Chapter One - Variance

Sunnydale, 1998

Alexander Harris had been searching all day.

It wasn't easy for the 17-year-old Sunnydale resident. What do you get the girl who has everything? Especially if that girl is your girlfriend. Well, sort of.

Xander wasn't really sure of his feelings about Cordelia Chase. She was pretty, yes. Gorgeous, actually. She was also popular and rich. So, what was the perfect gift?

Well, she already has me, he thought. What else could she want? Very quickly, Xander realized this type of thinking wouldn't get him anywhere. He didn't know if Cordelia really had any feelings for him left. After she and Oz had caught him and Willow kissing in the factory after they had been captured by Spike, Cordelia hadn't been talking to him. If he wanted a chance to make his relationship work out, he needed to find something that would catch her attention.

His gaze was attracted to a silver ornate cross behind a display counter. He signaled the clerk and the man came over. He reached under the counter, gently picked up the case with the cross in it and placed it on the counter. Pulling it out, Xander held it up to the light.

It was a beautiful silver cross, ornately inscribed with writing Xander couldn't decipher. That's not too surprising, he thought, if it's not in English, I don't understand it.

It's perfect, he decided. If this doesn't get Cordelia's attention, nothing will. He paid for the cross and left the shop.

"Cordelia has to know I'm sorry once I give her this," Xander spoke to himself. "This is going to be great. "

[ ~~~ ]

Xander banged his head on a the large wooden table dominating the Sunnydale High School library. "It was awful," he groaned. "I thought she was going to kill me!"

Buffy Summers sighed wearily. As much as her friends were a constant strength to her, they could be very trying sometimes. Xander had come in early to the library this Monday morning and hadn't stopped groaning about his birthday surprise to Cordelia.

"Come on," Buffy said. "It couldn't have been that bad."

"That bad?" Xander banged his head on the table again. "Think of the Titanic. Think of the Hindenburg. Think of . . . well, think of something very, very bad. This was way worse."

"Maybe you should just stay away from Cordelia for a while," Buffy suggested. "She's going to need some time to deal."

"Maybe you're right." Xander stopped banging his head on the table and looked up at Buffy. He pulled out the cross from his pocket. "What am I supposed to do with this?"

"Wear it? I know that seems a little obvious, but . . ."

"Ha. Ha. Let's all laugh at Xander, the broken man. Yuk it up, Slaygirl." Xander absently slipped the cross over his head. "Maybe it will offer me a little protection when I'm out with you fighting the forces of darkness. Xander, the evil-fighting fashion Queen, er . . . King."

"Speaking of evil," Buffy stood up. "Classes are starting soon and I don't want to be late. Well, actually I really couldn't care, but too many tardies and my mom starts to hyperventilate. If you want, you can come out with me tonight on patrol. I could use the company."

"Sure."

"Cheer up," Buffy clasped her friend on the shoulder. "I have a feeling things are going to start going your way soon. I mean, how could they get any worse?"

[ ~~~ ]

Xander and Buffy were busy that night. A quick stop at the library and the two headed off to one of Sunnydale's many graveyards. Willow was busy trying to get into Oz's good graces, so the two were patrolling alone tonight.

I don't know why I even bother to come with Buffy, Xander thought, I'm no help.

Who are you kidding? You get in the way.

But Xander knew why he came. Xander needed to protect Buffy. Call it love, call it protectiveness, call it whatever you want—Xander knew he could not let Buffy face the darkness alone.

So that was how Xander wound up sitting on a gravestone facing Buffy, twirling a stake between his fingers. "I tell you, it's true," he said.

"You are so mental, it's almost . . . well, mental," Buffy laughed.

"I'm telling you, I know!"

Buffy had to put her had up to her mouth to stop herself from laughing too hard. "Xander, Larry is not gay." She paused for thought, seeming to look at him with concern. "What a second . . . how do you know?"

"Well—” Xander's sputtering explanation cut off abruptly as his eyes widened sharply. He stood up quickly and dove towards Buffy.

"What—?" Buffy moved to jump up, but was knocked out of the way as Xander blew past her. She turned around and saw him struggling with a vampire. Xander had grabbed the vampire by the arms and the two were grappling, neither one able to get the upper hand. Then Xander grunted loudly and threw the vampire to the ground. He immediately dropped to his knees and, bringing his hand down quickly, jammed the stake he was holding directly into the heart of the creature. It quickly exploded into dust, leaving little remains.

Xander stood up uncertainly as Buffy ran over to him. "Xander? Are you okay?" she asked.

"I feel like one of those paint cans at the hardware store," he said.

"Nice work, dusting that vamp," Buffy said admiringly.

"I guess I just don't know my own strength," he laughed weakly.

Buffy gently grabbed his arm. "You're done for the night," she said firmly. "I think I had better walk you home."

Xander smiled at her. "Well, just because you're walking me home, don't expect that you're gonna get any!"

"Funny, Xander. Real funny."

"A guy's gotta try, Buff. A guy's gotta try."

[ ~~~ ]

Oz wasn't getting anywhere. He had been sitting in his apartment, absently picking out chords on his guitar, but he kept fumbling the G. Damn, he thought, thinking about her isn't going to do you any good.

Oz sighed. This wasn't like him. His friends had always described him as "unflappable." No matter what came up, and some pretty weird things had come up in his short time in Sunnydale, his friends said he reacted to it as if someone had just handed him a hot dog.

But not now.

Xander? he groaned inwardly. How could she be kissing Xander?

Oz knew they had been friends for years. It was difficult for him to compete with that when the two were just that—friends. But how was he supposed to compete with it now? Xander knew everything about his Willow. He knew what she liked, disliked, and it was almost as if they could read each other's thoughts.

Oz's ears picked up when he heard a knock on the door. Maybe it's her, he thought hopefully. Coming right behind that hope was despair. It's not her. You told her to leave you alone.

He got up off of his bed and padded to the door. It was a quick two steps to turn the locks, and then he was looking at someone he certainly didn't expect to see.

"Xander," he spat the word out like a curse.

"Oz." Xander was looking decidedly uncomfortable. "Can I come in? We've got to talk."

Oz stepped back out of the doorway and waved Xander in. Xander walked silently into the room and stopped. He turned around. "Decorate much?"

Oz did a quick scan at the sparse nature of his apartment. "What do you want?"

"We've got to talk."

"We are talking."

"We've got to talk about Willow." Xander sat down on Oz's dilapidated couch. "Listen man, what we did—what I did—it was wrong."

"You think?"

"Willow and I have been friends for a long time," Xander said, running his hand through his hair. "Maybe it's a natural progression to try and become something more, I don't know. What I do know is that Willow cares for you. She's sweet, smart, and generally incredible. You can't let that slip away because of some stupid mistake."

"I can't trust her anymore." In spite of himself, Oz found that he was opening up to Xander. "When Cordelia and I found you two, I thought I had died. If I let Willow that close again, she might hurt me the same way. That can't happen. I couldn't deal."

Xander looked at Oz, impressed. That had to be the longest speech he had heard the man say since Xander had known him. Xander could see Oz was hurting. And if I can see it, anyone can. I'm not exactly known for my emotional sensitivity.

Abruptly, he stood up. "I'm not going to make the mistake of trying to council you on matters of love," he said. "It's not like I have any experience in that area upon which to draw. I will say one thing, though. If you don't let her back in, what will you be missing? That's the question you have to ask yourself."

Xander stood up and walked to the door. He opened it and turned around. "What's going to be the price?" And then he was gone, leaving an emotionally troubled Oz in his wake.

[ ~~~ ]

I can't believe how screwed up my life is. I just counseled my potential rival to get back together with my best friend who I've been cheating on my girlfriend with for the past few weeks. C'est la vie.

He stopped for a moment. C'est la vie? What the Hell is c'est la vie? Where did that come from? I guess I paid more attention in French class than I thought, he decided.

Laughing quietly, he started back home. He knew he had to get back into his house soon. Not for his parents' sake—they were terminally absent—but he knew Buffy would be checking in on him. It wasn't good to make the Slayer angry. Not good at all.

He was about half the way to his house when he heard the sound. It was a skittering sound, from behind Xander. He spun around, straining his eyes to look into the night as his hand reached for the stake in his jacket pocket.

"Well, well," came a deep voice behind him. "If it isn't one of the Slayer's little friends."

Xander spun around again, pulling the stake out of his pocket. In front of him, he saw two vampires. They were standing directly on his path home. No problem, he thought, now would be a pretty good time to go and see Willow anyway.

Xander started to back away from the two creatures in front of him. But he knew he wasn't going to have a chance when the one on the left rushed towards him. The vampire grabbed Xander by the coat and threw him up, over his head and back onto the street below. The vampire stood over him smiling, his fangs gleaming from the harsh glow of a nearby streetlight.

"You're lucky we can't kill you," he said, stepping on Xander's hand, causing the stake to fall loose. "But nobody said we can't mess you up a little bit first."

Xander swung his body around abruptly, swinging his right leg until it connected viciously with the vampire's knee. The vampire grunted and fell to the concrete, his legs flying into the air. The second vampire, obviously not expecting a fight, was slow to react.

Xander scrambled to his feet, picking up the stake as he did. He jammed the stake into the prone vampire's chest, causing it to explode into dust. He looked up just in time to see the punch that flipped him off his feet and sent him crashing head first onto the street. He lay there stunned, the black cloud of unconsciousness starting to climb over him.

I'm dead. Goodbye, cruel world! I've always wanted to say that.

As his dizziness began to fade, Xander began to realize that maybe he wasn't going to die after all. He shook his head and opened his eyes cautiously. In front of his face, he was an outstretched hand.

"Xander."

"Angel."

Xander slapped the vampire's proffered hand away and slowly got to his feet. "Don't think that I'm not grateful—and believe me, I'm not—but what are you doing here?"

Angel handed the stake back to Xander. Xander looked at the stake, looked back at Angel, then put the stake in his pocket.

Angel pretended not to notice. "I was going to meet Buffy," he said. "I heard the noise and decided to check it out. You're lucky I did."

"Yeah, well, just remember that," Xander babbled. "And do me a favor. Don't tell Buffy about this."

Angel studied the young man. He remembered when he felt jealous of Xander for Buffy's affections. At times, he hated the guy. Before, Angel thought Xander was annoying and a potential threat for Buffy's love. Now, with Angel and Buffy not seeing each other, Angel thought Xander was just plain annoying. "Fine," he said. "Do you mind if I ask why?"

"Actually, yes," Xander said. "But I'll tell you anyway. I'm supposed to be at home, but I was talking to a… friend."

Angel looked at Xander thoughtfully. As far as he knew, Xander didn't have any friends. Besides Buffy and Willow, of course. Sighing inwardly, Angel decided to let it go. "You had better be careful," he said to Xander. "Those vampires were Trick's men, and he's not one to be fooling around with." He paused for thought. "Any idea what they wanted with you?"

"Not really," Xander said. "It probably has something to do with Buffy. Anyway, as much fun as I have talking with you ..."

Angel smiled slightly. "Right," he said, walking off.

Xander watched Angel melt into the shadows. How does he do that? he wondered. Never mind. Time to get home.

[~~~]

Buffy was bored. She had been patrolling since she had sent Xander home and hadn't had a single bite. While she didn't love her job as Slayer unconditionally, what was worse was being a Slayer with nothing to slay. Especially without company.

"Buffy."

Buffy whirled around from her position on top of a gravestone, stake in hand. "Angel," she said, lowering the stake. "What are you doing here?"

"I came to warn you," he said. "Something's up."

"Of course, whenever you come to see me, something is up."

Angel laughed a little. "This might be nothing, but I've heard some rumors that Trick has been calling some first-class vampires into town."

Buffy stood up. "Any idea what for?"

"I don't know. It looks as if they're after something. Maybe searching for something." He seemed to fight a small inner conflict for a second. "It may have something to do with your friend Xander."

"Xander?" Buffy looked surprised.

"I found him on the street a few minutes ago fighting off some vampires," Angel said. "I overheard one of them saying they weren't allowed to kill him."

"What was Xander doing out on the street?" Buffy asked. She started to get angry. "I told him to go straight home."

Angel reached for Buffy's shoulder. He grimaced inwardly when she subtly stepped beyond his reach. It has to be like this, he reminded himself. We can't go back to the way that it was.

"I'm gonna kill him for risking his life," Buffy was saying. "What could have been so important?"

"I don't really know," Angel sidestepped a lie. "But maybe you should talk to your Watcher. Maybe he can dig something up."

"Good idea," Buffy agreed. She turned away from him slowly. She stayed that way for a few moments and then spun back around. "Angel, I—"

But Angel was gone.

[ ~~~ ]

"I'm telling you Giles, something is going on." Buffy stood up from the chair she was sitting on in the library. She had spent most of the night worrying about her friend and what was going on.

"Buffy, I, I can't really do much until I know more about the nature of the problem," said Giles. He pulled his reading glasses off of his head and absently began cleaning them. "What, specifically, seems to be the problem?"

"Giles, Trick's men tried to grab Xander. They said they weren't allowed to kill him. And last night he was fighting off vamps like he was the testosterone set's answer to the Slayer."

"Really?" Giles was impressed. He knew Buffy to be somewhat prone to exaggeration, but if Xander was becoming better at destroying vampires, it could only make Buffy's job easier. He put his glasses back on top of his head and leaned on the table. "Has anything happened recently that would draw Trick's attention unduly towards Xander?"

"Not that I know of," answered Buffy. "But who knows what is going on with Xander lately?"

"W-Well, perhaps we could ask?" Giles raised his eyebrows.

Buffy gave Giles a sheepish look. "Sure. I'll ask him when I see him in history."

[ ~~~ ]

Xander sat in history trying to understand what Mrs. Speckman was saying. It was kind of hard, what with Buffy tapping on his shoulder incessantly. Finally having had enough, he turned around sharply. "Annoy much?"

"Sorry," Buffy whispered. "But we need to talk. Angel told me what happened last night."

"What!?" Xander asked. Mrs. Speckman gave him a stern look and Xander lowered his voice. "That blood-sucking, non-air breathing—"

"Wait," Buffy interrupted. "He was worried, and so am I. What's going on Xand? First, Trick's men seem to have orders to grab you, and now you're fighting vamps off all by yourself."

"Look," Xander said in a reassuring voice. "Everything's fine. Trick's goons probably thought I was someone else, and just because I can finally hold my own against the forces of darkness, you get yourself into a bunch." He leaned towards her. "Jealous much?"

"Listen, Xand—" she began, but Xander had had enough.

He had barely gotten any sleep the night before and he wasn't in the mood to listen to Buffy try and emasculate him during history class. "No, you listen, Buffy," he said, standing up from his desk. "Just get off my back!"

The students' heads turned and watched him as he stormed out of the class. Buffy wanted to follow, but Mrs. Speckman was looking at her pointedly and besides it was daytime. Xander couldn't get into very much trouble with vampires in the middle of the day, now could he?

[ ~~~ ]

Xander stormed out of history class and went directly to his locker. He immediately felt badly for the way he acted towards Buffy, but he had been on edge all morning.

Something just doesn't feel right, he thought. It feels like I'm missing something important.

"Xander?"

Xander whipped his head out of his locker. "Willow," he said, his earlier thoughts forgotten. "What are you doing out of class?"

Willow smiled and tucked her hair behind her ears. "I talked to Giles in the library," she said. "He told me you got into a fight with some vampires last night without Buffy. Are you okay?"

"Sure," Xander said, slamming his locker door shut. "Why is everyone so concerned with how I'm doing all of a sudden?"

Willow's face fell when she heard the hard tone in his voice. "What's wrong, Xand?" she asked. "You don't get this mad this easily. Believe me, I know."

"Forget it, Will. I just didn't get any sleep last night. What's up with you?"

"Oz called me last night," Willow said. With the mention of Oz's name, Willow had begun to perk up. "He wants to talk," she said.

"That's great, Willow. I'm glad to see he came to his senses." Xander put his backpack over his shoulder and started down the hallway.

"Where are you going?" asked Willow, concern again in her voice. "Aren't you staying for the rest of the day?"

Xander looked at her over his shoulder. "No," he said. "I just remembered there was something I had to do." He walked off down the hallway to the front doors of the school.

Willow stood there, worried. She knew Xander had gone to talk to Oz on her behalf. She had done the same with Cordelia. The only difference seemed to be in the result. Oz wanted to talk, but Cordelia just wanted to keep as much distance between her and Xander as she could. Could that be why Xander was acting so weird?

Willow decided to ask Buffy at lunch.

[~~~]

Xander left the campus as fast as he could manage. He just knew there was something he had forgotten.

Something he needed to find. He just had no idea what. He decided to head for the nearest graveyard, not really sure why. Maybe because I've never seen it during the daytime, he thought. It might be a nice change.

It didn't take him long to get to the graveyard. Once there, he began wandering through, wondering how many of his classmates had been buried there, and then risen again to prey on the living. And how many of those have we killed again? he wondered. Probably quite a few. Xander felt a certain amount of pride in that.

Alfred Graham, born 1968, died 1997. He was the star in our sky. Xander read the gravestone. Someone else who died before his time, he thought. Sometimes Sunnydale really sucks.

The next gravestone made him stop. Jack Kinn, born 1910, died 1948. A strange look came over his face as he kneeled next to the headstone. He paused for a moment and then started digging.

[ ~~~ ]

"He ran out of history class?" Willow asked in a shocked tone. "I can't believe he just took off. I saw him this morning and he just cut school. He said he had something he remembered he had to do."

"Now I am worried," said Buffy. "Xander is almost always late, but he doesn't skip classes all that often. And he's been acting pretty weird lately." Quickly, she filled Willow in on the previous night's events.

"We have to find him Buffy!" Willow exclaimed. "It's going to be dark soon and who knows where he went!"

"Right." Buffy moved from their position at the table in the library and went into Giles' "weapons cage." She retrieved two stakes, one of which she gave to Willow, and a large cross.

Willow gave her a pained look.

"We're just being careful, Willow," Buffy said. "With Trick's goons out there, we don't want to take any chances." She grabbed Willow's hand and they started out the door.

[ ~~~ ]

Almost there.

Xander had been digging all day. The thought that he might have been caught and arrested for grave robbing never entered his mind. He knew there was something down there he needed badly. It was only a matter of time before found got it.

And then he did. Scraping the dirt out of the grave, Xander finally hit something solid. He dug some more, and eventually traced the outline of a casket. Straining with all of his strength, Xander pulled the lid open and looked inside. A decayed skeleton, it's head twisted at an obscene angle, stared back at him. A small box was laid inside beside the corpse.

Xander grabbed the box and pulled it out of the casket. He fumbled with the latch, and eventually opened it. Inside were two perfectly preserved .45 automatics.

"Oooh, babies," Xander breathed. He picked up the weapons and the ammunition clips from inside the box.

With a practiced hand, he jammed the clips into the pistols and racked the slides, loading the weapons.

With quick motions of his wrists, he spun the pistols 360 degrees around in his hands. "Daddy's home."