Xander was still stunned, his mind kept going around and around in circles, never stopping on one thought long enough to see it to its conclusion. This had been, without a doubt, the best day of his life. The 'ditch-digger' job at the hotel had turned into a real job, with a real future. And 'benefits'. He'd never had benefits before and didn't know how to act. Xander was more than a little pleased with himself, from maintenance man to night manager in only a month. The pay was the best he'd ever been offered, $500 a week and the position came with an apartment at the hotel, a nice apartment. Two bedrooms, a big bathroom, living room and kitchen. It came furnished and even had cable. The good cable, not the cheap one he had at home. And the general manager, Stan, said Anya could move in with him. Xander laughed to himself, he couldn't wait to tell her.

He came to a screeching halt in front of his parents' house, slammed the car into park and was out the door and heading up the sidewalk in a matter of seconds. His grin grew when the door to his apartment opened easily under his hand, knowing this meant Anya was already here. 'Probably naked, in bed, waiting for me.' Xander thought, giddily.

He bounded down the stairs and felt the euphoria that had been sweeping through his body die a painful death. Anya was there, in his bed, naked. But she wasn't waiting for him. She was writhing and screaming under "Spike!!!"

The vampire stopped in mid thrust and whipped his head around to see his 'roommate' standing on the stairs. The boy's face was pale as ashes, his hands were clenched in tight fists, and the usually full lips were compressed in a tight white line. Spike careful pulled out of greedy little slut and eased over to the edge of the bed. He wanted room to run in case the whelp decided to kill him on the spot. But the boy totally ignored him. Instead, he stared at his 'girlfriend'.

Anya pulled the sheets up over her bare breasts and met Xander's gaze calmly, "You're home early, did you get fired again?"

A sickly smile twisted Xander's lips for a moment, "No. I didn't get fired. I got a promotion. More money and a really great apartment. It's too bad I won't be able to enjoy because I'll be in prison for killing you, YOU SKANKY, SLEAZE BAG WHORE!!!" He screamed in her face.

The former demon glared back, "I don't have to let you talk to me like that, Xander. You haven't given me orgasms in three days, I was lonely. And Spike didn't mind, did you, Spike?"

Spike had been hoping to escape unnoticed, but the slut had nixed that idea. He started to speak, but Xander held his hand in front of his face, "I don't want to hear it, Spike. Not a word. Not. One. Fucking. Word."

Xander turned back to Anya, "Anya, honey, it doesn't matter if Spike minded or not. You're -my- girlfriend, or, you were my girlfriend. Girlfriends aren't supposed to sleep around behind their boyfriend's back. BUT YOU KNOW THAT!!! YOU USED TO TORTURE MEN FOR DOING THE EXACT THING TO WOMEN!!!" Xander shoved both hands in his hair and pulled. Then he screamed. He didn't say anything, he just screamed.

He finally grew quiet, too quiet to Spike's way of thinking. Xander threw himself down in his chair and stared at the other occupants in the room for a moment. His voice was a dead monotone when he finally spoke, "Get out. Now. Never show your face around me again."

Spike headed for the stairs, but Xander stopped him. "Not you, Spike. Anya, get out, before I throw you out on your ass."

"No, Xander. You can't treat me like this. And why aren't you throwing Spike out too?"

"Vampire. Sunlight. Bad. Besides, Spike didn't really do anything."

Even Spike was confused by -that- little piece of logic. Anya gaped at Xander for a moment, her mouth opening and closing in an unattractive imitation of a fish. "WHAT DO YOU MEAN, HE DIDN'T DO ANYTHING??" She screeched.

Xander shrugged, "Evil, soulless vampire. Everyone else may have forgotten that since he got the chip, but I haven't. He's -supposed- to do shit like this. But he didn't force you. I saw you, you were having a really good time. Hell, you probably jumped him." Anya's face turned a dark red and Xander laughed, tiredly.

"Yeah, that's what I thought. Go away, Anya, before I start looking for your male counter-part."

Anya drew in a deep breath to start back in on a tirade, but Xander didn't give her time. He shot out of his chair and pulled her out of bed with a strong grip on her hair. He pulled her, screaming and cursing up the stairs and shoved her out the open door, naked. He waved his fingers at her, "Goodbye, Anya. You'd better hurry home before the police see you. Oh, and Anya? You were really, really bad in bed. In fact, you were -so- bad, I'd rather fuck Spike. And you stink." He slammed the door shut and clumped back down the stairs. He started to lay back on his bed, but stopped and ripped the sheets off first and shoved them into a trash bag.

He flopped back on the bed and covered his eyes with his arm, "So, Spike. How long has this been going on?"

"Just today, mate. I'd say I'm sorry, but I'm not."

Xander laughed, "That's what I like about you, Spike. You don't pull any punches." Xander shoved himself off the bed and started packing a bag, "The rent is paid for another month, you know where everything is. Knock yourself out. I'm outta here."

Spike grabbed his arm as he moved past him, "Where you going, mate?"

Xander pulled Spike's hand off his arm and smiled, "Away. As far away as I can get. Later, Spike."

Spike watched the door close and heard the rat trap the whelp called a car start and then pull away. "Bloody hell, Slutty is going to kill me!"


Xander stopped by Giles' apartment on his way to the hotel. No one was home, so he left a note.

'Giles, I've had enough. I'm leaving town, today. Tell Buffy and Willow for me? I didn't want to bother them during class. I found Anya in bed with someone else so I threw her out. I'm sure she'll have something to say about it. I'll call when I can. Xander.'

He shoved the note under the door and headed for the hotel, hopefully Stan would be willing to give him his last paycheck before he left.


Stan shook his head and poured himself another cup of coffee, "That really sucks, kid. I hate to lose you, but I understand. Hell, if I found my old lady in bed with someone else I'd leave too. I do have an idea though. My brother, Harry, he owns a hotel in the Midwest. He's been looking for someone to run the place for him. You know the computer system, he uses the same one I do, and you're good with the guests. Even the, uh, -unusual- ones. Let me give him a call?"

Xander's mouth dropped open, "That'd be great, Stan. Really great. Thank you."

"No problem, Xander. Wait here, I'll be right back."


Xander picked up his ticket at the counter and headed for his boarding gate. Harry was so eager to have someone run his hotel he'd sprung for a plane ticket. Xander looked at the print out the ticket agent had given him, switch planes in Denver, then land in St. Louis. A rental car would be waiting for him at the airport with a map to the hotel. Xander heard the first call for boarding and got in line, his heart beating faster and faster. 'God, please, let this be better. Even a little better.'

Xander made his connecting flight in Denver without a hitch. In fact, everything was going so well, he was being to worry. Nothing in his life had ever been this easy. But it seemed that he was worried for nothing. The plane made it to St. Louis, landed in one piece and Xander was the first one to snag his luggage from the carousel.

He headed for the car rental counter, and that was when he saw them. Vampires. Six of them just standing there in the open, fangs and all. No one paid any attention to them at all. Well, a few people did, but it was more in the line of drooling instead of screaming in terror.

Xander was on the verge of a total freak out when he heard Stan's voice coming from behind him. "Are you Harris?"

He whipped his head around and gaped. "Stan. How did you beat me here? Uh, why are you here?"

'Stan' laughed, "I'm Harry Willis. I guess Stan didn't tell you we were twins."

"Uh, nope. He didn't."

Harry held out his hand, "Nice to meet you, Xander. Stan told me a lot about you."

Xander switched his bag to his other hand and shook his new boss' hand. "I'm really not all that bad. Honestly."

Harry laughed, "Come on. My car is out front. Let's get going before I get towed."

Xander followed him out of the terminal and they were soon on their way. "I thought I was supposed to pick up a car at the rental counter."

"Yeah, well, Stan called me back and I decided I should come meet you. And Cheryl, that's my wife, wanted me out of her hair for a while. Did you notice anything weird in the airport?" Harry asked, in a carefully neutral tone of voice.

Xander shrugged, "Other than the vampires? No. You got something to tell me?"

"Yeah. Actually I do. You're taking this pretty well. I'm impressed."

"I was born on the Hellmouth. It takes a lot to freak me out. But I was getting pretty close when you showed up. So...am I going to freak?"

Harry sighed, "Probably. Just hear me out. Then I'll answer any questions you have. Okay?"

"Okay. Let's hear it."

And hear it he did. Not only did everyone -know- vampires were real, they were legal. Staking one without a court order was murder. And not just the vampires were out in the open. 'Were' animals of all sorts, zombies, witches, all of them were accepted as normal. By the time Harry had finished, Xander's head was reeling.

"Wait a minute. How can you be arrested for staking a vamp? They turn to dust when they get staked. All you'd have to do is vacuum them up. And how come I've never heard about this? Is it only here?"

"No." Harry said. "It's world wide. Only places like Sunnydale are out of the loop."

"Why Sunnydale?"

"The Hellmouth is the answer to both questions. The one in Sunnydale doesn't like vampires. So, when they get staked...poof...dust. Outside of Sunnydale, you stake a vampire and you still have a body to deal with. Once a Hellmouth opens, a lot of people and creatures try to take it over. In Sunnydale, a warlock got control. He used too much of the Hellmouth's power and ended up getting fried. Then a vampire got control. And not a nice one either. He wanted enough power to take over the whole world, and he almost succeeded. But vampires have their own laws, they even have a ruling council. The Council decided he was a danger to vampires everywhere and had him put to sleep. But it was too late. He'd already taken control of the Hellmouth. It was sealed, but I guess you know how well -that- worked. Anyway, the Council kept an eye on the place, and when it looked like he was going to wake up, they sent in the Slayer. Now -that- Hellmouth is considered a rogue, it's been weakened, but it's not dead yet. The power leaking out of the Hellmouth spreads over a fairly wide area, almost 400 square miles, that's what is keeping most peoples' brain's asleep. It's trying to protect itself from being closed."

Xander didn't say a word, Harry glanced over at him, and immediately got concerned, Xander looked like he was choking.

"Hey, kid. You all right?"

Xander's voice sounded really strange when he asked, "The Vampire council sent in the Slayer?"

"Well, yes. The Slayer is sort of a...well, I'd guess you'd say a guard dog. When the Council thinks it's too dangerous for them to go, they send the Slayer."

Harry pulled over when he heard the gasping. "Breathe, kid. Don't pass out on me here."

Harry slumped back in his seat when he realized Xander was laughing so hard he couldn't breathe. "I didn't really think that would be your reaction." Harry said, in an irate voice.

"Sorry. Sorry. It's just. I -know- the Slayer. If she ever found out the 'Council' that makes the rules was run by vampires...man, I'd love to see the look on her face."

Harry finally broke down and joined in the laughter. "That probably would be pretty funny. But I don't think we should tell her. The Council isn't anyone you'd want to piss off."

Xander snorted, "Yeah, I can imagine. Wait a minute, you said 'that Hellmouth'. Is there more than one?"

"There's seven that I know of. Three of them have been sealed with spells, there's the one in Sunnydale, there's one in China, one in Egypt and another one here in the States. The ones in China and Egypt both have Guardians. They're completely neutral, not good or evil. Their Guardians handle all of the power coming out of the Hellmouth and make sure it can't do any damage and no one can damage it."

"What about the other one here in the States?" Xander asked.

Harry shrugged, "It's just a baby. It doesn't have a Guardian yet, but it does have a Warden. He makes sure no one tries to force it open, or use what little power -is- coming out of it. Once it matures, a Guardian will be chosen and he'll take over."

Xander knew he wasn't a genius, not by a long shot, but even he could see problems with that idea. "What if the Guardian they chose is a bad guy? Won't that be a -big- problem?"

Harry chuckled, "Not really. Hellmouths are, well, they're kind of alive. It will choose it's own Guardian. The one in Sunnydale was forced open before it was ready, so it wasn't able to protect itself. The new one is almost ready, it won't be long now."

Xander hadn't been paying the least bit of attention to their surroundings, so when Harry pulled into a parking lot and shut off the car, he was a little surprised.

"Here we are." Harry said, in a determinedly cheerful voice.

Xander looked out the window, but didn't notice the two-story building, the restaurant, the pool, the multitude of old trees or the cabins that stretched along the edge of the lake. All he saw was the sign on the roof of his new home.

'Welcome to the Hellmouth Hotel.'

"Oh, this is -so- not good."


The Traveler waited patiently for the other members of the Council to arrive. The information he'd received was what they had all been waiting for. Now, they just had to make plans. Padma, naturally was the first to speak.

"Why have you summoned us here, Traveler? I have better things to do with my time than listen to you." The Master of Beasts said, snidely. The young woman kneeling as Padma's feet, wearing nothing more than a leather collar, was obviously the 'better thing'.

"It is simple, dear Padma, Ling Si and the Egyptian have left their temples and are currently making their way to St. Louis. And since the only reason the Guardians ever leave their temples is to oversee the opening of a new Hellmouth, I thought you might wish to be informed."

The room erupted in a chorus of shouted questions. Belle Morte waited until the noise had quieted some before speaking. "Do we have some idea who has been chosen as the new Guardian?" Her voice was as lovely as her face, but under the warm caress of the slight French accent, was the unmistakable sound of death.

Traveler relaxed back into his chair, or rather, he forced his current body to relax. The young vampire wasn't too pleased with his situation, but Balthasar was thrilled. Yes, he would keep this one for the time being. "There hasn't been any indication of a new Guardian. The Warden is still in place." He responded to La Belle. "The question is, what are we going to do? We can't allow another fiasco like Sunnydale to occur. We have too many opponents seeking our demise, and with Brewster's Law still being bandied about, we must be cautious."

Padma snarled, "The new Hellmouth is in Jean-Claude's territory. I don't want him anywhere 'near' the Hellmouth. Or that bitch Necromancer of his. There is no telling what kind of damage she could do if she got her hands on that power. We should have killed them the last time."

Traveler smirked, "You're just angry because she bested you."

Padma leapt from his seat, but Le Belle's warm voice stopped him in his tracks. "Sit down, Master of Beasts, we do not have time for this. 'Nothing' can be allowed to interfere with the induction of the new Guardian. But, I do not like the atonomy the Guardians have. I believe we should ensure that the new one is on 'our' side."

"And how do you suggest we do that?" Padma snarled.

She smiled, and even those in the room who knew what she was, were thrilled to be in her presence. "It is simple. We make him our servant."

Traveler laughed, "And what young man could refuse?"


Willie McCoy paced nervously outside of Jean-Claude's office. He knew that he wasn't in trouble, but Jean-Claude hadn't been in the best of moods lately, and he didn't really want to push his luck. Straightening his tie, he hesitantly knocked on the door.

"Come." Willie opened the door and went to stand in front of his Master's desk. He stayed silent while waiting for Jean-Claude to acknowledge him.

The Master of the City finally put aside the hated paperwork and regarded the young vampire standing in front of him. "What is it, Willie?"

If Willie had still been human, he would have turned pale, being a vampire was good for something after all. "Master, I mean, Jean-Claude, I heard something. I'm not sure if it's true, but I thought you should know."

Jean-Claude waved an impatient hand in his direction, "Go on."

"Well, see, it's like this. I heard the Guardians have left their temples and are on their way here." Willie said, in a rush.

"Merde. Call Anita, tell her..., no, 'ask' her to come here. And call Richard Zeeman, we shall need him also." Jean-Claude stayed silent for a moment, then asked, "Isn't there a hotel near the Hellmouth?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Bien. Call them and arrange for rooms."

"Uh, how many sir?" Willie asked.

"Enough for ten should be sufficient. Tell me when you have heard from Anita and Mr. Zeeman. No, wait. I will call Anita myself."

Willie left the room as fast as he possibly could. He didn't want to be anywhere near Jean-Claude while he was talking to his human servant. For such a tiny woman, Anita sure could piss people off.


Harry helped Xander settle in one of the suites on the ground floor of the hotel after Xander had raided the vending machines for a soda and a candy bar. "Once we get everything settled, Cheryl and I will be moving back to our house and you can move into the apartment. For now, get some sleep. We'll see you when you get up and give you the nickel tour then. No rush, sleep as late as you like."

Xander looked around the suite, "Thanks, Harry. This is great. Really. Um, would it be okay if I called home and told them I was still alive?"

Harry laughed, "Sure, Xander. Just dial 9 twice, that'll get you an outside line. See you tomorrow."

Xander settled in on the extremely comfortable sofa and reached for the phone. He dialed Giles' number from memory and was startled when the other end was answered immediately. "Hello? Hello? Xander is that you?"

"Hey, G-Man. Jeez. Miss me or something?"

"Xander. Thank Heavens. Where are you?"

"Well, G-Man, funny you should ask me that. I'm in a hotel, where I'll start working tomorrow, and guess what? The freakin' Hellmouth is outside the back door. And my new boss? He's the Warden. Is there maybe something you forgot to tell me, G-Man?"

"Oh, dear. I am sorry, Xander. I had no idea you would be traveling that far. I do wish you would have spoken to me before leaving."

"Sorry, Giles. I was in a hurry."

"Yes, I got that impression. What is this about Anya? She was here earlier, and made no sense whatever. Something about you throwing her out into the street? Nude?"

Xander cringed, thankful Giles couldn't see him. "Yeah, well. I came home early and found her bumping uglies with someone else. In 'my' bed. Nude kicking out was justified."

Giles sighed, "Really, Xander. It may have been justified, but it was unspeakably rude."

"Rude? Giles, she was in 'my' bed with Spike! That's rude."

"Yes, well, I suppose that would be justification for your actions. But, why would Anya say you were in love with Spike?"

Xander spewed the soda he was drinking all over himself, "Excuse me? She said what?"

"According to Anya, Spike is your new 'orgasm friend'."

"Not. No. Uh uh. Not happening. Not in this lifetime. I mean, can we say 'Eeewww'. But, I did tell her I'd rather sleep with Spike than with her."

"That, Xander, is..how do you put it? Ah, yes. Too much information. Spike, I fear, is most likely dust by now. Buffy and Willow have gone to hunt him down, convinced he'd done something to you. And, well, they're right. Oh, well. That will be one less thing for me to worry about."

"What??!! Giles, you've got to stop them. It wasn't Spike's fault. I mean, come on, Anya practically admitted she jumped him."

Giles frowned at the phone, and wished, not for the first time, that he'd stayed at university. "Xander, if Spike destroyed your relationship with Anya..."

"Spike didn't destroy jack, Giles. Anya jumped him. Get real. If a pretty girl took off her clothes and jumped on you, what would you do? Never mind, forget I said that. What would someone like 'Spike' do? I can't really blame Spike for doing something I would have done. Not that you have to tell Buffy I said that."

"Yes. Well, I see. Very well, I shall endeavor to keep Spike in one piece. You're being awfully understanding about this, Xander. Very adult of you."

"Not really. I'll get even with Spike. In my own way. But, I need him in one piece to do it. And not to change the subject... Well, actually, to change the subject, you're still in trouble here."

"Whatever for?" Giles asked.

"Hello?? Hellmouth?? Not the only one? Vampires are 'legal'? Information is good, G-Man. Need to know, you know? Now, spill."

Xander hung up the phone very gently, cutting Giles off in mid-word. He debated punching out a wall, or maybe kicking the furniture around the room, but the last thing he needed was to piss off his new boss. Instead, he paced around the room, reliving every word of his aborted conversation with the G-Man.


"Xander, really. There is no need for me to *spill*, as you say, over the phone. I'll be more than happy to explain everything to you once you return to Sunnydale."

"Huh? G-Man, I'm not coming back to Sunnydale. I've got a new job, a new place to live and no one knows me here. I have a chance to completely start over. I'm not going to give that up."

"Xander, surely you realize that it is much too dangerous for you to stay there."

"Why? Harry said the Hellmouth isn't even open yet. And he's the Warden, he should know."

"That is entirely beside the point, Xander. Once the Hellmouth opens, it will be looking for a Guardian, and Heaven knows what would happen if you were in the vicinity. Since you were born on a Hellmouth, and are somewhat attuned to its energies, it may very well decide to choose you. I shudder to think what could come about if that happened."

"You don't think I'd be a good Guardian?"

"Xander, as Willow so aptly put it, you are a demon magnet. If you were, God forbid, chosen as Guardian, every demon for miles would make their way there at full speed. It could be a catastrophe of monumental proportions."


Every word was permanently burned into his brain. He took a deep breath, and let it out slowly, trying to maintain the good feelings he'd had since Harry had picked him up from the airport. Xander grabbed his shaving kit and locked himself in the bathroom. A hot shower, and then some sleep. It'll all be better in the morning.


A bright beam of sunlight forced Xander into semi-consciousness. But, being Xander, he simply rolled over. Unfortunately, that move just allowed more light to intrude upon his sleep. What little he'd had. Most of his night had been spent dreaming. Dreams of being chosen Guardian and finally proving to the world that he wasn't a total waste. But the dreams of Spike had been the worst. Spike being dusted by Buffy while Anya cheered her on. Spike starving to death. His father catching Spike in the grungy little basement apartment and beating him to a pulp.

Xander finally gave up and forced himself out of bed. He took a quick shower and headed over to the hotel office, looking for Harry.


Stell looked up when the bell over the door tinkled. When she saw the muscular young man enter the office she pulled her tight sweater down to show more cleavage and pasted her best smile on her face. "Morning, Hon. Can I help you?"

"Uh, hi. I'm Xander Harris. Can you tell me where I can find Harry?" Xander studiously kept his eyes off the overly generous breasts that were making a bid for freedom and kept his eyes on the woman's face. It wasn't easy. She was obviously on the far side of forty, dyed, bright red hair and looked like she'd been attacked by a rabid Avon lady. Hope she isn't Harry's wife. I mean, can we say Eeeewwww?

Stell frowned when she realized that this was the person that had been hired instead of her. Her manner immediately changed. Her voice harsh, she said, "He's over in the restaurant. Take a right at the corner of the building."

"Okay. Thanks. Um, it was nice meeting you."

Xander made his escape, barely managing to control the shudder that ran down the length of his spine at the look of hatred that had darkened the woman's face when he'd told her his name. He found the restaurant and hurried inside, blinking several times to allow his eyes to adjust to the suddenly dim light.

"Xander! Good morning. I didn't think we'd see you for a couple of hours yet."

Xander shrugged and headed over to where Harry was sitting. "I kept having weird dreams and decided to get up."

Harry looked curious for a moment, but managed to keep from asking questions. "Let me go get Cheryl, she's in the kitchen."

"So, that wasn't your wife in the office?"

Harry looked stunned for a moment, then started laughing, "God, no. That's Stell. A meaner, more vicious harpy you'll never meet. Besides, yuck." Harry lightly cuffed Xander across the back of his head, "Give me credit for a 'little' taste."

Xander turned red, but laughed when he saw Harry wasn't upset by his mistake. His new boss returned shortly, followed by a short, plump woman. She had light brown hair, blue eyes and the kindest face Xander had ever seen. He stood up as they approached the table.

"Cheryl, this is Xander Harris. Xander, this is my wife, Cheryl." Cheryl smiled, shyly and shook Xander's hand.

"It's nice to meet you, Xander. Stan told us a lot about you. I hope you'll be happy here."

"Thank you. It's nice to meet you too."

Cheryl's smile grew wider, "You must be hungry. Can I tempt you with some breakfast?"

Harry wrapped an arm around his wife's waist and kissed her cheek. "Cheryl is the best cook in this part of the country, Xander."

Xander grinned, "Then I *know* I'm going to like it here, I'm always hungry. Breakfast would be great, thank you."

Cheryl turned red and giggled, "No problem. You two stay here and talk. Breakfast will be ready in a jiffy."

Xander turned to Harry as Cheryl headed back into the kitchen. "Okay, you have taste. I apologize from the bottom of my heart."

Harry grinned, "Yeah, I got lucky. Real lucky. Just wait, Xander. Someday you're going to meet someone that will make you as happy as I am."

Xander's smile dimmed, "I hope so, Harry. But I'm not going to hold my breath."


Xander pushed his empty plate away and slumped back into his seat. Groaning, he rubbed his overly full stomach. "Thank you, Cheryl. That was fantastic." Xander smirked at Harry, "Better keep on your toes, or somebody might steal her."

Harry laughed and Cheryl turned bright red. Harry kissed her cheek, "That was excellent, Honey. Thank you."

Cheryl turned even redder, "You two go take your tour. I've got things to do in the kitchen. Harry make sure you bring him back for lunch, I'm making fried chicken."

Harry gazed fondly after his wife and turned to see an enormous grin on Xander's face. "What?"

"Nothing, Harry. Nothing at all, you lucky bastard."

Harry laughed again, "Come on. I'll take you on the nickel tour."


The two men spent the next few hours wandering around the hotel complex. It was bigger than Xander had originally thought. Besides the main hotel and cabins there was the restaurant, the bar, the pool, the boat house, the walking trails and the stables. Complete with horses.

"Do you ride?" Harry asked.

"Nope. Never been on a horse in my life. But I think I'd like to learn. Is there someone here who can teach me?"

"Oh yeah. Hey, Jake? Where you at, old man?"

"Old man?" A testy voice said from behind them, "I'd keep a civil tongue in my head if I were you, boy."

Xander turned to see an elderly man entering the stables. He had a leathery face and dark blue eyes, but in spite of his tone of voice, he looked like a really nice guy. Harry's next words confirmed that.

"Xander, meet Jake. Jake, this is Xander. Ol' Jake here is Cheryl's dad."

Xander shook the surprisingly strong hand, "Nice to meet you, sir. You did a really nice job on your daughter."

Jake looked the kid over and decided he wasn't just kissing ass, he actually meant what he said. "Thank you, Xander. But I have to give credit to her mother. Cheryl is the spitting image of my Mary. You'll probably be meeting her soon. I'm sure my girl is on the phone right now telling her all about you."

Xander groaned, "Great. She'll think I'm a pig."

Harry clapped him on the back and told Jake, "Xander was just on the receiving end of one of Cheryl's breakfast. He managed to eat the whole thing."

Jake grinned, "You better start working out, boy. Between Cheryl and her mom, they'll be feeding you night and day."

Xander's smile was beautific, "I'm going to die a happy man."

Jake just shook his head, "You wanting to learn to ride?"

"Yeah, if it's not too much trouble. I've never been on a horse before."

Jake grabbed Xander's hands and checked the palms. The layer of calluses told their own story. "Give me a couple of weeks and you'll think you'd been born on a horse." Jake looked over the boy's clothes. "Better get him some other duds, Harry. He wears that Hawaiian stuff around the horses, they're liable to spook. Needs some boots, too."

"I'll take care of it, Jake. Come on, Xander. I need to go check on the temple."

"What temple?" Xander asked, curiously.

"The one were building out on the island. The new Guardian's temple. Don't worry, it's perfectly safe. Nothing will happen to you."

Xander felt his heartbeat increase, but held his smile. "I'm not worried. Honestly."

"Uh huh. I'm the Warden, Xander, I'll make damn sure nothing happens. Cheryl would kill me. But you don't have to go if you don't want to."

"No, I want to go. I'm just a little nervous. I talked to my friend Giles last night and he wanted me to leave here. He was afraid the Hellmouth would chose me to be its Guardian."

Harry managed to keep the smile off his face, barely.

Giles paced while he waited for Buffy and the others to arrive. He heaved a great sigh of relief when the Slayer and the rest of the Scooby gang finally showed up. "Everyone, please, sit down. I'm afraid we have a small problem."

Buffy perched on Riley's lap, while Willow and Tara sat next to each other on the couch. "What's wrong, Giles? Another demon?"

"No. I'm afraid it's Xander." The Englishman said.

Buffy frowned, "I couldn't find Spike last night, but I will. I dust him and then Xander will come back."

Giles shook his head; "It's not that simple, Buffy. I spoke to Xander last evening."

Willow perked up, "You did? Is he okay? Where is he at?"

"St. Louis."

"Um, what's he doing in St. Louis, Mr. Giles?" Tara asked in her quiet voice.

"It appears that his employer here in Sunnydale has a brother in St. Louis that also owns a hotel. Xander has gone there to work."

Buffy shrugged, "No big, as soon as I get rid of Spike, Xander can come home."

Giles pulled his glasses off and rubbed his forehead, not really wanting to get into this with Buffy right now. But, he had promised Xander. "Buffy, when I spoke with Xander he was most adamant about the fact that he did not want Spike killed. It seems that Anya instigated the entire affair. Xander left because of her, not Spike. He wants to be sure Spike won't be harmed because of him."

Buffy pouted, "You mean I can't stake him?"

"No, Buffy, you may not stake Spike. I want your word. And it seems that we may have a need for him. There is a new Hellmouth on the verge of opening, right where Xander is living."


Xander followed Harry down to the boathouse. "I thought we were going to see the new temple, Harry?"

"We are, but we have to take the boat to get there. See the island out in the middle of the lake? That's where it is." Harry replied.

"Okay, the Hellmouth is on an island. That's a new one."

Harry held the boat steady while Xander climbed aboard, "Yes, it is. None of the others are on islands. Luckily the island is big enough to hold the temple. The architect had to do some fancy design work, but this temple is going to be one of a kind."

Xander enjoyed the ride out to the island. The sun was warm and the lake was smooth as glass. The trip only took a couple of minutes and he was disappointed that it was over so soon.

Harry seemed to know how he was feeling. "Don't worry, Xander, you can take the boat out whenever you like. Or one of the jet skis. Actually, that's part of the job. You have to make sure everything is in good working order."

Xander returned Harry's grin and jumped off the boat to help tie it to the dock.

The walkways leading from the dock to the temple were made of white stone, and flowering shrubs had been planted along the edge. They went through an archway and wound up in the courtyard. Xander stared, he hadn't expected anything like this.

The temple was oval in shape and almost the size of a football field. The courtyard looked more like a garden than a Hellmouth. Flowers, bushes and trees grew in profusion, while more of the stone walkways wound their way through the greenery. In the center of the courtyard was a gazebo made of marble. Graceful; was the only way Xander could think of to describe it. Harry headed over towards some workmen, but Xander went to the gazebo. He had to see inside.

Padded benches circled the walls, while inlaid tile covered the floor. All except the center, a black glass mirror was set into the exact center of the floor. Xander stared down at his reflection for a moment, wondering why anyone would put a mirror in the floor.

A light breeze blew through the room, bringing with it the scent of flowers. It grew stronger and stronger until it formed a whirlwind inside the gazebo. But it didn't touch Xander, he didn't even notice it. He was too busy listening to the voice coming from the mirror.

'Greetings, Guardian. We have been waiting for you.'


Harry and the foreman were busy studying floor plans when Harry noticed something was missing. He finally realized what it was, the sounds that always came from the Hellmouth had stopped. The island was perfectly quiet for the first time in over a hundred years. He turned to see where Xander had gotten to and finally found the young man standing in the center of the temple, staring down at the Hellmouth.

Harry ran to the temple, the whirlwind dying down to allow the Warden passage. Harry crossed to Xander's side and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Xander, are you all right?"

Xander didn't answer, but the Hellmouth did. 'Warden, it is time. The others are coming. Our Guardian must be made ready.'

Harry felt a momentary pang of jealousy. In the twenty years he'd been Warden, the Hellmouth had never spoken to him. But when he thought of his wife, and just what being the Guardian entailed, he was happy that things had worked out the way they did. But, for now, he still had a job to do.

He looked directly into the Hellmouth, and chose his words carefully. "He must be allowed to choose. And before he can make any decisions, he must be told exactly what will happen if he becomes Guardian. Wouldn't it be better to wait for the other Guardians to arrive? They'd be able to help him a great deal."

"No. We will not be subjugated. The other Guardians are old; their ways are their own. Together we will decide how we will work. He does not own us, neither do we own him."

Harry wasn't sure what was going on, "Why do you say, 'We' and 'Us'? The Hellmouths are singular beings."

"We are not, Warden. The other, the wounded one, will also join with the Guardian."

"He must still be allowed to choose. Please, at least grant him a day."

"Very well. A day, and only a single day. We must be bonded before others can interfere. Once we are together, we can keep him safe, but until we are bonded, he is in danger."

"Agreed." Harry slowly forced Xander to raise his head, breaking the hold the Hellmouth had on his mind. The young man looked totally confused, not that Harry blamed him.

"Harry? What happened?"

Harry smiled gently, and led Xander out of the gazebo, "Well, Xander. It seems that the Hellmouth has taken a liking to you. It wants you to be its Guardian."

"Oh, shit."


Harry took Xander to the apartment behind the hotel office. He got them settled at the kitchen table and made some coffee, he had a feeling they'd both be needing it.

"Before you decide, one way or the other, Xander, there are some things you need to know about becoming a Guardian. I guess the most important thing is that you'll become immortal. Guardians never age, never get sick and can't be killed. As long as the Hellmouth exists, so does its Guardian. But, until you've formally accepted the offer, you're in danger."

Xander gulped, "What kind of danger?"

"Some people, and a lot of demons, would love to have control over a Hellmouth. And the only way for that to happen is to control its Guardian. Don't worry, its not like you'll have a sign over your head, as long as you act like nothing has happened, no one will know. I'm not even going to tell Cheryl. The fewer people who know, the better. But, once you bond, no one, and I mean no one, will be able to touch you. But don't think this is all sweetness and light. Being a Guardian has a few down sides; a Guardian can't be away from his temple for long. The only reason they ever leave is to attend the bonding of a new Guardian and Hellmouth."

Harry waited until he was sure he had Xander's undivided attention. "The Guardian of the Hellmouth in Egypt was a king before he was called. He walked away from his throne and never looked back. Nothing, and I mean nothing, can come before your bond with the Hellmouth. Not friends, family or lovers. And there is a *very* good reason for that. If you bond with the Hellmouth, you'll have access to unimaginable power, there literally isn't anything that you won't be able to do. And, because of that, people are going to want things from you. But, the Hellmouth must always come first. Only one Guardian ever forgot that fact. It wasn't pretty. Siberia wasn't always a frozen waste land."

"So, you're telling me that if I accept, I get to live forever, but I'll always be alone?" Xander asked, incredulously.

Harry laughed, "No. Not at all. Every Guardian has concubines. Lots of them. They have to have a way to burn off the excess energy from the Hellmouth. But if a Guardian takes a mate, the Hellmouth has to approve. Ling Si, the Chinese Guardian, took a lover back in the sixteen hundreds. Not only did the Hellmouth approve, it made the girl immortal. The two of them still act like they're on their honeymoon. But, Ling Si still has other concubines. Not even an immortal lover can handle all the energy the Guardian has to get rid of."

Xander just knew there had to be something more, "Let me get this straight. I become the Guardian, live forever, get to have concubines and as much sex as I can possibly handle. Now, what's the downside?"

"Your family and friends aren't going to like being pushed aside. They won't understand why you can't make their lives perfect for them. If one of your friends became ill, would you be able to watch them die and do nothing? Because it will happen eventually. That's why Guardians break all ties with their past. It is much easier in the long run."

"Harry, my family can't stand me, I don't have very many friends, and the ones I do have, don't have any use for me. They haven't for a long time now. If I decided to say yes, what do I have to do?"

"That's it. Just say yes. Oh, there's a ceremony, the other Guardians greeting the new one, stuff like that. But that's just fancy dress, it doesn't have any real meaning. Your acceptance is all that is required."

Xander played with his coffee cup for a minute, trying to wrap his mind around the idea of becoming a Guardian. "Harry? What if I say no? What will happen?"

Harry sighed, "The Hellmouth will shut down until a new Guardian can be found. That's when it's the most vulnerable. The man chosen to become the Guardian of the Hellmouth in Sunnydale turned down the offer. That's how the 'Master' was able to do as much damage as he did. Xander, there's something else you need to know. If you accept, you won't just be bonding with the Hellmouth here. Somehow, and I don't know how, this Hellmouth and the one in Sunnydale have become linked. You'll be joining with both of them. The one here said that the other is wounded. If you bond, you'll be able to help it heal itself."

Xander shook his head no. "The one in Sunnydale is bad. I don't want anything to do with it."

Harry's voice was firm, "Xander, it is *not* bad. It's hurt. It can't control itself, and it can't heal without a Guardian. If you bond with the two of them, a lot of the stuff that goes on in Sunnydale will stop. Demons and vampires won't have any reason to stay there once the Hellmouth is healed. There won't be any more excess power floating around for them to use. And it would be dangerous for them. A healthy, bonded Hellmouth is nothing a demon would want to piss off. Not if they want to live. There is *nothing* that can stand against the power of a Hellmouth. Nothing."

Xander groaned and thumped his head down on the table. "How in the Hell am I going to say 'no' now?"

Harry patted him on the shoulder, "I'm sorry, Xander. But you had to know everything. Just think about it, there's still time."

Xander raised his head from the table with a half smile on his young face. "There's one good thing. If I say yes, and heal the Hellmouth in Sunnydale, my 'friends' won't want anything from me. Well, they'll want me to die."

Harry finally left Xander alone in his room, telling the young man to try to get some rest and not to panic. "I'm going to head over to the office, Stell is due to clock out and we have guests checking in tonight." Harry ruffled his hand through Xander's dark hair, "It'll all work out, Xander. You'll see."

Xander tried to relax, but his mind kept running around in circles. 'Guardian? Not Guardian? Hell, I'm screwed either way.' Giving up on sleep, Xander headed over to the office. 'Might as well help out, maybe my brain will shut up.'

He grabbed one of the denim shirts with the hotel logo on the pocket and changed into his 'uniform'. 'Huh, best looking uniform I've ever had. I wonder if Guardians have a uniform. Shut up brain, just shut up.'

Still silently berating himself, Xander made his way over to the office. Harry was very surprised to see him.

"Xander? What are you doing here? You don't need to help, try to get some sleep."

Xander shrugged and moved behind the counter. "Tried, brain wouldn't shut up. Can't sleep, so I figured I'd help out."

Harry chuckled, "Guess I can understand that. Okay, have a seat here at the computer and let me show you the program."

The next couple of hours were spent showing Xander the ins and outs of Avail and QuickBooks Pro. He was amazed at how easy it was to use. "Hey, this is pretty cool. What else do we have to do?"

"Well, our guests won't here for a couple of hours yet. Let me buzz Cheryl and have her watch the desk. We'll run down to the cabins and make sure everything is ready to go."

After Harry got off the phone, he grabbed a set of keys off the hook by the door and waved Xander out ahead of him. Harry led the way around the side of the building and there it was. The Golf Maniacs wet dream. Xander walked around the tricked out cart and drooled.

"Harry, this is too cool. I've never seen a golf cart with chrome and a CD player before."

"Yeah, well, what can I say? Boys and their toys. Want to drive?"

Xander snatched the keys and jumped in the driver's seat. Harry started laughing and took his seat. "Home James."

"Very funny, Harry. Ha, Ha."

Xander paid more attention to the cabins this time around. Harry pulled a couple of clipboards out of the carry basket on the cart and showed him the check off sheet.

"We need to make sure everything on this list is in each cabin. Otherwise some bozo will be calling the front desk at midnight to complain. Here's a master key, you check the last five and I'll check the first five."

Xander took the key and one of the clipboards and set out to make sure everything was ready to go.

Harry met him at the last cabin an hour later, "Everything okay?"

"Yep. All checked off. Hey Harry, can I stay in one of these cabins sometime? They're way cool."

"Sure, Xander. Anytime. Come on, it's dinner time. I'm sure Cheryl is waiting to feed you again."


The two men went back to the office after eating way too much. Xander took a seat at the computer and started going back over the tutorial while Harry collapsed in the other chair. The bell over the door rang just a few minutes later. Xander looked up into the bluest eyes he'd ever seen and immediately forgot what he was doing.


The drive up from St. Louis wasn't really that long, but listening to Anita, Jean-Claude and Richard sniping at each other the entire trip wore Asher out. He finally snapped as they were pulling into the hotel parking lot. "I have had enough of the three of you. You're acting like unruly children. The three of you are bound together, get over it." Asher opened the door and stepped out of the limo, determined to put as much distance between himself and the others as possible. The young were-leopard, Nathaniel, caught up with him at the door to the office.

"Um, Asher? Is it okay if I stay with you?"

"Of course, Nathanial. I would welcome some pleasant company for a change." Asher escorted the younger man into the office and found himself looking into Julianna's eyes. But it wasn't Julianna, she had been dead and gone for many years. Those eyes belonged to a young man. He was tall, well muscled and had wavy, dark brown hair. But those eyes...Asher could see the soul of his lost lover in those eyes. If nothing else happened on this trip, he would get to know this young man.

Nathanial smelled arousal in the air and looked up at Asher. The vampire was staring at the young man behind the counter. Nathanial immediately became insanely jealous, but then realized his feelings didn't matter. Asher thought of him as nothing more than an occasional meal, not as a lover. He fought down the jealousy and decided to just accept whatever Asher was willing to give him. It would still be more than he'd ever had before.