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He shouldn’t have walked home alone. That was a dumb rookie mistake for someone like Xander, who prided himself on being a connoisseur of B-horror movies and who had lived in Sunnydale for his whole life. The guys who insisted on going home alone, through the dark, those were the ones that got killed first. Or got turned into a vampire. Both of which Xander felt he was too young for, Hellmouth or not.

But research evenings in the library always made Xander feel like the dumb and redundant team member, the Cypher of the X-Men instead of the Wolverine of Jean Grey, and besides, no matter what Willow said, research was just really, really boring. It was amazing how those ancient writers managed to suck even the last traces of fun out of bloodthirsty demons. And Cordelia hadn’t been there tonight because one of her friends — Verity or Courtney or whatever these rich girls were called — was organizing a party that she just couldn’t miss, so that only left Giles, who frowned at Xander whenever he so much as turned a page a little too forcefully, and Willow and Oz, whose handholding and cutesy glances got on Xander’s nerves these days. And Buffy, whose brooding over Angel’s recent return to the dark side could rival that of the man himself.

So no thanks, Xander could think of more fun ways to spend his time.

Although he had to privately admit that walking through a dark alleyway, frantically looking over his shoulder at every suspicious sound, was not exactly better than the stuffy research parties, which were at least safe.

A noise that sounded suspiciously like a laugh had him grasping in his pocket for the stake he always carried around nowadays — because he wasn’t a total lost cause. He paused in his steps and just listened for a while. Nothing. His paranoid mind had probably mistaken a gust of wind for something more sinister.

A shiver ran down his spine when he heard the laughter again, this time impossible to confuse for something else. No wind or cat or drunkard sounded like that. He held the stake out in front of him, waving it around. There was only a small crescent of moon visible, which meant he could barely see the ends of the alley, and his heart beat in his chest as he tried to make out any moving shapes in the darkness.

And then the whistling started.

“Ring-a-round the rosie, a pocket full of posies… Ashes, ashes—”

Great, so not only was Xander getting murdered tonight, he was getting murdered by some nutjob singing creepy nursery rhymes. He knew the sound was coming from somewhere to his right, but the shadows obscured anyone — or anything — that could possibly be hiding there. He clutched tighter onto the stake to dispel the tremors in his hand.

Silence for a few moments, then—

“—We all fall down.”

Xander let out an entirely undignified yell as a large and imposing shape stepped out of the shadows, into the few slivers of moonlight the night offered. Black leather coat against bone-white skin, gelled hair that only looked a little less ridiculous when paired with that wicked half-cocked grin. Angelus.

Yeah, Xander was definitely dead.

“Hey, buddy.” Xander smiled nervously and prayed Buffy had decided to call it an early night as well. And would conveniently head in the opposite direction of her own house to stumble across this particular alleyway. “What’s a vampire like you doing in a place like this?”

Angelus glanced around at the large trash bins and the littered garbage in consideration. “I like the atmosphere of the place.”

"Right. Nothing like a nice and cozy alleyway, I always say.”

Angelus’ grin widened, and he stalked closer, his footstep echoing on the pavement like the ticking of a clock. The sound struck Xander as more than a little foreboding.

He tripped over a piece of trash as he backed up against the wall in a futile effort to get away from Angelus, and he stumbled into the bricks, elbows scraping the rough texture. Angelus advanced even further until he was keeping Xander pinned to the wall with his stare, their bodies not touching but only barely. A cock of his head, and then Angelus raised his arms to bracket Xander, effectively trapping him against the bricks.

Adrenaline coursed through Xander, activating some kind of fight-or-flight response, and to his own surprise, Xander landed somewhere on the fight side. He felt the stake still clutched in his grip, tightened his fist and tried to control his breathing.

He didn’t need Buffy to save him. He wasn’t some — some damsel needing to be rescued, not from a bullying jock at Sunnydale High or from a vampire with too much time to kill.

He raised his arm with the stake, aiming it at Angelus’ chest, lightning fast and he was so going down in one of Giles’ stuffy books as the killer of the great Angelus.

Angelus clasped his wrist, stopping the stake before it could reach his heart. He looked unbothered, even a little amused as he made a clucking noise with his tongue.

“Now, that wasn’t very nice.”

Pain shot up Xander’s arm as Angelus put pressure on his wrist, until he was forced to drop the stake. It clattered to the ground, and Xander groaned.

“What, no apology?”

“Fuck you.” Xander mustered up some courage, from the same place that forgot every horror movie he’d ever seen and made him decide to walk home on his own with Buffy’s murderous ex on the loose. But if he was going to die tonight, he damn well wasn’t going down without a fight, even if it was only his own masculine pride there to witness it.

Angelus seemed to find his defiance endlessly entertaining. “You know, I think we got off on the wrong foot. The whole trying to kill each other thing… it’s getting a little old, don’t you think?”

And that question sounded like a trap, so Xander didn’t respond. Angelus didn’t seem to mind, content as always to listen to the sound of his own voice.

“The way I see it, you and I have some things in common.”

“You watch The X-Files too?”

A faint crinkle appeared along Angelus’ brow, before he managed to smooth it out. “Buffy. Don’t need any vampire senses to smell your desperation.”

“Also, she doesn’t want to go to prom with either of us.”

Xander’s head was slammed into the wall with the impact of Angelus’ push.

“Sorry, I thought we were listing obvious facts,” Xander said, breathing through the sudden and piercing pain at the back of his skull. That, and Angelus’ fingernails were now painfully digging into his upper arms.

Xander swallowed as Angelus leaned closer, towards his neck. It was odd to have a person so close to him yet not feel any warm breath on his skin. There was no heat coming from Angelus’ body pressed against his either; just cold, lifeless marble. Buffy’d had sex with this. The thought suddenly flashed unbidden through Xander’s mind, and he wondered if she’d been put off by it, or if the strangeness had excited her.

“I don’t need the Slayer to want me. The only thing I need from Buffy is to see her terrified and begging for her life. But since Buffy’s not here...” A blunt fingernail dragged down Xander’s cheek. “I’ll have to find other ways to entertain myself.”

This was veering very quickly from simply terrifying into disturbing.

“You see, Xander. I’m not very particular in my tastes. Men… women… All tastes the same.”

Pulse jack-hammering in his throat, Xander did his best not to let the panic show in his eyes. Pointless, since Angelus could probably hear his racing heartbeat anyway.

“Hate to tell you, but that’s not surprising.” Xander shrugged to the best of his abilities with Angelus’ hands limiting his movements. “The eyeliner kinda gives it away.”

Angelus chuckled, a mean and dark laugh. “Always joking, aren’t you? Even during your last moments on earth.”

That wasn’t surprising either. Still disconcerting, to hear it put out there like that. Xander was going to die tonight, and no one was coming to save him.

“Now, what d’ya say we skip the pretense? There’s no one else here.” Angelus released his grip on Xander’s left arm to wave at the empty alleyway, and Xander used the opening to push forward, balling his free hand into a fist to drive into a solid wall of muscle.

“Hey! I said—” Angelus grabbed both of Xander’s wrists and slammed them into the wall again, hard enough that Xander winced in pain, “—be nice.”

Xander cursed under his breath. That had hurt, damn it. He tried to flex his fingers to check for any broken bones and breathed slowly through the nauseating panic.

"As I was saying, before you so rudely interrupted,” Angelus continued, “you think your little crush went unnoticed?”

Xander was about to die and Angelus wanted to talk about Buffy? Obsessed much? “I know Alzheimer’s affects about twenty percent of old people, but we went over this already,” he said.

“Not Buffy.”

The confusion must’ve shown on Xander’s face, because Angelus grinned and continued. “Yeah yeah, you love her, yada yada. Teenage boy with a hard-on for a super-powered chick who won’t even spare you a glance, very original.” Angelus’ lips widened into a smirk, like a jungle cat about to pounce. “Riveting as that is, no. I meant your hard-on for the other walking cliché; her vampire boyfriend.”

Xander managed to choke out a laugh.

“Aw, you really thought he didn’t notice?” Angelus winced in mock-sympathy, then smirked again. “Awkward. I gotta tell you though, if even Angel can’t miss it? You must be really obvious.”

“You know the talking about yourself in third-person thing is weird right?” The words came out high-pitched rather than the casual indifference Xander was aiming for, and Angelus only widened his smirk as he leaned in closer.

“Cute deflection, but no dice. Would it make you feel better if I told you he was tempted?” Angelus let that sink in for a moment. “Oh, he would never, of course, Mr. Goody Two-shoes. But—” And now Xander felt the weight of Angelus’ body press him further into the wall, felt one hard thigh slide between his. “—he wanted to.”

Xander’d had 17 years of practice at breathing, but at that moment he honestly couldn’t remember the basic steps. His thoughts flickered back and forth, replaying Angelus’ words. Angel knew? Angel had been… what, interested? Angelus smirked at him, unmoving, while Xander tried to focus his attention back on the present moment and his impending doom, yet he couldn’t manage, which of course had been Angelus’ intent.

And how dumb was he that he’d honestly believed no one had known? Of course stupid Angel with his stupid vampire perceptiveness had noticed that Xander — well, whatever. Had he told Buffy? Was that what the others talked about when Xander ditched the library early? And, okay, that was probably stretching the paranoia a little too far, but only because he couldn’t imagine Giles allowing that type of gossip during serious slayage research.

“You know what, I almost feel bad about killing you. With all the fun we’re having tonight.” Angelus seemed to consider this for a moment, then said, like this was something he’d come up with just now instead of a plan he’d probably devised the minute he’d cornered Xander in this alley, “Though, I guess we could make a deal.”

Apparently he wasn’t going to offer the details of his own volition, so Xander breathed out a sigh and prayed to whatever jackass god was up there. “What deal?”

Angelus’ eyes flicked downwards, to Xander’s lips, before moving up again. “One kiss. And then you’re free to go.”

“What’s the catch?”

Angelus moved back slightly to clutch at his chest as if wounded. “I’m an honest businessman. See it as… an investment in the future.”

Hysterical laughter bubbled up inside Xander, swallowed before it managed to spill out of him.

“What’s it gonna be, Xander? We don’t have all night — Well, I guess we do, but my patience is running out, so… Tick tock.”

It could still be a trap, of course. Angelus wasn’t to be trusted.

“You can imagine I’m our favorite heroic champion instead of… well, me. I do one hell of an impression, you know. The trick’s in the tortured brooding.” Angelus contorted his face into a pained frown that, admittedly, came pretty close to Angel’s default expression.

Xander glanced out at the lights coming from the main street one last time, hoping to see Buffy there, but it seemed his luck didn’t stretch that far tonight. He turned his attention back to Angelus, who grinned as if he already knew he’d won. Of course.

“Knew you’d come around,” he said, and raised one hand to wrap around the juncture between Xander’s shoulder and neck, his thumb pressing uncomfortably into Xander’s pulse point.

He wasn’t happy to admit it, even to himself, but those few times Xander had thought about kissing Angel, he’d imagined something close to what Buffy always talked about; gentle passion and background violins.

This… was nothing like that. There was passion, but gentle was about the last adjective Xander would use to describe it. Angelus’ kiss was forceful, taking rather than giving, like the main goal was for Xander to remember this. Which was, now that Xander thought about it, exactly what he was doing. Hadn’t the records said Angelus liked to play with his food before he ate it?

And if there were violins, they were the dissonant screeches of Xander’s alarmed mind.

It could have been an hour or fifteen seconds before Angelus backed off, satisfied and licking his lips like the proverbial cat that got the cream, and Xander sagged against the wall now that there was no body pressing against his anymore.

“A pleasure, as always,” Angelus said.

“Wish I could say the same, but—”

Angelus’ eyes glittered in the darkness like coals. “Now now, lying is a sin. Don’t let the man above hear ya.” He wagged his finger before shoving his hands in the pockets of his coat. “I’ll be seeing you then. Think about what I said, huh? Although something tells me that won’t be an issue.”

Xander kept his face as devoid from emotion as he could, waited until Angelus grinned a wolfish grin and turned on his heel, sauntered off into the darkness. Only then, after the last footstep had echoed across the alley, did Xander crouch to reach for the stake lying at his feet. And only then, with the stake clutched tight in his trembling hand, did he turn towards the main street, and headed home.

Chapter Text

“Then this one time, I was in England and this queen, Isabella — great lady — asked me to murder her husband in the most brutal way.”

“Anya.”

“No, wait, this is a good one.” She smiled excitedly, her eyes sparkling with joy. “So, Edward III… Or was Edward II? Oh, they get so confusing when you live as long as I do. Anyway, Isabella really wanted revenge, so she asked me to kill him by inserting a hot poker up his-”

“Anya—”

“Of course, Marlowe kept my part out of his play. Still, one of my best, I have to say.”

Xander mustered up a pained smile. “Yeah, shame I missed it.”

“Oh, definitely! But that was nothing compared to the time I—”

“You know what, uhm, you should definitely tell me that story later. After I’ve gone to the bathroom.” Anya’s face fell, and Xander quickly walked off before she could insist on starting her next scorned women tale anyway. Hell hath no fury, indeed. When Anya had suggested going to the prom together, Xander had — rhetorically — asked himself what the worst was that could happen. Clearly, the worst was Anya regaling him with the history of her most violent and gruesome revenge schemes. Which seemed to coincide with the most horrifying moments in history. And yeah, Xander was desperate, but he wasn’t quite that desperate, despite all evidence to the contrary.

He rounded a corner, heading roughly in the direction of the bathroom in case Anya was still watching him, and ended up running smack-dab into Oz.

Who gave him a patented Oz raised-eyebrow, complete with implicit trademark, and glanced behind Xander at the empty hallway. “Vampire?”

“No, no vampire. Just my date telling me about all the men she tortured over the past thousand years.”

“Cool.”

“Yeah, you would say that.” Xander narrowed his eyes at Oz. “What are you doing here?”

“Escaping a vampire.”

Xander really didn’t get Oz’s sense of humor. He wondered if Willow did, or if she just pretended to. Still, hanging with Oz and trying to make sense of his nonsensical replies was preferable over hiding in some empty classroom alone. Willow had been talking to Buffy last time Xander had seen her anyway, so she probably wouldn’t miss her boyfriend much. And Xander wasn’t going back in there to listen to gruesome world history, the Anya edition.

He nodded towards the door on his right. “Well, you wanna escape the evil vampire in that empty classroom over there?”

“Sure.”

Oz’s monosyllabic replies tended to get on Xander’s nerves, mostly because he didn’t know what to do with them. They just made Xander ramble more, and that was rarely a good thing. Oz didn’t need to ramble, could just be aloof and quiet and people loved hanging out with him anyway. Was it the band thing? Look cool while playing guitar and people will flock to you? Or some werewolf mojo, pheromones seducing people…

It probably wasn’t pheromones. Xander followed Oz into the empty, darkened classroom, and they settled on the floor beside the door, stretching out their legs.

“Can you believe this is it?” Xander mused aloud after a few moments of awkward silence. “No more sleeping during Mrs. McGurk’s Physics class. No more wondering what’s in the cafeteria’s sloppy joes. No more Snyder.”

“Interesting choices for nostalgic reminiscing.”

“Hey, growing up in Sunnydale makes you appreciate the little things.”

Oz didn’t reply to that, and so they sat in silence for a while, staring out at the darkened classroom and listening to the muffled sounds of Ricky Martin’s Latin beats coming from the gym.

“Do you think Cordelia’s dancing with Wesley right now?” Xander asked, to break the quiet.

“Yeah, probably.”

Xander frowned. Oz wasn’t being helpful at all. He imagined Cordelia swaying to Livin’ La Vida Loca , which was enjoyable right up until he added Wesley to the fantasy. Xander and Cordy were over, he knew that, but that didn’t mean some old British guy could just sweep in with his stupid posh accent and seduce her. He probably couldn’t even dance, anyway.

“Is it weird that I miss her? Cordelia. I mean, I know it was my fault. Though I did apologize, like, a million times.”

Xander couldn’t read anything in Oz’s expression. A wall could’ve given him more feedback. But he was here, and Xander was on a roll now, so he carried on.

“And she can dance with other guys, you know. I don’t care.” Much. “But why him ? He can’t even cross the library without tripping over his own feet. All because I made one mistake. Did you know Cordelia didn’t talk to me for weeks? And I keep wondering what would’ve happened if I hadn’t kissed Willow that day. Just kept right on ignoring her when she was giving me those eyes… Shit, sorry.”

“Conditional perfect.”

“Huh?” Xander said, when it was clear Oz wasn’t going to elaborate on his own.

“Conditional perfect,” Oz repeated. “Grammatical construction to express a hypothetical event in the past, which could’ve happened but didn’t. We discussed it during English last month.” Well, that explained why Xander had never heard the term before. “Like if you hadn’t kissed Willow. Or if you’d emigrated to Tibet and become a monk. Or, if you’d kissed me instead of Willow.”

“Huh?”

Oz only tilted his head back against the wall, like he’d used up his words for today. Which was just too bad, because you couldn’t drop something like that into a conversation and then just leave it.

“Why would I have kissed you? Or — become a Tibetan monk. They’re all about the being quiet and introspective. Have you ever seen me be silent for more than ten minutes?”

“No,” Oz replied. “I haven’t.”

“Right, so, bad examples.”

Oz hummed. “You look at me though.”

Record scratch. Rewind. What?

“What?”

“You look at me, sometimes. When you think I’m not looking.”

Okay, so, yeah, maybe Xander did. Look. Sometimes. But that didn’t mean…

“Also, I smell it. Wolf thing.” Oz shrugged.

Cold sweat broke out over Xander’s body. He might’ve noted Oz’s coolness maybe once or twice, stared appreciatively, but that was mostly a jealousy thing. Oz and his nonchalant indifference to what people thought of him was something Xander envied, something he’d wanted to copy — to no avail. And Oz was attractive, in that alternative band type of way, and his monotone quips were, admittedly, funny. Xander could tell what Willow saw in Oz. But if he’d looked, it had been in general appreciation of a cool guy. Xander tried to voice all of that, in defense against Oz’s allegations, but no words came out.

Oz gave Xander’s tense frame and panicked look a once-over, and the corner of his mouth just barely quirked into a grin. “Kidding. Wolf senses don’t work like that. Would be neat, though.”

Xander stared at him, baffled.

“But you do look, sometimes.” Oz shrugged. “It’s okay. I’m not into that, but it’s cool.”

“I’m not into men either,” Xander balked. “I dated Cordelia, remember? And I spent ages pining over Buffy, and, I mean, you know about the thing with Willow, so—”

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio…”

“Alright, we get it, you pay attention during English class,” Xander bit out.

Xander had the feeling Oz would have rolled his eyes right now, if the guy hadn’t been so committed to remaining expressionless. “I mean you don’t have to choose. It’s not an either-or, man,” he said.

Did everyone think Xander was an idiot? He watched Xena , he knew about bisexuality.

The music had shifted to something slow and boyband-y that Xander vaguely recognized from evenings at Buffy’s and that definitely wasn’t made to be danced to, and Xander considered heading back to the gym to deal with Anya, who at least didn’t want to talk about him, or anything at all besides her own late notoriety. Not that Oz was questioning Xander. He was only staring at him, silent and inscrutable.

“I don’t look ,” Xander finally said.

“Okay.” Oz turned his head back towards the desk in front of them.

“What is this, some weird jealousy thing? I kissed your girlfriend, so I must be into you?”

“That wouldn’t make any sense.” Oz admitted, but didn’t make any move to apologize.

“Right, so, you were wrong.”

Oz’s hum was neither a denial nor an agreement.

“I told you—”

“Xander.” Oz’ raised voice came as a shock. “It doesn’t matter, forget I brought it up.” He picked himself off the floor and brushed some dust off his suit pants. “I’m heading back inside.”

Xander got up quickly as well. “Wait, no.”

Oz turned around again, eyebrows raised. Xander flashed back to the first time he and Willow had kissed. It was an obvious connection to make; an empty room, formal wear, similar red hair. It was also a connection he really didn’t care for under the current circumstances.  

And, fine, okay, yes. He’d looked. Occasionally in something that could be classified as less-than-heterosexual appreciation. But the love triangle — square, hexagon, whatever, Xander had barely passed his final math exam — was complicated enough without factoring in this thing with Oz. Love geometry, and Xander had never been any good at that, usually relied on Willow to complete his assignments.

And yet he could see the third side of that triangle, a direct line between him and Oz. More possible than it had ever felt, in this shadowy empty classroom, locked away from the celebrations — and from Willow, Anya, Cordelia.

“What if I did look?” Xander asked, his heart hammering in his chest.

Oz sized him up, cocked his head, and took a deep breath. Stepped into Xander’s space. Pressed his lips to Xander’s. It was less than a second of contact, but Xander could feel the touch even after Oz had leaned back.

“I’m not into it, sorry,” Oz said, after Xander had gaped at him for an embarrassingly long time. Oh, so now he was apologizing?

“So what was that then?” Xander asked incredulously.

Oz shrugged. “I’ll try everything once.” He opened the door, letting in the sounds of pulsing music and excited yelling. His expression was blank, but then his mouth curled into a mellow, gentle smile. “And now we’ve evened the score.”

Chapter Text

“If you knew the Mayor was going to kill us all tomorrow, how would you spend your last day?”

Xander glanced up from the stake he was carving to stare at Larry. Being gay must’ve really changed his life, if he was asking the big philosophical questions now.

“Eat a cheeseburger with extra onions from In-N-Out. Rewatch the last three episodes of Star Trek —  the original series, not The Next Generation . Have sex. Not necessarily in that order.”

Larry nodded as if this was a valid answer, then asked, like the least subtle non sequitur in history: “Have you kissed a guy before?”

Oh god, not this again. Xander tried not to groan. Interacting with Larry had always been a minefield, at first because he seemed intent on bullying Xander out of school, and then - after Xander so kindly helped him discover his true self - because he’d become some kind of gay Yoda. Doling out advice for the closeted among them, except he seemed to suffer from selective hearing whenever Xander told him that, no, really, wrong tree. Wrong forest, in fact.

“Look, I told you, me and Cordy had a great thing going. Well,” Xander amended, “it didn’t work out, but I was into her.” Into her perfectly-shaped lips, into her supermodel long legs, into her soft and generous breasts. He kinda missed Cordelia. She’d looked radiant at the prom, in the dress he’d bought for her. Like the actress she wanted to be. Money well-spent, especially if they, like Larry seemed to believe, wouldn’t be making it out alive tomorrow.

Larry smiled indulgently, then frowned. “It’s just that, you know, I haven’t.”

“Haven’t?”

“Haven’t kissed a guy.”

“Oh.” Even Xander had to admit that sucked. Possibly dying tomorrow without having kissed a guy was a grim prospect. For Larry, that was. For dudes who were into dudes, dying without ever knowing what kissing a guy was like… oh great, and now he felt bad for Larry.

“Hey, I’m sure you could find someone.” Xander nudged Larry’s arm with his elbow, channeling Willow at her most supportive. “Plenty of guys who’d line up to kiss an athletic jock like you.”

Larry just stared gloomily at the cracked tiles of the Sunnydale library floor. “Not here in Sunnydale, there aren’t. How many gay guys do you know here, besides us?”

“I’m not—”

“I’m gonna die a gay kissing virgin.” Larry slumped into his chair and tilted his head back. “Unless…” He turned his face slightly to glance at Xander out of the corner of his eye.

“Unless?”

“You’re here. I’m here. We could… you know.”

Xander suddenly wished the library wasn’t empty so that they wouldn’t be having this conversation. He chuckled nervously. “Look, Larry, It’s not that I’m not flattered.”

The next part of that sentence was going to be a gentle but firm rejection — hopefully followed by Willow or Buffy or Giles walking in to avoid any awkward silences - but then Larry was leaning sideways, across the gap between their chairs, to bring his face closer to Xander’s. The kiss was no more than a dry press of Larry’s lips against his own, awkward because of the angle and Xander’s perfect imitation of a deer in headlights. It was over before his brain had time to process, Larry leaning back and clearing his throat. He stared at Xander warily.

“So…” Larry said. The library was silent aside from the soft whirring of a fan. Xander’s lips were dry, and Larry’s eyes flicked downward as he licked them.

This time, at least, Xander saw the kiss coming. Larry’s hesitant movements were nothing like making out with Cordelia or Faith had been, cautious where they’d been confident and determined. More like Willow, except where Willow had smelled like orange blossom shampoo and witchy herbs, Larry smelled like sweat, masked by Axe body spray — a different type from the one Xander himself used. He wondered if Larry had thought about kissing Xander, the way Xander thought about kissing Cordy, and Faith, and Buffy, and Willow. If he imagined scenarios late at night in which they’d make out and… and what? Xander’s thoughts ran into a wall, refusing to supply any information beyond that. Power outage, and Larry was still kissing him, gaining confidence with every second Xander wasn’t pushing him away.

Xander jumped up and took a few steps back, until he bumped into the table. He had to wait for his heart rate to calm down before he could get out the words. “Right, so, uh… flattering. But, nope, still not gay.” There was that gentle but firm rejection he’d been aiming for earlier, successful except for the pitying look that Larry was giving him right now. And he could fuck right off with that, off to some liberal arts college in San Francisco or wherever-the-hell Larry was planning to go after graduation.

“Sure,” Larry said, leaning back as if to show he wasn’t going to try to make any moves again. “Anyway… thanks, Xander. For everything.”

Xander nodded, sank into a different chair, further away from Larry’s. “We’re not gonna die tomorrow. Those guys lining up to kiss you, they’re still gonna be there,” he said, to soften the rejection. Even though Larry didn’t seem to be all that heartbroken, and Xander had enough pride for that to sting, just a little. Ridiculous, because he wasn’t interested in Larry.

Larry grinned, charmingly, because sometimes, like during moments like these, Xander forgot he’d been a womanizing jock before the whole personality transplant thing. “Maybe. Either way, if I don’t make it, at least I got to cross one thing off my list, right?” And with that he grabbed a stake, whittling at the tip until it was deadly sharp.

Chapter Text

The evening was winding down, just Xander, Willow, Buffy and Riley left, sprawled across the floor in between empty pizza boxes and beer bottles. It had been a good birthday, Xander thought; a rare but welcome occurrence on the Hellmouth. The end of his teenage years, and he had a gorgeous girlfriend, a job, and friends who he trusted with his life. Apparently it was a night for sentimentality, and Xander could admit that he must’ve lucked out somewhere along the way to be here, the first Harris in recent memory not to fuck up his life beyond measure.

Willow giggled and knocked over a bottle as she tried to sit up. “We should play a game.”

Buffy groaned and shifted in Riley’s embrace. “Can’t we just stay where we are? I’m too comfortable to get up.”

“Nope.” She popped the ‘p’ and tugged at Buffy’s arm. Buffy shrugged her off and pushed herself into a sitting position next to Riley, leaning against the couch. Willow had talked about tension between Buffy and Riley a few weeks ago, and Xander had laughed it off. It seemed as ridiculous now as it did then, with Buffy leaning into Riley as if they were two of the most handsome all-American magnets.

“Alright, we’re up. What’s your plan?” Buffy let her head drop onto Riley’s shoulder and Riley stretched his arm around her waist, brushing the sliver of skin where her sweater had crawled up with his thumb.

Xander was jostled from his half-seated sprawl by Willow as she reached for the empty beer bottle near his arm. “Spin the bottle!”

“There’s only four people here, Will,” Xander reminded her.

“Yeah, and, no offense, ‘cause I really like you guys, but…” Riley tightened his grip on Buffy’s waist. “Pretty satisfied with my choice.”

“Pshhh.” Willow waved the bottle and placed it in the center of their circle. “It’ll be fun. Here, I’ll start.” Instead of twisting the bottle with her hand, she pointed at it, whispering a few words Xander couldn’t make out. A purple spark traveled from her fingers to the bottle, and it started spinning.

“I feel like you’re cheating already,” Xander remarked, and Buffy nodded in agreement, frowning at Willow. Willow hushed them, and they all stared at the rotating bottle as it slowed down and landed on Buffy-and-Riley.

Buffy sighed deeply. “I’m not drunk enough for this.”

Neither was Xander, if he was being honest. ‘Cause if it came to him to spin the bottle, no matter who it landed on… Yeah, maybe he should go get another drink. Riley meanwhile was pushing Buffy forward, towards Willow. Buffy turned her head to stare at him, affronted.

“It landed on you!” she exclaimed.

“No it didn’t.” He glanced around, his eyes landing on Xander. “Besides, it’s his birthday. Look at it as a present.” Riley shot him a conspiratorial grin, and the tension in Xander’s shoulders eased. Bro-bonding. This he could do.

Now Buffy seemed even more offended. “We’re not kissing for you horny straight guys’ entertainment. Right, Willow?” She looked to Willow, who shrugged.

“Technically we’re doing it for the game.”

“Exactly,” Xander said. “Can’t back out now.” He grinned innocently when Buffy rolled her eyes at him.

“You’re lucky Anya isn’t here,” she pointed out, but gamely shifted closer to Willow.

Xander gave an performative whistle as Willow leaned forward and pecked Buffy on the lips, before they both pulled apart and grinned at each other.

Riley clapped slowly. “Adequate. I give it a six.” He’d slouched down even more and was nearly stretched out entirely, his leg brushing Xander’s every time he shifted a little. He seemed to be unaware of the point of contact, entirely at ease and focused on Buffy.

“Oh for god’s sake.” Buffy pulled at Willow’s arm so she lost her balance and had to catch herself against Buffy’s chest. Her eyes were wide, becoming even wider when Buffy raised her hand to tangle it into Willow’s hair. Pulled her closer until they were pressed against each other, then - with Slayer precision and determination - leaned in for a kiss. Willow barely hesitated before opening her lips to allow Buffy’s tongue, sighing softly and shifting her hand up towards Buffy’s neck. Happy birthday to Xander indeed. Riley seemed to agree with the sentiment, watching the heated kiss with rapt attention, his mouth curled up into a lazy smile. The hand on his leg was absentmindedly tapping along to the rhythm of some top 40 hit playing in the background, and somehow this was distracting, even with the show going on in front of Xander’s eyes. And then Buffy cleared her throat, leaned back against the couch again and promptly collapsed into giggles, Willow quickly following her example.

“I think—” Buffy had to interrupt her sentence to let out another snickering laugh. “I think I get the appeal now, Will. I’m converted.” She turned to Riley, who was smiling down at her fondly. “I’m sorry, Riley. We had some great times.” This was apparently impossibly hilarious, judging by Buffy and Willow’s howling laughter.

Xander looked over to Riley, who caught his eye and shook his head, amused.

“Alright, alright.” Willow wiped a tear from underneath her eye. “Your turn, Xander.”

Xander tried to covertly wipe his sweaty hands on his pants. Willow’s eyes were trained on him, mischievous and seeming to sparkle in the dim light. There was a confidence there that was part of the new Willow, college girl, powerful witch and out-and-proud lesbian, and Xander wondered if it had always been there simmering under the surface, and Xander had just never noticed it. He remembered the tentative kisses they’d shared, seemingly ages ago, hiding between darkened library stacks, and he tried not to think about whether she still tasted like the salt water taffy she used to love, or if that too had been replaced by something new and adult.

He didn’t know what Buffy tasted like. Had spent many nights envying Angel for having that knowledge, for having Buffy, period. The action girl of Xander’s dreams come to life, yet forever out of reach, belonging to the vampires and the supersoldiers of this wacky new world. And Xander had Anya now, loved her with a fierce conviction he hadn’t thought himself capable of, yet still his eyes strayed to the place where Buffy’s green sequin top just barely didn’t reach her jeans, exposing a strip of pale skin. He almost didn’t want to know if the reality of kissing her lived up to the imagination.

And as for Riley… Xander grabbed the bottle and gave it a determined whirl. It wasn’t going to be Riley.

The hushed silence that fell as they all watched the bottle spin only amped up the tension, until Xander had to push his hand into the ground to stop it from nervously tapping. The bottle slowed, stopped.

Riley huffed out an astonished laugh.

“It’s only fair,” Willow said, with a self-satisfied smirk on her face.

Buffy stretched her arms out on the couch behind her as if waiting for a performance. “I agree. Girl kissing is over, time for the boy kissing part of the evening.”

Riley dodged Buffy’s hands, which were pushing him towards Xander like Riley had done to her and Willow earlier. “Okay, calm down, give me a minute.” He grinned at Xander, nervousness not quite hidden beneath his self-assured appearance. It made Xander feel a little better, that he wasn’t the only one thrown off his game here.

“You wanna show them how real men do it?” Riley asked, which despite the joking tone sounded a little like a challenge and a lot like a line from the gay porn movie Xander had accidentally stumbled across once and definitely never watched. Not often, at least. Riley raised himself to his knees and shuffled closer, stopped there as if waiting for a sign from Xander. He wondered if it was too late to claim he wasn’t feeling well and back out. It was his party, wasn’t it? But Xander could see Willow and Buffy watching from the corner of his eyes, could see Riley squaring his shoulders as if he was gearing up for a sparring session. Riley licked his lips, and Xander’s breath hitched in his throat.  

And then Riley was leaning in and pressing his lips to Xander’s, and Xander forgot all about coming up with excuses. Riley’s warm breath ghosted over Xander’s lips, and he was tentative and tasted faintly like stale beer. Xander jumped when Riley’s hand landed on his shoulder, his thumb brushing at the edge of Xander’s collar and skimming the skin there. Xander wondered if Riley could feel the way his heart was pounding in his throat. Habit had him parting his lips, and then Riley was licking inside, his tongue slow and sure.

It was over before it started, or at least that’s what it felt like to Xander. Buffy whistled from somewhere near Xander’s right. “I would say that merits at least a seven.”

“Seven and a half, maybe,” Willow mused.

Xander had trouble dragging his eyes away from Riley’s wet lips, but he managed eventually. He reached for a beer bottle that wasn’t entirely empty yet, took a long pull and tried to get his breathing back in order. Watched Riley crawl back towards the couch and tackle Buffy into his arms, her giggling muffled into his shoulder.

“So who’s next?” Willow asked, and Xander made a show of yawning. Stretched his arms out over his head for good measure.

“I’m beat, and since it’s my party I’m pulling the plug. Out, all of you.” He made a shooing motion with his hands.

Willow grumbled and picked herself off of the floor.

“You sure you don’t want any help cleaning up?” Riley asked like the helpful boy scout he was. Genuine and entirely composed, which was just the icing on the cake. He still had his arms wrapped around Buffy, both of them looking radiant and gorgeous despite the late hour, the perfect heroine and her hero boyfriend, and now Xander didn’t have to pretend to be tired anymore.

He waited for the tell-tale click of the door, waited until Willow’s boisterous laughter, which would have the neighbors angrily ringing his doorbell tomorrow morning, had faded into the night. The radio inside the basement was still playing, a girl warbling some melancholy song about unrequited love, and Xander let it wash over him until he fell asleep.

Chapter Text

When Kennedy steered the bus into the Desert Hills Motel parking lot, the sky was already darkening. They’d driven all day today and yesterday, barely stopping for gas and snacks, all of them desperate to get away from the Sunnydale crater and all that had been buried with it. Like Xander’s own ex-fiancee. And that was a can of worms he wasn’t opening until they were no longer a group of grimy homeless Sunnydale survivors. It was easier to focus on the physical aches, like the burn in his joints from being cramped into a tiny seat for hours. He’d sacrifice another city for a shower, a bed and a few hours of shuteye.

The lady behind the desk took one look at their battered appearances, some of them clutching bloody rags to cuts and leaning on each other, and announced that the amount of rooms available was limited, and only at the very back of the building. Xander caught Giles’ eyes when people started pairing up, before Andrew could bound over and ask either one of them. Luckily, Giles seemed to have had the same thought, if the nod and quick glance at Andrew was any indication.

Xander was dragging his meager belongings towards his room when he noticed Willow pulling Giles aside, leaning in to speak in hushed tones and not-so-subtly gesturing at Xander. Her and Buffy had been throwing him worried glances ever since they’d left Sunnydale, when they thought he wasn’t looking. As if he was going to break down any moment now. Another reason why rooming with Giles was preferable; the amount of attempted conversations about feelings would most likely total to the blissful amount of zero.

The act of settling into their room — a short activity, considering neither of them had packed much - happened in total silence. The silence wasn’t awkward, exactly, but it made Xander wish he had decided to share a room with Andrew after all. He hadn’t counted on the intrusive thoughts that assaulted his brain when there was nothing to distract him. Xander hadn’t been there for Anya’s last moments, didn’t know how she had died, but that only meant his imagination was free to come up with all kinds of scenarios, each one more gruesome than the one before. He rubbed his eyes until he saw colorful spots dancing in front of his vision and deliberately turned away from Giles’ questioning gaze.

Giles didn’t comment on it, instead sat down on one of the beds with a 1.7oz bottle of Jack Daniels and opened up a state map, making notes on the motel notepad. Following his example, Xander leaned against the headboard of the other bed. Tried to close his eyes and sleep, except he was all keyed up, and the mattress was lumpy and uncomfortable, and the whirring noise of the old ceiling fan was suddenly unbearably loud, making his skin crawl. He opened his eyes and glanced over to the other bed to find Giles already looking at him.

“Are you alright?” Giles asked, concern seeping into the words.

Xander pulled his face into what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “Can’t sleep. It’s alright.”

Giles nodded, clearly unconvinced, and turned his attention back to the map. He must be just as tired as they all were, yet instead of sleeping he was planning. Always organizing, always thinking. Xander wanted to ask him if he ever turned his brain off, and if he did, whether he could give Xander some pointers on how to do such a thing.

The sky outside of the window was pitch dark now. Xander wondered if Anya would be allowed into Heaven. Probably not. They’d weigh four years of fighting the good fight against a lifetime of vengeance and judge her wanting. They wouldn’t consider the way she’d returned to help Buffy, even after Xander had left her at the altar and she’d had no real reason to stay. How she’d died saving the world, and if anything got you into Heaven then surely it was that?

Giles was looking at him again, brows furrowed into a frown. What had Willow said to him? Keep Xander away from the razor blades? Jesus . Giles must’ve caught something in his eyes, because he sat up straight and pushed away the map.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

God, no, please. No talking, he wanted to say. Being left alone with his thoughts, though. That was turning out to be worse.

Giles was waiting for a response with infinite patience. Good old dependable Giles, except he was no more that guy than Xander was the redundant comic relief these days. Breaking stereotypes all-around, they were. He wondered if Giles still had the earring he’d worn for his Sunday gigs at the cafe. Anya hadn’t stopped talking about that earring for a solid two weeks afterwards, until Xander had begged her to please be quiet, citing mental breakdown. It had been preferable over telling her the truth back then. That he’d silently agreed with her newfound appreciation, except he’d gotten there a few years earlier. He sent a wordless apology to Hell or Purgatory or wherever Anya was now. One more little white lie to add to the mountain between them, but if you couldn’t be honest to your dead ex-fiancee, who could you be honest to?

So yeah, sue him. There’d been Buffy, and then Cordelia, and Willow, and - maybe for a moment or two - Angel, and Faith, and then Giles. And then there’d been Anya, and that list of big and small regrets hadn’t mattered anymore.

He still looked good, was the worst thing. Even with Anya and Xander’s whole youth wiped off the face of the earth, after a few gruesome battles and a day-long bus ride, Giles still looked good to Xander. In the cramped and run-down motel room he seemed real and solid in a way nothing since yesterday afternoon had felt, and Xander was desperate for some semblance of that stability.

And maybe it was ridiculous, and maybe Xander had imagined the appreciative stares during the past year when there’d been nothing to do but avoid a house full of frightened teenage girls and play board games all evening. And maybe Ethan Rayne wasn’t the vengeful ex Willow seemed convinced he was.

But maybe it wasn’t ridiculous, and it hadn’t all been his imagination.

And damn it, Xander was so tired of maybes.

He got up and crossed the space between the beds, perched on Giles’ instead, making sure not to crease the map. Much more comfortable mattress, he noted. Brushed that thought aside and ignored Giles’ bewildered look. Only focused on leaning forward - awkwardly twisting his body, he should’ve thought that through — and brushing his lips against Giles’, moving them, slow and tentative, his hand coming up to rest against stubbled jaw.

Giles’ hand clutched at Xander’s shirt for a moment, before pushing, gently but firmly, until they were a few inches apart.

“What are you doing?” He seemed confused, which struck Xander as pretty hilarious. All that intelligence, and yet sometimes Giles could be amazingly slow on the uptake.

“That wasn’t obvious? Is there something wrong with my technique?” Xander’s joke didn’t go over well, and Giles brushed past him to cross the room, putting distance between the two of them. No jokes, then. He could remember that. “I need to take my mind of things. Forget — everything. Just for tonight,” he said instead.

Giles brushed a hand through his hair and stared at Xander, tiredly. “Go to bed.”

“You really think I can sleep right now?”

“Rest, then, at least.”

“What if I don’t want to? I’ve seen you looking. And I want—” this, you, oblivion, “something to take my mind of things.”

“Xander, please. It’s entirely understandable that you would desire comfort after yesterday’s events, and — and considering your upbringing-”

“My upbringing? What are you—” Xander gaped at him. “Ohhh no, we are so not talking about my dad right now. I refuse to be psychoanalyzed by the guy getting drunk on mini bar liquors.”

Giles glared at him, then seemed to catch himself and turned it into a pitying expression that nearly had Xander walking straight out of the door. “I’m sorry. And I’m sorry about Anya,” Giles said softly. “She was wonderful, and I know what this must be like for you.” He raised his hand when Xander tried to step closer. “But this? It can’t happen.”

“Just because—”

“For many reasons.”

Xander sighed in frustration. “Even if you want it?”

Giles shifted his stance, his eyes flicking to the wall above Xander’s head. “It would be... entirely unethical, not to mention—” he trailed off, let the silence stretch. “Even if I want it.”

“I loved Anya.”

“I know you did, Xander.”

“Look, I just. I don’t want to think about it right now.” Xander hated the whine in his voice. “I don’t want to think about anything.” He took a few steps forward and reached up to tug at the collar of Giles’ shirt. There was blood on it, small dark red specks that kind of reminded Xander of star constellations. And, wow, his thoughts had apparently taken a turn for the poetic and morbid. He glanced back up. “Can’t it just be easy, this once?”

He felt the world-weary speech about how nothing in this life was easy, and surely he must’ve figured that bit out by now? coming before Giles had even opened his mouth, so Xander didn’t give him the chance. He inhaled sharply as Xander leaned in again, but didn’t fight the kiss. Let Xander deepen it without actively participating, but that was alright, Xander could work with that. It took Giles longer this time to pull back and look at Xander.

“Don’t say no.” And apparently Xander wasn’t above begging tonight.

Giles took off his glasses and closed his eyes, massaged the bridge of his nose, then looked straight at Xander. He didn’t speak as he placed the glasses on the miniature desk without breaking his stare, didn’t speak as he pushed Xander backwards until his knees hit the edge of the bed and he fell onto the mattress. Didn’t speak as he climbed on the bed as well. This time Xander had the time to notice the sharp traces of whiskey on Giles’ tongue, which made him grimace, so he kissed Giles until the taste was gone and all that remained was the sweet flavor of indistinctiveness.

Giles’ hands crept under his shirt, warm and assured, skimming the edge of his jeans, and Xander knew, with startling clarity, that this would be it. They’d wake up tomorrow and go about their day, trying to regain a sense of normality out of the chaos for the benefit of others, and they’d never talk about this again. He could see it, even as Giles started unbuttoning his shirt and kissing down his chest; the awkward dance of avoidance they’d do after this, the way it would make things strained for weeks, months, with them and with Buffy who would — gods be gracious — never know about this, and still the knowledge wasn’t enough to convince him to push Giles away.

This was a mess already. The least Xander could do was enjoy the heat of the flames as the house burned down.

Chapter Text

Tanzania so far was much like the other countries Xander had visited in Africa, in the sense that it was hot, and sandy, and kind of wonderful. He still hadn’t gotten quite used to it: the rhythm of daily life, more relaxed than in America; the mixture of languages that still sounded new and foreign to Xander even after seven months; the boisterous chaos that was traffic, more intimidating than any fight he’d ever been in. Every country he visited was different, and yet similar in how far removed they all were from Sunnydale, both in terms of air miles and spirit. Strangely enough, that was exactly why he loved it.

It had been four days since he’d dropped off two new Slayers at the Douala airport in Cameroon, with all the necessary paperwork and tickets that Andrew had arranged for them. Xander was glad he wasn’t responsible for any of that; he figured the longer he stayed in Africa, the longer he could avoid any bureaucracy beyond emailing short reports on the girls he’d found.

His newest assignment was a girl called Dhakiya, fifteen and living in a small town off the coast of Tanzania. Wanting to see the country, Xander had decided to hitchhike the last few hundred miles to Pangani, getting by on a mixture of English, sign language and the few phrases of Kiswahili he’d managed to pick up over the last few weeks. Not nearly enough phrases to explain to a Slayer and her family why he was there, though, which was why he was waiting at a bar right now for a translator who was, as of now, an hour late.

The bar was nice, at least; a local joint that only attracted a small amount of tourists, mostly of the backpacking type. No alcohol, as was common along the coast with its mainly Muslim population, but Xander had discovered the fruit juices were more refreshing in this climate anyway. He’d seated himself near the edge of the patio from where he had an amazing view of the white beach and ocean, the reddish sunset a perfect backdrop for the postcard panorama.

A young couple — Germans, judging by the accent — was taking pictures a few steps away from his table, posing against the railing with the beach behind them and flashing their wedding bands for the camera. It had been eight months since the destruction of Sunnydale, eight months since Anya had died, and Xander was a little surprised to note the smile on his face as he watched the two newlyweds giddily inspect the pictures they’d taken before returning to their own table. Maybe it was the evening, the view, the country, but Xander felt, if not happy, then at least content. Calm.

“Alexander Harris?”

Xander tore his gaze away from the sunset to see a guy standing in front of his table, casually dressed in cargo shorts and a white shirt, and somehow managing, like most of the locals, to not look like he was dying of heat. Xander had grown up in California, and yet Africa made him feel like a sweaty European tourist.

The guy smiled at Xander’s acknowledgment and held out his hand. “Mahir Hamid, your translator. Sorry I’m late, the ferries tend to be a bit unpredictable.” His English held traces of an accent, but it was British, and not the heavier accent Xander had gotten used to over the past few months. He returned the handshake and motioned for the guy to sit.

“Don’t worry about it, it’s a nice evening. And it’s Xander, for the record, unless you’re my mom.”

Mahir laughed and nodded. “Fair enough.” He gestured towards Xander’s empty glass. “Let me buy you a drink at least, for the trouble.”

Ignoring Xander’s protestations, he hailed the barkeeper, ordering them both a sugarcane juice. “Seriously, it’s the least I can do. It’s the Brit in me still wanting to be on time everywhere.”

“You’re British?” Xander asked, trying to remember what Andrew had told him about the guy. Translator, worked for the Council in a freelance capacity, trustworthy. Not exactly an extensive background file.

“Born and raised, mostly. My father’s from Zanzibar, mother worked for the Council. She died when I was fourteen, after which my father decided to move back to Zanzibar. I’ve been moving back and forth since. Can’t seem to decide one way or the other.”

“Sorry, about your mother. I get why you can’t stay away though. I’d never traveled outside of California before I came here, but it’s like an advertisement for paradise.”

“Once you get used to the ferries never being on time, yes.” Mahir accepted the drinks from the bartender and raised his for a toast. “As for my mother, it was a long time ago. I’m only grateful she left me with the connections to get a paycheck from the Council later.”

“You’ve been working for them for a long time then?”

“Eleven, twelve years. Long enough to be more than a little pleased to see you guys shaking things up.” He didn’t seem all that old. Xander would’ve estimated him to be in his early thirties, but he didn’t have that thing the Watchers over in England had, where they looked about ten years older than they actually were, with their prematurely receding hairline and tucked into ill-fitting suits. The Watchers Xander had met over the years, save for a few exceptions, gave off the impression they’d never seen the inside of a gym, whereas Mahir looked like he had a well-used subscription, judging by the muscles swelling underneath the rolled-up sleeves of his thin cotton shirt.

“So what’s your story then?” Mahir asked, eyes trailing over Xander’s eyepatch for a few moments before settling his curious gaze on his good eye. He didn’t do that thing most people did, where they threw glances at the eyepatch when they thought Xander wouldn’t notice, then quickly looked away in embarrassment. Yet Mahir managed to make the examination seem like polite, unassuming interest.

“Office gossip doesn’t travel this far?”

“Downside of not actually working in an office.”

Xander laughed and took a sip of his drink as he considered how to answer the question. He’d become a pro at dodging and giving answers that would satisfy the families. The Slayers themselves he usually told a story about losing his eye during a heroic rescue operation he’d led, which at least ensured the teenage girls were suitably impressed and willing to listen to him until he was able to put them on a flight for the rest of the gang to handle.

He didn’t feel like telling a story tonight. For all of the people he’d met in Africa, he had yet to make an actual friend, and the night was pleasant, and Mahir was patiently smiling at him.

“Born and raised in Sunnydale, California — may it rest in peace. Accidentally befriended the Slayer when I was sixteen, then spent the next few years helping her defend the Hellmouth, until last year when we destroyed it and I managed to lose my eye and ex-fiancée in the span of a week.”

Mahir leaned forward to rest his arms on the table. “Sorry. Must’ve been tough.”

“Yeah, well. Escaping to Africa helped. It’s like paid leave — Don’t tell Giles I said that.”

That got him another dimpled laugh. “Your secrets are safe with me.” Mahir glanced at his watch. “Have you eaten already?”

“No, I was planning to grab a bite at the bar of the hostel I’m staying at after we were done here.”

Mahir made a face. “We’re visiting the Slayer tomorrow, right? Take it from me, your stomach won’t appreciate you for the hostel’s food. There’s an amazing little restaurant five minutes from here though, the owner’s a friend of the family. If you’re up for it?”

Actually, he’d kind of planned an early night. He hadn’t slept much last night, what with only arriving in Pangani around three a.m., and the sooner they could get the business talk out of the way, the sooner Xander could get some quality time with his bed. Then again, an actual meal sounded nice, and Mahir was smiling expectantly…

“Yeah, sure. We can go over the details over dinner.”

Mahir gave him a brilliant grin at that, and bounced up out of his seat. “You’re going to love it. They have the best mishkaki, worth the trip to Tanzania alone.”

“You’re gonna make me try everything off the menu, aren’t you?” Xander said, waving the bartender over to pay for their drinks.

“Most likely. Though I always make sure to ask for consent first.” He shot Xander a quick grin, then handed over a few bills to the bartender before Xander could manage to take out his own wallet.

The restaurant ended up being a good idea. Mahir was right, the mishkaki was amazing, and the singing cicadas and softly rolling waves provided the perfect background music. The company, though, was even better. Xander couldn’t remember the last time he’d laughed so much. They’d quickly cycled through the plans for their meeting with Dhakiya and her parents tomorrow, before moving on to more personal topics. Mahir talked about his childhood in Manchester and his adolescence in Zanzibar City, his two stepsisters, his faith, and his unconditional love for Manchester United. Xander, in return, offered up some details about growing up in Sunnydale, befriending Willow and Buffy, the apocalypses they’d managed to prevent and the X-Men comics collection that had been his pride and joy until he’d lost it along with Sunnydale.

As the evening progressed, Xander had become increasingly aware of the lingering looks, the smiles that were just a little too knowing, the accidental touches that didn’t seem to be all that accidental. Granted, it had been a while, but Xander felt he could still recognize when he was being flirted with. And, unless the heat was getting to him, he was definitely being flirted with.

In fact, Xander had — at first rather cluelessly, but then with slow intent — been flirting back.

There’d been little opportunity for any kind of connection in Africa so far, even if Xander would have felt felt the desire to, which he hadn’t. He’d talked to people, sure, some of which had even caught his eye. A cheerful and clever waitress back in Kinshasa, a pretty Californian exchange student in Johannesburg. Their numbers were written somewhere at the back of his notebook, on a page he used to calculate expenses and doodle little stick figures during phone calls to the home front.    

That wasn’t what he’d come to Africa for.

But somewhere in-between Scotland and Pangani had been a journey of healing and self-actualization or whatever that article Willow had linked him last month had said, and now flirting with a tall handsome translator over plates of delicious Tanzanian food only produced a little bit of guilt, which was quickly overtaken by that nicely warm feeling that was becoming pleasantly familiar.

And now they were walking along the darkened beach, steadily approaching the string of bungalows that made up Xander’s hostel, and what had been a low buzzing awareness was suddenly building to a ball of nerves that settled somewhere low beneath Xander’s breastbone.

“Are you alright?” Mahir asked, after Xander had been silent for an uncharacteristically long time.

Xander kicked aimlessly at a piece of driftwood in his way. “Yeah, just… thinking.”

“Bad thinking?”

“Just… Thinking.”

Mahir watched Xander with a bemused smile on his face. “Man of enigma.”

“That’s what all my friends call me. Xan, the Man of Enigma.”

“Catchy,” Mahir admitted while laughing.

They continued their walk in silence, and Xander wondered if the moment felt awkward only to him. Maybe Mahir liked quiet introspective walks. Maybe he’d suddenly realized Xander was terrible company, and was figuring out a way to ditch him. Maybe he wasn’t interested at all, and Xander had made everything up in his head.

Maybe… Oh, fuck it.

“I can see the hostel from here, think I can make my way back myself now. Thanks for the company, it was nice,” Xander said, pausing in his steps.

Mahir looked at him, confused, and now probably wasn’t the time to note how attractive that expression was on him. “I can walk you to the hostel.”

“No, I’m good, really. I had a great evening, but it’s late and you probably want to go to bed, so…” He trailed off.

A fisherman was dragging his boat to the coast, a few feet from where they were standing, and Xander watched the guy lumber around to avoid having to look at Mahir.

“I’d like to walk you back.”

“Look, I’m not gonna get mugged between here and the hostel, alright.” That came out a little too tersely, and if Mahir hadn’t caught on that Xander was kind of mentally challenged yet, he definitely got the message now.

But Mahir just rolled his eyes, and lowered his voice after a quick glance at the fisherman. “I’d like to walk you back, because I can’t kiss you right here on the beach.”

The protest Xander had prepared died in his throat, and Mahir raised an eyebrow. “Too forward?”

“That — I mean — No, I just—” Xander shook his head and huffed out a laugh. “Sorry, I can usually at least string together full sentences.”

“Mhmm.” Mahir nodded to the hostel visible in the distance. “How about we walk, and you showcase these alleged talking abilities?”

Xander nodded, and they resumed their path. “Do you ever get used to it? The blue ocean and picture-perfect white beach and palm trees?”

“Do you always avoid the topic at hand?”

Xander couldn’t contain his laugh at that. “Actually, yeah. Another one of my many skills.”

“Charming.”

“Is it? My exes didn’t seem to think so.”

Mahir steered them back towards the tree line, to where the lights from the bungalows and small buildings glittered like fireflies in the darkness. “These exes, male or female?”

“Female. Though some of them were demons, does that count?”

“If you were playing some sort of romantic partners bingo, sure.” Mahir expression was openly amused, and it pleased Xander — a little irrationally — that Mahir was deciding to humor him, despite Xander’s sub-par attempts at joking. “Is that why you got cold feet earlier? The guy thing?”

“I guess. I mean, it’s part of it. I like guys, I’ve just never—” Xander paused to collect his thoughts, and Mahir seemed content to wait. “I’ve never acted on it, I guess. I was with my fiancée for three years, and then that ended, and then she died and I just… haven’t had the chance.”

Mahir hummed, a contemplative little noise, as he stepped over a fallen branch. “But you wouldn’t be opposed to… having the chance.”

“I — no.” They’d reached the hostel, and Xander led them to the little bungalow he’d rented, a little to the edge of the area. He leaned against the door and fiddled with his key. “I’m supposed to have a roommate, but apparently they canceled last minute. You want to come in?”

“Gladly,” Mahir said, and Xander miraculously managed to open the lock without dropping the key.

“I don’t have anything to offer you to drink, sorry.” Xander stood awkwardly in the middle of the room, unsure of what to do now that they’d gotten here, how to get from point A to point B without looking like an idiot.

Mahir seemed to have more experience, or at least a more proactive nature, as he stepped closer to wrap his hand around Xander’s waist. “I didn’t come here for the drinks. I thought we established that earlier.”

“I mean, we did, it’s just polite to—”

“My God, will you stop talking?” Mahir laughed and shook his head. He leaned in closer to bring his lips near Xander’s ear, his breath a soft whisper against his skin. “Tell me if this is okay.”

“I would, if you’d actually do something.”

At that, Mahir leaned back to look at Xander properly, one eyebrow raised and a faint smile still curved around his lips. “Well alright,” he said, and promptly leaned in for a kiss.

Mahir was a good kisser. His lips were soft and insistent against Xander’s, drawing out long, languid kisses that had Xander clinging to toned arms for support. It had been a long time since he’d held another body in his arms, and Mahir’s was warm and sturdy, and while the nerves still coiled in his stomach, they were fast becoming the secondary to the thrum of desire that hummed along his skin, heightened in the places where Mahir was touching him.

If Xander had had any reservations about wanting this earlier, on the beach, they’d disappeared now along with Mahir deepening the kiss, tracing the edges of Xander’s lips and licking inside, coaxing soft sighs out of Xander that had Mahir grinning into the kiss and pressing in even closer, leading them through the room until Xander’s body was being pushed up against the rickety dresser. It made an ominous croaking sound that they both ignored. A demon could’ve walked in just now threatening to destroy the earth, and Xander would’ve told it to call Buffy and leave him be.

The kiss slowed, Mahir pulling back after a few more pecks. “Is this—”

“If you’re going to ask if this is okay, I’m going to get worried about your ability to read social cues.”

Mahir reached up to trace Xander’s cheek with his thumb, brushing it back and forth underneath the eyepatch, and Xander had to restrain himself from leaning into the touch.

"Yes,” he said, rolling his eyes. “It’s okay. Good. Amazing. Spectacular. Now can we get back to kissing?”

The pleased little grin that spread across Mahir’s face was well worth the effort of complimenting him, and then Mahir was pressing their lips together again, and Xander thought there really were a large number of reasons to stick around in Africa just a little while longer.