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i-so-tope, n., one of two or more forms of a chemical element having the same number of protons, or the same atomic number, but differing numbers of neutrons, or atomic weights.

He usually found comfort in moonlight, its ghostly gleam the only natural illumination afforded to him, but tonight it was as pale and cold as his skin.

He was back, though not home. He hadn’t a home in over a century, if indeed he ever had one. Even when he was alive, his father’s house had been more a prison than a haven.

His time away, time for which he still couldn’t completely account and chose not to discuss, had reinforced what he had known to be true since the curse first took effect: he belonged not to any place nor anyone. He was alone, and perhaps the only cogent lesson learned in those past months - years, really - was that it was time to accept that as his fate once and for all.

There had been moments of happiness, fleeting and spurious though they were: the first time he had seen Buffy; falling in love with her and she loving him in return; precious moments of believing he was part of something greater than himself; that there was life beyond guilt.

There were victories, but they were hollow. For every vampire staked or demon destroyed, there were three waiting in the wings. For every apocalypse averted, another prophecy was unearthed. For every Slayer dead, another was Called.

Each stride forward forced him back three paces. Unlike most, however, his forces had names: Darla, Spike, Drusilla, Angelus.

He had killed the first to save Buffy, to avenge Jesse, whom he never knew, and to redeem himself. She had brought him into this life with the promise of power and passion, which he had indeed found; but, like Darla and her beauty, they were dark, twisted. So he had dusted her and closed the circle which had opened that night in a dark Galway alley.

Once it was done, he had felt no better, no relief. Just an echoing emptiness, another vacant wind added to the maelstrom which swirled within him.

Spike and Drusilla.

It would be so much easier to bear their savagery had he not created them, had not trained them, had not loved them.

But he had loved them; he still did, in a fashion. That was the cruel irony of the Gypsies’ revenge: while he would never forget his legacy of infamy, he also could not divorce those remnants of disgust from the spurts of pleasure he had gleaned before he had been cursed with a conscience. Buffy had once expressed her belief that the curse was hysterically melodramatic and he had never bothered to correct her.

In truth, it was just the opposite.

It was coldly dispassionate. A ruthless justice.

He still couldn’t bear to think of the trail of bodies left in Angelus’ wake during his brief return, and though he had spent a century in Hell atoning for them, he had locked their memory deeply away so that he would still be able to function. So that he would still be able to meet Giles’ furious gaze, Buffy’s hopeful eyes, and Willow’s misguided belief that true love would overcome all obstacles. He had overheard the young witch once proffer that he and Buffy were star-crossed lovers, like Romeo and Juliet. Xander had quickly retorted that Romeo wasn’t a vampire and that after Shakespeare’s protagonists had died, they had stayed dead.

The boy was the hardest to face.

It should have been so simple to squash Xander Harris like a bug, to dismiss him as nothing more than a spurned suitor who still harbored a broken heart and a bitter resentment. And while part of that was true, there was more to Xander than even his friends understood.

Giles had insisted that Xander learn that life was neither black nor white, to examine the shadows in between. That was a remarkably enlightened view from a man who had spent most of his years steeped in the writings of the greatest philosophers the world had ever known.

It was also a fallacy.

Truth was unequivocal. There was right and there was wrong, and no amount of reprobation, forced isolation, or witnessing of penance would persuade Xander to see gray.

It disturbed him that Xander's obstinacy was now one of his greatest sources of solace.

With Xander, there was no need to be anything than what he was. There were no unrealistic hopes to which he felt compelled to aspire, no unreasonable demands which went against his nature.

Buffy and Willow saw him as a hero. Xander saw him as a criminal and that perception was closer to reality.

A hero was noble by choice; Angel had been denied choice. He was noble because he was too scared to be anything but. He fought evil because he understood it, because there were remnants of it still within him, pieces which sang to him when he chose to acknowledge their existence. And when Xander turned appraising eyes in his direction, Angel knew the boy saw him for that which he was, and it was a relief.

He shifted restlessly in the bed, the silk sheets pooling around his waist.

A ridiculous extravagance. What was the point in surrounding himself with such finery? Because he could afford it? Because it was a middle finger to the Powers which had dictated his life and death and unlife, a declaration that just because he had to suffer, it didn’t have to be as a desolate pauper? Because it was the only measure of comfort allowed him? He didn’t have an answer, and for once, he didn’t care.

His thoughts again turned to Xander as he absently stroked his bare stomach.

The boy was the only person in recent memory for whom Angel felt no guilt for treating poorly. As much as Xander saw him, he too saw the boy. He saw the darkness and despair, the guilt and shame so eerily reminiscent of his own mortal life. Liam had escaped into alcohol and whores; Xander escaped into sarcasm and secrets.

There was raw power within Xander, something which seemed to be waiting endlessly for direction. In the interim, the boy appeared to skip through life, supporting his friends, fighting for that nebulous construct of Good, being the voice of righteous indignation and comic relief. It was quite appealing to those who could not or would not look more deeply beneath the surface.

Xander Harris pulsed with an innate malevolence which was utterly terrifying in its totality.

Angel replayed in his mind that scene in the hospital. He could still smell the boy’s palpable rancor, his desire to kill. Xander hadn’t thought too much on that, secure in his belief that dispatching Angelus would be a virtuous act and not a means to an end, but Angel knew better. He understood that since the moment he had stepped foot onto the Hellmouth, Xander had seen him as an obstacle, an interloper. However, he also understood that which Xander never could: he wasn’t in opposition to Buffy; he was an unwelcome reminder of that which Xander could himself become.

At his core, Xander was brooding, vengeful, and thirsty for power. He wanted more than acknowledgment and respect; he wanted to be feared. He wanted to command others and rule unquestioned according to his own values. He wanted to be sought for his authority rather than his compassion. It was those qualities which had attracted the boy to Cordelia.

It was those qualities which equally attracted and repelled him to Angel himself.

His cock began stirring at the thought.

What would Xander be like were he ever turned?

Angelus had considered it, but just as quickly disregarded the notion. While the boy would have been a boon in defeating the Slayer and her other friends, the intangible hunger which drove Xander also made him a wild card. With the power of a demon behind him and his inside knowledge of how the Scoobies thought, Xander would have ultimately triumphed, and then turned his attention to conquering the Hellmouth.

He most likely would have succeeded.

Of course, that would have necessitated the obliteration of all those who would have opposed him, especially Angelus, which was why he had dismissed the idea of the turning. Xander perhaps could have been that rare fledgling with enough potency to sublimate the Sire bond, much as Angel himself had done when he had killed Darla.

And that was the crux.

He and Xander, aside from respiration, were the same. They both understood that to kill was to save, that to love was to hate, that to know peace was to know violence. That sex was affirmation of life; that nourishment, be it blood or sweets, was to be savored.

Angel’s soul was a curse, Xander’s a gift. Each was a mechanism designed by forces beyond their grasp to control basic instincts: to feed and fuck. They saw in each other that which each was desperate to deny in themselves, but which nonetheless called out to them as kindred.

Angel groaned and pulled the offending cover from his body, gasping as the night air caressed his stiff cock. He threw a forearm over his forehead, now febrile with knowledge he didn’t want to possess.

The evil within him was tempered by magical constraints; Xander’s darkness was dampened by a genuine warmth and goodness which were equal to his nadir. There was a marked purity about the boy which was absent from his friends. Xander saw black and white because he himself was black and white: yin and yang, love and cruelty, providence and destruction.

It was a constant tug-of-war, a ceaseless battle waged on a primal level beneath their understanding, yet leaving both exhausted and weary of life. And while Xander had yet to yield truly to the seductive embrace of the dark, Angel knew it was only a matter of time. Just as he had known it when he was Liam, as he had known it when Darla had led him into that liminal alley.

He and Xander were the same yet different. Those differences, however, were born of circumstance and experience, not of longing or emotion.

Angel slipped his thumb into his mouth, rolling his tongue over the beefy appendage, coating it with his saliva, and having thoughts he knew he should never entertain. Slowly, he released the thumb and brought it to the violet, swollen head of his erection. He absently rubbed the tender flesh, shuddering as he imagined the wetness was from Xander’s mouth, that the ache in his chest was from bearing the boy atop him, that the other four fingers now tightly encircling his cock was Xander’s heat, known to no one but him.

He suddenly ceased his activity and stilled. “I know you’re there, Xander.”

The boy came forward, the moonlight striking his pallid skin and turning it to alabaster, his large brown eyes now black and hungry, searching.

Slowly, Angel again began stroking his cock. “Is this what you want?”

Several long moments passed.

“Yes," was finally said in a strong voice which surprised them both.

“Then come and take it.”