Prelude

Angel always woke before Xander, for which he was grateful. It gave him time to stare at his newest Childe and take in whatever changes or differences were etching themselves into the pale, lean body. It also gave him the opportunity to memorize the taste and feel of him, rousing Xander from sleep in the most pleasant of ways, unless business suddenly pressed upon them and there wasn’t time.

Most nights, like tonight, Angel woke just before sunset and began his explorations with mouth and fingertips. He couldn’t help but smile against the cool skin as he thought of how apt a nickname ‘Kitten’ had turned out to be. Xander alternately purred beneath him in pleasure or lashed out with insanely sharp claws in the form of words and anger. It was fifty-fifty which he would get on any given day, the fledge’s mood capricious and unpredictable at best. But there was a lot going on with Xander these days, so Angel was inclined to indulge him.

It looked like purring would win out just then, though, because Xander sighed as a prelude to waking and a smile slowly curved his lips. Dark eyes opened to focus on him and Xander murmured, “Morning.”

“Evening,” Angel corrected shifting up to take his mouth in a slow, devouring kiss.

The good thing about not needing to breathe was the length of the makeout session was seriously extended. They rolled around a few times with Xander winding up on top, grinning down at him, sprawled over Angel’s body, legs to the side and his ass in just the right spot, if Angel wanted to take advantage of the opportunity.

“So I was thinking,” Xander began.

Angel snorted.

Making a face, Xander continued, “We need a website.”

Angel blinked at him and asked, “What?”

“A website,” Xander repeated. “There’s way more freaks on the internet looking for help than hey!”

Angel rolled them again while plundering Xander’s mouth to stop the words. One thing he would not tolerate was discussing business in bed. It was in very short order that Xander was gasping into his mouth and thrusting a hard cock up at him, trying for friction. Angel broke the kiss and chuckled wickedly at his lover’s dazed expression. It never failed to send a thrill through him, knowing that he could render the very verbal Xander mute, however temporarily.

He gripped the boy’s wrists and put them above Xander’s head, holding them down as he bit into his Childe’s throat. Xander bucked and gasped in his grasp, but couldn’t get free, pinned down as he was. Angel withdrew from his throat and rolled them a final time, ordering hoarsely, “Ride me, boy!”

Xander swiftly pushed back onto his knees and then lowered himself onto Angel’s cock. He did so with excruciating slowness, forcing the shaft into his hole with a gasp of pain, and then a moan of pleasure. It was a few minutes before he was fully seated, but once there, he started moving almost right away. Having such tightness around his cock was better than he remembered it being, and the friction soon warmed the flesh inside, making it even more incredible.

Scratching his nails down Angel’s chest hard enough to draw lines of blood provoked a hiss of pain and a growl from Angel. He shifted into gameface and returned the favor, drawing his nails up Xander’s back until he bled.

“Sire,” Xander moaned. “Sire…”

Angel knew exactly what Xander wanted and teased him, “Do you need something, Kitten?”

Xander’s fangs sprung forth at the hated nick-name and he snarled, but the ferocity was belied by the way the boy’s head fell back on a particularly hard thrust of Angel’s hips. Their hands laced together and Xander moaned as he increased his pace, fucking himself on Angel’s cock almost desperately.

Rising into a sitting position, Angel wrapped the boy’s arms behind his back and murmured into his ear, “Drink from me, Kitten, drink and find your pleasure.”

Sharp fangs broke through his jugular and Xander came only a few thrusts later, tepid seed spilling between them as his body jerked and spasmed around the shaft impaling him. The clenching of tight flesh around him and the erotic draw of blood from him sent Angel over the edge. His grip on Xander tightened, twisting the boy’s arms up further as he locked them in place together, spilling deep inside his Childe’s body before collapsing back onto the pillows.

“That is so totally never getting old,” Xander sighed, tone utterly sated as he lay limp on Angel’s chest. “Although you can stop any time with the kitten thing, you know.”

Angel grinned and slapped Xander on the ass. “I’ll call y’whatever I want to call ye.”

Licking the wound closed on Angel’s throat, Xander grumbled, “Yeah, yeah.”

And as much as he was loathe to move, Angel said, “We should get cleaned up and join the others.”

“Do we have to?”

Sensing there was something more than post-sex laziness in the request, he countered, “Is there a reason we shouldn’t?”

Xander’s gaze shifted away as he negated, “Never mind, it’s stupid.”

Angel’s arms clamped down around the boy before he could pull free. He waited until the struggles stopped, even as he tried to ignore how good it felt as he was still lodged within Xander’s body. When Xander lay tense and motionless, not even the breathing reflex making itself known, Angel questioned, “What’s wrong?”

“You’re going to laugh.”

Somehow, I doubt that, Angel thought, mentally bracing himself. He nuzzled at Xander’s throat and murmured, “I won’t laugh.”

Xander sighed. “It’s my birthday.”

Startled, Angel looked into the dark eyes that were even more sad than usual, and felt something deep twist within him. Birthday celebrations were a relatively new development in society, but ingrained on this particular one. While he had no doubt that many of his Childe’s previous birthdays had been spent miserably, Angel was sure this would rate as one of the worst, given that it was the first without even his friends around him.

His other friends, Angel corrected himself. Stroking his hands up and down the boy’s back in a soothing movement, Angel said softly, “Happy birthday, Xander. I’m verra glad y’were born so that you could wind up right here, with me.”

Xander didn’t move for several, long moments. Then, without warning, he simply went limp over Angel, face buried in the crook of his neck. His words were muffled when he said, “No one’s ever said that to me before.”

Which brought up such a well of fury that it took a few seconds for Angel to get under control. If Xander hadn’t already killed his parents, Angel knew that he’d be hard pressed not to do it himself.

“Angel?” Xander whispered fearfully.

Taking a deep breath and slowly releasing it, the action calming if not physically necessary, Angel relaxed his arms from around Xander so that he could cup the boy’s face. Staring into those uncertain eyes, Angel told him, “I want to kill anyone who’s ever hurt you, Xander, up to and including Buffy. I want to make them pay in blood with what happened to you and it’s a struggle not to give in.”

Happiness blossomed in Xander’s eyes at his words and the boy wiggled in a promising fashion on Angel’s cock, which stiffened again in appreciation.

Angel chuckled and said, “I think you need to be brought out for a proper celebration, my own.”

Xander’s gaze narrowed suspiciously as he demanded, “What do you mean by ‘proper?’”

Angel just rolled them over and took his mouth in a deep, devastating kiss as he started moving inside Xander once more.

 

First Verse

 

Caritas wasn’t quite a dive, from what Xander could tell, but the decorations seemed to belong on a psychedelic Hollywood set of some kind. Lounge lizard gone fuscia, he thought with a grin.

Angel’s arm slid around his back, anchoring him firmly to his side as they entered the club, and said, “Your present from me is that I won’t sing.”

Xander arched an eyebrow at him dubiously.

“That’s a present to all of us, Hunka Hunka,” a new voice announced cheerfully.

Turning his gaze to the newcomer, Xander did his best not to gape at the green-skinned, red-horned, red-eyed demon in a leisure suit.

“Well hello to you too, sunshine,” the demon continued, taking in Xander’s open-mouthed expression.

Angel stepped in with a hasty, “Lorne, this is Xander. Xander, this is Lorne. He owns Caritas. He’s also an empath so if you don’t want him to know what’s going to happen in your future, don’t sing or hum or even whistle around him.”

Good to know, Xander thought, nodding.

“Ah, no offense, Lorne,” Angel finished weakly.

Lorne offered a smile that seemed sincere as he replied, “None taken, oh tone-deaf one. Believe me, visions of blood and death aren’t exactly appetizing for me, either.”

“Oh, Xander’s a reformed vampire,” Cordelia offered on joining them at the bar. “He doesn’t kill.”

Lorne raised a curious eyebrow Angel’s way. “Oh?”

“Not to eat,” Angel clarified.

“Well. This does sound interesting,” Lorne replied. “Who wants a drink?”

Gunn and Wesley arrived just then, mid-argument.

“And I’m tellin’ you that iron works just as good as silver and it’s a helluva lot cheaper,” Gunn insisted.

Wesley gave a dubious sniff and replied, “I suppose you’re going to tell me that you had no problems with reanimation of the supposedly dead Karthin?”

Gunn blinked at him, stopping short. “Wait. You mean the things come back to life?”

“Who wants a drink?” Cordelia asked brightly. “I know I do.”

Xander watched, bemused, as she took an arm of each man and practically dragged them to an open table off to the side of the club.

“So tell me more about this non-killing thing you’ve got going,” Lorne said as they followed the other three.

Coming up with the most expedient answer, Xander replied, “Cordelia told me not to.”

“I said not to, too, you know,” Angel put in, huffy.

Xander grinned up at him. “Yeah, but you’re not Cordy.”

To that, Angel had to say, “Good point. Still. Wrath of Sire is a good reason not to kill too, right?”

Xander plopped down in the seat beside him and replied innocently, “Sure. Of course it is.”

“Wait. Back up a second here, sugarlips. Sire?” Lorne demanded incredulously.

Angel sighed and said, “It’s a long story.”

“One that I’m thinking I really want to hear,” the demon retorted.

Xander met Angel’s gaze, really not wanting to get into the whole thing, especially not in public, but not sure how to ask.

As if sensing his reluctance, Angel said firmly, “Another time, Lorne.”

“Well fine,” Lorne huffed. “Excuse me for not wanting to be on the menu in advance.”

A waitress came around just then, human from what Xander could smell, and took their drink orders. It relaxed the tension that had sprung up from Angel’s unwillingness to divulge Xander’s tale of woe and Wesley said, “So how is business, Lorne?” further dispersing the irritation from the big, red eyes as conversation turned to profit and trends, and then Cordelia jumping in with how they would never be as profitable as Caritas. Angel got mildly annoyed at the comparison and it was a free-for-all from there.

If Xander hadn’t been so forcefully reminded of Anya, it would have been a fun conversation to listen to. As it was, it cut into him enough to start him humming along to the current Karaoke victim on stage, who was singing a painfully mangled version of Billy Joel’s ‘An Innocent Man.’

When Xander spotted Lorne staring at him with a narrowed gaze, he instantly stopped humming and looked away.

“Birthday boy needs to get up on stage,” Lorne announced.

Xander shook his head. “Not a chance.”

Lorne countered firmly, “Trust me, boy-wonder, you need to get that cute little butt on stage and finish singing that song.”

“I can’t sing,” Xander said flatly.

Angel frowned at him and said, “If Lorne thinks you should sing, you should. It’s not that bad.”

Crossing his arms over his chest, Xander shook his head stubbornly. There was no way in hell he was going to get up on any stage, ever again. He still had horrors from the last time and that was back in middle school. “I am not singing.”

Angel looked from him to Lorne and asked, “How important is this?”

“Very,” Lorne stated flatly. “Imperative, even. Maybe not Apocalypse Time, but seriously close.”

“Get up and sing, boy,” Angel ordered.

Xander was all set to defy the vampire when Angel grabbed him by the back of the neck and pulled him in close. The glint of gold in the dark eyes told Xander this was the ‘don’t mess with me’ expression, even if Angel hadn’t shifted to gameface. Jerking free, he snapped, “Fine!” and stalked over to the stage where the current singer was taking a bow to scattered applause. Climbing the stairs had him almost sick to his stomach and Xander’s hands were already damp and clammy.

The music started and even though words appeared on the screen in front he didn’t need them. He’d grown up on Billy Joel and knew the words to just about every single song the man had written. At one point in his life, Xander had wanted to be the Piano Man. Swallowing against a too-dry throat, he took a breath and started singing.

Some people stay far away from the door,
If there's a chance of it opening up.
They hear a voice in the hall outside,
And hope that it just passes by.

Strangely, the crowd grew silent when his voice cracked. He wasn’t sure whether it was a compliment or not, and so struggled on.

Some people live with the fear of a touch,
And the anger of having been a fool.
They will not listen to anyone,
So nobody tells them a lie.

Xander deliberately didn’t meet Cordelia’s gaze at that one, knowing just how painfully true those words had echoed his time with her.

I know you're only protecting yourself.
I know you're thinking of somebody else.
Someone who hurt you,
But I'm not above,
Making up for the love,
You've been denying you could ever feel.

And that was the point that he just lost himself in the words, as he invariably did when he blared music on his stereo at home. Before Spike had come to live in his basement non-paradise. When he’d had something resembling privacy.

I'm not above doing anything,
To restore your faith if I can.
Some people see through the eyes of the old,
Before they ever get look at the young.
I'm only willing to hear you cry,
Because I am an innocent man.
I am, an innocent man.
Oh yes I am.

Some people say they will never believe,
Another promise they hear in the dark.
Because they only remember too well,
They heard somebody tell them before.
Some people sleep all alone every night,
Instead of taking a lover to bed.
Some people find that it's easier to hate,
Than to wait anymore.

I know you don't want to hear what I say.
I know you're gonna keep turning away.
But I've been there and if I can survive,
I can keep you alive,
I'm not above going through it again.
I'm not above being cool for a while,
If you're cruel to me I'll understand.


His eyes popped open at that, drawn to Angel for more than obvious reasons. The next verse had more to do with himself, than his Sire, but applied to both.

Some people run from a possible fight,
Some people figure they can never win.
And although this is a fight I can lose,
The accused is an innocent man.

I am, an innocent man.
Oh yes I am.
An innocent man.

Another telling point for them both, but he sang the next verse just for Angel, feeling the truth of the lyrics down to his soul, what was left of it.

You know you only hurt yourself out of spite.
I guess you'd rather be a martyr tonight.

That's your decision,
But I'm not below,
Anybody I know,
If there's a chance of resurrecting a love.
I'm not above going back to the start,
To find out where the heartache began.

Some people hope for a miracle cure,
Some people just accept the world as it is.
But I'm not willing to lay down and die,
Because I am an innocent man.

I am, an innocent man.
Oh yes I am.

An innocent man.

There was pure silence when he was done, which made Xander afraid to open his eyes. And then the clapping began. A few hands at first, until the whole club resounded with it, shocking him into stumbling off to the side and making a run for the bathroom.

Whether to throw up, or cry, he really wasn’t sure.

*  *  *  *

Angel sat there, stunned by Xander’s performance, just like everyone else in the club as the applause rang around them. He knew that no one there had expected that level of talent from anyone at the club, let alone an unassuming, slouching fledge of a vampire. The singing had been all the more heartbreaking for its sincerity and lack of flash, or any kind of ego. The voice itself had been pure and true, if not very forceful, and cut right into Angel’s guts with the words.

“Wow,” Cordelia finally managed. “Who knew?”

Shaking out of his own stupor, Angel strode from the table towards the men’s room where Xander had fled after singing. He glared at a Vroch demon who was heading into the small room and the creature jolted to a stop, letting Angel go inside. He bolted the door behind him and found Xander leaning heavily on the sink counter.

“Go ahead and get it over with.”

Startled and dismayed by the listless tone, Angel walked up behind Xander and wrapped his arms around the boy, pulling him in close. Pressing his face to Xander’s throat, he said, “I don’t know what you’re expecting me to say, Xander, but that was…amazing.”

Unexpectedly, Xander stiffened and struggled to get free, having enough of a surprise factor that he managed it. He faced Angel in gameface, plainly furious as he hissed, “I expect it from the others, but you’re supposed to be in my corner! Or are all the words you’ve been shoveling at me for the last couple of months pure bullshit?”

Angel grabbed Xander by the throat and shoved him into the wall, careful not to really hurt the other vampire as he pinned him in place. Keeping his voice steady, Angel stated, “I’m not making fun of you, Xander. No one here is, not after that performance. You have a talent that I never even suspected.”

Dark eyes glinted gold with suspicion and anger for several long moments before the ridges smoothed away and confusion rose instead. “I don’t understand.”

“Xander, you have a wonderful singing voice,” Angel told him, almost gently. “It was a pleasure to listen to you. And the way you sang…it’s a gift and one that shouldn’t have survived you becoming a vampire.”

“What do you mean?” Xander questioned, even more confused.

Certain now that the boy wouldn’t try and run, Angel slid his hand down lower so that it covered the non-beating husk of a heart left in Xander’s chest. “Song and soul are two things that are intertwined, Childe; without the one, there cannot be the other. Or, that’s how it’s always been until now. The way you sang back there…there was more soul in that song than any vampire can claim, even me, I suspect.”

Xander blinked a few times in surprise, the suspicion not fully abated as he asked, “So, it wasn’t totally crap then? No one’s going to make fun of me?”

Mildly exasperated, Angel replied, “No, Xander, no one’s going to make fun of you. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you for the last five minutes.”

“Did you like it?” Xander questioned, sidling up to him and resting his cheek on Angel’s shoulder.

Angel smiled as he put his arms around Xander and replied, “You were wonderful, Kitten, just perfect.”

Xander sighed in apparent contentment, not even objecting to the nick-name, and relaxed against him.

*  *  *  *

Xander couldn’t quite believe that Angel wasn’t humoring him about the others’ reactions to his singing until they walked back to the table and Cordelia exclaimed, “Xander! Oh my God! You are so the designated singer from here on out!”

Of course, the applause that started up around them boosted his ego just a little, too.

Flushing in happy surprise, Xander sat on the chair beside Angel and moved as close to the other vampire as he could. This was more than he’d ever had even while alive. For the undead portion of his existence, he had to admit that things were going pretty damn well.

“So, Xander,” Lorne began. “Where did you get that set of pipes, anyhow?”

Giving the demon a wary look, Xander answered, “Born with them, I guess.”

Angel put an arm over Xander’s shoulder, pulling him in close, and prompted, “What did you see, Lorne?”

“A whole lot of nothing good, Angel-cakes,” Lorne told them heavily. “Chaos. Evil. Some Hellmouth that’s got a seriously overgrown demon problem. And I’m not talking about the kind of demons who like to decorate the way I do, either.”

Xander met Cordy’s gaze, both of them knowing that he was talking about Sunnydale. He hesitated, then asked, “What about the Slayer?”

“What about her?” Lorne countered.

Xander questioned, “She wasn’t in your vision?”

Shaking his head, Lorne said, “Not even a flash of her.”

“That explains why the Hellmouth is in chaos,” Wesley observed.

Gunn spoke up with, “So why hasn’t your girl’s posse called for help then?”

No one could answer that, but Angel said, “We’ll call once we get back to the Hyperion. This probably hasn’t even happened yet, right Lorne?”

Lorne shrugged and explained, “Past, present, future…it does get a little jumbled sometimes in my visions.”

“Still, we shouldn’t waste time in warning Giles and Buffy if this is an eminent threat,” Wesley pressed.

When it looked like Angel was going to lay down the law, Xander quickly said, “It’s a good idea to just call, don’t you think?”

Angel looked down at him for a long moment, then sighed and murmured, “It’s your birthday, Xander.”

Touched that it was actually upsetting to Angel that work was intruding on his birthday, Xander smiled at him and said, “You can make it up to me next year, how’s that?”

Huffing in annoyance, Angel replied, “All right. Let’s go home and see what’s going on.”

Everyone rose to leave, but Xander found himself separated from the others when Lorne hustled him off to the side. Angel, Gunn, and Wesley were deep in discussion, but Xander didn’t fool himself that Angel wasn’t perfectly aware of where he was, and who he was with. The vampire had an uncanny knack for knowing everything Xander was doing, no matter the distance.

“Here’s the thing I didn’t think you’d want to be public consumption,” Lorne started, looking serious.

Xander crossed his arms over his chest, bracing himself.

“You and Angel are all hot and heavy right now, and it’s going to stay that way, which I would normally be all a cheerleader about. If anyone deserves someone, it’s His Broodiness,” Lorne continued. “The problem is that he’s going to go a little postal if he gets any deeper into you.”

Alarmed, Xander demanded, “He becomes Angelus?”

But Lorne shook his head. “I said postal, not homicidal maniac without a conscience.”

“There’s a difference?”

Lorne paused. “Point. Still, this thing with you two…”

“I can’t end it,” Xander interrupted harshly. “I won’t.”

The demon sighed and admitted, “The truth is, I think that’d make things even worse. Look. All I’m saying is to keep an eye on him and rein him in, if things get a little out of control.”

Xander arched an eyebrow at him. “You do know that I’m a vampire, right? That I don’t really care if he goes after humans?”

Lorne blinked at him in surprise and protested, “But you said you don’t kill!”

“I don’t, but that’s mainly to keep Cordy happy. Doesn’t mean that I care if Angel does, as long as my friends aren’t on the menu,” Xander pointed out.

Groaning, Lorne muttered, “It’s like asking the fox to guard the henhouse.” Then, louder, “Angel going off on humans adds to the whole guilt complex he’s got going, right? So you keep him from going off the deep-end, you keep him from, well, going off the deep end, and that’s only to the good, right? No gnashing of teeth and tearing out that pretty hair of his. Not to mention sackcloth is so not this century.”

And keeping Angel happy was something that Xander was fully in line with doing anyhow, so he nodded and agreed, “I’ll keep an eye on him.”

“And on an even more personal note, try and cut the guy with the glasses some slack. He thinks he’s lost a son, now that you’re all vamped out,” Lorne finished.

Xander stiffened at the mention of Giles, but didn’t comment. He just walked over to where Angel waited at the door and left the club without saying another word.

*  *  *  *

The phone was ringing when they got back to the hotel and Xander ran ahead to grab it, pushing passed an indignant Cordy who tore after him in a laughing competition. He grinned as he shut the door in her face and thought, Funny how we get along better now than we ever did when I was alive.

Jogging to the desk, he picked up the phone and answered, “Angel Investigations. We hope the helpless, ah, no, we help the hopeless. Never mind. Can I help you?”

There was a long pause where no one said anything.

“Anyone there?” Xander questioned. “‘Cause I’m hanging up now.”

“Xander? Is that you?”

Xander froze and if he’d had a beating heart, it would have stopped at Willow’s incredulous tone. Swallowing unnecessarily, he asked cautiously, “If I say yes, are you and the others going to try to stake me?”

The pause was shorter this time, but Willow’s tone wasn’t very convincing when she replied, “No, of course not.”

Yeah right, he thought, sighing. And it wasn’t like he hadn’t expected this kind of reaction when they called, but he’d expected to have the others do the talking. Looking at Cordy through the glass portion of the door, he waved her in and muttered, “Yeah. Okay. Did you need his nibs?”

“His nibs? Oh, Angel, yes, we do. We’ve got some um, trouble.”

Xander paused, wanting to hang up, but also wanting to get something more than a ‘maybe’ on the whole staking issue. He finally sighed and said, “Hang on, Willow,” and held the phone out to Cordelia without waiting for more. He plopped down in the chair behind the desk, pulling his legs up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them. He couldn’t even manage a fake smile for Angel, who gave him a worried look, not with his thoughts too wrapped up in Willow and the loss of their friendship. The loss of everything, really.

“What did you do to Xander?” Cordelia demanded, not even bothering to find out who was on the other end of the line.

Angel’s eyes stayed on Xander, but he plucked the phone from Cordelia and asked, “Willow?”

The good thing about his vamp senses was that he barely had to strain to hear both sides of the conversation.

Willow replied with an anxious, “Angel?”

“It’s me,” Angel confirmed. “What’s wrong?”

“Buffy’s gone.”

Xander met Angel’s surprised look with one of his own, the announcement coming as something of a surprise, despite Lorne’s vision. He hadn’t truly expected anything to happen to Buffy. Hadn’t thought anything could, really.

“When you say gone…”

“Vanished! Poofed! Disappeared! One minute beside me, the next thin air!”

Angel ordered patiently, “Willow, calm down!”

She inhaled a few times, breathing slow and deliberate, and answered, “Right. Calm. Okay.”

“What were you doing when Buffy disappeared?” Angel asked.

In a somewhat shaky voice, Willow explained, “We were hunting a Verin demon. And okay, not so much with me doing the hunting, but Buffy had him cornered and I was there for backup. She was just bringing down the sword when she vanished and it just fell to the ground.”

“I’m assuming Giles is already on this?”

“Full research mode, but yeah. It’s like they all know she’s gone! Broad daylight and a Filn just waltzed on by me today!”

Angel frowned a question at him and Xander whispered, “Small scaly thing with purple eyes. Nasty smell.”

An ‘O’ of recognition surfaced on Angel’s face as he said to Willow, “We’ll be up there in a few hours to help out.”

There was a pause before she asked, “All of who?”

Angel sighed and said, “All of us, Willow, Xander, included. And if anyone even thinks about coming after him with a stake, I’ll leave you to deal with this on your own.”

“No staking,” Willow promised quickly.

It wasn’t much of a comfort, considering the threat it had taken to get the promise, but Xander would take what he could get. Angel hung up without another word to Willow, then turned to the others and said, “I need to talk to Xander.”

Gunn and Wesley tugged a protesting Cordelia out of the room, the door closing behind them, and Angel sat on the desk. “You okay, Xander?”

“Well, I almost got a maybe on the no-staking, so that’s an improvement,” Xander half-joked, trying not to look as hurt as he felt.

Angel sighed, pulling him up and into his arms, where Xander went willingly. It still hurt, knowing that his two best friends wanted him dead, well, all of his friends did, but the sting was muted now, knowing just how much Angel wanted and cared for him. Burrowing a little closer he nuzzled at his sire’s throat and felt an answering shiver to his explorations.

Unfortunately, Angel seemed to suddenly remember that there was a reason for the impromptu cuddle-fest, because he pulled back a little and said, “We have to go.”

Xander sighed. “Yeah, I know. But you’ll make it up to me later, right?”

Tweaking one of Xander’s nipples through his shirt with a growl, Angel informed him, “You’ll make it up to me, sprat, teasing me like that when there’s work to do.”

Xander shuddered in pure lust at the commanding tone, even as he backed up to let Angel lead the way out of the office to join the others.

 

Second Verse

Angel was more than happy to let Xander ignore the seatbelt law and curl up directly beside him on the drive to Sunnydale. Even though it had been a couple of months since he’d shown up on the Hyperion’s doorstep and subsequently become Angel’s lover, it was still a new feeling for him. He’d had long-term before, Darla and Drusilla and Spike all making his head swim with a violence-fueled passion for decades at a time, but not this one-on-one intensity. It was so good that sometimes, it made his heart ache. And other times, when he came upon Xander about to snack on someone who’d ticked him off on the street, it was almost as trying as when Spike had first been turned.

Snorting softly at the thought, Angel spared a few seconds to wonder just what his errant Childe was up to in Sunnydale, without the Slayer to keep him in check. There was the chip, but somehow the echo of pain in Xander’s eyes when he’d talked about it meant that Spike had figured out a way around it. Spike was nothing, if not thorough in finding loopholes after all. Although, there was also the fact that Xander had technically not been human at the time, so Spike could do whatever he wanted to him.

Angel briefly pressed his lips to the top of Xander’s head, his fingers rubbing lightly up and down his lover’s arm. “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” Xander muttered, not moving from his spot against Angel.

The tone was defensive, not that Angel had expected anything else, and he sighed as he fell silent again. Xander’s hand shifted to Angel’s thigh and rubbed it briefly in apology, causing him to smile. It had only been in the last couple of weeks that Xander had gotten bolder in his quest for contact. It was almost as if he’d finally figured out that Angel wasn’t going to reject the attempts he made to get close.

He wanted to dismember Xander’s parents, slowly, for what they’d done to the boy growing up, but that option was no longer available. No physical abuse, but complete emotional neglect, from what he’d been able to piece together. It made the boy unusually hesitant about seeking affection from him, even more than Angel’s own frightening actions towards Xander in the beginning. He fully intended to corner Willow about the subject when there was time and find out specifics, because getting personal information from Xander was like asking Cordelia to file properly; it just wasn’t going to happen.

They crossed into Sunnydale about an hour before sunrise and drove up to Giles’ place with about twenty minutes to spare. Xander was sound asleep in his arms by then, succumbing to a fledge’s biology. Angel simply pulled his lover into his arms and walked up to the front door cradling Xander against his chest.

Cordelia, Wesley, and Gunn were right in front of them and she used the knocker impatiently.

Giles opened the door, stepping aside to let the others in as he gave Angel a disapproving sniff and invited, “Come in, Angel, before you meet the sun.”

But Angel couldn’t move when he tried to cross the threshold and growled. “You need to invite both of us, Giles.”

Looking as though he tasted something distinctly unpleasant, Giles rephrased, “You may both enter my home.”

The invisible barrier dispersed and Angel strode inside, away from the windows. Willow stood anxiously in the center of the living room while Spike sprawled arrogantly in one of the chairs. Cordelia and Gunn stood behind him, as if guarding Angel’s back, while Wesley took a spot off to the side, clearly taking up the best vantage point. Angel asked simply, “Spare room without windows?”

“Just the basement,” the librarian replied. “But I’ve put up blackout curtains in the upstairs guest room for you.”

Angel’s jaw tightened knowing that Giles hadn’t included Xander in that offer. He nodded shortly and took the steps two at a time, wanting to get Xander to safety as soon as possible. Settling his Childe on the bed, he pulled the blankets up around the cool body and kissed his forehead before sitting on the edge of the bed. Brushing his fingers through the thick, dark hair, he whispered, “I’ll be back shortly, my own,” and stood to leave.

Downstairs, where the drapes were also drawn against the dawning sun, Wesley was asking, “Where are we with the investigation?”

“No further along, I’m afraid,” Giles replied. “The girls weren’t using magic to track the demon, so there was nothing to backfire. Willow and Tara have done a few location spells, but encountered nothing. There’s no sign of Buffy anywhere on this plane of existence.”

That was when Angel noticed the girl sitting curled up on the sofa. She was so still and quiet that he honestly hadn’t even seen her. Mentally shaking his head…some vampire you are… Angel questioned, “Anything special about the Verin itself?”

“Not that we know of, but then, it was a chance encounter,” Giles admitted.

Spike finally chimed in with, “No such thing.”

As much as he hated to agree with anything that Spike said, Angel had to in this case. He saw agreement in Wesley’s gaze when their eyes met, and told Giles, “It does seem a little too coincidental.”

“So we go out and take a look-see where the deed went down,” Gunn stated.

Angel nodded and ordered, “Take Wesley and Willow, and a sword in case the Verin is still around. Be careful.”

Giving him a mock salute, Gunn looked at Willow and asked, “You ready to go, girl?”

Willow nodded as she headed for the girl on the couch and whispered something in her ear before trailing Gunn and Wesley out the door.

Cordelia squared off against Giles almost before Gunn and Willow were gone, demanding, “So what is the deal with you people? Why are you so hot to stake Xander?”

Drawing himself up stiffly, Giles retorted, “He’s a vampire, Cordelia. I should think that the reasons were self-evident.”

“Don’t you go getting all English-y superior with me, Mister,” Cordelia warned, hands on her hips. “Just because he gets fangish now and again doesn’t mean that he isn’t still Xander!”

Angel stepped between them and asked, “Cordy, could you get started on research with Tara?”

“I’m not done with him,” she warned.

“I know.”

“Good. Because I am so not,” she repeated, stalking towards the table where the books were cracked open.

Angel looked over at the girl he didn’t know and she gave a brief, painfully shy smile before moving to join Cordelia at the table. Glancing back at Giles, he requested tightly, “Somewhere we can talk?”

Giles nodded sharply and walked down the short hall, into a study. Angel had just closed the door when the other man stated, “We cannot afford to trust that demon simply because he looks like Xander.”

“So the last two months of him not killing Cordelia and Gunn and Wesley were just blind luck?” Angel retorted.

Pulling his glasses off to wipe clean, Giles conceded, “Something of his memories may remain, but it is not Xander and I refuse to trust a demon who would as soon drain me dry, as look at me.”

“Fine. Don’t trust him, I don’t care. But you will respect him and you will not give him a hard time. One wrong word out of any of you about him, and we’re gone,” Angel stated flatly.

Giles put his glasses back on and said, voicing honest confusion, “I don’t understand how you can protect it. You didn’t make the thing. You’re not its Sire, even if it is of the Aurelius line through Drusilla. Why are you so convinced that you can trust him not to kill?”

Angel wasn’t about to admit to not trusting Xander on any score, never mind that particular one, and so evaded, “I am his Sire in all ways that matter. Dru didn’t bond properly with him and Xander is mine now.”

With a sharp, knowing look, Giles questioned, “Yours?”

“Bloody hell!”

Angel and Giles both turned towards Spike, who stood in the study doorway, scowling.

“You’ve gone and given the git your blood? After Dru made him?” Spike snapped. “What the bloody hell were you thinkin,’ Peaches?”

Grimacing at the hated nick-name, Angel snapped back, “That he needed the blood of someone who was sane and could take care of him, that’s what! And don’t think that I don’t know that you got to him somehow, William. You and I are going to have a serious chat about that.”

Spike snarled and took off, not waiting to hear what else Angel might have to say.

“Spike got to Xander? What on earth are you talking about?” Giles demanded crossly.

Finally losing his patience, Angel grabbed Giles’ shirt and hauled him in close, hissing, “When Xander was alone, and vulnerable, when he’d been betrayed by those who were supposed to love him most, Spike tormented him. I don’t know what he did exactly, but it almost caused more damage than I could heal! Look to yourself before calling someone else soulless, Watcher.”

Shoving Giles back, Angel stalked out of the room before he completely lost his temper. In the living room, he snapped at Cordelia, “I’m going to bed.”

Cordelia waved at him without even looking up from the book she was reading. “Sure thing, boss man. See you in ten.”

It wasn’t until he was naked and curled up in the too-small bed with Xander, that his ire slowly began to dissipate. Even in his sleep, Xander sought comfort from him, turning in his arms and burrowing close. Wrapping his arms tightly around his Childe, Angel kissed his temple before closing his eyes and allowing sleep to find him.

*  *  *  *

“Is he, is he always like that?”

Looking over at the timid question, Cordelia flashed the girl a smile and answered, “Nope. Usually he’s a lot less verbal and more with the grrrr.”

Blue eyes widened, then quickly looked back down at a book, and Cordelia grinned to herself. Not that she wanted to scare the girl, well okay, maybe just a little since no one had stuck up for Xander when he was chained up and helpless. It still teed her off like nobody’s business.

If anyone’s going to torture Xander, it should be me! God knows I put up with enough from him over the years, Cordelia thought with an internal glare at the rest of the absent Scoobies.

Giles joined them a few minutes later and she was please to see his shirt looking more wrinkled than when he and Angel had gone to their little confab. Putting on a bright smile, she asked sweetly, “Everything all right, Giles?”

He looked at her a moment, as if determining the sincerity of her question, then replied, “Of course.”

“Well darn,” she replied, maintaining the smile. “So. And I really am curious, by the way. Why would you think that Xander needed to be staked when he showed up on your door all weak and confused and looking for help and turned, but not with the vampness around you guys?”

Giles sighed and took off his glasses again.

*  *  *  *

Gunn wasn’t all that sure about the redheaded chic who led them to one of the cemeteries. She seemed a little too...calm...to be trusted. Most girls he knew would be chattering away trying to keep from thinking about what was going on, but not this one. What was worse, was being kept between her and Wesley, as though he were some kind of buffer. The very worst, though, was knowing that she was supposed to have been Xander’s best friend and she’d totally betrayed him.

Loyalty meant everything to Gunn. The betrayal of it was not to be forgiven.

In the beginning, he hadn’t been too keen on Xander sticking around and even being not dust. That, of course, was because he hadn’t known the dude. Not that there were a lot of warm and fuzzies going on between them even now, because there weren’t, but if his sister had retained her humanity the way Xander had, she’d still be among the living. So to speak.

Red stopped just outside the cemetery and said, “This is where it happened.”

Gunn looked around, but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. “Yep. Looks like a graveyard to me.”

Wesley flashed him a wry grin that was gone only seconds after appearing, and the Englishman agreed, “It certainly is. And you’ve spelled the area itself? Tried a location spell here at the site?”

“Gee no, Wesley, we didn’t think of that,” Red retorted.

The thin smile on Wesley’s face had nothing of good humor in it as he said, “I’m merely ascertaining what’s been tried and what hasn’t.”

“Right. Sorry. Little on edge here,” she apologized. “We’ve tried a location spell here, we’ve tried a tracking spell, we’ve tried hunting down that Verin, all with no luck.”

“Anyone try good, old-fashioned bribery?” Gunn asked.

Red frowned at him. “What do you mean?”

Looking over at Wesley, Gunn questioned, “There a place around here demons like to hang out?”

Thoughtful, Wesley nodded and replied, “Willie’s bar. It has a rather distressing amount of blood-thirsty demons to human ratio, but I’m sure Angel and Xander can handle that when they wake this evening.”

Gunn nodded. “Well, they don’t pay us to be standin’ around, so how’s about we take a look around here anyhow?”

“We get paid?” Wesley countered, dryly.

And if Red felt left out of the exchange, all the better.

*  *  *  *

Angel woke comfortable and content, wrapped around the cool body of his Childe as he inevitably did. Nuzzling at the soft skin beneath Xander’s ear, he was tempted to wake the other with passion, but figured the embarrassment factor after would be too high. He sighed a mild complaint, but merely kissed a sharp cheekbone and slid out of bed. A knock at the door sounded when he was reaching for his clothes and an evil imp made him call quietly, “Come in.”

Giles stood on the other side of the door. He took in Angel’s nudity, glanced beyond him to Xander curled comfortably on the bed, and flushed an unflattering shade. “Everyone is assembled downstairs, waiting.”

“We’ll be down shortly,” Angel replied calmly.

Nodding shortly, Giles closed the door behind him with a short, sharp noise.

“That wasn’t very nice of you.”

Angel grinned at Xander’s sleepy observation and rolled to face the other and reply, “I wasn’t feeling nice.”

Dark eyes stared at him without any determinable expression, which made Angel a little nervous until a single hand reached out to cup his face.

Relaxing against the touch, he whispered, “I want to hurt them all for what they did to you.”

At that, Xander smiled, however sadly. “Thanks.”

“Come to me, kitten, feed from my strength before we go down,” Angel offered softly.

Xander crawled to rest atop him before smoothly biting into his jugular, pulling a groan of pleasure from Angel. His hands slid naturally onto Xander’s ass, squeezing hard at the eroticism rising between them. It didn’t last long, though, certainly not long enough to do more than gain a modest erection. After licking the wound closed, Xander murmured, “You always taste so good, Sire, I want all of you.”

Angel groaned again, fingers digging into his Childe’s body before he recalled just who would be overhearing them, did he allow it to continue. Tempted to consign their petty morals to hell and ravish Xander then and there, loudly, it took strength to breathe deep and say, “We need to get dressed and join the others.”

Nipping at Angel’s throat without any serious intent, Xander rolled off him and nimbly hopped to his feet. Angel watched the play of muscles beneath the smooth flesh and growled in a combination of lust and possession. Xander flushed at the growl, but a pleased smile hovered as he gathered his clothes to dress.

Angel smirked to himself and climbed out of bed as well.

*  *  *  *

It was strange, watching the interplay of the people whom she’d thought she’d known, even if not well. Willow could never claim to have been Cordelia’s best friend, would have been horrified at the thought, truthfully, but watching her now was like seeing a complete stranger. And okay, Cordy had always been bossy, but the way all the men deferred to her was a kind of magic in and of itself. Even Angel, and it wasn’t like he didn’t know how to manage strong-willed women, what with Darla being his Sire. And while Wesley and vamp-Xander obeying her was only to be expected, it surprised Willow that Gunn didn’t do more than make token protests now and again.

Of course, what surprised her most was that almost all of what Cordelia had to say, was not only relevant, but helpful.

Shaking that somewhat bitchy thought away, Willow shifted slightly to murmur to Tara, “Heard from Anya yet?”

Tara shook her head and answered softly, “Nothing. I’m starting to get worried.”

Anya can take care of herself,” Willow assured her, squeezing Tara’s hand.

“Where is Anya?”

Jumping a bit at Xander’s question, and cursing herself for forgetting about heightened vamp-senses, Willow didn’t look at the vampire as she answered, “We’re not sure. After, well, you, she took off. Called us a couple of times since, but nothing recently.”

“She’s an ex-vengeance demon who can shop with the best of them; I’m sure she’s fine,” Cordelia pointed out.

Willow wasn’t up for meeting the vamp-Xander’s eyes directly, but watched as he and Angel exchanged a look that reminded her uncomfortably of the ones between herself and Tara. Giles had said that he’d found them both nude upon entry, but she’d mentally blocked out the thought that it might include what it might include.

Xander finally hissed at Angel, eyes briefly glowing before he turned and stalked out of the house altogether.

Angel sighed, but didn’t go after him. Instead, he told them, “Xander and I will hit Willie’s tonight and see what’s going on. What’s the plan for the rest of you?”

Giles opened his mouth to answer, but Angel shocked them all by going gameface and bolting outside. Without thinking, Willow jumped up from the sofa and ran after him. The others were right behind her, because when she stopped short in shock, someone slammed into her and almost knocked her over.

Spike and Angel were fighting savagely in the courtyard, and Xander was on the ground with a bloody face, moaning. Someone set her aside, firmly but gently, and she was vaguely surprised to find Wesley striding towards the combatants without any apparent fear.

“Enough!” Wesley bellowed, holding up a large Cross so that neither could miss it.

Both vampires spun away from the Cross, which meant they had to stop trying to kill one another.

“Spike, go away. You aren’t wanted here,” Wesley continued coldly, standing between Spike and Angel.

And wow. When did Wesley suddenly become commanding? Willow wondered silently.

But Giles stepped forward and countered, “He is as much a part of this as the rest of us, and we can use his help.”

Giving Giles a sniff of disdain, Wesley lowered the Cross and replied, “Fine, but he is to keep his attacks to the enemy. If there is a next time, I will stake him.”

Oi! Standing right bloody here!” Spike snapped.

Wesley looked over at him and repeated, “If there is a next time, I will stake you.”

Spike’s lip curled and he gave Wesley a mocking bow.

Willow took in the byplay only peripherally, her attention focused on Angel and vamp-Xander. The older vampire cradled vamp-Xander’s head in his hands, tilting it this way and that to get a better look at the damage. One of vamp-Xander’s hands held Angel’s arm in a white-knuckled grip, signaling just how much pain he was in, though he didn’t do more than make a few soft, half-whimpers.

It was so much like how her Xander had handled all his beatings that her stomach tightened and tears gathered. Reminded sharply of what was forever gone, but masquerading in front of her, it was all Willow could do not to grab a stake and kill the thing lying only a few feet away.

Angel vamped again, his head turning unerringly towards her and growling, “Do it, Witch, and you’ll find out what misery really is.”

Shocked that he’d known what she was thinking, Willow wondered frantically if she’d said something out loud.

“I’m thinking that a time-out is a really good idea about now,” Cordelia said brightly, stepping between them. “Tara, take your little playmate out somewhere for cocoa while we fix up Xander and get Mr. Chip-On-His-Shoulder back to an even keel.”

Gentle hands guided her passed Angel and Xander, and Willow just followed her lover’s lead. She could think later, when it didn’t hurt quite so much to do so.

*  *  *  *

Xander’s entire face was one massive ache, despite the soothing and healing taste of Angel’s blood. Spike had come out of nowhere, dealing him a beat-down that was in the top-three of Xander’s All Time Beat Downs. It was, possibly, tied with Beat-Down #1, which involved a tire-iron and a jock-turned-vamp who’d hated him since Xander had made fun of his Raggedy-Andy underwear in kindergarten. At least this time he had near-magical healing ability, thanks to being a vamp himself.

When Angel rumbled a wordless warning to stop, Xander immediately withdrew fangs from his Sire’s throat. Sinking back on the pillows, he sighed and tried to keep his face expressionless, given that any movement hurt.

“Ah my kitten, I’m so sorry,” Angel murmured, fingers ghosting over Xander’s hair.

Struggling to open his swollen shut eyes, Xander managed to crack them open enough for a blurry sight that matched the sadness in Angel’s voice. He reached out and his hand was caught in a strong grip. Squeezing it, Xander answered, “Not your fault. Fangless Wonder’s fault.”

Angel laughed shortly at that and repeated, “Fangless Wonder, huh? I’ll be sure and use that in the near future.”

Relieved that he’d lightened the mood, even if only temporarily, Xander sighed deeply and let his eyes close again as he mumbled, “You need to go to Willie’s. Can’t lose another night. Gotta get Buffy back.”

“I won’t leave you here with them alone,” Angel stated.

Wesley spoke up, “I’ll remain behind and Gunn shall accompany you to Willie’s. I expect it’s rather more his sort of establishment than mine, in any case.”

“I think that was an insult,” Gunn grumbled.

Xander grinned, even though it hurt, and confirmed, “It was.”

Wesley’s voice was closer as he said, “I will remain here, with that very large Cross and a stake. Spike will not be a problem. Better yet, take him with you.”

“Wesley...”

“You can keep an eye on him and use him for another pair of fists, if it comes to it,” Wesley interrupted Angel’s complaint. “If Spike is with you, there’s no need to worry about Xander.”

“I don’t trust any of them, except maybe Tara.”

Xander wasn’t surprised. Tara had that affect on everyone.

“Then trust myself, Cordelia, and Tara to keep the rest in line,” Wesley prompted smoothly.

Gunn spoke up with, “Xander’s right, Angel. We can’t waste another day because you can’t leave your boy’s side. He’s gonna heal up just fine, but that Slayer ain’t gonna get herself found.”

Angel sighed faintly, probably not audible to anyone but Xander, and said, “I’ll be down in a minute.”

Xander heard the other two leave the room, shutting the door behind them, and offered a brief smile to Angel, teasing, “Alone at last.”

“Don’t hide from me, boy.”

He flinched at the harsh command, then let out a shaky sigh, his hand tightening on Angel’s. He didn’t have to be anyone but himself with Angel, something he forgot now and again. “Sorry, Sire.”

“That’s better,” Angel murmured. “How’re y’feeling?”

“Like someone bashed my face in,” Xander replied honestly. “And my ribs aren’t doing so hot, either. Lucky you got there as quick as you did.”

“He got you from behind.”

Xander had to nod. Lying to protect Spike was not something he would ever do, especially not to Angel.

Angel’s voice was wry as he muttered, “Taught him well, I did. Sneak attack is the best, when you don’t know how long you’ve got to inflict damage.”

Xander snorted. “Figures that’d be his best class.”

Gentle lips pressed to Xander’s forehead for a long moment, then Angel was gone without another word. Xander sighed in disappointment when the door closed, but knew this was what had to happen. They had to find Buffy before it was too late. As it was, Xander could feel the pinch of invisible fingers on the strings of their lives.

Fate, as he personally knew, could all too often be a bitch.

 

Refrain

 

Angel knew that they were right. He had to get on track and deal with finding a missing Slayer. That was more important than climbing into bed and holding Xander as he healed. It was also more important than beating Spike into a bloody pulp for daring to touch, let alone hurt, Xander. The problem was that his instincts were in conflict and he knew that he wasn’t in the game the way he should be.

Spike had a way of doing that to him, time and again.

Abruptly realizing that if he was going to get anywhere further in life and his quest of redemption that he had to let go of the past, Angel stopped walking. This was why Dru had changed Xander in the first place. In an attempt to get him to look at his life, and his actions, in a new way. Spike was part and parcel of his gut-reactions, as much as he was loathe to admit it. And from the way Spike was reacting to Xander, the other vamp knew that Xander was more than just a fledge to Angel.

It took a few seconds for the other two to realize he’d stopped. Gunn looked puzzled, while Spike kept a wary distance.

“We don’t have all that much time,” Gunn pointed out. “Only a few hours ‘til sunrise.”

Angel held up a hand and nodded. “Do me a favor and go on ahead of us. Spike and I need to talk.”

Spike countered, “Gang-boy’s right, Peaches. No time to be wasted handing out a spankin.’”

“And y’all wonder why I think all white folk are kinky,” Gunn muttered, even though he shook his head and started walking away.

Looking mildly alarmed at Gunn’s desertion, Spike crossed his arms over his chest and told him defensively, “I ain’t got time for this, Peaches.”

Angel just looked at him for a long minute, not saying anything. One thing that Spike could never deal with, was silence. He fidgeted and chattered and taunted, but was never quiet for longer than maybe thirty seconds at a time.

Oi! Peaches! Anybody home?” Spike demanded, proving him true.

Closing the distance between them, Angel gripped Spike’s chin lightly and said, “I haven’t forgotten you, William, I never could. You have nothing to worry about, with Xander.”

“Worry? I don’t worry ‘bout bloody droopy Harris for no...”

Angel’s grip tightened painfully enough so that Spike gasped and shut up. When he was assured of Spike’s silence, Angel continued softly, “Xander is...mine...in a way that you never were. It was always you and Dru, Spike, and you know it. I broke you, but it was to her that you went for healing and tender words. Your Dark Princess...Let me have my Dark Prince.”

Piercing eyes stared at him for a long moment, as unreadable and cold as though they were the ice of their color. Finally Spike pulled free of his grip and agreed shortly, “Fine. I’ll leave Harris be. If you wind up as Angelus, though, I reserve the right to stake him.”

Without waiting for Angel to agree or not, Spike stalked away.

Angel shook his head in dark amusement. It wasn’t much, as new starts went, but it would have to do.

 

Third Verse

It had been a while since he’d been in Giles’ company, but never before had the silence between them been so stilted. Sitting on the sofa, looking now and again at the other man, Wesley could only guess at the pain Giles was feeling. As his best friend was already a vampire, and had been for over two hundred years, Wesley supposed that he was rather more open to the possibility. Cordelia, fortunately, was upstairs with Xander so she wasn’t there to make things worse. That could change at any moment, however, and so Wesley decisively closed the book in which he’d been looking and walked over to Giles at the table.

Canting his head towards Wesley, Giles questioned, “Yes? Was there something you needed?”

Wesley sat opposite him and replied, “You have to accept this, Giles.”

“I don’t know what...”

“You have to accept that the Xander you knew, is gone,” Wesley interrupted.

That gave Giles pause, enough to ask cautiously, “What do you mean?”

Glad to have an opening, no matter how small, Wesley said, “Xander Harris, as you knew him, is no more. The thing of it is, that vampire upstairs still has many of his qualities and all of his memories. He’s saved my life twice in the two months that he’s been with us, and he’s been there for Angel every second of every day.”

Giles’ expression darkened. “Yes, I’ve seen exactly how he’s there for Angel, thank you.”

“Oh, blow it out your arse, Giles,” Wesley snapped.

Startled, Giles demanded, “Excuse me?”

Jumping to his feet, Wesley exclaimed, “You heard me! How dare you look down upon what little happiness those two can find together? Xander kills only those who deserve it. He doesn’t hunt or torment innocent people. He doesn’t scare little children. He is loyal to a fault and my friend, as strange as that is for me to say. You may as well declare Angel false as to paint Xander with the same brush of evil of the rest of vampires.”

“Angel has a soul,” Giles retorted angrily. “Angel is earning his redemption, one small miracle at a time. That thing upstairs has no soul!”

“How do you know?” Wesley challenged.

That seemed to throw Giles and he frowned at Wesley. “Excuse me?”

“How do you know that Xander has no soul, let alone understand the state of it?” Wesley repeated. “Can you tell me definitively that he doesn’t? How would you test the knowledge? Where are your facts and sources coming from?”

“He’s a vampire,” Giles stated flatly.

Wesley made an impatient gesture and countered, “Made by a mad vampire and virtually remade by one with a soul! I would say that that means all bets are off, wouldn’t you? There’s never been a creature like Xander, I’m sure of it. If you’d only heard him sing...”

“Sing? What on earth are you blathering about?”

Shaking off the memory of that pure, clear voice, Wesley stated, “Xander is unique. If you can not see that, if you simply deny the possibility from prejudice or fear of the unknown, then you fully deserved to be stripped of your Watcher status.”

Giles stared at him as though he’d grown another head, but when no immediate denial or argument restarted, Wesley sat back down. It wasn’t a victory, not by a long shot, but maybe it was enough to get Giles to rethink some of his current positions. If not, Wesley had the very bad feeling in the pit of his stomach that things were going to get much worse once they actually found Buffy and brought her back.

At least for Xander.

*  *  *  *

Tara’s fingers played with Willow’s as they waited for the waitress to come back with the hot chocolate. As inane and condescending as Cordelia’s suggestion had been, Tara actually knew that chocolate in any form could only be helpful with the mood Willow was in. It hadn’t actually come as a surprise to her that Angel had sensed a danger from the redhead. She would have been more surprised if he hadn’t, as loudly as Willow was broadcasting.

“Do you hate me?” Willow asked in a small voice.

Tara sighed. “No baby, of course I don’t. I am a little disappointed, though.”

Hurt, stormy eyes met hers and Willow exclaimed softly, “You don’t understand!”

“So make me understand,” Tara told her calmly. “Tell me why you want to kill someone who’s been nothing but your best friend.”

Willow’s mouth opened in a shocked ‘O’ but no words escaped.

The waitress arrived, giving their joined hands a disapproving look as she set the hot chocolates down and walked away. Tara kept their hands together a few moments longer, just to prove a point, before withdrawing hers to pick up a spoon and eat the whipped cream before it melted.

“It’s not Xander,” Willow finally responded, picking up her own spoon.

Tara sighed again and said, “It is, Willow, you just have to accept that he’s different now.”

“Different? Different?” Willow practically squeaked with outrage. “He’s got fangs. He kills. He maims for fun. He’s a vam-pire, Tara! That’s more than if he’d decided to go blond or, or, or change teams!”

Then Willow flushed, as if remembering that that, too, had happened.

Tara smiled gently at her and said, “Do you want to know why I trust him? Why I know he’s the same Xander, but not?”

It was Willow who sighed as she asked, “Why?”

“Because Angel loves him. And if there were no soul for Angel to love or want to protect, then Xander would have been dust the second he set foot in their office, no matter what kind of protest Cordelia made. Wesley and, and Gunn, they would have staked him in a heartbeat, if he were any kind of threat. If you don’t trust Xander any more, trust them. They’ve lived with him for two whole months and come out none the worse for wear.”

Willow blinked at her, again wordless with shock, as if the idea had never once occurred to her. Which, given her emotional state of the last few months, was entirely possible.

Tightening the last, incredibly gentle and inexorable screw, Tara finished softly, “Did you know that Xander can sing? Only creatures with a soul sing, Willow. They give pain and love and need a voice that shows beauty, even as it tears at your soul. At least, that’s according to Wesley. You really should talk to him for more than thirty seconds at a time.”

When the tears fell, Tara laced their hands together again and waited for the storm to pass.

 

Bridge

Willie’s place hadn’t changed. Angel looked around the dimly lit bar and saw the normal groups of demons and vampires huddled around their drinks. There weren’t too many humans, just a Familiar and a couple of scantily clad Pets kneeling at their masters’ sides. When he went up to the bar, Spike and Gunn behind him, Angel found someone else in Willie’s spot behind the counter.

Young and good looking with blond hair and green eyes, the not-quite human man asked, “What can I get you?”

“Where’s Willie?” Angel questioned.

Flashing a smile that was too perfect to be natural, the young man replied, “Retired. Decided to head south for his health.”

Angel quirked an eyebrow at him.

The young man shrugged. “Ran afoul of a Qual’r demon.”

Spike snorted from behind and muttered, “That’d do it.”

“Name’s Reiki,” he continued. “What can I get for you?”

Irritated that he’d lost an informant he could easily intimidate, Angel said shortly, “Information.”

“Not in that line of business. That’s what got Willie in trouble,” Reiki told him.

Angel sat on one of the stools and countered, “You can tell me what happened to the Slayer, or I can beat it out of you.”

“You can try,” Reiki replied, unruffled.

Gunn stepped forward at that and asked, “How’s business?”

Those green eyes shifted from Angel to Gunn and Reiki answered, “Could be better. Demon’s don’t know how to tip.”

“‘S’what I thought. Cheap-ass vampires and demons don’t know how to part with a penny,” Gunn commiserated. “I’ll have a beer, they’ll have blood. Have a seat, Spike. We’re here to enjoy the hospitality of this fine man’s establishment.”

Spike snorted. “Didn’t think you knew words with that many syllables, gang-boy.”

Gunn stiffened, but ignored him as he took the beer from Reiki. “Thanks, man. Angel, tip the man for such good service.”

Angel grimaced, briefly wondering why he was always the one to make the bribe, but he pulled out his wallet and thumbed out a hundred dollar bill to set down on the counter.

“Well look at that, a good tipper,” Reiki observed dryly, pocketing the bill. “You know, I did hear something about the Slayer just the other day.”

“What do you know,” Spike agreed, just as dry.

Reiki half-grinned at him and continued, “Seems like she pissed off someone by the name of Rachel.”

Angel waited for him to go on, but when nothing else was forthcoming, he prompted, “Rachel who? Human, demon, what?”

Reiki shrugged. “That’s all I know, man, sorry.”

“See, this is where I demand a refund,” Angel said agreeably. His hand snapped out to grab the man’s shirt, slamming him down on the counter face-first. Leaning in, he growled, “I want more information. Now. Or I take the refund in blood, instead of money.”

“All right, all right!”

Letting him go, Angel glared and waited.

Reiki straightened his shirt with his own glare and replied, “Rachel is all I know her by. Demon. Very unpleasant. Had a third eye.”

“Why was she after the Slayer?” Spike questioned.

“I don’t know.”

“Gunn, go over to those demons and tell them Reiki here just insulted their nest-mother.”

“Wait!” Rieki exclaimed, when Gunn moved to do just that. Glaring at them, he continued, “All I know is that the Slayer stepped on her toes over some graveyard patrol a couple weeks back. I don’t know the particulars.”

Angel nodded slowly and questioned, “Where can we find her?”

Sullen, Rieki answered, “She’s an uptown kind of demon. Usually hangs out at Ballard’s.”

Patting Reiki’s face, Spike asked, “There now. That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Reiki snarled at him, but his teeth remained teeth, so it wasn’t quite as impressive as it could have been.

“Don’t tease the informants,” Angel ordered, hiding a grin as he turned to leave.

Finally. A place to start.