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It's always hard this time of year. April was Jesse's birthday. This year he'd have been stoked about turning eighteen, graduating, all that.



Instead, for the third year, Xander will be calling Jesse's mom for an excruciating five-minute chat. She'll ask if he's heard from Jesse, and he'll say no, he hasn't. He was just thinking of her, that's all. Yeah, he misses him too.



Misses him like a brother.



Like a right hand.



Like an eye.



After the call to Jesse's mom, he dials Buffy. Patrol tonight? He's in a vamp-killing mood. He doesn't tell her why.






Buffy's sensing a vibe, but she's got it wrong. She brings up Faith. "This must be hard on you. That we gave her a chance and she went evil again."



"It's what we do, right? With Giles, after the House of Wacko. Angel." He keeps his voice neutral.



"I really hoped we could get her back, y'know? Well, of course you do. You went to her, after all. I admire that."



Xander presses the point of his stake into his palm. It distracts him from the memory of hands around his neck. "You were right, though."



"Maybe. But you were righter."






Vamps are like cops. You can never find one when you want one. Patrol goes by without a single flash of teeth, though they do run into some other kind of demon. Two of them. No teeth, though. No mouths.



He tries the stake on one, but he just pisses it off. Luckily Buffy manages to snap its neck before he finds himself turned into demon snack.



"Ow, Xander. You've got blood trickling from your head. I'm taking you to Giles."



He's got something gross on his hand, too. Like radioactive milk. He wipes his hand on his jeans. Blecch.






Giles is in the middle of something, and he seems cranky when he opens the door. But he quickly adjusts, turning off his music (some old psychedelic stuff) and hauling out his first aid kit.



The gash is conveniently located in his hair, so there won't be any marks to explain to his parents. (As if.) Xander does pretty well with the washcloth dabbing, until Giles says maybe he needs stitches. Then he goes kind of white, and Giles helps him to the sofa.



"Xander, you must try harder to stay out of harm's way."



Giles never has liked him.






Giles changes his mind, decides he can take care of the cut himself. Buffy goes back out to finish her rounds, satisfied that Xander will be okay. Mostly okay. He feels a little gross, so Giles orders him to stretch out on the sofa, and brings him some tea.



"It's Jesse's birthday," he mumbles as Giles comes back.






God, that pisses him off. Nobody ever says his name anymore. It's like his death caused a few ripples in the water, then nothing. No sign he was ever here. "Jesse."



"Well, I'm afraid you won't be doing any celebrating tonight."








Steamed, Xander shoves himself upright. "I'm okay now," he lies. "Better get home."



"You're a bit shaky yet to be running off. Drink your tea, then we'll see."



"I'm fine. Really."



"You're upset." Perceptive man. "Tell me what's the matter, I'd like to help."



"Unless you can raise the dead, or shit, even remember them, there's not a fuck of a lot you can do." This shocks Giles. Xander's somewhat startled to realize how much he enjoys that.



"Raise the -- Christ, Xander, I'm sorry. Of course, your friend Jesse. I'm sorry."



"I've gotta go." He pushes the tea away.






Xander walks home, grateful for the dark. Giles had offered -- all but insisted -- a ride, but Xander's refusal had finally been adamant enough. He'd seemed bemused as he saw Xander out, urging him to go "directly home." Where else would he go? Cordelia's? (As if he'd been there when she didn't hate him.) Faith's?



He rounds the corner, sees the den curtains are open. Which either means Tony's not in some mood, or else his mom's had a few herself and forgot to signal. These days one is as likely as another.



Bracing himself in case, he lets himself in.






The old man is on the cusp. Feeling good, but he never stops there. There's no telling when he'll slide from one mood to the other. Xander pauses for a quick hello (never a good idea to skate by altogether), pleads a test in the morning. He grabs a handful of cookies and closes himself in his room.



His hand itches. He scratches at it, but that doesn't help. He tries to read tomorrow's chapter, but the prickling is too distracting.



He tries to think about Jesse.



All he gets is a mood. An itch.



Later on, he gets dreams.





Xander cuts across the track behind the school, cinders crunching below his feet. There's a solitary figure sprawling near the top of the bleachers, long legs spread. An awkward youthful grace. With the certainty of dreams, Xander knows the figure's waiting for him.



The sunlight is so bright it hurts.



Xander hurries his step as he realizes it's Jesse. The old Jesse.



But as he gets closer, the sky darkens. By the time he reaches the bleachers, it's night.



Jesse smirks. There are fangs. "Still living the old way, Xan?"



"Still living."



"Enjoy it, bud. Things are about to change."






Xander grabs breakfast from the vending machine and parks at a table with Oz, Willow and Buffy.



"How's your head?" Buffy asks.



"What's that supposed to mean?"



"Well, I'm no expert," Buffy says, "but I'm guessing I meant how's your head? You know, the one that got clocked last night?"



He resumes his struggle with the Twinkie wrapper. "Oh. Fine, I guess."



Willow frowns. "You were clocked?"



"Travel alarmed, not Seth Thomased," he says. "No big. The itch is worse."



"What itch?"



"I got some kinda demon leakage on me."



"You should see Giles," Buffy says. "Just to be safe."






"It's nothing. Buffy got all anxious -- you know how girls are."



Giles inspects his hand through a lighted magnifying glass. "Yes," he says drily. "We all know how anxious and girly she can be. Tell me again. This demon touched you?"



"Leaked spooge on me."






"Not actual spooge. I'd have just cut my hand off. Blood, I guess. White, though, and glowy."



"The itch could have any number of causes, most innocuous. A new fabric softener." Spoken like a man who thinks Xander's mom actually does laundry.



"I'd know."



Giles shoves a book at him. "Is this your culprit?"





Aspect of the demon. This clangs in his mind like a gym locker door when someone (Larry) has stuffed you inside.



What's that supposed to mean? Giles doesn't know, same as he doesn't know what this Ascension thing is going to be.



He doesn't like the sound of it. Now, Ascension, that could have an upbeat, happy kind of meaning. It could be a lot more cheerful than they've been thinking.



But aspect of the demon -- not exactly the feel-good phrase of the year. Have a nice aspect of the demon!


You are thoroughly fucked has a much snappier ring.






The Lunch Lady snarls at him as she serves his glop. It's such a naked look of hate that he nearly chucks the tray and runs to the bathroom to see if he's sprouted horns or scales.



But she gives the same look to Jonathan, who's probably the most harmless person on the planet. No scales, either.



So okay, Xander has to look at this crap for as long as it takes to eat. She stares at it all day long. Sucks to be her, I guess. He thanks her, which startles her so badly she almost drops her spoon.






"Are you all right?" Willow asks as Xander pushes his lunch away, half eaten.



"Yeah, fine."



"What'd Giles say about your itch?" Buffy asks.



"Fabric softener."



"Giles is the king of the anticlimax these days," Oz offers.



More like the king of We don't know yet.



He does this, he's noticed. Curls in around whatever's bothering him like a wild animal crawls off to hide an injury. Even with his friends. He gets bitter about the silence around Jesse, but he never confronts it.



What does he think will happen once his friends see his wounds?



God, that was emo.





So Jess. You had an aspect of the demon, I guess. You seemed okay with it.



Stupid. He didn't have an aspect, he became a demon. He reveled in it, sneered at anything human. Xander refuses to embrace the inner demon, write a fucking self-help book about it.



He wonders if Wes can help. He thinks about the Ascension meeting. Yeah, right. He cannot believe Cordelia mooning over that jackass. Nice teeth and expensive clothes will seek out nice teeth and expensive clothes every time.



Why he thought he ever had a chance --



He wonders if he has A.D.D.






He goes to the basketball game, but can't get into it. He thinks about the old days, Jesse sprawled next to him, watching the cheerleaders instead. Talking about which girl was hottest. He had a thing for Cordelia. If he were still alive, Xander probably wouldn't have gone out with her. You don't go after the girl your best bud is pining for.



Jesse was a big talker. About girls. About his jerk-off habits and schedule.



Sometimes Xander wonders if all that talk meant something.



And what it meant that he'd often hang up and close himself in the bathroom.






Thinking about it now, it seems like Jesse was after something when he talked about this stuff. A reaction.



A couple of times, he could have sworn Jesse was jacking off while they were on the phone. Xander hadn't let on what he was thinking, just asked into a silence that followed some breathing, "What's going on over there?"



"Nothin'. Just watching some stupid shit on TV."



He'd felt sort of weirded out. He'd felt painfully hard.



He'd gone into the bathroom, closed his eyes, picturing Jesse languidly stroking himself, phone wedged between shoulder and ear.



Jesse got his reaction.






Even in death (unlife, whatever), it was about the reaction. His knowing smirk, the speech about how great it was being vamped, how much better he was now. It was all about the audience. Xander sees that now.



He's noticed this in Willow and Oz. Will looks to Oz as if he's a mirror, especially after The Kiss. Who am I to you? gets translated into Who am I? Is this love, or neediness? Did Jesse --



Xander turns to Willow and Oz. "Hey, guys, I'm gonna take off."



"Are you okay?"



Everyone keeps asking. "Headache, that's all. See you tomorrow."






He's spent plenty of nights with Patsy and George on the stereo, thinking No one's ever gonna love me.



It's a lot more bearable listening to these songs than the happy ones. Those keep droning on about the one person who's meant for you, your one true love.



What if you live in Sunnydale? What if your one true love gets dead before you ever meet?



What if you are too slow to pick up on things, and the one person who'll ever love you doesn't live long enough for you to open your eyes?



(And what if he had?)






"Aw, Christ, is he brooding again?"



Xander catches this as he leaves his room the raid the fridge. No answer from Mom.



"What the fuck's he got to brood about? A mortgage? Car payments? He's never paid a single bill, including the ones he generates." That's a favorite tune. Always in the Billboard Top Five.



Mom must've conked out early. There's no Oh, now, Tony....



"Wait till he has a shit job, a frigid wife and a kid who does squat around the house."



Whoa. He's never heard momsex TMI before. He heads for his room.



He likes the quiet.






He dreams of Jesse again.


This time he really is the old Jesse. They're hanging out in Xander's room, listening to cds and talking about shit.



"You think you can ever know what's in a person's head? The girl you love, say. What if you'd known each other, like, your whole life? Could you still ever get inside her head?"



This is a pointless exercise. What girl has he known his whole life, other than Willow? No way he's interested in her.



"Even if you could," Jesse goes on, "would it be the greatest thing ever, or would it suck?"






They spent a lot of time talking about pointless shit. Is this how friendships will always work? The current friends he keeps, ones he makes later on. Assuming he makes new friends ever. He suspects he's too weird to mingle with normal people.



(He thought that even before he met the Trixie Belden of the supernatural.)



Assuming by some miracle he does, will he sit around with some other guy when he's Tony's age, bullshitting about the merits and downsides to various superpowers? Or just bitching about frigid wives? (He could have lived his whole life without hearing that. Seriously.)





He's drifted off, sometime between the cd ending and Jesse finally shutting up. The waking is a lot more abrupt. Suddenly there's a hand on his crotch -- on the denim that's covering his crotch -- and breath against his neck.



"Holy fuck!"



Jesse laughs. "Man, I used to be so afraid of what you'd think."



Not so much with the thinking right now. More with the getting hard.



"Funny how little it matters what people think when you're dead. You should try it."



"Being dead? No, thanks."



"Not caring. You'll be dead anyway, soon enough. You might as well live first."






He wakes -- really wakes -- to damp boxers and a fading throb in his balls.



"That was just disturbing." He slings his shorts in his hamper and gets a fresh pair. (One advantage to doing your own laundry at his age.) He's not sure which is more worrisome -- guy- related orgasm, or dead guy-related orgasm.



It's all plenty worrisome. All this Jesse is getting alarming, even without the crotch stuff. He wonders if he's being haunted. Or maybe this has something to do with the aspect of the demon.



He'd better tell Giles.



This gets better and better.



Fuck yeah.






Xander finds the shirt that always cheers him up. (When he buys these at Goodwill, he wonders why he's never seen them around town in their previous lives. Red, white and green stripes -- not exactly missable.)



He meets Oz and Will in the student lounge before first.



"You should have stayed, Xander. It got so exciting. Percy --" Abruptly Willow clams up. Heads up. Buffy.



Wasn't such a hot game, they assure her. "I didn't even stay for the whole thing."



Cordelia horns in, ever helpful. "Are you guys crazy?"



He only thinks so when he contemplates his taste in girls.






Buffy seems so down.



Oz and Willow are all couply this morning, and she's got the whole Faith-Angel smooching thing on her mind.



He touches her wrist. "I know how much this is all getting to you." Much as Angel bugs him, he has to offer this. "Talk to him. Guys can't read minds, you know. Though the romance thing would be a whole lot easier if we could."



She tries a smile. "I dunno, Xander. You're doing a pretty good job of it." She pecks him on the cheek and goes.



He blinks. Is this it? The aspect?






As he heads for the library, it's like tuning the radio up and down the dial. All the different stations.


Should I ask her tonight? Ahhh, who am I kidding?


Fuck. I really thought I aced that. My life is over.


Aw, Jesus. She told Amy that I kiss like a fish. It's gonna be all over the school in, like, fifteen seconds.


He's so cute and nice. Who? Him? But jeez, that shirt. I can't believe Cordelia didn't manage to fix him up at least a little.



Oh. So he's the only one who's cheered up by this shirt.






"I've gotta say, the scales and tails thing had me worried, but this really isn't bad."



"Xander, I'm not fully convinced you're actually reading minds. Not to make light of her feelings, but it's a good guess with Buffy these days that Angel lies at the heart of any upset."



"Valid point. By the way, I'm not color blind." He points out stripes: "Red, green. Good theory on why I almost never drive, but a wrong one."



Giles's mouth drops open.



Oh, yeah. This could be fun. He's got gym right before lunch. Maybe he can organize a poker game....






"You should have figured out the no-mouth equals telepathy thing? Giles, I'm the one who's spent his whole life delving into the science fiction and horror film canon. Personally, I am shamed that it didn't occur to me."



That teases a smile from Giles. "We should see what we can learn about this new power of yours. This could be quite useful. It could have spared Buffy and Angel the painful charade to uncover Faith's defection."



"Sure. What's a little throttling compared with seeing your boyfriend macking on another girl?"



"Xander, I--"



"Gotta get to class. Catch you later."






Thoughts swirl around him in the hallway, but he's lost in his own.



Faith. Would it really accomplish something if he tried to read her? Besides getting him dead, that is. So many sexual thoughts around him, rising up and popping like soap bubbles. They feed his memory of the night -- ha ha, the fifteen minutes -- he shared with Faith.



Her heat, the way she rode him. Teasing rhythms that brought him to the edge, then hauled him back, until finally she let him fall.



Memory of her hands around his throat. Darkness, erotically charged, so inviting.



Then the terror.






Funny how thinking about Faith leads right into English and Othello. Topic of the day: Why is Iago evil?



Why is Faith? If he went to see her would he find something that would make it all click, explain her to him? Would that same thing (a different kind of aspect of the demon) be the key to redeeming her?



He raises his hand. "Iago doesn't even see himself as a person. He's a kind of shadow self of Othello. His dark half."



Ms. Murray's impressed.



Is Faith just the shadow of Buffy? Light and dark. The universe creating balance.






"Wow, Xander," Nancy says as they walk out of class. "That was kind of deep."



"I've just been thinking a lot lately. Othello kind of tied in, is all." Weird that this is actually true.



"Wow," she says again. "Why don't you say more in class?" Maybe he's not a total lump after all. Maybe he's some kind of supergenius, and class just bores him.



Xander shrugs. "I dunno. School just doesn't hold my interest." It's a little creepy how easy this is.



What's wrong with him that the easy way just fills him with suspicion and a vague dread?






Math class is almost fun. He volunteers for once and stands at the board doing the Good Will Hunting. Somehow the academic easy way bothers him a lot less than the interpersonal.



When he's not showing off, he dips into the thoughts of his classmates. And here he'd thought he was the only one with complete math terror.



And he's not the only one who whiles away the more boring parts (and face it, here there's just boring and more boring) with the odd sexual fantasy -- wait, not odd odd. Let's rephrase.



Except Freddy Iverson. That is fuckin' odd, dude.






Gym class, though. Now that is the home of inappropriate sexual content. As Xander walks through the locker room, it's pretty much like flipping through the pages of a skin magazine. Which skin magazine depends on the section of the locker room. There's Playboy and Hustler and some extremely specialized magazines he's noticed at the smoke shop when he's gone to get a carton for the old man.



And there's some ones they don't sell at the smoke shop, at least not in the open. Those he doesn't know the name of. Larry Magazine.



He wanders back toward Larry's locker.






He sits to put on his basketball shoes, but remains motionless on the bench, buffeted by the thoughts around him.



The locker room empties out around him, except for Larry. "Xander. You all right, buddy?"


Buddy. From Larry. How weird things have gotten. But he reads nothing except sincerity from him.



"Yeah. There's just ... a lot on my mind."



Larry nods. "I get that. Listen, if you want to talk.... I never thanked you for that conversation we had last year. It changed my life, man."



"Are you glad?"



"Overall, it's been great."



"What's it like kissing guys? Do you?"






Larry laughs. "Sure. It's better than it was kissing girls. I think that's because I'm a better kisser now. With girls it used to be about asserting my big, straight swinging dick. Kissing isn't about proving something. Not if you're doing it right."



Why is Xander thinking about this? He's a kisser of girls. Cordelia. Willow. Faith. A good many of those kisses were beyond hot. He couldn't keep his lips off of Cordy and Will at times, even when he wanted to. You don't just switch to guys.



Do you?



"Talking doesn't tell you anything. You should try it."






Xander feels his mouth twitch. That micro-smile that means Oh god I'm going to die but maybe that's not such a bad idea. The zombie-in-the-basement smile.



"I wouldn't blame you for thinking this is some kind of practical joke," Larry says. "I've been an asshole, I know that." Not so much lately, though.



"You're not just making a suggestion..." But Xander already knows the answer to that.



"I'm making -- what? An offer. No-risk, no-obligation trial offer. Act now, operators are standing by."



"No-risk," Xander repeats.



"We're the only ones who'll know."



Xander acts now.






As advertised, Larry's a skilled kisser. As good as girls Xander's kissed, though there's something extra, male and untentative.



"You catch on quick," Larry says.



"Any more free samples?"



More heat this time. Just as tongues come into play, Xander senses the thoughts of someone approaching. He pulls back, blinking furiously. "I can still feel it. See anything?"



"Guys, Coach is looking for you." Jonathan.



"Right there. Harris has something in his eye."






Xander catches the shard of a thought, but it's lost when Larry laughs. "Good timing, dude."



All through gym he's lost in thoughts of Larry Kissage.






Xander's slightly giddy as he heads for the library after gym. He works the one-hand cross-crotch book carry, though there's not much he can do about his gait. Between Larry Kissage and the sexual brainwaves in the hall, it's a miracle he can walk at all.


Big swinging dick. The phrase keeps floating up in his mind, despite the original context.



He breezes into the library, slouches in a chair, artfully arranging his shirt tail.


Priapism, Giles notes. I wonder if that's related to the aspect of the demon.



"Special meeting, huh? What's the topic?"



"You," Giles says.






Jesus, they know already? That's impossible. Not that it's anyone's business --



Oh. "The aspect?"



Giles nods. "The others should arrive at any moment. Are you still experiencing the effects?"



"I'd say so. And let me say, Giles, this entire school is crawling with sex fiends and perverts. And the student body's pretty raw, too."


Light and dark. So like Ethan in his youth. "I daresay that's true in any school filled with boys your age."



"Even Watcher High? That's hard to believe."



"I have more references to gather." Giles heads for the stacks. "Do behave."



"What's priapism? And Ethan who?"






Giles disappears into the stacks, but Xander gets a strong visual: guy his age, leaning toward the skinny, with dark, shaggy hair. Smoking a cigarette in a way that blows the whole smoking-is-not-sexy argument out of the water. Laughing, he flicks the cigarette away, reaching for--



"What's up?" Buffy slings her little silver backpack on the table.


Me. "Dunno." What's that mean, light and dark?



"Something new about Faith or the Ascension, maybe."



He shrugs.



"Hey, what's goin' on?"



"Hey, Will," Buffy says. "The Mayor, I guess."


That shirt. God, my eyes. Cordelia. Swell. The day's complete.






But it's not complete until Wes shows up, and Xander's treated to Cordy's mental gushing about his accent, his amazing eyes, the cut of his suit. Wes moons back, utterly extraordinary and other multi-syllable words.



Xander is considering taking up projectile vomiting when Oz enters and everyone is assembled.



"I'm sure Xander has told most of you about the events of the last two days," Giles says.



"No," Buffy says in this way that seems clipped and yet contains nearly three syllables itself. "He has not."



"There was fallout from your demon hunting the other night. He didn't tell you?"






No mind reading necessary with the glare Buffy gives him. "Your head."



"My head is fine. Really." Now there's a big fat lie.



"Xander touched the blood of one of your adversaries. He was infected by an aspect of the demon. We've had a rather tense day wondering how it would manifest."



"And why is this the first I've heard of it, buster?" Poor Will. She wants to be friends the way they used to be friends, but she's anxious about Oz's reaction.



"No point in spreading the anxiety around," Xander says.



"Agreed," Cordy blurts. "So why are we here?"






Buffy eyes him thoroughly. "I don't see any spines or horns or bony protrustions."



Don't look too close.



"In point of fact, the infection isn't physical," Giles says.



In point of fact. Who the hell says in point of fact?



"Xander's developed telepathic abilities."



"He reads minds?" Cordy hoists herself to her pointy-shoed feet. That's it. I'm gone. "That's it. I'm gone."



All surface, that's his Cordelia. Lucky for her it's such an amazing surface.


Totally inexplicable. That's Will, standing up for him as always. I will never understand his taste in women as long as I live.









"Oh god," Willow exclaims. "You heard that? I mean read that? That kinda freaks me out."



Gee, maybe this is why he hadn't decided to share this exciting new talent with his friends. He sighs, suddenly tired. "Don't be freaked, Will. It's not something I'm trying to do."



"I know, but ... it's kind of worse that you can't help it." What if he catches me thinking about Oz, and comparing the way they kiss, which I can't always help doing? That's disloyal enough, not to mention that I think Xander's actually-- "Oh god." She jumps up and leaves the library.





This is disturbing. Oz's thoughts are as drily delivered as his speech.



"You find it disturbing?" Xander blurts. "You're not the one whose friends are making a mad rush for the door."


First my girlfriend, now my thoughts. This may be more sharing than I'm comfortable with.



Xander sighs. "Yeah, go. You have my blessing. This is pretty nifty, Giles. Five minutes and half my friends have run for the hills. Actually, we're over fifty percent, because Wes is here strictly for -- well, why is he here?"



"Xander--" Giles says gently.



"Right. He's an idiot, but we're stuck with him."






"Really! There's no need to lash out. I agreed to help, even though you're not the Slayer. Honestly, Mr. Giles, I'm shocked at your laxness regarding secrecy."



"Now is not the time --" Giles begins.



"Thanks for pointing out how very not the Slayer I am," Xander says. "Because nobody ever thinks to remind me.."



"Boys," Buffy says. "You think maybe we could do something useful with our time? Like -- call me crazy -- some research?"



"She's right," Giles says. "We don't yet know what this means -- if it's only the beginning of a series of changes."





"We'd best get started."






It's hard to research with all this racket. There's an internal catalog of complaints from Wes about Giles. Xander suspects it's at least partly for his benefit. Poor misunderstood Wes.



As Buffy flips through her pile of books -- pointless, irrelevant, ew -- she compiles a mental list of people she's glad she can't telepathize: Harmony, Snyder, Willy --



He chokes back a laugh, and she shoots him a grin. "Can you imagine," she says, and he realizes she's offering him distraction.



"Drusilla," he adds.



"That would be freaky. What is it like?"



"Eye-opening. Kinda spooky. Thanks, Buff, for not bailing on me."





You're always here for me. You're in this sitch because of me.



Xander's glad to hear this, but still he wishes she'd say it out loud.


What, am I supposed to run off because I can't stop thinking those embarrassing -- "Wait. This looks like something."





Not such a good something--






She looks up. Deer, meet Headlights. "Let me show Giles. Maybe it's nothing."



Wes turns a page, and now he's all Oh dear. Or maybe that's deer.



Giles eyes Buffy and then Wes. I was afraid of this.



Xander gets to his feet. "Stop thinking! All of you!"






Giles lays his book aside. "Perhaps my office will be more restful for you. It must be exhausting to be surrounded by such cacophony."



Um, sure. Whatever that is. Xander allows himself to be herded to Giles's cramped office.


I can barely tolerate the prattling his classmates subject me to; I can't imagine how it must feel, being forced to hear their every thought. "Sit. I'll put the kettle on. Some tea might calm you."



He stays on his feet, though he's in Giles's way. "Giles. I want you to tell me the truth. Why do you think I'm evil?"






"Evil?" Giles repeats. "Xander, I assure you I think nothing of the kind."



"Bullshit. I heard you. Read you. Earlier, before the others got here. Light and dark, you thought. We were talking about this stuff in English today. Shadow selves. Iago. He's Mr. Evil for No Particular Reason, isn't he? Why would you think I'm like him? Haven't I proven myself in the last two years?"



"Xander, I haven't the faintest notion what you're trying to say. Slow down and tell me again."



He's truly confused; Xander can feel that much is sincere.



"You said -- thought -- that I'm dark."






Sadness and a kind of shame rolls off Giles. It's a mix that confuses Xander. "I did think that," Giles admits. "But 'evil' is not what I meant, not at all."



"You want to explain?"



"First, I want you to remember it was light and dark. It was your complexity I was noting."



Complexity. Now that is a laugh.



"Xander, you have so many admirable qualities. Your loyalty and affection, your quickness to help your friends. Your humor, though often it baffles me."



"Annoys you, you mean."



A quick smile.



"Get to the other stuff," Xander says. "The dark stuff."






He tries reading Giles, but finds himself blocked.



"Let me tell it my own way," Giles chides. "Your 'dark stuff' is not so different from anyone's. It's your suffering."


Suffering? He's never applied this word to himself. It seems too elevated somehow.



"Your anger," Giles continues. "Much of it justified. Your readiness to believe the worst of yourself. Though I'm pleased to know you do balk at being thought evil."



"There was one other thing I caught. You thought I reminded you of someone -- not that Ethan. Tattoo-my-friend-so-the-demon-will-eat-her Ethan? Band candy Ethan?"









"Talk about Mr. Evil for No Reason. He lives to stir up shit, and if I remember right, sometimes it's the kind of shit that gets people killed. That's the guy I remind you of?"



"He was different when I first knew him. There were the seeds of the man he'd become, true. But there was a thread of light. That contrast -- this is what I saw in you both."



Giles's guard slips, just for a moment.



"That's why you--" Why you shut me out, he wants to say. Why you were always closer to Will and Buffy.









Xander can't believe how much it hurts to have this out in the open. He drops into the chair Giles had guided him to.



"You have to remember, Xander, that I can be a complete dolt when it comes to young people."



It's supposed to produce at least a smile, he guesses, but he's not up to it.



"I believed that being stern would guide you down the right path. God knows why, because it never worked with me. I believe we've just been handed the opportunity to start over. Are you willing to give me a second chance?"









Giles releases a breath, and favors Xander with one of the smiles he's always bestowed on Willow and Buffy. "Thank you, Xander. Oh. I've quite forgotten the tea."



"It's okay." It's a little too intense to stay in this room with his feelings right now. He'd rather be out there with everyone else's. "It's lunch period. Maybe I'll go grab something to eat. You can concentrate on your research better without me being in your head." And, he suddenly realizes, he'd like to find Larry.



"Are you all right?"



"I'm good," he says. "I really am." He stands. "Thanks, Giles."






Xander surfs the tide of mindbabble to the cafeteria. Are they getting louder, or there are just more kids out? They're just a distraction; he's still mulling over this thing with Giles.



He's heard some of this Ethan bad seed stuff, but the details were lost back then in the whole OMG Giles was a tough? shocker.



He felt these slender tendrils of guilt curling around Ethan's name. Like instead of feeling Ethan corrupted him, Giles believes he could have saved him somehow. Like it's Giles who's responsible.



Xander thinks of someone he knows who needs saving.



Thinks of Faith.






Xander scouts out tables as he waits in line, spots Larry near the window. Larry offers a twitch of a smile as Xander catches his eye, but doesn't wave him over. Xander feels a prick of disappointment, though really, he'd gotten exactly what Larry advertised: a no-obligation trial. Willow appreciates his kissing, but Larry's mileage may vary.



Percy nudges him. The lunch lady awaits, her goulash-crusted spoon at the ready.



Her feet hurt. That's nothing compared to the pain in her chest, the hole where Rusty was. He was worth more than all of these vermin put together.






This knowledge floats toward him on a river of darkness. He pushes it back, flashes his Joyce smile. "Sorry. Goulash me up. By the way, you rocked my world yesterday. Raspberry Jello's my favorite, but it's sadly neglected among the red flavors."



She eyes him, her face bunched like a fist. Then it softens. "There's some left. Want a bowl?"



"Please. Lay it on me."



She hobbles back to the kitchen as the entire line waits. Behind him, Percy thinks, Somebody's launched a new career as a suck-up.


Bite me, Xander shoots back, then remembers it only goes one way.






"You're lucky," the lunch lady says, handing him a chilled bowl of prime red.



"I know. Thanks!"



There's another little flicker from Larry as Xander approaches with his tray, but no overt invitation. Then the truth drifts toward him -- Larry's being discreet. (What a bizarre sentence.) Xander can walk on, avoid making a move that might impact his social life beyond graduation. Because, in some minds, parking his tray is as good as proclaiming he's got a yen for Larry.



This shit is subtle; he'd never have figured it out if not for the mindreading.



"Hey, mind if I sit?"






Larry's smile is like sun breaking through clouds. When was the last time anyone was so openly delighted with his presence? Larry does appreciate his kissing, because he's thinking about it right now. Wishing they could take up where they left off.



That makes two of them.



"You came in late. I wondered if you were gonna show."



"I had some research to do in the library. Guess I lost track of time."



"Senior paper?"



"Yeah." He rubs his brow.



"You all right?"



"Got a killer headache. It's been a weird day."



"It's Sunnydale, dude. What day isn't?"



Xander blinks.






Nobody ever says these things. Things get explained away, laughed off, forgotten. Nobody makes even this direct a joke about it.



Only his friends.



"So what's your topic?"






"The paper. Or are you keeping it to yourself so nobody poaches your idea?"



"Listen, you doing anything after school?"



Larry grins. "Nothing I can't blow off. What d'you have in mind?"
"Okay, this is gonna seem kind of weird. I have this friend. She's in bad trouble, and I want to talk to her. I wondered -- well, I need backup."






"Last time I saw her, she nearly killed me."






Larry laughs. "Let me guess. You're the one who got her into this trouble?"



"Let me clarify something. By 'she nearly killed me,' I'm not saying 'boy, she was really mad.' I mean exactly that. She tried to kill me, and almost did."



"And you think it's a good idea to go see her because--?"



"I might be in a position to help her. You know what, though? Forget I asked. It's not right to put anyone else in danger. I'll be able to read her this time, anticipate any attack. It was a bad idea involving anyone--"



"I'm in."






Xander's grabbing his history text from his locker when Willow approaches. "You should try getting back together."



Will's fond of the sudden, midstream pronouncement, usually with referent-free pronouns. Instead of his usual huh? he responds, "Why?"



"Cordelia ran out the second she heard about the telepathy. She still has feelings."



"You haven't thought your logic all the way through here, have you?"



"What do you--" Oh god. "Giles wants to see you in the library right away," she says in a rush. "It's okay, I have a note for your history teacher."



She flees.



Sighing, Xander heads for the library.






This time it's not so much surfing as swimming through rapids. The smutty seems to be losing ground to hostility and self-loathing. Even the mousiest freshman girls have a serious hate on for someone or other.



It's exhausting.



"Will said you need me."



"Not precisely. I thought it would be best for you to have a break from everyone out there. Our research indicates your ability's likely to become more pronounced, until you can no longer shut out the thoughts of others."



"Oh, fun. It's like nonstop public access TV. What do you mean I'll be insane within three days?"






"Damn," Giles mutters. The barrier flies up again.



"How're you doing that?"



"After last year's experience with Drusilla, I took some pains to learn a few skills. It requires a great deal of energy, unfortunately. Sometimes my guard slips."



"This makes me nervous, Giles. What are you hiding? Does it get worse than craziness?"



"Xander," Giles says gently. "I'm merely trying to provide a restful place for you. Not to mention keeping my mental prattle to myself. I'd like to preserve some dignity, after all. What were you thinking about five minutes ago? Care to share?"



Kissing Larry. "Got it."






"So what now?"



"I suggest you remain out of school until this is resolved."



When's he supposed to see Larry? "And what? Stay home and read my parents' minds? I've already heard way more than -- oh."



"What is it?"



"I'm thinking maybe this started last night. I heard -- I thought he was talking to Mom, but she never answered. Giles, there's some TMI I don't need."



"There's an alternative. Buffy approached Angel to see if there's anything he knows. As it happens, vampires can't be read. He could provide a haven for you."



Angel. This just gets better and better.






Despite the call of homework, Giles lets Xander screw around online most of the afternoon. It distracts him from the wall of babble from surrounding rooms. Toward three, there's a surge of restlessness from all around. Xander feels it rising in himself, too.



"Giles, I need to pick up some things at home, leave a note."



"I strongly suggest waiting a bit, until the majority of students have left. No sense overtaxing yourself."



"I want to go before my dad gets home."



Giles gives in, though he doesn't like it.



He'd like it less if he knew Xander's actual plans.






Giles wasn't wrong. The others' thoughts buffet him as he walks through the halls.



--bitch. She knows I need a C if I--



--spit out this candy. Watermelon -- what the fuck--



--do you care about it? Well, you'll all see--



--how fat I am--



Xander stops, does a double take. "You're crazy," he tells a startled sophomore girl. "You have exactly the kind of body I'd want. If I were a girl, I mean." If he wanted girls, he means.


Who the fuck does he think--



She's not taking that in the right spirit. Xander speeds on toward Larry's locker.






He'd hoped to see that smile again, but Larry closes his locker, bestowing a frown on him. "You all right, Xander?"



"Still got the headache, but I'm okay. It'll help to get out of here."



"You're not looking so hot. D'you think it's smart to pay a social call on this chick who tried to kill you?"



Not so much. "That's the thing. There's a window of opportunity here. Who knows how much longer it'll be open?"



"I don't get you sometimes. Okay, not like I was trying until lately, but still. It's like you're out to save the world."






"I can't explain it." At last they're outside, kids scattering everywhere. The pressure of their thoughts eases. "She's fucked up, yeah, but there was this moment when we were looking at each other, and I could see someone else there who isn't so tough. She got all spooked, though, and booted me out. Still, I think that person can be reached."



Larry gives him a sidelong glance. "Did you and this girl have a thing?"



"This girl doesn't have things. That's too longterm. At best, we had a th."



"There's nothing about this that points to this turning out well."






The farther they get from school, the better Xander feels. As they walk, he gets currents of thoughts from passersby, but the intensity level is way lower.



He takes a deep breath. "I'm gonna tell you something I probably shouldn't. Because you'll think I'm a headcase, and if you do believe me, you'll probably get mad. But I want to be straight with you."



"Oh, that's too bad."



Despite himself, Xander laughs. "I have ... kind of a condition. It's temporary. At least I hope so."



"It's not catching--"



"I doubt it. This will sound nuts, but -- I can read minds."






"If you could really read my mind, you'd've said freakin' nuts."



"I can't explain; it's one of those weirdass Sunnydale things.. I want you to know this: I'm totally new to the kissing guys thing, and if I hadn't known what was in your head back in the cafeteria, I'd have thought you weren't that into me. The whole playing-it-cool-to-give-me-an-out thing would never have occurred. I'd have found another table, and you'd have thought I wasn't that into you."



"So it's got its advantages for me too."



"Hoped you'd see it that way."





Try not to be weirded out. He must've heard that, right?



"Larry, I swear, I'm not trying to do it. It just happens. It's kinda strange for me too, since most other times we were in a big crowd, so I wasn't getting you unfiltered. I don't want to be invasive, or anything else that's gonna screw this up."



"Just keep talking, then. This girl -- you think you can help her if you can read what's going on."



"That's the idea. She's all about putting up a front. Maybe if I can see past that--"



"Maybe she'll hurt you worse."






The back of Xander's neck prickles. He doesn't think Larry's wrong. "She won't know. I'll just --" Christ, he doesn't know . "Shit, I don't know what I'm doing. It just seems right. It's like the Flowers for Algernon of superpowers or something. I don't think this'll last long --" because either Giles will find a cure or he'll end up in the nut hatch -- "what if this is the one thing I can affect?"



Larry shakes his head. "I think you're seriously mental. But I'm still in. Where we headed, anyway?"



Xander tells him.



"She lives there? Jesus, Harris, you are crazy."






He could just ditch this stupid plan. Go somewhere with Larry and get more acquainted with the whole world of kissing guys. He finds this notion stirring.



He's not altogether sure whether these are his thoughts or Larry's, until Larry speaks. "You came and talked to me. I can't even count the times I thumped you, from kindergarten on."



Xander thinks he has a pretty good handle on the number.



"But man, you saw right inside of me. All that rage and fear and shit. Said just what I needed to hear. So who am I to stop you now?"






"Really?" This astonishes Xander.



"You deserve the credit. I thought I'd be ruined if anyone knew."



"It didn't make a difference?"



"I lost some friends. All assholes. The ones I'd been trying to impress by being an asshole. So now I've found my level."






"Totally. I'm more of a jerk."



"Nah, now you're reliving the glory days. You've lost it."



"I can be a jerk anytime I want, buddy. Any day of the week."



"You can try. I see you pulling some muscles."



Laughing, Larry pulls him into a recessed doorway. It's half wrestling, half making out. All hot.






When they pull back, Xander's lips are swollen, his crotch throbbing. All this from kissing. It's a revelation how much hotter hot can be when the right set of chromosomes is involved.



And hey, no worries about lipstick smears.



By the time Faith's motel is in sight, a definite unease starts crawling up his spine, erasing the happy Larry-kissage buzz.



"You sure about this?"



"Like you said, how can I not?" But the closer they get, the less sure he is. If high school is a roiling river, this place is a tsunami.



Xander hopes he can hang on.






Xander points upward. "That's her room."



"Right. I've got your back."



The floodwaters tear at him.


Bitch thinks she can just--


Nobody burns me on a deal. I'll fuck him up.


--or I'll give you somethin' to cry about.



Larry reaches out to steady him as he nearly misses a step. "You okay, man?"



"I'm good." Before Larry can question the wisdom of this mission again, he climbs the last of the stairs and knocks on her door.



"Faith, I--" but the door swings open to a stranger. "I'm looking for Faith."



"I'm not, so fuck off with your tracts."






The guy's convinced they're missionaries -- "I know you types, you travel in pairs " -- but it's clear he knows nothing about Faith, so Xander drops the subject.



"Maybe the manager has a forwarding address."



"Maybe we should get the hell out of here. This place isn't doing you any good."



"It'll just take a minute."



-- government should exterminate the whole fuckin' bunch of them.



How the hell did Faith live here?



The manager shambles to the counter -- coupla queers wantin' a quick one -- and Xander asks about Faith.



"Not like we get postcards when people move on, kid. Now fuck off."






The levee keeping all these thoughts back crumbles as they're halfway across the parking lot. Staggering, Xander clutches his head.



--hate him --



--another hit, can't you front me till--



--goddamn old bat--



--teeth are falling out--



--why doesn't she just die--



"Xander, what's wrong?"



"Too much, I can't shut it off."



--bleeding again--



--took my money, that fuck--



Larry hauls him upright. "Keep moving, you don't want to stay here."



He tries, he really does.



--just this once, for bus money back home--



He falls to his knees.



"What can I do? Call your parents?"



"Giles." Then he's swept away.






Giles. Who the hell is Giles? Larry has a brief flash of some old butler, like all this time Xander's had a secret life as a rich kid. But Larry's known Xander his whole life, knows nothing's further from the truth.






Suddenly it strikes a chord. Mr. Giles, the librarian. Xander and Buffy, their whole gang of weirdo-- uh, friends -- they all spend a ton of time at the library.



Larry pulls Xander to his feet and guides him to a bus stop bench, then whips out his cell. "It's an emergency," he insists, and finally gets put through.






Larry repeats his name three times, and still he's getting blank. Don't librarians read the school rag? Don't librarians read everything?



"Whatever," he finally says. "I'm with Xander. He kind of ... collapsed."



That focuses the conversation. "Where is he? His home?"



"The Sunnydale Motor Inn. I need to get him away. But where to?"



Mr. Giles gives him an address and a name. "I'll meet you there."



Larry hoists Xander up. "Sorry, dude. We've gotta motor."



Xander mutters, "Burn the fuckin' place down."



Whoa. Is that a transmission from in there? Or Xander's own head?



Either way, time to move.






He'd hoped Xander would get a grip when they got away from that shithole, but no such luck. Larry half carries him as they walk, and Xander's muttering nonsense when he says anything at all.



"Hang in, Xander. Almost there."



The librarian wastes no time answering Larry's pounding. He pulls Xander into the dim interior, passing him to a guy Larry's seen around. Buffy's boyfriend.



Not one question about what happened. Giles blocks the door, preparing to shut him out. "I can't thank you enough."


Fuckin' A right. Larry slaps his hand against the heavy door. "I don't think so."






The jerk in him takes pleasure in Giles's startled expression, his stammered What?



"I told Xander I had his back. I'm staying till he says go."



"At the moment he's quite incapable of telling you anything."



"Exactly." He shoves the door wider. "He asked me to come with him, to see this girl Faith Lehane. He's not in the trouble he expected, but he trusted me to help with the other, so I'm not going anywhere."



Buffy's boyfriend approaches, but stops while he's still standing in shadow. Larry feels his sharp scrutiny. "It's all right, Giles. Let the boy in."





Boy. That irritates the hell out of him, but Larry lets it go.



"You saw Faith?" Giles asks.



"She's moved out. They didn't know where."



"What could he have been thinking?" Giles mutters.



"You know what," the boyfriend says. "He thought he could help her."



"You'd think after last time--"



"Things are different."



Larry tries to see into the dimness, to where this guy took Xander. "Look, why don't we stop dancing around this. It would save a lot of time, which we could use to help Xander. I know, okay? He told me, and I guess I believe him."






"Told you?" Giles echoes.



"That he can read minds." There, it's out, and it sounds hella stupid. But Larry's got a pathological hatred of secrets, especially when everyone knows what's what. "I could see he was having a rough time at school, but things got better when we got outside. But the closer we got to that place -- look, I can take care of myself, and I steer clear of there. Imagine having that in your head. That's when this got really bad."



"Told you," Giles repeats.



Buffy's boyfriend chuckles. "Face it, Giles. Looks like you've acquired a new Scooby."






"Back to the point," Larry says. "What do we do for him?" His eyes are adapting to the near-dark; he can see Xander curled up on some kind of massive couch.



"He needs isolation, as complete as possible. Thus my attempt to discourage you from entering."



Larry doubts that's the whole truth, but it makes him wonder if he should go.



"He's already beyond that," Buffy's boyfriend says. "He's inundated now, one person more or less won't matter."



"So how do we fix this?" Larry lowers his voice, though he doubts it matters. "And what happens if we can't?"






Someone bursts through the front door, spearing Larry with a shaft of sunlight. It's Buffy. "Angel, I got here as soon as Giles--" She stops dead when she spots him. "Oh. Larry." She blinks. "Larry?"



"He's the one who found Xander," Giles says.



"I was with Xander," he corrects.



She looks toward the boyfriend. Angel. "What'd he do to him?"






"Xander apparently asked him along," Angel says. "To go talk to Faith."



"She did this?"



"It's the mind-reading thing," Larry blurts. "It's too much for him. Now can we get back to doing something to help the guy?"






"Angel, Wesley and I have all tried every source we could find," Giles says. "There's only one cure we've been able to unearth. We must find the, er, companion of his, em, attacker from the other night."



"The thing with no--" Buffy sputters a moment. "That really ugly guy."



"Yes. And then we need to-- Xander must--"



Angel sighs. "We have to cut out its heart and feed it to Xander. Don't worry," he says to Larry, "it's only a demon." He looks at the others. "I told you, Giles, he's in it. Might as well cut to the chase."






Of the four conscious people in the room, three are completely speechless. Larry feels a strange buzzing in the top of his head.



"Look," says Angel. "Xander told him about the telepathy. I happen to know he doesn't give his trust easily. If Larry has it, he earned it. The least we can do for Xander right now is respect that."



"Besides which, I'm going nowhere until Xander tells me it's cool."



"This is utterly impossible," Giles mutters.



Suddenly Buffy smiles. "Know who he reminds me of, Giles? Who founded the Scoobies by refusing to abandon his friend Jesse? Xander."







Don't worry, it's only a demon. Now he's remembering why he thought Harris and friends were terminally weird.



The others swing into strategy mode. "What do we know about these things?" Buffy asks.



"They're not native to this area, which won't surprise you," Giles says. "I suspect the other's still around, however. They mate for life. It may seek to avenge its partner."



"Goody. Well, at least that'll bring it to me. I'll start looking where I killed the other, unless you have any info on favorite lurking places. Alright then. I'll get my weapons, be back at dusk."






It's a jolt, hearing tiny Buffy Summers talk about weapons and killing. Though he's known something was off about that girl since she flipped him in gym class last year.



Angel breaks out his own stash of weapons while they wait for Buffy's return. He's a blade guy, not a gun guy, apparently. He likes 'em long, medieval and wicked looking.



"How long you been doing this?"



"Since I've known Buffy," Angel says. "A little over two years."



Giles gets this look like he's biting into a lemon, but then he answers. "I've been training for this my entire life."





Training for this. Holy shit. Sounds completely crazy, yet makes perfect sense. Because everyone's so matter-of-fact about all this demon stuff.



Angel unearthing the bigass blades as if he's hauling out the garden hose on a Saturday morning. Library guy giving the dry details on the mating and roosting habits of demons. Buffy dragging in her duffel of death, letting it clank on the floor, acting like it's another day at the office.



This is the crowd he'd always thought of as freaks and losers. Now Larry's beginning to think it's the football that seems pointless and stupid.






Giles catches Buffy as she's leaving. "You must be extremely careful. Let Angel take the heart, and make every effort not to touch the creature's blood. It's the blood that infected Xander. I can't predict the effect on you. Whether it would be magnified or negligible, given your metabolism."



"I'm good with the never finding out. Demon heart? Not my favorite snack food." Then she's gone.



"What's her story?" Larry asks.



Giles turns back toward him as if he'd hoped Larry would have vanished too.



"There's something different about her. You said there's no predicting how she'd be infected. Why?"






Xander and Angel -- even Buffy -- may have let Larry into the club, but at this point all he's got is a day pass. It's this guy, he thinks, who determines whether he gets to learn the secret handshake. He eyes Larry in a way that makes it clear he's not yet passed the test.



"I remember you now," he slowly says.



"Yeah," Larry says. "I'm the quarterba--"



"You used to take a great deal of pleasure in tormenting other students."



"Um, yeah. That would be me." Defending himself seems pointless.



"Then you stopped. Why? Religious conversion?"



"Some kind of conversion."






Larry endures his sharp gaze for a moment, then turns to Xander as he hears muttering behind him. Xander shifts restlessly on the big couch. Larry can't make out what he's saying.



"Hey, no worries," Larry says to Giles, "if you don't want to tell me, forget I asked. I came here for Xander, anyway. I'll just sit with him." He doesn't wait for a response, just plants himself at the edge of the couch, putting a hand on Xander's shoulder. "I'm here, man. I'm planning to stick around. Help's on the way."



His touch seems to settle Xander some.






Giles moves around the place as if he's not familiar with his surroundings. He's assembling ingredients, mixing them. It looks something like cooking, but doesn't so much smell like it. None Larry would want to sample, anyway.



"This is Angel's place?"



"It is."



"Man likes it dark."



A small smile. "He does, yes."



It feels almost like a museum in here. Dim, hushed, full of old, mysterious stuff everywhere you look. The difference is, no placards all over to explain what you're viewing.



It doesn't matter. Live in Sunnydale long enough, and you eventually stop expecting any explanations at all.






Larry watches Xander. He barely moves, yet somehow he doesn't seem quiet. His breath is fast and shallow. Small, fleeting expressions chase one another across his face.



Larry's practically forgotten Giles is there when the librarian finally speaks. "You're right about Buffy. She is different from most people."



"I figured. Not many girls could land me on my ass."



A long pause. "She's the latest in a long line of warriors. Young women destined to fight the forces of darkness." Giles looks at him directly. "Does that sound melodramatic to you?"



"Melodramatic, hell. Like I told Xander, this is Sunnydale."






"What do you mean?"



It's a test, he knows. If Larry can't miss realizing this town's full of the weird and bad, then Mr. Field Guide to Demons surely knows the deal and has catalogued it thoroughly. Anything Larry says will be like walking Einstein through a story problem in grade school math.



"There's been weirdness going on here ever since I can remember. People disappear. Pick the wrong time or place to be out, you get chased or hurt, maybe worse. Crazy stuff makes even less sense when it's explained. Everyone accepts the official story, though."



Larry shrugs, waits.






"Remarkable," Giles murmurs.



Einstein's telling him he's a math prodigy because he aced the two plus two.



"Few people acknowledge what's happening here. Do you believe adults are different? That your teachers spend their breaks in the faculty lounge discussing the latest evil stalking the Hellmouth? Hardly. They natter about the swill on television, who's sleeping with whom and the ghastly price of groceries. It's rare to be this perceptive, rarer still to have the courage to speak of these matters."



"Two things: I know I'm preaching to the choir here, so I wouldn't call it courage. And second: Hellwha?"






That's the secret word, the one that tells him he's in the club.





So basically there's a backdoor straight to hell under the school library?



Doesn't it make Giles nervous to spend his days on top of that thing, even if it is all corked up?



Because it makes Larry a little uneasy, knowing the guardian of the cork is a guy in tweed who stammers when flustered. Not that Larry doesn't respect smart. He absolutely does, and wishes he were smarter. But he'd feel a whisker more comfortable with Angel and his blade collection living over the thing.






Giles gets him up to speed on vampires, the Hellmouth, the Slayer, something called the Ascension (which they actually know squat about). It's a lot to take in, but it distracts him from freaking about Xander. (Why are they taking so long what if they can't find this other demon what if the heart thing doesn't work what if it's already too late?)



During a pause in the information upload, Larry says, "Tell me about Xander. How'd he get into this?"



"Much like you," Giles says. "His friend was in trouble. He insisted on helping."



"So how'd that work out?"






Oh. Jesse. Larry remembers him, recalls how inseparable he and Xander were since third grade.



Larry thumped him a few times too, especially enthusiastically when he caught Jesse alone. Once he and Xander took to walking to and from school together, it cut back Larry's opportunities for bullying, which pissed him off.



So now Jesse's dead, and Larry had barely registered his absence.



Dead. Vamped. Staked, dusted, scattered.



How does it feel, doing that to your own best friend? Even if you know he's already dead.



Now that Larry's in, he's not so sure how he feels about this club.






Others' thoughts push in, more and more of them, until Xander catches only fragments.


why can't i'll show them give me all i've done fuck them enough pills wish i could just a nightmare never hurt her not exactly a lie that's it cute girl what's on tv where's that fucking kid do something takeout again what's the point better walk the packing tonight fuck this don't touch never understand this make dinner now when she sees get myself off make it stop hospital for tests fuck you



Xander can't tell his own thoughts from the others crowding his mind.






After the cram course, Larry calls home to say he's staying with a friend. "It's late to be out walking." He notices how quickly his dad accepts this. During the speech about Sunnydale Denial Syndrome, it never occurred to him it might include his parents. That they know, but never say anything.



Xander's getting more restless. He twitches his head, swats at the air, shivers.



Larry turns to Giles. "How long's this demon hunting usually take?"



"Depends on a number of variables," Giles says. "I'm certain it won't be much longer."



Yeah. That's why he's paced the past fifteen minutes.






Xander's lost. Caught in a thicket so dense with brambles and vines that he can't even see daylight. He tugs at a vine snaking around his wrist as other, thicker vines wind up his thighs.



The thoughts don't even make sense as fragments anymore.





They wrap around his chest, squeezing. He's going to die.



He lashes out with his free arm. The vine he strikes is warm, pliant, like human flesh. This disgusts him more than any demon he has seen. The vine curls around his forearm, and then he senses it.



Something familiar.



He smiles. "There you are."






This is going bad. Xander cries out, thrashing. Larry tries to pin his shoulders to the couch, but it's a struggle. "It's all right, it's all right," he croons. "Xander, you're safe, I'm right here, you don't have to be afraid."



Apart from "I'm right here," it's all lies.



Giles hovers, and Larry knows he's a breath from demanding to take over when Xander flails, whacking Larry on the arm, hard.



Larry closes his hand around Xander's forearm. "Xander. C'mon, buddy. You're okay, you're with friends. Cure's on its way, bud, just hang in."



Xander stops thrashing. "There you are."






Larry feels a huge grin come over his face as he glances up at Giles. "He's coming out of it on his own."



But Giles doesn't lose the worried expression. Is he like this all the time?



He turns back to Xander. Though Larry expected he'd be opening his eyes now, they're still closed, and Xander seems to be settling deeper into -- what? Sleep? Unconsciousness?



"This is good, right? He'll get some rest now."



Pressing his lips together, Giles goes to the window to watch for Buffy.



Larry lays a hand on Xander's shoulder. "Still here, buddy. You're doing great."






Xander's completely motionless for the next hour. Larry watches the rise and fall of his chest until Giles gently pushes him aside,. "You must rest."



Larry stumbles to a vast chair and ottoman. To his surprise, he's gone almost the moment he stretches out.



He wakes to Buffy's voice. "Giles! We've got it!"



Soft gray light filters into the room as they enter, Angel covered into a blanket. Must be foggy out, because it looks like there's smoke rising off Angel. He hands Giles a glass beaker with some Day-glo shit Larry can smell across the room.


That's the cure?






Giles offers the concoction he was making, and they mix it with the glowy crap in the beaker.


That stuff came out of a demon, Larry keeps telling himself. It's demon heart.



If you think about all the times he used to beat up Xander for being a so-called pussy, and then the fact that Xander is going to ingest this glowy crap, along with the fact that this thought makes Larry totally want to blow lunch (if he'd eaten any) ... well, Ms. Murray might give him points for using this on a test for "give an example of irony."






Angel hauls Xander up into a sitting position, and Buffy takes the beaker from Giles. Xander's unresponsive, his head lolling back onto Angel's shoulder.



"C'mon, Xan," Buffy says. "Time for milk and cookies." She tilts the beaker up to his mouth. "Open up."



Xander sputters and chokes.



"Drink up, Xander. We've gotta make sure you have enough of this nasty stuff in you."



Xander rouses himself enough to take a few swallows before thrusting the beaker away from him. His head snaps back and he shudders (convulses?), yelling.



Then he goes limp. "Jesus," he rasps. "You trying to kill me?"






"And you were there, and you and you." That prompts smiles from the friends who are gathered around Xander, now sitting up without help. "And you," he says to Larry.



Larry's here. Larry's been here. He hopes Larry didn't see him do anything ultra-embarrassing. Drool, or ... who knows what.



"And you're not reading us now?" Buffy asks.



"Nope. Everyone's been evicted from my head."



"Can you tell us what it was like?" Giles asks.



"Dense. Overwhelming. Like fighting my way through some crazy forest, all overgrown and kind of evil. I thought I'd never get out."



And Larry was here.






Angel volunteers to make breakfast. (He cooks. How weird is that?) Buffy runs out for supplies, while Xander shambles toward the shower, which Angel also offered.



Nothing could get weirder than coming to in Angel's arms, though. That'll take a while to scrub out of his brain.



Maybe later for the scrubbing. His brain feels raw already. All his nerve endings feel a little abraded and fragile. So many people crowding in on him. So much anguish. That's another word he hasn't used much, like suffering, because it seems too important.



He lets the scalding water pulse against his back.






Breakfast is amazingly good, considering it's served up by a guy who doesn't eat, and who last fed him demon heart. Xander doesn't even think this opinion is merely gratitude that he's alive to eat at all.



Breakfast conversation is a surprise too. Giles freely talks about Hellmouthy things in front of Larry, and invites him by the library after class. Larry's an official Scooby, without Xander having to raise the idea oh so carefully to his friends -- could life get any stranger?



Well, at least Cordy will be glad the group's slowly starting to rise to her social level.






After a detour home to change (and bury the shirt), Xander gets to his locker minutes before the bell.



Cordy's waiting. No greeting, no nothing. She just stares at him as if he's supposed to--



"No, I can't tell what you're thinking."



She whirls and marches off, unconvinced.



Girls. They expect you to read their minds, then get steamed when you do. What made him think-- Ah. The janitor's closet. Whichever way he happens to be swinging, he doesn't see that ever not seeming hot.



He wonders what Larry would think of the -- oh yeah. He's definitely going that way.






He still feels a little raw and twitchy throughout the day. Bailing would appeal, spending the day at The Sun watching movies, but the end of the semester -- of school forever and ever amen -- is so close. He needs to cram everything in his head (facts, not the thoughts of everyone on the planet) that he can.



Plus, lunch. And Larry.



He settles in behind Buffy in English class. "Keep an eye on Jonathan," he whispers. "I picked up some stuff from him yesterday -- I couldn't get a good read, but it felt--" He flashes on Giles's word-- "dark."









When Xander sees Jonathan in the cafeteria, he's glad he said something. He looks even twitchier than Xander feels, stuttering when the lunch lady glares at him balefully.



Xander can't quite read the look she gives him. It's not exactly friendly, but her face unknots a little. He remembers Rusty, gives her a smile. "What's good today?"



It's a joke. There's only ever one thing, unless you try the sandwiches, with the white bread that curls at the edges from the stale.



"It's just chicken a la king," she says, not getting the nuance.



Xander offers his tray. "King me."






Larry sets his tray down across from Xander. Milk, curly edged sandwich, smile. It's really a nice smile, when it's not in gleeful anticipation of pounding the snot out of Xander.



"You look a lot better today."



"You don't have to tell me. That red and green shirt has just gone into permanent retirement."



Larry laughs. "No, dumbass. You. You must feel a lot better."



"Oh yeah, that. I do. It got all stateroom sceney in my head."



"All what?"



"There's this old Marx Brothers movie -- wanna see something?"



Larry shrugs. "Sure, why not?"



Xander shows him the janitor's closet.






Inside they hear none of it -- gunshots, screams, breaking glass or wailing sirens. They're in their own soundproofed island in the middle of the school, where all they hear is their own sounds: breath, gasps, soft moans, laughter.



At last they hear the chirp of Larry's watch, and shit muttered in unison. They hastily smooth their shirttails and hair, trying to rearrange their faces as well, bursting into giggles as they catch each other in the attempt.



"Stop!" Xander hisses. "Don't look at me!"



Finally they stifle their laughter and step into the hall.



It's all uniforms and crying students.






Guys in black flak jackets swarm around them. "We think it's just the one gunman," a cop says. "We're going out the front way."



There's no time to ask questions; he and Larry are bundled into the swarm and hustled outside. Students, teachers and parents mill around behind barricades. The chaos is almost worse than that in his head last night.


The chaos in -- Jonathan.



He turns to one of the cops. "Anyone been shot?"



"Just windows and cars so far. Some close calls."



"Can you talk him down? I think this is one of those suicide-by-cop things."






That statement has exactly zero effect. Xander's just a stupid teenager, after all. The SWAT guys storm the school to bring out more kids.



"Think you know who it is?" Larry asks.



"Jonathan, I'm betting."



Larry eyes the the sharpshooters on the school roof. "Whatever happened to taking the pipe?"



"We've gotta find Buffy."



"I'll head that way, you--" Larry's arm nearly crashes into a television camera thrust into their faces.



"What was it like in there?"



"Fuck you," Larry says pleasantly. "Fuckin' vulture."



There are times, Xander notes, when a little bully cred can be a damn useful thing.






The cameraman departs in search of more photogenic (and TV-friendly) anguish.



Larry says, "Bullets can't hurt Buffy?"



"They can, but -- I've got no better plan."



They name a rendezvous point, and Larry spins off in the other direction.



Xander runs, weaving through knots of students until he finds a tearstreaked Willow with Oz. "Have you seen Buffy?"



"She went up there," Willow quavers.



"Anyone know who it is?"



"Jonathan," she says. "Didn't you read anything from him?"



Xander suppresses a scowl. "You know what a lousy reader I am."



"I never meant--"



"'Sokay. I'm gonna try catching up to Larry."






It does feel like his fault. That's crazy, he knows, but he feels guilty that the two of them were all over each other in that closet while --



"Nobody die," he mutters under his breath. "Got that?"



By the time Xander reaches the bell tower side, Jonathan's inching toward the arched opening, arms stretched wide in surrender, emptyhanded. A SWAT team races into the school. The sharpshooters remain in place. No one releases a breath until Jonathan laces his hands behind his head, then kneels so he's almost lost to view. After that, the bell tower's a sea of black.






Now that it's all aftermathy, Xander's legs start shaking. He's not the only one, he guesses. There's even more wailing from the kids clinging to each other, to their parents, than when Jonathan was still shooting.



Larry stumbles toward him, equally shaken. "Man. I didn't think they'd take him out of here alive."



"That kid's in a world of shit," a local cop says. Like that's supposed to prevent them from getting any ideas about trying it themselves.



"Maybe he was already in a world of shit," Xander says. "Ever think of that?"



"Fuckin' kids," is all that buys him.






Things get surrealer.



One thing life in Sunnydale has taught him: Things can always get surrealer.



The shakes subsiding, he stands with Larry, Giles, Willow and Oz, listening to Buffy describe how she persuaded Jonathan to surrender. Suddenly Xander sees his old man marching toward them. He's usually in his favorite bar at this hour, after his shift.



Tony drops a paw on the scruff of Xander's neck. "You all right?"



"I'm okay. Everyone's okay."



Tony pulls him into a sloppy hug, thumping him on the back. "It was on the TV. I saw it."



"I'm okay, Dad. I'm safe."






Not getting shot turns out to be a family occasion. The old man takes him and his mom out for a steak dinner, which is more than he plans for Xander's graduation party (buckets of chicken, homemade cake and large amounts of booze at home for the relatives). Tony's good mood lasts the whole meal, then he heads back to the bar to share his brush with national news, so the evening actually ends up a Harris family highlight. Xander's in bed by the time Tony arrives home tanked, but it takes a long, long time before he can sleep.





Xander's standing in the school courtyard, with bodies all around. He recognizes them all: Mr. Flutie and Debbie, Teresa and Ms. Calendar. Dr. Gregory, Kendra.



Jesse's not among them. He's perched on the stone wall where they used to hang -- where he and Buffy and Willow hang now. "Dude," he says. "Larry? Larry?"



Xander shuffles his feet, mildly ashamed of himself, though he's not sure why. He accidentally bumps the outstretched hand of a corpse. Jenny Calendar.



"I know," he says to Jesse. "But he's changed."



"So have I," Jesse says, flashing fangs. "But I thought that was a deal-breaker."





Xander turns and walks away. This is not a conversation he's having. But there's another smirking face greeting him. Not one he's known most of his life, but one he recognizes all the same. The young guy he caught a flash of when Giles had that thought comparing him and Ethan.



"Read any good ... books lately?"



He gets that same flash as before. The smoking, the laughing, then reaching for --



"No. This is a there I'm not going, if it's all the same to you."



"Oh, it's not all the same. There's only one for you. You've made your choice."






The phone yanks him out of the dream.



"Fuck, Jesse. It's three a.m."



"Yeah, yeah. My old man forgot to lock the Playboy Channel. You won't believe what I'm watching."



"Gee, lemme think. Porn, maybe?"



"There are these two chicks. This dark-haired chick is doing a blonde." Jesse gives both the play-by-play and the color commentary, and Xander can tell he's jacking off. Xander doesn't stop at listening. He slides his hand into his boxers, matching his breath to Jesse's.



"Gets you hard, doesn't it, buddy?"



This is when he realizes it's not Jesse on the line.



It's Faith.






He wakes, flailing at the sheets.


No. A million times no.



Faith is so not his speed. She's out there breaking the sound barrier, while he's creeping through a school zone.



(Yeah? Then why did he shoot the second he realized it was her?)



He peels off his boxers, gets a fresh pair. It's been a weird day, that's all. Fear of death triggering memories of his last brush with mortality.



That's all.



He wrestles his pillow for a moment, then lies back, closing his eyes. Remembers her straddling him, rocking. Closing her hands around his throat.



Gasping, he comes.






All he wants when he gets to school is to drag Larry into the janitor's closet, erasing any trace of last night's weirdness.



But when he arrives, Snyder's at the entrance with a bullhorn. "Listen up, people. We've got trauma counseling, today and today only. I expect everyone to show up for their time slot. Last names A-H, assemble in the cafeteria. I-P, you're in the gym. Q-Z, the library. Move it, people."



At least Larry's a B. Xander finds him holding a table in the cafeteria. "Nothing says caring like drive-thru psychotherapy."



Larry quirks a grin. "Maybe there's pharmaceuticals."






Between the Bs and the Hs, Larry and Xander manage to sneak out separately and assemble in the janitor's closet. Larry's as good a kisser as yesterday, his hands just as skilled. He even throws nipples into the mix. But something nags at Xander, distracting him.



Not that he's not aroused -- his breath saws harshly along with Larry's, the sound filling this small space.



Not that he doesn't respond -- if anything, he steps up his efforts.



But something pulls at his attention, keeping him from giving it fully to Larry. Like there's someone in the back of his head, waiting.






"I'll see if the coast is clear."



"Xander, wait. I want to ask you something."



Fuck. He's noticed Xander's distraction.



"Listen, I know you've had trouble with the coming out thing. I can tell you, the hard part is the agonizing before you actually do it. I've been thinking a lot, and -- well, would you like to go to prom with me?"






"Yeah. It seems like the perfect place to declare yourself. We don't have to make a big deal in advance, just show up together. Plus think how great we'd look in matching tuxes."



Formal wear. Prom. Larry.






"Oh, man." Xander grins. "Snyder would have a stroke."



"That's a bonus, sure. But that's not why I'm asking. I want something more from life than closets." Larry reaches out to straighten Xander's collar, which is half turned up. "Think it through. I don't even want an answer until Friday after school. And if you want more time to think, you've got it. I know this is a big step, I wouldn't rush you." Then he slips out of the closet, leaving Xander to count to thirty and follow.



Formal wear. With Larry.


Prom with Larry.



Who wears the corsage?






"How well did you know Jonathan?" the counselor asks.



"Hardly at all, really," Xander says. "He's a quiet guy. I'm on the class clown track, and he's one of your silent los--"



The counselor stops writing and looks up at him.



Jesus, that was callous. Even for him. "One of your Silent Lous. You've never heard that expression before? 'That guy, he's a real Silent Lou.' Must be a Sunnydale thing. I thought it was more widespread."



Maybe that's something Xander should aspire to. Being a Silent Lou. It'd be a good thing at least fifty percent of the time.






"Any unusual dreams last night?"



"Dreams," he repeats, like this is some foreign vocabulary word. "Like blood and gore and shooting?"



"Possibly. Could be anything, really. Our minds process difficult events in a variety of ways."



"No. No dreams. Not unusual ones, anyway. Just the usual. Normal, I mean."



"Perhaps you'd like to describe one."



Here? In the cafeteria? He'd sooner die.



"The dreams may be upseting, but they're part of your mind's way of processing what happened yesterday, of healing." The counselor is pretty, blonde.



He hears Jesse/Faith: This dark-haired chick is doing a blonde.



He flees.






Making his way back to their table, Xander sees more crying than when he sneaked out earlier with Larry. Is this good or bad?



Larry's hunched over a textbook when Xander takes a seat, but he looks like he hasn't turned a page in forever.



"How'd it go?" Larry asks.



"Okay, I guess. You?"



Larry flashes a card he'd stuck in the pages of the book. "I've got a follow-up." A long pause. "I feel responsible."






"I piled plenty of torment on that kid in my day. So I quit. Too fuckin' late."



Xander doesn't know what to say.






Xander had hoped to bring Larry to the next Scooby meeting, but that's when he has his appointment. Just as well, because Xander's in kind of a mood himself. The whole What are the Mayor and Faith up to? topic just makes him think about last night.


Gets you hard, doesn't it, buddy?



No. Yes. Why? It's Larry he's interested in.


Light and dark.



Giles had it right. He's pulled both ways.


She nips at his lower lip, a little too hard. He tastes his own blood.



He quickly excuses himself, locks himself in a stall in the boys' room.






He tries to be normal.



They go out for pizza and then hit the Bronze.



Nothing is normal, though.



When he makes the call home to say he won't be home for dinner, his mother says Tony will be disappointed. "I know he was hoping for another family meal."



Xander hardly knows what to say. "I guess we're just wanting things to get back to normal," he finally stammers.



"You go ahead. Have a good time."



It's too early for normal. The vibe at the Bronze is weird, and there's more room on the dance floor than there's ever been.






"Are you feeling okay?" Willow asks while Oz goes for another round of Cokes. "What with the shooting spree I forgot to ask how you're doing after your Kreskin flu."



"I'm fine. It's kinda hard looking a couple of teachers in the eye." Giles was right -- they do spend a lot of time thinking about who's having sex with whom.



"Buffy told me you got totally overwhelmed by all the stuff you were reading. I wish you'd told me."



"By time I realized, it was too late."



"She said it was Larry who got you help. How weird is that?"






Xander is so not ready to handle this conversation.



With anybody, but especially not with Willow. Jesus, she burst into tears when she found out about Cordelia, she sobbed in the girls' room when she learned about Faith -- even though she'd already chosen Oz by then.



Every girl he's been interested in, she's taken it like a slap in the face. So whee, think how much fun when she learns he's abandoning girls entirely.



Oz returns with four plastic cups balanced in his musician's fingers, effectively ending that conversational possibility.



"Larry's been through some changes," Xander says. "He's all right."






"Oh god, I just had a thought," Willow exclaims. "You didn't actually read his mind, did you? I mean, of all the people I wouldn't want to be near if I--"






His tone makes her give him the big, wounded eyes, and suddenly Xander realizes how many times he's suppressed some part of himself to keep her from looking like that. On a normal night, he'd assume it meant something bad about him.


--but nothing is normal tonight--



and he feels a bright flame of anger flare up.



"Better get past that, Will," Buffy says. "Larry's a Scooby now."






It's the spit-take of the decade, and the comedian in Xander would have relished this moment, under other circumstances.



Even Oz's cool is slightly diminished. "Wow. That's ... wow."



"When this mindreading thing was at its worst, Xander collapsed," Buffy says. "Larry brought him to Angel's, and we had to get him up to speed in a hurry. He knows."



"Knows?" Willow echoes.



"Vampires, demons, the whole Hellmouth assortment with nuts and creamy centers."



"He had an idea even before that," Xander adds. "Low score on the denial meter. He would have come to the library today, if he'd been free."






Xander can't settle in to the social, much as he tries. He finishes his Coke, makes his excuses.



Willow gives him worried face, but he can't help feeling it's still all about him being the person she wants him to be. Way too late for that.



If Larry were Buffy or Willow or hell, even Giles, Xander could just show up at his door to say "so how'd things go?" But it's been two days. Way early for being that presumptuous. He'll call when he gets home.



That much is okay, right?



After all, it's Larry who brought it up.






When he gets home, his old man is in a mood to talk. Xander thought his mom was delusional when she said Tony hoped they'd all eat together, but it turns out to be true.



"You needed to be with your buddies, though, I get that."



He's trying not to be a cynical jerk, but Xander halfway wonders if his mother's had a conversation with Anyanka lately. No, wait. She's a civilian now. Sits three rows back and two seats over in math.



Which is about as close as he'd ever like to be.



"We're all dealing. It's hard, though."






"You made the paper." Tony offers the front section. "Page three."



Xander can't get past page one. Above the fold there's a shot of the SWAT team hustling Jonathan out of the building. His face is a white smudge in a wall of black uniforms. He looks scared. Lost.



"You know that kid?"



"A little. Bet we haven't said more than ten words to each other."



"Page three," Tony prods.



Among the dramatic photos is one of Xander and Larry on the run, escorted from school.



They might be fleeing, but they look like action heroes.



"Can I keep this?"






Back in his room, Xander tries Larry's cell. It kicks into voice mail on the first ring. He leaves a brief message, suggests they meet at the fountain before class. He sits on the bed, gazing at the picture.



Flanked by SWAT guys, they're crouched, running. Larry's hand is on his shoulder. Funny how he'd never felt it there.



Their first picture together. He tapes it on the dresser mirror. God, I'm such a girl. But it moves him, really, to see the two of them together.



Xander thanks every deity there is that he wasn't wearing a stupid shirt.






Bright side: The weird sex dreams let up.



Less good (light and dark): Instead he finds himself back in that dense thicket. Vines winding up his legs, anchoring him to the ground. Snaking up his chest.



He's going to die, he knows it.



A vine coils around his arm. Warm, pliant, like human flesh. It tugs at him, and he wonders if he's going to be torn apart. But the other vines fall away and he steps out of their ropy tangles, steadied by the pull of the new vine.



Soon he can see daylight again.



Still, something feels wrong.






He walks through town. The bright sunlight washes everything out, like some film effect. Everything's saturated, indistinct.



No one else is out. No kids playing. No moms loading up minivans, dads washing cars. No cars. He walks in the middle of the road.



The houses, he notices, are covered in the vines he fought his way through. Once he gets downtown, he sees the same is true of the buildings. Even the sign on the roof of The Sun is obscured.


Call Giles.



"Trust me." It's the young Brit with the cigarette. Ethan. "There's not a thing he can do."






"Oh, like I'd listen to you," Xander sneers.



"You don't need to listen to your heartbeat," Ethan says.



"What is this, Evil Zen Koans?"



Ethan chuckles. "I see why Rupert finds us similar."



"Shut up. That's not what he said."



"If you say so." He draws in a lungful of smoke then lets it out in a dense cloud that obscures his face. When it clears, it's Faith standing there, in the same white t-shirt, same skintight black jeans. "We're all the same, aren't we? Large streak of dark, running right through the center. That's why he pushes us away."






"This is crap."



"Sure it is."


Sure it is. If you say so. Nothing makes him doubt himself like fake agreement.



"Let's step into my office." Faith gestures upward. "You can tell me why you came to see me."



"But I didn't--"



As his gaze follows her gesture, he stumbles to a halt. The place she's indicating is the one structure in Sunnydale that isn't swallowed by the thicket. The vine that drew him out of the wilderness winds up the fire escape to the top floor terrace, its tendrils as delicate as his mom's potted ivy.



"Home, sweet home."






"Why should I believe you won't kill me?"



"Hell, we're on the same side now."


A million times no. He's just following the evil vine, that's all.



He means to say this, but somehow he doesn't. He just follows her to her top-floor apartment. It's a damn nice place.



"At least you don't have to look at that godawful wall sculpture anymore," he says.



"Sculpture? That wasn't a sculpture, that was my pet demon. You think I'd leave Alfie?"



And there it is on the wall, behind him. Opening and closing the thousand tiny mouths he'd never noticed before.






Xander jackknifes up in bed, gasping.


What the fuck.



He does not need this. Isn't it enough that a sniper shot up his fucking school? And the Kreskin flu thing? Doesn't he get a vacation? A week to think about Larry and the prom and what going with him might do to his life?



Larry seems happy.



Larry never seemed happy before. There was the clear enjoyment derived from pounding the shit out of Xander, sure, but happy's something else.



Would Xander be happy too?



He does not need all this weird Faith/Ethan/Evil Vine shit.



Not at all.






Maybe he should talk to Giles about all this. Xander ponders this in the shower the next morning.



This is bad, no question. Faith and Ethan initiating him as an anti-scooby. But there's no way he wants to start the "So, Giles, tell me about Ethan" conversation. He suspects Giles feels much the same way.


He gets a flash. Two guys kissing, hands roaming. Laughter that sounds like Giles, except off somehow.



No. This isn't anything he picked up from Giles's mind. It's something he has no business imagining, doesn't want to imagine.



Fuck. He can't discuss this with Giles.






He's barely out of the shower when Tony barges into his room. "You forgot to take out the damn garbage, didn't you?"


Shit. "Is there still time?"



"No, dumbass. The truck came and went. You get a free ride around here, and the one goddamn job I ask you to do--"



"I'm sorry."



"Just one time I'd like to trade 'I'm sorry' for 'Don't worry, it's done.' So what's the excuse this time? The post-traumatic thing? How long d'you think you can milk that? Kid didn't even hit anyone."



At least one thing in his life is back to normal.






Xander gets off with the usual: open-handed smack to the back of the skull and the old man's statement that he's jacked better son-material down the shower drain.


Nothing starts your day off like a heart-to-heart with Tony.



Xander makes it to school five minutes before he said he'd meet Larry, but Larry's already waiting at the fountain. Again he lights up with that smile.



"Hey, thanks for calling last night. I crashed early."



"How'd it go?"



Larry shrugs. "Not bad, I guess. How about you? You look like you had a rough night."



"Weird dreams."






Xander offers a self-deprecating smile. "I hear all the cool kids are doing it."



"Doesn't mean yours are any less important." Larry turns an acute gaze on him. "You must have 'em a lot, with all you've seen. Or else nothing fazes you anymore."



"Oh, believe me. There's fazing. I'm always going through a faze."



Larry laughs. "You're quick. One of the things that used to bug me about you, when I was looking for reasons to give you a hard time."



"Larry, about the prom--"



"You don't have to answer yet. I know it's--"



"Shut up. I'm saying yes."






And there's that smile again. It feels like Christmas morning -- the way it looks on TV, anyway.



"So what's the theme?" Xander asks. "I make it a point never to pay attention to these things."



"Party Like It's 1999."









"Beyond lame, but I risk insensitivity if I describe the level of lameness."



"At least it's not Stairway to Heaven. I mean, my sister's prom had the same theme as our dad's."



"Oh, the shame. '1999.' So what are we wearing, purple satin and eyeliner?"



"I think that would get your point across."



"Oh, that's pointier than strictly necessary."






Giles is crossing the courtyard toward them, so they desist with the prom talk.



"Hey, Mr. Giles," Larry says as he nears.



"Larry." Giles only stammers a little. "We missed you yesterday. I trust Xander's told you you're free to join us when we meet--?"



"Yeah." Larry smiles. "Thanks. I'll be there today."



Giles nods. "And these young savages call me Giles. You may as well too." He heads into the school.



Larry grins. "I'm in."



"You already were in."



"I'm inner."



Xander can barely suppress the urge to grab and kiss him. "You're in and you're out. You're multifaceted."






Larry's first official Scooby meeting isn't exactly stellar. There's Wes, for one thing. Xander had forgotten to fill Larry in on the Wes situation. (And, apart from how Faith was a girl he had a th with and who'd tried to kill him, he hadn't exactly given Larry the full report on their spare One Girl in All the World.) The meeting consists of a lot of blithering and pursed lips and ultra-Brit expressions of pent-up irritation.



As a recruitment video, it's not what he'd have ordered, but at least it's not an all-night research jam.



Could be worse.






Xander wishes Giles would send them on patrol. Patrol would be fun, it would show Larry this isn't just another boring extracurricular "club" to pad the college application (well, if you could mention it). It would be cool and potentially dangerous and there might be opportunities for lagging behind and necking.There's no real downside, other than the possibility of death (and, if things go really wrong, subsequent undeath).



But Buffy pushes for solo recon to see if she can determine what Faith and the Mayor are up to.



"The rest of you can go home," Giles says.



Home. Great.









"Sneaky is hot," Larry says. "No question." They're walking in the dark, fresh from a necking session in the science lab. Xander prefers the stacks, actually, but Giles and Wes were showing no signs of leaving the library. "I want more, though. I want to live somewhere where sneaky isn't the only option there is."



"Where are you going to school?"



"I'm going to USC. LA. I wanted to go someplace big enough where I could get lost. Find myself without a bunch of people watching. Where if I do something stupid it doesn't define me forever. How about you?"






This is where Larry reacquaints himself with what a loser Xander is.



"I'm not going anywhere."



"You're going to UC Sunnydale?"



Xander could lie. Buffy applied there, he's sure she'll get in. He'll pick up details from her when they talk (assuming she remembers him, with all the new friends she'll be making there), which he can offer as slices of his own exciting college life when Larry's home on break. (Assuming Larry remembers him.)



He could pull it off.



"The truth is, I'm not going anywhere. I don't have the grades, I sure as hell don't have the money."






There's a pause, but Larry recovers quickly. "Plenty of people don't, and they do fine. What's your plan?"



"Plan? I don't need no stinkin' plan." Now he sounds like a stupid, defensive shithead. "Actually, I've got plans for the summer. I'm gonna do the Kerouac thing, the open road, a car, wherever the wind takes me. I'm hoping the planless thing helps a plan to coalesce. You know. For after the summer."



"Do me a huge favor. Don't stay here. It's not the greatest place for a gay guy to be. Not to mention the demons and monsters and all."






"You're pretty quiet." They're almost at Larry's house. "I didn't mean to stir anything up."



"Don't apologize. It is what it is."



"Must be hard right now, hearing everyone talking about their plans."



"Nah, it's okay." Maybe he'll be squashed by whatever cataclysm the Mayor has brewing.


Nice going, Harris. That's looking on the bright side.



"Well, the road trip sounds cool. I'd love to do that someday."






"It's true."



"Maybe it is, but don't. See you Monday, I guess."



"What about this weekend?"



"I dunno. Call me." Xander takes a couple of steps backward, then turns and goes.






After he leaves Larry's house, restlessness overtakes Xander. He doesn't want to go home: doesn't want to see the old man, who's had plenty of time to get surly drunk. Doesn't want to see Ethan in his dreams, or feel that viney shit curling around his legs. He stops by the gas station, buys a can of Red Bull.



The viney shit gives him an idea, though. He thinks back to the dream, the direction he followed to Faith's new place. Who knows, maybe he's having prophetic slayer dreams now.



Just a little recon mission of his own, that's all.






He heads downtown, his senses sharp for vamps or other trouble. It's quiet, eerily like his dream, except it's darkness obscuring the houses he passes, not a tangle of vines.



Downtown is different. It's Friday, and there are people lining up for the second show at the Sun, lingering at the Espresso Pump and pizzeria.



He backs off the sidewalk in front of the Sun, looking up at the buildings around it. Then he sees it, the big arched window he remembers from his dream.



Faith's place.



It can't be. It has a terrace, it's prime Sunnydale real estate.








He's struck with an urge to ring her front door buzzer. The impulse is so strong he spins away and careens home as if a pack of vampires is on his tail.



It was a dream, that's all. He's seen that place a million times without registering it, whenever he and Buffy and Willow (and Jesse) went to the movies. His subconscious has just made a connection, that's all. The Sun, the building overlooking it, Jesse. He has not, after all the efforts Giles and Buffy have made, dreamed her whereabouts to simplify their lives.



That's never how it works.






Hard as he tries to stay alert -- he even works on that senior paper -- sleep finally claims Xander. He jerks awake to find Faith sitting crosslegged on the floor, reading his copy of On the Road. She's wearing a black turtleneck and beret, those short pants that have a name Xander doesn't remember.



"You hurt my feelings," Faith says. "You're in my neighborhood, but you don't drop by my pad. What's a chick to think, when a cat treats her this way?"



He tries to scramble up, but the sheets snake around him like vines.



She rises, comes toward him.






Faith perches a knee on the end of the bed. "It's time we stop screwin' around. We both know something happened. No point in fighting it."



Then it's two knees and both hands, and she's crawling up the bed and there aren't any sheets between them now, but Xander still can't move.



"I know you dig me, baby," she murmurs. She strokes his jaw, and he flinches as a couple of fingers stray over the skin of his neck. "And you know how I feel about you." She grinds against his crotch as her hand closes lightly around his throat.





That's not me anymore, he wants to say. I'm into guys now. He starts to tell her this, but he's interrupted by a brain-melting orgasm.



"What was that?" she murmurs against his neck. Her thumbs make lazy circles around his nipples, and he suddenly thinks it's tragic they've never received any notice before. She wriggles against him some more, and he springs instantly to attention. "'That's' what?"



"That's amazing," he whispers.



"Of course. I'm your first." Then her pants are off and so are his, without any effort. She takes him into her velvety heat, and everything else recedes.






The dreams loop over and over again, always her riding him, the way it happened their one real time together.



But this feels real. He wakes quivering and sticky (like he felt after their one real time together). He means to rise and rinse off, but he's so tired he allows himself a minute to lie there and recover, then he's slipping back into dreams again.



This cycle repeats through the night, until he finally wrenches himself up to stumble to the bathroom. His clock says 2:14, but the heat and light pulsing behind the blinds tell him it's afternoon.






Xander stands in the shower, struggling to keep his eyes open. He thinks to find the soap, but that seems a monumentally complex task. Motionless under the hot spray, aware of little but the ache in his groin, he drifts into sleep. When he snaps awake, he realizes he's hard again.



The curtain glides back with a faint screech, and Faith steps into the spray. "You gonna finish that?" He blinks, confused, and she pushes his back against the chilly tiles, dropping to her knees.



When his eyes flutter open again, he's holding a fast-fading erection in his hand.






He manages to dress and shuffle into the kitchen, where he rummages through cupboards as if he's never been here before.



"Xander, honey, what do you want?"



"Nothing, Mom. Just hungry."



"Well, you're in the glassware cabinet, you know that. Tell me what you want, and I'll make you something."



If he stops moving, he'll slide back into sleep. "That's okay, I'll grab a slice of pizza downtown."



"I thought you'd already gone. One of your friends called. Not one of the usual kids. A boy." She waves a slip of paper at him, but he leaves without taking it.






As Xander's about to push past a knot of kids exiting the pizza place, he realizes he's not hungry. He continues past the hardware store, new plate glass window replacing the plywood that's been there, though there's no store name painted on it yet. He checks out the marquee of the Sun. He's been waiting three months for the movie that just opened, but it doesn't interest him now.



Instead he walks toward the building from the dream. There's an intercom with three buttons, none labeled with more than a number.



He choses the highest number and presses the button.






"Yeah." Faith's voice crackles over the intercom.


Shit! What now? "Pizza." She's not above taking delivery of a pizza she didn't order. Good call; she buzzes him in.



As he climbs the stairs to her door, the fog eveloping him burns off. He's hyperaware of everything around him. There are plants set out on the landing. Nothing like the fleabag she'd been living in.



Before he can raise his hand to knock, the door jerks open. Faith yanks him inside, slams him against the wall. "Practicin' for your future career? I don't think you're livin' long enough to have one."






An eerie calm overtakes him, just like with zombie Jack.



"They sent you to see what I'm up to? Watcher boys really are desperate, aren't they?"



"Nobody sent me."



"Then why the fuck are you here?"



"Another taste," he says.



That fazes her, just for a second. "What flavor? Choking again, or should I gut you with my shiny new knife?"



"He gave you that. You never thought you'd get so lucky."



That rocks her back. "Why'd you come here?"



His hand darts out and back, a janitor's closet move. Her nipple tightens. Xander smiles. "I can make you scream."






She laughs in disbelief. "You? You're livin' in a dream world, Ace."



"I'm getting that idea. It has its good points."



Faith eyes him the way Cordelia did after the zombie night, trying to weigh her idea of him against the guy standing in her presence. "What's your fuckin' game?"



"Let's try this one: Let's have another go. Bet I can make you scream. Or beg."



"And what's the winner get?"



"If I don't, you get to kill me. If I do, you take me to meet Mayor Daddy."



"You're one crazy fuck," she says.



"Guess that makes us soulmates."






Faith considers him, eyes glittering. He knows full well she plans to kill him either way, but she's not counting on what he's going to show her.



"Sure, why not." She bunches his shirt in her hands, but he seizes her wrists.



"My game, my rules."



She's not used to this. Her eyes flash, but curiosity dampens her anger. "Yeah, sure."



"Nice place. Why don't you show me around."



A pause. She doesn't know how to take this. She waves an arm. "Bed. Couch Playstation."



"Show me." Things feel dreamlike again, yet very very sharp. "Take off your clothes first."






Her head whips around. He wonders briefly if he's addicted to this. Flirting with death. It's possible -- something in moments like this takes him to a weird place of calm. "Lose the shirt."



Suddenly she's amused. She yanks it over her head. "Damn, where'd this come from?"



He doesn't know. Wait, he does. That night when he fought his way through all the voices, followed the thread that led to her, he found a dark bud that opened to him, becoming an extravagant blossom. It dropped its seed within him, and now it flowers in him, dark, reeking of sex.






Xander steps toward her, peels the lacy scrap of a bra down from one nipple. He teases it with tongue and flashes of teeth until she gives a little gasp, then he backs off. "Now the rest."



"What are you waitin' for?"



"This game has turns."



He can see his impassive manner is getting to her. Heating her up, making her tease. She makes an elaborate show of freeing her breasts, touching them to draw him in. He remains where he is, watching.



"Who are you really? Another evil vamp lookalike from Willow's parallel world? Damn shame I missed that."






Who is he, really?



There's a part of him that doesn't know what to make of this any more than she does. That feels like he's stuck in an elaborate dream. A subconscious last-ditch attempt to keep him in the ranks of straight boys, or one hell of a goodbye-to-all-that.



However bewildering it is, he knows he's supposed to be here. That he can't be anywhere else.



"I don't remember saying this was a talking game." It's a tightrope he's walking, he knows that.



He also knows he can walk it blindfolded.



"Take off the pants."






She manages to pull off defiant, even as she's doing as she's told. He lets her get away with it, because that might mean she'll let him live. As she balances on one foot, storklike, tugging at her pants, he feels a wave of tenderness that he'd never have expected.



He tucks it away, secret, because that will get him killed.



When she kicks them off, she stands there a moment (no need to say "Now the panties"), staring him down.



"Nice," he says after a pause.



Anger sparks off her, and he twitches a smile.



"Let's see your place."






"Check it out," she says. "A punching bag." She whirls and aims a kick at the heavy bag, setting it creaking on its chain. "Every girl's apartment should have one."



She sashays across to a curvy pink sofa thing. "Then you've got your faintin' couch to rest on." Faith sprawls on it, fanning her dark hair out behind her, opening her legs to give him a look at real estate he only glimpsed the night they had sex. The women he's seen in Tony's magazines are all neatly landscaped, pubic hair trimmed into topiary-like perfection. Hers is natural, wild.






Faith points her bare foot at him. "Like what you see so far?"



He catches her ankle. "It's pink and curvy and soft. What's not to like?" He steps in to trace a finger along the underside of her thigh, a feathery touch that barely registers.



She shudders, and he releases her leg, turns away. "Is that like a balcony, or just the roof?"



"Roof, but there's access."



Xander climbs up on the platform behind the bed, checking out the skyline from her big arched window. "C'mere."



"This goddamn game is slower than Monopoly."



"Make your move or stop bitching."






She joins him at the window, wasting no time strutting for him. Impatience rolls off her.



"Magnificent view." He fingers her hair, drawing it away from her neck. "I'd give a lot for a view like this."



"For fuck's--"



Taking a page from Evil Willow's book, he licks Faith's neck from the base up toward her ear. That never fails to rattle 'em, and Faith's not immune. She yelps. Xander pulls her against him, her bare ass snug against his jeans-clad erection. One hand wanders toward the thatch of hair, the other to her breast.



"Is this what you want?"






It's not what she wants; Xander knows that. What Faith wants is a quick fuck. She wants to be in charge, on top. I'll steer you around the curves. She doesn't want to be careening out of control, someone else at the wheel.



His fingers encounter soft, damp heat, and he finds a rhythm that jerks gasps and reluctant cries from her. She reaches around behind her to fumble at his zipper, and he stops his attentions.



"Hands on the glass."



"Screw you."



"I don't think so." He starts to step away.



Faith quickly presses her palms against the window.






Xander doesn't pick up where he left off. He strokes a feathery line along her hip, inside her thigh, over the fullness of her lower lip. "Don't you want a taste?" he murmurs against her flushed neck.



Just the vibration of his words on her skin causes small tremors in her body, her legs.



"No one's done this to you before, have they? Made your legs shake."



"Get on with it!"



"Say please."



"Fuck that shit!"



He smoothes his hand over her ass, then walks away. "So what Playstation games have you got?"



He hopes these aren't his last words.






"Maybe I should just kill you then get myself off."



He idly shuffles through her collection of games. "You could. If you're not interested in being surprised."



That gets under her skin. "You calling me vanilla? What the fuck is up with you, d'you spend a few years in some other dimension during the last couple of weeks?"



"They're all rated E."



"He gave me those. I haven't had time to boost any good ones."



"Life's been busy."



"He's got work for me. I earn my keep."



He turns to her, his impassive stare reflecting her nakedness back to her.






Faith rushes him, sprawling him on the rug. "You fuck! I'm nobody's whore."



"Never said you were."



"Look at me like that again and I'll cut your eyes out."



The threat makes his heart flip, but he knows that having her body stared at that way means less to her than when he'd gazed into her eyes that night. That had scared the shit out of her.



Still, she straddles him, eyes glittering, and that is not a comfortable place for him to be.



He slips his hand between them, traces a delicate circle on her inner thigh. "Round two."






She's so aroused that just this feathery touch makes her arch her back. He tumbles her onto the rug, straddling her as she had him a moment before. Seizing her wrist, he traces its blue veins with his tongue, then runs it up toward the bend of her elbow. She makes a sound he can't quite name.



"Welcome to boy world," he says. "We feel like this 99 percent of the time. Walking down the hallway at school." He flicks a nipple with his thumb. "Sitting in class." He draws one of her fingertips into his mouth, sucking it. "Sleeping."






Xander brushes his hand lightly down from the hollow of her throat, between her breasts, to her belly button. "You're hard all the time, and you hope nobody notices." She writhes beneath him. "Luckily, you can always take the pressure off, if you can get a minute alone. You're alone now, Faith. You want to take care of things?"



Without answering, she slides her hand between them.



"You've got favorite fantasies," he whispers, "but most of the time you don't even need them."



Her eyes lose focus, her breath saws harshly.



"Almost there. That's right. Fuck! Someone's at the door!"






She chokes off a cry, her head jerking toward the entry of her apartment. Xander steers her back to boy world. "It's your mom. She tries the door but it's locked. She wants you out here right now to pick up your jacket and your bookbag. It's high time you realized she's not your maid."



Faith's breath whooshes out in a rush, and she starts to finger herself again.



"No," Xander insists. "Now. She's tired of this, and she's gonna have a talk with your father the minute he gets home. If you're smart, you'll pick your shit up now."






Xander shifts his weight to encourage her to scramble from beneath him. "There. And there. You think she's got nothing better to do than follow you around picking stuff off the floor?"



Rattled, she stands there holding her shirt and her pants.



"You know where they go. And fold them."



She folds her things clumsily, puts them away. Her breathing is ragged.



"Was that so hard? Go, back to your room." He drops the mom narrator voice. "Go to the bed. Lie down. No hands." Xander follows her to the bed. "Do you want me to take care of you?"






Her gaze slides away from him. "Yeah."



"Tell me. What is it you want?"



"Bring me off."



"That how you wanted to say it?"



A pause, and the terror he's been suppressing flutters in the back of his mind.



"Please. I'd like it if you'd get me off. If you'd fuck me. Please."



"Who d'you want? Any passing dick?" That's all he'd been for her the first time.



"No." Heat radiates from her face. "You."



"It's just skin on skin," he reminds her. "Doesn't matter who, does it?"



"I want you. Fuck. Please."



He draws her hand to his belt.






As Faith sleeps like a rock beside him, the terror finally overtakes Xander. The precariousness of the tightrope he'd been walking. But it's not just that.



Who's this person who ordered Faith around, teasing her until she begged? Where had he come from? It's like that black flower within him had turned itself inside out, swallowing him whole.



She's bonded to him now. He did what was necessary to complete that. He's still who he is.






The things they've done have wrought a lasting change in her, but he's still the same.



That's not how it works.



He's tainted.






Xander dreams he's on a tightrope. "Heel to toe, heel to toe," he mutters as he walks, but he's wearing some kind of soft-soled shoe (and tights, which he could have lived the rest of his life without dreaming), and the rope is uneven under his feet. Treacherous.



It's madness to look down, but he must see where he's placing his feet. He realizes he's walking on vine, which sprouts new tendrils and leaves even as he balances there.



Just as he's about to reach the platform, the vine drops away, and then he's falling and falling and falling.






The ground rushes toward him, and he squeezes his eyes shut. But when he lands, it's not on ground but on netting. His stomach rolls as he does a soft, supported bounce within the ropes. As he starts to look for the nearest edge to climb down, he hears clapping.



It's not an audience, just one person. "Bravo," says a voice. He can't see its source, but it's British, and it's not Giles and it's not Wes. "What a bracing performance. I couldn't have done better."



He sees a man in a spotlight, wearing a ringmaster's getup.



It's that Ethan.






Gasping, he jerks upright in bed.



"Hey, watch it." Faith's sitting cross-legged on the bed, painting her fingernails. The manicure transcends all mind games; his time with Cordy was enough to impress that upon him.






"You always yap so much in your sleep?"



Now those are words to freeze his balls. "I wouldn't know because I'm always very much on my own. You're dressed."



"Yeah. Mayor's got a job for me. Later tonight."



"I want to meet him."



She pauses mid-brushstroke. "Yeah, you said. Why?"



"You've got daddy issues. So do I. Maybe he could use another loyal soldier."






"Now you're blowin' smoke up my ass. You're Buffy's loyal soldier, that ain't never changing."



"Things have happened." He thinks about what she said, about him spending the last couple of weeks in some other dimension. It makes him feel cold inside. "Things have changed."



"What, Buffy finally tell you to stop tagging along? What makes you think I want you gettin' in my way?" She carefully screws the polish cap back on, tosses the bottle on the bedspread.



"Up on your knees. Hands here." He indicates the railing running behind the bed. "Because things have changed for you, too."






"Careful. Don't want to smudge your nails."



Faith braces herself with her palms, fingers splayed.



Xander pushes her hair forward from the nape of her neck, then takes up the bottle of Plum Panic. He paints an X there on the nape. Her whole body quivers as the brush moves over her skin.



Reaching around her, Xander unfastens her pants and slides them to the base of her ass. He keeps his contact with her clinically unerotic, which has the opposite effect. She moans as he paints an H at the base of her spine.



"Wait there while you dry."






He starts the Playstation, sits on the foot of Faith's bed. She kneels, hands on the railing, motionless. Silent. Xander can feel her tension, though, humming along the surface of the mattress.



Where'd they come from, the things he's done? From Faith, racing along the vine that brought him to her? Or has he been infected by the thousands of brands of craziness the Kreskin flu opened to him?



What keeps her from gutting him? Surprise? Or something he's tapped within her, guiding him step by step?



He'll probably find out when she grabs that knife and splits him open.






He feels the quivering of her fatigued muscles. He counts down from ten, intending to abandon the game, affecting boredom. At four the phone shrills.



"I'll pick up," he says before she can release the railing. He sets the game down and casually strolls to the phone. He lifts the receiver on the fourth ring and holds it to Faith's mouth. She's been chewing her lips.



"Hello.... Yeah, boss. I was washin' my hands; you know how disgusting phones can get.... Right away."



Xander hangs up. He gently strokes the X and then the H. "You'll want to dress now."






When they reach the street she draws in a deep breath, as if the air somehow tastes different to her. Xander wishes he could read her -- just her, without lots of static obscuring things.



He sketches a finger down her spine, toward the H. "Where are you now?"






Another feathery touch there. "Right now. Where are you?"



She sucks in a shuddering breath. "Boy world."



He smiles. "You'll do this job, then we'll bring you home from there. That be good?"



"Good, yeah."



He rests his palm over the Plum Panic X and he guides her across the street.






Larry turns from the box office window, ticket in hand, and stops short, causing the man behind him to bump into him.



He's caught a glimpse of Xander stepping off the curb. A quick flash of profile, then his back's to Larry. Doesn't matter. Larry knows that back, those shoulders, which are so unfuckingbelievably broad on such a skinny guy.



He draws breath to call Xander's name, when he notices. He's walking with a girl, his hand hidden by her dark hair, but resting at the base of her neck in that casually possessive ways guys have.


What the hell?






The closer they get to City Hall, the more Xander feels Faith's tension.



One block away she shrugs off his hand. "Look, I gotta be focused."



If he argues with her, he loses ground. If he grants this, he still has the upper hand. "Sure."



She shoots him a dark look. "I'm playin' your game here because I get bored waiting for shit to happen. Don't be thinkin' it's more than that."



"I get that, yeah," he says blandly, making it clear he's allowing her this outburst.



Her anger kicks up another notch. But her tension, Xander notices, is easing.






He's had this weird idea of City Hall as a place you have to wear a suit for. Maybe because of the time they dragged his seventh grade class to a city council meeting, requiring the boys to wear dress shirts and ties, the girls to wear dresses. But Faith strides down these halls in her leather pants like she's right at home.



She raps on the Mayor's door with a knuckle and waits to be admitted.



"Usually it takes you seven minutes to get here."



"This'll make up for it. Brought you a present, Boss. One a Buffy's pals."






Mayor Wilkins gives him an unwelcoming look. "We've had one of those recently. It was a disappointment."



"This is different, Boss." She moves into his office, drops into a chair, but there's something restrained and tight in her usual loose-limbed movements. "He came to me. Defector from the ranks. Underused and tired of it." She's telling it just as Xander prompted. "Looking for somewhere he can contribute something."



"Is that so?" Wilkins flicks a look between Faith and Xander. "Let's see your hands."



Puzzled, Xander offers them for inspection.






Xander complies.



"Care to tell me what this is?"






By the knuckle of his right pinky, there's a smudge of Plum Panic (apt name, right now). "Nail polish," he says. "Faith's bottle tipped, and I caught it."



"You paid a call to Faith's apartment."



"This once, yes. They said she moved, at her old place. I thought I should check on her."



Wilkins' gaze narrows. "If that's your side's idea of appropriate lodgings for a young lady, I understand why you're defecting."



That's bothered him, but he's never said anything. He doesn't now.



The mayor flashes teeth. They're huge. "Tell me, young man. What can you do for me?"






Xander stammers, "Whatever you want, sir."



Mayor Wilkins looks him over. "I already have someone who does whatever I want, and she's a slayer. So what do I need with you?"



Excellent question. What's he going to say, A few days ago, I could read minds? I averted an apocalypse by stumbling around after some bomb-loving zombies?



"He's our perfect little spy into Buffy's world," Faith says.



"What we need more is to keep any of Buffy's little spies out of ours."



"He's not actin' like a spy, Boss. Trust me on that."



Wilkins' gaze goes glittery and cold.






"I suggest you tell me what you're doing here."



"I want to join up. I see how much it's meant to Faith, allying with you. You said it yourself, it's the difference between that dive hotel and where she's living now. It's not about having nice things. You saw something in her that nobody else took time to notice. There's a lot in me that's gone unnoticed too. Vision -- it's seductive all on its own, but when someone applies that vision to you -- I won't lie, Mayor Wilkins. I want that for myself. In exchange--" He gestures. "Whatever you want."






"That's quite a speech." Wilkins' voice has softened.



"It's nothing but the truth," Xander says. Though there's more to the truth than he's willing to say, because that's between him and Faith.



"Fine," Wilkins says. "You're on board. I'd like you to meet a couple of my associates while I fill Faith in on tonight's assignment." Wilkins presses an intercom button on his desk, then ushers Xander back out into the outer office.



"I'd like you boys to meet young Alexander," he says to the associates. "Our new intern."



Then he leaves Xander alone with the pair of hulking vampires.






"Hiya," Xander says brightly. "How's it, uh, going?"



One favors him with a sneer. "The quality of the new recruits is goin' downhill," he notes to the other.



"Plus the lack of tits," says his companion.



"Well, that was my point."


Those tits happen to belong to me, he thinks, but he suspects it's a lousy idea to say so. Though perhaps safer than saying so to Faith. Depends on the circumstances, he guesses.



He spends an entertaining quarter hour feeling nervous sweat pool in various bodily folds and creases, until Faith emerges. "Back with the goods later tonight, Boss."






"Where are we headed?" he asks as they take the stairs to the ground floor.



"We're headed nowhere. I'm going to the airstrip, but later, when it's full dark. Gotta make a pickup."



"What, he's got a special shipment of milk and cookies coming from over the border?" It's hard to reconcile the squeaky-clean image with a guy who wants to ... ascend.



Faith suppresses a grin. "Evil milk and cookies. Some box. Something about the big day."



"Time for a detour?"



"I guess, but--"



Xander puts a guiding hand on her neck, steering her into the council chambers cloakroom.






Considering how little it rains around here, it's funny how the smell of damp overcoats lingers.






He gestures to lower her voice. "I promised you a lift home from boy world."



"Here? No. Too risky."



"Precisely." He glances around, spots a box he remembers from five years ago. "Which is why it's hot."



"What's that?"



"Clip-on ties. There's a dress code." He finds a fat bowtie, hands it to her. "Bite down on this. Wouldn't want anyone hearing you."



He guides her back between two coathooks, molding her hands around one on each side.



He flips off the light.






Fingering the ticket in his pocket, Larry fidgets on a bench outside City Hall. He followed them here, just trying to figure out what's going on.



What do they want with City Hall? The things people normally want here -- marriage licenses, car registration, tax payments -- all those offices close at eleven on Saturdays.



Not to mention, who is this chick? Not that he got a look at her face, but he'd remember if he'd seen that outfit around Sunnydale High. He'd have boasted that he screwed her, before coming out, and nobody would've believed her if she refuted it.



Is this that Faith? The thought gives him a very bad feeling.






From the back alone, she looks like a girl who'd only, as Xander said, have a th with a guy. What possessed Xander to go find her on his own, when just a couple of days before, he'd wanted someone along for backup?



It's not like he couldn't find Larry to ask him along. He hadn't even responded to the message Larry left with his mom.



If this is the same girl who tried to off him, why is he walking around with her like they're on a date?






Larry waits a while more, but he realizes even if they do come back out, he's going to look weird and stalkerish. People don't hang around City Hall benches for the hell of it, not on a weekend, any more than couples come here on dates.



There's some explanation for it. He'll probably get the story tomorrow. Monday at school, at the latest.



He'd hoped to find him today, though, get the tuxes rented before there's nothing left but last-minute loserwear.



There's still time to catch the movie, but he's over it. He gives the ticket to a passerby.






There's no reason for him to feel dejected, Larry thinks. No big, really, all explainable. He just has to be patient until the explanation's available.



But still, he feels kind of hollowed out and foolish, and he doesn't want to go home because his mom will notice and ask, and as good as his mom has been about everything, it's still embarrassing to discuss his crushes with her, and he's not calling it anything more until there's an official date.



Larry walks over to the Pump for an ice cap, and spots Willow and Buffy.



"Hey, mind if I sit?"






Willow seems startled by the thought, but Buffy pushes out a chair. "Please. You'll save us from yet more obsessing about promwear. We're on Round 17, Straps vs. Strapless, with a long digression into 17a., Necessary Undergarments."



Larry drops into the chair and tears into his scone. "April Fools, for 17a. My sister's are still legendary with certain friends two years later, and on a normal day, they're not all that. The balcony something."



"News I can use," Buffy says brightly.



Willow, however, looks like she feels lost in a bizarre dream.



"So let me ask you something," Larry says.






"What's the story with this Faith? I know she's another slayer, and she's gone bad, but what's she like? If I ran into her, I mean, how would I know her?"



"Well, she dresses like a big skank," Willow offers. "Leather pants and her balcony's more like a skybox. That's one clue."


Ouch. "You're not a fan."



"I tend not to like people who make a habit of hurting Xander."



"I get what you're saying." He mimes pulling barbs from his arm. "Xander and I are working that out."



"He's a nice guy," she says with a touch of disapproval.






"He's a great guy," Larry agrees. "When he was reading minds he meant to see her, try to help. I wondered exactly what happened before."



"They, uh, saw each other once," Buffy says. "When things went south, he thought he should talk to her. He went to her hotel."



"That fleabag."



She nods. "Faith nearly throttled him. If Angel hadn't kicked the door in, he'd be dead."



Now he's strolling around with her. Larry can't decide whether to say anything. There's not a lot of love for this chick, and maybe Xander can save her.



He saved Larry, didn't he?






Xander's friends (especially the one who hates him) aren't much of a substitute for Xander. Larry stays and chats long enough to finish his ice cap, then goes home. He tells his mom he has a headache from the sound system at the movie theater (one of her perpetual gripes about the Sun), and she lets him escape to his room with a minimum of comiseration.



He leaves another message for Xander.



He leaves one in the late morning on Sunday, and Mrs. Harris tells him Xander hasn't been home since early afternoon Saturday.



Okay, now can he feel dejected?






It gets worse.



Monday morning he waits at Xander's locker. Just as Larry's considering giving up, Xander shows, seconds before the first-period bell. The bell shrills as he's working his lock. Wincing, Xander muffs the combination.



"How's it going?"



Xander shrugs. "It's Monday."



The last few students are scattering, sprinting for class, so Larry's free to speak. "Want to go get our tuxes after school? The selection's gonna blow if we wait too long."



"Listen, about that." The gaze he turns on Larry is distant, unfocused. "I was mistaken. I thought I could go, but I can't make it."






Larry's stomach does a freefall, like he's on the first drop of the roller coaster at Magic Mountain. He hates roller coasters.



"Sorry." Xander pulls a book from his locker. "It's not you, it's me." He heads down the hall.



"Damn straight it's you," Larry calls after him, but what he's thinking is, I'm such an asshole, how could I be this stupid, how could I fall for that, perfect fucking revenge, brilliant, and I deserve every bit of it.



Larry blows off biology, buys some pot from a kid in shop class, and spends the hour under the bleachers.






Misery's a lot more boring now that Larry doesn't subscribe to the Pay It Forward philosophy. After the hour of brooding, he emerges from the bleachers and encounters Coach Harrold carrying some equipment to the field.



"Shouldn't you be in class?"



"I guess."



"Just because the clock's running out, doesn't mean you stop playing hard."



"Yessir." That's Coach. Life's a metaphor for sports.



"You're a competitor, Blaisdell. You know the definition of a true competitor?"






"That's a guy who comes in first and third in a jerkoff contest."



Larry chokes.



"Never forget that, son."



He doesn't think he will.






When Larry returns to his locker, he finds a note shoved in the door crack. Though he feels a stomach-flip of hope, it's from Buffy. Scooby meeting after school. Could be awkward, but he'll go.



Larry catches up with Buffy between classes and asks if she'd go off campus with him for lunch. "I need your opinion on something. It's about Xander."






Larry takes her to a drive-in restaurant at the edge of town. "It's a little funky, but the food's good. And I wanted this to be private. This can't go any farther, not even to Willow."






"Xander -- is he a guy who'd plan some complicated humiliation for someone who'd pissed him off?"



"The only time I remember him devising some elaborate scheme -- and by 'elaborate' I mean 'stupid' -- was last year when Cordelia broke up with him. That was a love spell that would supposedly make Cordy come back to him so he could turn around and dump her."



Okay, that sounds like the guy who'd cook this up.



"Only I never believed he'd have done it," Buffy says. "If it had worked, I think he'd have taken her back, and been thrilled."



"It didn't work?"






"Oh please. Don't you remember the insanity? Every woman in Sunnydale fell trulymadlydeeply over Xander. I mean every. Except Cordelia."



God yes. Now he remembers. "There were girlfights in the hall over him. Including a few teachers. Wait, though, didn't the two of them get back together?"



"Once Cordelia saw how far he'd--" Buffy waves her hand in dismissal. "Forget it. It was total sitcom logic, every bit as stupid as the whole scheme. But true love won the day, and he took her back. So do you wanna tell me what this is all about?"



Not so much, really.






"Swear you'll never tell."



She raises a hand in an approximate scout gesture. "Consider me sworn."



"Okay. I asked him to prom. Friday he said yes. Suddenly today, it's no."



His dashboard is suddenly freckled with strawberry milkshake. "Prom? Xander? Larry, he's not -- he couldn't possibly be -- you've seen the way he dresses."



Despite the craptacularity of this day, Larry can't smother a grin. "There are other markers. Somewhat more reliable."



"What? Sorry. I'm not saying you're -- are you sure you didn't misunderstand --"



"There's been kissing. Lots of it."



"Holy--" Buffy grabs a napkin and scrubs off the dash. "Wow."






"When did that--"



"It started while the aspect thing was going on. Then today, it's like it never happened. He's got a million reasons to hate me--"



"That's not his style. Humiliation of friends is a by-product, not an aim. When he's blown a gasket and the mouth-brain connections have been compromised. He can be cutting, for sure, but it's when he's hurt or angry or outraged. Going all Count of Monte Cristo? It's not him. Maybe he just chickened out."



"If so, he ain't doin' it halfway. I saw him with a girl. I think it was Faith."






"That's not the happy news report."



"When Xander keeled over from the telepathy thing, he was on his way to talk to her. You knew that, didn't you? He still wanted to help her, even after the way it went the last time."



"Oh, that'll mean a whole lot to her. Faith hasn't gotten any less crazy since then."



"So what do we do?"



"Intervention? God knows, those are fun for everyone."



"When? The meeting today?"



"Guess so. He'll be there. I'll talk to Giles, put it on the agenda. We've got to stop this before he gets himself killed."






When Larry reaches the library, Giles Jr.'s giving Buffy the absolutely not. "Our priority must be retrieving the Box from the Mayor before he completes the next step in the ritual.Your interpersonal troubles will have to wait."



"We will address it," Giles promises. "But Wesley's right; this must take precedence."



"If we take an optimistic view of things," Wes says smugly, "perhaps Xander will keep Faith off the playing field while we're tending to tonight's business."



"Dude, that's cold," Larry says.



"Though not especially surprising," Buffy says pointedly. "Anyway, Xander's going to be with us tonight."



But he's not.






Xander doesn't appear for the meeting, just sends excuses via Willow.



"I don't like this," Buffy says. "When has he ever missed a Scooby meeting?"



"That time with the food poisoning, I think," Oz says.



Willow gives Larry a curdled look like he's a bad batch of potato salad. Like it's his fault Xander didn't show. Maybe it is his fault.



"But he said he's fine," Wes says.



"It's all right," Buffy says, though clearly it's not. "So Larry, you get to be the Xander tonight."



Giles unfurls the floor plans and cracks open the spellbooks, and they get rolling.






Even given the fact that Larry knew nothing in Sunnydale was really normal, "being the Xander" involves more off-the-wall knowledge that he'd never suspected. Who knew there's a shop in town where you could buy a baggie of toad essence? They have all the stuff you heard jokes about, like eye of newt -- there's a whole E shelf, in fact, with eye of salamander, skink, gekko, and a bunch more. The saleslady tells him there's a special on thrice-blessed sage, but Larry consults the list Giles gave him and says he'd better stick with the twice-blessed.






This whole thing makes Larry kinda nervous. "Don't you think someone who knows what they're doing should be casting the spells? I mean, I just joined up."



"We're not actually casting the spell, that happens when the box gets here. We're just doing the prep work."



"We're not the uh, sorcerers, just the sous sorcerers." Larry has a cousin who's a sous chef. It apparently involves being screamed at a lot.



"Right. It's still delicate work. But Willow left pretty detailed instructions. See? Little drawings and everything."



Larry sees. She drew him with the angry monster face. "'Kay, let's go."






Xander sees her climbing down the maintenance ladder, her part in this done. Sometimes he marvels at the impracticality of the things she wears.



"Willow," he whispers urgently. "Come with me. Hurry -- things are beyond screwed."



"I'm supposed to go to Giles," she says.



"Plan's changed. He wants you with me." Don't make me tell you.



She looks off in the other direction, where Giles and Wes wait.



Xander closes his hand around her wrist. "We have to go."



"But Giles said-- This isn't Plan B."



"Giles is dead. Wes is dying. We've gotta go now."



Her face crumples. "Giles--"






"I should go to him."



"There's nothing you can do. I was there when -- the last thing he said was to take you somewhere safe."



Finally she lets Xander lead her away, her long skirt flapping as he pulls her in his wake.



"I know somewhere no one will think to look." He takes her through the shortcuts Faith used to get to the mayor. Shock has settled over Willow, and she stumbles along behind him without questioning.



"This way." He takes her into Faith's building. Up to the roof, and then through the access door. "We'll be safe here."






Willow doesn't even glance around the apartment. She stands in the middle of the room, one hand to her mouth, her breath rapid and shallow. Any second now she'll be crying.



Xander enfolds her in his arms. "Honey, I'm sorry."



The sound of her tears has always pierced him. "How did--"



"I don't know. I just came on him, and -- It was bad."



He holds her as she cries herself into quivering exhaustion. "C'mon, honey, let's sit." Leading her to the little table by the window, he settles her in a chair. He closes the blinds. "You're safe with me."






"Oh Xander," she whispers, "what'll we do?"



"It'll all be okay. Just rest there."



Grief and shock have made her docile, and he has her wrists bound to the chair before she shakes herself out of her torpor.



"What the hell are you doing?"



"Shhhhh." He brushes her hair back, tucking it behind her ear. "You're okay. I'll keep you safe."



"Why are you -- Xander, what's wrong with you?"



"I'm fine, Will. Relax, don't fight. I'm good at knots, you won't get free."



Tears and snot stream down her face. Xander grabs a skimpy tank top and wipes her face.






It takes a moment, but she finally registers what he's using to dab at her cheeks.



"God, that's hers, isn't it? You brought me to Faith's place. What's happened to you?"



"Nothing's happened. I don't know how many ways to tell you you're safe here, but let me try it once more."



Willow sucks in a breath for a scream, and Xander hastily smothers it under his palm.



"I wish you hadn't decided to do it this way." He snatches up a scrap of clothing from the other chair and uses it as a gag. "Calm down, everything'll be fine."






Xander watches her until her breath gets less wild. "I'm not even sure this is necessary. The walls are pretty thick. Calm down, and I'll undo it, okay?"



He picks up Faith's phone and hits #1 on the speed dial.



"Genovese Pizza."



He realizes he hasn't eaten for hours, so he orders a medium pie with everything, then he hits #2.



"Wilkins." Bingo. It turns out there is something that can shake his unnaturally chipper self. He sounds distinctly pissed off.



"Sir, this is Xander Harris. I found Willow Rosenberg climbing down from your building. I've got her at Faith's."






That seems to improve Wilkins' mood. "Aren't you brimming with initiative. So happens I think I'll have a use for her. Keep her there, for now."






The call hasn't improved Willow's mood, though. Her eyes blaze as he hangs up..



"You went after the Box. I'm guessing the others got it, because the Mayor's in a very bad mood. So we wait awhile, for the negotiations and all. Faith's got cable, if you want to watch. It's V-chipped to hell -- excuse me, heck -- and gone, but it'll pass the time."



Willow glares. Xander shrugs and turns on the TV.






Larry's debut as sous sorcerer fizzles into nothing. The others return with the Box but without Willow, and the argument begins: destroy the box or trade it for Willow. For a guy who talks such a great game about the importance of saving lives on a mass scale, Wes seems pretty damn fond of the individual sacrifice.



For a guy who barely talks at all, Oz does a pretty good job of getting in the last word.



"So," Larry says as they all stare at the shards of the ceremonial bowl, "all in favor of trading the Box for Willow."






Not that Larry has any great memories of the cafeteria (besides Xander first parking his tray at Larry's table), but this has to be the creepiest. The dark's an improvement, actually, but there's Snyder. Face-sucking bugs. Xander, impassively guarding Willow.



Willow lets out a thin wail when Giles first speaks, her knees buckling. Xander holds her upright, taking the gag from her mouth before she chokes on her tears.



It's hard for Larry to register what he's seeing. Especially when the exchange is made and Xander leaves with the Mayor, hand lightly resting at the small of Faith's back.






When it's over, Willow rushes into Giles' arms. "God -- Giles -- he -- he said you were dead."



They retreat to the library, where Giles starts a pot of tea. It's ready by the time her tears fade to hiccups. "He was so cold. He tied me up, then he ordered a pizza."



"So how do we rescue him?" Larry asks.



"Rescue?" Oz has that calm-before-the-crockery-flies look again.



"C'mon, that's not him," Larry insists. "How long have you known Xander?" Looking around, he realizes the collective answer is not that long. Except for Willow, who's not exactly unbiased.






"I've known him forever," Larry says. "Beating the crap out of Xander Harris has been a proud Blaisdell tradition since 1989. I've spent lots of time sizing him up, okay?" It surprises him how much he hates talking about this. "There's only a handful of times I ever came near being physically afraid of him. Every time it was because I'd dared to push Willow around. Screw with her, and he is fierce."



"He's right," Willow says in a small voice.



"It's true," Buffy adds. "That's not him."



"Then who is it," Wes sneers.



Larry says, "I have a theory."






"By all means," Wes says, "enlighten us with your musings."



"For god's sake, Wesley," Giles spits, "shut up and let the boy speak."



Larry likes Giles coming to his defense, though he could have lived without the boy. "I'm thinking it has to do with the demon thing. We've been assuming the mind-reading was the only effect, but what if there was another -- what did you all call it?"



"Aspect of the demon," Giles murmurs.



"Yeah, that."



"It's possible, I suppose. Although the demon heart should have cured it too. But what?"



"I have a theory about that, too."






Here's where things get tricky. "Something stuck in my head -- what you said when Buffy and Angel went hunting for the second demon. That they mate for life."



"Yes --"



"I'm not sure how to put this. Giles, maybe we should talk in your--"



"Don't you dare," Buffy orders.



"I dunno. Maybe I'm talking out my-- Maybe I'm wrong. I keep thinking -- What about Faith. There's no way you'd know, but I keep wondering if he -- if they -- I mean, could they--"



He's greeted with a chorus of Yes.






"We happen to know," Giles says. "You may be onto something."






"Why do you think this is connected with Faith and not a shift in his loyalties?" Wes asks. At least he's halfway taking Larry seriously now.



"Because his loyalties don't shift. He was friends with Willow in grade school, and still is. Same with Jesse, until he died. He doesn't let go of his grudges that easy, either."



"Except he's friends with you now," Willow notes. The subtext is beats me why.



"We had an important conversation last year. He kinda sat back, waiting to see if I really meant it. Like I said, he doesn't turn on a dime."






"He was kinda fixated on Faith when he collapsed," Larry continues. "He wanted to see her, try reading her in case he could help her. Maybe that fixation caused this. He didn't give off a vibe then that it was about sex or love or anything. But I caught a glimpse of them together this weekend, and that's what it looked like. They were together."



Here he is, giving speeches to Xander's closest friends. But he's right. He's certain of it.



"Everything he's saying makes sense to me," Angel says. "Can we find any new information on this aspect thing?"






After Larry's first Scooby meeting, Xander had told him about the occasional all-nighters with the musty books full of gross woodcuts and spidery, headache-producing print. Now here he is at his first one, and Xander's not.



He likes research better than he'd expected to. Maybe because it gives him a sense of purpose (plus, holy crap, finding out all the scary stuff out there he'd never dreamed of). Maybe because the point is bringing Xander back -- bringing back that person it seemed he was becoming.



Is that even possible?



He doesn't even want to think about the alternative.






While Larry's paging through the books, he wonders: What if he'd been bonded forever with the first person he'd ever had sex with?



It's not a thought he likes to dwell on. Not because there was anything wrong with the girl (beyond not being a guy). But Larry had been anxious for it to prove something, which of course it didn't, so he was an asshole and bragged to teammates, and she hates him now, not surprisingly.



He'd rather avoid that as a life sentence.



Of course, with Homicide Chick there, Xander's life sentence might not last all that long.






As he's taking a break to work the kinks out of his neck, Buffy joins him at the window. "We'll get him back," she says softly. "We have a pretty good track record with this stuff."



Larry nods but doesn't speak.



"And, well, thanks for trusting me enough to ask my opinion today. I know how huge that is."



"I figured, what with being the Slayer and all, you'd be pretty good at holding onto secrets. Which reminds me -- how come everyone knew about Xander and Faith having -- a thing? He seems like the last guy who'd kiss and tell."






"Oh, there was no kissing and telling," Buffy states. "Well, maybe there was kissing, I expect there was. He didn't say. Because of the no telling. There wasn't even implying. It was all inferring. Unless I'm confusing imply and infer -- I always have to stop and think about which one I mean. We all guessed. Xander suggested he go talk to her, back when she first got into trouble, and Giles was all, well, why you, and Xander said, well, we kind of have a connection and we were all ohhhhh."



"Mr. Giles," Wes says, "have a look at this."






The list of conditions and ingredients seems a mile long, but Giles and Angel agree that it's got a good chance of working.



"Some of these ingredients may be somewhat difficult to acquire," Wes says.



"We have a few days to do so," Giles says. "The spell can't be performed until the dark of the moon."



"When's that?" Larry asks.



"Saturday," Oz says without hesitation.



"That's crazy," Larry blurts. "It's Monday. Okay, Tuesday morning. This chick has tried to kill him before, we're not just gonna leave him in this situation until Saturday."



"You can't cheat the moon," Oz says.






"What kind of stupid hippie-ass remark is that?" It's been a while since the desire to pound the shit out of somebody has surged through Larry, but when it does it's as powerful as ever.



Oz is unrattled. (In the old days that would earn him a real thumping.) "You don't know. I'm a werewolf."



"That's fuckin' hilarious."



"It's true," Willow says. "He was bitten last year."



Willow never lies. Well, she does (I'm not afraid of you.), but she turns bright pink when she does.



"Oz is right," Giles says. "The spell must be cast at the appointed time."






It's still dark when the meeting breaks up, so Giles drives them all home, except Buffy and Angel, who're badass enough to walk.



He drops Larry off last. As they're driving toward his street, Giles says, "Thank you for your contributions tonight."



When Larry doesn't know what to say, nothing works like a sports cliche. "Just trying to do my best for the team."



"You have some insights we don't have, or that we've stopped registering. You've used your former animosity on Xander's behalf, and I doubt that was easy."



Larry shrugs. "Yeah, well, I owe him. For several reasons."






He suspects Giles wants to ask him about this, or about what's transformed Larry's animosity (and into what, Larry suspects). But Giles hesitates, and Larry takes advantage of that. "Thanks for the ride. See you after class tomorrow -- today."



He wishes he could be open about things, but the time's not right. Xander has to be on board -- Larry's already outed him to Buffy, prompted by those first inklings that something was wrong. But from now on, he's keeping Xander's secrets -- until Xander decides to give them up. Or until Larry decides, because of the secrets, to give him up.






It's almost dawn when Xander lets himself into Faith's apartment, turning the locks as quietly as possible. Faith's still sprawled on the bed, dead to the world. You'd think Slayer powers would make her a light sleeper, but they seem to have the opposite effect. Somehow, knowing she can overpower most dangers seems to allow her to sink deeper into sleep. She hadn't even roused when he'd jerked awake beside her, fresh from a nightmare.



He approaches, drawing a scarf from the bag he carries. "Faith," he says softly. "Wake up, Faith."



She groans. "Fuck off."



"I don't think so."






He rubs his thumb gently over the X on her neck. It's beginning to chip off. "Faith."



"Time is it?" she mumbles.



"Time to get up. Sit up."



Groggily she complies, and he settles the silk scarf over her eyes, drawing it around back and tying it.



"Give me your hand. Now stand up." Steadying her, he draws her across the room to the little table by the window.



He binds her to the chair, using the same cords he used on Willow. The difference is, any time Faith chooses, she can get herself loose and flatten him.



Or worse.






"The fuck is this about?"



"Let me worry what it's about."



Worry's a good word for it. Xander saw the look the Mayor gave Faith when she hesitated in the cafeteria, looked back toward the knife that pinned the giant spider from hell into the wall. He caught the steel in Wilkins' voice as he called her name. The game Xander is playing has gotten a lot more dangerous. Wilkins expects her to surrender her will to him, and the notion that he's got competition --



Xander has to stay on the tightrope. Keep Faith bound to him.



"I brought breakfast."






"Yeah? Well, how the fuck am I supposed to eat it?"



"I'll feed you."



Xander can feel that she's a heartbeat away from shaking off her bonds, smashing his little game (and him) into tiny pieces. He reaches again into the paper bag, producing a fat strawberry. Xander teases her with it, touching it fleetingly to her lower lip.



"What is that?"



He touches it to her chin, against the dimple there. "Something sweet."






He brushes it against the hollow of her throat. "Can you say something sweet?"



"Fuck," she whispers, shuddering, and somehow sweet is what it is.






He rewards her with a bite of the berry, then he brushes its other half along her jawline, painting her skin with its stain. As he traces the faint line with his tongue, her breath catches. "It's nice, isn't it? Sweet." He offers her another bite, and she greedily takes it. "So ripe and lush." When she swallows, he leans in and tastes the strawberry juice on her lips. "Want another taste?"






"Sorry, I couldn't make that out. Did you want more?"



"Yes. Please."



Touching another large berry to her mouth, he lets her devour it all at once.






The third berry he pulls from the bag, he tastes himself, making a small noise of pleasure, which Faith echoes. He stains her lips with the half berry, denying her a bite. Instead, Xander raises her tank top above her breasts and paints their hard nubs a darker pink. "Don't they taste fine, just like summer."



She shudders as he takes one in his mouth. "Please," she says again.



"Want another berry?"






"I have some grapes."



"No. Please."



"Peaches, then. The juice just glides down your skin." His finger traces its imaginary path down her throat, between her breasts.






Her breath hisses inward, and her back arches.



"Where are you now?"



This time she answers with no confusion or hesitation. "Boy world."



"You've been to boy world now often enough to know. D'you like it here, Faith?" He traces the same line down her skin with the strawberry.



"Been here? I fuckin' live here."



He smiles, though she can't see it. "Do you like it?" he repeats. He paints the inside of a thigh, drawing forth a moan.



"Makes me crazy," she whispers. "Yeah, I like it."



"Then we don't have to be in any big hurry to leave."






"Someone's cranky this morning," Larry's mom chirps. Cheeriness should be illegal at this hour. "You need your sleep on school nights."



"Studying for finals. Plus the paper."



"You were with this study group at school?"



"Yeah. The librarian keeps an eye on us."



"Well, get home before midnight next time, or I'll have to talk to him. Prom's coming up. Are you going?"



"Working on it."



"You'd better get your tux then. You remember the scramble before Annie's wedding."



"I'm trying, Mom. Can't drag a guy out of the closet."



Grabbing a Pop Tarts, he slams out of the house.






Old School Larry's in the house. So you'd guess from the nervous looks cast toward him as kids scramble out of his path. He enjoys it almost as much as he used to, laced with a little guilt.



The prom committee kids are selling brownies, persistant as Moonies. It takes an internal pep talk to keep from kicking their table over.



He drops by the library, though there's no official meeting till three.



Buffy and Willow are already there. "Looking for Giles?" Buffy asks. "He's back there, on the phone to Indonesia. Ingredients."



"Nah, I just--" He shrugs.



"Us too."






"It bugs me, knowing Xander's in harm's way," Larry says. "From Faith, the Mayor-- what if we kept an eye on him? Staked out Faith's place?" Stalked him, in plain English.



"That's an idea. Will, have you remembered anything more?"



"I was crying the whole way. I just followed blindly. We could try going downtown."



"We're all on first lunch shift, right?" Buffy asks. "Let's meet at the front entrance, and head over. We'll grab lunch on the way back."



"Good plan," Larry says. Having one makes him feel slightly less like Godzilla trashing Tokyo as he navigates the halls.






Willow brings Oz, which puts Larry back on the pissy side of the ledger. Oz is one of Xander's friends; he's going to have to deal eventually, but he doesn't particularly feel like it now. He sticks closer to Buffy.



"I don't rememember much about the way there," Willow says.."Alleys. Everything smelled like garbage."



Buffy knows the shortcuts, too, but nothing rings a bell with Willow as they move from alley to alley. It all looks the same to Larry, too.



"I'm sorry," Willow says. "Wait. One thing I remember. The movie theater. I saw it from her window."






This isn't working. They're all standing under the marquee of the Sun while Willow looks at every building around, waiting for something to click. For all they know, Faith and Xander could emerge from any of them without warning, then they're boned.



"That's it," Willow yelps. "That's the one. Top floor. I rememmber the windows -- they're semicircles."



Buffy cases the place as much as possible in broad daylight, until Willow says, "Someone's coming out on the roof!"



They turn tail and run, but as Larry glances back he gets the weirdest impression -- that the woman on the roof is blindfolded.






"I'm coming tonight."



"Absolutely not."



"C'mon, you can't stay out there all night. We'll take shifts."



"You've never been in combat, never killed a vamp. That's who the Mayor uses to do his dirty work."



Here's a conversation Larry never expected in his life. Some tiny blonde chick telling him he has no combat experience. "Can't you teach me?"



"Sometime, maybe."



"Because it's pointless to teach me when you actually need someone."



"Has anyone ever told you you're a giant pain in the ass?"






"What a surprise. Okay. After our meeting we'll train. Show some promise, and we'll see."






After school, Giles sends Willow for the spell ingredients that are available locally. The rarer stuff's coming from Indonesia and Africa -- fast, Larry hopes.



Buffy tells Giles she's going to train Larry in fighting techniques.



"I'm pleased to hear it. Perhaps you'll inspire Xander to show an interest."



"You mean he's not already--"






"You ever offer?"



Giles stammers.



"I hate to keep acting all expert, but the way Xander shows interest is pressing his nose to the window, hoping someone will notice he's interested. He's not pushy like me."



Giles blinks.



Larry turns to Buffy. "Let's get to it."






She can still kick the shit out of him. The difference is, she doesn't seem to relish it as much. Maybe a little.



"How're you holding up?" she asks as she helps him stand.



"I'm good."



"Then how would you feel about hitting the cemetery?"



"Let's go."



She keeps up the instruction until they reach the gate, when she says, "Just want you to know. I'm rooting for you two."



"For me to what?"



"You two. You and Xander. This goes in the Things I Never Dreamed I'd Say Hall of Fame, but I think you'd be good for him."






"You never know what kind of night you're gonna have," Buffy says as she leads him along a path. "Some nights it's waiting for a new vamp to rise, which is a little fish-in-the-barrel, but has to be done. Some nights it's a marauding band of demons crashing the Bronze, and I've got my hands full."



"That explains some nights I've had at the Bronze. I mean, how many drug gangs can this town have?" And how ugly can they be naturally?



They're walking toward a fresh grave, and suddenly the dirt over it begins to heave.






This takes a while, long enough for Larry to ask, "How'd you know it'd happen here?"



"We check the obituaries. Sudden death, young victim, vague details that don't add up. Sometimes we're wrong -- or maybe they died of a vamp attack, but didn't get turned."



One hand spears upward from the ground and Larry takes a startled step back. "Don't you automatically become a vampire if you die that way?"



"Nope. That's true of werewolves -- just being bit, whether they die or not. That's what happened to Oz. Oh, here he comes." She hands him the stake. "He's all yours."






The vamp sees Larry and Buffy when he's halfway out of the grave, and goes into a frenzy.



"Yeah, they're pretty hungry when they wake up," she says, as if she's a mom describing her toddlers. "It's not exactly sporting, but fair play's not the point. These guys get loose, they kill people."



"So now's good?"



The vamp has all but one foot free when Larry tackles him, punching a stake through his heart.



"Oh my god, that was the cutest thing ever. Imagine me doing some witty Steve Madden play-by-play here."



Larry laughs. "That's John Madden."









Buffy's leading him toward another grave when they're rushed by its former occupant.



"Sorry we're late," Buffy says. "We lost track of the time." As she's speaking she launches herself at the vamp, kicking, ducking, whirling, striking out again. It's one of the most beautiful athletic displays Larry's ever seen. If he was ever gonna go for girls again, this would be the thing that would make him stupid with love for Buffy.



Once the vamp's dusted, Larry says, "Man. Wish I could do that."



"You fight however it comes naturally. Thinking too much in battle can get you killed."






"That might've sounded insulting, now that I think about it," Buffy says. "I didn't mean 'cute' in a bad way."



"I'm not insulted."



"It was just, y'know, such a completely different approach. So incredibly ... guyish. Not that I mean that in a bad way."



"No, I get it." He's laughing, actually, picturing how it must've looked.



"The main thing is, you killed your first vamp, and that's pretty kickass, whatever your personal style."



He knows that, but the thing he keeps coming back to, that makes him happy, is what she said about him and Xander.



She's rooting for them.






If anything he's done with Faith is going to get Xander killed, it's this.



He holds her.



They're both fully dressed, sitting on the platform that runs along the front window, legs stretched out before them. Xander leans into the huge cushions piled at the wall, with Faith nestled between his legs, lying back against him. His arms are wrapped around her.



That's all, he just holds her.



She hates it.



Faith keeps attempting little seductions. She takes his thumb into her mouth, making lewd promises without speaking. Xander gently pulls his hand away, settles his arm back around her.






She tries again, slipping a teasing hand between them.



"No," he murmurs. "Be still."



Tension quivers through her. "What's your fuckin' game?"



"It's no game. Shhhh. Don't look around. Just be."



"Is this supposed to get me hot? Cause I've got a news flash."



"This is deeper than hot. Relax. Don't talk. Don't think."



The phone shrills, making them jump. She's out of his arms like a shot, snatching it up. "Yeah.... Yeah, Boss, little faster this time.... Where and when?" She hangs up. "Goin' out. Back when I'm back."



He thinks it's smart to be gone when she returns.






Once the door bangs closed behind her, Xander flops back against the cushions, his own muscles quivering with released tension. What the hell happened? Had he completely lost his feel for the highwire act? Or was something outside them screwing with the tightrope itself, or somehow loosening it from its moorings?



Time to climb down. Quickly. Carefully.



He grabs up the few things he has here, considering where he should go. Seems like a good time to disappear temporarily. Though Faith's never been to his house, it wouldn't be hard to find. He can't go there, or to the Scoobies.






Though Giles doesn't know it, Xander's spent a few nights at the school library when things were shitty at home. It's too obvious a place now, but it's the sort of place he needs, since he has no real cash, no credit card. There's no amount of money anyway that would induce him to stay in Faith's old digs, not after he's heard what's in the heads of the people who live there.



If it was earlier, he'd spring for a movie ticket and sleep at the Sun.



Xander decides on the public library downtown. He likes sleeping around books.






Yanking the door open, Xander finds himself face to face with one of Wilkins' vamp goons.



"Glad you're here," the vamp says. "I thought I'd drop by so we could have a friendly talk."



"You forgot one thing." Xander steps out of reach and gives the door a shove.



The vamp blocks the door. "You forgot three things." He steps inside. "I work for the Mayor. The Mayor owns this apartment. He sent me over for our little chat."


Shit shit shit. Xander backs across the room. "So chat."



"Mayor wants you dead." He shrugs. "That's pretty much the gist."






"That could be a political liability."



"Only if anyone finds out. That won't happen."



You'd think there'd be stakes in a slayer's apartment. Faith's a freerange slayer, though. Likes finding her stakes in the wild.



"You must've gotten your signals crossed. He said I've got initiative."



"Wilkins hates initiative. Unless you've got a pair like the chick's."



He edges toward the little table. "I've got a pair, they're just hairier and lower down."



"You won't have 'em long."



Xander flings one of the chairs at him. Its spindly legs are metal, useless for staking.



Just then, the door splinters open.






"It's so sad," Buffy says, "how the standards of civil service have gone downhill."



"Write a letter to the editor," the vamp snarls. He scoops up the chair Xander just hurled at him and sails it toward Buffy.



"I'm thinking I will." She produces a stake. "Oh, crap, there's no lead in my pencil."



Just as she launches herself at the vamp, Xander's seized by the arm.



"Dude. Let's travel." It's Larry.



Xander's knees go weak with relief, but Larry keeps him upright as he steers him toward the door.



"I'm thinking there's healthier places to be."



He's not wrong.






"What are you doing here?" Xander asks Larry as they cross the street toward the darkened Espresso Pump.



"Getting you out. Buffy and I thought you'd be in danger."



"Buffy and you?"



"Yeah. I guess a lot has happened."



Despite his decision to spend the night elsewhere, Xander's unease spikes the farther he gets from Faith's place. It's hard to breathe. "No."



"What d'you mean, no?"



"I have to go back."



"Like hell you do. The Mayor's put a hit out on you."



"I belong there." He turns to head back, but Larry grabs his arm. I belong to Faith.






Simple plan, good plan. Some coach of his had said that. Larry had been dubious even then (Simple slogan, dumb slogan had flitted across his mind). Now that they've got Xander out of immediate danger, they have to figure out what to do with him. Currently they've got him in the library, where he's not exactly giving the How ever can I thank you for saving me?



Giles parks him in a chair, trying to learn anything that might help them battle the Mayor, but he gets more agitated by the moment. "I have to go, Giles. Let me go."






"I understand what you're feeling, Xander," Giles says. "But it isn't real. It's a remnant of your contact with the demon. It's created a false bond with Faith, but I believe we can loosen its grip."



"What the fuck do you know about what's real?" Xander snarls. "If it's not in a book, it's not real to you."



"I don't deny this is very powerful--"



"Then let me go."



"He's not looking so good," Larry points out. Xander's breath has grown shallow and rapid, and sweat gleams on his face.



Xander surges to his feet. "I've gotta go to her."






Xander moves toward Giles with enough menace that Larry steps in. With a decade of experience frog-marching Xander places he doesn't want to go, Larry has no trouble getting him to the book cage. Giles finishes padlocking a big cabinet inside, then exits and gestures to get Xander in.



"It's for your own good, buddy," Larry says as Giles snaps the lock.



"I've heard that shit before."



That gives Larry pause. It was one of his favorite lines. "This time it's true."



"What're you gonna do come daylight," Xander sneers at Giles, "sell tickets?"



That's a damn good point.






They've got a few hours before sunup to work at it, so Giles and Wes try to come up with a temporary solution for keeping Xander contained until they can do the Dennis Rodman/Carmen Electra on him and Faith.



Larry keeps an eye on Xander, contemplating the fact that he'd never wondered about this cage before, or the padlocked cabinet inside. What had he thought, that this was where they locked up the Chaucer porn or something? (Well no, not really, because that might have interested him.)



What else has been right in plain sight that he's never noticed?






"Let me out," Xander repeats. "I've gotta be with her."



"It's a very dangerous game you've been playing," Wes lectures. "The Mayor plainly wants complete control over Faith; he'll not tolerate any competition."



"It's no game. And it's you who hates competition, isn't it? You couldn't get her to do anything. You have to have the right touch, Wes."



This is straying into Shit I don't wanna know territory. Larry says, "If I'm out after midnight again, it's gonna be a problem."



Giles nods. "Of course. Buffy, why don't you go home as well."



"Back at first light," Larry promises.






"Sorry to flake out on you," Larry says. "I realized I was in range for some blowback from a major pissing match."



"As imagery goes, let me just say 'Ewww.' But believe me, I don't want to hear it any more than you do. I have Faith issues."



"What's her deal? First I heard it was 'one girl in the world,' but then it's 'oh yeah, plus Faith.'"



"Well, there was this time I died."



"No, really."



"I did. Drowned. For just a minute, then Xander made with the CPR. So another slayer was called. It's a whole mystic thing."






"So you died, then there was Faith, and you came back right away, but she's still a slayer."









"There was Kendra. She's the one who was called when I drowned. But she was killed a few months later, and that's when Faith got called."



Whoa. "Does that happen a lot?"



"Unfortunately so."



"Wow. Here all this time I thought you were just a flighty blonde chick."



"I'm a flighty blonde chick who sometimes averts apocalypses and could die horribly anytime."



"That what it's gonna say under your yearbook picture?"



"Please. Don't get me started on the yearbook fiasco."






Larry doesn't sleep much, but when he gets back to the library he sees he's gotten a lot more than Xander, who looks worse than he had before. He sits on the floor at the farthest corner of the cage, glowering.



Larry crouches for the eye-to-eye. "Hey, buddy." What the hell are they gonna do with him? They can't keep him here. "How're you feeling?"



"You know the definition of buddy? That's some poor fucker three seconds before you screw him over. Right, Giles?" His voice sounds thick and weird.



"What'd you do to him?"



"They drugged me."






Larry turns toward Giles. "That true?"



"It's, er, more complicated than that."



"Some magic shit, then."



"You didn't see him as the night progressed. And as he pointed out, we can't keep him here."



"'You don't have to go home," Xander slurs, "but you can't stay here.' Never forgiving any of you. I need to go back. Need Faith."



"Forget that," Larry says. "Wilkins'll kill you. Or she will."



"So what? I'm dying anyway."



Again Larry whips around to look at Giles.



"We don't know," he says softly. "He's not doing well."



With that, Xander slumps to the floor, unconscious.






"Shit," Larry blurts. "Giles, he's out cold."



"It's all right. This is what we planned. We needed to make him easier to transport." Giles unlocks the cage.



Larry tries to haul Xander up enough to get a shoulder under him, but damn, he's floppy and boneless. Finally Larry staggers to his feet, hauling him up, and Giles takes Xander's other side.



"Where we taking him?"



"Angel has volunteered to keep an eye on him."



"He looks strong enough to handle him." Larry's noticed the build a time or twenty.






"We'd better get him gone, before we have a crowd."






Larry turns to check on Xander, sprawled across the back seat. Has he been home at all since Saturday? Does either of his parents give a fuck? His mom sounded vague when Larry phoned Sunday. It's a vagueness he knows; Larry's aunt sounds that way if you call her after nine at night.



"Has anyone called his parents?" he asks Giles.



"He told me once he turned eighteen they stopped expecting it."



It pisses him off, how little worth they find in their kid. Funny, coming from the guy who thumped him daily. If someone like Larry can see it --






By the time they get to Angel's, Xander's dead weight. Larry and Giles wrestle him out of the car as Angel watches from his doorway. Guess he's only the man of action when Buffy's around. Larry rolls his eyes in private commentary to Giles, but he gets no response.



When they reach the door, Angel's helpfulness finally kicks in. He takes Xander, singlehandedly settling him on the huge sofa he'd occupied before.



"This isn't good," Angel says.



"His current condition's because of the herbs. He'd become quite agitated. He believes separation from Faith will kill him."



"He may be right."






Giles glances at Angel sharply. "You've noticed something?"



"His breathing, his pulse. It's not dangerous now, but it bears watching."



There's something Larry's not getting. What does Angel know about Xander's pulse? He skips that question, jumps to the important one: "It's Wednesday. We can't do this mojo till Saturday. We're gonna just sit on our hands watching him go downhill?"



"Is there some way of cheating the moon?" Angel asks.



"I'll see what I can uncover while Wesley prepares the ingredients. Even that takes a certain amount of time, however. And some haven't yet arrived." He adjusts his glasses.






"We'd best get back to the school," Giles says. "I have Wesley to supervise. Larry--"



Larry flicks a glance at Angel. "I thought I'd stay. Blow off a couple of classes. What can they do to me now, flunk me?"



"You might be in for an unpleasant surprise," Giles tells him. "Principal Snyder knows you're associated with us now, and he can be a vindictive little --" he briefly closes his eyes -- "educator."



Larry looks at Xander, sprawled on the couch in exactly the same position he was dumped in. "I'll take my chances."



Hell, isn't that what he's always done?






Giles is a little reluctant to leave Larry there, but Angel urges him to go ahead. "Xander could use a friend nearby. Maybe keep him calm."



Giles nods and goes.



"You and Xander aren't friends?" Larry asks.



"He's got some problems with me. Some I don't blame him for."



"You saved him from Faith, if I heard right."



Angel nods. "It tips the scale a little in my favor."



"A little? What'd you do to the guy?"



"It's mostly what I am."



"What you are." What, a serial killer? Religious nut?



"I can't believe nobody told you. I'm a vampire."






Larry sits there a moment, giving him the yeah, right.



Angel stares back, unblinking.



"You're dead serious," Larry says.



"Undead, to be pedantic."



Larry finds himself on his feet. "Shit. Shit. When did-- But Buffy-- Shit."



Angel's not much for cracking smiles, but that does it. "Relax. I'm on the right side of the fight. I have a soul."






"Vampires don't, on the whole, have them. They're demons."



"But you do." He feels distinctly remedial. Why the fuck didn't someone tell him? "Where'd it come from?"



"Gypsy curse. I mean, it's mine. The one I had before."



"Factory equipment."






"Short version: There was a girl I killed. Romany. Her family cursed me."



"You killed someone."



"I killed a lot of someones."



Great. And Giles left him alone with this guy why? Larry needs to start carrying a stake.



"I had a lot of years before the soul. Nearly 150 years. But all that changed, about 100 years ago."



"Whoa whoa whoa. You've been around for 250 years?" That's why nobody told him. It's nothing but crazy bullshit. "How much would you charge to write my senior paper? Compare and contrast, French Revolution vs. the American. Piece of cake, right?"






"Why don't I leave you with Xander. I can be elsewhere, if it makes you more comfortable."



"No. I'm good." Larry would prefer having Angel in sight, rather than wonder what he's up to. "And hey, it's been a century since you've killed, right?"



Angel's gaze flicks toward Xander. "You'll find out eventually. I lost the soul. That accounts for some of Xander's animosity."



"Lost it. Like behind the sofa cushions?"



"It's a long story. It's firmly anchored now, you don't have to worry."



"So what you're saying -- or not saying -- is that you killed someone lately. Exactly how recently?"






There's a pause. "It's been a year. It was a by-product of the curse. I'm not trying to evade responsibility for what I did. I just mean you're safe here."



Werewolves. Vampires. Diverse little bunch Buffy has collected for herself.



"Sure," Larry says, and takes his seat near Xander. Larry's not leaving him here alone with the guy. He doesn't ask any more questions or manufacture chitchat, and Angel drifts off into the background.



It's not exactly a hardship, watching Xander sleep. He tells himself he's making sure Xander's condition doesn't change, but he knows he's being a big girl.






His dad used to say that all the time. Tell him not to be a girl. Being an asshole was perfectly fine, as long as you didn't look soft or cry when a bad pitch hit you in the nuts or let the music teacher push you into trying the flute or think about opening a book when it's a perfectly sunny day.



After Larry came out, his mom gave his dad a deadline to shape his shit up in this regard. She's extended it once or twice, but it's not looking good.



It'll be a relief when he's gone.






Xander's restlessness increases as the day wears on and the herbs wear off. He mutters in his sleep, but nothing Larry can make out. Angel returns from whatever distant part of the house he'd been in, at hand but not hovering.



"I don't get it," Larry says. "Why didn't the demon heart fix the mated-for-life aspect when it cured the mindreading?"



"I don't know. Maybe this fixation with Faith isn't rooted in the original attack. It could be a side effect of the cure."



"That's a cheerful thought. So what's this demonic divorce mojo gonna do to him?"






"I don't know."



Of course he doesn't know. Nobody knows. Larry's getting sick of hearing these words.



"Probably nothing," Angel adds. "Taking a demon heart into the body, that's serious. This cure won't be so hard on him."



Yeah. Just more "I don't know," wrapped up in a shinier package.



Buffy shows up after school and convinces Larry to take a break. He walks home past the formal wear shop. The racks are looking pretty pathetic. Like that'll matter.



Two seconds after he gets in, his mom asks if he's got his prom plans figured.



"I don't know, all right?"






His mom doesn't respond, but Larry hears her rattling around in the attic after dinner, which isn't such a good sign. There's a ton of old toys and clothes and photos up there, which she tends to sift through when she's bothered about something. Usually it's his dad who sends her up there these days, not Larry.



After he hears her come down, he leaves his room to help with the folding stair. "Sorry about snapping."



"Don't worry, sweetie." She gathers up a laundry bag that smells like mothballs, and kisses his cheek. "Don't snack. I'm going for ice cream."






Though nobody explicitly invited him to, Larry stops by Angel's place before school to see how Xander's doing. The answer, which he's been fearing and half expecting, is not that good.



Xander looks like a junkie in the throes of withdrawal -- or at least the way they look on TV. He's barely aware that Larry's there at all, and clearly doesn't care, since he's not Faith.



Two days of this shit, if this dark of the moon crapola is true.



"Has Giles found out anything? On whether we can do this mojo any sooner?"



"Still working on it," Angel says.






Ignoring the late bell, Larry marches to the library. It smells like something crawled in the stacks and died, so there's even fewer students hanging around than usual. A girl hands Giles a slip of paper, asks, "Can I get these by lunchtime?" and bolts before he answers, and then it's just Larry and Giles and Wes, who's standing over a hotplate cooking whatever stinks.



"Ah, Larry," Giles says. "Could you do me a great favor and gather these books for me?" He holds up the slip.



Larry summons the inner bully. "Whad'ya say we hurry this the hell up?"






Giles blinks owlishly. "Em--"



"Have you seen Xander this morning? He looks like shit on toast. He won't make it two more days. So whatever adjustments need to be made, let's get 'em made, all right?"



He snatches the paper from Giles's hand and heads not for the stacks, but the hallway, stalking after the girl. That chick with the spirally red hair. Nancy. He finds her at her locker, presents her with the slip. "He's not your fuckin' butler. Get your own damn books."



Then he storms out of the school, heading for the apartment that overlooks The Sun.






Larry stops by the thrift store which undoubtedly is the source of Xander's most dubious shirts, where he scores a ballcap and a dark blue shirt with name patch for eighty cents. He read this in one of those alphabet mystery novels his mom devours, that people will ignore all kinds of shit if you're wearing the right ugly uniform. Slipping on the blue shirt, he becomes Adolfo, who nobody notices as he climbs the fire escape to Faith's terrace.



This is probably a suicide mission he's got going here, but he's gotta do something.



He crouches by her window.






He's hoping she's gone. That's the key to staying healthy here. If she's gone, he'll break in, get what he came for and go. If she's there -- he cruises past that thought. He's an improvisational guy. He'll come up with something. (That's up there with Simple plan, good plan, and he knows it. He just doesn't give a shit at the moment. Check back with him on that when he's dead.)



He peeks up over the windowsill and curses silently. She's there, kicking the shit out of a heavy bag and wearing very little.



He gets Xander's sexual confusion now.






It's like the best of both worlds. In her panties and skimpy tank top he gets a good view of a compactly muscled body glistening with sweat. And there's tits! He still notices a good pair now and then. It's kinda like noticing how your hometown team does in the World Series, years after you've moved across the country.



This chick is the New York Yankees.



She works the bag, a little sloppy and undisciplined, but so strong it wouldn't matter to a guy like him. She'd break him in half.



Here's his chance to find out. She's spotted him.






He tugs at the bill of his ballcap as if in greeting, hoisting the coil of cable wire he swiped from somewhere and brought up here. He pantomimes running the cable around the outside of her apartment, then points at his name patch.



Can she see his face? Does she remember it from that night in the cafeteria? Larry resists the urge to tug at the cap again. He gets ready to uncoil the wire and fake placing it, but she steps away from the heavy bag, closer to the window.


Oh shit oh shit oh shit.



He's so dead.






She reaches for something on the bed, black and compact. Larry means to dive below window level, but he's frozen.



To his surprise, she doesn't point the thing at him, but back into the apartment. Loud music fills the place, spilling out to the terrace. What the hell?



She steps up onto her bed, then behind it to a platform behind the window. Where, holy shit, she starts performing for him, like she's in one of those booths.



She laughs at the look on his face, which, yeah, he can hardly imagine.



One thing he knows, this is fuckin' dangerous.






Larry clutches the cable wire like it's going to save him from drowning, but that's a pretty lame hope.



Faith does a helluva dance for him, wriggling, dragging her fingertips across her damp skin as she strokes the inside of her thighs, the tops of her breasts.



A stupid voice in his head says, Side effects may include dizziness, heart palpitations, dry mouth and death.



She slides a hand up under her top, teasing the tip of her tongue at the corner of her mouth. Then she sashays over to the roof access door and leans out to greet him.






"So you're here to lay some ... cable."



"Yes ma'am."



"Say that ma'am shit again and someone gets hurt. So how's that cable? Looks kinda stiff."



"Um, yeah. It's the, uh, right size for the job." Jeezus, why'd he say that?



She laughs, displaying a set of dimples that make her look almost sweet. "I know how hard it is. I mean, when a guy gets all set to do a job, and somethin' keeps him from it."



Oh shit. He swears he saw this one on Skinemax.



"You need access, right?" Her hand flashes out and she jerks him inside.






The bed is pretty much right there, but she backs him against the wall and gives him a good feeling up. "Alfredo, that's some serious tool you got there."



Larry hopes she'll let him keep it when she's done with it.



"Listen," he stammers. He's got to find out if this demon mojo goes both ways. "I've seen you in town with-- you have a boyfriend or something."



A shadow crosses her face. "Not anymore. Daddy doesn't approve."



"Oh. Then maybe I should just--"



She thrusts him back against the wall. "Relax, Alfonso. Daddy doesn't know a thing about you."






He's not so much improvisation guy, it turns out. He's more get stuck in a situation and go along guy. She kisses like a lot of guys he's known, like she's on a search and destroy mission. On the whole, he'd rather be kissing Xander.



"Well, Alonzo, let's see what you got." She flips him onto the bed like he's nothing, and is just pulling her top off to join him when the phone jangles.



"Fuck." She drops the shirt and reaches across him for the phone. He's pinned, a breast in his armpit, a hand planted on his thigh.






"Yeah, boss," she says, sweet as pie.



Sprawled beneath her, Larry contemplates the wall art across the room. Fugly. Who decorates with snakes? Is there some fad he missed hearing about?



"Nobody but you.... Ten minutes, boss. Gotta shower real quick, I been workin' out." The phone bangs in the cradle, and she gives Larry a sour look. "The fuck you doin' still here, Alberto?"



She shoves off the bed and heads for the bathroom. Larry scrambles off the bed, heart thumping. He snatches her tank top off the floor, stuffs it in his pocket, then gets the hell gone.






Angel's wary when he comes to the door, his hands out of immediate view. He relaxes. "Larry. Shouldn't you be in class?"



"I brought something. I don't know if it'll help Xander or make things worse, but I figured it's worth a try." He thrusts a paper bag toward him.



Angel opens it. Without reaching in, he looks up at Larry, gaze sharpening. "Faith's. How'd you come by this?"



Man, he knew it. This guy can smell things regular people can't. Larry's glad he took a fast shower before he came here. "Don't ask, don't tell. Can I come in?"






"What d'you think," Larry asks. Angel's wasted no time closing his door, but they're still standing just inside, talking in hushed voices. "Good idea, or is this just gonna make things ten times worse?"



"I can't begin to guess." Angel eyes Larry as if he's trying to figure out what he went through to get Faith's shirt, or why he would put himself in that kind of danger.



"So," Larry says brightly. "How is he doing? The same?"






"It's only been a couple of hours."



Angel nods. "Good time for desperate measures. What do you say we try it?"






Larry follows Angel to where Xander is. He's not conscious, but he's sure as hell not getting any rest. He shivers constantly, despite the roaring fire Angel's built in the massive fireplace, muttering and yowling.



Angel says softly, "I think I should be the one who approaches. Supernatural strength and all."



Larry checks out the broad shoulders (again). Even with all Larry's years of Xander thumping, Angel's clearly got the edge. "Go to it."



"Xander," Angel says soothingly. "Your friend Larry's here. He brought something for you." He withdraws her tank top from the bag, extends his arm toward Xander.






Xander's hand darts out, seizing the shirt. A shuddering sigh escapes him as he clutches the wadded cloth to his chest, and then he falls into a deeper swoon.



"Dude. Is that good?"



Angel hovers over Xander for another moment, gauging. Sniffing, reading vital signs, whatever. "Yeah. It's good." He turns toward Larry. "Great work. I think we bought ourselves some more time."



"Bought him some more time," Larry corrects him. "Two days' worth, you think?"



Angel turns his gaze back on Xander. "Better not to count on that."



"I wasn't planning to. We need to get him de-mojoed. Soon."






Larry sticks around for another hour, sitting with Xander. Nothing more changes, but at least he's sleeping fairly normally. He'll take that.



He decides to put in an appearance at school. If Larry's parents get word that he's been blowing off classes this close to graduation, he'll be in deep shit.



Nothing says he has to pay any actual attention.



It's class change, so he goes by the library. As he pushes the door inward, he almost bumps into Nancy, who's leaving with her books. She gives him the stink eye as she passes.



And whoa, stink is the word.






"Jeez, what died?"



Giles flips the stamp pad shut. "I suspect you'd really rather not know."


Oh. "Giles, man, I was rude this morning. I'm sorry. Didn't mean it, I'm just worried."



Giles offers a weary smile. "We all are. Apology accepted."



"Any progress on Project Cheat the Moon?"



"We may have found a spell. It's difficult, and quite dangerous."



"I'm on board. Whatever you need." He shifts his feet. "I just saw Xander. He's doing a little better."






"I took him something of Faith's."



"How did--"



"I suspect you'd really rather not know." The bell rings. "Gotta motor."






Larry sleepwalks through his afternoon classes. Western Civ is last, where Nancy takes advantage of his distraction to show him up in front of the others. Yeah, that'd be tragic, if he gave a shit.



He gives in to one of his cruddier impulses as everyone rushes out after the bell. "Hey, Nance. You must be gettin' excited about the prom, huh?"



Her sour expression confirms what he'd suspected -- he still has the bully's unerring instinct for the needle and who to apply it to.



Xander had better get normal again before Larry forgets how to be a nicer guy.






He catches up to Buffy just outside the library.



"Hanging in?" she asks.



"More or less." She's the one girl in all the world, all right. He's grateful there's one person who knows this thing is kicking his ass.



"I'll say it again. We have a track record. We'll get him back. Giles has been working on pushing this all forward."



As they walk in, Oz and Willow are already there, and both Giles and the junior edition.



Willow gives Larry the puzzled once-over. "Giles said you got something of Faith's for Xander. Angel said he's doing better now."






Larry's glad that's still true, anyway. "Angel's here?" Who's watching Xander?



"No, he's with Xander," Willow says. "So what did you take? How'd you get it from her?"



"No big deal. Just some straight B&E." A damn sight straighter than he's used to, lately.



"It's certainly a welcome piece of news," Giles says. "And I have more."



"Yes," Junior butts in. "I have discovered a spell that will allow us to simulate the 'dark of the moon' long enough to perform the separation spell on Xander and Faith." He gives them all a smug look, waiting for their congratulations.






Giles clears his throat. "Yes, well. I'm afraid it's not unqualified good news. This is no simple spell."



How much of this, Larry wonders, is pissing match, and how much is true? He decides Xander means too much to Giles, too, for this to be about showing up Wes.



"This is very intricate magic, leaning a little more toward the dark arts than I'd like."



Willow fidgets at the "dark arts" part.



"And potentially dangerous for the participants," he adds.



"Xander's the guy who marched into the Master's lair and saved my life," Buffy says. "Besides, danger is my business."






"I thought danger was your middle name," Oz says.



"It's my business and my middle name, though it got misspelled on the birth certificate as Anne."



Danger's a good way of putting it. The dark of night part has to be done in a cemetery at midnight, involves a little bloodletting (always a great idea in a graveyard) and calls on some iffy spirits of the night. The tricky part -- okay, trickier part -- is they have to keep this going for the duration of the other spell.



Which takes place in a clearing in the woods about twelve miles away.






Giles brings even more cheer. "I'd hoped to find a less demanding alternative, but I fear we've run short of time."



"Don't you and Wes have the mojo cred to pull this off?" Larry asks. "You told us you've studied your whole life."



"Most certainly," Wes says. "However, the ritual must be performed by a woman. All we can do is lend support. That leaves--"



"Me," Willow squeaks. "Guys, this stuff with the dark and powerful, I-I-I'm not so comfortable with it after the Anya thing and all."



Anya? Isn't she that new chick with the rich daddy? What thing?






"Of course," Wes says, "but Mr. Giles will be with you the entire time."



"You're mistaken on that front," Giles counters. "I will be performing the rite at Breaker's Woods. You'll be on hand to lend the benefit of your experience to Willow."



Wes goes all steely. "Need I remind you that I'm the only Watcher here with any status with the Council."



Man. Larry needs to take notes just to keep track of all the stuff he doesn't know.



"Understood," Giles says. "And your Slayer -- the one under your control -- will be with Willow, fending off any potential attackers."





Ouch. Who knew a pissing match could get so layered. Maybe it's a British thing. All that tea.



Wes sputters indignantly, but that only makes it clear that he's lost. With an announcement about further research, he bustles off with a stack of moldy looking books. The rest of them settle in to watch Giles coach Willow on performing the rite.



After the first run-through, Giles gathers the supplies she'll need, asks Larry if he'd mind another magic store run.



"You need frog toenails, I'm your man." The shit a guy will do for a date to the prom.






After he returns there's another round of strategy, then Larry goes home, fakes turning in. Eighteen or not, no excuse will buy him an all-nighter, not without way more advance work.



Buffy taps on his window at 11:30, and they head for their chosen cemetery. Freaky, how she knows every boneyard in town, how quickly she came up with a location that would be secluded and easily defended. She knows these the way Larry knows good makeout spots.



Weird to think of this world that's existed parallel to his. All this time, he'd thought she was just some girl.






"Man, I've got a lot to learn," Larry says as they walk.



"It still seems that way to me, believe me. But you've got good instincts. You'll do fine."



Larry laughs. "Oh, I was talking about all that stuff between Giles and Wes. And all these references. The Council, and Wes's status. And Anya. The new chick, right? What's her deal?"



"Oh, her. She was a demon. If she ever starts talking to you about wishing, run."



"Was a demon? They can change their persuasion?"



"It's a long story. They're all long stories, actually. I'll fill you in sometime soon."






Willow, Oz and Wes are already at the gates when they arrive. Willow is talking a mile a minute in a hushed voice, which Larry takes to mean the whole dark-and-powerful magics thing is still freaking her out. Wes looks a little less certain of his world and everything in it, which actually reassures Larry. Oz -- well, he's Oz.



Together they head toward the spot Buffy's chosen. Larry and Buffy stand guard as Willow, Wes and Oz ready all the stuff she'll need, laying them out on a stone bench.



Wes checks his watch. "Thirty seconds to midnight."






"Three ... two ... one."



Willow's voice is shaky but clear. It's all e pluribus unum pro bono in loco parentis from here (and loco's the word, all right -- Wes is waving chicken feet and snake lips in the air -- or maybe the other way around).



Wes offers his hand for the bloodletting bit. (Guy blood only: Larry had volunteered, but is needed for security; Oz was disqualified due to the werewolf thing.) His breath hisses through his teeth as Willow draws the knife across his palm.



The chanting increases in pitch and intensity.



"Oh dear," Wes murmurs, and his knees buckle.








"No no no no," Buffy says urgently. "No fainting." She uncorks her bottle of holy water, dashes it in his face.



Willow keeps chanting, but she's faltering, panic in her face.



"Keep going, Willow," Oz says. "You're doing great. He's just backup."



Buffy pats Wes's cheeks, but Larry decides this is the moment for quick results. He hauls Wes's arm up behind his back and bends his thumb back. Wes snaps right out of his fuzziness.



"Dude," Larry says into his ear. "You fuck up and people die. You first -- got me?"



Wes rises to his feet. "Right, then."






The chanting gets back on track, steady and forceful. Wes murmurs prompts, but after a while she stops needing them. Oz keeps track of the time. Once the spell's in place, Willow's supposed to keep it going fifteen minutes, enough time for the other ritual plus some cushion in case anything goes wrong on that end.



Then suddenly Willow looks like some scary priestess in a silly sparkly t-shirt instead of a terrified teenaged girl. It creeps Larry out just a little.



Then the vampires attack and there's no time to think, just react.



Just the way he likes it.






Buffy heads for two of them, leaving him the solo guy coming the other way. He tries to remember how Buffy does it (though she's doing it right now, there's no time to watch), but like she said, now's the time to fight however it comes naturally.



He grabs the vamp in a headlock, gives him a good thump on the head while he considers how to get a good staking angle. Larry can hold onto someone like this all -- fuck! This fucking fucker bit him on the fucking hip!



He staggers back, losing his hold, and the air crackles.






Larry had been wondering how you'd know the new moon from two days out, but here's his answer. The dark night snaps and buzzes with static energy. Larry's vamp pauses to glance around, and Larry steps in and pops him with the stake. He immediately looks toward Buffy, but she's taking advantage of the same distraction in the vamp she's got left.



When that one's dust, she glances over at Larry to see if he needs help, gives him a thumbs up. They settle in for another long period of chanting and waiting, and the time stretches out like taffy.






He catches the shift in Buffy's body language before the next set of vamps, so he's ready. He goes with what worked earlier, tackling, staking, coming up for more. This time, a second vamp piles on him. He yelps and Buffy peels the vamp off, holding her prey long enough to let Larry stake him. A team player.



"Behind you," he warns, and Buffy whirls and deals. He can see she loves this, the rocking and rolling, working in tandem. Her friends make a great team in so many ways, but anti-jocks that they are, they can't give her this.






More vampires come at them, and after that first long pause, there's hardly a breather.



"Man, what's the deal? Is it always this bad?" Larry pants after he dusts another one. He's getting sweaty, and the dust is sticking to his skin. He plans to be really fucking grossed out by that when he gets a minute to think.



"It's the power," Buffy says. "Willow's magic. They're drawn to it."



Great. He hopes it's drawing their attention from Giles and Angel and Xander, at least.



He hopes to hell that everything's going the way it's supposed to -- and on schedule.






"That's fifteen," Oz says after about six weeks of this.



Willow doesn't seem to hear. She still stands with legs spread wide, arms reaching toward the sky, chanting in a hoarse, unexpectedly deep voice.



"A little extra cushion," Larry says. "That's good, right?"



Nobody answers.



"Willow?" Oz tries. "Will. Come back to me." He shoots an uneasy look toward Wes.



Wes steps toward her. "Willow. The ritual is done."



"It's like something's got her," Oz says.



"Dissolve the circle," Wes says. He scuffs the circle of colored sand they'd drawn around her before the ritual started, and Oz joins in.






Willow goes rigid, the incantation beginning to falter. Wes keeps rubbing at the sand with his feet while Oz goes to her, gingerly placing his hands on her shoulders.



"Willow. It's okay, Will, it's over."



She staggers back a step, dropping the chanting, and then she sags. Oz catches her before she reaches the ground. She's conscious, but barely.



"Willow. Come back, baby."



"We'd best retreat now," Wes says. "Help me get her up." He and Oz haul her to her feet and support her as they walk, while Larry and Buffy move to either side, stakes at the ready.






The need in Xander had been screaming, but then it had subsided to a constant urgent chatter as he clutched the cloth to his chest. Even quieted, it takes all his attention. Dimly he's aware of movement, of being manhandled, carried over rough terrain, but the only thing that matters is Faith, the absence that rips through him like pain.



He'll die if this goes on.



Then he's set down in a place that smells of madrone and voices rise around him. He feels the rushing of dark wings stir up a cold wind within him.



He doesn't want this.






The screaming and the pain rise to a shriekingstabbingvoid and then suddenly disappear. The goneness is gone. Everything's so still, except the wild beating of his heart. Xander puts a shaky hand to his head.






Someone helps him sit up, and as his head clears a little he realizes it's Angel. "We've gotta stop meeting like this."



Giles doesn't even twitch a smile. "How are you, Xander?"



"Okay, I guess. What happened just now?"



"You were mystically linked to Faith," Giles says. "We had to sever the connection."



"That's why I feel like I've been through a bad breakup."






"I think we'd better get out of the open," Angel says. "No telling what these rituals are stirring up."



"Can you walk?" Giles asks.



"I think so." Xander notices he's holding a scrap of cloth. He unwads it and realizes what he's been clutching. "Crap!"



"I'll take it." Angel teases the tank top from his grasp. "We don't want to leave any more traces than we have to."



"'These rituals,'" Xander repeats, belatedly clueing in. "Someone running a special?"



"Willow performed another spell, to create the right conditions for ours."



Angel glances at the sky. "Still casting it, seems like."






Giles gets Xander bundled into his car, and they head toward Giles's place, while Angel goes in search of the others. "Do you recall anything that's happened in the past several days, since the mindreading spell was broken?"



Xander doesn't want to admit this to himself, much less to Giles. "Do I remember kidnapping Willow? Yeah. I do." How he lives with himself now, he's not sure.



"As she comes to understand more concerning the stresses you were under, I'm certain she'll forgive you."


As she comes to understand. That's exactly what he's afraid of.



What about when Larry understands?






"About Faith," Giles prompts.



"What?" he says wildly. Of course he remembers. Remembers teasing her, denying her, ordering her around, drawing his initials on her. Dropping her off in boy world, and later (much later) bringing her back.



"Could you determine whether she was affected too? Whether the supernatural bond went both ways?"



"I really don't think so."



"But you were seen together, and looked like a couple."



"Giles, can we not talk about this?"



"I thought you'd prefer privacy, rather than be questioned in front of the others."



"That's not what I asked."



Giles sighs. "I'm sorry. We must."






Xander closes his eyes. "I don't think it went both ways. I did feel like she was bonded to me somehow, but that I could lose her any time. Incidentally, that's a euphemism for 'she might kill me.'"



"But you did feel something on her part, some kind of tie."


Tie. He thinks of her roped to the kitchen chair and winces. "It felt like ... like something guided me. Could be something I read from her, when I was picking up everything from everyone. I don't know."



"Guided you?"



"Yeah. Like I knew what to do to keep her connected."






"That's information the Council would give its figurative eyeteeth for," Giles says.



"God, I can't think of a more horrifying thought." Pass the brain bleach.



"You can rest assured they won't hear it from me," Giles says wryly.



"Giles, I don't think I can talk about this. Ever. To anyone. It's not going to help you with her. It's not going to make you think any better of me."



"Xander," Giles says gently, "I am well aware that you've been under the influence of powerful magic. We feared it would kill you."



"I can't."



"Come inside. We'll have some tea."






The image yanks a hysterical laugh from him. Giles and Xander at some garden party, drinking from china cups with pinkies extended as Xander says, "And then I made her stand naked at the window while --"



"Have another tea cake, dearie, I made them myself. Do tell. What then?"



"Why then I touched her until she shivered and cried out. She used the most unseemly language."



"Tsk. Young people today. What's to be done?"






"Huh? Sure. Tea."



They waste no time getting inside; it's an ingrained habit. Giles puts the kettle on.



"You were right about me," Xander says.






"Right about--"



"Light and dark," Xander says. "Heavy on the dark, light on the light."



"Xander. I want you to listen now." He's using his get-this-through-your-thick-head voice. "What I said--"



"Thought," Xander corrects him. "That's always more honest, right?"



"But not always clear. If you'd --"



"He comes into my dreams. That friend of yours, with the candy and the costumes. The original friendly stranger. Gotta watch out."






"He acts like we're best buds. Like we're alike. You see that too."



"Xander. Stop this nonsense."



Just then the door opens and the others come in.






Oz and Angel are first through the door, supporting Willow, who's in a faint.



"What's the matter with her?" Xander cries. "Is she hurt? What happened?"



"She had a difficult time disengaging from the spell," says Wes, trailing behind them. "I believe she'll be all right."



Xander looks to the others. "Will she be all right?"



Wes scowls and harrumphs, but Xander catches sight of Larry entering with Buffy, and Wes drops off the radar screen.



"Larry," Xander stammers.



"You should have seen him, Xan," Buffy says. "He was at the cemetery with us, and he kicked serious vampire ass."






"How about you, Xander?" Larry asks. "Angel said he saw you revive. You're okay?"



"I think so, yeah." Except he's tainted, the darkness all around him has rubbed off on him. He's in the club with Faith and Ethan now.



"Get her settled there," Giles directs. "I'm just making tea -- that may help bring her 'round."



"She's so pale," Xander says.



"Yeah," Oz says. "It was like something just grabbed her, pulled her right into the spell. Like when she did the ensouling spell. This can't be good for her."



She did this for Xander, and he doesn't deserve it.






Xander hovers uselessly as Oz settles her on the sofa, making her comfortable. He finds Larry standing at his side. He lightly touches Xander's arm. "I never realized how strong she is," Larry says. "She'll be fine."



"She better be. This is all my fault."



"That's crap, buddy. You were mojo'd. Technically not your fault."



"Don't make excuses."



Larry turns a sharp glance on him. "That's not what I'm doing. It's the same as if someone almost drowned trying to pull you out of deep water."



"Which would also be my fault."



"Or smothered under a pile of your bullshit."






What the fuck does Larry know? Or any of them?



He doesn't want them to know how fucked up he is, and they sure as hell don't want to know.



The guy who understands him best is the one who was threading through his dreams. I can see why Rupert finds us similar. Might as well face it. He's another Ethan. He needs a few years to become the badass Giles's old schoolyard friend is, but he's well on his way.



"Something's eating you," Larry says. "Let's see if we can find someplace private, so you can tell me what."






Giles is still rattling around in the kitchen, so Larry drags him up the stairs where they perch on the top step. "So tell. What's wrong?"



"I don't think I can do this right now."



"See, that's the thing. It's not really doing. You just tell me what's bothering you, and we see if there's something I can do. Less work for you, not more."



"You don't understand."



"That's where the 'tell me about it' comes in, dude. I know all this stuff's been weird and hard. Let me help."



"I just think maybe we should stop seeing each other."






He makes like he's going to stand and walk off, and Larry grabs him by the arm. "Whoa whoa whoa. That's a discussion topic, not a final statement. Explain."



Xander gazes at his feet. Shit, he never looked this miserable when Larry would drag him under the bleachers with intent to thump.



"Just tell me."



"I've done stuff while this was going on. I'm not the kind of person you should be with."



"What, you've killed people?"






"Tortured them?"






"Took babies away from their mothers? Stole food from old ladies?"



"This isn't funny."



"I'm not tryin' to be."






He clams up for another long while, but at least he doesn't try to bolt. "When I was with Faith, I became something different."



"You decided you're straight?" That would truly blow, and not in any good way. "I can't fault you for that, if --"



"No. I mean, I -- I still -- no."


Whew. Okay, that's one big barrier that's not. "So tell me."



"There are things I did. With Faith."



"What, like you hurt her?"



"No. Don't ask me any more."



"You're ashamed."



Xander nods.



"What kind of sense does that make? Look at the shit I've done. Totally unmojo'd."






Larry goes on: "You had a few days where you weren't acting like yourself. I made a ten-year career out of tormenting anyone I could."



"Maybe I was acting like myself. That's just it."



"I know I was being myself. And I liked myself just fine, at least on the surface. If you were as bad as you think, you wouldn't be worrying so damn much. Give yourself a break If you don't deserve to be happy, I sure as hell don't."



"I don't. I'm tainted. Corrupt."



Larry leans in and kisses him. "Funny, you don't taste any different."






Xander blushes clear up to the hairline. "Don't."



"You embarrassed? By me, I mean?"



"No. I'm tainted," he says again.



Larry's mind flicks back to Faith, that performance in her window, the kind of thing it would take to keep her interested, make her go all girlfriendy. "Dude, I don't care if you were kinkier than a garden hose. The thing with Faith is ancient history already. It wasn't you. It doesn't touch us unless you let it. C'mon, man. Come to the prom with me."



"I can't."



"How's this? Come to prom or I'll beat the shit outta you."






Xander can't squelch a laugh, even as he shakes his head. "Larry, you don't understand."



"Damn straight I don't. Look who you're dealing with here."



"Xander--" Uh-oh. Giles has his commanding voice on. "I require your help in the kitchen."



"We'll pick this up," Larry promises. Or maybe that's a threat.



When Xander gets downstairs, Willow's sitting up, huddled against Oz, drinking tea. She's still a little unfocused, but way less pale.



"Will, are you okay?"



She nods. "Kinda drained, but I'll be fine. You?"



"Working on it."



Giles gives him a look, and Xander follows him to the kitchen.






Xander looks around. There's nothing but tea things, not a lot of heavy lifting to clean that up. "How can I help?"



"I thought it was time to finish our conversation. About your dreams."






"Now. I've been thinking about them, and I have a theory."



He sighs. "I am so goddamn tired of things that require theories."



Giles nods. "This one is fairly benign." He picks up the china pot, fishes the little teaball out of it. "The thought you picked up from me, that you reminded me of Ethan in his youth. It bothered you a great deal."






"I think we established that, yeah."



"It disturbed you even before these events with Faith."






"Don't you think it's natural he should enter your dreams now that you've done things that make you feel unworthy?"



"Tainted," Xander says.



"Exactly. I believe he's merely a symbol of the darker facets you fear in yourself. He's a particularly powerful one because we've so recently re-encountered him."



"Makes sense, I guess."



"Bringing this into your conscious mind may end the dreams. If not, you must tell me immediately. But I'm fairly certain this is merely your subconscious."



Xander nods.



"One more thing."






"Okay," Xander says.



Giles rinses out the pot, empties the teaball into the trash. Frantic tidying: never a good sign.



Xander pushes back dread. What's worse than Ethan?



"Larry has integrated into our group very well. Remembering how he was, I never dreamed I'd say this, but he's a good young man."


What's he saying? That the Scoobies don't need Xander anymore?



"I suspect he'd never say, but Larry's the one who realized you were still under the demons' spell."






"He's fond of you. I believe you're fond of him. For the love of god, don't cock things up."






Xander's jaw drops. That's it: He's entered some bizarre realm that looks like his life, but isn't. Can't be. Giles would never give him dating advice about a guy.



"You children believe I'm completely comatose, don't you? Has he asked you to the prom?"



Xander is still robbed of speech by whatever weird spell this is.



"Whenever Buffy and Willow have been chatting about their prom plans, he's looked extremely morose. For Christ's sake, Xander, go with him."






"Life's too short to keep faffing about. For all we know, we could all die on graduation day. Go. Have fun."






Xander's still in a daze when he emerges from the kitchen. Willow must look less dazey than he does.



Larry loiters near the bottom of the stairs. He frowns as Xander weaves over to him. "Dude. You okay?"



"I dunno."



"Need to sit down or something?"



"Yes," Xander says. "I mean, yes, I'll go."



Larry's face lights up. "You're serious?"



"As a heart attack."



"Uh, good. I think."



"What are we gonna wear? Powder blue polyester must be all that's left."



"I don't care if we wear a white sport coat and a fricken pink carnation. We'll figure something out."






Larry finally announces, "I hate to break this up, but I've got sneakin' in to do."



Giles gives rides to the unsuperpowered, and Larry makes it into bed without being caught. The next morning he shambles to the kitchen, thinking it would be an improvement to feel half dead.



His mom's at the table, paying bills. "Sweetie, are you coming down with something? You went to bed early, but --"



"Didn't sleep that great, is all. Turns out I'm going to the prom after all. Except, what are we gonna wear?"



"Sit." His mom vanishes, returning with a dry cleaner bag.






"Look familiar? It's your grandfather's wedding tux. I think it was used then, because this certainly wasn't the fashion in the Fifties. I think you'd look sharp."



"Sharp is the word," Larry agrees. "Those lapels could put someone's eye out."



"You're built just like him. I think with a few alterations, it'll fit just great."



"Oh god," Larry groans. He remembers the insanity with his sister's prom dress. He was getting pins in his bare feet for weeks. "Yeah, but Xander doesn't have anything. Plus we'll look stupid together."



"No you won't, because we'll find him a vintage tux, too."






She's in mad scientist mode. "I'll start calling around this morning, see what the thrift stores and consignment shops have. Bring Xander over at lunchtime, and I'll take his measurements."



Could there be anything more mortifying than the idea of his mom taking his boyfriend's inseam? Dress left or right, dear?



"That thunk you'll hear at 12:49? That'll be me, dropping dead of embarrassment."



"Do you want to go to the prom or not?"



Oh yeah. He most definitely wants to go to the prom.



"You won't just go," she states. "You'll be legendary."



More legendary than his sister's rack?






Against all odds, Xander's charmed by his mom, and likes the idea of going retro. Larry's banished to the kitchen for the measuring part of things, to make grilled cheese sandwiches.



There's only seven minutes till class when Xander appears in the kitchen, looking remarkably untraumatized, but being guys, they finish the sandwiches in four bites, banging out the door with four minutes to spare.



"You looked weirded out last night, after Giles called you in," Larry says. "What'd he say?"



"We all might die. Don't be an idiot. Go to the prom with Larry."



Larry grins like a fool.






Xander closes his locker door, twirls the lock.






He starts to find that girl (ex-demon) Anya staring at him. "I am remarkably content," he informs her.






"Nothing on this earth I wish for. I'm a happy man." Wait -- that 'nothing on this earth' -- did he just dial into a demon realm? "Nothing at all, of any kind."



"As if I care. This is about me. I don't have a date for the prom."



"Prom?" Xander echoes stupidly.



"Prom. You know. Dreadful dresses, rent-a-tuxes, rent-a-dates and painfully bad dancing. I get a lot of business these days from proms."






"You're, uh, not planning to wreak devastation?" Xander never dreamed he'd be at the prom. His plans had been more along the lines of smirking from a distance. Damned if he'll let something wreck things now.



"You know damn well I can't. Thanks to a certain meddling idiot."



"So why go, if your license has been suspended?"



"In case you haven't noticed, I'm stuck in a twelfth-grader's body, which comes with the full emotional package. I'm wired to want to go to the prom."



He swallows, hoping these won't be his last words. "Sorry, Anya. I have a date."






She scowls. "That's not what I heard."



"I know. It's late-breaking news."



"You wouldn't lie to me, would you?"



"Not in my craziest dreams, and believe me, some of them are pretty deranged."



She heaves a profound sigh.



Xander can't help noticing that she is pretty. "I'd say try Jonathan Levin -- nice guy, a lot more likely to be your client than a target -- but I think he's still persona very non grata around Sunnydale High."



"Couldn't you just dump your date?"



"Is that your professional opinion?"



She manages to sigh and glare. "That's your problem. You're too nice."






While Xander's classmates are all about the after-prom parties, he and Larry are observing the pre-prom. Larry's mom has two tuxes to alter in one night, so they have to be on hand for fittings. Their party is snacks and videos in the rec room, with the whirr of a sewing machine behind them.



So there's no frantic pawing. They watch movies, Larry's arm stretched out on the sofa behind Xander. They fumble with each other's hand, and steal kisses when she leaves the room.



Of all the bizarre events of these two years, this is the weirdest -- and best.






Around midnight Larry's dad comes home -- from the office, apparently, not a bar -- and clumps down the stairs. Xander slides his hand away from Larry's.



"Luanne? I saw your note. What's the big sewing project?"



"The prom's tomorrow. The boys are going." Quick introductions are made and Xander jumps up to shake Mr. Blaisdell's hand.



"I thought this kind of craziness was over when we got Valryn out of the house. What's wrong with a rented tux?"



"There was nothing good left," Larry says in a neutral tone.



"Nobody cares what the boys look like. This is the girls' deal."






"They care," says Larry's mom. "If they don't want a picture that embarrasses the life out of them in twenty years."



Larry flicks Xander a look that clues him in that this is a shot at his dad.



Mr. Blaisdell ignores it. "You boys are going stag, huh? You'll have just as much fun, without laying out all that cash."



"Actually, we're going together," Larry says, casual as you please. "As a couple."



It's instructive to watch Mr. Blaisdell, who just blanches. Xander's old man would probably knock him through a wall.



"Can you do that?"



"We've got our tickets."






"That's not what I mean." Larry's dad flicks a look toward Mrs. Blaisdell. "People don't always like having other people's lifestyle shoved in their faces. That's all I'm saying."



"I call my lifestyle 'high school senior,'" Larry says. "I like somebody and I want to take that person to the prom. I'm not shoving it anyone's face any more than the straight kids shove it in mine. Less, since I haven't yammered about it nonstop since early April."



Larry's dad eyes Xander. "What about you? You using my kid to prove a point?"



"I like him back. That's my point."






Larry's dad stammers something about work early in the morning and disappears. Larry's face is turned away, but Xander can see the pulsing of his jaw.



He gathers up Larry's hand.



"Sorry," Larry mutters.



"Don't be. Mine would be way worse. Will be, when he finds out. That stuff you said, that was good. He didn't have an answer for that."



"Larry, I need you for a minute," his mom says.



He sighs and heads over to the sewing corner.



"How does this fit?" She puts her arms around him.



"Fits perfect."



"You're a good kid. I'm proud of you."






Though he feels like he should look somewhere else, Xander can't help staring. Larry engulfs his mom in a hug and they stand there motionless for a long moment. Finally Larry kisses his mom on the temple and steps back, and Xander pretends he's been watching the TV all along, that he doesn't have a big ache in his chest, wishing at least one of his parents was half as cool as Larry's mom.



"Another soda?" Larry pops the top and hands Xander one without waiting for the answer. "That thing you said. About your point. That was good too."






Xander awakes stretched out on Larry's sofa. The sewing machine is silent, and the glow from the DVD player's screensaver washing over him is the only light in the room. He considers falling back asleep, but he wonders where Larry is.



Shifting onto his side, he spots Larry sprawled on the floor by the sofa on a sleeping bag. He's all twisted up in an afghan (Xander realizes there's one spread over him too), but Xander can see his upper body -- tan, muscular arms contrasted with a plain white tee.



He props himself on an elbow and watches Larry sleep.






"Sorry about my dad," Larry says again in the morning. They're waiting for his mom to return downstairs and take them to breakfast. His dad's already at the office, according to a note on the kitchen table.



"Seriously, he wasn't that bad." The thought of introducing Larry to his own old man makes him feel like hyperventilating.



"Maybe not now. But back before he gave up the cause? You had a lot of thumpings in your time that were more about him than you."



"What, he thwacked you?" That would explain a lot.



"Nothing like that. It was all pressure."






Larry can't seem to figure out what to do with his hands. He fusses with some knickknacks on a little shelf jutting out of the wall. "Don't be soft, be tough, take no crap. Man, when you're ten, most of the crap you get comes from the grownups, and you'd better take it or else, no matter what he said. Who can you 'not take crap from'? Kids who are too little to dish it out, or too busy dealing with the crap they get at home. So a lot of the crap you got from me started with him."






Xander doesn't know what to say. Tony's never paid him enough concentrated attention to lay on the pressure.



Larry turns from the shelf, shoving his hands in his pockets. "It's easier now that he's given up. He's just never around."



"Wish that would work on my old man."



"I know that mindreading spell was hard for you to take," Larry says, "but I'm glad about one thing. It gave you a chance to know me as someone different. Not just the shithead who made your life miserable."



The regret's getting pretty thick in here. "In your wildest dreams," Xander says.









"On your best day you couldn't make my life mildly crappy."



Larry gives him puzzled. "Dude. I made your life hell."



"Brag on, pal. It was heck at worst. You were a lightweight."



He's finally catching on, his expression changing from self-loathing to mock anger. "I'll show you lightweight." He gets Xander in a headlock. "Miserable, right?"



"Tiresome," Xander counters.



Instead of the knuckling he used to hate, he gets a fast hair ruffling, then a kiss on the head as he releases Xander.



"Run home and tell your mama," Larry says.



"I think I'd rather stick around."






"I need to apologize."



"Okay, once. Then we move on."



"I'm sorry for all the shit I gave you, all the thumpings."



"And for tormenting Willow."



"God, yes. I'm sorry about that too."



"Accepted," Xander says. They shake on it. "I'm sorry for spitting in your chocolate milk."



Larry blanches. "You spit in my milk?"



"Just the once."



"Dude. That's -- unsanitary."


Oh shit. "We've swapped more spit in the janitor's closet."



"That's different."



Laughing, Xander swats his shoulder. "Gotcha. Man, you're so gullible."



Larry gusts a relieved sigh. "So you didn't?"



"Not once." To be exact, it was eleven times.






Xander obsesses over the cologne. He's gone back home to dress, because the picking up the date thing feels important somehow. (He's doing the picking up, naturally, because he wants the memories of this ritual to be good ones.) He had a brainstorm sometime during breakfast, sneaking to a payphone to beg, wheedle and bribe use of Uncle Rory's car. Retro ride for the retrosexuals.



He sniffs at a bottle. Too fruity? Oaky? The colognes he's worn to please Cordelia -- is that the same thing you wear with a guy?



This whole switch business: not as easy as you'd think.






His mother actually rouses from her fog when he emerges from his room. "Oh, Xander. Don't you look handsome. Did Cordelia help you pick that?" She's a little behind the times, but she's trying.



Xander makes a vague noise in response. "Takes a woman's eye, huh?"



"Is she wearing a vintage gown to match?"



Another noncommittal noise. Come to think of it, Cordelia's been strikingly silent on the prom subject. Not like her at all.



He goes to the kitchen, where Tony and Rory are well into Rory's bribe booze (which Giles actually bought). He gets the keys and goes.






Dry mouth. Wet palms.



Xander resists the urge to wipe his hands down his fancy vintage pants as approaches Larry's house. Funny, because Larry's seen him in his tux at every stage of the alterations, but they've crossed into date territory now, and the nerves are in overdrive.



Mrs. B. answers the door and lets out an ohhhhhhh. "You look wonderful."



So does Larry, who looks like he's been pacing, some dry mouth/wet palms action of his own.



"Let me get the camera," says his mom.



"Wait. Boutonnieres."



He feels all fluttery as Larry pins it on for him.






There's about seven million pictures, from the boutonniere-pinning to the posing-by-the-car (and, Xander suspects, the driving-off). "Now I know how Kate Moss feels."



"Dude, please," Larry says. "I have way more muscle definition than her."



Xander grins. "Dude. You made a joke!"



Larry laughs happily. "This is a bitchin' car."



"It's my uncle's. It's had zombies in it." He's never told anyone about that.



"Really? There are zombies in Sunnydale too?"



"Not now, there aren't."



"Hey," Larry exclaims. "Isn't that Buffy?"



Sure enough, she's walking toward school, dressed to the teeth -- weapons bag and all.






"Why don't we give her a ride?" Larry suggests. Before Xander can even get past being startled at this strange turn of events, he calls out to her.



She turns and holy-- jumpin'-- leapin '-- great googly moogly. Something has happened to her mammary units that -- well, if Xander were still working the straight side of the street, he'd be halfway to spontaneous combustion.



"Hey, guys. Aw, don't you two look so pretty," she says.



"I could say the same," Xander says. "How about a lift? Check for zombie leakage before you sit."



She climbs in. "You will not believe this."






"You got that balcony thing," Larry says.



"I know good advice when I hear it. So yeah, I went to April Fools, and the bizarrest thing -- Cordelia is working there. She's unbelievably pissy about it too -- I think she's upped the attitude quotient in that place way off the charts. Oh, yeah, and everyone was buzzing about this thing that attacked some kid there. Like a werewolf, but not."



"They're sure it's not?" Larry says, then says, "Oh wait. Dark of the moon."



"I called Giles and from what I could pass on, he thinks it could've been a hellhound."






"Get this," she continues. "It went straight for people in formalwear. Like it had been trained."



"Somebody's targeting the prom, or a wedding they're unhappy about," Larry suggests.



"And where could you do maximum damage? The prom."



"Man, I can't believe this," Xander murmurs. "You're sure she's working there?"



"Seriously. It's like Scarlett O'Hara in the typing pool -- what is a typing pool, anyway? Whatever. So I'm on the lookout for this hellbeasty."



"That sucks," Larry says.



She shrugs. "Angel's kinda given me the kissoff, so I might as well be out here kicking ass than inside moping. Ooh. Lemmeout."






"You want us to--" Larry and Xander chorus.



"No. Go. Have fun. You're both way too pretty to waste on this." Then the car door slams and she's giving chase. She casts a quick glance over her shoulder and shouts, "I mean it, go."



"Only in Sunnydale," Xander says.



"Nice to know someone wants to make this Sunnydale's most special prom ever," Larry says.



"Party like it's 1999."



"Speaking of which, has Giles had anything to say about the millenium thing?"



"No. I'm guessing it's like Halloween. So touristy that no real nasties would dream of throwing an apocalypse then."






"Okay," Xander says, "Gay and all, but I'm a guy and it has to be said. What the hell happened to Buffy's chest? I mean, it's like a boner of the boobs."



"It's the bra. My sister wore one to her prom. What, you're thinking of goin' back?"



"No thanks. Hey. She seemed pretty blase about the whole us-as-couple thing."



"Yeah, well. I kinda told her. When you first started fixating on Faith, I got worried. I asked her opinion -- I swore her to secrecy. I hope you're not pissed."



"How'd she take it?"



"Happy. Rooting for us."






Xander's surprised at the relieved breath that gusts from him. "That's cool. I'm glad you talked to her." Now he can concentrate his energy on worrying about Willow.



"Me too. We kind of bonded over you."



"Over me?"



Suddenly the engine of Rory's car sputters and coughs, and the Chevy farts a cloud of something Xander suspects is oil.



"That can't be good."



"Not so much. Pull over and park."



"What are we gonna do?"



"Leave it. It'll be just as not-good tomorrow. We're just a block from school, and nothing's gonna wreck our night."



Xander likes that thought.






Of course, Fate has another opinion. Doesn't it always?



In this case, it's Fate with a lisp. Faith.



Who is standing in her leather pants at the gymnasium door, demanding, "What the fuck do you mean, I need a ticket?"



"You have to have a ticket to the prom," squeaks the junior manning the door.



"It's a fucking public place. My goddamn tax dollars pay for it."



As if, Xander thinks.



"It's a school function. That's the rule," the kid says. Xander's sort of impressed that he's had this much nerve.



Xander steps up. "Faith. There's nothing for you there."






She whirls, eyes blazing. "And just who do you think--? You. You wanna die, you just try telling me what to do. I'm nobody's goddamn bottom, do you hear?"



"Loud and clear. I'm just saying, you'll find this lamer than lame." He expects to find that.



"Well, maybe I wanna check it out and have a good laugh. Gimme your ticket."






"Then I'll take it from you. Cause you won't feel up to goin' to the prom when I'm done, anyway." She takes a menacing step.



Larry moves in front of Xander. "You'll have to go through me first."






"Look at you two. All dolled up. So this is what you ditched me for?" She gives Larry's body the once-over. "Not as pretty as me, but I guess it's not as much work, keepin' him in boy world. You are boy world, huh?"



Xander stammers. "I didn't ditch you for anyone." This is not really a strong argument when, mere days later, he's squiring someone to the prom. "I knew I was making trouble for you. With the mayor."



"Makes you think that?"



"The hit vamp was kind of a hint."



"Well, now he's sent his A-list assassin."






"Faith." His tightrope walking ability has vanished. "I'm no threat to the mayor now."



"Doubt he cares. I don't. But why rush things? Think I'll start with the boyfriend, and you can watch him bleed. Has Harris put his initials on you yet?" She produces her knife. "Maybe I'll put mine on you. Mine won't wear off."



Couples and groups pass them, but it's all La la la, nothing to see, nothing's ruining my big night. The volume drops on the chatter and laughter as they scoot past, then picks right up again.



They could die here, in plain sight.






"Faith, look." He's lost the connection so completely he can hardly believe he ever had it. He's just the Xander who stammered in her hotel room, who fumbled to find some entreaty that would sway her. The Xander who ended up sprawled on her bed, getting the life squeezed out of him. "We're not worth it. The kind of trouble you're looking at if you --"



She dimples. "You think I haven't intentionally killled? You're behind the times, sonny boy. I've killed for the mayor. I'm under his protection."



This was just as useless as he expected it to be.









"I'm gettin' bored," Larry says. "Let's go in."



Spitting a curse, Faith launches herself at him, and Larry comes right at her. He drives his shoulder into hers, sending her knife skittering across pavement. Xander lunges for it, but once he's got it in hand, he doesn't know what to do.It's not like he's gonna jump her. She and Larry are in a clinch, with grunts and meaty punches. He thinks Larry may be coming out on the worst end of it.



Well. Just because the guy thumped him regularly for years doesn't mean he's a match for a slayer.






The beauty part of the hellmouth is, just when you think you're overwhelmed, that you're facing the worst that can be faced, something wicked this way comes to show you things can be much more dire.



Like the hellhound that gallumphs across the school grounds, only slightly less terrifying than your average Irish wolfhound. It makes a feint at a kid wearing one of those tuxedo-printed t-shirts, but backs off in confusion. It spots another kid in a real tux (a last-minute tux, looks like, pretty pathetic) emerging from a limo.



Xander swallows hard. "Here, doggie," he croons.






The hound pauses, fixing Xander with its red eyes as the other kid scurries with his date toward the gym.


Excellent. Good strategy. It's coming this way. Now what? What was the thinking here?



The beast lopes toward him. Xander's mouth grows dry and his palms become slick. How does that work, anyway? He's got a knife in his (sweaty) hand but knows nothing of hellhound physiology. Where'd that come from? It's a Giles word. He starts back-pedaling. Lose the jacket and run.



"Come and get it, Rover," Faith calls. "Dinner time." She tosses Larry bodily into the hellhound's path.






"Stick around, watch your boyfriend die," Faith says. "You're next."



Dazed, Larry plants a hand on the sidewalk, trying to get himself upright. The hellhound is on him before he even makes it to his knees.



Xander breaks into a run. He launches himself at the beast, plunges the knife to the hilt in its neck. The hound shudders and snarls, its saliva mingling with froth. Xander shoves the beast off Larry with his foot. This whole fucking misadventure was caused by demon leakage in the first place.



"Larry, you okay?"



"Shit!" he wheezes. "Is there blood on my tux?"






Xander yanks the knife from its neck and looks at Faith. His breath jerks in and out of his lungs as he holds her gaze.



He senses it now, the tightrope thrumming beneath his feet. His balance, perfect, effortless. The weight of her knife in his hand. His eyes flick toward it, then back up to her face, but she doesn't make a move, doesn't speak.



Larry sits up, draws one leg up to rise, then freezes.



Xander shifts his weight, lets his shoulders relax. He tilts his head in the direction of her apartment building. "Run along home, Faith."






She holds his gaze, giving off defiant. "Later for you." She takes three backward steps, then turns and saunters off.



Xander watches her for a moment, then turns back to Larry. "You hurt?"



"Girl hits hard." He takes the hand Xander offers and gets to his feet. "They say payback is a bitch. That must be her."



Xander's struck by a relief so overwhelming his knees go watery.



Larry puts a steadying hand on his elbow. "Are you okay?"



"I have a knife," he says faintly.



"Guys!" Buffy runs toward them. "There's anothe-- It's dead. That's it, there were three."






"Xander killed it."



"Xander? Go, you."



He offers the knife, but it tumbles from nerveless fingers.



Larry grips his shoulders. "No. You can't go all jelly-legged. We got dancing to do."



"The prom," he murmurs.



"Yeah, the prom. C'mon."



"Wait," Buffy delves into her tiny purse (how'd she hang onto this while killing two hellhounds?), pulling out some miniscule golden safety pins. Her hands dart over Larry's jacket, fixing torn seams. Then she straightens Xander's boutonniere. "You two look wonderful."



Xander brushes back a stray lock of her hair. "You too. Ready?"



"No. You have an entrance to make."






She's not kidding. She insists on entering the gym first, so she can watch their grand entrance.



"I feel bad for her, though," Xander says. "Going in alone."



"Yeah. But we'll each have some dances with her."



"When did you guys get to be friends? I miss everything."



"And now you're missing this." Larry takes his hand. "I'll fill you in later, but right now we're having a date."



"So we are. Did I tell you you look amazing?"



Larry grins. "Might've. Refresh me."



"Dapper. Sexy. Bloody."






"Hold still." Xander dabs his handkerchief at a scrape on Larry's cheek.






Larry holds his hand as they walk into the gym. The song that's playing ends, and couples break apart, and that's when the reactions begin.



There's surprise -- which only makes sense, considering Larry's previous career in the Xander-torment field. Couple of sneers from Larry's former colleagues. Mostly, though, there's that flash of interest that moves through the hallways when a new couple appears. Reaction, speculation, odds-making, then back to whatever was going on before.



It's reassuring that this self-absorption outweighs any fascination with the fact of them.



Buffy beams at them. "Save me a slot on your dance cards."






Willow and Oz appear with full cups of punch. "Xander, look at you!" Willow exclaims. Memory of the formal wear fluke history belatedly dawns, and she turns to Oz. "Sweetie, doesn't he look sharp?"



"Indeed. As does Larry."



"Larry, hi. You both look great. So you guys came stag."



She missed the entrance then. Or chose to miss its significance. Xander plunges in. "Actually we're here together. I guess it's our first official date."



She blinks. Stammers.



"Give yourself some time," Xander says. "Took me awhile to adjust, too."



Giles joins them, doing the manly equivalent of beaming. "Well done."






There's more chat, about the prom, the hellhounds and who might've unleashed them, Cordelia's absence, but Xander's head buzzes with the sheer exhilaration of being here with Larry, and most of it streams right past him.



Finally he takes Larry's hand and announces, "I don't know about you, but I came to dance."



They pass Anya and her glassy-eyed date. "You could've just said," she says.



"Nothing personal. We were waiting for the right moment," he tells her.



Larry takes him in his arms and they sway to a slow song.



This is so very much the right moment.