Katriena Knights

The lights of the liquor store beckoned sweetly, but Xander stood outside, knowing it was futile even to cross the threshold. Everybody in that place knew who he was, and therefore knew he was too young to buy booze. So he waited. Sooner or later, someone would happen by who'd be willing to nip in and buy him some beer.

You're pathetic, his little voice told him, but he didn't listen. His little voice was getting awfully annoying lately. Causing him all kinds of ridiculous confusion. His plan tonight had been to see if alcohol would make it shut up. He'd found two beers in the fridge at home, but that was it. Embarrassingly, he'd worked up a bit of a buzz just from that.

He knew it wasn't the right thing to do--he'd seen his family's drunken, sloppy rages enough times to know that--but he was at the end of his rope. His relationship with Willow had gone all weird, and now that was over but the repercussions still hurt. Cordelia was gone, devoted once again entirely to herself. He could pretty much kiss that phase of semi-wonderfulness goodbye--she was too damn stubborn to listen to him or give him anything even remotely resembling a second chance. And Buffy--Buffy had lied to them all, and he hated himself for hating her for it, all the time trying to convince himself he didn't hate her at all, but just hated Angel.

It was too much. It was beer-worthy.

But there was no beer. He was getting tired of waiting. Maybe he should go back home and try again to pick the lock on the liquor cabinet.

Then he saw someone. Someone plenty old enough to buy him some booze.

He had just enough of a buzz on to swagger across the street to where Angel stood, lounging against a tree, all wrapped up in his usual brooding hunkiness. Xander hated that about him. Among other things.

"Hey," said Xander.

Angel straightened a little too fast, as if Xander had actually managed to startle him. "Xander."

"Yeah. Hey, you wanna buy me some beer? After all, you're old enough, right?"

Angel frowned. "I don't buy beer for minors."

"Why not? I mean, you have sex with them, right?"

Angel's face went hard. For a split second, Xander was just sober enough to be afraid. Then Angel spun and stalked across the street, into the liquor store.

Heart beating just a shade too fast, Xander watched him go. Angel's long, black coat swished around his ankles. He was a big guy. Even if he hadn't been a vampire, he could have squashed Xander like a bug.

But he hadn't. Xander was still vastly uncomfortable with the idea that Angel might actually have been restored to his old, not-so-sadistic self, but the evidence was there. He'd saved Willow's life, after all. His mind cast back to her description of the event, which Xander had been a little too knocked-in-the-head to actually witness. "I mean, there I was, and that Watcher woman was about to kill me with that lightning, and then there was Angel, flying across the room with his vampire face on, and I didn't know if he was going to save me or kill me, but since I was about to die anyway it didn't seem like it really mattered. . ." And of course, he'd saved her. Saved all of them, really, by retrieving the glove. And he'd tried to save them again, looking for Willow and Xander when Spike had kidnapped them. It wasn't technically his fault that Oz and Cordy had gotten there first, causing many things to hit the fan.

Still, there was all that other . . . stuff . . . and he couldn't say it was water under the bridge.

Angel emerged from the store, carrying a six-pack of Harp Lager. He still looked dour as he shoved the beer at Xander. "Your brand?"

"Close enough." Xander pulled out a bottle, then realized he couldn't get the cap off.

Angel rolled his eyes, took the beer and twisted it open, handed it back to Xander. "Thanks," said Xander meekly. "Um . . . could we talk?"

Angel still didn't look happy. "Yeah. Sure. Why the hell not?" He stalked off, leaving Xander to follow.

Or not. Xander took a swig of his Irish beer, gathered the courage--or the stupidity--it gave him, and trailed after Angel.

They walked for a while, Angel leading the way to the house where he'd been staying, where Xander had followed Buffy that day he'd frankly rather forget. When they got there, Angel opened the door and stepped aside to let Xander in. Xander swigged the last swallows of his beer and went in.

Bad idea, said his little voice.

"So," said Angel. He went to the fireplace and poked at the logs. A flame rose. He knelt and fed it with sticks from a basket next to the fire. "What did you want to talk about?"

"I don't like you," said Xander.

Angel gave him a look. "Tell me something I don't know."

"Yeah, well . . ." Xander had hoped something else would just pop into his head, but no such luck.

Angel came to his feet and looked down at him, his expression inscrutable. "You don't like me because you think I ruined any chance you had with Buffy."

Xander just looked at him, still a bit lost in his own head. Maybe the beer hadn't been such a good idea.

"I've been around awhile, Xander. I'm not stupid."

"No. I've never accused you of being stupid. Just a big, sadistic bully who likes to torture and kill people." That beer had a big mouth. Didn't matter. He was saying what he'd come to say.

Angel's face hardened. He brushed past Xander, going toward the opposite wall, not anywhere in particular, just away. "That wasn't me."

"Then who the hell was it? Explain this to me, Angel, because I don't get it."

Angel wheeled. "If it had been me, I would remember it. Loud and clear, bright, living color. But I don't." He hesistated. "Not all of it, anyway. Not yet. But enough."

"Then maybe you understand why I'm having a little trouble with this sudden conversion."

"Yeah." He shoved his hands into his pockets. He had gone all broody again. Big, broody, wounded guy. No wonder the chicks loved him. "It was the demon."

"And now the demon's gone?"

"No. It's just . . . repressed."

"So you still have a demon, you're still a vampire, and yet we're supposed to trust you now."

Angel shook his head in disgust. "Do whatever the hell you want, Xander. I really don't care."

"No. No way, Angel. Don't blow me off." He stalked closer, feeling rage claw through him. "Don't you dare just blow me off. You killed people I cared about. You can't just brush that off. You sure as hell can't expect me to."

He almost felt bad, then, seeing the anguish in Angel's eyes. But there was something else there, as well, smoldering. It seemed like there always was. Something dark, dangerous, just under the surface. The vampire-Angel, the Angelus demon who had slaughtered Jenny Calendar and tortured Giles and killed Willow's perfectly innocent fish. The part Xander couldn't ignore and certainly couldn't trust.

"I don't think you understand why they cursed me with a soul. They did it because it hurts. Because it's constant torture." He took a slow step toward Xander. "Every minute, every breath of my life, remembering what that demon did while it was wearing my face. So don't think for a minute I just brush it off. Jenny was my friend, once. So was Giles. So were you, to be honest, or at least I thought of you that way."

"You did?"

"I haven't had a lot of friends. I have to take what I can get."

Angel's sardonic tone gave Xander a vague twinge. Maybe big, broody wounded guy was, deep down, just as pathetic as dumped by Cordelia guy. But he wasn't going to back off. "Then maybe you shouldn't have become a vampire in the first place."

Angel's laugh had knife edges. "You really don't get it, do you? You've seen what they do, you've seen them take their victims. How can you stand there and tell me I shouldn't have made that choice? When a vampire decides to take you, to change you, there's no choice involved."

The rage was back, tearing through Xander, following the path of the alcohol through his blood. "There's always a choice. You can choose not to be in the dark alley, you can choose not to walk through the graveyard at night."

The thin smile on Angel's face had gone thinner, pressing hard against his teeth. "I suppose you'd blame the rape victim, too, huh?"

"I don't--"

But he didn't get to finish the sentence, because suddenly Angel let out a growl, and in two steps he was across the room, his hand clenched on Xander's throat, lifting him and pinning him to the wall. Xander choked, struggled to breathe, staring into the contorted, animal face, the yellow eyes of Angel the vampire. He was helpless, dangling six inches from the floor, Angel's fangs inches from his throat.

"Come on, boy," Angel growled. "Fight me."

Xander struggled. He was going to die here, bled dry by Angel's teeth, and he wouldn't even have the chance to say, "I told you so." He writhed without effect, kicked but struck nothing. He was completely under Angel's control . . . But Angel wasn't going for the kill. Which meant he was trying to make a point. At least, Xander hoped that was what it was.

"All right, all right!" he managed through the choke-hold on his throat. "All right, I get it."

Angel jerked his hand back. Xander crumpled to the floor. "Are you sure you get it?" Angel growled through his fangs, then he shook his head and they were gone, his face was human again and he turned away, fists clenched. He shook his head again and the tension eased. He turned back toward Xander. "Are you sure?"

Xander rubbed at his throat, coughed. "Yeah, I get it." He struggled to his feet.

"It's like that all the time. The demon in control and not a damn thing you can do about it--" He broke off. "Never mind. It's not worth it." He turned away, head bowed, shoulders taut.

"No. I get it. But it's still your face. It's still you." He coughed again. His throat felt like--well, like it had been squeezed by a vampire.

Angel's voice wrenched out of him. "I know. I know." He made a strange sound. A sound that made Xander want to feel sorry for him, so he dredged up more anger instead.

"It's a really sad story, Angel--"

Angel spun, the expression on his face almost as fierce as his vampire morph. "I've had it with you, Xander. I've had it. You don't want to dish out second chances, fine. But don't be here, in my house, giving me shit. You got it?"

That third beer, that damned Irish lager, had hit pretty hard. "I loved her."

Angel's anger collapsed into sardonic laughter. "You did? Are you sure?"

That seemed like a weird question. Granted, it wasn't exactly a normal situation, but still . . . "Am I sure?"

"Yeah. Are you sure? How does she make you feel?"

Xander blinked, trying to think. It was like trying to play ping-pong, and he couldn't keep up with the ball. "Good. Happy."

"Happy." Angel's edgy voice mocked him. "Like, all tingly? All your goofy teenage hormones going all crazy? Like you want to kiss her, or cop a feel?"

Xander summoned indignation. "That's a little crude--"

Angel wasn't done. "You want to know how she makes me feel?" Xander didn't want to hear this. None of it. But he didn't dare speak. Angel was shaking, his voice hard and thin. "From the moment I first saw her, I had the feeling that maybe there was some chance for me. She made me feel like . . . like I could be human again." He blinked, just a bit too fast for manliness, Xander thought, then he turned away. "I think you need to go."

Xander rubbed his throat. "Yeah. Maybe you're right." He headed for the door. Halfway there, he stopped, looked back. Angel had sunk into the couch, face in his hands. He was still shaking.

Whatever Xander had wanted to say, it faded at the sight. Suddenly Angel looked like just another guy. Just another guy who loved Buffy, and couldn't have her.

"Angel," he said.

Angel looked up. His eyes were dry but his mouth was clamped down hard against something. Xander couldn't meet his eyes.

"I'm sorry," said Xander.

Angel nodded. Xander turned and left him there, alone with his demon and his pain.