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part eleven

Angel had come back inside while Xander had gone to the office to fetch Giles and Wesley. Xander wasn't sure which had Angel more off center; the frightened glances Dawn now leveled against him, or Spike's tender nurturing
of Buffy's little sister. Currently, instead of just glaring at Spike, he seemed to be taking in the whole dynamics of the group's interaction, evaluating the changes which had taken place since he had left after graduation. They were none of them the same people they had been. Giles no longer treated them as students but as colleagues. Willow was more
assertive; she had found her place with her witchcraft and seemed more at ease in her body and the world around her. She trusted her own judgment more than when they were kids. Xander knew it was partly due to her testing her limits and not yet having found them, but mostly due to Tara's quiet faith in her and her rock-solid support. He knew he himself now thought more before speaking, and no longer needed to be reassured that he had a right to be there. This was his pack, and although Xander still regarded Angel as an unpredictable predator, he no longer feared that Angel would or could usurp his place.

"Breathe, Wills." Xander's comment earned him an annoyed glance but didn't slow down the petite redhead's description, complete with gestures and diagrams, of her great idea. Said great idea involved summoning an elemental, hence Tara's worried look, which was now accompanied by anxious lip biting. Even Wesley looked askance at Willow's theory.

Giles had once told Xander that he blamed the computer for most of Willow's, how did he put it, "creative catastrophes" with magic. When Xander had mentioned that Giles had a built-in prejudice towards the 'infernal machines' because they clashed with both his stuffy British intellectual image and his bad-assed Ripper persona, Giles had said that what he had meant was that Willow tended to think of spells as programs; and that that lead to both her powerful successes and her equally spectacular disasters. *So loved the whole demon magnet thing, thanks, Wills.* Giles had pointed out how for most magic users, spells were an extremely formal intellectual ballet with every word and gesture choreographed, where the slightest deviation would change the results. One spell, one result; no mucking about with it. But Willow tore spells down to their basic components and reassembled them to achieve unpredictable results. Just like programmers would cut and paste pieces of various subroutines together to perform more complex functions, Willow took smaller harmless spells and combined them and strung them in sequence until you got a human who could stand toe-to-toe with a hell god.

Xander felt a rush of pride for his friend and thought he should tell her more often how impressed he was by her, unless she was going to be actually doing magic, then he should be far, far away. The elementals Willow was describing were usually harmless. It was at that word that Giles gave Xander the look and arched one brow toward Dawn. Xander gave the look right back and arched his brow toward Willow. Briefly they were at a stalemate. Xander wondered if any of the LA crew had picked up on the silent battle of wills raging in the same room with them. While Willow reassured Wesley that as long as they picked the right place they should not have any trouble with the gossamer-like sprites, which she claimed would be and excellent source of information. The trick, and the reason they had never used this solution before when research had failed, would be getting far enough from the Hellmouth that the creatures would not be influenced by its malignant power, but close enough that they would have information about it. The sprites were supposedly shameless gossips and excellent sources of information. The were also often liars and very mischievous; and had all the powers of the air. Xander didn't know what that meant but he did know he didn't want to let Willow out of his sight when she stirred them up. Although he couldn't help her if they attacked magically, Giles could. He conceded defeat and dropped his gaze. Someone had to stay with Willow and someone had to stay with Dawn and in this case Giles was the best suited back-up for Willow. He looked over at Spike and Dawn. Spike's nod was almost imperceptible. He would watch 'Red' and if it was something Giles couldn't take care of with knowledge and magic, Spike would tear it apart with brute force.

Xander walked over to Dawn and knelt down in front of her. "Hey, feel like catching a flick?" Over Spike's shoulder he saw Cordy's shocked look. She seemed just about to let loose with one of her prom queen diatribes when something, or someone, caught her eye and she swallowed it.

Dawn looked at him, then she looked at Giles. She looked back at him, then turned to Spike. She swallowed, looked back at Xander and smiled. "Sure." She got up and picked up her backpack and added as she stopped by the door, "Good luck with the airy things. Be careful."

Xander held up his cell phone and gestured with it. "Call, keep us posted." Then they left.


When they were in the car, Dawn said she couldn't sit still for a whole movie and suggested going to her house. She said at least that if he were busy then one of them wouldn't be worrying. Xander had arranged for a sub-contractor to repair the major damage Glory had done to the house, but had spent a great deal of time there recently. There was much to do, fixing the general wear and tear that had accumulated in a house full of females who defined maintenance as fixing something that was broken. Once they were at the house, Dawn had wheedled him into walking her to a neighbor's to hang with her friends. She promised to stay inside and to call when she wanted him to come get her.

He called the shop to check on the progress. They were going to Lanier's Bluff outside of town, feeling the high windy area would be conducive to the summoning and far enough from the Hellmouth. He still couldn't go with them and chafed at the restriction. They had reached an agreement shortly after the Dragon's visit that one: They were not taking Dawn on anymore Hellmouthy field trips and two; whenever possible, one of them would sit out the potentially fatal activities, like parents who take separate planes to ensure that one crash does not orphan their children.


Hours later, Xander vigorously scoured his hands at the kitchen sink with a stiff-bristled brush. He had grouted Joyce's bathroom. He was running out of things to do before the appraisal. Truth be told, he was putting it off; this house had been a home to him as well as Dawn. They had all talked it over, the six of them, over dinner in the shop one night. They would sell the house and put the proceeds in a trust for Dawn. After paying for her education the balance would pay out to her when she reached twenty-one. The contents were to be put in storage. So Xander had stalled. He didn't think Dawn was ready to go though Joyce's and Buffy's things, to sort through all those memories. Hell, he wasn't ready. Drying his hands, he turned and leaned back against the sink. The memories crowed around him like a thick fog and were just as impossible to hold. Flashes of Buffy and Dawn in a mad scramble for the phone, with Slayer strength and speed no match for little sister determination and whining. Joyce finding a way to make it seem like he was doing her a favor to take that last piece of pie. It all seemed so real, so now, yet he knew if he reached out to touch these memories that they would slip though his fingers, as insubstantial as mist.

He tossed the towel on the counter and moved though the house like it was a museum. He stopped to look at personal knick-knacks and photos. He had been in and out of this house throughout the past five years. He had passed most of the items almost daily, without really seeing them. When he reached the living room he almost expected to see a younger version of himself ensconced between Willow and Buffy, watching the TV and making sarcastic comments about the age of the cast of 90210. He had taken Dawn aside after they had decided to sell the house. He wanted to make sure that they hadn't pressured her into the decision. After all, it had been such a happy home, except for near the end. She had tried to explain to him how the good memories made it seem so much more hollow and empty without Joyce and Buffy. Tonight he thought he understood.

More than ever, Xander was grateful that Buffy had never returned his puppy love. Instead, what she had offered him was so much more solid and lasting. Instead of memories of fleeting gropes in the back seats of cars or dark corners, like he had with Cordelia, Buffy had given him loyalty and a heart-sib's love that had offered him both her family and her home. Frequently, since Joyce had quietly slipped from their grasp, and Buffy had been yanked away, Xander had wakened with the words she had spoken in that uncanny dream from the night that the Initiative had self-destructed. "I'm way ahead of you, big brother." She had been, ahead - then and always. At sixteen she had opened a whole new world, not just the vampires and other creepy crawlies, but the concept that you didn't just have to lay down and take what life threw at you, that you could fight back. Now again she had gone ahead, into whatever the next world held. He wondered if she was still guarding the gate, only it would be a new gate and she would be waiting for time and circumstances to reunite them all again. Once again, she was teaching him by example. That love doesn't end with death and that how we do what we do in life matters just as much, if not more, than what we do. He was surprised when the first tears blurred his vision and relieved that Dawn wasn't there. He realized he had been holding a framed photo of the three of them, the Summers women. He didn't know how long he had been staring at it. They were laughing and not paying attention to the camera. He would have to ask Dawn for a copy of it.

He wished the others would call. He knew Will had her phone but he didn't want to call for fear he would interrupt at a crucial moment. Dawn had called twice to see if they had called him and he had told her not to call Willow and that he would call her when they called him, so he didn't feel he could break his own rule, know matter how antsy he got. Xander gently placed the photo back on the end table with a sigh. When he turned he saw Spike standing there watching him, looking sad and perhaps caught up in his own memories. He was surprised to see Spike, not only because no one had called to say, 'hey stop worrying, we're alive' but because he remembered Willow doing the uninvite spell on Spike and did not remember him coming here since That Night.

His surprise must have shown in his face, because Spike said, "Buffy invited me in," and then laughed at his look of utter confusion. "Not now, you daft git. Before... when... when we came back here to get the weapons and extra clothes for the robot."

Anything was better than the two of them thinking about That Night, so Xander teased, "Oh yeah. Your girlfriend." He smiled - no more pained nostalgia here, Spike looked ready to play. "The one you had *programmed* for total obedience." Xander hooked his index fingers through the belt loops of Spike's jeans. In a nod to the heat wave, Spike had forgone the leather trench coat and silk shirt and was just wearing his trademark black tee shirt. And a smirk, of course. Tugging Spike forward, Xander backed into the couch and sat down. Spike chuckled and placed a knee on either side of Xander's thighs and straddled his body. Xander couldn't suppress a face-splitting grin when he continued.

"Poor Spike, I bet you miss that total obedience surrounded by such..." Spike cut him of with a kiss. Xander started to lift Spike's shirt; he wanted it off and longed for the skin-to-skin contact. Xander's fingers were drinking in the touch of Spike's slim, muscled body, when Spike clasped both wrists in a firm, unyielding grip. He pushed Xander's hands back and pinned them against the back of the sofa. Xander looked up hungrily into his lover's laughing blue eyes and strainedagainst his Spike prison to reach up
for another kiss.

"Behave, Pet." Spike added with a smirk, "time you learned some lessons."

Xander swallowed and nodded. He was winning his battle to suppress laughter and he felt he had conquered the smile, "I've been bad." His words had barely been whispered but they brought back Spike's shit-eating grin.

"Not bad." Spike's words tickled against his neck as he leaned down to scrape blunt teeth against the pulse point just behind Xander's ear. Xander frantically tried to buck up and bring any sort of friction against his throbbing cock, but Spike held him like a vice and he whimpered in frustration. "You're never bad, Pet, just a bit naughty. You didn't even ask how things went."

"You're here. They're fine. Please touch me." *Why is it he retains the use of language when we're having sex? I must be doing something wrong. I've degenerated into gasping babble and he wants to have a conversation.* Xander struggled to reach Spike. Spike relented with a chaste kiss, which was so not what Xander had been trying for. "Please, Spike."

"You're right; they're fine. Dawn called the shop as soon as we got back. All the batteries on the phones died - something to do with the elementals. Red's probably still on the line with her."

"Great. Kiss me." *Stop laughing, you limey bastard.* Amusing Spike was always fun, but not, at the moment, his primary goal. Xander decided it was time to go on the offensive, and leaned forward to lick what he could reach, the spot where Spike's collarbone dipped to attach to his rib cage.

"Don't you want to know what they.....?" Spike broke off with a howl as Xander bit down hard on the spot he had been sucking. Spike pulled back but did not release Xander. Xander looked up in to his golden eyes and shivered when Spike growled, "You've been very wicked, Pet."

"Are you going to punish me?" Xander barely breathed the words up into the slowly lowering face of fangs and ridges.

What Spike would have said when he finished his low throaty chuckle was forestalled when some noise or movement capture Xander's attention, and he glanced at the entrance to the living room. "Angel?"


part twelve

*Well, we've managed to knock him out of brood mode. Although at least when he's all soulful and sorrowful he looks like he has a brain. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that since Deadboy looks like he just got hit in the back of the head with blunt object, deep thought has been disengaged.* Spike still pinned Xander to the couch, but twisted at the waist to face Angel, snarling and growling. *Great, out of the two of us, let's make the one who has been reduced to the use of three words - fuck me now - do the talking.* Xander squirmed under Spike, not sure if he was trying to convey 'let me up I'll get rid of him' or 'ignore the hulking vampire and shag now'.

"Xander?" *Oh good. Angel's regained the power of speech, wonder if I have?*

"Yeah?" *English, yes, good! Now what do I have to say to get him to leave?* Spike, Mr. 'I can assume any sexual position and still say things to make your brain explode' was oddly quiet except for the continuing low growl, which Xander felt more than heard.

"Xander, what are you doing?" Angel looked baffled.

"Grouting the bathroom." *Score! I think I just instigated a total mind meltdown, he looks even more puzzled. And in a startling display of sympathy for the big guy, I feel guilty for getting some when he's got the whole curse thing going. Not much, but maybe I should let him off the hook.* "I, ah," struggle, squirm, *at least let go of my hands, you smarmy bastard,* "I've been fixing up the place, before Dawn sells it." *Yes! Right hand free. I can now take over the world.* Xander used his new freedom to stroke Spike's shoulder, arm and chest, trying to sooth him out of the overprotective guard-dog mode. While this didn't succeed in turning Spike's suspicious yellow gaze from Angel, it did free Xander's other hand.

"Xander, he's a vampire."

Since Xander had a lapful of about one hundred and fifty pounds of growling, yellow-eyed, ridge-faced and fang-filled vampire, he considered suggesting Angel apply for a job with the Watchers. Xander looked at Angel, looked at Spike, looked back at Angel and said, "No, really?"

"Xander?" Willow's voice came from the foyer, and she peeked around Angel's large frame. "There you are." Followed by Tara, she slipped past Angel, who was still rooted in the entrance. Willow sat beside Xander, with Tara sitting on her right. "What busy work did you pretend absolutely needed to be done tonight?" She showed she was teasing by poking his ribs and giggling.

"Hey, not busy work, I re-grouted the master bath." Xander smiled and thought it was lucky nothing had come out of Willow and his first, stumbling, startled recognition of 'wow, look, male and female' and that they had never tested out their interlocking parts. Because nobody could drive all thought of sex from his mind and body like the tiny redhead could when she looked at him with the concerned face.

Which she was giving him now as she said, "You know, Xan, eventually we'll get to a point where we have to bite the bullet and call a broker." Then she turned the concerned look on the room and the house in general. Tara reached
over and clasped Willow's hand, entwining their fingers in one of her trademark quiet shows of support.

Willow sighed and then looked at Angel. "Stop looming and take a seat, I want to hear what Xander thinks about the Thing." Well, the couch was out because, while not overly crowded with the three of them sitting there- after all, Spike was sitting on Xander - it didn't really have room for a fourth. But the closest chair to the couch was next to Spike and that obviously wasn't going to happen. So Angel sat on the far side of the room looking as if he wanted to be anywhere else, including a short vacation back to hell. "So what do you think?" Willow asked putting away the concerned look and bouncing slightly.

"What do I think?" *I think I probably should have asked Spike how it went out at the bluff before jumping him. Well, never let it be said my academic career was a complete waste; nobody has had more experience pretending they know what is going on than me.* "About the Thing?" *Now if I can just figure out what the Thing is.*

"Yes, tell Red what you think about the Thing, Pet." Spike's voice oozed with encouragement and he morphed from the yellow-eyed protector into the blue-eyed tormentor. *Oooh, Smug Spike, keep it up and no nookie for you. Wait, that would mean nookie for me. That would be bad.* "So, you think this Thing will work?" Xander ventured vaguely. *I could just tell her I have no idea what we're talking about, it wouldn't be the first time.* After briefly considering the rest of their audience, Xander decided to wait it out; nothing was likely to come bursting through the wall, now that Glory was

"Yeah, it could be helpful, unless this is a trick." The concerned look was back and Willow bit her lip.

"No," Tara said. "It was a good idea, I think the sprites really wanted to help."

"And they gave you the Thing?" Xander asked. *I need more information.* In a subtle attempt to persuade his lapful of undead lover to help him out, Xander slid his left hand along the side of Spike's thigh until it rested on his ass. Their bodies blocked the view from the witches, but he had to move slowly so that Angel wouldn't notice.

"Well, they led us to it. There's sort of a communication problem. Didn't Spike tell you?" Willow finished with a pensive tilt to her head.

"Well, Spike," Xander shrugged dismissively. "I'd rather hear your version."

"Oy!" Before Spike could launch into a diatribe of English slang, Xander squeezed hard on his butt check and transformed whatever he had been about to say into a low rumbling purr.

Willow's eyes widened and she looked at purring Spike, and she looked at panicking Xander and in true Willow form said, "Oh God, we're interrupting sex."

"No!" said Xander.

"Yes!" said Spike.

Glares were exchanged.


The five of them took two cars back to the shop. Willow and Tara had stopped at the Summers' neighbor's and brought Dawn a change of clothes so that she could spend the night. Spike filled Xander in on the ride over in between
complaining about the interrupted sex. Sprites were glowing, gossamer entities that dance and tumbled on air currents. They did not like vampires but did apparently like Cordelia. Spike said Giles had thought it had something to do with her visions. Since air was practically everywhere and they were basically air, Sprites were excellent sources of information. The problem was that they didn't have an index. When you asked a question you had to be very careful how you worded it. It gave 'information' overload a whole new meaning when hundreds of tiny beings swirled around you trying to do a core dump on everything they knew about a given subject. Although they had tried to keep their questions closed-ended with limited answers, as close to yes or no as possible, in the excitement an open-ended question had been unintentionally asked and pandemonium had ensued. After becoming frustrated at the human's inability to comprehend their message the little critters had swarmed and led the humans to a thing buried beneath an ash tree. The Thing looked similar to the Dagon sphere that Glory had destroyed. The etchings on it were different and Giles and Wesley were currently researching their meaning.

The problem was although both agreed the marking predated both the Germanic and Celtic languages it had properties of each. Yet if the translation leaned toward Celtic it meant one thing, and if it was Germanic it meant practically the opposite. So they weren't sure if the Thing would stop whatever was tampering with the Hellmouth or if it was what the bad guys needed and would therefore come after. More good news - when Angel had done a sweep of the old high school ruins earlier that evening, he had found signs of recent activity. Nothing definite enough to tell them who or what was prowling around but he said it felt like magic had been used, whatever the hell that meant. Willow had wanted to set up a warding spell like the one she used to hold off the crusade that killed the Winnebago and tried to take Dawn. Giles had vetoed the idea. He said it would be too draining on Willow's vitality to keep it up for a long period. He felt that whatever it was would just wait until she was too weak to maintain it and attack when she was vulnerable. Back at the shop, Wesley launched into a detailed description of what they didn't know, which was a lot. Xander tried to stifle a yawn but Giles noticed and cut off Wesley's speculation. "We've cast spells to warn us if anything happens, tonight at least. Willow, you and Tara have classes in the morning and Xander has work. Go home get some sleep. Whatever does happen you'll need to be alert tomorrow."

Wesley, Angel, Giles and to Wesley's and Angel's obvious surprise, Spike, stayed to hit the books. Before leaving to take the witches back to the dorm Xander stopped in the kitchen, where Spike was heating his dinner. "So you're doing the book thing?" Spike gave a deprecating shrug and just smiled. Since Spike and he were *might as well admit it* living together, Xander had picked up on many signals that pointed out that Spike was highly educated and a great deal smarter that his street persona. Not only did Spike not like to admit this, he went out of his way to hide it. "When do you think you'll be home?"

Before Spike could answer, Angel stopped in the entrance to the small kitchen. "Um, sorry," Angel looked uncomfortable, and he really had no reason to be, he wasn't even interrupting sex this time. "Giles said there was..."

"Blood? Help yourself, Peaches." Spike took his mug and pulled Xander out of the galley to give Angel room to get in, or maybe just as an excuse for a quick grope. *Yeah, like he needs an excuse.*

In a blur of movement Angel grabbed Spike's wrist. "That's human." *Let's give it up for the vampire super senses. And do you want to let go of him, asshole?*

Xander waited for Spike's reaction. As long as they weren't physically trying to kill each other, or upsetting Dawn, he didn't feel it was his place to interfere in whatever freaky vampire- type family thing they had going. Spike seemed more amused than angry. "That's right," he said and took a slow deliberate sip from his mug. "What did you think it would be? Pig?"

"Xander, you know about this?" Angel turned an incredulous look on Xander. *So much for staying out of it.*

"Well, it's pretty well marked. Check out the fridge. We keep most of it at home but there should be a selection of types." Xander deliberately misinterpreted the question.

Evidently two could play that game because Angel said, "You mean like cow and pig?"

"Actually I meant 'O', 'B', 'AB', and 'A '." Enough sparring, Xander thought. He was tired and just wanted to go home and wrap himself around Spike.

Spike had other plans and threw a taunting smirk. "He takes good care of me, my Xander. Guess your humans don't care if you eat right." Normally, Xander took exception to the possessive pronouns but he let it slid. He wasn't blind. Ever since Angel had strutted his over-gelled ass in here Spike had been giving off waves of insecurity. Xander remembered that feeling. Angel had had the same effect on him at one time. He had always felt that if there was a place for Angel in Buffy's life that there might not be a place for Xander. He should have trusted her. She had tried to let him know that they each were very dear to her in different ways. Suddenly he felt sorry for Angel. He had missed the last two years of Buffy's life. Her starting, and finding her feet in collage. The time she suspected her roommate was a demon - and had been right. Discovering the hazards of dating and drinking on the Hellmouth. Her brief engagement to Spike. *snerk.* He hadn't been there to see what Xander had. What was it Giles had said about Willow? 'What a wonderful young woman she had become'. Angel had missed it. He had dated and fallen in love with the girl. Xander had loved the girl and the woman. All in all Xander thought he had the better deal.

"I've gotta bail. I'm beat and I still have to take the witches home. Don't kill each other - err... any deader than you already are." Xander left, giving Spike a semi-chaste kiss and receiving his promise to wake him when he got home. Spike and Angel were still discussing diet issues when he left with Willow and Tara. He hoped the two of them would find away to if not get along then to at least work together.

This was the first threat of the Hellmouth nature since they had lost Buffy. A day didn't go by that he didn't miss Buffy. He missed the friend things. Like the way she would listen to him try to learn to play the harmonica without bludgeoning him to death, because she had given it to him for his birthday two years ago and should have known better than to do that to someone with no musical talent. Right now though, he missed the Slayer. He missed her take-charge attitude and the way she marshalled their resources. Buffy could have had Spike and Angel working together, or at least
tolerating each other, with a few well-placed quips. Xander had a feeling that they were going to need both of them on this and had no idea how to make it work. He would just have to wait and see what tomorrow would bring.


part thirteen

Xander felt cool hands slide across his body as Spike licked the pulse point behind his ear. The dim light spilling through the open bedroom door didn't reach the bed but did illuminate his eager lover. Slow soft kisses and tender touches insistently lured Xander further into consciousness. A sleepy smile spread over his face as he reached up to help Spike remove his shirt. He pouted at the loss of contact when Spike pulled back to shuck his jeans. Spike leaned over him and kissed the look away with a laugh. Continuing down Xander's body Spike feathered kisses and soft nips down his chest and across his abdomen. When Spike paused, darting his tongue in and around his navel, Xander reached for the lube. Blindly Xander grasped at Spike's hand as he continued his trek and slapped the tube into it while simultaneously lifting his knees and tilting his hips. Xander moaned as Spike's chuckle at his wanton readiness vibrated against his balls and revved the pulse thundering though his cock. As Spike prepared him, Xander pulled down on his lover's shoulders, whimpering into a demanding kiss. This was what he needed; to feel Spike's presence, his cool weight above him, his driving body inside him, to give control over to his lover until nothing existed but a world of crisp sheets and firm flesh. As he looked up into the intense gaze of Spike's blue eyes, Xander thought this, this it the best place in the world to be.

"Now. Now. Please now." Xander hissed and Spike slid home.

Spike's voice wrapped around Xander's thoughts; the disjointed phrases bounced around inside Xander's brain without having seemed to pass through his ear. Each slowly building thrust was punctuated by purred words of desire. "Yes now, yes sweet pet, beautiful boy, so beautiful, so sweet, Xander luv, mine, my love, my boy."

Xander came and spots clouded his sight, his ears rang like a FCC test warning. But Spike's words and thrust continued, so that as sight and sound slowly returned Xander heard, "beautiful, my love, my Xander, sweet boy, love you." Just when Xander though one more thrust would cause him to explode into a quivering heap of glimmering blue light, much like the one that had all but replaced his vision, Spike came and collapsed across his body. Xander wrapped his arms and legs around Spike, barley noticing the tears on his own face.

He stroked Spike back into consciousness. Spike lifted himself, putting his weight on his hands. Before his lover could voice his concern over the tears, Xander smiled. When Xander spoke his voice was soft but steady, with no sign of his tears. "You're a part of me." Xander said, freeing one hand to trace the angles of Spike's face. "You're in my heart."

Spike seemed stunned. He quickly recovered, although the rough emotion in his voice belied the teasing in his words. "Good. Because you're going to be quite cross with me, Pet."

"What did you do?" Xander tried to sound long-suffering, but was unable to remain stern when facing the devilish light in Spike's eyes.

"Me, Pet?" No matter how wide he made his eyes or bitable his lower lip was Spike just could not do innocent.

"Did you dust Angel?" Xander asked, his laugh cutting though his attempt at mock annoyance. The alarm clock next to the bed then clicked and sounded a piercing buzzer.

"That's why you'll be cross, luv," Spike said as Xander reach over to silence the alarm. "Bit of bad timing on my part." Spike smirked as he rolled off his lover and made a great show fluffing his pillow and snuggling down to sleep. "Have a good day at work dear," he laughed at Xander's groan.

"Not fair!" Xander leaned in and brushed his lips across Spike's forehead and whispered. "You never have bad timing. Even if we had had all night, I still wouldn't want to leave." He got out of bed with obvious reluctance and turned just as he was entering the bathroom and said, "It would be wrong, wouldn't it, to ditch the Angelinos and spend the whole weekend in bed?"

"You're asking me what the right thing to do is? That's rich, Pet." The words were pure Spike but the accent was that of the quiet well-spoken man who read to him in bed, and quoted thing that sound like all the answers Xander had missed on the SAT's.

"No. I know what's right. I just... I guess I'm selfish." Xander leaned against the frame of the door lost in thought, knowing he should move, that he had a schedule to keep, but needing just a few more moments to himself.

"No. Not you." Spike rose and wrapped his arms around Xander's naked torso. He stroked his hair and back and said softly, "It's been a rough summer, Xan. You try and take too much on these broad shoulders. You just lean on me, eh?" They kissed and Xander wanted now more than ever to crawl back into bed and curl up beside his lover and hide from the world. He wanted to shut out everything but the well-toned body of the man who was rapidly becoming his everything. But duty called so he reluctantly disengaged the tender embrace with a thanks and a kiss and headed for the shower.


At the site, the morning moved quickly. The thing Xander liked best about his job was how busy he was and how fast that made the day seem to pass. He decided to skip lunch and leave early so he ate at his desk. He tapped an egg against his desk to break the shell and was absentmindedly rolling it against the hard surface to skin it while reading his e-mail, when his mind wandered back to that morning. He knew he had a goofy grin on this face but it was so weird. He got so sappy with Spike sometimes. He had never said to Anya most of the things he said to Spike, but then maybe that was why she left. No, he knew she had loved him, but love could only do so much. Words were good. At least Spike didn't laugh at him - well, no more than usual - when he said them. And what Spike said to one had ever told him he
was beautiful, ever, and Spike told him all the time. Xander could feel his goofy grin get wider.

He looked up as Abby came in the office. If Xander ran the site, Abby ran the office. She was the most disorganized person he had ever met and yet she knew everything. He occasionally had asked her for invoices just to marvel at how she could reach into the piles of chaos on her desk and hand him the exact piece of paper. "Good night?" Abby winked at his goofy grin.

Xander blushed and replied, "Good morning."

Spike had stopped by the site one morning before sunrise. Allegedly to deliver the lunch Xander had left on the kitchen counter after having his mind blown - among other things - before leaving for work. In reality Xander got the impression Spike was checking out the place, and warning off any potential competitors. As if anyone could compete with him. In Xander's opinion, Spike pretty much destroyed the curve on any charismatic rating chart.

Abby was the only one who had immediately assumed they were a couple. But after a couple of lunch hours listening to the slash potential of his favorite television shows - which he would now never see in the same light - he thought she might have seen them as a couple even before they had gotten together. "There's a very demanding young lady to see you. She doesn't have an appointment, but she said she was sure you would make time for her. Her name is Ms. Chase. Do you know her?"

Abby was very protective of Xander's time. She had met Dawn and the witches when they stopped by for lunch but considered them to be family, and when Xander considered the frequency they were featured in the photos around his
office he could understand why. "She's an old friend; I can make time for her." Xander laughed and mouthed the words 'old girlfriend' as Abby rolled her eyes and went to get Cordelia.

After offering her coffee, and advising against it due to the fact it - well, sucked, Xander closed the door of the office in the back of the trailer. Cordy was seated in the only other chair and glanced appraisingly around the room. "Did we find out anything definite?" Xander interrupted her evaluation.

"Well," She sighed and tossed her shorter streaked hair in a gesture the brought a pang of nostalgia to Xander. "We know that someone, as in human - Angel is pretty sure that it was human or humans - has been prowling around the Hellmouth. Willow did a walk-through after sunrise," She held up a hand, sparking another wave of nostalgia. "Angel and Gunn went with her. She said, and I quote, that there was no magical signature and no magic worker had triggered any of the detection spells she has set up on that place, and their presence alone should have done that. Did you know she had some mystical alarm system on that place? And I didn't quote exactly, she took much longer and did much more bouncing when she said it. Giles said the town's been dead - and not in the undead way; vamp activity down, demons almost nonexistant. He said he put it down to Glory's join-or-die attitude but Wes thinks there may be a new sheriff in town."

"So we don't know anything." Xander sighed and ran the fingers of both hands back though his thick hair. Twice he had resolved to get it cut and Spike had talked him out of it. If Spike kept interfering it would be past his shoulders by fall. If they were all still alive by fall; if they could keep the Hellmouth closed; if they could get rid of Angel and company; *sorry, Cordy* if some new and improved horror didn't crash into the fragile house of cards in which they were sheltering their partially rebuilt lives.

"...his contacts are gone and no one is talking. Xander, pay attention." A frown marred Cordelia's perfect features. "Am I keeping you from something?" she asked archly.

"Yes. This place doesn't run itself; I have over eighty men I have to keep working and paid, and as much as I miss hearing Queen C's color highlight of the game, I really need you to boil it down. Tell me what you need. What do we need right now to get us to where we have some plan of attack or defense."

Cordelia blinked just for a moment and then the resilience that had first made him fall in love with her clicked in and she switched gears without slowing down. "We need information from the demon population, we need to both find informed sources and get them to cooperate. We need to know if anything new has come to town, human or not. We need to know about the green men I saw in my vision and if they were opening the Hellmouth or trying to keep it closed."

"Little green men?" Xander looked up from the pad where he had been writing her list. *Is she serious?*

"Big green men, with moldy faces." At his questioning look she waved her hand and said. "Hey, if it were up to me, the PTB's could just fax me the info."

"I'll make some calls. Tell Giles I should be at the shop in a couple hours. How about you? Are you okay?"

He stood as she rose to leave. She gave him her Hollywood smile then laughed, "I'll be fine, as soon as Angel has something to do. His pacing around the shop is driving me crazy." She dropped her lashes and then looked up at him. "I know it's been hard on all of you, but it's so new to him, being here without her. He really loved her, you know?" Xander pulled her into a hug and she continued. "Now, he's even worried about Spike."

"Worried about Spike? Why?" Xander left an arm around her shoulder as he led her out of the trailer. *Spike's fine. Isn't Spike fine? What happened? He didn't mention anything, but we were kind of busy. I have got to start having the conversation before the sex. The sex always makes me forget to have the conversation.*

Xander's internal babble was stopped when Cordy continued. "Well, maybe not worried. I told you his connections in this town are practically non-existent; he stopped by Spike's crypt, wanting to get him to show him who to shake down and no Spike."

"Tell him to ask Giles," Xander said dismissively, "he has our number. Spike should be awake by now, and there's tunnel access less than a half a block from our building."

Cordelia's stunned look was replaced quickly by annoyance at the whistles and catcalls that greeted her emergence onto the work site. Once back at his desk, Xander tried to put the project planning skill he used to manage the site ,into mapping out some plan to deal with the situation at hand. He listed what they had, what they knew and what they could obtain on short notice. Then, as he began to make phone calls, he wondered what the penalty would be if they couldn't complete this job on time.


part fourteen

It was a quarter 'til two when Xander entered the magic shop. Cordy was just ending a call on her cellular. "Anything new?" he asked. As he pushed his sunglasses up onto the top of his head, an act that held his thick dark hair off his face, he held a long cardboard tube under one arm and a clipboard filled with paper. He consulted the clipboard and frowned.

"Angel and Spike are off shaking down the demon lairs, and Willow and her friend went to check on a Wiccan group they know. Oh, Willow said to tell you it's not the one from campus. Does that make sense?" Cordy asked.

"Actually, it does." Xander laughed. He nodded to Jonathan, who was working behind the register. Glancing up to the loft, where Giles and Wesley were sorting through the 'don't-touch-them' books Xander caught Giles' eye and shot him an inquiring look. Giles just shook his head. "Okay then, Cor I'm glad you're here," he said removing a thick sheaf of paper from the clipboard. " I need you to stay here and coordinate operations." Cordelia looked puzzled as she glanced over the lists.

"Xander, who are all these people?"

Xander laughed again and shook his head. "Most of them went to high school with you. Don't worry, it's not important
that you know them, what is important is they will recognize you. See, you were right all those years, popularity is power."

"Okay, but what exactly am I going to be doing?" *Engaging prom queen attitude; hand on hip, perfect eye brow lifted and scathing comment primed and ready, God, Cordy, I've missed you.*

"Sit here." Xander pulled out a chair from the side of the research table that faced the shop's entrance. "When someone comes to you, get their name. If they aren't on the list ask who they report to and list anything they bring under the name - sure you keep track of the quantities. Then," he set down the clipboard and opened the case. Unrolling large detailed maps of Sunnydale he continued, "go to the list of questions, on the yellow paper, they apply to the last four weeks; only document positive response. If it is positive refer them to Giles to get as much detail as possible." He stopped and looked up at the loft. "I have a list here on what we need to know on positive response, but I thought you could kind of play it by ear, the more information we get the more you may want to narrow the scope. Is that okay with you?" Xander added the last as an afterthought.

He didn't want to usurp Giles' authority, but it had been nearly twenty-four hours and all they knew was that Cordy had had a vision that the world would soon end. They had known that yesterday. Xander had spent the last hours calling in favors he didn't feel he had earned; he had never contacted these people when he was out of a job. Now he had called people who had put their lives in his hands once before and survived. At] at least most of them had. It wasn't a position he wanted to be in again, but he was torn. How could he deprive them of the chance to fight for their own lives simply because he was too much of a coward to risk them?

"Of course, Xander. What exactly are we asking?" Giles seems all right with this, Xander thought.

"It starts out pretty general, just a list of the 'normal' Hellmouthy activities that make Sunnydale the tourist trap of the undead. I figured we oughta take advantage of this one Starbuck town. You know what people say about small towns, everybody knows everybody else's business. Well, graduation punched past the river of denial our neighbors swim in for most of our class." Xander rubbed his eyes and looked down at the table. "Guess we might as well take advantage of that." He sighed. Switching gears rapidly he smiled. "I figure if we only refer the ones to you who have seen or heard about something... well, unusual isn't a word that applies to the supernatural in Sunnydale, but you get the picture. That then you could get some idea as to anything or anyone new in town. Cordy, once you've screened them assign them to quadrants on the maps. They're numbered by priority; make sure you send them out in groups of two or more and tell them to call in only if they find something. They're to come back here before sunset unless we notify them of a different location - that's why it is imperative we verify their phone info, that's on this sheet - before sending them out. Make sure they have the store's number, it rolls to three lines. Jonathan, you can stay and run communication?" Xander barely glanced up and considered the question only a formality.

"Ah...sure." Jonathan's wide-eyed nod was hesitant at first and then he beamed as if the thought of being on the inside of whatever was going on appealed to him.

"Great." Xander shuffled though the remaining pages of the clipboard. He hoped he had covered everything but figured Cordy would be sure to let him know if he hadn't.

"And me?" Gunn asked. *Someone has had way too much exposure to the Queen C attitude.*

"You're with me." Xander pulled the keys to the truck he had rented out of his cargo pants.

"What are 'we' doing?" Gunn replied.

"Shopping." Xander smirked. *Bad Xander, bad Spike, bad influence. Now I'm sporting a smug Spike-like smirk and cryptic comments.* Xander looked up to see Giles and Wesley leaning on the railing of the loft. Giles looked a little smug himself, Wesley just looked confused. Then Xander glanced around the store, keys in hand, wondering why he felt he was missing something. "Giles, where's Dawn?"

"Dawn?" Giles seemed to be having trouble with Xander's rapid topic changes, but that was nothing new. "I believe she is still at her friend's home. Megan, wasn't it?"

"She hasn't called? No. Wait. I'm acting freaky and stalker-like, aren't I?" Xander's confidence faltered for the first time since he entered the shop.

"I would say you're acting very much like a parent." Giles said, sounding too amused.

"Great, even better." After his sarcasm, Xander picked his clipboard up and sighed. "Listen, I need to know she's okay. Will you call and have Willow pick her up?"

"Certainly. Anything else?" Giles sounded sincere so Xander said, "Yeah, have the witches scour the dorms and round up as many hotplates as they can get their hands on, I need them here in under two hours."

"Hotplates?" Giles now sounded as puzzled as Wesley looked.

"They're small portable heating units that..." Xander was cut of by Giles' pained expression.

"I am well aware of what a hotplate is, Xander." Giles said.

"Oh, I thought it might be a British thing, you people have different names for everything and all." Xander shrugged, and still didn't understand what Giles had wanted to know.

"Let's get going with this 'shopping' already." Gunn did not sound patient.

Just before they went out the door, Xander turned and called up to Giles. "We'll be back in a couple hours. Can you order pizza?"

"How many?" Giles had begun to rely on Xander's estimation of the gang's appetites ever since he had seen Buffy consume a large avocado and sliced cherry tomato by herself.

Xander frowned at the floor, then looked up at Giles and said "Sixty?"


Gunn had been quiet as they drove. He didn't look happy, but Xander didn't know the guy; maybe he never looked happy. *It must be a bitch getting dragged to the Hellmouth all because of one of Cordy's visions.*

"So?" Xander said after the silence became too much for him. "How did you get into the whole 'let's go save the world' business?" Judging by the way Gunn clenched his jaw and stared impassively ahead, Xander thought he might have asked the wrong question. He wondered if Gunn would answer at all. It had been clear that he had not wanted to be commandeered for this detail, but Xander need an extra pair of hands. Xander would have preferred Spike but, well, daylight.

"Sometimes a job just needs to be done." Gunn finally answered. *Wow, there's a story there. Funny how I never thought that this shit touched people outside of Sunnydale. I guess there really is no place to hide from it.* "So, what are we shopping for?" Gunn said in a not-too- subtle change of subject.

"Groceries," Xander said. He felt a grin spread across his face. He hoped it was a goofy grin and not a wild-eyed maniacal grin.

"Groceries?" Gunn asked. Maybe it was a goofy grin, Gunn was now smiling and didn't appear as if he were thinking about jumping out of the moving vehicle.

"Yeah. You might say we're gonna 'bake a cake'," Xander said, and started to hum the tune he just couldn't seem to get out of his head.


Their first stop was up a sandy road next to an actual barn. Waiting for them was a handsome Asian man about Xander's age and height, wearing dark glasses and khaki pants with a tight black tee shirt. He was leaning against a flatbed truck that had a small tarp-covered load in the back.

"T.J." Xander and T.J. grasped forearms.

"Xand-man." Without another word the young man jumped up onto the truck bed and began removing the tarp. Underneath were three army- green metal lockers.

Xander looked up at the young man standing above him and said. "Have I mentioned that I want to have your children?"

"Dude. I just wish I could get leave. I can't believe I'm missing this." It took all three of the men to move the lockers from one truck to the other.

"Promise I get an invite to the next war?"

"Thanks, man, this is amazing. I don't know how you do it." Xander smiled and when they clasped hands he added, "I don't want to know how you do it, either."

Their next stop took them down a long dusty access road bordered by many rows of orderly plants. Xander backed the truck flush up against a loading dock. Gunn followed him into the offices of the nursery. A tall black woman unwound herself from her perch on a high stool behind a well-lit drafting table. "Xander Harris, is that you? How have you been?" She came forward and hugged him.

"Kayla, you look great. I didn't know you worked here." Xander was surprised by the hug. She hadn't said three words to anyone outside of art class in high school. She had, however, survived graduation, an event that bound their class tighter than most.

"It's a summer internship. I wanted to stay back east where I'm going to school, but my parent insisted I come home." While she was speaking, she had crossed to the drafting table. Xander looked down at the precise design, which resembled the blueprints he used but without the straight lines.

After Xander introduced Gunn and Kayla to each other he asked. "Kel around?"

"You're the one he's putting together that order for? I thought it was that crazy girlfriend of his." Kayla said with a smile. "I'll page him." She picked up the receiver of a phone and hit three buttons and when she spoke into the mouthpiece her voice resonated from outside speakers. "Kel, come to the office please." She hung up the phone and then said, "This is...." She looked down and then up, her large brown eyes filling with tears. "This is something like Graduation, isn't it?"

"I'm sorry Kay - " Xander started, but stopped to let her continue.

"I was right next to Harmony that day. You know, Kendall, Kendrick...we were never close, different friends and all. But, my God, Xander, we'd sat next to each other since kindergarten." Her eyes seemed focused inward when she said, "I'd never even been in a car accident. I'd seen violence on TV or in movies never...I was never touched by it." Her eyes were dark and haunted. "Talk about losing your innocence. I picked a school as far away from here as I could get." Xander pulled her into another hug, this time as he patted her shoulder he felt her sob. "I guess I'm not much of a 'Child of the Hellmouth'," she said in a small voice.

"You're the best kind.," he said. "You survived. You haven't forgotten. You remember how dangerous it is to pretend that this crap doesn't exist, but you moved on, you've rebuilt your life."

Kelly came into the office from a door off the back. Xander introduced him to Gunn and as they were shaking hands he said to Xander, "Please tell me Laura did not give you this shopping list." Xander just shrugged and smiled. "All right, I don't wanna know. I get off at six; any idea where this is going down?"

"Unless you get a call telling you different, come to the magic shop." Xander checked his clipboard and asked, "You want us to call the nursery for you?" Kelly gave him his cellular number and the three of them went out to the loading dock and added several canisters to the U-Haul.

Just before Gunn and Xander got into the truck Kelly said, "Whatever you do, just keep Laura out of the kitchen until I get there."

"Shouldn't be a problem." Xander didn't think any of them would have time to cook, which was why he had told Giles to order something. As they were pulling off the access road out onto the highway, Xander's phone rang.

"Xander, its Tara." She sounded shaken. He was surprised it wasn't Willow.

"Problem with the Wiccans?" He asked.

"No, no. I called...Xander, I ran into Riley on campus."

"Oh shit. How... I... Tara, are you okay?" He gave up trying to voice his hundreds of questions and frustrations he had regarding Buffy's former lover. He had only given voice to his barely suppressed anger to Spike. He had known that eventually Riley would return, and figured that it would have to be him or Giles who broke the news of Buffy's death to him. There was no way Xander was letting Willow go through that again, not after how deeply she had been affected by telling Angel. Dawn telling him, and recounting those last painful days, was out of the question.

"I blew it, Xan. I... He asked me not to tell Buffy he was back, he said he wanted to tell her himself. I... I guess just the look on my face... Then when he had pulled himself together, he said he wanted to stop by and talk to Joyce..." Tara sounded like she was starting to cry, her breath was coming soft and uneven. Xander made soothing noises but before he could say anything she continued. "That's not why I called. I mean, I do feel wretched telling him like that and all but I thought you needed to know. If Riley's in town.... maybe his 'friends'..." the emphasis she placed on the word reminded Xander that the call just might not be secure, "are here too. Giles said finish your 'shopping' and hurry home."

"Will do. And T, you did fine. None of us wanted that job, but... Hey, is Wills okay, how did she...?"

Tara interrupted. "Thankfully, we had split up at the time, to cover more ground. She should be here when you get back."

"Okay." Xander said. "We'll see you soon."


part fifteen

They made a few more stops: Lowe's; Wal-Mart; Radio Shack; and an Army/Navy Surplus store. At each they went to the back and were met by a member of the last class to graduate from the old high school. Gunn and Xander were then
assisted in loading merchandise, for which they never paid, into the U-Haul. When they arrived back at the shop, they parked in the alley behind it, the same alley Angel and Spike had had their throw-down in the night before. *Was that only last night?* Xander backed the truck as close to the door of the training room as possible. He thought it should be easy to tie a tarp between the roof of the building and the top of the truck to fashion a makeshift awning.

In the training room Angel and Spike were assembling a temporary table out of two carpenter's horses and an old door. Xander walked up quietly behind Spike just as they were finishing and slipped his arms around the blonde's waist. Hugging him tightly, Xander rested his head on Spike's shoulder and turning until his lips were almost touching Spike's ear. He whispered, "If I bat my eyelashes and string up a tarp, you think I could get some big strong vampire to carry in the groceries?"

"Try it. Maybe Peaches will volunteer." Spike rumbled back in an equally quiet purr. Then he seemed to think about what Xander had said and asked not louder. "Groceries?"

"Well," Xander smirked and nipped at the still temptingly positioned ear. "Most of what we got are the ingredients to bake a cake - zombie style - along with a few party favors."

Spike turned slowly toward the sharp teeth worrying his earlobe. He wore a look that made Xander sure his next words were going to be either, 'shag now', or 'pet, what is going on in that screwy little mind of yours'; but they were neither since Angel interrupted. "Xander, I think you may want to talk to Cordelia."

"What? She doesn't like being worshipped by the masses?" he asked. Xander reluctantly let go of his lover. At that moment he wanted nothing more than to take Spike and go home. He had a clear picture in his mind of Spike,
fresh from the shower, wearing only an oversized pair of Xander's old sweat pants. Xander had spent most of last Saturday watching the blonde amble around barefoot with his hair drying in soft wisps before it was gelled, and
absentmindedly performing routine chores while never taking his nose out of some old book he had been reading. Last week the sheer domesticity of the scene had been laughable, this week it seemed like a glimpse of heaven. "What's this for?" Xander rapped soundly on the 'table'.

"That crazy redheaded bint said something about there not being enough ventilation in the kitchen and needing more space for the hotplates."

"That crazy bint is your blood connection." Xander replied, more for the sheer pleasure of arguing with him than because he felt that Laura might care what she was called by Spike.

"Xander!" Cordelia stood in the doorway to the front of the store, one perfectly manicured hand on her hip. "Practically everyone in town has stopped by here. I need help."

"Fine. Tap the next two people to show up and make them your assistants." He spoke without thinking and then softened his voice and added, "I'm counting on you, C."

"I'm on it." She sighed and rolled her eyes, but added a smile before heading back to the front of the shop.

Jonathan poked his head into the back and said, "I, um, we've pretty much stopped doing business for the day. I..."

"Great. Can you help Gunn string up a tarp out back? I need everything from the door to the back of the truck shaded." Gunn didn't look happy but he went with Jonathan to get the material out of storage.

"You all right, Pet?" Spike asked. Reversing their positions from before he folded his arms around Xander and gave a brief squeeze. Spike's naked concern chipped away at the walls which Xander had been desperately reinforcing all day.

"I don't... I... Spike." Xander pulled Spike's arms even tighter and leaned his head back, rubbing his cheek against Spike's. He was unconcerned by Angel's presence. He needed this, needed Spike. "I don't know if I can do this again. If... I.. It's so different from putting myself in danger, that... well - that sucks too... but that I can do, have done...this... I'm asking them to risk their lives. Again." He took a deep breath. He knew if he let the tears start they wouldn't stop. As much as he wanted to wrap himself around Spike and hide from the whole Hellmouthy world he knew he couldn't. "Larry had a full scholarship, a top ten school - four more years and his life would have been set. He could have gotten out, gone far away, done anything. I... I.." Xander's voice broke and he swallowed hard, forcing the lump back down. When he continued his voice was hard and cold. "I put him there. Right in the front line. It was a stall, so we could get the mayor into position. He didn't have a chance. His life bought time - he died because I needed time. God, Spike, he didn't have a chance in hell, and I put him there."

He might have gone on, to the point where he would have broken, dropped into a sobbing mass at his lover's feet. Spike's voice was unusually firm, and lacked his everyday accent when he interrupted. "No one has a chance in Hell, love. Trust a demon's word on that, or if you don't, ask Peaches. That's why you fight, to prevent Hell from being here, to keep this place a little better than Hell. It must be working; otherwise all the Hellspawn wouldn't be trying to crash your party."

Xander smiled and straightened and again disengaged himself from his lover's arms. "You're right. We can do this." He turned and softly kissed Spike, lingering only a moment over his bottom lip. "Thank you," Xander whispered.

Laura came into the room carrying one too many hotplates. Just as one slipped, Angel rushed forward in a blur and caught it. Laura jumped back, wide eyes never leaving the predator in front of her. Xander could almost see the wheels turning as she contemplated how effective it would be to bludgeon a vampire with a hotplate. Angel froze, and since he didn't seem to be attacking, Laura backed up until she hit the wall. Giving Angel a wide berth she circled to the table and started setting up the hotplate, seeming unconcern by Spike's close proximity.

Seeing Angel's look of confusion and annoyance, Xander tried to play diplomat. "Laura, you remember Angel, he was at graduation."

"Lots of dead people were at graduation; more after than before." She bit her lip and shot Xander an I-am-so-not-shaking- his-hand-even-if-he-is-your-friend look.

"You don't seem to be disturbed by William the Bloody," Angel said with just a trace of the Angelus smirk.

"Spike? The Dragonslayer? No, I'm just glad he's on our side." She left, again circling widely around Angel.

"Dragonslayer?" Angel looked from Xander to Spike and back again.

"Angel, let it go. Spike will tell you she's insane. But hey, it works for us, so it's of the good." Since Angel didn't look any less confused, Xander continued. "Is Will here?"

"She went to check on the nibblet," Spike said.

"What are you planning, Pet?" Xander wasn't sure the shop was secure; it was a great meeting place because it was so well known. That fact also made him uncomfortable with an open discussion. Fortunately, he had considered this.
Previous overtly paranoid contingency plans were now simply resources for survival. He hoped that Willow had also acted on the few wild speculations they had made into worst-case scenarios.

"Angel, as soon as Willow gets here, round up Giles, Wesley and Tara. See if Willow can do a 'cone of silence' on Giles' office." Xander checked his watch. "Tell her I need this now, but I'll settle for having it in fifteen minutes.


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