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It's kind of odd feeling you have to apologize for writing a story, but I know a lot of people have been waiting patiently for the next installment of Noir and sending me wonderfully kind, charming, unanswered e-mails. I had to get this out of my system though. It's been on my mind for a long while, and it was beginning to distract me from--and, um, creep into--the noir stuff.

So, okay, I cop to this being essentially just a big self-indulgent tumble of scenes more than an actual story, basically the fictional equivalent of skipping a stone across a lake, all surface, no depth, until it finally sinks of course, and then...yeah. I've always imagined that season four could be plausibly rewritten with Xander going through the Big Gay Change instead of Willow, with Spike replacing Anya as the demon of his affections. In some ways, a coming out drama makes more sense to me as an extrapolation of his previous characterization than it does for Willow's. Still, I do love canon, and I hope people won't be offended by the rewrite of Willow-Tara.

As this is a collection of scenic side notes to a slightly off-the-beam rendering of season four (hence the title) it helps to have familiarity with S4 episodes. I've taken that reader knowledge for granted, which some would say weakens a story, except is this a story? I still don't know.

I also suspect the section headers are lame, but they're one of the few flimsy devices giving this a structure. Many are quotes from S4 eps, or variations on episode titles; others aren't.

I tried to get beta readers for this but, uh, I think I scared them off. Feedback welcome at eliade@drizzle.com. I may revise this at any time. Take snapshots now.

Written for Sandy and Te.






Sidelines
A Season in Other Rooms


by
Anna S.



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Part One ~ My So-Called Life

Xander threw his duffel on the dull floorboards and looked around. He hadn't spoken more than a dozen words on the drive, and every one he'd spat out was a hard little thing, like a bitter olive pit. That didn't help right now. Didn't make him feel better when he couldn't even talk without betraying his parentage. Even disowned, he was the un-love child of the Harrises. Dad's hardness. Mom's bitterness. Except that when he'd left--no, wait, because he'd been tossed out on his ass, hadn't he--his dad had been yelling. His mom, crying. God. A scene from some crap movie off the Lifetime channel.

"It's a bit rough," Spike said, kicking some trash aside as he paced the width of the room.

His head slewed around dangerously, gaze fixing on Spike's back. He wanted someone to ask him how much he hated Spike right now. How much? So much that given the tiniest provocation he'd nail the vampire spread-eagled to a window frame to watch the sun rise. And oh, he'd stay awake for the show himself, too. Might eat some Doritos while he did. Listen to Spike beg. But he supposed you couldn't call the remark provocation, at least not with the diffident, apologetic tone Spike was putting on. Bullshitter.

"Fixer-upper," continued Spike. He lifted a saucepan from a hot-plate, considered the baked-on crud it held, then turned it over briefly as if expecting something to fall out. Nothing did. He set the pot back rather than tossing it. Boy, he was restraining himself. "Quick sweep, coat of paint. Be good as new."

Spike's ability to spout such brisk assurances without breaking face was a marvel to Xander, who wanted to punch him for it. "Good as a new sewer," he said in disgust.

"Rats would add something." Spike's hands found his pockets, and he heaved an affected sigh. "Namely, dinner." He still wasn't meeting Xander's eyes.

And Xander still couldn't bring himself to move or touch anything. He'd never been sure if the proverbial glass was half-full or half-empty, but he knew when the glass was broken. He felt it cracking now, and mustered the habit of meanness to distract himself. "Rats would be better company." And a small meanness was better than none.

Spike finally turned his head, torn midway between glare and resentful contrition. "I said I was sorry. Look," his arm waved doorward, "you want I should go back, tell them--"

"God, shut up! No! You've done enough." Xander's mouth tightened. "I can't even tell you how much enough you've done. Leave my parents alone. Leave me alone."

"Fine." Spike began to stride out angrily, all attitude and peroxide, the leather arm of his coat brushing Xander's sleeve as he passed, but when he reached the door Xander heard him pause, sigh again. "Look. I can't leave you here." Irritation, grudging acknowledgment. "Some vamp gets you and the Slayer'll be serving me my goolies for breakfast."

"Don't worry. When I'm the undead, I'll put in a good word for you."

Spike laughed, sort of. It was the kind of sound you could mistake for something else. Like a man's throat being cut. The soft rasp of his lighter followed, then a snap as it closed. Smoke drifted into Xander's airspace. "I'd like to see what kind of vampire you'd make." Spike's voice was thoughtful. "Bet you'd have fun."
 
The Joy of Vamping, Xander thought. It would be a bedside table book, the kind you kept with your tissues and Vaseline. Mind: stop wandering. Exhaustion was taking its toll. He'd spent too many recent nights trying to sleep within six feet of a chipped and restless vamp who would not shut the fuck up. It made no sense. Three years backing up a slayer, three years of paying half-attention to librarian lectures read from doorstops, and okay, he was never going to be Xan'Dar the Mighty, striking fear into the unbeating hearts of vampires everywhere, but he'd learned a little something about battling corpses animated by unholy blood-lust, so why was he thwarted by one neutered asshole slouched moodily in a chair, talking him to death?

"Fun," he scoffed aloud. A dark scoff. "Fun is carnivals and strip poker and naked boogie. Fun isn't ripping out people's necks with your overbite."

"Can be. Fun from both ends if you do it," he paused, "proper."

Xander heard a smile in the vampire's voice and hated him all the more. "Stop ogling my neck," he crabbed. He knelt to unstrap his sleeping bag, and rolled it out flat. Spike strolled back from the threshold and inspected the premises again. His boots scuffed the boards, somehow saying things even when Spike didn't. Like: I don't want to get dust on my duster. And: I'd kill you for a pint of whiskey and a pack of fags. I'd off you for no reason at all, Harris, not even bothering to feed. Then I'd lounge on your sleeping bag with my dirty boots.

And yet he was in no way scary.

"These floorboards are rotting," Xander commented. "If I fall into the basement while I'm sleeping..." He trailed off grimly, thought uncompleted.

"You'll what?" Spike asked after a moment, with his style of random, sociopathic curiosity.

"Me nothing. I'm thinking you'll probably lick my bloodied corpse."

"Yeah," Spike said. Wistfully. Then, pulling himself out of reverie with a head shake: "'S not so bad. I've seen worse squats. Dossed in places that'd make this look like the Taj Mahal."

"This comforts me why?" Xander laid himself out on top of the sleeping bag and stared at the ceiling. From the corner of his eye he watched Spike take off his coat, fold it up into a pillow, then lay down next to him, head to toe, toe to head. Still smoking all the while.

"No smoking in my rat-hole," Xander said. Because this was home now, and you had to start somewhere.


He opened his eyes. This was the waking-up part. Funny thing was, his alarm hadn't gone off. And the basement was lighter than it should be. Ceiling higher. Reality? Check. He sat up to find a demon in his view. Spike slept like the dead, immobile, hands laced on his abs, boots crossed at the ankles. A stripe of sunlight was creeping toward him across the floor. Xander, estimating with detached interest, gave it an hour.

The room looked different by day. Crappier. The floorboards were splintered, layered in filth, and littered with beer cans; the walls covered in graffiti; the windows half-boarded. Trash lined the walls and clogged the corners, and the only furniture was a crooked table that held the hot-plate, a can of coffee, and a broken mug. The whole place stank of stale piss.

"All the comforts of hell," he muttered to himself. Including a resident demon. "Wake up," he said, kicking Spike in the shoulder with his sneaker. But Spike slept on. Vulnerable, silent. So many possibilities spread out in Xander's imagination--most involving stakes and gasoline--that he was paralyzed until his fantasies subsided back into the gloom.

Somewhere right now (okay, Stevenson dorm if you wanted to get technical), Buffy and Willow were waking up, yawning and stretching in their girly jammies, all with the college banter as they toasted English muffins with butter and strawberry jam and stop, don't think about food. They'd have let him sleep on their floor, no questions asked. Except they would have asked questions, the kind he didn't want to answer. Too embarrassing, his problems too unlike their own. He was fine sharing angst over an apocalypse or three, but parents were what separated them into tiny islands. His was the island of the damned.

Once he could have talked about this new development with Willow, but she'd left her own family dramas behind when she fled the nest, escaping so easily it was as if she'd always been poised to fly. His stories weren't as funny without hers to compare them to, merely pathetic. Their vibe was changing, too. Even before Oz left, Xander had started to notice that when she asked about his life, she cocked her head in that familiar way, with kind, spaniel-eyed attention...but then her eyes wandered, as if she were thinking about other things. Sometimes she'd smiled to herself and he'd known she was thinking of Oz. She hadn't been her old self since Oz went away, though, and that was just one more reason why he shouldn't dump his problems on her.

Funny. He'd always considered himself the more independent one--hey, every guy was a lone wolf under the skin; not just Oz--but here he was stuck in post-grad loser mode, gears grinding, while everyone else moved on.

Damn, he had to be at work by ten-thirty. Where was he going to shower? And then he knew. He wasn't going to, because there was no shower, and oh god, he was Bill. Bill from work. The sweaty guy with the greasy uniform who never bathed, who manned the pizza ovens in a soul-withering blaze of heat and odor that drove away all human company. Soon he'd become Bill Junior, and they'd end up hanging together by the dumpsters during breaks, forced into hellish proximity by natural law, two shlubs who stank with anti-social intensity and quiet desperation.

But Bill lived with his parents. Okay. Did that put him higher up the food chain, or lower?

"Dru," Spike crooned to himself; then his voice dropped in pitch and grew huskier: "That's right, love. Play gentle with the nice dolly...."

Kill me now, Xander decided, and fled.
 


He was Pizza Guy, hero to the masses, his secret identity carefully concealed behind...well, a big red uniform and a stack of pizza bags. Not so secret.

"Hey," he said to the shaggy and oh-so-baked guy who cracked open the door of his dorm room. "Pizza's here. You look hungry, man." The guy inarticulated a response, opened the door further, and peered carefully out, up and down the hall. Up and down. Up and down. Xander followed the guy's paranoid scan like a metronome. "You just missed them," he said when no action was forthcoming.

"What?"

"Those guys, you know, with the uniforms and badges. Campus security? Yeah, they were sniffing around, but all of a sudden this herd of squirrels shot out of the stairwell and the cops took off after them. Weirdest thing I ever saw." Xander stared earnestly down the hall, shaking his head as if amazed. The kid looked panicked, thrust some money into Xander's hands, and slammed the door. Xander waited. The door opened again, the kid took his pizza, the door slammed.

"I take my fun where I find it," Xander said. He slipped the bag under his arm and strolled a few doors down to knock on 214.

"Just a minute!" Buffy's voice called, and then she filled the doorway with a breathless rush, dressed in UC Sunnydale sweats that hung on her like someone else's much bigger skin. She held one hand behind her back.

Xander looked her up and down. "I was hoping it was a naughty minute, but you're just a fleecy little miss, aren't you."

"Oh, hi!" she said in relief, then drew her hand out from behind her back and gave the stake she held a self-conscious grimace. "Ever since Mister Blond and Chippy came to visit, we've been more careful with the invites."

"Smart." Xander gave a small, crooked smile. But a bit late on the Spike front, he thought.

"What are you doing here? And let me preface that with 'come in'."  With a bright, apologetic smile, she opened the door wider. Inside the room smelled of flowery bath products, nail polish remover, and burnt toast. Twin, twee lamps shone cozily, and the CD player was spinning the Dingoes' one and only CD, Massive Snake Attack. Willow looked up from her bed where she was doing homework.

"Xander. Hey!" Her grin was wide, spontaneous, and all for him; looking closely, he couldn't even find the faint Ozless shadow behind her eyes he'd grown used to seeing. Her eyebrows quirked up. "Are you here to rescue us from hunger?" She affected a pitiful, whimpering sound. "Please say yes, please say yes."

"Alas, I have delivered every last precious pie to its rightful and very stoned recipient."

"Ohhh." Willow appeared crushed.

"That's okay," Buffy pepped. "We have ramen." There was a moment of pointed silence before she sighed and caved. "Okay. There was no way to make that sound upbeat. So hey, no pizza. What about demons? Any demons?"

Xander pretended to check his pockets. "Damn, I think I left them in the car."

"No demons, no pizza--what good are you?" joked Willow. And Xander smiled, and tried to take it as a joke, but he couldn't think of an answer. Luckily, a conveniently timed knock came at the door, and for a moment his life was the breezy sitcom again, and not the lame movie-of-the-week that was always one channel flip away.

Buffy opened door number one and revealed Riley, who smiled and gave them a well-balanced greeting somewhere between cheerful and earnest.

"Pookie muffin honey-cakes," Buffy chirped.

Riley's face went blank as internal guy circuits processed the greeting. "Are we…we're on endearments. I'm behind again, aren't I?" He took a deep breath. "Pookie?"

Smiling, Buffy closed the door behind him. "I'm just fishing for the fear. I admit it, I'm a fear junkie."

"I think the attraction is supposed to be your own fear."

"Oh. I like other people's fear. Does that make me a sadist?"

"No. That makes you a dentist," Xander said. "The two are easily confused."

"I was wondering where all my teeth went." Riley, hands in pockets, bounced on the balls of his feet, grinning widely. "I wake up in the morning and feel like I've been drilled and flossed," and Xander watched with fascination as Riley noticed everyone looking at him, Buffy's eyes growing bigger, "and I really am no good at extemporaneous humor," he finished, face falling.

"'S okay," Xander shrugged, "Neither am I. It's just this tone of voice I've cultivated." He was showing it off as he spoke: flat, casual, indifferent, the accomplishment of years poised between boredom and mortal terror. "Tone is everything. Content meaningless. Observe. Radishes are what's for dinner. Not the skunk again, honey. Yes, that is my broken foot you're standing on."

The other man laughed, and hey, Xander could admit it. He had a little man-crush on Riley. He was a nice guy--always friendly, always looking glad to see Xander. Like now. Happy smile on his face, happy guy. And fought demons, too. The kind of guy you'd want your sister to marry. Or, lacking a sister, your slayer.

"So what's up?" Willow asked from the bed, while Buffy took one of Riley's unpocketed hands and began swinging it a little. Riley, the gamest of game boyfriends, let her.

"We think a Hellgarth demon. Nasty critter. We were tracking it, but we lost its trail halfway across town in an energy surge."

"Magical?" Willow sounded hopeful.

"Maybe. We were hoping you might tell us."

"Can I? And how!" Bouncing off the bed, Willow radiated homicidal enthusiasm, but on her it just looked chipper. "Let me grab a few magic books and then you can tattoo my ass property of the U.S. Army." Off their faintly scandalized looks, she amended: "If it's a temporary tattoo for, you know, a few hours. And maybe you could just stamp my hand." She paused. "Okay, I'm in the kill groove. But a girl has her moods!" She began packing a knapsack, while Buffy turned back to Riley.

"Any call for a slayer on this posse?"

He smiled down at Buffy. "Always." Xander had the familiar feeling of being a spectator on the sidelines, or the guy you wrote into the scene but forgot to give dialogue, and then Riley turned to include him. "You're coming, right, Xander?"

"I don't get off work until nine. I have to end out someone's shift."

"I guess we could wait," Riley said politely after a moment's hesitation, reluctance written in his hopelessly honest face. It meant something, that offer, coming from a professional soldier. War didn't wait on pizza, right?

"No, that's okay. You guys go ahead. I've got this thing anyway." This thing. He pictured his new room in the abandoned building, a meal of congealing pizza slices from work.

The others hesitated some more for good measure, dragging out one of those sticky situations that made Xander want to hit something. Like maybe himself. Then they went their way, and he went his, back to his dilapidated car with the sprung seats and the cigarette burns of history. His rear-view mirror had come unglued again and fallen to the floor.

He passed his friends as he drove away through the dorm parking lot, but laughing together as they walked, they didn't notice.


The room was empty when Xander arrived, but his sleeping bag was still spread out on the dirty floor, unstolen and from what he could tell, unmolested. The rest of the place was different.
 
"Holy Martha Stewart and all her merry elves," he said in bemusement, holding his greasy pizza box and staring around. Floor, swept. Trash, gone. Sofa, grotesque--but, hey, sofa. Its flowery, half-stripped upholstery showed foam cushions that looked as if they'd been chewed by starving weasels, one arm and part of the back was blackened by fire, and you got the feeling that more than one O.D. had gone down in its homely embrace. Still, when Xander took a seat, it didn't crash lopsidedly to the floor, and he counted that among the day's few, small blessings. Tiredly, he began eating his pizza. He noticed a lamp as he chewed. It was on. Electricity. His life had electricity again. The pizza couldn't fill the pit of dread in his stomach that he'd have to thank someone for this.

Crashes and curses sounded from the hallway. It was the sofa fairy.

"Bugger!" Spike bellowed from somewhere outside Xander's field of vision, and suddenly a boot kicked an armchair into view outside the open door. Spike appeared a moment later, coat off and sleeves rolled up, wrestling the chair into submission. He knocked it aggressively around on its legs as he shoved it at the doorway, glowered in baffled rage when it didn't fit through the frame, then hauled off and began kicking its ass again and again in a savage frenzy. Pausing to look up, he scowled. "Could use some help here."

"Right now, Spike, you're my television. Do that dance again."

Spike huffed and finally managed to drive the chair into the room by brute force, but like some terrified animal, the chair resisted any attempt to slide it across the floor. The vampire picked it up and threw it bodily ten feet, landing it right-side up with a bang directly across from Xander, who continued to eat his pizza. Spike skulked over, tossed himself viciously into the cowed seat and drew out his cigarettes.

"I'm thinking a career in home decoration isn't for you. With your temperament, you might want to consider long-distance trucking. Maybe chef school."

"Hey, I just dragged this thing up three flights of stairs for you."

"You wrestled the bad chair for me?" Xander raised his brows. "And cleaned the place, too, I see." At Spike's glare, he made a clucking sound. "Aren't you quite the little Cinderfella."

"Watch your mouth. I don't have to take this." Spike sat up, affronted. "Try to furnish a hole to your spoiled, suburban standards and this is the thanks I get. Ungrateful, that's what you are." He pointed his cigarette Xander's way.

"It's the least you could do, isn't it," Xander replied calmly, "considering you got me kicked out of my home." After this reminder and a long pause during which he successfully stared down the fiendish undead, he conceded, "But thanks...you really did all this?"
 
Slouching back, Spike took a long drag and exhaled on his words. "Got bored," he admitted. "Long days, too much light." That nutshelled the plight of Californian vampires, Xander thought, and really, the placement of the Hellmouth was pretty ironic when you thought about it. "Don't get used to it," Spike warned. "Not going to put myself out for the likes of you every time you play the guilt card. Your punches are used up, mate. Here on out, it's every blighter for himself."

Yadda, yadda, yadda. "How'd you get the juice?" Xander asked, nodding toward the lamp.

Lacking a sparring partner, attention-deficit-man settled down again grudgingly. "Handy at splicing. Survival skill."

"Huh. I didn't know you had skills."

Spike ignored or didn't notice the jab. "Modernization separated the men from the minions. I learned to adapt."

Xander found he didn't really care. He tossed his pizza box aside, rested his head on the back of the couch and thought about his parents, and about Spike, and about the odds of going home again. Pride wouldn't stop him. To hell with pride. He could crawl to his parents on his belly as well as any other underpaid slacker, if it meant resuming his cozy basement. But this new anger, simmering deep inside, threatening to boil into an uprising...that might do him in.

When he lifted his head again, Spike was watching him squintily, with a head tilt. Awww. They were each other's television. "What?" Xander challenged.

"C'mon," Spike said, rising and collecting his coat from a nearby crate. "You look like you could use a good kill. God knows I can."

Despite himself, Xander stirred and followed suit. 'Every blighter for himself', oh yeah. Spike had all the short-term memory of a pudding cup. "So, shouldn't it burn your mouth to take the name of the Lord in vain?"

"Jehovah, Jehovah, Jehovah," Spike uttered with toneless satisfaction, leading the way out the door.

Trailing behind him, Xander shook his head once. "Guess not."


When your town center is built around a graveyard, local culture tends to have a unique spin. Xander had grown up on the lame-ass jokes: this town is a morgue and hang a left at the dead center of town. Add eleven more boneyards to the city map and things get even creepier, except when you're eight years old the creepiness is cool, Halloween full year round, and by the time you're sixteen, you're well on your way to taking it for granted. Then one day some perky blonde breezes into your life and you learn that all those yards of neatly laid out corpses, with names like "Peaceful Acres" and "Restful Realms," aren't peaceful and restful, because the dead like to boogie.

"That was my third-grade teacher," Xander realized, ten minutes and ten blocks later. "Mister Boney."

"You are joking." A wave of smoke rolled out on Spike's minor snort.

"No. I knew I didn't like that vamp! He failed my science project. I was showing the limitations of Dixie cups and string for the conduction of sound waves." Xander pondered the irony, or maybe the justice. "Hey, thanks for staking him, man."

"De nada."

Feeling generous, even--god help him--companionable, Xander had to admit that a good kill was a tonic. Got the blood pumping, cleared the sinuses, established a bond between men. Rarin' to go another round, he heard himself utter insane, careless words he could never take back: "You know, you and me--dusting vamps--we could be like a duo. Whaddaya say?"

"No."

"Come on. What happened to killing demons for truth, justice, and the American way? For puppies and schoolkids and--"

"And all that sickening rot? The moment's passed, Harris, and I'm tryin' to forget it. I only asked you along tonight out of sheer bloody pity and since that's an emotion I'm not harboring again in my unbeating breast, you'll have to stagger along on your own pins from here on out."

"Hey, okay. I just thought maybe you'd want a sidekick to throw your brilliant evil into sharper relief, but your call." A sidelong glance revealed Spike pondering this point with a sudden frown as they entered the gates of Serenity Manor. "Olive drab alert," Xander said, spotting a familiar group of people clustered together just past a row of headstones.

"Right. I'm off." Spike turned on his heel.

By the time Xander looked back, Spike's coat was flapping behind him as he strode off through the gates. You couldn't really blame him. Vampire, slayer, commandos: not a mixer you'd want to attend without body armor and heavy weaponry. Of course, some of them had that.

He walked over to the group, gaving a friendly little wave as he approached to ensure that he wasn't mistakenly targeted by their lifting crossbows. "Hi! Hey! Am I too late for the picnic?"

"Shhhh!" came several voices as Xander drew to a halt. Inside the protective circle made by several very large soldiers and one small but forceful slayer, knelt Willow, who was striking a divining rod against what on first glance looked like a piece of raw salmon, but which Xander quickly realized had to be something else entirely, unless the Hellgarth they sought was a very large salmon demon.

"Ducas eloqui vermentim," said Willow. It wasn't what she really said, but if Xander had been asked to repeat it ten seconds later, that's what he might have come up with. Still chanting, she drove the divining rod through the demon salmon and into the ground, releasing a puff of pink smoke that smelled of rotting flesh. Even the most hardened soldiers turned away, covering their noses and making gagging sounds.

"Wow." Buffy coughed. "That's some potent magic, Will."

"The reactive scent means the demon transmogrified."

"You mean it's something else now?" asked one of the commandos Xander recognized as a friend of Riley's. Graham--that was his name. "Oh, that's just great."

The black guy next to him wondered, "What do Hellgarths turn into?"

"And why didn't we have intel on this?" Riley added pointedly, anger hardening his voice.

"Giles might have something in one of his books." Willow stood up as she made the offer, brushing grass from her skirt.

"Thanks." Riley nodded at her, obviously trying to remain gracious despite being massively pissed off. Losing face in front of school-kids. That had to burn. Xander wondered if Riley would get over the whole misplaced pride thing. He was so transparent, and he hadn't figured out yet that Buffy didn't keep score--as long as a problem got solved by a successful application of brains, brawn, or magic, she was happy.

Give him another apocalypse or two, Xander thought, and he'd get it. Ego cut no ice when you were in the thick of battle; teamwork, that was everything.

Hey, look at me. Weathered veteran, wise advice on request. And yet, see me standing here with nothing to do. With wry, semi-professional interest, he watched the Army boys exchange crackling messages through their walkie-talkies with unseen back-up and then disperse in pairs on Riley's orders.

"Shall we?" Riley asked, deferring to Willow in a way that made Buffy smile. He took the lead with Will, the two of them chatting about mystical energies and great party tricks you could use them for. Buffy fell into step alongside Xander.

"Liberated from the pizza prison?"

"On a twelve-hour pass."
 
"Good." She linked arms with him. "I miss you." Xander tried not to preen too visibly. "I wish you were in school with us," she went on. "We were the three musketeers. Which were, like, swordsmen, right--not just a candy bar?"

"Right."

"Aren't muskets guns?"

Faced with this implications of this poser, Xander blanked. "Yeah. Huh."

"Of course, two of us are swordswomen, but I don't suppose they have a different word. Musketeers, muskettes--oh! Mouseketeers! I get it now!" She sounded genuinely delighted, and Xander lost himself in her smile for one golden, priceless moment.

Later, there was a near-miss incident involving shoelaces and the sudden attack of a curb, but he lingered in the Buffy afterglow all the way to Giles's place, where they threw themselves onto his furniture and pestered him with snappy banter until he broke, took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Score, Xander communicated to Willow with a silent, brow-waggling gaze. Old game. See who could bring down the librarian's glasses first. Willow grinned.
 
That was one of the better nights.





Part Two ~ Aspirations



Early afternoon, a bright sunshiney day, mouth of Hell. Outside the glass window of the pizza parlor girls in shorts and halter-tops walked back and forth. Xander had been rubbing the same six inches of counter for about ten minutes, observing the wildlife and calling up vivid thoughts you couldn't show on TV, not unless you had the good cable.

Breaking into his fantasies with tragic eptitude, Pete appeared on the other side of the counter, clipboard and pencil in hand. Six-foot seven of assistant manager, all bones and nose. Xander craned his neck to make eye contact, but Pete was devoted to the raw beauty of his checklist and couldn't tear his eyes away. "It's slow. Why don't you take your lunch now."

"I've only been here an hour."

"We'll make an exception this time."

"Yes, but I'm not hungry."

Head raised, Pete's line of vision cleared the top Xander's red cap by most of a foot, making it easy to overlook him. "Marty, take the register," he called.

With a twitch of irritation, Xander tossed aside his rag and headed out. The world beyond was painfully bright, sun glaring off window glass and metal bike-racks. As his feet absently carried him toward the hot-dog stand where by default he took most of his lunches, he nodded at a pair of guys from his graduating class. They walked by without noticing him, talking seriously to each other about high-velocity, death-defying, ultimate-risk sports. Or so he guessed.

"Xander!" Red hair, stretching wave, grin.

"Will. What's shakin'. Gimme some skin." He slapped palms with her, and she giggled.

"I'm on my way to pick up some stuff from the magic shop. Are you on lunch?"

"Yeah," he said, and five minutes later they were knee-to-knee at a tiny grilled table, surrounded by sun-hatted women drinking iced coffee, and his hot-dog was already gone. Between sips of a milkshake, Willow rambled on about classes, projects, a Wiccan group she'd started going to. Xander didn't have to do much but nod in the right places and ask a few casual questions. He'd always loved listening to her talk. Now their lives only overlapped at the edges; they didn't share the same teachers, know the same popular and annoying people to make fun of. Difference and divergence happened. Sad, maybe--that is, if you were other people. Sad people.

No moping for him, though, and none of that woolly-headed British introspection. Nothing to see here, folks, move along.

"Do you ever feel like you're on the sidelines?" Xander picked up a stirrer and fiddled with it, trying to turn his latte into a sundial.

Willow unlipped her straw, receptive eyes focused wholly on him. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, like, someone else's life is the big show, center ring, and you're the clown over by the cheap seats. Tumbling on your ass for a laugh, kids tossing peanuts at you."

Willow's look turned knowing. "Xander, you're not a clown. Buffy is the slayer. She gets all the big dramas, yeah, but she also gets the big pain. It's not the kind of life you choose--it's the kind that chooses you."

He nodded diffidently and smiled a small, crooked smile. He wasn't getting himself across, and he wasn't even sure he wanted to, and yet he kept talking. "I don't mean Buffy. Well, maybe I do. But it's not just her--it's everyone." He waved a hand around the crowded food court. "The shoppers and lunchers and employees of the month. I don't get it. I'm not on track or something. Everyone's gettin' jiggy with it but me."

"Getting jiggy?"

"You know what I mean. What's my purpose?"

The expression on Willow's face suggested he'd just smacked her with a two-by-four. "For existing?" she asked squeakily, eyebrows leaping for her hairline.

"Yeah."

"You, you're, you're--you're Xander."

"Define 'Xander'." He wrote irony quotes with his fingers.

"You're my friend, and you fight evil, and--and you know all the words to 'The Rhubarb Tart Song'."

"I think therefore I am a rhubarb tart."

"See?" She smiled hopefully.

He always wanted to humor her, but somehow sarcasm oozed out instead. "Immortality is mine."

Willow's face fell a little, but she kept doing the friendly girl-thing, giving comfort where none would be taken. "You're just having a mid-life crisis. I mean, not mid-life, but uh, quarter-life, a quarter-life crisis. Just give it some time. Not everyone figures out what they want to do right away. Look at  me. When I was six I wanted to be a biochemical engineer, and the year after that a veterinarian, and then there's my whole fixation-on-nuns phase that drove my mom back into therapy. And now, I have no idea what I'm going to do with my life, Xander. I'm studying psychology and history and magic, and I love it all. Next year I'll have to declare a major and I have no idea what I'm going to choose." Her voice was plaintive and reedy and inviting, knitting a warm sweater around Xander. He couldn't bear to tell her it didn't quite fit.

"Maybe I'll become a nun," he said off-handedly, and garnered one of her disappointed looks. She thought he hadn't been listening, that he was blowing her off with trademark humor. Truth was, he didn't know how to answer. He tried to ameliorate. "I hear what you're saying, Will. I just...it's not so much the having of too many options."

"You have plenty of options! You're smart, you're just--"

"Lazy? Bored? Unqualified for a job cutting fish?"

"Unmotivated," she said firmly.

"Oh, right," he replied, as if recollecting that.

"No more self-pity, mister." Willow shook her finger at him. "Stiffen that lip, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and fly right."

Her own irony was shining through, but he knew some part of that scolding was in earnest, the important part, so rather than offering a rejoinder about the difficulty of flying while entangled in your bootstraps, he saluted her sharply. "Ma'am, yes ma'am."

When he returned to work, he carried the job ads with him.





Part Three ~ Yummy Sushi



The hallway light was flickering again, but it was moths this time, cluttering up the measly glow and bouncing weird shadows off Clem, who was doing the left-no-right shuffle with Xander as they passed in the hall.

"Hey, Xander." Clem's greetings were always cheerful. "Sushi tonight?"

"It's like art, only better," Xander said, shifting his grocery bag. "You eat it. It fills the belly."

"Always found it kinda creepy," Clem admitted. "Raw, cold flesh. Weird colors." He gave a skinful shudder.

Xander had been meaning to ask for a while what exactly Clem ate, but refrained. He had his suspicions, but it wasn't human beings, and that's all any neighbor needed to know. "You seen Spike?" he asked instead.

"Saw him at sunset, heading out. Bad mood." Clem was sucking air through his teeth, shaking his head. "Said something about crawling in a bottle and coming out next Tuesday."

"Great."

"Poor guy. The differently-abled lifestyle is a hard adjustment. My cousin-in-law has no arms or legs, and he's a real bear about it. Runs Mandy ragged and she's only got one arm herself. Hey," he perked up again as a new thought struck, "You want in on the poker game tonight?"

"Kinda short right now. Maybe next week."

"No problem. I can spot you a few kittens. It's between friends." Clem smiled effusively with every last one of his teeth.

"I'll think about it." Xander hated fobbing him off, but Clem was just too nice to turn down more than once. "Might drop in later."

"Great! Come thirsty--I bought some Zima!"

Xander continued upstairs to his apartment. He'd started thinking of it like that, like it was home, even though the mailman wouldn't deliver here and the nearest phone was down the street in the laundromat. At least he'd managed to get the plumbing working, trading a Mirrithi demon his collection of original Trek novels to do a rush job. Three weeks and already he was assimilating to life on the margins.

Spike, on the other hand, was doing less well. He'd moved into a room as far from Xander's as he could find while remaining in the building, and was nesting there sullenly among debris he was too lazy to cart out. Whatever housewarming zeal he'd dredged up on Xander's behalf seemed to have drained away. Xander had gone up a few times, but the bare mattress and peeling walls depressed and annoyed him. He'd thought about reciprocating Spike's gesture--lending a hand to move up some furniture and clear out the trash; had even taken the first step by bringing him a card table he'd found by a dumpster. Spike had flung it angrily over the stairwell with a string of drunken, nonsensical insults that did nothing to endear him to Xander. They hadn't talked much since then.

Despite the absence of any lock on his door, no one had yet disturbed his stuff. And that might have had something to do with Spike, too. No estrangement could quite kill the vampire's sense of territoriality; weirdly irrational as he was, he seemed inclined to keep Xander safe from harm. Okay, so he'd watched and lurked with cynic-eyed indifference while Xander got mugged last week, but afterwards he'd collected the perps--a couple of ratty Frellar demons--made them apologize and hand back the bag of tacos, and then killed them. That was nice.

The inside of Xander's apartment didn't look half bad now. Switching on the ceiling light revealed a room with tan, painted walls and neatly stacked milk-crates containing his clothes and a few personal items. He set his bag down and hung his jacket on a chair. Before he'd pulled more than half his groceries out, a knock came on the door.

Opening it--that was a mistake anyone could have made. "Anya." He stared, not quite getting the punchline. "What are you doing here?"

She was looking both ways down the hall, face pinched unhappily. "Let me in. I think there's someone following me."

As she brushed passed him without actual invitation, he peered out. "I don't see anything."

"Oh, it's probably just the cabbie. I think I lost him though. Can you believe he tried to claim he didn't know where you lived? He drove me around in circles and then expected me to pay him."

Xander shut the door behind him. "Well, he may have been thrown by the absence of street signs and the barricaded roads. It happens."

Paying no attention, Anya examined the room. "This is horrible. I knew it would be bad, but this is worse than my lowest expectations."

"Thanks. We try. So how did you find--" Me, he almost said. "--this place?"

"I bribed your boss to tell me where you were."

"You know, updating your employment records just never pays off."

"I was going to follow you, but you were wily."

He raised his brows in bemused disbelief. "Anya. I leave work. I go to the supermarket. I come here."

She frowned. "Yes, and I kept getting distracted. That supermarket is always having sales." With bewildered concentration, she wandered around the room, touching things with dainty fingers and miming the displeasure of a lady whose maid has not kept up standards. "I don't get it." She turned. "Why are you here? Is this a masculine ritual of self-abnegation?"

"Excuse me?" He boggled politely. "Say again?"

"A Spartan or ascetic lifestyle," she clarified, curls bouncing and eyes wide as if she couldn't quite believe she had to explain this. "Are you mortifying your flesh?"

"No, my mortification is not of the flesh." He aborted an incredulous laugh that would have been more unkind than she deserved. Not that she'd have noticed.

"Good. Because that would be terribly misguided." God, she was so earnest. He marveled at her, see-sawing between affection and irritation. He was growing more glad to see her by the minute, feeling the relief that comes with having one's sterile life invaded by feminine chaos; but also he felt uncomfortable. She didn't belong here. No one did, but especially not her. Unsure why, he sensed it had something to do with her purse. Nowhere to set it down.

"Do you want--" he began.

"I've come here because we need to talk," she interrupted. Then waited.

"Okay." He tipped his head, acknowledging this warily.

"The basement was bad enough, but this--this is--" She seemed to lack words and was taking deep breaths, perhaps to try and find them. "Xander, you're downwardly mobile! I can't have that in a boyfriend. Not after all the struggle I've gone through to assimilate into your materialistic culture. You have to shape up." She said this urgently, as if trying to convince him to lay off the crack.

"Believe it or not, this is me trying."

"Do better!"

Xander bit his tongue to keep the first words that rose from spilling out. The second words were: "Look, you don't have to come here. I knew you wouldn't like it. That's why I've kept it a secret." He moved over to her, gathered her in one arm and guided her expertly toward the door.

"I thought you were avoiding me because you didn't want to have sex."

"No. I always want to have sex."

"Oh. Do you want to have sex now?" She squared her shoulders with stiff, brave martyrdom, but the crinkled anxiety of her face told him she'd rather have stripped down in the middle of a boxing ring on national television than in his no-rent apartment.

"Yes, but I want to have dinner more."

Anya looked up at him, pretty-headed and trouble-eyed. "Xander, tell me the truth--are we still dating?"

There should have been an easy answer to that, because they'd gone out to dinner and a movie two nights ago, and hung at the Bronze with Willow and Buffy the night before that. Wasn't that dating? "Sure," he said, wondering why it felt like a lie. Uneasily he hesitated, then leaned in and pecked her on the lips. He'd just drawn away again when she wound her tight arms around him, pressed her breasts closed, and kissed him unstintingly. They kissed until he was hard enough to feel like he'd accomplished something necessary, then disengaged.

His more-or-less girlfriend looked better pleased with him now. "I'll be thinking of you later," she promised as he opened the door for her.

"You mean when you..." He cleared his throat, gestured southward.

Smiling like the sexy woman she was, she left him solitary and confused on the threshold of his apartment, thinking about her as she walked away. After the door closed behind her, his place was emptier and less human. He opened the unboarded windows, let a siren wail inward along with shouts and clanging metal from the alley. You were supposed to go after the dame now, he thought. Run down the stairs, grab her arm and whirl her. Kiss her and make it right, even when it was so wrong.

He didn't. He ate some sushi, read a comic book, then fell asleep on the top of his sheets fully dressed.

He was his own man.





Part Four ~ Come Over All Demony



"I don't like this," Willow said, pacing next to him and twisting her hands together. "No one's going to call here. Whoever heard of a demon asking for ransom? Or even using the phone? And if it was going to call, why would it call the guy it kidnapped? Okay, sure, some demons are phenomenally stupid, but..." She trailed off, worrying at her necklace now.

Xander slammed the door against the wall in frustration, accepting there would be no hinge-fixing that night. "Damn it! What kind of grown man doesn't have tools in his house? Giles is at least forty--what if he has to fix a leaky faucet or board the windows up against zombies?"

"Oh!" Willow cried, and Xander turned to see her holding the broken necklace, its beads bouncing and rolling across the floor.

"Easy, Will." She was kneeling to gather the beads, but he stopped her, took her arms and pulled her into a hug. "He'll be okay." She snuffled and then cried against him; light and small, she felt no more than twelve. Like a kid sister.

"We don't even know what it was," she said, pulling away to wipe her face. "What if it's one of those things that liquefies your bones, or--or likes to pull apart its victims bit by bit?"

He took a deep breath. "You're just getting yourself worked up." And me, he thought, not liking the pictures she conjured. "Why don't we go through the books again?"

"There's thousands of demons, Xander." Willow's eyes brimmed with hopelessness, but her rebuttal came out like anger. He touched the side of her hair, stroked it smooth.

"We might match something to the descriptions. You never know."

"Well," said a voice behind them. "Place has certainly gone to hell since I stayed here. Why, I remember when the bellhop greeted you at the door--fact, I remember when there was a door."
 
Xander had turned to Spike, tension gathering in his shoulders, one hand clenching into a fist. If you can't hit the one you want, hit the one you're with. "This is really not a good time."

Spike lit a smoke perfunctorily, tucked his lighter away. "Looking for your lost watcher?" he asked, tipping his head, then held his out cigarette as if an idea had just occurred to him. "You thought about putting flyers up?"

Time and temper snapped, and Xander hit him. It didn't connect very well--Spike ducked to one side, and he overbalanced, but then he caught himself and spun Spike against the outer wall and hit him again. That one went home, and Spike's eyes flared with violence, a kind of intimacy between them Xander couldn't break away from. He lifted his fist again.

"Xander, stop!" Willow was tugging at his arm. "Please!"

"Yeah," Spike taunted in an affected, gutter voice. "Stop. Please. Don't hurt me, Mister Harris."

Seething with self-control, Xander stepped away. Spike remained slumped against the wall in the precise position he'd been left, bleeding and bright-eyed, shoulders tilted, coat askew. You might draw a chalk outline around him. And once not that long ago, Xander would have been so infused with hatred that he'd have left the vampire there in disgust, walked away without another thought. Now thoughts connected unwillingly.

"Wait, how did you know Giles was missing?"

"Oh, the other shoe drops with a crashing thud." Spike rolled his eyes, dug in his pocket, and pulled out something clinky and shiny which he tossed to Xander. "Came to return these."

"These are his car keys--his house key."

Willow suddenly bristled like an outraged cat. "If you've hurt him--" Both men's heads turned her way as she stammered on. "I'll, I'll turn you into something slimy and small and never turn you back. You'll be a snail on the bottom of my shoe and then you'll just be--you'll be flat!"

Wow, thought Xander. Even Spike looked impressed, somewhere under the veneer of his annoyance. "Relax, Red. Your woolly librarian's fine. Well, was when I left him. He's been turned into a Fyarl demon."

Her face lit up. "I've seen--I know those--there's a picture!" She ran inside, leaving them alone in an awkward moment glued together by a look, then broken when they decided to follow.

Inside, they gathered around the heavy demony tome. "Yep, that's the one," Spike said, before wandering off to the liquor tray.

"Oh, hey...mucous." Willow frowned.

"Killed by silver," Xander read aloud, finger tracing the line of text.

"We need to let Buffy know."

"Do we have Riley's cell phone number?"

"I know it." Willow went into the kitchen to make the call, and Xander's eyes were drawn to Spike, who'd tossed himself onto the couch with a full bottle of something expensive-looking. He took an unhealthy swig. Xander could still feel the ache in his knuckles from where his fist had met Spike's face.

"Why did you do that?"

Brow knitting, Spike glanced at the bottle he held. "I was thirsty," he said slowly, as if explaining to a five-year old.

"You knew I'd hit you." Xander held his hands out loosely by his sides, palms open. "What's your pay-off? Making me feel like an idiot? Because I don't. I'd hit you again. I don't even need a reason, other than the thousands of people you've killed."

Spike, head tipped slightly back, stared at him with the dark unwounded eyes of a predator, but said nothing. Eventually, Xander did feel somewhat like an idiot and walked off, just as Willow came around the corner beaming.

"They're fine! They're on their way back already!"

And it seemed like seconds later that they heard a car pulling up, Giles's familiar and tired tones, Riley's laugh. They swept in, Giles wearing a shirt made for mocking, and there was hugging and exposition and a general collapse of relief before anyone noticed Spike.

"Hey," Riley was the first to say, wearing a big friendly smile and tendering an outstretched hand. "We've met before, haven't we? You're a friend of--" His face changed. "You're Hostile 17." He yanked his radio from his belt as several voices overlapped with "Wait!" and "No!"

"No, Riley." It was Giles, his voice edged but quiet. He glanced at Spike. "He helped me tonight. And even if the incentive did require large amounts of my cash--"

"Which I haven't seen yet," Spike interjected pointedly.

"--it would hardly be sporting to kill him."

"Oh, I'm not going to kill him." Riley gripped the radio tightly, poised to use it. "I'm just going to bag him and return him to captivity where he belongs."

Spike snorted, and even Xander had to admit that the macho was laid on a bit thick, though he wouldn't have said so.

"It was my understanding that the chip renders him harmless." Giles's attention was entirely on Riley, close and fixed as if he were trying to read something in his face beyond whatever reply he might give.

"You wish." Spike stood, puffing out his chest. "I can still throw down."

"You're not making a very good case for your freedom, Spike." Giles shot him a look, started to turn away, then arrested on the bottle. "Is that my Macallan?"

"It's my job to take him in," Riley said stolidly.

Buffy stepped up, arms folded. "And I'm completely willing to help, honey." She cocked her head at Spike, challenge in her eyes.

With a snarl of disgust, Spike stepped forward, and Riley was moving immediately, along with a confusion of Buffy and Giles--

"Stop it!" Everyone paused, brought up short by Xander's command. "You aren't bringing him in," he said to Riley, who looked put out. "And neither are you," he added, nailing Buffy with a sharp gaze. "He's been fixed, fangs pulled. He can't kill. If you let him go, all he's going to do is lie around drinking cheap booze and boasting about his glory days until some young punk gets sick of hearing it and dusts him." He met Spike's eyes; the vampire's face was appalled and his eyes out of focus, as if he were seeing a vision of his future.

Riley remained tightly wound, though. "I can't just let him go. I have to report this."

"So?" Xander shrugged. "You spotted a vampire near here. Ten minutes from now."

A long, tense silence passed before Riley reluctantly nodded--one sharp jerk of his head while he looked at Spike with dire promise. Spike started to say something, then compressed his lips and walked out past the rest of them. The party broke up after that, with Riley having little more to say to Xander before he left. It stung, but he could deal. Watch him deal.

"So, G. How was Mister Toad's Wild Ride?" He took a chair as Buffy came back inside.

"I beg your pardon?" Giles's brows arched as he poured himself a drink, then he sighed to himself. "I swear, I don't know whether to think Ethan mad or...well, perhaps madness is the simplest explanation."

"So, you just let the MPs cart him away?" Willow wondered, curling up with her cocoa. "Isn't that illegal? I mean, he is human."

"That's what he claimed," Buffy said dryly.

"Frankly, I'm more worried about them than him." Giles settled on the couch, noticed Willow's dubious face. "I shouldn't fear. Ethan is resourceful and has more than children's magic tricks at his command."

"Still. I like Riley and all," she shot a guilty glance at Buffy, "but if what Ethan said about the Initiative is true--I mean, we don't really know what their plans are."

"Yes," said Giles. "I understand your concerns and to some extent share them." He lifted his glass, then lowered it again without drinking. "However, I've been working with Maggie for a few weeks now and I have to say, I've been pleasantly surprised by her professionalism. I think if I can convince her to trust me--well, so far the exchange of information has been rather a one-way street. But I'm intrigued by some of the possibilities she's alluded to. Just think, Buffy, someday you may be able to take out a dozen vampires from a safe distance, without lifting more than your little finger."

Buffy looked at her little finger, crooked it and wiggled it. "Vampires, beware!" she growled, and made stabby motions before pausing to examine her fingernail polish.

"Yes," Giles said dryly. "Exactly so." Idly, his gaze panned away, stopped on Xander. "Are you all right?"

"What?" Xander drew himself abruptly from complicated thoughts, wondering how long the spotlight had been on him. "Me? Fine. Why?" He reined in his paranoia with difficulty at the other man's mildly concerned expression. "Just tired. Think I'll take off."

He left his friends, wishing them a good-night, and went out through the broken door. He was thinking of Riley and the Army and his parents, and his life in general. The tide of self-absorption crept in sometimes when he was distracted, and he thought there might be advantages to having a full-time job slaying monsters--your mission would at least keep your thoughts occupied when they tried to be elsewhere.

But he had no mission. Just a job and a half-life, and a bunch of secrets he didn't tell his friends. Driving home, he wished he had a better explanation for himself. Or some idea of why he'd stuck up for Spike. It wasn't guilt for hitting him. Nothing so easy to pin down. But then, parking his car and getting out in front of his crumbling building, he realized.

They shared an address.


The following week they ran into each other.

Spike, a brown whiskey-shaped bag tucked under one arm, spared him a scowl, then ducked his head intending to plow by. Stopping him with a show of strength was a laughable idea, but Xander stretched out his arm and leaned his weight into the wall. The other man halted, mouth tightening, eyes held straight ahead. His effort of will was obvious.

"You look like shit," Xander said, giving him the once-over. Shadows feathered Spike's eyes, dark enough they might have been bruises, and he'd never seen the vampire's face so drawn and white. Not chic goth, but fish-belly pale, like something dredged from the bottom of a river. He stank of drink. "You're just determined to make all my predictions come true, aren't you."

"Leave me alone."

"Gladly--except I have something of yours."

Turning his head, Spike waited silently. Looking into those cold eyes, Xander wondered where all the funny had gone. This wasn't a comical creature in a tasteless Hawaiian print trying to off himself, and his memories seemed suspect now, as if Spike might be able to make him see any illusion he presented.

Xander pulled the kitten from his jacket pocket and handed the mewling scrap of fur toward Spike, who recoiled an inch, brows drawn sharply together. "Sod me," he said, but his warning came out in an off-key, doubtful way, with a tone almost like astonished laughter hiding beneath. The expression on his face suggested someone unsure if he was dreaming.

"It's from Clem. He wanted you to have it. Something about a bar tab."

"Christ. I don't want it. Toss it. Keep it. I don't care." His words tripped out in a tired lilt.

"Hey, I'm just the delivery man."

Grimly they stared at each other until Spike, mouth pinched and eyes hard with dislike, took the kitten from Xander's hand, stuffed it in his own pocket, and walked away.





Part Five ~ Moist and Delicious



Strange to be sitting at a real dinner table with a cloth and silverware and plates that would break if you dropped them. The spaghetti wasn't bad either, other than the strange crunchy things, and those you could pick out. He noticed Willow discreetly draw one from her mouth and deposit it on the edge of her plate, nudging it under a piece of bread.

"This is great, Buffy." Willow lifted another forkful of pasta and smiled.

"Oh good. I wasn't sure. I couldn't find mom's recipe, and I tried to call her but she wasn't in the hotel. Then the box of macaroni fell in just as I was finishing the sauce..."

Everyone looked down at their plate, forks held midway to mouths with sudden pause.

"Tasty," Xander said generously, and managed to get down another crunchy mouthful, complete with uncooked noodles.

"So, er, as I was saying." Giles, giving the appearance of someone very much done with eating, took a sip of wine. "I think you should continue patrolling with the, the squad," the word was mouthed distinctly, "and continue trying to find as much information as you can about this 314."

"So 'Maggie' didn't fall for your little plan, Giles?" Xander toned down his smirk.

"N-not as such, no. In point of fact, she drank me under the table." He sounded embarrassed and faintly disgusted to confess this.

"Whaaat? Whoever heard of a watcher losing the all-you-can-drink race? I thought you guys got diplomas in that."

"Only an honorary one. More of a joke, really."

From the mild, acerbic tone of voice Xander couldn't entirely tell if he was joking now. He shook his head. "I suppose all legends must come to an end."

"I'm not dead, thank you." Exasperated, Giles stood, preparing to clear his place.

"No!" Buffy jumped up and slapped his hand away lightly as she took his plate and silverware. "I'm the hostess. The kitchen is off-limits...and, um, you might get hurt. I kind of had to do battle with the refrigerator. But--but it attacked first!" At their amused faces, she groaned pitiably to herself. "I'm going to be cleaning until mom's back."

A little while later they were sitting in the living room with some movie flickering unwatched on the television. Giles and Willow held coffee; Buffy played restlessly with the hem of her skirt. They were all talking, perfectly normal, and then gradually Xander realized they weren't. He dragged his gaze from the TV and looked around to find everyone staring quietly at him.

"If I've turned into a horned demon," he said blandly, "I hope you won't be afraid to tell me." Inside, heartbeat accelerating, he fought down the unnerved sense of his own impending doom.

"We thought perhaps there was something you'd care to share with us." Giles was calm, eyes steady on him.

It isn't hard to sustain a complex lie if you apply yourself. Call your friends before they call you, tell them your phone line had been taken away--tell them not to come by the house because your parents are having troubles. Ask them to reach you at work if it's important.

"I saw your mom in town yesterday," Willow said. "Why didn't you say anything?" Her face was hurt, her voice plaintive and confused.

"What did she say?" The words half-stuck in Xander's throat; he had to clear them out.

"Not much, just that you haven't lived at home in weeks. She seemed really upset."

Yeah? thought Xander. Good. Aloud he said, "My parents think I'm gay." Everyone exchanged cautious but meaningful glances that turned his mood slightly more sour.

"Why, er, why would they think that?" Giles asked with a frown of affected confusion, giving Xander a quick glance before discovering a sudden need to clean his glasses.

Well, he always knew he'd have to explain at some point. "Spike came home after screwing some truly skanky-smelling demon chick and it was all over his clothes so I made him take them off to wash, and he went upstairs in my pants with no shirt, covered in love-bites, and he stole a beer from the fridge and said hi to my dad as he passed. Oh, and he happened to mention that I owed him some money, which needless to say was not for hot gay sex, but that's the part he didn't happen to mention." Xander took a steadying breath as the memory threatened to wig him the fuck out all over again. "And then scenes of great tawdriness and humiliation ensued."

"Oh, Xander." Giles put his glasses back on, his voice gentling and deepening to a concerned intimacy that made Xander's shoulders hunch in resistance. "I am so very sorry."

"Xander, I'm going to tear his ass to strips for you." Buffy stood angrily. "As soon as I find him, one vampire, no skin."

Willow frowned doubtfully between her and Xander. "Buffy, I don't think that's going to solve the problem this time."

"Yeah, but it'll be damn fun, though."

Giles's own frown skipped off her with authoritative reproof.  "Buffy." He focused on Xander. "Your parents--they kicked you out for this?" A cold, un-Gilesian fury seemed to be surfacing behind his mild-mannered facade. Hello, Ripper.

"My dad? Not embracing the idea of a live gay son."

"Perhaps if I speak to him--"

"You're missing the point, Giles," Buffy said irritably. "Xander's not gay."

"Well," Xander said. And let that lie there. The others tuned into him wordlessly one by one, each clocking in on a slight delay.

"Oh." Willow's brows lifted. No real surprise.

"Oh," echoed Giles, and he cocked his head like a bird, reminding Xander strangely of Spike. He kindly re-established a degree of distance behind his glasses, but there was no surprise in his eyes either.

Buffy, however, akimbo and slightly anxious, wasn't willing to assimilate this new information yet. "No, Xander, don't let this get to you. It's all just a stupid misunderstanding. Your dad, he saw this thing and, and he thought one thing, because with the pants and the love-bites, and of course--but it was another thing. I'm sure if you give him time to cool down--"

"Look. I just...I don't know what I am. I just know I've been thinking about things. But it doesn't matter. It's done. I'm nineteen years old. It was time for me to move out, anyway."

"Where are you living?" Willow's elastic face was eager for news, and she smiled, ready for the news to be good. "Do you have your own apartment? Oh, do you have roommates? Are they cool? Are they in a band? Do you like, stay up all night with them jammin' and talking about philosophy, then go out for pancakes at the crack of dawn?"

"Man, you're uncanny," Xander said with a gloss of admiration.
 
More questions were asked about his new place, most of which he successfully evaded until Giles sensed his discomfort and came to the rescue, redirecting the chatter to other, idler topics. And as they were leaving, he drew Xander aside.

"If you need a place to stay--" He let the offer hang, hesitant and very formal, with a hundred things left unsaid.

"Uh, no. Thanks. I'm good."

"I'm glad--well, I'm glad to see you falling on your feet. I wish it didn't have to be so. Parents rarely understand their children, but are capable of much cruelty when they do."

Wow. Deep. Xander nodded and swallowed. "Thanks," he repeated.

"You know where I am if you need anything." Giles's gaze bored through Xander's head, and for a horrible moment, Xander imagined he could see right inside.

"Yeah. Thanks." Man, he was as articulate as cheese tonight.

"Xander." Giles's voice was gentle, quizzical. "You do know I consider you a friend?"

Then there was very British hugging, and a mercifully amnesiac fade to black.





Part Six ~ And Again with the Sorry



The dance floor was crowded that night, which was as good an excuse as any to stay at the table. Xander Harris, eternal voyeur, watched Buffy and Riley dance. Well, he watched Buffy dance, anyway. You couldn't really call what Riley was doing dancing.

"That man is so white he could single-handedly bring about the fall of disco," he remarked. "Which is maybe not a bad thing, unless it's replaced with that." He nodded pointedly at the half-hearted shuffles being enacted.

"You're not being fair," Willow said in his defense. "Maybe he has a sprain."

"I'm going to the powder room." Anya stood up. "Willow, would you like to come with me?"

"No, I'm okay."

Anya was trying too hard, her smile cracking with the effort. "Are you sure? Women often go in groups and share grooming tips. I could show you how to apply eyeshadow to make your eyes look less protuberant."

Self-consciously, Willow lifted a hand to the side of her face. "My eyes?" she repeated, voice higher in pitch.

Some sense of faux pas seemed to penetrate Anya's consciousness. "Well, if you need me, that's where I'll be." She hesitated a moment longer, then shimmied off.

Willow turned to him immediately. "So when are you going to tell her you're gay?"

"Maybe gay," Xander clarified. "And I haven't gotten up the nerve yet. She's so--" He groped for a word.

"Annoying?"

"No--"

"Psychotic?"

"I was going to say clingy." He gave her his reproving 'bad dog' look. "She's not that bad, once you get to know her." And have sex with her. "Of course, she's stranger the more you get to know her. I've learned things about the vengeance business that will ensure I never, ever insult the size of a woman's derriere again."

Willow frowned worriedly. "Do you think she'll get all vengeance-y when you break up with her?"

"You know, I can honestly say I haven't thought about it--more than, oh, two or three thousand times."

"She better not mess with you," Willow said, projecting an air of danger Xander suspected was only half-mock. "I may not be able to de-rat Amy, but I'm pretty sure I can rat her."
 
"Hey." Xander spotted a familiar face by the side entrance. "Isn't that your friend?"

"Oh!" Willow straightened in her seat and waved energetically. "Tara!"

Tara caught sight of them and waved back, then began to ease her way through the crowd, drawing in her shoulders and apologizing to everyone she bumped even when they didn't notice her. She reached the table looking cheek-flushed and shy, and shrugged out of her coat before taking a seat. "Sorry I'm late," she said.

"No, we just got here." Willow invited Xander's agreement with a glance. "Didn't we?"

He nodded while Tara made relieved noises. Girlish chatter followed, then Anya came back and Xander found himself surrounded on all sides by womanflesh. It wasn't a bad place to be and he chimed in now and then on the conversation, but he was getting that restless feeling. Like would it be so strange if he hit on some guy for a game of pool, and what if he just hit on some guy? It was too weird, because he could picture dancing with a guy. And more. But not here, in front of his friends. He'd feel like a dork. He'd had crushes on Willow and Buffy, thought about sex with them. He'd tried so hard and now they'd know that, they'd get that he'd been trying, playing to his strengths and not his weaknesses--because he liked women okay, found them sexy. The other thing, he'd always been sure he could overcome that. Only now that he didn't have to worry about his dad anymore, now that his bridges were unintentionally burnt....

Why try so hard?

"We've got trouble," Buffy said, coming breathlessly up to the table. "Big vamp--" She noticed Tara. "Vampy chicks. Big, big gang of them on the dance floor, hitting on all the guys. Hussies." Widening her eyes meaningfully at her posse, she conveyed slayer-in-need.

"Hey, Buffy." Willow smiled meaningfully back, brows aloft. "You remember Tara? She's a witch and, um, she knows about vampires."

"Oh." Robbed of intrigue, Buffy looked deflated and then relieved. "Great--want to help us kill some?"

It was nearly overkill--a slayer, a commando, two witches, and one brassy ex-demon with a heavy purse. And Xander, of course, who dusted one vamp only to find himself knocked to the ground and heavily sat on by another. The vampire, not obeying its racial imperative, throttled him instead of biting, banging Xander's head repeatedly against the ground. Another near-death experience, he was telling himself, and then the vamp was wrenched off him with slayer strength and tossed into the alley wall.

"Are you okay?" Anya helped him up, brushing off his clothes. "I hate when they hurt your head. Skulls can dent, you know, and then you'd be lopsided."

"Yes, and my secret fear is asymmetry." Xander raised his head and was splashed in the face with dust as Buffy's final victim exploded in front of him.

"Oops." Buffy winced as he coughed. "Sorry."

"No problem. I'm pretty forgiving when my life has just been saved. Again."

Once back inside, the rest of the evening seemed anti-climactic and broke up early as everyone paired off with casual good-nights. Anya talked incessantly while Xander drove her home, and he welcomed the one-sided distraction, which let him prepare for the moment when he shut off the engine, turned to her and said, "There's something I need to tell you."

He didn't want to hurt her, but he did. She cried, accused, bargained, and challenged him until she ran out of words, and then they sat there in silence staring out the front window of the car, ex-lovers who didn't know how to separate any less messily.

"I'd really like to end this without a case of pustulant boils," Xander said after a while. "But I know you're upset. If you want, maybe just a boil or two. I could probably live with that."

"I should curse you. The very first man I'm with as a newly reborn human, and he turns out to be a--" She broke off, sobbed once, then wailed, "It's not fair! Are you sure it's not me?"

"Of course it's not you. You're...very special."
 
"But sometimes, when you had trouble, you know--crossing the finish line?"

"Me, all me," he reassured her. Please god, not sex talk. Would no power on earth pry her from his car?

"You always made it good for me," she sniffled, sounding tenderized by the admission.

Xander, feeling vaguely like a gigolo, shifted in his seat and decided he had nothing to say to that.

"I won't be friends with you though." Anya lifted her chin haughtily, regathering her dignity and anger. "It would violate every principle I stand for. Stood for. You'll have to live knowing you've caused me great pain and, yes, heartbreak." He hung his head and grimly waited her out as she opened the car door, but she paused to look over her shoulder at him. "I don't know why you think you have to be gay. Take my word on it: you're very good at being a man." And on those bitter words she left him, slamming the door behind her.





Part Seven ~ A Room with an Honor Bar



Climbing the stairs, Xander felt a tiny bite of apprehension in his gut. It was weird. He felt guilty, almost, for letting time pass and for not checking on Spike. He'd seen the vampire, sure, but not to socialize; only from a distance--Spike spotted briefly on the stoop, boots resting on different steps as he paused to light a cigarette (he was the only person who lit up before he entered a building); Spike drifting off into the shadows, blending with the night. He occasionally brought home groceries--that much Xander had glimpsed from the halo of street lamps.

That, and he seemed better. Stronger. Not psychotically chipless, but walking upright.

Xander knocked on Spike's door. After a few scraping sounds, it opened. Spike leaned one arm on the jamb, face expressionless. He was wearing a black tee and jeans. In a word, tidy.

Sorry to bother you, Xander's upbringing wanted him to say. A more recently ingrained distaste for vamps made him less polite. "I'm not your errand boy." He held out an envelope, which Spike just studied. "Some guy stopped by looking for you, wanted to make sure you got this."

"Oh, right." Spike's face cleared and he took the bundle. "Thanks." The door closed without a further word.

Irritated, Xander shook his head and began to walk away, then turned and banged on the door again until it opened a second time. Spike looked equally antagonized now. "Hey," Xander said. "If you're going to get deliveries, don't send people to my apartment."

"I didn't."

"Oh."

They gazed at each other another moment, then Spike began to say something that would no doubt have been unsurpassably cutting, if a startled look hadn't passed across his face, erasing his intentions. He lunged past Xander. "Damn it!" he snarled, while Xander--who'd instinctively braced for an attack--was sent stumbling back by his shove. Apparently accidental collisions didn't count in chip logic, because Spike went haring off down the stairs with no evidence of brain damage. Too bad.

Xander righted himself and took the opportunity to peek into Spike's room through the open door. It had changed, looked more like his now. Walls painted, surfaces scrubbed. And he had surfaces. He had a kitchen counter and a tiny stove-top. Apparently the upper floors had rated more features than the lower ones. On the damaged floor tiles sat a plastic bowl filled with cat food and another of water. Oh, hell, thought Xander. That was just...too cute. The urge to rag mercilessly on Spike was overwhelming.

He pushed the door open a bit more and leaned there, blatantly ogling. Mattress with sheets, fruit crate, lamp, dinette chairs, portable stereo. As bare and simple as his own collection, but somehow more strange. Because vampires weren't supposed to make themselves at home in the world, own space. Own things. It disturbed Xander even though almost none of Spike's exaggerated personality was reflected in the barren room, unless you counted a glossy pile of CDs resting on the cat-scratched coffee table.

Boot steps were ascending and Xander straightened, turned. Spike's head bobbed up through the broken railings, face vexed, then muscled shoulders and arms appeared, cradling a black effusion of fur which struggled to get free.

The words aw, look at the puddy-tat died on Xander's lips when Spike's eyes met his, hard and guarded against the blow. "Thought I'd better hang here," he said, swallowing a dryness in his throat. "I wasn't sure what happened."

"Bugger's always trying to escape."

"That...isn't its name, is it?" Cat eyes fixed on Xander as he spoke, ears twitched, body went still; the animal probably couldn't remember hearing another person's voice before now, but it looked fascinated.

"No." Spike paused. "Byron."

"Byron?" Xander's mind was blown like a flat tire, and in vain he tried to control the involuntary swerve of his thoughts. Spike with facets and book learnin' was just too much to take in.

"You try naming an animal sometime. It's bloody hard."

"I have no doubt," Xander said, and to his credit sounded honestly agreeable. Spike's shoulders relaxed a notch.

"Might as well come in." Spike moved past him. "Circulate the air a bit. Probably be good for the cat."

"Okay." Disturbing, odd, but okay. He entered.

Spike clearly didn't know what to do with him once he had him. They ended up sitting across from each other on metal chairs, five feet of floor between them on which the cat scrabbled happily. They both watched the cat. It served as a conversation piece. For three minutes.

"I'm guessing the concept of 'guest' isn't very common among vampires."

"Want a cuppa?" Spike asked after giving this a moment's cigarette-puffing consideration.

"Tea?"

"AB positive."

"No thanks."

There was silence.

"Well, this has been fun." Xander stood. He expected a reaction--that Spike, recalling himself to some semblance of social niceties, might stop him, dredge up something else to talk about. But no. He sat there with patient lack of interest, and at a total loss, Xander turned to leave.

Then: "Wait." Spike's cool facade had finally broken, and he looked as uncomfortable and annoyed as Xander felt. "I'm no good at this."

"At humanity? Yeah, I noticed."

"I'm not human, not where it counts. Part of me really wants to kill you right now. A big toothy part." Spike glanced up, head tilted at an angle. Darkness had blown in like a storm behind his luminous face, and smoke rolled lazily up from the cigarette in his fingers. The apartment around him suddenly appeared different, like the plain waiting room of a serial killer between victims. Xander had to shake a chill off.

"Your honesty is refreshing. I bet you have lots of friends."

Spike seemed to take the jab seriously. "I've had friends."

"Friends you didn't kill?"

"Yeah."

"Human friends?"

"Yeah."

After a pause, Xander sat back down. "Just to let you know? There are some things you need to work on."

"Like what?"

"Small talk. It's the tie that binds us. Unlike big talk, which drives our friends away, and makes strangers move down another seat at the bar."

A reluctant, crooked smile touched one corner of Spike's mouth, defying the glint of his eyes. "Not good at small talk either."

"Right." Xander rested his hands on his knees, looked around. "So how's this whole life-of-not-evil working out for you?"

"Still evil. Not alive."

"But you haven't killed anyone...lately, I mean. Doesn't that make you at all happy? Give you a sense of fulfillment? Accomplishment?"

Spike's gaze narrowed warily. "You're not going to give me your testimony, are you?" He sighed. "Look. Face it. I'm not on the straight and narrow by choice. If I had my druthers, I'd probably be taking you out right now, and all your friends too. And anything that got in my way, including ripe little schoolgirls in white cotton knickers."

That image alone should have driven Xander away with a vengeance, never to come back, but he couldn't let it go. "Well, guess what, oh fangless one. Now you're just like the rest of us. All thought, no action. Welcome to my world."

"'S not bloody right," Spike said bitterly. "I'm a vampire."

"No. Now you're just a guy who wears a lot of black and feeds his cat every night."

"God." Spike's face was a  picture of revelation and self-loathing. "I'm pathetic."

"Not so much," Xander heard himself say. And for a moment he meant it.


"The thing is," Spike said, tipping over the bottle and finding it empty, "I really hate you."

"Me?" Xander dragged his head up and tried to focus on his good drinking buddy. Spike had the end of the mattress without the wall support, but that seemed only fair. He wasn't the one falling over. Right now he was searching around them for a fresh bottle; after tossing aside some blankets, he found the vodka and uncapped it.

"All of you. Scoobies." He uttered a derisive laugh. "Scoo--" Pausing, he took a long pull from the bottle. "Bies. I mean, what's up with that? These are your role models? No wonder you're always tripping over yourselves. And who're you supposed to be? Shaggy?"

"Well, Buffy's Daphne. Riley--he's gotta be Fred. Willow, Velma. Hey, maybe I'm Scooby."

"Nah. You're Shaggy. Face it, mate. Truth will set you free."

"Then there's Giles." Xander's head spun as he tried to collect his thoughts.

"Me, I'm..." Spike frowned to himself. "I'm not one of you. Huh. Sod that."
 
"You could be," Xander offered. "You could be, uh--hey, you could be Scrappy Doo." The brilliance of this struck him like an incredibly comic freight train and he spilled off the mattress, gasping with laughter. "Scrappy!"

There was a scuffling sound, and then a shout of pain and the sound of a bottle falling to the floor as some attack was aborted by the bug zapper in Spike's skull. "God, I loathe you!" he swore. "I want to kill you! Tear off your bloody head! I'd play footie with it and, and--Christ, are all these bottles empty?!" The sound of breaking glass followed. Helplessly, Xander kept laughing. "Shut up!" Spike yelled.

"Oh, man." Xander opened his eyes and blinked away tears. For some reason there was a cat on his chest. "Hey there, buddy." He scratched under its chin, felt it begin to purr.

"Once I get this chip out of my head, you're a Scooby snack," Spike promised from somewhere across the room. Glass was clanking again as he rooted through his stuff.

"Have you even tried to get it out?" Xander wondered, certain in the knowledge that Spike was, as usual, talking out his ass.

"I'm savin' up for the operation."

Xander's head tried to clear. That had sounded all too serious. He sat up, dumping the cat off, and studied Spike's face as he returned with bottle number three. "So, what? You'd drink with me, shoot the shit, then feed off me? Man, you're cold."

And weirdly, Spike looked guilty. Then angry. "Vampire! Get it through your thick head! You Sunnydale people--do they put something in the water?"

"They probably do." Xander got to his feet, staggered off the mattress. "I thought you were different. Now. Sure, I hated you, but--" God, he felt sick. He collapsed back down, wishing he'd stayed sober.

"But what? You saw the pretty face, thought maybe if we shagged, it'd be like one of those bad-boy-turns-good movies? I'd come over all repentant at the end, give up my life of crime, cue uplifting music and soppy kiss--"

"Shag you? What?" Befuddled and freshly alarmed, Xander tried to recall if he'd propositioned Spike. He wasn't that drunk, was he?

"Oh, I've seen the way you look at me." Spike's smile was knowing, mean, delivered with a head tilt. "You're gagging for it, Harris."

Xander made it to his feet again, face hot and heart pounding. The fumes in his head were finally thinning out too, leaving him on a bleak, stark stage where he'd made a fool of himself. "You are so wrong," he said, weaving toward the door. "I wouldn't come within a mile of you if you were the last corpse on earth."

"Might be, someday. Think it over. And don't--hey! Don't let the cat out!"





Part Eight ~ After Hours



The mood in Giles's apartment was grim.

"She was a foolish woman," Giles snapped, and Xander could tell he was more cut up than he wanted to admit. "She should have known better than to--" Whatever words he'd intended to say broke apart, then reformed: "Than to play god." He took a breath. "The forces of darkness do not like to be tampered with. For thousands of years, ritual acknowledgment has been made before trying to harness their powers. Payment must be offered. It seems she has found that out."

Riley was pacing. "I can't believe she'd try to kill Buffy. It's just not--" He too fought for words that didn't want to come, and instead punched the wall, knocking a hole in the plaster.

Giles eyed the damage to his wall with little interest, but caught hold of Riley's hand when he looked ready to add another blow. "Let me see," he said sharply when Riley tried to pull away. He examined the wound a few seconds, then disappeared in the direction of the bathroom.

"It's crazy," said Willow. Tara, sitting close to her on the couch, touched the tangled clasp of her hands.

"So what do we do?" Xander asked, hoping someone would save him from the rhetorical by having a real answer. Horror at the turn of events had knotted his gut, and renewed the absurd protectiveness of Buffy that used to rule his life. He couldn't summon a lot of regret for anyone who tried to kill her, though being skewered was a pretty ugly way to go.

"If Maggie had it in for me, that means the Initiative has it in for me. Now that she's dead and this demon guy is out," Buffy glanced at Riley, "they're probably going to want to tie up loose ends." Her voice was quiet but tight with stretched nerves.

"We don't operate like that," Riley said angrily. "You've worked with us, you know that!"

"I know you keep secrets. And I know what keeping secrets does to people. Multiply that by the government, and tell me why I'm not feeling all that safe."

They stared mutely at each other, faces equally set and stubborn, as Giles stood off to one side with bandages in hand, clearly unwilling to break in. With violent motion, Riley ran his hands through his hair. Buffy flinched.

"I have to get out of here," he said. You could see the grief hitting him afresh, driving an energy through his body that wanted loose.

"You shouldn't be alone right now." Buffy tried to touch his arm, but he stepped back coldly, eyes full of pain and accusation.

"I won't be."

After he left, Buffy's head remained lowered for a minute of heavy silence, and then she lifted it, revealing a face wounded but determined. "We need to clear out of here. If Riley knows where we are, the Initiative does too."

"Where do you propose we go, Buffy?" Giles sat down on the edge of an armchair. "And for how long?"

"I don't know. I need time to think and I can't do it here--and I can't do it if I'm worrying about all of you." With a prickly energy not unlike Riley's, she went to the weapons trunk and started yanking out its contents. Her air of command drew them all to their feet, and Xander helped pass out the swords and cross-bows.

"We could go to my place," Willow suggested. "I'll tell my mom it's an all-night study jam and we couldn't hold it in the dorm."

"They know where you live, Will. We need someplace they can't easily find us."

Xander cleared his throat. "It's not much but, uh, my hovel is your hovel. If you want."

Buffy nodded. "I want."


"Oh," Tara said. "It's--it's nice." She was a kind woman. "You've got a lot of space."

"And a lack of furniture," Xander apologized, regretting his offer as for the first time he saw his apartment through the eyes of his friends and realized just how miserable it truly was. The look on Buffy's face--the way she moved around the room in her shiny boots, blank eyes drawn to his makeshift dresser, his newly scavenged and shoddy bed--he could tell she couldn't believe how he was living, and it embarrassed him. "Maybe this isn't such a good idea. We can get a hotel room--"

"No. They can get to us through the hotels." Buffy stopped, picked up a paperback from one milk-carton shelf, then put it back. Her face was hurt; she hurt on his behalf. Pitied him, even. Xander could see her swallowing back comments, redirecting her mind to their current situation. "This is perfect." She gave Xander a tiny smile.

Sleeping bag, small bed, blankets--there wasn't much to go around, but they made do. When morning came Xander served Pop-Tarts and the TV talked to them about demons. They knew how to read the newscasts. Their monster was out of the box. Day had become as dangerous as night in Sunnydale, but they all went tentatively back to their lives, doing what they had to do. Pass the hours, prepare to battle evil. Xander went to work, surrounded himself with pizza and normal people, and quietly freaked out. Later on, they raided the Initiative.

Sometimes the jigsaw pieces of his days didn't fit together at all.

"I need a Day Planner," Xander said to himself after walking Buffy back to her dorm. "To pencil in these little brushes with death." He forced himself to smile at the nervous co-eds passing by, who edged to the far side of the path and hurried their steps.

Once he'd settled into his car, he rested there a moment with hands on the wheel, eyes closed. Teleporters. Now those would be cool. Of course, here on the Hellmouth, you could use magic for that. Anya had described to him a few times how she used to "apparate" through the ether to deliver her vengeance calls. Vengeance demon. He'd never given it that much thought before, but it was starting to sound like a decent job. No wages, she'd said, other than the satisfaction of a curse well done, but man, the benefits had to be great. And he'd be his own boss, make his own decisions--he'd only curse the deserving, and he'd do it with style. Wear a snazzy suit, cuff-links and everything. Oh yeah, he could envision it perfectly.
 
He sighed himself awake and drove homeward, wincing every time he had to take a turn; he'd picked up a beauty of a bruise--thanks, Adam--and suddenly a drink seemed like just what he needed. A bar a few blocks from his building was open; he'd never been in, but it looked okay. It was on the right side of the tracks, barely, and its parking lot was full.

Fate had a wicked sense of humor.

"Spike," he said, automatically dropping into a chair and putting his feet up on the rail. "Is it just me, or are you on the wrong side of the bar?" He let his eyes roam, unsure whether this was a stress-induced hallucination or not. The vampire was wearing his usual black tee and jeans, but had a white bar towel thrown over his left shoulder. The cigarette behind the ear was a nice touch too, cementing the whole Dirty Dancing meets Danny Zuko look. He was scowling.

"Bar's for grown-ups. You're not twenty-one." Delivering this announcement seemed to give him some satisfaction.

"And you're a hundred and twenty-one," Xander countered. "So give me a beer."

"Or else?" Spike scoffed, brows lifting in dry underestimation.

"Well, I'm thinking this looks like a bar for humans." Xander turned on his stool, raised his voice a little: "Hey, anyone got a mirror?"
 
"All right! Shut it." Spike yanked a mug from its hook, filled it, and slammed it on the bar-top. "There. Drink it and shove off."

"Hey, it's a free country, pal, and I have a fake I.D. that says it's my right as a rebellious teen to get good and soaked. So line them up."

Spike glared at him with mingled distaste and...well, okay, just distaste. The curl of his lip said he wanted nothing better than to knock Xander off his stool and chuck him out the door, but the fun part was when a customer came up and Spike had to move away to serve--serve, ha!--the guy.

"Yeah," Spike said curtly, so obviously putting himself out with that single, tedium-saturated word, you'd have thought he'd dragged himself up a cliff to wait on the man.

"Two Alabama Slammers," the guy said, pulling out his wallet.

"Got no juice."

"No juice?" Looking irritated, the man heaved an elaborate sigh. "I'll just take two margaritas then."

"No blender, mate."

"Long Island Ice Teas." An edge was entering the customer's voice.

Only someone who knew Spike would have been able to tell how much he was enjoying himself, despite his bland lack of expression. "Don't mix that many."

"That's all right. I can tell you the ingredients--"

"No," Spike said, as if speaking to the mentally deficient. "Don't mix that many ingredients. Read the sign."

Xander's gaze, along with the man's, slid to the wall where a painted sign declared: "Two-Mix Max" and "No Frou-Frou Served!"

"That's ridiculous." The man looked around for a witness, caught Xander's eye. Xander gave him a look that conveyed commiseration but detachment, and waited with growing fascination to see what he'd do next.

"House policy." Shrugging, Spike tossed his rag on the bar and began wiping lazily in a direction that carried him away from the guy's hapless and outraged attempt to loom over the counter.

When it was clear looming would get him nowhere, the man's shoulders sank a defeated inch. "What--what do you serve?"

"For you? Shots and beer."

"Two shots of gin," the man said meekly, the fight crushed out of him.

Spike, taking his victory for granted, snapped the glasses onto the bar, poured two splashy shots across their mouths, and accepted his money with a hard, black-eyed stare that brooked no further commentary. Xander noticed he got a tip.

"God, I love this job." Spike took his cigarette from behind his ear and lit up, oblivious to the health code violation.

"I can see this," Xander said with reluctant and, he hoped, very secret awe. "So when you said you were saving up for an operation, you really meant it." That earned a suspicious glance. "The whole concept of you having honest earnings, Spike--the mind reels. And then goes sprawling."

"Yeah? How's that whole dough-in-a-box career working for you?"

They eyeballed each other. Xander knew when he was being snarked at, and was usually ready to give back as good as he got. "Not so great," he admitted, the urge for combat waning. Must be the bar, he thought. You told bartenders your woes--didn't they have to listen? Wasn't it like a union requirement? Even vampire bartenders would know that.

After a moment, Spike straightened up slowly, poured a second beer for him unasked, and slid it across the bar. Xander met his eyes again, then accepted it.


He smelled of cigarette smoke and he looked pissed off. These things should not have been a turn on, thought Xander, as he opened the door to his apartment. Spike followed him in, close on his heels. When Xander turned around, he was right there. Xander backed up, but couldn't drag his gaze away from Spike's.

Spike shoved him bodily against a supporting column; as Xander's head hit plaster, the chip provoked a wince, and Spike groaned and cradled a hand behind Xander's head, looking as if he hated it and looking incredibly, angrily aroused, and he launched a fierce kiss and ground his erection into Xander's hips, and the grinding was killing Xander in a good way but the kiss was heaven and what the hell was an undeserving vampire doing there--what did this prove, this hot desperate mouthing, this deliberate attack, rude and ferocious? He was using his entire mouth, he was using his sharp tongue, he was using Xander.

Yes, Xander thought, and then he said it aloud, breathlessly: "Use me."

Spike reared back with cobra-headed grace and licked his lips. He hadn't vamped, but Xander could sense he was on the verge, heard it in the soft, inhuman growl that rattled from his throat. At the sound, every tiny hair on his body lifted, and his dick strained against the hard pressure of Spike's hips. He looked nasty and newly powerful--and Xander thought that anyone who could make you feel like getting on your knees and begging for it was to be respected and feared. The thought excited him.

"You want me to play rough?" Spike asked. Xander gasped once and nodded. Spike's face grew hard with lust and a kind of frustrated desire to give pain, which was disturbing because Xander didn't know how he recognized that. "Well, I'll give it the old college try, and we'll see what the technology allows." His tight jaw worked briefly, then his face cleared a bit and he smiled, charming and menacing, the smile of a gentleman who would obligingly kill you if you asked.

One of his hands snaked down between Xander's legs and played with its discovery, first with light teasing then with a sudden grasp that knew exactly where he lived. "You want it bad, don't you, love?"

"Oh hell, yes." Xander shoved into his hand, seeking more friction. Skillful dead fingers, stronger than his own, cruelly drove layers of cotton and denim across his aching dick.

Spike tensed, face going hard again, hungry. But the rest of his body was calm, easing closer to Xander's, arm sliding completely behind his neck as he drew in. He was shifting to one side, he was unzipping Xander's jeans, watching his face the entire time. Xander closed his eyes but they slid open again. He liked to look at Spike. God. They were looking at each other. "How's that?" Spike murmured. "Feel good?"

Xander jerked his head and moved his lips wordlessly as cool fingers strolled up along his cock, as a thumb firmed like steel just underneath the swollen head and rubbed. His knees jellied and he began to sink down the pillar, but Spike kept him upright one-handed and Xander arched up again, and the sinking and arching took on a rhythm, helped by Spike's hand, heel rolling against him, thumb flicking, fingers keying him with different pressures.

And then Spike leaned in and kissed his neck, right on the pulse line, and crisp hair like ramen noodles brushed his jaw and Xander lifted his chin and came with a cry.

When he could see again, Spike was regarding him with dark-eyed want and indulgence and licking his fingers. Not thoroughly, but with the interest of a man who'll taste anything once. He wiped the backs of his fingers across Xander's open mouth. Xander flinched.

"Go on," Spike said. "Taste yourself...don't tell me you never have?"

"Yeah. Sometimes." In his bedroom, years ago, before having regular girlfriends made all his masturbatory habits seem suspect. Spike's knuckles were brushing back and forth against his lips as Xander spoke and he gave in, sucked them in, rough knots wet with his own come. His tongue flicked a stripe between two of Spike's fingers before he could stop himself.

"Oh, yeah," Spike drawled, voice lower. "That's very good, pet." He stepped back abruptly, leaving Xander dizzied. He was taking off the leather coat and throwing it aside, dragging his shirt over his head, leaving himself in jeans and dirty boots, his naked chest exposed. Impossible to look away really, and if Xander had ever shared a locker room with this he'd have had the crap beaten out of him years ago. He could see it all too well--Spike the school felon, leaning against a locker and smoking a cigarette while Xander knelt and served, then pummeling him later in front of his cool friends.

"You've made a speedy recovery," Spike noted, gaze aligned downward and fixed on his cock. His eyes lifted mesmerizingly. "Come here."

Xander went, pausing just in front of Spike, who manhandled him the final step and splayed a hand across his chest as if to say stop. Feeling--listening--to his heart beat, head cocked. After a few moments, he slid his palm around the front of Xander's shirt, then ripped it off. It burned, getting your shirt ripped off, and he would have complained but then it was done. Spike seemed pleased at the effect, and anyway, the shirt had been an unwanted birthday present and he was harder now. Diamond-cutter needy.

"Get on your knees," Spike ordered.

Predictability was good, oh so good, and Xander knelt with awkward obedience, harsh breathy sounds escaping his mouth. "Oh fuck," he said as Spike began unzipping himself. "Fuck, oh god, fuck--" He wanted it so bad he couldn't think how this was wrong.

Spike grabbed Xander by the side of the neck with one hand and held him still, held his own cock in his other, busily stroking hand. Xander stole a look up at his face, found glittering eyes staring intently down at him. Prelude to a kill. But he couldn't commit that act, only this. It was the one point saving this from insanity; he wouldn't be so foolish to kneel for a vampire who was chipless and fancy-free.

Moments later Spike was sliding into his mouth, and Xander was sucking him in, forgetting everything else but this. He didn't care if he was being used, he was using too. His mouth was sex, greedy and complete, and it was beautiful when Spike grabbed his head and shoved in desperately and even better when he began to groan and roll his hips with indescribable punk dance, selfish and lost in himself, as if he were tumbling back to some bad-ass memory of blow-jobs past. A long history of blow-jobs, and Xander's was the latest and that, if nothing else, had to make it the best.

"Yeah," Spike gasped out, fingers digging into his hair, "fuck!"

You love it, don't you, Xander thought, as Spike's free hand cupped his jaw, held him close with unexpected gentleness. The other man's hips were pumping with urgency against him as if he were trying to climb deep inside. Xander heard low, crude grunts almost like pain and then--escaping like a spill of loose beads as Spike's climax neared--several escalating little cries, high-pitched and delicate.

Spike's uncensored gasp as he came almost made Xander lose it himself, but he was too caught up in his own working mouth--he was having sex right there in his mouth!--and it wasn't like he could have avoided swallowing with a vampiric vise clamped around his head, but he wanted to swallow, years of suppressed fantasies robbing him of all self-consciousness. So fucking hot, sucking a guy off. If only he'd known.

Pulling off, he felt messy-haired and wild, cheeks high with heat, ears searing, mouth wicked as he tried to locate the taste of jism with his tongue. More now, he thought as Spike's big hands--oh, just guy-sized, right--stroked down his cheeks. One hand slid off his face, the other lifted his chin with one finger. Xander looked up, ran the tip of his tongue over his teeth and realized he was grinning. Possibly maniacally. "More," he rasped, because he was going to say everything in his head from now on until he got his fill. Words of one syllable. Animal. Me. Feed.

He got lifted by his chin. That felt good. What didn't feel good? On his feet, he played his cheek into the curve of Spike's hand and Spike patted him as if he'd been a good boy. Oh, he had. He was pulled in for a kiss, passive, possessive, plural--his mind reeled off its familiar background noise as they ate each other. He was begging with his mouth, and Spike folded their two bodies together, chest to chest and hips to hips, winding arms around Xander's neck and back, giving him a spill of silken smooth muscle, feeling to Xander like a hundred guys he'd glimpsed in gym, or half-stripped at fairgrounds, or surfing at the beach--he'd felt them with his eyes, that's all, but he knew they'd have felt like this against him, sleek and hard.

And he was dead. How weird was that?

"You're all hot and eager," Spike muttered against Xander's tingling mouth. "Been awhile since I had anyone so young."

That opened up a whole category of questions that Xander might have asked, but didn't. Don't think about your vampire's past--that was clearly rule number one for these situations--and rule number two, he felt sure, was ask no questions whose answers would scare the beejezus out of you and compromise your precarious moral high ground. He wondered if there were any more no-nos. Maybe he'd check with Buffy.

Spike licked a path from Xander's mouth to his ear and whispered, "Bet you'd like to do me with that bad monster of yours, wouldn't you? Hmm? Take me on my belly all frog-kneed, face jammed in one of your sweaty pillows, ride me till you pop, leave me cursin' you and hungry for more--"

Xander's vision greyed out at the edges and he began to hyperventilate. Spike was still talking dirty, and christ, he was sexy like a reptile and it was so wrong, wrong, so very wrong. "Dear god, please," he croaked. And, smiling knowingly, Spike led him to the bed by his dick.

There was nakedness and there was hand lotion. Well, first there was undressing. Economical in his movements, Spike placed the muddy soles of his boots on the bedcovers one at a time and unlaced them, then shucked out of his jeans and climbed on the bed as if he got fucked by awe-struck pizza deliverymen all the time. He could have been a porn star. He was that matter of fact about it. Xander jittered out of his own clothes, followed him and gaped and jittered some more, poured too much hand lotion onto himself, thought do I need a condom and didn't ask, and a second later didn't care as Spike rippled into readiness with a bend of leg, a flexing of muscles as if he were swimming toward the headboard. Time to get jaded, Xander thought. Pretend like you do this all the time.

Pretending helped for half a second before he was pushing in, then failed him in a big way. "Oh. My god." He tried not to come and succeeded barely.

"Do it hard," Spike said, not helping. "Rough, brutal, quick, bang bang bang--"

"Shut up," Xander breathed, glassy-eyed. "Or it'll be so quick we won't even notice." He took a deep breath, slid in another inch. "Speaking bad. Stopping now."

"Mmm." The sound from Spike's throat was wicked. "Virgin every night, you know. 'S why it's so...tight." He squeezed certain muscles as punctuation.

"Fuck!" Xander's hips jerked helplessly and something gave, or maybe Spike just had talents a hundred years taught you, but he was buried inside and trembling and Spike took this as a signal to start grinding against the bed.

"C'mon," he complained, "Do me. Harder. Harris!"

Shut up, Xander thought, but he couldn't talk this time. His head dropped forward with almost drunken heaviness, hair falling in his eyes. He pushed tentatively, heard a groan and some lewd Spike-babble of encouragement that he tuned out, so bossy, and this felt, wow, great, he had rhythm and jazz, he had rock and roll.

He had about thirty seconds.

"Fuck me!" Spike barked, frustrated and literal.

So he did, forgetting about how you were supposed to take care, be gentle, be the guy, which meant not hurting the other person, but Faith, he hadn't needed to be gentle with Faith, his first and he'd been on the bottom, ridden, and this now was different, oh so very. Bang, bang, bang went his frantically freed hips and Spike rested on one arm now as he began jerking himself off, and they were unsynchronized and separately wrapped up in their own pleasures and Xander laughed crazily, let his head tip back, felt his needs steady and change. He gripped Spike's hips more tightly, re-angled himself, drove forward.

"Fuck," Spike said and fell onto both arms, curling up like a rug did when you toed it, getting a grip on the sheets as he lifted his hips. "Yeah." He sounded huskier than he had a moment ago. "God, yeah."

The sound of his voice rolled through Xander's dick and into the rest of his body, made sweat break out everywhere. He grabbed Spike's thigh, sank back a little and shoved again off-kilter, dick trying to figure out how deep it could go. His thrust earned a shudder and Spike's silence, words given way to ragged breathing, and Xander knew it must be good. He repeated his twist, finding leverage that made Spike stiffen and clamp around him. Again and again and again. And now they were synching up, wave crashing into wave, and he didn't have to see Spike's face to know he was struggling in his skin.

His level of being turned on shot into the red. This was battle, Spike driven to the edge, trying not to vamp, trying now not to snarl, because that would have been surrender. If Xander had been able to choreograph and carry out what his instincts demanded, he would have grabbed Spike's head, held him in place as he used him--but excitement sped his hips and betrayed him, he was going to come first, damn it, and then he did, as Spike drew in a sharp breath and went still in triumph.

Weakly, Xander slid out and collapsed in a post-bliss heap. Spike gave him some room on the inadequate bed and inspected the results. "You look done in."

"Ten minutes. Twenty, max."

"I'll just amuse myself while I wait, then."


"That's all," Xander said an eternity later. "I'm done with you. I'm spent. And you--you are evil. We aren't doing this again."

"Sure," Spike drawled, rather ironically.

"I'm serious." He might have been more convincing if he could have moved one inch of his griddled body.

"I haven't shown you even half my tricks."

"I don't care...what tricks?" He cracked open an eye to see Spike propped over him, smiling, and then his head disappeared. Xander blinked. Good trick, he thought dizzily, as Spike's cool tongue carved a path down his chest and belly. Of course, that was just--

"Oh," he said, head dropping back into the pillow as Spike's mouth closed over him. Incredibly good, but no problem, he could take a blow job without caving, because this was the last time, and after tonight--

"Spike." His throat worked to get the word out. "God, what--" Xander's trembling hands found purchase on Spike's shoulders, instinctively holding him there. Thought was getting thinner and then suddenly snuffed out like a flame for lack of oxygen. "Don't--don't--" he begged hoarsely. "Don't stop--"

Spike didn't. He was tireless, a force of nature, an undertow in the ocean. Ten minutes or hours or years later, Xander was strung out and drowning, his heart beat racing as he shoved up into Spike's mouth, his entire body wet and shaking with want, head twisting from side to side on the pillow. He cried out incoherently at every new, lapping crest of pleasure--it was that good, but it couldn't get better because it would kill him. It was breaking him. It had stolen almost all words, made him ecstatic and vicious, and his hands wound tighter in Spike's hair as he urged him on.

"Oh fuck," he wept, dragging Spike closer as ruthless flutters and suction and pulses played around his cock. "Can't--" It hurt his lungs to get words out--he was climbing to an impossible elevation, carried on the wave. He'd ascended past all previous benchmarks of pleasure. His body told him this was hotter than when Faith had slid astride him like a wet dream come true, all slutty and commanding, hotter than the first time Anya had clenched her girlish bits around him and cried out his name as if he were a rapacious warrior claiming his mate. This put their amateur blow jobs to shame. Spike was in a league of his own and Xander's flesh was his.

"Oh, god, I love--" The grateful words tore loose as he neared the peak. "Love, love--" He sobbed and writhed as he was released. It hit hard, washing him under, Spike's face rising to hover above him as he went down.

"Love you," he said thickly, and passed out.


When he surfaced again Spike was sitting next to him and smoking. Xander blinked his heavy eyes and tried to focus. "What year is it," he mumbled.

"Took a bit out of you, did it?"

"Spine. Need my...spine."

Spike gazed down at him with fond satisfaction. "Nooo. Won't be needing that again."

"Satan." Xander managed to push himself up on one wobbly arm, then sat up against the head board. "Give me a drag." He was talking through ground glass. He'd aged a decade. God help him.

"You serious?" Amused, Spike handed over the cigarette. Xander inhaled, coughed raggedly, and let Spike take it back.

"What I said--" He got out the words between hacking.

"What's that?"

"Before. The, uh, L-word."

"Oh, that. No worries. I didn't take it personal."

"Good. Just my sperm talking. Misdirected biological imperative."

"And of course that was the last time--"

"Fuck that," Xander said, closing his eyes. "Man, I am so very gay."





Part Nine ~ I Only Feel Right on My Knees



"Time was, billiards was a gentleman's game." Spike chalked his cue absently as he studied the table. "Sport of kings. Now it's the sport of every yobbo with a fancy stick." He lined up a shot. "Course--" Cue ball smacked its target, which rolled into the corner pocket. "--you won't see me complaining." He straightened up and smiled slyly at Xander. "I never was a gentleman."
 
Xander watched as he continued to shoot. Watching was how he'd spent most of his evening so far. He'd watched Spike shark a few frat boys out of fifty bucks, which seemed to win him table rights too; he'd stacked an entire roll of quarters on the edge and no one had dared argue. With the crowd cleared away, they'd set up a game, but so far Xander hadn't had the chance to play. He didn't mind much. He was a hot and crazy voyeur, oh yeah. The way Spike's fingers worked the chalk across the cue tip, his deliberate movements around the table, his body's bend and the pump of his arm as he took a shot. God, just the back of his neck--Xander shifted and gripped his inadequate pool cue closer as if it would hide the evidence of his interest.

He could feel himself going all googly-eyed and lame, and strove to hide it. The past week of sex and snark had provided ample proof that if Spike suspected weakness, he'd find a way to take advantage of the situation. Even now the vampire was catching his eye, as if sensing in his silence something meaningful. Pretending to study the set of the table, Xander sensed Spike circling around. They were both pretending, but Spike's facade was smoother; when he'd prowled close he examined his shot for a long moment before turning and reaching past Xander for a beer. Leaning and reaching. Leaning and reaching and brushing. And drinking and swallowing, and oh wow.

Breathing was damn hard. How did people remember to keep it up, day after day, when they had so much else to concentrate on? Keep it up--no, keep it down, kids. Keep. It. Down. That was his command to his insurgent body, but Spike was doing the whole leaning-and-reaching thing again as he returned the beer.

"Trade sticks with me," Spike said in a suggestive voice, and Xander's sweaty fingers fumbled as they made the exchange, and thank god his shirt was untucked. Foresight, at least he had that, yes--and Spike's own fingers were dry as kindling where they stroked against his, and Xander heard himself catch his breath. Embarrassing, exciting. Why didn't they turn on the air conditioning in this place?

"Don't you want to--" He nodded toward the table as the rest of the words lodged in his throat.

"In front of everyone?" Spike asked, raising his brows. Xander felt his face heat. "Now that you mention it--" He leaned in.

"Cut it out," Xander managed to say, as over Spike's shoulder he noticed a group of kids he'd gone to school with.

Spike noticed his glance, turned his head, then turned back knowingly. "'Fraid of people finding out you're a poofter?" One of his hands drifted with lazy assurance across Xander's belly to slip under his shirt. His face was cool, interested, the way he might look as if he were gutting a dog, even while his hand pledged intimacy.

"I've had my name on the bathroom wall. I'd rather not relive junior high and please do that a little lower--no, stop--stop doing that!" Xander's breath was growing ragged.

"You're only a poofter if you can't stand up for yourself. A real man does what he likes, when he likes."

"Don't mentor me, Iron John. It freaks me out."

"More than this?" Spike hooked his thumb into Xander's jeans and pulled him near, then kissed him. It was an oh-god-everyone-can-see-me kiss, full of silky beer-wet tongue with a hint of fried onion, and Xander's fingers tightened on his cue stick so hard he swore he felt the wood crack, but after a second he forgot where he was, the music and babble of the club merging into white background noise. A vampire thrall--had to be. He'd heard about those. Damn Spike's insidious power. Properly enthralled, Xander kissed back until a peal of laughter broke through his distracted senses. He jerked his mouth away, scanning the club with self-consciousness.

"People are staring," he said, and people were. Not all of them, but enough to make him wish he'd styled his hair better for the occasion.

"Let them." Satisfied or irritated--always so difficult to tell--Spike turned back to the pool table and continued playing.

Xander licked his lips and watched with dazed, stupid longing. Apparently lust for other men made you just as man-dumb as lust for women. Good to know. Armed with that knowledge, he'd be on guard against the amoral affections of his dick. No way was he going to save up his pizza earnings and buy Spike jewelry at the Silver Palace, or take him on romantic moonlight rides. Spike was Cordelia without the humanity. Wait, hold on. Cordelia was Cordelia without the humanity. Spike was just a demon, and it meant nothing that he had abs you could bounce dimes on, hands like an erotic lock-pick, an ass tighter than a calfskin glove--okay, his train of thought had jumped tracks. Damn.

Man pretty.

"Well, well, well," a hard-candy voice said, as a hand forcefully clapped Xander's shoulder and made him jump. "Boys' night out."

Startled and guilty, Xander turned to see Buffy--and saw a lot more Buffy than usual. His gaze zoomed down her cleavage on automatic perv-cam, and he shook himself free of vertigo. Eyes up. "Hey, Buffy. You've, uh, done something with your hair." With her lips, too. Mighty glossy, wrapping themselves around the mouth of his beer bottle like that.

"Sweet of you to notice," she said after downing half his beer. And she smiled and squeezed his butt.

He jumped again, stumbling away from her and almost knocking over a chair. "Ha! Hands!" he cried inanely, honestly shocked. Despite his better instincts, he darted a look at Spike, who was perusing Buffy with narrowed eyes.

"Who's your friend?" she challenged, stretching a little and swinging the beer bottle loosely in her hand as if she might suddenly throw it.

Xander paused, caught between vampire and slayer and trying to read the situation. "Spike and I are just hanging out," he said, trying for a placating tone. Spike hefted his pool stick like a sword and began closing in, hips rolling like a tomcat's. He was just finding a better position to shoot from, but his movements spelled trouble. Danger, Will Robinson. Hoping to head off a confrontation, Xander asked, "What's up, Buff?"

"Xander Harris hangin' with William the Bloody," Buffy said, eyebrows climbing. "Whaddaya know." She sounded cool, mocking, dryly amused, but he couldn't tell where she was coming from. She had to be half-drunk. "So which of you is making the lifestyle change?" With nimble skill, she hopped backwards onto a stool and wrapped her legs around its own.

The unerring hit rattled Xander's composure. Were they that obvious? "That's, that's--" he stammered. "We're just friends. I mean, not friends. We're just enemies--sharing a game of pool between bouts of furious--uh, fisticuffs. Is that so wrong?" Anxiety made him sound combative, or maybe terrified.

Spike gave him a disgusted look while Buffy smiled. "Whatever rows your boat." She eyed him thoughtfully. "Or rocks it." With a shrug, she dismissed her insinuation as easily as she'd made it. "Guess you don't want me to kill him then."

"Hey!" Spike frowned and adopted an offended pose. "Innocent victim of military tinkering, don't forget." He pointed to his head. "Can't hurt a damn flea."

"Really?" Buffy acted delighted, as if this was news to her. "Wicked bad luck there, Willie."

With effortful restraint, Spike turned his pointy finger on her. "Watch it, Princess."

Buffy uttered a small laugh of contempt. "Are all the vamps in this town such lightweights? No wonder my life's so boring." She hopped off her stool and drained her stolen beer as Spike and Xander stood there equally nonplussed. "Care to point out the real men, ladies?" Her gaze had already wandered to the dance floor, and her restless body shifted from side to side as it picked up the rhythm. "I just need one good one to tease, and one bad one to...slay." The lush pause implied other, dirtier thoughts.

Xander cared about Buffy, he really did, but he'd learned he didn't much like her drunk. "Hey, maybe you should go home," he said, stepping in front of her before she could walk off.

"Hey, maybe you should back off."

He held up his empty hands, alarmed at her ready aggression. "Puny mortal here. Not trying to anger the beer goddess. I'm just saying. Think of Riley."

Buffy blinked as if she wasn't quite registering the name, and then a change slid through her face, made her eyes light up. "Yeah," she said softly. "Think of Riley."


"And then I said, 'Think of Riley,'" Xander groaned, dropping his head in his hands.

"It's not your fault," Willow reassured him. "Faith would have put him on her naughty to-do list sooner or later."

"Yeah, but if it had been later, she might not have had time." A silence fell, and he looked up. "Pause for rebuttal."

"Sorry. You may be right." Willow made an apology face. "But you thought it was Buffy. You were just being a friend."

"I should have known. It's so obvious in retrospect. She was slutty and mean and wearing leather pants. She practically had 'Faith' tattooed on her bicep."

Willow sipped her coffee. "None of us suspected. Except Tara."

"That helping of irony is too rich for me." Xander flexed his shoulders and leaned back in his chair, looking through the unwalled cafe at the street. Angry energy wanted out. He wondered if this was how Faith felt all the time, harboring the desire to do something, someone, with violent intensity. He'd always thought of it as male hormones, the curse and blessing of testosterone. These days he was less sure.

He wondered if this was how Spike felt all the time.

"Xander?"

"What?" Xander dragged his focus back to the present.

"I said, have you seen Buffy since Freaky Friday?"

"Oh. No. You?"

"Still sharing a dorm room."

"Right."

Willow's hands encircled her coffee cup as if trying to warm themselves. "Of course, she's kind of absent behind the eyes lately. It's like, she's less there now than when Faith had her body. All the usual recovery methods have failed. Chocolate, Ani DiFranco, The Bold and the Beautiful. I know she just needs to work through it, but it's hard playing spectator."

He smiled a crooked smile. "The Buffy angst sucks you in, doesn't it?"

"Like a Hoover." She sighed. "Letting it go," she said with a definitive hand wave that swatted the angst away. "We have lives too. So they don't involve body-switching or kidnapping by watchers. We've still got stuff to talk about."

"Yeah." Xander folded his arms on the table and gave that thought. Willow seemed to be doing the same.

I've applied for twenty jobs this month, he didn't say, and the only offer I got was for shoveling up roadkill on state roads, so I stuck with pizza, which is like roadkill but doesn't pay the rent, and that's okay for now, because I live rent-free alongside fleshy, poker-playing demons, and for entertainment I do my laundry and read sci-fi, when I'm not killing vampires or trying to stop Frankenstein's monster from carving up local citizens that is, and by the way, I'm having sex with Spike.

How about them Knicks?

"More coffee?" he asked Willow.

"Make it--"


"--a double," Xander demanded, because that would tighten his bootstraps and finish his day off right. On cue, Tammy Wynette started to twang from the juke. A grimace crossed Spike's face, caused by the music itself or thoughts of bodily harm it engendered, and he shot a dark look across the room at someone favored by the chips of fate.

Spike passed him bourbon on the rocks without argument, and once again ignored Xander's proffered money. Giving up, Xander tucked the bills away and resigned himself to freeloading. As he nursed his drink, Spike waited on the last-call crowd, pouring shots with quick efficiency. He took their money, no problem. Some bills even made it to the register. His hands, skilled and articulate, fanned around bottles and shoved shot glasses; his fingers--


--slid expertly inside Xander and twisted like a swizzle stick.

Face damp, one arm thrown over his head, Xander worked himself helplessly onto a second row of knuckles. Vampires were obsessive-compulsive sex maniacs, he'd learned. Or that might just be Spike, who seemed driven to discover how close he could get to the threshold of cruelty without triggering a brain-fry. Strangely, he didn't seem to mind his long and consistent string of failures.

"Ow," Xander breathed, testing him.

Spike's eyelids lowered a fraction as he gazed down at Xander, unpained. "Oh no. Can't fool the monitor, love. I've got you cored like an apple, don't I?" He shoved his fingers in deeper and more rudely. "You're all soft and hot and fluttery in there. Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie." He sounded dreamy and more than a little like Dru. Xander supposed some measure of insanity rubbed off after a hundred years. "Yeah. Pretend you don't want that."

Somewhere in Xander's mind was a file of witty retorts he couldn't access. That office was closed for the night, lights off. His insides flexed and trembled. "Knucklebones," he said, unable to communicate anything but appreciation, and then those padded knobs brushed across a raw, aching place that made him cry out in surprise.

"Calling me names?" Spike murmured. "Think of nastier ones." He dragged his fingers half out then slid the pads of his fingers back up teasingly to that spot.

"Oh, fuck, fuck, fucker--"

"Now that's merely descriptive. Keep going," he encouraged.

Xander arched, pleasure tightening like a guitar string about to snap, and tried to take his own dick in hand, but that made Spike remove his fingers to interrupt him. "Damn it!" he wailed.

"Don't worry, pet, I'll put something better there." And Spike flipped him over.

"Wait, wait--" They hadn't done this yet, and warning bells were ringing. Unfortunately, other bells were ringing too, trying to drown the warning ones out.

"Told you already, no more waiting. No more bashful lad act. Reciprocity." Spike slapped his thighs apart and Xander yelped. "Oh, take it like a man."

Not entirely sure he felt manlike, Xander struggled to his knees just as Spike grabbed his neck and yanked him upright. He was rough but careful; he'd had practice maintaining that fine line between force and pain. One hand on Xander's neck, the other snaking between his legs, cock nudging Xander's ass--okay, why was he arguing again? He wrestled despite himself, but Spike moved to cage him, arms like steel, barely exerting pressure but holding him in place. Xander's skin was slippery, and his struggles inside the cage of Spike were oh so good. He began to rock a bit, gripping the arm that barred his throat too lightly to cut off breath, too firmly to escape. He could feel the head of Spike's cock kissing the door to his insides, and what, did he need an invitation?

"Do it," he gritted out. "Hurry."

When Spike caught his breath, Xander felt it against his ear, and then felt his face change, like wax melting and reforming. Oh shit, he wanted to say, but the words didn't come. Spike snarled and pushed inside him and it hurt, and that slowed them down, Xander gasping, Spike wincing with reflected pain, and slower was better, slower was good. Slower was...unbelievable.

Xander moved, trying to capture the goodness, a full, stretched feeling he'd needed without knowing it. Behind him, Spike was a cool hard wall, a pressure of chest and belly along his back, holding him up. He could feel how leashed Spike was. He twisted his body, shoulder blades cutting Spike's chest, thighs trying to find purchase. The arm around his neck lifted, forcing his chin up; Spike's other arm loosened and slid down like a heavy belt, hand closing around Xander's cock and making his hips jerk, driving him forward and then back. His breath came in harsh gasps. The pleasure gathering in front was excruciating, a string of knotted beads being dragged from his dick; the pleasure behind, a deep wave swell. Spike's face rubbed his, ridges warring with his own beard stubble, and Xander felt a growl rise in the vampire's throat before he heard it. A shudder descended through him, the good kind. He was swollen and brimming, buoyed by unholy strength. He lifted and pushed back, head sliding across Spike's shoulder, hips climbing and riding him. Spike was making funny little noises now, choking grunts of wonder that said this was good enough to make even a vampire lose his cool.

"Fuck," Spike said throatily, sounding lost. "Sweet buggering hell--" His shoves grew ragged, desperate, and his hand tightened to ruthlessly strip Xander's cock. Xander reeled back and shouted as he came. It was a long and splashy production and when he finished Spike shoved him onto his hands and knees--from which position Xander promptly collapsed onto the blankets--and used him with unapologetic recklessness. If it hurt, neither of them noticed. Spike came a minute later with his own fanfare, then slumped across Xander's back.

"G'off," Xander muttered.

Spike unpeeled himself and lit a cigarette.

Xander rolled onto his back--ouch--and stared sleepily at the ceiling. "Do you think I can still wear white at my wedding?" he mused. It was the last thing he said before he dozed off, and if Spike had an answer, he didn't hear it.





Part Ten ~ You Were a Boy Scout



Willow was pacing the room like a wind-up toy, just as jittery and plastic, like she might break if she dropped. "Tara said the Initiative guys took him right before she found me. What if they--what if they hurt him? Would they?" She stopped pacing and looked entreatingly at Buffy, who drew in a deep breath.

"They're not going to do anything to him," she said firmly, taking Willow's arms in a reassuring grip. "They won't have time."

"I'm so scared," Willow said in a creaky whisper. "I waited for Oz to come back and when he does, he's taken from me again before I have a chance to make things right."

"You'll have your chance, Will." Buffy let her go and Willow sank into a chair.

Giles cleared his throat as if that would clear the emotional mistiness from his living room. "Well, once again we're faced with a fairly daunting prospect of having to infiltrate the Initiative."

"Yeah," said Xander. "Too bad one of us isn't dating a man on the inside. Someone with connections. Oh, wait!" He glanced at Buffy as if struck by the coincidence.

Her see-no-evil expression was eroding, leaving worry and disappointment. All-American Boy wasn't earning any Buffy points tonight. "Something's wrong," she admitted. "Riley would have called back by now. We're going to have to do this without him. Xander, you and I are going in." She turned to Willow. "Will--can you and Giles hack into the city's electrical grid by the time we get there?"

Oh joy, thought Xander. They were going with plan number two, also known as the crazy plan. "Um." He raised his hand, and listening heads turned his way. "Hate to drag boring reality into a nifty plot, but the Initiative probably has back-up generators for those holding cells. Flipping a municipal breaker isn't going to power them down."

"Damn it," Buffy said.

Giles frowned thoughtfully. "Are you sure your clearance was revoked?"

"I don't have enough clearance for a Lowell House kegger, Giles, let alone the bat-cave."

"Okay," Xander said, raising his hands to pre-empt any argument. "I know this is going to sound crazy, but--what about Spike?" Who if you squinted at it a certain way in bad light, was the guy on the inside Xander was dating.

"You're right." Buffy folded her arms. "I'm thinking lithium."

"He did manage to escape the, er, bat-cave," Giles pointed out. "He may have insights of use to us."

"And of course he'd be so willing to help us and earn his rescue merit badge."

Giles tipped his head in bland acknowledgment of Buffy's sarcasm. "No doubt we would have to offer him money."

Unwittingly funding the future chipectomy, Xander thought in resignation. "I'll call him." As he stood up from the couch, three pairs of eyes fixed on him again, this time with unblinking amazement. "What?"

"You have his number?" Willow wondered, bemused.

"He has a phone?" Buffy followed up, skepticism too blunt to slay with but sharp enough to get under Xander's skin. Considering his own phoneless state, was it really so snarkworthy?

"He works," he said shortly, then raised a finger for pause. "Mock that thought. I'll be right back."

"Plague of frogs, hail of fire, Spike with a job," he heard Buffy say. "Does anyone else feel an apocalypse coming on?"
 


"I had to get someone to finish out my shift, you know," Spike said an hour later from his sprawl on the couch. "Losing tips while I sit here." He very deliberately wasn't looking at Xander, and somehow Xander could tell.

"Yes." Giles's voice was long-suffering, but held an edge of finely honed contempt. "I've said you'll be remunerated."

"Jobless fellow like yourself shouldn't take another bloke's livelihood lightly," Spike rejoined in dark, measured tones.

"Do they make you wear a little apron?" Buffy asked from a pointed distance halfway across the room. "Because I'd pay to see that."

"Speaks the miss who'll never break minimum wage." Spike drew out the words, his elegant vowels a taunt. "What are your job skills again? Prancing the streets at night in search of men, wearing tarty heels, handling wood? Come to think--"

Buffy started for him, and Giles caught her arm.

"Are you going to do this or not?" Willow broke in, commanding Spike's attention. "Because while you sit there playing mister-dead-hipster-guy, Oz could be getting his brain chipped. Is that what you want?"

Spike scowled, unmoved by her feisty challenge. "So your mongrel gets fixed. What's it to me, aside from a few less bob for the piggy bank?"

"Forget pay. Don't you want some payback?" Willow leaned forward in her chair, eyes hard, voice flat and strangely compelling. "You'd be thwarting them. Dishing out some hurt. It'd chafe their brass, a monster turning the tables, outsmarting them."

Surprised and a little disturbed, Xander met Giles's gaze across the top of Willow's head. The older man looked just as taken aback.

"Yeah," said Spike, sounding fired up. His face glowed, his eyes dipped under long lashes as he contemplated an internal picture of mayhem and retribution. "It would, wouldn't it." Squaring his shoulders suddenly, he nodded and clapped his hands together with smart enthusiasm. "Count me in, Red."

Well, that was easier than expected, but then again, Spike was just a bundle of whim strapped to a pair of long legs. Xander hunched forward to join the plot-cooking, resting his arms loosely on his knees. "So how do we get in?"

"Same way I got out. Back door. I can take you there." Spike paused. "Course, can't promise they haven't tightened security since then."

"We'll take our chances," said Buffy.


Their entrance had been unexpectedly simple, the violence minimal, and the reunions something to see. Willow and Oz, Buffy and Riley. It was hard to sustain unmixed feelings, though, with the girls looking bittersweet and the guys looking the worse for wear.

"Bit of an anti-climax," complained Spike, the only one of them unimpressed that the raid had gone off without a hitch. Not that he could have done anything if it had hitched, but Spike never did make sense. "Not exactly four-star, is it?" He tested a support beam dubiously, then kicked it with his boot.

Riley looked around the ruins of the high school. "If it hasn't caved in by now--"

"It's probably overdue," Oz finished mildly. He didn't look worried, but he didn't look happy either. It was funny, thought Xander, because you'd think with three expressions in his repertoire he'd just look Oz. But when his face held a shade of happy, you noticed the difference.

"I hate leaving you here." Willow hugged him, and Oz hugged her back carefully, hands barely skimming her surface, as if she were a china tea-pot his clumsiness might break.

"I'll be okay," he said quietly. "I've got Ho-Hos."

Willow drew back, and in her face was the candid fragility Oz must have sensed. "If you go wolfy again--"

"I won't." Even those brief words had to be pried off Oz's tongue. "I thought." He paused and seemed to become aware of their audience, without quite looking at anyone. "It doesn't matter what I thought." He touched Willow's cheek, stroked his thumb there and gave her an almost-smile. "My senses are out of whack." His casual gaze turned Xander's way. "I even thought Xander was sleeping with Spike." There was a collective, paralyzed silence, and after a beat, Oz's face subtly registered realization. "Oh. My bad."

Willow, thoroughly distracted from her own drama, gave Xander the big eyes. "You're sleeping with Spike?" she squeaked.

"Now wait," said Riley, hands up, instinctively trying to referee the situation. Or maybe just call a halt on the play so that his head could clear. He looked dazed. "I just made a whole werewolf exception in my worldview here. But vampires?" A dismissive excuse for a laugh escaped him. "I don't think so."

Spike directed an arch, disbelieving look at Buffy. "What, you've never told him, Slayer?"

Riley looked between them while Buffy's face froze. "Told me what?" Into the stretching, empty air, his question repeated itself: "Told me what?"


They walked to Giles's house without a word between them, Xander with his hands tucked awkwardly in his pockets, Spike chain-smoking moodily. When they reached Xander's car, he said, "Want a lift?"

Spike gave the matter serious thought, staring down the street, not meeting Xander's eyes. "Think I'll walk," he said after a moment.

"Look, I'm sorry--"

"You're sorry?" Spike made a noise of derision and pitched his cigarette away.

It stung, and Xander didn't know why. "What happened to 'a real man does as he likes'?"

Glaring fiercely across the width of the car, Spike spat out: "They think I'm soft on you!"

"What?" Xander laughed in real appreciation. "You're crazy."

"Exactly!" Spike's emphatic gestures were going wide. "You call and I come running, a proper little do-gooder. I'm a vampire and I'm holding down a bloody job--and I don't even take my sick days!" With a growl of ineloquent frustration, Spike punched a hole in the passenger-side window. The bomb of shattering glass broke the quiet night.

"Hey!"

But Spike was already sweeping off into the darkness, scattering glass from his bleeding hand in his wake. Irritated, Xander climbed in and surveyed the damage, then drove. The car's wheels carried him in the same direction Spike had stalked, and his lean, smoke-trailing figure under the streetlights was unmistakable for anyone else's. Xander curb-crawled.

"Get in," he called through the broken window, his view of Spike cut off at the denim-clad and highly attractive hips.

"Sod off."

Xander pulled his head back and drove the car onto the sidewalk, barring Spike's path. He heard the vampire curse, and his blond head appeared at window-level. "Not selling it tonight, mate. Look elsewhere." And then his head raised again. "Oh hell," Xander heard him say.

Out his unmolested windows, he belatedly noticed the vampires who'd joined them. Peccable timing. He rolled down his window and let them approach closer. "Evenin'," he said, feeling for his travel stake with one surreptitious hand. "How's it going? Hey, any of you guys know where the freeway is?" With that he shoved open his door and caught the nearest vamp right under its grinning, anticipatory jaw. The creature staggered back as Xander hopped out. He took it by surprise, and shook off its dust as he launched into the fray.

It was a beautiful fight, two against six, and the raggedy-assed gang didn't know what hit them. Unfortunately, they knew how to hit. "Ow!" cried Xander as a vamp in a poncho landed one on his nose. Broken for sure, but he didn't have time to worry about it. He swung a stake-gripping fist at the guy's throat and felt wood enter flesh and lodge there. Damn, he thought, yanking his weapon back wetly and stumbling into another vamp as it came free. Falling on a victim wasn't one of his best moves, but it worked, the vampire's skull impacting on concrete long enough to stun him, and long enough for Xander to punch the stake through his heart.

The best moment, though, was when Spike came sliding across the car hood, pitched by the gang's leader, and landed in a blinking, startled heap in front of Xander, who leaped over his body to dust the son of a bitch. "Don't--toss--my--boyfriend," he said grimly, punctuating each breathless word with a punch and then driving his stake home. At least, that was the plan, and it would have been a peach if the hulk hadn't grabbed his wrist and twisted, making him drop the stake.

In a moment he found himself yanked around, held tight against the vampire's body in a parody of intimacy he could have done without. Neck forced into a taut bow, his final gaze dropped to the ground--

Which was completely bare of Spike, because Spike was yanking the big goon's heart out from behind. "Oof," Xander exclaimed, falling back into a spray of dust and vampire-thin air, only to be caught by two strong arms. The imprint of fangs still tingled on Xander's neck as he turned to meet Spike's gaze. Game face was gone, leaving steady eyes in their human mask, and a black, reluctant amusement.

"Don't toss my boyfriend?" he echoed.

"You find yourself saying these things. Heat of the slay." Xander caught his breath, noticed that Spike was running his tongue over his lips. "You cannot lick my face," he said.

"Oh, come on. You're downright delectable." Spike tipped his head, turning on his soulful charm for a snack. "All battered and mussed and dripping." He drew Xander close, slid a hand into the back pocket of his jeans.

"You are so disturbing, my friend."

"Boyfriend," Spike corrected in a low sing-song, licking a ribbon of blood from his jaw.

Xander drew his head back abruptly, earned a questioning look. "That too," he said, and kissed him.





Part Eleven ~ Manly Men Doing Manly Things



Xander heaved himself two inches over, but it was still the same couch, battered and lumpy and bristling with springs. There was no good spot. He turned his heavy head and glanced over at Spike, who looked perfectly comfortable, bare shoulders resting against duct-taped upholstery, blue-jeaned legs outstretched to rest his feet on the cinderblock-and-plywood coffee table. He had a beer bottle between his legs. Semi-erect. Foamy head. Xander's head lolled back into its divot, eyes fixing on the TV as he lazily adjusted his own beer bottle.

The commercial ended on the muted set, replaced by bad Japanese science-fiction. A man and woman stood on the street, trapped in some black-and-white city of the fifties, talking earnestly to one another, mouths moving without sound. Spike filled in helpfully.

"'Lo, love--cor, but you've got a pair on you, like ripe melons. Kiwis, maybe. Oranges, egg cups, fruity little ta-tas. You get my meaning. So, er, care for a shag? What, in the lab? Right, then. Oh, near-sighted duckling, aren't you--that's a microscope, not my pecker, love. Just as big around, though, not surprised you mistook--no, no, not the lab coat. Told you, makes you look pasty. Blokes don't make passes at bints who wear glasses. Now don't take it like that--not the end of the world. Oh. Sorry. Well, nothing like a good plague to whet a man's appetite."

"I am looking at you in a meaningful way," Xander parried, eyes never leaving the screen. "My eyes like pools of azure, my breasts like heaving torpedoes on the sea of my desire. You mock me with your tiny mustache, but I know what lurks beneath that sneering fringe. You're in love with Rhonda!"

"That's right, pet. Rhonda--there's a real woman. Not a man in women's clothing like you."

"Ahh!" Xander groaned affectedly, slapping a hand over his heart. "How did you guess my secret shame?"

"Spotted that copy of 'She Males' on your coffee table when I was shagging your sis."

"Damn it, Paul. I just had the couch reupholstered."

"No harm, no foul. I was tidy."

"You cad, with your shopworn suit and hairy lip!" Xander let himself get worked up. "To think I loved you and bore your children!"

"Those tasteless little brutes? Not a full meal among the lot of 'em."

"Animal! I crumple and weep! A thousand beakers could not contain my sea of tears!"

"There, there, love. Don't cry. I didn't eat all the kiddies."
 
They both fell silent, watching the set flicker into a scene of vibrator-shaped rocket ships flaming towards Earth.

"We really need to get out more," Xander said at last.

Spike sighed. "Yeah."





Part Twelve ~ Change of Address



Demons did their thing, Adam eluded them, and classes ended. In the middle of it all, Xander got a new job and moved. Earlier, he'd revisited his parents' house to move his things, making the trip during the day when they were both out. Here, he just had three boxes of stuff, and not large boxes either. They didn't make a big going-away-now pile by the apartment door, but he was okay with that.

"Great couch," said Oz, staring at it with rapt fascination, communing maybe. Then suddenly he turned, face unlocked with curious enlightenment. "I think that used to be Devon's."

The door was bumped open by a booted foot, and Riley came through with a bag slung over his shoulder. He looked around, assessing the place expressionlessly.

"It's not much," Xander began to apologize.

Riley broke out a little smile. "Compared to where we've been living, it's a palace."

Oz, who'd taken a seat with loose-limbed ease, cemented his roommate's arrival by announcing, "I get the couch, man."

"No problem," said Riley. "That bed looks--" He hesitated. "Mighty comfortable."

Embarrassed, Xander covered his feeling with reflexive humor. "The handcuffs come with. No extra charge." He paused. "I, uh, lost the key." Accepting Riley's good-natured nod, he edged toward the door. "I'll be back in a minute to get my things. Oh, if a flabby demon comes around with a potted plant, don't worry. It's just your neighbor with a house-warming gift."

He'd meant to make the journey upstairs, but he didn't have to. Spike lurked in the hall outside his door, leaning against the crumbling plaster. He looked up when Xander appeared, cigarette raised halfway to his mouth, then glanced away nonchalantly and completed the move.

"You'd better watch out," Xander said. "Your smoke is almost overpowering the smell of mice and piss."

Spike removed his cigarette and considered it. "Public service, innit."

Xander let himself ease near, felt Spike tense. "Well, we both know you're very public-service oriented." That came out kind of funny, wrong by being right, because Spike had continued to be his new and improved, weirdly helpful self these past few weeks. Killing demons, killing his own kind, throwing his empties into Xander's recycle bin instead of out the window. And now he gave Xander a sharp, pinning look, as if to say, insult me, will you.

"I'm uh. I'm going now," Xander said.

There was a subtle shift of muscle against wall, but Spike contrived to sound unimpressed. "Yeah?"

"Go with?" He made the offer casual as hell, but he'd made it before, so he couldn't pretend it was meaningless.

"Nah." Spike shifted again. His body language said restless, and you're standing too close and a lot of other things. It said sex and independence, and that conflict was somehow written in the cocked angle of his hips. It was a pose, but that was about all the vampire had going for him these days, and though Xander wanted to be righteously annoyed, he knew he had to let Spike come to terms with...well, with Spike.

"Figure I'll stay here a while," Spike went on. "Good deal. No rent, no responsibility."

"Hot and cold running rats."

"Always wondered if you could make a vampire rat," said Spike thoughtfully. "Or maybe a cow, y'know? Tried it a couple times. Didn't take."

The undead comedian, ladies and gentlemen. "You have just guaranteed that flesh-eating cows with big teeth will haunt my dreams tonight." Spike tipped up one corner of his mouth, but as they say, the smile didn't reach his eyes. There was an awkward moment, and Xander had time to wonder if he'd been sincere enough in his invitations, if he'd honestly wanted Spike to move with him into his brand spanking new apartment with the hardwood floors and faux granite counters, and put blood in the fridge, boot scuffs on the tiles.

He stopped doing the manly, eye-contact avoidance thing, and let his gaze rise to search Spike's face, reminding himself that this was a killer whose preferred drink was humans, who'd toss aside their corpses as carelessly as empty bottles. It had grown harder to remember that--at least when Spike wasn't reminiscing--and Xander wasn't sure when that had happened.

Spike's face was white and set and smooth, like a stone. A stone that was looking at him. "You should go now," he said. And he sounded cold, beyond angry. His lips were tight. But Xander had been in his mouth, and it wasn't hard to remember that. It was hard to forget.

He left, but the words pricked him for the next several hours, as he walked around his new, spotlessly clean digs. Didn't prick his conscience, but somewhere else. Like needles setting a tattoo in his restless skin. His living room had sheer white curtains, covering white blinds. It was so fucking clean, and Spike would never come here. Too clean for him.

I'm too clean for him, thought Xander. He stood with his lights off, looking out the window into the night. There was one patch of sidewalk under a streetlight, and a breeze kept lifting one tree branch up and down, up and down, in front of the globe. Xander drank a beer and watched the leaves move. After a while, he had to admit he was waiting. But no one walked up the street.


The knock on his door came at four a.m., after a handful of long days had passed. In his dream, the elephant was butting his shoulder, urging him toward the pit, in which Xander knew there were pointy stakes. I'd really rather not, he said diffidently, but he knew Buffy was at its bottom. She needed his help. I'm going to get you ice cream, he called down to her, and ran to the nearest tree. Her coconuts were up there, and when he shook the tree they knocked together.

Bonk, bonk...bang bang bang.

He flicked on his lamp and rubbed a hand across his eyes. "Someone had better be dead," he muttered, then came instantly awake, ice shooting through his veins at that very real possibility. Sick with anticipatory guilt, he stumbled toward the door in his boxers, calling, "Just a minute!"

Outside the door, it was someone dead. Xander stood with his hand on the door, alert but befuddled at Spike's unannounced visit. Spike himself looked impatient--if he hadn't been a vampire, he was exactly the kind of guy who'd push his way into your apartment at four a.m. without an invitation. "Well? Going to ask me in?" he said.

"And hello to you too." But he waved his hand inward, and that seemed to be enough, because Spike shoved past him.

Xander closed the door with a tired head shake and turned to find Spike staring askance at his toaster, which was shaped like a race-car. The harsh fluorescent lights made him cartoon vivid. He was all white skin, dark leather, sharp eyebrows. The hell he didn't wear eyeliner.

"If you're here to borrow a cup of sugar, I've only got instant." After a replay of that remark, he added, "Make no sense I do, this hour at. Talking like Yoda, I am." He sighed. Spike was just looking at him as if he were crazy. And then his irritated face softened and he smiled. Always so unexpected, that smile. That real smile, as if he were all of a sudden seeing Xander and liking him.

He strolled over--if you could stroll a mere three feet--and slid his hand between Xander's legs. "How about a cup of this?" he suggested instead.

"You know, a few years ago I used to dream of sex-o-grams. Now I dream of sleep." But Spike's hand was blatant, sliding into the split of his boxers, riling things up in there. "Okay, so maybe tomorrow, which in actual fact is today, I can daydream of sleep. Yeah. I'm thinking--oh yeah." His lips parted, his eyes fell half shut, and when Spike folded gracefully to his knees, he thought maybe he was dreaming.

Xander Harris hangin' with William the Bloody, he heard Faith-not-Buffy say. And yeah, what the hell was up with that, a notorious semi-retired vampire dropping in to give free blow-jobs to someone genetically destined for uncoolness, namely him? Why was Spike letting him disarray his rigidly gelled hair? Why was he making those satisfied Blow-Pop sounds with his tight, evil mouth? And his eyes closing, his hand fumbling his fly open, fumbling to jerk himself off on Xander's kitchen tiles, as if he couldn't help himself, as if this meant--

"Oh," he breathed, clutching Spike's head, knees locking and thighs trembling. "Oh, man, I missed you--"

Spike groaned around him and began to come, and that was all Xander needed to let go.


They'd done a lot of damage to his sheets in a short time. A spare set of sheets might have been a good idea, he was realizing now. Willow had suggested that when they'd gone new-apartment shopping, but he'd pooh-poohed her. Sheets got dirty, you did laundry. What was the big?

Big wet spots.

He opened his eyes to see Spike slipping on his jeans, and he frowned, rolling over to look out the window. "It's almost dawn."

"I'm not hurrying to avoid the traffic, pet."
 
"Don't hurry," Xander said mildly. "Stay."

Spike paused in the act of pulling on his shirt. He was thinking about it, that was something, but Xander knew he wouldn't cave. And he didn't; after a moment, he got that look again, stubborn vampire tugging a familiar cloak of wannabe-evil around himself. Darth Spike, ultimate bad ass. "Better not. Wouldn't get to work on time."

"Oh, yeah." Oddly, Xander resented this practicality more than the idea of Spike wanting to go. "I forgot you have that tunnel to the bar." Too damn convenient, and why were vamp commuter alternatives suddenly occupying his thoughts?

"How goes your new gig?" Spike, conversational in his terse way, sat on the edge of the bed with his back turned and began lacing on his boots.

"The job? It's great. Got me a tool belt and one of those stylish yellow hats. Next week I come off probation. I'll be a fully recognized employee of Nash Construction. I understand I'm obliged to start wolf-whistling at the hot mamas who walk by the site."

"See, what'd I tell you? You're moving up in the world."

"Thanks to you." Xander shoved his bare foot at Spike's hip companionably and earned a dry, dismissive glance. "You found that ad, told me to get off my ass and go for it. I'd still be serving pizza to the stoners of Sunnydale if you hadn't given me a shove."

"Yeah, well. I was bored. Always give advice when I'm bored. Usually turns out tragic. Bit of a surprise, this." He stood, pulled on his coat. "I'm off then."

As sleep tugged him back into its embrace, Xander watched him go. "Bye," he said after the front door closed. "Good to see you too."


Three days later, another neighbor-waking knock called him from sleep.

"Land shark?" Xander mused as the door reverberated in its frame. "Hold on, hold on." As he trudged across his carpet, it occurred to him that it might be someone else--say, a frantic Buffy out on patrol and pursued by a demon, ducking into his building for refuge. He hurried his steps to unlock the door, and Spike barged in as soon as it clicked open.

"Whoa!" The door had bumped his shoulder hard enough to send him staggering back a pace, and the zing of pain made Xander even more wakeful. "What's up? Is something aft--"

"You. Me. Sex." Spike tore off his coat and threw it at a chair; it missed and fell, but he didn't even notice. His face was fierce with determination. "Now." He disappeared into the bedroom, trailing clothes, and Xander gaped after him, unsure whether to be excited or offended. After a fuzzy moment of shock, he followed.

It couldn't have been ten seconds, but he found Spike already stripped down to the full monty. "Okay, wow. I'm thinking magical boot-removing spell, because--"

"Shut up!" Spike's expression was hard, cold. "On the bed."

Xander stiffened. "I don't think--"

"No," Spike said, covering the distance between them in a blur. "Don't think." A command not to be resisted, his erection like a gun at Xander's balls. Spike's mouth got busy everywhere. Sharp tongue, blunt teeth. The pain was a good pain, and the chip stayed quiet as their breathing grew loud. Vampiric sucking at his neck made Xander harder than he'd ever been. The deep, guttural growls had to be Spike's. When he palmed the muscles of Spike's back they jerked, as if he'd delivered a shock.

Spike wrestled him to the floor, though he wasn't fighting. He crouched astride Xander and began rubbing off on him. The friction was going to set a fire. There wasn't even any rental insurance yet. He tried to cry out, but Spike shoved the heel of his hand in Xander's mouth, between his teeth. Xander bit down and felt himself come helplessly.

"'S fantastic, isn't it, pet?" Spike settled back and regarded him with what it took Xander a moment to recognize as contempt. "Best you've ever had. Not that I'm up against much. Dunno how you ever got laid before I came on the scene. Look at you, you're--" His eyes searched Xander as if trying to find some insult on his flesh, and a muscle in his cheek jumped. "You're a natural-born loser. You're nothing, a nobody." His tone flattened; grew low and deliberate. "I've killed a thousand like you. Dinner on the hoof, don't need a name, just take a number. Order up. You could snuff it right now," he snapped his fingers, "and history wouldn't even blink. Just one less meat puppet taking up space."

It was impossible to look away from him. Xander understood black holes how, because he was staring into Spike's eyes. They sucked you in, held you right there on the event horizon.

He was not going to cry. Men got angry, got revenge, didn't cry. And he was going to get good and angry. Any second now. "What's the matter with you?" It felt strange, getting words out of his rough throat.

"That," Spike said, leaning down close, "is the stupidest question I've ever heard." His merciless eyes were only a few inches away now, glittering in orbit above Xander's. Beaten, hollowed out and paralyzed--that's how it felt, Xander decided, when someone turned on you.
 
"Evil," he whispered.

"That's right, precious." Spike propped himself on one hand and cupped the side of Xander's face with the other, thumb strong against his cheek.

"You got the chip out."

"Only wish that were the case."

Xander caught a jagged breath as this admission struck, and shoved Spike away. "Bastard! Bastard!" His voice made a keening, hitching sound that shamed him and he kicked Spike's shins, kicked out repeatedly, landing blow after blow. Spike grimaced--it was almost a bitter, twisted smile--and slumped back against his bed. Xander got up on his knees and hit him across the jaw, doing little damage. He shook out his aching fist and got hold of himself.

"Go on," Spike said in his cool, feathery way. "Do it again."

"That's all." Xander sucked one knuckle briefly, hating himself, hating Spike more. "You're not worth the pain of a beating."

"Yeah? Well..." This seemed to put Spike at a loss. "Expect you'll want to break up now."

Duh, Xander thought, whiplashed and agog at the change of tone. "What," he said aloud, "and miss out on future installments of rug burn and ego death? Because let me tell you, that was a treat. Break up. Gee, let me think." Sarcasm should have been followed immediately by a hearty yes, but as he stared in disgust at Spike's closed, chiseled expression, he realized in one bad wrong second that what he wanted wasn't that simple. It would have been that simple with Anya and maybe even with Cordelia. But he wanted Spike.

Really wanted Spike.

It wasn't just sex. It was something else, much bigger and heavier. The else was right there in the room with them, fucking Xander up.

"No," he heard himself say. "You don't get off that easy." Actually that was more like we don't get off that easy, but whatever.

Spike looked astonished, then recovered and hid it quickly. "Minute ago I wasn't worth beating. Now you want to stay hitched? Plenty of therapists in the phone book, you know. Might want to give one a ring."

"Right, and you're all about consistency, Mister Tilt-a-Whirl." Xander got up and readjusted his sweat pants, leaving Spike to brood nakedly on his rug.
 
"Look," Spike said after a minute. Xander looked down obediently, saw the tension in his cut-away lashes and cheekbones. Three-quarter profile, finding something on the carpet to gaze at, taking a deep breath. Still so angry he looked gutted. None of these good signs, and Xander knew he didn't want to hear what was coming. But what came wasn't anything he could have expected. "Your patchy demon paid me a visit."

"Adam?"

"Yeah. Salmagundi. Wanted to deal. Said if I did a job for him, he'd get this chip out of my head." Spike drew up a knee, rested his arm there and seemed to dwell on his bracelet. "Can't say I wasn't tempted. Different circumstances and I might have embraced him with open arms." He paused. "Well, not literally embraced, mind. The man has hygiene issues. But I'd have done anything to get this chip out." He caught Xander's eye then, heard his own words. "I will get it out," he revised fiercely. "But I can do it myself. Don't need some overgrown golem dangling promises all carrot and stick, like. Wasn't exactly feeling the trust there."

"Good call," Xander said, sitting down on the edge of the bed, careful not to get too close. "You were thinking about it though."

"Course I was." Spike's head moved slightly. He would have had to look over his shoulder to see Xander. He didn't. "Always an eye on the deal, that's me." Voice not quite self-deprecating; words falling some halfway place between honesty and lie.

It would have been so easy to call him on it. Say: Look at you, Spike, you couldn't go through with it, could you? You're as evil as a cupcake right now. You care about me. You're confused. It would have provoked him, though, and the thing was, Xander wasn't so sure how true all those things were, or if he just wanted them to be.

"Look out for number one," he said instead.

"Damn right," Spike asserted firmly, turning to glare at him, proving Xander's suspicions correct. His chip was on his shoulder tonight, and anything Xander said was going to get a rise.

"Well, there's nothing wrong with that." He touched Spike's hair, and Spike flinched away just a little. Reflex of the bad-ass. But his eyelashes were thick and heavy, and he was listening. Too bad Xander had nothing more to say. Maybe another time he'd try. Point out, hey, you can look out for number one without hurting numbers two and three and four-thousand-and-twelve. But right now--that would send Spike flying up a tree. He'd already talked himself down once. No need to go there again.

"He wanted me to get the slayer," Spike said. He stole a glance at Xander to see how he took this. "Think he's got some kind of gladiatorial scenario in mind, soldiers and demons mixing it up. Gets his jollies orchestrating that sort of thing. Has a whole evil dictator set-up back in the caves. Computers, flunkies, chair like Captain Kirk's."
 
Xander nodded, then said, "I'll tell Buffy."

And Spike's eyes darkened, lips compressed, but he let it go. His head was even with Xander's knee, and he turned it further and seemed to inhale. Xander allowed himself to smooth the crisp hair. When Spike rose to his knees between Xander's legs, it wasn't sudden or surprising, but it felt like a fish-hook catching his breath. Spike's hands rested on Xander's thighs; Xander's on his shoulders. Spike seemed to want to say something; there was that about-to-spill look caught on his face. But he didn't, or changed his mind. He did some other things with his mouth instead, too good to describe, did them in no hurry to Xander's chest and collarbones.

His head fell forward against Spike's, their hair tangling and brows touching. He just wanted him so badly. He hated vampires; knew the difference between right and wrong. They were kissing now, hot and wet and greedy, and that wasn't wrong. And then Spike was on the bed, lying on him, and their chests were bare and legs entwined heavily. Not wrong. Not when he could feel how badly Spike needed it; feel his hardness again, an urgent prod rucking up the material of the sweat pants separating them. His face wasn't like before. He was trying to be rough, but failing. It was good when he failed. Good when they kissed desperately like this, when Xander wound his arms around Spike's back, when Spike groaned and ground against him and lost his rhythm, and forgot he didn't need to breathe, and drew his head back sharply; when he wrenched his face to one side with his eyes closed; when he couldn't stop his hips but just kept humping wildly against Xander like a guy would, helpless. Just like a guy, not a vampire.

Sometimes when the lamp light was this low, you couldn't really tell the difference.





Part Thirteen ~ Unrest



Xander stumbled against the counter as Buffy jostled his shoulder. "Watch it, Slayer. That's some elbow you have. My popcorn almost spilled." He looked into the bowl to check if the kernels were still evenly arranged.

With that self-absorbed habit she had, back turned to him, she put her bowl into the microwave. It began to whir. "There's juice in the fridge."

"No thanks." Xander went down the hall toward the living room, carrying the bowl in front of him. The edges of the room were dark, almost sepia-toned in shadow. Giles looked very sepia, but then he always did. He was still wearing that smoking jacket. Or did the British call them that? He didn't want to ask. Because, fags. A word not to be mentioned. Xander sat down in the shadows, in the armchair, which was dusty and had cobwebs around its legs. Buffy didn't clean much in here, he noticed. But the television was on. Worked. He wish he hadn't moved himself in here with her. It was a shabby place, and not really for him. Not for her either. She deserved better.

"Did I miss much?" he asked.

Giles, eating his own popcorn, shook his head but didn't take his eyes from the screen. "Not very much at all."

"Massacring," said Buffy, shoving popcorn in her mouth. Like mascara, he thought. Girls were into that stuff.

On the television, soldiers were walking through the forest, carrying guns. The forest was tall, and light shot through the trees. It was beautiful, but there might have been Indians. "We gotta keep going, men," said the soldier. "We gotta take that hill."

"Overrated," Giles said, sniffing. How could he talk through all that popcorn, Xander wondered. The British were such pigs.

"It gets better," he answered dubiously, conscious that the others were all on the other side of the room, sitting on the couch. They had otherness about them. And togetherness. Why had he taken this seat? His side of the room was a mess, like half a dorm room.

It was a dorm room, but also not. And Buffy's hair was gold in the lamp light. Butter, as she sat on her bed.

"I forgot the butter," he said, rising and walking past the others with their damn otherness. It made him anxious. He went upstairs. He'd left his textbook up there earlier, and it was nice on her stairs and on the second floor of Buffy's house, with deep piled carpeting under his feet and a glossy banister. Someone had left beach clothes on the floor, though. Sandy bathing suits and maybe a plastic pail. He went into the bathroom, his--the hallway flickering and asserting itself as his own hallway, in his own home--because he was thirteen. Or not.

He went into the bathroom, but didn't quite. "Hey there, Xander," said Joyce.

Turning, he saw her at the end of the hall, his mother, Joyce. She'd just stepped outside her bedroom to check on him, wearing a long white gown with ribbons. She'd caught him upstairs, which was no place for a kid to be at a time like this, and she knew it. He should be somewhere else, doing guy things with the girls. At school, or out playing. It was late afternoon and it was someone else's house, it was his own house. He really shouldn't be here.

"Hey, Buffy's mom. We're not making too much noise down there, are we?"

She smiled at him. "Oh, no. They've all left. I have brownies, if you'd like some."

He caught an image of her kitchen, and felt the emptiness of the house with her in it. A kind of sadness in the middle of the day, with Buffy outside playing. "I have assignments," he told her with regret, meaning homework and an elsewhere to be.

And she was wearing a blouse and skirt and heels, housewifely and appropriate. "You do all your jobs," she said in approval. "I've always admired that about you."

"Well, thanks." It was said in a self-deprecating way. "I don't have many hours in a day. They're mostly at night."

"You should have dinner sometime."

"I do get hungry though, and then I eat."
 
He needed to get away from her, get moving, get on with it, but the stickiness of the hallway held him in place. She was inviting him into the kitchen behind her, where the bed was, and he didn't dare go. Politeness made him hesitate, but she was Buffy's mother and because she was Buffy's mother, he had to be polite.

"It's very late," announced Anya, who had joined them. "My watch indicates the hour by the sweep of the second hand."

"You mean the first hand," Xander corrected.

"Why don't you rest here?" the mother woman suggested, before returning to her kitchen.

Freed, Xander went into the bathroom and closed the door. He needed to take a shower and he undressed, which took a long time. Every article of clothing had to be removed, but it was so slow that he began the shower before he'd finished. Sodden pants and socks ended up in the bottom of the tub, and the tedium and inconvenience of it was outrageous. Also, he had a feeling people were watching him through the window. It was stupid, putting a shower on a street corner, like a showcase window. He was naked and it was time to go inside.

"This isn't a peep show," he complained.

Across the hall was his bedroom, which was just like he'd left it back in high school, with his wank magazines under the mattress and his uniform tossed across the bed. For when he went to war. When he sat down on his bed, though, the window looked out over the alley and he was in his apartment, the one he didn't pay rent on. It was like a movie, with the police sirens wailing in the night, and the screams and the gunshots and the demons. He could see a playground outside too, through the open window. It was brilliantly sunny, not night. Kids on the see-saw.

He looked at his front door, whose knob was turning. "Like a salesman," he said with irritation. "You never knock." The knob began to rattle, and someone pounded on the door with abrupt force. Xander jumped up from his bed, unnerved, watching it. "That's not the way out."

It helped to climb through the window--you could escape that way, like in all movies. His clever solution brought him to the playground. It was an urban playground set amid tall buildings, with a sandbox where Buffy played. Willow was on the swing-set in overalls, Giles pushing her.

"I came to play," Xander said, wishing they hadn't started without him. He was always late. It had to do with having to take a shower and get ready, with not finding his sneakers in his messy room.

Buffy was building a castle with her pail, scooping up sand with the plastic shovel. "Giles made a game with cards. See my hands." She held them out, palms empty, and he nodded distractedly. Had she said game or fate? He couldn't tell. "When were you looking for us?" she asked.

"After work." He crouched down next to her, tried to get himself into the sand.

"Higher," Giles said to Willow. "Faster. Like a bird. But not too much like a bird."

"Like a plane," argued Willow, her body cutting an arc through the air. Her feet were for a moment almost level with the top of the swing-set. She was going to fly off if she wasn't careful. Xander remembered how that could happen. You flew off, and you hung there and you couldn't get back down. You'd make these swimming motions through the air, but it did no good. He'd been there before.

"Giles has all the cool games." Willow seemed pleased. "I could play chess, I could sing songs. I could be in a barbershop quartet!"

"Don't fly too much." Xander was increasingly worried about her, even as he played with Buffy's sand. "You could get caught in the air."

Buffy had finished her castle and knocked it over to start again. "I have a big crush on you," she told him.

He was pleased and embarrassed. She was talking to him. To him. She looked a lot older now, and was wearing a bikini. Because, yeah, they were on the beach. A pretty big beach, too, and they were standing eye to eye, so he could just look at her with the sun flooding across her skin, and her smiling at him. Golden girl.

"Buffy, I don't really think you should go out there." He meant surfing on the water, which was deep, but she held up her hand to shade her eyes, and looked down the beach at the stretching sand. "It's further than it looks."
 
"I'm good," she said, and he saw behind her a desert of broken rock and twisted trees. "It's not coming for me yet."

"You need to protect yourself." Xander felt certain of this. "In that way you do." He turned to glance over his shoulder, where Willow swung, but she'd left with Giles. Gone inside. "I'm not the--" He turned back, but Buffy had gone too. "Man," he finished. He was always late, the last one to go in. A bell rang sharply and recess was over.
 
Back in school, he was carrying his books and late for class, hurrying through the halls. "I left my locker here," he said, staring around in panic. There were many other lockers, but they weren't the right ones. "I need my books. The different books for the other class." He looked around and headed down another hall. It was a damn big school; there was never time to get from one place to another between classes. "I'm running late," he told people, laughing at himself to make sure they knew he got the joke.

"You," he said to Spike, when they met each other. "Why are you here? You're not in my school."

"I failed the grade." He was smoking. In a school hallway. Nervously Xander's shoulders hunched. It seemed certain that someone would stop them, say something. But Spike was too cool, hard and dangerous in his black leather jacket. No teacher would dare interfere. "Got kept back. Got to retake all my classes. Then they transferred me here."

"That's too bad."

"Yeah." Spike was looking around as if he wanted someone else to talk to. Someone cooler, Xander feared. He had the biggest crush on Spike, and that's why he followed him now into the bathroom to smoke. Hanging out by the stalls, in that cool way. Cool kids did this. He'd never kissed a guy in a bathroom before.

"Are you sure we can do this?" he asked as Spike pushed him up against the wall, hands sliding down Xander's sides. Erotic perfection. "Someone might walk in."

"They ought to. Ought to break down the fucking door." Spike nuzzled his shoulder and bit his neck. Straightforward and good, all bitey with his sharp teeth, drinking the Harris blood. He had his monster face on. Xander could feel the length of his body pressing close, leather and flesh.

"I'm so in love with you," Xander said with a rush of delicious terror, as if he might come right there in public. "I'm so in love with you."

Spike enthusiastically sucked more blood. Said, "That's glad."

"You have to meet my parents."

"I can do that. I can eat them."

"Dinner's good." Xander kissed him roughly, monster face and all, and wondered if he'd be able to stop. Dinner, he thought. But he was kissing someone else, some faceless guy, and hey, that was embarrassing. "Sorry," he muttered, slinking away and wiping his bloody mouth, looking for Spike. Down the halls he wandered, but when he reached the door out, he couldn't open it. There was something on the other side. He could hear it trying the catch, shaking the door in its frame.

"I'm not out yet," he said, backing away from the door. "Go away!"

"You may want to nullify it," Giles offered, wearing a problem-solving frown. "With your mind."

Xander turned to him anxiously. "I didn't do it. That wasn't me."

"It's because of what we did together. It's dead serious." He'd perked up and sounded candid, even cheerful. "We all may expire horribly. See?" He gestured with a nod of his head, and Xander followed his gaze down the hall, past the crowds of kids, through which something slithered. It was coming for him. "Well," said Giles, putting his glasses back on, "to the books, men."

He walked off and Xander followed in confusion. Giles led him to the library, where the others were waiting. Buffy sat in a chair, reading a book. Willow sat across from her, head thrown back, choking. Buffy paid no attention, nor did Giles, who opened his own book and began to read intently. Bewildered, Xander sat at the table and looked around.

"It says here I can fight this with olive oil, basil, and parmesan," Buffy read. "A quarter cup."

"Buffy, really." Giles's voice was dry and condescending, and faintly annoyed. "That's a cheese, you know."

"Oh."

"Look in the other book. The one about evil."

Xander realized Giles was talking to him. "Sir, yes, sir." He got up and headed into the stacks, winding his way back toward the shelf where the book was. Once back there, though, he got lost and found himself in the hallway of his abandoned building. He was heading down into the basement, which was funny because he tried never to go there. There were dark tunnels below, if you went too deep. You could get lost.

"I'm finding my own room," Xander said, to anyone who cared to listen. Crowds of demons and vampires lurked just at the edges of his sight, uninterested. "I can't believe they moved it. I paid my rent." But he got turned around in his searching, which could happen, and found himself in a familiar tunnel, and then a concrete well with an iron door. He was trapped inside with Spike, who looked over at him gloomily.

"Can't get out that way." Spike stood with his arms hanging down loosely at his sides, shoulders slumped in defeat. "I've tried. Banged the thing silly."

"You're evil. Don't you know its name? Buy it off! Buffy it!" Xander stared fixedly at the door; the metal was bending inward, creasing down at the corner where something was reaching through.

"It's not like that. I've got nothing to give." Spike's voice was resigned. "You do, though."

Xander looked over and found his demon masked and snarling. It tossed him against the wall, pressed against him. "Give us a kiss, love." Its eyes were red fire, glaring through him, and it was sickening and so wrong that Xander forgot how to breathe.

"I don't have it--don't have it--"

"No," his demon said coldly. "You haven't got the heart."

And he ripped it out to prove it.





Part Fourteen ~ Aftermath



"...and then you ripped my heart out," Xander finished. He paused. "What do you think it means?"

Spike had a funny expression on his face, and seemed to be coming out of a trance, as if he'd been unintentionally caught up in the tale. His cigarette had nearly burned down to the quick. He noticed, pitched it, and lit a new one. "Hell if I know. Suspect it means you were breast-fed too long."

"What?!"

"It's always about the Oedipal complex, pet. Didn't they teach you Freud in that school of yours?"

"Oh, sure. He was that guy who used to wear women's underclothes, right?" Spike stared at him blankly. "Freudian…slip," Xander spelled out. "Never mind." He shifted in his chair and spent an idle glance on the band who'd taken the stage. Powerful Mint Gum was their name, which was about the stupidest name ever. They looked the part, too. Coming to you straight from a garage on Eucalyptus Street to the stage of the Bronze. He looked back at Spike, who was people-watching. They could easily hang out here for hours, held in place by their own inertia, drinking themselves numb and talking at length about the comparative merits of super-heroes and beers. About nothing. This was what he liked about Spike. A century of existence had honed his loafing skills. He could actually nurse his ennui for days at a time, before becoming restless and needing to kill something.

"You ever dream, Spike?"

"Yeah, sure, I dream." He sounded uninterested in the topic, but he usually did. It was a game, trying to engage his interest, watching for the moment when the pilot light went on with a whoosh and he surfaced from brooding with a sudden glint of eye and sly grin.

"Is it like chasing rabbits? For vampires, I mean. Do you dream about the one that got away?"

Another thing about Spike, he never asked, What kind of question is that? He'd heard it all before. "Sometimes. Not always. Usual stuff, really. Sex. Getting caught shoplifting in supermarkets. Big dogs chasing me."

"Big dogs?"

"Y'know, hell hounds. Mastiffs. That type."

"Huh. So you're the rabbit." As Spike considered that, Xander went on, "I dream about finding myself naked in math class. Which doesn't seem very fair. I've graduated, but my dreams haven't. On the other hand, I also dream of being eaten by zombies. A timeless classic."

"Oh, I've had that one. Fellow took a big chunk right out of my face," Spike gestured graphically at his cheek, "an' I woke up certain I'd still got the scars. Took Dru hours to convince me it was the black drop and not black magic. That was before Polaroids."

"It's funny how you can see yourself on film, but not in mirrors."

"Mystical laws set their own logic."

"Mystical laws," mused Xander, between sips of beer. "You think there are mystical lawyers?"

"Lawyers are eternal."

"Like love," Xander said semi-tipsily.

"Like this bloody song," Spike said in disgust, turning to look over his shoulder at the band. He raised his voice a little. "You'd get better drumming if you tossed your boots in the spin cycle, mate."

Xander didn't find it hard to imagine Spike making the rounds of the punk scene, trashing clubs and insulting bouncers, getting himself chucked across the mosh pit with a savage grin on his face. He had a feeling Spike missed that. "I think this is their homage to Pink Floyd."

"More like a hemorrhage to the bastard."

"Pink. Floyd." Xander stared at him. "The band."

"I know that, you git." Spike leaned back and eye-glinted at him. "You're not the best straight man, pardon the pun, but you're the only audience I've got. Not going to suppress my immortal lines just because you know me too well."
 
He wanted to grin then, and maybe he did a little. "I know you too well?"

Spike rolled his eyes, caught in his own snare. "Nothing to be proud of. I'm an open book."

"Comic book, some might say. Well, more of a graphic novel."

"Geek," Spike mouthed sotto voce, just before taking a pull of beer.

"Oh hey, there's Buffy."

Spike didn't choke on his beer, but lowered his bottle quickly as if he suspected Xander of trying to trip him up. She was coming to the table, though, and the others were winding their way through the crowd a few paces behind her.

"Hi!" she said cheerily to Xander. Her zing dropped a notch as she noticed Spike, and she gave him the hairy eyeball, but nodded politely.

"Slayer." He eyeballed her back, from toes to tits. "You're looking fresh and tangy."

Riley frowned down at Spike as he arrived, but immediately dismissed him and turned a smile and hello on Xander. And suddenly they were a table-sprawling crowd, filling out with a perky Willow, a sedate Oz, and a rather subdued Tara, who looked very much as if she'd been dragged along and wanted to be somewhere else. Another table was pulled up and Xander made room for people's chairs. Spike didn't move, and looked annoyed as the witches bumped chairs up to flank him.
 
"Drinks for everyone on me," Riley said gallantly, and collected people's orders.

"Double bourbon, no holy water," Spike said, after everyone else had spoken. Riley gave him a dry look and went off.

"You come down yet off the ultimate high?" Willow asked Xander, eyes glowing.

"What ultimate high was that?"

"Xander!" She swatted his hand. "The joining of our spiritual essences in one vessel to defeat a great and terrible evil!"

"Oh, that," he said casually. "Yeah, I've still got a bit of a buzz."

She grinned.

"Sounds like quite a show." Spike directed a pointed look at Xander. "Wish I'd been there."

"Sorry," Buffy said, not sounding sorry at all. "We were in Scooby mode."

"It's a whole mode thing." Willow continued to be smiley.

"Uh huh." Spike glanced sidelong at Tara, who was quietly twiddling a napkin and gazing at her fingers. Tara didn't even notice his look, but the rest of the table did and there was a moment of social hesitation.

"I wasn't there either," piped up Oz, filling in the silence. "I was unconscious."

"Your poor head." Willow patted him. Or you could say petted him, thought Xander.

"Riley is very sorry," Buffy said emphatically.

Riley walked up behind her with their drinks at that moment. "I'm sorry?"

Willow pouted. "For swatting Oz."

"You know," Xander offered, "when you were Robo-Riley." Unnecessary exposition, since it was two days ago and how could Riley have forgotten? But Spike hadn't been there, he'd only gotten the tale second-hand. He smirked faintly now at the discomforted look crossing Riley's face.

"Oh." Riley sounded unhappy. "I am very sorry about that."

"That's only the ninth time he's told me," Oz informed the table mildly. "I'm still bucking for double digits."

Riley managed an obliging smile and finished passing out drinks. "Sorry."

"Well, I feel all warm and fuzzy," Spike said. Xander could sense his faint disgust, see it in how he lounged back in his chair, hoping to antagonize someone and earn their ire. He liked friction, and tended to grow more belligerent the longer he went without it. Xander's self-appointed role was rodeo clown. If he could draw Spike's unruly attention to himself, no one got hurt. Including Spike.

"I think that's just my leg," he said, interjecting a response. Spike shot him a look, then a languid, private smile. Way too private for a crowd, but that was a vampire for you.  They wore their ids on their sleeves. Tara was also smiling--just barely--but pleased at having caught her interest, Xander asked, "So, are you staying in Sunnydale over the summer?"

"Oh, y-yes." Tara seemed ready to let that stand, then realized more was expected. "I'm proctoring some classes for the Learning Annex."

"Wow. Is that a new requirement?" asked Buffy, eyes wide. "Because I already had my physical, and they didn't say anything about that."

"Proctoring as in supervision, Buffy." Willow offered a Cheshire-kitty smile. "Like in computer labs."

"Oh."

Tara looked flushed and uncomfortable at the misunderstanding rather than amused; her shoulders were beginning to hunch inward. Xander regretted that he'd turned the spotlight on her. "And what are you doing on your summer vacation?" he asked, turning to Riley on the opposite side. "Hitting the beach, catching some waves?"

"More like hitting some demons, catching some monsters." He paused. "Present company excepted, of course."

"Real big of you," muttered Spike.

"We're going to fight the good fight," Buffy said brightly, laying her hand over Riley's and ignoring Spike with the ease of long practice. "Aren't we, sweetie?"

"Takin' it to the streets," Riley replied, smiling into her eyes.

Spike snorted, and Xander took a deep breath and moved on. "Well, great. Will?"

"Oh, you know." Willow rocked her head side to side, catching the beat of the music. "Gonna hang out with my homies, kick the Wicca up a notch. Right, Tara?"

"What?" Tara looked up from the straw of her Coke. "Oh, r-right."

After a moment, a few heads turned to Oz. "I've been thinking of reuniting the band," he volunteered. "Maybe a world tour. Our world tours usually don't take us further than L.A., but we thought we'd get more ambitious this time. We're aiming for Portland."

"I'm going to be a roadie," Willow shared with girlish excitement. "Or maybe a groupie. Hey, can I be both?"

"Sure," Oz said amiably, and his eyelashes flirted back at her in a low-key way. "We're non-union." He closed his eyes as Willow pecked him briefly on the lips. His lips tilted up slightly afterwards.

Spike looked genuinely pained by the sweetness, brows knitting darkly as if he'd found himself sitting next to smurfs and couldn't fathom how it had happened. Xander knew the feeling, except that he found himself sitting across from a vampire and couldn't fathom how they'd started dating. He'd hated Angel so much in high school--still did--and never understood how Buffy could get it on with the undead son of a bitch. And now he knew that with just a twist of fate, he could have been her besotted twin, giving it all up for the nookie. Because, hey, his vamp didn't have a pesky soul acting as a magical chastity belt, and Xander was grateful for that on an almost nightly basis.

"What about you, Spike?" Willow finally asked, in her friendly and outgoing way. "What are you up to this summer?"

"No good?" Buffy suggested innocently. "Old tricks?"

"Unlike most of you pampered little brats, I'm a working stiff. No doubt I'll be serving liquid anesthesia to the drones of Sunnydale while you're off sunnin' yourselves."

"Pampered," Willow repeated indignantly. "Who's pampered?"

"You, kitten." Spike eyed her shirt. "How much did that scrap of silk cost? Fifty, sixty bucks? Sell off your wardrobe and I'll bet you could feed some family for a year. And who paid for it, hmmm?"

Willow looked huffy. "It was on sale."

"He is right, though," Oz conceded, looking around the table. "We're middle class, people." He seemed okay with that, and that seemed to give everyone else permission to feel okay too. Even Spike, with this acknowledged, looked prepared to back down.

"And what are you, Spike, a Marxist?" Buffy folded her arms on the table, chin jutting slightly. "After a century killing the good citizens and robbing their corpses, you're suddenly Comrade Chippy just because you've got a job? And we're the ones who are supposed to feel guilty." Her absence of guilt was crystal clear.

"You know, it may not mean anything to you, Slayer, but I've got a bloody biological imperative here, currently being thwarted. Next time you shove one of those great, dripping McCowPatties in your gob, why don't you set it back down and see how long you can live off a quarter-pound of oxygen?"

He was working himself up into a rant, but Buffy was visibly unimpressed. "You seem to be thriving on McBlood. Guess your imperative isn't so," she hesitated, shrugged, "imperative."

Vampire glared at Slayer, and Xander exchanged a look with Riley that said, We both know that they won't kill each other here, but maybe it's not a good idea to test that theory too far.  It was one of those complex looks.

"Hey, wanna dance?" Riley asked Buffy, as if this thought had just struck him.

They went off, and everyone else relaxed a notch, except for Spike, who was stoked to fight something or someone. Xander thought it'd be helpful if he could ask Spike to dance, but that was no way, no how happening unless a big, crazy wizard dropped through the ceiling and cast a spell of dance fever on the inhabitants of the Bronze.

Xander glanced at the ceiling.

"I need to boogie too. Tara, whaddaya say? Let's get a groove thang on." Willow's exuberance was trying to catch.

"Ka-pow," Xander said in approval, letting himself live vicariously. "A little girl-on-girl action. All right."

Tara looked appalled. "Dance? W-w-with you?" Her thickening stammer betrayed the level of her alarm.

"Well, Oz doesn't dance."

"I'm neither a mover nor a shaker," Oz confided to Tara. "Mostly, I'm a watcher. Though not the official kind." Damn, Oz was wordy tonight.

"C'mon," Willow said, grinning, red hair swinging. "Dancing is just good old wholesome family fun."

"I d-don't think so." Tara scooped up her purse and stumbled off her chair. "I actually--I have to go. I'm sorry." She mumbled good nights and shot off through the crowd like a curvy bullet, while Willow called after her in dismay.

"I don't understand. Should I go after her?" she wondered, face anxious.

"Oh, yeah, that'd be a great help," Spike said dryly.

Willow frowned. "What do you mean?"

Spike lowered his head a fraction, gave her an arch, are-you-kidding stare. "Don't tell me all those soft, sapphic sighs have fallen on deaf ears? Lonesome Dove's got a crush on you that'd flatten a semi. Even I noticed, and I don't give a damn about any of you."

"No!" Willow's expression grew horrified as it sank in. "Oh, no." She looked at Oz.

"I did kinda wonder," Oz said.

"I didn't know." Willow was wringing her hands. "I mean, okay, she was sort of with the eyes and the smiles--and then the spells. But she never. And I never. Oh. What if I led her on?" She nearly had tears in her eyes. "I have to talk to her." She slid off her chair and hurried away.

Oz hesitated, then got up. "I'd better..." He paused, clearly torn. "It's dark out there." After another moment of internal debate, he shouldered determinedly through the crowd after Willow.

The table, covered with half-emptied drinks and crumpled napkins, was quiet again. Xander looked over at Spike, who looked back, hand wrapped loosely around his glass. "Wanna get laid?" Xander asked.

Spike considered this with head tipped. "Yeah. Wouldn't mind," he said after a beat.

"Let's go."





Part Fifteen ~ Honeymooners



"I seem to have a thing for ex-demons," Xander mused to himself.

"I'm not an ex-anything, I'll have you know. I'm very evil. Just not...active at the moment."

"Yes," Xander said condescendingly to the evil sprawled next to him. "Very bad, very naughty." He kept his eyes closed as he spoke.

"I am!" Spike sounded disgusted. "Rotten to the core!"

"Am I arguing?"

"I'd rend you from top to toe if I could!"

"Uh-huh." Xander yawned, and slit his eyes open.

"God, you're a callous bastard." Spike propped himself up on one elbow and glared down at him in melodramatic outrage. "I'm in pain here. Existential angst seepin' from every pore, and all you can do is lie there and breathe."

"Yes, but your seeping is incredibly noisy. Try not to get it on the sheets, okay?"

Spike's mouth tightened and he rolled over to one side, yanking the sheets away. Xander's temper quietly rose a notch. "Don't even know why I'm with you," Spike went on. "Talk about vampires being cruel--there's a laugh. They could learn a thing or two from humans. All I get is abuse and tepid pig's blood. And you give terrible head."

Patience snapping, Xander shoved him roughly out of bed and onto the floor. Spike landed with a thump and a yelp, while Xander wrested back the sheets from Spike's tangled legs--or tried to. "What the hell'd you do that for?" he asked as Xander struggled wildly. The vampire stared up at him from the rug, but looked indecently satisfied instead of angry, leaning back on his arms all sprawly and delicious, a smirk on his face as if this had been just the outcome he sought.

"I'll have you know I give great head, Mister. I haven't heard any complaints before now."

"Yeah. From me, you mean." Spike tilted his head knowingly. "I am your first."

"That doesn't mean you're my only."

"That so?" Spike smiled as Xander tugged ferociously at the sheets, damp hair falling into his angry eyes as he tried to ignore the vampire's gaze. "Been out practicing the trade, then?"

"Shut up."

"Cruising the manly poof bars, lapping up those hot, spicy sausages--"

The sheets finally came loose and left Spike naked, legs splayed open, dick half-erect, looking like some satyr from a dirty postcard. Xander wrestled with the bedding in a breathless rage, and finally threw it aside with a bellow. He thrust his hands through his hair, forcing himself not to bolt from the bed and out into the night. "You sleep on the floor," he ordered.

"Don't think so. Like my comfy bed."

"My bed. Just as soon as the monthly fees are paid off."

"Now, now. Don't be churlish." Spike drew himself up and grabbed Xander's ankle. Xander kicked, but felt himself inexorably drawn across the mattress, his capture just gentle enough to avoid triggering the chip. "Here, pet. Let me take care of that. Man who complains about a bad blow-job ought to put his mouth where his money is."

"And if you were paying me, that'd be even hotter," Xander breathed, tipping his head back as Spike swallowed him in.





Part Sixteen ~ Honeymooners Redux



Waking up, Xander really hoped it was a cat on his head. In a town where demons came in all shapes and sizes, the alternative didn't bear thinking about.

"Mrrrowr," said the affronted creature as he reached up and poked its side.

"Down, Byron. Shoo, boy." In response the animal sloped down off Xander's skull, leapt onto his chest and meandered across his bladder with hard little cat-feet. "Oh man," he gasped, as it began to knead. "You're as bad as your master." He lurched, and the cat slid from the blankets and scrambled with its claws a moment before tumbling to the floor. It immediately attempted to regain its dignity by dropping on its ass and licking its fur. Xander stepped over it on his way to piss, whereupon it swatted at his ankle, Xander hopped to one side and nearly fell, and the cat stalked off with a flicking tail of triumph.

Muttering curses, he made it to his bathroom and out again alive. In the living room, Spike was drinking a mug of blood and watching television with the drapes closed, and Byron was plunked on his haunches in the kitchen, noisily chomping kibble. Xander looked around his plundered, messy apartment--clothes tossed over furniture, magazines and beer bottles littering the tables--and tried to dredge up some annoyance, just to keep his edge, but noticed instead that Spike's hair was rumpled like a dandelion and he was wearing borrowed sweatpants and nothing else.

He was remarkably easy to forgive, even at six in the morning.

Xander yawned and made himself a bowl of cereal, then plopped onto the couch next to Spike. Mystery Science Theater was on.

"Horrors of Spider Island?" he asked conversationally.

"Yeah," Spike said. After a lull of five minutes, he said, "Notice they never show the ones with Joel. Why is that?"

"Something about copyrights."

"Bastards." Breakfast of blood finished now, Spike drew a cigarette from his pack and lit up pensively.

Xander looked sideways, spoon halfway to his mouth. "You know I have them all on tape."

Spike met his eyes, exhaling smoke as he processed this. "What, all the shows?"

"A to Z."

A smile slowly formed. "I knew there was a reason I moved in with you."



The End










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