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Rating: Rish
Summary: A state will move towards chaos without work to force them into order. Xander breaks. Spike picks up the pieces. Nobody's happy on the Hellmouth, right?
Notes: I like DarkXander. He’s pretty.



“Freedom’s just another word, for nothing left to lose... nothing, I mean nothing baby if you ain’t freeeeee....”

Xander warbled the last line of the chorus and then stopped, a disgusted expression on his face. What a truly horrible song. Not exactly improved by his voice, with was admittedly less than breath-taking, unless it was taking your breath from sheer pain. But still, it wasn’t exactly a great song to start with.
The words, though... true enough. Nothing left to lose, that was him. That made him free, then, didn’t it? Good. It meant he had nothing to tie him down, nothing to bind him to this place. Which was exactly how he wanted it.

He shoved the last of his shirts into an already overflowing box and jammed the lid on. It tried to un-jam itself, but he grabbed a roll of tape and secured it. Straightening, he stretched, a hand on the small of his back in an attempt to ease the soreness there. He looked slowly around the room, searching to see if there was anything he’d left behind, anything that wasn’t already packed. The basement was stark and bare, save for a handful of boxes and... a mirror ball. Aha.

He climbed up onto the rollout couch and carefully took down the mirror ball. He stood for a moment, turning it over and over in his hands and staring at the shining, faceted surface. How many times had he lain back in his bed at night and stared up at the lights reflected off the mirror ball, whirling around and around his ceiling till he was so dizzy he had to close his eyes? He always managed to fall asleep soon after that, but... too many times. Too many sleepless nights with just the lights on his ceiling for company.

Carefully he opened the nearest box and tucked the mirror ball in before closing and retaping the box. There. All packed up but nowhere to go. Well, he was going somewhere whether there was a somewhere to go or not. He was going places. The dream he’d had because of the Primeval hadn’t been the best he’d ever had, but it had showed him his path. There was nothing left for him here. Nothing left to lose, right?


“Your singing voice is terrible, Harris,” a snide cockney voice said from behind him. Xander whirled around, his heart kicking into overdrive, before it fully hit him that this was Spike. Immediately his racing heart calmed again, and he sighed before turning back to pick up a box.

“I know,” he said. “Move over, I need to take these out to the car.”

Spike stepped to the side and watched Xander with unblinking eyes as he carried the box out to his car. He wedged it into the trunk, and when he turned around Spike was right there, holding out another box. Xander blinked and took it, then said, “Why are you still here?”

“Helpin’ you pack,” Spike said affably. “Are you going to be putting that away or not?” He nodded at the box still in Xander’s hands.

Xander tucked the box away next to the first one and then brushed past the vampire on his way back into the basement. Spike followed him silently and picked up the last three boxes with ease before Xander could get to them, leaving the other man staring after him with mild frustration.

“Where are you heading to, then?” Spike asked with curiosity, putting the last of the boxes away and leaning against the side of the car. Xander pressed the trunk shut and shrugged as he leaned next to Spike.

“Somewhere,” he said. “I’m not sure where.” A thoughtful expression crossed his face. “I’m not sure that it matters where, actually, as long as it’s not here.”

“You’ve got a lot here, Xan,” Spike told him. “Why you going?”

“Because I have nothing here,” Xander told him. “Still weird to think that. I realized it not that long ago, and it was... odd, when I did. Month ago, when we won the battle with the Initiative... we were joined. I don’t know how much you saw, but we preformed a spell that joined me, Willow, and Giles with Buffy so that she could defeat Adam. It worked, obviously, and afterwards... we were so close. That sense of oneness lingered. For a little while. Then it just... slipped back to the way it was.”

“You’re going to break Anya’s heart,” Spike said. “You’re the only reason she’s got to bother with this mortal coil. If it weren’t for you she’d be long gone back to D’Hoffryn.”

“I know,” Xander said. “But it’s not really me that holds her anymore. If I left she’d find someone else. I’m just convenient.”

“Same could be said of her, you know,” Spike told him.

“Oh, I know,” Xander said. “And I regret that, mostly. But it’s just not there.”

“The mystical spark,” Spike said with a wise nod. Which just looked weird, of course, because it was Spike, but then he started talking again and Xander got over it. “Not there because you like the female body but it’s not exactly your top choice, now, is it?”

“Thank you, Spike,” Xander said tiredly, “for bringing that up. Because, you know, it’s not as if I was trying to forget it or anything.”

“Forgotten,” Spike said brightly, and far too quickly to be believed, but Xander just ignored it. Easiest way, really. “Your friends, though- they’re gonna get hit hard. Red and the Slayer and even Rupes, there. They’re not going to know what to do with themselves.”

“What, without me?” Xander scoffed. “Not exactly. They never needed me in the first place, and you know it as well as I do. They’ll miss me for a little while, and then get over it. Buffy has Riley, and Willow has Tara, and Giles has... whatever the hell it is that Giles has. Nothing to do with me here or wherever else I end up. Besides, I left a note.”

“A note?” Spike inquired, one eyebrow quirked. “Because of course they’ll understand after reading a note, pet. A wonderful plan. I applaud.”

“It’s a long note,” Xander defended himself. “And yeah, I think they would understand. I said enough that I don’t think any of them would have asked me to stay.”

“I’m asking you to stay,” Spike said softly. Xander stared at him for a moment. “Stay,” he repeated.

“Spike,” Xander said patiently. “We had sex. Nothing more. Then you threw in with Adam, and now we don’t even have that anymore. What right could you possibly have to ask me to stay?”

“I don’t have any right,” Spike said. “I’m asking anyway.”

“I made sure that I had nothing left to tie me down,” Xander said, gently for some reason. Maybe it was because of the odd flash in Spike’s eyes whenever he asked him to stay. “Nothing left to lose. You can ask, but I’m not staying.”

He went around to the front of the car, opened the door and got in. He was just about to close the door and start the engine when Spike’s low voice stopped him.

“They’ll follow you, you know.”

He sighed and let his head loll back on the headrest as Spike moved around to stand by the still-open door. “The Scoobies? I doubt it. They’ll know why I left. The note-“

“Won’t really get to them,” Spike finished. “It might get... lost.” The look in Spike’s eyes left no doubt as to what would happen to the note. “And without the note, they’ll get a bit worried, and if someone happened to tell them that he might’ve seen a demon lurking around earlier...” He shrugged eloquently.

“They’ll follow me to the ends of the earth,” Xander said. “I’d forgotten what a bastard you can be.”

“Anything to get my way,” Spike said, but there was that odd flash in his eyes again. Xander closed his eyes and stared at the blackness on the inside of his lids.

“I’ll stay,” he said tiredly. “You haven’t left me much of a choice.”

“I try not to,” Spike said with a wealth of satisfaction in his voice. “So, do you want me to help you unpack?”

Spike stretched out on the bed and closed his eyes, a long sigh escaping him as he went bonelessly relaxed. Xander stared at him for a long moment, then stepped up onto the mattress to carefully hang the mirror ball on the ceiling again.

About to step back down, he felt a hand close around his ankle. “Where’d you think you were going?” Spike said, his eyes now wide open. “Come have a little nap. I’m fair knackered m’self, and I didn’t go through packing it all up beforehand.”

Xander was no fool. “Spike,” he said patiently, “if I lay down next to you, we’re going to have sex. I don’t want to have sex. You just blackmailed me into staying here against my will, and I don’t particularly like you right now. Ergo, no sex.”

“I could make you want to,” Spike said, with a dangerous purr in his voice. Xander ignored the little thrill it shot across his nerve endings and sighed before staring up at the ceiling as if seeking guidance.

“I know you can, Spike,” he said. “If it worked the first time, it’s not likely that it wouldn’t this time. And that’s why I’m not lying down on the bed. Can you let go of my ankle now?”

Spike sighed and sulkily released his ankle. “Why’re you playing hard to get all of a sudden, anyway? Never used to have this much trouble convincing you, except for the first time.”

“Spike, you joined in with Adam,” Xander said. “In a desperate attempt to rid yourself of the electronic leash, which was the only saving grace that convinced me it was safe to have sex with you in the first place, you threw in with our worst enemy, and did your best to get us killed. I’m not playing hard to get, I just don’t feel a particular urge to crawl into bed with you at the moment. Now, get the hell off my bed and go back to your... wherever you were.”

“Crypt,” Spike said easily, then frowned. “I think. Times seem to be slightly fuzzy at the moment. Xan, why can’t I remember where I was before I was here?”

“Probably because you were drunk?” Xander suggested. “You usually are, you know, and that’s the usual reason for you forgetting things. That and your short attention span, which combine with drunkenness is really scary. It’s the only scary thing you’ve still got going for you.”

“Oooo, that hurts, pet. Wounds me to the quick, it does. When did you turn into such a nasty little boy?”

“I think I always have been,” Xander mused. “No one saw it, of course, but then they so often don’t. I...” He paused, seemingly lost in thought, then shook his head with a distant smile. “No, I was always this way. Right the first time.”

“I saw it,” Spike said softly. “You ripped into me often enough with enough real venom for me to know the difference. Not the class clown they think you are, Xan, though you play one rather well. Bloody carnivore you are, though you wouldn’t know it to look at you. Verbal sadist. Even made me feel small, you did, and I’d had a good long while to get used to Angelus. If anyone’s the bloody Queen of cutting up with words, that pouf’s the one. I know what’s talking to me, pet, no matter what face it wears. Never would have lived this long if I couldn’t.”

“Hurrah for you,” Xander told him acerbically. “Unfortunately, your opinion not being one I really care about. You’re not one of those regrets that I was holding onto when I was packing. That’s pretty much reserved for my friends.”

Spike’s smile faded a bit, and his dark blue eyes looked wounded. “I know,” he said. “You’re loyal to them. I get that. Bloody blind they are, though.”

“How do you get that?” Xander wanted to know. When Spike looked at him in confusion, he clarified, “The loyalty bit. How, exactly, do you get that? You’re evil. You don’t care about anyone.”

“Think about who’re you’re talkin’ to, here, Harris,” Spike said, and the hurt look was stronger in his eyes now. Xander ignored the little piece of him that just wanted to kiss and pet that look away, and just cocked an eyebrow at the vampire. Spike sighed.

“I was, for half a century, part of one of the few vampire families in the entire freakin’ world. Little Brady Bunch setups the ponce had for us weren’t real common, you know. And Dru... do we want to get into Dru? A hundred and fifty years I had her. Well, a hundred and twenty. Rounded up a bit there. The point being,” he said when Xander gave him a look, “Is that vampires aren’t, as a rule, big into attachments. Sure, some of us form little nests, and every now and then you get a mated pair like me’n Dru, be we’re rare. Really rare. Most vampire’s are shag and kill and be gone before sunrise. It’s sort of our thing. Most likely the only vampire in existence that lives for commitment, rather than running the hell away. For that matter, I’m probably the only male on the bloody planet that lives for commitment rather than running the hell away.”

“Alright, so you can get the loyalty thing,” Xander said. “Good, we’ve had our bonding fest- no, I didn’t say bondage, I said bonding, don’t start looking hopeful, and... don’t pout! No pouting. It’s creepy, you looking cute. Very creepy. I don’t want to think where you picked up that particular habit. And,” he added, ending his ramble and bringing himself back to his point, “There really is no point in you being here. So go away. For a very long time. I want to be alone. Got it?”

There went that flash of hurt, much deeper now, followed by a long spark of disappointment. What had Spike expected, that they become best friends all of a sudden? He didn’t do the friends thing with monsters. Sleeping with them wasn’t against his moral code, apparently, because he felt a total lack of guilt, but friendship definitely was. And no matter how not-human he was feeling right at the moment, he wasn’t interested in anything with Spike other than the usual wondrously fun rounds of verbal potshots. Spike had said he was good at those, which was cool. He liked being good at something, for a change.

“I got it,” Spike said, and Xander came back from his little mental side trip. Hello, world. Nice to see you again, fresh as I am from the interior of Xander’s brain. Never mind that I am Xander’s brain. Was I always this insane?

“Depends on your standards of comparison,” Spike said, and Xander realized that he’d said the last aloud. “I mean, Dru has you beat hands down, and I think I rank at least a little higher than you, but otherwise... Yeah, you’d have to be born like this to make it this high on the scale.”

“Were you born as psycho as you are now?”

“Sure. Not the mother’s-womb version of birth, probably, though there was that bitch Cecily... no, long story, moving past. I was born as a vampire this way, close enough, though it took a while to refine. I taunted Angelus and everything. Obviously born really fucked in the head.”

“Which I’m not debating,” Xander said. “Now, my basement, and you’re in it. Become not in my basement, and make me a very happy Xander. Your crypt awaits you.” He blinked. “And wow did that sound more strange out loud than it did in my head.”

“Most things do,” Spike said. “And I got it the first couple times. I’m leavin’, already.” But he made no move towards the doorway, and the hope in his eyes said that he wished that Xander would ask him to stay.

Xander was in the mood to do no such thing. “Then leave, Spike. I’m tired. I didn’t really intend to be staying here tonight, and if I am staying here then I want to stay here alone and think things through. Got it?”

“I got it,” Spike said quietly, and then he turned and (oh god finally) left the basement, shutting the door firmly behind him. Xander waited till he could hear the purring rumble of Spike’s car before collapsing back onto the bed with a relieved sigh. Freedom, man. Nothing left to lose. But he obviously wasn’t free anymore, because now, thanks to Spike, he knew he could lose his sanity, as well. Though he’d probably be more likely to lose it here, if Spike was in town, than on the road to... anywhere. Everywhere. That wasn’t here.

Then he curled up on his side, hugged his knees to his chest with a frantic, crushing grip, and cried as if his heart would break.

Spike calmly walked into his crypt, shut the door, and leaned back against it. Then he picked up a nearby wooden chair and threw it across the room with a wordless yell of rage.

He looked at the shattered splinters of wood on the floor with a blank expression on his face. Then he slid down the wall to land on the unswept stone floor of the crypt with a quiet thump.

Xander was... not going. Which was a good thing, yes? Yes. Xander was also clearly halfway considering murdering Spike. Which was less good. What was he supposed to’ve done, though? Just sit back and watch while the boy wandered out of town, never to be seen again?

He supposed that he could have followed him. He still had the DeSoto, though he never used it because Sunnyhell wasn’t sodding big enough to be worth the bother. Not like he ever went anywhere except other bits of the graveyard anyway, unless he was off to beat up demons, but then Willie’s wasn’t that far from the graveyard anyway, and since he lived in the graveyard it meant he could just as easily walk everywhere... and his brain was clearly somewhere not-Spike, because that train of thought had gone on far too long.

The point was, he could’ve gone after him if he’d let him leave. Could’ve. But he had a feeling that if he had tried that, then it’d be even harder to get Xander where he wanted him, because he’d be chasing him all over the bloody country in addition to trying to convince him that the Big Bad really was the Not Even Slightly Naughty. Well, only as naughty as the situation required, anyway. Point, point... That it would be easier to get his hooks into Xander Harris again if the boy was stuck in one place, even if that place was Sunnyhell, California.

He still felt a little hurt that the boy hadn’t seemed to realize his obsession with loyalty. He was Love’s Bitch™, and he’d thought that the whole bloody world had gotten that by this point. Apparently the whole world had, except Xander. Of course. Every sodding person got it but the one whose opinion he actually cared about. Why had he even bothered to expect anything different?

Xander would come around eventually, though. He was sure of that. He’d just torn down the boy’s hopes to get away, and so of course Xander wasn’t feeling too kindly towards him at the moment. But he didn’t doubt that eventually he would be able to worm his way back into Xander’s good graces, if kept at it long enough. Persistence was the key, and as everyone knew, no one was more stubborn than William the Bloody.

He was going to kill him.

Spike was driving him insane, and he was tempted to just stake the bastard. Something held him back, though. Some niggling need to hang on to the vampire, who was absurdly his last tie to the side of him that seemed to be the real him, these days. He couldn’t exactly run around threatening homicide and growling at Willow when she aimed perkiness in direction, but he could hold it in and smile at his best friend and then yell at Spike later that evening when the vampire dropped by his apartment, just like he did every night. And Xander yelled at him, every night, getting ever more creative with his insults, while Spike stood there and let him, the blank expression on his face hiding a world of hurt in his eyes.

And then they ordered pizza and sat down to watch tv for a few hours.

Sometimes Xander thought that he should take the sad excuse for what he called a brain into a corner and shoot it, just to put him out of his misery. This was the most fucked-up excuse he’d ever had for a relationship, and with his track record that was saying a lot.

He spent more and more evenings at home, now, if only to avoid Anya’s wounded eyes looking at him over the counter at the Magic Box. He never had told her all the reasons why he broke up with her, but he figured that the excuses he’d given would pacify her better than, “I’m really gay,” or, “I don’t really like people that much right now,” or his personal favorite, “Sometimes you’re such an annoying bitch that I can’t stand to be near you, no matter how sorta-nice the sex is.”

Yeah, he figured that excuses were a whole hell of a lot safer.

But in the meantime he was spending more and more time with Spike, and even as he wanted to kill the bastard while dodging come-on after come-on, he was still enjoying it. Spike was pretty damn different from just about anyone else he knew, and time after time he found himself relaxing in ways that he couldn’t around anyone else. If only because Spike didn’t seem to expect him to be the bumbling, clueless joke-boy. In fact, Spike seemed to like him best when he was cutting up some idea with the sharp edge of his tongue or dissecting someone’s character with acerbic accuracy. Spike even seemed to prefer having that same sarcasm aimed at him rather than having Xander’s usual mask erected between them, and Xander took full advantage of that fact.

Gradually, though, it became easier to find a balance between the two halves of himself during those long evenings of pizza and beer and truly bad comedy tv. He found he could be both people at once, and when he thought about it for any length of time, he realized that the balance was all because of Spike, and he was grateful to the vampire even as he hated the fact that he was indebted to him.

But he was also getting damned tired of the way things were. He was bored, frankly. Spike had given him balance with his presence but he’d also taken away his freedom when he’d made him stay here in Sunnydale, and Xander wanted to get away, to do something- anything- to relieve the screaming emptiness of the shallow, endlessly repeating patterns of his life.

He just didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do. However, as always, Spike came up with a solution, a cure for his boredom. He could always count on Spike.

Xander rolled onto his side and pillowed his head on his bicep, his other hand coming up to brush his sweat-soaked hair off his forehead. “That,” he said in a slightly hoarse voice, “was better than I remembered. Just so you know.”

Spike rolled just his head to the side, appearing not to have the energy to move the rest of him. “Jus’ keeps getting’ better an’ better,” Spike informed him. “You wait.”

“Or it could be the fact that I haven’t had any in a while,” Xander continued thoughtfully, as if he hadn’t heard the vampire. “Way back when I actually had sex regularly.”

“Oi!” Spike said, as if mortally- or immortally- offended. “You can have sex regularly now, you know. Since you’ve finally given up your ‘Spike is an evil vampire and so I mustn’t shag him,’ thing again.”

“’Mustn’t?’ Christ, you spent too many years with Dru. And it was more of a ‘Spike is an annoying bastard and it’s way too much fun to make him suffer,’ thing, anyway. The evil thing is just so cliché.”

“An’ of course it never crossed your mind that if you’re makin’ me suffer you’re makin’ yourself suffer too.”

“Sure it did. But some things are just worth it, you know? The look on your face every time I said no... it was priceless. I held that image when I took care of the problem myself, and it would keep me happy for-“

“A whole three minutes?” Spike interrupted. “Since you can’t stay happy any longer than that anyway? I mean, what happened to basking in the afterglow?”

“I’m definitely still basking. Trust me, I can bask and mock you at the same time. It really doesn’t take that much extra effort, I promise.”

“Well, you’ve had a damned sight too much practice, if you ask me.”

“That and the part where’s you’re such and easy target, and nobody ever did, Chips Ahoy.”

“The sheer bloody number of ways that you can insult my defanged state is depressing.” Pause. “Shove over a bit, will you? Can’t breathe.”

“Spike, you don’t need to breathe,” Xander pointed out, but he obligingly scooted over a few inches anyway.

“I do if I need to talk,” Spike retorted, making himself comfortable.

“Well in that case...” Xander said, and made as if you drape himself completely over the vampire. Spike made protesting noises and shoved half-heartedly at Xander, but Xander knew better than to believe him and just laughed down into his face. Spike watched him, his expression going still for a second, and then framed Xander’s face with his hands and kissed him.

It was too much to hope that they could stay undiscovered forever. Xander may not have been spending much time with the Scoobies anymore, but he still met up with them sometimes, in the Magic Box, for marathon research sessions. Spike always tagged along, out of boredom more than anything else, but he’d been around long enough to pick up enough demonic languages and habits that no one protested his help. Much.

Tara must have figured them out a while ago- she was so quiet that she saw so much more than anyone else did- but most likely she hadn’t said anything to Willow, because the expression on the young witch’s face showed nothing but shock when she walked into the training room to see Spike on his knees in front of Xander, unzipping his jeans.

“Oh my god,” she said, faintly, and then again, louder, “Oh my god!

“I told you that giving me a blowjob in the training room was a bad idea,” Xander told Spike, zipping up his jeans. “But did you listen to me? No.”

“Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time,” Spike grumbled, and got to his feet.

“It’s always a good idea at the time, ain’t it?” Xander said. “And then things go wrong. Like the feast of St. Vigeous. Like Halloween. Like the ceremony to restore Drusilla’s health. Like pairing up with Buffy the first time. Like your attempt to blackmail Willow into a love spell. Like the Gem of Amara. Like-“

“Alright, alright,” Spike muttered, holding up one hand to shut him up. “You hit ‘more than enough’ three examples ago.”

“Are you sure? Because I have more.”

“Of course you do,” Spike muttered under his breath, and he was about to say something a lot more uncomplimentary, and a lot louder, but then they heard it. The most dreaded noise in the world.

The sound of Buffy’s footsteps.

Apparently, Willow’s last “Oh, my god,” had been loud enough to drift to the Slayer’s keen ears, and she was coming to investigate. Xander and Spike exchanged panicked glances.

“We’re getting out of here,” Xander said.

“Not arguin’,” Spike said, and they took off.

It was, to Xander’s surprise, not Buffy who was standing on his doorstep when he yanked the door open. It was Willow, and she was alone.

He opened his mouth to ask her... He wasn’t sure, exactly. Something. But since he didn’t know, he just stopped, and shut his mouth, and simply watched her instead.

She was peering over his shoulder, a frown wrinkling the space between her eyebrows. “You’re... leaving?”

“Yeah, we’re getting the hell out of Dodge. Or Sunnydale, at least.” And then he sighed when he saw the dismay that flitted across her features. “Willow, I love you. You been my best friend for forever, it seems like, but... you caught us. How long before Buffy finds out? Since she’s not here, I assume you made something up after we took off.”

“Yeah,” she said, still looking up at him with that frown on her forehead, only it was deeper now, and her lower lip was sliding into something that was not quite a pout, but did, somehow, express how much this scene cost her. “Xander, you can’t leave. We need you here.”

He smiled, more gently than he actually felt, and opened the door a little wider. “Come on in. We can finish this while I pack.”

She stumbled across the threshold, not realizing until then that there had been a spell holding her back. When she looked at Xander in shock, he said, “That spell I had you do when I first moved here last month. Keeps out all supernatural creatures?”

“Including me?” Willow demanded. “Is that why you had me cast it?”

“Well, actually, it was more intended for Buffy, which is why I’m just as glad that you showed up, but close enough. Now, we gotta be outta here at sunset, so whatever you want to say, talk fast.”

To his surprise she just stood there and said nothing, watching him while he emptied what was left on his shelves into one of the empty boxes standing around the mostly-bare apartment. Xander hadn’t really had time to make it that homey, and Spike wasn’t exactly one for lavish home decorating, though now that Willow realized that he was living with her best friend, she could see his touches all over the place, even now. There was a length of twisted metal on the kitchen counter, for instance, that hadn’t been cleaned of the slightly green ichor of whatever Spike had killed with it. Xander may not have been the neatest person she’d ever met, but he wasn’t exactly one for leaving bloody weapons anywhere in his house, much less somewhere where he’d eat.

Spike emerged from the bedroom then, two large boxes in his arms and blocking his vision. “Xan, where the hell do I put these?” he demanded. “Since I can’t take ‘em out to the car just yet.”

“Just dump them on the floor,” Xander said, almost like Willow wasn’t there, and she couldn’t help but feel that same flash of hurt that had hit her when she’d realized that Xander had gotten her to spell his apartment so Spike would be protected from Buffy. She glared at Xander to let out some of the hurt, and he looked at her, almost surprised.

“Will, I told you we were leaving tonight. Why are you having so much trouble with that?”

“Because you’re leaving your best friends behind because of him!” she finally burst out, pointing an accusatory finger towards Spike, who hadn’t, until Xander had said her name, realized that she was in the room at all. “You’re leaving us behind to be with an evil, undead thing.”

Xander sighed, and stepped to her side. She had to control the childish urge to pull away when he gripped her arm, very gently, and squeezed. “Wills, I can’t stay here anymore. It’s not Spike, not really. He’s just the impetus to leave.” Spike snorted at that and went back into the bedroom, making some vague gesture meant to indicate that he was finishing the packing, but he was probably just getting away so they could talk.

“Why?” she asked desperately, and tears were welling in her eyes. “Why do you have to leave? Why can’t you stay with us?”

“Because I don’t belong here. It’s this damn town. Curses everything that it touches. There isn’t any happiness on the Hellmouth, Willow. Not for anyone.”

“I’m happy,” she whispered, and the way her throat closed over her voice told everyone, including herself, that she was lying. Didn’t stop her from trying, though. “I’ve got Tara, and my friends, and college and witchcraft and a mission and-“

“And you’re not really as happy as you think you are,” Xander finished for her, “But that’s okay. I don’t blame you for thinking you’ve got it all. But I’m not trying to fool myself anymore.”

“But why do you have to take off like this?” she demanded. She knew that she sounded almost like she was begging and she hated that, but it was the way she felt and this was Xander, so to hell with pride. “Why are you leaving me like this?”

“Got no choice, when it comes down to it,” he said, and his voice wasn’t unkind. No, not unkind at all. Kindness, and perfect understanding, dripped from his voice in waves. But his voice was determined, and that scared her. It was rare that he sounded determined, and she knew from experience that nothing could get in his way once that tone got into his voice.

Not even her.

“You’re really going, aren’t you,” she said, finally accepting it. “There’s nothing I can do to stop you.”

“There’s plenty of things you can do to stop me,” he said, surprising her, then added, very quietly, “I’m just begging you not to. Don’t make this hard for me, Wills. It’s already tearing me apart inside.”

“But,” she said.

“But I have to go.”

“And it’s not really Spike at all,” Willow said, finally understanding. She knew what he said about this town was true, but what could she do? She was needed here. More to the point, she didn’t have the courage to just up and leave. Or maybe she just didn’t have an evil undead guy with wanderlust to prod her out of the nest. “Are you in love with him?”

“God, no,” was his heartfelt response, and she looked at him oddly. “I love him, yeah,” he explained when he saw the look. “In a twisted, weird way. But in love with him? You have to have some romance to be in love with someone. We don’t really have any.”

“Just lots of shagging and a few laughs,” Spike said, emerging from the bedroom at last, another box held in his arms. He hitched one shoulder to acknowledge Willow but was talking to Xander. “This is the last box. Sun’s set- you want me to start loading the car?”

Xander looked at the apartment. Some odds and ends were still scattered around, but nothing that he’d need. He was keeping everything from his old life that he absolutely had to, and anything else was left behind.

Like his friends, Willow thought, and she almost cried, but held back the tears at the last minute. She could understand. Not well, but just enough that she wasn’t going to stop him. This is what he wanted to do- maybe what he had to do. The Xander with laughing dark eyes hadn’t been completely real for a long time, and this colder, harder stranger was the man her bestest friend had become, living on the Hellmouth, and she’d never been able to see that.

And she knew that the guilt of that was the real reason she could let him go.

Spike had disappeared out the door with a stack of boxes a mile high, leaving only a couple for Xander to carry. Xander started to pick them up, then stopped, and looked over at her.

The next thing she knew, she was being lifted clean off the ground and spun around. She yelped in surprise, and then Xander was crushing her hard against his chest in a hug so tight that she could barely breathe.

She heard him whisper, “I’ll send postcards,” and then she was so blinded by tears that when he set her down she couldn’t see him leave, and didn’t realize that he was really gone until the door had clicked shut behind him.

And when she realized that the Xander she had once loved with all her teenage heart was truly gone forever, she collapsed to the floor and cried as if her heart was breaking.

Maybe it was.

It was a full two months before the mail started arriving. At first it was just cheap postcards, the kind you pick up at tourist stands in every city in the world, and to her it seemed like the postcards really were from every city in the world, because there were so many and they were all different. And then there were short letters, just notes, really, with snapshots of the two of them, always taken at night, in front of some landmark or other. And then the letters started getting longer, and the pictures more diverse and numerous, and there were more mornings that she could smile after she’d checked her mailbox. Finally she started getting emails from him, and even from Spike, who, as it turned out, was hilarious to talk to online, especially when Xander was doing evil things to him while he was trying to type.

In other words, it started to feel like maybe she hadn’t lost her best friend at all. Xander was always grinning in all his pictures, and his stories were always full of light and humor and, surprisingly enough, love.

The more she talked to him, the more she realized that the darkness that had crept into Xander over the years- it wasn’t there at all. Now that she knew about it, knew how to look for it, she could look back over a hundred thousand conversations since the fateful day that Buffy had come into their lives, and she could see it welling inside him, but now... it was just gone. As if leaving with some evil, undead thing that encouraged him to be as dark as possible had made him into a creature of light and warmth, and Willow couldn’t help but notice that some of that had seeped over into Spike, who seemed almost caring in some of his emails. Not much, because he still called her “the silly bint” most of the time, but still. He was different. Xander was different. And they were both better.

And happy, she thought. They were so happy.

One day she went out to her mailbox and opened it, and she saw another letter from Xander. And when she opened it, she saw a long letter he’d written in his bold, slanted handwriting, but she also saw a picture. Just one, and this confused her because there were usually many more, until she looked closer, and saw that it was a picture of them standing in front of a large sign that said “Welcome to-“ the two of them standing in front of the name, and Spike’s black car parked in the background. She knew where it was, though.

So when she looked up with a smile, she knew exactly who she would see.

The End

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The Spander Files