"What's that?" Xander asked, swinging his flashlight beam toward a dull glow some twenty feet off through the trees.
"Nothing, if you keep shining your light on it like that," Angel said, in a tone that could only be described as long-suffering. "It's nighttime. If you're trying to look at something glowing, you don't shine a light on it."
"Right." Xander lowered the beam to the path ahead of them. "What do you think it is?"
After a string of camping disappearances, Giles had figured that maybe a group of vamps was taking advantage of early spring backpackers, and the Scooby gang had packed into the Watcher's Citroen for a late night field trip into the woods near UC Sunnydale. Which should have meant a pleasant time in the cool air enjoying his friends and owl noises and maybe the occasional moonlit dusting. It should have been, at the very least, a nice break from Sunnydale and musty old crypts.
Instead, Buffy had volunteered to go off slaying alone and Giles had claimed Willow even before they'd gotten out of the car, which had stuck Xander with the dourest of patrolling partners.
"Turn off your flashlight," Angel growled, starting with sure, soft footsteps toward the light. Xander complied and followed, loudly cracking a branch underfoot as soon as he could no longer see the path.
He imagined he felt rather than heard Angel's sigh of exasperation. Well, fine. Next time he'd call dibs on Willow, and leave Sir Broods-a-Lot to Giles.
"I think it's a tent," Angel said softly, stopping after they'd traveled a few more feet toward the light.
Xander squinted through the trees and had to agree. There were the faint sloping outlines of the sides, and the bright center could easily be a lantern. "We should warn them," he said. "Before they become someone's late night snack."
"If they haven't already," said Angel, ever the optimist. "Let's find out."
Xander felt he was getting quite good at the creeping by the time the tent's flaps were in view, as were the outlines of two bodies—but asleep or dead? He craned to see, practically stepping on Angel's heels as the vamp led them silently toward the tent.
Then Xander somehow took the wrong step and was falling and falling, the world crashing down around him in a jumble of bushes and loam and dirt and vampire. In the dark he landed abruptly and felt his right ankle go beneath his weight a fraction of a second before the rest of him crumpled to the ground. A big hole, he realized dazedly where he lay, pain beginning to climb up his right leg to his brain. They had fallen into a really big hole and the light from the tent had gone out. He could see the faint twinkle of stars through the gap in the trees above.
But if falling had been a surprise, the heavy grate that sprung out of nowhere high above them and closed over the mouth of the pit with a mighty clank was something else entirely.
"What in-!" he heard Angel say, and suddenly a large form was leaping from the ground beside him with preternatural strength, only to land again with a heavy thud a second later.
"Careful," Xander complained, pushing himself into what was more or less a sitting position, and adjusting his weight so that none of it was on his now throbbing, hopefully only sprained and not broken ankle. "Nobody wins if you land on my head. Ahh!"
"You're hurt," Angel observed. The starlight was just enough for Xander to see the vampire's profile shift from gameface to its usual dark, brooding lines as Angel knelt beside him.
"It's nothing," Xander gasped, leaning forward to cup a hand around his ankle, "just-OW."
The vampire grunted something in response.
Xander maneuvered himself to the nearest wall of the pit, which was surprisingly smooth for a big hole in the ground. Of course, the bars closing over their heads had already ruled out sinkhole as an explanation and were pointing rather strongly toward trap. Complete with bait, he realized. Bait that had disappeared from sight as soon as they were caught.
"Harris," Angel said.
"Hmm?" he responded, just a little too late.
"Your flashlight," Angel said. "D'you still have it?"
"Ah, yeah," Xander realized. He had been holding it, light off, when the ground had given way. "It should be on the ground by you. Can't you see in the dark, anyway?"
Angel ignored him. He heard a few minutes of shuffling, then a click and Angel stood, shining the light down on him, then around the steeply sloping walls and up to the cold metal grate above them.
"Someone's trying to trap vampires," Angel said in an oddly awed tone, sweeping the flashlight around the walls once more. "It has to be. What else would head toward a lone tent in the night?" This last bit was said softy, as though Angel were talking to himself.
Xander supposed it really was too much to ask for Deadboy to acknowledge his presence when they were trapped alone in a pit together. "You mean aside from the other nasties that eat people in this town?"
Angel gave him a look like a person might give an unexpectedly moldy piece of bread. "That's obviously not the point," he said. "The point is that someone's setting traps for demons, and we don't know anything about them."
"I'd say the point is more that we're stuck in a big hole and can't get out," Xander said. "Not to mention come sunrise there'll only be one of us left to find." Xander gestured at the grate above their heads. "I'll betcha plenty of light comes in through those trees in the morning."
"I'd noticed," Angel said, but glanced up at the grate again.
"Kinda makes you wonder just how many vamps have turned to dust down here, if this is a vamp trap," Xander went on. He looked at Angel and managed a half grin. "No worries about cleanup though, with this dirt floor and all, and not actually a bad idea if you think about it. We should think about getting one of these for Sunnydale."
Angel's only response was to glare at him. Then the vampire went gameface again, the harsh illumination from the flashlight highlighting every ridge and dimple as Angel set it on the floor so that for a moment, Xander felt a rush of fear and for a moment wondered if this time he'd actually gone too far.
But Angel was only using his vampire strength to jump to the grate again, and for a short time clung to it, a good fifteen or twenty feet above Xander's head. He landed again with a thump, his heavy left boot flattening the dirt no more than a foot from Xander's leg.
"I swear, Deadboy…"
Angel ignored him as usual. "That grate's too strong to move from this side without any leverage," he said. "We'll have to find a different way out."
"Goody," Xander sighed. "I'll race you."
"Just hold the flashlight," Angel said. "There might be a weakness in the walls, maybe somewhere to climb out or dig."
"Right," Xander said without much energy. He picked up the flashlight and shone it in Angel's direction, illuminating a wavering oval on the vampire's chest. Just the movement of reaching out for the flashlight had set his ankle to pounding harder. "I'm thinking I'm more a fan of the wait-for-Buffy-to-find-us plan. Less work. More sitting."
An hour later, Angel was dejectedly back on the floor, craning his neck up at the grate and sky above it. The vampire had examined every inch of the pit, but hadn't found a weak spot. Whoever had designed the trap had done it well. Xander sat with his head resting against the wall.
"Are you finished now?" he asked.
"I can't find a way out," Angel said, though he still sounded like he was talking to himself and had just happened to say the words out loud.
"It can't be any later than three," Xander pointed out. "Buffy or Giles and Willow still might find us." They were supposed to meet up by six anyway. He and Angel would be missed and there might even be enough time to find them before Angel dusted, if they were lucky.
"And then what?" Angel asked. "We don't know what's holding that grate above us, but I'm not sure even Slayer strength would budge it."
Xander heaved a nice loud sigh. "Then I guess they'll just have to cover up the top with a really big blanket until they dig us out."
"Great," Angel muttered. "Best case scenario and we still have to spend more time together."
"Hey!" Xander shifted his position slightly to better glare at his cellmate, and ignored the jab of pain through his leg. "I'm not exactly thrilled about being stuck in here with you either, buddy."
They glared at each other for a few seconds. Finally, Angel turned and swept off to the other side of the pit, where he sat with his back to the wall and hands over his knees. Xander closed his eyes, willing the time to go faster. It didn't. Minutes turned to, well, more minutes. He also willed Buffy or Willow or Giles to find them, but that didn't happen either. He was starting to drift off when Angel's voice sounded loudly in the silence.
"You really don't care if I burn, do you."
Xander's eyes snapped open. "I'm awake," he said quickly. Angel's eyes narrowed. Then the content of the vampire's statement actually entered his brain. "What?"
"There's a lot of forest, and they probably won't start looking for us until we're late. The way I see it, we're not getting found, and I'm turning to dust as soon as the sun starts coming through the trees." Angel said. "You don't care."
Xander sighed. For all the times he'd imagined sounding off on Angel, he'd never quite envisioned it going like this. "I could think of worse things."
Angel's dark eyes searched his face. "You know I'm not him anymore, don't you?"
"Him," Xander said. The memories were fresh enough he didn't need clarifying, but he said the name anyway. "Angelus."
"I'm on your side," Angel said.
Xander dipped his head in acknowledgement. "For now."
Angel shook his head. "What happened last year isn't going to happen again."
"What happened last year wasn't supposed to happen ever," Xander said, pushing himself up straighter. "At least, that's what you and Buffy kept saying before you went evil and tried to torture and kill us all. So either you're evil, or you're really stupid, or you didn't know what was going to happen."
Angel huffed. "Of course I didn't know what was going to happen."
"Then how can you be sure it won't happen again?" Xander demanded. It felt good. "Some other way. Like, say, a spell by an evil mojo guy who isn't working with Giles? I mean, maybe you're right. But I sure as hell wouldn't bet all my friends' lives on it."
Angel was staring at the floor. "It's not going to happen," he said again. "So I'd say it's a pretty poor reason for wanting me dead."
Xander shrugged. "Want is a strong word," he said. "But you hurt my friends and you could do it again and I can only be so forgiving."
"You're really not that forgiving," Angel pointed out, meeting his eyes again. "There's a lot you don't understand."
"I've thought a lot about this," Xander said. His mouth quirked into a little smile that Angel matched with a sneer. "Hated you for years now, Deadboy."
Angel just stared so intensely at him that Xander found himself wondering if vampires needed to blink.
"Not to mention," Xander continued after a moment, refusing to be cowed by the glare of vampirish doom, "if you're not Angelus then why do you feel guilty for what he's done? If he's not you you're a victim like the rest of us, and he is you, well, I'd say you deserve guilt and Hell and a whole lot worse. I've been possessed before, but it's not like I spend all my time atoning for the death of Herbert the Pig."
"It's not like that," Angel said. His voice was low and measured. "Everything he's done, I can remember enjoying. He's not me, but he's been me. I've been him."
Xander stared a bit blankly.
"Look," Angel said, "Technically, I know it was the demon in control. Emotionally, well, do you have any idea what it's like to break a child's neck and get off on it?"
Xander opened his mouth, and closed it again. "Um, no," he said. "And, ew, and gross, and somehow I don't think you ever mentioned that to Buffy."
"That's why I atone," Angel said. "Why I can't stop trying."
"Yeah, well, sometimes you need to try a bit harder," Xander said. He wasn't about to give in to the poor-me puppydog routine so easily. He grabbed the flashlight from the floor and highlighted the fading bruise on his jaw. "Did you get off on that too?"
"No!" Angel said forcefully. "I did what I had to do. I didn't enjoy that any more than you did."
Xander shook his head and lowered the flashlight. "I'm sure Faith would have seen right through you if you hadn't hit me hard enough to knock me down."
"She might have."
"Crap and you know it," Xander said. "You did that because you wanted to."
"Fine," Angel said finally, glancing up at the grate again. "I'm sorry. But a little bruise on the jaw isn't exactly the end of the world."
"Right," Xander said. Funny how it never was when his dad's fist slipped, either.
Angel's face darkened, impressive brows drawing together. "Don't think I haven't paid, Harris. I've been to Hell. I've relived every moment of Angelus' torture of the innocent and that alone is torment I can never escape."
Xander shook his head. "Oh good. I was hoping I could hear the 'I've been to Hell, tormented forever' speech again."
"You have no idea what it was like," Angel snapped, irritation breaking through the monotone growl. "You've been fighting vampires for what? Two years now? You're a child. You have no idea what it means to suffer."
"Say I don't," Xander said. "It's not like you know or care what I've been through either, so I think we're even."
"We're not even close," Angel said. The all-too-human anger was showing on his face now, and somehow that chilled Xander far more than fangs and bumpies ever did. "I have suffered lifetimes while you…you're just a boy who plays at hero. The arrogance-"
"Oh, right," Xander interrupted him. He wanted to go over there and let a fist to the face show Angel what an arrogant little boy he was. "Because no one could ever possibly understand what you've been through. Because your suffering is the sufferingest suffering of all the sufferings."
Angel stood, and Xander felt a thrill of fear, as if Angel might have somehow tuned into his fantasy and was stalking toward him to reciprocate. He reached Xander and oh God, he was big enough and strong enough and nothing good ever came of a man looming over him with that look on his face. Only Angel kept walking and sat down next to him with a sigh, back to the wall of the pit. The anger on the vamp's face was gone, replaced by…what? Understanding?
"I know why you hate me," Angel said calmly. "Why you'd let me dust come sunrise."
"Do you now," Xander said cautiously. At the moment, looming for no reason at all and making him nearly wet his pants was springing to mind.
Angel nodded. "Because she'll never love you," he said decisively.
Xander blinked a few times. "You mean because Buffy will never love me?"
"You've loved her since I met you," Angel said. "But she's never looked at you that way. Not the way she looks at me."
Xander shook his head, not denying Angel's words but unable to keep a smirk from twitching across his face. "Well I'll admit that's why I first started hating you," he said amiably. Then the smile faded. "But you know what, big guy? That's really not the kind of thing I'd want to see anybody dead over. Not by a long shot."
Xander's eyes widened. "Dead is a big deal. A crush isn't. Are you sure you're not still evil?"
"Of course I'm sure," Angel said, giving him a pinched look of annoyance. "But the grudge—I mean, you've hated me ever since Buffy picked me over you. It's like a…a thing with you."
"And then I was with Cordy," Xander said. "And then messed it all up because I'm a big idiot and thought I could have Willow too." Something about the vampire's confusion just made the painful tug in his gut that came from thinking about either girl even worse. He sighed. "Look. I think you're dangerous with or without a soul. And I think you're a royal ass on top of that. That's why I don't care."
"Oh," Angel said.
They were both quiet for a little while. Xander stared straight into the darkness across the pit, not sure whether he was glad or not that the conversation seemed to be over. He wished Buffy would just get on with the rescuing already.
Then Angel said, in an oddly conversational tone, "You were scared of me just now. When I came over here. I smelled it."
Xander gave him the side-eye, not sure where this was supposed to be going. "That's gross."
"I know more about you than you think I do," Angel said, and Xander ignored the sinking pit in his gut. "About your life."
Xander blinked. "Good for you," he said, and wished his heart hadn't started pumping overtime again. It wasn't like Angel knew...anything about his parents or his home life or anything else he'd worked so hard to keep from the others. Still, he felt absurdly like he had to explain. "It's just, small space, can't exactly run and I thought you might..."
"Hurt you?" Angel said.
Xander nodded warily. "You hit me last week," he felt compelled to point out.
"I did," Angel said. "But I don't think it's only me you're afraid of. I think you'd flinch from the sight of a big guy headed your way looking pissed whether it was me or not."
"Well, who wouldn't?" Xander said, unable to mask the panic in his voice. Somehow all of this meant that Angel knew what none of his friends were supposed to know, and he hated that it was like the vamp had read this thoughts. What right did Angel have to be so perceptive when no one else was?
Angel shrugged, and his tone softened. "All I'm saying is, in terms of...life stuff...I do get that it's been more than just two years of vamp hunting for you. It's still not Hell or anything, not really the same thing as centuries of guilt and torment either, and I mean I did grow up in 18th century Ireland where beating your kids was a normal—" Xander was glaring at him with a mixture of shock and indignation. "But I know you've suffered too. And you're less of an arrogant child than you let on."
Xander wondered if this was some sort of apology, and if so how on Earth he was supposed to take it. These were things that no one was supposed to talk about, not even the people he liked. He settled for asking, "How did you find out?"
"Angelus," Angel answered after a moment of hesitation. "Did a lot of stalking after he took over. Everyone's houses, of course, not just yours, but enough. He considered killing your parents but worried you might not mind."
"Oh," Xander said. Then, as the thought really sunk in, bringing with it a small amount of nausea, "Oh." He blinked a few times, then added just to be sure, "I would mind."
"I know that," Angel said quickly. Then his tone softened. "Angelus has never had the greatest grasp of human emotions like love or familial devotion. Luckily for you."
"Right." Xander's voice was hollow. He was vaguely aware that Angelus had killed his own family after he'd been turned. That Angel might have been acting on the sort of thoughts that Xander had routinely, well, that was something entirely different. He thought of the vampire him the Willowganger had described and had to wonder what that creature's first kills had been. He swallowed. "Lucky for me."
"You know, before that I envied how happy you seemed," Angel went on, oblivious to his discomfort, staring off into distance like he was remembering some far away time. "Always joking, smiling, laughing, like nothing could touch you. I mean, people think it's weird when I smile. Smiling's a big deal for me."
Somehow, the full meaning of this statement was almost harder to swallow than the last, if it didn't quite turn his world sideways in the very same way. "Are you saying you were jealous of me?"
"Well, yeah," Angel said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. "About Buffy too, at first, before we…you know. You getting to spend all that time with her and all. She didn't tell you?"
"No, she didn't tell me." He shook his head. It was amazing how happy he'd have been to hear that once upon a time, and how little it was doing for him now. "But I take it that all ended when Angelus came a-knockin'?" He winced. "Or I guess not knocking." The phrase a-stalkin' came to mind.
Angel sighed. "Well, a few centuries of Hell came next, so I really didn't think about it much—" Xander gave him a don't-you-dare-start-talking-about-centuries-in-Hell-again kind of look, and the vampire hastily went on. "But now? I feel it in a different way." He shrugged. "You act like everyone's clown when really you're facing a tougher life than any of them. Me, I can't remember how not to do the king-of-pain routine even when I don't feel like it. I mean, it goes fine with my image and all, but…time was I was the life of some parties."
The seriousness with which Angel had made his confession, in combination with the images Xander's imagination insisted on producing, proved to be too much. Xander snorted in laughter. "You were the life of parties."
"What?" Angel asked, sounding wounded. "I was. Really."
"So that's it?" Xander said a few moments later, when the urge to laugh had fled. "You don't like me 'cause you're been jealous I don't spend all my time acting like I feel sorry for myself?" He felt anger rise up in him again, because obviously, whatever past they shared, Angel still didn't get it. "I would, but it's not worth it." Angel's forehead crinkled, so Xander went on. "Look, Deadboy. I know I'll never have what they have, in lots of ways. But I sure as hell don't want to give them another thing to feel sorry about or look down on me for or ignore, because I honestly don't know which of those is worse. Better for everyone if I stick around and be the clown and not burden any of them with my dumb problems so they don't go off to their shiny new colleges next year and decide it's not worth the hassle to be my friend anymore. It's all good and fine being the funny loser but God forbid I took a page out of your book."
He was breathing hard by the time he finished, but Angel didn't respond. Instead he just sat there and studied Xander with those infuriatingly deep, dark, chick magnet-y eyes. Xander began to have the sick feeling that he'd spilled too much. No one was supposed to know these things. Especially not Angel, even if he was probably going to turn into a pile of dust within the hour.
Finally, the vampire spoke. "It wasn't just that."
Xander swallowed, and didn't look at him. "What?"
"It wasn't just the jealous thing. I always thought you were kind of annoying," Angel said. "Probably would never have liked you much in any case. You know. Just for the record."
He was wasn't sure whether to be relieved or frustrated the conversation was heading back to familiar territory. "Well good, I hope your last few hours have been adequately annoying."
Angel smiled a little sadly. "Wasn't quite done," he said. "And I realize this is going to sound a bit like offering to do the dishes when someone's already cleaning the last glass, but, hey, if I do survive past sunrise… I could help you, y'know, if you ever need it. No need to worry about me deciding I don't want you around, since I already knew everything and I never really wanted you around to begin with."
"Well, as generous as that really sounds," Xander said, "why?"
The vampire shrugged. "Why not?" he said. "I can understand what you're going through. More than maybe you know. More than anyone else knows, in any case. Anyway, as little as I might approve of Buffy's choice in friends sometimes, you're a decent guy. Which is more than I can say for some of the other people I've tried to help lately."
"Yeah, well, just don't help me like you helped Faith," Xander said. "Getting tied up and turning evil isn't really what I need right now."
Angel nodded. "I'll try not to." He made a face that was almost a smile. "I really am sorry, by the way. For hitting you."
Xander sighed. "It's okay," he said after a moment, and was surprised to realize he meant it. "I can take a punch. The worst thing was that nobody else cared."
Six o'clock, Xander realized, had come and gone. Time stretched out in the silence that followed until Angel stood abruptly and walked to the middle of the pit.
"What is it?" Xander asked. "Do you hear something?"
"Not if you keep talking," Angel told him.
Xander shut his mouth, and waited. After a few seconds he could hear it too, faint at first, but growing louder. The noise of something crashing slowly through the underbrush, and voices. He looked to Angel but the vampire had already relaxed, and a grin was lighting his face.
He was right, Xander decided. It did look weird.
"Buffy!" Angel called up through the hole, and the crashing Xander could hear turned into a crashing run. He heard Buffy yell, "They're here!" and a moment later his favorite Slayer's face was looking down at them from above the grate.
"Hey guys," Buffy said with a grin. "What're you doing down there?" Her expression was strangely unaffected by the twin murderous glares she received.
Soon, Willow's and Giles' heads appeared within their frame of vision as well. "There should be an unlocking button mechanism thing," Willow told them. "I just have to find it."
"There's a button thing?" Xander called up to them.
"Willow and I accidentally triggered one of these traps ourselves," Giles shouted down. "Only I fell in, fortunately, and Willow was able to free me. Bright girl. When you didn't appear at the rendezvous time we supposed something similar might have happened to you, and Buffy was able to use her Slayer senses to track the nearest vampire, who happened to be Angel."
"I'm just glad you came," Angel said, and Xander sighed when he realized the vamp was making googly eyes at—and only talking to—Buffy. He supposed some things never changed.
"Get clear, guys!" Willow's voice drifted down from above. Buffy gave a little wave, then both she and Giles stepped away from the grate, which retracted a second later with a horrible screech. Xander let out a breath of relief he'd barely realized he'd been holding.
Buffy returned. "Hey Will, still have that rope?"
"Rope, check," Willow said, appearing at Buffy's side once more. "You guys ready? Hey, Xander, are you okay?"
"Just a little twisted of the ankle," Xander said with a halfhearted grin, and tried not to wince as he shifted his weight. Angel gave him a brow-furrowed look, which he ignored. Until he realized the implications of rope. "Not sure how good I'll be at pit climbing, though. Might need my limbs for that."
Angel was squinting up at the sky above them then glancing back down at Xander. Xander raised his eyebrows.
"We don't need a rope," Angel declared after a moment. Xander understood what he meant roughly half a second before the vampire scooped him up in his arms, stalked to the middle of the pit, and jumped straight up in the air. A moment of gut clenching terror later, they were on level ground again and Xander's heart had resumed beating once more.
"Let's get out of here," Angel said, but didn't put him down.
"Sounds like a good idea to me," Buffy said, though she was staring at the two of them—Xander nestled in Angel's arms like a child, or possibly a damsel—as if they'd both grown second heads. "Hey, you guys didn't get all…male bond-y down there, did you?"
Angel and Xander looked at each other. "Oh no," Xander said at exactly the same time Angel said, "Definitely not. Still can't stand him." Xander shook his head. "No bonding whatsoever."
"We talked a lot about how much we hate each other," Angel reported truthfully.
Still, as they all started back to the car, it felt pretty nice to be carried, even if Angel didn't like him at all. And somehow, despite the pain shooting up his leg with each step Angel took and the growing dread of awareness that his parents wouldn't look too kindly on yet another unexplained injury or medical bill, he felt more protected than he had in years. He supposed that despite the gloom and brooding and lurking threat of evil, Angel was a pretty decent guy, too.
"So who do you think put those traps there?" Willow asked, as Giles' Citroen came into view. "They seemed like a bit much for your everyday, run-of-the-mill vampire hunting crew. Seeing as we are one of those and we don't do that."
"The work of the Mayor?" Giles suggested.
"Nah, not evil enough," Buffy said.
"Government, perhaps? Military?"
"Right," Xander said, shifting in Angel's arms to give Giles a look. "Because there's a secret military organization capturing vampires in Sunnydale and we've never noticed them before."
"Fine," Giles sniffed, opening the driver's side door. "You'll all just have to come up with your own theories if you don't like mine."
They all smiled a little bit, even Angel, and Xander was surprised to note it looked a little less weird. He supposed, as the vampire set him down carefully in the passenger's seat, that maybe the night hadn't gone so horribly wrong after all.