Title: Apart Time
Angel stood by the far wall of the office, well away from the sunlight streaming between the slats of the blinds, watching as Xander rummaged through his duffel bag on the desk.
Finally, Xander found what he was looking for. "Bus ticket," he said, holding it up and zipping the bag. "I'm all ready to go."
Angel just stared, blinking once.
Xander slung the bag over his shoulder and walked over to Angel, reaching out and grabbing Angel's shoulder. "Seven days," Xander said, "and then I'm back here for good." He grinned. "Don't look so glum about it. Weren't you the one talking about waiting two hundred years?"
Angel looked down and shook his head. When he looked back up, there was half a smile on his lips. "You just got here. Stay a while?"
Xander shook his head. "No more wasted time. Besides, what with wolf demons attacking over the weekend, I'm out of clothes."
"You can wear—"
"No," said Xander, shaking his head again. "Cordy would definitely know something was up if I got into your wardrobe. Not the fashionable, me."
"She has to find out eventually."
"Angel, please," Xander said, turning away and biting his lip. "I have to go... to say goodbye... to them. To... clear things up. Things are very not clear."
"I'm..." Angel looked down. "...sorry."
"Don't be." Xander fiddled nervously with the ticket in his hands. "I'll miss you."
Angel blinked once, then quickly stepped forward. Xander suddenly found himself buried in an almost smothering embrace, to which he gladly surrendered. Angel's mouth was immediately on his and he opened wide, working his arms free to thread them under Angel's, reaching around to clutch at Angel's sweater, twisting, wrenching, threatening to tear it from his back.
Then, regretfully, Xander had to come up for air, and he gently pushed Angel back. Angel released him and stepped back resignedly.
Xander's breathing was heavy and uneven. "I've got to leave now," he said, "or I never will."
The corner of Angel's mouth quirked. "Would that be so bad?" he asked, attempting to infuse the phrase with the same lighthearted tone that Xander had used a few days earlier.
Xander smiled. "No, it wouldn't." He walked to the door and turned back as he twisted the handle. He was caught by Angel's eyes and stood motionless. "See you soon, Angel."
Angel nodded. "Have a good trip, Xander."
Xander nodded in response and then quickly stepped through the door and shut it behind himself. He made it, casually sauntering, about three doors down before he suddenly turned and collapsed backwards against the wall, panting as if he had been running. He bit his lip and looked up and around as if seeking counsel from the walls and ceiling. Eventually, his gaze fell to the floor, and he reluctantly picked himself up and headed for the stairs.
And back in his office, Angel listened intently to every footstep, until Xander left the building and disappeared into the daytime bustle of the city.
"Buffy?" called Willow's timid voice.
Buffy's eyes snapped open and looked about wildly.
At the library.
She slowly lifted her head from her notebook. "Ugh," she mumbled. "Yet again, the freshman embarrasses herself." She smiled up at Willow's concerned face before her eyes suddenly widened and a look of panic crossed her. "Droolage?" she asked, bringing one hand up to the corner of her mouth and looking down at her notebook. "Okay, didn't salivate. Could have been worse." She slumped back in her chair, relieved.
"Find anything for your paper?" asked Willow, trying to make the subject sound more fun that it was.
"Sort of," said Buffy guiltily, lifting an unopened volume from the desk. "Been having trouble concentrating."
"Pressures of academia..." said Willow sympathetically.
"Hours of research..." Buffy dropped her book with disgust.
"Lack of caffeine..."
"Lack of—" Buffy suddenly looked back up at Willow. "Did you check the answering machine?"
Willow nodded enthusiastically for a moment, then faltered at Buffy's prompting look, and shook her head forlornly.
"Lack of messages," concluded Buffy. She looked down for a moment, then gathered herself together. "Well, there's only one thing to be done. This calls for an extreme... infusion of chocolate."
Willow gave a small, supportive smile and waited as Buffy gathered her books and papers. As they were walking out, Buffy suddenly stopped short.
"There was something else I was supposed to do here," she said, frowning and thinking.
"Write your paper?"
Buffy shot Willow a look. "Other than that." She thought for a moment, then shrugged. "It can wait. Chocolate calls."
The librarian smiled at them as they walked out, then rose from her desk and walked off to attend to other business.
So no one noticed when the papers on the desk began to rustle, and the file drawers fly open and shut, as invisible fingers flipped through the papers and hunted through the files.
Then, as suddenly as it had started, all activity ceased... until a single key on the keyboard clicked. And then another. And another. And another. Soon, the keyboard was typing away like a player piano gone mad.
And then it suddenly stopped. A student record appeared on the screen. The record of one Buffy Summers.
Xander slammed the door to his basement and hurried down the stairs, grimacing. He tossed his duffel bag to the floor, paused for half a second, and then collapsed on his bed, sighing with exhaustion.
After a few minutes of just staring at the ceiling, he sat up and reached for the phone. Xander picked up the receiver and carefully dialed a number, nervously tapping his finger on the bedside table as he listened to the repeated rings.
He slammed down the phone instantly when he heard Buffy and Willow's answering machine start up.
He sat frozen for a moment, clutching the phone, the muscles in his forearm tensed, his knuckles white. Then he suddenly relaxed, let go, and sighed. A reluctant smile spread across his face and he shook his head.
"Strike one," he muttered, falling back on the bed.
He squinted slightly with confusion as he bounced, feeling something out of place, and reached down into his pocket to pull out Angel's business card, somewhat crumpled. He smiled wistfully at it and smoothed it out in his hands.
After staring for a few moments, he reached again with one hand for the phone. But his hand hesitated nervously over the receiver and he drew it back.
Sighing, he stared at the card in his hands awhile longer, fiddling, or perhaps caressing one dog-eared corner with his thumb. Eventually, his eyelids began to droop, his hands fell to his chest, and he drifted peacefully off to sleep.
Angel carefully wiped the last traces of the drainerwolfsbane from the kitchen counter and tossed the towel into the waste bin. Walking back out into the main room, he slowly surveyed the entire apartment. It was spotless. Even sterile.
Angel frowned. He looked around for a moment longer, his brow furrowed, before closing his eyes and concentrating.
He could picture Xander there. Xander waiting patiently on the couch, Xander eating takeout Chinese in the kitchen. Xander standing outside the door to the bathroom, pristine and wet from a shower. Xander lying peacefully asleep on the bed; Xander rolling merrily around on the bed, anything but peaceful. Xander standing in the kitchen, sorting through the jumble of vile spell-casting concoctions, managing a collection of bubbling pots on the range.
Xander lazing on the couch, securely held in Angel's arms, during that one perfect day, free from interruption.
Then Angel opened his eyes, and Xander was gone. The kitchen was spotless, the living room immaculate, the bed made, the couch... empty.
Angel grimaced and sniffed at the air... and suddenly froze. An instant later, he was walking directly to the corner of the bedroom, from which he retrieved... a balled-up, tattered piece of fabric.
It was Xander's shirt.
Xander's shirt, torn almost to shreds and heavily stained with drainerwolfsbane, which still burned slightly at Angel's skin. And yet he held it tightly, and stared.
After almost a minute of silent motionlessness, Angel walked slowly over to his bed and casually but carefully draped Xander's shirt over the end. He stepped back to judge the effect.
That single tattered piece of brightly colored fabric dispelled the sterility of the room, dissipating the heavy atmosphere. It looked somehow right and comforting. And hopeful. It looked...
Like a promise.
The music at the Bronze was blaring, but Buffy seemed not to notice at all, sitting hunched forward with her elbows on the table, chin supported in her hands, staring blankly into the middle distance.
And Willow, filled with concern, stared at her.
"There is something wrong with me."
"Buffy, it's not a you-thing—"
"They all left and none of them want to come back."
"—it's a them-thing."
"Pronoun games not helping."
The corners of Willow's mouth drew back, stretching her lips into a rather hopeless line. She stared at Buffy for a while, but eventually had to give up. Willow looked up and began to anxiously survey the room, as if the answer to all their problems might just happen to be standing around.
"Oh, look, it's Xander!" she suddenly exclaimed, spotting him standing near the far wall biting his lip. She waved at him enthusiastically and he hesitantly walked over.
"I don't suppose he could conjure up a boyfriend?" Buffy asked, without turning or looking up as he approached.
"Um..." Xander said, drawing out the syllable as if seriously considering the request. "No," he finished nervously, sitting down. "Funny you should mention that, though. But conjuring's more of a Willow-thing anyway. How's it goin', Will?"
Willow smiled back.
Xander turned to Buffy, who was still staring blankly away. "I'd ask, but this is probably one of those need-to-know-basis things, isn't it."
Buffy just sighed almost silently, so Willow filled in. She brought her hands back to her shoulders, flapped her fingers for a moment, shook her head, brought a loose fist aside her cheek, and then pointed at Buffy.
Xander, nodding his head, followed these movements with growing confusion. When Willow was finished, he hesitated for a moment, then whispered, "So... why didn't Big Bird punch Buffy?"
Willow squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head.
"Angel didn't call," mumbled Buffy.
Xander was struck dumb for a moment, and then brought his palm up to his forehead. "Oh, man, Buffy, I completely forgot—" He broke off nervously. "—to say hi." Xander affected a complete change of attitude. "Hey, Buff! Great to see ya! It's been, what... days!"
Buffy groaned and let her chin slip from her hands, folding them behind her neck and pressing her forehead against the table. "This isn't helping either...."
"Sorry," said Xander, sheepishly. "Sorry."
Willow shot Xander an apologetic look over Buffy's head. "You can't blame yourself, Buffy," she said, attempting to find the right tone of encouragement. "Really. I mean, maybe Angel's just waiting for you—" Her tone faltered and her expression grew confused as she noticed Xander violently shaking his head. "—to call hi—"
"Hey, Buff, wanna dance?" Xander broke in, suddenly.
"Me? With you?" The words were not uttered scornfully, but more like Buffy was coming out of a stupor as she lifted her head from the table. "Dance?" This last word was uttered with complete incredulity as she turned to face Xander.
"Yoda-like choice of word order, but yes."
"Dance?" Still incredulous.
"Hey, I got some practice over the summer."
Buffy opened her mouth to ask—
"No power on this earth," said Xander, firmly.
Buffy managed a half-smile. "Thanks, Xander, but I'm really not in the mood." She turned back to staring at nothing.
Willow and Xander looked on helplessly.
"What if he never calls?" asked Buffy, dejectedly. "And do you know what the worst part is?" she asked, burying her face in her hands. "I'm still thinking about Parker."
"Parker?" said Xander. "You mean Jackass?"
Buffy nodded, head still held in her hands.
"Still dealing with the id-issues," said Willow, sympathetically, putting her hand on Buffy's shoulder.
"Id?" asked Xander, confused. "As in 'Wizard of?'"
Willow giggled and shook her head. "No, silly, id as in the irresponsible part of the psyche that does all the irresponsible wanting and desiring."
"Oh," said Xander, confusion still lingering.
"I wish my ego would get my id to just shut up," said Buffy, looking out across the room and catching her chin in her hands again.
Xander shook his head. "You college people with your high-falutin' words and ideas," he drawled.
"Hey, all this psych stuff is really useful," protested Willow.
"It actually is a good class," admitted Buffy.
"But you're missing the most important part," said Xander.
"And that is...?" asked Buffy, doubtfully.
"You don't really want Parker. Parker's a..." Xander searched for the right words.
"Poop head," offered Willow with a small, brief smile.
"Excellent choice of phrase," agreed Xander. "Clear, concise, fifth-grade level. Parker's a poop head. You don't want the real him. You want what you thought he was. But that Parker doesn't exist. It's easy to fall in love with someone who doesn't exist," Xander added mournfully, looking down a little nervously.
When he glanced up, he saw Willow looking at him unexpectedly impressed, and Buffy lifting her head from her hands to stare again at him, rather than the middle distance.
Xander hesitated a moment but then went on. "I mean, the whole relationship was a lie. He was lying to you, because he really didn't like you the way you thought he did. And you didn't really like him, because what you liked was the lie... or wait, do I mean the lair? No, because the point was that you liked the lie, not the liar. Right. I think. Where was I? Fear leads to anger, anger leads to... no wait, that was before. We're talking about liars. Don't lie with liars. If you can avoid it. Why am I suddenly thinking about burning trousers? ..."
Buffy had stopped listening after the third sentence, and turned her stare away from Xander and back to the middle distance. "I guess you're right," she said, after a long pause, finally interrupting Xander's babbling.
"Don't worry, I won't let it go to my head," said Xander, goofily.
Willow smiled but Buffy kept staring away. "That still leaves... the other problem."
Xander swallowed. "Same principle," he said, his voice breaking nervously.
Buffy's brow wrinkled. She looked as if she were doing sums in her head. Long uncomfortable moments passed before she finally opened her mouth. "Are you saying Angel lied to me?"
"I dunno," said Xander, shrugging in an attempt to act casual.
Buffy was indignant. "Angel wasn't lying to me. I know!" She slammed her fist on the table, making both Willow and Xander jump. "He wasn't lying! I know what you think, but he's not that kind of person! He wouldn't lie to me! He wasn't lying!"
Xander swallowed again and hesitated nervously. When he spoke, it was so low that his friends could barely hear his voice through the blaring music. "Sometimes when people lie to you, it's not really on purpose, because really they're lying to themselves."
Buffy went blank again for a moment, then cringed. "I can't think about this anymore," she muttered. "Willow?" she said vaguely, turning towards her friend.
Willow gave Buffy an unsure smile and shot a nervous look at Xander. "All right, let's go," she said, standing up and giving Buffy a hand.
"Bye, Xander," Buffy mumbled as she walked past him and wandered towards the door. Willow tarried for a moment, pulling on her sweater.
"Did you see Angel while you were in LA?" she whispered, hastily.
"Um..." Xander said, stretching out the syllable again, eyes shifting. "Yes," he admitted, looking down nervously.
"Did he say anything about Buffy?"
"Her name did come up," said Xander, starting to flush.
Willow was too busy keeping an eye on Buffy to notice. "And?"
Xander hesitated, then shook his head. "I think that's for Angel to say," he said, nervously.
Willow suddenly looked at him. "Oh. You're right." She gave an apologetic sort-of-smile. "What with the college, and the classes, and the damage control... life's been kinda on the stressful side."
Xander managed to give her the semblance of a smile. "It's okay. Go on. Make sure she's all right."
Willow nodded and quickly walked off.
Xander watched her for a moment and then dropped his head into his hands, muttering to himself. "Strike two." He sighed. "And just when I thought there was no way for life to get any more bizarre, I have now become 'the other woman.'"
Buffy and Willow were walking briskly along the path back to their dorm when Buffy suddenly froze in her tracks. "Wait a minute. Did I just get relationship advice... from Xander?"
Willow, a little surprised, thought for a moment, and then gave an uncertain nod. "I guess so."
"Well," said Buffy, continuing along the path, "maybe college is turning out to be a little different from high school."
Cordelia, shooting yet another annoyed look through the window into Angel's office, finally sighed and put down the file she was trying to find a home for. "Angel's been acting really... weird lately."
"Tell me about it," muttered Doyle, not looking up.
"I mean, I know he's a dark, brooding vampire and all, but all he does is sit in his office staring at the wall. And what's with that old stainy rag he's got hanging in there? Hello? I thought I was going to be consulted before any interior decorating decisions were made."
"Some people can be so insensitive."
"No kidding. He doesn't even go down to his apartment anymore. He just broods in there all day. I mean, what, is he trying to show off? It's not like he's the only person in the world with problems, you know." Cordelia's eyes suddenly widened and then rolled down guiltily.
Doyle, still staring with confusion at the door to Angel's office, didn't notice.
"Speaking of which," Cordelia continued after a moment, "sometimes when a person is... y'know... under stress—it might be anything... career-launching parties... or vampire-eating wolf-demons—"
Doyle turned his confused expression on Cordelia. "Speaking purely hypothetically, of course."
Cordelia nodded. "This could not be more hy-pathetic." She frowned at the word, then continued. "Sometimes the stressed person can act a little... insensitive... to other people's problems, even if they're, like, really bad, or something."
"Really," said Doyle, flatly.
Cordelia nodded enthusiastically. "And sometimes, the person might want to show that she's—or he's—sorry... somehow."
Doyle stared for a moment. "She—this person—could just say, for instance, 'I'm sorry.'"
Cordelia waved her hand in a motion that was both resigned and dismissive. "That might not be the person's style. The person's style might be... granting the pleasure of her company—" Cordelia winced. "—maybe, not to sound too conceited, or anything."
"I see," said Doyle, blankly, and turned to stare at the wall again.
Cordelia frowned in frustration and went back to her filing.
"So, princess," said Doyle, turning to face her with a sudden, brilliant smile, "what say we leave the vampire to his brooding and go out for a couple of cappuccinos?"
"Finally," Cordelia muttered briefly to herself. She perked up and turned to Doyle. "Well, there's all this filing to do, and more bills to sort..." she began discouragingly, "but since we can't pay them anyway, sure, why not?" She flashed her own brilliant smile back at him.
"It's a date, then," he said, rising and extending his hand.
She coyly dodged it but followed him to the door. "Well, I wouldn't go that far."
Buffy was startled into awareness by sudden movement all around her.
"—and remember to turn in your assignments as you leave."
Everyone in the class was gathering their books and leaving their seats. Buffy looked down at her notebook, where she had apparently drawn only a few loose circles during the entire class.
"Wanna copy my notes later?" Willow asked, cheerily.
Buffy turned to Willow and looked at her somewhat vaguely. "Uh, yeah, thanks." Buffy looked back down at her paper. "Y'know, he should have called. He should have called." A note of anger crept into Buffy's voice.
"Sure, Buff," said Willow, blandly encouraging. "But you know what men are."
Oz raised an eyebrow.
"Well, not you," said Willow, smiling at him.
Oz feigned mild disappointment.
"Men," Buffy snorted. She rose and gathered her papers, clutching her assignment tightly in her hand. She stalked to the front of the room, silently muttering to herself, and slammed her paper down on the desk, making Riley jump and look up in surprise.
"He should have called," she asserted, angrily. "Why don't men call?"
Riley opened his mouth, but could not come up with an answer to meet her demand before Buffy turned on her heel and strode quickly out of the room.
Willow gingerly placed her paper on the desk with an apologetic shrug and smile, and quickly followed Buffy out the door, Oz casually in tow.
Riley shook his head. "Peculiar."
Willow sorted through the disorganized jumble of books that had developed on Buffy's bed. "Are you using Psychology and Religion, Buff?"
"No, but I'm starting to think it'll take an act of God to get this assignment done."
Willow was still searching through the pile. "I could have sworn it was—what's this?" She lifted a large, worn, leather-bound volume out of the pile of modern psychobabble.
Buffy turned around. "Oh, that," she said, when she saw the book. "I forgot all about it. Giles made me check it out of the library. Sort of a slayer assignment. It's a demony kind of book. Seems like he's having trouble giving up the teacher instinct."
Willow grinned. "Teacher instinct being assign, assign, assign." She sighed. "Is it just me, or was homework more fun in high school?"
"It's just you," said Buffy, turning back to her desk. "Homework wasn't any fun in high school, either."
Willow sighed again and started back in on the pile of books. Eventually, she extracted a small paperback from the mess. "Finally," she muttered, and began to flip through the pages, searching.
The phone rang. Neither Buffy nor Willow moved an inch.
"Could you get that, Will?" asked Buffy, still not looking up from her desk as the phone rang a second time.
Willow made an affirmative mumble and, carefully keeping her place in her book with one hand, reached for the phone with the other.
"Hello?" she said, without much warmth.
"Hi. It's me."
"Xander. Y'know, dark hair, brown eyes, goofy demeanor."
"Oh, hi, Xander. Sorry, what with all the studying the voice-identification is kinda experiencing slippage."
"No prob. Um...."
"Well, I was gonna make a proposal for some sociable-type interaction, but I'm guessing with the homework, hanging's not on the agenda."
"I checked my calendar, and, nope, no fun scheduled for tonight." Willow sighed.
"Well, I'll let you get back to your college-y evening."
"But, hey, if you wanna talk, I could use the excuse to take a break."
"Really? That's cool, because—"
"I'll just do the whispering," Willow said, very quietly. "So I don't disturb Buffy."
Xander hesitated. "Buffy's there?"
"Yeah," said Willow, still whispering. "We're both working on this psych paper. Topic proposals and preliminary research due next class."
"Sounds very scholastic."
"What d'you wanna talk about?"
"Um..." said Xander, fidgeting with the phone cord. "Oh, nothing. It's... not important. I don't want to... disturb Buffy. I'll see you around sometime."
"Well, okay. If you're sure."
"Night, Willow. Good luck with the paper."
Xander hung up the phone with an exasperated sigh. "Strike three," he muttered, "I'm—" He scoffed, then grinned. "I guess this game follows different rules."
Shelf after shelf. Books without number. They went on and on, into the blackness. Stygian. No way out, caught in the maze of stacks. And yet she had to run, for it was right behind her. She could feel it, hear it shrieking an unintelligible demand. She cornered; it followed. She grew breathless; it pursued tirelessly. She fell against a shelf. Piles of books fell to the floor. Then they were all falling, flying from everywhere. All falling on her. No escape. And it caught up to her—
Buffy awoke with a small yelp and sat up in bed, looking around wildly.
At her room. Normal.
"Mmph?" Willow whimpered, turning over and raising her head from her pillow. "You okay, Buff?"
"Okay," Buffy replied, as her eyes became less frantic, "nightmare."
"Was it bad?" asked Willow, sitting up.
"It was... strange. Weird. Definitely weird."
"Are you sure it was just a nightmare? Was it, like, maybe prophetical? I mean, last time you had a weird nightmare, your demon roommate was doing the sneaky soul-stealing."
"Then again, given all the slayer-stuff I've seen, a nightmare every once in a while could be kinda... normal," said Buffy. She smiled slightly, and continued in a more relaxed voice. "Besides, it was about books and a library or something. It was probably just a nightmare about our psych paper."
"In fact," Willow said, more cheerily, "she even said in class, 'This paper will be a nightmare,' didn't she?"
"I guess she was right." Buffy fell back on her pillow. "Sorry I woke you."
Willow just smiled as she lay back down. "That's okay. It's nice to have a friend around when you're all nightmare-panicky."
"Yeah, thanks, Will."
"Angel..." Xander moaned, twisting and writhing on his bed.
He opened his eyes and Angel was suddenly above him, kneeling over him, smiling down at him. Angel reached out with one hand to caress Xander's cheek, running his thumb down the jawbone. Xander looked down at Angel's arm and turned his head to press into the contact.
Then Angel's hand withdrew and Xander looked back up into Angel's eyes, as Angel lowered his head and brought his mouth to Xander's. Softly, at first, their lips met, and then Xander's mouth was open wide and Angel was kissing him, hungrily. Xander felt Angel's hands run across his shoulders and down his arms, then slowly up and down his torso, Angel's thumbs tracing patterns on his chest and stomach. Xander reached up and around Angel, grasping hard, stroking the rippling muscles of Angel's broad back.
As Xander pulled Angel closer, Angel's hands fell to the bed and he began to grind himself against Xander, slowly at first, then with increasing urgency. Angel's mouth suddenly left Xander's, and Angel began to drag his lips down Xander's neck, tracing the veins, then across Xander's collarbone, and down his chest. Xander brought his hands down, clutched at the bedsheets, and arched his back, desperate to never lose contact with Angel's lips as they trailed a meticulous path down his stomach to his navel, and then...
They were gone.
Xander looked down, startled, to see Angel smiling up at him. Xander smiled dreamily back. And then Angel leaned down and Xander felt his mouth—
Xander suddenly sat up, awake. He looked down at the twisted bunch of sheets and blankets he held in his arms and laughed, releasing them and smoothing out the bed.
Still smiling, he lay back down and closed his eyes, murmuring Angel's name only once more—softly, peacefully—before drifting back to sleep.
"Any calls?" Angel asked, determinedly casual as he stepped out of the elevator and shut the gate behind him.
Cordelia looked at him as if he were crazy. "No, no calls. Why do keep asking about calls? Are you expecting a call?"
"No, not really, I guess."
"Yeah, I've given up on expecting any calls, too. You got a lot of mail, though." Cordelia leafed through it. "Junk, bill, junk, junk, ooh... handwritten. Oh," she added disappointedly as she read the envelope, "it's for you."
"Who did you think it would be for?" asked Angel, as he walked over and took it from her.
Cordelia, engrossed by one of the advertising flyers, didn't reply.
Angel walked over to his chair but froze when he looked at the handwriting on the letter. Quickly, but carefully, he tore the envelope open. He read the enclosed card with amazement, and then sat down, stupefied.
"What is it?"
"It... it's Hallmark." Angel was still staring at the card.
"And this is a big deal because...?"
Angel replied, but seemed to be merely talking to himself. "No one's ever sent me a card like this before."
"Maybe it's because you're a dark, brooding vampire, remember?"
Angel ignored her. "I have to go shopping," he said, rising and striding across the room. "I have to—" He stopped. "—not burst into flames."
"Who's it from?"
Angel quickly pocketed the card. "No one."
"I see," said Cordelia, nodding knowingly.
"You do?" Angel looked worried.
"Now that you've got your soul permanently, I knew it was only a matter of time before you got some girl to fall for your brooding, I'm-in-so-much-pain-so-give-me-love routine. Who is it, police-woman?"
"No," said Angel, offended and relieved at the same time. "And this isn't an act."
"Oh, it's very convincing, I'll give you that."
"Look, when you've murdered your family, your friends, and thousands of others, and ruined the lives of thousands more, you can get back to me."
"Get over it."
Xander strode into the bookstore with a calm and casual air, slowly surveying the rows of shelves standing before him. He walked over to the first shelf and systematically began to browse, moving leisurely down each aisle, scanning its contents, his air still determinedly casual. But a careful observer might have noticed the agitated way his hand repeatedly worried the seam of his pants. And also the furtive way he glanced across the room at a section of shelves he had yet to reach.
He looked around cautiously before finally entering the aisle, still trying to maintain a casual appearance. His eyes widened slightly as he surveyed the range of titles in the small, under-stocked section. Trembling a little, he finally reached out to pull one book, glancing up guardedly over the shelves as he did so. And saw Willow. Heading straight for him.
He flinched back from the shelf, inhaling sharply through clenched teeth. After a moment's hesitation, he stepped to the side, trying to reassume the appearance of casual browsing. And then Willow was suddenly beside him.
"Hi!" he exclaimed, startled.
"Hi, Xander. What are you doing here?"
"Um, ah," Xander stuttered, "nothing—I mean, uh, browsing. Yeah. I mean, it's great! Look here, it's, uh..." Xander looked up to read the title of the section he was pointing at. "Philosophy! And, over there, is that... literary criticism? Wow! Outta my way!" He rushed forward, almost knocking Willow over. Then he turned back. "Uh, why are you here?"
Willow, a little overwhelmed by Xander's display and not sure whether to giggle or frown, stared in confusion for a moment before collecting herself and answering, "I needed to find a book for my psych paper. The library and the campus bookstore didn't have it."
"And so you must descend from the ivory tower and mix with the townies."
"Xander, I live here."
"At the bookstore?" Xander looked around, as if trying to gauge the comfort of the living accommodations. "I knew you liked books, but—"
Willow grinned and hit him playfully. "In Sunnydale."
A look of concern suddenly crossed Willow's face. "I'm sorry we couldn't talk last night. Would you like to get coffee?" she asked, gesturing across the bookstore at the coffee shop in the corner.
Xander looked over and gulped. "Sure," he said, his voice cracking. He cleared his throat.
Willow gave him a little smile and led him over to the counter. They gave their orders, and then Xander turned and leaned casually back against the bar. "Find your book?" he asked, offhandedly.
Willow grinned and held up her bag. "Yep. Psychological Factors in Pagan Religions."
Xander boggled. "They have that and they hardly have any—" Xander broke off and hesitated nervously.
"Any what?" asked Willow.
"Your coffee," the cashier said.
Xander quickly and gratefully paid, and then led Willow over to an empty table. They sat down and Xander proceeded to fiddle nervously with his cup, sipping occasionally. Willow eyed him with concern over the rim of her own cup.
Xander finally put his coffee down and pushed it away, leaning forward as if he were about to say something. But he stopped and hung his head.
"Xander," said Willow, placing a reassuring hand on his arm. "It's okay. I already know."
Xander jerked his head up and looked at her, wary. "You know?"
Willow pulled her hand back. "Anya told me all about it."
Xander stared in disbelief. "Anya told you?"
"Yeah. Anya... really randomly... walked up to me this morning and started talking about men... and women... and relationships, and I just sort of stood there, and she just kept talking on and on for like, ten minutes straight. By the end I sort of figured out that she had done the breaking-up thing with you... or something. And then she said thank you and that she felt much better, and then she walked off. It was... surreal."
Xander looked at the table and scratched his head. "Yeah, that's Anya."
"I'm so sorry, Xander."
"No, really, it's okay. It's for the best." He grabbed his coffee cup again.
"No, it's not okay. I mean, last night you were in pain, and you called, and I didn't have time to talk."
"What? Oh, that." Xander let go of his coffee long enough to make a short, dismissive gesture. "I'm really okay with it. I mean, we didn't even really have anything to break up. So there's no use crying over spilt milk that wasn't there to be... spilled."
Willow frowned. "You're sure you're okay? I mean, it's all right to have emotions... to want to be mopey... or angry..."
Willow smiled. "Whatever works."
"I'll stick to being Xander."
Willow smiled and nodded, and then glanced at her watch. "Oh! I'd better get back to school." She grinned. "Townie time's up."
Xander smiled weakly at her as she got up. "Have fun."
She nodded. "Call if you need to talk, okay?" She gave a little wave and turned to the exit. Xander watched her until she was out the door.
"And that would be strike four." Xander shook his head. "Too bad this isn't bowling."
He sat for a moment longer at the table, before gathering his courage and getting up to once again systematically browse his way across the bookstore.
A torrent of Geiger-counter-like clicks suddenly issued from the machine, its monitor burst into a tempest of flashing colors and wild patterns, and indicators and dials everywhere flashed and spun.
"Whoa!" Riley Finn jumped back from the keyboard, and then immediately reached forward again, pressing buttons and turning dials in a desperate attempt to regain control.
"Agent Finn?" came a demanding voice from over his shoulder. "Are you destroying the equipment?"
"No, ma'am," he said, finally stifling the chaos. He returned quickly to the keyboard and began typing away. "Hotspot... definite."
"Can you triangulate?"
"Yes. It's... the library?"
"Are you sure?"
"Um... no. This equipment hasn't been calibrated yet. It might just be a glitch."
"And that glitch might be a poltergeist."
"Take a team and investigate."
Riley nodded, rose from his chair, and began to walk quickly away.
"And be careful."
Riley turned back and smiled. "Always am."
Buffy awoke with a start and a sharp intake of breath. After a few seconds of looking around at her darkened room, she exhaled softly and muttered to herself, "Again with the books."
She squinted suddenly and looked around again, haunted by the feeling that something still wasn't quite right. She turned and looked out the window. Far away, across the quad, she could see the tall dark windows of the library... and a ghostly light moving about inside. She stared for a moment, then rubbed the sleep from her eyes and looked again. The light swept across the windows, rising and falling without regard to gravity... looking suspiciously supernatural.
Buffy was immediately out of bed, pulling her hair back into a neat pony tail, and quickly changing into an outfit more intimidating to demons and practical for fighting them than her pajamas. She paused at the doorway, looking back into the room at Willow curled up on her bed, still plunged deep into sleep.
Buffy smiled briefly, and then was out the door.
A short run across the quad later, she was at the doors to the library. The vast slabs of oak stood, tall, impenetrable... and both conveniently and suspiciously ajar. Buffy carefully squeezed through the narrow open space, anxious not to test the hinges, and then padded up the stairs, moving slowly to prevent her footsteps from echoing too loudly in the vast stairwell.
The great yawning space of the library appeared larger still in the shadows of the night. Buffy stood at the head of the stairs and scanned the room, sweeping her eyes across the tables, desks, chairs, and shelves, looking for any sign of the ghostly light she had seen from outside. But she saw nothing... until finally, out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of a pale shimmer, just visible from deep within the stacks.
Buffy moved forward cautiously, staying deep in the shadows, always near or under cover, until she reached the dark maze of shelves. She could still just see it, a faint glimmer of light gliding amongst the books, somewhere. She stalked it as best she could, trying her best to keep sight of it as it disappeared and reappeared in the distance, sometimes completely blocked by the many yards of books, other times just barely visible between the shelves.
Suddenly, there was a footstep. It was almost silent, muffled by row upon row of books, but it was definitely a footstep. Buffy froze and listened intently. There was a faint sound of movement from several rows over. Buffy began to cautiously stalk in that direction. The light was no longer visible, but the footsteps grew ever closer, moving guardedly in stops and starts like her own.
Then, the footsteps were right next to her, one row over. Buffy tensed and took a tight hold of her stake, keeping it raised and ready. She silently counted to three, and then jumped out from behind the stack—
And into a large, blond-haired young man.
Buffy was so busy quickly hiding her stake that she didn't notice Riley making similar motions. When she looked back up, she hesitated, then laughed nervously. "What are you doing here?"
Riley smiled at her and shifted from foot to foot. "I'm, uh, up late... grading papers."
"What's with the fatigues?"
Riley looked down at himself and then back up at Buffy nervously. "Oh, this? Uh, just old army surplus stuff. It's comfortable to relax in... when I'm... grading papers."
"But with the vest?"
Riley looked down and up again, still awkward. "I just had to... complete the look."
"Oookay," said Buffy, unconvinced.
"What are you doing here?"
"Me?" asked Buffy, taken by surprise. "Um... I woke up... and thought I saw something in the library windows. Thought it might be... burglars or something. So I came over to—"
"You thought it might be burglars and you came over by yourself? Isn't that a little... dangerous?"
Buffy drew in a breath and opened her mouth to angrily protest, but then suddenly laughed nervously again. "Yeah, I guess it is. Silly me. I mean, I must be... a little foggy... from the sleep." She yawned and put her hand over her mouth theatrically, eyes locked on Riley's reaction.
"Right, well, maybe you'd better get back to it," said Riley, in a tone more fond than condescending.
"Okay!" said Buffy, unexpectedly docile. "Have fun grading papers."
"Thanks," said Riley, nodding quickly. "I will."
Buffy turned and walked towards the exit. Riley watched her, still nervous, when his radio suddenly crackled. He grabbed it, turned down the volume, and held it up to his mouth. "Yes?" he whispered.
"There's nothing in any of the storage rooms."
"Nothing out here either," he said, quietly. "If there was anything, we must've scared it off. Meet me at the entrance." He glanced up to see Buffy turning back at the top of the stairs, and hastily shoved the radio into his pocket before he could hear the reply. He grinned innocently at her.
Buffy waved. "Night!"
He waved back quickly. "Night!"
Buffy turned and disappeared down the stairs.
Riley shook his head. "Peculiar."
There was a hesitant knock at the door, which echoed slightly in darkness of Angel's apartment. Angel laid down the book he had been reading and walked quickly across the room to answer it.
"Angel." Doyle looked around uncomfortably. "I'm not interrupting anything, am I?"
"No," said Angel, stepping back and gesturing into the apartment. "Come in."
Doyle strode in with a determinedly casual air, hands thrust in his pockets. "Where's the kid?"
"Xander? He's out of town for a while."
"Oh." Doyle relaxed a bit, then something seemed to occur to him. "I had a vision. Girl. Vampires. We'll need to hurry."
Angel stared at Doyle in disbelief for a moment, then grabbed his coat and herded Doyle out the door.
On the drive and during the fight, Doyle and Angel spoke only to give directions and coordinate strategy. This was natural.
It was only during the drive home that the silence between them became unnatural and heavy. Doyle was staring out the window of the car, his head lowered at a pensive angle, sulking.
Angel, after repeated uncomfortable glances in his direction, sighed mentally and finally spoke. "Doyle, silent brooding is my specialty. You going to tell me what's up?"
Doyle gave Angel a glance. "You know what's up."
"I can guess. You have something to say?"
Doyle frowned slightly. "Angel, man, do you know what you're doing?"
Angel thought for a moment before answering. "Not really... but I'm more sure of this than I've been of anything in a long time."
"But... look, Angel, I know you've got your soul back and all, and now you can actually get some without going all fangy and evil, and that's great, I'm happy for you, really I am, but... Angel, you don't have to get some from the first person to walk in the door!"
"I mean, I realize you have some shared experience and all, both going through that ryver demon thing, but if I went out with everyone who was attacked by the same demons as me, well, I'd be a very popular fellow!"
"And besides, Cordelia says you're supposed to hate this... Xander... kid, or whatever his name is."
"Doyle, I love him."
Doyle was shocked into speechlessness for a moment... but only a moment. "But he's just a kid! He's not just less than half your age, he's less than a tenth of your age!"
"He's just as old as Cordelia."
"I... but... you..." Doyle's expression was anxious and confused, but then he relaxed into resignation. "I suppose this is where you lecture me about being homophobic."
"What good would that do?"
"Sounds like you could give that lecture as well as I could."
"I'm sorry, Angel, man. You just surprised me. I mean, when you meet someone, you make certain... assumptions.... And then when you suddenly find him... making out... with another guy, it's sort of shock to the system, y'know? I mean, you were supposed to be straight. What about that slayer girl, Buffy? Wasn't that supposed to be the forbidden love of all time?"
"That's the story."
"Oh." Doyle paused, then went on, frustratedly, "Well, you can understand why I was surprised."
"I don't blame you for being surprised, but—"
"I know, I know.... You don't have to tell me." Doyle stared out the window at the lights going by. "So, when's the kid—I mean, Xander—getting back?"
Doyle turned to look at Angel. "You're counting the minutes, aren't you?" he asked, amazed. Then a small, amused smile appeared on his face. "You've got it bad."
Angel brought the car to a screeching halt. "Oh, look, your apartment," he said, in a flat voice. Doyle looked worried but then noticed the slight upward curl of the corner of Angel's mouth and grinned back.
Doyle got out of the car and turned back before closing the door. "And don't worry," he said, "I won't tell Cordelia. I'm sure you'll want to save that scene for... a special occasion."
"Thanks for bringing that up."
"Later, Angel." Doyle slammed the door shut and immediately headed up the steps to his building. Angel watched him until he got inside and then slowly drove off, shaking his head.
Angel smiled to himself as he stood over the stove, pouring a small saucepan of heated blood into a large tumbler. He drank his meal without hurry, casually tidying the kitchen between mouthfuls. Eventually, he drained his glass, rinsed it, and left it to dry, walking out of the kitchen pleasantly satisfied.
His fingers tripped lightly over the spines of the books on his shelf, searching until he plucked out, at random, a slim, worn volume. He relaxed against the shelf and opened it.
"There pass the careless people
Angel grimaced, slammed the book shut, and replaced it on the shelf with a violent shove. He immediately walked over to the couch and collapsed onto it.
And there, for hours, he lay, staring into the darkness.
Giles squinted and grimaced as he opened the door and the setting sun hit him full in the face. Eventually he identified the person standing on his doorstep. "Xander?"
"Is everything all right?"
Xander nodded. "I'm fine. I just... need some advice."
"Oh," said Giles, stepping back and opening the door wide. "Uh, please, uh, come in."
"Thanks." Xander wandered in, spent a moment shifting nervously from foot to foot, then planted himself on the couch, staring at the wall.
Giles watched this process with concern and then walked over to perch himself on the edge of his desk. "What is it?"
Xander bit his lip for a second, then turned to face Giles, a solemnly serious expression on his face. "Giles," he said, "you've always been like a father to me, and... is there a more clichéd way I could have started this conversation?"
Giles rolled his eyes upward and nodded slightly. "You wouldn't get any marks for originality."
"But I appreciate the sentiment."
"It's just... well, it's kinda... confusing to be a teenager, y'know? I mean, things are apt to get a bit peer-pressurey, and so it's just easier to go along with what people expect of you. Especially with the personal relationships thing... even when it's not really what you want."
Xander paused and swallowed nervously.
Giles frowned. "Is this about Anya?"
"What? No. I mean, sort of, but... no. I just mean, because of all the confusion and the peer-pressure, it's easy to make mistakes. Like, really bad ones. 'Cause you're confused and peer-pressured and... stuff."
Giles tilted his head and squinted slightly. "Is this about Willow?"
"What?! No. I mean, in a way, but... no. What I mean is, because of that peer-pressure thing I keep mentioning, it seems like a good idea to try to cover up what you really want because... it'll never work... or people will laugh at you or... something."
Giles frowned again and nervously adjusted his glasses. "Is this about Buffy?"
"What? No. Well, in sort of a really indirect way, maybe, but... it just..." Xander clenched his fists and exhaled in frustration. He suddenly relaxed and turned to Giles with a defeated look of calmness. "What I'm trying to say is—"
Without even a knock, the door suddenly crashed open and Buffy came charging through. "Ghost," she stated, planting her feet in the middle of the room and crossing her arms.
Xander turned and replied immediately, and with an annoyed flatness that was completely lost on her, "Busters."
"Exactly," said Buffy, as Willow appeared in the doorway behind her, grinning apologetically. "And we've got one that needs busting. Tonight."
"Er—Buffy," Giles stuttered, "I–I assume that you're familiar with the concept of... the doorbell?"
Buffy glanced back at the open door and quickly shrugged. "No time. Busting."
"V–very well," said Giles, rising from his seat. "I'll collect a few things here... we'll need to determine the precise type of the phantasm before we can exorcise or banish it." He walked over to a table and began to sort through the books that were laid out upon it. "Willow, could you stop by the magic shop and pick up the ingredients for a standard exorcism? We can work from there."
Willow nodded, and Giles turned to Buffy.
"Now, wh–where did this, um, appartition... manifest itself?"
"In the library."
"The library?" repeated Giles, shocked. "In the high school?"
"No, at the university."
"Oh," said Giles, adjusting his glasses, "dear."
"Let's get going," said Buffy, turning back to the door.
Xander quickly got up from the couch and spoke. "Um...."
The others turned.
Xander hesitated, but eventually forced words out. "I know this probably isn't the best time, what with the impending exorcism and all, but since you're all here, there's something I have to tell you." He finished with a slight nervous tremble in his voice.
"Yes, Xander?" said Giles.
"I'm g—" As he looked around at their placidly expectant faces, his heart failed him. "I'm going to move to LA," he said, hanging his head. "Strike five," he muttered to himself.
"LA?" Buffy suppressed a nervous laugh. "You?"
"Yes, I as in me," Xander replied, slightly annoyed.
"Why?" asked Buffy.
"Well, I'm paying rent and having trouble holding a job here anyway," said Xander, airily. "Might as well do it somewhere with a lower death rate."
"Working your way down the death rate scale pretty slowly, there."
"Yeah, well, I thought about Wyoming, but it just wouldn't feel like home if people weren't being murdered every night."
"But what about the team?" asked Willow.
Xander looked down. "I'm sure you'll do fine without me."
Giles shook his head. "I can recall several distinct occasions... where you were instrumental in the foiling of the... evil plans of our adversaries."
Xander looked at him with a doubtful expression.
"Not to mention the moral support," said Willow, smiling, "and the humor."
Xander shook his head and looked down again. "Hey, Oz can tell a better joke in two words than I can in two hundred."
Everyone was silent for a moment.
"Are you really leaving?" asked Willow.
"What are you going to do there?"
Xander sighed. "I've got a place to stay... at least for a while. Then I guess I'll just start the job hopping again."
Everyone seemed to find the pattern on the carpet very interesting until Buffy suddenly raised her head again. "Ghost."
Everyone else looked up, and Xander nodded firmly. "Right."
Giles hesitated only a moment before gathering his books and walking to the door to open it. "We'll meet at the library, then."
"It's a plan," said Buffy. The gang began to file out.
"Buffy," said Giles, as he held the door open for them, "do you still have that book I asked you to check out from the library?"
Buffy stopped short. "Yeah, I do. It's back in my room." She frowned guiltily. "I think it's a little... overdue."
Giles did not look entirely pleased, but said, "Well, it's just as well. Bring it with you and we'll all meet at the library."
"Bring it? Why?"
"I'm assuming now that you didn't read the chapter on phantasms."
Buffy forced a guilty apologetic smile. "There was a chapter on phantasms?"
Giles shook his head. "If you weren't going to read it, why did you check it out?"
"I was going to read it," said Buffy, as she passed him on her way out, "but if you had a choice between reading a moldy old book and slaying a vampire, which would you choose?"
"Definitely the book," said Giles, and closed the door behind them.
There was a loud clunk as the lights in the library shut down for the night. Once the reverberations died away, a quiet succession of footfalls echoed distantly. Then a door was closed and locked, and then... silence.
A blond head suddenly poked out from behind one of the stacks.
"Is the coast clear?" Willow's voice asked.
Buffy nodded and stepped out from behind the shelves. Willow followed.
"Where's Xander?" she asked.
"Asleep," said Oz, appearing from behind another shelf. He walked over to the next aisle and reached down to tap Xander on the shoulder.
Xander started, looked around, and quickly stood up. "I'm here. Awake. Yes."
"And where's Giles?" asked Buffy.
Giles appeared, walking into the aisle from behind yet another row of shelves, his nose buried in a large, dusty tome. "The occult collection here is not what one might hope," he said, vaguely, "but they do have some interesting selections. Did you know that a Kret'tar demon requires the blood of three of its own kind in order to mate?"
Buffy's look of disgust was immediate. "No, and I didn't really need to, either."
Together, they walked out from the maze of stacks and gathered around a large table, where Willow and Buffy placed their bags.
"Okay," said Buffy. "Now what do we do?"
Giles finally put his book down. "Well, before we can start the exorcism, we still need to determine exactly what type of phantasm is manifesting."
"And to do that...?" asked Buffy.
"We'll need the ghost."
Xander sat on the edge of the table and kicked his feet back and forth. "So, how long until the corporeally challenged miscreant gets here?"
"Forgot to put a time on the invitations," said Oz.
Buffy looked around for a moment, impatience growing almost immediately. "What if it doesn't show?"
Giles frowned, considering. "We could perform a... a beckoning spell, to force the spirit to manifest."
Everyone shivered as a chill draft suddenly swept through the room. "Or, we could..." Xander looked up suddenly, alarmed. "Duck!" he yelled.
They all dove for cover as a pale, glowing... something hurtled over them.
Buffy was the first to recover. "Okay, wait's over," she said, rising to a fighting stance, glaring at the apparition that was circling the room.
It resembled nothing so much as a mess of tattered rags flying through the air, emanating an etherial glow. Suddenly it turned, facing directly towards Buffy, and, with an unearthly roar, flew directly at her.
Buffy dove and tumbled, taking cover behind a table. The apparition turned about and swept down again, forcing her to scramble under the table and roll away. The apparition hung back to circle, continuing to make its roaring noise, which began to sound like a chorus of strained voices, echoing strangely throughout the vast space of the library. "Back..." they said, over and over. "Back...."
Again and again it swept down, each time forcing Buffy out of her cover and over ever more complicated obstacles. She tumbled over and around tables, chairs, desks, shelves... over and over.
Giles and Willow sat huddled together under a table, hunched over a book. Giles, in a forceful but troubled voice, read out the incantations, constantly working to keep the pages of the book open as the apparition created fierce gusts of wind with each pass. Willow, following along, would occasionally release small doses of powder into the air as the ghost swept past, but each dose shimmered only momentarily before vanishing completely.
Buffy, meanwhile, was still performing a compulsory acrobatic routine as the apparition again and again forced her out from under cover. Finally she leaped behind a large set of encyclopedias, and the ghost, momentarily thwarted, went back to circling, howling ever louder.
"All right," Buffy yelled out to the others, panting slightly from exertion, "this game of dodge-ghost is getting old. You guys can start with the exorcism any day now."
Giles and Willow completed another failed incantation, and then Giles looked up nervously at the circling spirit. "We haven't yet been able to determine the precise type of phantasm," Giles called, over the growing din. "And it's not usual for a phantasm to immediately exhibit violence in this manner. Something must be wrong."
Again, the ghost raced down at Buffy, forcing her flat to the floor behind the encyclopedias. The voices were screaming, "Give it back! Give it back!"
Buffy blew dust from her face as she lifted herself from the floor. "What does this thing want?" she asked, exasperated.
Xander suddenly poked his head up. "The book!"
"The book!" he repeated. Seeing Buffy's confused look, he stood and began to look around wildly.
Oz suddenly stood as well. "There," he called, pointing. Xander turned and sighted Buffy's book bag still lying on the table where she had left it. He turned and started to run towards it, but the ghost flew down again, forcing him to dive over a table and tumble to the floor.
Grunting, he quickly crawled the remaining yards and grabbed Buffy's backpack. He frantically searched through it, finally finding the book and whipping it out. The apparition immediately shrieked and turned directly towards him, seething. Xander quickly held the book aloft as if it were a shield, wincing and turning his head away as the apparition suddenly launched itself at him, screeching a piercing chorus.
And then it was gone.
Xander looked up to find the book no longer in his hands. He stood up and suddenly noticed a short, prim, translucent woman standing before him, leafing through the book with a small smile on her face.
The rest of the gang slowly rose from the floor and stared in silence at the small figure, dressed in a long dark skirt and plain white blouse, hair pulled severely back in a neat bun, glasses perched on the end of her nose.
Eventually she closed the book with a tiny satisfied sigh, held it high above her head, and suddenly flicked her wrist. The book shot through the air, making Buffy dive again for cover, and flew with supernatural precision directly into the book return slot, landing inside with a loud thud. When everyone turned back to see the ghost, she was gone. All that remained was the slightly rusty squeak of the flap over the book return slot as it swung back and forth, slowly coming to rest.
There followed a moment of deathly silence before anyone moved.
"Well, that was anti-climactic," said Xander.
Giles pulled off his glasses. Oz straightened his shirt. Willow brushed off her sweater and gathered her belongings. Buffy stood up from the floor and looked around guiltily. "I guess it really wanted that book."
Giles sighed. "You could say that." He put his glasses back on. "We'd better get out of here in case campus security comes to check on the noise." Xander, Willow, and Oz quietly followed him as he began to walk, tiredly, towards the exit.
Buffy just stood where she was and looked on in confusion. "Wait, you mean we're not going to exorcise it?"
"No," said Giles, over his shoulder.
"Well, what are we going to do?"
Giles turned back to face her. "In the future, I would suggest you return your library books—" He tilted his head down and fixed a stare on her over the rim of his glasses. "—on time."
Buffy rolled her eyes. "You can take the librarian out of the library..."
"I heard that," called Giles without turning back again, already well on his way to the stairs. "And don't forget to pay your fine."
Angel's apartment was deathly silent before the sound of the lift motor suddenly rent the air and Doyle slowly came into view. When the elevator stopped, he tentatively pushed the gate open, looking around at the darkness. "Angel?"
"Doyle." Angel stepped out of the shadows.
Doyle jumped slightly and turned to face Angel, nodding. He began to look around somewhat nervously, then met Angel's eyes again. "Hi."
Doyle hesitated again. "You got any Scotch?"
Angel nodded almost imperceptibly and walked past Doyle into the kitchen. Doyle followed, fidgeting nervously. Angel retrieved the bottle and two glasses, placed them on the table, and quickly poured out two shots as Doyle sat down. Doyle reached for one glass and downed it with grateful alacrity, then leaned back in his chair with a satisfied sigh.
Angel simply sat, slowly turning his unemptied glass in his hand as it rested on the table.
Doyle watched for a minute, then shook his head. "You're right. Silent brooding is your specialty."
Angel looked up and just stared back.
"You wanna tell me what's up?"
Angel looked back down at his glass. He sat there silently for a moment before answering quietly, "I'm wondering if this isn't a mistake after all."
Doyle frowned. "Yesterday you told me you were more sure of this than of—"
"It doesn't take much brooding to turn a little confidence into a lot of doubt."
Doyle shook his head. "You've got to stop this."
Angel grimaced. "I have two modes with people: bite and avoid. It's hard to get out of that."
"Angel, man, never presume you're friendless. I have, for a long time, and it's not the way to go."
Angel looked down.
"I mean, I'm your friend, right?"
Angel looked at Doyle and then at the bottle. "As long as I don't run out of Scotch."
"See? Banter. That's friendly." Doyle poured himself another drink. "And I don't know now whether you like women at all, but you can't tell me that you don't at least have a fatherly sort of affection for Cordelia."
Angel turned away with a slightly exasperated expression, but could not protest. "She's vulnerable. She brings that out in people."
"No," said Doyle. "She brings that out in you. Most people think she's tough as nails."
Angel smiled slightly for a moment before his face fell again. "My successful interpersonal relationships are few and far between."
Doyle raised his glass in a salute. "Join the club." He downed the shot and went to pour another. "But it's a great loss when you just shut people out."
"Said the pot to the kettle," finished Angel, with a sidelong glance at Doyle.
"Hey," said Doyle, as he raised his glass to his lips, "just because I give advice doesn't mean I'm any good at taking it." He hesitated before drinking, and then returned his glass to the table and leaned forward. "Seriously, though, you've done more for me than you know... giving my life purpose. It's terrible to live without purpose."
"I know you do, and so I'm thanking you."
Angel looked up at Doyle. "You're welcome. I just," he continued, looking away again, "wonder if it's all worth it."
Doyle looked at Angel for a moment, considering. "I saw you smile at him once. I mean, I've seen you smile before... on rare occasions, but nothing like... I mean, it made me feel all... gushy inside. And that's saying a lot. Usually the only things that make me feel gushy inside are vast quantities of liquor, and Cordelia."
Angel grinned reluctantly. "Are you sure it wasn't just the liquor?"
Doyle downed the shot he had been holding, and placed the glass firmly down on the table. "Yesh."
Angel laughed quietly. "How is Cordelia?"
Doyle smiled blearily. "Cordelia's playing hard to get...." His smile fell into a frown. "That is, she went on a date with another man."
Angel gave Doyle a sympathetic look. "I'm sure she'll come around."
Doyle shrugged. "Who's doubting? Only I'd prefer if it were sooner rather than later."
Angel smiled and turned to stare into the darkness.
"Look, man," said Doyle, after watching him for a moment, "if he means that much to you, why don't you go for it?"
Angel scoffed quietly and looked down into his glass again. "Xander's so young. And he's scared. And I'm not just a vampire, I'm a vampire with... baggage. What if he doesn't..." Angel broke off and looked away.
"'Cause y'know that way you smile at him?" Angel looked up and met Doyle's eyes, suddenly desperate. "That's the way he smiles at you."
Oz grabbed the remote control and collapsed on the couch beside Xander.
"Thanks for letting me hang, man," said Xander.
Oz gave a little shrug. "Anytime. May be our last chance for a while."
Oz frowned at what was on the screen and flipped the channel. "LA." It was a statement and a question rolled into one.
"Yep. Big city. Movin' up in the world. Well, maybe just down and to the left... I mean, southwest."
"Place to stay?"
"Uh huh." Xander hesitated nervously, eyes still on the TV, before continuing. "With a friend."
Several commercials blared by before Oz spoke. "Someone you met last week?"
"Yes—I mean, no. Knew him before, I just... know him better now."
Oz just nodded. He flipped the channel again. He stared in disbelief for a moment at the commercial running on the new channel and then flipped yet again. "Drag about Anya," he said, after a while.
Xander was slightly startled, but still kept watching the TV. "Not really," he said, attempting to sound casual. "It's... better this way."
Oz nodded and fiddled with the volume. Xander looked down and fiddled with the fabric of his pants bunched at his knee.
"Look, man," said Xander, turning towards Oz but still not looking up. "About that...."
There was a knock at the door, making them both look up, and Willow suddenly bounced cheerily into the room. "Hi, guys!" she exclaimed with a wave, immediately planting herself on the arm of the couch beside Oz. He looked up at her, smiled, and placed an arm around her waist. Xander bit his lip and turned back to face the television. "Surfin' the airwaves?" she asked.
"Guess so," said Oz.
"Strike six," muttered Xander, still staring at the TV.
"What?" asked Willow, still bright and smiling.
"Trail mix?" Xander asked, grabbing a bowl from the coffee table and offering it to her with a wide grin.
"No, thanks," said Willow. "Whatcha watchin'?"
"Dunno," said Oz.
"You don't know? What were you doing, talking?"
Willow grinned. "Making out?"
Xander immediately choked and hunched forward, sending little bits of trail mix flying across the table.
Oz glanced quickly at Xander and then looked up at Willow, grabbing her attention with his eyes. "Naw, just zonin'."
Willow smiled and nodded. Xander managed to surreptitiously clear his throat and they all turned back to the television.
Willow looked down at Oz for a moment and asked, "You done with the notes from last class?"
"Yeah, thanks," he replied, not turning away from the screen.
All three fell into silence for a while.
Xander eventually quit fiddling with his pants and got up. "I should go."
"No, stay," said Willow, gesturing back at the couch.
Xander shook his head. "I've got to finish packing."
Willow frowned and nodded. "So is this goodbye?"
"Um..." said Xander, looking around nervously. "Nah. I'm sure I'll see you guys tomorrow."
As Xander started to walk towards the door, Oz unexpectedly put out his hand. Xander, startled, awkwardly took it and shook it, suddenly releasing it and dodging when he realized he was blocking the television. Oz, however, kept his gaze on Xander and just nodded slightly.
"Oh, by the way," said Willow, offhandedly. "Giles said he wanted you to stop by tomorrow to pick up some books to deliver to Angel... if you don't mind, that is."
"'Course not. I mean, courier boy, that's me. Any particular time?"
"Four p.m. sharp."
"Well, you know Giles. 'You can take the librarian out of the library...'"
"...and he'll still angst about overdue books. Point taken." Xander waved and was out the door.
"Hello, Giles!" said Xander with unnecessary cheerfulness as Giles answered the door. "Mobile library here. You wanted me to pick up some books?"
"Yes, Xander, please come in."
Xander turned around to grab the handle of a large duffel bag that he had apparently been dragging behind himself, along with an overstuffed backpack slung over his shoulder and another large bag in his other hand.
"Xander, wh–why are you carrying all that with you?" asked Giles.
Xander struggled through the door and turned to answer. "My mom thr—oh, wow," he said, as he noticed the room was decked with colored streamers. And Willow, Oz, and Buffy there waiting for him. And a large cake on the table with "Good Luck, Xander" written across it.
Xander swallowed and bit his lip. "Th–thanks, guys," he stuttered after a moment, starting to smile.
Willow walked forward and hugged him. "We couldn't let you leave again without saying goodbye."
The room stood still for a moment.
"And we can't say goodbye without a cake," said Buffy, smiling. "And a party!" She hit the play button on the boom box sitting behind her, and the room was immediately filled with sound.
The tension broke, and everyone moved comfortably again. Cake and soda were passed around, and everyone chatted and joked as if they were just hanging out.
Later on, Willow cornered Xander for a private chat while Buffy and Oz tried to decide what disc to play after the current one finished and Giles went to get more ice from the freezer.
"Were you really just going to go without saying goodbye to anyone?"
Xander looked down. "It's hard, Willow. I didn't know if I could face it—face you guys. It's easier to run away."
"Is that why you're leaving again? Running away?"
"Maybe partly. But I have to go. I've lived in Sunnydale all my life and it's time for a change, before I become the permanent townie."
"Would that be so bad?" Willow asked, smiling.
"Yes," said Xander with emphasis, looking away. "I don't think I'll ever get to be who I should be, here. Maybe I'll come back, but I need to get away for now."
"This sounds... a little familiar."
"Yeah, but all I didn't get very far with that trip... in mileage or personal growth. It's time to face my... demons."
"What's gone so wrong? Why do you have to leave to sort things out?" Willow appeared to be on the verge of tears.
"I'm sorry, Willow. I'm really not doing this to hurt you, or anyone."
Willow bit her lip and looked around. She spotted Xander's bags and changed the subject. "Wow, did you pack everything you own in those things?"
"Pretty much everything I need."
"Why are you carrying it around now?"
"Well, my mom kinda evicted me from the basement."
Suddenly, the music stopped playing.
"Well, it could be because I told her that I'm gay," said Xander, still at the volume necessary to speak over the music. He cringed as he heard the final word reverberate throughout the room.
Buffy turned, slackjawed. Willow just stared, her face blank with confusion.
Curiously enough, it was Oz who broke the silence. "Whoa," he said softly, an odd suggestion of a smile on his face.
Giles walked into the room, carrying a small cooler of ice. He looked about, puzzled, when he noticed that no one was talking or moving.
"Wh–what's going on?"
No one spoke for a moment.
"Xander's gay," said Buffy, with incredulity.
Giles turned to Xander, the cooler still clutched tightly in his hands. "Xander?"
Xander sighed. "Yes," he admitted.
There was another uncomfortable pause.
"Is that why you're leaving?" asked Willow.
"Sort of," replied Xander.
"You don't have to go," said Willow.
"Well, I have to go somewhere since my mom threw me out, and I'm carrying everything I own with me."
"Your mom threw you out?" asked Buffy, still incredulous.
"Yeah, when I told her she argued with me for a bit, then told me to get out. So I handed her a book and the phone numbers of some support groups and then left. Fortunately I was mostly packed. It's no big deal. I mean, since I was leaving anyway."
"Oh, Xander," said Willow, moving forward and wrapping her arms tightly around him. He looked relieved.
"I still don't get it," said Buffy, shaking her head.
"It's okay," said Xander, as Willow released him. "I'm sure that college-level education will kick in soon.... I mean, hey, it took me long enough to figure it out." He looked down nervously.
"I may not get it," Buffy replied, after a moment, "but you're still my friend." She walked over and hugged him briefly. "I'll miss you," she said, unable to keep some amazement out of her voice.
Xander suppressed a chuckle. "Thanks, Buffy. I'll miss you, too."
Giles walked over and placed his hand on Xander's shoulder. "Xander, if you ever have any trouble, know that we—all of us—will always be here for you. No matter what."
"Thanks, Giles. That means a lot. Really."
Oz just smiled slightly and nodded at Xander. Xander smiled nervously and nodded back. Oz placed a new disc in the boom box, and hit play. Once again the tension was washed away by the noise and everyone went for seconds on the cake.
Only now, the conversation wasn't so normal.
Buffy and Willow began quizzing Xander on various topics, what his various heterosexual relationships had meant, what guys at school he found cute. Soon he was being asked to rate most of the males in their graduating class on a scale of one to ten. And argued with vehemently over some ratings.
"Eight?! You thought he was cute? Really? You have so got to be kidding me."
"Well, actually, I was kind of in denial, so really I thought that I didn't think he was cute. Sort of."
From there it moved to celebrities.
"Joey or Chandler?"
"Uh... Chandler, I guess. I dunno."
"Dawson or Pacey?"
Xander appeared calm and relaxed, but there was a tinge of disappointment at yet again playing the role of the clown, the comedian, the evening's entertainment. Buffy asked the most questions, and appeared to be having a great time, but there was a slightly hysterical edge to her laughter. Willow, while appearing slightly concerned from time to time, followed Buffy's lead, and allowed herself to be amused by Xander's responses.
Oz, rather left out by the conversational topics, soon became engrossed in the liner notes of the disc that was playing. Giles sat nearby and listened to the girls' barrage of questions in some amazement, periodically removing and replacing his glasses.
Eventually Xander glanced nervously at the clock and announced that he would have to leave soon in order to catch his bus.
"I'll give you a ride to the station," said Giles, rising.
"We'll stay here and clean up," said Buffy.
Everyone followed Giles and Xander to the door.
"Well, thanks for my going-away-slash-coming-out party," Xander said, grinning sheepishly. "Even if the last part was a little unexpected."
"Keep in touch," said Willow, giving Xander a forlorn look.
"I'll write you as soon as I know for sure where my digs will be."
"Well, good luck," said Willow, giving him a hug. Then he hugged Buffy and shook hands with Oz.
"Let's go," said Xander to Giles.
His friends watched and waved from the doorway as Xander and Giles got into the car and drove off.
When they had disappeared around the corner, Buffy froze, her hand still in mid wave. A look of confusion crossed her face. "Did that really just happen?"
"I didn't want to say anything at your party," began Giles uncertainly, after a long and uncomfortable silence, "but I'm worried about the way you're leaving things here."
"I have to go, Giles," said Xander, tiredly. "I have to."
"Well, you're an adult now, so that's up to you. But I'm still worried about the way you've left your mother. It's important to keep lines of communication open in situations like these, not to destroy them."
Xander laughed harshly. "It's pretty hard to keep them open when they weren't there to start with. But I know what you mean. I'm gonna write to her regularly, even if she doesn't reply. Maybe if I get really brave, I might even call her," he added with a chuckle.
"And you will keep in touch with us."
"Yes, Giles," said Xander, fighting to keep the sarcasm out of his voice, "I promise."
Giles parked and then helped Xander carry his luggage to the bus.
"Well, good luck, Xander. I'm sorry you're leaving. You were always a valuable member of the team."
Xander looked down and shifted from foot to foot. "I'm sure you'll do fine without me."
Giles didn't speak for a moment. "I'd feel better if we had a number or an address to contact you. I know you said you'd write, but—"
"It's okay. It's the same number I stayed at last time. You need me to write it down again?"
"No, no, I still have it."
There was a boarding call.
"Well, I'd better go. It'd be a shame to have to walk to LA when I've already got a bus ticket. Thanks, Giles, for everything." Xander extended his hand.
Giles shook it firmly. "You're welcome. Goodbye."
Giles watched as Xander boarded the bus, and stood staring as the bus closed its doors and gradually accelerated away. Then Giles slowly turned and left the station.
When Giles returned home, Willow and Oz were taking down the streamers while Buffy swept the floor.
"Thank you all for cleaning up," he said.
"No problem," said Buffy, as she dumped the dustpan into the trash. "Now, I've got to get back to my room and finish that essay before patrol or I won't get any sleep tonight, even without the nightmares. No sleep, bad for Buffy. Coming, Willow?"
"No, thanks, you go ahead. I've got to... research the Wicca a little."
"Always the conscientious student," said Buffy with a smile. "Later!"
Willow watched her leave and then turned to Oz. "Are you going to be able to do dinner tonight?"
Oz shook his head. "Rehearsal. After?"
Willow smiled and nodded. Oz gave her a quick kiss and was out the door.
"Do you need any particular books?" Giles asked Willow, heading for the shelf.
"No, I just need... to talk."
Giles sat on the edge of his desk, and gave her a concerned look. "What is it?"
"I'm worried about Xander."
Giles sighed and removed his glasses. "So am I." He massaged the bridge of his nose. "I talked to him in the car. He promised to keep in touch with us. And his mother."
Willow looked relieved. "That's good. I wish he didn't have to run away. It's like a chronic syndrome or something. Do you think he'll be back?"
"I don't know."
"I wish I knew where he was going. He just said, 'I'm going to LA.' LA's a kind of a big place."
"He did give me a number. It's the same place at which he stayed... a while ago. Do you know where that was?"
"No, he didn't say much then, either."
"Here it is," said Giles, replacing his glasses and digging a slip of paper out of his wallet.
Willow smiled forlornly at seeing Xander's handwriting. "I miss him already," she said, copying down the number for herself.
Giles gave her a supportive smile as he took back the paper. He glanced at it and suddenly stopped. "You know, there's something familiar about this number...."
An industrial orange glow bathed the cavernous space of the covered loading area at the bus station. Footsteps and snippets of conversation echoed among the weathered concrete supports, as family and friends waited for the final arrival of the night.
One figure stood apart from the small crowd, silent and still as the stone supports around it, clad in black darker even than the night beyond the reach of the pale orange light. The only hint of movement was a corner of the long black duster, which fluttered slightly in the breeze. The figure itself was lifeless.
A shout suddenly reverberated throughout and the dull roar of a bus engine began to dominate all other sounds. The bus slowly rolled into the station, pulled up alongside the curb, and stopped with a tired groan and shudder from the engine and a brief shriek from the breaks. The doors swung open, and there followed a general bustle and confusion of disembarking passengers, shouted greetings, and unloaded luggage.
Finally the crowd began to break up, some passengers leaving with groups, some in couples, some alone. Soon the only sounds, but for distant echoes, were the low drone of the engine and the reemergent electric hum of the lights.
The silent figure remained impassive.
Then, suddenly, one final straggling passenger appeared in the doorway, tiredly struggling to maneuver an unwieldy pair of bags.
The figure moved almost imperceptibly, but immediately lost its lifeless appearance and became... human.
The passenger stumbled out onto the pavement and scanned the ground anxiously, sighing with relief when he found his final piece of luggage unloaded from the body of the bus, lying on the curb. Heaving one bag over his shoulder, he loped over to retrieve it.
The figure stepped forward.
The passenger glanced up at the sound, and instantly smiled. And that one smile washed away all the pallid orange. "Angel," he said.
"Xander," said Angel, quickly closing the distance.
And then Xander's bags were falling to the ground and he found himself buried in the same smothering embrace he'd reluctantly left one week ago. He worked his arms under Angel's coat and held tight.
Eventually, Angel let go, brushing his lips against Xander's cheek as he pulled back to stare into Xander's eyes, smiling. "I missed you."
Xander turned away, laughing softly. "I couldn't tell." He sniffed quietly, then looked back to meet Angel's gaze, his own eyes glistening slightly, an ever-changing smile on his face. "I missed you, too, Deadboy."
The corner of Angel's mouth quirked upwards for a moment, and then he reached into his coat and drew something long and thin from his pocket, handing it to Xander.
Xander smiled even wider as he stared at it. "Wow, a rose? You really are the hopeless romantic, aren't you?" He glanced up at Angel with a guilty grin. "And I forgot bring you anything at all."
"You've already given me more than you know."
Xander looked down and began to move to collect his bags. "I'm no good at this stuff. The best I can manage are goofy Hallmark cards." He suddenly stood up, hissing sharply. "Ow. This rose has tho—" Xander broke off.
Angel immediately turned to lock onto Xander's reaction, unable to keep a nervous desperation out of his eyes.
Xander just stood for a moment, staring at the tiny prick in his finger and at the long-stemmed rose lying in his hand. Then he lifted his head up and looked directly at Angel, hesitating only slightly before solemnly nodding. He reached out with his free hand to take a gentle hold of Angel's, and then, ever so gently, leaned forward and pressed his lips against the vampire's.
They moved hardly at all, only tilting their heads and opening their jaws slightly, as the kiss went on. Their clasped hands, however, grew ever tighter, ever more sure, fingers threading together as if they might become one....
And they still held tight when Angel and Xander pulled back from each other and stood, each smiling into the other's eyes.
Eventually, reluctantly, they let go, and Xander unthreaded his hand from Angel's to reach down for his backpack.
Angel slung the duffel bag that Xander had been carrying over his shoulder. "How was your trip?"
Xander scoffed. "Seven strikes and you're out—or maybe six strikes and one error."
"It's a long and boring story."
Xander smiled. "Not right now."
Angel lifted the last of Xander's bags with an effortlessness that made Xander smile, and they both slowly headed out of the station. "How is everyone in Sunnydale?" asked Angel, working to keep his tone casual.
Angel processed this answer for a few footsteps and then asked, "So were they okay with you leaving?"
"Yeah, they were okay with it. They were kind of a little more worried after I came out to them, though."
"So you did.... Did you also tell them—"
"No," said Xander, with a chuckle. "It was hard enough just telling them the first part. And I didn't know if maybe you wanted me to keep quiet about... you know. Besides, I was afraid I'd jinx it if I told anyone about you.... I'd come here and it'd all turn out to be a big mistake or something."
Angel grabbed him and kissed him quickly. "This isn't a mistake."
Xander grinned wryly. "I would have to agree."
Angel smiled back. "Let's go home."
Xander's smile widened. "Yeah. Home." Xander let Angel take his hand and followed as Angel began to lead him away. After a moment, Xander added, a bit sheepishly, "Could we stop somewhere on the way, though? I'm starving."
Angel smiled and nodded, then stopped and put down Xander's bag to draw something else from inside his coat and place it in Xander's free hand. "Here, I also got you this."
"Chocolate?" asked Xander, with delight, already tearing into the wrapper as they began to walk again. "Okay, you are officially the most romantic guy on the planet."
And the last sound that reverberated in the station, before they vanished into the night, was Angel's laugh.