soft little pause, just enough to make Xander believe her. "We've all had to make our lives over in one way or another. But it, it means a lot that you called. How are you?"

"I'm..." He didn't have an answer. "I wanted to talk to you."

There was a long pause, and when she spoke again she was softer, Tara just like he remembered. "What is it, sweetie?"

He didn't know an endearment could undo him. He pressed the phone hard to his cheek as he curled over his knees.

"Take your time," in his ear, and that made it worse. He wished she was here.

"I'm sorry," he gasped. Sixteen years, and he'd suddenly called her to not-talk.

"Shhh. It's fine. I can wait as long as you need."

He needed a week. A month. "How did you and Will get together?"

"Oh."

"I'm sorry. I don't-"

"It's all right." She sounded surer as she said it. "I, I loved her the moment I saw her. She was so real. So beautiful inside."

That was her. The girl he grew up with. "And Willow?"

There was a longer pause. "We started practicing magic together. It was... it can be intimate, you know?"

"Yeah." Xander scratched at his knee. He'd done some essence-mixing back in the day.

"She told me it wasn't, wasn't a moment. It was lots of moments. Until she realised that I mattered. That's what she told me." There was a pause, and Xander imagined her gaze dropping away, her nervous smile. "That probably doesn't make much sense to you."

"Yeah. Yeah, it does."

It was maybe the longest conversation he'd ever had with Tara. They talked about Willow, and Sunnydale, somehow made it onto the time Tara's nutso family came to visit before Xander thought to wonder if she knew how Giles felt about him. Had Giles said something to them all in LA about his big plans to move to New York and be Xander's boyfriend? Buffy knew for sure, Xander realised, and that was... whoa... so maybe they all did. God, maybe they'd all sat around, Giles and Tara and Buffy and Dawn and - why not? - Faith and Wesley too, planning Xander's future over dinner.

"Xander?"

"Did you know?"

"Know what?"

"That he's in love with me?"

It was a long wait for Tara's, "Really?"

"That's what I said."

"Giles?"

"Yeah."

"Wow."

"Yeah." Guess Giles hadn't blabbed it around to everyone.

"How, how do you feel?"

"I don't, I'm not, I... I don't know."

"Oh."

"Yeah. Exactly." He took a long breath in. "I don't want to hurt him." He'd got as far as confused, but he couldn't take that to Giles. "I already have."

"I'm sorry."

"Me too."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"Lock and load, kids. Hunting season."

"You can't shoot them, Rodriguez, you fucking dumbshit."

"Fuck you, Rickman, I'll feed you to 'em."

Xander rubbed his head, wishing his headache would recede back to a tolerable level of hellish. He hadn't slept all night until he slept in this morning and the sun had been in his eyes all day and the breakfast burrito he'd sucked down in his rush to work wasn't sitting right.

For some reason the hot topic of the week at the Landsman was the zombie apocalypse, and they were getting everything wrong. No way would any of them survive. Any idiot knew zombies didn't really eat brains unless their masters commanded it, and they hadn't even established for sure whether they were talking about the mindless, mask-chasing kind or the partying, school-blowing-up kind.

Instead of demanding specifics and calling up his vast experience, Xander was in his corner, nursing his queasy stomach and imagining Giles' dry retorts to all their half-baked plans.

Rickman seemed to think he was going to go around decapitating them with a mixture of martial arts he learned back in elementary school and a sword, like some sort of kung fu avenging angel. It was hard to imagine when Rickman could barely swing a hammer straight.

Sam flat-out laughed at him. "You're going to beat them up? Baby, last month a girl hit you and you had to go home like a first-grader with a scraped knee."

Everyone laughed, and Rickman shot her a filthy look. Xander smiled.

"An old jail, that is what you need," said Radek. "Fortified walls, independent water. Stock food, pick a good crew, and wait it out."

"Now you're talking," Toby said. "I'm taking Pearson, Kelly and Harris." He pointed each of them out.

Xander's head snapped around.

"Harris?" exclaimed Carson. Rickman choked on his drink.

"Maybe we won't take you, Toby," Pearson retorted.

"Me?" said Xander. "I'll be hiding behind Sam. Probably screaming like a kid at a Mawrk concert." Unlike the rest of them, Xander had solid experience to back up his plan.

Toby waved his arm, spilling beer. "No way, Harris, I got your number. I was there when that wall collapsed."

Suddenly people were looking over at Xander, and a couple of different voices asked, "When was that?"

"Just a work accident," Xander muttered, but no one seemed to hear. They were all listening to Toby.

"Six, seven years ago? You shoulda seen it. Crane came down on the Apple Tower site over near Columbus Circle."

"I remember that."

"You guys were on that job?"

"It was a fucking cock-up. Place was in chaos, the super's having a nervous breakdown, and Harris walks in there like he's sorting out lunch, propping shit up and cracking jokes to calm the guys. One of the subbies had crushed his leg, blood fucking everywhere, and Harris didn't blink. Like he saw that shit every day. Poor bastard couldn't pull a woman in a brothel, but he's my man in a catastrophe."

Xander's ears were burning. "Thanks for that, Toby."

Toby raised his glass. "You're a gutsy fucker, Harris. Totally on my zombie team."

Then how come Xander was hiding here?

The conversation finally wandered off Xander and back to how to kill the walking dead. Xander went back to watching, trying to imagine Sunnydale dropped on these people for a few days. You never did know. People surprised you in a crisis.

Apparently even Xander could when it really mattered. He'd never thought he did anything special at the Apple Tower. It was triage minus vampires, and Xander didn't see that stuff every day anymore, but he used to see it all the time.

He'd stopped the school-blowing-up zombies in senior year. He'd done it all by himself. So how come he could face off against a dead sociopath over a ticking-down bomb in the school basement, but he couldn't face Giles?

How come he could talk to complete strangers in a bar, and he could talk to a friend he hadn't seen since he was a kid, but the idea of telling Giles how he felt had his stomach churning like a slushie machine?

The thing was, you didn't really have a choice when zombies abducted you. Maybe you thought you were going to puke, but you chased them into the school anyway. Apocalypses and vampires and trolls didn't wait for you to figure out how you felt. They just tried to kill you, and then you forgot the terror and figured out what you wanted pretty fast.

"Where are you going, Harris? The night is young."

"Bachelor life's a fucking waste on you, Harris."

"All this scary zombie talk make you crap your pants?"

There was laughter and friendly jeers.

Xander kept on shuffling his way out. "Just remembered I left my zombie-fighting axe in my other pants. I'll see you all tomorrow."

Xander was done running away. He had a hellmouth to take on, even if it was scary enough to make him crap his pants.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 28:
Xander scored big time in the dad stakes when he drove Jen and her friends to the school dance in the car from their favourite prom movie. He wished Giles was around to see his little girl. And to see Xander looking hot in a tux. Would it be so bad if Xander let Giles ogle him in the tux? Desperate for someone to talk to about his mid-life Giles crisis, Xander stumbled across Tara's phone number and it turned out she was exactly, exactly the person he needed to talk to. Even if it made everything hurt more. Over drinks the work crew were discussing the zombie apocalypse and getting it all wrong. Except about Xander being a gutsy fucker. Maybe that part could be true.



New York chapter 29:
A spinning thing


Half an hour after he left the Landsman, Xander was at Giles' door.

Giles looked surprised when he opened it. Xander didn't know why he was surprised. He had to have expected Xander to show up at some point, even if Xander hadn't phoned him one single time all week. Even if Xander was kind of surprised to find himself here now. "Hi."

"Hello." Giles was leaning on the door, looking uber-casual in a grey t-shirt. Tight, but not too tight. It made Xander's insides curl like a chip-packet in the oven. And there was a parent-specific metaphor if ever there was one. And why was he still out in the hallway?

Giles suddenly jerked, like someone had given him a poke, and stepped aside.

Xander wandered in. Boxes everywhere again, shelves empty again. Giles wasn't wasting any time. "I figured I'd know what to say when I got here." He hated the bleak look on Giles' face.

"Do you?"

Xander turned to face him, raised his hands. "No."

Giles waited.

"Um. Don't go?"

Giles huffed a little sad laugh. "I'm sorry I've made such a hash of things." He wandered over to sit on a milk crate in the middle of half-packed boxes. He really needed to stop apologising. Xander nudged a box with his toe. "Seems like we just unpacked all these."

"I'm sorry."

Okay, yeah, Xander asked for that one. He didn't know whether to sit or haul Giles up to face him, so he just stood there like an idiot. Put his hands in his pockets, pulled them out again. "You're giving up pretty easy."

Giles put down the book he'd just picked up. "I beg your pardon?"

"You don't think I'm worth fighting for?"

Giles looked at him like he was an especially offensive brand of crazy. "I've been here for three months. You told me you're straight. What am I supposed to do, turn you?"

Xander's stomach bottomed out. That was what he wanted. And he was about to say the most terrifying thing he'd ever said in his life, right after he swallowed this humungous lump in his throat. "Maybe it's worth trying."

He waited, watched Giles' expression. Must-see TV. From angry to confused to sure he'd gone deaf to hope. Not hope. More anger. "What are you playing at?"

Xander sat down on a box, felt something give and shot up again, found a piece of floor instead. Close to Giles but not too close. Shouldn't have sat down, he needed to pace. Maybe he should have rehearsed this. Maybe he should know what the hell he was going to say. "I don't know. I do like you. Like that. I like you, but I'm not... I've never liked a guy before. I'm thirty-seven, never liked a guy. I wasn't gay last year. Or three months ago. And I've spent a lot of time this past week staring at Jon Huertas, who Mary swears is the hottest guy in the world, and I gotta tell you, I don't get it. But I've been, um, thinking about you. A lot. There's been zingy feelings since that first week you stayed. I didn't recognise them because, you're a guy. Totally a guy. And I'm not gay."

"Xander-"

"Wait, hang on. But the thing is, I want to. I think about kissing you. I want to... I want you to be around. I want you, like, more than just like a friend. I'm not gay and I've never been gay but I can still feel where you touched my back in the kitchen two and a half months ago and I think about you all the time in the naked sense and the just hanging out sense and in all kinds of senses, and I think that means it's worth it, to take a chance." Giles started to look happy, so Xander steamrollered right on. "But that's worth it for me. But for you... It's not like... I can't guarantee anything, I can't, if this is just some early onset of midlife crisis, some stupid experiment with my Kinsey scale, some fucked-up attempt to recapture Sunnydale, then I'm gonna hurt you. And the idea of hurting you - more - makes me feel sick. In a totally literal barfing sense."

There needed to be a whole new word for 'silence' because 'silence' wasn't cutting it. There was always noise in New York City, but all of a sudden it was like the whole room had been beamed into outer space.

And why not. Giles was staring at him like he was an alien. C'mon, big guy. Your turn.

Finally Giles looked down, which was something. He picked up a book, stared at the spine for way longer than it took to read three words, even three really long Latin words, and then slid it into a box.

Xander just confessed - well, god knew what - and he was just going to keep on packing?

Giles hesitated, and Xander leaned forward, and Giles picked up another book. Boxed it.

"So?" Xander asked in what was a pretty steady voice, considering. "What now?"

"I don't know."

"Oh." Anti-climax.

"I don't know, Xander." Giles stood up and walked over to the kitchen, opened a cupboard and closed it again. "I don't know. You think I'm not tempted? You have no idea how much I want..." He turned to face Xander but he couldn't meet his eyes. "But I already feel like I've been pulled from pillar to post, and you've made a compelling argument for why I shouldn't. This has been difficult enough, having my world pulled out from under me - twice now."

Xander climbed awkwardly to his feet, feeling a whole lot of empathy for that particular issue. What a moron, to think stumbling over here with a big fat 'I don't know,' could fix anything.

Giles pulled off his glasses and gave them a quick rub on the hem of his t-shirt, giving Xander a glimpse of pale stomach. His lips were pressed together as he thought. Glasses back in place, he came closer. He looked worn out, like he'd been fighting demons all week. Still handsome. "I came here because I thought I already had a relationship with you. I left 'seeing where this goes' behind and moved to a new city to start our future. I was willing to take things slow for you, but I thought we were- Clearly you've, you've had time to... to think about... oh, bugger it."

Xander was yanked forward by his shirt and he had enough time to think 'Huh?' before lips pressed to his, warm and hard. That was more like it. Xander grabbed Giles's shoulders and kissed back, opening up and taking it deeper just to prove he was well and truly with the program this time. Oh boy, was he with the program. Giles was kissing him like he was making an argument, and there really was no one in the world who knew how to make a point like Rupert Giles.

There was an audible 'pop' as they came apart. Giles stared at him. "Am I turning you?"

"Like a spinning thing."

Giles shook his head like Xander was crazy or something. God knew where he got that idea. "This is all right?"

"Not if you've stopped."

Giles was staring at his mouth like he was trying to lip read, so Xander licked his lips and watched Giles' eyes darken. Still not getting the message, though, so Xander used his initiative and leaned in to get the ball rolling again. This time it was slower and deeper, Giles sliding a hand through his hair, cupping the back of his skull to make it deeper still, slowly and carefully learning inside him, drawing noises out of Xander that hadn't been out in a very long time. His other - huge - hand slid down to the small of Xander's back, rubbing electricity into his spine and pulling him close so their bodies pressed all the way. Hot damn, Giles was solid, and almost as broad as Xander, and flat. No breasts. Which was okay. Xander didn't care what was missing if the man could do this with his mouth.

Giles broke the kiss again. He really had to stop doing that. But, hey, opportunity knocking. Xander grabbed the hem of his shirt and pulled up, with an extra tug when Giles was slow raising his arms. Xander got it up to his hands and got distracted, letting his own hands run back down Giles' arms. Giles wasn't exactly beefcake, but compared to all the women Xander had been with he was massive: thick arms, broad shoulders... bushes of grey in his armpits. Xander dragged his fingers through Giles' pits, making him gasp, and then his fingernails through the matching hair on his chest. Giles shuddered, and the t-shirt dropped, there was a click of glasses landing on the couch and then hands cupped Xander's jaw, drew him into a softer kiss. His eyes were bare now, gently closed.

The skin on his waist and back was smooth like a woman's, just, way more of it. Xander was fascinated, drawing circles with his fingers. He'd been imagining all this for weeks now, and he hadn't even come close. Every woman Xander had ever been with had been small and slim, and Xander really hadn't had any idea what a turn-on solid strength could be, like Giles could just pick him up or turn him around, have his way any way he wanted.

The hands on Xander's face slid south, skimming his throat to his shirt buttons. One button at a time, knuckles brushing collarbones, chest, stomach. Kisses and touches that made him shiver.

And then a rush of cold air as his shirt was pushed off his shoulders, kiss never pausing, and Giles' hands - huge hands - sliding over his chest, thumbs rubbing against his nipples. Zing. Sliding around to pull Xander close again. This was the part he hadn't thought about yet, how different it could feel just to press up against a guy. Giles' arms surrounded Xander completely. Chest hair tickled. Right down to his toes. And the erection bumping up against his did something else altogether.

"Still with me?" Was he seriously going to check every three minutes? Judging by the nervous look in his eyes, yes.

Xander took a breath and took stock of this naked-from-the-waist-up situation. It was a start, but. "I'm way ahead of you." He grabbed Giles' hand and hauled him towards the bedroom, confused when Giles started resisting at the door.

"If this is your first... Perhaps we should take this slowly."

Xander turned back to face him. "I've never taken sex slowly in my life." He went for Giles' belt. "Cordy and me, bam, kiss outta nowhere." Button, fly. "Faith, one minute we're running for our lives, the next, I'm achieving two person nudity." Over his hips and down. "Anya - we'd never even kissed, but I turned around and Anya was just naked, right in the middle of my basement." There was one hell of a tent in Giles' white briefs. "And Mary... But it occurs to me that I shouldn't be talking about them while I'm taking your pants off."

"Not really, no." He didn't sound mad. He looked kind of amused.

"Sorry. It's a nervous thing. This is my first time getting naked for the first time with someone who actually thought it mattered." Xander let his eyes roam down Giles' body to the trousers puddled around his ankles. "If we've been dating for months, we ought to be screwing by now."

"Romantic."

"Sorry. I don't have a lot of practise at that either." Xander grinned and cupped Giles through his soft cotton briefs, liking the way he jumped. Kind of liking the feel of another man's cock against his palm. "But I do want to see if this thing fits inside me, so how about we let go of the doorjamb and move this to the bed?"

Giles hadn't let go. Or moved. "For someone who wasn't gay last week..." he said, weakly.

"Doesn't mean I don't like things up my ass."

If Xander had known he could make Giles make that face, he would have been here weeks ago.

He shifted right up close, running his thumb up and down the fabric over Giles' cock. "Considering everything Anya chose to blurt out, you really think she didn't own a strap-on?"

"Stop talking about Anya." Giles kicked off his pants and had Xander's shoes and jeans gone before they hit the bed, struggled off his underwear as he mouthed Xander's jaw and throat. They were naked, and their hands were everywhere; Giles was strong and lean and hairy, and he didn't seem to mind Xander's soft spots and love handles, muttering "Look at you," and "Want you," between kisses. Xander had never been overwhelmed by anyone before. Force of personality, sure, but the size, the weight of him, Xander felt like he was at Giles' mercy. He really, really liked the feeling.

He stretched his arms over his head, left wrist over his right.

Giles looked up, and then down into Xander's eyes. "Is that how you like it?" he breathed.

Yes. It was how he wanted it from Giles. He nodded.

Giles' hands touched Xander's hair, and left. Skimmed over his chest, and left. Touched his knees and gave a little push, making Xander spread, and lift his feet. He still had his socks on like a dork.

Giles just sat there, looking. Xander felt ridiculous and exposed and incredibly hard, waiting for Giles to touch him. Giles' mouth worked, tongue slipping around inside. "You want me in charge."

'In here,' Xander wanted to say, 'now,' but he just nodded. He wanted Giles to blow past all his doubts. He wanted to be overwhelmed.

Giles took another moment, and then reached over him to shuffle through the drawer, thighs pressing between Xander's, settled back with a rubber and lube. He looked so serious. "You're sure?"

Xander nodded again and rasped, "Yeah."

He laid the things aside on the mattress and ran his hands from the backs of Xander's knees down to his butt, dragging his thumbs along the crease where cheeks met thighs.

Giles met Xander's gaze and then back to his hands. Dry fingers slid back and forth along Xander's crack. Nothing like women's fingers. They were big and blunt, rough with calluses but gentle all the same. Xander couldn't look away from Giles' face. So much concentration, lips parted, opening more when he pushed against his entrance and Xander moaned. Xander hadn't been touched like this in a long, long time, since before his marriage got cold, and even then, Mary's tiny hands felt way different from Giles'.

And then there was oil, and Giles' fingers were slipping, circling around and dipping inside, incredible and not nearly enough.

"More."

Giles ran his free hand up Xander's thigh to the back of his knee and pushed it higher. "I'm in charge," he said quietly.

It was the hottest thing Xander had ever heard. And yet somehow he'd wheedled himself into a corner where he could do nothing but lie there and let Giles take way too long to get on with the serious business of fucking him. "Please?" he tried, and Giles smiled as a finger slid slowly inside him.

Xander whimpered. Giles' finger was huge. And way too slow. Xander's hands found a grip at the bottom of the headboard as Giles stretched him, except it wasn't so much stretching as exploring, like Giles wanted to know Xander's ass the way he'd been learning his mouth, and - oh fuck - finding that particular spot. Xander writhed but Giles was in charge and wasn't going to be hurried. Another finger worked in when he was ready.

Xander lifted his head. Giles' cock was hard and crimson and full-sized. Anya's strap-on and Mary's toys - the ones she used on Xander, anyway - were from the more modest end of the catalogue. What Giles was sporting was, well, intimidating. Like the rest of him.

"It'll fit," Giles said, a little smile creeping in.

"All right."

"It might be a tight squeeze."

All right, indeed.

Giles tapped his thigh. "Turn over."

That time already. The fingers pulled out, and Xander struggled over onto his knees, suddenly feeling like he was clunking up that first big hill of a roller coaster. Heading right for the peak with the sound of foil tearing behind him.

A quick kiss to his tailbone and barely loud enough to be heard, "Christ, Xander." That was better, knowing Giles was up there with him.

Cock, real, hard, manly cock pressed at him, and Giles stroked his hip and hushed him. Xander remembered how to do this. Relaxed and pushed back, gasped, and Giles sank inside him, stretching him open, and fingers were digging hard in his hip.

"All right?" Giles asked after a few seconds, breathless.

Xander nodded, managed an "Mmmm." It burned, but it was okay if they stayed still a moment. Giles was huge, and Xander was full, and he just needed to stay right here a minute or two. With Giles inside him.

Giles was rubbing Xander's back and whispering how tight he was, how good, and Xander couldn't have lifted his face out of the pillow if he'd tried. Finally Giles started pushing in, inch by inch, splitting Xander open until he covered him, chest heavy on Xander's back, and Xander realised Giles was all the way in, buried to the balls in Xander's ass, and Xander felt like he'd achieved something, even though he'd just been kneeling here, letting it happen.

This was different from being on the other side. Xander couldn't put words to it, but Giles was inside him.

Ragged hot breath in Xander's ear. "Xander, sweetheart, so good, you're so good. Could stay here inside you. Are you ready for me?"

Xander squeezed, felt and heard the gasp. "Do it."

So slowly he slid out, and so slowly back in. Yes, he fit, perfectly. Filling Xander with Giles. Slowly at first but he was getting surer as Xander pushed back against him, making all good sounds. A little faster: short, hard strokes that Xander felt from his toes to his eyeballs, jarring all the way up his spine, grunts as he thrust that Xander felt deeper still.

God, this was Giles inside him, Giles of the late nights in the library and wielding of swords and gentle fatherly advice, with his fat, hard cock pushing inside Xander, breathing hard in Xander's ear and sinking his fingers like claws into Xander's shoulder and hip.

"I haven't even touched your cock," Giles gasped. "Can I-"

"Please!" Just him asking had Xander on the brink; the sudden sure grip on his cock had him there, and Giles thrust deep as he squeezed, but it was Giles' sudden sharp cry that swept him over, orgasm tumbling through him and leaving him wrecked, panting.

There was a slick kiss of wet skin as Giles shifted off him to take care of the rubber and then wander out of the room. Distantly Xander heard a tap run, and then Giles was back, wiping Xander down kind of like a well-ridden horse. Xander managed to squirm out of the wet spot when he disappeared again. A little later Giles slid back in beside him, settling a hand on the back of Xander's head. "Still with me?"

Xander grunted.

The hand in his hair shifted, and then stroked, like he was a cat. Me-ow. "Is that what you wanted?"

Xander dragged himself up far enough to twist and meet Giles eyes. "That was... I'm..." Giles had to be kidding. "That was another planet."

He still didn't look totally happy though. He looked like he was capable of reasoned thought, which was a few thousand light years ahead of Xander.

"Wasn't that... Did you like it? You seemed to like it." He really couldn't figure out how he screwed this up this time.

"It wasn't what I expected."

"Oh." That hiss was Xander's bubble deflating.

Giles shook himself and smiled. "Don't look so worried." Fingers traced over Xander's forehead, smoothing it out.

"But I didn't mean to... I want you to, too, not just-" What a selfish asshole he'd been.

Giles looked worried now, and kind of determined. He leaned in to kiss Xander thoroughly, and slowly, and really well. He didn't pull back until Xander was feeling considerably better. "If you think I didn't, you weren't paying attention."

True. He'd arrived, all right, and all the incredibly hot dirty talk had seemed sincere.

"I'm just wondering what's going on in your head."

Xander turned onto his back. This seemed like it was going to be a conversation. "In my head?"

"It's a strange place."

"You have no idea."

Giles ran a hand up Xander's stomach and over his chest, sliding easily over the slick skin. "It was quite a sudden shift in gears."

"Not so sudden." Xander thought about that. "Okay, a couple of months to change your sexuality at thirty-seven might be classed by some as somewhat sudden. Don't leave New York, will you? I'm still figuring this out."

"I'm not going anywhere." There was something almost painfully gentle in his voice.

Funny, Xander had always thought relief and anxiety were opposites, but they arrived all pretty well mixed together at that. They were really doing this. "We have to unpack your books again."

"Oh, dammit!" Giles sat up.

"We don't have to do it right now..."

"My letter! Bahameen gets back first thing tomorrow."

"She hasn't got your resignation, yet?"

"She's been in Chicago all week."

"So go in before first thing."

"I'll have to." Giles relaxed but not by much. "At least you showed up today and not tomorrow."

Xander was lying naked in a sticky-wet bed with an equally naked Giles, having a relationship talk. This was the weirdest thing since... Xander was going to have to pull up his mental rankings of the weirdest things that happened in Sunnydale and slot this in there somewhere. Definitely above being Dracula's spider-eating minion. Maybe even above being turned into two people.

He lifted his arms over his head and stretched, starting to feel a little more with it. "Do you realise we're in bed together?"

Giles chuckled. "It hadn't escaped my notice."

"You just took Xander Harris's virginity. Didn't see that coming from Sunnydale, did you?" Or... "Did you?"

"It sounds like Anya had that particular prize."

"I don't think silicone counts. It definitely doesn't compare."

Xander added 'smugness' to the list of Giles' sexy attributes. "And no, I didn't see this coming from Sunnydale." He shook his head. "Are you hungry?"

Food. "Whatcha got?" He was really hungry now the subject was up, but better hope Giles had something microwaveable because that was about the limits.

"I ordered Chinese a few minutes ago."

Xander blinked. "Seriously?"

"If you want to shower before we eat... You're a little messier than I am."

"You ordered Chinese?"

"You didn't really seem up to the decision."

Xander almost said something stupid, like throwing out an 'I love you' joke, but caught himself in time. He settled for kissing Giles hard and then bouncing out to go and wash off, kicking off his socks as he went.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 29:
They did it. Hallelujah. Xander came clean about his confusion, and it wasn't a promise of forever, but Giles decided it was good enough and they did it. So far, so good.



New York chapter 30:
Scenic route


Giles' water pressure sucked. Lucky there were other reasons to visit.

The decisions Xander made didn't always work out well for anybody, but he was feeling pretty good about this one, so far. He'd just had what was, by pretty much any definition, sex with a man, and there was no freaking, which really showed how he'd grown as a person. Since a week ago.

Sex was definitely not going to be a problem. And a date who ordered home delivery while you were still incoherent from the ride he just gave you - that went beyond gender. And being this comfortable with Giles again was better than anything else. He still wasn't sure about the rest of it, but if Giles was willing to give him time, then Xander was going to take it.

He squirted a handful of soap and slid his fingers gently down his ass. He hissed. He was raw and sensitive, and once he started, he couldn't stop touching. The gentlest push stung in the best kind of way. Giles just reamed him here, thick cock stretching him wide. It was a thousand times different than what Mary and Anya used to do with store-bought toys.

He'd just turned off the water and pulled back the curtain when the bathroom door opened. Giles poked his head in, looking sheepish, and raised a folded towel. "You might need this."

"Hang on there." He snatched Giles by the t-shirt and yanked him forward for a wet kiss, not letting go until the intercom buzzed.

"That's our dinner," Giles said, breathlessly.

"So go get it." Xander grabbed the towel, liking the way Giles' eyes travelled south before he remembered he had somewhere to be.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"I don't know who General Tso was, but he could kick Colonel Sanders' ass." Xander swallowed another mouthful of rice.

"He was a commander during the Taiping Rebellion, rather a distinguished leader, in fact, despite failing the court exams seven times as a boy."

Xander put down his chopsticks. "China had a typing rebellion?"

Giles gave him a scathing look. Oh. Right. Probably not.

"Seven times, you say? There's a delicious chicken recipe for me, yet."

Xander missed sitting on the floor now Giles had a little two-person table to sit at, but it was still comfortable. Well. Not his ass, which was feeling kind of newly-experienced, and seriously, Xander pretty much liked the feeling. He kept squirming in his chair, trying to make the most of it. Giles raised an eyebrow, and Xander grinned at him.

The comfortable part was Chinese and beer. This was easy. This was what they'd been doing all along. It seemed like there should be something about this that wasn't this easy, but Xander hadn't figured out what that was going to be yet.

"How's the museum been?"

Giles grimaced. "It was easier to face the day knowing there was an end in sight."

"Oh."

"Don't worry. I am making progress." Giles didn't sound all that convincing, but if he was willing to give it another chance, Xander would help however he could. "How has your work been?"

"I got nominated for the last stand against the killer zombie hordes."

Giles did a double take. "I, err, assume that was metaphorical?"

"Theoretical. Apparently I'm the man in a crisis."

"You always were."

Yeah. The man in the way in a crisis. "We're going to lay the fortieth floor this week."

"Already?"

"The view's incredible. Right across Central Park to the Ghostbusters building. You can see all the way up to the San Remo from the right spot." Xander liked this stage of building towers, with the breeze blowing through and the city stretched out below. This was when he really felt like a New Yorker, like it was his city under his feet.

"Sounds lovely."

"Oh, hey - I talked to Tara."

That made Giles' eyes go wide and happy. "You did?"

Xander shrugged, suddenly not sure he should have brought it up. But what the hell. "I didn't really have anyone else to talk to. Did you know her coven is working on a spell to contain dark magic?"

"She did mention something about that."

They talked about Tara for a while and then the latest Buffy news until they'd burrowed most of their way through the food.

"I, uh," Giles swallowed his noodles. "I ordered dumplings as well. In, in case you want breakfast."

"Breakfast, huh?"

"I, I-" Giles planted his chopsticks in his noodle carton and put it down to look at Xander properly. "If you would like to stay."

"Tell me you want me to stay."

Giles reached for Xander's hand, scratched a nail over his palm. "I would like that very much."

"Then I'm staying." Giles bought dumplings. Making assumptions and overcoming his horror at Xander's eating habits and planning more sex all at the same time. He was a hell of a fast learner.

It was all surprisingly civilised for a mid-sex snack break. Giles had got dressed to meet the delivery guy, though he hadn't bothered with his glasses, and Xander had rustled up his boxers and shirt. Hadn't buttoned, it, though, and he didn't miss the glances. The conversation was only going to last as far as the fortune cookies, and then Xander was pretty sure Giles was going to be taking charge again. He was okay with that, and his cock wasn't sure fortune cookies really mattered all that much.

Giles didn't seem to care about the fortune cookies either. He got three quarters of the way through his chow mein and started clearing the table.

Xander started eating faster.

Giles tapped his soup tub. "Are you going to finish your nothing soup?"

"Egg drop soup."

"It's chicken and sweet corn soup without chicken or sweet corn in it. There's nothing left in there."

"There's egg."

"Which tastes like?"

"Salt."

"I think you'll find that's the pound of MSG."

"And the egg."

Giles leaned closer and lowered his voice. "Is this what you want to squabble about right now?"

Xander shoved the flaps of his chicken closed. "No."

They had it all in the fridge or the trash in minutes, and then Giles pulled Xander up against him, held him loosely, and gave him a gentle kiss. "Let's do this my way this time."

"I'm liking your way so far."

Giles pushed Xander's shirt off his shoulders, pulled his own over his head, and came close again. He studied Xander's face with warm green eyes, little thought-wrinkles creasing the bridge of his nose.

Xander had never looked this closely at another man's face. It was different: rougher, sharper... a couple of inches taller, maybe. Xander had never looked up at a lover before.

This time Giles took Xander's hand and led the way to the bedroom. He guided Xander onto the mattress and lay beside him, sliding a leg over Xander's thigh. He was still in his pants, Xander in boxers, but Giles seemed happy to stay that way as he leaned in for the lightest brush of lips. Ghost-kisses, faint scrape of chin. Breathing him. Xander waited, hands resting on Giles' belt. Dry lips over his cheekbone to the hinge of his jaw, in his hair. Inhaling him, and Xander could feel Giles' chest swell. Giles smelled of sweat and traces of aftershave. Teeth grazed Xander's jaw, and Xander's hands tightened as his cock filled. Giles picked up the signals and nipped and Xander was whimpering already.

"I'll remember that," Giles murmured, and moved onto his neck. They were making out like incredibly patient teenagers, and Giles was in no hurry at all, happy to explore. Fingers skittered up to test Xander's nipples, soft brushes and then a hint of fingernail, returning when Xander shuddered.

Xander started making his own notes, learning how stubble felt under his lips, studying the bumps of spine under his fingers. Noting the purr when he rubbed Giles' chest hair, the way Giles sucked in a breath when Xander flicked his earring with his tongue, stopped everything when Xander sucked the lobe into his mouth.

He ran his hands over Giles' shoulders, down the lean muscles of his arms, found the tattoo on his forearm. He'd barely noticed it earlier. "This is the tattoo Buffy had on the back of her neck."

Yeah, idiot, the tattoo Giles' ex-friend carved into her to save himself from the murderous demon that Giles helped raise in his irresponsible youth.

"It's all right," Giles said. "It reminds me every day. I hadn't forgotten it was there."

Xander took a breath and smiled, lifted Giles' arm to kiss an apology on the mark, and then he kissed Giles. He was aware of everything: the heat of Giles' mouth, the shape of his teeth, the tang of sweet lemon sauce lingering on his tongue, the faint touch of Giles' fingers over his shoulders, tracing his muscles.

He'd almost forgotten there was anything else when Giles rolled back, pulling Xander on top of him, sliding his hands down to cup Xander's ass through his boxers. The gentle touch took his breath away. More kisses, hands unmoving. "It felt so good in there," Giles whispered against his mouth. "You were so tight. So sweet. Better than I imagined."

Xander flushed. That sounded ten times dirtier in Giles' prissy English accent.

Giles saw it and smiled. "Do you like hearing that?"

He grunted and buried his face in Giles' neck. He wasn't exactly sure how he felt about being described like a virgin girl.

"You're beautiful, Xander." He kept talking, a low purr in Xander's ear. "I watch you eating, talking to your daughters, building shelves, and I can't take my eyes off you. Your smile, the way you move. I had a thousand fantasies, but I still wasn't prepared for how you'd look in front of me, bare and glistening, my cock spreading you open." The slightest pull from Giles' hands to remind him how he was spread, and Xander was achingly empty even though he wasn't even close to ready for round two of that event.

He pulled Giles back into another kiss before he could launch into the vivid details and now it was more, kisses that were going somewhere, Giles kneading Xander's ass, dragging their cocks together. Xander was realising in a way he hadn't before how much Giles wanted him. And it was... Maybe he should have worried with Giles being so deep in, but for now it made Xander feel sexy. Recent post-marital incident aside, it had been a long time since anyone wanted to take Xander's clothes off. Giles thought he was beautiful.

Giles tugged at Xander's shorts. "Will you touch me? Wanted to feel your hands for so long."

Xander rolled off and whipped off his shorts, unbelted and unzipped Giles and dragged his pants down and dumped them on the floor. This was a naked man. His whole life, Xander had never wanted to touch one. Never really got what Mary was thinking when she stared at him.

Giles' shoulders were broad and strong. There was a solidness to him that was definitely doing it for Xander: he thought about how Giles had felt on top of him: heavy, overwhelming, and he had to stroke himself. Xander had never wanted to touch another man's cock, but Giles' was thick against his stomach, and his furred balls lay between his thighs, and Xander knew how good he could make Giles' feel right there, knew how that cock felt swollen inside him.

Xander crawled onto the bed and took Giles' cock in his hand, darting a glance up to see his eyes close in pleasure before turning back to work. Like his own but not, flushing deeper each time Xander's hand drew up. That gasp said Giles liked it when Xander drew his fingernails over his balls. Xander went to work with both hands, on a mission to make Giles gasp and groan until Giles pulled him down and rolled over him, eyes squeezed shut as he pressed their cocks together, searching blindly for Xander's mouth, and then he was kissing up Xander's jaw, his ear, his neck, their bodies twisting together as Giles murmured things Xander couldn't hear against his skin. Xander curled his hand behind Giles' neck and dragged him up into more kisses, couldn't get enough of the kissing and the thrusting and all the body that was pushing against him.

Xander couldn't believe he'd been scared of this.

It went on, all the stamina and exhaustion of round two, all the time to enjoy the scenery, like how good Giles smelled up close; Xander didn't know how he'd never noticed that. And how hair felt scratching against his chest and how neatly their cocks fit in the dip of each other's hips.

A hand squeezed Xander's ass as Giles stiffened, head bowed against Xander's shoulder, a moan dragged up from deep inside. Xander buried his hand in Giles' hair, felt him straining, shuddering. Minutes passed, and then a hand slipped between them and wrapped around Xander, pulling until the orgasm rolled through him.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander was hanging on the warm, dreamy edge of consciousness. Giles was up on one elbow, fingers exploring Xander's whole body one piece at a time. Right now it was his stomach, off to the side, over his hip.

"'M trying to sleep." Xander didn't have the energy to open his eyes.

"Go ahead."

"You gonna keep doing that?"

Rough jaw rubbed where his fingers had been. "For quite some time." He sounded happy.

"Are you sure you're okay with this? With me not... you know."

There was a heavy silence, and Xander shrivelled a little. He just couldn't keep his mouth shut. "I suppose I have to take the chance."

"You'll remember how annoying I am soon enough." That was why this wasn't a mistake; Giles would tire of him faster than Xander would tire of this.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"Goddammit! Xander!"

So began the morning of jerking awake and yanking on his clothes as Giles vaulted out of bed and into the shower. Morning sex off the schedule in favour of a "Call you tonight!" and a first-base-slide through the door into the elevator.

Xander hated rushed mornings. They left him unbalanced and pissy when today he should have been floating around and replaying highlights inside his mind. Not even a goodbye kiss, and he wasn't going to see Giles until Sunday night at least. It was like it had all been some otherworld fantasy that he didn't even have time to indulge in because he was busy realising he hadn't picked up groceries for the girls, hadn't tidied the apartment-

"You're going to go back to being a hermit now?"

"Sam." Xander waited for Sam to catch up to him on the stairs. They headed to the work elevator and Xander hit the intercom. "Carson, we're on two, need to get up to thirty-nine."

"Hey, Harris. Gonna be a wait; they're loading up on one," crackled through the speaker.

"No problem."

Sam didn't seem bothered by the idea of a wait. "I thought we were back to normal after the loaning of the car deal." She hitched up her toolbelt and folded her arms. "You know none of the guys believe it about you and me, right?"

"Yeah, I saw how persuasively you argued the case."

She wiggled her fingers to show how well she'd recovered from punching Rickman. "That was for my own satisfaction. Nobody believed it anyway. You don't need to avoid me around them."

"I'm not avoiding. I was grabbing some paperwork."

"I meant last night when you ran out of the Landsman early."

"I just had stuff to deal with."

"Right."

Xander almost left it at that, but last night felt completely surreal now he was back at work just like any other day. He checked out Sam's surly face. Yeah, he could tell her. "I went to see him."

"Who?"

He could feel the smile pulling, couldn't have stopped it if he tried. "My friend with the sexy BBC voice?"

Her mouth flapped a second, and then she slapped his hard hat with her gloves and grinned. "What happened to being straight?"

That was something Xander was still figuring out for himself. "Turned out there was a sharp left just over the hill. Scenic route."

"Men crossing?"

"I guess so."

She sat on a waiting crate. "Sounds like Carson is giving us time. Tell me everything."

Xander laughed, pulling up a crate for himself. Maybe it really had happened after all.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 30:
After sexin', Giles and Xander took time out for Chinese, and everything was back to how it was supposed to be. And then there was more sex, Giles' way this time. Not surprisingly, they slept in, but Xander's morning was much-improved when he told Sam about his new direction.



New York chapter 31:
The weekend


"And you should have seen Chelsea and all her friends! All they talked about for the last two months was 'I'm going to have the nicest dress,' and 'My date's hotter,' and 'I'll have the best hair,' because they all think they're so cool, and every single one of them had a long straight black dress with a split up the side, and all of them had their hair in french rolls, and all their dates were short. Short, short, short."

Jen hadn't actually stopped for breath since Xander got home, which was probably for the best since that saved 'I had sex with Giles!' from popping out in the breaks. Saying it shouldn't have been so tempting. Kate had rolled her eyes at him and gone to her room to plan space missions until she was dragged out for dinner.

"...all the band guys had made a rope out of their waist-things-"

"Cummerbunds?"

"-yeah and they were having a tug of war in the west corridor..."

Xander took another mouthful of spaghetti.

"...but Diego said he wasn't part of it because he was looking for Alana - oh, poor Alana! She was in the bathroom crying because she dropped her purse and..." Jen stopped like she'd just realised she didn't want to be telling this story.

"And?" Xander prompted.

"It came open and... stuff came out."

"Stuff?"

"You know." Jen went red, all over her cheeks and to her ears. Surely she couldn't mean... "Her stuff. Her personal, you know... mmhptms."

"She had condoms?" Xander's voice jumped an octave. Seventh grade!

"No! Oh my god, Dad!"

Kate choked on her dinner, laughing madly. "Condoms!"

"Her girl-things. Her mmhptms." Xander finally had enough clues to figure out 'tampons'. "They went everywhere!" She threw her arms wide to demonstrate. "Right across the dance floor in front of everyone, all the boys, and the teachers. It was so embarrassing!"

It felt good listening to Jen babble like this. Some time soon she was going to stop telling him things, turn all teenagery and secretive, but for now she could still announce all wide-eyed and shocked that some girl kissed some boy on the mouth, and her amazement was enough to reassure Xander that he didn't have to worry about her doing anything worse than that for a while yet.

Doing things worse than that was for dads. And their boyfriends. It had been a long time since Xander had to concentrate on not thinking about last night's incredible sex while he was in front of the girls, and they'd been a whole lot younger than this. He hoped they didn't notice his own blush. His ass still ached. Couldn't tell them that either.

"..all this totally retro music like Avril Lavigne and Jay Z and it turns out Andres can breakdance like-"

"Wait." Xander rewound. "Jay Z is retro now? Wasn't he big, like, five years ago?"

Jen looked at him like he was stupid. "Yeah. Ages. When I was a kid."

"When I was a kid, music had to at least be from a different decade to be retro."

Kate giggled. "Retro-retro."

Jen took a bite of her pasta, and Xander grabbed the moment to ask Kate, "Did you have a good time at Kitty's?"

Kate shrugged. "Yeah."

"What did you do?"

"We hung out. Played computer games. Her mom's boyfriend made waffles."

What would Kate and Jen think? Hey, kids, Dad might be gay. Pass the parmesan? Xander's mouth dried, and there was the first stab of panic since Giles kissed him last night, knifing right through his gut. Xander pressed a hand there. He didn't really give a damn what the crew would think if he showed up at the Landsman with Giles on his arm, but these two...

"Oh and Dad, you should have seen the suit Carlos wore!"

Xander wasn't going to panic. Conscious decision: no panic. He and Mary had raised the girls to see past that stuff, and they'd always had their Aunty Mich and Petra.

Of course, a dad was different. And they'd never seen Xander with anyone but their mother so maybe gay or straight wouldn't matter so much as Xander betraying Mary.

"...got it from a thrift store in Brooklyn, and you have to take me please, please..."

Xander watched the girls: Jen chattering so much she'd barely touched her dinner, Kate mastering boredom like it was performance art as she helped herself to seconds. Up until now, Xander had been too caught up figuring out what Giles meant to him to wonder how he'd slot Giles into the rest of his life. Or how Xander would slot into Giles' with his Sunnydale ties and his demon-baiting habits.

All the right-now stuff was working out great, but Xander was in no way ready to think about the sort of future things Giles must have been thinking about when he bought his one-way ticket to New York. Which was okay, Xander reminded himself. He hadn't made any guarantees, hadn't promised anything he couldn't deliver. Giles was willing to wait. In the meantime, there was going to be more sex, and Giles wasn't going anywhere.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Usually Xander couldn't wait for the girls to go to bed on Friday nights so he could crash out. They were always hyped up and way-too-ready to remind him that it wasn't a school night. He was at the end of a work-week and about ready to fall over.

Tonight he still couldn't get them to bed early enough, but this time he was wide awake. As soon as he had their main light off, he was skipping down the hall to dial Giles.

"Hey."

"Good evening."

Xander smiled and sat on the bed. 'Hey' was pretty much all he had to say.

"You made it to work on time this morning?" Giles asked.

"Yeah. You? Oh, did you get your letter back?"

"Still sealed in her tray, no one the wiser."

"That's great."

There was another pause.

"Is it okay to call you this late? I just said goodnight to the girls, and-"

"You can call me anytime. I am still awake if that's what you were asking."

"Can't sleep until you master Mumbai in Grand Theft Auto?"

"I... What?"

"You couldn't possibly be kicking back with a glass of Scotch and a dusty old tome. I wouldn't believe it."

There was a soft snort down the line. "I'm learning Aramaic."

"Huh?"

"Aramaic. It's-"

"The Bible language. Mel Gibson gave us all a lesson in that one while you were tripping the dimension fantastic. So, you're learning it just for kicks, or are you thinking about moving again?" "It's quite a useful language, considering my current field, and it has a fascinating history."

"I'll bet." Xander wondered where Giles was right now. Sitting at the table, books spread out in front of him, tea at his elbow? On the couch, book laid aside when he picked up the phone? Maybe he was in the bed where they fucked last night, phone under his chin and a hand down his pants.

"How are you faring?"

Xander was going to go with the last image. "Good. Could have used a nap this afternoon."

"I meant... You're, you're still... You're all right?"

"You're worried I'm wigging." After a moment of internal debate, Xander decided to skip taking offence and enjoy being worried about.

Giles sighed, obviously hearing both. "Well, you did have your first sexual experience with a man last night, a man, I might add, who was once a quarter-century older than you, and is now your one link back to a past you've been trying to bury for years, not to mention an object of morbid fear to the mother of your children."

"Okay, now I'm wigging."

"Xander-"

"Kidding. But maybe you are."

There was a long wait for a reply to that. Xander lay back on the bed, phone pressed against his cheek.

"I've spent most of the day practising conversations to calm you down and convince you to give me another chance."

"Yeah?" That warmed Xander right through. "So convince me."

"I'm sorry?"

"I'm having a crisis," Xander deadpanned. "I had sex with a man last night, and I feel my masculinity is compromised."

"You are quite insane."

"That's not helping. Now I'm insane and emasculated, and I spent the entire day thinking about how good you felt, and I'm afraid I have to call this whole thing off."

There was a breath of laughter down the phone, and Xander could have sworn he heard the click of glasses being laid aside. "What if I were to tell you how wonderful you were last night?"

Xander grinned up at the ceiling. "Then you would have my attention."

"You can't imagine how many scenarios I have played out in my mind these last few months, but you still surprised me."

Oh, Xander liked this game. "I did?"

"I feel I should have known, knowing the way you give yourself. You don't hold back. You're fearless."

"Fearless is manly."

Giles' voice dropped to a purr. "You have no need to fear for your masculinity."

Xander slid a hand down his stomach and over his crotch, stroking through the denim. "Tell me more."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The Strand had been Kate's idea, but when Xander came down from the third floor she was so absorbed in yakking on the phone she hadn't picked up a single over-priced coffee table book to beg for. Jen had three.

He was going to have to bring Giles here, show him he could still buy words on paper. Cover his eyes as they passed the ebook terminals and set him loose up in rare books.

"Time to go, girls."

"That's crazy!" It took Xander a second to realise Kate was talking to the phone, not him.

Xander pointed at the pile in Jen's arms. "I said the limit was thirty dollars, so unless they're off the sale table, go put them back."

"Please!"

"Go."

"Oh my god!" exclaimed Kate.

"Kate doesn't have anything, so if I can have her thirty-"

"Go." While Jen stomped up the stairs, Xander tugged Kate's ponytail. "C'mon."

"No way!"

The phone, Xander reminded himself.

Jen joined them in the line clutching a sale-stickered fashion book just as Xander got their bags back. She poked at the paper bag under Xander's arm. "What'd you get, Dad?"

"Something for a friend." Xander still hadn't decided if it was a good idea. He knew Giles would like it, but he didn't know if Giles would take it as some kind of enormous declaration of... something. Giles had a history of overinterpretation when it came to stuff Xander said and did.

"What'd you get for Mr Giles?"

Xander shot Jen a glare. "I have other friends."

"Is it for someone else?"

Xander honestly couldn't tell if Jen was making fun of him. "If you want me to pay for that, hand it over." They got right through the checkout and onto the sidewalk before Kate's call wound up, and she looked around in surprise. "I didn't get anything."

Xander guided her out of the way of rushing pedestrians and gave her a push towards Union Square. "Interesting phone call?"

"Oh my god!" Kate turned to Jen. "Sema's parents are getting back together!"

Xander almost dropped his book.

"No way! Since when?"

"Really?" said Xander weakly. It had been a long time since either of the girls had asked if he and Mary would get back together, and he was even less ready for this conversation than he usually was. What if they were still holding out hope? "Well, that's good."

Kate and Jen both looked at him like he was crazy.

"It's totally weird," said Jen.

"It's the worst! They're just going to start fighting again. This is the third time."

"It's weird," said Jen.

Xander looked back and forth between them. "Oh. You never think about-" He choked off the question. He didn't want them even thinking in that direction, and especially not today.

"You and Mom?" Too late. Jen shook her head. "No."

"Yuck," said Kate.

"Oh," said Xander.

"What's so good about parents living together?" asked Jen.

"It can be okay," said Kate. "Sara's parents are still married, and they're really nice."

"No, Mr Levi's her step-dad. Her birth-dad left when she was a baby. Kylie's parents are still together."

Xander followed mutely as the girls meandered up Broadway, trying to count off friends whose parents were still married. It had always felt like he was some special kind of asshole for ripping up his kids' lives. It had sure felt like it with two little girls crying for weeks when he left and Jen not speaking to him for a month past that. Maybe he wasn't special at all.

"Annie's step-mom is totally cool, way-nicer than her dad. Dad, can we get a soda?" Kate had stopped in front of a bakery.

"Yeah. Yeah, you know, I have a sudden hankering for baked goods. Let's get a table."

They ordered out of the window, and Xander paid and led them to a booth, sat them on one seat and then took the other to face them. He picked his words carefully. "You don't mind that your mom and I don't live together anymore?" The girls looked at each other like they'd already had this conversation between themselves. "You can tell the truth. I really want to know."

"You're nicer. You and Mom." Jen ducked a little as she said it, like it might make him mad.

"I suppose we are."

"We didn't do stuff like this so much before." Kate waved a hand back towards the bookstore.

That was true, too. When they all lived together, weekends used to be for getting chores done around the house, for not being at work. For too many months they'd been about never being in the same room as Mary. Now weekends were all about Kate and Jen and sucking the marrow out of every second he had with them.

Kate shoved her brownie away. "I don't like this. It's got walnuts. Can I have a rugelach instead?"

Xander took a little chunk of the guilt he'd been carrying all these years and put it aside. Randomly, he wondered if he would have liked his own parents better if they'd lived in different houses.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"Mom!"

Xander wandered out of the kitchen as Mary came in.

"You ready, girls?"

"Can we go to Shrimp House for dinner?"

"Shrimp House!"

She squeezed her eyes shut. "Not tonight."

"Mo-om!"

She winced at the stereo whining.

Xander took a closer look. "Are you all right?"

"Headache. So no, girls, no Shrimp House. We'll find something in the freezer."

Great. If she was in a mood that wasn't going to make this easier. Probably not a good enough reason to put it off, though. "Can I talk to you for a minute?"

All three looked at him, and Mary got that suspicious pinch to her expression.

"In there?" Xander jerked his thumb up the hallway.

"Sure." She put her purse on the table and followed him through to his bedroom. As soon as the door closed, Xander wished he'd dragged her to the girls' room instead. They'd had sex in here. Pretty much still in the recently file. Judging by the darting looks she was throwing around the room, she was doing the play-by-play as well. Also not making this easier.

"So this feels kind of stupid, like I'm asking my parents' permission, but it's not. It's just this is a complicated situation, and-"

"Just say it, Xander."

"I slept with Giles."

Yeah, that was unexpected. She dropped the hand that was rubbing her temple and took a moment to gape. "Slept with as in got super-drunk and passed out, or as in got super-drunk and explored your manly side?"

"Neither." He rewound and reviewed. "Probably closer to the second. But not really. I wasn't drunk."

She pushed her hand through her hair, tucking a black strand behind her ear.

"I'm not going to sneak around behind your back, and I don't need your approval for who I date. I'm telling you because it's complicated with us." He wasn't going to back down on this one. She wasn't going to make him give Giles up.

Mary was staring at him again. "So this wasn't a one-off, one night stand aberration. You want to date him."

"Yeah." He couldn't help folding his arms.

She took a couple of steps away and suddenly sat on the bed. "I don't object because he's a man."

"I know."

"In fact, if you'd figured this out while we were married, you could have fulfilled one of my top five fantasies."

Mary and Giles together? He was going to lock that one in his secret box. "Sorry. New development."

She gave him a long, piercing look. "Is it?"

He should have seen that one coming. "Our marriage fell apart because I keep secrets about my thoroughly non-gay past. Not because I, too, was pining after Jon Huertas."

She nodded, accepting that for now. It probably wouldn't be the last he heard of it.

Xander sat next to her, lacing his fingers. "You object because you think he's a mafia hit man who's going to get our daughters killed."

"You haven't given me any reason to believe otherwise."

That was true. "He isn't."

"In the mafia, or putting our children in danger?"

"Either."

She looked him over. "How serious is this?"

Xander turned all his attention to the carpet at his feet. "He's in love with me."

Her indrawn breath was loud. "And you?"

"I don't know." He was a hell of a lot closer to it than he was this time, last week. "I mean, no, but..." She nodded to his relief. He hoped she knew what he meant because he didn't. "It's probably not even going to work out."

"A man. Must be some rug-pull."

"Yeah." He realised something and managed to smile. "Last time the rug pulled this hard, I got a baby girl out of it." This was flipping the world upside down, but it wasn't as scary as sitting on your barely-twenty-year-old girlfriend's bedspread in her dorm room, figuring out how to tell her father you'd knocked her up.

"I don't think that's going to happen this time."

"Probably not."

"I'm glad you told me."

That was a little bit of relief but not enough. "Is it going to be an issue?"

Her answer probably didn't take as long as it felt like. Finally she shook her head. "No. As long as you keep the girls out of it, I'm not going to make a fuss. If it lasts then... we're going to have a much bigger talk than I can handle right now." She stood and headed for the door, turned back as she reached it. "Sweet Jesus, Xander. You and another man? It'll be a wonder if anything that matters gets discussed at all."

Xander smiled up at her. "Don't forget he's Britishly reserved."

She laughed, and it was only a little bit forced. "God help you. Come on. I have to take the delinquents home and then meditate in a very dark room."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

As soon as they were out the door, Xander was in the shower, out of the shower, throwing on jeans and a shirt and out the front door. Hit the pavement barely ten minutes after Mary and the girls. It was a warm night and early, and the streets were busy enough to skip the taxi and walk.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 31:
While Jen rambled about everything that happened at the school dance, Xander thought about how Giles might - or might not - fit into the rest of his life. And then he decided not to think about it. When the girls went to bed, Xander called Giles, who was ready to assure Xander of his masculinity. Xander and the girls went book shopping, and Xander found out that divorce didn't ruin their lives. Xander told Mary about the new development and she was surprised, but willing to go with it.



New York chapter 32:
Picket fence


Giles was sprawled on the couch as Xander let himself in, not actually moving his feet off the coffee table or in any sort of Xander-greeting direction. He tipped his head to show he was on the phone. "It sounds lovely."

Xander toed off his sneakers, hung his jacket on the hook, and took his time wandering over.

"Listen, I'm afraid Xander's just come in, so..." He paused. "Yes. I will. Thank you so much for calling, Amelia. It means a lot." He ended the call and turned his focus entirely on Xander.

"I brought burgers." He dropped the paper bag in Giles' lap and leaned in for a kiss. "Save your British contempt until you've had a bite. These are good burgers."

A hand snaked around Xander's waist and tugged so he was sitting on the edge of the seat and the kiss could last a little longer.

"Xander," Giles said when they separated, sounding extra-happy, like he'd just got good news. Xander liked being good news. "Good weekend?"

"Great weekend. Jen was still on a high from the dance and in such a good mood that they got along well enough to bake cupcakes." He dropped the other bag in Giles' lap. "Dessert."

Giles peeked inside. "Brownish-purple frosting. My favourite."

"Turns out it's hard to make frosting black."

"Black?"

"Space. The white chocolate chips are stars."

"I take it Kate was in charge of decorating."

Xander snatched the bag away and tossed it on the table. "But no dessert until you've finished your dinner."

Giles dropped the bags on the floor and the phone after them and pulled Xander close again, into another kiss. This was okay, too. Giles didn't seem to want to let go, which was fine and dandy, until there was a serious danger of the burgers getting cold.

When they finally moved past appetiser onto the main, Giles was forced to admit that, yes, the burgers were amazing. Mostly because Xander wouldn't let him have a second bite until he did. They wolfed them down and then kicked back, legs stretched out on the coffee table with dry, misshapen cupcakes between them.

"Do you speak Aramaic yet?"

"The reading is coming along. I suppose I could likely read children's picture books if they were in good supply."

Xander spent three years in French and never got that far. "How many languages does this make?"

"If I master it, it would make six fluent. There are a smattering more I can struggle through with a dictionary."

Xander licked a blob of frosting off his thumb. What was this man doing with Xander? Charity work? He listened to Giles ramble about alphabets, understanding about ten percent of it, but liking the sound of his voice.

This was nice. Just sitting here, like before, but now with bonus simmering sexual possibilities. Any time he pleased, Xander could lean over and stop the stream of words with his tongue or a well-placed hand, which made it all the better to keep right on sitting here, anticipating.

"I'm sorry. I'm rambling." Giles gave a wry smile. "I'm sure you couldn't care less about the differences between the Hebrew and Syriac alphabets."

Xander patted Giles' knee. "I like that it matters to you. To be specific, I like that you knowing these sorts of things has made me not-dead lots of times."

"Your well-being is certainly an argument in favour of stuffy over-education."

"As long as it's somebody else's over-education and not mine, I'm fine with that." Xander swallowed his last chunk of cake and almost choked as he remembered his most important bit of news. Why did it take three times as long to chew and swallow when you had something to say? "Mmph. Mary's not going to get upset."

Giles eyed him. "About?"

"Us."

It took a few blinks to work through that one. "You told her about us?"

Xander sat up a little straighter, twisting to see Giles head-on. "Is that a problem?"

"Of course not. I simply didn't expect you would."

"Did you expect me to lie to her? She's the mother of my daughters. A few months ago she was threatening my access for just having you crash at my place, so I'm not going to make it worse-" Fingers covered his mouth.

"I'm glad. Merely surprised. You were... barely sure about getting into this. I wasn't expecting you to be marching at Stonewall just yet."

"I'm not marching anywhere. She's wiggy about you. I don't want to make it worse by adding to the secret vault."

"Of course."

Xander collected up their plates and carried them to the sink. When he turned around, Giles was leaning against the fridge, legs straight, hands tucked neatly behind him. "I truly am glad that you told Mary."

"Just surprised."

Giles rubbed the bridge of his nose, pushing up under his glasses. "To be perfectly honest, Xander, I don't know what we're fighting about."

"We're not fighting."

Okay, that was a serious glare. Xander didn't know what they were... being tetchy about, either. "Haven't you told people? Am I a secret?"

"I haven't many to tell. Buffy, of course, but out of respect for your withdrawal, I saw no need to bring it up with the others."

So Buffy did know. He'd figured, but still. "Buffy must have fainted."

Giles slipped his hands into his pockets, rocked forward, and then straightened. "Not at all. She was delighted."

"Uh... You're sure it was Buffy you were talking to?"

"You haven't spoken to her in sixteen years. Do you believe she has had less reason to grow up than you have?" He looked kind of offended. "She was disappointed that I wasn't going to stay in LA, but she's seen more than enough of people putting off their own happiness to no good end. She wanted you to know she would respect your space, but if we decided to have any kind of civil union and live happily ever after, all bets were off. And that there would be dire consequences if she didn't have the role of giving me away."

Wow. She could back that wedding carriage right up. "You guys were planning a ceremony?"

Giles' eyes widened, like he'd just realised what he'd stepped in. "You know how Buffy is. She leaps directly to the happy ending."

Yeah, but Giles was the one shipping his life from coast to coast. "I haven't signed anything, okay? All I promised was that I was willing to give this a go."

"I know." He knew, but he still looked like Xander just snatched a lollipop out of his hand.

"I'm liking so far with the hanging out and the sex and the cupcake-sharing, but don't start building a white picket fence around this, okay?"

Giles looked down. "Thank you for being so blunt."

And for his next act, Xander was going to kick puppies. Why, exactly, was Giles so crazy about him?

"I'm sorry, Xander. I don't mean to..." He waved his hand around vaguely, without looking up, and then slipped it back in his pocket.

"I know." There didn't seem to be anything else to say. Xander wanted to go over and kiss him better. Pull him close and comfort with his hands, the way he never managed with the stupid things that came out of his mouth. If Xander could kiss him, touch him, make him feel good, they could put this behind them, but there wasn't really any obvious path from 'Don't forget I don't love you,' to 'Let's fuck.' He settled for the old Xander Harris fallback: jokes. "Can I get you anything? Tea? Coffee? Uncomfortable silence?"

Giles snorted, but when he looked up he was smiling again, head cocked to the side.

Xander could have sat down in relief if someone had offered a chair. Instead he stayed on his feet and went over just like he'd wanted, to kiss Giles' lips. Giles brushed his hair back as they kissed, ran his fingers along Xander's jaw, gentle touches that started a low burn in Xander's gut. He could make things better this way, make Giles feel good. He could stop him from thinking about later.

He wanted to do something special, something new. Except it was all new. There'd been one fuck and one handjob. Xander hadn't even... "Hey, you know," he began, and had to clear his throat. "I've never had a man's cock in my mouth before. Maybe it's time you fixed that."

For just half a second, Giles looked really sad. And then it was gone and he was kissing Xander, hand locked firmly on the back of Xander's neck, and Xander could feel him hardening against his hip.

When they parted for breath, a finger traced Xander's lower lip and then pushed inside, taking over Xander's mouth so Xander didn't have much choice but to suck it. "Go on then."

Xander started for the bedroom, but the finger in his mouth hooked him there like a fish, and Giles tipped his head back against the fridge, watching him through slitted eyes. Here?

He could do here. Xander switched on to Giles' thumb, practising what he planned to master before tonight was done, feeling the joints and the hard, blunt edge of nail against his tongue.

"Go on," Giles whispered, and Xander let go and kissed him instead, nibbling at his lips, feeling the tender skin roll between his teeth. Giles was undoing his own belt and jeans, tucking his shirt out of the way. Xander's breath hitched. Here, then. Perfectly fine by him. He slid to his knees to meet what Giles was offering, already pulled out, Giles' hand wrapped around the base.

So. Hello, Giles' cock. He hadn't got such a good look at it on Thursday. It wasn't fully hard yet, but it was growing, flushing deeper as Xander watched. Or as Giles watched Xander. Still, if it fitted up his ass, it had to fit in his mouth.

A heavy hand slid into Xander's hair and tugged him forward impatiently; Xander could only open his mouth as velvet-soft skin brushed over his dry lips, and his lungs filled with Giles' scent. He smelled good. Xander hadn't really thought that cock could smell good.

Xander fisted his hands in the waistband of Giles' pants, now bunched around his flexing thighs, and licked along the length. Such incredibly soft skin over iron, only slightly salty until he reached the tip, one sharp drop on his tongue.

Xander wet his mouth and let Giles push him back down until his mouth was full and his lips touched Giles' fist. He sucked, and heard a murmur of approval, trying to think how he liked it. This was harder than he'd imagined, the angle of Giles' cock and the size of him and Xander's knees - they couldn't have done this on the carpet? He had a whole new respect for Mary's talents. But Giles showed him what he wanted and Xander did it, relishing the grip on his hair and the slide of solid cock over his tongue, and Giles' quiet sounds.

"I wish I could film this," Giles said after a while, from a dry throat. "How you look down there." It shouldn't have turned Xander on but it really did, and there wasn't enough room in his jeans, but he didn't know if he was allowed to touch himself. Just thinking 'allowed' made Xander harder still, and he was starting to think he needed to think about why he wasn't just suddenly gay, but a great big whipped bottom as well.

Giles's fingers tightened in his hair, holding him still as he pulled back just far enough to drag the tip of his cock over Xander's lips, painting a wet line across his cheek. "You have such a pretty mouth. Made for this." A quick little thrust inside caught Xander off-guard, just a warning before Giles really took control, holding Xander in place as he pushed in and out of him, letting Xander just suck. "That's it. Can I go deeper?" Xander managed a nod, and then he was just keeping up as Giles picked up the pace and pushed right to the start of Xander's throat, always too quick to choke, but Xander had to concentrate to get his breathing right. There was something not especially sexy about being down here, knees hurting, needing to swallow, being jerked about. But somehow... at the same time, it was the hottest thing ever. He'd been up there, watching his cock disappear in Mary's mouth, watching her looking up at him like she couldn't get enough.

So he gave a little moan and strained against Giles' grip and looked up. Giles whimpered as their eyes met. "Jesus, Xander. That's it. Suck me." Hearing Giles say it made him suck harder, and suddenly he heard, "I'm going to-"

Xander pulled back - just a beginner, not ready for swallowing - but he didn't know where to move and suddenly there was a hot wet line across his cheek, and across his mouth, and down his neck.

Xander was too surprised to move. If he'd come on Mary's face, she would have slapped him. Was he supposed to be offended? He didn't think he was offended. And then Giles dragged a thumb across his cheek, along the sticky line to his mouth. Instinct kicked in, and Xander licked his lips and Giles' thumb and the flavour burst across his tongue. Different than his own. Clearer.

"I don't have the strength to pull you up," Giles said quietly with a weak tug on his shoulder.

Xander climbed to his feet, wincing as his knees straightened. And then he was eye-to-eye with Giles, whose sleepy eyes widened when they saw him, and he pulled Xander in to kiss him, tongue sliding over Xander's lips and over his cheek, licking his come off Xander's skin. Xander was too stunned to move. He never would have done that.

But Giles was licking and sucking as if he wanted to taste his own come as bad as he wanted Xander's skin, with a throaty little moan like this was enough to instantly get him going again. "Can't tell you how many times I've thought of that. Your mouth. It was better." He kissed him again. "Such a waste, all these years you didn't know you were a cocksucker."

Whoa, wait right there-

"Delicious, talented cocksucker." A hand squeezed Xander's crotch. "And you love being scandalised." Clever fingers opened Xander's pants and slid inside for a proper, wonderful grip. Giles' mouth was against Xander's ear, hot, damp breath curling inside his brain. "You can blush and flutter your eyelashes all you like, but you want to hear how good your mouth felt sucking my cock." Slow, too slow strokes. "How desperately I wanted to push inside until you could barely stand it." Xander lifted his hips, but Giles wouldn't be rushed. "How much I liked seeing my come on your face."

His hand moved faster, and Xander squeaked.

"You have no idea how damned sexy you are. I thought my imagination was running rampant before. This entire weekend, left alone with time on my hands and all the highlights from last Thursday, knowing how you look and smell and taste..."

Xander was spun around and bodily shoved back against the fridge, hips pinned, and that hand never stopped jerking him.

And that careful, steady voice. "I have so many plans. You are going to do things for me you've never done for anyone. You're going to do anything I tell you. That's what you want, isn't it?"

Xander didn't answer, and suddenly that hand wasn't there anymore.

"Is that what you want?"

"Yeah." Yes, yes he wanted Giles to drag him along and make him feel good and slide him straight past the anxiety attack he was going to have if he analysed this whole looming relationship thing too much. He wanted that solid hand back on his cock.

And there it was, pulling him fast.

"You want me to be like this."

"Yes." Xander's fingers clawed at Giles' shoulders.

"I can be this for you."

"Yes."

He could, and Xander's balls were drawing up, his ass clenching as Giles muttered obscene things in his ear while a powerful arm and the rest of Giles' solid body pinned Xander against the fridge, and all Xander could do was rock up into that demanding hand until he came, moaning.


As they stood there afterwards, panting, pants around their thighs, Xander stared at the weave of Giles shirt as he dared to say, "I can't imagine the old Buffy being okay with you and me being together."

Giles smiled. "The old Buffy? Perhaps not. The old Xander would have been rather appalled as well. And dare I say, the old Giles." He lifted his shirt to wipe the sweat from his face.

"Okay. Yeah. Maybe he would have been the smart one. The only thing I excel in is screwing up, and on that one, I majored in relationships."

"You're doing fine."

"Really?" Xander didn't know why he kept saying this stuff, but he couldn't stop himself. "'Cause it seems like I can't go a whole day without hurting your feelings."

Giles rubbed his neck as he turned away. "You're doing fine."

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 32:
On Sunday night, Xander zipped over to Giles' for burgers and cupcakes and... he's still not sure what they were tetchy about, but Buffy's wedding plans were not appreciated. Anyway, Xander's first time sucking cock proved a fairly sturdy distraction.



New York chapter 33:
Viking meditation


"Sorry, I'm still tidying up." Xander pulled socks out of the couch and couple of candy bar wrappers, adding it all to the pile he was building on the coffee table. He'd forgotten what a mess this place was when he suggested Giles come here tonight. Xander really did like seeing his daughters in a good mood, but somehow the explosion of stuff that came out of their room was exponentially correlated to how chirpy they were feeling. He straightened up and raised an eyebrow at Giles. "Are you waiting on an invitation? Do I need to spray you with holy water?"

Giles took a second to get the joke, and then he seemed to realise he was hovering in the doorway like an uninvited vampire and moved inside with a tired smile.

He hung his jacket over the back of a chair, shirt barely creased and still buttoned all the way to his throat, tie straight, hair just a little ruffled. All formal and sexy like he ought to be giving commands. Xander wondered if he could be persuaded to put the jacket back on and do exactly that. He came over and Xander kissed him hard.

"Hello."

Xander tugged Giles' tie. "Screw cleaning up. Drag me to bed. Show me who's boss." Xander took a step back, pulling the tie, but Giles held him in place.

"May we simply..." He waved towards the couch.

"Oh. Of course." Giles was exhausted, in case Xander couldn't see it. "Come on." Xander pulled Giles over and pushed him to sit, piling in beside him. "How was work?"

Giles slumped back against the seat. "Long."

"It's not getting better?"

"It is going to take considerably more than six weeks to catch up on sixteen years of lost scholarship." He squeezed Xander's arm. "Don't look so guilty. It's hardly your fault."

"Yeah, but you're hanging onto that job because of me."

"Do you think it would be any different in LA or London?"

"Guess not." Except then Giles would have tons of people to back him up, not just Xander making things harder. "In LA it wouldn't have to be a museum job full of uptight professors who haven't missed a history headline since the beginning of time. You could go back to being the smartest guy in the room, be a full-time watcher..." Xander drifted to a stop as he saw Giles' steely expression.

"Are you trying to tell me to leave?"

"No! No way! No a thousand ways. That's your job misery talking. You and me are one hundred percent good. Look, hey, I got you a present." Xander snatched the paper bag from the Strand out from under the piles of junk on the coffee table. "I realised I never got you a housewarming present, so here. Housewarming, American tradition, it means don't go anywhere."

There was one of those small smiles. Giles carefully lifted the tape and slid out the book. He laughed. "Robinson Crusoe."

"It's super-old, and it's got pictures. It's the first children's edition that was published in New York, so there you go, all sorts of layered meanings."

Giles cradled it as his fingers slid up the creaky leather spine and peeled it open to an illustration plate in the centre. "Xander, this is beautiful. It's in near-mint condition."

"I wrote a note in the front for you."

"You did not," Giles retorted.

Xander stopped, wide-eyed. "How bad is it if I actually did?"

Giles' face fell. "Well, I, uh-"

"Gotcha." Xander grinned. Giles' mood had lifted like magic, and Xander felt foolish for all the time he'd spent wavering over whether to buy it.

He pulled Giles into a kiss, and Giles came willingly but he wouldn't be hurried, keeping it slow and teasing and then pressing a final close-mouthed kiss before sitting back, draping an arm around Xander's shoulders.

Two seconds later he was reaching forward to pick the digital frame up from the coffee table and cosying up again. "Is this from Jen's school dance?"

It was set to Xander and Jen posed by the car outside Cara's house. "Yeah. Jen uploaded it."

"Beautiful."

"Me or Jen?"

"The '69 Pontiac."

Xander gave him a look. "You like American muscle cars?"

He lowered his head in shame. "I have a weakness."

Xander reached over and hit the 'next photo' button to the three girls laughing together in Cara's apartment in their bold green and pink and yellow dresses. "Those are her two best friends, Cara and Sara."

Giles raised his eyebrows. "Are you sure they're only thirteen?"

"Sing it, my friend."

"It's a lovely dress. The princess cut suits her." Giles hit the 'next' button before Xander could comment on that, and then there was Jen and Kate in sunglasses and tank tops, clutching each other and laughing madly at something just out of shot.

Xander grinned. "That's last summer at Compo Beach. While we were down watching the waves, a seagull unzipped our bag and pulled out a full-size bag of potato chips."

"Unzipped?"

"I swear it was shut when we left it. We came back and the bird was dragging this enormous pack across the sand. The girls are still mad that I got a shot of them instead of the seagull."

They browsed though the photos, and at some point Giles loosened his tie and opened his first few buttons, and at some other point Xander curled in and his hand found the perfect resting place on Giles' stomach.

Xander hadn't been through these in an age. Jen crying at elementary school graduation, Kate with her crooked wig being Galileo for her school's costume day, the two of them bundled up for ice skating.

This was nice. This was like Giles' first week in New York, all the easy talk except now they were pressed together, and now Xander understood why it felt so good.

The next photo flashed up: nine year-old Jen and six year-old Kate between Xander and Mary, all formally posed in their swimwear on the beach, camera-smiles in place for the stranger who took the photo. "That was Miami. Our last family trip." Worst vacation ever. If Jen and Kate remembered all the snapping and sniping from that summer, it was no wonder they liked their parents better in separate apartments. "Who would have guessed I could spend two weeks lying on beaches filled with women in bikinis and not have a good time?"

Giles' arm tightened around him. "May I ask... I don't want to push you."

Uh-oh. "Bombs away."

He darted a glance at Xander and away, found something fascinating on the kitchen counter to stare at. "I suppose I am curious as much as anything. Are you truly not bothered by this sudden shift in sexuality?"

Xander relaxed against him. Giles could have asked way scarier things than that. "I don't feel like a different person."

"You're not." Giles' lips brushed his ear. "I certainly don't want you to be. I'm perfectly fond of the man I already know."

Maybe that was why Xander wasn't as bothered as he could be. Or maybe he just still didn't know what to make of it. "How did you... know? That you were y'know. Gay."

"I think bisexual is a, a fairer assessment if you must put a label on it."

Bisexual. Okay. Xander supposed that was what he was as well. If he had to put a label on it.

Giles finally unknotted his tie and draped it over the couch, unbuttoned his cuffs. Xander missed the arm over his shoulders. "I had crushes on boys at school though I suppose... I imagine it's easier to dismiss those feelings when you like girls as well. Far easier to just embrace the norm." He threw Xander a wry glance, but it faded fast. "As I grew surer I grew terrified. I can't tell you what a different time it was. When I was young I knew there were men who did things with other men but you couldn't simply look up the local gay club. Most of what one heard was mutterings of scandals. In 1971 glam rock was just starting to hit the world, a tiny flame of outrageous possibility in Heath's Tory Britain, in a sea of sneering, disgusted backlash. By that stage I was in final year at public school, being groomed for a conservative life."

"Did you wear ties and blazers?"

"...Yes?"

"Just picturing."

Giles snorted. "I'd known other boys at school who... but I didn't dare. I was rough and rebellious and manly. I broke every other rule but that."

Xander could imagine Giles in school uniform but he still had trouble imagining him during his scary bad-guy phase. It was even harder to imagine him scared of being gay. "How did you figure it out?"

"When I ran away from Oxford and the Watcher's Council I embraced every terrifying thing I could, everything forbidden. Sex, drugs, magic." He gave Xander a squeeze. "Some of those things worked out better than others."

"Thirty-seven is probably easier than seventeen."

"I hope so. I hope 2018 is easier than the early seventies."

Xander was glad he hadn't had this to deal with when he was a teenager. Life had been scary enough back then without the gay thing looming over him. It was weird doing it now, but at least he already knew who he was. No running away or scary bad magic phase required.

"It's working out pretty well so far." Xander slid the hand resting on Giles' stomach lower, to his belt, and paused to see if Giles was ready to move on yet.

That got a smile. "Is there something you need?"

"Sometimes it's a fine line between 'need' and 'really, really want'." Xander slid his hand lower and started a slow rub. "If you ever want to come home looking like that and then use your tie to tie me down, and bark out orders, that'd be okay with me."

"I'll keep that in mind." Giles wriggled to get comfortable, pressing up against Xander's hand. "How about today we go with something a little more along the lines of being naked and rubbing up against each other? Finally let me into your bed?"

"Good plan," said Xander, heading back up for Giles' belt. That sounded like a very good plan.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

He didn't think he'd slept, but it was dark, and it hadn't been a moment ago. At some point Giles must have turned off the lamp, but the city lights through the window left it bright enough to make out the greyscale details of his room.

And Giles, here in Xander's bed, face buried against Xander's neck, one arm wrapped over Xander's stomach.

Giles' breathing was slow and even, faint warm draughts across Xander's collarbone. He felt soft. Xander traced a line down along his arm, carefully, like he was afraid of, what? Hurting him? Yeah, that's exactly what he was afraid of. He'd done enough of it lately.

He'd never worried like this for Giles. Or maybe he had, little tastes of it in Sunnydale. That time he found Giles unconscious in his office, and he wouldn't wake up. When Miss Calendar died. When he and Giles went back to Angel's mansion to look for Buffy.

But it was different then, the way he worried for Giles. Back then, bad things happened but Giles was an adult, and adults were indestructible and knew how to cope, and all those other crazy things you believed when you weren't one. Xander couldn't imagine what he'd do now if Giles was hurt like that again.

At least he'd have Xander, now. He hadn't had anyone back then. Not like Xander and Will and Buffy had had each other.

Xander kissed the top of Giles' head. He wanted to wake him up and tell him he wasn't going anywhere, but that seemed counter-productive. He gave him a little squeeze instead, and whispered it aloud.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Mary had a predatory look in her eye as Xander slid his jacket over the back of the chair and took a seat. That look meant Mary had shelved her reservations for the higher calling of mining Xander's life for gossip. There was something to be said for war-like divorces.

"Don't."

Her mouth flapped. "I didn't say anything."

"I'm not hashing out my new... whatever he is with my ex-wife."

"You know we're going to be having a long conversation about this at some point."

"Well, I'm going to put that point off for as long as possible." Until Xander had some idea of what was going on in his own head, at least. "How's your headache?"

"Cured."

"How are the girls?"

Apparently Jen was starting to mutter about switching out of Wednesday's hip hop into the Monday class that was doing the new something-or-other style from Shibuya. "At last she's discovering her Japanese roots," said Mary, "but here's a heads-up that these Wednesday dinners might have to become Monday dinners." There was a meaningful pause. "Unless you're busy on Mondays now?"

"Your compulsive need to dig for information is..." Xander struggled for a snappy end to the quip.

"Charming?" suggested Mary.

"Doomed to failure. I can do Mondays."

Surprisingly, Mary let him bulldoze her back to less confusing topics, like whether they could afford the fees to send Kate to a science geek camp for a week in the summer. Maybe Mary wasn't as comfortable as she was acting.

It was all going smoothly until Mary reached across to steal a fry.

"What's that?" Xander caught her hand, pushing up the sleeve to see the squiggle on her arm.

"It's a focus-thing from meditation group. Aki drew it on last week, and I haven't been able to wash it off. Looks like Jen after an especially boring math class."

Xander brushed his thumb over the mark. It looked a hell of a lot deeper than a Sharpie tattoo. "Didn't you say that class was some rare Chinese version of yoga?"

"Tibetan. Can I have my arm back?"

Xander didn't let go. "Mary, that's not Asian. See that twisty part there? That's Celtic. Maybe old Scandanavian." Something about the symbol creeped him out.

"Like Vikings?" She laughed, pulling her arm back to have another look herself. "Since when are you an expert on Viking meditation? Viking meditation, now there's a concept to ponder."

"I'm not an expert on meditation."

"But Vikings?"

Not an expert on them, either, but Anya hadn't forgotten her homeland completely, and Xander knew what Runic markings looked like.

If Anya was going to come after Xander, she'd come after him. She wouldn't hurt Mary. Xander was sure. So why was his stomach twisted like this? "When did she draw this?"

She was giving him the same look she gave when he got crazy about the girls wearing crosses, but she indulged him anyway. "Saturday. Everyone got their own special design, and we had to think about childhood happy moments for each point on the pattern, imagine it moving, la, la, la." She wiggled her arm and flexed her wrist to make it jump.

The creep factor climbed higher. "Do you mind if I take a photo?"

"Alexander Harris, you are crazy." But she pushed her sleeve up again and stretched out her arm.

He shot it with his phone from a couple of angles.

"You want my Tibetan-Viking sign for a screen background?"

He paused with his finger over the 'send' button. He really should ask. "I want to show it to Giles."

"Giles."

"He's the expert. Archaeology museum-guy, remember? Please?"

"Whatever."

Xander slid his phone away and nudged the conversation on to the food, distracting Mary until he could excuse himself to the bathroom.

Giles picked up after a couple of rings with a purred, "Xander."

"Hey."

"Aren't you supposed to be having dinner with Mary?"

"She's... Yeah. I am." Xander frowned at his reflection in the mirror over the sink. "She's here. I'm sending you a picture. You know how to pull it up, right?"

"I do have that much figured out, yes."

"Hey, not too long ago, you were still foggy on the concept of e-mail."

"The picture?"

"It's a mark someone drew on Mary's arm. It's creepy. I thought you could maybe do the consulting your books thing."

"All right."

"She got it at yoga. The woman said it was Asian, but it looks more early-edition Anya, to me."

Giles disappeared for a couple of seconds. "There's certainly a Celtic influence. I'll have a look."

"Thanks." Xander scuffed his shoe on the floor tile. "Anya wouldn't... I mean, she's got reason to hurt me, but she wouldn't hurt Mary, would she?"

"She wouldn't, Xander."

"I know. I should get back to the table."

"Go. I'll look into this and see you... next week, I suppose."

Xander liked how sad he sounded. "Let's go for an after-work-drinks drink tomorrow. Our pub."

"That sounds good." Giles sounded a lot happier as they said goodbye.

Mary pointed a breadstick at him as he sat back down. "How's your boyfriend?"

Oh. Damn. "Fine?"

She snorted. "Young love. At least promise me it was just to hear the sound of his voice, not an intermission for phone sex." She sounded rehearsed, like she'd practised being okay with this while he was gone.

It was only fair to play awkwardly along. "You think I'd be back already if it was phone sex?"

"True. You'd still be in there, napping."

"For both our sakes, I'm going to surrender here and change the subject." Talking about his new sex life with Mary was better than wondering if Anya was finally bringing the vengeance, but not by much. There was a small possibility that Xander was asking his boyfriend to save his ex-wife from his ex-girlfriend. It was the sort of twisted joke the world used to pull on him in Sunnydale.

Except he was overreacting. Definitely overreacting.

Xander shoved the Zeppo-voice in his head aside and concentrated on working with Mary to dig through their finances. They decided they had enough cash between them to get Kate to geek camp if Kate was willing to count it as birthday present, which Xander was sure she would. At least until she got back when she'd probably be nagging for a telescope. They were batting around details when Xander's phone rang. He pulled it out to see the screen. Giles. He couldn't have called so soon if- Xander's fingers clenched around the phone. "This might be urgent." He ignored her look and picked up. "What is it?"

"Is Mary still with you?"

His tone flipped Xander's stomach. "Yeah."

"Don't leave her side."

"What is it?"

"It's a marker. Has she been having headaches?"

"Last Sunday but not now."

Silence.

"Giles?"

"Bring her straight here."

"What?"

"If the headaches are gone, the knot's already been tied. She's in serious danger."

Mary was watching his face, looking worried now.

"What kind of danger?" Xander asked. Her eyes widened.

"I can't be sure. Vampires perhaps. Whoever it is, they'll be looking to capture, not kill. You need to bring her here."

"Right."

Xander shut off his phone and braced himself. All those times Xander told Mary to stop worrying, to trust him... He'd been lying the whole time. He'd brought a vengeance demon into their lives and pretended it was nothing. Was he really surprised to find out Anya hated him this much?

"Who's in danger, Xander?"

"We need to go to Giles'." Stake. Xander slid his hand over his pocket for his- His stake wasn't there. Panic ran over his skin like needles. No stake.

Her hands made fists on the table. "Who's in danger?"

Back pockets, front pockets, nothing. No way did Xander leave the house without a stake. Not since the food bin. In fact not since the night Giles showed up, when Xander had left his stake at home. Xander always, always had a stake. He grabbed his jacket off the back of the chair and almost cried with relief when he found familiar wooden length in the pocket. Xander stood. "I'll explain at Giles'."

"No. You'll explain here."

Too loud; a couple of people glanced their way. Xander leaned down. "In the middle of a restaurant?"

"Who's in danger?"

"You are!"

Her mouth opened. "What has he got us mixed up in?"

"Him? No, it's nothing to do with him."

"So we're going to him because?"

"It's this!" He grabbed her arm and yanked her sleeve back to show the mark.

She stared at it for a long moment, and then sagged, eyes rolling up at him. "Oh, for the love of fucking sanity, Xander. You scared the hell out of me."

"Huh?" He was pretty sure that was the response that was called for.

"I'll keep the girls off the subway for the sake of your blood pressure, but your superstitious claptrap has just gone completely overboard." She stood and shoved her chair in. "I'm not playing along anymore. I'll see you on Sunday."

"Wait!"

She walked out while he was rushing the waitress to charge him, and he had to chase her out to the street, dodging between pedestrians. "Please! Come to Giles'."

People looked at them and just as quickly looked away.

"No."

"Please."

Mary looked around the evening crowd and led the way into the shadows down the side street for some privacy. "It's a hippie squiggle, not an evil eye. I've enabled you for way too long, and it stops here. You're getting counselling."

"Fine. I will. I'll get counselling. I'll check myself into Bellevue tomorrow if you'll just hear me out." He grabbed her arm. "Come with me to Giles', and I'll answer any question you want. Anything." That stopped her. "I mean it. My past, my fears, my anything, just, please." She stared at him, torn.

"You wanna take your hand off the lady's arm?"

Please, Mary.

"Mister? You wanna take your hand off the lady's arm?"

Mary glanced up at the beefcake standing over them. "It's fine."

"I don't think it is, lady."

Xander's head slowly turned. His Sunnydale sense - which, granted, never worked too well in Sunnydale - was tingling. This was him. He squeezed Mary's arm once more in warning and carefully, slowly, slipped between them. "The lady's fine."

"I don't like men who handle women."

"Thank you, sir," soothed Mary. "Really, it's fine. He wasn't handling me. He's a friend."

Xander shifted, edging them around to get Mary further back. "At least I'm a man."

Her hand grabbed the back of his shirt, urging him to stop. "I'm sorry, sir. Please, Xander, let's just go."

But the guy's eyes had shimmered, just enough to confirm it. "You hurt my feelings," he purred.

"Luckily I don't care."

Inside Xander's brain, he was screaming at himself about the wisdom of playing one-upmanship with a vampire who could kill him without breaking a sweat. Did vampires sweat? He'd never noticed. His own palm was sweating on his stake enough that it was in danger of slipping right out of his hand. But Mary didn't know where Giles lived, and he didn't know what to do except keep on distracting in the hope that a stray comet would happen along to somehow turn the tables.

"Gonna kill me?" asked the vamp.

Xander forced down a swallow and did his best to imitate Scary!Buffy, leaning into the vampire's face. Maybe Mary would know when to run. "It's been a while, but I hear it's just like riding a bike."

Mary seemed to be realising that this wasn't just some scary samaritan, and she got very quiet as she let go of his shirt. He wished she hadn't; without her touch, it was hard not to look back to check she was still there.

The vampire seemed delighted at his puny enemy instead of quaking in his boots. Which was pretty much the exact response Xander's bravado deserved. Xander had a slippery stake and an overwhelming urge to puke, and this thing was a linebacker who could have flicked Xander into oblivion even if he wasn't a supernaturally powerful killing machine. And then he was going to kill Mary. Or worse.

Why in hell's name was Xander standing here instead of grabbing Mary and running?

Afterwards, Xander couldn't remember the moment it started. Suddenly his gut hurt and he was kicking out, fighting for Mary's life. He dodged a fist and another one cracked across his jaw, he couldn't see but he swung and buried the stake in its chest. Not its heart. Mary screamed. It laughed. A blinding flash as his head jerked back, pain exploding across his face and exploding again as he hit the ground.

It was on Mary before he got his next breath in. Xander couldn't see what it was doing but he saw her slump, and next thing Xander knew he was on top of it with the stake in its back, and dust was snowing down on her slack face.

"Mary? Mary!" He shook her but her head lolled, unconscious. God, Anya. What have you done?

Distantly, he heard a yell from the corner.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 33:
Giles came home from his crappy job, very much in a mood to just sit on Xander's couch and chat and browse through photos. His story of coming to terms with his sexuality seemed way scarier than what Xander is facing. Wednesday dinner with Mary took a pants-peeing turn when Xander noticed a creepy Viking meditation symbol on her arm and Giles identified it with an 'oh, shit'. Unfortunately the warning came too late, and we left Xander in a cloud of vampire dust, crouched over Mary's unconscious body.



New York chapter 34:
Sunnydale irony


They'd brought in a chair but Xander couldn't sit. Couldn't pace, either, or reach to brush the strand of dark hair off her forehead. She was still and white, the colour leached from her skin. Xander knew what dead bodies looked like: just like this. She wasn't breathing deeply enough to make it look any other way.

He'd already checked everywhere he could for bite marks. None on her neck, none anywhere else he could find. There were wires on her chest and a clamp around her finger and a line sunk inside her elbow, machines looming all around. She was breathing on her own but there was an air tube looped around her head to keep her oxygen up.

Giles would be here soon. Soon.

Xander had called him first. While concerned strangers were calling 911 and checking Mary's pulse and a couple of guys were chasing a non-existent mugger wherever Xander had pointed, Xander had been sitting on the kerb, Mary at his feet, phone in his hand. Someone had pressed a wad of tissues into his hand to hold against his bleeding lip. People who thought New Yorkers were unfriendly had never seen them in a crisis.

He'd called Giles. He hadn't cried but it had been touch and go on that one. He'd called Beth to drop Jen at Mei Li's after dance class. He'd called Mei Li to let her know Jen was coming, to ask her to keep the girls inside. He hadn't called Jen or Kate. Every call he'd made, the other person had heard his voice and asked what was wrong. He couldn't talk to Jen or Kate until he calmed down, so he was going to have to settle for Beth and Mei Li telling him the girls were in sight and okay.

Giles had said they shouldn't be in any extra danger, but he'd known better than to tell Xander not to worry. Mei Li had promised they'd stay inside, door locked. She was on the twelfth floor. That was good.

He'd called Michiko. Xander lifted his head. Did he call Mich again when he reached Bellevue? He was sure he had, somewhere in the middle of filling pages and pages of insurance information, but he couldn't remember anything he said. Giles, Beth, Mei Li... He flipped his phone open and scrolled through recent calls. There was Mich, before and after the ambulance. Okay. She'd know where to find them.

It had been barely more than an hour ago that he offered to check himself into Bellevue's mental ward if Mary had come with him to Giles'. Xander wrapped his arms around himself. Fucking Sunnydale irony.

There'd been cops back on the street. Xander had described the vamp and repeated 'I don't remember,' a few thousand times, trying to look as shaken up as he could. It didn't take a lot of acting.

People kept hurrying past their little blue-curtained cubicle, never sparing a second glance. All around, through the thin curtains Xander could hear the cool voices of staff, rubber gloves snapping on and off, machines beeping. A few cubicles down a man had been calling for help since Xander arrived; the orderly who wheeled Mary in had muttered something about junkies before he shuffled off.

There had to be more to do, other calls to make, but Xander was out of ideas. Mich was calling the rest of the family. He'd logged in with Kaiser on Mary's phone. The magic stuff was way out of his league. That was Giles.

Xander hoped Giles' books had something more than the Danger Will Robinson Giles had given him over the phone. Could Xander leave Jen and Kate sleeping in Giles' bed while he and Giles ransacked the books? He couldn't leave them with Mich; she didn't know what she was supposed to be protecting them from. Right now Xander didn't know either.

And then what? Were Giles and Xander going to be fighting vampires? How did you undo a vengeance spell? Xander's best guess was something he couldn't even contemplate. Not unless he was forced to. If he had to choose between Mary and Anya, he would. He would do it.

Xander forced his hands to unclench. Giles would find another way.

The green thread of the heart monitor bobbed along steadily. Xander followed the wires back to the bed. Mary had never done anything. Never hurt anyone.

Xander picked at his fingernails. "I'm sorry." Mary wouldn't have heard even if she was awake, so he shuffled half a step closer and said it again, louder. "I'm sorry. I knew this could happen but I pretended I didn't because I wanted it so much." He'd known this collision was coming from the moment he let Giles walk through his door. Mary had known it too. She should have taken the kids and run.

Somehow he hadn't really believed it would be Anya. Anya who'd spent a thousand years maiming men and wreaking havoc on the world and Xander had the gall to think he'd sent her away with a lame apology and crossed fingers.

He had to get the girls, have them in his sight so he could see them even if this was the sort of bang-up job he could do defending them. He had no idea how you explained this to ten and thirteen year-olds. He didn't want them seeing their mom like this. He didn't want them making it up in their imaginations, either.

There was a shout and a mess of beeping a few curtains away, and suddenly the tide of hurrying people in coats was heading in that direction, past the little cone of silence that held Xander and Mary's body.

Giles was coming. He couldn't think until Giles got here.

"Xander!" Xander was buried in strong arms, clinging as hard as he could. Xander took his first deep breaths since the phone call, pulling Giles all the way down into his lungs. Giles could fix this. It was what Giles did.

When they parted Giles was pale, and he flinched away at seeing Xander's face. A finger touched his lip. "Dear lord, what did they do to you?"

They were just bruises and grazes and Xander should have pointed out his girls' mother on the bed, but he hugged Giles again instead, glad Giles was big and broad enough to wrap his arms right around Xander's shoulders, to take his weight. "I'm okay."

Giles shuddered against him, and Xander stroked his back. It was going to be all right.

Xander made himself pull away. They had things to do. "I don't know what he did to her. Did you get anything on the mark?"

Giles nodded and reluctantly got down to business, stepping up to the bed and turning her arm. He ran a finger down her forearm. "It's an insignia from the eleventh century. This pattern here is Ringerike, I'm quite certain."

"You said, you said that Buffy said she wouldn't do anything." Xander tried really hard not to make it sound like he was blaming Giles.

"She?" Giles seemed genuinely confused, looking at Mary and back at Xander.

"Anya," Xander choked out. "You said."

It took Giles a second to work from confusion to horror. "You think Anya did this? Xander, no! This isn't a vengeance spell!"

"It looks pretty vengeful from here."

Giles stepped close and took Xander's shoulders. "Its purpose is to open an escape hatch into another dimension, which I'm sure Anya has very little use for."

"But the symbol on her arm..."

"The early Middle Ages in Europe was a time of high magic. Many spells have their roots in that period." His eyes were intense behind his glasses, but it was the high school library tone in his voice making all the difference, the Watchery certainty. "Whatever has its claws in Mary, it's not because of Anya, and just to be clear, it's not because you let me into your apartment back in March or because the pair of us were dragged underground. This has been building for a year at least. Likely two or three. This isn't something someone could throw together in a few months. There are preparations, dates to observe: it's not possible."

Xander took his first full breath since he'd seen Mary's wrist. "She was picked at random?"

"I'm perfectly confident Mary is one incidental ingredient to a greater goal."

Still concentrating on that breathing thing. "She's disposable." Mary, who finished her degree and raised a baby while working part time, who taught the girls how to tie their shoes and cheat at mah jong. "Should that make me feel better?"

Giles gave him a kind look. "It should help you to shelve your guilt while we work on getting her back."

"Okay. Good." Xander couldn't let the guilt go so easily, but he could shelve it for later. He was ready to hug Giles again.

Giles slid his laptop out and laid it on the bed by Mary's feet. She didn't stir. He tapped his way through the screen to pull up a page scan. There was the mark: crude knotwork, runes in the beginnings of a spiral. "It's linked to a group that Nikki Wood - the Slayer who lived here in the 1970s - eradicated."

"The guy who put her in that bed didn't look all that eradicated."

"She destroyed a cult, not the power they chased. We may have a new villain but we know what it wants." "Then the Watcher Diaries..."

"-should have most of what we need. I spoke to Wesley; he's gathering books."

That wasn't comforting. Xander had heard stories about the turnaround of Wesley Wyndham-Price, but he still remembered him as an uptight, incompetent wimp. "So I guess we're in for an old-school research party tonight."

Giles turned to face him. "No. Wesley and Dawn have the books covered. I'll be working on the subterranean blueprints. You need to stay with your girls."

He really did, but how could he? "I can't just dump this on you." This was his family. But he couldn't leave Jen and Kate alone tonight.

Giles looked down, jaw working. "Of course you can," he said quietly.

"Giles..."

He straightened and caught Xander's fingers, pulling him away from the bed. A warm hand slid up Xander's cheek, fingers delicately skirting the bruises around his eye as Giles held his gaze. "Trust me with this. Let me do this for you."

Xander had to trust Giles. There wasn't enough space in his brain to do it all. "Okay." He barely got the word out.

Giles dropped a fast kiss on the side of his mouth. "Thank you."

Just like that, Xander didn't have to take care of everything.

Desire swelled, sudden and sure and wildly inappropriate, the memory of Giles pressed up behind him that first time, solid and overwhelming and in charge. How easily and completely Xander had trusted him.

"Here." Giles slid an envelope out of his jacket's inside pocket, oblivious to Xander's distraction. He was the only person Xander had ever trusted like that. "Tara wrote up some wards for the hospital room. When they settle her into a bed I'll pin them up. They'll keep her safe tonight."

Xander peeked inside at little scraps of bright yellow paper with handwriting familiar from years of letters. "When did she mail these?"

"She didn't use the US Postal Service."

Oh. Duh.

"There's this, too." He handed over a red ribbon. "It's a, a talisman of sorts, an anchor. Tie it around Mary's wrist."

Xander wished Giles would tie it for him, but trust or no, he couldn't bring himself to sound that pathetic. He reached over for the arm with the tattoo. Her wrist seemed weightless as he looped it around twice, tied it off with a plain reef knot.

"Now, you said Mary got the mark from meditation class?"

"Yeah. I went through her phone; it didn't have much on the place but there's an address. I sent it to your phone."

"I have it."

"I have to go pick up the girls from Mei Li's." He was still holding Mary's hand. "What am I going to tell them?"

"We'll find the cure."

"I know." He was almost totally sure. "I still have to explain it." And that would have been hard enough if there was a nice medical explanation. Xander tipped Giles' laptop for a better view, and zoomed out on the page to see more designs like Mary's. Along with the runes and knotwork, there were birds and snakes and weird dragon-like creatures. Were they going to be fighting dragons? "Can you stay with her while I'm gone?"

"Of course."

"Mich's on her way, but she lives up in Bedford. She won't be here for another-"

Mich came sliding into the room. "Xander!"

"Jesus, Mich, how many New York laws did you break getting here?"

"All of them, and a few of Newton's - oh god. What happened to her?"

"We were attacked."

She rushed to Mary's side, barely seeing him as he snapped the laptop shut, not seeing Giles at all. "Mariko, baby, what did they do to you?" She brushed the dark hair away from her pale face. "Who did this?"

Xander never lied to any of them, but they were never going to get through this without lies. At least he'd make as few as possible. "I'm sorry. He got away."

Mich twisted to stare at him hard, Mary's hand in her own. She spared a second's glare for Giles as well. "Were they your people, Xander?"

The world dropped a few more feet. He'd never known Mary had talked to Mich about Giles figuring into his mystery past. But of course she had.

He'd waited too long, and fury was twisting her mouth when she said, "They were."

"No. I didn't know them. They went for Mary."

"Got you pretty good, too."

"I'm fine. I promise this wasn't about me. I swear it."

She didn't look convinced, but she dialed down the death ray.

"They're trying to find her a bed upstairs. I have to go get the girls." Xander checked his phone. Jesus, it was nine-thirty. "This is Giles, a friend of mine. Giles, this is Mary's sister, Michiko." He touched Giles' elbow, the best he could do here, like this. "You'll stay?" A nod. "I'll be back soon."

"I'll be here."

Giles brushed his hand, passing over glass and wood. Holy water and a spare stake. Xander couldn't thank him so he just nodded and slipped them into his pocket.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Ten minutes in the taxi down to the East Village felt more like thirty. Xander paid up the driver and dialled him some extra to wait. He'd already checked this guy reflected in the rear-view mirror. 2nd Street was deserted this late at night. It was creepy, but better than scanning thirty faces for danger.

He still kept a stake in hand from the taxi to the apartment building's front door, didn't let it go until he stepped inside the elevator and the doors closed.

He heard the thump of feet as soon as he rang the bell. The door swung open on three pairs of wide eyes. And Mei Li.

The girls' "What's going on?"s tripped all over each other, and then "Dad!" and "What happened?" and he realised they were staring at his face. He kept forgetting about that.

"I'm fine. Just a bit scratched up."

"Where's Mom?"

"Why'd we have to stay at Kitty's?"

"What happened?"

Xander ignored them. "Thanks for looking after them. I'm sorry it's so late."

Mei Li waved him off. "Any time. How's she..."

He shrugged. She wasn't awake.

"Dad! Where's Mom?" Jen looked scared, now.

Kate was tucked behind her sister, terrified of Xander looking like he did.

"We've got to get going. I'll explain in the taxi." He probably should have sat them down to talk properly, but he wanted to get back and get it over with.

"Dad."

"Really, Mei Li-"

"It's nothing. They've been playing girl-band with Kitty's instruments."

"Dad."

"I'll call you when I've got an update."

"No problem. Whenever you have a chance."

"Dad!"

"Hurry up, get your things."

Jen and Kate scuttled off and he wished he could control his tone. He was making it worse, but being in his own imagination in the taxi going from the hospital to here hadn't done anything to calm him down. As soon as they came back he swung Kate up on his hip, which was when he realised how deep the bruises went.

"Xander?"

He held his breath and shook his head to hold her off, squeezing Kate way too hard until the blinding pain subsided.

"Dad?"

"I'm okay, Katie. Just fell off my skateboard."

"You don't own a skateboard."

"No wonder I fell off. Don't worry, I've got an appointment with my reiki healer, and he'll fix me right up."

"Reiki's stupid."

"I meant my homeopath."

"Homeopaths are stupid. See a real doctor."

"I saw the doctor, and he told me to stop falling on my face."

He felt her smile against his neck. "You're stupid." Nothing cheered Kate up like pointing out everything that was stupid.

"That's what he said." And now, at last, Xander could let her slither down to the floor, and cautiously draw air again. Jen wasn't fooled so easily, but she'd stopped asking. "C'mon." Xander slipped a hand behind her back. "Let's go see mom."

He was six or seven the first time he found out his parents weren't invincible. Looking back, it was probably just food poisoning or a stomach bug, nothing major. But his mom was pale and throwing up in the bucket by her bed, and he'd never realised that could happen to parents, too. That was just throwing up in a bucket, and Xander remembered how scary it was.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

In the taxi Xander did a terrible job telling them. Mary would have known what to say. The girls were quiet as Xander explained that their mom had been bumped on the head. Near enough to the truth for the doctors, so near enough for them. A deep sleep, he told them. They knew what a coma was but that didn't mean he had to use the word.

Afterwards Kate clung to his side, hard enough to add little finger-shaped bruises to the rest of his collection. Jen stared blankly out the taxi's window like she was mad at him, but she let Xander take her hand. She probably thought he was trying to comfort her. He wished she knew she was supposed to squeeze his hand and tell him this was going to be okay.

The streets were full of people doing their thing. Reading menus outside restaurants and unloading trucks and jaywalking. Another taxi cut them off and their driver let out a string of curses.

Buffy had to tell Dawn when their mom died. Xander wondered what she'd said. Or if either of them even remembered, if the actual words mattered. Was there a nice, gentle way to say 'Your mom's dead'?

Giles was the one who called him when Joyce died, and Xander had no idea what he'd said. And Joyce had been the one to call him when Miss Calendar died. He'd heard Willow sobbing in the background. These were the times you needed adults to take over.

He pulled Kate tighter, squeezed Jen's hand. He really had to stop thinking about people who'd died.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 34:
Xander waited with Mary at the hospital, panicking about how to deal with Anya's vengeance spell until Giles barrelled in. Giles made things far better with a hug and the assurance that Anya wasn't responsible for this: Mary's a random victim. Also, Giles stepped up to take care of magical coma things. Mich arrived, and wasn't so certain that Xander wasn't responsible. Xander picked up Jen and Kate and told them about Mary, and that was awful.



New York chapter 35:
Unusual resources


Xander had never been so completely in love with his daughters as he was when he watched them lift their chins and walk into Mary's room. Jen choked back a sob and ran to the bed. Kate stopped, and then forced herself forward. Xander swung her up - with a wince - to sit on the end of the bed by Mary's feet.

"You can touch her. Just be careful of the wires."

Jen carefully rested the tips of her fingers on Mary's arm, managed to look back for a quiet, "Hey, Aunty Mich."

"Hey, kiddo."

Xander hadn't been able to stop touching them all the way here. He'd almost had them in his lap in the taxi. And now he had to stroke Jen's hair, straight black like her mom's, brush Kate's face, just to be sure.

They'd sorted out a bed for Mary in a private room. This bed was wider than the stretcher she'd been on downstairs; it made her look smaller. Shrinking away. Mich had found a chair and dragged it up to sit right by Mary's pillow. "No change."

"All right." Xander looked around. "Where's...?" His stomach wrenched. Giles' laptop was sitting closed on the bedside table but Giles wasn't tucked in any of the corners. Xander checked the corridor but it was long past visiting hours and there was no one to be seen. Giles wouldn't leave unless...

Mich narrowed her eyes. "He stepped out for another phone call, said he'd be nearby. Your friend isn't much for conversation."

Xander would bet he wasn't when he was being interrogated about his past with Xander. "He's reserved."

Nearby. Okay. Xander had no idea what he'd be doing right now if Giles wasn't around. Panicking, obviously. And yeah, okay, Xander was still panicking, but with Giles around Xander could keep it all on the inside, more of an internal quaking than a hiding in the corner, crying kind of situation.

Kate was staring at all the wires, so Xander slid an arm around her shoulders and pointed up to the heart monitor. "This is Mom's heartbeat. This number shows she's getting enough oxygen. They measure that from the clamp around her finger." Kate kept quiet but her eyes followed everywhere Xander pointed. As long as Xander sounded calm, she'd be okay. He was pretty sure he sounded calm. "The IV tube is putting medicine and food straight into her blood. Oh. Shit. Did you girls eat? I forgot to ask if you needed... I don't know if there's anywhere around here to get food this late..." So much for sounding calm.

Jen didn't look up. "Kitty's mom made stir fry."

"Okay." Good. Thank god for Mei Li. He couldn't even remember to feed his kids. What else had he forgotten? What would Mary think of? He turned to Mich. "Did you talk to Rick and your parents?"

"Rick's going to wait and see. I told Mom and Dad not to come until tomorrow. It would be long past midnight by the time they got here anyway."

And they really didn't want Rikuto Senior driving all the way from Boston the way Mich did from Bedford.

"Okay. That makes sense." Mich was taking care of the family stuff. Giles was taking care of Mary, was probably on the phone to Wesley or Dawn right now sourcing magic words and a stinky ingredients list. Xander wondered if Giles already knew where to find New York's magic shops. Xander wondered how much longer he'd be on the phone.

Xander looked up at the door, saw a little square of folded yellow paper stuck over it with medical tape. Once he'd seen one, it wasn't hard to find the rest of Tara's wards, taped over Mary's bed and along the walls, on the side of the cupboard. There was one on the end of the bed just by Kate's hand. Giles was taking care of everyone.

Was it really bad that Xander wanted him to stop doing that and come and be with him awhile? Xander was running out of steam and now that the girls were safe and Mary was protected, the to-do list was turning into a jumble of meaningless stuff beyond 'see Giles,' and 'hide in Giles' arms.'

Jen shivered.

"Are you warm enough, Jen?" Xander didn't have a jacket to give her.

"I'm fine." But just then she twisted a little further and her eyes widened. "Hey, Mr Giles."

Giles was in the doorway. It was only now that Xander noticed he was wearing hang-around-the-house pants and a comfortable grey turtleneck sweater, hair sticking up like he'd never paused for a mirror on the way out the door to get here. He looked... Xander didn't have a word for how Giles looked but it was pretty well described by the little thud he felt in his gut.

"Hello, Jenny. Hello, Kate."

Kate said 'Hi,' so quietly Giles only would have caught it if he lip-read. Just as quickly, Giles was forgotten as the girls turned back to their mom.

"Hello, Xander." He offered a faint smile that did almost as well as the real thing, settling somewhere deep inside Xander. And a little lower, too.

Xander had done everything he could for now. Mary was safe for the moment and the girls were safe and now it was Xander's turn.

"Girls, I've just got to talk to Giles. I'll be back in a few minutes."

He kissed each of them on their forehead and led the way out into the night-lit corridor, headed away from soft voices drifting down from the nurse's station and around the corner out of view of the elevators.

Giles pulled off his glasses. "I spoke to Wesley just after you left-"

Xander didn't care. He hauled Giles into a kiss, and he could have cried when Giles knew exactly what he needed and kissed back just as hard. His lip stung, and Xander revelled in it. He didn't know what it said about him as a father, that his ex-wife was in a trance and his daughters were shellshocked ten yards away and Xander was just wishing they had time and a place to slip further away and be closer. He could do this, if he could just have Giles touch him for a while first.

That wasn't going to happen. Not now, or later, after Xander took the girls home, or for maybe a long time.

Giles' big hand cradled Xander's skull as he slowed and softened the kiss, and his other hand covered the small of Xander's back, pulling them tight, and he was as hard as Xander, hips pushing, needing, god knew how they were going to go back in there like this.

Giles pushed him away. His lips were stained red and his eyes were wild. Don't stop, Xander wanted to beg. Giles looked behind Xander and hauled him backwards, through a door into - a bathroom? Into a stall and Xander was pressed against the divider under a kiss as Giles yanked open his belt and his pants and squeezed his hand on Xander's cock so tight it almost hurt, and Xander had to hold his breath to keep quiet.

"It's all right," Giles said, loud against the tiles. "It's late. We're alone in here."

He tugged Xander's cock and Xander whimpered into his neck. He needed this, all the adrenalin he'd been running on drawn down into Giles' strong hand. Giles taking care of him.

Giles pressed his face against Xander's soft throat, stubble scratching and tickling as Xander threw back his head to draw his lungs full of the scent of antiseptic and let out a moan that bounced off the tiles. Xander really hoped no one came in. Giles' hand moved faster.

"That's it. Tell me when you're going to come, love."

Xander nodded. Wouldn't be long. So good. Fingers pinched his nipple through his shirt. He yelped aloud, and those fingers swept down to squeeze his ass. "Now, god, Giles, I'm-"

Giles dropped away and sweet hot wet mouth covered his cock and Xander couldn't hold back the whine as he let go, feeling Giles swallow around him, so far away down there.

Xander sagged against the wall. Everything was gone, all the fear and adrenaline and urgency, and even if it was just for a minute or two that was enough. Xander took a long breath, pulling the air all the way to the bottom of his lungs, let his head rest against the partition. He would have been on the floor if Giles hadn't been propping him up. A broad hand swept across his stomach and higher, lifting his shirt up to his ribs. "Jesus, Xander. What did it do to you?"

He dropped his head to see Giles looking up at him with all that stuff Xander just let go of. "Didn't kill me."

Giles' eyes closed. Xander tugged at his collar, and after a second he tucked Xander away, zipping him up before he stood. Xander waited for Giles to stand, and then pulled him into his arms. Xander leaned on him, still panting a little, until he found the energy to move one hand, to cup Giles through his pants.

"You don't have to."

"I want to." He felt a thousand times better, but now he wanted this. Not just quid pro quo, but... He couldn't explain, so he didn't. He just bobbed down to watch his hands pulling Giles open, pushing his pants down his thighs so he could see him properly, thick and flushed and good enough to eat, and Xander took just the tip of him between his lips, ignoring the sting of his split lip, got him good and wet, and looked up to find Giles watching, needy.

He stroked Xander's hair. "You're so beautiful." Xander held his gaze as he slid down, taking the length as deep as he could, watching Giles' eyes close and his lips part and the lines on his face blend away. He could do this to Giles. He rocked, letting the tip of him slide along his tongue, and Giles' fingers tightened in his hair, and then softened. "So beautiful," Giles whispered. "I almost climbed into the driver's lap to push the accelerator down to get here faster." The hand in his hair pulled and pushed, guiding him up and down, every ridge and bump of him tickling Xander's lips.

Xander reached around to cup Giles' ass and he found Giles' hand already there, pressing between his cheeks, touching himself. Xander traced his hand, his fingers and the soft webbing in between, until he found Giles' longest finger buried to the first knuckle, pinched tight. Giles shuddered at Xander's touch. Xander covered his hand and pressed, feeling Giles' finger slide deeper as he sucked hard, and Giles' head banged against the divider, hips heaving up to force his cock deeper, bumping the back of Xander's throat and bouncing back before he could gag.

"Xander." Sounding more desperate now, as his hips took control, pushing between Xander's mouth and their joined hands. "I've got you, Xander. Anything you need. So hot inside. Wish I could be inside you, in your sweet arse, feel you alive and around me." His rhythm broke and Xander rode it out, letting him thrust how he needed. "I love you. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I know you don't, but, oh-" He went still and Xander's mouth filled, and Xander didn't mind right now, Giles saying it. Right now, it was what he needed to hear.

He rested his head against Giles' hip, not sure he could do anything else. He wanted to just stay here, awash with the taste and smell of Giles. But Giles hauled him to his feet - oh god, his knees were too old for this, and his ribs weren't up for it at all - and pulled him close, and that was better. Xander clung on, grateful all over again that Giles was here and that Xander had figured himself out before Giles ran away back to LA.

When he let go, Giles smiled crookedly and ran a finger along his bruised cheek. Xander kissed him slowly, dragging the moment out as long as he could, until guilt crept in and he heaved a sigh. "We should be getting back." Giles nodded and pulled up his pants. Xander unlocked the door, wondering when Giles had had the sense to lock it. "Do I look like I've been giving blow jobs in a public bathroom?"

Giles' smile widened as he gave him a once over. "You'll do. Believe me, no one's going to notice your lips looking well used."

Well used. Xander liked that. He poked his head out to be sure they were alone before heading to the sink. "Wow."

"Quite."

It was the first mirror he'd seen since the fight. His eye was swollen a rich purple and the graze down his cheek was angrier than it felt. And he'd just re-opened the split in his lip. No wonder Kate had looked so terrified. He was scary-looking.

Suddenly Giles was behind him, glasses back in place, all composed and British. He put his hands on Xander's shoulders. "Does it hurt?"

"Nah."

Giles didn't look convinced.

"Not as much as it looks like it should." Xander turned around. "She doesn't have a mark on her."

"I know." Giles dipped his head. "You just take care of the girls. Let us take care of Mary."

Maybe they could fix this, but they couldn't fix everything. "It's finally come for us."

"What has?"

"The Hellmouth." Xander dared Giles to disagree. If he lied...

But he didn't. He thought about it, and at last nodded. He laid a quick kiss on Xander's cheek. "Well then, so's the cavalry."

It was about the best thing he could have said. Xander had the cavalry on his side.

As they headed back to Mary, Giles tried the earlier conversation again. "I spoke to Wesley just after you left."

Xander slowed, realising that they had to cover this before they reached Mary's room. "Oh. Yeah?" Their voices seemed unnaturally loud in the corridor, echoing between dark rooms.

"Wesley knows exactly what it is, and there is an antidote."

"Available without a script at all good pharmacies, check with your personal physician before mixing medications?"

Xander thought that deserved the patented Giles wry look for effort, at least, but Giles only rubbed his forehead. "We need the blood of the spellcaster to break the link."

Xander had been trying really, really hard not to see this coming. "So it's not just going to be a chalk circle and some chanting. We have to saddle up."

"I'm afraid so. The mark is a, a clamp, for want of a better word, on her soul. A means by which her soul will be drawn away, likely into some container ready for sacrifice."

Bile climbed Xander's throat. "She'll be a vampire?"

"No. This is quite the opposite. A vampire discards the soul and possesses the body. This ritual requires the soul."

"So she'll just be empty." This forever, his girls hanging in limbo.

"We won't let that happen." Giles touched Xander's elbow and led him a few steps further from Mary's room. "If you don't mind me asking - you are sure it was a vampire that attacked you?"

"Unless I'm rusty with the stake-poof identification technique. Why?"

He frowned, adjusting his glasses. "This magic isn't particularly useful to the vampire set. They may be the front men teaching yoga and seizing people from the street, but Wesley is quite sure there must be some other group at the heart of this."

"Vampires do seem to be the ultimate multi-purpose henchmen."

"Yes. It's inconvenient that we don't know who we're chasing, but we will find them."

Giles' certainty helped a little. It made Xander feel like there was something to be done. "What happens if they don't get her soul?"

"She told you all of her class had these marks?"

"Yeah. Or similar ones."

"Then our villains are likely to grab another of them to sacrifice."

"Right." More victims. No waiting for the bad guy to come find them, then. Once more into the breach. Except there was something in Giles' look... and something about the way he'd been saying 'we'. Xander's brain finally caught up. "When's Buffy getting here?"

Giles slid his hands into his pockets. "I'm picking her up from JFK tomorrow morning."

"Okay." Wow. That was... Xander caught Giles' tight expression, realised he was waiting for Xander to wig on him. And yeah, okay, a little part of Xander was, but right now one little wig didn't rank in the sea of terror that Xander was lost in. "Thank you."

Giles smiled gratefully.

Xander didn't see one single angle of this situation where Giles was the one who should be feeling grateful, but he wasn't going to argue with Giles being happy.


Reaching Mary's room was like a sudden burst of cold water. Mary looked exactly the same. Jen was perched on the edge of her pillow, eyes drooping as she fought to stay awake, and Kate had crawled into Mich's lap. He shouldn't have been gone so long. He went over and pulled Jen into his arms. "It's going to be all right. I'll take care of this. Mom'll be okay."

"Xander." Mich glared at him, but Kate had twisted in her lap to look at him hopefully.

Mich nudged her off, circled around the bed and dragged him back into the corridor to talk. "You shouldn't be making promises like that."

Xander looked at Mary, white and still. Thought of Willow, after the first time she tried to shove Angel's soul back in his body. They'd fix this. "I have contacts."

Mich frowned at him, and then through the door at Giles. "Medical contacts? Do you know what's wrong with her? If you know something and you're not... you're ten kinds of bastard."

Xander's fists clenched. Did she really think he was like that?

Giles touched his back as he joined them. "We have friends with unusual resources. They know how to... cure... things."

"Unusual resources."

"That's all I can say," Xander snapped. "Do you really think I'd put her - or them - through this if I had the power to just fix it?"

"We don't know you at all, do we, Xander? None of us have ever known where the hell you came from or what the hell you're mixed up in."

"This isn't getting us anywhere," Giles interrupted, voice low, the only one still calm. "Save the arguments for later." He glanced into the room, and Xander's gut twisted in shame. Kate and Jen were staring out at them, both on the verge of tears.

He stomped on his urge to go and hug them. He had to get this sorted first so he turned back to Mich determined to keep his voice even, but never got that far. This was Mary's sister, who held back her fears with the same tight-lipped expression as his girls. She was just as scared as he was, except she didn't have any answers at all. She didn't need him yelling at her. "What I'm mixed up in... It didn't start this, but it can help." He swallowed. "I know I was a shitty husband, but I love her too, Mich." He felt Giles' hand touch his back.

Mich deflated. After a long minute, she nodded. "So what happens now?"

Now? There was nothing left to do today. Xander looked into the room at Jen and Kate, exhausted and miserable on Mary's bed. "I have to get these two home, get them to bed. I don't want them sitting in this place all night."

"Petra's got Callie and Beth. I'm staying here as long as Mary needs me," Mich said.

"Do you want to stay with me and the girls?"

"You just worry about Jen and Kate. I'll stay at Mary's place."

Xander tried not to show how relieved he was at that. Maybe she was willing to step back for now, but he really didn't need her hanging out in his kitchen, making suspicious eyes at him. "All right. I'll get them to school tomorrow; I should be here by nine."

Mich did a double-take. "You're sending them to school?"

"You think sitting in a hospital, staring at her all day, would be better? Everything's already out of whack; I'm not going to make it worse."

She didn't look impressed, but tough. Xander had sat through plenty of classes with certain death waiting on the school bell, and he'd realised a long time afterwards that being forced to live the normal half of his life was a good part of what got him through.

"I've really got to go. Call me when you head out?"

"Of course." She lifted her arms and then stopped, and considered, and finally hugged him, to his relief. She didn't hate him, then. Xander squeezed back. "Sorry," she murmured. "I'm scared for her. I'm glad you're okay. And uh..." she tipped her head towards Giles as she whispered, "Welcome to the great homosexual conspiracy."

Guess they weren't so good with the subtle. "Haven't quite got the secret handshake down, yet." It was a second more before he realised he didn't care that she'd figured it out. No room for that panic today.

She smiled crookedly at him as she stepped over to Giles, reached to shake his hand. "It was good to meet you, Mr Giles."

Giles squirmed a little, realising they'd been made. "Just Giles is fine. Or Rupert. And it's a pleas- I mean... obviously, I wish these were better circumstances."

Xander headed back in to kiss each of the sleepy girls on the tops of their heads. "Come on. Say goodnight to Mom. We need to get home." They looked at Mary like they couldn't believe they were supposed to leave their mom here. "Aunty Mich's going to keep an eye on her." He wanted to touch Mary, kiss her, but he couldn't in front of the girls. He wasn't going to confuse them on top of everything else.

It probably wouldn't be a good idea to drag Giles close and kiss him goodbye in front of them, either. By the sideways glance Giles gave them, he was thinking the same thing. Xander settled for squeezing his arm and saying "I'll see you tomorrow," with as much feeling as he could squeeze in.

Giles' eyes lifted. "I'll be here, Xander."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The girls hadn't crawled in to share his bed since the first couple of visits after the divorce. Now, thank god, he had them curled up against his bruised sides, two tiny bodies cutting the circulation out of his hands, leaving his head to sink in the gap between the pillows, Kate adding injury to his knee with all her kicking.

If they hadn't crawled in, he'd have spent the night in their doorway, searching out their outlines in the dark.

New York was the same demon-riddled world as Sunnydale, population times a million, and things happened here. There was no reason to think Mary couldn't be a random victim just like Radek's neighbour's brother or anybody else.

And if Giles was telling the truth and it was just random, and Xander had kept them safe all these years, then it was over now. Buffy was coming, and she was going to save Mary's life, but the walls would come tumbling down. No way would the underworld not notice the arrival of the oldest, scariest Slayer in the history of all their centuries-long lives.

And yet. Buffy.

His eyes pricked. It had been so long, and she was on a plane to his rescue before he could ask. Not even to his rescue: to help someone she'd never met because he needed her to. Because Willow and his running out on them had been a long time ago, and in the end she always forgave. She'd forgiven worse betrayals than his.

He couldn't wait to see her. In just a few hours, he could tell her how sorry he was for leaving them like that. And tell her that he didn't blame her for what Willow did. And he could just see her, that she was just as alive and beautiful and strong as ever.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 35:
Xander brought Jen and Kate to the hospital, and then it was his turn for some comfort... in a bathroom stall. Wesley sent along the good news that Mary can be fixed, except it's going to require hunting down the villain. On the maybe-good-news front, Buffy is on her way. Mich continued to be unimpressed by the lack of information-sharing, but figured out Xander and Giles for herself. Xander took the girls home, and lay awake musing about Buffy.



New York chapter 36:
The cavalry


He called work to get the day off, called Mary's work, got the girls to school, called their guidance offices to keep an eye on them and was at the hospital before nine, braced for Mich's interrogation.

But Mich just met his gaze as he walked in and shook her head, looking almost as delicate as Mary. She looked down again, tightening her grip on Mary's hand. They didn't talk at all.

He didn't need to ask if the doctor mentioned any changes. Mary looked the same.

He leaned against the wall and waited, watching the clock tick Buffy's arrival closer and closer. He shouldn't have rushed. There wasn't anything to do here except wonder what Buffy was going to say when she came. How he was going to look her in the eye.

The last time Xander set eyes on Buffy was as he climbed into his rental car after the funeral.

Dawn had been standing in the doorway of the funeral home, nursing her injured arm, trying to kill him with her glare and feign indifference all at the same time. Tara and Buffy had walked with him to the car and then he opened the door and they all stood there. It was weird and awkward because no one was saying anything, until Xander finally shook his keys and said, "I guess I should go," and then Tara stepped forward and hugged him hard, but Buffy just stood there, not looking at him, arms folded. She'd been hammered by yet another end of the world, and she was thinking Xander blamed her for letting Willow get out of control while Xander was thinking she blamed him for not being there, and maybe if he'd taken a chance and reached out then they'd have been in touch all these years.

He wouldn't have stayed. Even if they'd hugged then, it wouldn't have kept him in Sunnydale. He'd lost his confidence in happy endings when Buffy died. The second time. Before that every apocalypse had been averted and followed with a party. And then she died for real, and they yanked her out of heaven, and he ruined his wedding, and Willow died. It was the year he learned that sometimes, things couldn't be fixed.

And that he didn't want to be part of it anymore.

If she did this - after she did this - Xander couldn't walk away again. Thanks for saving my ass, see you next time I can use you? What would Giles think of him, then?

But how could he keep his girls safe if he threw himself back in?

Mich coughed and Xander was jerked back to the wires, the beeping monitors standing guard over the bed, and realised he was worrying more about Buffy than Mary.

"Xander."

Giles. Xander smiled. He was in the doorway, tipping his head towards the corridor, and Xander slipped out to meet him.

There was a woman standing- "Oh, wow." Xander stared. She looked so different. And the same. Her hair was darker, cut right up to her ears, and she was all grown up. "Hey."

"Hey."

He took a couple of shuffling steps forward and she met him in the middle. Buffy to his rescue. Buffy hugging him. He squeezed his eyes shut, not caring that it hurt his face.

She didn't hold on long. "Ouch. Look at you." She brushed her hand over his grazed cheek. "I heard it's a jungle down there, so I hope you don't mind that we called in jungle-expert reinforcements."

Xander nodded at the guy behind her and then registered the stance and the folded arms, and then finally the face. "Riley?"

"Didn't think you were going to recognise me."

"Wow." He didn't look all that different; he was just... unexpected. A little heavier and going seriously grey.

"Super-secret military detachment at your service. I've got a team waiting on our go."

Big wow. "All the big guns." Xander looked between them. "How bad is this gate?"

Buffy glanced at Giles before turning to Xander. "For the world? Not much of a thing. But if the caster goes through, we won't be able to bring him back and wring him out."

"No antidote for Mary."

Riley stepped forward. "I've got people chasing down the yoga classmates, but it looks like there may have been more than one class. We can't be sure we'll find everyone."

Giles nodded. "We're going to have to assume they'll abduct another sacrifice."

Xander folded his arms as Mary's time squeezed and shortened around them. "So what's the plan?"

Buffy pushed up her sleeves. "The symbol's part of a portal-opening deal from the temple of a cult Nikki Wood broke back in the seventies. She wiped them out. Looks like someone's starting a revival. We don't know who this Next Gen crew is, but we're pretty sure vampires aren't the brains behind it. We do have a pretty good idea where they're based and we know exactly what they're trying. We need to stop the ritual, suck some blood out of the boss, and if we kill a few monsters on the way, then that's the frosting on the cupcake. Riley's team are going to keep the underground demon population occupied while Riley and I get us down there and Giles grabs what we need."

Of course Giles was planning on going down there, straight into scary central while Xander hung around up here, watching Mary breathe. "Who's covering Giles?"

Giles exchanged a look with Buffy. "I'll be fine."

"Then I guess it's me."

Buffy hesitated. "Are you sure?"

Giles touched his arm. "You don't have to-"

"Of course I do." Buffy, Giles, him. It was the old crew, what was left, and he couldn't trust anyone else with Giles' back. All Riley's soldiers may have had training and weapons and actual skills, but they didn't have Xander's desperation to keep Giles whole. Xander knew desperation counted for a lot. "Scoobies ride again."

His eyes met Giles' and held. He expected approval, a smile or a nod, but there was only worry and determination. Giles would have brought home Mary's cure even if Xander did stay behind.

Riley jerked his thumb behind him. "This is Sergeant Perez. She's going to keep an eye out here."

Xander glanced up at the woman waiting by the elevator. Jeans and a leather jacket didn't exactly make her look like a civillian. "I really wasn't looking to advertise my past to-"

Buffy's head jerked up. "Hi."

Damn. Xander turned, knowing who he'd see. Mich.

"Hello." She extended her hand. "I'm Xander's sister-in-law, Michiko Tanaka."

"I'm Buffy." No more.

"Riley."

Mich looked them over, measuring, taking mental notes for Mary. Good for her, but they didn't have time for it. Xander drew breath to push them for the exit.

"What branch?" Her question stopped everyone.

Riley didn't bother to misunderstand. "Army. Colonel Riley Finn."

She was impressed.

So was Xander, but he didn't have time for it. "Get your team ready. Buffy, Giles, I'll meet you downstairs."

They all headed for the elevator, leaving him with Mich. "Mich, I have to go out. If I don't call you before two-thirty, can you pick up the girls?"

"Where are you going?"

"Taking care of things."

"Who are they?"

Xander glanced up to where Buffy was watching from the elevator doors. Mich had no idea how big a question that was. "What do you want from me? They're helping."

"I want to know what's wrong with my sister. And why you're keeping it secret and since when can you give orders to fucking full-bird colonels?"

"Orders? I'm not- No, he's a friend. I'm sorry, okay, but you're going to have to trust me. I'm doing what I can."

He moved to leave but she grabbed his forearm, fingers sinking in. It took a moment before she said, "You just remember that they've already got one parent in hospital."

"Believe me, I know." It still got his skin crawling, to hear her say it. If they ended up with two, he'd never forgive himself. That still wasn't a good enough reason to stay behind.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Giles and Wesley had pegged their destination as beneath the city way-uptown, off the 2,3 train near 116th. Riley's people had found an entrance through an underground parking garage and turned it into their own den of chaos. Giles had gotten a call from Wesley and he and Riley were poring over the blueprints on the back of an army truck.

Xander was standing between a mess of military vehicles, staring down a black, black hole.

Buffy slipped up beside him and punched his arm. "You ready?"

"Never."

He took a deep breath and started down the ladder, biting back the pained grunts as he worked all the tender places from yesterday's beating. He landed in a stale concrete tunnel, not thinking of the last time he was in one of these. He gripped his stake and his axe, trying to stop the fuzziness crowding in the edge of his vision from coming any closer. It was probably weird that standing here in a dank tunnel, hyperventilating, some part of him felt strangely at home. Buffy was going to save his world all over again.

Buffy dropped down beside him and slid her sword into her belt. "Well, I'm feeling right at home."

Xander spread his hands. "Life of a superhero. See the world."

"I prefer the exterior view."

Seventeen again, witty banter, good versus evil and everyone was invincible. Xander smiled grimly. If he survived the humiliation of wetting his pants. That feeling was familiar, too.

She gave him a push and they headed deeper in, giving Riley's team room to climb down and pass down equipment. "Like nothing's changed since the first time you and I went through the tunnels together, trying to stop the Harvest."

Xander tried to peer deeper into the darkness. "Funny, 'cos I was thinking about when everyone got turned into zombies by our egg baby projects and dug tunnels under the school."

"The sword-waving Eliminati guys cornered Faith and me in the sewers."

"The Initiative headquarters."

Buffy stepped in a puddle and screwed up her face. "Hunting the swim team."

Xander took a long breath. "Our childhood sucked."

She laughed and turned to face him, arms folded. "So you're dating my Watcher."

Xander wondered if this was why she pushed him down here ahead of everyone else. Would the soldiers over there step in if she started kicking him around? He leaned against the wall, going for the look of a man who was casual but prepared. That was probably a mistake. The bricks were sticky. "I don't know what it's called beyond left field, but I think that's where we are." A fist clenched inside Xander's stomach, waiting for the arm-waving indignation.

"Nah. Left field's way lefter than that."

The fist eased. Giles hadn't been kidding. "Why do I get the feeling I should never ask?" The shame-filled look that passed over her face made him even more sure of it. If she dated worse than Angel, he really didn't want to know.

"He's crazy about you, you know."

"Yeah, I got the memo." He couldn't help his grin. It was cool to hear it from an outside source, though.

She kept watching him, eyes bright in the gloom. "Did you really get it? I wasn't even surprised when he told me because I had a three-day lead-up of the best of Xander Harris, New York edition. Two hours non-stop about you before he confessed. Twenty minutes on the way you smile. I've never heard him talk about anything less than a thousand years old for twenty minutes."

"Really?"

"And defensive techniques. He can do a solid hour on those."

Xander looked back up the tunnel, expecting to see Giles strolling up to extoll the virtues of Xander Harris, but it was still just soldiers, catching the bags and weird-shaped packages that were being tossed down the hole. He wondered if she knew everything. About what a colossal asshole he'd been. If she was telling him this to boost his ego, or if it was her version of The Talk. "What about you?"

"I'm between disasters at the moment. Enjoying the single Buffy."

"Don't think..." Okay, this probably wasn't the time to start this, but it looked like he just had. The soldiers were busy dividing up equipment, not paying any attention to them, and Giles was probably checking and re-checking his sources up top. "Just because I'm over here, and I've broken all contact, that doesn't mean I don't miss you like crazy."

She bit her lip, and blinked. "And just because I let you go doesn't mean I don't miss you."

They smiled at each other, and everything was suddenly a hundred times easier.

Xander wanted to hug her, but he didn't. He wanted to tell her he was doing okay - okay with a side dish of awesome since Giles showed up and tripped his heterosexuality on its face. He wanted to tell her Willow wasn't her fault, but he didn't know how to start anything that big, when any minute they were going to be interrupted by-

Hurried footsteps turned them both towards the entrance, and there was Giles. Xander's Giles, who talked non-stop about him to Buffy. Behind him a dozen soldiers were waiting, as Riley and the Captain hammered out last-minute details.

"You're ready?"

Something in his voice made Xander's guts twist. "What's happened?"

"They haven't been able to track down some of Mary's classmates. There could be any number of reasons-"

"-and one of those reasons is that one of them's replacing Mary in the role of door key."

Buffy was back to business. "Guess that makes it time to go. I hate interdimensional gates. Riley!"

Riley bounced up. "So let's see if I still know the right end of a stake." He tossed a stake up in a spinning arc and caught it with a grin. He looked to Buffy. "The two teams have their routes. They'll find us down there. Lead the way, boss."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Buffy led the way. Giles followed. Xander was probably too close to Giles, but he wasn't actually gripping onto his jacket so he figured he was doing okay. Riley brought up the rear. Riley had offered the best of the latest military toys, but except for their wrist flashlights, they'd - mostly - stuck with the classics: a sword for Giles, Xander with a stake in every pocket and an axe in his hand. Buffy had a sword and an arsenal of stakes, along with a few sheathed daggers. Soon they were out of reach of the army's base lamps, shadows bouncing crazily under their bobbing flashlights. Grey, rust-streaked walls were punctuated with red water pipes and yellow railings and years of graffiti. Some of the kids who left it probably never left the tunnels. From overhead there was rumbling traffic and muffled horns.

Xander remembered how it felt back in Sunnydale, the watery-kneed fear of dying, or of pain, which had been even scarier. He'd forgotten it had been a little bit fun, too. Exciting and heroic and twistedly comforting, because no matter what else was wrong, whatever other stupid teenage stuff was going on with him and Will and Buffy, when the demons were at the door he'd known they'd all defend each other with their lives.

It wasn't fun, now. Pain still scared him but it was nothing next to the paralysing terror that if this went wrong, Jen and Kate could be orphaned today. Or even if he just got injured... here he was walking towards fairytale monsters, and in the back of his mind he was calculating how far his health insurance could cover him, how long his savings would pay the rent, the school fees, the groceries. Or what if he got Giles or Buffy hurt, and all those problems rippled through their lives? What if Giles lost his job, or hospital bills drove him back to England? Xander stared at Giles' back, wishing he knew a few protection incantations.

What if they were too late, and Xander had to raise the girls alone?

Giles' flashlight shone up over the wall, over a big stylised red arrow aimed in the direction they were headed, to the word 'HELL', complete with horns and flames. Giles stopped. And fangs. Xander told his bladder to hold on as they started up again.

He peered into the side-tunnels they passed, half-expecting to see yellow eyes shining back like a Scooby Doo cartoon. There was nothing except his own brain straining to make shapes out of the blackness. His steps seemed louder than everyone else's, out of time. His breath seemed louder. It was hot and his mouth was dry. He was crazy for coming. Slayer, soldier, watcher, Xander. Xander was going to need saving again.

Something chittered and Xander grabbed for Giles and Giles yelped and Xander almost fell on his ass trying not to get staked, and they both clutched their chests, panting.

"What the hell was that?" Buffy asked.

"That was me making a fool of myself," gasped Giles.

Xander shrugged, wiping off his sweaty palm and getting a better grip on his axe. "Sorry."

"I meant the sound before that, the one straight off the Halloween foley archive."

Giles and Xander shared a look. "Those were the ones that came for us in the food bin," said Giles.

"That's good," said Riley, "'cause those sketches of yours weren't creepy enough."

Xander swept his flashlight around. "We're miles from where we got taken last time. What the hell are they doing all the way up here?" He shone it in Giles' face. "I thought you said this wasn't connected?"

Giles covered his eyes until Xander lowered the light. "It probably isn't. Those things seem to be all through the tunnel system. Nikki called them 'leptirica'."

"Great."

Buffy got moving, and they fell in behind her. "I'm sorry," Xander said again, just to Giles this time.

Giles squeezed his elbow. "I intensely dislike those creatures."

"Let's not get one as a pet."

The side of Giles' mouth lifted in a smile just for Xander. They hadn't had a moment alone since the bathroom yesterday, which had been a pretty good moment, as moments went, but it was yesterday. Xander wanted to tell him how glad he was Giles was here, to at least put an arm around him, show him something, but Giles was already following Buffy and Riley.

Buffy stopped at the top of a stairwell. "This is our door." Their super-military flashlights didn't penetrate the hanging dust at all. The stairs were rickety woven aluminum, the sort that shook and rattled under Buffy's first couple of steps. She gave them a long look, and then started down into the black.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 36:
Waiting in Mary's hospital room, Xander worried about seeing Buffy, but she arrived and hugged him and made things better. Also, she brought Riley, who brought an army. Then she broke the news that they were headed down into the tunnels to wring Mary's cure out of some bad guy. Xander announced he was coming too.
Buffy and Xander had time to chat in the tunnels. Giles' claims that she was totally in favour of the Giles/Xander relationship were not exaggerated. Their happy reunion was interrupted by the news that Mary's attackers may already have a replacement, and so their descent began.



New York chapter 37:
Cliche


Buffy stopped at the top of a stairwell. "This is our door." Their super-military flashlights didn't penetrate the hanging dust at all. The stairs were rickety woven aluminum, the sort that shook and rattled under Buffy's first couple of steps. She gave them a dubious look, and then started down into the black.

Riley went next, and Xander gestured for Giles to go after him. Xander went last, so he could keep Giles in his sights. The thunk of four pairs of feet on the stairs was like thunder.

"So much for stealth," Xander said.

Giles glanced back. "I'm sorry?"

"Exactly."

Giles looked puzzled, and then seemed to realise it didn't matter and offered a vague smile and nod.

They went down for a long time. Every flight down was one Xander's knees reminded him they were going to have to climb back up again when this was done. At the bottom Buffy paused. From a flight above and behind her, Xander could see the way she straightened, knew she was closing her eyes and reaching out with those mysterious Slayer senses. She went left.

It stank down here. Stagnant water puddled on the rough concrete floor between decaying trash and things unidentifiable. There was a splash and quiet curse every time one of the group stepped in a deeper pool their flashlights had missed. The walls were sand struck brick, older than the subway.

Xander spent all his time watching Giles' back, brown jacket and loose blue jeans. It was better than psyching himself out watching for stuff the Slayer and super-soldier couldn't see. He was thinking about Giles and thinking about Mary and thinking... well, a whole lot of things. How he liked that Giles was with them. Xander didn't have to protect him. Or, he did, but at the same time Giles was here to protect Xander. Giles knew this world better than Xander did, and it was a mutual protecting deal. There was no way Xander ever could have handled Mary coming down here.

There was more than one way Xander trusted Giles.

More stairs, more tunnels, more stairs, their waving flashlights squeezed between shadows. Old hand-formed bricks gave way to hewn rock. Xander hoped he wasn't going to have to find his own way out. It felt like no one human had ever been here.

They threaded out of the passage onto a wooden walkway running the length of another, broader tunnel, and shone their flashlights down to the ground ten feet below.

Riley moved ahead and stomped his boot a couple of times to make sure the wood was solid. "Are we seriously on a wooden walkway? This must be pre-war."

Xander shone his light up and down the balusters. "1920s." Nobody responded, and it was a few seconds before his flashlight caught the quizzical looks. "What? I'm in construction."

"Xander Harris, the Giles of twentieth century artifacts," said Buffy.

"I'll take it." That actually sounded pretty cool. "So? Which way?"

Buffy barely hesitated before pointing left. "That way."

"Your slayer senses tell you that?" asked Riley.

"Sometimes with evil, you just follow your nose." Buffy made a retching face. "My nose says evil is that way."

It did stink. Like New York distilled, which it probably was. An entire city's drunks pissing in drains, filtered through layers of Manhattan trash.

Xander was ready to get moving again, but Buffy raised her hand and they all froze. It took a couple of seconds before they could hear it. Chittering, far down the tunnel to the right.

They were armed this time, Xander reminded himself. Buffy and Riley were with them. He wasn't going to be a torn shirt on an old corpse in a lost subway tomb, and neither was Giles.

The wooden handrail creaked under Riley's weight and he eased back. They all peered into the black as the sound got louder and somehow thicker. The creatures were close and coming fast but the super-awesome military flashlights didn't seem so impressive anymore.

"Should we be maybe moving?" asked Xander.

"Give 'em a headache, Ri," said Buffy.

Riley shuffled past them all to the back of the line. There was a click as he pulled a flash-bomb from his belt.

But the chittering sound wasn't quite the same as in the tunnel above, and Xander turned to see Giles cocking his head as well. It wasn't the same. "Wait," said Xander just as Riley called "Flash!" and he shielded his eyes just in time for the crack and blaze of magnesium.

There were squeals everywhere but not the screeching of the lepti-vamp-things, and in the afterglow of the flash-bomb Xander yelled "Rats!" about half a second before everyone else. Rats were racing down the tunnel.

Rats, and Xander was no stranger to fucking enormous rats but these things were carry-your-children-away huge, need-their-own-seats-on-the-subway huge, run-for-your-lives huge.

Turned out Riley learned some bad language in the army, finishing his string of curses with, "Is this a good time to tell you how much I hate rats?"

"Where are they going?" Giles cried over the squeals.

"Same place we are!" Buffy yelled back.

But the flash had muddled them and some were tripping each other and some were climbing the walls, and team Sunnydale was about to be surrounded by ratzillas.

Buffy started swinging at rats scrambling up the wall ahead of them just as one clambered onto the walkway by Xander and hissed. Giles jumped in and kicked it back into the throng below a second before one dropped from above onto his back. Xander hit it hard with the butt of his axe and again to knock it free and hauled Giles backwards, just a moment of Giles against him and a 'thank you', and then they were both beating back at shadows of rats, half the battle lost in darkness until a scrape and hiss as Riley threw out a yellow flare that lit the swarming rats like day. Thinning out now, thank-

"Vamp!"

Xander turned and something slammed into him and wood crashed and the ground was gone. Xander was falling. A hand grabbed his and Xander cried out as his shoulder wrenched but he was dangling, not falling, gasping for the breath that had been knocked out of him. Riley had him, arm bulging as he strained to hold Xander's wrist. It hurt.

Giles called his name and Xander struggled to get his attention off the burning agony in his shoulder. Because Giles was fighting a vampire and there were horror movie rats below Xander's feet. Remembering the rats gave Xander the strength to get his other hand up to the boards, just as Giles' vampire whooshed and dust drifted down.

Giles' arms were around him, hauling him onto solid-ish wood, checking him over. "Are you all right? Xander?"

Xander gritted his teeth as he rolled his shoulder. "I'm okay. Thanks, Ri-"

Riley was already on his feet for three more vampires barrelling down the walkway and Giles jumped over Xander to back him up.

Xander was still struggling to his feet when Giles was thrown against the wall and stumbled back over him, a foot on Xander's hand and the pair of them sprawled back to the deck as Riley and the vampires crashed through the railing to the rats below. Riley's cussing drowned out the indignant squeals as he came up swinging. "Could use some back-up!"

Buffy vaulted over the rail. She was fighting before she landed and it was nothing like Xander remembered. It was no cemetery punch-up; there was no dancing around, no repartee. Every blow counted, every stake found its mark. Rats hit the wall and fell still; vampires dissolved. She was ruthless, cold fire, and Riley was clear before the screams had faded.

Xander was glad there was nothing else to fight up here, because he hadn't been able to tear his eyes away.

Now he turned to Giles, who didn't seem to think climbing off Xander was any kind of priority. Xander wasn't going to rush him. "Are you okay?"

"Says the man with the bleeding face who recently was hung over the side like a sock. Are you sure you're all right?" Giles had his arm, was looking manic. "They've opened your lip again." He magicked out his handkerchief to wipe the blood from Xander's mouth. Xander hadn't noticed anything over the tearing pain in his shoulder, but he could flex his fingers. No serious damage.

Giles' fingers brushed his shoulder and then settled, gently feeling along the muscles. "You're hurt."

Xander reached up to cover his hands. "Just wrenched it. It'll keep." On a whim, he kissed the side of Giles' mouth with the side of his own mouth that wasn't cut. He liked the way that softened Giles' face. Xander sat up and looked over the broken rail. "Are you two okay down there?"

The stampede was gone. Down in the tunnel Buffy gave a little shudder before reaching down to pick up one of the bodies. "Rats? In New York? Could this be any more cliche?"

It looked like an ordinary rat, except horrifyingly enormous. She had it by the scruff of its neck above her head, and its back claws were by her thighs, tail trailing the ground.

"I suppose we ought to be glad this isn't the Florida sewers," said Giles. "We'd be dealing with fifty-foot alligators."

Riley shuddered. "I'll take the alligators."

Giles finally climbed to his feet and offered Xander a hand up, holding on for half a minute longer than he needed to. Not as long as Xander needed.

They set off again, leaving the fading flare light behind them. Xander's adrenaline levels were slipping down from 'hanging by one arm over a stream of giant rats' to merely 'walking through demon-infested tunnels towards some unknown battle to save his ex-wife.'

Kate and Jen were sitting in classrooms down in the East Village, with no idea what their father was doing, or what it was going to take to make Mary well again, and Xander didn't know if he'd hugged them hard enough this morning.

He couldn't raise them alone. Mary was the stable one, the one Jen and Kate respected, the mother they were going to need for all the teenage woman stuff. Xander was just... Xander. The same dumbass teenager he'd ever been, hiding in a thirty-seven year-old body. Jen thought he was clinically insane, and Kate was going to think the same thing when she was old enough. Xander couldn't do it without Mary. He had to get her back.

Xander and Giles stayed up on the walkway until they reached a ladder set into the wall and climbed down to join Buffy and Riley. Xander really hoped there wasn't going to be another rat-flood.

Giles dropped back to walk beside him. "How are you doing?"

"A little battered. You?"

"I'm fine. No, I meant... With all of this." Giles waved his flashlight around the tunnel. "Being down here."

"You mean this horrible nightmare I'm having where my old life is being reborn under the streets of New York City?" Somewhere above them, ten million people were working and shopping and honking their horns, and down here it was like Xander might turn the corner and there'd be Angelus or Glory.

"I'm sorry." Giles gave him a look that Xander couldn't read in the gloom, but it made Xander realise how selfish he sounded.

He sounded that way because he was. Three months ago he'd raged at Giles for dragging him in to help a stranger, but here was Giles and Buffy and Riley and an army squad, and none of them had to be dragged here. Xander glanced at Giles and away again. He wondered what Giles would think if he knew how much of Xander's brain was dedicated right now to making excuses for never doing this again. In answer to every one Xander heard Giles' chilled voice from that night: "I hope there's someone more willing if one day Kate or Jenny is in need of assistance."

Deep down, Xander was terrified that he'd find himself back on the working end of a stake just because he was too chicken to tell Giles what a chicken he was. He didn't want to know what Giles would say if he tried to walk away, and he really didn't want to know what Giles would do. Could he handle it, if Giles was too disgusted with him to stay?

"I'm glad you're with me," Xander said at last, just because it had been too long a gap and he didn't know what else to say.

"There's nowhere else I would choose to be," said Giles.

Of course there wasn't. Because Giles was one of those hero types, while Xander was the guy who cracked the lame jokes. "I've figured out one thing for sure."

Giles tipped his head, was probably raising a questioning eyebrow.

"My girls are never getting on the subway." Vampire-bats and old school vampires and giant rats all rolled up in one exciting tunnel system. And probably more. Probably everything that was evil was down here somewhere.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

They'd dropped to a slow jog when Buffy stopped and they all piled into her. She lifted a finger to her lips and tipped her flashlight through a section of ripped-out bricks into a rough five foot high tunnel with claustrophobia written all over it. Great. She turned off her light and they all gathered close before copying. Xander was about as close to Giles as he could get with clothes on, and feeling a lot better for it until Riley turned off his light last and the world went dark.

Xander could hear everyone's breathing, clothes shifting, and somewhere through that tunnel, rats. There was the faint scent of burning.

"Light," whispered Riley.

There was. It should have been pitch black this deep, but as their eyes adjusted, total blindness faded to deep grey. Deep enough that Xander wasn't sure if he was seeing Giles' silhouette or just imagining it, but the light was definitely coming from that tunnel.

"Come on," whispered Buffy, and there was a soft scrape as she got moving. Xander came last, bent over to keep his head clear of the ceiling, holstering his axe so he could keep one hand on Giles' hip and one on the rough rock wall. Giles reached back to press his hand. The ground was uneven and Xander's heart skipped every time Giles stumbled a little, felt Giles still any time Xander put his own foot wrong.

A long bend to the left, and then a dip, the way growing lighter until a sudden bend to the right led the way through to-

Okay. Well, pretty sure this was their destination. Xander swallowed hard. "I don't remember seeing this on any of the Manhattan digging hazard maps."

They were looking down into an enormous natural-looking cavern carved from darkly glittering gneissic rock, like a great gothic underground Yankee stadium with rising damp instead of advertising signs. The place was lit by great piles of burning trash, each twice Xander's height or more, the ceiling lost in grey smoke that stung Xander's eyes. The place stank.

"No, seriously, guys," Riley said quietly, "I really hate rats."

"Here's your chance to kill a few," Buffy replied.

Wall-to-wall, the cavern was filled with mutant rats like the ones from the tunnel. Thousands. Grey and brown and black, crawling over each other and some pulling plastic shopping bags stuffed full.

"Why do I suddenly feel like a gingerbread soldier?" murmured Giles.

Xander felt a tug on his sleeve, and he followed the others around to a recessed spot where they could watch from out of view. The floor was thirty feet below, the swirling rats too preoccupied to notice the new arrivals.

"Let's hope the smoke is thick enough to hide our scent," said Buffy. "Riley, any radio signal from your teams, yet?"

"Nothing yet."

Off to the right, there was a raised area where four people lay unconscious on neat piles of trash. A fifth trash pile was empty.

They already had replacements ready. So how long did Mary have?

"Four people?" whispered Buffy, turning to Giles. "I thought the recipe called for one."

Giles was staring, his mouth a straight line, but Xander couldn't see more through the red firelight glinting off his glasses.

"Maybe it was their plan to collect a set all along," said Riley.

"They may be opening more than one door," said Giles, slowly like he was still figuring things out, "or simply backing up their plan with redundant extras."

"Either way, I'm not a fan," said Buffy. "Okay. You all see the wooden chest with the symbols painted all over? That's the vessel. When we go down there we have to protect that. If the one making the spell gets as far as unhooking those people's souls, they'll be safe in there until we can put them back."

The chest was in between all the unconscious people, looking old and battered like they'd pulled it off the curb on college moving day. Maybe they had.

"I think we know who's the king in town." Riley pointed to the centre where the rats were parting for a brown rat who looked exactly like them, except he was wearing a dirty blue Yankees jacket like a cape and an honest-to-god tiara. It was hard to be sure from here, but it looked like the plastic kind Jen would have begged for at Coney Island when she was little. A couple dozen vampires trailed after him in two neat lines, more rats falling in behind like a Macy's parade gone seriously wrong.

"You know," said Xander, "I don't see stuff like this anymore."

Buffy bumped their shoulders. "Is that how it is out in normal world? Is this weird?"

The rat reached the stage and swung off the jacket with a flourish to reveal fur covered in inky black smudges, like the symbols on the chest had been painted into his fur as well.

"Evil leader: yes, but she's no king," said Buffy.

Xander gave her a sideways look. "You can tell?"

"See the dark one next to her?"

They all leaned forward to see the darker rat with enormous- oh. That one was a boy-rat.

"I'm not going to ask where you learned to sex rats."

"A Slayer skill set is wide and varied. Ask me some time what I know about-"

Giles cut in. "Riley, by any chance do you have binoculars on you? Or some kind of sight?"

"Sure do."

Riley passed a one-piece like a rifle-scope to Giles, who looked through. "Damn."

Buffy peered over at the raised area Giles was examining. "Remember how I hate it when you say that?"

Giles passed the scope back to Xander and pointed. "Look at the chest."

Xander zoomed in close, and the bodies on the trash-biers became people. A guy in a tank top and jeans. A girl in a dress like she was on her way to go dancing. Now he could see the details of the knots and runes on the chest like the ones on Giles' laptop, like- He froze. "That's the symbol on Mary." Xander looked at Riley. "Tell me your guards on her bed are the awesomest you've got."

"It's worse than that," said Giles, and now Xander heard the worry in his voice. Worry on Giles was outright terror by anyone else's standards, and Xander's heart squirmed up his throat. "They've got four. They're not going to wait for her."

"That's not good?" Xander thought having the big scary magic scene with Mary at the other end of town sounded like the second best idea ever, right after not having it at all.

Giles' hand rested on Xander's back like he was trying to calm him. "They still have her symbol. She's tied to the ceremony. If they release her soul but she's too far away for it to be caught in the trunk, she'll be lost."

Xander wasn't calming. "You mean she'd be better off down there right now?"

"It had better not come to that."

"Then why are we still up here?"

Buffy put a hand on his shoulder, hard enough to remind him of her strength. "Because we don't help anyone if we get killed down here. We'll wait for back-up." She looked back over her shoulder. "Some soldiers would be good about now, Ri."

Riley checked the tricordery thing on his belt. "Nothing yet."

Giles' hand pressed Xander's back, turning him so they faced properly. "I told you, we'll have some time. The soul doesn't escape so easily, and Tara's ribbon will help to anchor her."

"But we won't have long."

"An hour? Two? I'm guessing."

Guessing wasn't reassuring, but having Giles here in his face was. Giles had asked Xander to trust him. Giles and Buffy would fix this. "Okay."

Only two days ago, Giles and Xander had been tangled on the couch, flipping through photos together and Xander's biggest worry had been hurting Giles with all his stupid insecurities. Which he did, all the time, but here Giles was anyway. Xander wished he knew how to say how much it meant to have Giles here right now, but he knew for sure he'd screw it up. After this was over, Xander would show him. He was much better at the showing than the saying.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 37:
Our little crew descended deeper under New York, and eventually came across a thundering herd of giant rats, plus some bonus vampires, and there was some fighting and falling through railings, as if Xander needed further proof of the hazards, but everyone survived. Xander wondered how he could ever not go back to the slaying life after Buffy and crew did this for him. They trekked on until they found an enormous cavern brimming with giant rats, where four people were already lying unconscious. Things became more urgent when Giles realised Mary was still marked to lose her soul in the spell, but too far away for it to be caught safely in the vessel. Unfortunately, no one's going into battle until Riley's back-up army arrives.



New York chapter 38:
A footnote


So here they were, standing around within sight of the thing that was trying to kill Mary. Queen Rat had reached the platform and was waving her paws over the chest, and it looked like she was chanting. The rest of the plague had settled in to watch. Most of the vampires hung back, glaring like nightclub bouncers. One knelt beside her, painting fresh symbols over the black smudges on her fur with a brush, and Xander could see this time as Mary's particular swirl was laid on the queen's left flank, soon lost in the fur. It gave him chills.

Xander would have been sliding down the wall already if he didn't know Buffy could catch him and drag him back here like a runaway tortoise.

Any moment now, there could be that one last magic word and a puff of smoke and Mary's soul would start working its way free, tied down by a little red ribbon around her wrist. One scrap of charmed fabric between life as Jen and Kate knew it and Xander stumbling through playing father and mother, scaring them stupid until they rebelled and got jobs cleaning the subway just to spite him because there was no Mary around to balance him out. Xander was a good dad but he couldn't do it alone, couldn't be everything. He didn't want to try.

He needed her as his friend, too. To be his sensible voice and to tease him about Giles and to be around, because there was a long list of reasons why he'd loved her all these years.

Riley ambled over and leaned on the rocks beside Xander. "So vampires work for rats, now."

"What?" It took a second to drag his brain away from the empty bier. "Guess so. Maybe they get all the rats' cool stuff after the rapture."

"I guess rat-run yoga classes don't exactly sell out, even in New York." He looked out across the swarming cavern. "I'm all for this bunch leaving this dimension if they can find a way out without stealing souls. I'll chip in for the bus fare."

He made Xander smile. Good old easy-going Riley, who'd never once looked down on Xander for riding on Buffy's superhero cape. Xander turned to face him. "Thanks for coming."

Riley mock-tipped a hat. "All part of the service, ma'am."

"Yeah, except it's not really." Xander couldn't let Riley blow this off as nothing. "You don't break out the armed forces for every lost soul."

"I wish we could. Lucky for Mary, you aren't nobody."

Xander snorted. "I'm somebody who fetched donuts sixteen years ago, and I haven't been keeping up on my club membership fees since then."

Riley stared long enough to make Xander uncomfortable. "Do you still do that?"

"Do what?"

"Talk like that, like you're just a footnote to Buffy's epic? On the outside, looking in?"

"Uh..." Xander didn't have anything more coherent to say. That sounded pretty dead-on.

Riley's voice was quiet for the rats below, but he made it feel loud, the way he pressed the words. "Xander, you fought alongside her for six years. You were Buffy's world. You brought her back from the dead, you researched through countless nights; hell, you and Willow and Giles melded with her to defeat Adam. How many people do you think have been as close to her as you three?"

Xander wanted to say 'plenty', but as Buffy said something that made Giles smother a smile and adjust his glasses like he had a few hundred times in the library and the Magic Box, he remembered what Sunnydale life was like, and the truth was, there probably hadn't been many at all. Probably Faith and Wesley and a few others that were part of her life now, and maybe some more people in between, but not plenty. He knew Buffy better than that.

"You guys changed the Slaying rules in Sunnydale. You all did it."

Yeah, they did. And Xander was definitely a part of that.

Riley stepped back and leaned against the wall, sliding his hands into his pockets. "I was a pinch hitter for you guys for one year way back when, and I still brag about it."

Xander grinned. "You're a pretty cool guy, Riley Finn."

"So my mom tells me."

Buffy stepped up on Xander's other side. "Can I tag team in?"

"No problem," said Riley. He patted Xander's shoulder and gave him a 'think about what I told you' look and ambled off to chat to Giles, who had all his attention focused on the spell-making going on below.

Buffy seemed to think Giles had it all under control, turning her back on the show to face Xander. Silhouetted against the glow of the fires, he could barely see the lines in her face but she still seemed so much older. There was something about the way she carried herself that he'd glimpsed sometimes way back then on her strongest days, but now she carried it. Owned it. Xander had been part of that.

And left.

Hadn't Xander's total irrelevance been the reason why it was okay to abandon her? Him and Willow and Giles, the ones who'd been closest to her of anyone, and each of them left her in one way or another in the space of a year. Xander was the only one who stayed away by choice. And here he was, sixteen years later, all grown up and still choosing to stay away.

Xander wasn't ready to start that talk so he looked out at the Rat Queen, who seemed to have started a shuffling dance. "I'm so not telling Mary I fed her magical rat blood."

"I can totally support that." Buffy smiled for about a second, and then turned serious. "But you are going to tell her the rest?"

Xander looked at her, surprised.

"I get why you haven't. I mean, I understand. I don't think it's right but I'm not in your shoes so you don't have to listen to me. But you can't keep it a secret now. You know that, right? Not after this."

Xander looked down at the people laid out on trash piles, all of them still, like Mary. "If we get her back, she can have anything she wants."

"We'll get her back, Xander. This isn't even hard. Look." She lifted up a foot so he could see it in the trashfire-light. "I'm not even wearing old shoes."

Xander managed a smile for her. He loved this woman as much as he ever had. "Thank you for coming, Buff. This is... You didn't have to but here you are."

"Of course I'm here." She looked at him like he was crazy. "You know I'll always come. I hope you never need me again, but if you do, you have to know you only need to call. You, your family, it doesn't matter. And it goes for all of us. Dawn, Faith, Wes, Tara. They all wanted to be here for you, but Giles said no."

Xander's eyes pricked. "Like all the times I haven't been there for you?"

"Xander..." Buffy stepped closer, looking all grown up with her bobbed hair and lines in her face but those same green eyes he remembered. "Do you think I'm mad at you? It hurt when you left, but I was glad you got out."

Xander snorted, but she grabbed his hand.

"You don't have to be dragged back into this."

Xander looked out over the field of soul-thieving rats. "Not much choice, just now."

"No, I mean, afterwards. Do this, save Mary, but as soon as she's okay, you can stop." She tugged his hand until he looked back into her eyes. "This is what I want you to do. Have a life. Be a guy. Keep your girls safe. Be my reason to keep on saving the world."

Xander pressed his lips together, hard, but finally he couldn't hold back the smile. "Man, that was corny."

She grinned. "Yeah, but one hundred percent true. I need to know there are people I care about that aren't drowning in death and misery." She pushed his shoulder. "Next time you have to nag your girls to do their homework or clean their rooms, remember how Faith and I saved the world so you could do it."

That sounded pretty fantastic to Xander. Too good to be true. "I can't believe how grown up you are."

"Funny, 'cause I was thinking the same about you, with your family and your job and your life. The seriously grown up boyfriend..."

Xander shook his head. "I'm the same stupid kid. Just pretending."

She lifted her chin. "Tell you a secret? Me too."

Well, good. If Buffy could fake it, then faking it was good enough for Xander. "It seems like you're carrying the weight of the world pretty well these days."

She stubbed the toe of her shoe against the rocks. "There's been some ups and downs. There was this big weird magical episode where I got to experience my life without the Slayer gig and the big moral of the story was that it wasn't so bad being able to save the world."

Buffy threw that out like it was a wacky fun adventure but Xander figured it probably wasn't, at the time. Still, if she didn't want to make a fuss about it. "It's a pretty good perk."

He could see how her shoulders relaxed as he let that drop. "And there's this whole spiritual side of it that I didn't get when we were kids. Faith figured out a lot of it while she was in jail."

"No way can I imagine you and Faith living together."

She grinned. "Not really the future I was anticipating at graduation, but she's a different person now. I mean, who isn't, right? The guys who started the whole slayer line - who I'm majorly not a fan of - they seemed to think it had to be one girl. But trust me, two women: way better."

"So you're okay?"

"I really am. The couple of years after I came back were pretty much the low."

Xander dipped his head. "I'm-"

She threw up both hands to cut him off. "Nah, let's not do that conversation, okay? If you start apologising for not being around, then I'll have to apologise for not pulling you aside at Willow's funeral and telling you how good it was to see you."

He had to close his eyes a second, because damn, he wished she had. "And then I'll have to apologise for not being there when Will fell off the wagon." Xander paused, but he couldn't leave it there. "Maybe if I hadn't left she'd still..." He trailed off, because he couldn't say it.

"Maybe. Maybe if Giles hadn't yelled at Willow for bringing me back to life after Glory."

Xander looked at her in surprise and then they both looked over at Giles, but he was absorbed pointing rat stuff out to Riley.

"Yeah, I know about that," Buffy said quietly. "I heard him say it."

Wow. Xander wondered how that had felt. Dragged out of heaven and fresh from her grave and Giles mad that she was alive.

She took a little breath. "Maybe Willow'd still be around if I hadn't told her she was the strongest of all of us when I needed her to help me fight Glory."

Xander felt his eyebrows rise. He hadn't known about that either.

"Or how about maybe if Willow hadn't decided to blow us all off and save the world with her own ego?" Her voice softened with regret. "I wasted sixteen years blaming Giles and look at the price he paid. I'm not going to start on you."

Xander let that just sit there a minute. "Okay." Nobody blaming anybody. That worked for him. "I miss her."

A few silent seconds passed before Buffy added, "Me too."

"Giles is back now." Xander watched him frowning at Riley's data tablet, scratching his neck as he thought. Xander hadn't spent much time kissing that neck yet, so he made a little vow to start. When they were finally out of here and Xander could go back to his new Giles-flavoured life. "It's hard to believe he's the same guy we knew in the Magic Box when we were kids."

She was watching him with the same warmth Xander was. Not exactly the same, maybe, but close. "Yeah. Except then you realise he's not the one who changed. Kinda blows the mind, doesn't it?"

Being down here with Buffy and Riley and the mission afoot, it really did. "I guess we did grow up."

"I didn't know how much I'd missed him until he climbed out of Tara's car and it was like I got my hearing back, or my sight. Maybe an arm. Now I call him every day just to make sure he's still there." She looked at Xander. "I like how happy he sounds, now."

Xander liked that too. Buffy had the same thinky expression she'd had upstairs, when she asked if he really got it. Yeah, he did. "I actually do know he's crazy about me. I don't know why, but I like it."

"Ask him why. He's probably got the list alphabetised and indexed."

Xander slid his hands into his pockets. "Talked about me for hours, huh?"

She rolled her eyes, and it whooshed Xander all the way back to Sunnydale, to the best parts when him and Willow and Buffy traded jokes about Snyder and did their own commentary on Bollywood movies and Xander was madly in love with Buffy. And Giles was always around, being the guy Xander wanted to be when he grew up.

Now Giles was the guy watching Xander while nodding at Riley as if he wasn't concentrating on Riley at all, and Xander liked that even better.

"Go on," said Buffy.

Giles let a smile slip through the worry-face as Xander came closer. Riley was facing out over the rats, talking about maps and areas of concentration and the 4,5,6 line, but just as Xander opened his mouth to say hello to Giles, Riley straightened. "Let me guess - we don't want to fall down that hole."

"What hole?" asked Xander.

"The one that just appeared down there."

That hole. It was two foot across with whirly, fuzzy edges to make it perfectly clear it wasn't natural and it was right where the soul-trunk used to be. It hadn't been there a minute ago. Queen Rat ripped out a chunk of her own fur and sprinkled it in.

"Oh, fucking hell."

"Giles?"

"She already has their souls. All this time she's been working on the gate."

Xander looked between Giles and the floorshow, swallowing back the bile pushing its way up his throat. "Wait. We missed the whole soul-extraction thing? Mary's already gone?"

"I told you, Xander, Mary has time." He was trying to sound reassuring and it made Xander want to shake him.

"No. No, she had time. If we've been watching the wrong fucking spell this whole time we've been here then we don't know how long ago Rizzo waved her paws and released their souls. Mary could be floating around New Zealand by now."

"Keep your voice down."

Xander almost raised his voice just to spite him, until he remembered they were only half-hidden from a few thousand magic rats. He moved closer instead, hands fisting by his sides. "You don't get it, do you? This is my wife slipping away."

"I do get it."

"I need her. I can't do it without her." He couldn't raise the girls, make them whole, be a mother to them. He barely coped as a father. "Jen and Kate need two parents."

"I know," Giles said, gently enough to remind Xander he was being an asshole to totally the wrong person, but Xander was shaking and it was all he could do to stop running his mouth.

Buffy stepped in. "Since it doesn't help us to assume otherwise, let's assume we have time. Xander, as soon as we get the antidote, you need to get it back to Mary. We'll need to shut this down and restore the people down there, but you can't wait."

"Believe me, I won't."

"Riley, we need your-"

"Hold on." Riley lifted a hand to his earpiece and checked out the screen on his waist. "Got them. Squad one are just behind that outcropping, squad two are almost dead ahead. Give the word, boss."

Xander ran his hands over his pockets, double-checking his stakes, rolled his aching shoulder and got a good grip on his axe. Unconscious yoga people surrounded by vampires over to the right and a half-mile dash through rats in between. He was going to get Mary back.

"Okay," said Buffy. "Riley, they're ready to light this place up?"

"Ready to go."

"Giles, you've got your eyes on her?"

"Of course."

"Xander, you're ready?"

"An hour ago."

"Count it, Ri."

"Three, two, one."

Xander twisted away and closed his eyes but the simultaneous flash-bombs burned his eyelids; heat washed over his back. He'd expected shrieking but it was a roar, shock and fury echoing around the chamber, and when Xander looked furry bodies were scattering everywhere except at the stage of biers where the spell jumped into double-speed.

The two squads could be seen dropping into the far reaches of the cavern and Buffy and Riley were already moving, sliding down the sloped cave wall to the floor and then hacking their way through swirling rats that stood as high as Riley's waist on their back paws.

A hand squeezed Xander's. "Take care."

Giles was gone so fast he probably didn't hear Xander's "You, too." Xander ploughed after him.

Most of the rats turned tail and ran but there were plenty left to stand their ground. Riley was hacking away like a guy who really hated rats. Buffy was magical, unstoppable, a pure force like wind or fire, throwing rats aside and never slowing. Xander was so awed he didn't realise when he reached the floor himself until claws scratched across his ankle and he felt the wind of a sword past his hand as Giles swung in to save him. Shit. Xander was supposed to be protecting Giles, not the other way around. He snapped his attention back to the room, but Buffy and Riley were already pushing on. Xander muttered a 'sorry' as he met Giles' worried gaze, and together they chased after them.

Now Xander's eyes weren't leaving Giles' back except to catch the few that tried to sneak up behind them. Xander hacked and slashed with his axe and sometimes Giles was there too, sword flashing.

Steadily forward until they reached four vampires halfway across the cavern. Bigger, stronger, better fighters than the rats, but Buffy and Riley had been killing vampires since they were kids and four was an easy night for them so Giles and Xander just had to keep off the rats for a couple of minutes and then they were moving again.

Sometimes Xander glimpsed the army guys in the distance, coming more slowly but headed in the same direction.

"Do you see her, Giles?" called Buffy, and Xander turned in surprise. They'd made it.

But the stage was in chaos. The nearest burning trash pile had been knocked over so there was soot everywhere, across the ground and staining all the rats black just like the paint-smudged Queen.

"Can you see her, Xander?" yelled Giles.

"They all look the same! They're fucking rats!"

"Over there!" yelled Riley.

"That's not her!"

"That one?"

A rat slammed into Xander's knee and he pitched sideways, threw his arms up for balance and choked on the pain as his shoulder howled.

A couple of rats raced up the wall but a bullet shattered the rock above them and they dropped back down with cries of rage that echoed around their friends. Riley re-cocked his gun and kicked a couple more escaping rats. "Nobody's going anywhere until we get our hands on Queenie."

"You two find her," called Buffy, "We've got your backs."

Giles and Xander dodged between scurrying rats like a dance.

Xander dropped his axe to free his hands and grabbed a leg of any brown rat and flipped it - boy. He let go. Paint. He was looking for smudged black paint, so he gave up trying to see patterns and started wiping his hands across every bit of fur he could reach, dodging snapping teeth and swiping claws.

Soldiers had caught up and were hemming the rats in.

"That's her!" cried Giles.

Xander turned around just as Giles dived into the pile, rolled over a rat and disappeared under another five and Xander couldn't see what was going on but red blood sprayed and then Xander couldn't move. Couldn't breathe. Giles came up with his knife bloody. "Xander!"

Giles threw something. Xander caught it and yelped in triumph: it was the bottle filled with dark blood. Now they could-

"That's it, Xander, go!" Giles was yanked backwards and his head hit the ground. Xander saw a tail wrapped around his ankle and suddenly Giles was flying backwards in swarm of fur towards the now-gaping hole.

"Giles!" Xander rushed forward until a hand clamped on his wrist.

"We've got him Xander! Go before you lose her!" Buffy shoved him back and raced past, Riley at her heels.

Giles was gone in the half-second he'd stopped watching. Xander got two steps after them and stopped, bottle clutched tight in his hand.

"Mr Harris, sir, you've got to go. Your wife can't wait." The soldier pointed to the bottle.

This was Mary's antidote. Buffy would get Giles. Buffy would get him.

Xander forced himself around and started running for the surface.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 38:
In the giant cavern under Manhattan, while Queen Rat got on with the loosening of the souls, Xander stressed. Riley ambled over to remind Xander that he's more than a footnote to Buffy's life, which made Xander feel good until it made him feel guilty for leaving again and then he felt bad. There was a nice chat with Buffy, who told Xander it was okay to escape the Hellmouth, and that she was happy to leave the guilt for Willow's death on Willow. Moment of calm came to an abrupt end when Giles realised Queen Rat was on to stage two, which meant Mary's soul was already slipping its tethers into the ether. Xander didn't take this well. Blah, blah, attack, rat-killings, vamp-killings, Giles found Queen Rat and drained her blood and gave it to Xander just as Giles was snatched away into the plague of rats. Xander was forced to leave Giles behind and start for the surface.



New York chapter 39:
Slightly misshapen


Xander ran. Musty air scraped his throat, made his chest hurt. Sweat stung his eyes, soaked his back. Concrete filled his boots, dragging his feet. Dizzy. There were soldiers running either side of him, neither of them Riley. He didn't know these guys. He ran.

There was something in his hand, the shape of it stamping into his fist. It was going to fix Mary. That's what Giles said.

Xander gulped his next breath. He was running the wrong way. He had to stop, turn around, but his concrete boots carried him on. Step, step, step.

They reached the ladder and Xander didn't know what to do. The whole ladder concept had evaporated from his brain. But before he could turn his head to ask, he was being bundled up it, passed up like a package into the arms of more soldiers, blinded by spotlights, and suddenly he realised what was going on.

"No! I have to get back!" Xander twisted and punched but soldiers had his wrists and legs and an arm wrapped around his waist, hauling him back, away from the dark pit where he'd left everyone behind. "Giles is down there!"

The soldiers were yelling Mr Harris and then his body slammed against a truck and stars flashed in his head as the wind exploded out of him but he kept his hand tight.

Xander was trying to remember where he was as he was pushed inside something. The truck.

"Do you have it, sir? Mr Harris?" Xander didn't know what he meant, until fingers scrabbled at his fist, peeling him open, taking- "No! I have to get it to Mary!" Giles had thrown it to him just before he got pulled-

"I've got it, sir. I'll prepare it for her. I'm not taking it away." The soldier banged a fist on the roof over his head and yelled to go and Xander was thrown back in his seat. He still didn't have his breath back.

He grabbed the sleeve of the guy's pixelated camouflage jacket, finally getting a look at the... kid - Jesus, did the kid even shave, yet? - "I have to go back. Giles is-"

"The others have gone after him. Our orders are to get you and the antidote to the hospital."

Xander ended up in his lap as they handbrake-turned through an intersection. "I can't leave them. They're down there for me. Giles was-"

"And what are you going to do?"

That stopped him. What the hell could he do, except not be running away?

"Your Ms Summers is down there, along with a dozen soldiers and Colonel Finn. They'll get him up and kill a few more hostiles while they do it. The Colonel's kind of a legend. For the few people who know about our company, anyway. No one's better at this than the Colonel."

"Buffy is." Buffy was... He'd had just a glimpse of her launching in as she yelled for him to go. None of the old Jet Li action, just clean, swift extermination, one after another.

"Then the hostiles are about to learn a whole new way to cry for their mommies. I'm a medic. Name's Pennebaker."

"Pennebaker."

"That's right. Ms Summers and Colonel Finn and the best squad in the military are going to go get your friend, and you and I are going to go fix up your wife, all right?"

"Ex-wife." Xander watched Pennebaker mess around with vials, hands steady even as the car wound through traffic. It was sort of hypnotic, so he let himself be hypnotised. He left them behind. It didn't matter that Buffy had told him to run, or that there was nothing he could do except be another person that needed to be rescued. Giles was down there, and Xander wasn't. Giles would never have left Xander.

Pennebaker shook his vial with a satisfied nod. "You and your ex-wife got kids, sir?"

Sir. Xander was 'sir.' "Two girls."

"Then how about you and I go take care of their mom?"

Xander blew out a breath. "You're good at this."

"My team's down there, too, sir, but this is my job right now."

This was their job. Xander grabbed onto that with both hands as he slowly got his panting under control. Buffy's job was getting Giles back, and she'd do it. His job was getting to Mary. "You got kids?" It seemed like a ridiculous question for a guy who looked like he was looking forward to prom, but it was distraction.

"Working on it."

"Got a basement?"

"No...?"

"Start building it now."

One for his girls, one for Giles.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander led the way out of the elevator, Pennebaker jogging after him. Xander's legs wobbled from all that running, and probably from the fighting, and definitely from not knowing what the hell was happening to Giles, but he had to get to Mary, and then he had to get back there. They hadn't heard anything thanks to the total lack of underground reception, and Xander couldn't see any way that was good news. If they were out and safe, there wouldn't be any trouble with reception.

He strode down the corridor to Mary's room. Wow. Everyone was there. Xander stopped on the threshold.

"Xander." Rikuto saw him first, standing up with that look that he reserved for the guy who got his twenty year-old daughter pregnant.

Rick stood as well, looking scarier than Xander remembered him being. "Where have you been?"

"Nobody will talk to us," said Mary's mom. "What's wrong with Mariko?"

He didn't answer. He had to figure out how to get them all out of the room, so Pennebaker could-

"Forgive me folks, but could we have the room a moment?" Pennebaker shoved past Xander to get in, not bothered by all the staring.

Everyone looked from Pennebaker and his combat uniform to Xander. "He's a doctor," Xander explained.

"Medic," said Pennebaker.

Sue looked more worried. "He's not her doctor."

"He's a special doctor. He can help."

Rick hadn't moved. "Are you going to tell us what's going on, Xander?"

Pennebaker dropped his pack on the bed's table. "Mrs Harris was exposed to a poisonous agent. She and quite a few others are lucky Xander recognised the symptoms. I'm afraid that's all we can tell you."

"You'll tell us a hell of a lot more than that."

"Sorry, sir, but it's classified."

"Classified my ass."

"This is my daughter," added Rikuto.

"I know you're concerned, but my only concern right now is Mrs Harris. I'll need you to clear the room so I can take care of her."

Rick shifted into Pennebaker's way, and it gave Xander his first good look at Mary, and he remembered why he was here. "We're wasting time."

"You do not get a say here," snapped Rikuto, and Xander shut his mouth, face burning.

Xander had to swallow a couple of times before he could answer. "If you don't think I care about her-"

"Then you tell us what's going on here, Xander," snapped Rick. "What have you dragged my sister into?"

"I didn't do this!" Right now Xander didn't know or care who was going to have to find out the world was a great human vending machine, but he wasn't cracking that can of demonic worms while Giles was somewhere under their feet getting eaten.

Pennebaker tilted his chin, gave him the military voice. "Xander, we have a job to do."

Xander shut his mouth and took a long breath through his nose. Everyone was hurling angry words except Mich, looking torn in the corner. "Mich..." Xander gave her his best begging face.

"Xander-" Rikuto started again.

"Where's Giles?" asked Mich.

Xander's stomach rolled, and he ran a hand through his hair. 'Please," he mouthed to her.

After a second, she stepped forward. "C'mon, Dad." Mich took his elbow. Rikuto shook her off and she pulled him again. "Come on, Dad. We'll argue about this when she's fixed."

She herded everyone out of the room, and Xander promised himself he'd spend the rest of his life thanking her for it.

Pennebaker had pulled up the bedside table and was already messing around with his vials. He filled a syringe from one and pressed the needle in the centre of her tattoo, muttering something under his breath. Xander wondered if he was talking himself through the steps or it they were magical words.

Xander stared around the room, half-expecting to see a wisp of soul floating in a corner. Was she still here, somewhere? He didn't know what he was supposed to be doing, so he edged around to the other side of the bed from Pennebaker and took her hand.

In all his back-to-scooby-days sentimentality, he'd forgotten this. Watching over Willow in her coma. Dawn knocked unconscious by Faith. Tara's mind wiped. Giles' blank look in the months after he was tortured.

He didn't want to do it anymore. He didn't want to go back. And he didn't want to admit it to Giles.

"I've done all I can." Pennebaker's voice startled Xander.

She hadn't moved. Xander squeezed her hand to check, but it stayed limp. "You mean you can't fix her?"

"I mean it's going to take a while to work. It's not magic." Maybe that was a joke, but Pennebaker was stone-faced. "We need to wait, sir."

She didn't look any different, and Xander wasn't getting that rush of relief he'd been waiting for.

Pennebaker opened the door and Xander was pushed aside as the family poured in.

Rick looked at Mary for a long second, and then at Pennebaker. "Well?"

"Give it some time, sir."

Rick glared at Xander.

Nothing Xander could do here, then. That was good. He needed to be somewhere else. Five steps into the corridor he found Pennebaker blocking his way. Xander gave him a push. "Let's go."

"My orders are to keep you here."

"Yeah, you're a funny man."

Pennebaker didn't smile.

When he was fifteen, Xander could go into all sorts of places he didn't want, into haunted houses and vampire lairs; now he was a grown man and he was getting babysat while Giles was fighting for him in hell. No way. "You may have signed up to take orders, but I didn't." He tried to shove past, but Pennebaker was a brick wall.

"I did, and I've been ordered to keep you here."

Xander jabbed his chest. "And in which universe are you the boss of me?"

"Right now, this one."

"Xander?" Mich had come to the doorway, looking as worried as ever. "Where's Giles?"

Xander glared at Pennebaker. "I have to go."

"The team will get him back, sir."

"Xander?" Mich said again.

"In how many pieces?" He couldn't just sit here, useless as ever. It didn't matter that he wasn't the vital link to saving Giles. He couldn't sit here, pretending it wasn't his problem all over again. They'd left Giles stranded and forgotten for sixteen years while it wasn't his problem. This time nothing was going to hold Xander back, not even some football jock in desert camos.

Pennebaker was saying something as Xander feinted left and dodged past but Xander didn't hear and didn't care. He had to get to Giles. He shook off the hand that grabbed for him and dodged through a bunch of nurses to the elevator, smacking the button like Kate at a stop light, wondering how long it took an elevator to get up two floors. Was it broken? Maybe the fire escape... The doors opened and Xander jumped in, hitting the close button just as a fat military boot landed between the doors. Xander growled.

Pennebaker put his hands out like he was bracing the doors open, no idea how much desperation he was messing with.

"Get the hell out of my way!"

"Harris, he's here!"

"I swear I'll-"

"He's here, sir!"

Here. Giles?

Pennebaker jerked his thumb and Xander almost fell over him scrambling out of the elevator. There was Giles, no glasses, hobbling out of the next elevator on Buffy's arm. Filthy but alive and awake and smiling.

Xander skidded to a halt two feet away, overwhelmed. Giles was fine. And here. "Hey."

"Hello."

"You're in one piece."

"Slightly misshapen, but all limbs accounted for."

Finally Xander broke the paralysis and threw his arms around him, not caring how his shoulder protested. Solid, one-piece Giles, still strong enough to squeeze the stuffing out of Xander. "You smell like monster guts," Xander whispered.

Giles squeezed harder, one arm around Xander's back, chest solid. "I am in dire need of a shower."

As Xander let go he noticed a red handkerchief in Giles' hand, and then blood across his temple. "You're bleeding!"

Giles caught Xander's reaching hand. "Just a scratch. Never even lost consciousness."

The twinkle in his eye did way more to calm Xander than the cliche, but he still wanted to drag Giles off into a private room and check him properly, interrogate him about everything that had happened after Xander ran out of there. Kiss him senseless for knowing about the tattoo and getting Buffy here and going down there and then smack him senseless for throwing the vial at Xander even as he was being tackled by something that wanted to eat him. Xander wanted to hug him again.

More than a hug. Xander wanted to get him alone, peel all these clothes back, see what other injuries Giles was hiding. Would the bathroom be empty at this hour? Maybe not. Maybe Xander didn't care. Giles made a pained sound as Xander's hand squeezed the wrong part. Maybe Xander could wait until Giles got checked out by a doctor.

"How's Mary?"

"The medic said it would be-"

"Xander!" Mich called. "She's awake!"

Xander whipped around. "Already?"

"She's asking for you."

Awake and talking. Thank god. No, thank Giles. Xander looked back at Giles, torn, but Giles was watching Mich, peering a little without his glasses, looking thoughtful. Xander wasn't done with the reunion. He needed more than five seconds in a crowded corridor, but at least he'd seen him now. Xander needed to see Mary was okay, and then he could have time with Giles, and after Giles he'd get the girls, and then he'd start cleaning up the mess.

There'd be time. He grabbed Giles' hand. "Thank you."

Giles dipped his head like it was nothing. "You should, should go."

Xander hadn't had a chance to even notice Buffy standing beside Giles. He didn't let go of Giles' hand as he gave her an awkward one-armed hug. "Thank you."

"Anytime, Xand."

He hoped the rest was obvious, or at least enough for now, as he hurried to Mary's room. He stopped in the doorway, not sure how he fit in between the looming pride of Tanakas, but Mary saw him and smiled. "Xander."

He squeezed through, a matching grin on his own face. She was pale and looked like she didn't have the energy to lift her head off the pillow, but her eyes were open and she was smiling, as beautiful as ever. The relief was choking him.

"You're all right?" she croaked. "Look at you."

He had to swallow a couple of times. "A few bumps. Nothing to get yourself in hospital about." He brushed her hair off her forehead, let his fingers linger for a second on the warm skin.

"Xander, I thought he was going to kill you. I thought you were dead."

"Nah. He was just playing. Cat with a mouse."

"Cats eat mice."

"But they play with them first." It was just the sort of light-hearted post-battle banter he used to think of as his own special superpower.

"Who was he?" asked Rick. "Friend of yours?"

Mary's smile faded, and Xander didn't take his eyes off her as he said, "My best friend. You can tell by the way he rearranged my face."

"You're going to make a joke of this?"

Xander pushed down his hackles, with effort. Rick only knew that his sister was in hospital. And he was speaking for all of them, judging by the way the family was staring at him.

Except Mary. "Rick..." She faded off, let that sit there.

"I've never seen him before," said Xander, meeting his eyes this time. "I'm not the reason why he attacked Mary." He turned back to find Mary trying to read him, like she didn't believe him, either.

Rikuto stepped forward, on the other side of the bed, eyes sharp like knives. "That is not good enough."

Xander didn't know what was going to happen now, but if there were going to be any true confessions they weren't happening here, in front of everyone, five minutes after Mary woke up from a coma. He kept his attention on her. "I'm glad you're okay."

"You look here-"

"Leave it, Dad." Mich didn't sound much happier than the rest of them. "It can wait."

"Thank you," Xander said.

"I don't believe you either. But I don't want to do this right now."

"Okay." That made two of them. Xander turned to Mary, who was kind of cowering in her bed. "Okay." She needed her family now, and it wasn't like Xander didn't have someone else to be with. "I've got stuff to take care of. I'll stop back with the girls after school."

She smiled. "I'm not going anywhere."

He kissed her forehead, pressed his cheek there a moment and then got out, so relieved to escape the Siberian winter it took a second to realise Giles wasn't waiting for him. Xander looked around, headed up to the corner to see if he was just staying out of the way. Nothing.

Perez was still by Mary's door, so Xander doubled back. "Have you seen Giles?"

"Yes, sir. He headed out with Ms Summers. Sounded like they were headed home."

Already? "Didn't they need to X-ray him, or something? Glue on a couple of band-aids?"

"Sergeant Pennebaker checked him over. Sounded like bruising, superficial stuff."

"Yeah, he had the hell superficially beaten out of him." He couldn't have waited? Xander checked his phone. He didn't have time to chase Giles home. The girls got out of school soon. "And Riley?"

"Colonel's still back on the scene."

Yeah, okay. That made sense. But Xander was left hanging in a hospital, with half an hour and no one who needed him and now his legs were getting watery. It was hard work just standing up straight. Xander wanted to sit down. Lie down. Eat: damn, he hadn't eaten lunch or breakfast and suddenly his stomach was aching for food. Only one thing mattered more.

Xander wandered down the corridor, past rooms filled with white beds and awkwardly milling visitors until he found a quiet corner. It was the first time he'd noticed his shoes squeaking on the floor, the antiseptic smell. All the other people in here, each of them with their own private monster stories.

Giles picked up on the first ring. "Xander. How is she?"

"She's good. Not cartwheeling yet, but she's definitely Mary."

"That's good."

He could hear traffic in the background, a car door slam.

"You got out of here fast." Xander hoped he didn't sound too accusing.

"We didn't want to be in the way, and we thought it might be best to give Mary's family a wide berth."

Great. He had to be sensible about this. "They've got some questions."

"I imagine so."

Xander toed the hospital-white lino with his shoe. "But you're okay?"

"I'm fine."

"I wish I could see that for myself."

"I really am fine."

That was only half what Xander meant. "Is Buffy with you?"

"Do you want to talk to her?"

Yes, but not yet. He wanted to talk to Giles. He wanted to wrap his arms around Giles. "Sure." Buffy had come all this way for him, saved Mary, saved Giles, and he'd given her five minutes in the cavern.

There was a pause and a couple of clunks, and then Buffy's voice, bright and cheery. "Hey, Xander."

"Is Giles fine?"

"Yeah. Nothing a little Xander-time can't take care of."

That lifted some of the weight, even if it wasn't the same as mapping the bruises with his hands. "I didn't get a chance to talk to you again."

"Giles figured you'd be tied up a while, so we skedaddled. Are you going to stop by tonight?"

"Yeah." Shit. "No. I've got the girls." Shit, shit. Xander needed to see Giles. This wasn't going to feel like it was over until he'd crawled into bed beside him, but there was no way he wasn't having the girls with him tonight.

"Oh, yeah, duh. I have to head home in the morning, so..."

So that was that. "Thanks, Buff. I mean, that's not really big enough, but-"

"Of course it is. You just take care of your family. And take care of Giles."

Xander nodded. Maybe Buffy would come back to visit, now Giles was here.

"Tell Giles I'll call tonight, okay?"

"I will."

"And maybe... Maybe I'll call you sometime."

He felt her smile down the phone, and it made him feel like he'd done something special. "I'd like that," she said.

They said goodbye and Xander closed his phone and checked the time. There was time for one more call. Xander scrolled down, and this time he didn't need to hesitate. "Hey, Tara."

"Xander! Please tell me everything's okay!"

He slouched against the wall, feeling better than he had in days. "Yeah. Yeah, everything's okay."

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 39:
Xander ran as hard as he could out of the tunnels, Mary's cure in hand, Giles lost under a pile of rats behind him. He had to trust Buffy and Riley to rescue him. Mary's family had arrived, and wanted to know why Xander and an army division had become key to her treatment. Xander used his usual diplomatic skills until Mich cleared them out. Xander tried to run back for Giles, but Sergeant Medic Pennebaker was not cooperative, which turned out okay because Giles got to the hospital first. The reunion was short because Mary woke up. Annoyingly, Giles headed home before Xander could get back to him, and Xander could only manage a quick call to him and Buffy, with a promise of another call tonight.



New York chapter 40:
On a boat


Xander picked the girls up from school and brought them back to the hospital. Mich had offered to go, but Mary was safe and Giles was safe, and now he had to make sure the girls were safe.

The whole near-multiple-death adventure had taken less time than it took to do some long division and colour in a map of Lewis and Clark's trip.

Jen and Kate didn't seem to believe that everything was okay until they saw Mary sitting up, awake, and then there were squeals well beyond the inside voice rules and they threw themselves on her bed. Mary already looked way better than she had when she first woke up, and the way she smiled at Jen and Kate, it didn't seem like she belonged in the hospital gown at all.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander jerked awake, heart racing.

No demons. Right. The girls were safe. Giles was safe. Mary was safe. He was on the couch, neck twisted where his head had slipped off the cushion. The weight in his lap was Kate, drooling a little wet patch on his leg. He smiled and clumsily stroked her hair.

The TV was still flickering, but there was no sound. One of the girls must have turned it down. Jen, he guessed - she seemed to have found her way to bed. It tickled him, the idea of her doing something so parent-like.

He rubbed his eyes. It was late. Really late, though he couldn't see the clock from here. It took a good while of inching to slide out from under Kate. Probably wasted effort; if he'd flipped her on the floor she would've curled up and slept on. He slid his arms under her and lifted and yep, not a sigh. Not from her, anyway. Either he was getting old, or she was getting bigger.

He yawned, jaw creaking with the effort as he carried her through. He slid her into bed and pulled the blanket up. Jen was half-hanging over the side of her bed, Bruno the stuffing-deficient bear clutched in one arm. Xander picked up the clothes strewn across the floor and dropped them in the hamper, pushed a couple of stray drawers shut, looked around by the light from the door for something else to do.

They were fine. He kissed them both goodnight and trudged to his room. Apparently post-apocalypse parties were for the young, because he hardly had the energy to undress, could barely reach to pull off his socks. It was only as he crawled under the covers that he realised he never called Giles. He'd been hoping to get the girls to sleep so he could curl up with the phone.

Xander rolled onto his back to pick it up, and stared at the time. It was seriously late.

He thumbed recent calls, pulled up Giles. He wanted to hear Giles' calm voice, sleep-roughened, asking if this couldn't wait until morning. Heaving a sigh and swearing he'd be perfectly healthy, given a full night's sleep, and there'd be a pointed look at the ceiling that Xander would feel down the phone line. His thumb rubbed over the call button, wavering.

Xander closed the phone and held it against his chest. It could wait until morning.

It just would have depressed him, anyway. He wished Giles was here, bringing Xander awake with rough hands, kissing him and breathing hard in his ear and rolling him onto his stomach to drag his cock up the crack of Xander's ass. Xander couldn't think of anything he needed as much right now as Giles lively and greedy, sweat-slick skin sticking them closer. Xander ran his hand over his crotch, too tired for more.

He'd almost let Giles go. Two weeks ago Xander had been lying right here, not doing anything at all to stop Giles from leaving New York, and him. He never would have realised what a crazy, Sunnydale-style-Xander mistake he'd made.

He wasn't Sunnydale Xander anymore. He was never going to make a mistake like that again.

The trouble was, there was going to be a fight, first, because Xander wasn't going back to that life. Even knowing everything Buffy and Riley and Giles did for him, all Xander could think about was somersaulting off that platform, a split-second reflex between Riley catching him and Jen and Kate being left without a dad. He could take that chance to get their mom back but he couldn't take it for strangers. He couldn't take it just to get Giles' respect.

There was already enough creeping danger in his life, now. Even though it hadn't been Anya that got Mary tangled up in the spell, and it wasn't something that traced him through Giles, it could have been. It still didn't make sense that Anya hadn't given him Ebola or a one way ticket to a clown dimension, and it would be nothing but crazy luck if Giles never brought his work way-too-literally home with him. But Anya already knew where he was and Xander wasn't about to let Giles go anywhere, so what was Xander going to do about that?

Around and around. Xander clumsily reached back to drop his phone on the nightstand. His body was numb but now his mind was chasing its tail, so he slid his hand inside his shorts and turned all his powers of concentration back to imagining Giles was here, pinning him to the mattress.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The morning was wasted herding two uncooperative little girls out of bed and through the bathroom and into the kitchen, Kate whining and Jen fighting him on everything. He almost kept them home from school, but that got another tantrum from Jen, who didn't want to miss any days of the last week of school - and when did it get to be the end of the school year? - so off they went. Xander stopped by each of their guidance counsellors to keep them updated and made it to work just an hour late.

He really wasn't ready for that. Barely in the gate he was getting strange looks, and then Sam barrelled into him. "Christ, Xander! I thought something happened to Mary."

"It did."

"Looks like it happened to you, too," said Rodriguez. "What the hell, Harris?"

Xander brushed Sam's fingers away. "She got the worst of it."

"You got mugged?"

"Something like that."

A crowd was gathering. "Did the cops get the guy?" "Did you do him any damage?" "Should you even be here?" "The police gonna press charges?" "Fuck, Harris, you seen your face?" Things were way easier in Sunnydale, where no one noticed all the random bruises.

"Holy hell, Harris. You could've had another day off." Pearson slid through the crowd to get a better look.

He could have, but Giles had said something about stopping back at the museum after he took Buffy to the airport and Mary's family were sticking around all day, so Xander had figured it was a good idea to get back to work. He should have come up with a plan C. "Didn't really want to hang around at home."

"It's called rest, you arse. You'll want light duties, I suppose."

"I'd appreciate it."

It was worse when everyone finally got to work and left him alone.

He could have kicked himself for falling asleep before he could call Giles last night. No way was he going to be able to talk to him properly on his lunch break, which meant waiting until after work, and even then it was only going to be the phone, when every passing hour was making Xander more and more antsy to see him. He could still taste all that fear lingering in the back of his throat for Giles left behind in the tunnels. He had to keep fighting the urge to make a quick call, just to make sure he hadn't imagined seeing Giles in the hospital. Considering the things Xander had seen in his life, it wasn't all that crazy to be paranoid that the government might have altered his memory to think he saw Giles at the hospital when maybe he didn't really and it was just the government's way of making sure Xander kept quiet. Or something.

Riley wouldn't do it, but if Warren could make Buffy in his basement out of spare parts, then the army could probably rustle up a Riley-bot without much fuss. Or they could have just re-chipped him. Chipping technology had probably advanced since 2000.

It wasn't crazy to wonder what if maybe Giles was still down in the tunnels, somewhere, waiting for Xander to come back.

Xander really wished Giles and Buffy had stuck around a little longer yesterday.

When lunchtime rolled around Giles didn't pick up, but he sent a message to say he was tied up. It helped. Then Xander called both the girls. They must have still been shaken, because neither of them minded.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

He finally got a hold of Giles in the evening. "Giles!"

"Xander. I was starting to think you were a myth."

"Me and Bigfoot." Was Bigfoot a myth? They'd never covered that one.

"I, I missed you last night." The longing in his voice went slipped through Xander's belly, loosened the tension in his shoulders, made him wish even more that Giles was here. "You didn't call."

"Yeah, I'm sorry. I passed out." Xander's voice echoed around the concrete stairwell. "Buffy's gone home?"

"I put her on a plane this morning. Where are you?"

"At the hospital. Jen's telling Mary about a fight a couple of her mortal enemies had in Spanish class."

"Oh."

Mary was feeling well enough to laugh, the girls seemed to have forgotten she was breakable, and Xander had finally been able to slip out and find a quiet set of fire stairs where he could focus all his worrying on Giles. "How are you doing, anyway?"

"I'm fine. How's Mary?"

"Good. Great. Mary's great. You should see her; she looks better than we do. In fact, Charlie - Pennebaker - the medic - said she should be good to go home tomorrow. I'm going to head over with the girls, help her settle back in."

"Of course."

"After that, I'll be footloose and fancy-free." Xander did a little hop-step up a step and down again. Giles-time. Okay, it was good that no one was around to see that. He turned around and sat on the landing so he didn't do it again, ready for a long chat.

"You're coming over here?"

"Sure. I don't know when. It might not be until after lunch."

"Might not be at all?"

"No! I want to see you. Check your limbs are properly attached. Or..." Uh oh. "Do you mind if it's late? Should I wait until Sunday?" Xander really, really couldn't wait until Sunday, but there was that whole looming conversation with Mary, and he didn't know when he was going to get trapped in it.

"Of course not. I don't want to impose, if you have things to do."

"You're my thing to do," Xander said, dropping his voice to phone sex tone.

"Right. Anytime, Xander. I'm sure I'll be reading late into the night, anyway. I'll see you tomorrow."

Somehow, that was the end of the call. Xander flipped off his phone and took a slow breath. He'd been planning to work his way into some dirty talk. He missed him. Really, really missed him. It seemed like months since they'd sat on the couch, surrounded by takeout containers, and talked. Or made out like teenagers. Or had sex. Tomorrow, all of the above. He wondered if Giles was having the same withdrawal.

He stood up and pushed through the fire door back onto the ward, taking his time heading back to Mary's room. Xander's part was done here. Mary was safe; Jen and Kate were in their mother's arms, and Xander didn't need to be-

He yelped. "Riley! Stealth train much?"

Riley smiled that broad, easy smile. "Got to keep the troops on their toes." He looked military as ever despite his jeans and button-down shirt. Xander wondered how they hadn't figured it out sooner back in Sunnydale. "I just stopped in to see how Mary's doing."

"Great. I can't, I mean, I don't know how to..." Xander grabbed his hand, and then realised that was stupid, and pulled him into a quick manly hug with a few firm pats on the back. "Thank you. A million thank yous. A great big truckload of thank yous."

Riley clapped his shoulder as they parted. "No problem. New York's been moved to the top of the priority list. The unit's sticking around to do some fumigation, should get the vamps down about eighty percent."

"You can do that?"

"Isn't as satisfying as personally shoving a stake through them, but it's effective. That's what my people are putting together now. We've cleaned out half a dozen cities; so far it looks like they'll take years to get back to old infestation levels."

Wow. Sounded way more satisfying than up-close and personally vulnerable staking to Xander. He looked up the corridor to make sure no one was eavesdropping. "Is it going to take out the lot that did this to Mary?"

"I've got a special squad hunting down the Cult of Viniorum. My best team."

"Good." The military wasn't exactly top of Xander's trust list, but they'd done okay so far, and if Riley picked them, then okay. "They going to chip them or kill them?"

"Kill."

"Good."

An orderly passed, pushing an empty bed and they paused, nodding a greeting. Xander waited until she was well down the corridor before speaking again. "Here's what I want to know. Has Mary been meditating in a well-lit room for an hour every week with a bloodsucker while I worried about subways and dark streets?"

Riley's face hardened. "We don't know for sure. But the place was a windowless room in a building with direct subway access. Her guy could have run midday groups right through summer without ever touching daylight."

Xander slumped against the wall, pushing a hand through his hair. "I'm the great protector."

"Hey. You checking up on that mark saved Mary and the other four people down there."

Xander nodded. It wasn't as reassuring as it should have been, but it was good of Riley to try. It was pretty amazing of Riley to be here at all. Xander owed him more than a thanks and goodbye. Xander lifted his head. "Do you want to come get a coffee? The girls need some time with their mom, and Starbucks is one floor up."

Riley beamed. "Sounds good."

Xander stuck his head in to tell Mary he was heading upstairs for a while, and then followed Riley to the elevator.

"Are you and your ex always this tight, or just when one of you's been branded by an HST soul-sourcing company?"

"Varies. Usually we get along pretty well."

As they stepped into the elevator, Riley asked, "You got a girlfriend?"

Xander hit the button for the next floor and kept on staring at the doors as they closed. "Nah. No girlfriend." He half-turned his head and started a new subject. "So how about Sam? You guys have kids?"

"We're doing okay. Sam's great. She asked after you." He pulled out his phone, passing it over as the doors opened. "Max and Jake turn three next week." Two blond, round-cheeked Riley clones grinned out of the screen.

"Twins!"

"Yeah, turned out making them was harder work than we expected, so the twins thing was a bonus." He gave an awkward smile as he slipped it back in his pocket.

Xander passed his own phone over. "That's Jen and Kate."

Riley nodded, smiling. "I saw them in there with your ex as I came past. The youngest - Kate? - seemed to have a whole lot of ranting going on about what was wrong with the jocks at school."

"She must get that from Mary's side." Xander slid his phone back in his pocket as they stepped out.


They ordered their drinks and Xander insisted on paying, shoving Riley off to locate and secure a table like a good soldier. Not an easy mission in afternoon visiting hours, but they didn't make the man a colonel for nothing. By the time Xander had a venti in each hand, Riley had a corner staked out.

Xander sat back to get his first real look at him since he showed up yesterday. He looked as strong as ever - military life, Xander supposed - but there was grey in his hair and Xander was a little pleased to see Riley had some midde-age spread going on as well. "So this is what your people do, now? Just gas a city, and bam, no more problems?"

"We wish. It's not quite that effective. For starters, it only works on v-" His eyes darted around at the other customers. "-suckers, and it's not a hundred percent. If we can get some good information ahead of time, we can knock out most of an enclosed population."

"Like the subway tunnels." Xander sipped his black, black coffee. God, yes, he needed that.

"Exactly. The patterns Giles has been putting together for us this past month are good, but they're not done, and now we have to jump the gun a little. And New York's a big city, way bigger than anything we've worked before, so it's going to be a challenge. Ramirez has been looking into it, is pretty sure your creepy winged things will go down, but we're going to have to come up with something new and special for the rats."

"Wait." An old conversation dropped back into Xander's brain. "Giles was putting together the patterns for you? All those maps and news articles - you were the secret contact he was talking to?"

"Yeah. Giles' recon was exactly what we needed. We wouldn't know where to start without what he gave us."

"I thought he was talking to the Council, or something." Why hadn't Giles said?

Riley shrugged. "He got in touch with me around the time he moved here, said he could compile attack patterns if I could get a team here to do something about it. Suited me: we've got people, but no one like Giles. It's funny he never mentioned you: I didn't even know you were until town until he called about your ex-wife."

Xander stared down into his cup. "I don't do that stuff anymore."

"Right. I just thought..." Riley shrugged. He didn't seem disappointed.

"You've got kids. How do you do it?" How did Riley always manage to glide through everything Xander couldn't? Last time he showed up, it was all happily married, and now it was happily married with kids and still killing the bad things.

He smiled. "Make twins?"

"Protect them. Do what you do, when you don't know what's coming for you."

Riley let out a dry laugh. "I was going to ask you that. Max and Jake are still in our sight, every second. I was going to ask you how you let your girls do all those wild crazy kid-things, like go to school."

Xander snorted. "Crucifixes are go. They've been drilled to check taxi drivers' faces in the rear-view mirror as they get in. I tell them to compare it to the ID card, hoping that 'lack of reflection' will be weird enough to get them out again when they start catching them alone at night." He sat forward. "But I'm not... I'm out of all that stuff, or I thought I was. I've just been blocking it out like everyone else. That night we got dragged down into tunnels - if it had been up to me, I would have just walked past. I don't want my girls growing up without me."

Riley sat back. "You were the one with him in the food bucket?"

"Yeah." Giles really had gone out of his way to keep Xander under the radar. "I was ready to kill him for getting me dragged down there."

Riley bumped a sugar packet around the table with his finger. "Look, I don't do much field work, these days. Yesterday was... It was Buffy and Giles and you. Mostly my job is to send other guys out on missions. Weighing risks like it's all economics. Then I go home and Max and Jake have torn up the living room to make a track for their race cars and I'm glad as hell I'm behind a desk." He took a long drink. "I don't know." He thought for a minute, watching the kids behind the counter as he shuffled things in his brain. "Oh. It was you down there? That's what Buffy was talking about when she read him the riot act for getting you caught up in it?"

Riot act? "I say huh?"

Riley took a long drink from his coffee. "I wondered why Buffy was blaming him for the whole soul tattoo deal, but I guess it wasn't. She must have been talking about the food bucket. That makes way more sense."

Okay. That was unexpected. Buffy chewed out Giles? But Riley was missing the main point here. "You wouldn't have walked past a stranger getting drained on the street."

He heaved a sigh and flicked the sugar packet at Xander. "We're not kids anymore, Xander. We should know better than to just plough in, stakes blazing. I do weigh the risks. My people are trained and armed. I don't send them out to fight one-on-one just so they can feel heroic."

"But you're still out there. Doing something. You didn't just walk away, leave everyone behind."

"Of course I did." Riley looked at him like he was an idiot. "I left all my army buddies behind to be with Buffy. Less than a year after that, I left Buffy and all the rest of you behind and got on a fast helicopter to Central America."

He did. So, okay, he wasn't perfect, but, "You're still out there doing something. Maybe not in Sunnydale, maybe not with Buffy, but-"

"You think this has to be for life?"

Xander blinked. How else would it be? "It is for Buffy. And Giles." Sometimes Xander forgot Giles had the destiny going, too. Was it really such a surprise that he expected Xander to be special like him?

Riley shrugged and took a long pull from his coffee, almost draining it. "Yeah, it is. But it doesn't look like Buffy's wishing a life sentence on anyone else, and I'm sure Giles isn't, either. This is more than a job for me, but I'm not going to do it forever. Graham retired a couple of years after Sunnydale, been living on a boat ever since. You think I'm not happy for him?"

"He retired?"

"Served his country for eight years; now he's sunning himself on his houseboat off Miami between IT gigs." Riley really did look happy about that. "Anderssen went to Afghanistan and saw things that, swear to god, give me nightmares. Forrest and a lot of Walsh's team never got to walk away at all." Riley went quiet for a minute, fingering the rim of the lid on his cup and Xander wondered what it had been like for him. He'd seemed to bounce back after the whole Adam thing, good old unflappable Riley, but he lost half his unit in that fight: guys he'd fought alongside like Xander had fought alongside Buffy and Giles and Willow and him. Nobody bounced back from that. Finally Riley took a little breath, and started again. "You do what you can for as long as you can, and then you get out before it kills you or makes you crazy. Hell, Xander, you gave up half your teenage years to saving the world. I figure that's more than enough for anyone. You've got a right to pull your pension."

He finished his drink and reached over to drop his cup in the trash, held it open for Xander. "With this fumigation thing, I'm gonna be in town a couple of weeks. I know you're not much for old ties, but if you want to catch a drink sometime..."

"Yeah." Pulling a pension. Retirement. Xander liked the sound of that. "Yeah, a drink'd be great. I've got the girls weekends, but maybe during the week..."

"Sure."

Xander led the way back to the elevator. "And Giles."

"Yeah. That'd be great. So you have been in touch with him then, since he came back from wherever the hell he was?"

They stepped in and faced front, and Xander looked sideways at him. "We're, um, together." He braced himself. "Giles and me."

Riley did a double-take. "You're shitting me."

"Yeah. I mean, no. I mean, we are. Together."

"Wow." His eyes were ready to bug out, and Xander wondered if he'd dropped that bomb too fast. Riley had been totally cool with Will and Tara but maybe guys were-

"Graham'll be crushed." Riley chuckled.

Xander didn't believe for a second Graham would even remember who he was let alone care which way he swung. "This is where I say huh?"

Riley's expression was sly. "That he didn't make a move. He thought you were hot."

"He what?" Graham? Mr Square-Jawed Poster Boy for Masculinity had been checking out Xander? That first year out of school, when Xander was forging new frontiers of uselessness?

"I mocked the hell out of him for eyeballing a straight guy. Seriously, you play both teams?"

"Um. I was pretty Anya-specific, back then. Pretty Giles-specific now."

"Bad luck, Graham."

The elevator stopped on Mary's floor, and Riley flashed a grin as he reached to shake Xander's hand. "Give me a call. Your boyfriend has my number."

Xander was in a haze as he walked to Mary's room. Graham deserved a boat and a demon-free life. Gay and demon-free.

Jen and Kate were showing Mary something on her phone: how to play Car Crash, by the looks of it. He knew they mattered more than saving the world, but what Giles had said about someone stepping in if they needed help, that had stuck with him. Could he really tell Giles he was going to walk away again, even after everything Buffy and Riley and Giles did for him yesterday?

Mary caught sight of him, and quietly gestured for ten more minutes.

Xander could use ten more minutes. He found an empty waiting room and called Giles back.

"Xander?"

"Hey." Okay, once again, Xander hadn't figured out where this conversation needed to go. "I realised I need to talk to you."

"Oh. Yes?"

"Well, not right now I guess." He was an idiot, and the dead silence on the other end seemed to agree. "I'm just figuring stuff out, and I should have talked to you already." Better yet, he should get Riley to talk to Giles, explain all that stuff about retirement and boating, and how it didn't make him a coward.

"Perhaps we should save this conversation for tomorrow."

"Yeah. Okay." Every phone conversation just ended up awkward and weird.

"I will see you tomorrow?"

"Sure."

As soon as he closed the phone, Xander wanted to call back and promise Giles everything would be okay, but it felt kind of stupid, so he checked the time and slid it back in his pocket. Time to collect the girls and head home.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 40:
Xander woke up late at night on the couch and realised he'd forgotten to call Giles. Which sucked, except for putting off the conversation where Xander would have to tell Giles he still didn't want to fight demons. On Friday Xander went to work, where he was reminded again that he looked like the bad end of a bar fight. Still didn't get a chance to call Giles until after work, from the hospital. Xander bumped into Riley, who caught Xander up on fumigation plans. Xander boggled at Riley's ability to combine hellmouths and fatherhood; Riley pointed out the value of a well-earned retirement. Xander came out, which went surprisingly well. Xander called Giles again, to make plans to Talk. Tomorrow.



New York chapter 41:
Pieces of Xander


"Ha! I told you!"

"Shut up!"

"You shut up!"

"Make me!"

Mary sighed and tipped her head back on the couch. "I'll make you both, in a minute!"

Jen and Kate turned the volume down to very loud glares. Things were almost back to normal, but mom was still carrying a few extra guilt credits and wasn't afraid to use them.

Xander leaned on the kitchen counter beside Mich. "Are you sure you want to do this?"

Mich waved him off. "Pfff. I served in Afghanistan, sweetcheeks."

"Trust me, you're going to remember those days fondly." He grabbed the carton and went back to pouring juice. The woman had raised twins, toddlers in a two-pack: in Xander's book, that was way more impressive than the years in uniform.

"Mich, you've got the list?" Mary called from the couch.

"Got the list," said Mich.

"Jenny, Kate, come give me a hug before you go."

Jen went over to give her mom a squeeze, and then came to Xander as well. He hugged her hard, not the least bit ashamed to take advantage of the clinginess for as long as it lasted.

Kate was sliding out of Mary's arms when Mary caught both her wrists. "Where's your crucifix?"

Kate pulled her hands away. "Mo-om."

"Go and put it on."

"But I-"

"Go."

Kate stomped off to her room, and then stomped back again, cross in place. She looked balefully at Xander, like he might suddenly start being reasonable about it. He was going to have to check in with Giles about the holy symbol alternatives he'd been promising, but for now, Kate was stuck. She huffed and headed for the door. "Let's go."

"This makes us even for that time I spilled cranberry juice on your Calvin Klein jacket, sister," said Mich as she and Jen followed Kate out.

"And no Froot Loops!" Mary called, as the front door shut.

Xander shoved the carton back in the fridge and carried their two glasses out to the coffee table. "I'll bet you one parent-teacher interview night they didn't hear you."

"No bet." She stretched her arms along the couch. "I think it might do them good to take care of me, for a while."

"For their good."

"Yeah." She grinned, and pulled her legs up under her to make room for Xander on the couch. "Which gives us an empty apartment and no interruptions." She cocked an eyebrow and tossed her black hair.

Xander leaned in, like he was sharing a secret. "You mean we could watch an hour of TV without breaking up a fight or combing chewing gum out of anyone's hair?"

"Live wild, Honey. Maybe a whole movie."

Xander laughed, leaning back and reaching over his head, stretching all the way from his fingers to his toes. So relaxed. Everyone was safe, Mary wasn't angry about anything, and very soon he was going to be wrapped in Giles, making up for two days and all the relief he'd felt when Giles got to the hospital, safe and sound.

Mary eyed him. "Or time for you to tell me what the hell happened back there."

He just had to take care of this first. That pretty much unrelaxed him. This was the only reason why he wasn't halfway across town and half-naked already, and the real reason why Mich had been given the nightmare job of grocery shopping with Jen and Kate hanging off the cart, something Xander and Mary never did themselves. There were advantages to part-time parenting.

It was hard to believe, but it was the first moment he'd had alone with Mary since it all happened. He'd known it was coming for days, but he still had no idea what he was going to say. He didn't even know what she'd figured out for herself.

"Xander." His head jerked up. "Who was the man that attacked us?"

"I'd never seen him before."

Her mouth tightened. "You know that's not what I mean."

"Mary-"

"Okay, let me put it this way. Who are you?"

Xander's gut clenched. "I'm nobody."

"Mich said you were bossing around a colonel."

"A colonel?" When the hell did she- "Oh, you mean Riley? He's a friend. He's helped me move; I've lent him pants."

"Mich said-"

"I wasn't bossing him around."

Her good humour was dissolving fast. "Don't you think I deserve to know what happened to me?"

She did, but that didn't mean he knew how to explain it. His tongue was freezing up out of total force of habit. He wished he'd brought Giles.

"How many men have you killed?"

"What?" This was the express road to crazy town. "I've never killed anybody." Nobody human.

She wrapped her arms around her knees. "You told that man it was just like riding a bike."

"I was just..." If she'd stop bombarding him, he could find a way to explain. Except without lies, he didn't have anything.

"Was I attacked because of you?"

"No!"

"Because of him?"

"Him?" The vamp?

"Your friend Giles."

"No!"

Her eyes sharpened, mouth an angry line. "And nothing to do with that woman, I suppose - Anya."

"Nothing."

Mary blew out a breath and stood up. "This is a waste of time. I'm sorry I'm just a civillian."

"I'm trying, just give me a minute, okay?"

"Let me start you off." She shifted, to face him head on. "That man who attacked us wasn't human."

Xander wanted to sit down. He was already sitting down. Maybe he should try the floor.

"Am I right?"

He nodded a couple of times, before he could squeeze out a "Yeah." There was the big one taken care of. He tried a weak smile. "Bet you didn't see that one coming."

She shrank, looking down at her hands like she hadn't expected that. Or maybe she just hadn't expected him to give it up at last. "It was one of my theories. Not one I actually believed, but it was somewhere in between alien spaceships and you being on the grassy knoll." She stared at him, until he wanted to squirm.

Xander guessed it was his turn to get on with explaining. "He was a vampire."

And she stared some more. "A vampire. Like from Twilight."

"Like... no. Vampires aren't just mopey, whiny... stalkery..." Xander trailed off. "Except sometimes... Well, they don't sparkle, anyway. They kill people."

"That guy... vampire... didn't kill me." She said it slowly, as if picking the right words might make it make sense.

"It was the mark." He reached up for her arm even though there was nothing there anymore, but she stepped back out of reach. He could still see the design there in his mind. "He was coming to take you for a spell-thing. They marked you. With magic."

"You can't be-"

"Your meditation class was a front. You weren't the only one they were after."

He'd lost her. This would have been easier if she sat down and stopped looming over him. "Xander, you're seriously going to sit there and tell me it's sheer coincidence that I got sucked into whatever the hell it is just after your old life came tumbling back into your new one?"

"You think I haven't been blaming myself? You think I haven't been peeking down dark alleys and checking under the beds ever since he showed up?" He was trying really hard not to get defensive, and he wasn't doing so well. "People get killed every day, and it's nothing to do with me, or Giles, except that we've never found a way to stop it." Xander struggled to get his voice back to even. "That was my world before I came to New York. Giles, me, a bunch of us, we used to fight that stuff. Monsters. Things like that. That's why he knew what to do, who to ask for help."

"Monsters." She sat down again, measuring out her reply. "So you're some kind of Superman."

"Buffy's Superman."

"What?"

Xander wrapped his arms around himself. "Not me." Best to get that straight right out of the box. "I hung out with superheroes. I was Ordinary Man. I got saved a lot." Sometimes he helped, and maybe Riley was right and he was more than a slayer footnote, but he still wasn't special like them.

She leaned closer and squeezed his knee. "You saved me, on Wednesday. Stared down that gorilla like my own personal superhero."

"I'm not a superhero."

She watched him with one of those penetrating looks he'd always disliked. Like she thought she'd figured him out, or something.

The less time she had to invent things in her head, the better. He pulled the cushion out from behind his back and held it in his lap where he could fiddle with the zip. "That thing was a vampire. He was supposed to drag you down into the subway and hand you over to a bunch of giant rat demons that were going to sacrifice you to open a hell portal."

She shook her head slowly, took a good long while to manage, "Vampires and rat demons and hell portals. Jesus."

"Jesus is the only one I'm relatively sure isn't somewhere under this city." Xander offered a weak smile. He wished he could leave it there. Vampires are real, the subway is dangerous, hey what's on TV? He was pretty sure leaving it there wasn't an option, now the lid was off. "I don't know what to tell you."

"How about you start at the beginning? You were born into it?"

"No. She was."

"Who?"

Right. The beginning. "It started when a new girl came to our school." It was as good a place as any.

"High school?"

"Sophomore year."

He started to tell her about his life. Some of it.

He told her about vampires: being chased through the sewers, storming into the demon-filled Bronze, but he didn't talk about Jesse.

He explained what a slayer was, about the one who saved them over and over until she finally gave up her life, and then came back, but not that he helped rip her out of heaven.

Plenty about Giles. His scathing, stuffy Britishness and his encyclopaedic knowledge of everything and how much ass he kicked with a sword. Funny, Xander hadn't noticed how hot that was at the time, but he remembered it now and the image in his mind made his cock stir. He couldn't tell Mary that they let him disappear for sixteen years.

There was the long and entertaining list of his own personal disasters: he tried and failed to make her laugh at those. The praying mantis teacher who wanted to mate with him, his brief excursion into the hyena side of the Force, his first kiss from a genuine princess who tried to suck the life out of him, crazy duplicate-Xander hijinks. He couldn't explain that Anya was a ninth century Swede on a mission to reclaim her humanity or that a false premonition about his future from one of the thousands of men she'd tortured was why he'd yanked out her heart and driven her back into the business.

Not Willow's death, not finding out Dawn's long-standing crush was invented by monks, not lying to Buffy about Willow's spell to restore Angel.


Mich must have taken the kids shopping in Brooklyn, because it seemed like he'd been talking for hours, and there was still no sign of them. Mary had shifted at some point, maybe when he was talking about being left behind when Buffy and Willow went to college, and now she was leaning back against his chest, his arm folded over her.

"God, Xander." Her voice was quiet. "The life you've led. I don't know how you function at all. I'm sorry all that happened to you."

I'm sorry that happened to you. It was such a weird thing to say. She'd said that to Mei Li when her cat died. The only time people had ever said stuff like it to him was during the divorce.

"I wish you'd told me."

Xander worked at the lump in his throat. "I never wanted you to be part of it."

"You should have told me."

Yeah. He should have. "Are you angry?"

She wound her fingers around his on her stomach, thinking hard about that. "I want to be mad at you. No, I am mad at you, but hell, Xander. Rat demons and vampires. I think I'm just realising now how much all your hare-brained secrecy really was because you loved me."

Funny, because he was realising the exact opposite. Not that he hadn't loved her, because he had, and still did, and Giles was right, he always would. He squeezed her hand. But in between all the stories he'd kept secret to protect Mary were all the pieces of him. 'Some marriage,' Anya had said, cutting straight to the brutal truth, like she always had.

A lot had been missing between them. Something he might have with Giles.

Mary twisted to face him, but she didn't move back. Her hand was still tangled with his, and her face was inches away.

He realised, suddenly, how this would look from the outside. If Mich and the girls came home, or Giles walked in. He gently pushed Mary back to her own seat. He wasn't confused anymore.

If the last few weeks hadn't been enough, and leaving him behind in the tunnels hadn't been enough, then two days without him had been. It was the dawn of a new Xander, and Giles was going to get the whole package, maybe not in mint condition, but complete.

"Xander."

"Hm?" He looked up at her narrowed dark eyes, realised he'd wandered off for a second there.

She leaned in, taking his hand again. "I'm going to ask you something, and I don't want you to answer right away. I want you to think about this. I want the truth." That sounded ominous. Xander nodded. "Does having Giles in your life bring extra danger down on you? Or on Jenny and Kate?"

"Do you really think I haven't been thinking about it ever since he showed up? Yes." He didn't need time to think about that.

"But you kept telling me he wasn't dangerous."

"He isn't."

"Don't split hairs, Xander. Not now."

He needed to explain this well. Xander took the time she'd offered, tried to find the right words. "He's still part of it. Vampires and rat demons and saving the world, that's his gig. His destiny. He can't walk away like I did, so maybe... I can't promise nothing evil is ever going to spill over if I'm with him. But Giles isn't dangerous. He's the opposite. He's the inflatable stuff they hang up around the pool to save someone who's drowning."

"And your almost ex-wife?" Mary asked, not giving any clues to how she was taking this.

Anya was the real wildcard. It hurt to say out loud, but, "I don't know. Giles said she wouldn't, and I know he's tried, but he can't promise anything, either. She's got a vengeful streak." He wasn't selling this well.

"Thank you." She squeezed his hand and slumped back in the chair.

Xander blinked a couple of times. Thank you for bringing an angry vengeance ex into their lives? "For...?"

"For being honest with me now."

It was like someone had found the pin and pulled, as four months of fear slowly leaked out of him. Except it wasn't four months. It was a weight he'd been dragging around for fourteen years, always looking back over his shoulder for the stray piece of Sunnydale that would crash into his life and send Mary running scared with his daughters. Now his metaphors were jumbled but Xander was weightless.

He was safe.

"I want the girls to know Giles."

She jerked back. "What?"

"You know who he is now. There's no reason to-"

"We had an agreement." All the understanding was gone. "Six months with a new partner. We didn't want the girls being introduced to a procession of dates-"

"Weren't we a pair of optimists."

"-and now you want to play happy families two weeks after you've done a one-eighty from straight to gay?"

Of course he wanted exactly that, but he wasn't that blind. "I'm not talking about having him sleep over while the girls are staying, and he isn't someone I picked up in a bar last week. He's a friend. They already know he exists. It's hardly like they're going to suspect anything."

"Do you really think you're that good an actor? If he's that serious, he can wait a few months."

"This is the guy who ran headlong into a demon-infested hell-hole to save you."

She stopped, angry now. "Don't you dare play that card, Xander. I am incredibly grateful for what he did, but this is about Jenny and Kate. This is the first person you've dated since me, it's a such a twist on your sexuality that you can still barely believe it yourself, and it's been two weeks with a terrifying crisis in the middle. There's a reason why we both agreed to the six-month deal."

"We agreed to it because we still thought we might get back together."

She froze. "I didn't."

Xander's 'Oh,' never made it out loud.

"Well. Isn't that rich." She sagged back into the chair.

Xander didn't speak. He hadn't thought it for a long time, but back then, when they were figuring out how to get along again after all the fights, it had seemed like maybe there was hope. It had taken another four years to realise how badly he'd screwed her around. He stood. "I need to go. Giles is expecting me. Will you be okay until the girls get home?"

"Yeah. Xander..."

"We can talk next week." Please, no more tonight.

She eased off. "All right."

When he reached the door, she said, "Xander? Thank Giles for me. And your other friends."

He smiled. "I will."

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 41:
Mich took Jen and Kate shopping so Xander and Mary could finally talk. Xander told her stuff, but realised he still couldn't tell her everything. But he could tell Giles. Giles already knew most of it.



New York chapter 42:
Done


Xander closed his eyes in the taxi, let the jerking of the car and the sounds of the traffic wash over him. Part of him wanted to head home, take a shower, have a shave, throw on a better shirt, make a bit of effort before Giles saw him. That was a small part. Mostly, he wanted to be there right now. With Giles who knew the stuff that Xander couldn't say, remembered the stuff Xander couldn't admit, didn't mind that Xander took time to figure stuff out. Who smelled like Giles. He hoped Giles had rested today, because they were going to start with finding out what made Giles helpless. There were a number of options for what came after that, but none of them were sleep.

There was that one looming conversation, where Xander was going to have to tell Giles that he wasn't coming out of supernatural retirement. Even right after everything Giles and Buffy and Riley did for him on Thursday, Xander couldn't risk bringing the Sunnydale lifestyle crashing down on Kate's and Jen's heads. Maybe that was the coward's way out, but Xander was ready and willing to be a coward for them.

But that conversation wasn't happening tonight. For starters, Xander had no idea how he was going to convince Giles to be okay with it. For seconds, Xander had spent half the day talking through minefields with Mary, and he was worn out with it, and he just wanted to be naked with Giles, to embrace one evening of happy, easy, reptile brain.

The driver slammed the brakes and Xander slid forward in his seat, opened one eye to see a UPS truck a quarter inch in front. He checked his phone. Damn, dinner time had slid right by. He hadn't realised sorting things out with Mary would take this long. He hoped Giles had meant what he said about not minding if it was late when Xander finally got free.


Giles' elevator was slower and his corridor about a hundred feet longer than last time Xander was here. Xander put one foot in front of the other until he made it to the door, and let himself in.

Giles was sitting at the table, glasses balanced on his nose, books spread out around him. It was pretty much the last thing Xander wanted to see. But hey, Xander was going to put a bright voice on it. "Another apocalypse already?"

"Do you really want to know?"

Xander turned away from the door with a long look. What was that supposed to mean?

Giles pulled off his glasses. "I'm sorry. I'm feeling a little waspish. I just meant, you don't want to wander back into slayer affairs."

"I guess." And no. It wasn't like he didn't want to know. He just didn't want to do anything about it. That had all seemed less petty last week before Buffy showed up out of nowhere to save him, but he didn't want to talk about that now.

Xander tried to gloss right past Giles' mood in favour of how good he looked - like he'd showered and shaved and looked in a mirror, and all the other things Xander hadn't. Hollywood mature, cast to sweep women - and men - off their feet. Even the bandage taped to his temple from Thursday looked more roguish than refugee. Xander was a cardboard sign short of playing a homeless guy. Somehow, that didn't matter to Giles. None of the long list of Xander's shortcomings mattered to Giles.

Giles sighed and shut his book, pushing it aside as he stood. "It's nothing serious. I'm simply helping out on something that's had them stumped."

Xander kicked off his shoes and wandered over. "You know what a screw-up I can be, don't you? All my worst hits, my own personal 'Spock's Brain' and 'Skin of Evil' episodes."

"I beg your pardon?"

"You remember that time I got Amy to make a spell and it went wrong and all the women in Sunnydale fell in love with me?"

"I remember." With a shake of his head, Giles headed into the kitchen, totally the wrong direction. The way he limped reminded Xander that he still hadn't had a chance to check Giles over for injuries. "Do you want something to eat? I have a couple of bagels-"

"No, thanks, I'm not really hungry. And you knew, I guess, you know about me and Will in senior year. I mean, there was formalwear and extenuating circumstances and-"

"I knew."

He also knew Xander left him stuck in another universe for sixteen years, and that Xander had left Anya at the altar. "I mean, you know I've done some pretty stupid things."

There was an unnecessarily long pause. "You're not stupid."

"Not my point, but it'll do." Xander wasn't sure what his point was, except that Giles knew all that and here he was. No secret mafia history required.

Giles closed the cupboard and stared at it. His jaw was tight, the muscles standing out in his neck.

Xander swallowed, wondering how long they'd been running on different conversation tracks. "Giles?"

Giles finally turned to him, face hard, holding for a long moment before his eyes slowly travelled down Xander's body and back up. Xander's cock stirred, and he revisited his earlier plans for the night, moving making Giles helpless down to item number two. So sue him: that stern and sexy expression made him crazy.

Xander stood very, very still as Giles crossed to him and caught his wrists, painfully tight, pressing them behind his back. Held there for just a beat, long enough for Xander's body to melt a little and his cock to fill. This was going to be hot.

Giles kissed him hard, forcing his tongue inside and being careless with his teeth, arching him back until Xander's balance was gone and it was only Giles' arms keeping him upright. One too-sharp nip on his lower lip and Xander was powerless to do anything but try to dry-hump Giles' pocket.

"Stop it."

Xander stopped.

"Do you want me?" was whispered in his ear.

"God, yeah." The grip on Xander's wrists made Xander think of thick, rough rope and he got harder still.

Xander was stumbling back, didn't know where until he hit the table, and then Giles was jerking open his pants and a solid manly hand was rummaging its way in until it had a great handful, and a moan pushed its way up from deep in Xander's gut. Xander wondered if this was swooning. Giles seemed to decide this wasn't enough and hauled Xander's pants down, jeans and socks all in one sweep as Xander rocked back on the table, then just as fast his shirt was over his head and Xander glimpsed the cold fire in Giles' eyes and god knew there was no way he could get harder than this.

Xander was manhandled around and pressed face down on the table, cross-eyed on piles of papers and Giles bent over him. "Keep them there." Xander linked his fingers behind him as rough hands kneaded at his hips, his back, his shoulders, careless of all the week's leftover bruises and aches. He could feel the bulge of Giles' cock pressing against zipper against his bare ass as Giles unthreaded his own belt. For one crazed second, Xander thought Giles was going to strap him, no mature boundaries negotiations or safewords discussions and in that moment Xander would have let him, but the belt hit the ground beside them and there was the sound of unzipping and Xander's shoulders relaxed.

Giles leaned against him and Xander could feel his pants bunched against his thighs, button shirt trailing over his ass, and then the sound of spitting was the only sound before wet fingers pushed inside him, burning. Xander gasped. "That's all you're getting," Giles growled.

Something wasn't right. There should have been teasing in Giles' tone but he just sounded cold. Xander needed to stop this, calm it down before someone got hurt but he couldn't find the 'no' because he was turned on beyond all belief. Giles' fingers were stretching him way faster than comfort and his other hand was on Xander's back, pressing him down. Giles wanted to take him, and it was angry and selfish but it was honesty balled up in need and that burned Xander open faster than rough, thick fingers. Giles could have whatever he wanted and they'd talk in the morning.

Giles pulled out his fingers, and Xander didn't want to wait. "In my pants-" he started, and he meant to say, 'there's a rubber in my wallet,' but a moan was ripped right out of him as Giles pushed inside. He let go of his hands and grabbed the desk.

Damn, it burned. Giles was bare inside him. Nothing between them.

Giles wasn't moving, but Xander could hear him breathing, heavy panting like he was the one who'd just been invaded. There was a pause and a click of wet lips and Xander was afraid Giles was going to pull back or ask if Xander was all right, take away all that passion and need and go timid and soft.

Xander peeled his fingers off the desk and put them back behind him, locking his hands around his wrists. There was a sound from Giles, like a whimper. A hand dragged over Xander's asscheek, but Xander waited. A finger along his crack, sliding so softly where Giles stretched him open, almost ticklish. Tracing away to his hip, sudden hard grip and then Giles pulled out and shoved home and Xander cried out. Almost too much but there was a drunken heat inside the bite and Xander wanted it. Out and *in*, and Xander sobbed with need, wanted more.

"This is what you want from me," Giles hissed, suddenly pressing all the way over Xander, mouth at his ear. "This is what does it for you."

"God," Xander managed. "Feel you."

"I can't hear you." He sounded angry, and what a twisted thing that it sweetened the ache in Xander's cock.

Xander swallowed, wet his mouth and did it again. "Can feel it. How you want me."

There, oh god, hard and sharp and going steady now, carving him open. Moans torn from him with every thrust. It was a sound Giles made, unconscious and needy that hit the spot and threw Xander over, and suddenly Giles jerked out of him, splashing liquid heat over his back.

Xander lay there panting, could feel Giles' hands on the desk on either side of his hips, Giles over him, just as breathless. Long minutes until Giles moved away. He came back already zipped up, shirt rumpled and loose, with a handful of paper towels. Xander didn't move as Giles gently wiped the mess off his skin and dropped the paper in the wastebasket. Xander waited for more touches but there was nothing. He finally struggled up and sat bare-ass naked on the edge of the table with a grunt. He was going to be feeling that for a while. "Okay, so you want to tell me what's bothering you?"

Giles didn't answer, just stared stonily out the window. All the warm fuzzy post-coital satisfaction dropped away like a heavy thing, leaving Xander feeling like he'd just been fucked.

"You know you have to tell me stuff, right? That I'll never figure it out on my own?" Still no answer except for the working jaw, and Xander dropped the teasing tone. "Spill, Giles. Did I forget something? Did Buffy say something? Mary was right, we suck at communicating."

Giles turned a sharp look on him. "How very insightful of Mary."

"But since I didn't even know we were together for a whole two months, I guess that's not really news."

The window again. It wasn't progress.

Xander learned his lesson with Mary. He was going to do it better, this time. "Mary and I talked, today."

"You did say."

"I told her everything. Well. Not everything, but one more person terrified of the dark, check."

Giles looked at Xander for a long time. "You're done, aren't you?"

"Yeah."

The bitter look on Giles' face hurt as much as Xander expected it would.

"I know that's bad, especially after all this." Xander reached for the bandage on Giles' face, and Giles leaned away. Damn. "I'm thirty-eight years old. I can't just do whatever I want anymore."

Giles waited, stone-faced.

"Say something, Giles."

"What do you expect me to say? That it's all right? That you got what you needed, and you don't owe me anything?" His voice was light, and that only made it worse. It turned out that along with all the good stuff, Giles could still make Xander feel three feet tall. And didn't he have the right, when he threw himself under a pile of rats for Mary while Xander ran for the exit?

"I know what you've done for me. Believe me, I'm not proud of myself. This is about my kids."

"No. It's about fear."

Xander really wished he'd pulled his clothes on before they started. He felt ridiculous having this out naked. He folded his arms around his body. "Fear's what keeps us alive."

They stared at each other, chins high. "Sometimes," Giles said at last. "And sometimes it's why we don't take what we want. I'm going to take a shower." With that, he walked out of the room.

Xander frowned after him. What we want? Did Giles really think Xander wanted to be out there, trying not to get killed every night? No way. They had some kind of major crossed wires going on here. What the hell did Giles think Xander was afraid of?

The shower ran in the bathroom. This wasn't supposed to be how today went. They were supposed to be so happy to be alive and well and alone together with the giant rat demons behind them that they couldn't keep their hands off each other. They weren't supposed to end up in different rooms.

Xander went and sat on the bed, and waited.

After a few minutes, he grabbed a pair of shorts. He wasn't going anywhere until they had this sorted out.

Clearly Giles was pissed at him, and it didn't seem like it was about Xander playing the Cowardly Lion. Xander scraped his brain for what he'd done wrong, some stupid thing he'd said, anything he'd forgotten, and he kept coming back to one thing. He left Giles behind. In all the happy ending excitement, Xander had forgotten how it felt running through those tunnels, Giles lost in the cavern behind him. Now the guilt washed up just fine.

You told me to go, Xander wanted to tell him, but he knew, knew, no power on earth would have driven Giles out of there if Xander had been the one dragged away.

Feedback is delicious.







Previously, in chapter 42:
Finally Xander came home to Giles, unfortunately to find him grumpy, which led to some disturbingly good angry sex with a nasty after-taste. Giles did not take Xander's decision to avoid the vampire world particularly well... at least, that's what Xander thought they were talking about.



New York chapter 43:
Perfectly edifying


Giles stopped when he came in in his towel to find Xander sitting on the bed in shorts. His skin was glistening and his nipples were tight in the cool air and his wet hair was sticking up in all sorts of directions, and Xander wanted to do something about that, not drag them through this conversation.

And then Giles shifted his feet and the light fell across a swathe of mottled black bruises and red scrapes across his abdomen, and Xander dug his fingers into the sheet to keep himself on the bed. The bandage had been peeled off his temple, and Xander could see it probably should have been stitched. How bad had it been down there?

Bad enough, but that was going to have to wait, because Xander was doing this thing first. Just like facing a cold morning at swimming training: plunge right in. "I'm talking about fighting demons."

"I beg your pardon?" Giles clutched the towel tighter around his waist.

"Before. Fear and what I want and protecting my girls. I was talking about why I'm not going back to fighting demons."

"I don't want you-"

"No, hear me out. I know, after this week it's even worse, but-"

"Xander-"

Xander stood up. "I'm not the guy who saves the world. I don't have a destiny. I've got a job and kids. Buffy and Riley are okay with me getting out of the fight and I'm not even good at it so-"

"Xander." Giles said it loud enough to shut Xander's mouth. "I don't want you fighting demons."

"Oh."

"Buffy near-throttled me when I let slip that I was at fault for getting you dragged down there in March, and she was right."

"Oh." Xander sat down again. "So I don't have to convince you it's okay?"

"No."

"Oh." Days of prepared arguments fizzled away. "So... does that mean you're not mad that I left you behind in the tunnels?"

Giles blinked at him. "I wanted you to go after her, Xander. You did the right thing down there."

"Oh." That was a relief. Except it meant Giles' big issue was still a mystery. Fine. Xander used to be a Scooby; he could solve a mystery. He crept back over Giles' words. "Down there. But not... up here?" As he said it a bunch of things fell into place, like Giles' tone when Xander called from the hospital yesterday. Still a Scooby. "You're jealous of Mary."

There was a beat of silence that told Xander everything he needed to know, before Giles looked at him. "Shouldn't I be?"

"No... But it's cool that you are."

"Cool." Giles didn't sound like he thought so at all.

"Not so perfect, are you?" Xander grabbed the edge of towel and gave it a tug, pulled Giles' hip with his other hand, dragging him to sit on the bed. Of all the things that could be wrong, this was one of the best. "Jealous over me."

Giles wouldn't be pulled further, keeping his feet flat on the floor and refusing to face Xander. "I never hid how I felt for you," he snapped. Suddenly this was a lot less fun. "I told you and you didn't want it, and now you keep on..." He shook his head. "What do you want from me?"

"Right now? I want you to tell me what's going on inside your brain."

"You've made it quite clear you don't want to know."

"So let's say now I do. I'm not good at this, Giles. I'm pretty much the worst at this. You've got to help me out."

"I'm doing my best not to push you." He pulled his towel tighter and turned his head, not quite far enough to look at Xander. "I know I can't compete with ten years of marriage, two children and a straight life."

"You're not competing with Mary."

"She wants you back."

Xander almost laughed. "No, she doesn't."

Giles glared at him. "You didn't know I wanted you, so perhaps you're not the best judge of people's intentions."

"Yeah, well, you didn't know I had no idea you wanted me, so let's not pretend you're Yoda."

"Dammit, Xander. You know what I mean."

"Really, I'm not totally sure I do, but let's do it your way." As long as they were getting somewhere, Xander was going to play along. Giles really thought Mary was going to steal all his attention? "You're competing with someone who never knew half of me, and a bitter divorce. Do you have any idea what sorts of things people say to each other during a divorce when they're fighting over their kids?"

"I can imagine."

"You really can't." Four years on, there were plenty of words from both sides still etched in Xander's brain that could choke him up if he let himself remember late at night.

That finally got through, at least enough that Giles faced him properly, sympathy in his eyes. Xander didn't need the sympathy, but he was willing to take anything that softened Giles at this point. Until Giles said, "The bridges aren't so thoroughly burned if you can still sleep with her."

Oh. Oh god. Xander's mouth fell open. How did Giles find out about that?

Xander's cheeks burned, bright spots of flaming fire, and Giles got up and walked across the room, fists clenched by his sides. Busted. Xander was an asshole all over again.

"Okay. Yeah. That... That happened. But it was once, and it's never going to happen again" Giles rolled his eyes. "She doesn't want me back, Giles. Even if she did - and I'll tell you, she doesn't, and for sure I know her better than you do - what would it matter? We're broken. Mary and I don't work. I wouldn't go back if... I mean, okay, yes, there was one little slip but that was weeks ago, and in my defence I didn't even know you and I were an item at the-"

"Weeks ago?"

"You were in LA, I was being obtuse. I didn't know."

"So not..." Giles looked totally confused. "Why were you talking about Amy's ridiculous love spell when you came in tonight?"

A lurch to the left. This conversation was making Xander seasick. "I was talking about all the stuff you know about me. All the stuff I couldn't tell Mary when we talked today."

"Oh."

"I'm sorry about what happened with her. I was lonely. More lonely than usual, after having you around. It was late and we'd had a good day at her parents and there was a bikini and I didn't know how you felt." The excuses weren't exactly making Xander feel better about it.

Giles held his towel as he walked around the bed, keeping his distance on his way to the bedside table to pick up his glasses, tapping them against his lips before sliding them on. "And down in the tunnels when we realised the soul-release had already been performed and you said..." He trailed off.

"Said what?"

Giles looked at him, thoughts galloping along behind his glasses, replaying conversations Xander couldn't remember because he'd been too busy hyperventilating at the time. "Never mind."

"I'm minding." Xander was never going to get this right if Giles didn't start finishing his thoughts, but he held on.

"I don't know why I'm here," Giles said, at last. "I don't know where I fit into your life."

"You fit right here."

Giles looked at him, and down at the sheets, unimpressed.

"Not in bed. Or not only in bed." Xander couldn't help that line, even though he knew it would fall flat. "I meant with me."

Finally, Giles came back and sat beside him. "But I don't, do I?" The angles of his face were sharp. "On Wednesday, I didn't breathe from the moment I got your call until I saw you standing upright in the hospital. You have a life, Xander. I don't know what I'll settle for, but I need to be more than an after-thought, someone you call a few days later when you can squeeze me in for a fuck."

The word burned across Xander's face like a slap. He barely had voice to ask, "That's what you think of me?"

"I can't fault you for your honesty. You made it perfectly clear from the beginning this wasn't... It turns out I have a little pride left."

Giles was right. Xander had made it perfectly clear. Back when he was an idiot. Xander reached out, ignoring the flinch as he ran his hand down Giles' arm "You have no idea how much I needed you with me Thursday night."

"If you did, then I truly don't." Maybe he didn't know. It wasn't like Xander got a chance to tell him.

"I'm sorry I didn't call Thursday night. I was waiting for the girls to go to bed, but we all passed out on the couch. It was almost three when I woke up."

"It's never too late to call me."

Xander smiled. "You want me to start testing that out at three in the morning?"

Giles didn't smile back. "I always want to hear your voice."

"But you can't call me?"

He took a long breath in. "I wasn't sure I'd be welcome."

Xander huffed. Pot, kettle.

"I don't want to infringe upon your time with your daughters, and I'm not going to call a house with sleeping chidren in the wee hours simply because I'm feeling left out." Okay, pot with a few slightly reasonable points but still. "You told me no white picket fence. I'm doing my best not to pressure you."

It was a wonder they managed to speak at all. "I called as soon as I had a moment."

"You had time enough for Mary today." He winced and covered his face. "I hate sounding like this."

Xander pushed down his irritation. He wasn't handling this well, but he could have used some cooperation. "It's always going to be complicated with Mary and me. She's not some ex-girlfriend I can bury. We tried being married and that didn't work, and we tried being enemies and that sucked. I won't risk what we've got now for anyone. Not even you." He watched Giles' shoulders rise. "We had to talk. I'm sorry it was today, but there's only so many days I can put off explaining why I can drag a colonel and an army platoon into curing her of a magical coma. But if you think I'm using you, then it's because you didn't get to see me fighting to get back to you in the tunnels."

Giles watched him, waiting to be convinced.

"You can ask Charlie to show you the scratch marks."

That didn't get the chuckle it was supposed to. "You said you didn't want this taken seriously, so I'm trying not to read too much into what you do, or don't do, but I'm not a mind-reader. I'm glad you're friends with Mary; I truly am, and I'd never dream of getting between you and your daughters, but I don't know how long I can-"

Xander kissed him.

Xander could feel him trying to pull back keep talking, so he kept right on kissing. The talking wasn't working, so Xander went with what his mouth was good at, pressing Giles onto his back and climbing up to kneel over his hips without breaking off for a moment. He didn't stop until he felt Giles give, body softening, lips chasing, and still not for a while after that. It was a good, long kiss, before he sat back. Giles was flushed, mouth wet. "Take that as seriously as you want."

Giles blinked. His lips were red and his eyes were round and Xander mentally saved the image to his happy file. "I'm... I'm not sure I understand."

"Do you want me to explain again?" Xander didn't wait for an answer. He slid Giles' glasses off and kissed him with all the tenderness that had been knotting his stomach since he realised he was running in the wrong direction on Thursday afternoon, squeezing his chest since Thursday night when he couldn't pat Giles down to check him for injuries, late that night when he'd held the phone in bed, wanting desperately to call.

He could check him now, check that his lips were just as smooth and his jaw was strong and rough. Giles' hands slid up Xander's thighs, and around, to his hips. One hand kept going, found Xander's shoulder to push him back and search his eyes.

Xander was maybe overstating his case a little, because he wasn't, he didn't... It wasn't like the doubts had disappeared. But they were seeming more like issues Xander had to work through than unsolvable problems. Xander wasn't ready to say the words yet but he was pretty sure he meant them. Which was all symmetrical because Giles looked like he understood them and didn't believe them.

Xander smiled, and Giles smiled back, the lines around his eyes lifting. He looked happy. Xander did that for him.

"I'm sorry I didn't find time to talk to you properly before now. I suck at relationships. I humiliated Anya because I was too scared to talk to her, and I got divorced because I couldn't talk to Mary about anything that made me who I am. And now I've been doing this alone for a while. I don't know why you want to try with me, but give me time."

A rueful look spread across Giles' face. "Do you really want to compare track records? I've never reached a five-year anniversary. I'm forty-eight and I've never co-signed on property, let alone proposed marriage. I'm not particularly talented at talking, either."

It shouldn't have been reassuring to know Giles was going to be just as bad at this as Xander was. In some ways, Xander was going to be the voice of experience, which sounded bad, but they'd faced worse odds and saved the world together. "Guess we'd better work on that. If we want this to last."

Giles' chest rose. "Do you?"

"Yeah." He didn't need to hesitate at all, and it was totally worth the relief and hope on Giles' face. So he should practise this communicating thing. "I told Mary I want the girls to know you. Not as, not that we're together, I mean not yet, but that you're a friend."

"I'd like that a great deal."

"I didn't win yet, but I will." He stuck a finger in Giles' chest. "I'm talking the occasional dinner or cultural experience here, not taxi chases or demon research parties."

"I promise I'll restrain myself." Giles arched up and kissed him.

"And I'm not ready for Stonewall, but I did kinda organise drinks with Riley."

That surprised Giles even more. "And you told him that we...?"

"Full disclosure."

That earned him another kiss.

Xander opened his mouth to ask what Giles wanted, and stopped. In the same split moment he realised, first, that he'd never asked that before, and second, that he shouldn't have to. If he wasn't a totally selfish ass - and he really hoped he wasn't - then he should know.

Giles was watching him curiously, waiting. What did Giles want?

Xander knew. "Come on." He climbed off Giles. Giles hadn't moved, except to split the curiosity on his face with a good portion of suspicion, so Xander found his briefs and tossed them at him. "Come on."

Giles pulled on the clothes and stood, let Xander lead him by the hand out to the couch and push him to sit.

"Wait there." It would have been better if Giles had a proper TV, but he didn't, so the laptop would do. Xander powered it up and put it on the coffee table, decided Giles looked a little cold and went back to the bedroom to drag the comforter off the bed.

He pulled the remote out of its slot in the laptop, and Giles made a little sound of surprise.

"Technology's not all bad, huh?" With that, Xander sat beside him, pulling the comforter over their laps and opening the television feed. "Anything particular you want to watch, or will we go with the mindless flipping?"

Giles smiled: full-on, straight-from-the-heart smiled. "Anything you like."

"Anything I like?" Xander searched through until he found some kind of sci-fi thing with rubber monsters and a styrofoam set, and looked at Giles in challenge.

Giles turned sideways to lay his legs over Xander's thighs, and snuggled lower. "This looks perfectly edifying." It likely did, considering Giles hadn't bothered to put his glasses back on.

Xander put the sound low and dropped the remote on the comforter and slid his hand beneath to rest on Giles' shin. Hairy legs, like Xander. Hairy balls, like Xander, and a chin that needed shaving, and a preference for leaving the toilet seat up. Xander liked it. Xander didn't know if he was about to start admiring guys as a general rule now, but this one guy took his breath away.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander drifted for a while, was pretty sure Giles did, too. There'd been lizard people before, and now it was humans in jumpsuits in space. Giles' eyes were mostly open but not completely focused, lips parted, chest rising and falling like he was out. Xander could definitely get used to this. Heat had built under the comforter, a private little sauna sticking the backs of Giles' legs across Xander's lap. Xander ran his hand over the blanket, up and down Giles' thigh and Giles made a sound that might have been a please, if he'd managed any vowels, lifting his hips. Xander slid his hand higher, the thick comforter not enough to disguise the stirring hard-on.

"Yesss."

Gentle strokes, no squeezing, just enough to get Giles' hips rocking. In the dim light from the windows, Xander could see his eyes were closed. His tongue flicked out to wet his lips.

Xander slid his hand under the comforter and between the long hot stretch of Giles' thighs. Giles whimpered and spread his legs, and now Xander could watch the way the lines shifted around his eyes with every touch.

For a while Xander just teased, letting his fingers drift over the soft skin, tracing the seams of Giles' briefs and letting his nails scratch a path away to tickle the backs of his knees. Giles sighed and hummed, a faint smile lifting his lips. The first brush of knuckles along lengthening cock was maybe an accident, the second a few minutes later, not so much. Giles pushed up, chasing him.

Xander stroked him through the cotton briefs, slow and even, dipping sometimes to cup his balls bunched up in the pouch, following that straight rod up until the head of him worked its way past the elastic and Xander's thumb found the smooth, stretched skin, the wet tip. His own cock ached in his shorts. He wanted to twist down and lick this and then take Giles deep in his mouth, and he wanted to climb over and pull this up inside his ass, and he wanted to stay right here and watch every expression that crept over Giles' face as Xander made him feel good.

Xander pushed the comforter off to the floor, loving the sweep of fresh, cool air, the sudden view of Giles sprawled wantonly across his lap, breaking out of his briefs. Xander pushed his t-shirt up to his chest. The light was just strong enough to show his muscles shift as Xander's fingers dragged down over his soft stomach to the rosy head of his cock. He slipped his hand inside; Giles groaned as Xander got a palm full of cock and fingers right down to the sweaty, hairy heat of his balls, rolling under his touch. Xander could smell him, strong and male and he liked it, wanted to bury his face in Giles' crotch and just breathe for a while. He slid his hand out and sniffed his fingers. Up close it was sharp and it cut straight to his cock.

Giles looked up, surprised, and Xander didn't know if it was what he'd just done or indignation at letting go of his cock.

"You've got to realise I've never looked at a guy before." Xander's voice was sudden and loud. "Before these last couple of months. Never interested me at all. And here I am, and I can't get enough of you. Never wanted a cock except my own." He dragged his hand down over Giles' sweat-damp chest and belly over his jocks again. He didn't know he could like a flat, hard chest, and hair, and someone who felt as big as him. "I even like how you smell."

"These last few months, I've thought of nothing else." Giles' voice was pure gravel. "Signed the lease on this flat with plans for having you in every room. And the balcony. Every phone call from LA, I was touching myself." Giles took Xander's wrist and pushed his hand back down into his briefs.

Xander obediently squeezed Giles' cock. Every call, and he'd had no idea. "How about that night before you left for LA? On my couch like this?"

His smile was wicked. "I was touching myself then, too." He rested his hand over the top of Xander's, to show. "Fingers on my cock under the blanket, toes pressed against your thigh. You had your hand on my foot and I was waiting for it to slide up. Thought you were the most masterful cockteasing bastard I'd ever known."

Whoa. "Just oblivious."

"Make it up to me now."

Xander had barely closed his fist when the trill of Giles' phone made them jump.

"No," Xander pleaded. No, this was getting-it-right time, no monster disasters allowed.

Giles' lip lifted, crookedly. "Remember how well it turned out the last time one of us didn't answer a call?" He pulled Xander's hand out of his briefs as he reached for it. Xander moved to leave Giles some privacy, but Giles didn't lift his legs. He looked at the screen and one eyebrow lifted as he put it to his ear.

"Hello Anya."

Xander's stomach turned inside out.

"Yes, he's fine."

Giles tugged Xander down against his chest and switched the phone to his other ear so Xander wouldn't hear what Anya was saying. "I know, Anya."

Xander was pretty sure he was leaving claw-marks in Giles' shoulder.

"Yes, I know." That one sounded gentler. Giles squeezed him. "I know." That one sounded amused. "I know." That one sounded resigned. "I won't tell him."

Xander pressed his cheek against sweat-sticky skin, trying hard not to pull the phone out of Giles' hand.

"Thank you." The call-end button beeped and Giles' chest arched under Xander's cheek as he reached back to put the phone on the table behind him. "Anya hopes you live a life filled with misery and erectile dysfunction, and certainly wasn't at all worried when she heard about the situation with your ex-wife."

Xander smiled. "Thank you."

Giles put a finger under Xander's chin and kissed him.

Xander pulled back. "Does she know? About us?"

"Er. No." Giles shuddered. "Perhaps that news could wait?"

"As long as you want. And then I'm voting for longer." The news would have to trickle back eventually, but Xander didn't want to think about that right now. He wanted to think about other things. Except... He looked up. "Now my brain is hung up wondering how disastrous it would be if Anya teleported here right now."

Giles chuckled. "I could distract you with more of my plans."

"That would help."

He drifted away for a moment, tongue touching his lips as he thought. "I like to imagine surprising you at work."

"My work?"

"On your site. With you in boots and barely-decent shorts and a low-hanging toolbelt."

"We don't wear shorts that-"

"You do in my fantasy."

Maybe Giles' boss hadn't been so wrong about Giles having a thing for blue collar rough. Maybe Xander didn't mind if he did. Xander grinned. "I can wear shorts."

Giles' fingers played with the leg of Xander's boxers. "At the end of a hot day of heavy lifting when you're dripping with sweat."

"When I'm gross?"

Giles licked a line up Xander's neck like he was chasing a drop right now. "Not 'gross' at all. You know a quiet lower floor where I can go down on my knees and suck you."

The image was well up the scale of hotness, but, "I'm pretty gross at the end of a hot day."

"I would beg to differ."

"Still in my hard hat?"

"Of course."

Xander laughed, pressing his forehead to Giles' shoulder. "Now I'm going to be sporting an erection all day Monday."

"Feel free to call me and tell me about it."

Maybe he would.

"Come closer." Giles tugged Xander down to lie on him, stroking his back, working his way slowly over to Xander's shoulder. Magical healing hands drifting over tendons still aching from when he dangled over the rats, making goosebumps rise.

Giles began talking again, voice soft. "I was terrified, Xander. When I got your call from the ambulance on Wednesday, I knew you wouldn't tell me all he'd done to you. You haven't given me a single moment to see what he did." His hands fluttered over Xander's face, where his eye was already fading into shades of yellow. "Look at you."

"Look at me? Look at you." Xander wriggled back far enough to see the mess of black and blue across Giles' chest and abdomen. "You told me you were okay." He couldn't help sounding a little accusing.

"They'll fade."

Xander hoped so, but they wouldn't be the last. He wished he didn't have to be okay with that. Giles' hand slipped up to the back of his neck and Giles arched to kiss him again, more breath than lips but more than enough to hollow Xander out. Giles didn't need to fuck Xander over a table and talk dirty to show he needed him - though there'd be plenty of time to do that again, too. It was all here in the way his eyes closed as they kissed and kissed again, Giles gentle as though Xander's lip wasn't almost healed. The way Giles' hands pressed his ass were enough; the soft sound he made when Xander rubbed his stubbly jaw against Giles' throat. Xander brushed his fingers over Giles' chest, flat and solid, tangling in the hair until Giles let out a groan.

He was going to make this last all night.


end the whole story!

Thank you so much for coming along, despite the children and the OFC het and the meandering everything else. And I'd like to throw in a big thank you to all the people who left feedback while I was writing this, even though I was so embarrassingly slow in replying. You guys got me through.

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