For my anonymous donors of paid LJ time (both of you--thank you!), and for saussy, who regrets not having the shrimp salad...
After Africa, working for Angel made a weird kind of sense. Well, anything that paid more than five dollars an hour made sense, because nothing took a hit out on your savings account like a year in Zimbabwe, and nothing made the First World seem more like a bizarro fantasyland than ten weeks in Angola. In Angola, having one eye made you normal. Here, not so much. But he was dealing. They were all dealing. And he had a job, which was something good.
He was still figuring out what his job was, exactly--so far it seemed to consist mostly of just hanging around, being there while things happened. While Angel talked to clients, or while Spike threw pencils into the ceiling or crushed beer cans one-handed. Because Spike was back too, which was another angle on the weird. Wasn't Spike supposed to be dead? Really dead? Maybe, maybe not...but there he was anyway, hammered most of the time on top-shelf booze, because Angel wasn't a vampire P.I. anymore, he'd somehow transmogrified into a vampire C.E.O. of an evil law firm. Which was redundant, but there you go.
Xander suspected that Angel had hired him pretty much out of pity. You had to feel sorry for the one-eyed guy who had no clue what was going on, right? The guy who could barely keep his head on his shoulders most of the time, and who seemed to have picked up some kind of vertigo bug on the Dark Continent.
Pity was cool.
Today his job was to sit on a smooth, wide leather bench in a dim chophouse while Angel talked shop to a guy without a pulse. Not Spike--Spike was on Angel's other side, sprawled out with his head tipped back, like Sid Vicious in bad decline. The other guy was some kind of upper-echelon vampire, someone Angel was dealing with. Trying to deal with. It wasn't going too well, from what Xander could tell.
"I'm talking about your own best interests," Angel said, keeping his voice low. You could still hear, if you knew him, that he was maybe three minutes from doing violence. That was kind of comforting, knowing that. It almost made up for having ordered the crabcake sandwich, which Xander hadn't had the appetite to eat. He kept forgetting he'd left most of his appetite in Africa. "I'm talking about your continued existence. Until you piss me off and I come after you, that is."
The vamp smiled gently and straightened his teaspoon on the table in front of him. "Well then," he said. "How can I refuse to listen, when you put it like that?"
Angel's shoulders settled a little--Xander could almost hear him thinking, Well, okay. Now we're getting somewhere. "You'll have to sign a contract. Binding. I'll have it drawn up today."
The vampire raised one eyebrow and then let his gaze shift sideways to settle on Xander. "And will I get five gold doubloons and a bottle of rum for my troubles?"
Xander just sat there, not getting it for a second. Rum? Oh--the eye patch. Right. The guy was making fun of him. He should get pissed off now. He looked around briefly for a little anger, but he didn't have much of that these days either. So he just sat there, and after a second he realized that both Angel and Spike were looking at him too. Spike had actually lifted his head to a vertical position to do it. His eyes were red-rimmed.
"Or perhaps," the vamp went on, moving his gaze to Spike, "I'll get my very own MTV special. With groupies. And--" He paused, and sniffed delicately. "Cheap whiskey."
Spike opened his mouth, and Angel clamped a hand onto the side of his neck. Things were going downhill fast, Xander realized.
"You're either dealing, or you're wasting my time," Angel said tightly.
"I might just have come for the amusement," the vamp said. "You keep such interesting company these days, Angelus. A crippled human and a black sheep with a soul. Tell me." He leaned forward, pressing the tips of his fingers together so that the nails whitened to chalk. "If you had to choose one of them, which would it be?"
Angel sat still, his hand still around Spike's neck. Xander had the sense that the table was starting to spin in front of him. Just a little.
"If you give one of them to me," the vamp said, "I can ensure the co-operation of every master vampire in this state."
"No deal." Angel let go of Spike's neck suddenly, as if he'd just realized he was holding onto it. "And the check's yours." He stood up, and Spike puddled obediently out of his side of the bench. Xander put his hands on the table, started to stand, and realized he was going to pitch forward onto his face. Into the other vamp's lap, practically.
Except he didn't, because a strong hand caught his arm and held him upright. He hung there, spinning. The edges of the room were dark. He needed to get this checked out, whatever it was. Also, his timing sucked.
"Stand up, boy." It was the other vamp who had hold of him, who was looking him in the face with a kind of reserved curiosity. He had blue eyes, crow's feet. He smelled like breath mints. "Why does Angelus keep you?"
Xander tried to get his eye to focus properly on the table, on his own hand swinging faintly below him. His ears were roaring. Then someone else grabbed him from the other direction, and he was yanked back to the right side of the table.
"We're leaving," Angel said, and hauled Xander out of the booth. He had Spike in his other hand, Xander realized. Both of them stumbling, weaving, led by their scruffs through the dark maze of white-linened tables and white-coated men stepping hastily away. Behind them, the vamp started laughing.
"What's your problem, anyway?" Spike asked, letting his head fall back with a thump against the concrete. "How come you're all--" He raised one hand and let it wobble drunkenly in midair between them. Which probably wasn't hard, considering that the hand in question was indeed drunken.
"No idea." Xander put his palm against his forehead and pressed. Sometimes that helped with the spinning. "I picked something up in Angola, I guess."
"You got a fever? Seeing things?"
"No." Not unless you counted when he was asleep, and he didn't count that.
"Too bad," Spike said, lifting his head nominally to drink from the mouth of the bottle. "Wouldn't have said no to the company."
In the old days, Xander would have availed himself of the opportunity to point out that if Spike saw things, it was because he was drunk pretty much all the time. Now he didn't bother. One of the things he'd left by the wayside was his old, familiar sense of moral certitude. Also, about fifteen or twenty pounds. He was getting to be a really cheap date.
"Share." He put his hand out, and after a minute the bottle was in it. Whatever else you said about Spike, he knew where to score hootch. And if Dawn knew Xander was using phrases like "score hootch," even in his own internal monologue, he'd be the subject of an intervention so fast it'd make his head spin. More.
"I never really thought you were all that bad," Spike said, fumbling to light a cigarette. "Kind of liked you, actually."
"You hated me," Xander said flatly.
"Well, right, I did, but at the same time..." There was a long pause, a few abortive scrapes of the flint, and then a string of smoke drifted past Xander's face. "Well all right, you were a wanker."
"You're better now."
"I'm an eyeless, stumbling outcast now."
Long, absent exhale. "Yeah."
Xander swigged grimly and stared at the sky. The roof of Wolfram & Hart was cool and almost breezy this time of night, but there was a pink pall of smog, like a mohair blanket thrown over his face. He'd never appreciated the stars in Sunnydale, when they'd been there for the taking. Here in LA, no more stars. Apparently he now got maudlin when he drank.
"So why's Angel paying you?" Spike asked, without much interest.
"No idea." He refrained from turning the question around. For about three seconds. "What about you?"
"Not a clue." Spike yawned, his jaw popping like a twig. Then he belched. "All I do is drink his whiskey and throw fits."
"I fall down when left unpropped." That was dumb--he didn't need to try to make Spike feel better. But even while he was thinking that, he handed the bottle back. "You'd think he could find better henchmen."
"We make him look good," Spike said. "Put us on either side of him, he looks like a million quid."
"He looks like an Outward Bound counsellor."
"He's gloating. Likes seeing me crawl."
"I like seeing you crawl too, but I wouldn't take you to a business meeting."
"What business--" Spike paused. "That was a business meeting?"
"What did you think it was?"
"Thought it was..." Spike trailed off, got thoughtful, then shrugged. "Never mind."
Xander lay still a minute, pondering what would happen if he dug a little deeper. Bad things, he decided. When Spike trailed off, it was best just to let him go.
"You knew he was a poof, right?" Dammit.
"Spike, I really don't want to know about your freaky tag-team vampire incest family, okay?" He'd never thought about it. Never. Where was the bottle, anyway?
"Not Angel. Well, him too, yeah, but the other one. That...Smuthers, or whatever."
Smuthers? Xander frowned. "Smuthers?"
"The bloke at the restaurant. Altoids Vamp."
Xander had a brief flash of the strong hand on his arm, the mint breath in his face. Why does Angelus keep you? "That guy? Is a poof?"
"What'd you think?" Spike chuckled, like this was the kind of warm, Norman Rockwell moment that good friends shared and cherished. "That whole thing about giving one of us to him? Christ, I was worried for a minute."
"He was gay?"
"Too drunk to do anything about it if Angelus, fuck, Angel, poof, whatever. Handed me over." Spike raised the bottle and looked at it. "Should stop drinking so fucking much, in case he decides to do it." He had a drink.
"Okay, wait--" Xander's head was spinning faster. "You're saying Angel was going to trade us to that guy for..."
Spike looked at him, bleary-eyed, amused. "Yeah?"
Spike laughed and took a long drag on his cigarette. "You sign anything when he hired you?"
"Just a basic contract, he said it was just pro forma--" Xander felt a little sweat trickle down his ribs from beneath his arms. It had been kind of long, and he hadn't really read it. "But he's not evil, right? He's not Angelus or anything?"
"Fuck no. If he was Angelus, you'd know it. Believe me." Spike held the bottle out with an air of friendly commiseration. "He's not evil, he's a lawyer."
"Might want to check the fine print," Spike said, and waggled the bottle.
"Hey, Wesley, do you have a second to--"
"Sorry." Wes was smiling, apologetic, one hand raised but his feet still moving him forward. "I'm late for a meeting with some very important clients, can it wait until this afternoon?"
"Yeah, sure." Xander smiled back, lobbing apology back automatically. "Sorry, no problem. Later." Wes turned and busy-walked down the hall to the conference room. Or maybe it was the meeting room. Or the lobby. Somewhere else, anyway. Xander stood scratching his head, trying to decide if he was going to fall over.
He was Donut Boy again, he'd realized. Version 2.0. Wolfram & Hart was big and busy and slick, full of anonymous good-looking people in suits doing mysterious legal things, and he never knew where anything was, who was in charge of what, which hall led to the bathroom and which led to the White Room. Which he didn't really get yet, but which he knew he didn't want to visit. The only people he ever recognized were Angel, Spike, and Wes. And Gunn, because Gunn was about the only black guy working there. Everyone else just faded into the background, partly because he couldn't see very well, partly because he was sick half the time, and partly because he was, he was starting to suspect, kind of a yokel. A life in Sunnydale didn't prepare you for LA and The Firm, no matter how many vampires you'd run from. Sometimes he really missed the old hellmouth.
In the meantime, he had this contract to worry about. He'd spent the night trying to remember something--anything--about the sheet of paper he'd signed, and drawn a blank. It was almost like he had some kind of hole in his brain there, right at the moment where the tip of the pen had touched down. Just...nothing. Not a reassuring feeling, especially after spending half an hour or so with Spike outlining all the riders that might be in there, conceivably. Depending.
"I am no man's bait-and-switch," he muttered, starting arbitrarily down the hall to the left.
He ended up in the coffee room, which was deserted. So, okay. He set the machine to piddling into a cup, and for the hundredth time, examined the photocopied fire route map pinned to the bulletin board. Relative to the coffee room, Angel's office was...well, practically next door. He should be able to walk out, turn right, go down a short hallway, and find it. But he'd done that before, and he knew it never worked.
"I'm onto you," he told the map, tracing routes with his forefinger while keeping his thumb on the break room. "Never match wits with a Sicilian when death is on the line."
"Thought you were Polish," Spike said. When Xander turned around, he was already taking the coffee out of the machine and sniffing it.
"What? No--hey, that's mine." It was free, and it was bad, so he wasn't sure why he cared, but there were principles to uphold. "Don't you have a job to do, or something?"
Spike rolled his eyes sideway in his head and gave Xander a look. He was wearing ripped jeans and a black T-shirt inside out, the label flipped up against the back of his neck like something you'd use to hang him on a peg board. His hair was a nuthatchery. There were deep bags under his eyes, and he looked gaunter than usual. He smelled very morning-after.
"What're you doing?" he asked. Xander felt himself bristle, and wondered, Why the hell am I bristling? This is ridiculous.
"Trying to find Angel," he said. "Did you just wake up?"
"Yeah." Spike tried the coffee, scowled, and tried it again. "This's shit."
"Yeah, it was my shit, but now it's yours." Xander slapped the button for another coffee, and went back to the map. "This place is worse than the mall."
Spike settled into one of the molded plastic chairs, and propped himself in a death portraiture pose against the table. "Red was the Pole, that's right. I remember now."
"Red was not the Pole," Xander said. "Red was the American of Jewish heritage."
There was a pause, then a long, depressive slurp. "Don't tell me it was the Slayer, then."
"Yeah, it was." Xander checked the legend, tipped his head to a forty-five degree angle, and realized where he'd gone wrong before. All he had to do was go through the Copyright Clearance office, turn right at Grievances, and he'd be just around the corner from Angel's door. "Okay, see you later."
"D'you want to have sex?" Spike asked.
"Very much," Xander said, retrieving his coffee from the machine. "Someday, again." There was silence while he stirred his sugar in. A terrible thought budded in the back of his brain, and his mouth was eager to share it. "Hang on, you mean with you?"
Spike stayed slumped over the table, watching Xander with flat python eyes. Xander stood still, waiting for the room to upend around him, but it didn't. Apparently he wasn't going to swoon over Spike. Cool.
"Sorry," he said, licking the stir stick and pitching it into the trash. "I'm fresh out of wit for that. I have pity, if you want some."
"I need brownie points," Spike said into the crook of his arm. He still hadn't moved. He looked like the victim of a Mafia hit. "Karma. Got to do something about these fucking voices."
"Voices." Xander let that one go. "You're offering to have sex with me as a penance for your past sins?"
"Well, and for practice."
"Practice for what?"
"Whatever you're going to end up doing when Angel rents you out."
"I--" Xander lathered indignantly. "I won't be doing anything, because he's not renting me out, because I'm not for rent."
"Fine print," Spike said, dragging his upper body up off the table with a sigh.
"I'm not having sex with anyone, Spike." That was really just a statement of fact, rather than a position, but still. It was true, dammit. "And Angel's not going to try to make me. He's a good guy now, remember?"
"He knows you sent him to hell," Spike said.
"Okay," he said, when he could speak again. "Okay, but see, the thing is, I was a kid, I had no impulse control--"
"Never been much of a forgive and forget type," Spike said, scraping his chair back and standing up slowly, as if he were moving in his own personal high-g field. "Always liked a grudge, Angelus."
"It wouldn't even be legal," Xander said.
"Which way is it to Angel's office?" Xander asked.
"Map's right there," Spike said, and Xander turned nervously back to check again, and then the wall came forward and smacked him in the face, followed by the floor.
t b c
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