Your Horoscope for Today


by
Anna S





"I think you're missing the point here," Xander said, framing a foot-long point with his hands as he leaned toward his beer. "I was jilted. For a troll."

Slouched across from him as if his spine were slowly being dissolved by alcohol, Spike looked unimpressed.

"It happens."

"A troll."

"Hey, chaos demon here."

That didn't parse. Xander studied Spike's shellacked head for budding antlers, saw none. There was also a

distinct lack of slime. The literal kind, anyway. "Since when?"

"Dru, you git. She left me for one. Drippy, top-heavy bastard, too. Quoting Pablo Neruda and massaging her shoulders." He made a huh sound that Xander recognized, the harsh and scoffing huh of a guy dismissing another guy on the grounds of being a punk-ass. "Not like I wouldn't've done, if she'd just--" Catching himself, he shot Xander a daggerful glare like a man who'd been tricked into revealing too much, then abandoned his pose with a slump. "Doesn't matter now."

Xander was of the opinion it had never mattered, certainly not to him or anyone sane, but since they were bonding over woman trouble and a bowl of peanuts, it didn't seem right to say so. He would settle for projecting an utter lack of sympathy.

"Dru left," Spike rambled on, "Harm lit out for sodding France, and Buffy--" He hesitated and let that one drop, giving into a sigh. "Now I'm flying solo, just another pathetic ponce drinking alone on a Tuesday night."

"Hey. Sitting right here."

"God." He stared at Xander. "I'm just like you."

"Tell me how this even happened," Xander said, refocusing inward on the ridiculousness of it all.

"You had a tiff, big and ugly showed up, girl left you for him." Spike had a way of being helpful at just the wrong moment.

"Thanks," Xander said with zero gratitude in his voice, fixing the vampire with an irritated gaze. "I did have a front-row seat. But we're still missing the how. I mean, one day she's baking me heart-shaped cookies and playing with my toes, the next she's leaving me for a guy who eats babies."

"Mmmm," Spike rejoined thoughtfully, communing with his beer glass.

"Oh my god." Xander shuddered upright, camaraderie abandoned. "You just had a, a--craving. You did!" A sharp note of accusation lifted his voice, but of course Spike wasn't denying it.

"So?" he shot back, brow-pinched, surly, and maybe a bit confused. "Not like I can do anything about it."

"Baby eater."

"Now, now. Let's not bicker."

"You're only saying that because you have no money and want more beer."

"You really do have a gift for the bleeding obvious," Spike observed, his faux-concerned tone suggesting he was pointing this out for Xander's own good.

Xander let his shoulders droop a little and picked up his glass to study its interior. "My beer's empty."

"QED," Spike said dryly and raised a hand to beckon the waitress for another round. Either that or he was inviting her to perform a lap dance. Xander's mind wandered a few blocks into the red-light district then scampered back to him with a tail-tucked whimper. He pitched forward and banged his head three times against the planks that held a growing collection of cocktail napkins.

"Got to keep your nob off the table or they won't serve you." Spike. Ever the voice of wisdom.

Straightening up again, Xander felt the room sway. It was like being a minnow trapped in a whale's belly. An aerobicizing whale. He played off his moment of nausea by turning sideways and resting his arm casually on the booth back. It slipped off the vinyl with a loud squeak just as the waitress came up with a tray of bottles and glasses.

"Hey, Mindy." He managed a charming smile that he felt certain was not at all lopsided. Mindy smiled back. At Spike.

"I got you boys doubles," Mindy confided, then held a finger to her lips with a shushing noise. "On the house. I figured you could use a cup of comfort tonight."

"It's a very nice house." When the other two looked at him, Xander yanked another remark from the murk of his brain. "I was jilted for a troll."

"You poor thing," Mindy said, smiling at Spike.

Xander put his head on the table again until Mindy left.

"Nice girl." Spike sounded admiring. When Xander raised his head, he found Spike watching the rear view as Mindy bumpered her way through the maze of bar tables.

"Right. Goes well with a nice Chianti."

"Hey!" Cue one wounded vampire, defending his tattered chivalry with a scowl. "I don't eat waitresses."

"What, you're watching your cholesterol?"

"It's a rule," Spike said, almost sputtering with outrage. "It's unheard of. I may be a pariah but I haven't sunk that low."

Xander blinked and tried to soak up that thought with a shot of Jagermeister. "What about waiters?"

"Nah, they're fair game."

"So if Buffy were a waitress--"

"Now, look." Spike raised a finger. "Told you how I felt about her. I've reformed. Turned over a new leaf."

"Yes, but under that leaf is dirt." He knew as soon as the words left his mouth that he'd broken the bond of manly hops-sharing and commiseration; the hurt in Spike's eyes was almost real. At any other time Xander would have let matters take their course--suffer a few bitter British barbs and threats to his throat, then hunch into stage two of serious drinking while Spike stalked off to find a lower species of company. But tonight, post-Anya, it would just be too much.

Also, he would probably need help getting home.

"Nothing personal," he said, keeping his tone level and unapologetic as he backpedaled. "But as your fellow man--sort of--I think it's my duty to point out that you're deluded."

"Is that right."

"You don't love her. You can't love her. And you can't change. And god help me for saying this, but the only way you're going to be happy is if you go back to Dru, find some mad doctor to pull your chip, and spend the rest of eternity making little vampire babies."

Spike sank lower into his side of the booth and sulked. "It's not true," he said after a minute. He sounded troubled. "I could change."

"Sure. You could change your clothes, your name--you could take up knitting and nurse sick kittens back to health. It wouldn't matter. You can't change you. Because you're dead. It's the ultimate arrested development."

"Says the expert," Spike parried. Xander could tell he was itching to draw blood. "Clawed your way up the ladder a few rungs, didn't you. Out of the basement, into the ranks of the happy little proles. Trouble is, that's as far as you're going, and everyone knows it. Your girl knew it. Why d'you think she left? You're an evolutionary dead end. Thirty K a year and a shiny yellow hat."

"Right." Suddenly walking home alone through the vampire-thick streets of Sunnydale seemed a more attractive prospect. "I can't tell you how special this has been--" Because it hadn't. "--but I think I'll be going. If I'm not home by midnight, my liver turns into a pumpkin."

"It's half past," Spike said flatly.

"Time to bake a pie then." He slid out of the booth, lurched to his feet, and took a brief moment to pause and contemplate the table top, into which someone had carved 'Ginny Luvs Harry.' He closed his eyes but when he reopened them the sentiment had not gone away. Neither had he.

"Any last words?" Spike asked.

"What?" Managing with great effort to winch his head up, Xander gave him the beady eye.

"For when the slayer asks." Spike lit a cigarette in that professional smoker way of his. "Not like you're going to make it home. If the vamps don't get you, I'm guessing telephone pole."

Before Xander could even formulate the first draft of a reply, the other man had palmed his wallet, tossed three twenties on the table, and manhandled him halfway to the door.

"Spike. Please. I'm begging you. Let me go. I would rather kiss a telephone pole at fifty miles an hour than--"

Graciously, Spike let him walk straight into a support beam. Even at three miles an hour the result was somewhere between bender and concussion. While pain rendered him speechless, he felt the vampire take his car keys. There might also have been a few fingers of scrotum-fondling through the front pocket of his jeans, but he was prepared to forget that.

"Oh god," he said when the bar door opened to decant them. A wave of fresh, cool air slapped him almost as hard as the beam, and he grabbed the nearest thing to keep from falling over, then leaned against the wall. The wall was Spike; the thing was his belt.

"If you heave, I'm tossing you back."

Xander lay his cheek against a broad shoulder and patted some muscles reassuringly. "I'm not going to heave."

He pushed off the wall and looked up into its face with a smile. "Hey," he said. "I love you, man." And then he cracked up, several times.

That was the last thing he remembered for a while. When he opened his eyes it was to a vision so horrible he thought he'd been turned to stone. The vision stared back, equally petrified and marble-eyed. Gradually it occurred to Xander that the monster was familiar. And that he could move his left arm. Ah. Yes. He'd been propped on the passenger-side window of his car and was staring at his own face in the mirror.

His head felt sandbagged. He must have been out a day, even a week. He checked his watch through bleary eyes. Ten minutes. The car, he noticed, was not moving.

"Spike," he said in a small and reasonable voice. Not yet ready to lift his head off the window, he waited, but there was no answer. No second tries, he decided, closing his eyes again. Time for a nap.

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"Start the car! Harris, wake the hell up! Start the car!"

He came awake in point-three seconds and flailed, ready to obey, but his hands didn't impact with the expected equipment. His right hand was rotating in the air, lost, looking for a key that wasn't there. The keys were gone! No, wait. The entire wheel was gone--someone had stolen his steering wheel! Bewildered at the specificity of the theft, he reached for the door handle and ended up flopping on his side like a seal, neatly missing something that whizzed through the car at head-level and into the driver side window with an explosion of broken glass.

"Fuck!" he yelled.

"Son of a bitch," Spike agreed, much closer, followed by the thump of a dead body hitting the car hood and sliding across. Bond, James the Bloody Bond. Two shakes later the door was pulled open and Spike's ass came sliding the opposite way across the seat, shoving a hip into Xander's face. "You're two yards of useless," he spat, but there was a rattled note under the anger, and that was bad, bad, bad.

"What's going on?"

"Poker debt."

"Yours or--" The car screeched rubber and spun a hundred and eighty degrees. "Never mind." They accelerated toward a brick wall and Xander braced himself with a healthy terror. Veering to the side at the last moment, Spike drove down an alley that seemed too narrow at the far end, but that had to be an optical illusion, because buildings were built to square.

They leapt out of the alley mouth and into the street, scattering the horses that would've been there if this had been a Western, and instead skidding into a mailbox before Spike got control of the wheel and drove Xander's first respectable car--monthly payments of $239, not to mention the insurance--onto the sidewalk.

Xander clung to the seat and concentrated on keeping his stomach down. No energy could be spared for hating Spike, even though this was the best possible time. "Why did you stop?" he yelled over the sound of the wind.

"Your pay-off couldn't wait?"

"Thought I could cash you in," Spike said. He was too serious. Xander boggled.

"Excuse me?"

"Cancel a few debts, clear a few kittens off the tab."

"With me."

"Ten pints in that skin, eighty proof. No harm in trying."

"No harm?!"

"Hold on."

They took a corner and Xander was flung against the passenger-side door. His stomach, panicky and blind, tried to claw its way up out of his abdomen and into his throat. All he could think was: just wait until I tell Buffy. This would be a story. Death Breath would be slalomed out of Sunnydale so fast it'd chafe the denim right off that sorry--

"Bugger," Spike said, braking suddenly. Xander bounced between dashboard and seatback like a pinball, getting his arms up in time to avoid serious injury. A bloody lip and a few bruises, that would be all he'd be sporting later, but right now his head was ringing.

"Déjà vu--no, wait, I've never been to Hell before." He stared down the road through his windshield at the...well, now. "Is that a...?

"Wizard holding a big stick? Yeah."

"I think the word you want is 'wand'."

"Any stick's a bad stick."

"Spike. Guy in purple robes with twig: not scary. Now if that twig turns me into a tiny, drunken badger..."

"Don't worry. Probably just kill you."

Xander took comfort from that, but it was a thin sort of comfort. "Why did you play poker with a wizard?

Even I know better than that."

"Spike!" the wizard called. "I'm a reasonable man. Let's talk about this."

"Hey," Xander said with relief, "he sounds pretty--"

The vampire shoved open the door and dove for the ground like an action hero practicing for his big scene. A few molasses-slow beats later, Xander mirrored his action, making it out just as the top of his car blew off.

Sheared metal flipped away to land about fifty yards behind his car and tumbled for a few more turns before clattering to rest on the asphalt.

Scrambling around the car out of sight of their attacker, Xander wondered where the hell his cell phone was, then remembered he didn't have one. A disheartening moment for the forces of technology.

His car gently chugged to itself while he scraped hands and knees across the ground, pausing every few moments to peer underneath for fireballs. When he reached the far edge of his rear bumper, he came to a cold stop.

He'd expected Spike to have set a new Olympic sprint record by now, but he was lying on his side in the opposite lane, unmoving, facing away from Xander.

The big purple wizard was standing over him. Sucker looked old but moved fast apparently.

As Xander watched he prodded Spike with his wand--easily the length of a sword or even a swordfish--and stroked his long white beard with thoughtful indecision before stepping back and taking aim.

"Hey, Dumbledore!" Xander yelled before common sense could kick in. "I'm a sixth-level sorcerer with forty-two hit points! Back off or you're sushi!"

His threat would have been far more menacing if he'd been aiming anything at the guy, but all he had to hand was a pair of Nike Air Huaraches with worn laces, not designed to make men quail. Despite the emptiness of his threat, the wizard's face took on a look of alarm and he turned and ran, revealing his own pair of battered sneakers beneath the hem of his robes.

Now was clearly the time to exult and shoot off a snappy catchphrase for any cameras that might be rolling, but Xander was still plastered enough that concern for Spike outweighed triumph. He crawled toward the motionless body, trying to keep in mind that motionless didn't mean dead for vampires, and that even dead didn't mean all that much.

"Spike," he said, reaching the other man. He pulled at the heavy leather coat until Spike rolled onto his back. He looked okay. Unconscious, pale, unbreathing, but okay.

"Wake up," he urged. "You're the designated driver...who tried to barter me off to a wizard and once threatened to eat onion dip from my skullcap, so why the hell I'm trying to mobilize you I don't know."

He'd originally caved to chauffeur service for the sake of getting home alive--but did he have better survival odds with Spike or without him? Always a fine point of judgment, and when in doubt Xander liked to remind himself which one of them was the soulless killer and which was the registered owner of his vehicle.

With this in mind, he got up and did his considerate best to drag Spike to the gutter where he'd be at less risk for ending up road-mashed under someone's tires.

Then he walked away, got behind the wheel, and sat there for too long with the motor idling, debating the vicissitudes of his life. He wouldn't even have vicissitudes if the word hadn't been on the SATs. School really was to blame for everything when you got right down to it.

A groan from the gutter reached his ears. Xander pressed his forehead to the steering wheel and moved on to blaming his mother. For being born.

"I'm not going to get out, I am not going to get out." Then he took a deep breath and, in fact, didn't. He put the car into gear and drove away, feeling both proud and irrationally ashamed, clenching the plastic in tight hands to keep himself on course.

At the end of the street he took a left turn. And then another left turn. And another. The fourth left turn brought his car roof back into sight and he gave it a disgusted look, pulled up beside it, and studied the gutter. It was empty. Just a few soda cans and some scraps of paper. Directly behind it extended an alley, also empty.

"Even Superman wasn't this conscientious," Xander decided. He shook his head once, left his arch-nemesis to the hands of fate, and went home to sleep.

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"He tried to barter you off for a poker debt?" Buffy said.

"Cut. Take two." Xander put an arm around her shoulder with a directorial air. "A little more outrage, please, and try not to emphasize the 'you' next time."

Her face turned contrite. "Sorry."

Willow, nibbles of blueberry muffin distracting her from an appropriate level of Xander-sympathy, gave him one of those interested looks she used to wear when dissecting frogs. "How many kittens were you worth?"

"Oh, I'm sure it was at least a litter," Tara put in kindly.

"This wizard," Giles said with a more focused area of concern. "Did you happen to notice if he had any insignia--any magical symbols on his robes or his, er, hat?" He stood by the shelves in a pose of inquisitive attention, head tilted, a book splayed open in one hand, glasses in the other. Still Life with Librarian.

"No. I don't know. It was dark. I was distracted by my impending death."

"Of course," Giles said, putting his glasses on and his nose back in his book. There was a dry, dismissive tone to his voice that Xander knew too well. "You were very fortunate to escape death by badger."

Buffy, who'd hopped up on the register counter and was kicking her heels lightly against the glass, put down her latte to frown at him.

"Giles, Xander could have been killed. Even if he was just badgered, think how awful that'd be. Look at poor Amy. Trapped in a cage, going round and round on her little wheel. Speaking as an ex-rat, I can tell you--there's trauma in the animal kingdom. I still dream of cheese." She stared off into space, growing absent. "Sometimes I'm the cheese."

"Does anyone else worry about the kittens?" Tara wondered, looking around.

"Okay, could I get a jot of respect here?" Xander asked sharply. Everyone stopped what they were doing and turned their eyes on him. Buffy had been tossing blueberries in the air and trying to catch them in her mouth. An interrupted blueberry hit the floor and rolled toward his shoe.

"A jot," Tara repeated uncertainly, glancing at Willow.

"It's like a really tiny amount," Willow explained in what Xander considered to be a very unnecessary way.

"Like a thimbleful--like, blueberry-sized." She held a berry up between stained fingers for illustration, then popped it in her mouth.

"Thanks," Xander said, jaw taking on an edge. "That was my left testicle you just chewed up. Want to complete the emasculation process? Because, much funny."

"Xander." Giles put a thousand years of British reproof into his name, as if invoking a gentleman's code that didn't need stating. Bad show, old chap.

"For the record, I think you're overreacting just a jot," Willow said.

"Forget it."

"No, I mean, what is that? Because we're lesbians we're all of a sudden emasculating you with fruit?"

"Did I say 'lesbians'? Did anyone hear me say 'lesbians'?"

"I know you're upset because Anya left," Willow plowed on, "but that doesn't mean you can take it out on us."

How could an ordinary conversation fall apart so completely so fast? Like this, kids: "Oh, so I can't run away to L.A. or cast spells on all my friends? I'm sorry. I guess I'll just take my heartbreak and my blueberries and my decapitated car and get out of your way then."

He stalked out of the shop, exit punctuated by the jangle of bells over the door.

"What just happened?" Buffy asked the others. "Were we unsupportive?"

"Anya leaving has really got him down." Tara said. "Plus the whole troll factor. We should try to be more understanding."

"He's young. Give him a month or two." Giles shoved his book back on the shelf. "I'm sure that even as we speak there's some mummified cicada or horrifyingly blunt hellcat just waiting for the right man to come along." When he turned away from the shelves he noticed their amazed faces and cleared his throat. "That was perhaps a touch cynical."

Buffy wasn't quite ready to lower her brows. "That's ready-for-detox cynical."

"You have to admit, Xander's track record isn't what you'd call normal, even for the Sunnydale dating scene."

Willow played with her drink straw, twisting it shorter and shorter. "Or even our dating scene. Praying mantis, psycho slayer, vengeance demon, mummy girl, Cordelia--all he needs is a succubus and he'll have the complete deck."

"Or a vampire," offered Tara.

"Banshee, dryad, harpy--oh wait, that was Anya."

"Oh," Buffy said, "maybe we could find him a nice mermaid. They're okay, right?"

Giles picked up his tea. "Well, apart from their tendency to drag men into the ocean depths and drown them,

I'm told they make charming companions."

Buffy looked downcast. "He is so doomed."

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The next evening, Willow came by Xander's apartment with a bundt cake and they made up with awkward smiles and diplomatic words. The day after that, they had to fight sticky white worms that dropped from trees on the unsuspecting heads of passers-by and melted them into goo, and Xander was drawn back into the fold, given an umbrella, and declared a hero for taking a worm to the face in the line of duty. When the weekend arrived, patrol kicked into high gear and someone raised the inevitable question.

"Where's Spike?" It was Willow, picking her way across the graveyard with nervous little glances at the trees above them. The worms were gone, but the memories remained.

Tara took her girlfriend's hand and swung it. "He hasn't been around in days."

Leading the pack, Buffy didn't even slow. "And we care why?" Her heels dug into the turf with force. Pfft, pfft, pfft.

"Well, he is helpful," Willow said in an apologetic way. "In a fight."

"We just took out three vamps." Xander backed up Buffy firmly, coasting on the success of dusting one of his own. "We don't need help from His Surliness."

"The last time you saw him, he was hurt, right?"

"He banged his head. Big deal. He's probably Johnnie Walkering it off in his crypt."

"Maybe we should check," Tara suggested.

Despite Xander's reluctance, they did, and found it inhabited by a skanky vampire in game face who volunteered that his name was Burt and that he'd found the place empty three days ago when he was looking for somewhere to crash.

"A beauty, isn't it," he said with enthusiasm. "You don't find crypts like this in every boneyard. Real estate market's a bitch these days. Gets electricity and plumbing too. No cable, though, and the place could use a good dusting."

Buffy obliged him and they wandered off, musing among themselves over what might have happened to Spike.

Xander aired the theory that Spike had fled town to avoid the consequences of his debts. A Spikeless Sunnydale. A happy thought, a buoyant relief.

A premature conclusion.

They became so certain he'd left that it was shocking when they found him. There'd been a few wizard sightings, never followed by good news, which made it a priority to locate the bastard and see what he was up to.

Through informants of the demon persuasion they got a location for his den--"We're off to see the wizard!" Willow had declared, triggering a scathing look from Giles--and busted their way in at the next opportunity. But it was pretty much deserted.

"Wizard droppings," Xander said, holding up a conical hat and a handful of long white hair.

"What the hell is that?" Buffy asked in horror.

Giles didn't quite roll his eyes. "I believe it was his beard," he observed with quelling matter-of-factness. He took the hair, ran it through his hands, then unexpectedly sniffed it before touching his tongue to the strands.

"Tell me you did not just do that." Xander gave a wigged-out shudder.

"Hair is a useful spell element. You can trace a person, control their movements. No wizard would leave such a

dangerous weapon against himself. This was merely a theatrical prop--glued on, I'd say."

"Huh," Xander said, picking up what Giles had tossed aside and examining it. "I thought that guy was a little too Gandalfy to be true."

"His power is real enough," Giles reminded them.

"My mechanic and my checkbook would have to agree with you." Xander dropped the hair-piece back on the table and wiped his hand on his jeans. "Anyone have an evidence bag?" He snapped his fingers. "I need a baggie here, sergeant."

"What's this?" Up a short flight of steps, Willow pushed back some gauzy, star-spangled drapes and disappeared into an adjoining room. A moment later her voice, newly anxious, floated out to them.

"Uh, guys. You'd better get in here."

They got, mounting the steps and parting the drapes in a herd of curiosity.

"Whoa." Xander halted just inside. Spike sat cross-legged on a round bed with heaps of pillows and silky covers, wearing a collar and what could only be called a harem outfit.

The collar was attached to a chain attached to the wall. Eyes wider than an anime boy's, he gazed at them.

He was holding a small scruffy cat. It squirmed and dug its claws into his arm but he didn't let go. Both of them looked apprehensive.

"Spike." Giles was next to find his voice. "Are you..." He paused, obviously taking in the circumstances. "All right?"

It was several beats before Spike asked, "You the one?" The words came out rough and low.

Giles shot a glance at the rest of them. "The...one?"

"The buyer. Finch said I brought a pretty penny." The cat made a raw, creaking sound like a door hinge and wrestled out of his arms to bound away. Bewildered and forlorn, Spike watched it go.

A strange feeling tugged at Xander. He swallowed.

"Oh god," Willow said with a tone of revelation. She grabbed a handful of Giles's sleeve. "He's lost his memory."

Giles let his head sink a notch. "So I gather."

They all stood there for an uncomfortable pause until Xander said, "This is my fault. I left him. They must have--they must have caught up with him."

"It's not your fault." But Buffy sounded too quiet and not nearly sure enough to settle his mind. She sounded like a friend saying the right thing.

While they talked, Spike abandoned his position and backed along the bed, feet dragging the covers along.

When he reached the far wall and began jerking at the chain, Xander's heart rate kicked into a higher gear.

Hands outstretched in a James-T-Kirkian gesture of peace, he moved forward. It didn't seem so important to hate vampires just now. When they knew who they were and what they'd done, okay, fair game. But not now, not like this.

Spike flashed a blue gaze at him. His face was trying to stay tough and hard, but it had a panicked edge. For a change, he wasn't the monster in the dark, but the one who needed rescuing. Xander felt as if he were stepping into the panel of a comic book and donning a cape.

"Hey. Relax." He settled on the bed, careful not to touch the other man. "They're not that scary." He jerked his chin back at the others. "Trust me."

"You...you're him, yeah?" Xander had to strain to make sense of Spike's murmur. "Said he'd sold me.

Said...said I owed him." He looked down and touched his stomach. "I don't remember."

His fingers came away covered in blood. He frowned as if trying to figure out what he'd done wrong. This close, it became more apparent that he'd been drugged.

A wave of feeling threatened to drown the sensible, Spike-loathing guy Xander had been up to now. It might have been compassion.

"Don't worry," he said over a tightness in his throat. "You hurt?"

"Yeah," Spike admitted, sounding tired.

Xander reached out and Spike flinched and then straightened to show his belly. There were knife marks that stopped an inch above the trouser waist. Xander's fingers didn't quite meet the skin.

"What did--did he hurt you any place else?" God, what a creepy thing to ask. Next he needed to find a doll and have Spike point out the bad touches.

"Back." Spike didn't bother to turn.

"Right." That was as far as Xander wanted to go with this line of questioning. He shifted around on the bed.

"We need to get him out of here."

Buffy did some warrior-queen action with a broadsword and cut the chain from the wall, then twisted the collar

off while Spike hunched away from her, looking as if he wanted to follow the cat's example and bolt. His vampire instincts must have been going off like a siren, Xander thought, even if he didn't know Buffy was the slayer.

"He looks a little, um, spacey," Tara said.

Giles stepped closer. "Spike, stand up."

His tone could have been sharper, but it got results. As the vampire stood there, muscles tensed, Giles tipped his face with a careful hand and checked his eyes. "He's probably been given a narcotic or sedative to render him docile."

"What," Xander said, "like roofies?" Everyone turned to look at him. "Which I know of only by report."

"Yes, something like that." Giles took one of Spike's arms and lifted it. When he let go it remained in place.

"I'd say he's highly suggestible right now."

"It's like he's hypnotized." At this realization, Buffy perked up. "Can we make him cluck like a chicken?"

"Tempting, but no."

To Xander's eye, Spike may have been a bit zonked, but he wasn't a zombie. After a few moments he let his arm lower and his attention wander off to the side, where the cat was making a comeback.

When Xander snagged the animal and handed it over, he curled his arms around it and buried his face in its ruff as if he wanted to block the rest of them out.

"Oh, it's so cute," Tara said, getting that cooing pitch girls do, then glancing at Willow. "The kitty, I mean."

Right, thought Xander.

Less than an hour later they were back in the Magic Box, Spike sniffing out the territory on restless legs, Giles mainlining Darjeeling like it was the last pot in the world, the cat licking itself in a corner, and the rest of them gathered around the study table.

Xander kept a sidelong eye on Spike, feeling vaguely responsible for him, as if he were a loose dog that might suddenly leap and knock over a priceless urn.

"What are we going to do with him?" Willow asked in a hushed voice.

The Bat-Eared Boy can hear you just fine, Xander almost reminded her, but Spike wasn't showing any interest, so he kept quiet.

"Well, he's not dangerous," Giles noted with a half shrug. "Not with the chip intact."

"Um." One syllable and a tiny hand raise and Tara had their collective attention. "I know we don't have any reason to think the chip's out, but...how can we be sure?"

With the decisive action that marked her the slayer, Buffy strode over to Spike, jerked him around, and punched him. His head snapped back with the force of her blow and for a moment a blaze seemed to cut through the fog, but it died almost at once.

He lowered his gaze without hitting back or asking questions, without even wiping the blood from his mouth. When she raised her fist again, he averted his face and closed his eyes, waiting stoically.

Xander traded a glance with Giles. They'd both learned not to give a shit about vampires and Xander liked to think of it as a common bond, one of the few things that transcended the generation gap and the Atlantic. A vamp was the worst kind of demon, one that could seize a friend's body and take it for a joy-ride like a stolen car. Dust a vampire, sleep well. But beating one up when it couldn't beat back--okay, it had always given Xander a warm glow to see Spike smacked around. Today, not so much. Giles didn't seem easy about it either.

"Buffy," he began.

But she was already backing away, fist lowering. She didn't look overcome with regret, but Xander didn't think she'd be punching Spike again any time soon. "Guess that answers that question," she said quietly.

"Not directly," Giles countered, moving to Spike's side. "But I don't think we're at any greater risk than before."

He took a handkerchief out of his pocket and gave it to Spike, who accepted it and studied Giles for a wary moment before rubbing the blood off.

"We could send him back to his crypt," Tara said. "But that seems so mean."

"Harmony left." Xander rested his arms on the table. "There wouldn't be anyone to look after him, and if that wizard guy came back..." Enough said there.

Giles was the one to put the unhappy truth into words. "One of us will have to look after him."

Worse, though, was when Xander heard himself say, "I'll do it."

"Mister Responsibility," Buffy remarked in a look-at-you tone that sounded more amused than admiring.

"Mister Dumb-Ass, more like. But I am. Responsible."

"Oh, you're so not." Now it was Willow's turn to play the reassuring friend. "Okay, maybe five percent. At

most. But the other ninety-five is entirely his fault." Even with this statement, she gave Spike an apologetic little look. The world was definitely tilting off its axis.

"Five or five hundred, it doesn't matter. I'll keep an eye on him until he's his fiendish self again. And hey, what could be more rewarding? I'll finally get my merit badge in vampire care, not to mention Spike's heartfelt gratitude."

You can never have too much sex or too much sarcasm, that was Xander's motto.

Most days he just had the sarcasm.

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"This is it. The classic one-bedroom bachelor pad. Formerly the den of sin, but without a girlfriend living in sin just isn't the same."

Xander turned to see Spike held at bay on the threshold of the apartment, palming the air with an uncertain expression.

"Sorry. Be my guest." He waved a hand and Spike stepped inside, letting the cat drop out of his hold. It hit the ground running and disappeared into the bedroom.

Based on events so far, Xander suspected that the vampire would do anything he was told--close the door, get naked, dance a jig--but those were bad thoughts, so he closed the door himself and circled Spike on his way to the fridge.

Miracle of miracles, he had beer. A half minute later he had six ounces less.

The Xander Harris beer distribution network was a go. Belly and brain settled into a happier state where a vampire's watchful presence became much less unnerving.

He thought about offering Spike a beer, then didn't. His first exercise of domestic tyranny. Beer probably didn't go well with whatever funky dope was in his system.

"I don't have any blood," he said. "I'll get you some tomorrow, okay?"

"Yeah." They stared at each other until Spike, apparently taking Xander's silence for expectation, added,

"...sir?"

"You don't have to sir me, Spike."

"All right."

Too easy, Xander thought. Didn't you have to repeat the command several times before they picked up a new trick? No, wait, that was dogs. He needed to stop confusing Spike with a golden retriever.

"Why don't you," another hand wave, "sit down. Relax."

Spike sat down in an armchair. Whether he relaxed or not wasn't entirely clear. He had the lazy-boy posture of a relaxed man, but a certain tightness in his shoulders suggested he had rigid thoughts.

Moving his head only a few degrees left to right, he inspected the lay of Xander's land in a judgmental way. Giving it a fresh eye, Xander had to admit that he'd let the place go since Anya left.

The living room had a stale fug from layers of greasy fast-food bags and unlaundered socks--manly territorial marking to reclaim his domain.

He sat on the couch a safe distance from Spike.

Safe meaning that Spike wouldn't be able to grab the remote away.

"Around this time I usually like to sit and watch TV and wonder why I don't have a hobby. Model airplanes, fantasy baseball. Model fantasies, now, I have those. Cindy Crawford, Tyra Banks. Cindy Crawford and Tyra Banks." Xander stopped babbling when he realized that Spike had tuned him out and was fiddling with the cuts on his belly again.

Guiltily, he abandoned his beer and remote and faced up to the fact that he'd adopted what was basically a large, stoned vampire child with special needs.

"You should probably take that off," Xander said as Spike fingered the hem of the silk tunic thingy that his crackheaded kidnapper had dressed him in.

"Just the shirt," he added with emphasis. He gathered a roll of mummy gauze and a wash cloth and nearly flattened himself on the cat as he came back through the bedroom.

"Good kitty," he said, while it purred and tried to kill him with sideswipes. "You hungry? You like Cheerios? I'd order in some mice, but I'm not sure--"

His idle prattle died when he saw Spike. Half-stripped, he was a raw mess, blood striping him from shoulders to waist. Carving and whipping didn't seem like the damage a wizard would do. Why not spells?

Maybe it had been more fun that way. Hands-on.

"They did a number on you, huh." Xander felt dry-mouthed and unsure of himself.

Put in a position of having to give aid and comfort to a vampire he'd never liked and whose very existence he objected to on principle, he wasn't sure what was called for. Should he try to keep a business casual attitude or was he supposed to show a little benevolent TLC? And would that TLC get him in trouble later? Spike was a hurt animal right now, but when he snapped out of it he'd be all demon again, resentful of any coddling, expressive, loud.

Meanwhile, there was more blood than he'd bargained for.

"I guess we're going to need more towels."

The delaying tactic bought him another minute, but when he came back it was somehow worse; Spike hadn't even moved while he was gone and the way his hands curled against his sides made him look like a statue that someone had taken a lot of time over.

The cat was nudging against one shin but getting no love. The apartment's silence made Xander hyper-aware of everything he did and was about to do, as if he were on a movie set under hot lights being watched by dozens of people.

He'd left the ceiling lights on--Anya'd always hated that, preferred lamps--so that was probably why things seemed so bright and strange, Spike's skin whiter than usual, his blood redder, almost fake. He could just give the other man a towel, tell him to clean himself up, but he didn't.

"So why'd the wiz work you over," Xander said, going for conversational while he swabbed off blood. "Was it the poker debt?"

"Guess so."

"You remember that?"

"No."

"Must have been a hell of a pot." Rougher than he'd meant to be, Xander dragged across the edges of a cut with the cloth and saw Spike wince.

"Sorry." He slowed and shifted a few inches closer. Spike's chest didn't move but every now and then he took a tiny breath. It was odd. He hadn't been this close to a vamp before without the distraction of wanting to kill it and that included Angel.

It was usually an instinct, like smashing a bug with your shoe. Didn't matter that the things had once been human. Close up, you could sense the wrongness, dead meat that walked and talked--could feel their creepy difference like air coming off an open fridge.

It was a mistake thinking of them as people. He shouldn't have had drinks with Spike or guy-talked with him. Shouldn't be doing all this for him now, as if a vampire's pain or cleanliness mattered. What mattered was that this fucking monster had killed thousands of people, including a few kids and teachers he'd known personally.

"I could put a stake in you right now," Xander said, voice edged. "I bet you wouldn't even fight. That'd solve a lot of problems, you know? The others, they'd understand."

When he couldn't keep talking, he forced himself to meet Spike's eyes. Mistake, oh yeah. Spike was supposed to look tough and indifferent, cold and angry, amused and contemptuous. Not soft-faced and afraid and lost as if he was thinking that he'd have to let Xander do what he threatened because he didn't know how to stop it.

"I'm not going to stake you," Xander said and it was like talking to an animal. The silence helped. Maybe all Spike needed was the chip and a muzzle, and voila, a handy watch dog, a pet you could trust around children.

"I just want to know how you do that trick. Looking like a real human, with a soul, when you're completely empty."

"I don't know." Spike's tone and eyes were cautious, making Xander feel like some crazy man with a gun who needed to be placated, who might go off the rails at the wrong answer. He resented that feeling. He wasn't the bad guy here.

"You get that I'm not the bad guy here, right?"

"Okay."

Xander hung his head a moment and shook it to dislodge his conscience. Didn't work. Giving up, he continued to clean Spike's wounds, front then back, grimacing to himself. Most had healed over but fresh blood welled up here and there. Still, give the guy a nice heme smoothie and by tomorrow night he should be okay.

That was more or less his thought when he put Spike to bed on the couch with a blanket and the blinds closed and went to his own room--door very much shut--to collapse.

Some time later he jack-knifed upright in the dark, awakened by sharp cries. Disoriented, heart hammering, he crashed to his feet, and after a few blind fumbles for a light aimed instead for the door.

In the living room, Spike was a dark shape huddling next to the couch, head pressed to the coffee table. He was making the saddest sounds ever, sobs of grinding pain. The little hairs on Xander's neck rose to attention.

It was a toss-up whether to grab the nearest lamp as a weapon or turn it on. He turned it on and went over to Spike, pacing himself to avoid startling him.

"Hey," he said, spooked but kneeling anyway. He touched one shoulder, careful not to brush any of the gashes criss-crossing the skin. "Spike." Interrupted sleep made him testy, but testiness had already been blown out of the water, leaving him anxious. "What's the matter."

"Hurts, god--make it stop--" He was shuddering, rough spasms that radiated from his shoulders to his hands, which struck the glass table hard enough to crack it. "Please."

"What hurts? Spike!" Xander hesitated, then tried to pry him up off the table to see his face. It was like trying to persuade a redwood to move to the left a few inches, but finally Spike shoved up and twisted and, whoops, Xander hadn't intended to invite an armful of vampire, but now he had a quivering heap wound around him, head pressed to the crook of his neck.

If it hadn't been so obviously a non-bitey embrace he'd have panicked. Might have panicked anyway, but was distracted by the heat pouring off the other man.

"Wow, you have body heat to burn," he said. "That's gotta mean a fever, and that...makes no sense."

"Hurts, hurts." Spike scrubbed his head against Xander's shoulder, curls thrusting along the side of his neck.

"God." His voice softened to a groan but kept its urgency. "Please."

"You have to--uh, you have to stop that." Spike was mouthing his neck. "Remember the government hardware, turns bad thoughts into big pain, no, of course you don't, but take my word, oh--"

Still unfanged, the vampire had worked upward to suck his ear. The hell? Sudden lobe fetish? Ear to jaw, jaw to cheek, Spike zeroed in for a lip-lock that stunned Xander. He squeaked with heterosexual objection and Spike groaned again and gave him tongue.

He worked loose and pushed Spike's shoulders back. "You want to tell me what's going on? When did I become taster's choice?"

"Hurts, bad," Spike said with persistence. "Please."

Xander wasn't even sure that Spike knew what he was asking for--he didn't look fully awake--but then he launched another blitz of kissing and, well, that was pretty clear.

Evil, disgusting vampire, he reminded himself in an obligatory way, but it was one of those dream hours between midnight and dawn when a different state of consciousness took over and things that should have been horrifying became familiar and understandable, like when you suddenly get a joke that used to baffle you and hey, it was funny, and now you were in on it.

The sex joke. Oh yeah, he had plenty of excuses ready.

He could be dreaming, say. After all, vampires shouldn't be warm and kissable. That was a clue right there.

Any second now someone would begin speaking German and clowns would break into the apartment and he and Spike would escape out the window in a hot air balloon with Buffy and eat chocolate-chip cookies as they flew over the Pacific heading for Spain.

It was very quiet and clownless and they kept kissing on his living room floor.

Different, not-Anya kisses.

He thought things. Thought: so this is what Buffy was into. Smooching the dead. Does Spike kiss like Angel? Did Spike and Angel...?

He's hard. He's rubbing off on my thigh. I have good thighs.

This is good, this is good. This is bad. This is good. I'm so going to Hell. This is the mouth to hell, in fact. And this is the tongue to hello, hello, is everyone having a good time, are you ready to party? Boogie. Down.

Thinking never solved anything.

Pulling away rather breathlessly, he asked, "Is there any chance you're under a curse? What I mean is, if I have sex with you, will you get your soul back? Because I could use some incentive here."

Spike grabbed Xander's dick and began massaging it through his boxers.

"That's...that's very incenting."

He made a ragged sound as Spike reattached warm lips to his neck and sucked like a sexy, sexy leech, hand still curling around his boxers in a rhythm Xander associated with a heavy bass beat, with clubbing, sweatiness, getting laid. Bingo.

"You should probably know that I've never done this with a guy before," he said as Spike pushed him onto his back and began grinding frantically against him.

"Sweet Jesus, that--just--okay--good."

A lifetime of resistance became a moment of profound not-caring and he relaxed and let Spike ride roughshod over him.

Spike wore a look of desperation and was dragging sounds from his throat like nothing Xander had ever heard, harsh gasps and cries as if he was being whipped to pleasure.

When it became clear he needed some help, Xander cupped his ass and lined him up, let him slide across home plate.

Spike's eyes fell shut as he went still, then he jerked several times in ecstasy before his entire body melted, a heavy vampire blanket, head locking into the curve of Xander's shoulder.

"I am a juke-box," Xander said, staring at the ceiling as he contemplated his suffocating hard-on and prepared for disillusionment. "Put your money in, press the button, and get three minutes and thirty-two seconds of name...that...tune."

But Spike groaned and lifted his head as if breaking the surface of a wave, gave him a heavily lidded gaze of pure sex--blue eyes, hair of sea foam--then worked his way down Xander's body, lapping at him like a man with a salt craving, shucking off his boxers, and blowing him until he forgot his middle name, which he'd never liked anyway.

Afterwards he found himself petting Spike's head, stroking the curls, and staring like a stoned bastard at his beautiful face.

Which was so incredibly fucking beautiful that for a while it seemed more than just an imitation of life.

Spike looked come-dazed and tired, at ease, as if he'd never killed anyone and never would.

"I made a promise," Xander said. "Back when Angel went Jekyll-and-Hyde, I swore I'd never sleep with a vampire."

He ran a palm slowly up Spike's hip.

"Then again, I only promised that to myself, late at night, and was careful not to make a hard copy. So I won't lose miles of face with all my friends. Maybe just a few acres."

"Vampires bad then?"

He stared at Spike, incredulity returning for the space of a heartbeat...one, two, three. No cymbal clash signaled a punch line though, and something like sadness washed over him.

"Vampires bad, yeah." He recited the gospel. "Soulless predators, demons, murderers of the innocent."

Spike's lashes lowered, covering his thoughts. "Guess that fits. Even if a man doesn't know his name, he knows who he is inside. In his gut. Knows if he's got a vocation to feed the poor, or if he's just lookin' out for himself." His gaze flicked up. "Not exactly overflowing with the milk of human kindness here."

"Not exactly, no," Xander said, and amazed himself by taking hold of Spike's dick. "But this isn't so bad. If you could stick to bad thoughts and good sex--" He hesitated on the brink of admission before stumbling into the danger zone. "There could be hope for you."

"So we knew each other before, yeah?" Spike pushed into Xander's hand, movement disconnected from the conversation.

"Yeah."

"We go to school together?"

"What?" Xander blinked out of a descending haze. "You're kidding, right? No. No. You're over a hundred. You're like this infamous master vampire, sowing death and destruction hither and yon, wherever you...uh, be."

"Why're you all come hither, then?" A smile was threatening the corners of Spike's mouth.

"Hey, you jumped me," he protested, but in his distraction he'd sped up the rhythm of his strokes. This seemed to give him the upper hand; Spike stopped smiling and gave a little cat rattle of approval from deep in his throat.

"I was straight before you used your wicked vampire thrall on me," Xander went on, trying to convince at least one of them. "I can call character witnesses, previous girlfriends, purveyors of dirty magazines, Christina Aguilera."

"What's that about protesting too much?"

"Oh yeah." Spike's hand had closed around Xander's own stirring dick. "I mean, no. I'm not protesting, I'm just...oh fuck it." He hitched closer to Spike, along an invisible border between straight and gay that ran between them on the carpet.

They kissed, they rekissed. And then Xander knelt and pushed the coffee table aside in a deliberate way and moved on to the serious work of getting jiggy with it.

Vampires quail before me, he thought as he plotted a route from neck to nipple and further south, avoiding all wounds, and then carried it out with his tongue.

After a minute he had Spike arching up to meet him and that was fierce, that was incredible.

He lost track of time, lost his baggage, and managed to shake off that part of his mind that always followed him around and reminded him of the tragedies waiting in store if he went astray.

When he neared Spike's dick, though, he froze, an awareness of what he was doing crashing over him--what was he doing? All his hatred and terror of vampires exploded with a sick feeling in his gut, while thoughts of what Buffy and Willow would say crowded his head, and he came close to turning aside, stopping.

He could stop cold if he wanted to, he wasn't that fuck-stupid, but just then Spike roused himself and said,

"You all right, mate?" in a husky, hungry voice, and Xander looked at him and accepted the invitation to his teacher's house and asked Amy for a spell and sent Buffy to kill Angel and led the graduation charge to certain death and let the timer run out on the bomb and sucked him off.

After a few more rounds of sex they fell asleep on the carpet side by side, border crossed, wall crumbling, and Xander dreamed he was in East Berlin surrounded by Nazis who had questions to ask him and who wouldn't take no for an answer.

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When Xander woke up he was staring into Spike's face. Asleep, Spike was a guy in his twenties who went to the University of Sunnydale, whose parents called him once a week and sent him checks from England. A grad student or a late bloomer. He must have died at twenty-five, six. A good age to die, if you were going to wind up immortal.

Xander left him on the floor covered in an afghan he'd inherited from his own parents, took a shower, and fled.

He bought doughnuts, blood, and a newspaper, none of which he had to drive his reroofed car more than three blocks for. Running these errands made him feel like a grown-up, like when he first moved into the apartment with Anya and had to buy bath towels and tinfoil and water glasses. I am a man who buys his own paper, and blood for my houseguest. That sort of thing.

With the blinds drawn, his living room was dim and Spike was just a longish lump by the foot of the couch, like a sleeping afghan-colored python.

A strange Saturday morning lay ahead, unplanned. For a while, Xander sat and read the paper and ate cereal, occasionally glancing over at Spike, who didn't snore or even twitch.

Dead snakes make the best pets.

"Meow," said something next to Xander's foot. He levitated right off his chair, banged his toe, and hopped back out of reach. The thing leap-frogged to his deserted seat and then to the table, where it began licking the milk from his cereal.

"Good kitty," he muttered, raking an agitated hand through his hair. "Not at all a fiend of darkness." But he did have one on the premises, he thought. At which moment the phone rang, threatening to raise the dead. He scooped it up before it could bleat again. "Xander's House of Pain, how may I help you?"

"Ahhhh, yes," Giles said, as if uncertain he'd reached the right number. He nailed that dubious tone so well Xander couldn't help but admire. "I called to see how things were going, and whether you needed anything."

"Couldn't be better. Brought Spike home, cleaned him up, had hot twisted sex with him for two--maybe three hours--then got a good night's sleep."

From the other end of the line came the sound of silence, followed by a delicate cough. "Yes, well. I assume you'll be all right on your own for a while then."

"Oh, sure. Tonight I'm taking him to see Les Miserables and then a late dinner, if he feels like eating. Always iffy with vampires."

A sigh signaled the ritualistic cleaning of prescription lenses. "You really do have an extraordinary gift for irreverence. Sometimes I almost believe--what? Oh yes, several, though they've a tendency to breed if you overfeed them. Excuse me, Xander, I've a customer. Do call if you run into any problems. No, no, you should dehorn them first."

"Wait--almost believe what? Giles?" Answered only by a dial tone, he shut off the phone in resignation. His life would remain a mystery.

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"I bought the tickets in advance," Xander said while they waited in line at the theater that night. "I was going to surprise Anya, a late Christmas present. Three hundred bucks." He paused, teetering on the edge of the bitter dark pit that was his heart. "Figured I might as well not waste them."

Spike, dressed in Xander's clothes, studied him with a wordless frown, then flowed into his personal space and kissed him. Loaded with blood and roofie-free, he'd become more like his old aggressive self over the course of the day, but impromptu nuzzling had never been in his arsenal before now.

Held fast, Xander waved his hands in a parody of spastic befuddlement, aware of heads turning, of murmurs and giggles, before he grabbed Spike's arms. He meant to thrust him off, the way you'd dislodge a dog from your leg, but he noticed how nice the kiss was, and that was his downfall.

"Nice" was the word his mom used to describe a baby shower or a Mother's Day present of cheap earrings. When he used it himself, he used it sarcastically.

But now his whole body was chiming nice, nice, nice and meaning it. It was a kick, letting Spike try to kiss everything better in the middle of a line for Les Mis with the good people of Sunnydale looking on.

For just a moment, as the doors opened to let the crowd in, as he held Spike's arms through the borrowed blue shirt, as a February breeze touched his neck, he loved the craziness of his life instead of hating it.

They went in and watched the show and afterwards he took Spike to dinner and explained to him that he liked onion rings.

"Yeah?" Spike said doubtfully, but accepted Xander's assurance and ate some. His face brightened when he tasted them. "Bloody brilliant," he said with feeling, holding a ring in his fingers to marvel, then looked up at Xander with a real smile, eyes trusting and fanning out in tiny crinkles at the edges.

It gutted Xander.

"Try them with ketchup," he said, when he could catch his breath.

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Later that night, during back-to-back episodes of Farscape, Spike grew restless and stroked Xander's thigh until he was successfully distracted from the vision of Aeryn Sun in slick black leather, a minor miracle, a victory for vampire pheromones.

"What's up?" Xander asked, already knowing the answer.

Spike straddled his lap and popped his shirt buttons and introduced Xander to his tongue again. By this point, Xander was feeling pretty friendly toward it. He kissed back, holding Spike's hips, pushing his shirt up. A whoosh of cotton came between them for a moment, then the shirt was off and the kiss back on.

Piano-fingering his way around all that naked skin, he discovered that healing had progressed further during the past twenty-four hours; every place he touched was nearly smooth.

Sex should have been the cherry on top of the evening, but the intensity of Spike's need was off-putting.

Xander eased him back. "I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I think you may be under a spell." Spike unbuttoned both their jeans at once, in an impressively ambidextrous way. Xander took a breath. "Or two."

"Yeah?" Absent tone.

"A sex spell," Xander spelled out. "And the amnesia--at first I thought you'd bumped your head, but now I'm not so sure."

"Figured it was something like that." Spike pushed their cocks together and rubbed with the full force of his hips. Boy Scouts couldn't have started a better fire.

"Don't you care? This whole this," he gestured at their jutting organs, "might not even be you."

"Told you." Spike massaged Xander's shoulders and gyrated in his lap, eyes half shut. "I know who I am," a thrust, "and what I want. Didn't lose all my marbles."

Now was probably not a good time to mention that Spike had paired off with a dolly-loving girl vamp for a hundred years or that until recently he'd had a crush on the slayer. He looked supremely uninterested in pursuing this existential dilemma. Plus, speech was becoming a challenge.

"Okay then." Xander let his head fall back on the couch. "As long as you're--oh, fuck--sure. But tomorrow I'm taking you to Giles. If you've been whammied, we've got to--got to--oh man, yes, yes, yes--"

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"I don't see why," Giles said, sliding his hands in his pockets and studying Spike through his glasses from across the magic shop. Dawn was teaching the vampire her version of rummy, which involved jelly beans and arm punches, and his ruffled head was bent over his cards as he frowned and listened to her explain the rules.

Xander tried to assimilate the watcher's words. "Um, excuse me? Come again?"

Giles glanced at him, expression mild but eyes so cool as to be scary. "It's not as if he has free will, Xander. He's a demon. Self-determination, liberty, even the most basic right to exist that every human being takes for granted--these don't apply." His voice lowered and gentled. "You know this."

"So we're just going to leave him like this and, what, auction him off as a houseboy?"

That at least seemed to discomfort Giles. "You said he was, er--"

"Horny. Every night. Like clockwork."

And the glasses come down, ladies and gentlemen, and the handkerchief comes out. "Yes. I see where that could present a problem."

"Not from where I'm sitting," Xander said, earning a sharp look. "But he's not going to be too happy when he comes to his senses."

"Xander," Giles said slowly, "when I called yesterday and you said that you'd, that you and Spike...oh dear lord." Watching the truth strike was like watching a bug hit glass, but funnier. He put his glasses back on and squared his shoulders. "Perhaps it would be best to find out what's affecting him." He shot a tiny nervous once-over at Xander. "I'll just--I'll just get my books."

"Good call."

"Rummy," Spike said from across the room, and drew Dawn's jelly bean pile toward himself with both hands, smirking while she huffed in pique.

Xander wandered over and clapped a hand on Spike's shoulder. "How's it going, Big Bad?"

"I've got all her beans," he said with satisfaction.

"Excellent." Xander affected a guttural accent and rubbed his hands together. "The first step in our plan is complete. You, puny human," he caught Dawn in a glower, "will soon bow down before the combined might of the two most powerful criminal masterminds the world has ever known."

"It's funny." Dawn cocked her head. "You're a lot nicer when he has amnesia. What's up with that?"

"Yeahhh," Spike drawled, sliding an arm around Xander's waist to reel him in. "What's up there?"

The vampire's leer was level with Xander's crotch and he tried to pull away before Dawn noticed.

"Nothing at all. At the moment."

He stepped safely out of reach behind Spike and immediately reestablished contact, massaging the slope of his shoulders. One hand slid up into the thicket of Spike's hair and was teasing it into new and interesting shapes when he caught Dawn's wide eyes on them. Quickly he moved away.

"I'm going to go drink a latte, or maybe seven," he said, already feeling jittery. "I'll be back. After."

He left the shop and paused a moment to suck in some fresh air and sunshine. No hell gods around, no trolls with attitude, no defecting or defective girlfriends. And possibly he had himself a boyfriend, which, wow. Head go blooey.

He'd had a girlfriend who'd killed and cursed thousands of men, and he'd dealt with that, because she'd gotten a soul, she'd been humanized and retired. But now he'd hooked up with the real deal, an active demon who probably only needed a chipectomy and a hard slap to set him off on a killing spree.

Maybe Giles was right. Maybe Spike would be better off if they left him spelled under, ignorant of all the things he'd done.

It was the kind of thought that could make your mind go around in circles.

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"You have a funny-shaped head," he said, tracing the edge of Spike's face and pushing back loose curls for a better view.

"I do not."

"How do you know? It's not like you can look in the mirror."

"You expect me to trust your word?"

"Have I ever lied to you?"

"Well, I don't bloody know, do I." Spike pursed his lips slightly and assessed Xander as if looking for flaws.

"Your ears stick out."

"Of that I am aware."

"And you've got big pores," he said triumphantly. "On your nose. And little bumps, alllll over."

"I missed my guava-avocado facial mask this week," he said as Spike licked the length of his nose. "Ewww," he added in a perfunctory way, betraying himself with a smile. He hid it against the pillow and pretended to rub his nose clean. Meanwhile the two of them were rubbing in all sorts of other good places, knees and hands and thighs. "You've got Ginsu-blade cheek bones."

"And that's bad?"

"I didn't say that."

"Mmm. Your upper lip does this...thing." Spike salaciously licked it and then flicked his tongue a bit further in.

"Bizarre, freakish thing," he murmured at the next pause. "Dunno what it is exactly. Like a harelip."

"But is it a sexy harelip?"

"'S all right."

"I could get myself a club foot to go with it. And a hump."

"No worries 'bout that last."

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It was getting harder for Xander to ignore the trauma, the whimpering sounds of distress, the wounded eyes.

Buffy's, that is.

"You're having sex with Spike."

Shoulders hunching, he continued to hammer the shelves he was making to replace the troll wreckage. "I've said it like fifteen times. I should just print tee-shirts."

"But you're having sex...with Spike." To be fair, she always gave the words a slightly different emphasis, as if by varying the frequency she could translate them into something meaningful.

"Look, you don't have to picture it. You don't even have to think about it."

"Oh," Buffy moaned unhappily. "You said 'picture it.' Why did you say that?"

He sighed and began placing shelves on their supports. "Hey, did I mention that 'sex' is the hot new slang for 'arm wrestling'? Picture that," he said soothingly, "a manly bout of wrestling, followed by beer, spitting, maybe a game of darts, and some Christian hymns to round off the evening."

"It's too late." She was pouting, with a side order of panicky. "It's in my brain now, like an earworm, and I'll never get it out--it's worse than that Disney song."

"What Disney song?"

To his utter bafflement she began singing, "It's a world of laughter, a world of tears, it's a world of hopes and a world of fears--"

From all corners of the shop the others suddenly sprang into sight, converging on Buffy.

"Stop, stop!" Willow cried, shaking her hands with a no-no-no gesture, horrified. "Oh my god, are you trying to get us all killed?"

"What? No! I'm trying to get Xander's gay sex out of my head!"

Giles gazed at her with a serious expression. "Buffy, no matter how justifiable the cause, the Magic Kingdom theme song is a powerful tool of evil. It can summon creatures more savage and dangerous than we've ever faced before." He paused. "It's also very annoying."

"I'm sorry. I didn't know."

Moving to Xander's side in a show of loyalty, Willow asked, "And what's wrong with gay sex, anyway?" Her tone was a little hot.

"Nothing! In theory," Buffy said defensively. "But in Spike--"

"Please don't finish that thought," Giles interrupted. Wearing a pained look, he retreated to the back of the store. Buffy skittered off in the same direction, but toward the training room.

"Well. I've had my love life compared to a Disney ride and driven my friends away--" Xander unbuckled his tool belt, a gunslinger hanging up his gear. "I think my work here is done."

Willow squeezed his arm. "It'll take a little while to adjust," she said, voice pitched low. "But it's not like you're setting a precedent, dating a vampire and all." Always seeing the bright side, that was Will.

"No. Just an unsouled one."

He laid the last of his tools back in their box and went to find Giles, who'd settled in at his desk in the alcove by the training room. He had a book open in front of him and was peering at it with a magnifying glass. Something in the tension of his body suggested that he was aware of Xander's presence and uncomfortable. Xander stood off to one side until the other man's gaze reluctantly flickered up.

"Yes?"

"Thought I'd see how it's coming."

Giles put the magnifying glass down and leaned back in his chair. "It's not," he said. "I'm no further ahead than I was an hour ago, or a week ago for that matter. I'm sorry, Xander, but I can't reverse a spell I can't identify. Unless this wizard turns up to share his secrets, I'm afraid Spike will have to make the best of his fresh start."

"And that's it? That's all you're going to do."

"I'm not sure what more you'd like me to do," Giles said carefully. "The brain is a delicate and complex organ, even a vampire's. Tinkering blindly will only cause more damage."

Faced with this dead end, Xander would have liked to offer a retort or a sudden, brilliant idea, but he'd run dry of both and had to walk away. Giles didn't try to follow, but Willow intercepted him. By her face he knew she'd overheard, or more likely had already known how things stood, since she'd been helping with the spell research for the past week.

If a witch and a watcher couldn't come up with a solution, he supposed it really was a lost cause.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I know you wanted to help him."

That wasn't quite the extent of it and he wasn't even sure help was the right word, but it didn't matter. "Sure. I wanted to help."

"You have to admit, he's not so bad right now," she said, smiling up at him. "And it's kind of sweet, how he gets all puppy-eyed around you."

"I think you're imagining things." He grabbed his tool box in one hand, letting its weight pull him off balance, a perfect excuse to leave, leave, leave. "Besides. It's not really him."

"What do you mean?" Her face was squinching in concern.

"I never thought I'd say this but...I kind of miss the old Spike. He was a son of a bitch who tried to trade me away like a bag of poker chips, but I knew where I stood with him. I mean, yeah, he hated me, but this Spike doesn't even know me."

"So he'll get to know you," she said, as if problem solved.

"Will, it's not real. Him crushing on Buffy, that was real."

Willow's face was appealingly earnest. "How do you know it's not real? You don't know what's a spell and what isn't--it's like once a cake is baked. You can't cut it open and pull out an egg or a cup of sugar. And if a spell makes things better, how is it wrong? Would you rather be with a guy who'd kill us all for a half-time snack if he got a chance?"

What could he say to that? It was too complicated for words, at least for simple, Xander-sized words, which were all that fit in his mouth. "He doesn't watch American football," he said instead.

"Okay, point very much missed."

"I hear you." He ducked his head. "I guess I just want the cake, and the eating of the cake. Funny old Spike: nice new, snuggly Spike." With accompanying sign language he tried to convey cake and Spike and a balanced diet of both, but his hands were empty.

And there you had it. And there he didn't.

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The moon was high, the air balmy, the hour late.

"So we do this often? Tramp around town in our fighting clobber, doing our bit for God and country?" Spike, who'd easily rediscovered his smoking habit, lit a cigarette as they entered the graveyard side by side. Despite a lifelong hatred for his dad's Lucky Strikes, Xander found the waft of tobacco strangely agreeable.

"Well, this isn't your country and you're not on speaking terms with the man upstairs, but mostly yes."

Spike scoured a tiny puff of disbelief from his throat. "What the hell am I doing this for?"

"We've been asking ourselves that. You like to kill things. And swagger. Still, that doesn't explain why you'd kill and swagger on the side of the angels."

"Can only kill demons, right?" "Yeahhhh, but--"

"Suppose I could set myself up," Spike said thoughtfully. "Get some minions and a fancy moniker--'Spike the Scary', 'Spike the Very Bad Fellow'--and wage the smackdown on the local riffraff."

Coming to a halt by the gravestone of Hattie Maxwell, 1913-1999, Xander hoped for a tone of authority. "Right now? Not such a good idea."

Spike's face was the same luminous white as the marble behind him as he tipped his head and smiled. "Nice to know you're looking out for me, pet." He pitched his cigarette, took a theatrical and mesmerizing step closer.

"You always looked out for me?"

His vampire was close now, and Xander felt his heartbeat start to rabbit against his ribs, his throat tighten. "Not so much," he said with an honesty he often regretted. "We used to be mortal foes...mortal foes who shared a room and did each other's laundry, but still."

"Yeah?" Spike made minute adjustments of his head, homing in for a kiss, gaze lowered and fixed on Xander's lips. "I like that. Mortal foes. Has drama." He kissed Xander, slow and fine and wrong.

This was what so often got him in trouble. The kissing thing.

He hadn't even hit double digits in the number of people he'd lip-locked, but it was still the most dangerous hobby around.

Narrow the tally to people who did it well and the list got even smaller.

Spike, hands down: kisser numero uno.

Especially with hands down, hands on his waist, sliding up and down his sides, under his shirt, down to his ass. It wasn't the gay apparel--at least Xander didn't think so. It was just that he did it so. fucking. right. How embarrassing was that? He'd staked his pride on ridiculing Spike, back when that meant something. Now he was a grade-A sucker for those deadly dead lips.

Please go back to being a murderous loser, he thought, as if this would incant a spell to save him. It didn't. The same details he'd once found sleazy were now sexy, and the fear he used to feel whenever he remembered what Spike was now transmuted to something else in his belly and balls. That undead neck was smooth and corded, the hair rough, the body hard and sleek as a surf board on a high wave, something to grip and ride. And Jesus, they were practically humping on top of Hattie Maxwell.

Xander grabbed the back of Spike's head and tongue-fucked him desperately, spurred by Spike's hands. One thumb was outlining the shape of his erection through denim, working down toward the root. He felt his zipper undone--it dragged along his shaft like soft teeth over a layer of cotton--and then Spike went to his knees and shucked him out and sucked him in, massaging the head of his dick with a slick tongue. He came in about ten seconds, hips stabbing forward, hands wound into Spike's hair.

"Sorry," he murmured afterwards when Spike had gotten to his feet. "You want me to--"

"Er, not now," Spike said and shoved him sharply to the side.

Stumbling, Xander didn't have time to misunderstand before a heavy-set vamp roared into combat with Spike.

He took a breather and watched them scrap, gaze following the slung punches, the kicks, the twist and flex of Spike's body as he pummeled the crap out of Big and Dumb and Soon to Be Dust.

In an admirable move, Spike vaulted lightly onto Hattie's headstone and pivoted to kick the other vamp's jaw, then leapt off like a cougar and drove him to the grass. After a few more punches, he staked the goon then stood, dusting off his jeans. Xander applauded.

"Now that's fun," Spike said, twirling his stake like a six-gun before pocketing it.

"Good clean fun," Xander agreed as they resumed their walk.

"How many vamps you reckon this town holds? Fifty, a hundred?"

"Hard to say. They come and go. The Hellmouth is a hot vacation spot."

"Tell you one thing. Someone ought to be funding this operation. We're doing a public service here--like cops. Ought to be a bounty, say fifty a head." He caught Xander's look. "Too low? A hundred then. Hell, five hundred. We're saving lives."

Xander smiled. "I could get behind that. But somehow I don't think the city council's going to be appropriating funds for vamp hunts any time soon."

"Hmm," Spike grunted, and lit another cigarette.

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They had a routine. In the morning Xander went to work while Spike slept in with the shades and curtains safely drawn. Sometimes they managed a swift nooner--a ride home that broke speed limits, a frantic fuck against a counter, a sandwich wolfed on the way back--but more often Xander didn't get back until six or so, when he'd find Spike on the couch watching Charmed and dipping his crackers right into the peanut butter jar.

When he could pry Spike's attention away, they'd go to bed and fuck for an hour or so in the rumpled sheets until Xander's stamina gave out and he needed to eat.

At this time of year, they could venture forth safely as soon as it was dusk and usually ended up downtown, Xander chopsticking Chinese food into his mouth with worshipful appreciation while Spike drank beer and people-watched, inventing bizarre and intricate stories for them.

"That's Carol," he'd say, pointing out a blonde dressed in conservative office wear, having dinner with her girlfriends. "Looks like a nice girl, Carol, but she's got a little problem."

"Drugs?"

"Shoes. Got three closets full and she can't stop herself buying more. Got sandals and stilettos, ones with bows, ones with flowers. And every night she goes home and crawls into her closet, naked and glistening--"

"Whoa."

"--and rubs all those scraps of leather against her body till she's ripe and pink, juiced up proper, and then she gets one of those nice pumps with the high, chunky heels, you know the sort I mean?" Behind Spike, a four-year old swiveled to his feet and leaned over the booth near Spike's shoulder, expressing a silent fascination with his hair.

"G rating," Xander warned, nodding kidward.

Spike turned his head for a moment to glance at the chubby, sauce-covered face, before resuming his study of Carol.

"Yeah, anyhow. When she's done her business, she feels all weepy and ashamed and swears she'll never do it again, but she can't bear to throw those pretty toys away. Figures she'll get herself a fellow instead, keep her on the straight and narrow. So she puts an advert in the paper, 'Lonely young widow--'"

"Wait, she's a widow?"

"Married young. Tragic accident with a," Spike hesitated, "kayak. 'Lonely young widow seeks wealthy older man for marriage and travel. Shoe salesmen a plus.'" A smile tugged at his lips and was reined in, a tiny acknowledgment of his own absurdity. "Bloke by the name of Tony answers the ad. Real slick piece of work, all fancy sports jackets and long hair, like a pop star, but Carol likes him 'cause he's got a big--"

"Spike."

"--car," he finished with an innocent arch of brows. "They hit it off, she brings him home to meet mum and dad, mum and dad approve, and they get hitched. All her girlfriends say how lucky she is and she's happy, thinking she's fixed her problem. But what she doesn't know is Tony's got a secret."

"Is Tony a hairdresser?"

"No," Spike said with a strange emphasis, finger pointed at Xander as if he'd just asked something very meaningful, "he's got a chain of tanning salons."

"Ahhh," Xander said. Happy, smitten, not wanting to be anywhere else, he smiled across the table.

Warming to his plot, Spike went on to explain that Tony was a vampire who used his tanning salons as a cover to try and inoculate other vamps against deadly UV rays, and how he subjected his wife to wicked experiments, testing whether human skin could be converted into a kind of vampire sun-screen, and that's how she wound up flayed, her skin used to make Tony a snazzy pair of tasseled loafers.

"Slight flaw in your story." Xander nodded toward the other side of the restaurant. "She's sitting right over there, in the flesh."

"He grew her some new skin. Got this vat in his secret lab."

"Of course," he said, bowing his head gracefully to concede the point.

The fortune cookies came, promising luck and long life.

Nights that they didn't eat out, Xander fixed himself dinner and they fired up the Play Station or popped in a video and loafed until it was time to patrol, or to meet the others for an anti-Glory war conference, or to go to bed.

And then Buffy's mother died.

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It was a terrible time, and Xander wished that Spike could remember Joyce. His limits as a vampire were suddenly much more obvious, his manufactured sympathy an off note that grated on Xander's nerves. Spike seemed to pick up on that and grew more quiet when the others were around, hanging back on the fringes and staying out of Buffy's way. It wasn't necessarily tact--it might only have been self-preservation--but Xander was grateful when he noticed.

After the funeral, which Spike declined to attend, Xander came home and stripped off his black suit and they fucked for the rest of the day, over and over, in every position, until he was raw and exhausted.

He remembered all the hugs exchanged at the graveside and Giles's stiffness and Buffy's face and Dawn's tears.

When he rolled on his side, it was like the memories tipped and settled with their heaviness, and then Spike spooned up behind him and stroked his chest with slow movements. Xander could sense him propped up on one arm and felt himself being studied. He didn't dare turn. He had to believe that something like love and caring existed behind Spike's eyes, the way it did in his hands and mouth. He didn't want to see differently.

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Over the weeks Spike's sex drive had evened out so that he didn't jump Xander's bones every night, but neither Willow or Giles, when cautiously asked, could say whether this nixed the possibility of magic. He could still be under a spell, Willow said; he might just be able to control the effects better.

He was sometimes cruel, saying cutting things and meaning them. Sometimes Xander caught those cool blue eyes on him, a grave study, as if Spike were having doubts about their arrangement, or worse. Inevitable, Xander supposed. Spike had taken the amnesia thing incredibly well, but how could anyone be expected to put up with it over the long term? It was clearly getting to him.

They had battles of wills about housecleaning, about petty shit. Contests of silence. Days could go by with both of them refusing to roll over and give it up. Xander decided during one of these marathon stand-offs that they were both tops and said so. Spike shrugged. He gave in first that time, though. Xander couldn't tell whether his surrender was grudging or manipulative.

Money was a touchy subject and they learned not to talk about it. Xander left wads of bills in drawers; Spike took them and bought cigarettes, CDs, blood, then made a point of fucking Xander up the ass at the earliest opportunity.

So there was plenty of good for bad. Nights when Xander leaned back against Spike and held his cool hands steady one at a time against his own thighs, painting his nails black. Days when they kept riffing off each other at the expense of anyone who happened to be around, until they were banished from polite society. So much energetically good sex that Xander lost ten pounds and most of his inhibitions.

They liked the same kinds of movies but held different views that they could defend at length, and they enjoyed proving each other's facts wrong by consulting his collection of film guides. Their moods fit like puzzle pieces: when Xander was up, Spike was down, when one was bored, the other was buzzed. This should have led to clashes, but they propped each other up and somehow it worked. Mostly.

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The day when everything changed was a Thursday and it started off fine. Xander woke gasping and incoherent to a blow job that felt like it had been going on for hours. By the time he was allowed to come he was trembling, every muscle in his body rigid, his sweat soaking the sheets. "Jesus fuck," he rasped as he recovered. Switch flipped, his muscles suddenly relaxed to a point where he wasn't sure he'd ever be able to get out of bed again.

He did get up eventually and made it to work only twenty minutes late, driving his car at a crawl past his supervisor's trailer, hoping no one would notice his arrival. No one did. The crew was standing around in clumps, scratching their heads and balls, drinking coffee and talking in hushed voices as they stared off at a mound of dirt.

"What's going on?" he asked Max Weeks. Weeks was the old guy in every monster movie who provided exposition on demand.

"Quindlen dug up something, says it's toxic waste. Bunch of garbage bags, looks like." He rubbed a finger across his nostrils then contemplated it. "Could be body parts. Could just be someone's trash. OSHA guy's called the EPA. They're sending a team to investigate."

When Xander sidled up to the hole he realized immediately that they'd unearthed a nest of demon eggs. The things were white, wrinkly, and misshapen, but distinctly egglike. Also, one of them moved. He backed away from the lip of the hole.

"What do you make of it?" his supervisor asked. Startled, he groped for something that would sound plausible. "I wouldn't rule out toxic waste. We should probably send everyone home. Quickly."

Doheny squinted at him. "Come on, Harris." His voice lowered. "You know about this sort of thing."

"I do?" he said, laughing nervously. He felt like Peter Parker caught with webbing all over his face.

"We both know that's not toxic waste."

"We do?" At Doheny's expression he took a steadying breath and got more serious. "We do. Right. I can call someone who can take care of this."

He called Buffy, who came with Giles, who took one look at the contents of the pit and told Doheny, "Send everyone home. Quickly."

Smashing the eggs, no problem. Killing the giant demon that burst out of the earth to take its revenge, problem.

It took them fifteen minutes to tire it out enough for Buffy to hurl a length of rebar through its eye, and even then its death throes swept Giles off his feet and nearly dragged him down into the bowels of the earth. They pulled him loose just in time and sprinted away as the pit collapsed in on itself, taking the mama demon with it. Covered in grit and blood, Xander slumped against the excavator and looked at his friends. "I'm asking for a raise."

"Good idea," Giles muttered, wiping his face.

So he did, and Doheny shook his hand on the promise of a five-thousand dollar raise and told him to take the rest of the day off. The whole thing left Xander stunned and jubilant, grinning like a dork. He stopped to get a bottle of champagne on the way home, thinking of all the ways he could celebrate.

If Quindlen hadn't started digging in that area, if Doheny hadn't sent him home early--later Xander would reenact the day's events in his mind, torturing himself, imagining all the ways it could have played out.

The door to his apartment was half off its hinges.

He turned the champagne bottle over by instinct, wielding it as a weapon, and went inside on shaky legs, taking it slow, too fucking slow. So much adrenaline was coursing through his veins he thought he might be sick but he couldn't move any faster. He was afraid he might find dust at his feet.

"Spike," he said.

The living room was a tumble of furniture and the TV lay face-down on the floor. On one of the windows, the curtains had been torn down, letting in sunlight. Xander felt the blood drain from his face in a rush. You could actually feel that happen.

"Spike," he said more loudly, trying to rouse himself to do something, to move. Then with a jerk his limbs unfroze all at once and he slammed from room to room, flinging open doors, fumbling on lights, scanning all the carpets with insane focus. Spike wasn't anywhere. That was both good and bad.

He had to put the champagne down to use the phone. Unclenching his fingers from the neck took longer than it should have. Reaching Buffy took less time, but the conversation was like one of those maddening nightmares where you have to convince someone to act and they only answer with nonsense.

"He's gone," Xander said, pacing his kitchen, wired, his free hand a fist. "Someone broke in and took him."

"Are you sure he just didn't go out?"

"The door is broken, the place is trashed."

"I know, but Spike's pretty good at taking care of himself. Maybe there was a fight and he chased them."

"Chased who? People he owed money to? Like a wizard, who might drug him and sell him to the highest bidder?"

"Xander, calm down--"

"Hold on," he said, distracted by a knock on his broken door. His next-door neighbor was peeking in, nervous and tentative, her own cordless phone gripped at the ready, probably set to speed-dial 911. "Abby. Hi."

"Did you see them?" she asked.

Getting words out of his throat was like upchucking potatoes. "See who?"

"Those freaky dwarves--or am I supposed to say 'little people' now?"

"I really don't know," he said, just barely staying polite.

"They had on these horrible masks and robes like monks wear. They carried him off, your--your boyfriend."

Political correctness came hard to Abby. "It looked like some kind of initiation prank, but then I saw the door."

"Thanks," he said tersely and raised the phone again. "Glory has him."

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It's amazing how much of your life you forget.

Sometimes Xander would be lying in bed late at night or sitting with his friends, searching his memory for a conversation he'd had, or the way he'd felt when a life-changing event happened, or just the big angry stuff from his childhood that used to be so important. He could remember that he had a childhood, but chunks of it were missing--whole years were missing, erased or written over; lost in his own personal cyberspace and unrecoverable.

Second grade--had anything happened to him that year? Apparently not. It was a blank. Really, all he had of his life were a handful of William Gibson-y memory cubes, a few hundred moments, sort of scratched and hard to read, where he kind of vaguely thought he knew what he'd been feeling, what he'd said and done. Mostly he was just the now.

So he didn't remember driving to the magic shop or what they said during the meeting or how they found Glory's place, something about a snake and then a search, every minute of it stretched all out of proportion by his impatience, but all that stayed with him later was an outline, and the rest might as well have been edited out right up to the point when they entered the lobby of her building and he saw Spike stumbling out of the elevator, his face almost unrecognizable, so much blood, Carrie at the prom, but real, in pain.

Xander went to him like a bullet. Minions swarmed. There was a fight; their team won. A car drive, a blur.

Then Spike, leaning heavily against him, shoulder wedged against his shoulder, ribs to his ribs, as they walked to the apartment.

And Xander got through the next minute and the next, getting Spike inside, onto the bed, cleaning off the blood, taking stock of the damage, crying like a coward and leaving the room, leaving him to Willow and Giles, and all that happened but none of it was anything he wanted to remember well.

Glory had poked out an eye, poked holes in his chest, pulled a rib loose through the skin, smashed a kneecap, toes, wrenched away an ear. Torture like strip poker. One item at a time to make it last. One sock, one shoe.

"It's amazing he even got loose," Willow said.

For some reason that's when Xander finally had to throw up.

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"Hi," he said a week later, sitting on the edge of the bed with a squeezable sports bottle of blood.

"'lo," Spike murmured.

Seven days of hi's, but this was the first time Xander had gotten a response; first time Spike's unbandaged eye had focused on him with awareness instead of blank absence. He laughed, a jagged exhale of relief that twisted right out of his lungs as if he'd been holding his breath for all that time. "You're awake--and you!" Inanity on demand.

"Yeah. What, 'bout sixty percent of me?" He shifted his head on the pillow as if troubled by his sleep-licked hair, then Xander realized it was the eye-patch bothering him and laid a hand against Spike's head to hold him still. He brushed his thumb up and down over the strap where it edged the re-grown left ear.

"I've been keeping track. You're up to eighty-three percent today."

"That so?" A tightening of the mouth. "I must be the other seventeen."

It took Xander a moment to sort out the homophones and catch up. "Oh, 'eyeball' eye, not capital 'I'. No worries." He held up the bottle. "Willow came up with the vamp equivalent of a super-vita energy drink, with extra magicky ingredients. You've been sucking it down all week. I'll just--" He eased the patch off and Spike blinked several times. "How's that?"

"Bit wonky. Two of you." A minor smile. "Could get used to that."

"Take my word: one's enough."

Spike lifted one arm and regarded it, flexed the fingers, then raised his head an inch off the pillow and tried to look down the length of his body. "Didn't get any of the good bits, did she?"

"No," he said quietly, the thought like cold water dashed over his giddiness. "I think she was...pacing herself."

Thank the fucking Lord.

"I didn't give anything up." Spike's eyes locked with Xander's, and his voice held a flat honesty, but with an edge, as if he didn't expect to be believed. "About the kid--didn't say a word--" For no good reason he expressed a sudden spasm of impatience, struggling to prop himself on his arms.

"We know." Xander hesitated as he watched these efforts, then reached out. His palm followed the curve of Spike's head back until he was cupping it. Easing it back down to the pillow, he said gently, "She's fine. We're all good."

"Yeah, well," Spike sighed. "Can't do much right, but I can take a beating."

Xander's stomach clenched. "Shut up."

Surprised, the vampire stared up at him for a long moment, then something in his face relaxed, just a fraction.

"Never thought you'd go sweet on me, Harris. Guess bleeding's not the only thing I do right."

Tongue-tied, Xander ducked his head and let the pause slowly fill.

"Looks like I've been well out of it." Spike seemed to become aware of his surroundings, the rumpled bed, the litter of crap on the bedside table; when his gaze fixed on Xander's face, Xander knew he was seeing the stubble, the shadows under the eyes.

"Yeahhhh, you've been sort of...Chucky doll, pre-animation."

"I'll take that as a yes," Spike said dryly. A man could learn to love that tone.

"Want some blood?" When Spike nodded, Xander brought the straw to his mouth. After only a moment, he twitched his lips off in surprise.

"It's human."

"Taste again," Xander said, pushing it back in place. "That's slayer. Donated by your favorite leading lady and mine, one Miss Buffy Summers." And was that remark oh so camp, he wondered, or just corny? A bedside manner was hard to maintain when all you wanted to do was break down and crawl into bed with your patient and cry a little.

Spike drained the drink in record time, the blood surfacing under his skin in a faint, lifelike flush.

"Robust, lively, full-bodied," the vampire opined.

"I won't tell her you said so."

"That'll save me another pummeling."

"I don't know, she's feeling pretty Spike-friendly right now."

"Yeah?" He looked thoughtful, then shifted his head and winced. "Next battle of the titans, remind me to bring a crash helmet. Extra head'd be useful too."

"We worried--" A hitch of breath, recovered. "--she might, you know. The brain-sucking thing."

"Oh, bitch-goddess gave it a go. Thought she'd blast my brains out my ears. Big power there." His eyes held warning. "Voltage she's got could fry a city grid, take a lot of folks offline. She won't go down easy--she'll squeeze your wits out like juicin' an orange. And I wouldn't put money on any spell set against her."

"But you're okay," Xander said, seeking assurance.

"She knocked a bit loose is all." Spike gazed steadily at him, face unreadable. "Nothing I can't set to right."

"Good to hear." Xander brushed his hand across the other man's chest, back and forth, lightly, as if he could erase the last traces of damage Glory had left.

Lashes lowering over his thoughts, Spike looked away and adopted an Angel-level brood that may have just been tiredness. "God, I'm knackered."

"Rest," Xander said, and Spike did, eyes falling shut as he descended into sleep, out of reach.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The best part of waking up was...something something, rhymes with pup, clinking noises, smell of coffee, bacon, running water, we replaced this man's brain with Folger's crystals, let's see what happens, and oh please god, no school today, he hadn't studied for the quiz, because there was a demon.

Xander levered his head off the couch with a bleary sense of mental collision and caught a blur of movement by the refrigerator. "Mom?"

"No," came a rich British voice that rounded its vowels when amused. "Not your mum. 'Less I've forgotten a lot more than you're telling me."

"Spike." Xander shoved upright, blanket slipping away as he brought his feet to the floor. "Mobility. Did we discuss this?"

"Thought I'd try a toddle, see where it took me."

Going to him, Xander saw that he was frying bacon and eggs rather ineptly in a cast-iron pan Anya had left. Fat sizzled, spitting everywhere. "You've got the stove up too high," he said, turning the dial, then noticing the shirtlessness of him. Once he looked, there was no looking at anything else. He circled the counter to stand behind Spike, nerves firing to life, boxers tenting, and slid both arms around his waist. Eyes closed, Xander pressed his mouth to the nearest skin he could find, the cool back of Spike's neck, then pressed himself against everything.

"You're up," Spike said, sounding saucy and normal, not at all like a guy who'd been thrashed halfway to dust a week ago.

Eyes still shut, Xander stroked things he couldn't see: abs, ribs, the flats of chest, then let his right hand slide back down to the front of Spike's jeans. That got him a hip buck and a curl of breath. Hardness pressed against his palm and he couldn't wait any longer; he tightened his grip around Spike's chest and undid his jeans for him, trying not to be rough, and heard himself start to pant and gasp, felt his hips working as if he had no say in the matter, no motor control.

Spike braced both arms against the stove edge, pushing back and then forward, groaning and fucking Xander's hand. The high-pitched shout belonged to one of them, or both.

"That bacon," Xander said on an exhale, "is toast." Smoke had thickened near the ceiling and the cat had jumped on the counter to investigate the blackened remains.

"Mrrrrmmmmt." Shoulder blades lowering with the release of tension, Spike leaned back and stretched and covered Xander's hands with his own.

"Wanted to feed you." In his low, perfectly controlled voice, it sounded like sex.

"Does that mean I'm part of your pack?"

Spike turned to face him, sultry-eyed. Holding that gaze, he shoved a hand into Xander's damp boxers, worked it around slowly, pulled it out, licked it clean with the tip of his tongue, then kissed him on the mouth.

That would be yes, Xander decided, as formerly important parts of his brain overloaded and blew. It might have been the most important kiss of his life: happening now, this moment, his head was changing, he needed this kiss, he liked men, he loved his mouth on Spike and Spike's mouth on his, and he understood that everything in him could surrender, the heart of darkness softening, and he might die, like crucifixion, but not with dishonesty or cruelty or hate. He'd die of love. He was okay with that.

When Xander's lungs were fuller than they'd ever been--he wanted to breathe and make a sailboat glide--Spike licked himself loose. He seemed rightfully smug, but as Xander gazed into his eyes and smiled happily, his face shifted a moment to wonderment, as if something unexpected had happened.

"Going to make you some breakfast," he said--he made it sound like an important event, a big decision. A thing.

"You really don't have to." Xander kept smiling, sailing.

Spike lowered his head the slightest bit, eyes unwavering. "We look after each other, right?" It was a real question, not rhetorical, not the voice of sitcoms, but serious.

"Right."

Time resumed its flow and Spike banged in his amateur way around the kitchen, muttering about the complexity of pigs and chickens and all their burnable parts, and Xander made himself a pot of coffee and thought about changing his boxers but delayed, scooping up the newspaper from in front of his door with a sheepish wave to Abby before retreating inside. Deciding that he was a manly sight to behold, Xander settled at the kitchen table with the paper, feeling so chock full of goodwill toward man that even the news of the world didn't seem too soul-crushing.

"Missing honor student, unidentified animal attack, strange glowing lights over Baxter's Field," he said, reading from the headlines. "Nothing ever changes."

"Dunno about that." Spike didn't turn around. "Just got to take the long view."

"Easy for you to say, my immortal friend."

"'Sides, change's just another word for fate. Good or bad doesn't enter into it. Some of your white-coated types make a flu vaccine, saves millions, then you got overcrowding, famine. Invent the auto and 'fore you know it, you're warring over oil. Eat the apple, you get smart. You also die."

Xander raised his brows even though Spike wasn't looking. "That's some deep water you're treading."

"Human nature now, some'd say that never changes." A pause fell, broken only by a light scraping sound, like char being knifed off toast. "A man might though, if he set his mind to it."

Distracted by a photo of a prize-winning tomato on page five, Xander said, "Hmm?"

"Man, vampire. Same basic parts."

"Sure," Xander said absently but agreeably.

Spike set a plate of bacon and eggs on the hem of newspaper between his arms. Xander looked up and smiled, then back down at his breakfast.

"Hey," he said, delighted, picking up his fork. "You made the eggs and the bacon a smiley face. My mom used to do that."

Turning back to the stove, Spike said, "I kno--oh, yeah?"

"Again, not that I mistake you for my mom," Xander went on, cutting into his eggs, the lilt of Spike's voice floating by. "Because there's wrong, and then there's Jerry Springer wrong. Hey," he said with perked interest, "listen to my horoscope: 'Chance of romance is strong today. Your nonverbal signals are the key to making a love connection.'"

"Something to be said for the nonverbal." Spike sat down with a mug of blood.

"You think?" Xander rested a hand across Spike's and smiled at him, modest about what he offered, but every inch a man on the first day of the rest of his life. "I'm going to try that now. See if you get the connection."







The End



Spander Inquisition challenge, April-May, 2004. For kimberly_a. Challenge requirements: two things to include are hurt/comfort, either physical or emotional hurt, and temporary amnesia for *one* of the guys; set in season 4-7. *Don't* have: Xander getting vamped. Preferred rating: R or NC-17. This is an S5 and is AUish. Title nod to Carol S., who did a great multi-character BtVS/AtS vid of the same name; the original is Weird Al's. Thanks to Rubywisp, Sisabet, Herself, Ladycat, Saussy, Wiseacress, and Secondverse (nee Yindagger) for reading earlier versions and saying encouraging & helpful things. There is also a DVD commentary version of this story.







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