"Did you see them? Actual label people! In the audience tonight! Here to see us!"

"Uh huh." Oz barely acknowledged Devon's news. Oz was too busy watching Xander. The brunette was rather intently reading... something. Oz wasn't sure he really cared what Xander was reading as long as he could stare.

Xander's head snapped up, eyes fixing on Devon. "Dev, have you seen this?" He held out the sheaf of papers. "You might want to before you decide that you need a record contract. Steve Albini seems to think that major label record contracts are just a way to screw over bands. Check it out."

The singer sighed dramatically. "Do I have to read it? Isn't that why we keep you around? Well, that and to keep Oz happy."

While that comment would have sounded like an insult to many other people, Xander just grinned. Since he and Oz had embarked on what Xander was slowly realizing was a relationship, he was becoming more and more crucial to the band. The musicians -- and one slacker singer -- didn't want to spend their precious free time dealing with boring details like where they were going to play next and how much (or even whether) they were going to be paid, so managerial duties fell to Xander. Not that he minded. In fact, he relished the responsibility. "Well, I don't want anyone to think of me as Yoko."

"Nah, you're more the Susan Silver type." As blank stares were turned to Oz, he clarified. "Soundgarden? Their manager? Chris Cornell's wife?" When the confusion didn't clear, he sighed. "Chris Cornell? As in the lead singer? She manages a bunch of bands. Alice in Chains. Bands like that."

"So." Dismissing Oz, Devon turned to Xander, decisive tone set in his voice. "You're apparently our manager. You think you can handle us?"

Xander frowned. "Um..."

Oz interrupted. "I think Xander and I need to have a little chat."


Minutes later, a very nervous Xander was facing an equally nervous Oz. "So you said we need to have a chat."

"Right." Oz sighed, dragging his fingers through his hair. His eyes remained fixed to his hands once they resettled, clasped between his knees. "I'll just say this. If you do become our manager -- officially -- you're going to be stuck with me for a long time. You've already been doing the job, but now it looks like things are going to be getting serious for the band. It won't be something that happens right away. So I guess what I'm saying is that if you do accept this manager thing, it's going to be a long-term thing." With that, Oz glanced up at Xander, hoping the younger man could fill in what Oz couldn't bring himself to say. His reluctance to continue had nothing to do with the fact that he had a boyfriend but everything to do with the fact that he wasn't sure if Xander was looking at the future.

Xander nodded. His voice was as carefully bland as his face. "And what would you like me to do?"

Suddenly, it occurred to Oz that they had never actually discussed this. Sure, they made plans for the next weekend or talked about going to a movie not set for release until months later. But that didn't count. Or did it? Xander was still sitting there silently and patiently, waiting for Oz's answer. How many times had they made plans for 'later' or 'some day' -- and then followed through on them? Countless times, if Oz's memory wasn't playing tricks on him. And the only times that plans had been broken, illness had been involved. Everything had unfolded effortlessly. And, even more importantly, the mere thought that Xander might not stick around made his stomach lurch. "That's why I thought we needed to talk. I want you to do it. But you need to understand that half of the reason I'm saying this is Oz the guitarist."

"And the other half?"

Oz shrugged. "All that half will say is that it has one hell of a time concentrating on anything that doesn't involve you. So it gets along very well with the guitarist as long as you're around."


Xander's grin made Oz very happy he had simply spoken without thinking. "Yeah." He cleared his throat and attempted to fix his features into a serious expression. "So. About that management thing..."


After meeting with just a few of the record company representatives that descended on Devon like frat boys on a keg of cheap beer, Xander had mixed feelings about agreeing to represent the band. On one hand, it was a good thing that there was someone not actually in the band who was able to question motives. On the other, he was really using a lot of shower gel after meeting with them. The reps were just so sleazy that he had to immediately shower to get rid of the slimy feeling. Sure, they promised the moon and the heavens, but just try to get anything on paper. Suddenly, lawyers were mentioned, and Xander preferred unarmed hand-to-hand combat with vampires than lawyers.

So this time, he had asked the band to try a different tack. This time, Xander would play the part of a vacant, vapid hanger-on. At least until he decided that the band was being yanked around by yet another record company weasel. Hell was surely filled with over-eager A&R reps with slicked-back hair and cutting-edge suits who took them to dinner at some hip, upscale restaurant. Oz and the rest of the band agreed. If nothing else, Oz and Xander could get in some quality groping time.

"We're meeting her here?" The establishment in question was a dive Mediterranean restaurant in a small town forty-five minutes away from Sunnydale. No one was really sure what the person they were meeting looked like aside from the fact that she was female.

As they entered the dining room, they discovered that it didn't matter whether they knew who she was or not. There was only one person in the place aside from the server. Dressed in a basic outfit of jeans and a t-shirt, she was sitting at a table, face buried in a magazine they couldn't quite identify. "Ahem." This didn't catch her attention, so Devon tried again. "Are we supposed to be meeting you?"

"Huh?" Now she pulled her eyes from her magazine -- an old issue of Spy, Xander observed -- and fixed them on the tall singer in front of her. "Oh! Yeah! Hi. Sorry about that. Please sit down." She waved the server over to the table. "Give them whatever they want." At their confused faces, she sighed. "Let me guess. Not Greek food fans." She turned back to the server. "Okay, let's go with that platter thing, okay?" He nodded and moved back to the kitchen.

"Come here often? Or is that a friend of yours?"

She shook her head. "None of the above. He's my brother. I stay at his place when I'm in town." As if finally realizing that she had yet to mention her name, she extended her hand to Devon. "Jean Marie Mercer. GTS Records."

Introductions were made, and Oz was the last to speak. "So Devon didn't tell us. What does GTS stand for?"

"Gutter to Stars. You wanna know why?" They nodded. "There's this Pretenders song. 'We are all of us in the gutter/ But some of us are looking up at stars.'" She shrugged. "It seemed to work, so there you go. So who have you talked to so far?"

An hour slipped by. The steady stream of food did not let up. Oz and Xander found a nice, dark corner to hide in while the rest of the band just chatted about nothing with Jean Marie. Finally, the talk turned serious.

"So. Are you guys ready to take the big step?"

The question somehow made it to Oz and Xander, wrapped around each other in the corner. They stifled simultaneous snorts of laughter. Devon shot them an amused glance before answering for the group. "Maybe. But how do we know you won't screw us over? I mean, how do we know you're not one of those sleazy record company reps sent in to lull us into signing before you swoop down and hand us a pile of last-minute contract changes because the executives at your company made you?"

She shrugged. "Aside from me telling you that GST is not affiliated with a major label, basically, you don't. And you're not going to get all the perks that you will with one of the big boys. A tour bus? A new amp? A nice studio? Unless you're going to front the money for this stuff yourself, forget about it. But the reality is that you're going to get screwed no matter what. It's up to you to pick the best people for you to get screwed by."

Devon nodded thoughtfully. "So are you a record company weasel?"

"'Weasel?'" Jean Marie smiled. "I'm not sure. What do you guys think?"

"Well, you're the record company rep."

"I'm also the receptionist, accountant, chief executive officer, and janitor. I will guarantee that you will never hear two things come out of my mouth, aside from in this discussion: 'I have to run this by marketing.' And 'Your album just went platinum.' So you have a choice. Fame and fortune -- which, I have to tell you, and not just because I want you to record for me, will not be guaranteed no matter what label you go with, and anyone who tells you differently is lying their ass off -- or knowing that the album with your name on it is truly yours, even if you only sell fifty copies to your family and friends. And you would have to keep your day jobs."

Now Xander spoke up. "Are you going to want us to sign a letter of intent?"

"No. All that does is make you guys think something's going to happen when it probably won't. The instant you sign that, you're legally bound to the company whether you actually sign a contract or not. I've seen too many bands break up because nothing ever happens after that letter. You can't even go to another company and try for another contract. So." She folded her hands and fixed her gaze on Xander. "What do you think? And, no, I'm not demanding that you sign now. I just want to know if you think this is a fair offer. Take it home, look it over, discuss it with your buddies in law school." She slid a sheet of paper across the table to Xander.

He glanced at the paper and then turned his eyes back to her. "And why are you pushing this to me?"

She smiled. "They wanted to know about things like studios and tours. You asked about the letter of intent. You're obviously the business side of things."

"You're right." All eyes turned to Oz. "Xander, it's up to you. We'll do whatever you think is best."

Xander turned his attention to the lines of print in front of him. Funny. This was the sort of situation that would normally result in a heavy feeling of dread. Fear that the wrong decision was about to be made. Instead, as he read through the terms and conditions, there was only the knowledge that only one option existed. He had long ago learned to trust his instincts. "Got a pen?"