Title: HEARTBEAT Chapter 22
AUTHOR: Mistress Ace
EMAIL: rosewood@inreach.com
FEEDBACK: Manna from heaven... Just send some and watch me react...
DISCLAIMER: Don't own the characters at all. They belong to Joss Whedon et al. I am good working within someone else's framework and the framework given for these characters is awesome... Please don't sue Writing is done for my enjoyment and yours, not for money... And it keeps me off the streets at night which helps my cat Taz from getting little worry lines on his furry forehead.
RATING: R (I know, not what you expected from me...)
PAIRINGS: B/A/R/A(us)
SPOILERS: The I in Team and Goodbye Iowa
SUMMARY: This story takes place in my universe, not Joss'. The mated bond is complete, how will everyone else in Buffy's world react to it. Scooby Gang first and as you can well imagine, not everybody is pleased with the prospect of Angel returning to Sunnydale...
DISTRIBUTION: FINNactics, FINNSmut, Jen, it's yours... anyone else, just ask
EXPLANATION: Anything within ** denotes internal thought.
DEDICATION: I promised Amy I wouldn't dedicate the R rated Chapter to her, so I won't. This chapter is dedicated to all the members of the Scooby Gang, most especially my personal favorite... Giles.

 
CHAPTER 22

3 days later

They drove back in separate cars, Angel in his old convertible, Buffy and Riley in his Jeep. Each vehicle headed for Sunnydale, each with a combined purpose albeit different destinations.

Riley dropped Buffy at her dorm to shower and change clothes before they met with the Scooby Gang at Giles' He gave her a long kiss as she perched on the running board, reluctant to let her go. They hadn't been apart for very long during the last week and he knew it would hurt.

Angel explained that much about the bond, he would be good for a few minutes alone but then a dull ache would set in that could only be assuaged by the proximity of one of his mates. That could prove to be awkward during school hours but Buffy promised to coordinate her class schedule around his so they would be physically close for most of the day.

Fortunately for Angel, the mansion wasn't too far from the campus and there were several tunnels directly below the college grounds. Also, he'd had a lot more practice at ignoring the mated imperative during his separation from Buffy. But if the pain got to be too much for him, he would just take a trip through the tunnels...

Riley jetted over to Lowell House, racing up the back steps and ducking into his room without being noticed. Before he left, he had cleared two weeks of leave so he knew he wasn't in trouble with the Initiative. With Adam gone, their patrolling schedule had eased enough that he didn't feel guilty about running off to L.A.

Besides he was still off the active duty roster due to his side injury and Angel's earlier bites. Even so, he just didn't feel like seeing any of his teammates right now, not until they had dealt with Buffy's core of people. Then he could face his own.

They hadn't really planned on staying in L.A. that long so his clean clothes supply ran out before they came back to Sunnydale. Since none of them had been inclined to spend time in a laundromat, he borrowed a shirt and pants from Angel before they left town. Riley was stripping off the black hand-sewn Italian silk shirt when there was a knock at the door.

Silently praying that he wasn't needed downstairs, Riley called out. "It's open."

Graham stuck his head in the room. "Hey, Rye. You're back early from your leave."

"Not back from leave yet. Just stopped in for some clean clothes." He laid the shirt down on his bed very carefully, giving it an unconscious stroke as he remembered the look of smoldering desire both Buffy and Angel had shot him that afternoon when he put it on. It had taken him almost another hour to finish dressing since he just couldn't resist that look.

*Be honest with yourself, Rye. There's nothing about your mates that you can resist.*

He grabbed a clean t-shirt and a dark blue pullover from his closet, pausing briefly to hang Angel's shirt there. Riley glanced down at the fine wool of Angel's black trousers encasing his long legs. They fit him like a dream and for once he had a pair of pants that were long enough. *You got to admit, the guy has style... and taste... and tastes so good...* Shrugging, he decided to keep them on, the sensual feel of the fine material would be a tangible reminder of his vampire mate.

Graham whistled as he studied Riley's back. The normally smooth skin was marred by long, deep scratches and a few random bite marks. He knew Riley had taken off for L.A. with Buffy after Adam had been dealt with. It was obvious from all those marks his commanding officer had been doing the wild thing with his gorgeous, deadly girlfriend for the past week. Graham could appreciate the drive behind the behavior; the man had become a true slave to the rhythm. Besides judging by the look on his face, Riley had enjoyed the hell out of it...

"You have a good time?"

Riley pulled the t-shirt on, then his pullover, swiftly hiding the mark on his neck. That was going to take some creative explaining to his superior officers. But his tour of duty was up in a few months and he wasn't planning on re-upping.

He'd found another calling, one which was much cleaner than the twisted plans Maggie Walsh envisioned with her Initiative. The experiments the lab had been doing on the HST's bordered on barbarism and he no longer wanted to be associated with any of it.

He and his mates were setting up a branch of Angel Investigations here in Sunnydale. The three of them would continue the fight against the denizens of the Hellmouth that Buffy and Angel started years ago.

After he was decently covered, he gave Graham a big grin. "Hell, yeah..."

"Glad to hear it... Looks like you got places to be. See you later, man." Graham ducked out of room, humming to himself as he headed back to his own room. It was good to see Riley so happy, especially after the past few weeks with his injury and Buffy's ordeal.

*******

Spike was in the massive living room of the mansion, pacing and smoking, just as Angel had envisioned him. There was an economy of movement in his childe's nervous actions, which he always enjoyed. Spike was all sharp angles on the outside, arrogant, sarcastic, infinitely cruel to his victims and his enemies.

But deep down inside him lived a remnant of his humanity, it manifested itself in his constant and unwavering love for Drusilla, his implacable hatred for Angel as well as his slavish devotion to his sire. Especially where Angelus' little mate had been concerned.

He knew Spike watched over her during the past few months, he appreciated how hard it must have been for his childe to guard the Slayer of his race. As the one who had not only guarded her but loved her as well, Angel knew that particular moral dilemma intimately.

Buffy told him how she refused Spike entrance to Giles' when he came to her, weakened and starved after the Initiative inserted his chip. His childe must have been seething with rage, at having been reduced to seeking sanctuary with his mortal enemy.

True to form, the Scooby Gang extended him the same courtesy they did to all social out-casts. They took him in, they fed him, stopped him when he tried to kill himself and eventually became his friend. He started going on patrol with them, first by trailing after them in the shadows, then more and more openly. By the time Adam had captured Buffy, Spike had saved all their lives at least once.

Buffy noted all the times he protected her but since she expected that kind of behavior from her team, she never questioned the reasoning behind it. Not until they had the talk three days earlier in Angel's apartment when he explained how significant the mark on her neck would be to all his childer.

After that discussion, Spike's irrational change of heart made perfect sense to her. Angel expected her to be angry at Spike for not choosing to protect her for herself alone. But instead Buffy hugged him and merely said she was glad he left her with such a great guardian.

And he was, his childe would have laid his life down to protect her. He would have grumbled the whole way but he would have done so out of his blind loyalty to his sire. With the exception of the Acathla incident, Spike had proven his love for Angelus time and again. They chose not to ignore his many sacrifices on Buffy's behalf as well. Angel and his mates were determined not to reward his fidelity with a cold shoulder and a boot out the door now that they were together.

"Spike."

His childe turned slowly, body stiff and eyes cold. Obviously Spike was still angry with him, really angry. Although his tone was light it was also laced with his patented brand of mockery. "Angel... So you're finally back. Come crawling home with your tail between your legs?"

Angel stifled a laugh, Spike was so damned predictable. Harsh bravado, stretched over feelings made of glass.

He chose to tease him with a raised eyebrow and a suggestive retort. "Heard it called many things before... Most of them by you." Angel moved close enough to his childe to catch the instant flare of sexual heat in his blue eyes. "But never heard it called a tail before."

A strangled sound of frustrated lust erupted from Spike's chest. He spun away from the warm, teasing look in Angel's eyes and resumed his pacing. "So, Peaches, tell me this. Where's Angelus' mate and his toy?"

Angel snorted, this was not going to be easy. But nothing with Spike ever was...

"No toy, Spike."

Spike spun toward him, something in Angel's voice sent a rush of panic through him. His eyes were alight with horrified suspicion. "What? No toy? Don't tell me you turned soldier boy? Huh, I didn't think you still had the fangs for it, Angel."

He waited silently for a response, his pacing ceased while he prayed to himself. *Bad enough he's taken my place in your bed, Angelus. But please not childer too...*

"Not turned." Angel took a seat on the couch. Spike tossed his cigarette butt into the fireplace and followed his sire to the couch. There was utter relief written in every line of his expression. At least he had not been displaced as favorite childe.

He sat on the arm of the couch, one booted foot on the cushion, ignoring the faintly annoyed look on Angel's face. "Not toy and not turned. So what the hell did you do with the boy? Shag him senseless and boot him out on the freeway?" Spike lit another cigarette while smiling at the mental image that thought presented. Riley sitting on the edge of the freeway, buck-naked with a sign around his neck. `Will fight demons for food'...

Angelus snapped into control and growled at him, angered by the very thought of his mate being abused in such a fashion. The timber of his protest drew Spike's attention back to his sire's face, meeting the demon's golden eyes. The utter seriousness of his expression once again had his childe concerned. "Not toy, not childe, Spike... Mate."

After his sire's quiet announcement even gentle Willow could have knocked Spike over with one push. This was a scenario he never expected. Angelus had taken not one but two humans as his mates. And not just any humans, he had chosen the Slayer and the highest-ranking commando in that whole Initiative complex.

The same thoughts kept repeating in his over-taxed brain. *Mate, he said mate... Mate, he took soldier boy as a mate... Mate, not childe, mate... That over-grown, corn-fed, military brainwashed bastard has taken the highest position in my sire's heart, right behind the Slayer... mate, Mate, MATE...*

"Spike... William." Angelus waived one hand in front his childe's stunned face and received no response. He laid the same hand on Spike's knee, rousing him from his uncharacteristic brooding state. "Will... we need to talk."

The world came crashing back down on him with that little touch. He had been replaced, well and truly replaced in his sire's heart. There was no ignoring the depth of his pain this time...

Spike ran his hands through his hair, fighting back tears as he sighed deeply. "Yeah, we do, Angelus. We bloody well do."

*******

Riley turned off the ignition to the Jeep, his eyes fixed on the entryway to Giles' townhouse. He had this sinking feeling facing her friends was going to be worse than standing in front of a firing squad. At that very moment, he was longing for a blindfold and a last request...

His companion lifted one hand and trailed it down his cheek, past his tightly clenched jaw as she drew his attention away from the door. Buffy smiled, her beautiful hazel eyes brimming with soft encouragement before she gave him a sweet kiss. "We can do this, Riley... We've been through worse."

"Uh-huh. Right..." He was unconvinced, the people waiting for them behind that very door had proven to be a well-trained team of vampire and demon hunters. They were the Slayer's back-up squad, their over-all relative youth did not deter them from being a force to be reckoned with. Riley had seen them in action while they fought to rescue first her and then all three of them from Adam.

At this point he was not willing to discount the fact he and Buffy might not leave Giles' home unscathed.

"Riley, relax a little... They're my friends, they don't bite."

"It might be easier if they did..." They both grinned at his comment, the delicious feeling evoked by Angel's bite shared between them within their mated bond. When they left L.A., both of them noticed the bond was weaker in Angel's absence. It was harder to read each other's thoughts although emotions still came through loud and clear.

Riley dropped his head for a moment, shaking it slightly as he verbally expressed his concern over the impending meeting. "Buffy, I've seen them in combat situations. They may be your friends but they can be deadly... I've already seen how much Xander hates Angel and Giles isn't comfortable with him either."

"Whatever happens we'll deal... Willow won't be a problem, she loves Angel. And Giles will eventually understand..." She frowned, her little nose wrinkling as she considered the last member of the Scooby core. He would be the difficult one. "But you're right, Xander will be the worst."

His jaw clenched again, Angel warned him about Xander as well. Warned him at great length, his barely leashed hostility toward the boy oozing out of every pore. During the search for Buffy, Riley noted the stilted interaction between his vampiric mate and Alexander Harris. Even though Angel had been remarkably tolerant of the boy their occasional quiet exchange of sarcastic barbs made it painfully obvious the feeling was mutual.

They hated each other with a passion.

If it came down to a choice, Riley knew which side of that argument he would land on... Xander would learn to regret it if he was too out of control with him about Angel.

He sighed deeply, steeling himself for the impending confrontation by giving her a passionate, no holds-barred kiss. Buffy tangled her fingers in his hair, opening her mouth to his assault, meeting his aggression with her own. Both of them were a little breathless when they parted.

Riley shot her a smoldering look before alighting from the Jeep. He held out his hand to her as she climbed out, nodding in approval at her slightly flushed cheeks. "Okay, let's do this."

********

Riley insisted on knocking politely on Giles' door rather than just walking in as was Buffy's usual habit. She stifled a laugh at this convention but the pleased look on Giles' face when he opened the door made her rethink her position about always just barging in. "Buffy, Riley. Please do come in, we've been expecting you."

He watched the two carefully as they filed into his home, flatly amazed by the positive change in their demeanor from one week ago. Giles could honestly say he had never seen Buffy so happy in her life. She positively radiated joy and contentment.

The cold lump in his chest when he thought about Angel returning to Sunnydale started to melt. If the vampire could make her feel this good by his mere proximity, perhaps it was time to let go of the past and move forward.

His gaze shifted from his Slayer to the young man with her, very concerned about how well Riley was dealing with the imminent invasion of Sunnydale by the greatest rival for her affections. But rather than the dismay he expected, Giles instead found the same quiet joy reflected on his handsome face.

Obviously the boy had no objections to Angel's abrupt change of domicile. In fact, he seemed to radiate the same aura of supreme well being as his companion. *How curious. Perhaps there is some truth to the shocking things Spike was spouting when Buffy called a few days ago... No, we would have known if Angelus had been released. Chalk it up as just another example of Spike's detestable sense of humor...*

Tara and Willow were sitting together on the couch, sipping matching cups of teas while Anya was perched on the living room chair, her cup resting on the coffee table. Xander stood by himself, leaning against the wall by the kitchen. Rather than a teacup, he held a can of soda in one hand.

Unlike the rest of the home's occupants, he did not wear a friendly smile. Instead his normally expressive face was clouded with barely restrained anger while he surveyed the new arrivals.

Giles was nothing if not the epitome of a polite host as he offered them refreshments. "Would you two like some tea?"

"No thanks, Giles, we're good. Hey guys..."

"Hey, Buffy... Hey Riley." Willow's smile broadened, it was great to see her friend looking so happy. She hadn't seen such a glow about her in years. Deep down, Willow always believed Buffy and Angel were soulmates, they belonged together. Just so long as he wasn't evil, she was okay with him coming back to Sunnydale. Well as long as it didn't bother Riley too much either... And he was smiling too, so she guessed it didn't.

Nowhere near as forgiving as his childhood friend, Xander glowered at Buffy. The tone of his voice was clearly antagonistic when he finally drawled. "So, Buffster, hear you've been in L.A. for the last week, huh? How is your dad anyway?"

Buffy frowned, crossing her arms over her chest. Riley stood directly behind her, carefully assessing Xander's posture and calculating a plan of attack if his behavior escalated into the range of the unacceptable. Which was going to happen, he had no doubts on that score. There was a chip on this kid's shoulder a mile wide where Angel was concerned.

Despite Xander's tone, Buffy remained calm. "I didn't see my dad."

"We know. Your mom checked there first." Xander pushed away from the counter, advancing on her until he was standing mere inches away. His eyes were very cold and contemptuous as he sneered an accusation "So tell me this, Buff, was it worth it? Was it worth the risk going after Deadboy?"

His voice grew louder while he towered over her tiny frame. "And why the hell is he coming back here anyway?"

She didn't respond, she just let him continue to rant. "All I really want to know is exactly how long do we have before Angelus is free and he kills us all?" His final comment was punctuated by an aggressive wave of his hands.

Riley's nerves were already on edge due to Xander's attitude and proximity to Buffy. All his senses were screaming at him, demanding that he protect his mate, that he establish once and for all to the younger man exactly who she belonged to...

He was really trying to keep his cool but the raising of a hand to Buffy was the final straw.

Despite their earlier difficulty with actual thought transmission, a single one came singing loud and clear through the mated bond to Buffy. *That's it. I'm going to smash his face in.* With his mouth set in a dangerously firm line and jaw clenched, Riley moved forward, stepping directly between them.

Buffy remembered Angel mentioning something about the connection being strongest when emotions were running high. So she was not surprised that the bond was fully functional now. Just as silently, she shot back at him. *No! Riley, don't hurt him...*

*Huh, you heard that? Right, strong emotion's one of the triggers... Okay, okay... But if he says one more thing about you or our mate, he damn well better start praying...* Riley's large open hand rather than his fist connected with the other young man's chest, shoving him back several feet.

The tone of his voice was quiet but deadly calm. "Better take it down a notch, Harris... Especially if you want us all to remain friends."

Xander shook the warning off. He failed to notice the narrowing of Riley's eyes and the continued tightening of his jaw which signaled his still rising fury. "You just don't get it, Riley. Where Angel is concerned, there is no taking it down. If she gives him a happy, we're all dead meat."

Seeking to diffuse the situation between the two young men, Giles cleared his throat. All eyes turned toward him as he spoke in his characteristically mild manner. "Xander, let Buffy speak in peace."

With a shrug of his shoulders, Xander did back down, momentarily soothed by the sound of the ex-Watcher's voice. Giles always had been the sane one among them; he served as the glue holding their rag-tag band together. He would respect his wishes and listen although he fully intended on tracking down Dead-boy later.

Preferably with a stake...

"Thank you, Giles. Everybody, please sit. This might take some time." Never taking his eyes off the other young man, Riley took a seat at Giles' table. A possessive growl rose in his throat as Xander moved past Buffy to the other side of the room. The boy had passed far too close to her for his comfort.

Riley knew he was acting just like a territorial male but Xander was consistently invading her space, physically threatening her with his superior height as well as his aggressive behavior. He didn't trust him, not even as far as he could throw him which was actually a considerable distance.

Giles pulled up two chairs across the table from Riley, he gestured for Xander to take a seat. Once the boy was seated, he promptly occupied the other chair. Buffy stood calmly behind her mate with her hands resting lightly on his broad shoulders. The three girls remained seated in the living room since the open area was small enough for them to catch every word spoken.

"Let me clear this up first and foremost. Angel's soul is permanent..."

Instant pandemonium broke out among the rest of the Scooby Gang, all asking questions at the same time. Buffy held up her hand for silence, waiting until they obeyed before she spoke again. "Trust me. There is no more happiness clause. So there's no need for any of you to lose sleep over Angelus."

Unable to remain silent, Willow interrupted her. "But Buffy, how..? What happened?" Although she was ecstatic about this development, she did need to understand that one thing.

"His friend Doyle fixed it for him."

"But how? I studied that curse for months and could never find a loophole."

"Not a loophole, Will. Divine intervention." Her hand strayed to Riley's hair while she talked. He leaned back into the slight caress, a rumble of pleasure similar to Angel's purr rose up from him. The sound startled the rest of them but Buffy's only reaction was to kiss the top of his head. "Doyle died..."

"Angel killed him right?"

Riley snorted at that comment but kept silent while Buffy replied. "No, Xander, Angel didn't kill him. He died saving Angel, Cordy and a whole bunch of other people. The Powers That Be granted him a final wish and that was Angel's soul."

"Well... Good..." Xander's defensive posture finally eased just a little, his voice was less strident as he uttered his next remark. "Nice to know we won't be murdered in our beds..."

Even though Xander knew that Buffy didn't want to put any of them in danger, he also knew she loved Angel with all her heart and where love was concerned, caution usually got thrown to the wind. If Angel was living in Sunnydale, she would eventually end up in his bed. No matter how much she obviously cared about Riley, Buffy would still end up with Deadboy... *Just like she always had before.*

"As you all know, Angel is coming back to Sunnydale. He feels he can do more good here on the Hellmouth although he'll still be working in L.A. whenever Cordy needs him." Most of the group nodded in agreement with her explanation, they could really use Angel's help. He had proven time and again to be a reliable source of demonic information as well as a formidable fighter. It would be a relief to rely on his strength again.

Buffy squared her little shoulders, this part was going to be the hardest. "Angel's coming back and we're going to be living with him..." Everyone looked stunned, mouth agape and eyes wide as she continued. "All three of us are moving into the mansion together..."

"Together? You mean like together, together?" Willow squeaked, her sharp mind immediately grasping at all the implications of Buffy's simple statement. *Buffy, Angel and Riley, all together?*

The telling glance Riley shot her confirmed all her suspicions. *Oh Goddess, all of them together!* Willow blushed furiously but was secretly pleased for her friends. What a perfectly wonderful solution to their problem.

Not everyone was quite so quick on the uptake, especially Xander. He was more than just stunned by her announcement, in fact coherent thought was almost impossible at this point. So he grasped at the first straw that came to mind. "The place on Crawford Street? Buff, don't you think the owner might notice you living there? I mean a vamp or two squatting for a few months, no big but a house full of people?"

Giles sighed deeply, removing his glasses to pinch the bridge of his nose. "The owner will not object, Xander."

"And why not? I mean, I would notice if somebody decided to set up housekeeping in an empty house of mine..." Xander wondered why the place was always ready for Angel to occupy. Wasn't anyone keeping an eye on it for the real owner?

Buffy answered for Giles. "The owner won't object because Angel is the owner."

"What? How? What?" Xander was on his feet again but Giles pulled him back down into his chair. "He owns that place? How? I mean it's not like Deadboy has any money or anything..."

Riley finally snapped at him, frustrated by his continued attitude toward their mate. "Stop calling him that. He has a name, you know." Xander stared at him, something was starting to form in his brain as he realized Riley wasn't just defending Buffy, he was also defending Angel. That thought gave him a major wiggins...

The bigger man leaned across the desk toward him, his hazel eyes flashing with barely suppressed rage. "Angel owns that place and a whole helluva lot more besides... It's amazing what a portfolio you can amass when you've lived for more than a quarter of a millennia..."

"How?" Giles had always been rather curious about the source of Angel's money. The clothes the vampire wore cost a small fortune and the classic car he drove was not cheap. Even though he now ran a business, Cordelia had been quite adamant on the few occasions Giles conversed with her that it didn't produce enough income to really pay her or Wesley very much, let alone support Angel.

The hard look on Riley's face eased as he turned to the retired Watcher. "Railroad stock mostly. Seems Spike wasn't the only one who had a fascination with the railroad. Only difference was, Angelus made money at it..." His eyes twinkled, remembering the stories Angel told them about his robber baron days in the late 1800's. During that time he made enough money to finance a small country...

When Whistler found him starving in New York, his destitute appearance had been by choice, not by necessity.

Xander's thoughts were growing uglier by the second. Riley was not only defending his girlfriend's ex, he was proud of him. It didn't make any sense at all. "Riley, I understand why Buffy would want to move in with the guy. Hell, she's been in love with him forever. But why would you want to?"

Riley didn't answer, he just gave Xander a huge smile. His eyes were alight with warmth as he shared a thought with Buffy. *Like there was any chance you two could keep me out...* She giggled, startling the rest of them while he laughed silently.

Most of her friends now caught the full implications of the new living arrangements as well as Riley's utter contentment with them. Unfortunately, Xander was not a truly observant person. He clung to his current train of thought like a leech. "You gotta know she's going to be sleeping with him inside of a month, don't you? I mean, doesn't it bother you that she'll be doing the horizontal mambo with the undead?"

If anything, his grin got broader as Riley leaned his head back to rest on Buffy's chest. She stroked his hair, dropping her hand down to his neck where she played with his shirt collar. Riley's response came out as a long drawl. "Nope, doesn't bother me a bit."

Xander's jaw dropped and his eyes got huge, it was all Riley could do not to break out into wild laughter. Angel was right, it was a lot of fun to goad Xander. The boy could be really dense.

"Why the hell not?" He couldn't believe it, Riley wasn't bothered by the idea, wasn't bothered at all. *Oh shit, all that stuff Spike said when Buffy called is true...* Xander's eyes narrowed as he put the pieces together and did the math.

When he spoke again, his tone was once again that contemptuous sneer. "I guess Spike was telling the truth... Buffy's already slept with Angel, that's how you know for sure Angelus isn't coming back."

Buffy nodded, her fingers tightened on her lover's shoulder. *Look out, Riley, here it comes...*

And it did. Xander's attention dropped from Buffy, his accusatory gaze locked with Riley's as he spat out the next words. "And it's not just been Buffy, you've been screwing Deadboy too..."

Even though he was prepared for the accusation, the ugly tone behind those words set Riley off. This boy was trying to make his love for Angel into something obscene and that he would never tolerate. Riley's face flushed with fury, his hands curled up into tightly clenched fists as all the muscles in his body responded to the adrenaline surge.

With an expression on his face that spelled nothing but a future of sheer agony for his accuser, he started to stand. *I'm going to break his goddamn neck. Right here, right now, Alexander Harris, you are going to die...*

A small hand on his shoulder stopped him, his mate's sweet inner voice tried to soothe his now murderous rage. *No, Riley... Put yourself in his place. Xander's loved me since the day we met. Losing me to Angel hurt him so much when we were in high school. Think how much it hurts him now when he's not only lost me to Angel again but to both of you together...*

*Don't really care about his precious feelings, Buff. I won't tolerate this. You don't deserve this shit, I don't deserve this shit and Angel sure as hell doesn't deserve this shit...* Riley was halfway out of his seat, one lunge over the table and he would have his hands wrapped around the little bastard's neck. A quick twist and Xander would stop yapping at them forever...

Angel would probably thank him for it and he knew Angelus would help him dump the body somewhere...

But Buffy would never forgive him.

He quivered as he fought for control over his own emotions. Buffy's hand remained in place, halting his upward movement with her considerable physical strength while she pleaded for his patience. *Riley, please let me handle him...*

Another moment of hesitation, then he sat back down in the chair. Riley's eyes were still blazing as they continued their silent conversation. *Buff, just let me hurt him a little, just enough so he never acts this way toward any of us again... You know he's a dead man if Angelus ever hears this crap.*

*There's a better way of dealing with him.* Her little fingers were once again on his collar. *Do you trust me?*

*With my life.* No hesitation there, just the plain honest truth.

*Then let me handle this, okay?*

*Okay... But if that irritating little jackass says one more word, I'm gonna make him eat it...* He relaxed finally and leaned back up against her again.

The rest of the group, except Xander breathed a collective sigh of relief. Even though he was oblivious to it, they knew exactly how much danger Xander had just been in. Riley Finn was a very big man, the amount of damage he could inflict before they had a chance of stopping him might have been life threatening.

Buffy looked at her friend, utterly disgusted by his behavior but determined to salvage as much of their relationship as possible. "Xander, shut up and listen to me."

He opened his mouth to protest but the combined looks on Buffy, Riley and Giles' faces stopped him dead.

Staring right into his eyes, she pulled the collar of her own shirt aside until the right side of her neck was exposed. "Xander, you know what this is right? I know for a fact Angel explained it to you."

A sullen nod was followed by an equally sullen reply. "Yeah, it's a mate's mark. It's how he found you last week."

"Good, you at least listened to him long enough to grasp that concept. But you don't get all of it, do you?" Her eyes locked with his, unwavering in their intent. "It means I belong to Angel, heart, body and soul. He is as much a part of me as breathing or being the Slayer. I can't live without him, he can't live without me."

"So it's like you're married, right?" Willow joined the conversation, trying to help ease the tension by adding her own interpretation of the facts. Riley smiled as her, grateful for her input.

"More than married, Will. Bonded as in the really death do us part stuff..." Buffy's full attention turned back to Xander. She wanted him to understand every bit of what she was saying and put it in his permanent memory. "Do you get it now, Xander?"

*God, I so wish I didn't...* Hiding his tears in continued bravado, Xander nodded. "Yeah, yeah, I get it. Death do you part, yada, yada, yada..." He ignored the hurt in her eyes as he belittled the concept of the mated bond. There was no room in his thoughts for anyone else's pain but his own.

Feeling her sorrow, Riley swore to himself he would make the boy pay for every tear she shed over this thing. *Every single tear, Harris, every single tear... I know more ways to make you bleed than anyone except maybe Angelus...*

The only thing keeping him in his seat right now was the knowledge of what she was about to do.

Xander looked directly at Riley, his eyes simmering with the same contempt he had shown earlier. "I still don't see what that's got to do with Riley here. You're Angel's mate, so what the hell is he?"

"That's really simple, Xan. Even you should understand this..." She reached back down to Riley's collar and peeled it away from his neck.

Riley's eyes were locked with Xander's, silent challenge written in every line of his face as he tilted his head toward Buffy. The movement exposed the matching mark on his neck to everyone in the room. A collective gasp echoed around them as the significance of it registered with all her friends.

******