Thank you to: Valerie, whom I blame entirely for this (even though she blames me entirely for the other half of this, but that's not the point! How was I supposed to resist the concept of Xander and Angel, on the loose, together, without any referees?); my dad, for invaluable plotting help and for not even blinking at being asked questions like "What lives in the sewers besides vampires and alligators?" at the dinner table; my mom, who accepted said dinnertime conversations without strangling the both of us; and Jennifer Mingee, for putting up with me when I plotted out loud, betareading, and not giggling at me (much) when characters began taking over my brain.
And always, the Horsechicks of the Apocalypse -- Chris, Lizbet, Dianne and Catherine -- who variously nagged, harrassed, betaread, tolerated, tortured, sympathized, laughed, encouraged, and helped make Xander's life a living hell. Nobody does it better.
"When the world's gone crazy and it makes no sense
There's only one voice that comes to your defense
The jury's out and your eyes search the room
And one friendly face is all you need to see....
It's hard to say it
I hate to say it, but it's probably me"
-- Sting, 'It's Probably Me'
Xander was bored.
"Bored, bored, bored," he muttered under his breath, crossing his arms and staring down at the ends of his dirty sneakers. "Where's a vampire attack when you need one? Or a nice demon? Or even another giant bug? *Some*thing."
But no. The school library was utterly silent; even Giles was off doing whatever it was that Watchers did when their Slayers were out of town. And why did Willow have to go along with Buffy to that stupid family reunion, just to keep Buffy company? She should have stayed around and kept Xander company, instead of leaving him all alone for all of Spring Break, bored.
He let his head fall back and started twirling Giles' chair from side to side, in rhythm with his sing-song thoughts. *Bored, bored, bored, bored....*
Being bored wasn't usually a problem for Xander; at least, it hadn't been since this school year started. Besides the usual schoolwork, and the completely unjustified amounts of homework required of a high school sophomore, there were his extracurricular hobbies, which tended to swallow a lot of hours. (Unfortunately, helping to slay the Legions of Darkness and longing hopelessly after the Slayer weren't the kind of things you could put on a college application.)
But said Slayer was out of town, she'd taken Xander's best friend with her, his previous best friend had been turned into a vampire (then into a pile of dust, but he *really* didn't want to go there), there were no classes, and he had, in utter desperation, finished his math homework the night before.
In short, life was totally and completely boring, to the point that he was sitting in an empty school library, staring at the bookshelves because he couldn't think of anything else to do.
"As I understand the concept," a dry British voice said in front of him, "Spring Break is supposed to be when one avoids school with great intensity, rather than sitting there endlessly."
Xander lifted his head and found Giles leaning over the check-out desk, eyebrows lifted in mild inquiry. He was wearing his usual sweater vest and carrying a pile of books with titles that were impossible to read from Xander's angle. Of course, knowing Giles, they'd probably be impossible for any normal person to read from any angle.
Xander shrugged without moving further from his slouch. "Oh, just holding down the fort, in case some other complete loser comes in and wants to check out a book or something, because he has totally nothing else to do with his life."
Giles blinked, began to say something, then adjusted his glasses and started over. "They've only been gone for two days, Xander. Surely you have other friends?"
"Who, me?" Xander straightened up, his feet thunking to the floor. Okay, yeah, he'd just said as much, but it sounded different coming from Giles. Like, bad. "Sure, I've got lots of friends, tons. I just, you know, figured you might want some company."
Giles wasn't buying it, but at least tried to pretend he was. Setting his books down with a soft thud, he nailed Xander with a sympathetic, but firm look. "If you have friends, then go find them," he ordered. "The sun is shining, as it always does in this place, the sky is clear, and while I appreciate your... concern, I'm sure you can find something better to do with your time then sitting in a musty old library."
Xander, having painted himself neatly into a corner, found himself with no options other than to stand up. "You sure you don't need me here?" he persisted, in a last-ditch effort. "You know, to look up some kind of ancient cults, or weird ghosts, or demons, or something?"
Giles shook his head. "Absolutely not. The supernatural denizens of Sunnydale appear to have taken their cue from Buffy and gone on holiday. Now go enjoy yourself. Go," he repeated firmly, when Xander tried to argue again.
Xander gave in and shuffled slowly towards the door, feeling Giles' eyes on him the whole way. The library door swung shut behind him.
Outside, the sun *was* shining, much too brightly to suit Xander's mood. He scuffed down the front steps of the school and dropped his skateboard, shoving off down the sidewalk in no particular direction to look for a distraction.
But distractions were hard to come by in Sunnydale. Two movie theatres (which were playing movies he'd already seen with Buffy and Willow), an ice cream bar (where half the school would be hanging out in groups and a guy alone would look like a geek), the Bronze (which wouldn't open until seven), and the lone Starbucks (where the other half of the school was hanging out in groups). Lots of choices.
"You know, man," he told himself, stopping in front of the comic store for lack of anything better to do, "you really need to get a life that doesn't involve ravening hordes of the undead."
The comic store failed to hold his interest for more than half an hour. He left loaded up with comics he was too bored to read and went back to wandering aimlessly on his skateboard, finally winding up in the Sunnydale Historic District -- the tourist section of town, with buildings that supposedly dated back to Sunnydale's days as a mining center.
A sign over one of the old buildings -- The Summers Gallery -- caught his eye. Without thinking about it, he stopped the skateboard and tucked it back under his arm, avoided the City of Sunnydale utility van parked in the street, and opened the door of Buffy's mom's gallery.
The bell above the door rang with a soft chime as Xander went in, looking around curiously. He'd only been in the gallery a few times, and the last time he'd seen it, the display was all African tribal carvings; at least, that was what Buffy's mom had called them. They'd been sort of cool, until he'd seen the hyena statue in back and exited stage left.
This time, he found himself surrounded by tangled bunches of wire and metal that looked like someone had gone crazy with a blow torch. The exhibit was obviously only half-finished, open crates and packing material scattered all over the floor, but he didn't think it would be any more interesting when everything was set up.
"Great, there's not even anything to do here," he complained softly, almost ready to turn around and leave again.
Joyce Summers was having a bad week. First, she'd been forced to stay home from the reunion because of the plimbing. Now, her assistant's father had landed in the hospital with a stroke, which mean her assistant had flown to New York, and wouldn't be back for at least a week. Which left Joyce trying to prepare an opening with absolutely no help.
She sighed in frustration when heard the door bell chime from the back room, and hurried out of her office, ready to politely intercept and dispose of a potential customer, then jump back into the thicket of work.
"I'm sorry, we're not open today," she started to say, but broke off the speech and smiled when she recognized Buffy's nice young friend Xander, caught halfway in, halfway out of the gallery door. "Oh, hello, Xander. I didn't expect to see you here."
"Hey, Mrs. Summers." The teenager lifted one hand in an awkward wave. "I was just, you know, in the neighborhood and figured I'd look in, make sure things were going okay and everything, since Buffy's out of town and all."
He was obviously trying to be very mature, adult, and reassuring, so Joyce tried to hide her smile. With both Buffy and Willow out of town, the poor thing was probably bored to tears.
"Thank you, Xander, that's very thoughtful of you," she said with a straight face. "Everything's going just fine -- well, it will as soon as I find out why my pipes have become demonically-possessed."
Xander blinked, apparently startled by her phrasing. "Yeah, Buffy said you were having plumbing problems. She was really bummed you couldn't go to Toronto with her."
Joyce sighed. "Well, I was pretty 'bummed' myself. It's just as well, I guess," she added, gesturing at the mess around her. "This exhibit is supposed to open in three days, and my assistant, who was supposed to be in charge of this opening, just got called out of town. I probably would have had to come home anyway. At least this way, Buffy and Willow can enjoy themselves." She made a face, looking around the gallery. "I still might not finish in time."
Laziness and boredom conflicted over Xander's face, along with what looked like an honest urge to be helpful. "Do you, maybe, need any help getting things set up?" he finally offered, super-casually.
Joyce beamed at him. Such a little gentleman; if only Buffy's friends had been as thoughtful in her old school. "That's very sweet, Xander, but it's Spring Break. You should be enjoying yourself outside, with your friends, not be working in a musty old place like this."
Xander rolled his eyes to the ceiling. "What is this, a conspiracy? Honestly, Mrs. Summers," he continued with great and obvious sincerity, "I have absolutely nothing better to do than help you. I would be *honored* to help you. Helping you would be the highlight of my vacation...."
"All right, all right!" Joyce cut him off, laughing. "I get the point, Xander! You can stay and help, but I insist on paying you for your time. Deal?"
"Deal." They shook on it, then Xander looked around again. "So, need any heavy crates lifted, big sculptures handled, what?"
"Actually," Joyce said thoughtfully, studying him, "there are some... smaller things we need to do first."
Twenty-three pedestals. Fifteen sets of shelves. Seven glass cases. By the time he finished, Xander felt as if he had a dusting cloth permanently attached to his hand. He took a last swipe at the pedestal against the back wall, and collapsed to the floor, resting his head and back against the heavy wood. His arms felt like limp spaghetti, and he was sure the smell of Lemon Pledge and Windex was going to be permanently rubbed into his skin.
"Xander?" He looked up to see Buffy's mom standing over him, looking concerned, and disgustingly un-tired.
He tried to pull himself up from his exhausted sprawl, but his answering smile was a little sick. "Oh, I'm fine," he lied. "Just, you know, taking a little break before I tackle the next thing. Um, what is the next thing?"
Mrs. Summers looked at her watch. "The next thing is dinner, Xander. It's almost 6 o'clock; they'll be expecting you at home, won't they?"
"Yeah, I guess so." Which meant he had to get himself off the floor and in motion, something his aching back and legs informed him was not going to happen any time soon. "I'll head out in just a few minutes."
There was that smothered amusement again; Xander wished everyone wouldn't find him quite so funny. "Take your time."
Xander tried to smile again, then let his head thunk back to the pedestal. The sound echoed around the room -- then the pedestal thunked back.
"Ow!" Xander rubbed the back of his head and twisted around to glare balefully at the pedestal, which had just rocked forward and smacked him. "What the hell was that?"
Mrs. Summers gave him a severe look for the curse, but before she could say anything, the walls shook again, then again, settling into a rhythmic pounding that started low, then rose in volume until Xander thought his ears were going to explode. He found himself effortlessly on his feet in the middle of the room, staring with startled panic at the back wall as the demonic thuds and bangs continued.
"Oh, not again!" She was standing only a few feet away, but Mrs. Summers still had to raise her voice for it to carry over the racket. "If that plumber isn't here by tomorrow morning, I'm going to go in after those pipes myself!"
"Pipes?" Xander shouted incredulously. "All that is just pipes?" It sounded more like hoardes of crazed monkeys gleefully banging away on giant xylophones.
The noise stopped as abruptly as it had begun, leaving them in eerie, ringing silence. Xander rubbed his ears and discovered that the ringing was coming from his eardrums, not the air. "Whoa."
Mrs. Summers nodded, looking resigned. "This is why I stayed home from Toronto."
Xander shook his head and worked his jaw, which did absolutely nothing for his ears. He'd come out of the Bronze with less of a hearing loss. "Maybe you're right; you do need an exorcist."
Mrs. Summers laughed. "It's a thought, but I'll try the plumber first. It's so hard to find a good exorcist."
Xander automatically opened his mouth to volunteer Giles's services -- he'd been pretty good against witches and stuff, according to Buffy -- then shut up again, fast. Time to get out of here before he slipped. "Well, I hope you have good luck with the plumber. I'd better head for home. Um, do you need any more help tomorrow?" he asked, half-hopeful, half-fearful.
Mrs. Summers was digging in her purse. "If you'd like to come, I could use the hands." She straightened, and held a twenty dollar bill towards him. "And here's today's pay."
"Oh, no, you don't have to do that," he tried to refuse.
Mrs. Summers shook the bill impatiently, smiling. "You earned it, Xander. Go have some fun."
"Well..." Xander pictured the number of drinks he could buy girls at the Bronze. And he *had* been working pretty hard.... "If you think you have to and all."
"Okay." He took the money, shoving it into his back pocket. "See you tomorrow morning." He headed out the front door, dropping his skateboard to the ground, and hearing her lock the door after him.
Hopefully, he'd get to do something the next day besides clean. Dishpan hands were *really* bad for his image.
Xander sat at a table in the back corner, nursing a soda and trying to find a good-looking girl who wasn't with a guy. So far, the pickings were pretty slim, with the exception of a gorgeous brunette on the other side of the room. But she was already surrounded by guys, and, somehow, he just wasn't in the mood to go trolling.
Now, if Buffy and Willow were here, they'd be holding down a table together, and the two girls would be laughing at him behind his back whenever he made a pass, struck out, and retreated to safety. Of course, since half those passes were at Buffy, that was probably kind of understandable. And he didn't really mind them laughing at him -- Willow was cute when she laughed, and Buffy was downright gorgeous.
Xander looked around, praying one of the babes in Cordelia's bunch was giving him the eye, but they were all clustered together listening to Cordelia expound on something. He kept looking, checking the bar, the dance floor, and the upper level, before he caught sight of a familiar figure behind the staircase. A tall, dark figure wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt.
"Terrific," he mumbled with mild disgust. "The Great Fanged One returns. When I asked for vampires, I didn't mean Sunnydale's answer to Deep Throat. Or Deep Fang. Or whatever."
He honestly didn't know what Buffy saw in the guy. Okay, sure, he had that tall, dark and mysterious thing going for him, but Angel apparently had almost no sense of humor, rarely cracked a smile, and in short, was intensely personality-deprived, unlike, say, Xander.
And that was beside the fact that he was a vampire.
Still, Angel seemed to be tense (as usual), and he only showed up in the Bronze when he needed to find Buffy -- which he hadn't done for a while, come to think of it. Maybe there was something going on. Maybe Xander could help. Maybe Xander could keep from dying of boredom before midnight.
"Maybe Xander can wind up lunch meat before dawn," he told himself sternly. "Let Angel take care of things himself for once. Just sit back and stay out of it."
"Angel." Well, how the hell *were* you supposed to greet a 240-year-old vampire who was after the girl you were in love with? 'Hey, how's it going?' didn't seem really appropriate. Besides, Xander was damned if he was going to give a guy who was nothing but trouble for Buffy one inch more slack than he had to. "What do you want?"
"Xander," Angel returned in exactly the same flat, wary tone. His dark eyes were lost in shadow, unreadable, but Xander could feel the intensity of Angel's stare. Which wasn't really all that comfortable. "Where's Buffy?"
"Vacation. With Willow." Xander tried standing up a little straighter to match Angel's height. He thought he did pretty well at matching the attitude. "What's going on?"
Angel shook his head, flicking his eyes over Xander's shoulder. Xander turned his head, and saw that Angel was watching the brunette Xander had noticed earlier. The brunette smiled back at him in the traditional female response to Angel, Xander noted with disgust.
"Nothing important," Angel said, looking back at Xander. "I'll handle it."
"Well, that's good." He managed to keep from adding the 'for once' with an act of will, and decided he really didn't want to know what was going on, anyway. The steady stare was giving him the creeps, so he started backing off casually. "I'll tell Buffy you, ah, stopped by."
"I'd rather you didn't."
Which was just fine by Xander. "My lips are sealed."
Xander turned back. "Toronto. Some kind of family reunion, she... said." His voice trailed off as Angel seemed to choke, his eyes going wide. "What?" Xander demanded. "What did I say?"
"And he answered...?"
Xander shrugged in utter cluelessness. Unfortunately, Giles couldn't see it, since his head, his shoulders and most of his back were currently buried in a huge box of books. "Nothing. He just looked kind of freaked -- which is a really weird thing to see Angel looking, I might add -- then left."
Giles withdrew from the box, dust liberally covering his face and shirt, and resettled his glasses. "Odd. What could be so disturbing about Canada, for heaven's sake?"
"Knowing Buffy? Toads are gonna fall from the sky."
Giles aimed a quelling look in Xander's direction. "That's a very comforting notion."
Xander shrugged again. "Hey, this is Buffy. Anything's possible. Anyway, Angel wasn't in a friendly, chit-chat kind of mood -- not that he ever is -- so I didn't get the chance to ask him anything else."
"That was probably fortunate," Giles said, adding books to one of the stacks next to him. "I really do think you should be staying as far away from Angel as humanly possible, both you and Willow. And Buffy, for that matter, although there's no point in telling her that. Fortunately, Angel himself seems to be keeping his distance."
One of the stacks started to topple; Xander leaned off the big center table just in time to catch it, and shoved the books back on balance. "Probably because Buffy'd kick his butt if he messed with us... if I didn't do it first," he tacked on hastily.
Giles looked less than impressed. "Still, all feelings towards Buffy aside, Angel is an unpredictable quantity. And he *is* a vampire.... What's that expression Buffy is so fond of? 'Better safe than lunch'?"
"Yeah, yeah, heard it before. I'll be careful; it's not like I'm all hot to start palling around with him, anyway." Xander pulled himself back to his sitting position on top of the table, leaning over to inspect the books from a safer angle. "What are all these, anyway? They look like they came out of someone's basement."
"In point of fact, they did," Giles answered absently. "I persuaded the principal to purchase them from an estate sale. They seem to be journals and histories from the turn of the century, when Sunnydale's mining industry was at its height."
He opened one of the books, flipping through it. "Fascinating material. Do you know at its peak, Sunnydale rivaled San Francisco's output of gold and other precious metals, although it received far less publicity; the entire town is more or less built over the old mines. In fact, the Welsh immigrants who worked the mines...."
"Hey, that's great," Xander broke in, sliding off the table and backing towards the door before Giles could get really rolling on a history lecture. Xander wasn't quite *that* bored. "You know, it's past dinner time and I'm starving -- man cannot live on books alone, and all that. Why don't I run out and find us some food, bring it back, you know?"
It took Giles a second to tear himself from his book and look up. "Ah, yes, good thought, good thought. You have money?"
"Oh yeah, Buffy's mom is paying me for working in the gallery. Pizza sound good?" He waited for an answer, but Giles had disappeared back into his book, and didn't look to be coming out any time soon. "Oookay. Pizza it is."
Abandoning the computer and the stack of books Giles had given him to catalogue, Xander escaped out the library door, debating mentally between the Domino's across the street and the smaller place a couple of blocks north of the school. The smaller place won by virtue of having crust that didn't taste like cardboard, and he slapped his skateboard down.
Giles, not nearly as lost in his research as he'd allowed Xander to believe, watched the young man go with a resigned sigh.The boy had shown up at the library a few hours earlier, looking pathetic and neglected. He'd apparently been ejected from the Summers Gallery, and Giles hadn't had the heart to send him away.
At least Mrs. Summers had found work to occupy Xander for most of the day; otherwise, he would probably have found his way back to the library even earlier, and spent even more of his time making Giles' life difficult.
Actually, that was less than fair, Giles corrected himself. Xander hadn't complained once about cataloguing books or reshelving them, and the boy was actually fairly knowledgeable in some areas. They'd held a very entertaining debate on American football versus the British variety, what Xander called soccer.
Still, when he'd come to Sunnydale to take over as Watcher, he'd been expecting to deal with one American teenager; he hadn't anticipated becoming responsible for the lives of two more in the process. He was rather fond of Willow, for obvious reasons -- she could be rather frighteningly similar to Giles himself, which, he supposed, was only to be expected -- and Buffy was quickly becoming a valued friend, rather than simply the Slayer. But Xander....
Well, the boy did try, even if his recklessness and hormones frequently took over his judgement, and he was unswervingly loyal to Buffy (animal possessions and other incidents beyond his control aside). And he was learning, if slowly; that rescue of the book stack a few minutes earlier had shown quick reflexes Giles didn't recall seeing before. Was it just natural adolescent development, or could proximity to the Slayer be causing changes in her companions? An interesting research question....
He shook off the train of thought and returned to his work, which truly was fascinating. Several of the journals seemed to hold records of supernatural events not present in any of his other research materials. He looked forward to correlating the information for Buffy, not that she'd care until it became crucial.
The phone rang before he could really settle into his reading; his knees protested as he pulled himself to his feet and picked up the extension behind his desk. "Sunnydale High School Library, Rupert Giles speaking."
"Giles? It's me." The voice was unmistakably Buffy's -- upbeat and cheerful. But he didn't miss the air of tension behind her words.
"Buffy, what's happened?" he demanded instantly.
He could almost see the disgusted face she was undoubtedly making. "Why do you always think something's gone wrong?"
"You mean it hasn't?"
"Well.... Okay, maybe a little."
Giles listened with growing disturbance to her tales of vampires in Toronto, which turned into outright, stomach-clenching fear when she, after being prompted, told him about the attack on Willow by one of those vampires.
His reaction was entirely predictable and completely justified. "I'll be on the next flight up."
"Giles, you really don't have to come!" Buffy protested instantly, and not unexpectedly. "Everything is under control. Really. Would I lie to you?"
"Not only would, but have," Giles responded just as quickly, already trying to juggle flight schedules in his head. He'd have to pack, and someone would have to be left in charge at the library. Probably Xander, God help them all. "Might I remind you of the graveyard incident, when you swore you wouldn't do anything foolish and promptly did precisely that, despite both my warnings and Angel's?"
"Well, okay," Buffy admitted, "but that doesn't count. I have never actually, directly lied to you. I didn't.... Anyway," she returned determinedly to her point, obviously aware she was going to lose that argument, "the important thing is we're okay. Okay, Willow isn't 100% okay, but Natalie says she will be in, like, nothing flat; and she's a doctor, so--"
"Buffy," Giles interrupted firmly; if he waited for her to take a breath, he'd be waiting there until the end of time. "May I speak to her, please?"
Buffy paused. "Um, that'll have to be later, because I don't think I could wake her up right now...."
"Buffy. I meant your cousin."
"Oh. 'Her,' Natalie, not 'her,' Willow. Just a second."
Giles slipped his fingers up under his glasses to rub his eyes, waiting for the transfer. He was already getting a headache, and had a feeling it was going to get much worse before it got better.
One large pizza with extra cheese, pepperoni, green pepper and black olives later, Xander headed back to the school. His footsteps echoed hollowly in the halls, but he almost couldn't hear them over the roaring of his stomach. The pizza smelled delicious, and he patted himself on the back for having the willpower and generosity to wait to eat any of it until Giles got some.
"Hey, Giles, food's here!" he announced as he went through the doors.
Giles shushed him with a gesture, and without turning away from the intense phone conversation he was having. Xander blinked, laid the pizza down, and opened the box, trying not to look like he was eavesdropping. Which he was, of course, but there was no need to be *too* obvious about it.
"I assumed she had decided once again that she could handle everything on her own," Giles was saying. "I feel somewhat better knowing that she *does* have a support structure."
She? The only 'she' Giles ever talked about in that half-worried, half-irritated tone of voice was Buffy. Xander pulled a piece of pizza loose and took a huge bite, settling down on the tabletop again. "If that's Buffy," he said around the mouthful, "tell her I said hi, and not to worry -- I'm taking care of things."
Giles didn't appear to hear him. "Yes, an unexpected development, to say the least," he agreed with whoever he was talking to. Xander chewed thoughtfully, watching Giles. The librarian seemed sort of... nervous. More than usual.
"I don't doubt it for a moment," Giles continued, fiddling with his glasses. There was a long pause, then he asked, "And she *is* all right? You're certain?"
Xander almost choked on his pizza. Giles had gone past nervous to downright concerned. "*Who's* all right?" he demanded, sliding off the table with a thump and giving up every pretense of not listening. "Giles, what's going on?"
"Excuse me, Dr. Lambert," Giles said, then covered the receiver with his hand. "Nothing, Xander, everyone's fine. Go on, go back to your dinner."
Xander glowered stubbornly and didn't move; after a long moment, Giles sighed and put the phone back to his ear. "My apologies, Dr. Lambert. Buffy and Willow's friend Xander is with me at the moment. You were saying?"
Another pause, and Xander resisted the impulse to grab the phone away from Giles. If one of the girls had been hurt.... He had a sudden, sickening flash of Willow lying in a pool of blood, a vampire crouched over her.... the memory of Buffy, slammed to the floor under his own uncaring hands.... He had to work to swallow past the hard, scared lump in his throat.
"Thank God," Giles finally breathed, and Xander tried to find some comfort in Giles' obvious relief. "And thanks to your friend Mr. Knight, I'm told. Buffy says his intervention saved Willow's...." He looked sideways at Xander and visibly edited himself, "saved us all a great deal of trouble."
Xander glared at Giles, who turned away uncomfortably, saying, "He has my gratitude. As do you, for restoring my peace of mind. Survival is all well and good, but *I* will sleep better tonight knowing she has good care and comfort. Though I may lose part of that sleep wrestling with the notion that she was spared worse suffering by... well, by those particular circumstances. I'm afraid that will take some getting used to."
"Survival?" Xander repeated, hearing the total lack of cool in his voice and not caring. "Care and comfort? Saved Willow's what? Hello, Giles, what's happening?"
He tried to grab Giles's shoulder, but the older man sidestepped him easily. "Just one," he said to whoever he was talking to. "What hotel would you recommend when I arrive tomorrow morning?"
"Arrive where? Toronto?" Giles continued to ignore him and Xander finally stomped back to the table, kicking at a chair as he went, then sat back down and crossed his arms, still glaring at Giles with all his strength.
Giles finally hung up, and stared at the phone for a long moment. "I should have known," he muttered to himself. "I should have guessed. Damn."
Xander held onto his temper by the skin of his teeth; yelling at Giles had never, in the history of the universe, accomplished anything. But it was really close.
"What should you have guessed?" he demanded instead, with all the calm that his worried 16-year-old soul could muster (which wasn't wasn't much, but hey...).
Giles had the nerve to look around as if he'd forgotten Xander was in the room. "Ah, Xander. I'm going to have to take a raincheck on the meal, I'm afraid. Would you lock up the library after you leave, and attempt to bring some order to this chaos if you have a chance?"
Xander left the table yet again, to trail after Giles as the librarian started collecting his jacket, several books, and other odds and ends. "Why are you going to Toronto? Did someone hurt one of the girls? If someone hurt the girls, I'm coming, too!"
That finally seemed to get Giles's attention. "Both of the girls are fine," he said, stopping and facing Xander. "At least, they will be shortly. Buffy has simply run into a few complications she needs a Watcher's assistance in dealing with. And, as you are not a Watcher, you are *not* coming."
The last part was said in a tone which suggested there would be no further arguments allowed. Naturally, Xander continued to argue. "Come on, if there's trouble I can help! I have before, right?"
Giles sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. "Xander, your aid has been... invaluable in the past, yes. But at the moment, I believe three of our little club roaming around Toronto is as much as the traffic will bear. And, of course," he pointed out, "there's the fact that if you accompany me, Sunnydale will be left completely undefended. It's your responsibility to remain here and... watch over things."
Xander knew he was being manipulated, knew it without a doubt. But the image of himself, standing alone against the forces of darkness -- if anything would impress Buffy, that would be it. "So, I'd be like, substitute Slayer, right?"
Giles blinked, opening the weapons cabinet and starting to pull various sharp, pointy things out of it. "Yes, I suppose that would be a... reasonably accurate description. Only for a short time, you understand," he tacked on hastily.
"Of course," Xander agreed instantly, already figuring how he could stretch it out. And he'd have to think of a better title -- first alternate, maybe? No, Buffy hadn't liked that. "So, you go take care of the girls," he said out loud, "and tell Buffy to relax, I'm taking care of everything here."
"I'm sure it will bring her no end of comfort," Giles agreed dryly. He finished gathering his things, closed and locked the weapons cabinet, and tossed the key ring at Xander, who caught it by reflex. "Now that that's settled, I'll be seeing you in a few days."
"Yeah, sure." It wasn't until Giles was halfway out the door that Xander realized he still had no idea what was going on. "Hey, Giles, wait! What's happening in Toronto? How did Willow get hurt? Giles!"
Giles never even slowed down, leaving Xander staring at the library doors in frustration, a half-eaten piece of pizza drooping, forgotten, from his hand.
Getting the library in shape was just too much to deal with; Xander haphazardly combined a few book stacks, promised himself he'd come back to do a better job the next day, and left, taking his pizza with him.
It didn't seem too appetizing, now, compared to the gory images that persisted in running through his mind: Willow hurt, Buffy hurt, Giles tearing into danger after them.... He saw Jesse again, changed from best friend to deadly enemy, and shook his head roughly, trying to stop the images and almost running into a lamppost in the process.
It was a enough of a shock to bring Xander back to his surroundings; he looked around and discovered he was back downtown, in the historical section. After dark. In a town that specialized in vampires. The assignment of substitute Slayer suddenly took on a whole new meaning, a bad one.
His neck prickled, as if eyes were watching him, and a shadow seemed to move next to him; he shoved the skateboard off and headed for the gallery as fast as he could. No vampires could come in, and Mrs. Summers would probably give him a ride home.
There were lights still on in the gallery when he got there, which relieved him to an extent that was embarrassing for the First Alternate Slayer. He ducked through the (unlocked) back door and closed it behind him with a little too much force. The bang echoed through the silent gallery.
Funny, though; as he turned away from the door with a sigh of relief, and propped his skateboard against the wall, he could have sworn he heard a muffled, high-pitched giggle.
He shook it off as another result of his over-active imagination and walked towards the main room of the gallery, calling, "Mrs. Summers? Are you still here?"
The lights abruptly went out.
Xander froze with one foot in the room, straining to make out anything in darkness. "Mrs. Summers?" Nothing moved, and the only sound was his own breathing. Until something giggled again.
"Nobody home here." The hair on the back of Xander's neck stood up as the weird, high-pitched voice twisted out of the darkness. "Noooobody ho-ome."
"Who-- who's there?" he stuttered, holding the pizza box in front of him like a shield. "I'm warning you, you don't want to mess with me!"
Something brushed against the back of his leg; he whirled, almost dropping the pizza. There was another chittering giggle, which ran around the room like a wave. Something -- someone -- started thumping softly and that sound spread too, picked up from all sides until the air seemed to be shaking with the rhythm.
"All right, that's it," Xander announced loudly, as he forced down the terror that was trying to climb up the back of his throat from his stomach. It was probably just some kids, playing games. Nothing to worry about. "If the lights aren't on and this room empty in the next three seconds, I'm calling the cops. 1... 2..."
Before he could finish the count, a flashlight suddenly clicked on. Xander looked down at the circle of light that had appeared next to his knee -- and jumped back with a startled yell (*not* a scream, guys don't scream), as a wrinkled, gray, unearthly face grimaced up at him, its huge, dark eyes crossed and leering.
He stumbled backwards, dropping the pizza box, tripped over something on the floor and landed hard on his butt. Another circle of light appeared, and he saw two long, spindly arms reaching for him, attached to another of those grimacing faces. He tried to scrabble further back, away from the thing, and ran hard into the wall. A third creature appeared, then a fourth and fifth, all leering at him, their wrinkled, gray faces screwed up in ugly, taunting expressions, mouths that were little more than ear to ear slits leering from beneath hooked noses and ears. Xander shouted again, kicking out --
-- and the flashlights went out as Mrs. Summers's voice echoed from the back door. "Hello? What's going on here?"
The lights came on and Xander found himself sprawled on the floor by the doorway, blinking up at Mrs. Summers, who was staring down at him with surprise.
"Xander?" she asked cautiously, and Xander realized his hands were shaking.
"Um, yeah," he answered, trying to keep his voice steady. The room was empty, he saw as he looked frantically around; he smiled sickly. "Hi, Mrs. Summers."
"What are you doing here?"
"Um...." Hallucinating? Being attacked by dwarves? She'd think he was on drugs. His eyes fell on the flat box by his feet and inspiration hit. "Bringing pizza!" He scrambled to his feet, talking as quickly as possible. "Yeah, Gil... um, Mr. Giles bailed on me when I was helping out at the library and I had this huge pizza and no one at my house likes green pepper so I figured I'd see if you wanted some of it so I came by."
He had to stop finally to breathe, then held the breath, waiting to see if she bought it.
Mrs. Summers, long accustomed to the wierdnesses of Life with Buffy even though she didn't know the specific circumstances behind them, seemed willing to put his oddities down to normal teenage behavior.
"Well, thank you, Xander," she said, coming the rest of the way into the room. "That was very thoughtful of you, I'm sure it will be... delicious," Xander followed her dubious eyes down to the flattened pizza box and groaned mentally. So much for dinner.
"But what happened to the lights?" Mrs. Summers remembered. "Why were they off when I came in? And did I hear someone laughing and shouting?"
Xander somehow managed to shrug casually. "Beats me. Maybe whatever hit your pipes spread to the electricity," he speculated with absolute truthfulness. "And I, um, shouted when I tripped and then was, um, laughing at myself. Yeah."
Mrs. Summers nodded, pursing her lips and apparently buying the story. "Well, I'm glad you weren't hurt. Why don't we find a better place to put the, ah, pizza?"
"Sure." He was grateful that she was the one who leaned down to pick up the box, since his own balance was pretty precarious at the moment. "Lead the way."
She did so, taking off her jacket and setting the pizza box on one of the still-empty pedestals before opening it. Her eyebrows went up. "My goodness, Xander, you and Mr. Giles must have had a feast."
"Huh?" Xander looked over her shoulder -- and discovered that two-thirds of the pizza had disappeared.
He offered Mrs. Summers another sick smile. "Guess we, um, ate more than I thought."
They spent an hour eating and chit-chatting (with Xander jumping out of his skin at every creak of the old building), then Mrs. Summers volunteered to give Xander a ride home, an offer he jumped at; he'd had enough close encounters of the Slayer kind that night. He ducked into the back room to retrieve his skateboard -- and saw the back door standing cracked open.
Nobility fought nervousness (all right, it was sheer, gut-wrenching terror), but Xander finally gritted his teeth and shoved the door open, taking a few steps into the back alley. He was substitute Slayer, this was his job.
The sounds of scuttling feet and a faint echo of those terrifying giggles stopped him in his tracks only a few feet outside the door. The dim illumination from the streetlamp at the corner showed a manhole cover in the center of the alley slowly scraping back into place. Before it closed, he saw a wizened gray mouth poke its tongue out at him, then the cover settled into place.
"Xander?" He only jumped a little as Mrs. Summers came outside, locking the door behind her. "Ready to go home?"
"Actually," he said slowly, without removing his eyes from the manhole, "do you think you could drop me at the Bronze? I just remembered I told someone I'd meet him there."
With Giles, the expert on weird, out of town, Xander was going to have to settle for the next best thing.
The expert on sewers.
Angel shouldn't have interfered in her hunt; wouldn't have, beyond warning Buffy she was around. Except that Buffy wasn't around, and Adrianne had picked a girl to feed on. A teenage girl, with blonde hair and an innocent face.
The outcome of the confrontation had been a little too close, only the crowd in the Bronze keeping Adrianne from going for his throat. He'd won, but just barely, and Adrianne hadn't been at all happy about losing; he was going to have to watch his back for a while
Buffy was a bad influence on him, Angel admitted to himself. It was getting harder to stand back and watch the vampires feast, knowing how damned likely it was that someday soon, Buffy herself would be one of the victims. He was determined to put that day as far off as possible, but Slayer life expectancies were less than good.
He missed her. He spent entirely too much time lurking in this damn club, trying to catch a glimpse of her even when he had no legitimate reason to approach her. He knew he had to stay away, for both their own good, but that was... impossible.
Xander finally manuevered through the crowd, almost upsetting a waitress along the way to Angel's current lurk, and demanded, "What lives in the sewers besides alligators and vampires?"
Angel couldn't quite stop his eyebrows from going up. "What?"
"What else lives in the sewers?" Xander repeated impatiently. "Like, is there anything small and kinda ugly that runs around down there? And messes with pipes?"
Angel didn't say anything for a long second, studying Xander. He was almost bouncing in place, his eyes intent and just a little scared -- but not of Angel, which was something different. Not that Angel would ever hurt one of Buffy's friends, even Xander the Annoying, with his obvious crush on Buffy. But both Xander and Willow tended to stay away from him anyway.
Which attitude Angel planned to encourage. There was no sense in them getting comfortable around vampires, and no sense in Angel getting to know the young mortals, when they'd probably be gone in an eyeblink, if not sooner. It was an unforgiving world they all lived in, and no one knew that better than him. It was better if they just kept their distance from each other. All of them.
He shook off his dark thoughts and tried to pay attention to Xander's bizarre question. "Small and ugly and messes with pipes? Sounds like a couple of vampires I know, but...."
"No, vampires I recognize." Xander drummed his fingers on the railing of the stairs, obviously thinking hard, then abruptly turned away. "Okay, thanks," he tossed absently over his shoulder.
Xander looked surprised, then curious, as he jerked his jacket out of Angel's grip. "And you're asking because?"
Good question. Angel searched for an answer and settled for, "Because I don't want to run into any surprises when I go home."
Xander visibly thought it over and Angel resisted the urge to 'encourage' him. Finally, Xander shrugged. "There was something weird at Buffy's mom's gallery tonight, a bunch of somethings, in fact. Little guys, all gray and wrinkled and noisy, and with really twisted senses of humor -- and they like pizza." Xander seemed faintly bemused by that, but hurredly continued, "Anyway, I, ah fought them off, but I wanted to be ready in case they try to come back."
Angel managed to keep his face expressionless; more than likely, the whatever-they-weres had run themselves off after scaring Xander half to death. But he might as well let the kid keep some pride. "Where's the gallery?" he asked instead.
"Historic district, down on Leighton St."
"Historic district," Angel mused, intrigued in spite of himself. "That area's always been known for some pretty strange behavior."
Xander blinked. "Oh, I'd love to know how a vampire defines strange." Angel gave him a Look and Xander backed up a step, hands up in a 'peace' gesture. "Just asking."
"Right." Angel's eyes narrowed. "How do poltergeists grab you?"
"Well, they don't, if I'm lucky." Xander shrugged and added, "Which I'm not, usually."
"I noticed." He thought for a second, then offered, "I'll look around, see what's going on out there," surprising himself, as well as Xander. "You just keep an eye out during the day."
"Okay," Xander said slowly. "That'll be cool. I guess."
Angel echoed Xander's casual shrug. "No problem." Actually, it might be; the sewers were unfriendly places for Angel these days. There were things down there that were only marginally less interested in taking out Angel than munching Xander. But he owed Buffy's mother, after what Darla had done to her....
"Right." Angel watched Xander push his way back out through the crowd, then sighed in resignation and followed him. Better give the kid a fighter escort home, until they knew what they were dealing with.
If anything happened to Xander that Angel could have stopped, Buffy really *might* stake him.
The next day was relatively quiet and normal, all things considered. Xander stood guard inside the gallery as long as possible, using all his persuasive powers to convince Mrs. Summers to let him stay just a little longer each time she tried to kick him out. He unpacked heavy sculptures from equally heavy wooden crates, stacked the crates in the alley, and lugged the sculptures themselves from place to place, as Mrs. Summers tried to decide how to arrange them. His back hurt and his arms were ready to drop off, but he had to admit the exhibit was starting to look pretty cool.
They'd also been serenaded by three separate appearances of the Percussion Section from Hell, and the mystery guests were getting louder. On the bright side, though, Xander hadn't had to do any cleaning today.
Finally, Mrs. Summers called a halt to the work and firmly shooed Xander out when she left, closing up the gallery behind her. Xander declined a ride home, sauntered off in the general direction of his house -- and banged a U-turn back to the gallery as soon as Mrs. Summers's car was out of sight.
Two hours later, he was still crouched uncomfortably in the alley beside the empty crates he'd spent all afternoon stacking behind the gallery, his back against the damp brick wall of the building and one hand convulsively gripping a stake. Not that he was particularly sure it would have any effect against the whosiwhatsits, but it was a weapon. His other hand was locked around a flashlight, ready to flick it on at the first shadow that moved when it shouldn't, which happened about every five seconds.
The rest of the time, he was trying to pretend he wasn't scared to death, and swearing under his breath at Angel, who had yet to make an appearance.
"I must have been out of my mind, trusting a vampire," he grumbled, shifting his weight off the foot that was rapidly falling asleep. "Says he'll be here, then disappears. Probably out tracking down a co-ed or something for dinner, leaving me all alone here to get attacked and eaten by Dwarfs from the Black Lagoon. What's wrong with this picture?"
"The fact that you're sitting in a dark alley talking to yourself?"
"Gahh!" Xander jumped and spun in what he would tell himself later was a smooth, graceful motion. In point of fact, he almost tripped over his own feet.
He did manage to get the stake out and leveled, and Angel looked at it. "You plan on using that?"
Xander tried to control his breathing. "I'm thinking about it," he snapped. "Don't sneak up on me like that!"
Angel didn't actually look all that apologetic, but Xander let the stake fall back to his side, trying to calm the heart that was threatening to jump out of his chest. "Where have you been, anyway?"
The vampire shrugged casually, his face lost in shadows and unreadable. Xander wondered if he did it deliberately. "Around."
Xander rolled his eyes. "Ah yes, another famous cryptic Angel answer. Very helpful, thank you."
Angel half-laughed, half-snorted, but didn't otherwise respond. "I told you to keep an eye out during the day, not at night. This is a bad place to be hanging around after dark."
"Is there any place in the Hellmouth that isn't?"
"There you go." Xander made his point triumphantly, then remembered what they were supposed to be there for. "So, did you see anything?"
Angel shook his head slightly. "Nothing underground. I'm going to go look around up here."
"Cool. Oh, wait," Xander remembered as Angel started away, "you, ah, want this?"
He held out the flashlight; Angel looked from it back up to Xander, who could have sworn he actually saw a smile on the vampire's face. "No, thanks," Angel refused. "I don't need it."
"Oh." Feeling slightly silly and resenting it, Xander pulled the flashlight back. "Vampires can, like, see in the dark or something?"
Now he was sure; Angel was definitely laughing at him. "Yeah. If we remember to bring our own flashlights." He produced a small penlight from his pocket and flipped it on and off, sending a brief flash of light across the manhole cover in front of them.
"Oh, well," Xander gave an exaggerated, sarcastic shrug, "if you're going to be like that about it...."
Angel half-laughed again and, without turning his flashlight back on, became one with the shadows. "I thought they only did that in the books," Xander muttered. "Gotta get him to teach me that -- well, if the fangs aren't a prerequisite."
He realized he was talking to himself again and firmly told himself to shut up, sinking back down against the crates and settling in to wait. Again.
Waiting wasn't really what Xander was best at; in fact, it was one of his worst things. But he'd been given a crash course in patience since becoming one of the Slayerettes (as Willow took a kind of perverse pleasure in calling herself, Giles and Xander). He couldn't count the number of afternoons and evenings he'd spent hanging around the library, trying to pretend to be doing homework, or helping Giles, or teasing Willow, instead of checking his watch every five seconds and wondering if Buffy had gotten herself munched yet. Trying to think of an excuse to follow her in the pretext of 'helping'.
It was more than just wanting to make sure Buffy was all right, and it was more than just the sense of macho which occasionally proclaimed that *he* should be protecting *her*, instead of vice-versa. Truth be known and all terror aside, it was just easier to round up the other two and go chasing off into the night after Buffy (regardless of the amount of help they would probably *not* be), than to sit and wait.
Giles usually had several pithy things to say about patience being a virtue during and after one of their 'rescues'; Xander had so far kept himself from pointing out that whenever the Slayerette Cavalry galloped to the rescue, Giles invariably lead the charge.
Something small and sharp was poking Xander in an inconvenient place; he sighed and shifted position again, flicking his flashlight on and playing the beam idly around the alley. Dumpster, trash cans, manhole, back doors, broken streetlight....
He abruptly brought the flashlight back to the manhole, jolting to his feet as he did so. That cover hadn't been open when Angel had turned on his flashlight a minute ago, but now it gaped like a black mouth in the middle of the alley.
Xander gulped, taking an instinctive step back, then braced himself and took a step forward, clutching stake and flashlight before him like weapons. "W-who's there?" he called quietly, trying to ignore his own stutter.
No answer. Something skittered behind him and he spun, his light tracking across the brick walls, but found only shadows. Something else ran across the alley in front of him, but, again, he couldn't turn quickly enough to see it.
"This isn't funny," he shouted, frustration beginning to win over fear.
"Funny!" He jumped at the weird, high-pitched voice behind him. "Look out below!"
Something raced past his legs, close enough to touch, but he still couldn't get the flashlight down fast enough. Something else tripped him in passing and he stumbled, hearing a chorus of twisting giggles rise from around him. He twisted frantically, playing the light all around him. The shadows danced and turned, but he couldn't tell which ones were moving from his light and which ones were... not.
The giggles rose in pitch, their owners obvious highly amused by his antics. "All fall down," something crooned in a skewed falsetto.
"Go boom!" something else echoed with great glee. "Big boom!"
"Fall down?" Xander echoed uneasily. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Guess!" Three small forms suddenly appeared in front of him, grinning ear-to-huge-ear and stretching their long, skinny arms towards them. He yelped and took an involuntary step backwards--
-- and tripped over a heavy cinder brick, stumbling back against the crates. His eyes widened as he heard them begin to shift and move, and he turned just in time to see the entire stack come crashing down on him.
He threw up his arms, but they were little protection against the cascade of heavy wooden crates. His breath was driven out of him as he fell, crushed against the pavement by the weight of the crates. Miraculously, nothing hit his head but the ground, but he could feel the pain of bruises all along his ribs and legs. A last crate tumbled down, striking his ankle with fiendish accuracy, and he yelped in pain, his arms trapped beneath the crates and his own body.
He'd dropped his flashlight and it rolled back and forth next to him, sending a circle of light dancing into Xander's eyes and blinding him. Then a dark, misshapen silhouette stepped between the light and his face, leaning close to his face. Xander blinked against the spots dancing before his eyes, and found himself gazing directly into one of the ugly, lumpy, gray faces that had haunted him for two nights.
The thing's eyes were wide and black, its slit of a mouth downturned and grim beneath its huge, hooked nose, and a heavy, sinister scar ran across its cheek down its neck. It reached out a hand towards Xander's face, and Xander, scrabbling uselessly towards his dropped stake with his one free hand, found himself doing the single thing he would have sworn he'd never do.
The crate on top of the pile covering him shuddered under his escape attempts, and fell towards his head, as he used the rest of the air in his lungs to frantically yell, "Angel!!!"
Then everything went black.
Angel prowled around the edges of the Summers Gallery, his flashlight hidden in his pocket. He could see better in the dark than the light, but the flashlight would come in handy if he actually ran into one of Xander's beasties. Most things that hunted in the dark were afraid of the light.
He half-smiled to himself, ruefully. Of all the ways he might have imagined spending a night, helping 16-year-old Xander Harris guard a gallery from gremlins and ghoulies would have come in somewhere below the bottom of the list. Far below.
So far, though, Angel hadn't seen anything out of the ordinary -- well, ordinary as far as the Hellmouth was concerned. A few shadows moved where they shouldn't have, and there was a lingering taste of... something in the air, something that felt like the Master at work. But it was nothing major, nothing serious; at least, not yet. Everything seemed to be pretty quiet....
Until Xander yelled, his voice drowned out almost immediately by a continuous crash that rolled through the silent night like thunder. Angel turned in mid-step and ran back towards the alley, hearing Xander call his name in a panicked shout that ended abruptly in silence.
Angel raced around the corner, flicking his flashlight on as he barreled into the alley. The beam played over the walls and the pile of fallen crates, lying over Xander's too-still body. And beside Xander --
Angel froze. A little gray man, stretched and shortened in all the wrong places, his skin lumpy and grotesque, stood over Xander, reaching a hand towards his face. Unexpected rage flared, and Angel felt his face shift, his fangs appear.
"Back off!" he half-snarled, half-yelled, and the creature spun, throwing its hands up and blinking in the beam from the flashlight. From within the crates came a shrill cry of alarm, then a small stampede of critters emerged from the pile, streaming towards the open manhole in a panicked mass. The one standing over Xander shrieked once, cowered back from Angel, and finally managed to stumble after the rest of his cohort, almost falling into the manhole. The lid shuddered and crashed into place over them.
The demon in him started instantly after the creatures, wanting to hunt, to kill. But the part that was still Angel stopped with an act of raw willpower after only a few steps, turning instead to the pile of crates. He threw them off Xander as quickly as he could, hearing them splinter on the ground, and finally cleared off the kid's face and chest.
Kneeling down, he was relieved to see that Xander was still breathing; he smelled blood, and fought back the hungry demon with grim determination, forcing his face to go back to its human facade in the interest of not giving Xander a heart attack when he came around.
"Xander," he said roughly, shaking the kid's shoulder. "Come on, wake up. Wake up!"
Xander groaned, and his head rolled to one side, then back. He opened one eyelid, painfully, and Angel bit back a surge of relief.
"Wha-?" Xander mumbled. "What happened?"
"You got attacked by a pile of wood, among other things," Angel informed him, standing back up to clear the rest of the crates. With an obvious effort, Xander shoved himself to his elbows to watch.
"Did you see them?" he asked, touching his forehead and wincing.
"The little guys?" Angel heaved a huge crate off Xander's right ankle. It was visibly swollen and looked painful as hell. "Yeah. Did they drop these on you?"
Xander shook his head, and looked as if he regretted it. "I don't know. It happened kind of fast. One of them.... He was reaching for me, for my face."
"Yeah. I saw." Angel finished clearing the crates, and returned to Xander's side. There was a large, bloody lump rising on the kid's forehead, but his eyes were focused, if slightly glazed from pain. "Come on, let's get out of here. I don't think they're going to be back tonight."
Xander squinted up at him questioningly, and Angel shrugged. "They don't seem to like vampires much."
"Imagine that," Xander muttered, as he pulled himself slowly and awkwardly to his feet.
The trip back to Sunnydale High was slow and painful. Xander limped along on his bruised but unbroken ankle, with Angel as a silent, watchful shadow beside him. The vampire had offered, reluctantly, to help, but Xander had turned him down fast. It would just have been a little too weird.
It was a little too weird anyway. Everything after the last crate falling was pretty vague, but Xander had the distinct memory of Angel running full speed around a corner to save Xander's neck. Which was not exactly something you'd expect a vampire to do, even if he was supposed to be one of the good guys, which was still wide-open for debate as far as Xander was concerned.
It was all very confusing and he had no intention of trying to deal with the concept, especially when his head hurt like someone had been demonstrating a Sledge-O-Matic on it.
They finally made it to the school, and stumbled down the dark, empty halls to the library, Xander opening the doors with Giles's keys. He limped inside, without bothering to see if Angel was following, then limped his way around the desk and collapsed in Giles's chair. Silently, he admitted to himself that he would have really liked it if Giles himself had actually been there to run around with a first aid kit, ice, and his usual flustered scolding about unnecessary risks to whoever he was patching up that time around.
Instead, Xander was going to have to get back up and find the kit himself -- as soon as his head stopped swimming in slow circles around the room. He'd get up then, he promised himself. In just a few minutes.
"Here." He jumped, startled, at Angel's voice next to him, and opened his eyes. The vampire was standing next to him, holding out a lumpy towel; Xander took it, and realized it was full of ice. "I think you're supposed to keep your ankle cold," Angel finished diffidently.
"Um, yeah," Xander said slowly. "Thanks."
"No problem." Angel shrugged and moved away, prowling around the library as if looking for escape routes, then drawn, as if against against his will, to studying the bookshelves. Xander slowly bent to wrap the towel around his ankle, without taking his eyes off Angel.
The ice hurt like crazy at first, then the pain finally numbed. In his ankle, at least; his head still throbbed. He weighed the pain of getting up against the deep desire not to ask Angel for *anything*, and started searching Giles's desk. The Buffy Collective gave the Watcher a lot of headaches; he had to keep aspirin *somewhere* within reach.
"Bingo," Xander said under his breath, locating a mostly-empty, economy-size bottle of Tylenol in Giles's lower left-hand drawer. He dry-swallowed several of the pills with an effort and a grimace, then leaned his elbows on the desk and rested his pounding head against it.
"You going to live?"
Angel had appeared beside him without warning again, but Xander was too tired to react at this point. "Only if my luck's *really* running bad." He opened one eye to look up at Angel. "Do you get some kind of kick out of sneaking up on people?"
"Sorry," Angel said unapologetically. "Force of habit."
"Could you try breaking it, before you give someone, namely me, a heart attack?"
Xander groaned. "You did see those things, right?"
"Good, at least I haven't gone completely insane. Yet. Recognize them?"
"I'm... not sure. Maybe." Xander lifted his eyebrows at Angel, which pulled at the lump and hurt, so he lowered them again. Angel didn't appear to notice. "They remind me of something, but I can't pin it down."
"Big surprise there."
"I can leave any time," Angel reminded him, sounding a little irritated.
Xander leaned back and held his hands out, aware that he was pushing it. But Angel didn't exactly make things any easier. "Sorry, okay? I always get kinda testy when things drop on my head."
"Happens a lot?"
If Xander didn't know better, he'd think Angel was making a joke. "All the time, lately." His headache seemed to be backing off a little; the light wasn't skewering his eyes any more. "So, what do we do now?"
Angel looked vaguely startled. "You're asking me?"
"Is there anyone else around?"
"I thought you didn't trust me."
"About as far as Buffy can throw you," Xander confirmed cheerfully. "But I don't exactly see all these alternatives crawling out of the walls, so it looks like I'm stuck with you."
He braced his hands on the desk and hauled himself to his feet with only a small groan, very carefully not looking at Angel. "If Giles was here, he'd be pulling out books and pacing around muttering under his breath in languages no one else speaks. I figure we might be able to handle the part with the books."
"That's debatable," Angel muttered under his breath, but he still followed Xander towards the stacks. Xander tried to fight the itchy knowledge that he was being trailed around by a vampire.
"Have you found anything yet?"
"In the last two minutes?"
"Oh. I just thought, you know, you might have found something you recognized--"
"Oh." Xander leaned back in his chair and flipped through another book, then flipped it shut and leaned forward again. "Nothing?"
Angel looked up from his book long enough to give Xander a hard look. "Do you give your Watcher this much trouble?"
"He's Buffy's Watcher, not mine," Xander corrected him instantly, "and not always." He considered, then admitted, "Just most of the time. The temptation is kind of irresistable."
Angel closed his eyes and shook his head slightly. "Where is your Watcher, anyway?" he asked absently, going back to his book. "I thought this was his job."
Xander had been surprised to discover that Angel could bury himself as deeply in research as Giles, and read even faster, judging by how quickly he was turning pages. A pile of discarded volumes covered most of the surface of the center table after only an hour, merging with the unorganized stacks Xander *still* hadn't gotten around to dealing with.
Xander himself had done his best, but, unlike Angel, he didn't have clue one what he was looking for. So he'd wound up spending most of his time leafing aimlessly through the card catalogue, plowing through a couple of Giles's encyclopedias of wierdness, and annoying Angel. The last was entertaining, in a super roller coaster 'I'm gonna die this time' kind of way; it was satisfying to give Buffy's Cryptic Guy some grief, knowing the odds were pretty good Angel would let him get away with it. Of course, his other possible response would leave Xander several pints short....
Xander didn't dwell on that particular thought, but leaned back in his chair and propped his sneakered feet up on the table, which Giles usually forbade, but Xander could argue was better for his still-sore ankle. "Giles got a call from Buffy and took off for Toronto last night," he answered Angel's question. "I'm pretty sure they're getting into trouble up there without me, and believe me, I'm going to have my revenge."
He'd tried to keep his voice flippant, but even he could hear the tension behind his quip. Angel looked up again, his eyes serious. "You're worried about them."
"Who, me? Worried about them? Maybe just a little." Angel levelled the Look again, and Xander shrugged uncomfortably, then dropped the casual facade. "Or a lot. Willow got hurt, I think, but Giles wouldn't tell me anything. I *hate* not knowing what's going on."
Xander narrowed his eyes at Angel. Was that a hint of actual emotion showing around the edges there? "Like I said, Giles didn't tell me anything." Angel's face closed back down and Xander felt a quick, unwelcome surge of sympathy. Almost involuntarily, he added, "But he was talking to her, so she's probably more-or-less in one piece."
Angel nodded once, barely, in acknowledgement, a muscle in his jaw working. Then he very deliberately returned to his book.
Xander dwelled for a little while longer on Toronto and trouble, poking randomly around in the book piles. A thick volume bound in battered black leather caught his eye and he pulled it out, squinting at the words on the cover, which seemed to have far too many vowels and not nearly enough consonants. The pages inside were just as bad, and written in some kind of crabbed calligraphy.
"Um, is this a real language?"
Angel looked over Xander's shoulder; Xander tried not to flinch visibly. His neck suddenly felt very exposed. "Yes," Angel answered shortly, his face hardening. "Gaelic."
Oookay. "Can you read it?"
"Yes." Even more shortly. "It's a compendium, an account of supernatural incidents in Wales. Pretty old."
"Oh." Xander added the book to the 'to be read' stack on Angel's left, and started looking for something written in English. Anything to keep his mind off the girls.
The library phone rang abruptly, the shrill sound breaking the heavy silence that had fallen over the pair. Xander jumped to his feet without thinking, said something which would have gotten him in serious trouble at home when his ankle flared with pain, and limped his way across the room to snag the receiver.
"Sunnydale High School Library and Sanitarium."
"Hi! Haven't you escaped yet?"
Xander felt his jaw drop slightly. "Willow? No way! We were just talking.... I mean, I was just..." He realized he was babbling, decided he didn't care, and gave up all attempts at cool to demand, "Are you all right?"
She apparently had to think about that one, which didn't do Xander's state of mind any good. "I'm... yeah. I'm good. Great. Fine. Now."
"Now." Xander looked suspiciously at the phone, wishing he could see Willow's face. She wouldn't be able to hide *anything* from him if he could see her face. "That would be, as opposed to when?"
"Oh. When? Oh. Um, before I called you. Because... because you weren't home. Yeah. Why aren't you home in the middle of the night?"
"Because, um..." It was Xander's turn to scramble for an evasion. He thought fast, trying not to look at Angel, who was still apparently immersed in a book, but radiated smothered amusement. "Well, you know me, just can't stay away from the books.... I was just finishing a couple of things, you know.... Wait a minute!" he said abruptly, realizing he'd just been distracted again. "I'm tired of people changing the subject. What's going on up there! Is Buffy all right?"
He might have imagined the slight pause before she answered, "Sure. Buffy's fine."
"Oh." That took some of the wind out of his sails. Not much, but some. Willow was still hiding something.... "Well. Good. Buffy's fine, you're fine, everyone's fine. And in Toronto. Without me." The last came out with a bit of self-pity he couldn't quite help.
Willow heard it, of course. "Oh. Poor baby. All alone with the scary books. Finding anything interesting?"
Xander blinked at the phone. Willow had no idea.... He took a quick look at Angel, who had given up on pretending to read about the time Buffy's name had come up, and wondered a little wildly if the vampire counted as something interesting.
"Not really. You know, same ol', same ol'." Well, it was -- for the Hellmouth, anyway. "How's Canada?"
"North." Xander rolled his eyes at the deadpan answer, wondering just how sleep-deprived his bud was. "Toronto's pretty cool. Buffy and I went shopping at this *very* major mall. It was a little scary."
"What can possibly be scary about a mall? Unless there were vampires there or something...."
"Not as scary as Queen West, though. Very weird people there."
They talked at the same time, over each other, and realized it at about the same time. Willow started giggling. "Okay. I'll answer you first. No, no vampires. At the mall. It's just *really* big. And crowded. And there's this cool PATH thing that goes under all of downtown, with more stores and things..."
"Underground? Doesn't Buffy get enough of that at home?"
"Yeah, but not with stores." She giggled again, and Xander found himself grinning at the sound. He *really* missed them. "Slaying vampires would be a lot more fun if they lived in this kind of underground...."
"Well, sounds like you babes are having some major fun. Without me."
"Well, I don't know if it's *major* fun. It's, you know, a city."
"A city, huh? Been doing the club thing? You and Buffy meet any cool Canadian guys? As opposed to boring old Sunnydale guys?" Xander couldn't *quite* resist another sideways look at Angel, who at least didn't look amused anymore. More like disgusted.
He was almost too busy enjoying scoring off Angel to notice Willow's odd pause before she answered, "No clubs. I don't know if there are any teen clubs. There are some cool cafes... but it's pretty much just been Buffy and me. It's not that there aren't guys. But I wouldn't say we've been meeting them. Well, except for Buffy's cousin's sort-of-boyfriend. He took us to see Phantom. But he's older. And he's Natalie's. And... well, obviously he doesn't count."
"Obviously." Xander was staring at the phone again; Willow was babbling, big time, which was never a good sign. It was, in fact, her vocal equivalent of a bunny caught in headlights. "Wil, are you sure everything's all right? I mean, no one's been Slaying, or biting, or any bad-type things like that?"
She laughed nervously. "Oh, come on. You're the one still on the Hellmouth. We're on vacation, remember?" "Yeah, I remember. Just wanted to be sure you and the Buffster do."
"So what about you?" Willow moved on before he had the chance to ask any more questions. "Is the Hellmouth cooperating with our vacation plans? I mean, it's Spring Break. You have to have *something* to do."
Forced back on the defensive, it took Xander a too-long moment to answer. "Oh, I'm... keeping busy. Helping at the gallery. Hanging at the Bronze. Oh, and spending fun-filled hours staring at stacks of books. Not too exciting."
He saw with annoyance that Angel was fighting to keep a straight face again, and started mentally cataloguing the ways to kill a vampire.
"Well, too exciting is normal for us lately," Willow pointed out. "Maybe boring is a nice change.... So why *are* you staring at stacks of old books at midnight?"
"It's three in the morning here. That's midnight there. What's so interesting?"
"It's midnight? Wow, how the time flies, you know, I had no idea it was that late." What could he *possibly* give as a good reason to be here this late, since the truth was definitely out?
"Go on, tell her about the gray guys," Angel contributed unhelpfully, without looking up from his book. Xander glared at him, which didn't seem to have any effect, and prayed Willow hadn't heard.
No such luck. "What was that?"
"What was what?" he asked with desperate innocence. There was no way in hell she would buy it, but maybe she'd go along with it....
Oh." She did, and he almost fell to his knees with relief. "Just thought I heard something. Noise on the line, I guess."
"Yeah, line noise." He laughed nervously, knowing she'd drag the details out of him later. "Long distance. So much for hearing that pin drop."
"Yeah. Better call Candice Bergen and complain."
Angel was snickering softly, and Xander tried to ignore him. "First thing in the morning, promise," he joked to Willow. His voice trailed off into an awkward pause. He desperately wanted to know what was going on, needed to know everyone was safe, but couldn't think of a way to force Willow to tell him the truth.
Naturally, they both tried to fill in the conversational space at once. "So, um, you better get some sleep up there, don't want to party *too* much...." he started, at the same time she said, "Okay, well, maybe you should get home and..."
They both broke off and laughed. "Yeah. Right," Willow agreed, "need to get some sleep. Good idea. Um... it's good to talk to you."
"Good to talk to you, too." He paused. "Willow?"
He could almost hear her soft smile; both of them knew nobody here was fooled. "You too."
"And tell Buffy to keep you guys out of trouble?"
"Do I have to make that stick?"
Xander laughed at the image of Willow making Buffy do *anything*. "Well, you might want to give it a shot. Never know, you might get lucky."
"I might. That'd be a first, huh?"
Oh, yeah." He paused, but couldn't think of anything else to say. "Sleep tight, Will. Don't let anything bite."
"You too. See you later." He hung up the phone, and stood still, looking at it for a long moment. He should have felt better after talking to Willow, but instead felt much worse. There was something seriously wrong in Toronto, his best friends were right in the middle of it... and he couldn't do anything about it.
Angel listened to Xander's side of the conversation with amusement, and a little envy. The friendship between Willow and Xander was almost tangible, even over the phone; it had been a long while since anyone had worried about Angel like that. With the possible exception of Buffy, and he'd been bleeding in her kitchen at the time.
He looked back down at his book, trying to distract himself from the memory of that night in Buffy's kitchen -- and her bedroom -- and his deep desire to grab the phone away from Xander and demand to speak to Buffy. If half of what he'd heard about the Community in Toronto was true, she was in way over her head. If he'd had the chance to warn her before she left....
The thick, black-bound book was the one Xander had found, written in Welsh; it required concentration to translate, which was why Angel had picked it up. He focused on the lousy handwriting, trying not to laugh out loud as Xander made another conversational slip.
A paragraph caught his eye and he leaned forward abruptly, his attention truly and completely caught. Snatches of old legends drifted back, stories he'd half-heard in his long-ago childhood swimming to the surface. It didn't make any sense, but the description both in the book and in those memories fit. But it was ridiculous! What would they be doing harrassing a kid in an art gallery?
"Well, Willow's freaked, but nobody'll tell me why, which is pretty much the norm." Xander pulled a chair out and sat down straddling it backwards, startling Angel out of his concentration. The kid was trying to act casual, but Angel could see the worry in his eyes. "I tell you, when they get home, we are going to have a major talk about this little game of 'Let's Drive Xander Crazy'."
Despite his own concern, Angel just couldn't resist. "Oh really? I noticed you told them all about me and the gallery and your... accident."
Xander winced. "All right, point taken, let's move on, okay? That's all I need," he muttered under his breath, "an undead Jiminy Cricket."
Angel very carefully did not smile; after a second, Xander recovered from his sulk. "What's that?" he asked, gesturing towards the book.
"Answers, maybe. The gray guys, did they say anything to you?"
"Nothing that made any sense. Kid stuff, like 'Nobody home' and 'Fall down, go boom'." Xander made a wide, helpless gesture with his hands. "Mostly, they were just making faces, laughing at me. Which I get enough of from everyone else and didn't really need from total strangers, you know?"
Angel ignored the smart-aleck part of the answer, which seemed to be the basic trick to being in Xander's vicinity and not killing him. "That sounds about right," he thought out loud.
Xander waited impatiently, then asked, "Right for what? Can we not keep me in suspense here?"
"Knockers," Angel told him succinctly. Xander looked clueless and he clarified, "Tommyknockers, they're called sometimes."
"Tommyknockers? Like Stephen King?"
Angel gave him a Look. "Don't talk to me about Stephen King. Don't even mention Stephen King when I'm around. Or Anne Rice."
"Right." Xander held his hands up again, warned by Angel's tone. "Never again shall those names pass my lips, I swear. So what's a tommyknocker?"
Angel sat back, mollified. "Welsh spirits, kind of like gremlins. According to this," he held up the book, "and what I remember, they used to hang around in mines, causing mischief. Mislaid equipment, general haunting, that kind of thing. Sometimes, they'd warn miners about cave-ins, but mostly they just liked trouble."
Xander didn't look particularly enlightened. "Isn't Welsh, like, a long way away? Around England?"
"Wales," Angel corrected him impatiently, "and yeah. I don't know what they'd be doing here, but the description's right."
"Waitaminute!" Xander sat up straight suddenly. "Welsh mines. Giles was saying something about that just before he took off.... It was in those books!"
He gestured behind him at a partially unpacked box of old books, trying to get up in the same motion and managing not to kill his ankle this time. Angel matched him, and they knelt beside the pile. "These are old diaries and stuff," Xander explained, starting to sift through stacks at random. "Giles said some of them are from back when this place was, like, a big mining town, and he said something about Welsh guys."
"What did he say?" Angel pressed, scanning the titles in the stacks nearest to him.
Xander suddenly got very interested in a falling-apart book; what Angel could see of his face looked embarrassed. "I don't know; I sort of took off before he could get really rolling about it." Angel just looked at him and he said defensively, "Hey, you've never had to sit through one of Giles's lectures. You'd have headed for cover, too, believe you me!"
Angel decided just to let that one go, and started riffling through the stacks of old journals and manuscripts. Xander joined him, and the two worked together in oddly companionable silence, side by side.
"Hey," Xander said after a while, "check this out."
"What?" Angel looked up from a sheaf of papers so old they nearly crumbled at his touch.
Xander was flipping through a leather-bound ledger. "It's some mine owner's journal or something. Listen to this: 'The laborers are complaining again of noises and voices in the mines; the damned superstitous Welsh are claiming there are some kind of faeries wandering around underground, and refuse to listen to reason. They'd like for us to believe that's the reason for all the disappearing equipment -- stolen with their own hands, most likely -- and the production problems their laziness has brought on the mine. If it were up to them, they'd be leaving food all over the mine for their little brownies, and jumping every time they hear someone working in another shaft. I'd fire them all if they weren't willing to work so hard for the pittance I pay them. Knockers, indeed!'
"Real nice guy." Xander looked up. "Sounds like our troublemakers, huh?"
"It does." The papers turned out to be letters and newspaper articles; Angel scanned through them, then stopped at a faded piece of newsprint. "Here's something from the 'Sunnydale Post-Express'; that used to be the big newspaper here. 'Fifteen miners were trapped in the depths of their own rocky hell, as the Leighton shaft collapsed in on itself yesterday, killing twenty. The entire town of Sunnydale banded together to help the brave souls left helpless in the darkness, finally bringing them out of the ruins of their livelihood.'"
"That's a newspaper article?" Xander interrupted. "Sounds more like 'The Sunnydale Enquirer'."
"Here's the really good part. 'The newly-freed miners claim their lives were spared by a warning from ghostly 'tommyknockers', who alerted the miners to the cave-in and made the sounds which lead the tiring rescue parties to their living grave.'" Angel studied the rest of the article. "Looks like no one believed them. Not exactly a surprise."
"Welcome to Sunnydale, Denial Capitol of the World," Xander agreed. He rubbed at his forehead, which was developing an impressive bruise, with irritation. "Maybe the knockers followed the miners over when they came. The Hellmouth must have seemed like a pretty happening place to hang out -- lots of mines, lots of that mystical power stuff."
Angel barely heard him. "The gallery...." he said slowly. "It's on Leighton St."
"Yeah, it is." Xander's eyes lit up as he got it. "You think Leighton St. is maybe connected to the Leighton Mine?"
"Maybe." Angel stood up and stretched; his tall frame wasn't built for kneeling in small areas. "I guess we should find out. But not tonight."
"Huh?" Xander blinked. "Why not?"
"Because you're going home," Angel told him. "You're about to fall on your face, and I don't want to have to carry you out of here."
"Nobody has to carry me anywhere," Xander declared, instantly and predictably. He stood too fast, and, equally predictably, almost blacked out, closing his eyes and swaying in place. Angel debated whether or not to catch him if he actually passed out.
Fortunately, the issue didn't come up. "And, as it happens," Xander continued slowly, regaining both his balance and the remnants of his dignity, "I was just about to leave."
Angel didn't comment, but waited for Xander to gather up his scattered gear and lead the way out of the library, locking the doors behind them. They went back through the halls, Xander still limping on his sore ankle, and uncharacteristically quiet.
"Hey, um, Angel?" he finally asked as they went through the front doors.
Angel rubbed the back of his neck, feeling the draining fatigue that meant he'd better eat soon. "Yeah?"
"You said you remember hearing about these guys." Xander hesitated, then continued, "Where did you hear about them?"
Angel sighed, closing his eyes. "My mother used to tell stories. A long time ago."
"Your mother?" Xander sounded startled. "I thought--"
"Go home, Xander," Angel interrupted him before he could finish. He was too tired to deal with those particular ghosts.
Xander blinked, then got the point and started down the front steps, sending an awkward, "Later," over his shoulder.
Angel debated with himself again, then called after him. "You're not going to do anything stupid tomorrow, right?" It was more of an order than a demand.
Xander looked back at him levelly. "And you're asking because?"
Angel thought about it, then shrugged. "Because I don't want anything to happen to Buffy's mother. I owe her one."
Xander was working really hard to keep his face blank, but couldn't quite do it. "Well, the new exhibit's going to open Saturday afternoon. Whatever it is, we--" He had to visibly force the last word out. "--have to deal with it tomorrow night."
Angel nodded agreement. "Tomorrow night, then."
"And Xander...." Angel tucked his hands into his pockets for lack of anything better to do with them. He hadn't had to do the reassuring bit for a long time. "Buffy can take care of herself. And Willow."
"Yeah." Xander didn't sound convinced, but then, neither was Angel.
He waited until Xander was almost out of sight before following him.
The trip back to Xander's house was slow, but uneventful; nothing leapt from the darkness at them. Still, Angel lingered in the shadows around Xander's front yard until the kid was inside, with the door locked securely behind him, before turning to scan the empty street around him.
At least, it looked empty. But Angel knew, with the sixth sense he'd never doubted, that another of his kind was around.
"Stop playing games," he said just loudly enough to be heard. "Come out."
"If you insist." A slender shadow detached itself from the side of a house several feet away and sauntered towards him. "You seem to be making a habit out of bodyguarding mortal children, Angel. Can't you think of anything better to do with your time?"
"Adrianne." Angel clenched his fists as he faced her, ready for trouble. "What are you doing here?"
"Oh, just wandering." She strolled a little closer, tossing her shoulder-length black hair out of her face. In her jeans and tight black T-shirt, she looked like any of a hundred teenagers in Sunnydale, although she was older than Angel himself. "I spent some time at the Bronze, but couldn't see anything appetizing." She shrugged and smiled, apparently lightly amused at herself. "It's so hard to find a good buffet in a city this small."
"If you're expecting sympathy, go somewhere else."
She pursed her lips and shook her head. "Not sympathy. Advice, maybe. You seem to be doing...." Her eyes drifted past him to Xander's front door. "...pretty well for yourself. Although I thought blondes were more your style."
"Leave him alone," he told her with dead seriousness, ignoring her jab at Buffy. "Believe me, you do *not* want to try making a meal out of that one."
She lifted an eyebrow at him curiously. "I don't? Why would that be?"
"No reason," Angel shrugged, not taking his eyes off her. "Unless you *want* the Slayer to come after you. And you don't."
Adrianne's lips twitched. "Oh, right. You do know all about that." His jaw tightened; did every vampire in Sunnydale know about him and Buffy? "But the Slayer's not around, is she? So what's the problem?"
Given a second to think, he might not have said it; it was only Xander, after all. But the words popped out even as he took a threatening step towards her. "I am."
The amused smile didn't waver, but something ugly flared to light in her dark eyes. "My, you have turned into a Boy Scout, haven't you? And I thought Darla had been exaggerating."
He couldn't help it; he flinched. He didn't want to think about Darla, didn't want to see her face after he'd killed her. He saw it often enough in his nightmares. "Darla's got nothing to do with this."
Adrianne shrugged again, carelessly. "I don't suppose she does, anymore. You and your little Slayer saw to that."
"Is that what this is about? Darla?"
Adrianne laughed huskily; it should have been a pleasant sound, but grated on his nerves instead. "Should it be?" she asked archly. "Maybe it's just about territory."
She took a step closer, touched the chain around his neck with one finger. "Better keep an eye on yours," she breathed into his face. "You never know what might be waiting around the corner."
With that, and a significant final look towards Xander's house, she turned and strolled back off. Angel watched her go, rubbing his chain through his fingers where she'd touched it, trying to rub her off.
"Just great," he muttered. "Knockers in the gallery, Adrianne out playing games, and Xander right in the middle." What would Buffy say, he wondered, if she were here now? Then he chuckled to himself -- he probably didn't want to *know* what she'd say.
Taking one last, careful look around, he headed for home.
It took the sun coming up high enough to beam directly into Xander's eyes to wake him the next morning. He rolled over, groaned, and tried to bury himself beneath the covers again; then the memories of the night before flooded back.
He opened his eyes and stared at the wall. Either he'd had a really funky nightmare, or he'd staked out the gallery with Angel, been attacked by miniature demons, been saved by Angel, talked to Willow, and voluntarily done research. With Angel.
All in all, he would have preferred it if it had been a dream. But his first attempt to sit up convinced him the part about the crates falling, at least, had been real. Every muscle in his body protested as he dragged first one foot, then the other, off the bed and pulled himself slowly and painfully to a more-or-less vertical position.
His ankle didn't hurt as much, at least; he moved almost normally as he padded out the room, barefoot and dressed only in his shorts, to peer into the mirror in the bathroom. As soon as he saw his face, he was grateful his parents had been asleep when he'd come in the night before, and were now at work.
Half his forehead was covered with a black-and-blue lump the size of a goose egg, with a little bit of dried blood still clinging to it, which would explain why his head was throbbing. His shoulder, arms, and ribs had also developed rainbows of dark color, and his ankle, though close to its normal size, looked like he was wearing one black sock.
"I look like I survived a riot," he grumbled, turning the shower on as hot as he could stand. "Bet Angel doesn't even have a stiff neck. There's no justice."
A long, hot shower, five Tylenol and several bowls of cereal later, he was feeling more or less human. Clothes consisted of shorts, a T-shirt and high-top basketball shoes, laced tightly around his still-sore ankle; it was past noon when he left the house, heading for the Summers Gallery. And even before he stepped foot inside, he heard the banging and shouting.
"Oh, *great*!" he groaned as he ran for the front door, ready to defend Buffy's mom. "They're coming out during the day now!"
He slammed the door open on his way in; the 'bang' wasn't even audible over the racket coming from the walls. Mrs. Summers stood near the wall, looking annoyed and upset.
"Mrs. Summers, are you all right?" Xander gasped, trying to get his breath back. "Don't worry, I'll take care of this."
To his surprise, Mrs. Summers didn't even turn around. "Thank you, Xander, but I think I can handle a plumber on my own. Have you found anything yet?" she called towards the open door to the back room.
A few more bangs and a few curses, and a man in gray coveralls that proclaimed him to be a member of the Sunnydale Plumbing Association appeared in the doorway. "Nothing yet," he told Mrs. Summers, as Xander blushed and looked around for a place to hide. Guess the knockers weren't going to be a problem during the day after all. "Your pipes look fine; a little dented, but intact. The problem may be alot deeper."
Mrs. Summers sighed, rubbing her forehead. "How much deeper?"
The plumber looked apologetic. "'Bout $1,000 to go into the walls, more if I have to go into the foundation."
Xander winced, trying to think of a way to break it to Mrs. Summers that a plumber probably wasn't going to be able to help. He couldn't think of a good one, and Mrs. Summers sighed again. "Well, I can't have the gallery torn up the day before my opening; it's just going to have to wait."
The plumber shrugged, "Your call," as he returned to the back room.
Mrs. Summers rubbed her forehead again, looking very tired. "I just hope the pipes don't explode in the middle of the reception," she said quietly to herself.
"I, um, don't think that'll happen," Xander tried to reassure her. Monkey Men might come pouring out of the walls, but they probably wouldn't explode.
Mrs. Summers jumped as if she'd forgotten he was there. "Oh, Xander." She turned to look at him, and her jaw dropped. "My God, Xander, what happened to you? Were you in an accident? Sit down, for goodness sakes!"
She fussed and herded him towards a chair in the back room; he protested, but got swept along. "I, uh, wiped out on my skateboard last night, hit my head," he lied. "It's fine, really, doesn't even hurt. Honest."
She didn't seem inclined to take his word for it, checking his head and bruised arms with a mother's professional touch. "It must have just been one of those nights," she said with exasperation. "The pipes go insane, someone vandalizes the crates in back, and you get hurt. I *knew* I should have driven you home last night; my goodness, Xander, you must have been going 60 miles an hour! Did your parents take you to the emergency room to have this checked?"
"No, they didn't," Xander evaded, trying to stand up but unable to get past her. "I'm fine, trust me. I just came to help get set up for tomorrow, the opening, you know. I could clean up the crates in back!"
"You are not working today," she informed him, hands on her hips. "Bad enough you've spent almost your entire spring break here; you're not going to work when you're hurt like this."
"But..." Xander started to protest.
She cut him off with a single look. "Xander, I appreciate all the help you've been, but I can finish on my own. Go take it easy, and watch that ankle, do you hear me?"
Slowly, Xander stood up. "I'll probably be at the school library," he said, in a last-ditch effort. "You could, like, call if you need my help or anything."
"Thank you, Xander," she answered patiently and firmly, "but I think I can muddle through on my own. Go on. And don't you dare work too hard at the library, either," she called after him as he slunk out the back door. "Or I'll have to speak to Mr. Giles!"
"Go ahead," Xander muttered under his breath. "I just wish *I* could."
Xander hadn't been in any shape to appreciate just how much of a mess the broken crates had made of the alley. Now, he looked at the jumbled pile of shattered, splintered wood, and the clear space in the middle of it that was about the size of his own body, and appreciated just how close a call he'd had.
The manhole cover was closed and looked innocently normal, as if it didn't separate reality from a bad horror flick. He told himself firmly just to leave it alone, that nothing had happened to the gallery during the day. That everything would be fine.
Still trying to convince himself, he left the alley, carefully not looking over his shoulder.
Two hours was long enough for him to stop by the library and aimlessly shift a few books around; to stop by Ben&Jerry's and chat with a few school buddies; and to tell himself about 10 million times that the gallery would be fine.
Then he wound up back in the alley, standing over the manhole cover and informing himself that he was an idot, that only a complete moron would go down in the sewer and tunnel system that ran beneath Sunnydale. Vampires lived there, and little gray ghoulies, and probably all kinds of other exotic Twilight Zone escapees. He didn't have a Slayer for protection, or even a so-called 'good guy' vampire. So it would be really stupid to go down alone.
He hefted the cover off the manhole and swung his legs through. He couldn't guard the gallery from above ground without getting caught by Buffy's mom, which would lead to some interesting questions he was pretty sure he wouldn't be able to answer; but he also couldn't go off and leave the gallery unguarded. Underground seemed to be the only alternative.
Even if it was *really* stupid.
He lowered himself through the hole as far as he could, then let himself drop the three feet to the damp cement floor, feeling his ankle protest. It didn't smell as bad underground as he remembered, but it wasn't exactly pleasant. Steeling himself, he brought his flashlight out of his backpack, flicked it on and turned around--
-- and found himself less than a foot away from an angry, snarling vampire.
"Gaaah!" He stumbled backwards two steps, tripped, sat down hard, and stared up at Angel. "Are you *trying* to kill me?!"
Angel backed off, his face shifting from vampire mask to human. "Sorry," he apologized, actually sounding sincere for once. "I was expecting... someone else."
"I'm glad I'm not *him*!"
"Whatever." Xander tried to make his heart start beating again; he wasn't sure if it was the fright, or Angel's transformation that had shaken him more. "A little jumpy, aren't you? And what are you doing here, anyway? Aren't you supposed to be sacked out in a coffin somewhere?"
"Aren't you supposed to be keeping an eye on the gallery?" Angel returned, carefully avoiding the sun pouring in through the open manhole cover. "From the *inside*?"
As his pulse went slowly back to normal, Xander let his backpack drop to the concrete floor. "Buffy's mom took one look at me and kicked me out, told me to go take it easy."
Angel looked him over. "I can see why. You look like hell."
Angel's mouth twitched in an almost-smile. "Couldn't you talk Buffy's mother into letting you stay up there?"
"Haven't tried to argue with a mom lately, have you?"
Angel's face closed back down. "Not lately." Xander winced, but didn't apologize; Angel moved a little further back from the sun, hiding his face more in the process. "You shouldn't be down here. It's not safe."
Xander shrugged and slid his back down the rough concrete wall until he was sitting. His ankle thanked him by not throbbing quite so painfully. "It's not like there's much of anyplace else for me to be. And you can't exactly go charging outside if the goonies decide to show up."
Angel's jaw twitched, acknowledging the point, and Xander leaned his head back against the wall with satisfaction. "So, what do we do now? Play poker?"
Angel prowled through the tunnels below the historic district for the third or fourth time that hour, listening. Several times, he was sure he heard noises, echoing giggles and clanks, but the tunnels were always empty.
He headed back for Xander's position, directly below the manhole, where they figured the knockers would most likely show up to cause trouble. Xander was sitting, his leg outstreched so he could rest his ankle on his backpack; he straightened as Angel came into sight.
"Anything?" Angel asked.
Xander shook his head. "Not a thing, not even upstairs," he said through a yawn. "Figures; when we *want* them to show up, then they make like The Shadow all day."
Angel didn't answer, but settled down against the wall opposite Xander. They sat in silence for several minutes, listening to the tiny, watery sounds of the tunnel. Mrs. Summers had been out earlier, cleaning up the broken wood that had littered the alley, but it was silent on top now. The sun still slanted through the open hole, weakening as twilight grew nearer.
At least, until Xander's fingers started drumming a steady rhythm against the concrete, and his non-injured foot began to twitch. Restlesness seemed to pour off him in steady streams, and Angel started seriously considering making another round before Xander got too hyper.
"Hey, Angel?" Xander asked.
Too late. "What?"
Xander was watching him closely, his hands still drumming that irritating rhythm. "Why are you so hot on doing this, protecting the gallery and all? I know, I know," he interrupted before Angel could say anything, "you said because you owe Buffy's mom, but why?"
"After what Darla did to her?" Not to mention what Angel himself had been tempted to do. He could still smell the blood, feel the burning hunger as Buffy's mother had lain limp in his hold.... "She didn't deserve to get caught in the crossfire, but she was, because of me. So I owe her."
"Why should you feel responsible for what Darla did?"
Angel looked at him with disbelief, and growing anger. "What if it had been... what's his name, Jesse, who'd gone after Buffy's mother to get to you? Wouldn't you feel responsible?"
Xander flinched. "Yeah, of course I would. But I'm...." He broke off before he could finish the sentance, maybe sensing how very thin the ice had gotten.
"You're what? Not a vampire?" Angel laughed humorlessly, slouching back against the wall. He brought his knees up and rested his forearms on them, letting his hands dangle. "You don't get it, do you? I'm not one of them anymore."
Xander leaned forward, his eyes intent. "What don't I get? You drink blood, you can't hang out in sunlight and you turn into the Friday Night Fright when you get ticked off. If you're not one of them, then what do you think you are?"
Angel shook his head tiredly, his anger draining away into plain fatigue. He was so tired of this, all of this. "I wish I knew," he said quietly, more to himself than to Xander. "You don't know what it's like to have something else controlling who you are... what you are. To look at what it did and know that you're responsible."
Xander made a rude noise. "Oh, I don't, huh? Guess Buffy didn't tell you about the hyenas."
Angel looked at him, caught by surprise. Hyenas? "What?"
Xander's grin was crooked, uneven. "I got possessed by a hyena, which, let me tell you, is not a cool thing to be possessed by. I did some stuff that wakes me up in a cold sweat at night." He shook his head, shuddering a little; the memories were apparently not pleasant. "I said things to Willow I would rather have died than even thought. I... attacked her. I went after Buffy."
Angel's eyes sharpened at that, but Xander rushed on, "I didn't hurt her, but only because she stopped me. Then, when it was over, I pretended I couldn't remember any of it, hoping that would help them forgive me. Like, if I didn't remember, it wasn't me."
Angel relaxed a little, but didn't stop watching Xander. "Did it help?"
"Them, maybe. Not me." Xander shrugged uncomfortably. "The worst part of it," he said slowly, as if to himself, "was that I was around for all of it. I mean, I was standing in the back of my head, watching all of it, but I couldn't do anything. I couldn't save Willow, or Buffy, or anyone. All I could do was watch, and hate myself. Like it was my fault--"
He caught himself, probably just realizing what he was saying and who he was saying it to, and stood abruptly, turning and walking a step away. The last beam of dying sunlight stretched down like a wall between them.
This time, the silence lasted, until long past the time when that final ray of sunlight had died away, leaving the tunnel in darkness. The dim gray light of the streetlamp at the end of the alley flickered down the manhole, casting shadows over the faces of the two people trying to pretend the other didn't exist.
Xander slouched down against the wall, flicking his flashlight idly on and off and pretending great interest in the beam of light. He'd left once when his stomach complained, and had had to resist the temptation to just keep going, to head for the Bronze and pretend none of this was happening. Instead, he'd taken the fast food bags with him, and settled back down in the tunnels to wait.
Angel stood silently a few feet away, occasionally vanishing into the shadows for a few minutes, then reappearing just as silently. His vigilance probably should have made Xander feel better, but instead just made him more uncomfortable.
He'd never talked to anyone else about the hyenas, although he'd wanted to; he couldn't talk to either of the girls without blowing his cover story, and Giles was... well, Giles. But given a choice of confidants, he would *not* have chosen Angel, even if the vampire had listened like he understood -- and maybe he actually did. Which was a really scary thought....
When the noise started at last, Xander was almost grateful; the banging and singing was at least familiar. But the sound quickly grew, the tunnel magnifying it until it seemed the ground was shaking, or the world was ending.
"Where's it coming from?" Xander managed to yell over the noise, forgetting in the chaos that he was trying to ignore Angel.
Angel was on his feet, and seemed to have forgotten as well. "Down here!" he shouted as he took off down the tunnel; Xander followed him as best he could, considering that Angel could move a *lot* faster. They pounded down the tunnel, their footsteps almost inaudible over the racket assaulting Xander's ears.
Angel skidded around a corner without breaking stride, and Xander almost ran into a wall trying to imitate him. He recovered his balance and kept going, plunging further into the network of corridors and sewers, his flashlight playing crazily over the walls as he ran.
They turned again, slamming through a steel-plated, 'Restricted Access' door, and were abruptly in a juncture of four tunnels. Tools and toolboxes were scattered everywhere, as if city workers had been interrupted in the middle of a job. Two acetylene welding tanks were propped up in one corner, and exposed pipes and meters covered the ceiling in an intricate metal jungle, several uncovered bulbs casting light on the situation.
And swinging and pounding on the exposed pipes with fists and metal, chittering and giggling in their high-pitched voices, and generally having what seemed to be a fine old time, were what seemed to be hundreds of knockers.
The fun and games stopped as soon as the knockers realized they had company. Silence dropped so fast Xander thought he'd gone deaf, as tommyknockers froze facing vampire and human.
For a long moment, no one moved. Then one of the knockers screeched and Angel's snarl ripped through the air; Xander would never be able to figure out which one had come first. Regardless, the room was sudenly overflowing with a swarm of shrieking, running knockers, their small bodies coming at Xander and Angel from every side.
Xander swung his flashlight blindly, trying to keep the tiny figures off of him and stumbling as his legs were buffetted by a tide of tiny bodies. Beside him, he heard Angel cursing and snarling, apparently caught in the same assault. The knockers seemed to flood the chamber, the ones that weren't running for the door ducking under the pipes and through the walls.
The flashlight slammed into something soft and he heard a high-pitched wail that ran up and down his spine like fingernails on a chalkboard. Knocker hands clutched at his ankles and calves, and something hard slammed into his injured ankle. He yelped in pain, and barely got his arms up in time to keep his nose from smashing into the floor as he was knocked forward. Feet stampeded over his back, something hard slammed into his ribs, Angel shouted again next to his ear, and doors slammed shut with a series of booms that echoed through the area. The lights went out.
The silence returned as the echo faded, but Xander couldn't persuade his arms to unwrap themselves from his head for what seemed like a long time. He finally forced his muscles to relax enough to let him reach out and find his flashlight.
Fortunately, it hadn't rolled too far. His fingers found the cylinder after only a moment; he fumbled for the on switch and played the beam around the room, which was empty except for Angel, kneeling next to Xander. Angel's face seemed caught between vampire and human, his jaw tight against what had to be real pain. His jacket was torn and blood dripped from his left forearm, but he was otherwise in one piece.
"You know," Xander said carefully, rolling slowly to his back and feeling bruised ribs protest, "I am getting pretty tired of this."
"That makes two of us," Angel grated. His hand was clamped around his arm, trying to stop the bleeding. The flashlight caught a uniform shirt, probably left by a worker, crumpled in a corner, and Xander managed to pull himself to his feet, staggering over to retrieve it. He offered it to Angel, who accepted it with a brief, "Thanks," and wrapped it in a clumsy bandage around his arm.
"What got you?" Xander asked, as Angel finished and shoved himself to his feet.
"A screwdriver," Angel said through clenched teeth. "Are the doors locked?"
"Haven't tried." Xander managed to stand again and checked the doors that sealed the juncture off from the various tunnels intersecting on it. None of the knobs would turn, and the doors didn't budge, even when he threw his weight against them. "Perfect. The little creeps decoyed us. We're trapped."
Angel smiled humorlessly, his his eyes hard with anger. "Not even close." He grabbed the knob of the door they'd entered through, set his foot against the wall, braced himself, and pulled.
With a tearing shriek of injured metal, the lock broke and the door flew open, the deadbolt snapped cleanly in two.
Xander gaped. Angel just staggered back a step, regained his balance, and ducked through the door, tossing an impatient, "You coming?" over his shoulder as he went.
Xander closed his eyes, shook his head, and promised himself a good, long vacation after this vacation. Then he sighed. If the knockers wanted them out of the way this badly, there was no telling what they were planning.
He ran after Angel, back towards the gallery.
Angel beat him back to the starting point by several feet, jumping effortlessly eight feet up and through the manhole. "Hey!" Xander yelled up after him, slinging his forgotten backpack over one shoulder and searching futilely for a ladder.
Angel's head reappeared in the opening. "Jump," he said shortly, extending his good arm. Xander barely hesitated before taking a running start and jumping, catching Angel's hand. The vampire pulled him up and over the edge.
They headed for the back door of the gallery, Xander stopping only long enough to arm himself with one of the scraps of crate stacked in the alley. The length of board wasn't much of a weapon, but it made him feel better.
The gallery was dark and still, the alley silent. Angel had stopped, crouched outside the back door. "What are you waiting for?" Xander hissed. "Go!"
Angel looked disgusted. "I can't go in."
"What?" Then he remembered. "Oh, for.... That invitation thing could get really annoying. It doesn't seem to be stopping *them*."
Angel shrugged. "I didn't make the rules."
Xander reached for the door and carefully turned the knob. It was locked, of course. "Well, you're invited. As soon as you break this lock."
"Right." Angel didn't even need to brace himself this time, just grabbed and pulled. Wood splintered, the door opened, and the two ducked inside.
"Remind me to introduce Buffy's mom to the concept of a security system," Xander mumbled under his breath, as they crept through the back room. Angel gestured impatiently at him and he shut up, following as closely as possible in the vampire's footsteps. The only light was from the alley streetlamp, coming through the open door behind them, and he didn't feel like accumulating any more bruises by walking into a box.
The main room of the gallery was still and silent; Angel and Xander paused outside the doorway to listen. Nothing. Without looking away from the room, Angel held up one hand, counting off with his fingers. One... two....
"Three!" They both lunged through the doorway, Xander flicking on his flashlight with one hand and swinging his board around with the other, trying to cover everything around him at once.
They stood still for a long moment, then gradually relaxed. "Maybe... Maybe they went to invade someplace else tonight," Xander offered, feeling slightly stupid.
"Yeah. Maybe." Angel didn't sound convinced. Xander half-turned, tucking his flashlight under his arm and groping for the lightswitch, trying not to turn his back on the room as he did it. He found the switch and turned it on, lights streamed from every corner of the room --
-- and the eyes of a hundred silent, statue-still knockers focused on them. They were crouched on pedestals, beneath and behind sculptures, in corners, and even on the light fixtures, their black eyes gleaming harshly and their elastic faces strangely blank.
"This is... not a good," Xander commented, not really hearing himself.
"This is definitely a bad," Angel agreed grimly. Then a high-pitched chorus of wails burst from the knockers, and there wasn't time to think about anything, as a gray wave descended on vampire and teenager.
If he'd had time, Angel might have felt a moment of admiration for the knockers; they'd set up and executed two back-to-back traps, attacking something that obviously terrified them. But the demon was on him and there was no room for thought, only for fighting.
The knockers lunged for both of them; he batted one aside easily, caught two more by the arms and threw them across the room.
Beside him, Xander was swinging his improvised club with a great deal of enthusiasm, but no skill whatsoever. The sheer ferocity of his attack was keeping the knockers at a distance, though, which meant that many more of them were coming for Angel.
A gang of five tried to tackle him at the knees; he was knocked off balance, and kicked out, sending them sprawling and catching himself against the wall. More knockers swarmed towards him, trying to press their advantage; he snarled at them in full vampiric form, but they kept coming this time.Their hands grabbed and pinched, trying to pull him down through sheer numbers. He snarled again and lashed out, sending knockers flying. But they still came.
"Hey!" Xander shouted from somewhere, and Angel could suddenly see again. Then Xander was right next to him, swinging at the knockers with all his strength. When he connected, knockers went flying with cries of pain, but Angel had to duck fast the times Xander missed; he was *very* grateful there wasn't a point on the wood.
They managed to get more or less back to back again, the knockers surrounding them in a bruised, bloody circle, several of their number lying in unconcious heaps here and there. But there were still plenty of them on their feet, and they looked more determined, if anything.
Xander wasn't putting any weight on his injured ankle, and the cut on his forehead had opened back up, but his young face was grim and determined. "Now what?" he demanded, without taking his eyes off their attackers. "We're getting majorly Custer'ed here, you know?"
Angel snarled at the knockers nearest to him, who looked like they were considering another attack run. They took a few wary steps back, but showed no signs of retreating. "The plan should have come *before* we rushed in here," he informed Xander.
"A plan? Great, *now* you think of that." A pair of knockers showed their teeth at Xander; he took a swing with his club that backed them off as well. "We should probably stop them before they trash the gallery."
"Probably. Got any brilliant ideas how?"
"Um...." Xander hefted his club, and eyed the knockers. "No. So we'll have to go with the stupid idea."
"Why stop now?" Angel muttered. "What's the stupid idea?"
"What?" Angel's protest came too late. Xander had already lunged forward, his club once again slashing towards and through the knockers. Angel swore and grabbed a knocker that had gone instantly for Xander's back, tossing it into three more. All of them went sprawling, but he'd been too busy watching Xander's back to cover his own.
He turned just in time to see the gang of five coming at him again, the one in the lead swinging something, before it impacted with his injured arm. Pain flared and he shouted in rage and agony, his left hand and arm swinging uselessly as he stumbled back under the force of the blow.
Behind him, Xander gave a panicked yell, and Angel saw him go down under a pile of knockers. He snarled and lunged forward, kicking the closest ones off the pile. Then a heavy weight landed on his back, driving him forward, and he tripped over Xander's leg and fell heavily to the floor. More knockers piled on top of him; no matter how many he shoved away with his working arm, they kept coming.
Xander felt Angel go down next to him, but couldn't see him. He was covered with gray bodies, their hands hard and pinching every inch of his skin. They covered his face, making him fight for breath, and pinned his arms and legs to the ground. No matter how hard he struggled and yelled, he couldn't get free. Beside him, he heard Angel's snarls, but the vampire was just as trapped.
The knockers on his face abruptly cleared, but only for a moment. A wide, scarred face he recognized from the alley leaned in over him, cutting off the light. It grinned evilly and Xander went over the edge into total panic, fighting against his captors with all of his strength.
So it was a second before Xander realized the knocker was speaking, another second before he actually processed the words.
"....protect thee," Scarface was saying, in a squeak like an unoiled door. "Have good fuggan, help the lady. Would protect thee!" Its face curled with rage. "But thee bring darkness into good place, bring evil with thee! Thee will not hurt our place!"
"Hey, it's not *your* place," Xander yelled. "You're the one pulling the haunted house routine!"
"Just warning!" Scarface shrilled. "Warning the lady, but she not listen! Warn thee, think listening, but bring darkness, not help. Bring that!" It gestured towards Angel with utter disgust. "No more warn! Not let thee hurt lady, not let thee hurt place! Hurt place over knocker bodies!"
"Now there's an idea!" Xander tried to move knocker feet out of his ribs with absolutely no success. "We weren't trying to hurt it, that's *your* gig. We were trying to get rid of you!"
Scarface seemed to have actually heard him, that time; it froze, staring down into Xander's eyes. "If not to hurt," it abruptly demanded, "why bring darkness? Why bring drainers? Drainers *only* to hurt."
"Not that one," Xander shot back. "He thinks he's a good guy. I don't know if I agree with him--" He saw its eyes narrow and rushed on, "--but Angel only came to stop you from destroying this place."
"Thanks a lot," Angel grunted sarcastically, trying again to throw knocker bodies off of himself. But there were even more sprawled over him (well out of reach of his fangs) than there were over Xander.
"You're welcome," Xander shot back. "And *you're* the ones who attacked *us*," he continued towards the knockers. "All we wanted was for your little concerts to go away before you mess up the gallery!"
The knocker stared down at him for another long moment. Then it suddenly backed off, whistling high and shrill. Slowly, grungingly, knockers began to clear away from Xander and Angel.
The second he could sit up, Angel did, lunging forward with full fright face in place. The knockers squealed and retreated further, except for Scarface, who only flinched.
Xander sat up more slowly, tempted to imitate Angel, and rubbed at his new bruises. His flashlight had rolled several feet away; he reached for it, gripping it like a weapon, or a security blanket, and glared as menacingly as possible at Scarface.
Scarface stood its ground. "Not want to mess up place," it said, hands on hips and black eyes daring anyone to contradict it. "Only want to warn. Then thee bring darkness, more follow. Only want to make dark things go."
Xander pulled himself to his feet, every muscle in his body protesting the movement. "Okay, let's say we'll go with that," he said carefully, seeing Angel stand up. The vampire's arm was dripping blood and he looked really ticked off. "If you were so hot to warn us about something, what was with all of the games? Why didn't you just say, 'Hey, there's a problem?'"
Scarface shrugged. "Sometimes knockers help, sometimes knockers hinder. Want to help, this time, but hard to. No one listens to quiet, so are noisy. Hope would come, look, but only ones that come, not look. When see knockers, run."
"Run fast," someone contributed gleefully from the back. "All run fast."
"Then, finally, thee come, " Scarface continued, ignoring the peanut gallery. "Bring dark things with thee, bad things."
"Yeah, yeah, we've established you're not real keen on Angel," Xander grimaced. "Join the club." Angel threw him a Look, which Xander ignored. "What were you trying to warn Mrs. Summers about, anyway? Was it worth all of this mess?"
"Go boom," someone contributed from the mass behind Scarface. "Big boom," someone else echoed. "All fall down."
"Great, we're back to this," Xander muttered.
But Angel looked suddenly interested. "Big boom... An explosion?" he asked, his voice rough with pain. "In the gallery?"
Scarface scowled at him in what seemed to be pure reflex, then reluctantly straightened its face and nodded. "Big problem, under ground. No one listens."
"We're listening now," Xander assured it, starting to catch a clue. "Big time. Show us."
The knockers, in a chittering, squeaking mass, led the pair back into the alley and back down into the tunnels, towards the junction where they'd tried to trap Angel and Xander.
"What, were you hoping we'd get caught here and someone would come looking for us?" Angel asked Scarface, who seemed to be more or less in charge.
It was also the only one willing to come anywhere near Angel; the rest of the knockers huddled to Xander's other side. "Hope. And need to make thee stay away; hope can warn lady before thee break loose." It slipped through the broken door into the junction. "Come."
Xander looked at Angel, who made an 'after you' gesture with his good arm. Xander shook his head. "Uh-uh. You first."
Angel shook his head in disgust, but went through. Xander followed, trailed by a sea of gray bodies. Scarface made straight for a small, covered hole they hadn't noticed before, in the confusion of the fight and breaking out. It grabbed the cover and pulled with all of its strength, and a burning, eye-searing smell flooded into the room.
"*Major* grossness!" Xander tried to figure out how to cover his eyes and nose at the same time. "What *is* that?"
"Some kind of chemicals," Angel answered, looking vaguely ill himself, but he still moved forward to kneel beside the hole, looking down. The knocker backed away, eyeing Angel suspiciously; Xander knew just how it felt. "This... looks like an old mine shaft. Is it?"
The knocker nodded, still keeping his distance. "Old mine; ours when we come. People leave and buldings come. No place for knockers, but knockers stay. Then more people come, leave bad things, mines start to smell." It looked very serious. "Knockers sick. Some knockers die."
"They closed up the old mines and built Sunnydale on top of them," Angel thought out loud. "Except someone found an opening, and started dumping... industrial waste, whatever. Whatever they dumped wound up pooling here -- below the gallery, below this juncture, where the city's been working." He nodded towards the acetylene tanks in the corner. "Welding."
"The waste makes the fumes," Xander said slowly, the light dawning. "With the welding up here, the fumes could have caught fire, burned everything. Or just... exploded."
"Big boom," one of the knockers contributed helpfully.
"Yeah," Angel nodded, "that would cover it." He half-turned to look over his shoulder at Xander. "You'd better start thinking of a good story about how you found this. I don't think the truth is going to be much help."
"Yeah." Xander nodded his head slowly. "I'm going to have to go with you on that one. I'll come up with something."
Scarface grinned broadly, his mouth almost splitting his face in half. "Not go boom, then!" it said proudly. "Place is safe."
The banging and caterwauling started again, but this time Xander didn't really mind, even though his ears protested strenuously. He was too busy trying to think of a way to tell Mrs. Summers he'd been down exploring in the sewers that didn't make him sound like a lunatic. Nothing came to mind.
He looked away from the reveling knockers to find Angel, and saw that he was still crouched by the mine hole, talking to Scarface, who didn't look thrilled at the conversation. Angel was back to his 'normal' human face, and just looked intense. Xander was about to start over to find out what was going on, but something tugged hesitantly at the hem of his shorts.
He jumped, startled, then saw a small knocker, about half Scarface's size, standing at his knee. It made a face up at him, then grinned. "Thee bring more of good fuggan?" it asked hopefully.
"Fuggan?" Xander asked blankly.
"Good fuggan!" another knocker echoed. "Flat spicy! Good eat!"
"Eat?" Xander was baffled, until he remembered his first encounter with the knockers. "You mean, the pizza?"
Several heads nodded so enthusiastically, it seemed they would fall right off of the skinny necks. "Know thee be not too bad," the first knocker proclaimed smugly. "Bring *good* fuggan with thee."
"I'll bring some more," Xander promised, starting to grin. The cheers commenced again, even louder, and Xander grinned more widely as a bunch of knockers started swinging on the pipes like little kids on a jungle gym.
Some things really *were* universal.
It was almost midnight before they got everything figured out. The knockers swore they'd quit the banging and harrassment, as long as Xander and Angel saw that the mine shafts were cleaned up and the gallery was safe. The knockers even agreed to guard the gallery that night, until the broken lock on the back door could be fixed. Mrs. Summers was going to wig about someone breaking in, but nothing would be missing. It might even get her to seriously consider an alarm system, Xander figured.
Then it was back to the library and Giles's first aid kit. Xander put ice on his ankle again, wishing he could just sink his entire body into an icebag. Angel pointedly did *not* ask for help stripping off his ruined jacket, and Xander didn't particularly want to offer any.
But, unwillingly, he remembered Angel digging him out of a pile of crates, and trying to pull a load of knockers off his back, and offered anyway. "Need help with that?"
Angel didn't look up. "No. Thanks. It'll be fine in a couple of days."
"Fine." Xander resettled his ice bag, his ribs protesting as he bent over, then leaned back in his chair. Angel finally managed to work the jacket off, exposing a jagged gash that ran for most of the length of his forearm. It started oozing blood again sluggishly, but Angel barely winced as he doused it in antiseptic.
"That looks... majorly ouchworthy," Xander said, with reluctant sympathy. Angel only shrugged and pulled out a roll of gauze; Xander blinked as the bleeding slowed and stopped, apparently of its own accord. Very, very weird.
The phone rang before he could comment again, which was probably a good thing. "I wonder if Giles always gets this many calls at night?" Xander groaned, as he hauled himself out of his chair and limped towards Giles's desk. "I mean, I know he practically lives here and everything, but still.... Sunnydale High School Library and Infirmary," he said relatively cheerfully into the phone.
"Hi. There used to be a sanitarium there. Got room for three escaped patients?"
Xander blinked, his mind a little too fogged with fatigue to instantly process the question, or even the speaker. Then it hit him, and he found himself grinning like an idiot. "Buffy! Hey, there's always room for one more, or three even! What's up up north? Ready to come home to the nice, calm Hellmouth yet?"
He had Angel's full attention, he noticed out of the corner of his eye, as Buffy answered cheerfully, "Pretty close. One day of assorted strangers of Russian extraction who happen to be related to me, and then we're on our way."
"Major coolness." Xander noticed absently that he even sounded like an idiot, but didn't particularly care. Buffy was used to it. "Bringing home any souveniers? Oak leaves? Mounties?"
"They're maple leaves, Xander. Or Maple Leafs. We thought about bringing a couple of them home. No Mounties, though."
"They probably wouldn't have fit in the luggage anyway.," he pointed out forgivingly.
"And I think the people here would get kind of upset about us taking them," she agreed with another giggle.
"Giles is coming back with you, right? I'm not going to be stuck on library duty for the rest of my natural life or anything?"
"Yeah, Giles will be back to take over. And Willow too. You're pretty safe."
"Now, *that's* a relief." He faked a heavy, relieved sigh. "I was having visions of wandering the stacks for all eternity. Not a pretty sight."
"Although you seem awfully at home there..." Buffy commented thoughtfully. "What *have* you been up to?"
Xander looked around at the open (and depleted) first aid kit, the books scattered *everywhere*, Angel's bandaged arm, and his own bruises, and decided there was only one possible thing to do. Avoid the question, by any means necessary. "Me?"
"You. Unless there's someone else there I don't know about..." Her voice trailed off, and Xander involuntarily looked back at Angel, who had turned his back and was studying the bookshelves intently. The vampire's shoulders were hunched, his hands shoved into his pockets, and there was blood on his shirt and the neat bandage around his forearm. Blood from helping Buffy's mom... and Xander.
"No, no one here but us humans," he answered slowly. It really was better if Buffy didn't know Angel was here. She shouldn't be hanging out with a vampire at all, and this would just make her depressed. It was for her own good, after all....
He sighed again, and gave in to the guilt. "And, uh, one vampire."
Angel had been trying not to listen, too sickeningly envious of Xander's easy conversation with Buffy. But he couldn't keep from turning in surprise when he heard Xander admit, albeit reluctantly, to his presence.
Xander was concentrating on the phone, refusing to look at Angel. "He hasn't had me for a midnight snack yet -- three guesses.... Tall, dark, hasn't had me for.... No, not anymore." Xander winced as soon as the words were out of his mouth, and jerked the phone away from his ear. Even across the room, Angel could hear Buffy's panicked demands for an explanation.
She wound down and Xander put the phone back to his ear. "Whoa, Buffy, chill. We're both fine, it's handled, not a major situation. Honest." Buffy didn't appear to be buying it. Xander appeared to be mentally kicking himself. "Very minor. Almost not worth mentioning at all. Really.... Absolutely not. I've taken care of everything."
Angel couldn't help giving Xander a pointed look. Xander rolled his eyes, and admitted, "Okay, with a little help.... Right. As soon as you get off the plane." Even as he made the promise, Angel could *see* Xander planning what to leave out, and his lips twitched. He almost wished he could hear Xander trying to tell this story.
"Great," Xander was telling Buffy. Then he abruptly stopped and demanded, "Ditto? That's ditto, like, something happened even though everyone said nothing was happening?"
A longer pause, during which Xander relaxed a little, starting to examine the various bruises he'd collected over the last two days. "I think we'll make that the group tour package this time," he told Buffy with a short laugh, which faded with whatever Buffy answered. "Yeah. Yeah, he did earn it."
Another guilty sideways look at Angel, then Xander proceeded to shock the hell out of him by offering, *very* reluctantly, "Do you, um.. want to talk to him?"
The answer was apparently yes; Xander turned to Angel and held out the phone. Angel looked from the receiver to Xander and back to the receiver, and didn't move.
Xander sighed, the patronizing sigh of someone confronted with a particularly dense two-year-old. "Angel, it's a phone. You talk into it. To Buffy."
Angel gave him a dirty look, which was pretty weak since he was distracted, and took the phone as tentatively as if it were a cross that would burn his hand. Xander smirked at him, then surprised him again by very deliberately walking across the library, more or less out of earshot.
He lifted the phone gingerly to his ear, in time to hear Buffy say, "Hello? Angel?"
He had to clear his throat before he could say anything. "Buffy?" Oh, very good, very articulate.
Buffy didn't appear to mind; if anything, she sounded as nervous as he felt. "Hi. I hear you guys dealt with a... very minor situation."
"Yeah." He studied the surface of the desk. "We did."
"Wow. I am truly overwhelmed by your enthusiasm. I should have been there, huh?"
He chuckled in spite of himself. "Yeah, you should have." The words came out with much more emotion than he'd intended.
It took her a second to answer. "Sorry. I got kinda busy. Can I still get a raincheck?"
"Any time. Any time at all." An awkward pause. "I hear you had some excitement yourself up there."
"Some," she admitted. "I'll have to tell you about it. After I get back."
"When's that going to be?" He tried to make the question as casual as possible, and wound up sounding more like Xander, even to his own ears.
Buffy sounded amused. "Sunday soon enough for ya?"
The blunt, painful honesty surprised even him; it took Buffy a long time to answer. "Me, too," she finally said in a near whisper, and Angel felt something tighten around his heart. "You should have been here too."
"I wish I had been," he said raggedly. Another, longer pause, as he struggled for control of his voice. "You're all right?" He needed to hear her say it, needed even more to see it for himself. To hold her and assure himself she was all in one piece. But he couldn't say that.
"Yeah, more or less. More than less. We all are."
"Good." Nothing was coming out right; he was too far out of practice at this kind of thing. At talking when it mattered. "If I'd, ah, known you were going up there, I would have warned you." And he'd never get over blaming himself for *not* warning her. What the hell had she run into, that he might have been able to protect her from?
She gave a short laugh and he wondered if he imagined the bitter edge to it. "I'll ask next time, if I catch you around. This one kind of followed me from LA, though."
"Long way to go for a visit. Or a fight."
"Yeah, well, seems some vampires really get around. I think I'll be staying off that express, though. Tough on the system."
"Yeah," he half-laughed with very little humor, thinking about the last few days. "Tell me about it."
"I will. Soon as I'm finished recovering from it." She laughed again, a real one this time, and he joined her. Eventually, though, their amusement petered out and the awkwardness returned. "*Am* I going to get to tell you about it?" she finally asked, with studied casualness.
His heart warred with his self-preservation, which screamed that going anywhere near Buffy was going to hurt far more than it was worth. But he wanted to see her. "I... I don't know. I wish you could."
"Angel, it's just a conversation," Buffy informed him, sounding more than a bit annoyed. "At the Bronze, if you want. Like, with people around to protect my honor or whatever."
Angel found himself laughing again, in spite of himself. He could just see the stubborn, utterly fearless, 'you jerk!' expression on her face, the one she always wore when she was giving him hell. "Are you going to hunt me down if I don't show up?"
Now she was laughing at herself. "Hey, you'd be amazed what I can do when pressed."
"No. I wouldn't."
"Then what's so tough about talking?"
"When talking's not all I want?" Blunt honesty again; it was the only way he could think of to remind her of the dangers. Nothing between them could ever be as simple as 'just talking'.
He heard her take a deep breath. "Point taken. That qualifies as tough. But..."
She trailed off; he had to clear his throat again, and his voice was still bitter. "Yeah. But."
"But, talking is some of what I want," Buffy continued determinedly. "Maybe the most important part right now."
"You know this is a bad idea, right?" he tried one last time.
"There are times I think I don't have any other kind. Your point?"
"Doesn't look like I have one." He paused, then sighed a mental 'the hell with it'; he couldn't really regret losing. "I'll see you at the Bronze. When you get home."
He could actually hear her smile, spreading through the phone to him. "It's a date."
"It's a date," he echoed.
"Good." That came out sounding more like a challenge, but it was one he wasn't prepared to take her up on. This time.
The last pause must have gone on too long, or maybe Xander's patience (which had, admittedly, been amazing) finally ran out. In any case, he noisily cleared his throat from the other side of the room and asked, "Are you two going to hang up any time soon? Or are you just going to stand there and breathe?"
Angel did *not* instantly turn and kill him. But it was close. Buffy laughed in his ear, obviously having heard Xander loud and clear. "I guess he's right. I should really take pity on my calling card."
"Take pity on *him*." Angel glared in Xander's direction. "Maybe he'll survive the night."
"Maybe we all will," Buffy sighed, as Xander objected with a loud and injured, "Hey!"
Buffy and Angel both ignored him. "See you around?" she asked, a little wistfully.
"Yeah. You will." Angel hung the phone up slowly, carefully, and stared at it for a long moment. Then he turned to look at Xander; the kid's face was set and antagonistic, and he realized the joking around had been entirely for Buffy's benefit.
"Thanks," Angel offered carefully, turning away from the desk.
Xander nodded once, jerkily, and Angel didn't push it. Instead, he picked his the remains of his jacket up from the table and started for the door. He'd wait outside the school until Xander left, then shadow him home again. But he didn't think he could stand staying inside the library any longer.
Xander's voice stopped Angel before he could leave. "You know you're just going to make things worse for her."
Angel refused to look at him. "You think I *don't* know that? But it's her choice."
"Yeah." Xander's voice had a bitter edge. "I guess it is."
Angel didn't even try to answer that. He just went through the double doors, letting them swing shut behind him.
Xander would have cheerfully paid anyone, anywhere, a million dollars if he hadn't had to get out of bed the next morning. But not only did he have to get up, he had to get up sometime well before noon, which made things even worse. But get up he did; he even made it to the gallery before Buffy's mom had stopped wigging over the broken lock on the back door, but *after* the cops had come and gone.
It took a while to convince Mrs. Summers about what they'd found underground, and even longer to haul the city workers out of bed and down into the sewers; apparently they'd had a run in with some kind of weird, hairless monkeys the day before. Xander firmly bit his cheek and did *not* start laughing.
Between hassling with the city, talking to the police, installing the new lock on the back door, finishing up the show, and making last-minute catering arrangements, Mrs. Summers never really had time to order Xander out of the gallery again. It was almost three when they both finally collapsed in the back room.
"If I'd known opening a gallery was going to be this much work," Mrs. Summers groaned, "I would never have thought of it."
Xander smiled weakly. "Yeah, but think of all the fun you'd have missed."
"Finding toxic waste under my building isn't really what I consider fun," Mrs. Summers countered. "My goodness, if you hadn't heard that cat crying and been brave enough to go down into those awful tunnels looking for it...."
Xander shrugged, embarrassed. Okay, it wasn't the best story in the world, but it had gotten the job done. "Guess I'm just a softy for animals. What time does the exhibition start?"
Mrs. Summers didn't seem to notice his haste to change the subject, or if she did, chalked it up to modesty. "7pm on the nose. Which means I have four hours to go home, get myself looking human, and come back to meet the caterers and get the bar set up." She sighed and rolled her neck. "I must have been out of my mind when we planned this. You've been such a lifesaver, Xander, I don't what I would have done without you."
He really did blush, that time. "Hey, it was no problem," he lied, trying to brush it off. "I was just glad for something to keep me busy, you know."
"Yes, I do know," she laughed. Then her eyes narrowed speculatively at him. "Tell you what, Xander, why don't you come to the opening tonight? You can meet some people, there'll be good food, you can escape to the Bronze when you get too bored...."
Xander tried not to squirm under the knowing, teasing gleam in her eyes. "Hey, thanks for the thought and all, but I don't think it'll be my kind of scene."
"Well, it's up to you. Although, several of the RSVP's said they'd be bringing their children," Mrs. Summers added casually. "I think some of the girls are in classes with you and Buffy. They'd probably enjoy having someone here their own age to talk to."
Xander's head went up. "Girls? Which girls?" Mrs. Summers grinned at him and he tried, belatedly, to be cool. "You know, culture is an important thing; art can... bring people together."
Mrs. Summers's smile got broader. "7 o'clock and wear a jacket."
Which was how Xander found himself, at 8pm, standing in the gallery with a glass of Coke in one hand, a tie around his neck, and the upper portion of Sunnydale society wandering around making comments about texture and subtext while looking at the results of a high school metal shop gone psychotic.
He had to admit, though, it wasn't *too* bad. His existance had actually been acknowledged by several of the girls from Cordelia's clique -- although they'd been more interested in getting him to fetch them drinks than flirting -- and Mrs. Summers would occasionally bring some of the adults over and embarrass him by telling them about how he'd 'saved' the gallery by finding the problem in the old mine shaft. Even knowing the truth, all of the attention was pretty good for his ego.
Mrs. Summers was heading for him now, another couple in tow. And behind them trailed... Oh, God. Xander looked around frantically for a hiding place; when he didn't find one, he gulped, tightened his hand on his glass, and prepared to be assaulted.
"Xander, you know Mr. and Mrs. Chase, and their daughter Cordelia, don't you?" Mrs. Summers smiled. She was dressed in a black dress that made her look pretty killer, for a mom. "This is Alexander Harris, the young man who helped me put all of this together."
"We've, ah, met a few times," Xander said, not looking at Cordelia. She was staring off into the distance with an expression that suggested she'd rather be anyplace but there, and that Xander didn't actually exist.
"Xander," Mr. Chase said with a wide politician's smile. "I hear you also had something to do with finding that nasty mess under the streets. Well done."
"Thank you, um, sir," Xander mumbled, calculating how quickly he could get to the door.
"Xander, would you keep Cordelia company?" Mrs. Summers was asking. "I'd like to show Mr. and Mrs. Chase a few pieces."
No, no, please, no! "Sure, I'd be... glad to." He didn't *think* his voice sounded strained; Mrs Summers smiled and led Cordelia's parents off.
Cordelia took the first shot, as usual. "Well, well, well, look at the hero. I didn't really think you'd be the type to be so fond of sewers, Xander." She paused dramatically. "No, wait, I did think you were the type."
Xander groaned mentally, but, trapped, rose to the challenge. "Hello, Cordelia. What's wrong, couldn't find any brooms to ride on tonight?"
Cordelia looked amused, in the condescending sort of way she was so good at. "Where's the rest of your little cult of wierdness?" she asked archly. "I thought the three of you were surgically attached to each other."
"I defer to your greater knowledge of surgery, Cordelia," Xander smiled broadly and falsely. "The nose job is looking really good, by the way."
Cordeli's eyes narrowed, but her smile, as broad and as false as his own, stayed in place. "And I love the way your jacket matches that lovely shade of blue on your head. What happened, did someone beat you up when Buffy wasn't around to protect you?"
Xander groped for a witty comeback, failed to think of anything better than 'How'd you guess?' and looked around for a legitimate excuse to escape. Fortunately, he found one quickly -- and what an excuse it was. A brunette about his own age, who looked vaguely familiar, was standing uncertainly outside the front door of the gallery, as if she wasn't sure she was supposed to be there. She was also gorgeous and dressed to kill.
"Well, Cordelia, much as I'd love to stand around and trade some more insults, duty calls," he said, relatively smoothly. "Don't worry, I'm sure you can find someone else willing to talk to you. If you look hard enough."
Cordelia huffed and stalked away as he walked past her to the front door, and gave what he hoped was a charming, reassuring smile to the girl. "Hi, I'm Xander Harris. Can I help you?"
"I hope so." The brunette looked gratifyingly relieved at his appearance. "I was supposed to meet my parents here, but I can't find the invitation they gave me, and I can't see them in this crowd."
"That's no problem," Xander smiled more widely, gesturing extravagantly into the gallery. "Come on in and I'll help you track them down."
"This is so nice of you," she smiled sweetly up at him, accepting the invitation and stepping past him into the gallery. "I don't what I would have done if you hadn't come to help."
"Oh, it's no trouble at all." Xander felt himself grow a few inches taller under her admiring gaze, as she laid her hand on his arm. "Always glad to be of service." They started to move into the gallery and he thought to ask, "So, what's your name?"
"Adrianne," she told him with another sweet smile. "My name's Adrianne."
A few minutes later, they'd established that Adrianne was new in town, that she hadn't started Sunnydale High yet, and that her parents were not in the main room of the gallery.
"Maybe they haven't gotten here," Adrianne sighed as they completed their third round of the room. "Dad always does run late."
"I can round up a chair, you can sit down and wait for them," Xander offered eagerly. "Or I could get you a drink, or something to eat?"
"Actually," Adrianne said with a bit of embarrassment, "I'd really like to use the powder room. Is there one here?"
"What? Oh, sure, there's one in back." Xander lead the way through the crowd, Adrianne clinging to his hand and apparently content to follow his lead. He held the door to the back room open and gestured her in. "Right through here."
She laughed breathily and went past him. "Saved again. Wait for me?"
"Absolutely," Xander assured her. "I'm not budging."
She laughed again and disappeared into the small bathroom; Xander closed the door that seperated the back room from the gallery and leaned against it. His tie had suddenly gotten too tight; he loosened it and opened the back door, letting the warm night air sweep in.
Adrianne seemed really nice; pretty and, wonder of wonders, interested in him. But he couldn't keep himself from wishing she had blonde hair instead of dark, green eyes instead of brown -- that she was Buffy instead of Adrianne. Heck, he would have settled for her being Willow.
He shook his head, trying to get his mind off the girls. They were fine, they would be home tomorrow, and there was a gorgeous girl about to come join him for the evening. He could probably even talk her into ditching the opening and going to the Bronze with him....
The thought of the Bronze triggered a memory, but before he could pin it down, Adrianne appeared at his elbow, startling him. "All done," she said cheerfully, laying her hand on his arm again and apparently not noticing his start of surprise.
"Great," Xander replied, forcing his attention back to her and trying to regain his enthusiasm, which wasn't too hard considering how beautiful she was. "We could, um, go back in and look for your parents again."
Adrianne made a face. "I'd actually rather stay back here for a little while. All those people... I'm not very good in crowds," she admitted shyly, with a little shudder.
Xander's protective instincts surged again, and he put an arm around her shoulders. "How about we get some air, then? I can give a lovely tour of a historic Sunnydale, um," he glanced out the back door, "alley."
"My own personal tour guide," she giggled. "It sounds fascinating, lead on."
"Oh no, after you." She laughed at him over her shoulder as she went through the door and Xander followed happily, closing the door behind him. After all, it was a nice night. Why waste it?
Adrianne was standing in the middle of the alley when he caught up, her face turned up to the night sky with evident enjoyment. The alley caught the breeze and strengthened it, blowing her hair back from her face. She smiled at Xander as he walked towards her, and memory abruptly crystallized. "You were at the Bronze a couple nights ago."
Her smile widened. "I didn't think you'd noticed me there. I'm impressed."
"Kind of hard not to notice you," Xander blurted, then winced. Way to be cool, he congratulated himself. Very suave.
Adrianne seemed amused, coming close enough to him to run a finger up one lapel of his jacket. "How very sweet of you," she breathed, and Xander gulped. She'd shifted somehow from adoring potential date to someone that reminded him uncomfortably of... Natalie French.
He laughed shakily, trying to figure out where that thought had come from. This was just a girl, after all, a student, not a giant praying mantis. Nothing to worry about.... But Miss French had looked human, too.
He backed up a step. "Maybe we should, you know, head back inside. If your parents are here, they're going to be looking for you."
She shook her head and slowly stepped after him, still smiling. "I don't think so."
"Y-you don't?" Xander stuttered, taking two steps back this time. She followed again, her eyes catching his, and Xander saw something flaring in their depths. Something he'd seen before, something predatory.....
Something he'd seen in Jesse's eyes, when his best friend had tried to kill him.
That memory triggered others, and he suddenly saw Angel's glance over his shoulder that first night at the Bronze, looking towards Adrianne as he said he'd handle the problem. And Angel's attack in the tunnel, when he'd been expecting someone else. A 'her'. And Adrianne standing just behind the threshold of the gallery, with no invitation.
"Oh, man," he breathed, barely hearing his own voice. The door to the gallery was closed and ten feet away besides; he'd never make it there in time. There was nothing in the alley to use as a weapon, and Adrianne would be on him before he had time to shout.
Adrianne's smile broadened, and he saw the same conclusions he'd reached reflected in her interested eyes. "Nowhere to run, little boy?" she asked calmly, amused. "I thought it would take longer for you to figure it out. But I suppose hanging around with a Slayer has some benefits."
"N-not so you'd notice," Xander managed to say, taking another slow step back and looking frantically around. The sounds of the party filtered quietly around from the front, but it might as well have been in China for all the good it would do him.
Adrianne matched his step casually, keeping him within reach. "Can we please skip the useless attempts to fight me off or run?" she asked with a raised eyebrow. "They'll only annoy me, and they won't do you any good. You're not going to win, after all."
Her face suddenly shifted, remolded itself, and Xander yelped involuntarily as the vampire snarled and caught his wrist in one hand, even as he broke and ran for it. Her fist tightened until he thought the bone would break, stopping him in his tracks and nearly bringing him to his knees.
Even through the pain and terror, he managed to twist, kicking out at Adrianne. One heel caught her on the knee; she staggered and snarled again, more loudly, before raising her arm and backhanding him across the face.
The force of the blow sent him across the alley; he slammed into the wall and slid down it slowly, seeing the world start graying around the edges. Not again, he thought vaguely, as Adrianne leaned over him. Why did they always hit him in the head?
Then there was no room in his thoughts for anything but the fangs descending towards his neck.
They were going to kill him. Xander's thoughts whirled crazily as he tried to press himself back into the wall. When Buffy and Willow got home and found out he went and got eaten while they were away, they were going to kill him.
Adrianne was smiling, her eyes glowing yellow, as she took his chin firmly in hand, exposing his neck. Willow's face flashed in front of his eyes, then he was too dizzy to do anything but close them, and wait for the pain. And pray.
Then, like an answer to his prayer, a snarl ripped through the air, and the hand on his chin was ripped away. Adrianne cursed and two bodies hit the ground a few feet away. The sound of a brief scuffle followed, then there was silence, broken only by two sets of heavy breathing.
"I was wondering where you'd gotten to," Adrianne finally said, her voice a low, amused purr again. "You don't bodyguard too well."
"And you don't listen too well."
Xander dragged his eyes open, and saw two vampires facing off in front of him. Adrianne looked human, cool and calm; the other, in full fright mask mode, looked mad as hell.
"I told you to stay away from him," Angel growled, and reality slipped the rest of the way out of Xander's grasp.
"Are you going to make me, Angel?" Adrianne tilted her head and studied Angel, every inch the bored, lightly amused society butterfly. As long as he ignored the boy she'd just thrown across the alley. "I don't think it'll be as easy as it was when you took the girl from me. No crowds around to protect you this time."
"I don't need any protection from you," Angel told her grimly, taking a step towards her and trying to move himself between her and Xander, who was slumped against the brick, either unconcious or dead. Angel was counting on the first.
"Maybe not," Adrianne smiled sweetly, then gestured over his shoulder. "But how about from him?"
Angel followed her movement -- and another vampire appeared at the end of the alley. A big one that he recognized, but couldn't have named to save his life, already fright masked and ready to fight.
"Or maybe him," Adrianne continued with another gesture, and another vampire, at the opposite end of the alley.The lights gleamed off this one's red hair, and Angel recognized the face even before he spoke.
"Hello, Angelus. Imagine meeting you here."
Angel's jaw tightened at the familiar, and extremely unwelcome, Scottish brogue. "Rake." He knew this one -- a vicious bastard, one of the Master's favorite pets, older and stronger than Angel himself. But stupider, if Angel could just buy some time to think. "Since when does the Master let you off your leash?"
Rake only smiled widely, showing his fangs; the other vampire laughed with a raw, ugly, grating sound. Angel didn't find the situation nearly as funny as they did.
Adrainne did, though. "Then again," she told Angel, her eyes narrowed speculatively, "you *could* just walk away, and leave the little would-be Slayer to me. Your choice."
Angel's back was to the alley wall now, between the three bad guys and Xander; his arms were out in a defensive stance, as he tried to watch all three vampires at the same time.
"Why the hell do you want him so much?" he demanded, trying to come up with that time. "He's just a kid, he's nothing."
"Oh, I'd say he's more than nothing," Adrianne said consideringly, "especially to the Slayer. And, apparently, to you. Which makes him worth something to the Master."
"The Master?" The strange vampire took a long step towards Angel; he spun partway to face him, then had to spin back when Rake did the same. They had him completely outflanked, he acknowledged, his stomach sinking. This was going to get ugly.
Adrianne knew it, too, judging from the smirk on her face, but it was Rake who answered, "Of course. You didn't think he'd just turn the other cheek when his runaway Angelus started helping the Slayer kill his children, did you? When you helped her defeat the Three? When you killed Darla for her?"
"Forgiveness isn't one of the Master's stronger virtues," Adrianne shrugged lightly, with one shoulder. "So, you can either give the child to us, then tell your little girlfriend the Slayer how you left him to die -- which I'm sure would *truly* endear you to her, or...." Her voice trailed off suggestively.
"Or?" Angel picked up his cue, mostly just to keep her talking. He was pretty damn sure he knew what the other choice was.
Adrianne shrugged again. "Or you can fight us and you'll both die. Either way, the Slayer loses two of her allies, and the Master wins."
Behind Angel, Xander twitched and groaned, starting to come back around; Angel shifted and talked fast, hoping to keep Adrianne and her henchmen distracted from the kid. "There's no way the Master thought of this by himself. What's in it for you, Adrianne?"
She smiled, a small, feline curl of her lips. "You mean, besides the Master's approval? Let's just say, I get a meal to replace the one you got in the way of. I'm so grateful you provided such an... easy target for us."
Angel blinked. "All of this is about a meal? Because I didn't let you take the girl from the Bronze?"
"What can I say, Angelus? You shouldn't have interfered in my hunt. What comes between me and my prey... is my prey." Adrianne's smile widened, but any humor that had ever been in her face disappeared as she gestured to the other two vampires. "Take him."
Rake's smile grew, spreading over his face like a nightmare. "My pleasure."
Angel had barely enough time to swear, a mental stream of Gaelic curses he'd forgotten he knew, before the two vampires were on him. He couldn't avoid their charge without leaving Xander defenseless; their combined weight took him down to the pavement, buried under their bodies.
He twisted and managed to drive his elbow into the strange vampire's ribs; bones cracked and his target swore. Before he could follow up, Rake's fist slammed into Angel's jaw, then grabbed his hair and forced his neck backwards, as the other vampire recovered and pinned Angel's arms to the ground. Angel kicked furiously, but the other two were too strong.
Adrianne applauded lightly, strolling over to look down at Angel. He struggled against the other two vampires, and glared up at her; she wasn't impressed.
"All right, you've got me," he snarled at Adrianne. "You can let the kid go. He won't do you any good."
Adrianne lifted one perfect eyebrow. "A Boy Scout to the end, hmm, Angelus? Sorry, it won't do either of you any good, but I'll be sure to tell the Slayer you *tried* to be a hero. It'll make your deaths so much harder on her." From somewhere in her skirt, she produced a heavy wooden stake, intricately carved, and raised it above her head.
"Wait," Rake demanded harshly, and she stopped. "You're getting the boy. That gives me the right to take care of the traitor."
Adrianne considered, then nodded. "I suppose there's no harm in sharing. Just this once."
She tossed the stake to Rake, who caught it one-handed, and looked down at Angel with satisfaction. "I've wanted to do this for a hundred years, you sanctimonious little backstabber."
"Hope it's worth the wait," Angel snarled back defiantly, pulling one last time against the hands that restrained him. All his fighting did was make Rake's smile wider. He managed to look back at Xander, and hoped the kid would forgive him. Hoped Buffy would forgive him for getting them both killed.
As Adrianne had, Rake lifted the stake high over his head....
And a wild, chittering, squeaking noise filled the alley, pitched to make even a vampire's every muscle lock. A pack of small gray figures vaulted across Angel to land directly on Rake, sending the vampire stumbling back with an angry howl of rage and pain as all hell broke loose.
Angel didn't have any time to wonder why the knockers had gotten in on the game; he was too busy swinging his suddenly-free hand around to smash into the other vampire, who was too busy gaping at the unexpected attackers to duck. Something broke in the vampire's jaw and he fell away from Angel, who immediately scrambled to his feet and landed a hard kick in the vampire's ribs.
"*Damn* you!" Adrianne shouted in fury, but Angel barely heard her. The demon had taken control somewhere along the way, and he welcomed it, letting the rage and bloodlust take over. His opponent tried to get to his knees and Angel kicked them out from under him, dumping the vampire back into the ground. His lips peeled back in an ugly smile as he leaned over and grabbed the vampire by the throat, slamming his head into the alley wall.
The vampire slumped like a sack of garbage, broken and still.
There was no time to enjoy the single victory; behind him, knocker cries became screams. Angel spun just in time to see Scarface, the knocker leader, scoop up the dropped stake and lunge for Rake with it. Rake twisted out of the way, throwing knockers off of him with a bellow of anger. He blocked the stake with one swing of his arm, and caught Scarface by the throat with the other.
A tiny knocker, one Angel vaguely remembered through the red haze of anger as having made friends with Xander, jumped on Rake with a ludicrously high-pitched battle cry, his hands digging for the vampire's eyes in an attempt to rescue Scarface. Rake barely blinked, just grabbed the little knocker with his free hand and flicked him carelessly away. Like Angel's opponent, the little knocker flew across the alley and landed hard against the wall.
Like Angel's opponent, it slumped to the ground in a tiny, crumpled heap, and didn't move again.
Angel's shout of fury melded with that of the rest of the knockers. As one, they advanced on Rake, who had regained his feet and looked more than willing to take them all on. His eyes flashed with yellow fire, and he met Angel's challenge with a fierce growl of his own.
Knockers converged on his legs and knees forcing him backwards. He swatted and kicked at them and more than a few went flying, with cries of hurt, but still more piled on. Angel waded in, and kicked Rake in the chest, sending him stumbling back. Before he could recover, Angel swung his elbow sharply into Rake's jaw; Rake stumbled, and his foot came down on the stake he'd dropped in the first knocker attack and forgotten.
His arms windmilled as he groped for balance; it might have been funny if Angel hadn't hated him so fiercely. The knockers moved in as Rake hit the ground, and it was Scarface who got hold of the stake, and slammed it down into Rake's chest.
The vampire's dying roar echoed off the walls as his body exploded into dust.
The knockers cheered grimly and Angel nodded in satisfaction. One less vampire for Buffy to worry about; one less danger to guard her from. Not a bad night's work, he though with distant satisfaction.
Then his arm seemed to explode, wiping away anything but the pain. He staggered back under the force of the kick Adrianne had landed to his injured arm, and another kick landed in his stomach, knocking him to the ground. The knockers screamed, but Angel couldn't even moan. The pain ran like fire from his arm through the rest of his body. It was broken this time, he vaguely realized, gritting his teeth against agony, and it was bleeding again, soaking the arm of his jacket like a river.
Adrainne stood over him like a Fury, her face that of a vampire now, no seduction or amusement left in her. Her eyes burned with rage, and she had found another stake somewhere, clenched in her hand and raised above her head.
"*Damn* you," she hissed again. "I hope your cursed, precious soul finds an afterlife, Angelus. I want you to spend eternity knowing what I'll do to the boy, what I'll do to your Slayer when I hunt her down. I want you to suffer the torments of hell!"
The last words came out on a scream and she lunged towards him, bringing the stake down as she came. She came too fast to see, to fast to avoid, and Angel braced himself for death. Her body fell across his--
-- and exploded into nothingness, her death scream rising through the night. Her stake clattered uselessly to the ground.
Xander stood over Angel and the pile of dust that had been Adrianne, still holding the shred of broken crate that had gone through her heart from behind. Angel blinked up at him in utter, pain-filled confusion, trying to figure out what had just happened. "Nice timing," he said finally, levering himself painfully off the pavement.
Xander didn't answer; his jaw was clenched, his face dead white and dazed with shock, and his forehead was bleeding again.
Angel could sympathize with the shock part; he pulled himself gingerly to his feet, clutching his broken, bleeding arm close to his body. His arm protested the movement with another flare of hellfire; he damn near blacked out from the pain. Xander was still silent; Angel wasn't even sure the kid was aware of his presence. "You all right?"
After a long moment, Xander nodded slowly, looking at the scattered dust at his feet. "Yeah. It's just... Last time I did this, it was a friend."
"Yeah." Angel looked down at the dust. "Me, too."
From the corner of his eye, he saw something move behind Xander. Something big.
Before Xander could move, Angel's good hand snatched for the stake on the ground at his side and threw it forward with what little strength he had left. It was enough -- the point penetrated the chest of the third, forgotten, vampire. He staggered in the middle of reaching for Xander, then crumpled to the ground in a puff of dust.
They both stood silently, blinking, this time. Then Angel finally said, "You know, rescuing you in alleys is getting to be a habit."
"Yeah, well, you can break it. I had her right where I wanted her," Xander told him automatically, apparently not particularly caring that both of them knew it was a complete lie. Color and expression were slowly returning to his face. "How'd you know she was here? That they were here?"
"Them." Angel gestured at the knockers with the arm that was still functioning. The ones who were concious and moving were watching the exchange with wide eyes, and grinned widely and somewhat comically at Angel's acknowledgement. At least, it might have been comical if their eyes hadn't been so grim. "They kept talking about you bringing 'dark things' and 'drainers' to the gallery. Plural, as in more than just me. I thought it was Adrianne, but I couldn't figure out why."
Xander rubbed his forehead, wincing. "Figured it out yet?"
Angel debated slowly, and decided that there were some things the kid really didn't need to know. That Buffy didn't ever need to hear about. "They just wanted to feed, and though you would be... entertaining." He attempted a crooked, ironic smile. "Getting to kill me was kind of a plus."
"Great," Xander smiled sarcastically, "I'm entertainment for vampires. You could have warned me." His eyes sharpened as he saw the small group of knockers by the wall, and the tiny form they clustered around. "Oh, man, no."
He lunged across the alley and knelt next to the tiny knocker, cradling the little body in his arms. "Is he... um, it... alive?" he asked Scarface, who was giving terse, quick orders to the rest of the knockers.
"Be fine," Scarface assured him quickly. "Take more than drainers to kill knocker, more than hit on head."
As if to prove him right, the knocker in Xander's arms stirred and slowly opened one big dark eye, staring up at Xander. "Bring fuggan now?" it squeaked, almost inaudibly. "Good fuggan?"
Xander blinked, then a slow grin spread itself across his face. "Always thinking with your stomach," he teased the little guy. "Yeah, all the pizza you want, as long as you want it. Promise. I'll even bring ice cream, the good stuff."
"Cooolness." The little knocker's eyes drifted back closed, a broad smile spreading across its face. Scarface gave a few more orders, and several knockers came forward to take the little one from Xander. He stood up to join Angel, and Scarface looked them both over, hands on skinny hips and bony elbows akimbo.
"You go home," the knocker finally ordered, with absolutely no room for arguement. "Place is safe, people safe. You go home." Then it marched off after the rest of its pack and they disappeared into the manhole, the cover clattering back in place before vampire or human had time to respond.
The alley was suddenly empty again, except for the two of them. Angel staggered a little as the last of his energy faded with the knowledge that it was over.
Xander got him by the shoulder, holding him up. The kid's face was drawn with fatigue, his eyes resigned. "You're really messed up," he observed unnecessarily.
"Thanks for the update," Angel gritted through clenched teeth. His arm *really* hurt. "I just need to get home, to feed. Then I'll be fine."
Xander's jaw clenched, then he nodded, once. "Okay. Lead the way."
Angel damn near laughed in spite of himself. "Right."
Side by side, the two staggered out of the alley. The small breeze caught three piles of dust, sending it spinning carelessly through the air after them, and from below ground came one high-pitched giggle, abruptly shushed.
Then there was silence again, save for the far-off sounds of an oblivious party.
The girls had gotten back in town earlier in the afternoon, and Willow had called Xander approximately ten seconds after she'd stepped inside her house, talking a happy blue streak which he'd tolerated until she'd calmed down enough to make sense. They had eventually agreed to meet at the Bronze after the girls finished unpacking and getting cleaned up.
Unfortunately, Willow had apparently underestimated the amount of time that would take them. Which meant that, for the first time in his life, Xander was not only early, but impatiently watching for the other two, who were late.
"Xander!" The happy shout from across the room got his attention even over the music; he got to his feet just in time for Willow to finish shoving her way through the crowds and throw herself against him, her arms locked firmly around his neck. He hugged her tightly, almost lifting her off her feet with enthusiasm.
Buffy watched them both with a wide grin and Xander returned it unself-conciously, unwinding one arm from Willow and holding it out in invitation. To his surprise and pleasure, Buffy's grin got even bigger and she accepted, wrapping her arm around his waist and laying her head against his shoulder. He tightened his arms around both of the girls, as if that way he could assure himself they were both really all right.
Eventually, they remembered that their reunion was taking place in a very crowded club teeming with their classmates and moved apart. But Willow stayed under Xander's shoulder, her arms clasped around his waist, and Xander kept a firm hold on Buffy's hand, not quite willing to let go.
"So," Xander finally said, "did we have a good vacation?"
The girls exchanged looks, and Buffy's lips twitched. "Oh, we had just a stellar time. Giles was going to come with us, but all the, uh, fun wore him out and he went home to crash so he wouldn't be like, dead tomorrow."
Xander winced, suddenly remembering the condition the library was in. He never *had* gotten around to cleaning up; Giles was going to have a cow.
"Who, me?" Willow let go with one hand to pointedly brush Xander's hair back from his bruised, scabbed forehead, and he cleared his throat, really glad they couldn't see the condition his arms and chest were in. "Oh, yeah, that. Long story." He looked down at Willow, whose collar had gapped with her motion, and saw the broad white bandage covering her shoulder. "Looks like I'm not the only one with some long stories."
Willow blushed at Xander's knowing smirk, and adjusted her shirt. "Well, see, there were these vampires...."
"We'd better sit down and get comfortable," Buffy interrupted before Willow could get rolling. "This is going to take a while."
Xander gallantly held chairs for both of them, feeling something tickle the back of his neck as he did so. But he resolutely refused to turn around and see who had just come in.
"Hey," Buffy objected on cue, "it was more like five days! And anyway, it wasn't our fault."
"Yeah, yeah, that's what you always say." Xander slumped in his chair, happily settling into the familiar teasing and still trying the faint twitch of awareness at his back. "So, whose fault was it?"
"... So, anyway, turns out the real reason CRD, the computer company, got shut down last year is because they got caught dumping all of these illegal solvents in the old mine shafts. CRD managed to keep it quiet and promised to clean it up, but they missed a batch of the stuff, and it pooled up under the historic district."
"Under my mom's gallery," Buffy filled in flatly. "God, if you and Angel hadn't found it...."
"Hey, the knockers found it," Xander interrupted before she could pursue *that* subject any further. "I tell you, they're going to get free pizza for life, for warning us and for..." He caught the train of thought before it could barrel past his lips. "Um, for warning us."
Buffy's eyes narrowed at his slip and Xander offered her his most innocent smile. He and Angel had agreed (for once) that Buffy didn't need to know about Adrianne's attack; she'd be entirely too likely to go into a guilt fit about not being there to take the vampires on herself. He didn't feel too remorseful about leaving huge chunks of the story out; he'd seen the girls exchanging looks and felt Buffy kick Willow at least once, to keep her from saying something. Looked no one was going to get the whole truth tonight.
No problem; he'd work the details out of Willow sooner or later. He just had to use the right approach.
"I can't believe they've lived under the city for all this time, and no one ever saw them," the target of his scheming was saying.
"Well, they've had, like, centuries to get good at it," Xander shrugged. "They're pretty cool little guys, once you get used to them."
"And when they're not pushing you into piles of heavy crates." Buffy still looked upset about that.
"I told you, that was an accident," Xander tried to reassure her. "They didn't mean for me to trip, and they were getting ready to try to dig me out of that mess when Fang Guy showed up and scared them off."
"Still...." Buffy frowned pensively into her drink, then visibly forced herself to cheer up. "Well, at least they saved the gallery, and Mom says the opening went really well, thanks to my nice friend Xander." She sent Xander a wicked sideways look. "I think my mom wants to start a fan club for you."
It was Xander's turn to blush, and Buffy and Willow laughed. "Face it Xander," Willow smiled at him with an uncomfortable amount of adoration in her eyes. "You're a hero."
"Cut it out," he mumbled, trying to bury his face in his drink and highly aware that he was red enough to glow in the dark. "Let's just never do this again, okay?"
The girls smiled in rueful agreement, willing to let the teasing drop. "Deal," Buffy nodded. "From now on, we all get in trouble together. Or at least in the same city."
"Amen." They fell into a comfortable silence, content to listen to the music and be together. Willow' shoulder didn't seem to be bothering her; she used that arm to move her glass around on the table, leaving round water trails. Buffy played idly with the cross around her neck, the dim lights sending tiny reflections skittering off of it. Xander thought he could see something that looked terrifyingly like bruises around her neck, but didn't really want to know for sure.
Every once in a while, Buffy would look up, her eyes scanning the Bronze as they had about every ten seconds for the last half-hour. Xander knew who she was looking for, and was pretty sure where Angel was. He stayed quiet as Buffy's smile dimmed a little with each unsuccessful search, until he just couldn't take it any more.
"He's upstairs," he told her with a heavy sigh, breaking the silence so suddenly that Willow jumped, and gesturing to the platform above Buffy's head.
Buffy twisted instantly in her chair to look up, and spotted Angel standing behind the railing, still as a statue. Her smile spread across her face like sunlight, and Xander fought back bitter, unreasonable jealousy. Angel started towards the stairs, Buffy's eyes following him all the way, and Xander caught Willow looking at him sympathetically.
It only took a moment for the vampire to work his way to the table, since crowds seemed to melt away in front of him. Buffy stood as Angel approached and stopped a few feet from her; although they didn't touch, the emotions arcing between them were almost tangible.
"Angel," Buffy said breathlessly.
"Buffy," he returned, his eyes never leaving Buffy's face.
Xander finally cleared his throat with disgust when it didn't seem like either of them were going to say anything else. Both of them blinked, remembering their audience, and Angel looked over. "Hey," he greeted the other two calmly. "How are you doing, Willow?"
Willow turned faintly pink again. "I'm fine, now," she answer brightly, "at least, Giles says I'm going to be fine and so did Natalie, so they're both probably right and, um..." Her voice trailed off as she realized she was babbling. Angel looked amused and Buffy tried to smother a smile. Xander rolled his eyes, and an awkward silence fell, as Buffy and Angel tried not to look at each other, and Xander and Willow tried not to look at Buffy and Angel.
The tension, combined with his own lingering guilt as he saw the heavy bandage beneath Angel's jacket, was abruptly too much for Xander. He jumped to his feet and took Willow's hand.
"Just this once," he informed Angel tightly, with a warning glare. "Once. Then we're even." Without looking back, he pulled Willow towards the dance floor; her eyes were wide in shock, but she followed without protest as another song started, leaving Angel and Buffy alone.
Angel watched Xander go with surprise, then looked back at Buffy, who seemed to be equally at a loss. "What *did* you guys get into?" she finally asked, tentatively touching the bandage that just showed under his sleeve.
The arm was healing and the slight pressure didn't hurt, but he moved away anyway and met her eyes levelly, trying to keep his own blank. Trying not to show how much he wanted to hold her. "Didn't he tell you?"
"Obviously not all of it." Angel stayed stubbornly silent, and she looked disgusted, then gave in. "I, um.... was starting to think you weren't going to come."
"I said I would."
"Yeah. I know." Silence fell again; Angel shoved his hands into his pockets, letting the music wrap around him. Anything for a distraction.
He half-smiled in spite of himself. "Yeah. All the time." His smile faded; he hated himself when he saw hers dim in response, but couldn't stop it. They shouldn't be doing this, shouldn't be together like this....
"Look," Buffy said abruptly, quickly, "I know you're trying to stay away from me and I know why and I can usually deal with that, but I've had a really harsh week and I can't right now, so could you please just dance with me?"
He blinked under the cascade of words, and really looked at her for the first time, finally seeing the desperate fatigue on her face, the shadows under and behind her eyes. His narrowed as he took in the set of almost invisible bruises around her throat, beneath his cross.
She looked tired, and alone, and desperately in need of comfort, and he just wasn't strong enough tonight to walk away.
Wordlessly, he held out his arms and she moved into them, wrapping her around his waist and settling her face into the soft velvet of his jacket with a heavy sigh. Carefully, he moved them the few steps to the dance floor; she followed along bonelessly, trustingly, and he let his hands spread out over her back, resting his cheek on her hair and swaying gently with the music.
Xander returned the nod, his face softening slightly as he looked down at Willow, whose auburn head was nestled securely in his collarbone. His arms tightened around her, smoothing her hair, and she snuggled against him, her eyes shut and her young, innocent face reflecting the same tired contentment as Buffy's.
He moved his hand on her back, a small, careful stroke. "Yeah?"
She didn't look up. "Thanks for taking care of Xander."
He smiled down at the top of her head, and pulled her a little closer. Just this once, he promised himself yet again, feeling her warm and breathing and safe against him. Just this once. "No problem."
They danced together as the music drifted around them, and the world stopped for a few precious minutes.
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