When he and Willow and Jesse had been little, they used to play a game with "Missing" posters. There were new ones around town almost every week, and there were points for whoever got one first. Five points for a little kid, ten points for a grownup. They hid their collection in Xander's basement, behind the washing machine.
They were nine years old the first time one of the kids they went to school with was on a poster. Xander had been so excited he had run right into his house clutching it and squealing. His mother heard him and asked him what he had. When he showed it to her and explained the game, her face got dark and she slapped him. "It's not a game!" she snapped. "One of these days, it's going to be you!"
She made him show her where the other ones were, and his father burned them in the furnace. That had been the end of the game. But her words had stayed in his head. Sometimes he'd forgotten them for a while, but they always came back. One of these days, it was going to be him.
Except that it hadn't been him. It was Jesse's face that fluttered from the telephone poles and bulletin boards, and Jesse's mom making the frantic phone calls to all his friends.
He really didn't like vampires. But he had mixed feelings about stakes, too.
He was in the process of sneaking onto the Wentworths' back porch when the cops got him. Apparently, his creeping skills, though they managed to get him into the house at night without waking up his folks, were no match for Mrs. Wentworth. Which made sense, since she was probably sober at the time. To make his day completely perfect, the officers insisted on taking him down to the station. He called home, but his dad just swore at him and hung up. He figured that trying to get the Rosenbergs to bail him out might result in him being banned from hanging out with Willow ever again, so after a minute he swallowed hard and asked the operator for Rupert Giles's number.
He could just hear the disapproval oozing over the line, but Giles came to the station fast. Super-Librarian to the rescue. He guessed Giles was a lot more used to late-night trips to police stations than most people who didn't actually live in trailer parks. Not that Super-Librarian used any powers but his amazing super-stutter, but the cops agreed to let Xander go. They were suckers for the accent and the professional-geek look, he guessed; even though school had been over for hours, Giles was still sporting more tweed than a J. Crew catalog. He'd been prepared for lots of abuse, but Giles didn't give him so much as a sniff or a glare when they were in the station. It was only when they were in his car that he turned a blazing frown on him.
"Really, Xander, I can't imagine what you thought you were doing. There is no place for amateur heroics here; they'll only get you killed. If this is the approach to the supernatural you're planning on taking, perhaps you shouldn't be involved at all. Fortunately, the woman decided not to press charges--"
"That's because the woman was Jesse's mom."
"Oh. What in the world were you doing, then?"
"I wrote her a note from Jesse, saying he'd run away. I was just going to stick it under her back door."
"Xander..." Giles ran a hand through his hair. "Jesse is dead."
"Yeah." Xander laughed shortly. "I'm pretty sure of that, seeing as I spent the rest of the night he died coughing up the dust he turned into when I killed him."
"You didn't kill him," Giles said earnestly. "A demon did."
"Well, whoever did, he's dead, and Mrs. Wentworth keeps calling me and begging me to tell her if I know anything. She used to have me over for Thanksgiving every year, Giles. And now Jesse's gone and she's never even going to know what happened."
Giles started the car. "Your concern is commendable, but feeding her false hopes is...it's cruel."
"Oh." He hadn't really thought about it that way. He'd just wanted her to stop worrying, stop calling, stop looking at him with hope and desperation in her eyes. Another patented screwup by the King of Cretins. "Should I...should I tell her he's dead, then?"
"Good heavens, no. It could only lead to more trouble. For her, and for you. We need to do our best to avoid attracting the attention of the local constabulary."
Xander hated himself, but he was relieved to hear it. "So what am I supposed to do?"
"Keep telling her that you don't know what happened."
"Right. Because that's a much better lie. Look, how do you even know what the right thing to do is? I bet you never had to turn a friend into an ex-parrot."
"Xander," Giles said, anger beginning to tinge his voice, "that wasn't Jesse. It was--"
"The thing that killed him, a vampire wearing his body, yadda yadda yadda. You've still never done it yourself, so how can you--"
"Yes, I have."
"Oh, yeah? What happened?"
"Does it really matter, Xander?"
"Of course it matters. For all I know, you killed him for spilling tea on one of your books."
"He was possessed by a demon," Giles said. "I had to cut his head off. Satisfied?"
There really was no end to the new weirdness in his life. "Oh, nice."
"Yes, well, it wasn't exactly my idea of a jolly good time, either."
"What did you tell his parents?"
"Oh, just that we'd had a spot of decapitation, and would they mind terribly picking up the corpse, as it was making an awful stain on the carpet?" Xander swallowed, and Giles looked at him and sighed. "Nothing. As far as I know, they're still waiting for him to come home."
He rattled his fingertips against the window of the car. "So I've just got to deal with Mrs. Wentworth looking at me that way forever?"
"You haven't a choice, I'm--"
"Wait." Something had caught Xander's eye. "Stop the car."
"Xander, wandering about here in the middle of the night..."
"May cause drowsiness, emphysema or lung cancer. I know. Stop the car."
Giles grimaced, but did. Xander got out and approached the telephone pole. Jesse's face smiled back at him, from a picture he remembered, taken at his last birthday party. Xander had been in that picture; he could see his hand on Jesse's shoulder. Missing: some dumb kid's best friend, who would never, ever be found. Just like the people on every one of the posters they used to collect. All because he'd left the Bronze with the wrong girl. Xander ripped the poster down and began tearing it up, slowly at first, but then in a wild flail of shredding, sending bits of paper fluttering off into the night.
Giles's face when he got back into the car was softer. "Xander, if this is all too much for you, you don't have to do it. It's not your job to rid Sunnydale of evil. It's Buffy's."
He knew that tone, the tone that meant that it was okay, nobody expected you to keep up. But he wasn't going to take it from Super-Librarian. "And yours, right?"
"You're just a normal guy. Like me, except sconivorous."
"Yes. But I...well, I have a destiny, Xander."
Oh, great. It was bad enough when they thought you just weren't as good in math as the rest of the class, but now somebody was actually playing more-fated-than-thou. "A destiny. Sounds pretty good to me, actually."
Giles frowned. He made a left turn, then asked quietly, "Xander, you do realize that Buffy's destiny means she'll be facing an early death?"
"I'm probably going to die early, too, Giles. After all, I do live in Sunnydale."
"You mustn't talk like that. There's a good chance that you'll make it."
"Still. I'd like it if there was a point to it. So I'm going to keep hitching a ride on Buffy's destiny, okay? In my amateur-heroics way."
Giles sighed again and pulled the car to the curb in front of Xander's house. "As long as you're more careful than you were tonight. As perplexing as I find your behavior, I don't particularly fancy the idea of seeing your face on one of those posters."
Xander looked up at his darkened house. "Somehow, I don't think my parents would bother."
"Nothing." Xander got out of the car, then leaned back in. "Hey, Giles, I'm sorry."
"Well, no real harm done, and I'm sure Mrs. Wentworth will--"
"That's not what I mean. I'm talking about your friend. The one you had to do the Queen of Hearts thing with."
"Oh." Giles blinked. "Thank you, Xander. That--no one's-- " He cut himself off, pressing his lips together. "Will your parents be upset?"
"They'll get over it fast. Good night, Giles."
"Good night, Xander."
The car pulled away, and Xander started up the walk, looking around carefully. The evil stuff in Sunnydale probably would get him one of these days, but now that he knew what was going on, they were going to have to fight for it. And, he thought, if he hung around the library long enough, maybe Giles would put up posters for him when it happened.