Title: The Life We Lead
The Life We Lead
Xander was humming softly as he stepped out of the shower and wrapped a towel around himself. He smiled and nodded with approval at the plunger standing beside the functioning toilet. He looked around for a mirror, confused for a moment, until a look of amused but slightly forlorn comprehension crossed his face. He shrugged and left the bathroom.
He dressed in Angel's closet, smiling as he compared Angel's wardrobe with what he was putting on. "He's got style, I've got... clothes." Xander grinned guiltily as he reached out and ran his hand down the sleeve of one of Angel's silk shirts.
Once dressed, Xander stepped out into the bedroom, stopped, and listened. "Angel?" he called, tentatively.
Xander grinned slightly and strode to the room with a spring in his step, grinning even wider as he saw Angel standing at the table, waiting for him. Suddenly, he tripped and stumbled forward. He turned back and looked down. "The linoleum's peeling. No, wait, someone's been..." He turned around to face Angel. "You have a demon try to do some interior decorating?"
"Nothing that entertaining," said Angel. "Cordelia wanted to see if I had hardwood floors."
Xander smirked. "I won't ask."
"Ready to go?" asked Angel.
"Yep, I'm primed and ready to endure a day with Cordy. Well, it won't be that bad. Unless she gets all high-and-mighty about her soon-to-be-up-and-coming-actress-in-LA status. Which she probably will, so... whatever."
"She'll at least want to show off her apartment."
"Nice, is it?"
"Yes, but... I don't know what she's telling people about it, but it's haunted. The ghost is harmless, now. Just so you know."
"What do you mean the ghost is harmless now?"
"There used to be two of them. They were angry with each other. It was a mess."
"Poltergeist-type thing? Throwing things about?"
Angel nodded. "Doyle and I went over there to bring her this little cactus as a housewarming present. Things started flying around and blood appeared on the walls—"
"Wait, you got her a cactus as a housewarming present?" Xander looked around the apartment. "You've got style. You've got taste. And you got her a cactus as a housewarming present?"
Angel shrugged. "I figured I owed her for what she did to the linoleum."
Xander laughed out loud. "You play at being all detached and mysterious, but really you're as bad as me."
"I wouldn't go that far."
Xander walked over to Angel. "How far would you go?"
"Testing me?" asked Angel, raising an eyebrow.
"Maybe," said Xander, stepping closer so that they were almost touching.
They stared into each other's eyes, each moment drawing closer and closer....
The sound of the elevator kicking in and descending made them immediately spin about and start walking in opposite directions, turning to face the elevator after a few paces. Cordelia slowly came into view, dressed in the height of fashion, a huge grin on her face. "Good morning!" she sang out as she tore open the gate. "Are you ready for the ultimate tour of LA, given by the one and only"—here she posed for effect—"Cordelia Chase, up-and-coming Hollywood starlet?"
Xander and Angel shared a look. "I leave you to your fate," said Angel, retreating from the room.
"Coward," Xander whispered, knowing Angel would hear. Angel cast a glance and a half-grin over his shoulder.
"What, exactly, was that supposed to mean?" Cordelia asked, placing her hands on her narrow waist.
Xander grinned at Cordelia. "Don't mind the skulking vampire. He's just jealous. Let's go!"
Angel paced the darkened room impatiently, his coat billowing and flapping behind him like a sail. Suddenly he froze as his sensitive hearing picked up the sound of people in the hallway. He strode quickly to the door.
It swung open and Xander stepped through. Xander grinned up at Angel, but Angel reached past him and slammed the door shut in Cordelia's face with a snarl, trapping Xander against the door, between his arms.
Xander looked up nervously at Angel for a moment, and then Angel's mouth was on his, kissing him, pushing him against the door, almost lifting him from the ground. Angel's kisses worked their way across Xander's cheek and down his neck, and then Angel was tearing open Xander's shirt. Xander moaned and rolled his head back, hands clutching at the flat surface of the door as Angel dragged his lips along the contour of Xander's collarbone.
Suddenly, Angel grabbed Xander by the waist and lifted him up. Xander reflexively threw his arms around Angel's neck and found himself spun around and deposited on the desk, all the office paraphernalia tumbling to the floor with a crash as Angel swept it away. Then, Angel's mouth was on Xander's neck again, gradually but frenziedly working his way down Xander's chest, tearing open his shirt along the way, as Xander threaded his fingers through Angel's hair.
Suddenly, a piercing female voice rent the air. "And to your left, you can see Madonna and Brad Pitt walking down the street completely naked!"
"Huh? What?" Xander returned to his senses in Cordelia's car, with Cordelia screaming in his ear.
"Do you even know where we are?"
"Um, LA?" Xander casually slid his hands down to cover his lap. "Sorry, Cordy, I didn't—"
"Eww, yuck! Don't even think about it!"
"What? Think about what?" Xander shook his head, trying to rid it of images of Angel.
"You had grope face."
"Don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about. That 'where's the nearest utility closet' look you spent so much time working on in high school."
Xander grimaced in frustration. "Cordy, groping you is the last thing on my mind."
"'Last' as in 'most recent.'"
"Cordy, no, I—"
"Xander," Cordelia said, condescendingly, "let me give you some advice about women—"
"Oh, boy," mumbled Xander, resignedly.
"—because you obviously need it," Cordelia went on, unheeding. "After all, other than the freak occurrence that was you and me—"
"The 'freak occurrence' that lasted months," said Xander, rolling his eyes.
"Except for that freak occurrence," emphasized Cordelia, "your love life has been pretty, shall we say, demonic?" She said the last word with a huge fake grin.
"I fail to see the exception," muttered Xander.
"When a woman talks to you," Cordelia persisted, with tolerant, almost pitying, anger, "although I don't see why one ever would, she wants you to listen. She does not want grope face."
Xander pretended to think for a moment. "Okay," he said, "I'll file that under incredibly obvious advice."
"If it's so incredibly obvious, then what—"
"Look, Cordy," said Xander, bringing one hand up to his head, "I'm sorry, I was just... distracted." He motioned with his hand towards the window. "This vast landscape of money, power, and fame is too much for Xander's poor, underprivileged brain to take in all at once."
"Well, get your brain out of its utility closet and pay attention. To me. Pay attention to me."
"Right. Attention to you. You were telling me about your audition for the Liqui-Gel commercial?"
Cordelia couldn't believe what she was hearing. "Xander, that was like twenty minutes ago."
"I'll pay attention this time. Really. Promise."
Cordelia sighed and launched into another recitation of the tale as she drove wherever it was they were going, her voice colored by a curious mixture of pride and resentment against both Xander and the producers of the Liqui-Gel spot.
Angel tossed aside his newspaper and quickly stood as Cordelia barged into the room.
"And this," Cordelia said to Xander, who follower her in, "is where I work until my career takes off, which will probably be any day now." She paused for a moment, considering what she had just said. "Of course, you knew all that, but I'm in tour guide mode right now."
Xander wasn't paying any attention to her, but was staring at Angel. "Hi."
"Hi," Angel replied.
"Hi, Angel," Cordelia said briefly, then went back to lecturing Xander. "I hope you noticed how well the office equipment coordinates. I did that. Lord knows, I didn't have much to work with, but I did it. Hello? Xander? Xander! You've forgotten rule number one again."
"Rule number one?" Xander asked, shaking his head and turning to face Cordelia.
"Pay attention to me," Cordelia explained. "You can stake Angel later if that's what you're thinking about."
Xander immediately looked down, blushing hard, and found a chair to collapse in. Angel rolled his eyes in frustration and wandered away to the other side of the office.
Cordelia wasn't looking at either of them, but was searching through her purse. "I don't know why you're staying with him in that dank dungeon of an apartment anyway—"
Angel turned back. "It's not dank," he protested, quietly.
"—but that's up to you. And now," announced Cordelia, drawing a ticket from her purse, "I make my exit. I've got a ticket to the biggest Hollywood event of the year... well, of the week... well, of the next twenty-four hours, and I'm going to go, and I'm going to be noticed, and it's going to launch my career." She headed towards the door. "Just think, you'll be able to say you knew me when." She waved and was gone, slamming the door behind herself.
Xander let his head drop into his hands and began to rub his temples.
Angel dropped into a chair across the room. "Sorry about that."
"My fault." Xander looked up at Angel and managed a half-smile. "Didn't hang on her every word." Angel smirked. Xander leaned back in his chair and sighed. "And she's anxious about her party."
Angel just stared back, saying nothing.
The silence became awkward when Xander suddenly looked down, nervous. Angel's smirk disappeared, his brow furrowing slightly with concern.
When Xander eventually looked back up, he was grinning apologetically. "I feel a talk coming on. Either that or we just sit here staring at each other."
"Usually works for me. What do you want to talk about?"
"I asked first."
"You kissed first."
"And now you're making me pay? Poor fool me."
"Kidding. What do you want from this?"
"I don't even know what 'this' is."
"Neither do I."
"Brilliant minds at work. I knew I should have gone to college."
"Would you like to go out again?"
"Yes. Is that what you want?"
"Well, at least it's consensual."
"We're talking about dinner, here."
"Actually, we're talking about you watching me eat dinner... but I get your point."
"So we've established one fact."
"Are we on a roll?"
"Don't get too excited. I might go all silent and brooding any second."
"Before you do, I have to ask..."
Angel returned a prompting look.
"Would you like to do what we did after dinner... again?" Xander asked, nervously.
"With the toilet? No."
"With the circuit breaker?"
"After that, Deadboy. Quit fooling around."
"Hypocrite. I'm trying to get you to say the word."
"Listen to us! What are we doing? Trying to arrange a negotiated settlement? I'll admit, I've been wary. I don't want to do anything stupid. But this is stupid."
"Let's go to dinner."
"So we're just avoiding the subject. Sounds good. No, let's not go out. I don't want you to have to put up with all that again. Let's order in. Or go pick something up. Then I can eat and you can drink and it won't be so... lopsided."
"And this way, if we do decide to... kiss, we won't have to worry about doing it in public."
"Let's get some practice in." Angel crossed the room before Xander even saw him leave his chair, took Xander in his arms, and brazenly attacked his mouth.
Afterwards, it took Xander a moment before he could speak. "You don't wait around, do you?"
"I've been waiting over two hundred years for this."
"Listen to you! Pulling out all the romantic stops. I'll bet you say that to all the boys."
"I was serious."
"I'm sorry. You know me and my humor-based defense mechanisms. I could say the same thing—except for the two-hundred-year part, you've got one of those order of magnitude things on me there, Deadboy—but it sounds so corny coming from me. I don't have the brooding-vampire mystique. There I go again."
"It's all right, I think I understand."
"Well, you've got me beat there. I sure don't."
"Let's go get dinner."
"You really want this conversation to end, don't you? You kiss me, you try to drag me out to dinner. Just any distraction will do."
"Will I never have a serious conversation with you?" asked Angel, grimly.
"Just so long as I know." Angel left Xander and crossed the room to the desk, where he started rifling through the papers. "Doyle left a restaurant guide here once...."
"Angel?" Xander's voice was timid. "I'm sorry."
"I'm just really, really scared."
Angel looked up for a moment. "If it's any consolation, I'm a little anxious myself. Do you want to talk about it?"
"Isn't that what we just did?"
"No, that's what we just tried to do."
"I'm sorry, I'm screwing this up royally."
"I mean, I keep finding the absolute worst thing to say..."
"...every single time. It's as if I wanted to fail."
"Xander! Shut up." Angel brandished a sheet of paper. "There's a Chinese takeout place just a few blocks from here. Let's walk."
Xander shut his mouth, held his lips closed between his teeth, and meekly followed Angel out the door.
Four and a half blocks of silence later, Xander was forced to open his mouth to order. He and Angel walked back out to the sidewalk to wait.
"Why are you afraid?"
Xander stared, shocked that Angel had been the one to break the silence. "Lots of reasons," he eventually said. "In fact, an entire—"
"Pick one reason. Start there."
"Okay," said Xander, quietly. He thought for a moment. "Were you serious, what you said before?"
"Probably. What are you talking about?"
"The having waited two hundred years thing."
"I was serious."
"It's not that I think that you're a liar, or that you'd lie to me, but I can't believe that."
"Xander," Angel said with obvious discomfort, "eighteenth-century Ireland wasn't the best place to... pick up guys. After that... soulless monsters don't have real relationships." Angel paused for a moment. Xander looked at the ground. "When I got my soul back, I couldn't even begin to think about a relationship with anyone. It's only in the last few years that that changed."
"Buffy," Xander muttered.
"Yes, but not how you think. I was so grateful to her. Her friendship—the friendship of a slayer—meant the possibility of salvation. And an end to the... emptiness. For a while, I thought she was my salvation, and I tried to make it work." Angel looked off into the distance. "Disaster," he murmured.
Xander turned to stare at Angel, wide-eyed. "So you don't love her?"
"I do care for her, even love her. But not in the way she needs. Not in the way I need."
Xander continued to stare.
"Now, my soul is mine, and I'm starting to believe that I might actually find redemption." Angel looked at Xander warily. "And the two hundred years don't seem wasted, because at the end of them, I've found you."
Xander's jaw dropped slightly, making his mouth hang a little open.
Suddenly, a hoarse oriental voice called his name from within the shop.
Xander started and shook his head quickly. "My meal," he explained, needlessly, and walked inside to get it.
Angel waited on the curb.
Xander, carrying a brown paper bag, walked out of the shop and kept on walking. Angel read the look on his face and silently fell into step with him.
"I'm still having trouble shaking the fear that Buffy will jump out from behind the next building and start laughing at pathetic little Xander," said Xander, eventually. He peered about suspiciously. "Again, it's not that I don't trust you, but—"
"Actually, it is that you don't trust me."
"I'm sorry, Angel, I—"
"Trust has to be earned. We haven't had much of a chance to build trust. Mostly to destroy it."
Xander struggled with his thoughts for a moment. "But even with all that... I... admire you, in so many ways. Yeah, I know, everyone thought I hated you. Good cover story, right? So it just seems so ridiculous that I can't credit you with a little honesty and trustworthiness, which are really the most important things."
"That's why it's difficult." Angel looked out into the distance. "I know this all seems strange and unbelievable, a two-century old vampire falling for a high school kid."
"I'm not a high school kid anymore," Xander asserted, defensively.
"You were when I first met you."
"You fell for me—"
"I started falling for you the moment I saw you. At first it was just lust—"
"Lust?" murmured Xander, incredulously.
"—but I could handle that. Then I got to know you. And it got more difficult."
"Why didn't you say anything?"
"What could I say? You looked like you'd be happy to see me as a pile of dust, and I was trying desperately to make the thing with Buffy work. But every time I even saw you, it proved my... relationship with Buffy to be a sham."
Xander said nothing.
"For all that," Angel continued after a moment, "I think I loved her better than she loved me. She had one image of me: the pained, brooding vampire pathetically devoted to her... and her every whim. Easy enough part to play. As long as I played the part, it was fine, but if I ever strayed from the role, even a little bit, she either ignored me or reacted very... badly.
"But had you not been there to wake me up, I might have happily gone on worshipping the symbol of my redemption."
Xander snickered. "Perhaps we woke each other up." Then Xander's smile dropped and his voice changed. "You're braver than I am."
Angel turned to look at him, but Xander steadily kept his eyes before him.
"I knew you were physically brave, I mean fighting demons and game face and grrr and all, but... what you just said. Those are the things I've been longing to tell you. Been waiting all my life, everything else was a sham compared to—"
"I'm a coward."
"I hardly ever open up to anyone."
"You use silence, I use sarcasm. And general idiotness."
"Whatever." Xander smiled. "It was strange coming here. Not sure what was going on. Wanting desperately to believe I had a chance, but afraid to even try. Feeling like I was racing against a clock. I can't stay in LA forever."
"Is that an invitation?"
"If you want."
"To... move in with you? We've only kissed twice."
Angel stiffened and looked forward. "It's up to you."
"I'm just saying I wish we had the chance to, you know, date a while first. Like a normal... couple."
Angel smiled slightly. "Normality is a luxury we don't appear to have."
"This is all so weird."
"You expected anything less?"
"I guess not. I suppose we could try the long-distance relationship thing."
"Do you want to?"
"Not really. You're hard enough to talk to in person, much less over the phone."
"Sounds like the perfect reason to move in."
"You have to build relationships on solid foundations." Xander was grinning. Then an amazed look crossed his face. "I can't believe I just used the word 'relationship' in a conversation with you—twice!—much less in reference to... us? Is there an 'us' now?"
"Semantic battles bore me."
They mounted the steps to Angel's apartment. Once inside, Xander silently helped Angel to set the table. He watched in fascination as Angel took a packet of blood from the refrigerator and emptied it into a saucepan to heat it.
Angel caught him staring and Xander quickly turned away, breaking apart his chopsticks and shoveling some rice onto his plate.
"If this bothers you I can do it later," said Angel, quietly, "but you said—"
"And I meant it," said Xander, turning to look up at Angel. "I was just curious. Why do have to heat it? Can you use a microwave?"
"I can use a microwave, but it's easy to kill the blood."
"Kill the blood? You mean the blood cells have to be..."
"Alive? Yes. But the only reason to heat it is for flavor. Cold blood tastes nasty." Angel made an exaggerated grimace that made Xander smile.
"What... uh... kind is it?"
"It's cow. It's easy to get in large quantities and it doesn't taste half bad." Angel poured the heated blood into a large tumbler.
"I'll take your word for it."
Angel smiled and sat down, sipping his meal as Xander picked at his in silence.
After a few minutes, Xander spoke. "It's my turn, isn't it?"
"To say all those... difficult things."
"You don't have to do it now."
"But I owe it to you after—"
"You don't owe me anything." Angel took another sip. "What's been going on in Sunnydale?"
Relieved, Xander started to recount, between bites, the adventures that had befallen Buffy and her friends since Angel's departure. Angel responded with brief synopses of his more interesting cases. Soon they were laughing and joking about the oddities and ironies of their experiences.
The conversation carried on as they cleared the table and walked over to the living room. As they sat on the couch, Xander was recounting a particularly hilarious encounter with a very drunk patron during his brief stint as a bartender.
Angel was only barely paying attention to the story, being mostly focused on Xander's smile, Xander's laugh, Xander's eyes....
Xander's story came to an end, and he turned and was caught by Angel's stare.
Moments later, they were into some serious necking.
Xander rolled his head back and moaned as he felt Angel's hand on his chest, working its way under his shirt, slowly unbuttoning it. Xander writhed and pressed into the contact, grabbing Angel's head and pulling it up from his neck, kissing him harshly, hungrily on the lips. Eventually, Xander's shirt was completely open, and Angel's hand worked its way lower, under his belt....
Xander suddenly froze, and Angel immediately stopped, breaking the kiss. There was an awkward pause, and then slowly, reluctantly, Angel began to tear himself away from Xander. Xander glanced nervously at Angel's face, but Angel was turned away, staring grimly at the floor. Xander cursed silently to himself and slid away as well, staring blankly downwards.
"I'm sorry," he said, after a moment.
"No, I should apologize."
"You didn't do anything wrong. It's just..." Xander trailed off. "I guess it is my turn to talk now."
"You don't have to—"
"No, I do. I have to explain, 'cause I don't want you to think..."
Angel waited patiently.
"Angel, I'm gay."
The corner of Angel's mouth twitched momentarily into a smile, but he kept his composure.
"As if you couldn't tell, right? But it's true. I'm not even really bi, although that would have made some of my past behavior more... forgivable. I just didn't want... I mean, so I liked looking at hot guys. So what? Maybe I was just envious. I could pretend. Even to myself. But then... you turned up.
"Just one look at you, and I couldn't pretend to myself anymore. I hated you for that. It was like you just walked into my head, into my thoughts, and took over. I couldn't kick you out, couldn't stop thinking about you. All my carefully arranged self-delusions... you shattered. It was scary; it made me feel like you knew what I was and were laughing at me... from over Buffy's shoulder.
"And then I would realize how ridiculous all that was, and I'd just feel pathetic. And try, desperately, to be straight. And what a stupendous success that was." Xander shook his head. "I met girls—and women—who awed me, or who were good friends. I tried to pretend that the attraction was physical, too. But it never really was. And the emotional attraction was never... quite right.
"And my thoughts just kept straying back to you. It drove me crazy. Even when you... weren't quite yourself... I couldn't ignore the raw... physical attraction. It was terrifying.
"After graduation, I left town, ran away. Brave, brave Sir Xander. I just needed to get some time alone... to sort things out. That's when I finally really admitted to myself... but I couldn't tell anyone else. So I just came back, figuring I'd just do my best to pretend to be straight. Without you around, I thought I just might be able to pull it off....
"But I'd still dream about you... and do you know what the worst part was? Nothing would happen! Nothing! Nada. Zip. Zero. You'd just smile at me, or talk to me, or just hold my hand... and I wouldn't want to wake up....
"I'd stopped hating you for that. I knew that I lo—wanted you. But it made me feel so pathetic...."
Xander looked up with half a wry grin on his face. "You know, Deadboy, you're welcome to cut off my babbling anytime here."
Angel just smiled.
"I guess the point is that even though I spend every waking hour fantasizing about it, for some reason, the idea of sexual interc—" Xander choked on the word, then continued, frustratedly, "the idea of actually doing that, with you, just sends me into panic. I don't know what it is... performance anxiety, pent-up frustration... maybe it's just the fact that for the first time, my... partner... really matters." Xander blushed and looked down.
Angel put his arm around Xander. "It's okay. We can wait as long as you need."
"Don't apologize. I'm... glad that it means so much to you. It does to me, too. You were just so into it before, that I thought you wanted—"
"But I do!" exclaimed Xander, laughing at his own frustration. "That's the ridiculous, insane part." Xander shook his head, then looked up at Angel. "Maybe we could try kissing again, and just keep the groping a little more... innocent?"
"Sounds worth a try," said Angel with a smile, closing the distance between them and suiting action to the words.
It is symptomatic of Angel and Xander's short time together that they were, just at that moment, interrupted by a cautious but insistent knock at the door. Angel tore himself away from Xander with a vicious snarl. Xander, unsurprised at any of this, merely laughed.
Angel crossed the room and ripped open the door. "Doyle."
"Angel." Noticing Angel and Xander's flushed and disheveled appearances, Doyle added, "Glad I knocked first."
Xander blushed hard and turned away.
"Was there any particular reason for your visit?" asked Angel.
Xander covered his mouth to stifle his laugh, then laid back on the couch, rolling his head back and forth while staring at the ceiling.
Angel just closed his eyes for a moment. "Again?"
"Yes, again," said Doyle, almost indignant. "Believe me, there is no way I'd be down here if it weren't absolutely—"
"What is it?" asked Angel, with resignation.
Doyle hesitated. "You probably won't believe this...."
"Try me," replied Angel, with more than a touch of impatience.
"I saw a vampire," Doyle said, reluctantly, "being attacked by... dog men."
"Well, they might have been giant, humanoid rats."
"Giant rats. Attacking a vampire."
"I told you you wouldn't believe me."
Angel shook his head. "Where."
"I recognized the place. It's across town. It'll probably all be over by now."
"The sooner we get there, the less chance of losing the scent."
"Believe me, if these things smell anything like they look, there'll be plenty of scent."
"We need to find out what these things are. Where's Cordelia?"
"Cordelia?" said Doyle. "Go to Hollywood Boulevard and you'll see Cordelia. She's at her event, getting 'noticed.'"
"I could research these things," ventured Xander, tentatively, "if—if you want."
Angel turned around. "You don't have to—"
"Who else is gonna do it?" asked Doyle. "You're not going after these things alone. Not if they take down vampires."
"Really, I want to help," said Xander, getting up and rebuttoning his shirt.
"Okay," said Angel, grabbing a notepad and scribbling on it. "Here's the cell number. If you find anything before we get back, call. And just in case," he added, turning to Doyle, "what intersection is this place near?"
Doyle gave an address and Angel copied it down, then handed the notepad to Xander.
"Most of the books are up in the office, but I've got a few down here," explained Angel, gesturing at the shelves across the room.
"Okay," said Xander. He stood without moving, just looking at Angel. Angel was caught by his gaze and froze as well.
After a few seconds of silence, Doyle frowned, then, giving up and rolling his eyes, cut in. "I'll get the car. Hurry." He walked quickly out the door.
Angel and Xander both sighed with relief when he left. Xander attempted a smile. "So is it like this every night?"
"No," said Angel. "Only when I have company, apparently. I'm sorry, Xander." He reached out to caress Xander's cheek, then let his hand rest on Xander's shoulder.
"It's okay," said Xander. He smiled and said lightheartedly, "Just don't get yourself killed, all right?"
"I'll be back as quick as I can. Call if you find anything." Angel withdrew his hand, but Xander grabbed it.
"One last thing before you go," Xander said, and pulled Angel into a kiss.
Soon their arms were around each other, Angel grabbing the back of Xander's head, Xander's hands travelling down and down....
Suddenly, Angel pulled away. Xander breathed heavily.
"I've got to leave now," said Angel, walking over to grab his coat, "or I never will."
"Would that be so bad?" Xander asked.
Angel smiled, heading for the door. "I'll see you. Soon." He closed the door behind himself and was gone.
Xander stared after him for a moment, then sighed and wandered back to Angel's bookshelves.
Several hours later, Xander was sitting hunched over a desk covered with open books, head supported by his hand, fingers threaded through his hair. He held the page he was reading in the fingers of his other hand, twitching it occasionally as he scanned the contents. Finally, with a sigh, he flipped the page over and started reading the next.
Moments later, his eyes widened. He grabbed the book with both hands and started reading frantically.
Eventually, he dropped the book and reached for the phone, dialing quickly. His eyes were drawn back to the open page as the phone rang... and rang... and rang.... Finally, someone picked up at the other end.
"We're sorry, the number you have dialed is not currently in service."
Xander dropped the phone and stared across the room.
"Not again. Not now."
With an exhausted yawn, Cordelia locked her apartment door behind herself and tossed her keys on the table. She turned and was heading directly for her bedroom when the phone rang.
She rolled her eyes and wandered up to squint at the caller id. She exhaled a short, disgusted breath when she recognized the number.
"The office," she muttered, shutting off the ringer and turning down the volume on the answering machine. "Well, Angel and his nasty, acting-career-inhibiting demons can wait."
Xander fidgeted nervously, checking his watch, twisting the phone cable in his fingers as he listened to the phone ring again and again. Finally, Cordelia's answering machine picked up.
Xander flinched and held the phone away from his ear as Cordelia's piercingly upbeat message played. Finally, the beep sounded.
"Cordy? Cordy, are you there? If you are there, please pick up. It's Xander. Angel's in trouble. Please...." Xander waited awhile and eventually sighed disappointedly. "All right, when you get back from the dawn of your stardom, please call Angel's office. Please. It's important."
Xander hung up, then looked at his watch again. Suddenly, he ran to the desk, picked up the book he had been reading, and made a dash for the elevator.
Four hours later, Xander was on the phone again, this time holding a cordless between his ear and shoulder while he watched over a cluster of bubbling pots on the stove in Angel's kitchen, stirring with one hand while trying to unstop a bottle of thick green fluid with the other. He sighed as he heard the phone ring for a fourth time, and winced as Cordelia's answering machine message began to play at top volume in his ear.
"Cordy? Xander. Still at your party? Gotten noticed yet?" Xander finally opened the bottle and began to carefully pour its contents into a measuring spoon. "Hey, do you know how many ounces in a drachma?" A huge portion of the thick fluid suddenly all came out in a large clump. "Oops. Never mind." Xander went back to stirring with one hand, while searching through a forest of bottles, boxes, and jars arranged on the counter with the other. "Well, when you get in please call. The office or the apartment." Xander located a box of matches and pulled one out. "Nothing big, just a small matter of life or death." He lit the match and dropped it into the pot, jumping back when a tall column of flame shot up. "Whoa! Uh, sorry about that, just call when you get in, okay?" Xander pulled the phone from the crook of his neck and pressed the off button.
"Ouch!" Hot liquid was starting to splatter from one of the pots, which was over-boiling. Xander carefully grabbed it and removed it from the burner. "Okay, that looks done. Now what did I do with the eye of newt?"
Another three hours after that, sun was streaming in the office windows, and Xander was loading plastic bottles of a viscous gray fluid into his duffel bag. He checked that the caps were all securely tightened, then zipped up the bag, slung it over his shoulder, and strode quickly over to the phone.
His face settled into an expression of resigned annoyance as he once again heard Cordelia's answering machine.
"Cordy. Xander. Either you're back at your apartment ignoring your phone or you really got noticed last night. Anyway, don't bother calling back now, I'm about to leave to try to find Angel and Doyle. If you can, meet me at the intersection of, um..." Xander dug out the paper Angel had given him and recited the address. "I don't have enough cash for cab fare to cross town, so I'm going to experience the adventure that is the bus system. Hopefully I'll get there some time today. Later."
With that, he hung up and quickly headed for the door.
Cordelia, sleek and pristine from her shower and subsequent morning rituals, ambled leisurely into her living room and gave a small, contented sigh as she looked at the view out her window. With great reluctance, she tore herself away from the view, and turned to tap the play button on her answering machine.
Her expression went through a rainbow of emotions as she listened to Xander's three messages, from surprised to curious to worried to confused to indignant and finally to guilty as she heard the bleak tone of Xander's voice before he hung up for the last time.
After only a moment's hesitation, she raced across the room to grab her purse and keys and then was out the door.
She found Xander staring into the entrance of an alleyway in a run-down and rather sketchy neighborhood, not far from the intersection he'd named. When he heard her approach, he turned and raised an eyebrow.
"Well, if it isn't Little Miss Hollywood."
"Can it, dork face. What's going on?"
"I'm not sure," he said, turning back to look into the alley, "but it doesn't look good."
Cordelia turned to look and almost tripped when she immediately stepped backwards. The ground and walls were stained with large splatters of a blackened substance that might once have been blood, and the alley was littered with debris from all the overturned and dented trashcans scattered about.
Xander stepped cautiously into the alleyway and started to look around. After a moment's hesitation, Cordelia reluctantly followed.
"What did this?" she asked, nervously.
"From what Doyle said about his vision, I think it was drainer wolves."
"Demons that live off vampire blood. Sort of a vampire's vampire."
Cordelia looked around nervously. "You think these things got Angel?"
Xander was about to reply, when a glint in the rubble caught his eye. He reached down to pick it up.
It was Angel's cell phone, mangled almost beyond recognition.
"Yeah," he said softly, staring at it. "I'm pretty sure." He went on with an unfelt attempt at lightheartedness, "I hope Angel isn't locked into a service contract."
Cordelia bit her lip. "What are they going to do to him?"
"They drain them," said Xander, still staring at the phone in his hand, "from the neck. They all take turns. Sometimes they'll keep a vampire alive for days, bringing it humans to feed on, then draining the vampire before it gets strong enough to escape. Then, when the vampire can't take it anymore, they..." Xander took a deep breath, and Cordelia was surprised to see that his eyes were watering. "...they drag the vampire out into the sunlight and watch from the shadows as it fries."
"Pleasant," said Cordelia, attempting to cover her disgust.
Xander suddenly hurled the phone at the wall with great violence, where it shattered into tiny shards of glass and plastic, making Cordelia jump back in surprise. "We're taking these things down," he said viciously, clenching his fists.
Cordelia gulped and stuttered nervously, "Wh—where are they?"
Xander relaxed a bit, but still did not turn to face her. "Sunlight doesn't kill them, but they don't like it. The books said they make lairs in catacombs and crypts...."
"How about the basement of an abandoned warehouse?" Cordelia asked, gesturing at a building down the alleyway, to which a trail of black stains led.
Xander almost smiled. "In a pinch."
They stepped carefully through the rubble, following the trail of gore to a dented metal door that stood slightly ajar. As Xander reached for the handle, Cordelia grabbed his arm.
"Wait a second. If these things can take down vampires, why are we going in there?"
Xander sighed. "They don't attack humans. They can't feed off them. Usually."
Xander turned to her and began to explain. "The drainer wolves were created by a warlock... sometime during the dark ages, it doesn't matter. He wanted to exterminate all the vampires in Europe, be a hero, all that. It was a good enough idea on the surface, sort of like buying a cat to kill the mice. But he goofed just a little. If a pack of drainer wolves drains enough vampire blood, they can become powerful enough to live off human blood.
"Large packs wiped out three Bavarian towns before the warlock came up with this." He pulled one of the bottles of gray fluid out of his bag and handed it to Cordelia. She frowned and accepted it warily. "It's drainerwolfsbane."
"Drainerwolfswhat?" said Cordelia, holding the bottle away from herself.
"Drainerwolfsbane. Just think of it as Raid for drainer wolves. Kills on contact. Well, actually it just horribly burns their flesh, but you get the idea."
"Just when I thought this job couldn't get any more disgusting."
Xander turned back to the door. "Ready? We're going in. Oh, and be careful with that stuff. It's got holy water in it."
Cordelia shrugged, confused. "Okay, whatever."
Xander grasped the handle, waited cautiously for a moment, then tore open the door. He and Cordelia reeled back with disgust as a foul stench hit them like a slap in the face. Xander pulled two flashlights from his duffel bag and handed one to Cordelia as they started down the metal staircase that stood just inside.
At the bottom of the staircase, they found the source of the trail of black stains. It was the mutilated corpse of some creature, a cross between a wolf, a rat, and a monkey. With horrible long, sharp teeth.
Xander grimaced. "Drainer wolves all right," he whispered. He pulled out another bottle of the drainerwolfsbane and poured a thin stream of it across the creature. The liquid hissed and steamed as it hit the flesh, slicing the creature neatly in half. "Good," Xander whispered, capping the bottle with a satisfying click, "it works."
"You dragged me down here without knowing whether this stuff worked or not?" Cordelia almost shouted.
"Shh!" Xander hushed, holding up his hand. "It works, so no problem."
Cordelia's expression indicated that she thought there was a problem, a very big one, but she said nothing, and followed Xander down the passageway. The walls were stained just as the alleyway had been, and they nearly tripped over several more demon carcasses before coming to a large central chamber.
Gore coated the walls and corpses of drainer wolves in various stages of decay littered the floor. Cordelia sucked in a breath, gagged, and then began coughing uncontrollably. Xander slowly panned his flashlight around the room. Heavily latched metal doors appeared at regular intervals along the walls. A slight whispering sound emanated from one of them, but stopped abruptly as Xander and the still-coughing Cordelia approached.
Cordelia finally managed to stifle her coughs and ready her bottle of drainerwolfsbane. Xander carefully reached for the heavy latch on the door and slowly lifted it. He slid open the door and immediately had to duck as Doyle's fist swung out at him. He pointed his flashlight upwards and saw Doyle stumbling, attempting to remain standing after his poorly aimed attack. Doyle was beaten and bruised, his clothes torn, and there was a wild, desperate look in his eyes. He quickly attempted to regain what composure he could muster as he saw who his visitors were.
"Took you long enough," he drawled.
Xander ignored him and swung his flashlight around the room. There were fewer and less grisly stains inside, but Xander's hand froze when he found a figure laid out on the floor. "Angel," he whispered. He rushed forward and knelt down, lifting Angel's head and cradling it in one arm. Angel was covered with small cuts, even on his arms, where the sleeves of his shirt had been torn away. There was a large gash across his chest that had mostly healed, but the shredded fabric told of an even more horrific wound. But the worst was Angel's neck, torn open and completely unhealed. Still slowly dripping.
"Angel," Xander said again, his voice uneven and his eyes watering.
Angel's eyelids fluttered open. "Xander?" Angel's voice was weak and rasping.
"Angel!" Xander exclaimed quietly. He reached back into his duffel bag and drew out packet after packet of blood. "You've got to drink." Angel didn't move. "Can you hear me? You've got to drink." Xander's voice was cracking again. He held a packet of blood up to Angel's mouth, but Angel still didn't move, just lay there staring up at Xander.
"Damn it!" Xander swore softly. He brought the packet of blood to his own mouth, tore it open with his teeth, and then, blooding pouring over his chin, held it up to Angel.
Long seconds passed as the blood merely poured into Angel's mouth and spilled across his cheeks.
Then, Angel swallowed. And swallowed again. Soon he was swallowing the blood as fast as it would pour.
Xander gave a small cry of joy and tore open another packet with his teeth. Angel took the third and fourth packets in his own hands and tore them himself. After the fourth packet, Angel refused any more, and with Xander's help, managed to stand. His cuts had mostly healed, and the gash on his neck had closed and was now a large scar.
"Don't you two make a grisly pair," said Cordelia.
Doyle rolled his eyes and turned to stare anywhere but at Angel and Xander.
Xander tried to wipe the blood from his chin, but stopped and looked up when he heard eerie scurrying sounds all about. "They smell the blood," he whispered. "They're coming back."
"We gotta get out of here," said Doyle, looking around nervously and edging towards the door.
"Wait," said Xander, giving Angel's hand a quick squeeze before walking over to Doyle. Xander handed him another plastic bottle. "Take this," he whispered. "It burns their flesh. Careful with it, though," he added, with a glance at Angel. "It's got holy water in it."
Doyle nodded at Xander and then looked down to examine the bottle in his hands, freezing suddenly when a raspy hissing noise came from outside the room. He looked out and uncapped the bottle. "Payback time," he muttered. Rolling back his shoulders, he stalked out the door and the others quickly followed.
Hissing, growling, and scurrying sounds came from all around them. Xander swung his flashlight around the room, but never managed to catch more than the glint of an eye or the whip of a tail.
Angel spoke softly. "They're all to the left."
Xander immediately swung the flashlight beam around and a whole group of drainer wolves suddenly appeared, flinching and growling at the light. They crouched in the corner, eyeing their prey, ready to strike. One of the demons hissed and swiped a threatening claw.
Cordelia made a frightened squeak, and splashed a jagged protective circle of the drainerwolfsbane in front of the group. The demons rushed forward at the sound, but immediately hopped back yelping as the acid hissed and burned at their feet.
One of the wolves suddenly roared and launched itself over the puddle, throwing itself at Doyle. He stepped back and swung his bottle directly at the flying creature. It fell to the ground, shrieking as its face burned away. Doyle shouted with glee and ran at the pack of wolves cowering in the corner, splashing the bane everywhere. Suddenly, the room was echoing with horrible shrieking yelps as the creatures were burned to death by the liquid.
Drainer wolves began to launch themselves from every direction. Angel fended off those he could, while Xander and Cordelia stood by him and took care of the rest with the drainerwolfsbane, Cordelia splashing it about with panicked abandon, Xander aiming with determined grim precision. Soon the floor was thick with the corpses of the demons.
As the survivors of the massacre beat a frenzied retreat from the room, Doyle ran after them madly, shouting, "Come on!"
"They're leaving!" Cordelia shouted back querulously, but just as adamantly. "That's our cue to run for our lives!"
Doyle spun around. "I'm not leaving this place until every last one of those little bastards is burnt beyond recognition."
"Feeling a little grim, Mr. Vendetta?" Cordelia shot back.
"Yeah, well, being locked in this place for a day'll do that to ya."
It took hours to hunt down, trap, and kill the remaining drainer wolves in the maze of rooms, corridors, and ventilation shafts under the warehouse. Finally, they had the last one cornered. It cowered and hissed at their flashlight beams, and then suddenly made a jump at Cordelia.
Cordelia, who had by this time grown extremely bored with the proceedings and was paying little attention, was taken by surprise. She swung her bottle of drainerwolfsbane at the creature, scoring a direct hit and killing it, but the creature's momentum was unabated. She tried to dodge, but the creature still struck her shoulder as it went flying by, tearing the strap of her blouse. She let out a brief cry of annoyance and gaped at the torn strap indignantly as the creature fell to the floor beyond her with a loud thump.
"That was a new blouse!" she exclaimed, glaring around at the others: Doyle, who was beaten, bruised, and covered with demon blood and drainerwolfsbane; Xander, who was similarly stained and disheveled after wrestling with two of the creatures in a ventilation shaft, and still had blood on his chin and down his neck from helping to feed Angel; and Angel, who was covered with blood, both from the blood packets and the demons, and still had not completely recovered from the wounds they had given him while he was their captive.
"Forgive us if we seem less than sympathetic," muttered Doyle.
Cordelia seemed to notice none of this, but was absorbed by her now slightly flawed appearance. "Here, hold this," she said, shoving her bottle of drainerwolfsbane, dripping and slick with the liquid, into the nearest hand while she went to examine the torn strap.
The nearest hand happened to be Angel's. He gave a grunt of pain and dropped the bottle to the floor, holding his injured hand in a tight fist. Cordelia looked up in astonishment, and then realization spread across her features. "Oh, that's what you meant about the holy water."
Xander rolled his eyes and walked over to Angel. "You okay?"
"Fine." Angel opened his hand, which had already healed from the brief contact.
"Then let's get out of here," said Xander.
"Finally," said Cordelia, as they began walking to the exit. "We could have left hours ago, but no, we had to chase nasty rat demons all around the basement and tear Cordelia's new blouse. Not that you could afford it, but have we discussed hazard pay?"
There was a strained silence as Angel drove Doyle to his apartment. Doyle spent most of his time staring out the window at the twilight. Angel would occasionally glance in the rearview mirror to see Xander, yawning in the back seat.
When they reached Doyle's address, Doyle silently got out and then turned back.
"That is the last time I go chasing after vampire-eating demons without researching them first," he said with a reluctant grin.
"You and me both," replied Angel, smirking. "Get some rest."
"That and some hard liquor, you bet," said Doyle, nodding and shutting the door.
Angel turned back to Xander and was opening his mouth to speak when he saw that Xander had fallen asleep. He smiled, just staring for a moment. Xander's mouth hung slightly open, his hair was tousled and stood up in tufts here and there, and there was still blood all over his chin.
Reluctantly, Angel turned back around and started the drive home.
Xander woke to find Angel coaxing him out of the back seat of the car.
"Xander? We need to shower and get to bed."
Xander smiled tiredly. "That sounds great—I mean, a shower sounds great—I mean... yeah. Definitely." He quietly followed Angel to his apartment, yawning widely as they walked into the living room. "Do you want to go first?" he asked.
"Right now, what I need is blood. Nice, warm blood."
"Gruesome as ever," said Xander, grinning, but his face dropped when he glanced at the kitchen. "Uh, you may want to be careful what you touch in there. I didn't exactly get a chance to clean up."
Angel turned to see pots and pans lying everywhere, stained in an array of colors, while an army of bottles and vials sitting beside a large cardboard box labeled "Exorcism" took up most of the counter space. Angel smiled. "I'll be fine. You go get cleaned up."
"Okay," said Xander, and quickly retreated towards the bedroom.
Twenty minutes later, Xander stepped out of the bathroom, hair still slightly wet, wearing boxers and a T-shirt. He grinned as Angel walked up to him. "That feels much better. Now, where did the guestroom go?" Xander asked, looking about blearily.
"Sleep with me." Angel's tone was uncertain.
Xander turned to look at Angel in somewhat nervous surprise.
Angel looked guilty. "I just mean, in the bed." He paused, struggling to find the right words. "I'd sleep better knowing you were there," Angel said, finally.
Xander gave a tired but relieved smile. "Same here. See you in a bit?"
Angel nodded and headed for the bathroom while Xander wandered wearily to the bed.
Xander awoke with a small start and a sharp intake of breath, looking around wildly for a moment before remembering where he was and realizing that there wasn't a pack of drainer wolves chasing after him.
He turned his head quickly and relaxed when he saw Angel, lying peacefully on his side, facing away. Xander lay there, musing, as he silently stared at Angel's back, now completely free of any sign of the horrible wounds that had been inflicted on it the night before. Eventually a broad smile spread across Xander's face and he reached out tentatively to touch Angel's bare shoulder.
Angel stirred and slowly turned over to face Xander, returning the smile and reaching out to caress Xander's cheek.
Xander nodded. "You?"
"Much. I never got to thank you... for saving my life."
Xander stopped smiling and took a deep breath. "I've made a decision."
Angel's smile dropped and the corners of his eyes tightened, but he waited patiently for Xander to continue.
"We've almost been killed twice in the past week, and while that's unusual even for us—'us' still sounds weird, by the way—you never know what might happen next. So I've decided to stop wasting time."
Angel was staring at Xander intently, growing tense.
"Despite everything that's happened in the past few days," Xander continued, "I've been happier—during the, er, calmer moments—than I've been for a long time. I don't know if there's any chance of this working out," he added glumly, looking down, "but it's worth fighting for. At least, I think." He looked up and met Angel's intense stare. "Even if that means fighting horrific demons all through the sewers and warehouse basements of LA."
Xander paused for a moment, then continued, "And so, if the invitation's still open, yes, I'd like to move in... with you." Xander's mouth twitched nervously. "Please."
Angel was silent and motionless for so long that Xander began to look away nervously, before he suddenly found himself held tightly in Angel's arms. "Of course," Angel whispered in his ear, and stifled Xander's reply with a kiss.
Xander, however, was insistent. "There's just—" Here he was stifled again. "—one thing," he managed to get out.
Angel pulled back nervously and looked Xander in the eyes.
"Can we get..." Xander began.
Angel was immediately relieved. "A television? A video game console? A lifetime supply of Hershey bars? Name it."
Angel stared at Xander in amazed silence, then laughed out loud, and any further attempts at discussion were kindly, but firmly, suppressed.