Part III

They had traveled most of the distance to Xander's house before the boy spoke to Angel. "Okay, you put on your big hero demonstration. Didn't do anything to change my opinion of you, but at least you got it out of your system. So, did you manage to take out all of them? or were you too busy showing off to make sure nobody snuck off to start a new nest?"

"There may be more of them elsewhere in Sunnydale," Angel said, shaking his head, "but none of the ones we saw survived. They kept coming until they were all killed. Every last one."

"And it's supposed to be true just because you say so?" Xander challenged. "Sorry if I'm not convinced. Oh, wait, no, I'm not sorry at all."

Angel sighed; they were back to the old game. "It doesn't matter. Like I said, they were a remnant, desperate to attract an unattached queen before they died out. Even if there are more of them, they don't have one chance in a thousand." He knew what the likely response would be, but the words had to be said. "We did good tonight. You did good."

Predictably, Xander's reply was instant and biting: "Cram it, Captain Caveman." Then, at Angel's blank expression, he added, "What? Big, overhanging brow? Neanderthal cranial structure? You can't tell me nobody's said anything about it."

Angel shrugged. "Spike made a few comments about my forehead, back around the turn of the century, but that was as far as it went."

"Huh," Xander snorted. "Me and Spike agreeing on something. Normally I'd call that a definite sign of the Apocalypse, but this time I'll just put it down to both of us being able to recognize the obvious."

"Well, you still got something out of the evening," Angel noted. "With all that jumping around, you probably burned off enough of what you drank that you won't have to worry about a hangover."

Xander didn't answer that. Half a block later, however, he abruptly said, "Do you really believe the details aren't important? Between you and Buffy?"

"I do," Angel told him. "Some things really are that simple. I'd kill for her. I'd die for her. Nothing else matters next to that."

Xander dismissed it with a loud pfff! and a jerk of his hand. "That's just like you. Kill for her, die for her … it sounds really dramatic, but what does it mean? I'll tell you: it means you know how to make the big gestures, but you don't have the first idea when it comes to follow-through." He stopped, wheeling to face Angel. "You'd die for her? More like you'll die with her. You making another of those dramatic gestures, 'Look at me, I'm so noble and tortured,' and her too loyal and too stubborn to let you do your grand exit by yourself."

The taunting was gone, the automatic envy and hostility; he spoke with bitter conviction, the tone of a man who clearly expects his words to make no difference, but is compelled by honor or pride to utter them anyhow.

Angel let ten seconds pass, fifteen, twenty. Giving that hopeless fury time to dwindle, or at least slow in its increase. Then he asked quietly, "That's really how you see it?"

"You bet your two-hundred-years-dead ass that's how I see it." Xander regarded him with seething eyes. "You say you love Buffy? Do you even know what love is? 'Kill for her, die for her …' Christ. What have you ever done for her, what can you do for her, that isn't all about death?"

"She's the Slayer," Angel said. "That's … it's just the world she lives in. Neither one of us can change that."

Xander's lip curled in contempt, and he began walking again. "Got news for ya, Count Chocula. She may fight in your world, but she lives in mine. No matter how hot she may be for your bones, you're still basically a guy she met at work. Me and Willow — heck, even Cordelia — we're the people in her actual life."

The boy's words had scored on him before, but this was a dead-center hit. It was some moments before Angel could formulate a reply. "I really do love her. Whether or not you believe that, it's true."

"You say that like it makes a difference." Xander's shrug was dismissive, even scornful. "Way I see it, if you loving her gets her killed, she'd be better off without it."

Angel shook his head in denial. "I'd die myself before I let that happen."

"Which normally I'd be all for." The boy's smile was a twisted grimace that held no mirth. "But the problem with you dying before? No guarantee she won't die right after."

Again a long period of silence while they walked side by side. Again, as following their departure from the playground, it was Xander who broke it. "You said something at Willy's."

Angel gave him a sidelong glance. "I said a number of things."

"I told you to go to hell," Xander prompted. "You said you'd been there … and then you said I'd had something to do with that."

Angel nodded. "Right. I wasn't … Time in Hell isn't like time here. I had a century or so of some pretty imaginative torments. One of the torturers' favorites — not instead of the acids and bore-worms and white-hot chains, but right along with them — was to mock me that it wasn't even the Slayer who sent me there, but her sidekick." His eyes met Xander's. "Sent me there. Not Angelus. You knew Willow was going to try again with the Kalderash ritual. You knew that I might get my soul back. You knew … but you didn't tell Buffy. You hid the truth from her, and sent her at me primed for the kill."

Xander's gaze held steady: no faltering, no apology. "Seemed like a really good idea at the time."

"It was," Angel said. He saw a flicker of surprise pass across Xander's face, and smiled crookedly. "What Buffy needed then was fire, not hope. You gave her fire. She came at me with everything she had, nothing held back, and still I almost … He almost beat her. If she'd given it anything less than total effort, she'd have lost, and the world would have died with her." He shook his head slowly. "When I said I'd never thanked you properly, that was what I meant. Thank you. For saving her." A beat. "Again."

Surprise had given away to confusion, doubt, uncertainty, but still Xander wouldn't look away. "I'd do it all over again," he told Angel flatly. "In a heartbeat."

"I know." Angel nodded. "I'm counting on you for that."

They didn't speak again until they had reached the driveway for Xander's home. Angel stopped there, looked to the boy who had fought beside him. "Even if any of the Ptarmiiki are still alive, I really don't believe they'll pose a threat. If you think Buffy and Giles need to know about what happened tonight, though, I'll back you up on any story you want to tell them."

Xander's expression was unreadable. "You don't owe me anything."

"You gave me your spear," Angel pointed out. "It was our only chance, but I'll be honest: I didn't think there was any way you'd actually do that."

Xander took a step back and locked eyes with him again. "Let's get one thing understood here. This business tonight? not a bonding experience. We're not having a buddy moment, 'cause we're not buddies." His voice hardened even more. "I'm not your friend. I'll never be your friend. I'll kill you if you ever give me any kind of excuse, and do an out-of-season Snoopy Dance on your ashes. Think you can keep that straight in your head?"

"You've made yourself clear," Angel said. "I'll count it as a promise."

With a huff of disgust, Xander stalked off. Angel watched until he knew the boy was safely inside the house, then he turned and started back toward … not his home, he had none, but to that section of town where he slept during the day.

From the beginning, he had known the depth and intensity of Xander's attitude toward him. More than dislike or distrust: it was no exaggeration to call it hatred, and Angel had never attempted to mend fences with the boy because he had known it would be fruitless.

There was another reason, though, for leaving that implacable enmity undiminished. Xander was Angel's hidden ace.

The return from Hell had left Angel near-mindless from trauma and isolation, with the recovery still not complete when the First Evil began its psychological onslaught on him. He was past the worst of that now … but the experience was still fresh in his memory, and some of those memories had forced his recognition of things he could have allowed himself to overlook otherwise.

The boy had good reason to hate him; only Giles (and Buffy herself) had better. It had always been apparent, however — nor had Xander ever tried to deny it — that jealousy was the bedrock foundation of his motives.

It would have astonished him to know how jealous Angel was. Of him.

"She may fight in your world, but she lives in mine." That was a large part of it. Angel was no longer a man. He was shaped like one, could pass for one, could imitate human functions … but he had lost his humanity centuries before, and his closeness to Buffy, dear as it was to him, only made it all the more clear just how much he would never be again.

Slayer or not, Buffy was also a young woman. She could walk in the sunlight, enjoy casual friendships and trivial pleasures, grow into full maturity. She could, if she lived long enough — and that was a huge 'if', but not impossible — bear children.

Just not with him. With Xander, perhaps, or any other man whose heart still beat, but never with him.

Xander not only could operate in both of Buffy's worlds, he was doing exactly that, with a long-term effectiveness utterly at odds with the moment-to-moment bumbling that was always at the forefront of his behavior.

Yes, humanity was a large part of it, but only part. More than anything else, Angel envied Xander not just for being a man, but for being the man he was.

Memories again, never lost but made newly searing by the First's manipulations. Liam the wastrel, full of restless dreams but lacking any underlying strength of character, destined by his own nature for an early and sordid death. Nor had his rebirth been any improvement. Newly-souled, Angel had found himself unable to bear the conscience that had been forced back upon him. He had tried to reject the soul, attacking an innocent woman in a Borsa alley; later, he had tried to rejoin his hellish 'family' in China, simply to dispel the loneliness. It had taken a full century, with many backslidings — and then some forceful prodding by the ever-annoying Whistler — for him to reach the point where he could begin to deal with his demons in any way except running from them.

Xander Harris, within a day of learning that vampires existed, had forced his way into an expedition against them.

I have the strength, Angel thought, addressing the silent words to the bitter enemy he had just seen home. I have the speed, and experience, and ruthlessness. But I'll never have the kind of heart you do. Even if I were a man, you'd still be a better man than me.

He'd meant what he said to Xander. He loved Buffy, and as long as there was any chance for them to share some semblance of a life together, he couldn't stop himself from trying to have it. All the same, he had become uncomfortably aware that, over the past few years, he probably hadn't saved Buffy's life any more often than Xander had.

More importantly: at least twice, Xander had saved her from him.

The confrontation at the hospital was the most obvious occasion, of course. Angelus had been amused by the meaningless defiance of "Buffy's white knight", taken the opportunity to slide in another sadistic gibe, told himself confidently that he would always have another chance to get at Buffy without all the likely noise and inconvenience … but the fact remained, the laughing butcher of thousands had backed down from a teen-aged boy. Furthermore, Angel could remember (though Angelus had refused to recognize) that, deep beneath the smug dismissal, there had been a tiny but insistent spark of fear. There had just been … that look in the boy's eyes …

Even worse than that, though, was the first time. When Buffy went out to die in confrontation with the Master, and Angel allowed it … and Xander showed up at his door, armed only with a cross and sarcasm and determination. Bulldozed straight through Angel's fatalism and pessimism and lethargy, forced him to lead the way down into the catacombs, in time — barely — for Xander to breathe life back into her as he, Angel, could never have done.

He had saved Buffy from Angelus' genial murderousness. Just as surely, he had saved her from Angel's weakness and apathy.

The boy had dismissed as meaningless Angel's claim that he would die for Buffy. Even had Angel been willing to admit the fact, there was no point in saying — because it would never be believed — that he would just as readily die for Xander.

Not out of nobility. Not even out of gratitude. Simply because cold calculation told him that Buffy's chances of survival would always be greater with Xander beside her.

You said you'll never be my friend, Angel thought, again directing his silent words to the young man who had faced him down, defied him, betrayed him, accused him, fought alongside him. That's fine, as long as you never stop being hers.

He took a deep breath, let it out again: testing the injured lung, tasting the air. Sunrise was still hours away yet, but the thrumming tension that had been with him since his waking was finally gone. Not imagination, it really had been that kind of night … but it was over now, and Angel found himself looking forward to going early to his rest.