Buffy bones. Little bits of Buffy bones.
Xander stared at the dust and specs of white as Giles tipped the urn carefully, spreading the ashes over the flowers that surrounded the newly completed Sunnydale memorial. How ironic was it that the planners placed the memorial directly over the Hellmouth? Of course, they probably thought they were simply putting it over the epicenter of the quake, bomb, undiscovered volcano or whatever theory was currently making the rounds. The ashes and bits of bone slid over the petals and leaves to rest in the dirt below. Xander concentrated on clamping down the anguish that surged with the bile in his throat, but he couldn’t avert his eyes from the tiny square of bone that rested on a red geranium petal.
“Rest at last,” Giles spoke quietly as he placed the lid back on the emptied urn.
“Rest eternally,” Willow responded. A gentle violet arc indicated the warding blessing over the memorial.
Xander closed his eye, still seeing the red and white image of bone on petal burned into his brain. He swallowed past the lump in his throat. Pain hadn’t lessened in the year since he watched the demon kill her. This final burial, according to Buffy’s own wishes, had promised to bring closure to all of them, but for Xander, it deepened wounds that had never fully closed.
“Hey,” Willow touched his arm, “We’re heading back to the hotel now. See you there?”
Xander nodded without opening his eye. He knew that as soon as he did the tears held inside would fall, and he couldn’t bear the hugs and comforting noises that would bring from his oldest friend. He listened to the sounds of others moving off into the deepening dark, car doors opening and closing, quiet murmurs.
From his place under the ornate lamp post, Spike watched the mourners split apart and climb into cars, sharing hugs and quiet words. He shook his head slightly at Angel’s questioning frown. Angel shot a glance at the lone man standing beside the memorial and then looked back at the blonde vampire resting lounged against a light post. He returned the nod and joined the currently human appearing Illyria to return to the hotel with the rest. Spike returned to watching the still figure.
Gradually silence took over, creeping around him, and Xander welcomed its empty embrace. Unmoving, eye closed, he let the gradual chilling of the air prickle across his cheeks and fingers, whisping inside the light pea coat that hung unbuttoned in deference to the Southern California climate. He focused on the chill and the rhythmic in and out of his breath, keeping his thoughts as still as his body. Finally, he recognized that if he didn’t put in an appearance in the hotel soon, someone would be dispatched to find him. The Hellmouth might be closed, but a decade of keeping tabs on one another would have concerned friends making sure he hadn’t been waylaid by some hungry beastie.
Xander opened his eye and jumped back a foot.
“Sweet creeping tea biscuits Spike! You ever think it might be a good idea not to sneak up on people on a Hellmouth?” He stalked away from the silent figure observing him across the flowered memorial. Casting a dismissive glance at his car, he decided that walking offered the chance to excise the tension that suddenly returned full-force. Sure it would make him even later getting to the hotel, but if he got lucky there would be at least a vamp or two to stake along the way. He gripped the stake in his pocket and strode across the park, battling the increasingly familiar need to hit out at something.
Three blocks away, he finally turned back to acknowledge his vampire shadow.
“Whatever you have to say, say it and fuck off.” He glared daggers. Spike slid through the shadows and came to stand before the angry human. He cocked his head and ran his eyes over the gaunt figure before casually stepping back and shaking a cigarette out of the pack he pulled from a duster pocket.
“Fine. Nothing to say, then just fuck off already.” He cursed the slight tremor that undercut the vicious comment, and he flicked his gaze to the surrounding night.
Without a word, Spike lit the cigarette and held out it out like a peace offering.
“Don’t.” Xander still didn’t meet the vampire’s eyes.
The pale fingers didn’t retract the offering. For a long moment they stood under the flickering streetlight, the glowing ember casting listless curls of smoke through the cool air.
Xander let out a disgusted sigh and released the death grip on his stake, jerking his hand out to take the cigarette. He took a long angry draw, enjoying the thought of the cilia in his lungs shrinking back and wilting under the nicotine assault. Focused on the blowing out the smoke in a slow, smooth stream, he dimly recognized the familiar movements of the vampire lighting his own cigarette. Xander sat down heavily on the curb, resting his arms on his knees and hanging his head.
“Would you at least say something?” Defeat colored his voice.
“’M not the one that needs to talk, I’m thinking.” Spike smoothly settled against the lamppost, elegantly drawing in and blowing out smoke.
“Nothing to say here either, buddy. Buffy died. We had brought her back to be buried on the Hellmouth on the one year anniversary just like she wanted. Tonight, we’re all going back to the hotel to have a big group cry and laugh and do-you-remember-when fest. What, were you not invited?” The biting comment didn’t appear to faze the vampire at all. He continued to watch Xander fidget on the curb.
“Could say they left me to make sure you didn’t get your scrawny arse eaten by some lingering nasty, but we both know that’d be a lie.”
Xander looked at him sharply before staring back down at the cigarette burning between his fingers. He took another angry drag. Of course, they didn’t leave Spike behind to watch him. Like the vampire would take on that kind of duty anyway. They hadn’t spoken since the fall of Sunnydale so many years before, and he had hardly been the vampire’s bestest bud then. Besides, Willow would doubtless have checked in on him a couple of times with the locator spells that she seemed to find so effortless these days. Any sign of danger and no doubt the small army of slayers that came with them from England would have been dispatched to his rescue.
“Then enlighten me, oh bleached one. Why the fuck are you here?” This time exhaustion outweighed anger. Xander didn’t have the energy to keep up the anger, and at the moment, he wanted nothing more than to be safely ensconced in his hotel room where a brand-spanking-new bottle of Johnnie Walker Black awaited him, all praise be to duty free shopping.
“Why aren’t you walking away?” Spike gently tossed the question back.
“Whatever this is, just don’t.”
“Said that before, mate. What is it that you don’t want me doing?”
Xander stood and took a last drag on the cigarette before stomping out the butt in the street.
“Anything. I don’t need anything from you, Spike. I don’t need anything from anyone. We fight the baddies, sometimes we win, sometimes we don’t. Life goes on.” He shrugged the coat closer around himself, hands jammed in the pockets. “Life always goes on.” Without looking back, he strode off toward the hotel and the promise of drunken oblivion that was his reward for making this trip back to the mouth of Hell.
Spike nodded to himself. He pulled out his cell phone and pressed 2 on the speed dial. As the voice on the other end offered an anxious hello, he returned a single comment.
it.” He snapped the phone closed and melted into the shadows, making his own way back to the hotel.
A third of the way through the bottle of Johnnie Walker, Xander idly mused whether he could get the name of a club from the concierge and slip out without word getting back to his companions. He scratched at his groin and shifted in the bed as he stared at the clowns cavorting on the TV. Not really his thing, but it was the best SCinemax had to offer tonight. Soft-core documentaries on folks who liked to fuck in red noses and big shoes didn’t really do it for him, but ordering porn by pay-per-view would no doubt be frowned on by whoever was doing the Council’s accounting these days. But fuck, he wanted to forget himself for a few hours. Being at the memorial—he refused to call it a funeral a year after the fact—had been harder than he anticipated, and the bizarro conversation with Spike afterward hadn’t helped any. Not like he didn’t expect the vampire to be there. Hell, they’d held the whole thing at dusk just so the vampire mourners could be part of it. But what the fuck was Spike doing following him around?
He took a long angry gulp from the bottle. Fucking offering him a cigarette and what? Comfort? Companionship? Xander surged to his feet unsteadily. Not thinking. Tonight is about not thinking. He paced, all pretense at watching gaily decorated dicks rubbing through curly red wigs abandoned. Glancing at the closet that held his suitcase with leather clothes bunched in the bottom, he reconsidered the option of a quick word with the concierge.
Tentative knocking on the door caught his attention. He checked the clock. Midnight. Kinda late for visitors, but not that unusual. The knocking grew bolder. Xander considered not answering, but guilt prevented him from following through on that option. He knew that his friends worried about him, and he didn’t want to risk more well-meaning concern by shutting them out altogether. Snapping off the television and stashing the bottle under a pillow, he prepared himself to offer assurances that he was fine, that no he didn’t want to join everyone else at the bar, that he was tired from the trip and the memorial and just needed to sleep. The words were on his lips as he opened the door to find Dawn fidgeting and glancing up and down the hallway.
“Hey, Dawnie,” he offered quietly, “what’s up?”
“Um, hi Xander, can I…I mean, I know I’m probably disturbing you and all, and look, you’re all ready for bed.” She gestured at the boxers and t-shirt. “But it’s kinda important, and I need to talk to you tonight.” Her voice grew more determined as she took in the shadowed eyes and smelled the whiskey that seemed to be a permanent Xander-scent these days.
Xander opened the door wider and gestured her into the room. He closed and locked the door, turning to find her standing with her arms crossed with a set expression.
“So, Dawnster, what can the Xan-man do for you?” His turn to be nervous, and he clamped down on the fidgeting babble, settling down on the edge of the bed and forcibly keeping still and silent.
“Ok,” she took a deep breath and sat down next to him on the bed. “I don’t know if you’ve heard yet, but Faith isn’t coming back with us like we planned. She’s going to LA to work with Angel.”
“Nope, hadn’t heard, but that’s a good thing, right? Sounds like they could use the help there after, well, everything.” He began to relax. Not an intervention, not a lecture. Despite their almost unconscious insistence to view Dawn as young and therefore naïve, Xander knew she often saw more than the others, certainly more than Giles or Willow had time to be looking for these days. Paranoia, he told himself, thinking she was here about me. He stomped on the small disappointment that her visit really didn’t seem to have anything to do with him.
“Right. They do need the help, and I guess when Faith saw Angel, she pretty much told him flat-out that she was coming to LA.” They shared a grin at the thought of Angel being ordered around by the dark slayer.
“Didn’t give Deadboy any room to argue, did she?”
“I think her words were something to the effect of ‘You need me. I’m coming. Deal with it or I’ll dust you myself.’ Apparently, he’s been driving Spike crazy with the broodier than usual guilt-trips.”
“So let me guess? Spike called in the cavalry?” Xander forced his tone to stay light.
“Nothing like a slayer to kick some vampire ass.”
“And Giles is cool with it?”
“Yep, he wished Angel good luck, and he was practically humming as he walked away.”
Xander shook his head. The continual clashes between the senior slayer and watcher had increased dramatically with Buffy’s death, and some distance would undoubtedly be welcome to both.
“That’s not really what I needed to talk to you about, though.” Dawn’s face took on a steely aspect as she looked at him. “I’m going with her to LA.”
“Oh.” The chasm opened up beneath his feet again as he felt his world shift.
“Can I ask why?” He kept his voice level and wished he had gotten a bit further through the bottle of whiskey. Maybe it would have allowed him to keep looking at her instead of staring at his hands restlessly picking at one another.
“I don’t want to go back to England. Not right now. Not with everything that happened.” Her voice cracked but didn’t break. “Not without Buffy there.”
Not without Buffy there. The words settled between them, and Xander concentrated on breathing. Hold on, she’s told you, she just wants to hear you say it’s okay, then she’ll go. Just hold on.
Dawn’s heart creaked for the man in front of her. They hadn’t spoken about Buffy more than four or five times in the last year. He would talk to her about anything and everything else, including a mortifying crush and closet kissing incident with a watcher in training, but he would shut down and suddenly need to be somewhere else when discussions of Buffy arose.
“Have you told Giles and Willow?”
“Not yet.” She focused on getting the next part right. “This is where I need your help.”
“I know this is asking a lot, but they’ll never agree that it’s okay for me to go to LA, even with Faith there. They still haven’t gotten over the whole evil law firm thing, especially since it ended in a near-apocalypse that took out a good portion of LA along with all but Spike and Angel really.”
“But bad things are happening in the city, and the three of them can’t handle it on their own, and even with Faith helping, and even with whatever the heck that Illyria person is, they still could use someone who knows the research side, and I can do that. I could...”
“Dawn!” Xander stood up, pacing away from the bed, arms wrapped tight around himself. Fuck, have to calm down. I’m losing her, too. He shut down that thought immediately, and closed his eyes before taking a deep breath and turning back to the young woman perched on the edge of the bed.
“You know Giles and Willow won’t be happy, but I get it. You,” he swallowed, but couldn’t find a way out of making the offer, “you want me to talk to them for you?”
“I want you to come with me.”
Xander stared at her, unable to form thoughts, let alone words. She stood and put her hand on his crossed arms, peering intently at him.
“Look, Xander. I know you don’t want to go back to England either. You’re not happy there.” She stifled a sigh as he closed his eye and turned aside, not outright pushing her away, but no longer connecting. “Come to LA with us.”
“Things are complicated there enough, you said it yourself. I don’t want to add to that. They don’t need me there.”
“That’s not true, and you know it.”
Xander turned back to glare at her. “I know Angel hates me. I know Spike hates me. Faith they’ll tolerate ‘cause she’s a slayer and can kick their asses. You, they love. But I’m the guy that got Buffy killed. They do not want or need me.” Pain filled the atmosphere as Xander struggled to control himself.
“Ok, maybe they don’t need you,” Dawn corrected, “but you need them.” Seeing the vehement protest rising in his eyes, she hastened on, “And I need you there. Giles won’t trust me alone with them and Faith, so I need you to come, too.”
“You’re over eighteen, Dawn. Tell him to shove it up his Council ass. You’re an adult. Go where you want, you don’t need me.” He knew he was behaving monstrously, but he couldn’t think past all the pain the conversation stirred up, and he needed to have it end. He shoved past her to stand by the window, staring at the night.
“Xander Harris, stop being a self-centered, self-pitying asshole for two minutes and listen to me.” She stalked over and forced him to look at her. “I asked nice. I gave you reasons. Now I’m telling you. You’re coming to LA. I need you there, and I don’t want you going back to England any more than you want to be there. I’ll square it with Giles and Willow tonight. So fucking drink the rest of whatever bottle or bottles you have stashed in the room and make sure you’re packed to leave for LA at 10 AM.”
Shit, she really was scarier than Buffy had ever been. Her look left no room for objections, and he didn’t have it in him to fight anymore. In truth, he didn’t want to go back to England, but he hadn’t considered any other options. Not that LA would have been on the top of the list. Ok, so LA probably wouldn’t have made the list. In fact, it probably would have been on a no-way-in-hell-am-I-going-there list.
“Fine.” He clipped the word out. “Wait, 10 AM? As in daylight?”
“Sun-proof car windows for the vamp-mobile. Don’t be late or I’ll send Spike to come get you. You remember what he’s like in the morning.” She smiled sweetly and let herself out the door.
He stared at the closed door for a long moment. His world shifted
and settled. LA. Fuck. He sat back on the bed and pulled out the bottle. Well, he was following
her orders about where to live, might as well go with her plan for his evening as well. He took a long swallow and began
the rest of the journey to the bottom of the bottle.
Pounding. Too much pounding for the hangover headache that Xander had fully given himself over to when he slapped the alarm off at 9:15, and again at 9:24, and again at 9:33 before burying it under two pillows. He groaned quietly—no point adding to the dull thud that throbbed from around his skull when the increasingly agitated pounding on the door. He rolled slowly into a sitting position and placed his bare feet on the floor, scrunching his toes in the carpet.
“Harris, get your lazy arse out here now!”
Xander cringed. The vampire’s shout grated across frayed nerves, and Xander considered ignoring the menace at the door and making for the bathroom and a hot shower. Maybe if he delayed long enough, impatient vamps would whisk Dawn away and leave him behind. The thought appealed for approximately thirty seconds before the panic over losing Dawn and the inevitable regret over giving his friends more reason to worry took over. He stood and shuffled over to the door, flicked the locks, and turned around to shuffle back towards the bathroom without waiting for Spike to barge across the threshold.
Spike fumed as he listened to the locks being turned. When the door didn’t open, he reached for the knob and flung the door open. As he opened his mouth to let loose another stream of invective, he took in the wretched state of the room and the man disappearing into the bathroom. Two empty whiskey bottles along with several Hershey’s chocolate bar wrappers where strewn across the floor along with the now-crumpled suit that Xander had worn to Buffy’s memorial. Blankets laid in a tangled mass on the bed, testament to a night of restless sleep, although Spike grimly noted that Xander probably passed out rather than fell asleep. Anger, fear, despair all lingered in the air. As he took in the state of the room, he listened to the sound of Xander’s morning ablutions.
The vampire sighed and began to gather the man’s belongings, grateful that he had agreed to take on the task of rounding up the missing member of their new LA contingent rather than letting Dawn deal with Xander in his morning-after grunge. A thought flashed and had him at the bathroom door, snarling.
“You let her see you like this?” He ground out.
“Huh?” Xander raised bloodshot eyes, toothbrush hanging out of his mouth.
“Dawn. She find you like this? Stinking of booze and barely able to drag your sorry ass out of bed?”
Xander looked back down at the sink, spit out toothpaste, and ran water over the toothbrush to clean it. Answer enough for Spike.
“This ends.” He spun Xander around and pressed him back against the marble countertop. “You will not put her through that.” He grasped Xander’s stubbled chin and forced him to meet angry blue eyes. To his shock, the brown eye staring back at him gleamed with angry unshed tears. He forced himself to push down sympathy for the hopelessness that rolled off the man. “You don’t do this to her. Gonna be a drunk like your da, you do it somewhere else. Away from her.”
Xander closed his eye and a tear fell. He jerked away from the cool hands on his arms and angrily dashed the tear away. God, all he wanted was to get out of this room without any further conversation. Having Spike’s preternaturally strong hands on him, threatening him with the pain that he craved had almost undone him. The urge to spill out his failings, to beg for the punishment that might make him feel redeemed for even a few moments, warred with the certainty that Spike must be as disgusted with him as he was with himself.
Spike watched him stalk across the room and rip the dingy t-shirt off and yank on jeans and a clean tee with shaking hands.
“She never found me like this. I never let anyone find me like this. Until today.” Shoving the remaining clothes into his duffle, he kicked the bottles out of his way and headed for the door. Before he could open it, Xander found himself faced once again with that cold blue stare. He met the look with resignation, clearly accepting that only Dawn mattered.
The depth of brokenness and loss in the deep brown eye stung the vampire’s unbeating heart. He decided Angel’s timetable could take another few minutes of disruption, and he took the bag from Xander and guided him back to sit on the bed.
Spike ran a hand through his hair, trying to figure out what he needed to say.
“Sorry about that,” Spike jerked his thumb toward the bathroom. “Hit a sore spot. Promised the Slayer to take care of the Bit. I was just looking out for her.”
Xander looked away and nodded before muttering, “I wouldn’t hurt Dawn.”
Spike sat down on the bed. “Need something for that headache?”
He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. It’ll go away.”
“And you deserve it?”
“Gonna have to do better than that.”
“Leave it alone, Spike. I fucked up, and now we’re late.
Can we just go?” Xander stood and picked up the bag again. He so did not want to be having any kind of conversation
about the state of his life right now. Without looking back, he walked out the door. Spike frowned and followed.
He had agreed to Dawn’s plan, but now he wondered what exactly he had gotten himself into. If he hadn’t
been at such a loss as to what to do with his brooding Sire, he never would have agreed to this whole arrangement. As
he trailed Xander down the hall and out to the parking lot, he smirked as another thought occurred. In this particular
deal, Dawn and Faith got a broody immortal known for his temper and guilt-complexes that were ingrained centuries deep.
Suddenly a young human bent on destroying himself seemed like the better part of the bargain.
Xander watched the blur of motion on the practice mats as Spike sparred with Faith. He stretched stiffening muscles, enjoying the pain from bruises just forming under sweat-slick skin. It had been Dawn’s idea to have the two humans pick up some training so they could, if not keep up, at least not be so easily picked off when they went out on cases with the vamps, slayer, and whatever the heck Illyria was. Xander still wasn’t too clear on that exactly, and he noticed that Dawn tended to steer clear of the blue figure. But after her experience with Glory, he could hardly blame her for being a bit shy of another hell goddess.
“Hey!” Xander yelped as a finger poked at the bruise forming on his hip from a blow that Spike had gotten past his own quarterstaff.
“Is this what you want?” Enormous blue eyes stared at him.
“What do you mean?” He muttered as he carefully slid away on the bench. Dawn had the right idea. This chick was seriously weird.
“The pain,” she tilted her head. “You seek after it. You bury your need for it in that vile drink. Are all human men thus?”
“Thus? Thus what? And huh?”
“My Wesley. The pain burned in him for Winifred Burkle. He soaked himself in drink, and he sought after the pain that my presence gave him. You mourn as he did.” A sadness crept into her voice.
Xander focused on the punches and kicks being exchanged, weapons foregone in favor of fists. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” He shifted uncomfortably under the unblinking gaze that he felt on his scalp.
“Think they’re gonna really hurt each other in a minute.”
“They do not have the will to truly damage one another.” Illyria spoke dismissively.
Okay, so trying to refocus her attention didn’t work. Maybe if he ignored her, she would get bored and wander off. Before he could test that theory, however, Dawn came bounding into the basement practice room.
“Vamps,” she gasped out. “A whole nest of ‘em. One of Gunn’s old crew came by and said there’s too many of them. They need help.”
Faith and Spike dropped their fighting stance as soon as Dawn spoke the first word. Spike tossed Faith a towel, and they each wiped off sweaty faces as they headed for the stairs, Illyria trailing behind them. Xander sat for a long minute before trudging up the stairs to find everyone gearing up in the hotel lobby.
“Spike, Faith, take the bike. Follow LaShaun here. Dawn, Illyria, you’re with me. Stakes, swords, axes are in the trunk.” Angel barked orders, ignoring the uneasy looks that passed between the others. The older vampire hardly spoke except to give orders anymore. Killing seemed to be the only way to bring him out of the constant brood that holed him up in his room.
“Not on, boss. Blue, you’re with Blondie here. Dawn, let’s go.” Faith countermanded the orders with a look that dared Angel to argue. Not that he could be stopped.
“Not on? What’s wrong Faith? Afraid Spike will take advantage? Or maybe the other way around?”
Xander noted the flinch in the slayer’s stance, but her eyes took on a dark determination, and he knew that Angel would more than meet his match in the obnoxious comments department. He settled on the couch, torn between resenting the accepted fact that Dawn would be included while he stayed home to mind the store and enjoying the unexpected escape from the constant presence of others.
“You forget she happens to be under the protection of the not-so-wicked witch of the West? Anything happens to her, and there’s no place you can hide that Willow won’t turn your undead ass into dust. Just looking out for you big guy.” She herded Dawn out the door toward Angel’s convertible.
Spike smirked and enjoyed the glower on Angel’s face as he stalked after them. When he agreed to help out Dawn and Faith with their plots to pull his Sire out of his post-almost-Apocalypse funk, he hadn’t known how much fun it would be pushing the old man’s buttons. He counted it a bonus, then frowned as he took in the hunched figure on the couch. After the first couple days, Xander had quit griping about being left behind. However, they hadn’t left him completely on his own in the week since returning from Sunnydale. Whatever was going on had to be bad if Dawn agreed that even she couldn’t afford to stay behind this time. The vampire nodded Illyria toward the door.
“Be there in a mo’.” Alone in the hotel lobby, he strode over to stand before Xander.
“Yes, I’m fine. Go. Kill. Have fun.” Xander spoke without meeting Spike’s gaze.
“You stay here.”
“I don’t need a fucking babysitter, Spike.”
“Fuck. Off.” Xander raised an angry eye to meet Spike’s unflinching gaze. Spike reached down and hauled the man to his feet. His gaze softened as he ran his eyes over the bruised man.
“Shouldn’t have hit you so hard.”
“I’m fine,” Xander spat out. “Nothing a hot shower and another night stuck inside won’t cure.” He struggled to free himself from the vampire’s grip. The last thing he needed right now was concern for his well-being.
“Harris, you’re so far from fine, you’re not even in the same time zone.” Spike dropped his hand and stepped back. “Question is what to do about it.”
“Vampires, Spike. Go. Kill, maim, dust, have a blast. Just leave me the fuck alone.” Xander stalked up the stairs, without looking back. His skin crawled from being watched all the time, being surrounded by people. In London, he had his own apartment and no one kept an eye on his comings and goings, a fact he desperately missed. God, he needed to get out. What to do about it? He knew what he wanted, what he needed, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to get it stuck here in the Hyperion under Dawn’s distant but watchful eye or Spike’s unceasing presence.
Spike watched the human disappear from view before he shook his head and
focused on the task at hand. Fucking do-gooding was getting in the way of, well, doing good. He still had no idea
what Dawn expected him to do to bring back the Xander of old, and he could feel the anger and pain only pulling the man further
away from them.
Ten minutes after the door closed behind the reformed AI team, a showered Xander made his way back to the lobby. Under the pelting heat of the water, he made a decision. Who knew when he would have another chance to get out of the hotel unescorted, and the need burned through him. Training with Spike and Faith had helped mitigate it some, forcing him to focus purely on the physical moment, exhausting him beyond the capacity to think or feel. Working out took him out of himself nearly as effectively as making his way to the bottom of a bottle. He still hadn’t decided which method had the more difficult side-effect, the pain of hangovers or the pain of being in the company of people who knew Buffy and even worse, who cared about him.
Xander focused on his goal, determined to be well gone before the others got back. He strode around the lobby counter and settled in front of the computer. Hitting a key, he let out a deep breath. Jackpot. The computer was turned on and didn’t require a password. During his quick shower, he had considered calling his club back in London and asking for a recommendation of a place here in LA, but he determined that a long-distance call left the kind of trail that the internet wouldn’t. A simple clearing of the browser’s cache and history of pages visited would remove all evidence. He sent a small word of thanks to Willow for the computer basics she had insisted that everyone learn.
Quickly, he typed “Los Angeles Dungeons” and scrolled through the list. Figuring speed took precedence over in-depth research, he ignored the nagging voice of Mistress Eleana, who pounded it into him that play should be safe above all. And read that for a literal pounding, he chuckled to himself. If she saw him now, she’d have him stretched out against the wall in manacles with his skin burning from the strap. His skin twitched at the thought, and his fingers fumbled over the keyboard. There. Chambre de Sade. That would do. He scribbled down the address and quickly cleared all evidence of the search away. Dialing information, he got the number of a cab company, and within moments, he climbed into the waiting taxi clutching his duffel bag with club clothes safely stuffed inside.
The interior of Chambre de Sade belied the bland stucco exterior. Clearly the place had been converted from an older complex done in the Spanish style. The exterior appeared non-descript and unassuming, but as soon as he walked into the reception lounge, Xander recognized the trappings of a professional dungeon. The receptionist managed a goth/business attire that he never imagined would be possible, but here in the public area of the dungeon, she seemed to promise the reality of the darkness behind the closed doors while maintaining an unthreatening professionalism.
“Welcome, can I help you, sir?”
“Yes.” Xander set down his duffel and ran his eyes over the brochures in their clear acrylic holders on the reception desk. She followed his gaze and pulled out one of the brochures to open it for his perusal.
“What type of services are you looking for this evening, sir?” Her eyes ran him over, searching for the first dom/sub clue.
Xander scanned the glossy text with discrete photos. Punishment. The word flashed out of the page at him, and he pointed with a finger that he willed not to shake. Hell, he was an adult and it wasn’t like he had never done this kind of thing before.
“Very good. Fill out the basic consent and services requested form and then we can begin.” Xander noticed that she dropped the ‘Sir’ appellation, and he realized that she must have recognized him as a punishee rather than a punisher.
Xander nodded and accepted the clipboard and form that she held out.
“Please sit at the table over there. Return the form to me when you have filled out all the required information.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he stifled the shudder of anticipation that ran through him.
Settling himself at the table, he ran his fingers through his hair as he contemplated the form. The instructions were minimal, with only the commands to fill out the form accurately, completely, and honestly and to return it to the receptionist with a valid form of photo ID.
Xander worked quickly, continually aware of the alarm his absence from the Hyperion would cause. Suddenly he wished he had at least left a note of some kind, but it was too late for that now, so he shoved the thought away and focused on filling out the form.
Next of Kin or Other Contact Information. He stifled a groan. Who the fuck could he put down as a contact? Using any of the folks in London would be less than ideal given the distance, and using his parents, well, that wasn’t really possible since he couldn’t be sure that he had access to any of their current contact information with him. Although imagining the look on his father’s face in the rare event that something did happen, it was almost worth considering putting the old bastard’s name down. He sighed, and scratched his nose as he thought through the only people he knew in LA. Faith might actually get off on the place, so she was a possibility. Definitely not Dawn, god, even the thought of her knowing that he came here made his blood run cold. Angel? He’d be no stranger to this kind of place, but Xander dreaded drawing any of the brooding vampire’s attention these days. Illyria had the potential to be hilarious—at least for the first few minutes—but then who knew if she even took phone calls, besides, the last thing he wanted was another bizarre conversation like the one earlier in the afternoon. That left Spike. Somehow that seemed fitting. Dawn may have been the one to corner him into agreeing to come to LA, but Spike seemed to be the acting Xander-keeper these days. Xander smirked. Wanna keep an eye on me, bleach boy? Well, here’s your chance to be official about it.
Xander carefully wrote in “William T. Bloody”. He looked at the name. It looked stupid, and it looked fake, especially considering the circumstances. Fuck it. Time’s a wastin’. He quickly filled in the Hyperion’s phone number, which Angel had grilled the newcomers on until they each proved that they had memorized it ‘just in case.’
After signing the consent for services pages, he circled medium spanking, flogging, and whipping along with being blindfolded and restrained and selected a male Dom. With only a half-hour, he needed the time to be focused and intense, which meant no branching out this time. Further, he didn’t need any of the psychological punishments, since he provided those a’plenty for himself, and somehow he never really got the appeal the humiliation involved in hardsports or watersports.
With a hurried flourish, he signed his name and returned to the reception desk, shaking off the discomfort at this clinical aspect of getting into the club. She inspected his form, made sure he had signed that he understood and would abide by all rules, and then in return for his entrance fee, she gave him a key to the locker room and directions to the area where he would meet his Master for the evening.
Finally, the heavy wooden doors opened, and Xander made his way into the club, the barriers holding back his grief and loneliness buckling under the need to translate that pain from the emotional to the physical at the hands of someone able to make the pain blossom into release, if not redemption.
Xander fumbled with the shower nozzle as he adjusted the temperature, warm but not too hot against his tender back. He shoved his face under the spray and let the emotions stirred by the session come flooding to the surface. Shaking, he flicked the clasp on the stainless steel cock ring that had kept him from cumming under the lash. Grief, pain, guilt, arousal, all roared through him as he yanked at his rigid cock, pulling himself to an immediate orgasm that broke the remaining barriers holding back the feelings. He slid to the cool tile floor of the shower and let the water beat way his cum and tears.
After several minutes, he gathered himself and stood shakily. He felt wrung out, relieved of some of the tension that seemed a constant these days. Grabbing the hotel-sized bar of soap provided by the club, he scrubbed himself clean. Flashes from the session skittered through his mind, and he began to gather them together to lock them carefully away in the box marked ‘must repress’.
The lash snapping down on his back as he saw Buffy’s neck snap to the side. The paddle smacking his buttocks as he heard his own burbling growl around fangs slipping into her dead flesh. He allowed himself to remember these images only as the implements of punishment struck his skin. The blows never reached the core of his betrayal, but he kept returning for the pain that allowed him to face the grief, always seeking the possibility of a forgiveness that eluded him.
As he finished showering and dried off, he considered stopping at the bar for a drink before heading back to the Hyperion. He held out little hope for returning ahead of the vamp slaying set, but he recognized that the longer he was gone, the worse the lectures he would have to face. Sighing, he grabbed his duffel and went back to the reception desk to request a cab. No longer driven by the desperate need to get out, he confronted the reality that Spike would have his balls for disobeying, and he began to formulate a plausible excuse for his whereabouts while he waited for the taxi that would deliver him to the vampire.
At the Hyperion, Dawn and Faith gave Spike a wide berth as he paced the lobby alternately growling and smoking. Vamp dust still clung to his boots and duster, and his shirt sported spatters of blood from the battle. Everyone else had dispersed for showers as soon as they got back. Despite their insistence that Xander wouldn’t have run, that he must have just taken advantage of the evening out, Spike couldn’t relax. Harris was his responsibility, like it or not, and he had instructed the man to stay put.
Bloody Hell. No wonder Dawn needed help. If a Master Vampire couldn’t compel the git to obey and take care of himself, then what must she have dealt with over the last year? Spike’s calls with her during that time had been filled with attempts to comfort and bolster one another up as he tried to keep Angel from giving up champion status altogether and going back to feeding on rats and she tried to fill the void left by Buffy’s death while at the same time keeping Xander from managing to off himself in skirmishes with the demon of the week. Apparently his sense of self-preservation, always coming in second to his loyalty and concern for friends, had taken a further tumble down his list of priorities, and Xander came close to getting killed so often that Giles and Willow refused to let him patrol at all in the last few months. Dawn feared that he wanted to be killed ever since Buffy died.
Spike shook his head. Daft bugger. Yeah, he’s to blame, but at the same time, from what Dawn said, he was under that Rayne bloke’s spell. Spike couldn’t help but sympathize as he recalled his own manipulation at the hands of the First. Willow found out about the spell on Xander, but not in time to prevent the tragedy. Spike had only sketchy details about what had happened, but apparently Xander killed Buffy when Rayne had turned him temporarily into a vampire. No one else had been present when it happened. Dawn and Giles found him huddled in a corner of a training room with her body lying broken and bloodied on the floor. All he would say was “I killed her.” Even without the details, Spike could imagine the battle: Xander in full vamp form and Buffy holding back, trying not to hurt a friend whom she knew wasn’t really undead. But that shouldn’t have been enough for Xander to beat her. Buffy fought against the best of his kind and walked away. Something else had to be at work, and Spike knew he needed to find out what if he was to be the help that Dawn needed him to be.
The scrape of the front doors opening snapped Spike from his contemplation. In a blur of motion, Spike had Xander backed up against the doors. Game-face to the fore, Spike catalogued the man, taking in the squeaky-cleanness and fear-tripping heart beat.
“Where the fuck have you been?”
“Out.” The slight shake in his voice undercut Xander’s defiant gaze. The tremor in his voice disgusted him. Hell, he was a grown man, not some teenager who got caught sneaking in late.
Spike glared back. He growled as he shifted his hold on the larger man and without ceremony flung him over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry, ignoring the gasp from Dawn and the snicker that could only be Faith. They had accepted that this was no longer their battle, besides the nest of vamps seemed like a cake-walk when compared to the conflict going on between Xander and Spike at the moment.
“What the fuck?” Xander scrambled to hold onto his bag as the world tilted upside down. “Put me down you bleached menace!”
Taking the stairs two at a time, Spike stalked down the hall to Xander’s room and kicked the door open.
Grimly silent, he deposited the squirming human gracelessly on the bed and slammed the door closed. Xander winced as he righted himself, but at the look on Spike’s face, he figured that standing back up was not the most prudent approach. He watched warily as the vampire stalked closer.
“If I have to lock you in this room, I will. If I have to tie you to a chair, I will. If I have to break both of your bloody legs, I will.”
Xander swallowed heavily. Lectures bypassed, straight on to threats. He had forgotten how terrifying the vampire could be. Fear warred with anger, however, and Xander recognized that he hadn’t had the time that he needed to finish pulling himself back together following the session at Chambre de Sade. As a rule, he took several hours alone after a session to sort himself out. Time constraints had prevented that tonight, and he clenched his fists, willing himself to be silent and controlled despite the rage and pain rolling through him.
Spike imagined he could see Xander shaking on the waves of emotion that crashed off him. Despite his silence and rigid stillness, fear, anger, and pain, pain, pain seemed to flood from the man. The demon in Spike wanted to revel in that emotion, push it over the edge into violence, but he allowed the soul to reign in that impulse. He settled his features back into his human guise as he considered his next move.
“Why does it matter to you where I go?” Xander spoke low, his face averted.
“Matters to me ‘cause it matters to the ‘Bit.”
“Wanna clear that up for me, pet?”
“Shit, Spike, I’m five years older than she is, responsible adult here.” Xander struggled to keep from standing and pacing. “Why the fuck does it matter if I go out by myself? I’m legal for everything except running for government office, and you can believe me when I promise that I’m not looking to do that, promises of easy interns bearing cigars aside. Why can’t they just leave me the fuck alone?” He snapped his mouth shut, willing himself to calm down.
Spike grabbed Xander’s shoulders and brought his face close.
“If you’re not half as stupid as I’ve always taken you for, you know the answer to that question.” The vampire let go and stood back a pace. “Question I want answered is why you put them in this place where they can’t leave you alone.”
“Right. Great. It’s my fault they’ve got you breathing down my neck twenty-four seven.” He finally stood, shoving the vampire back. “I didn’t ask for this. I’m doing what she told me. I’m in fucking LA, living with vampires who hate me, being a constant reminder to Buffy’s sister, ex-lovers, and whatever the hell Faith is, that Buffy is dead. She’s dead, and I killed her. I can’t fix that, Spike.” He turned from raging and towering over the vampire to wrap his arms tight around himself as though to keep from flying apart utterly.
“Tell me how to fix it. I’m trying, but I don’t know what to do.” His voice broke in misery this time. “I don’t know what to do, and they won’t let me leave.”
Spike stuck his hands in his duster pockets and regarded the shivering figure. “They love you.” He registered the shudder that ran through Xander at that declaration, as though his whole body protested. “And they wanna help you. If you let ‘em.”
The vampire circled around until he stood before Xander, taking in the abject misery on his face, eye clenched shut and a single tear tracing a path down the tanned cheek. His fingers itched to reach out and touch the man, but he resisted, not wanting to chance shattering him.
“Xander. Xander, look at me.” The brown eye swam with tears. “They don’t know how to help you. You don’t seem to know how to either, so I’m gonna ask you to let me try.” He gazed steadily into that pain-soaked face and willed Xander to agree.
Xander searched Spike’s eyes for a sign of mockery. Even the unbridled anger that had surfaced when he first returned to the hotel appeared to have faded. He found only a calm acceptance in the steady blue gaze. But he couldn’t bring himself to speak.
“You killed a slayer, Xan.” Spike pressed, not enjoying the man’s flinch, but recognizing that the source of the struggle lay with Buffy. “Been there, done that, bought the soddin’ t-shirt.”
“I’m not like you.” Xander spat out. “Not evil.”
“You killed a Slayer.” Spike shrugged calmly. “Can’t say that goes over well on the white-hat resume.”
“Get out.” His breathing turned harsh as Spike chipped away at that repression box he struggled so hard to keep closed in the back of his mind.
Spike nodded with a forced amicability, recognizing that his comments cut deep into the wound. However, gone untreated, the wound had become septic, and it would take a great deal of cutting to root out the infection if they hoped to save the man.
The compassion in Spike’s gaze, the lack of condemnation, tipped Xander from defense to offense, and he stalked past the vampire to yank open the door to the room.
“Get the fuck out of my room, and stay the fuck out of my life.” Tremors wracked his voice as he fought with himself, drawn by the promise that Spike understood the pain and could help. Images of white bones on red petals flashed across his mind, and he clamped down hard on the hope that had barely begun to blossom. He didn’t deserve help, and he was certain that Spike knew that as well, despite his offer.
“Get out, or I’ll add dusting a champion to my resume as well.”
Spike strode insolently to the door. He stood in the doorway and
looked back, “None of us deserve forgiveness, pet. That’s why it’s a gift.” He continued
to stand in the hall after Xander slammed the door. From inside the room, muffled sobs worked their way to the vampire’s
ears. He forced himself to listen, and in the ragged sounds recognized a depth of guilt and despair the like of which
had led him to regain his soul and then to want to burn it back out. Touching his fingers to the door, he renewed
his promise to Dawn to take care of Xander, to keep him from destroying himself as well as Buffy.
Neville Worthington strolled up to the reception desk half an hour after the doors of Chambre de Sade closed for the evening.
“Got the paperwork on today’s new members, my dear?”
“Yeah, yeah, just a minute already.” Fran shuffled through the files on her desk. “Ya know, this would be helluva lot easier if I didn’t have to deal with this crazy sorting. By sex, race, coloring, age. Can’t we just alphabetize like everybody else does?”
“You’ll have to take that up with Mr. Havisham. I suggest, however, that you simply hand over today’s files and leave the administrative processes to the man who pays your salary.” Neville hid a smirk at Fran’s paling complexion. Havisham, without once having set foot into the club, managed to have quite a reputation with the employees.
“No, it’s fine. Just had a long day is all.” She handed over a small stack of papers. “Here’s today’s crew, pics and all.”
“Thank you. I’m sure Mr. Havisham will be pleased with your work.” Neville slid the papers into his briefcase and walked out, leaving a slightly unnerved but relieved Fran to shut out the lights and lock up.
Once settled in his Mercedes, Neville took out the pages and flipped through them. The task had gotten easier as they neared the end of the collection. Today he needed to find a dark-haired human male, Caucasian or possibly Hispanic. Despite her complaints, Fran sorted the copies of the membership applications as required, which made his search quick. Stupid girl, she should be happy that she doesn’t have to add species to the filing system. At least she’s dealing only with humans. He found only two applications that fit the criteria. Hmm, nice, but I’m not certain whether the eye patch adds or detracts from the aesthetics.
“Alexander Harris.” He gazed at the application before flipping to the other possibility, “or Henry Marvelle.” He shrugged. The final decision wasn’t his to make. He started the car and drove toward his employer’s mansion, glad that the job would soon be over.
Dawn looked up from the table as Xander slunk into the kitchen the next morning.
“Coffee’s on the counter,” she offered.
Xander nodded his thanks and filled a mug. He leaned back against the counter and stared into the steam that scrolled lazily upwards.
“Mornin’ sunshine.” Faith shoved him over as she reached for her own mug to fill up on coffee. “Look’s like blondie left you in one piece last night.” She flashed him a grin and straddled a chair at the table.
“Um, yeah, about that…”
“Hey no skin of my nose, man. You wanna risk your ass getting on Spike’s bad side, your choice.” Faith shrugged.
Xander winced at her tone and at Dawn’s apparent fascination with the tabletop. Looks like Spike had definitely been put in charge of the Xan-man, and these two agreed to stay well out of it.
“So, what’s on the agenda for the great mouse detectives today?” He forced himself to sound cheerful as he changed the subject.
Xander and Faith groaned in unison.
“We need to find out what this Riveda ritual thingie is that the vampire cult from last night was gathering sacrifices for.”
“Riveda? So now vamps worship the mighty black currant?”
“That’s Ribena, Xander,” Dawn rolled her eyes. “And not that you’d know anything about it. You wouldn’t even try it!”
“Well after Giles said that the little dancing fruit things in the commercial looked just like Mazoltoff demons.”
“Mazolti demons,” Dawn interrupted, “and he was just having fun freaking you out.”
“Whatever. Give me good ol’ Kool-aid anyday.”
“Fascinating as this conversation is, kids, I’ll be down in the training room.”
“Faith doesn’t have to research?”
“Slayer here. Gotta keep up the training so as soon as you research types figure out what needs hitting, I can go kick its ass.” She flashed them a triumphant grin and headed for the basement training room.
Xander picked up his mug and followed Dawn into the main reception area
to settle in and prepared to spend the next several hours sorting through demonic texts to find the ones in a language he
could even read.
Research carried on with a working lunch ordered in for the humans. Spike and Angel both made an appearance in the early afternoon only to have books shoved into their hands before they had a chance to heat up their own meal. Spike grumbled at doing research, more for appearance’s sake than because he minded reading. For appearance and for the gratification of getting a low warning growl from Angel that he could roll his eyes at.
Head held in both hands, Xander struggled to stay awake as he stared at the page in front of him. Dusk fell outside the hotel, and only a single passing reference to Riveda had been found. Dawn had seen Riveda mentioned in a list of demon gods, and the thought of another Glory, or even another Illyria, cast a pall over the group.
“Damn!” Dawn slammed her text closed.
“Huh?” Faith woke suddenly in response to the bang.
“Ya know, Slayer, you could show a tad more interest in this beastie we’re gonna be going up against,” Spike drawled from his comfortable spot lounging on the reception area’s couch.
“Kick, punch, stab. Plan works for me.” She ran her hands through her long hair and stood to stretch.
Xander pointedly ignored their verbal sparring and turned to Dawn. “You alright, Dawn?”
“I can’t find anything on this ritual for Riveda.” She frowned. “Maybe we’re not spelling it right.”
“We took the only scroll they had, and that’s how it was spelled,” Angel grumbled.
“Ok, so maybe they’re not spelling it right.” Dawn argued. “I mean, vamps aren’t exactly known for their spelling.”
Spike thumped down his own book. “Doubt it was something they wrote up, ‘Bit.”
Angel nodded. “They were muscle for hire. Probably promised some kind of power hold in the city if they gathered the required sacrifices.”
“So the question is who are they working for and can that guy spell?”
“Somehow, I doubt his spelling is the part we should be focusing on, mate.” Spike leaned over and playfully smacked Xander across the back of the head.
Dawn stood and announced, “I need some kinda energy. What d’ya guys want? Coffee, hot chocolate? Tea for the British vamp?”
Faith wandered to the weapons cabinet and pulled out a broadsword. “Sun’s down. Time for all good slayers…” at Spike’s derisive snort, “Shut it vamp-boy. All slayers, anyway, to run a quick patrol.”
“Take your cell phone,” Dawn called automatically.
Waving the cell, Faith stalked out into the night. Despite the training earlier, she hadn’t been able to avoid getting pulled into research mode, and now she desperately needed to get out and move.
Angel continued to scowl as he grabbed another text from the shelf, ignoring Spike rummaging through the piles of books on the table.
“You know this would go much faster if we had a couple of those shady contacts that detectives are supposed to have on retainer.” Spike grumbled.
Angel ignored him.
“Or maybe somebody with a link to the powers,” he mused pointedly. “’Cause if this Riveda’s bad as all that, ya think they’d take an interest. Get a message through…somehow.”
Angel growled and focused on reading and listening to the clank of mugs and spoons in the kitchen where Dawn prepared their fortifications.
Xander looked back and forth between the two vampires in confusion. Spike’s studied nonchalance and Angel’s determination not to respond clearly indicated a conversation beyond what he heard.
Suddenly Spike stood and grabbed the book from Angel, tossing it onto the table where it tumbled against the others.
“No. We will not bring him into this.” Angel snarled before Spike could speak.
“Why the sodding hell not?”
“Uh, guys? Him who?” Xander cautiously.
“We’re not discussing this.” Angel stood to stalk from the lobby only to be blocked by his determined grand-childe.
“Yes we bloody well are. He’s back in LA. One quick verse of Manilow and we know what to hit and when.”
“We’ll find another way.” Angel glared down at the gold-rimmed blue eyes. “And how is it you know that he’s back in LA?”
“Because I care to know.” Spike spoke snidely.
Xander had time only to rise from his seat before Angel’s fist collided with Spike’s nose. The smaller vampire’s head flew back and blood flowed. He retained his human visage, however, as he turned back to face his Sire.
“Bring Lorne into this again, mention his name once more in my hotel, and I will throw you into the sun.” Angel walked into his office and closed the door firmly.
“Spike? Wanna tell me what the hell that was about? Who is Lorne?”
“Stupid pillock.” The epitaph held more resignation than anger.
“Captain Forehead.” Spike pulled several tissues from the box on the reception desk and wiped the blood from his face. “Fucking git. We all knew what we were getting into.”
“Needing some back story here.” Xander began to get irritated.
“Big battle, Senior Partners taking us out, Angel asked Lorne to kill a guy. A guy who used to be a friend. In cold blood.”
“Yeah. Part he can’t get through that thick skull is that we all knew the score going in. Not his fault the way things went down.” Spike slumped onto the couch.
“Ok, so I couldn’t find a coffee grinder, and Angel only has Lipton teabags in the cupboard,” Dawn glared at Spike over the mugs balanced on her tray, “and I so am not having the lecture on American tea practices again, so it’s hot chocolate all around.”
She set the tray down on the reception counter and then handed a mug to Spike.
“Ta, pet.” He couldn’t suppress a grin when he saw that she had put in enough mini-marshmallows to cover the surface, hiding the chocolate entirely.
“And one for you,” she held the mug towards Xander. “Hey, space-boy, yummy chocolate.”
“Huh, oh. Thanks” Xander reached out automatically to take the mug, still processing Spike’s evident concern for the brooding vampire, despite the violence of his outburst.
Dawn took her own mug, leaving the fourth mug sitting alone on the tray, and settled on the couch next to Spike.
“I take it Angel needed some quality alone time?”
“Yeah, Nibblet. Let him sulk in his office for a bit.” Spike sipped. “Maybe he’ll pull his poofy head out of his arse,” he muttered.
“You okay, Xan?” Dawn watched him over the rim of her mug.
“Huh?” Xander blinked. “Oh yeah. Much research. Brain tired.” His grin was off, but she pretended not to notice.
Not gonna worry about vampire family issues, Xander scolded himself. He glanced down at the warm mug in his hand. Mini-marshmallows bobbed in the hot chocolate. Unbidden, the image recalled pieces of bone raining down on petals and dirt. Bits of Buffy bone. His hand shook, and he set the mug on the counter sharply, hot chocolate slopping over the sides.
Spike looked up at the noise and registered the sudden increase and heart rate. Fear, shame, grief rolled off Xander in waves.
Xander stumbled backward as he struggled for control. But the image burned across his mind, and he couldn’t stop the memories that rose one after the other, memories that had been brought to the surface in last night’s session.
Spike and Dawn watched in startled concern as their friend sped up the stairs and away from the lobby.
“He’s getting worse,” Dawn offered quietly, her troubled gaze focused on the mug in her hand.
Spike sighed. “Gonna get even worse before it gets better, Bit.”
“I was really hoping you weren’t going to say that.”
“Not just us he’s running from,” Spike stood and set his mug on the desk. “And there’s a reason he’s running.”
Dawn looked at him quizzically.
“Damned if I know what it is, pet. But seems like it’s big and ugly, and it’s getting closer every bloody day.”
“What are you gonna do?”
“Try to be there when it catches up with him.” He nodded toward the closed door of Angel’s office. “You alright on brood-watch?”
“Sure,” Dawn tossed her hair. “I’m thinking maybe what Angel needs is a little field trip. He doesn’t have any texts that cross-reference rituals with moon phases or star alignments, and I got to thinking that maybe we’ve been going about this all wrong, you know, looking up the demon itself instead of trying to identify the ritual from another angle.”
Spike grinned as enthusiasm for the research sparkled in her eyes.
“Good thought, luv. And the added bonus of forcing Angel to cough up some cash. I approve.”
She rolled her eyes at him, but didn’t stifle the giggle.
As the vampire turned his eyes to the stairs once more, her amusement faded, and she reached out to squeeze his hand. A quick squeeze in return, and Spike headed up the stairs after the retreated human.
Xander splashed cool water over his face, cursing his shaking hands. He dried his face and closed his eye. Suddenly the bits of marshmallow floated in his vision, once more becoming those bits of bones, and he grasped at the counter, willing himself not to be sick again. He opened his eye to dispel the image and faced his pale visage in the mirror.
“You fuck. You pathetic fuck.” His voice shook with self-hatred. “You deserve to feel this. You fucking killed her.” With effort he curbed the desire to slam his fist into the mirror, and he slowly stepped back from the counter, bringing his arms up around himself. As he backed into the wall, the bruises on his back flared. He welcomed the pain and pressed back harder as he slid down the wall to rest on the floor, resting his head on his knees. Even the pain couldn’t stop the shaking.
As he approached Xander’s room, Spike could hear the rapid heartbeat and smell the fear and anger. He drew in a deep breath, scenting the man, taking in the pain and worrying at it, searching for a way past the barriers to find the vulnerability beneath. Despite his seemingly calm words to Dawn, he fought against fears that whatever help he had to offer Xander would already be too late.
Squaring his shoulders, Spike sauntered to the bathroom to find Xander huddled against the wall. He leaned against the doorjamb.
“Seen you react pretty extremely to chocolate before, pet, but tends to be glee not horror most days.”
“Fuck off.” The words shattered off his tongue.
Spike stepped into the bathroom and crouched before the shaking figure.
“You know I’m not going to do that.” He clamped down on the need to grab the man and shake him, force him to talk about whatever it was that had him so completely unraveled. He got the trauma of killing someone you loved. Hell, he not only killed his mum but vamped her first. Even as a demon, the shock had hit deep enough to last for centuries. Only the interference of the First had allowed for the healing needed to get past the hurt inflicted. Spike refused to let Xander suffer that long, but the man would have to share that pain before it could be healed.
“Come on, pet. Off the floor.” Spike reached out only to have Xander flinch back violently.
“Don’t t-t-touch me!” Xander stifled the panic. He couldn’t keep his equilibrium with the vampire so close. God, he never should have gone to the club, knowing that he wouldn’t have space to recover on his own, but at the same time, he needed that pain. The last thing he wanted was concern, even the caustic concern that Spike offered. Being touched in kindness threatened to bring all the feelings spilling over, drowning both of them.
Spike growled. He heard disgust in the stuttered words. Fine, the boy thought he was a monster? He would show him a monster. Snarling, with demon face to the fore, and moving faster than Xander could track, Spike pounced and yanked Xander to his feet, shoving him against the wall with feet dangling above the floor.
The sudden pain that flashed across Xander’s face brought Spike back to himself. The man’s face went white, and Spike winced internally as the soul gave him a swift kick for hurting the already fragile human. He pushed that guilt aside as he took in the pale features. His eyes narrowed. A sharp shove against the wall should not have resulted in that much pain. Gently, he lowered Xander to the floor and steadied the man when he would have stumbled. Without a word, he turned Xander to face the wall.
As soon as Xander registered that his back would be to the vampire, he began to struggle again.
“Spike, hey buddy, thanks for getting me up. Feeling much better now.” He tried to turn around, but Spike held him firmly, so he settled for craning his neck around, ready to plead to avoid letting the vampire see his bruised back. “Maybe I should go lie down. You know, fragile human being sick and all that. Bed would be very much of the good right now.” Another growl answered him. Giving in to the inevitable, Xander turned his face back to the wall and rested his forehead against the cool tile. Time to work toward plausible denial, but his brain refused to cooperate.
Spike slowly lifted the cotton shirt and sucked in a breath at the fading welts and bruises. He recognized the welts—flogger with at least nine tails. The bruises resulted from a blunt instrument of some sort. He let his fingers trace hover over the marks, tracing without touching. Without a word, he let the shirt drop back down, spun on his heel and stalked from the bathroom.
After a long moment and several deep breaths, Xander turned around to find himself alone. He shot a look at the mirror, taking in his burning cheeks. Shame flooded his whole body so that he thought it might dribble out his ears. He wondered what color shame would be, and he stifled images of drowning in yellow-brown bile. Spike no doubt recognized the markings, and he had walked away. No more offers to help, no more trying to get Xander to talk. He swallowed down despair. He got what he wanted. Spike stopped pressuring him. So why did being left alone leave him feeling more wretched than ever?
Spike stalked downstairs, through the lobby, into the basement where one vicious swipe at the punching bag sent it swinging wildly. He clenched his fists. One punch didn’t begin to dampen the need to strike out, so he stilled the heavy leather bag and proceeded to pummel it with a rapid rhythm. He focused solely on the feeling of skin smacking against leather. For a moment, he considered returning upstairs and interrogating Xander. Maybe he’d been attacked. That would give a focal point for the anger over the violation that marred the man’s skin. He almost let himself take comfort in that thought, but he knew those types of marks too well to believe that they came from a random attack. Decades with Angelus made sure of that. Whoever whipped and beat Xander knew what they were doing, and with the restriction of the marks to back and presumably buttocks and thighs, Xander clearly held still for it.
“Bloody fucking hell,” Spike ground out between swings. One more clue in the mystery going on under the nose of the hordes of concerned friends, and it was a clue he would have rather not found. Unfortunately, it was clue that couldn’t be left alone, and he doubted either one of them wanted to have the conversation that couldn’t be avoided.
Upstairs, Xander wearily turned on the shower and stripped out of his clothes. He let them fall to the floor then kicked the entire pile into a corner of the bathroom. No point dripping all over them later and adding wet clothes to the wet towels he intended to drop on the floor to press Angel’s buttons. Stupid neat-freak vampire. No wonder Spike became as averse to house-keeping as he did. Anyone would in reaction to that kind of upbringing. He snorted, briefly distracted by the vision of Angel playing head of the household to Spike’s rebellious teenager. The vision faded, however, as he caught a glimpse of his back in the mirror. He swallowed awkwardly. Spike saw that, those bruises and red welts.
Taking refuge from the sight and his thoughts under the harsh spray of the shower, he tried desperately to blank out his mind. He failed. Instead, he imagined the disgust in Spike’s face as the vampire dropped him like the revolting deviant he was, and he scrubbed violently at his skin, hardly able to stand touching himself.
Stepping out of the shower, he dried and dressed himself in old sweats without facing the mirror. The empty bedroom seemed desolate somehow. Anxiety pricked at his muscles, and he couldn’t remain still. Pacing did not relieve the despairing anticipation of what Spike might have to say on his return. Xander stopped at the end of one lap around the room, standing in front of the closet, staring at his travel bag. He had been such a fool, to think that it would be okay to stay with anyone who knew Buffy, any of the Scoobies who knew the Xander he used to be. He couldn’t do this anymore, but he couldn’t find a way out.
Pounding at the door startled him out of his dark reverie. Before he could cross the room to answer, Angel threw the door open and strode in.
“And a good evening to you as well,” Xander spat sarcastically.
Angel stalked across the carpet and stood in Xander’s personal space. The menacing presence did not have the desired effect, however. Xander’s ire rose, and he glared back.
“He’s not here. So fuck off and threaten someone who’s actually afraid of you.”
“Dawn said he came up here to talk to you, so where did he go?” Angel all but growled. The day spent surrounded by humans, researching yet another threat to the people around him had him on edge, and Xander Harris irritated him on a good day.
“Yep, he was here. Now he’s not. Sorry if that’s a difficult concept for you.”
“Don’t push me, boy.”
“Who knows, maybe I staked him?” Xander offered a careless shrug. He could feel the tension in the vampire, and he couldn’t resist the niggling thought that he might be able to use that promise of violence as a means out of his own predicament. “After all, it’s what I do, isn’t it? Kill off the champions?”
Angel grabbed Xander by the shirt front and lifted him off the floor.
“I don’t like you. I’ve never liked you. But I’m going to offer some advice. Do not ever talk about what you’ve done. And never threaten one of my family.”
“Jealous much?” Xander forced a cocky grin. “Just ‘cause I managed to do what the great Angelus never could? Two and a half centuries, and you never killed a slayer did ya. Then along comes the bumbling kid you couldn’t stand—one day as a vamp, and I killed the queen slayer, best one who ever lived.” He watched the vampire’s eyes flicker gold and leaned forward to whisper cruelly. “Buffy.”
The sensation of flying across the room came to an abrupt stop against the far wall. Bright lights played across his vision, but cleared quickly as a game-faced Angel loomed into view.
“Dawn and Spike seem to think you need kid gloves, but maybe you just need that smart mouth beaten out of you.” Angel yanked him from the floor and slammed him against the wall. Pain shot through his back, bringing him to the brink of blacking out, but he gritted his teeth and held on. As much as his body protested the treatment, his soul cried out for more, yearned for the possibility of making all the pain and confusion end.
“Too bad,” Xander gasped, “too bad I didn’t fuck her first.” He pulled in a deep breath, determined to continue in the face of the growl that his words pulled from the vampire. “I can only imagine…what it would have been like…sinking my cock into that tight body…while I drank her dry.”
Anger deepened the ridges on Angel’s face as intelligence flickered through his golden eyes. He slammed Xander against the wall once more before tossing him roughly onto the bed. Clenching his fists, he approached the sprawled figure. Under the desperation and fear he sensed from the man lay determination. That determination confirmed his suspicions.
“I am not your way out, Xander. Remember that.” He towered over the bed, struggling to push down the need to strangle the infuriating man. “Now, I’m going to tell you this once, and I expect you to listen well.” Angel leaned down to whisper in Xander’s ear. “I don’t care what good you are to the Council or to Dawn, but you are less than nothing to me, and you will not use us to punish yourself.”
Angel stood and returned to his human guise, speaking almost genially. “Oh, and Xander, when you wake up, I want you to back your bags and get the hell out of my hotel.” Without warning, he lashed out with a single punch and rendered Xander unconscious. Shaking off the momentary twinge of guilt, he felt his demon grumble in dissatisfaction at the lack of blood and broken bones, but he left the room without looking back. Forgetting his desire to find his grand-childe, he pounded down the stairs and out into the night to find a place to work out the violence that his demon demanded.
Finally able to pull himself back into some semblance of control and rational thought, Spike ceased his attack on the punching bag and sat on the bench, leaning back against the basement wall. Violence clearly wasn’t going to break through Xander’s walls. He glanced down at his swelling knuckles, and an idea began to form. One of the many things that caring for Dru had taught him was that where violence failed, kindness could break someone just as effectively. He glanced at the shelves on the opposite wall, and his gaze landed on the various bandages and ointments stacked there. Dawn and Faith had brought several gifts from the witches, one of which was a concoction they designed for the slayers to aid in healing the bumps and bruises they routinely collected.
Decision made, he picked out one of the many jars and jogged up the stairs. He reached the lobby in time to see Angel slamming out the front doors. Spike sighed at the characteristic air of brooding and contained violence that habitually surrounded his sire these days. One problem at a time. Xander had to be his priority. He spared a thought for Dawn, wondering what had happened to the plan to go book-hunting, but shrugged it off. With the great poof in that kind of mood, Nibblet was better off on her own.
Spike continued up the stairs to Xander’s room, surprised to find the door open.
“Xander?” He stepped into the room and stopped sharply as he scented blood seconds before his eyes fell on the unconscious figure on the bed.
“Bloody hell, pet.” Spike dropped the jar on the edge of the bed and settled next to the prone man. “Can’t leave you alone for two minutes.” He brushed hair back from Xander’s face and took in the swollen jaw, blood tricking from where teeth cut into the inside lip.
Looks like I know who pissed off Captain Forehead, he sighed internally. The boy clearly had a death wish if he was pressing Angel’s buttons enough to get himself decked. Time for kindness. He rose to gather a wet cloth from the bathroom and began to clean off the blood, ignoring the deep-seated desire to lick away the blood.
Xander groaned as the pain in his face registered.
“Hold still, pet.”
“Spike?” Xander’s eye snapped open and he scanned the room, panicked.
“He’s gone. No doubt out beating the demon population into submission.” Spike sat back to watch Xander’s reactions.
“Oh.” Xander closed his eye and turned away.
“Wanna tell me what happened to get his knickers in a twist?”
Xander shrugged, though the movement looked painful and awkward from his position lying on the bed.
Xander kept his eye closed, waiting to feel the bed shift as the vampire got up, but he was met by only silence and stillness.
After a long moment, he sighed and turned to face Spike’s disgust and disappointment. To his surprise, the cool blue eyes held only compassion and concern. Tears threatened once more, but before he could turn away, strong fingers grasped his chin gently.
“We need to talk.” Spike overrode the protest forming on Xander’s lips as he continued, “No arguments, but first we’re gonna take care of those bumps and bruises. As well as the new ones you seem to have acquired in the last hour.” Spike smirked, but without malice.
“Think you can sit up?”
Xander pressed a hand to his slightly spinning head as he struggled into a sitting position. As Spike leaned toward him, he startled backwards.
“What are you doing?” He could feel his heart pound in confusion. Desire and panic arose simultaneously, and his flight response kicked in. Spike growling at him, hitting him, he could handle, but Spike taking care with him drove him from the bed. Unfortunately, his rattled body proved unable to coordinate the rapid retreat ordered by his brain, and he ended up in an inelegant tangle on the floor.
Before he could pull himself together, Spike had him upright and sitting on the bed once more. The vampire’s eyes glinted in amusement, but his words brooked no argument.
“Sit.” He turned to pick up the jar of ointment. “Now, can you manage to get that shirt off without falling over?”
“Shirt. Off.” Spike gestured with the lid of the jar in one hand. He raised the jar. “Gonna fix you up, pet.”
Xander shuddered at the tone, and without thinking began to take off his shirt. He raised it halfway before remembering the vampire’s earlier reaction. Shame coloured his cheeks, and he began to turn away once more.
“Now, pet. None of that.” Spike gripped Xander’s bicep. “Seen it all already. We’re gonna take care of those.”
“Don’t.” Xander forced the word out through gritted teeth.
“Told you before. No arguments.” Spike set the jar on the bedside table and forced Xander to look at him. “So take off the shirt and let me use some of the witches’ magic goop here to make it better.”
When Xander still didn’t reply, Spike continued. “I could tie you up. Force you.” The expected blast of pheromones and embarrassment sent a pulse to the vampire’s groin. He forced himself to focus on the immediate need to help the man heal, reluctantly squelching fantasies of Xander shackled and obedient to his demands.
“Spike,” Xander forced himself to meet that steely gaze, despite his desire to submit and allow the vampire to take all decisions, all control, from him. “What are you doing?”
Spike sighed. “Just trying to help you, pet. But you don’t make that easy.”
“What do you want from me?” A lost expression crept into the confused brown eye.
“Right now, I want you to take off that shirt, lie down on the bed, and let me take a look at that back. Can you do that much for me?”
Suddenly tired, Xander nodded. He pulled the shirt off and turned face down on the bed. Spike studied the expanse of bruised skin, pushing down the demon that raged at someone else touching what he was quickly coming to claim as his. With gentle fingers, he began to massage the ointment into bruises and welts.
Xander tensed as the vampire’s fingers touched him, but he gradually relaxed as the massaging continued. The ointment felt cool and refreshing on wounded skin, and the strong fingers pulled tension from his muscles. Along with the tension, the careful hands pulled emotions buried deep, the loneliness, guilt, despair. Without realizing it, Xander wept quietly under the vampire’s ministrations.
Spike scented the tears, welcoming the release, hoping that they signaled
the turning point he had been waiting for.
Replacing the cap on the healing salve, Spike took satisfaction in the relaxed posture of the man before him. Sometime after the tears ended, Xander had succumbed to sleep. Sighing, he pulled a blanket over the prone figure. Looks like further conversation was out for the evening. Perhaps that was for the best, Spike acknowledged to himself, boy hadn’t slept well his entire tenure in Los Angeles and probably not before that either. He ran a gentle hand over dark, unruly curls before levering himself off the bed and leaving the room, shutting the door quietly behind him.
Banging on the door to his room pulled Xander from the first sound sleep he had had in nearly a year. Without waiting for an invitation, Angel slammed the door open.
“Check out time. Get your bags and get out.” Clearly the night spent bludgeoning the demon population of LA hadn’t dampened the vampire’s determination to be rid of one Xander Harris.
Bitter anger had Xander sitting up and glaring daggers at the hulking figure.
“Safe to say you don’t get a four-star rating from Zagat’s,” he snarked.
“You. Out. Now.”
“Have the concierge call me a cab,” Xander sneered as he shoved back the covers and stalked over to the closet, yanking clothes from the rack and shoving them into his bag.
Angel stood in the doorway, watching and ignoring the twinges of guilt that pricked at him. This was his hotel, his home, dammit, and he had every right to determine who stayed and who left. Only that wasn’t exactly true, was it? Faith and Dawn had bullied their way in, dragging Harris along with them. While he couldn’t evict the two women, he thought he had a chance with Harris. Besides, the move might have the added benefit of pissing off everyone else who seemed so determined to take care of the broken man. Pissing them off enough to leave him alone. And that was all he really wanted—didn’t seem like too much to ask for after averting yet another apocalypse. Unwittingly, he growled.
“Fuck off, Deadboy. Packing as fast as humanly possible. Not like I don’t relish the chance to get away from this place.”
Angel took in the shaking fingers and jerky movements. He scented the air and registered the shame, misery, and defeat that radiated more strongly than the anger that colored Xander’s words. Before he could say anything, Xander shoved the last shirt into the bag and pulled the zipper closed. He stood and pushed past the vampire, dropping the bag at Angel’s feet.
“Take the bags to the car, bellhop,” Xander continued walking down the hall to the staircase, leaving the growling vampire behind him. He struggled to keep himself from reacting to the eviction. He wanted this, he reminded himself. He would be free of all the concern and coddling of his well-meaning friends. And they would be free of him. No more causing them pain. He focused on not stumbling down the stairs because wouldn’t that be just too embarrassing to have his last moments in the Hyperion consist of falling on his face while brood-boy stood over him, laughing at his idiocy.
Just as he congratulated himself on his dignified exit, Xander nearly tripped backwards as he confronted the green-skinned demon in a purple suit striding into the lobby.
“You hoo! Paying customer looking for a champion!”
Lorne looked at the teetering man and reached out a hand to steady him. Having the demon reach out for him startled Xander into another step backwards. He banged his heel on the bottom step and went down hard on his ass.
“Sorry, sweetcheeks.” Lorne immediately apologized. He stretched out a hand to help Xander up, but before either man could react, Angel’s voice cut through the lobby.
Xander struggled to his feet and quickly removed himself from between the two demons. Wow, and he thought the air had already reached the saturation point for tension. But the appearance of this guy ratcheted it up to thunderstorm level.
Angel stomped down the stairs, and dammit, Xander thought, didn’t that man ever just walk anywhere? He reached the bottom and tossed Xander’s bag to the floor, next to the lobby door. Looks like whatever the interruption that going on, it wasn’t going to stop him from tossing his least favorite human out on the street.
“Lorne! Hey there big green!” Faith came out from around the desk to greet the demon. “How’s it hanging?”
Lorne turned away from Angel’s intense stare to face the slayer. “Faith! I didn’t expect to find you in our lovely city again anytime soon after the last time.” He shot a glare Angel’s direction.
“Bygones and all that,” she shrugged. “We heard AI hit a bit of trouble with the Wolfram and Hart folks again to the tune of a minor apocalypse. So a couple of us broke ranks to join with the underdog. You know me, always up for a good fight.”
“Yeah, you always were one for the extreme measures,” he grinned. “It’s good to see you. Is the big lug giving you a hard time?”
“Hey. Standing right here.” Angel grumbled.
“So what brings you back here?” Faith hopped up on the counter, watching Lorne with an expectant gleam in her eye. Better and better. They had been trying to get Angel in contact with Lorne over this whole prophecy thing, and it looked like the powers were still on their side.
Lorne glanced at Angel guiltily, “I’d rather only go through this once, so maybe we should gather the team first?”
“Guess that’s my cue to take off,” Xander walked to the door and hefted his bag.
“And where do you think you’re going?” Faith swung her penetrating gaze to take in the defiant figure.
“He’s leaving.” Angel’s tone brooked no argument.
“Your idea?” Faith asked evenly. At Angel’s nod, she cocked her head as if considering her options.
“Dawn! Spike!” Faith’s bellow rang through the lobby, causing the other three to cringe.
“What crawled up yer arse, slayer?” Spike snarled as he appeared on the balcony overlooking the lobby. Snarling turned to a grin as he saw Lorne standing in the doorway. “’Bout time you showed up, green man.”
“Spike. Xander’s leaving.” Faith broke through the greetings.
Xander rolled his eyes and fidgeted with his bag. He wondered if there had been a moment when he could have just slipped out. Angel wanted him gone. He wanted away from the smothering care of one peroxide vamp. Seemed like a win-win.
Eschewing the stairs, Spike leapt over the railing and landed gracefully on the lobby floor. He sauntered over to join Faith at the desk.
“Oh, he is, is he?” The sharp gaze settled on Xander, taking in the defensive posture. “This your idea, pet?”
“He goes.” Angel stated.
Spike flicked a glare at his Sire.
“This is my house, Spike. And I want him gone.”
Dawn came in from the kitchen in time to hear the last comment. She paused as she took in the tableau: Faith and Spike against the counter standing off against Angel, who stood at the bottom of the staircase with arms crossed and brow lowered while Xander seemed to shrink against the lobby doors. Finally her gaze came to rest on the newest arrival. Making up her mind, she crossed the room and held out her hand.
“I’m Dawn. Welcome to Angel Investigations. What can we do for you?”
Lorne graciously bent to kiss the back of her hand, ignoring the knowing snort from Spike and gaping from Xander and Angel. Clearly it took more than a grumpy Champion to cow this one.
“Actually,” Lorne stated, glancing around the room, “It’s beginning to sound like we might be able to help one another.” He caught Faith’s eye, “This the whole team?”
She nodded, “If we need her blueness, we’ll fill her in the next time she lowers herself to mingle with the common folk.”
“Well, kiddies, settle in and let Uncle Lorne tell you a story.”
“Hold up a minute. What’s this about Xander leaving?” Spike demanded.
“Later, blondie. Looks like we’ve got a case. The PTB’s take precedence over family squabbles.” Faith settled herself back on the counter to listen.
Spike took the opportunity to cross the lobby and grab Xander by the arm, dragging him to the couch. He growled low at Angel as he walked past him.
“Sit.” Spike shoved Xander down and settled on the couch next to him, earning him a angry glare.
Outnumbered in his own hotel, Angel chose to express his displeasure by standing apart from the others, leaning against one of the columns at the base of the stairs.
“Right, then.” Lorne shifted awkwardly. “How do you feel about ghost stories?”
Silence reigned in the lobby after Lorne outlined the problem: The LA Valley Rental Agency had an apartment that couldn’t be rented due to a violent ghost inhabiting it, and an agent privately contacted him to assess and, if possible, eliminate the problem. However, the core of the problem lay not with the existence of the ghost, but rather its identity.
“So can’t we just exorcise his phantom ass?” Faith asked. “Won’t that send him on to his eternal whatnot?”
Lorne glanced at Angel, not wanting to become the target of the frustrated rage that he felt building in the vampire, but before he could speak, Xander interjected.
“It doesn’t work that way, does it,” he spoke quietly. “Ghosts hang around because of unresolved issues, so we need to find a way to help him get…” he gestured vaguely, “resolved.” He had been paying vague attention to the story, not volunteering, but reminders of the Sadie Hawkins dance prompted him to join the discussion. Somehow these days, he had more appreciation of the pain that the ghost-boy felt over murdering his lover.
“So, what’s his issue?” Dawn latched onto the most relevant concern.
“We already took care of his issue,” Angel ground out. “He should have moved on then.”
“Apparently your help didn’t take,” Spike snarked.
“Wait, you know this Dennis guy?” Dawn swiveled to face Angel squarely.
“His mother buried him buried in the wall of her apartment for dating the wrong girl. We exorcised the mother, and Dennis popped out of the wall.” He spoke baldly. “He hung around.”
“Why am I feeling like there’s more to that story?”
Lorne answered Dawn when it became clear that Angel had no more to say on the subject. “The last person who lived in that apartment for any length of time was Cordelia.”
“Oh,” Dawn turned back around and focused her gaze on the floor. Mentioning Cordy’s name around the Hyperion had been known to lead to repressed anger and marathon brooding sessions from their volatile leader.
Xander took a deep breath, “So we help him, right? It’s what Cordy would want.”
“Cordelia’s dead,” Angel grated. “Whatever his issue is now, we can’t help. Exorcise him. Put him out of his misery.” With that judgment, the vampire stormed through the basement doors on his way to the sewers.
In the silence following his exit, Illyria strode in to the lobby from the basement. “The half-breed mourns in the subterranean halls.”
Faith exchanged a look with Dawn. “Right. I’m on vamp duty. You guys work with Lorne on the ghost problem.” She grabbed an axe from the weapons cabinet and disappeared after Angel.
“Have you returned to take your place at your leader’s side?” Illyria crossed the room to stand before Lorne.
“Er, good to see you, too.” Lorne shifted uncomfortably.
“You deserted your comrades in the aftermath of the battle.”
“Lay off, Blue.”
Xander could feel Spike tense next to him as his eyes flashed amber.
“Lorne settled that with Angel before the first shot was fired.” Spike managed to convey threat while speaking softly.
Illyria gave him a cool appraisal. “Your army does not fear its leader. Such disrespect would not have gone unpunished in my time.”
“Not your time, anymore, is it? ‘Sides, it’s not like the Great Pouf is one to inspire much respect these days.” Spike snorted.
“No,” she agreed. “He does not rule his people any longer.” She walked to the desk and began to sort through books that lay open from their search for the Riveda ritual.
Lorne exhaled as Illyria’s attention wandered elsewhere. He looked at Spike. “Has he been wound that tight since…”
Spike nodded wearily, “Not getting any better, mate. Brought the ‘Bit and Slayer in to help him out.”
“Yeah, and it’s working so well. They’ll have him hosting Tupperware parties and running for LA Man of the Year in no time.”
“You. Shut it.” Spike pointed at Xander and snarled. “We still have to have a conversation about those bags and just where the bloody hell you thought you were going.”
Xander stood and towered in front of the irate vampire. “Angel said pack. I packed. Angel said go. I’m going. Really, Spike, it’s a story that a 3 year old could follow. Not that it’s any of your fucking business.” He shoved aside the pangs of conscience that poked at him for being such an ass after the kindness Spike had shown before, and he ruthlessly repressed the thought that it was that very kindness that he was lashing out at.
Spike growled, but before he could utter whatever threat percolated, Dawn stamped her thick-soled boot on the floor, demanding their attention.
“Hey! Has everybody forgotten that we’re actually still trying to run an investigation agency here? And that we have a paying customer?” She glared at Spike and Xander before glancing at Lorne, “You are paying, right?”
Lorne grinned and pulled a roll of cash from his pocket. “My fee becomes yours if you’ll take this one off my hands, sugar pie.” His expression turned serious, “But not if the solution includes exorcism. Then my business goes to any elsewhere I can find.”
“Ok, we’re agreed that we’re not gonna exorcise Dennis.”
Faith dropped gracefully down into the sewers beneath the Hyperion. She stood still, reaching out with slayer senses. Some distance away, she heard the faint sounds of muffled blows and curses. With a quick glance back at the sewer entrance, she tightened her grip on the sword she carried and loped off in the direction of the fighting.
As she drew closer, the words grunted out between blows became clearer.
“Get. Out. Of. My. City. Why won’t you. Just leave. Me. Alone!” The soft explosion of dust marked the sound of a vampire meeting its end, and Faith put on a final burst of speed as silence echoed eerily. Her heart clenched at the cessation of Angel’s words, fearing to find nothing more than a pile of ash.
The pain holding her heart in its grip didn’t lessen any as she reached the junction where a drawn out battle had clearly taken place. Angel knelt alone, surrounded by the remains of what had probably at one time been an entire nest of vampires. Even in their shared tramp through Angelus’s memories where Angel dug through garbage to feed on rats, she had never seen the champion so defeated.
She moved cautiously, lowering the sword.
“Go away.” The defeated, hopeless words dropped into the silence.
“Can’t do that, big guy.”
Angel turned his face to her then, and she nearly rocked backward in the face of his despair. Anger quickly took its place, however, and the vampire levered himself to his feet with an easy grace.
“You can leave. You won’t.”
“Gonna try to throw my ass out the way you did Harris?” She cocked her head and offered him a look of challenge.
Almost before she could register the movement, Angel pinned her against the cement wall of the sewer.
“We’ve done this dance before? Remember, Angelus? Kicked your ass that time, too.” She shoved back and at the same time brought a knee up toward Angel’s groin. He avoided the knee, but in shifting out of the way, he lost his grip on Faith’s sword hand. She surprised him. Instead of swinging the sword at him, she slammed the pommel into his face. He reeled from the force of the blow, looking up, startled when she didn’t press the advantage.
She stared down at him. “Or maybe this isn’t that dance, is it? Huh. Should be raining, shouldn’t it? For the symmetry or somethin’?” She glanced upward as if puzzled.
Recognition flickered in his eyes at her reference, and he turned his gaze onto the ash-coated sewer floor.
“You don’t understand anything.”
Faith leaned back against the sewer wall and crossed her arms, tapping the sword casually against her jeans.
“You know, I’ve never been one for the inspirational speeches. But then, we always had people like Buffy and Wes around for those, didn’t we.” She watched the pain crease across Angel’s brow.
“Not that they really started out being any good at them. God, I remember when I first met Wes. What a complete loser. Fucking poker up his English ass. So ready to believe in the council, always spouting off about duty and sacrifice like he knew something about it.”
“Shut up.” Angel growled, eyes flashing amber.
“But, damn man. Last time I saw him, he had that whole sexy danger guy thing going for him. Hell, he took on Angelus with nothing more than a shotgun and a drugged up slayer.”
“What’s your point, Faith?”
“What d’ya suppose happened to him between the time he was council head boy and taking on a 300 year old vampire pretty much barehanded?” She affected a look of confused concentration.
“He would have been better off staying with the Council.”
“And how exactly to you figure that one?”
“He wouldn’t be dead.” Angel closed his eyes, as if to remove himself from the conversation he so clearly did not want to have.
“Ok, point taken.” She nodded amicably. “Except that he kinda would be – The First pretty much blew up the Council last year. Killed ‘em all.”
Angel refused to respond, but the tension in the atmosphere thickened.
“But maybe what you’re stuck on is that he wouldn’t have been killed on your watch.” Angel flinched. “Well, suck it up.” She threw him a disgusted look. “Yeah, he died. Fighting evil. Same as Cordelia. Same as Fred. Same as every other person that you’re carrying around in that fucking dead heart of yours.” This time, she was prepared as Angel lashed out and she responded with a powerful punch of her own. For a time, blows and grunts of exertion became the only conversation. With a particularly vicious punch, Angel knocked Faith to the ground. He stood over her, drawing in unnecessary breaths, eyes bright with tears he couldn’t afford to release.
“I refused to kill you once before. I still won’t. But I’m not going to get anyone else killed fighting my mission.”
Faith spat out blood and gave a harsh laugh. “Man, I never realized what a colossal ego you had. Since when is fighting against evil your exclusive mission.” She kicked out and tumbled Angel to the ground. “They chose this life. Probably more in spite of you than because of you, I’m guessing.” She pressed the back of her hand to the cut on her lip as she struggled to her feet. “Get over yourself. Or you really will get someone killed.” She limped back toward the hotel without looking back because if she did, she knew she would only be tempted to hold the wounded vampire in a desperate attempt to take away the pain they all saw him drowning in, and hugging? Just not something that they did.
“Right then. Illyria, you and me are with Mr. Green Jeans here. We’ll check out the flat and see what’s going on with this Dennis bloke. You two,” he pointed at Xander and Dawn, “stay here. Tell Captain Forehead whatever ya want to, but keep him from comin’ after us. Last thing we need is that Neanderthal git buggerin’ up things with his bloody minded determination to get rid of whatever he doesn’t wanna face.”
Dawn glanced nervously at Xander. “Um, Spike. Not that I disagree or anything, but I’m not so sure that Xander should stay behind.”
“Not a problem,” Xander announced. He walked across the lobby to pick up his bag. “On my way out, remember?”
“Not bloody likely.” Spike snorted.
“It’s just that,” Dawn continued, “if Angel can’t go kick Dennis’s ass to work off today’s brood-fest, who do you think he’s gonna take it out on?”
And with that bit of logic, Xander found himself bundled into the back of Spike’s latest De Soto staying as far away from Illyria as possible in the enclosed space, hoping that it would prevent conversation. Like he could count on that kind of luck.
“You have brought much strife. Yet the mystic child seems to believe you have great importance.”
“Uh, yeah, Dawn’s weird that way.” Xander muttered, staring out the window at passing traffic. He checked his seatbelt once more as Spike screeched around yet another corner.
“Such weakness should not be coddled”
“No one’s asking to be coddled, here.”
Lorne quietly offered directions to Dennis’s apartment, trying to ignore the conversation floating from the backseat. He took in Spike’s clenched jaw and offered up a prayer that bringing the fragmented team of warriors into this case hadn’t set them up for more hurt than help.
“You would have your grief destroy you.”
Xander refused to glance back at the strange blue eyes he felt boring into the back of his head.
“Your human world protects the very fragility that will bring it to ruin.”
Spike snarked from the front seat, “Yeah, well we’re here and your kind’s buried, so I’m thinking you should just shut it, Blue.”
Silence fell over the foursome.
Xander brooded in the wake of Spike’s intervention.
When did his life get this out of control? No longer under just house-arrest, it seemed that he might as well be hand-cuffed
to Spike. Not that that image was an entirely bad one. No! No bad thoughts of bondage with Spike.
He shuddered and turned his attention to hanging on to the seat as Spike careened through the city.
Neville Worthington parked the black Mercedes behind the Chambre de Sade and grabbed his briefcase. He snapped it open and removed a single sheet of paper. Levering himself out of the car, he entered the club through the back door and walked briskly to the reception desk.
“Mr. Worthington,” the receptionist nodded her dyed-black locks deferentially.
Neville handed over the page. “I need to be contacted when this young man returns.” Mariah absently noted the impeccably manicured fingers as she took the paper.
“Alexander Harris. Yes, Mr. Worthington. Can we reach you at your regular number?” She pulled a post-it note and held her pen poised over the yellow square.
“Yes, Mariah. Thank you.” He turned on his heel to leave before she finished writing the memo for the rest of the reception staff.
Neville strode quickly through the club and back to the parking lot. He sighed in relief. Last one. He looked forward to washing his hands of this job. While Mr. Havisham paid better than well, the job had taken months longer than he sighed on for. His employer’s particular tastes and initially undisclosed methodology irritated him, but he focused on the money and counted down the days until his involvement in the project came to an end. Perhaps his next client would merely request a virgin to sacrifice. Ah, for simpler times, he reflected as he pulled out of the parking lot and pointed the car toward Havisham Manor.
After Lorne’s descriptions of the violence that greeted all comers when they entered the apartment, the stillness that greeted them when he opened the door felt even more ominous.
Spike stepped over the threshold. “Nobody here.”
“The agency hasn’t been able to get a tenant to sign a lease, let alone move in,” Lorne peered cautiously through the doorway. “But there’s definitely somebody here.”
“So what exactly are we gonna do?” Xander stood with arms crossed over his chest. He had voted for staying in the car, citing his uselessness with the non-corporeal crowd, but vampire vigilance meant he had to stay within eyesight. So where goeth Spike, goeth Xander. Of course, that didn’t mean he had to be particularly pleased about it. He stomped into the room and immediately shuddered as the air around him chilled over his skin.
“Gah-ah!” He jumped back toward the door. “Okay, so who’s on board with letting sleeping ghosts lie? I’m thinking Dennis was here first, Dennis gets to stay. Not that he wouldn’t make a great roommate, I’m sure, what with phantasmic air-conditioning. And I’ll just be outside now.”
He glanced frantically at the concerned stares from his companions. “What?” he demanded. “Didn’t anybody else feel that?”
“Feel what, mate?” Spike approached him slowly, as though to keep from spooking him further.
“Fucking cold ghost-ness.” Xander rubbed his arms vigorously to get rid of the chill bumps.
“What ‘hmmm?’ There is no ‘hmmm.’ Just a minor wiggins.” Xander stared wide-eyed at Lorne.
“It’s just that, well, everyone else Dennis has come in contact with got contusions, pumpkin, not just a shiver or two.”
“This place stinks of grief, of loss and pain.” Illyria spoke with disdain. Before anyone could respond, however, she shuddered and the blue leather look faded into sweet Texas t-shirt and jeans.
“Uh, Spike, wanna tell me what’s going on here,” Xander moved closer to the vampire and away from the shape-shifting ex-hell god.
“Spike? Lorne?” Illyria/Fred looked around, confused. “Why are we in Cordy’s apartment? Did something happen?” She wrapped her arms around herself.
“Fred?” Lorne reached out but stopped short of touching.
“I don’t remember…how did we get here?”
Xander risked a glance toward Spike to see tears glistening in the vampire’s blue eyes. But before he could ask, a low growl came from the vampire and his expression shifted to one of suspicion and anger.
“What the bloody hell are you playing at, Blue?”
The air fairly snapped around the slight figure as jeans and t-shirt became leather and blue hair once more.
“This place is for the dead,” she announced shakily. “I will not remain here.” With that, Illyria exited the apartment and rapidly disappeared from sight.
“Ooookay. And the weirdness just keeps getting weirder.” Xander stared at the open doorway.
“Do you think…” Lorne let the question trail off, afraid to voice the hope that Fred could be returned to them.
“I dunno, mate.” Spike met the troubled red eyes. “But I doubt Blue’s gonna come back here voluntarily to let us find out.”
“Find out what?”
“Nothing. Right now we’ve got a ghostie to deal with.”
“Actually, I’m thinking we don’t.”
“What d’ya mean we don’t? Yer the one who got us started on this.” Spike looked at Lorne incredulously.
“After what we just saw, can you really tell me that you want to do anything to change this apartment? Think about it, sweetcheeks. Whether it’s Dennis’s presence or some other cosmic oogly-boogly that has that effect here, I’m not willing change anything until we know for sure.”
Xander decided that the only information he was going to get directly from the discussion between Lorne and Spike was a distinct lack of information. In light of that, he turned his attention from the conversation to explore the apartment. The spooky chilled feeling had dissipated, and the architecture drew his eye as he took in the archways between the rooms. The place felt welcoming and homey in its set up. Clearly the agency had cleaned after the last episode with Dennis because the furniture stood clean and neatly placed. He closed his eye and imagined Cordelia here. He could see her fitting in perfectly in the space, ghostly roommate and all. His heart jerked in sadness. Another woman he had loved lost to the cause of truth and light. Fucking waste. He felt a comforting hand ghost across his shoulder, only to turn and see Lorne and Spike standing near the doorway where he had left them. He shivered, but didn’t speak, mourning alongside the insubstantial presence.
“Harris!” The irritation in Spike’s voice indicated that this wasn’t the first time he had tried for Xander’s attention.
“What?” He turned to find both Lorne and Spike looking at him expectantly.
“Bloody hell, mate. Have you heard a word we said?”
“It’s like this, nummikins,” Lorne interrupted before Spike’s tension could lead to reprimands that would undermine their goal. “We can’t do an exorcism, and the agency won’t go for that solution because they need to rent this apartment. So unless we can find someone to stay here…”
“I’ll do it.” Xander interrupted.
“Pet, are you sure about this?” Spike made to protest. He hated the idea of Xander being out of his sight, but Angel had been serious about removing the man from the hotel. He also didn’t feature Xander staying in a flat with an unstable ghost. The whole place gave him the wiggins. At the same time, watching Fred emerge apparently unintentionally from Illyria threatened to ignite the hope that his friend still existed in that shell. And if she existed, they might be able to get her back.
“I’m sure. Look, no matter how you wanna argue against it, Angel threw me out. I needed a place to go anyway. Might as well be here.” He looked around the apartment. “It’s a great place, good structure and layout, well-constructed. And, yeah, ghost, but it’s like,” he struggled to find the words, “like getting to be alone but not really or something.” What he left unsaid was that the suffering presence of the ghost, while admittedly a bit oogy, resonated with his own grief. Somehow that honest suffering felt more tolerable than staying in a hotel surrounded by people getting on with their lives, getting over Buffy’s death, moving on. He had no desire to move on, and Dennis was hardly going to force that on him.
Spike watched the emotions flit across Xander’s face. Resignation and despair registered most clearly. He struggled with the need to pull Xander out of this place of pain and loss. Illyria was right about the atmosphere of the flat. But he knew that he couldn’t take the man back to the Hyperion.
“Ok, sugarcakes. I’ll give the agency a call and get you squared away.” Lorne flashed a worried smile, clearly pleased to have the situation resolved, but concerned for the tension that sang back and forth between the vampire and man. He pulled out his cell phone. “Be back in the proverbial two shakes.”
Spike stepped closer to Xander as Lorne walked outside to make his call.
“Don’t like the idea of you here by yourself,” he admitted in a low voice.
Xander rolled his eyes. “Would you be happier with me and Angel at each other’s throats everyday? Forcing Dawn and Faith to live with that constantly? They don’t need me there. I don’t need to be there.”
“And what about me?” Spike asked ambiguously
“What about you? This lets you off the hook. No more Xander-sitting. Go have an unlife.”
“Xander,” Spike spoke seriously, “Can I trust you?”
“Trust me with what?” Xander crossed his arms defensively, fearing what the vampire would ask of him.
Spike huffed in frustration. “Dawn asked me to look out for you. No secret about that.”
Xander nodded carefully, stomping down on the resentment that threatened in the face of the manipulation he felt.
“This,” he gestured at the flat. “Having you here, me there. It don’t work so well for me looking out for you, pet.”
“Spike,” Xander struggled to hold onto his temper, “Clearly, you haven’t been paying attention. I don’t want you to ‘look out for me.’ In fact, being away from you and that place, away from this whole life would pretty much make it so that no one needed to look out for me, don’t ya think?”
“Don’t give me that shit, Harris. Your mission of self-destruction has nothing to do with this life, with the Hyperion.” He advanced on Xander until the man’s back hit the wall. “This is about Buffy.”
Xander closed his eye against the knowing menace in Spike’s gaze. He swallowed hard, squeezing his arms tighter around his chest to keep from lashing out. In the end, he needn’t have bothered. A cold wind rushed between them, knocking Spike away.
Launching himself from the floor, Spike flashed into game-face and growled at…nothing. Xander stared. Then he couldn’t help himself. He giggled. He tried to stifle it, but Spike looked so funny growling at the air, head whipping around in search of his phantom assailant.
Spike shook off himself back to human features to glare at the mirthful human. However, he couldn’t maintain the glare in the face of Xander’s smothered laughter. How long had it been since he saw humor grace those features? Something softened in his heart even as it broke to recognize a Xander he had thought never to see again.
The vampire looked away and shrugged his duster closer around him.
“Get your kit from the car. Might as well get you settled in.”
Xander pushed himself off the wall and skirted around the vampire who still stood half-suspiciously watching the empty space around him. At the door, he turned.
“I know you told Dawn you would take care of me.” He shuffled uncomfortably as he stared at his feet. “But I’m a big boy. It will be better for them to have me away.” He flashed an uneven and unconvincing grin, “Besides, this frees you up for nights of mayhem and the ever popular kitten poker.” He turned and headed out to the car for his bag.
Spike watched until he was out of sight. “Okay, mate. I’m not sure what you’re up to, but I’ve been a ghost myself. I remember what it’s like not bein’ able to touch or talk to anyone. So yer not showing me anything I ain’t already been and done.” He turned in the empty room as he spoke. “You pushed me off of the boy, so I’m takin’ that as you protecting him. Now,” he said pleasantly, “if I’m wrong about that, I will be back. And anything happens to my boy, I’ll be back with every exorcist in the city. You got me?”
A slight breeze flowed through the flat, gently ringing wind chimes that hung in the window.
“Take that as a yes.” He nodded thoughtfully.
Maybe it was time he had some help. Xander might say he would be better away from the Hyperion. Hell, he might
even think it. But this was nothing more than another attempt to run from the pain. Until he stopped to face it,
the man’s path led to nowhere good.
Xander glanced around the room, taking in the empty appearance. Alone but not really by himself. This was what he wanted, wasn’t it? To be left alone?
“Fuck this,” he muttered. No introspection, no thinking at all, in fact. He strode into the kitchen, slamming open cupboards, only to be mocked by their emptiness. Throwing himself into a chair, he leaned over to gently bang his head against the tabletop. A soft rustling of paper sliding across the table caused him to sit up suddenly. He grinned.
“Pink Dot. Deliverer of salty goodness and, even better, beer.” He flipped through the menu as he levered himself to his feet and pulled his cell phone from his pocket.
He flashed a smirk at the apartment at large. “Dennis, my man, I think this is going to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Forty-five minutes later, Xander ripped open a bag of tortilla chips, unscrewed the lid off a jar of salsa, and sat on the couch with a bottle of Jose Cuervo Gold balanced between his knees and a six-pack of Corona on the end-table to his left. To his delight, the TV had a satellite hookup, and he found a science fiction channel running a Star Trek DS9 marathon.
Two hours, six beers, and half a bottle of tequila later, Xander never felt Dennis carefully drape a blanket over him where he lay passed-out on the couch.
“Uunngh,” Xander groaned and rolled into a sitting position. Fuck. Hangover déjà vu. He glanced down at the blanket tangling his feet. “Huh.” He looked around. No empty bottles strewn about. He wrinkled his brow and straightened his eye patch. Running his fingers over his mussed hair, he looked around again and listened for signs of life.
A cool wind brushed across his face.
“Oh. Guess I kinda checked out on you, last night.” He stared blankly. Having a conversation with someone invisible, while not an entirely new experience (and how many people had the luxury of saying that?), was distinctly unnerving in that he had no idea where to look.
“Thanks for, um,” he waved vaguely at the blanket and tidy apartment. “taking care of things.” He levered himself to his feet and groaned softly. Why couldn’t building up an alcohol tolerance come with building up a hangover tolerance at the same time?
Xander dropped the blanket to the couch and staggered to the bathroom. While he didn’t anticipate immediate vomiting—and thank whatever gods watched out for self-destructive assholes—he desperately needed to brush his teeth.
Flipping on the light, he winced and reached for his toiletry bag. He rummaged around for toothbrush and toothpaste. Finally, he braved looking at the mirror and winced again. Fuck. He hadn’t looked this bad since the day Spike dragged him to the Hyperion. Bristle covered his chin and cheeks, and his good eye stared back haggard and hopeless. Somewhere between the six-pack and the bottle of tequila, he had given in to the comforting presence of the mournful ghost and talked, haltingly and without great detail, about his sorrow and guilt, reminisced about Cordelia, about Buffy, about Anya. Loves lost. Lives taken. Tears had fallen fast and hard, leaving him with a red rimmed eye with sunken bruises underneath.
“God, Harris, you fucking asshole.” He turned from the mirror and brushed vigorously, scouring at the taste of stale beer and pain, as he turned the shower on. Spit. Rinse. He could manage that much. Shucking his clothes into a messy pile on the floor, he climbed into the shower and rested his head against the cool tile as the hot water pounded down on his back.
Unnoticed by the man in the shower, his clothes appeared to fold themselves, and a glass of water and two Tylenol floated in to settle on the bathroom sink.
Grumbling and shaking out his coat, Spike batted away the smoke that rose from his body. Dawn giggled at his antics as she balanced the bag of groceries in her arms.
“I don’t know what there is to laugh about, Bit.”
“It’s like you take it as a personal insult that the sun burns you.” She nodded toward the door. “Gonna knock? Hands are kinda full here.”
“Yeah, well, you try burnin’ up just for walking outside at the wrong time of day, and see how much you like it,” he growled, but without any real heat. He pounded on the door with more force than necessary.
“Don’t know why we have to knock. Not like Lorne didn’t give us the spare key.”
“Because it’s polite. And because I really don’t want to walk in on Xander hanging out doing naked guy things.” She blushed.
“Naked guy things?” He lifted an eyebrow.
She tilted her chin up and refused to say anymore. They waited a long moment.
“You don’t think he, you know, left or anything, do you?” Spike felt the worry that underlined her question. It was the same worry that had him agreeing to bring her to the apartment at a time when he normally would be sleeping.
“Nah, prolly still in bed. Whelp sleeps like the dead.” He shrugged nonchalantly, but could see that she wasn’t buying it. He dug in the pocket of his jeans for the key, but before he could pull it out, they heard locks turning and the door opened.
“Um, hello?” Dawn asked hesitantly to the open air.
“Dawn, meet Dennis. Dennis, this is Dawn, ‘nother friend of Xander’s.” Spike relieved Dawn of the grocery bags and strode into the apartment, hoping that the trepidation he felt at the ghost opening the door didn’t show.
“Oh!” she exclaimed brightly. “Good to meet you. Lorne told us all about you.” She continued to chatter at him as she took in the apartment. Spike left them to it, settling the grocery bags in the kitchen and catching the sound of water running in the bathroom.
“Sounds like he’s in the shower. I’ll pop in and give him a head’s up that a lady,” he smirked, “is present. So no naked guy things.”
Dawn stuck her tongue out at him and continued to exclaim over the décor and ask Dennis about himself and how he liked having a new roommate.
The vampire stood outside the bathroom door, attempting to get as much information as he could before knocking. Just silence under the pounding spray. He could still detect the remnants of beer and tequila. Whelp must have had his own little housewarming party last night. He sighed and reminded himself that at least Xander was still here, even if he was clearly back on the path of alcohol poisoning.
Xander startled at the hesitant knocking on the bathroom door. He whipped his head around and stifled a groan as head and stomach rebelled against the quick action.
“Dennis?” Incredulity laced his tone.
Spike cracked the door open. “Nah, no ghost, just a vamp and his girl come to see the new pad.”
“Spike?” Xander fumbled with the soap, feeling very naked behind the fluttering shower curtain.
The vampire slid the rest of the way into the small bathroom, clicking the door shut. He reveled silently in the steamy heat and breathed in Xander’s scent.
“Just wanted to give you fair warning. So you don’t walk out starkers and scar the Bit.”
“Um, thanks. Give me a couple minutes to finish up in here, k?” He looked with dismay at his morning erection that suddenly seemed to have found a new lease on life.
“Sure thing, mate.” Spike grinned knowingly and enjoyed the pheromones that rode the thick air. He opened the door and tossed back over his shoulder, “Let me know if you need a hand with anything.” Closing the door gently, he ignored the prodding of his soul that told him it was unkind to tease the hung-over human and instead enjoyed the scent of arousal that followed him out of the bathroom.
Hearing the door click shut, Xander twitched the shower curtain aside
to make sure that he really was alone before cursing softly and reaching down to take his now urgent erection in hand.
Hardly the best cure for his hang-over, but if Spike thought him walking out naked would scar Dawn, walking out with a hard-on
the size of Texas would have her in therapy for years. At least, that’s what he told himself as he braced himself
against the wall and tugged on his cock, running Spike’s offer to help through his head until he shot harshly against
the wall, blanking out all thought.
Shutting the door behind his early morning visitors, Xander shrunk in on himself. He had managed to keep up a semblance of the good-natured host, pointing out the features of the apartment, talking up Dennis as a roommate, all the time trying to ignore the headache and vague nausea that lingered. Dawn had been impressed by the place and delighted by Dennis, and he couldn’t deny their kindness in bringing him breakfast and some of the baseline groceries like milk, eggs, bread, and peanut butter that he hadn’t thought to order in his booze and snack-fest from Pink Dot. Spike, he noticed, had been fairly quiet and with the exception of the single innuendo in the bathroom, fairly distant. Though that distance hurt some, Xander couldn’t deny that it made it a bit easier to be around the vampire when he wasn’t hovering so much. He had no doubt that Spike could tell he had beaten off in the shower, and the last thing he wanted was to acknowledge the growing sexual tension between them. So all in all, it had been a pleasant and non-angsty visit. At the same time, he had wanted nothing more than to crawl back into bed and feel sorry for himself.
Unfortunately, their visit had sufficiently wakened him, and he felt antsy. Suddenly having his own place meant that he had no structure for his day. He had declined the offer to continue with research help, pointing out that Angel would merely send him packing once more if he set foot in the hotel. He wandered from room to room, idly running his fingers over the furniture. A cool wind brushed past him.
He shuddered and suddenly felt hemmed in.
“I gotta get out of here.” Even as he said it, he didn’t know if he meant the apartment, the city, or something more. But he couldn’t sit still here and relive the echoes of conversation, couldn’t sit here and feel the absence of friends. The need for pain that he had been repressing rose up again. The self-disgust that had glared out at him from the mirror surged to the fore, and despite his determination to resist, the new found freedom beckoned him. Chambre de Sade beckoned him. This time he would have space and time to recover, he promised himself. He didn’t have to sneak away, and he didn’t have to face anyone besides a sympathetic, but more importantly, invisible and incorporeal roommate.
Xander slapped the phone book down on the counter and flipped through the pages for taxis. He pulled the Chambre de Sade business card from his pocket. A quick phone call to Yellow Cab, and he had a taxi on the way. He pulled on his jacket and glanced around at the seemingly empty apartment.
“If I’m not back in a couple of hours, send in the cavalry,” he joked as he picked up his keys and walked out the door. Behind him the air shivered and the small business card lay innocuously on the table next to the phone.
“Whatever it is that’s got you all broody.”
Spike tossed aside the book he had made half-hearted attempts at reading.
“Not broody.” He pulled his cigarettes out of his pocket and shook one out of the pack.
“Not inside.” Dawn and Faith chorused at him.
Spike glared at them and lit up.
“This is pointless.” Spike shoved to his feet and began pacing the lobby.
“Blondie, lose the butt and tell us what’s crawled up your ass.” Faith stood in his path. He glared at her and crushed the cigarette out on the hotel floor.
“Bloody waste of a good fag,” he muttered. He whirled around and kept pacing.
“Spike,” Dawn followed and laid a hesitant hand on his arm. He turned and engulfed her in a hug.
“Sorry, just hate this feeling helpless.” Seeing Xander in his apartment, knowing that the man’s pain still ate away at him with no one to curb those destructive impulses had him on edge. He berated himself for the casual sexual innuendo that he had flung at the man in the shower. Teasing wasn’t going to help either of their states of mind, and his growing attraction to the broken human had him worried for both of them.
“We’ll figure out what the Riveda thing is. I think I’m on to something with the text on ritual timeframes.”
Spike looked at her blankly.
“Don’t think he’s talking about this week’s apocalypse, Dawn.” Faith watched the tense vampire with sympathy.
“Oh, but he seemed good when we were over there this morning. Better, right?” Dawn’s eyes pleaded with him for reassurance.
“Best get back to this prophecy.” Spike stalked back to the table. “Not gonna matter if this thing happens.”
Angel strode into the lobby, slamming an axe back into the weapons’ cabinet.
“Why is it that getting information never means a pleasant conversation over dinner?” He glared at the others.
“Any luck, boss?” Faith directed his attention from Spike’s slumped shoulders and Dawn’s fidgeting.
“It’s happening tonight.” He ran a hand through his hair, stomping ruthlessly on the fear that this would be the last time they stood in the same room together. “Riveda isn’t a god, just some upper level demon. Keeps itself pretty much hidden except for once every thousand years or so when worshippers get the opportunity to provide sacrifices in competition for access to some serious power.”
“So Riveda shows up and we kick its ass? Point me to it.”
Angel shook his head wearily. “The demon never manifests on this plain. It never even acts on this plain.”
“No wonder we couldn’t find any information on it,” Dawn’s face lit up with sudden understanding. “The demon isn’t going to be the one making with the big blood and death and pain. It would be the worshippers who get the power that anyone would ever know about.”
“And a good bet none of ‘em would give up information on the bloke that gave ‘em the power in the first place,” Spike snorted with disgust.
“But we took out the vamp nest, so does that mean it’s over?” Faith sounded almost disappointed. Days of research and nothing to pummel.
Angel unknowingly echoed Spike’s earlier movements and paced the lobby.
“They weren’t the only ones in a bid for the demon’s attention. In fact, they probably weren’t even on the map in terms of competition. Most likely they were just hired muscle for someone else who is collecting the sacrifices.”
“Is there anything special about the sacrifices? None of the texts addressed that at all.”
Angel shook his head at Dawn’s question. “Seems like it’s just about collecting human souls. The more the better. Although, my informant friend did mention that Riveda appreciates creativity and flair.”
“Sounds like you, mate.” Spike smirked at Angel, ignoring the growl he got in return.
“Anything else useful?” Faith leaned back in her chair, itching for action, any action, soon.
Angel nodded. “Seems the front runner—according to the betting pools—is named Havisham. And he’s here in LA.” A cruel smile crept across his face.
“Right then. Tonight. Lots of dead humans. Havisham. LA.” Spike looked around at the expectant faces. “What? Just summing up what we got so far. He’s the one who makes the plans.” He pointed at Angel.
“So how do we get to this guy? He’s probably not gonna let us walk in and say ‘let my people go.’ Though if you wanna go with the standard break, crush, kill, you know I’m on board.”
“Faith’s right. We have to have more information. At least now we know who we’re looking for.” Dawn settled herself at the computer and began punching in information, pleased to have some tangible information that she could work with. Angel headed for the kitchen and blood, leaving Faith and Spike looking at one another, both feeling the tension that trailed in the large vampire’s wake.
Feeling his anticipation rise, Xander quickly paid the cabbie without meeting the man’s derisive gaze and hurried through the front doors of Chambre de Sade. He signed in at the desk and retrieved the key to his private locker. Behind him, the receptionist glanced at the notice on the desk and compared it against the sign in sheet. With the man’s identity verified, she picked up the phone.
“Mr. Worthington? The guest you inquired after has arrived.” She listened to the instructions without taking notes. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” She hung up and buzzed Martin’s office. “Mr. Havisham has requested that you attend to Mr. Harris today.” Hanging up, she shrugged off a nagging concern. Why should it matter to the owner which dominant worked with a client? She took down the notice and placed it in the client’s file as instructed. Not like it was any of her business, she reminded herself, and Mr. Worthington might seem slimy in that too polished way, but he had Mr. Havisham’s authority to fire ‘recalcitrant’ employees.
In the locker room, Xander pushed out all thoughts of life outside the building and carefully dressed in leather and worked himself quickly to hardness in anticipation of the punishment to come. He snapped the cock ring in place and pulled on the mantle of submissiveness as he made his way to the assigned room. Xander arranged himself into a kneeling position on the mat in the center of the room and lowered his head, mentally cataloguing the punishments his body craved. Prior to a session, he disciplined his thoughts not to stray from the whips, floggers, or canes that he craved. The memories and feelings, his reasons for being here, had to wait for the implements to strike against his skin, giving him the punishment and permission he needed to face his internal turmoil.
Behind him, the door opened. Large leather boots came to rest in his line of site.
Xander obeyed, registering the unfamiliarity of the dominant before him. Internally, he shrugged. It was only his second time here, so it wasn’t like he had a regular appointment with anyone in particular.
“Open your mouth.”
Xander’s eyes widened. He had not requested being gagged, and he couldn’t prevent his glance straying to the ball gag in the man’s hand. For a brief moment, he considered balking, but he came here to put the decisions in someone else’s hands. He opened his mouth.
As the gag was fitted into place, he had a brief moment to wonder at the odd taste and smell before the chloroform stole consciousness from him.
“His manor is essentially a fortress. Even if we could get the security schemas for it, I’m not sure there would be any way to get in.” Dawn shoved at the papers scattered in front of her, her frustration evident.
“Too bad you’re not still CEO of evil incorporated. Least that might have garnered you an invite.” Spike jeered at Angel, eliciting the expected growl.
Illyria chose that moment to reappear in the lobby after having been missing since the incident at the apartment. “You have surrendered before beginning the battle.”
“Ya know, Blue. ‘Less you got something helpful to add, maybe you could lay off the criticism.” Faith nearly growled herself.
“You have not asked for my help.”
“Consider yerself asked,” Spike tossed at her, watching her closely for signs of Fred.
Illyria strode to the table and began to shuffle through the pages. Her fingers landed on a print out from a society website. She separated it from the others and continued rifling through papers until she found a feature from an architectural magazine that detailed the manor designed for Havisham by a local, and now famous, architect.
Dawn watched warily as the ex-god passed judgment on the information that she had found.
“You will aid me.” Illyria spoke to Dawn. She turned and directed the others, “You will leave us.”
“Right, that’s gonna happen.” Spike snorted.
Illyria stared at him. “While your physical pain amuses me, I do not wish to remain in the presence of your human suffering.” She shimmered and the leather disappeared, leaving her for the second time in two days wearing the face of the friend they mourned.
“I’m really sorry, guys, but I kinda need to do this my way.” Fred/Illyria fidgeted apologetically. “It probably would be better for you to go out and see what else we can find out about this ritual. It’s probably the talk of the demon grapevine by now.” She reached over and pulled the society column printout. “Oh, and Angel, maybe even without the Wolfram and Hart connections, if you can get us an invite to the auction at Havisham Manor tonight, that might give us a way to get in.”
Angel focused on keeping his hand steady as he took the paper, but couldn’t bring himself to meet the kind brown eyes that watched him. He nodded and stalked quickly from the room.
“I’m with the big guy. If there’s informants that need beating up, I’m the girl.” Faith left unsaid the fact that being reminded of Fred’s loss clearly destabilized their leader even further. She didn’t intend to let him out of her sight.
Dawn looked sympathetically at Spike, but settled back at the table with Fred/Illyria and the computer. As the only one of the group who never really met Fred, she could work with her without the same pain that the others felt, and personal issues aside, Fred/Illyria seemed to be their best bet for stopping the prophecy of Riveda’s power manifesting through its favored worshipper tonight.
Spike stood, momentarily lost in memories as he watched the two women at the table. He had loved Fred in a way not entirely dissimilar from his love for Dawn, and seeing the two of them together seemed so very right and so heart-breakingly wrong. Suddenly the directive to get out of the hotel seemed paramount.
“Gonna check on the whelp. Catch him up.”
“Do you think,” Dawn stopped, bit her lip, and finished her thought, “I mean, will he be okay to be part of this?”
“Not sure I’m gonna extend that invitation,
Nibblet.” Spike answered honestly. He turned and walked out the doors to his motorcycle. Recognizing how
late the day had grown, he frowned. He had asked Xander to call and let him know if he wanted to join them in the research,
and while he didn’t blame the man for not joining them, he had been hoping for a call. Telling himself he
wasn’t brooding, he felt the bike roar to life and drove off into the night.
Before Spike could knock, the door to Xander’s apartment flew open and a of chilled wind swirled around the vampire, pulling him into the main room.
“Bloody hell, mate,” Spike staggered against the wall and fought to stay upright. Even as he struggled against the indoor cyclone, his senses roared to life searching for any sign of Xander in the flat.
“Where is he?” Spike growled into the empty air. In response, Dennis’s incorporeal presence urged the vampire toward the table where the open phone book and small white card lay.
Spike picked up the elegant card and read the name of the club. He sighed in frustration and kneaded the tensed muscles at the back of his neck. At least now he knew exactly where Xander had gotten the marks on his back.
“This what got yer knickers in a twist?” He gestured with the card. “Not like I want him going there, but…” Cold air dragged harshly against his skin, and he startled as the clock on the kitchen wall came flying toward him. Reflex had him flinching out of the way, letting the clock smash against the wall behind him as the atmosphere in the apartment abruptly stilled. He stared at the shattered clock then glanced back at the card in his hand, working out what had Dennis so upset.
“He’s been gone longer than he said he would, hasn’t he.” Spike didn’t need the gentle tinkling of the wind chimes to confirm his assessment. “Right then. Guess I’ll just have to pay the Chambre de Sade a little visit.” He strode out the door, letting Dennis close it behind him. Muttering curses at idiot humans who had no sense of self-preservation, he shoved the key in the ignition and directed the bike toward the West Hollywood address on the business card shoved deep in his back pocket.
Spike hung his head and tried to gather his thoughts before entering the Hyperion. His trip to the Chambre de Sade had been frustrating on a level that had him regretting the soul that prevented him from simply removing spines until someone gave him what he wanted. This time what he wanted was Xander, and the sodding bint at the desk could tell him nothing more than that Mr. Harris had left, apparently without signing out or picking up his street clothes from his locker. Now he had to tell Dawn that he had managed to lose the man she had entrusted into his care. Sure, he snarked, that was what had him struggling to keep from vamping out in anger and distress, that Dawn would be upset. Had nothing to do with his failure to take care of another Scooby whom he was rapidly coming to care for in a distinctly not-just-friends kinda way. He squared his shoulders and walked into the center of an all too familiar argument.
“Angel, it’s going to take all of us going to make this work. You can’t handle it on your own.” A growl answered the disdain in Dawn’s assertion.
“You know she’s right, so shut up and deal.” Faith shrugged off the glare directed her way.
“I take it we have a plan,” Spike smirked at the elder vampire in a standoff against the two women.
“Spike!” Dawn’s gaze turned warm then faltered as she realized he was alone. “Did you talk to Xander? Isn’t he coming?” She frowned. “Did you tell him he couldn’t come?”
“He wasn’t there.” Spike evaded her eyes.
“Wasn’t there?” Her voice reflected confusion more than concern.
Spike pulled the card from his back pocket and fingered it, unwilling to share where Xander went, but needing more information on the place than a quick web search would yield for him.
He looked up to see Dawn in front of him, worry starting to cloud her features. Shoving the card at her, he stepped around her, rummaging for a cigarette.
“This is where he went. Only they don’t know what happened to him. I picked up a scent trail ‘round back of the place, but only as far as the parking lot.”
“Chambre de Sade?” Incredulity colored her voice as a blush colored her cheeks.
Angel snorted, but refrained from saying anything in the face of the cold glare from his childe.
“You think somebody took him?” Faith asked.
“Dunno, but Dennis seemed to think he meant to be back hours ago.” Despite disapproving stares, he drew deeply on the cigarette and blew out smoke in a huff.
“People, we have a ritual to stop, or have you all forgotten?”
“Angel, if Xander’s missing, we can’t do nothing!” Dawn protested.
“Somehow his well-being doesn’t take priority for me right now when there’s a warlock making deals with a demon for enough power to take over the city.” Angel began rummaging through the weapons cupboard, pulling out his favorite broadsword.
Dawn shot a pleading glance at Faith, who nodded and joined Angel in selecting weapons. Neither woman had any illusions about being able to convince Angel to care about Xander, but fortunately they didn’t need his cooperation to get started on the research.
Illyria, returned to her blue leather look, stepped into the lobby from Angel’s office.
“You have returned.” She appraised Spike coolly. “You will accompany me and the other half-breed to prepare.”
Spike lifted an eyebrow and continued to smoke, focusing on the familiar ritual in an effort to still his anxious concerns for the missing Scooby.
“Spike, I’ll explain it all to you later, but basically you and Angel are going in as masters of the house of Aurelius, and, er, Illyria’s pets.” Spike’s jaw clenched as he struggled to keep it from dropping. Dawn hurried on. “Havisham has this whole Master/Slave art auction going on. It’s ‘invitation only’ but between Illyria and your guys’ reputations, you should be able to get in even without one ‘cause of the prestige it would bring him to have you buy from him. So you, um, have to kinda look the part. And while you guys are getting ready, I’ll look up the whole Chambre de Sade thing so we can save the city and find Xander at the same time.” Her eyes pleaded with Spike not to argue. They didn’t have a better plan, and despite her fury with Angel, she had to admit that he was right about needing to stop Havisham from contacting Riveda.
“Chambre de Sade belongs to the Havisham human.” Illyria spoke dismissively. “It is of no consequence.”
Spike moved quickly to stand before the ex-god, clearly wanting to shake the information from her but recalling that their violent encounters didn’t generally end well for him. “What do you know about that place?”
“The Burkle persona found it listed among his holdings.”
“Spike, do you think Xander found something out? He wouldn’t have gone off to face Havisham without backup, right?” Dawn clearly remembered the many times that Xander had suicidally done just that over the last year, but usually he chose straight-forward vampire or demon encounters rather than complex rituals and magic users.
Spike sighed as he was reminded of Xander’s demon-magnet status. “No, ‘Bit. He prolly managed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bloody git seems to have a gift for that.”
Faith sauntered over, axe resting on her shoulder. “Looks like going after Havisham will be the best way to find out what happened to Xand as well. Works out good for us, for once. Better get a move on, Blondie. You and Angel need to get into character.”
Spike flipped her two fingers as he followed Illyria and Angel upstairs to prepare themselves to talk their way into Havisham’s A-list art auction.
Xander struggled to resist the hands stroking his leather-clad chest, but somehow the instructions his brain tossed out didn’t make it to his muscles. That should ratchet up the panic, but somehow his brain was just as detached from itself as it was from his arms and legs. The blindfold around his eyes kept him from seeing, but he had no doubt that he had long since left the Chambre de Sade, and what the hell happened to the guarantee of ‘safe, sane, and consensual’ services that the glossy brochure had promised??
“Yes, he is all you promised. He will round out the collection quite well.”
“He goes with Brogan, right?” A second voice growled out. Brogan? Xander’s brain tried to connect to the name, but it slipped away along the lazy river of non-thoughts.
“Yes,” the first voice caressed him in time with the fingers that danced over his face. “On the kneeling post. And attach his collar to the post. I want this one’s face to show.” The hand slid down Xander’s chest to cup his cock, still bound in its stainless steel ring. “Mmmm, you will look lovely, boy, arms pulled back behind you, knees spread with this lovely bit on display.” The hand slid around to caress his ass. “Too bad I already have several rack exhibits, otherwise you would present a gorgeous picture with your arms trussed up and a glorious view to behold front or back.” The hand slapped his ass, but the vague feeling of disgusted violation slid away before he could attach any anger to it. “Can’t have the critics thinking I’m derivative of my own work.”
A grunt came from the second voice as Xander felt himself hoisted and suddenly moving, but even as he made note of that, he recognized that he felt less and less the pressure of any actual hands holding him, and then that worrisome thought melted away into a comfortable quiet static.
Spike stifled yet another growl as he took in the mingling crowd of humans and demons dressed in what passed as finery for the given species. Waiting for the violence to begin grated on his nerves, nerves still on edge from not knowing where Xander was or what condition he might be in. He made sure to keep pace just behind and to the left of Illyria as she strode through the crowd. Angel stood just behind and to her right. Her pet vampires.
Their entry had been easier than anticipated thanks to Illyria’s arrogant assertion that a god-king would be an unfortunate enemy and formidable friend. Of course, a quick review of the Aurelian accounts hadn’t hurt their chances either. Havisham’s business manager had all but salivated at the thought of that money upping the auction prices, and he dismissed security’s concerns regarding the vampires’ reputations as Champions for the Powers That Be. After all, they had clearly been tamed by the blue figure who had snapped the neck of one of the gate guards in order to announce their presence, for neither vampire raised an eyebrow at the violence.
“Mmmm, love the leather.” A perfectly manicured hand slid down Spike’s spine, lingering on his ass. The tight black leather pants and harness left nothing to the imagination, and while he hadn’t put up the protests that Angel had at the ensemble, he didn’t consider it an invitation for unsolicited groping. He growled, but before he could say anything, Illyria had grasped the woman’s arm with one hand while cuffing the back of his head harshly in response to the growl.
“The vampire belongs to me. Touch him again, and I will take your arm.” She dropped the woman’s wrist. She turned and continued toward the main ballroom where the auction was to be held. Angel smirked at his Childe as they dutifully followed. Until they got the signal from Faith and Dawn indicating that the primary security system had been taken down, they were forced to play their roles.
Spike trampled down the worry over the women’s progress, recognizing that this was the best means of getting them all inside the mansion in order to stop the ritual, provided that they could determine where Havisham kept all the sacrifices. Riveda required souls, and the man had to have people held somewhere on the grounds as he played host to this ridiculous auction. Deeper than the worry about Faith and Dawn, however, he buried the feeling of helplessness over Xander’s disappearance. Research on Chambre de Sade had yielded nothing beyond the bare fact that Havisham owned the place. No prior disappearances or paranormal happenings seemed to be related to the club, and even he had to admit that stopping the Riveda ritual took immediate precedence over tracking down Xander. At the same time, Dawn’s suggestion that the two endeavors could be undertaken simultaneously only unsettled him more as Xander’s presence at Havisham Manor more likely than not would mean that he numbered among the sacrifices.
“So where are these bloody ‘objets d’art’ anyway?” he spoke sotto voce to Angel as his golden eyes darted around the room. Angel shrugged in response, a gesture calculated to irritate Spike to no end. Fortunately, they reached the entrance to the main auction room at that moment, effectively silencing any comment he would have made. The tuxedoed lackey at the door offered Illyria a catalog and auction paddle with a deferent nod that the former god-king ignored. She continued into the room, leaving the befuddled man to offer the catalogue and paddle to Spike who flashed a bit of fang as he accepted, enjoying the man’s sudden fear.
Two steps into the room, and Spike’s question about the items to be auctioned was answered. All along the outside edges of the large chamber stood life-size statues of humans and demons in various dungeon scenes. The figures were in differing states of dress and undress as they portrayed masters and slaves complete with implements ranging from simple St. Andrew’s crosses to complex bondage racks. Paddles, floggers, knives, and other implements of torture peppered the scenes. Spike glanced at Angel and cocked an eyebrow. Clearly they weren’t here to bid on Monets tonight. He drifted closer to one of the pairs in which a G’forlak demon lay prone at the feet of a human woman with a bullwhip threaded through her hands. He narrowed his eyes and sniffed discretely, expecting to scent some kind of polymer. Instead he found his stomach roiling as he breathed in pure human scent.
“Bloody hell,” he swore quietly. He looked over at Angel and saw a look of disgust that must have mirrored his own. The figures gave off no heartbeat or warmth, but there was no mistaking the scent of human skin.
He turned to the catalogue in his hand and quickly skimmed through the introduction to the collection. One of a kind…created from actual demons and humans… permanent mystical stasis…guaranteed to last without degradation indefinitely… Nausea swelled up.
“Looks like we’ve found Havisham’s stash.” Angel peered at the figures that stood around the room.
“What d’ya suppose he’s done with the souls?” Spike paled, “’less they’re still trapped inside.” He shuddered at the thought of being paralyzed and put on permanent display as a sex slave in some rich git’s play room even as his demon heartily approved of some of the activities portrayed.
Angel shook his head, clearly at a loss for words. Expecting to find a mass sacrifice was one thing, but this took twisted to a whole new level.
“We have to find them to stop the ritual. If he’s holding them somewhere else, destroying the statues won’t make a difference.”
“Riveda relishes innovation. The Havisham human has done well.” Illyria spoke blandly. “He is a worthy supplicant.”
“Eh, Blue, we’re still looking to stop this thing. No rooting for the other team.”
Illyria shot him a withering glance. “No human can handle the power of Riveda. It will destroy him, and I do not wish to see the unclaimed power of the demon loosed in this world.”
Spike rolled his eyes and took that as meaning the plan to stop the ritual was still on, Illyria’s approval of Havisham’s creative sacrifice aside. He ordered his skin to stop crawling as he turned from the enticing human scent that surrounded the statue and focused instead on the images in the glossy pages of the auction catalogue. At least the images in the book could remain just that, images. He flipped through the pages while Illyria led them toward seats in one of the rear rows of seats.
“Welcome friends new and old to Havisham Manor. Tonight you participate in a one of a kind auction.” The auctioneer spoke from a podium at the front of the room as the milling crowd began to settle into seats in muted yet eager anticipation. The pheromones that swirled about the room caused both vampires to shift uncomfortably in their seats. Spike continued to flip quickly through the pages of the catalogue, trying to calculate how long the auction would go on. The ritual had to take place at midnight, and they had only a little over an hour until then.
Suddenly his rapid progress through the pages came to a halt as a figure caught his attention. His let out a quiet gasp that garnered Angel’s attention.
“What’s the matter with you,” he hissed.
Spike wordlessly handed the catalogue over, pointing to the picture of Xander bound to a slave post with a leather-masked man looming over him.
“Fuck.” Angel spoke succinctly.
Spike tuned out the auctioneer’s voice, carefully noting the placement of the security figures around the room.
“Sit still,” Angel hissed. He could feel his Childe ready to spring from his chair to bash the security guards or chase off on an attempt to rescue Xander. He wasn’t sure which would take precedence. Neither option would improve their chances of getting through the evening alive nor preventing the ritual that brought them there in the first place. “I’m sure Harris is fine.”
Spike turned an incredulous glare on his Sire. “Fine? He’s bloody trussed up like a slave and being sold off as a statue to rich sods who probably know fuck all about a real dungeon. Damn strange definition of fine, even for you.”
Before Angel could answer, the lights flickered once, then again, drawing security guards to attention and garnering an unsettled murmur from the audience.
“Looks like our man Arnold in Sacramento hasn’t quite resolved those pesky issues with the power companies,” the auctioneer joked. “Nothing to worry about, I’m sure. Now, I have 20, do I hear 25? No? Sold, for twenty thousand dollars to the gentleman in the front row.” The audience settled uneasily, but another more complete power outage brought the auction to a halt.
In the resulting confusion, the trio from AI moved swiftly to the places that they had last seen the guards. The dark presented no problems for the vampires, and Illyria seemed to move through it as easily as daylight. Fortunately, all the guards were human so they were quickly dispatched. The ex-god and vampires regrouped, dodging the auction-goers, and moved toward the auction platform. The auction hall had been described in detail in the architectural magazine that Dawn had discovered in her researching, and they had agreed that that the area behind the platform would likely give them access to wherever the souls were being held for the ritual.
Glancing back, Spike noticed a glowing ball of light beginning to grow.
“Looks like somebody’s got a spell up and going. Best get moving.” He ducked backstage, leaving Illyria and Angel to follow. Rounding a corner, he felt a tingle up his spine and went immediately into an attack stance, only managing to pull his punch at the last moment as he recognized Faith.
“Damn, Blondie, good to see you, too.” She lowered her gun.
“Dawn?” He asked.
“Right here, Spike.” Dawn appeared behind Faith, flashlight in hand. “C’mon. We found the room where the ritual’s gonna happen.”
They moved quickly through the dim halls, managing to avoid detection, despite the awareness that it was only a matter of time before Havisham’s staff managed to get the lights and alarms back up and running.
“Here.” Dawn indicated a closed and locked door. She stepped out of the way, and Illyria kicked at the door, sending it crashing inward.
An Armani-clad man looked up from a table spread with several books, candles, mortar and pestle, cauldron, and several other strange looking instruments. His brow lowered, but he did not cease his slow chanting and smooth hand gestures. Spike growled and rushed toward the chanting man only to bounce off the shield surrounding him and land sprawled at Angel’s feet.
Angel immediately offered a hand and pulled Spike to his feet. The others spread out around them, watching the ritual continue, but unable to find a way to get to Havisham.
“Guys, over there.” Dawn pointed to a massive urn set on a pedestal, the entire structure surrounded by a soft blue glow. “That could be the souls.”
“I thought we were looking for humans?” Angel protested.
“A ‘helpful’ guy we came across in security gave us an update,” Faith smirked.
“The souls have already been removed. They do it pretty much as soon as they capture people, to ‘keep the valuables safe,’” Dawn shuddered as she remembered the matter of fact way that the guard talked about the victims.
Spike’s heart clenched. Xander’s soul was in that jar. He remembered that the girls didn’t have that newest bit of information, but he refrained from telling them just yet. He moved toward the urn carefully, not wanting to go flying across the room again.
“Nepthys’ urn.” Illryia tilted her head. “Her power over the dead contains them in safety.” Her expression slid into a frown. “In my time such a minor power would be of no consequence.” The others ignored the god-king’s disdained observation.
“How do we get them out of the urn and back into the people?” Dawn asked quietly, casting a glance back at the sorcerer whose chanting had increased, but he continued to ignore them, focused on his ritual with an intent frown on his face and sweat beading on his forehead.
Angel frowned. Could the souls be put back in dead bodies held in mystical stasis? Before he could pose the question, a man came dashing into the room.
“Mr. Havisham, the guards…” A blue hand around his throat cut off the rest of his sentence and his eyes rolled wildly, taking in the intruders.
“Wait! Don’t kill him!” Dawn grabbed the arm dangling the man off the floor. Illryia loosened her hold and lowered the man so that he could rest some of his weight on his toes.
Faith pressed the gun between the man’s legs, grinning wickedly before turning to look at Dawn. “You had a question?”
Angel moved to stand in doorway, searching quickly up and down the hall for any other threats. He tried to keep an eye on the chanting Havisham as the women interrogated their prisoner, but his attention was drawn toward the tense figure of his Childe moving slowly toward the urn, a look of fear and desperation clouding his features. He had no doubt whose fate put that look on Spike’s face, and guilt squirmed through him for the ways that he had been treating Xander, knowing that throwing the man out of the hotel had opened the door for him to wander off on his own and into Havisham’s hands. Part of him attributed that capture to Harris’s demon-magnet status, but aesthetically, he had to admit that the man made a gorgeous picture trussed up and on display as a willing slave. He shook the image away and refocused on the interrogation. He could do nothing about the Spike’s increasing attachment to the missing man until after they stopped Havisham. For Spike’s sake, he only hoped that stopping the ritual would not mean losing Xander in the process.
“So smash the urn and the souls move on? To heaven or hell or wherever?” Faith confirmed conversationally as she pressed the gun deeper into the man’s groin.
“Y…Yes. The finished works are…effectively dead…no way for them…to return,” he gasped, fear rolling off him as he flicked his gaze between the women holding him and the sorcerer chanting in desperate determination.
“What about unfinished ones?” Angel growled. “How many of them are there?” Unlike Spike, he had read the description of the statues more carefully, noting that the process of creating them involved a complicated mix of magic and medicine.
Fear clamped the man’s lips closed.
“Answer the man,” Faith cocked the gun, all trace of amusement gone.
“Four, only four of them aren’t done yet!”
“Where are they?” Spike joined the conversation in full game-face, snarling. Xander had to be one of them. He couldn’t allow himself to think otherwise.
“Though there! The preparation room!”
“If they’re still alive, releasing their souls should return them to their bodies. Spike, Dawn, get in there and undo what ever Havisham has done to them. We’ll take care of the urn.” Angel directed.
“Angel,” Spike gave him a pleading glance, nodding subtly toward Dawn.
“We need Faith here, Dawn’s the better choice to help,” Angel explained sympathetically but resolutely. “Tell us as soon as you know they’re ready for us to release the souls.” He could tell that Spike wanted to prevent Dawn from seeing Xander that way, but it really couldn’t be helped, and they didn’t have time to argue.
Spike closed his eyes and nodded, recognizing the logic, but knowing that Xander would be mortified to have her find him as a sex slave.
Wordlessly, he strode toward the door that Havisham’s assistant indicated, leaving Dawn to shoot a confused glance at Angel before following.
Angel growled and punched the man dangling in Illyria’s grip, knocking him out. Illyria tossed the body, leaving the man crumpled on the floor braced up against the wall.
“Guess we were done with him,” Faith observed. “What’s up with Spike?”
“Any particular reason you chose not to aim that at his head?” Angel ignored the question and nodded toward the gun.
“Gotta threaten what’s most valued,” Faith grinned.
In the preparation room, Dawn stood with her hand delicately covering her mouth as she stared slack-jawed at the four tableaus. She blushed at the dungeon scenes with their incongruous IV stands attached to several of the participants. Flicking her eyes from one to another, she gasped aloud as she spotted a familiar figure. Xander sat ramrod straight with his back against the post that his leather collar was attached to with a large D-ring. His legs splayed apart on a V-shaped seat, while his arms were pulled back behind him and cuffed together behind the post. The costume left nothing to the imagination with a harness crisscrossing his chest and a leather thong allowing his cock to jut proudly in front of him.
Hearing the gasp, Spike turned her around and pointed her toward the computer station at the other end of the room.
“Need to figure out what to do to wake them up.”
“Spike, that’s…that’s Xander.”
“Please, Dawn. I know.” His troubled blue eyes met hers. “I didn’t want you to see him like this. He wouldn’t want that.”
She nodded shakily and went to the computer, clicking through the running programs to make sense of the process used to create the statues.
Spike moved quickly to Xander’s side, examining him with vampire senses. His breathing and heart rate were present, but much slower than they should be, even in sleep. He reached out to touch, but kept his fingers hovering just above the still cheek. Without making contact, he could feel the heat that still emanated from the man’s skin, and that familiar warmth gave him some hope.
“We’ll get you back, pet. I promise,” he whispered fiercely to the still figure. “Then I’m gonna kick your sodding ass,” he added. He looked around the room, and locating a lab coat hung over a chair by the desk, he quickly retrieved it and draped it over the front of Xander’s exposed form.
“Spike,” Dawn called. “I think they’re using a drug to slow down their systems.”
Spike moved over to the workstation, quickly scanning the screen then flipping through the pages scattered over the desk.
“We’ve got to remove the IV’s.”
“Is that safe?” Spike asked worriedly.
“It should be. Their bodies are trying to keep functioning. It’s the drug that’s putting them into stasis. See here? The drug slowly kills them, and then it’s the magic part that keeps them from, well, decomposing.” She looked vaguely ill as she considered that.
Spike nodded decisively and moved back toward the still figures. Seven of the eight figures were human, but only four of those had IV lines attached. He worked quickly, removing the needles and watching the blood that trickled out without being remotely attracted by its scent. Dawn continued to shuffle through the pages on the desk, making sure that there was nothing else that they needed to do.
“All done. Tell Angel.”
Dawn shot a quick glance at the worried vampire before ducking into the adjoining room to tell the others that they were ready to break the urn and release the souls inside.
Spike heard a tremendous crash that could only be the urn breaking, and a bright flash illuminated both rooms. Next to him, he heard Xander’s heart begin to pound as he gasped for breath.
“Nooooo!” Havisham howled as he watched the urn break. Although safe behind the shield, that same shield kept him from interfering as Illyria toppled the urn off the pedestal with a single kick.
Light flashed through the room, blinding them momentarily before all fell eerily still.
“Illyria, how quaint.”
Angel, Faith, and Dawn blinked against the spots dancing in their vision.
“Is that…” Faith asked incredulously as she rubbed her eyes.
“Riveda.” Illyria spoke derisively.
“It’s been too long.” Riveda’s orange eyes danced with mirth. Apart from the eyes, he appeared a mirror image of Rex Harrison from My Fair Lady. “And look at you now. My how the mighty have fallen.”
“Master,” Havisham breathed out worshipfully. Riveda cast him a look of disappointment.
“Excuse me just a moment, my dear,” he bobbed his head at Illyria before walking to Havisham, brushing the barrier away as he approached the kneeling figure. He rested a hand beneath the man’s chin, tilting Havisham’s head up to meet his eyes.
“Master…the souls…I had them prepared for you.”
“Yes, you did,” Riveda nodded good-naturedly. “But my good man, you no longer have them, and you no longer interest me.” As he spoke the last, he snapped Havisham’s neck, letting his body fall backward.
“Now,” Riveda dusted his hands together and turned toward the small group watching him with consternation. “Where were we?” Riveda strolled toward them.
Angel growled a warning.
“My, my, Illyria, the company you keep these days. Humans and a vampire?” He sneered. “How did you sink so low?”
“You do not belong here, minion.” Illyria spoke coldly.
“Minion?” Riveda affected an affronted stance that promptly turned vicious. “I am hardly a minion any longer. Your kind are dead and buried.” As quickly as it came, however, the enraged visage melted back into a condescending smile. “And you, the god walking around in human skin. It really is quite delicious.”
“Leave this place. Do not return.” The vampire and two humans watched the conversation, prepared for the tension to erupt into violence.
“Oh, I’ll go. After all, I have to, don’t I? Thanks to you and your reckless kind, casting demons from dimension to dimension as it pleased you.” He leaned close to Illyria as he hissed. “Know this. I will find a way to return. This little man may not have been able to give me what I need, but I have nothing but time, and I will regain the place that was taken from me in this world.”
Illyria blinked, unimpressed by the threat although the others exchanged concerned glances.
“Until then,” he mused pleasantly, “Since you have cost me quite a bit of time and effort to manifest here at all, not to mention taking my rightful offering from me, I believe I’ll take my recompense in the form of a bit of fun.” Without warning Riveda plunged his hand into Illyria’s chest. “Ah there it is,” he crowed as he yanked.
Before Angel or Faith could react, Riveda stepped back to watch Illyria’s countenance shimmer into Fred’s pale features.
Riveda sighed happily. “It’s good to be me. Have fun, my dear.” With that he winked out of existence leaving behind a hint of sulfur and English Leather.
“Angel?” Fred swayed uncertainly. Angel reached out to steady her but turned that into an embrace as she fell against him.
She looked up at him and blinked. “Handsome
man. Saved me from the monsters.” She grinned weakly before fainting.
Xander’s eyes fluttered open. He drew in gasping breaths against the feeling that he was suffocating, not recognizing that the firm strap around his chest was a seat belt.
“Easy, pet. Slow breaths now.” Spike reached over to stroke a cool hand down Xander’s chest, battening down his simultaneous relief and panic. It wouldn’t do to have Xander regain consciousness only to pass out again. “Almost home now.”
Spike clenched his jaw and drove just over the speed limit, wishing that he had been able simply to put the pedal down and get them there before Xander woke up, but getting pulled over and subsequently arrested for indecent exposure wasn’t exactly on the agenda. He had exercised more patience than he thought he possessed while helping to revive the other survivors then get Xander and the returned Fred out past the guards and back to their cars. Then there had been the brief debate over what to do about the other victims/statues. In the end the approaching sirens gave them no choice but to beat a hasty retreat and leave the manor and its occupants to the authorities. Fortunately, that meant that the remaining living victims would be safe in the hands of paramedics, so they could focus on their own wounded. Angel took Fred back to the hotel along with Dawn and Faith when Spike made it clear that he would deal with Xander alone.
“Spike?” Xander asked weakly, struggling against the seat belt.
Xander carefully turned his head, slowly realizing that he was in a moving car. He blinked and struggled to focus. The last thing he remembered was being in one of the rooms at the Chambre de Sade with a large man pressing a ball gag in his mouth. The dull ache in his body felt unfamiliar, however, as though his arms and legs were coming back from having been asleep rather than the sharp, bruising ache he expected to feel across his back and thighs from a session under a dominant’s hands. He flexed his fingers experimentally.
“Take it easy. It’ll take a bit for the effects to wear off.” Spike glanced at the shifting man next to him as he pulled up to the curb in front of Xander’s apartment.
Xander took in the lab coat he sported, frowning. “What happened?”
“Let’s get you inside, and I’ll explain.” Spike quickly got out of the car and walked around to open the passenger door. He unbuckled the seatbelt, and gently swiveled Xander’s legs out to rest on the ground.
“I’m not an invalid, Spike,” Xander groused as he pushed at the vampire. Each movement helped drive the ache away.
Spike growled, the evening having worn away at his patience. “Harris, you’ve been mostly dead all day and who knows what else before that. So shut up and let me get you inside.”
“Mostly dead?” What little color he had in his cheeks drained away.
The vampire ignored the question and hefted Xander into his arms, kicking the door closed. Once again, the door swung open at his approach, but this time no hurricane wind greeted him.
Spike settled Xander on the couch and stalked to the kitchen to pull a bottle of water from the refrigerator. He slammed it onto the counter, struggling to regain control of the emotions that threatened now that they were safely home.
“Spike?” Xander called out, concerned at the vampire’s agitation. When he didn’t get an answer, he staggered to his feet. Balance was an issue for a moment, but he managed to stay upright. Slowly he shuffled to the kitchen.
Spike heard the movement, but didn’t trust himself to turn or speak yet. He had nearly lost Xander tonight because of that fucking urge for self-destruction that the man had going on, and that fear translated into a furious urge to lash out.
“Hey, wanna tell me what’s going on?” Xander sounded small and lost as he leaned against the archway leading into the kitchen. The tense set of the vampire’s shoulders along with his own missing memories began to freak him out.
“Go sit down before you fall on your ass.” He barely managed to keep the growl from his voice.
“You said,” Xander swallowed heavily. “You said ‘mostly dead?’”
Spike turned and stormed over to Xander, taking him by the hand and guiding him back to the couch. The gentleness of his touch contrasted with the fury on his face. He pushed Xander down onto the couch and shoved the bottle of water at him. Xander took it obediently, but let it rest on his lap, only then noticing that underneath the lab coat he seemed to be wearing very little. He shifted uncomfortably, realizing that he must still be wearing gear from the club.
Spike paced in front of the couch, ignoring the blanket that floated off of the couch to settle around Xander’s shoulders seemingly of its own volition.
Xander startled, but then welcomed the warmth of the blanket. “Thanks, Dennis,” he murmured.
“Right then. Short version. You were part of the sacrifice that the Havisham bloke was making to Riveda. He dressed you up, posed you, tried to turn you into a bloody statue for his auction while he gave your soul to the demon in return for power.” Spike glared, standing with arms crossed.
Xander stared back blankly. “Pretty much the only thing I recognize in what you just said was Riveda, and I thought we didn’t know anything about the ritual that was happening. And why are you dressed like some dungeon master’s wet dream?” Xander blushed and gestured at the leather pants and harness that Spike sported underneath his duster.
Spike snorted. “Compared to you, this is conservative, pet.”
Xander blushed, marveling that he had any blood left to blush with when the rest seemed to be rushing south in response to Spike’s attire. The knowing smirk that appeared on Spike’s face told Xander that his arousal didn’t go unnoticed.
But the smirk quickly turned back into an angry frown as the vampire considered why Xander was dressed as he was.
“Fucking wanker named Havisham has been taking humans and demons, making them into S&M art objects.”
“Right, bloody ‘oh.’ He took you from his club Chambre de Sade, dressed you up as a slave and was ready to sell you along with his other creations. And at the same time, he managed to extract your soul to feed to a bloody demon!” Rage bled through as the image imprinted in his mind of Xander immobile and nearly dead blinded him to the hunched figure on the couch.
Of the many times that Xander had wished for the earth to open up and swallow him, this had to be the most desperate. Bad enough that Spike knew that he went to the club, but then to have to be rescued from being turned into a porn statue??
“Oh my god, did…were you…did anyone else see…” Panicked breathing started up again.
Before Xander could blink, Spike was next to him on the couch, petting his back soothingly.
“Breathe slow.” He quickly opened the bottle of water and held it to Xander’s lips. “Drink.”
Xander took a deep sip, forcing himself to calm down. Needing contact, he leaned backward into Spike’s touch.
The heat soaked into Spike’s hand and arm, reminding him that Xander was still here, still alive. He let that fact soothe his own fears. Xander wasn’t dead. They had reached him in time. Weariness slid in place of the fear and anger that had been animating him all night. He rested his head on the back of the couch.
Xander took in the strained lines on the vampire’s face and bit his lip guiltily. Even the brief overview of the evening gave him a sense of the seriousness of the trouble he had been in. Part of him didn’t want to know any more, but if he was ever going to show his face at the Hyperion again, he needed to know if everyone had seen him that way. Petty and ridiculous to worry about it when from the sounds of things he nearly died, but he kinda wanted to know if dying of embarrassment lay in his immediate future. He fidgeted, wondering what reaction he would be risking to ask again. Spike’s words prevented from needing to voice the question.
“We were all there. Took all of us to stop Havisham.”
Xander hung his head. Looks like no going back to the Hyperion then. God, facing the teasing that Faith would no doubt offer was one thing, but thinking of Dawn seeing him that way was downright mortifying.
“They’re just glad you’re safe, pet.”
“Shoulda just left me there,” Xander mumbled. His life was so screwed up. Only he could manage to go from a little illicit spanking to being put on display naked in who knows what compromising position. In his wallowing, he failed to notice that the cool arm pulled away.
“You ungrateful, arrogant git,” Spike was off the couch and pacing once more. Xander glanced up in surprise.
“We risk everything getting you out of there, and you’d rather be decorating some sick fuck’s bedroom?” Spike came to a stop in front of the couch. “What the bloody hell is going on in that lump you call a brain?”
Guilt and shame had Xander staring at the bottle in his hands, unable to meet that angry, accusing gaze.
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
“What exactly are you sorry for, Harris? For getting caught? For having your dangly bits on display for Dawn to get an eyeful? For damn near dying?” Spike sneered, hating himself for the harsh words, but unable to keep from striking out at Xander’s blatant giving up. He wanted to shake sense into the man, wanted to force him to face the memories that led him to hurt himself and nearly get him killed once more.
“What do you want me to say, Spike?” Anger began to spark. “I fucked up. Again. So I’m sorry, alright?” He tossed the blanket off his shoulders and struggled to his feet, determined to get to the bedroom and away from the conversation with the vampire, but Spike moved to block him.
“Tell me about this little club you’ve been going to pet.” Spike spoke through a low growl, causing Xander to blanch as he saw gold flashes in the eyes of the as yet human-faced vampire that stood in front of him. A warning breeze blew between the two men.
“Stay out of this, ghost boy. Me and the whelp need to have a little discussion about his choices.” Spike’s gaze never left Xander as he warned Dennis off, only to have the temperature in the apartment drop in response.
“It’s okay, Dennis,” Xander stammered. He swallowed heavily, reaching a decision with the sense that this conversation had been a long time coming. Taking a deep breath, he gave in to the inevitable. “I need to talk to Spike. He won’t do anything I don’t deserve.” The temperature rose slightly, but the breeze remained a subtle presence.
“I went because I wanted,” Xander started and stopped, “I needed…” He trailed off again in frustration as he dragged his fingers through his hair. The shame at having been caught out, not just by Spike but by everyone who knew him in LA, by Dawn for god’s sake, smothered his ability to come up with a glib explanation. He glanced down at the floor, unable to hold Spike’s gaze.
Spike watched Xander struggle and decided leaving the man to his own devices would get them nowhere.
“Bedroom.” He growled.
“Huh?” Xander’s head swung up to meet the fully vamped out visage, and he took an involuntary step backward.
“You have one minute to get your ass into the bedroom and present yourself.”
The absolute authority in Spike’s voice sent a shudder through Xander, lodging firmly in his groin even as his brain relished the opportunity to remit control of the conversation and its outcome completely into Spike’s hands. He nodded once and hurried to prepare himself.
In his wake, Spike took a deep breath, enjoying the scent of Xander’s lust as well as the man’s clean switch into submissive mode. He spoke quietly, knowing the ghost would be able to hear him.
“Ok, mate. I don’t know what you got up to when you were alive or what you picked up from the cheerleader, but if you don’t want your horizons broadened, I suggest you make yourself scarce. I’m not gonna hurt the boy more than necessary—and it’s gonna be him that determines how much that is—but he is gonna hurt. S’what he needs.” His voice became tinged with sorrow as he made that final observation. He felt a warm wind go by him toward the kitchen, and he took that for Dennis’s acquiescence. Shedding the duster he’d donned after leaving Havisham’s place, he reflected that he was at least dressed for the part he was about to play.
As Spike entered the room, he approved of Xander’s choice to turn off the bright overhead light, instead relying on the dim light from the bedside lamp. In the open space in front of the bed, Xander knelt, dressed only in eye patch and silver cock ring, head bowed and arms clasped behind him. Spike walked around him once, taking in the posture from all angles before coming to stand in front of Xander where he knew the man would be able to see his steel-toed black boots.
Slowly Spike unfastened his belt and slid it from around his waist. He looped the leather and snapped it once.
“Why are we here, Xander?” Toneless.
“Spike?” Xander asked in hesitant confusion.
“You on your knees to me. Tell me why we’re here.”
“Because you said…” Xander swallowed, unsure how to approach this. His dominants had never grilled him, just issued orders.
“Wrong.” The belt swung out and smacked across the man’s exposed back.
“Hey!” Indignant, Xander glared up at the placid vampire.
Spike’s gaze darkened and he flashed fang at the defiance. If this was the only way to help Xander, he would go through with it, but that meant no flinching and no backing down from the role he assumed.
“Eyes down,” he snapped.
Training had Xander obeying instantly despite being still off balance at accepting Spike’s dominance.
“You will speak when I tell you to, and Xander? You.” Smack. “will” Smack. “not” Smack “lie” smack “to me.” Spike took a moment to admire the red welts forming on the tanned skin. He swung the belt with far less than his actual strength. These initial blows were meant only to remind Xander who was in control, not to inflict excessive pain. Despite his fervent hope that it would not come to that, Spike had no illusions about how much the man would require physical pain in order to let loose the emotional pain that was slowly destroying him.
“Do you understand?”
“Yes, Master.” Xander felt himself relax into the familiarity of the role despite his uncertainty of what lay ahead.
Spike took in the stilled form, recognizing the training as a result of more than a couple of trips to the local dungeon. He planned to use that training to his advantage.
“Very good.” Spike gently ran his hands over the soft, dark hair. “So we will begin again.” He stepped back. “Let’s try a different question.” He circled Xander speculatively. He needed the man to understand what they were doing beyond the physical level that spoke to his unconscious craving for pain.
“How long have you been letting yourself be dominated like this?”
“For almost a year.” Xander stuttered out the answer, not yet ready to think about what led him to this.
“What led you to go the first time?” Of course, he should have known that would be the next question that the damn vampire would ask. Xander clamped his lips together, unwilling to speak the answer so obvious to both of them.
“Arms at your sides.” Spike spoke dispassionately as he moved to stand beside the bowed form. “Every time you refuse to answer, you earn yourself five.” He raised his hand and brought the belt down against bare skin five times in quick succession.
Xander’s heart rate accelerated and his cock hardened in response as he focused on the pain blooming across his back. More, he begged silently, wanting to lose himself in the hurt, but Spike kept his word and after five slapping blows of the belt, he returned so that his shoes once again came into Xander’s line of sight.
“This is not just about pain, Xander. This is about submission. You will obey me, and that means that you will answer me when I ask you a question. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Master.” His voice came out a bit rougher this time.
“Very good.” Once again, Spike reached out to stroke the man’s hair, needing to ingrain with touch the praise as well as punishment. He smothered a grin as he perceived Xander pressing lightly into the touch.
“Now, why didn’t you answer my question?”
“Um,” Xander attempted to collect his thoughts and form a safe answer. He settled on a truth that wouldn’t have the same raw emotional impact. “You already knew why I went, er, that first time.” He cringed internally at the blush he felt creeping across his cheeks as well as at the fact that while he wasn’t directly disobeying, he was skirting the lines.
“Hmm, suppose I do know the answer.” Spike affected a thoughtful tone that then turned hard. “But that doesn’t excuse you from answering when I ask you a question.”
“Yes, Master.” Shame and reluctance bled through the response.
“Why did you go to your club the first time?” The question recognized that Xander had a regular place to go in London.
“I…I needed…to be punished, Master.” Quiet, and incomplete, but an answer that Spike could work with.
“Why do you need to be punished, pet?” He stroked the down-turned head gently.
Xander shook his head silently, and Spike removed his soothing fingers, instead snapping the belt in warning.
“I…” he stuttered in automatic response. “I guess I’m just a sick guy, you know.” The last was said with a hint of defiance.
“Now, pet, you were doing so well.” Spike sighed although the reluctance to answer did not surprise him. “You answered my question, but you also agreed not to lie.” He snapped the belt once more, the crack sounding loud against Xander’s increasingly harsh breathing. The scent of fear and anticipation rose from the man at Spike’s feet, telling him that they would have to fight together for Xander’s submission to bring him to the place where he would be able to let go of the pain he held so closely, so possessively.
“On all fours.”
Xander complied with an immediate grace.
“Count for me,” Spike instructed as he swung the belt for the first blow.
“One,” Xander gasped out, surprised at the suddenly more painful strike of the belt. God, he’d never been dominated by someone with so much physical strength before, and he was all at once very aware of that fact. It increased both his fear and his arousal. Maybe Spike could give him what he had been searching for under so many other hands. Unlike those others, if Spike chose truly to hurt him, to kill him, he had the power to do just that no matter what Xander did in response. And unlike those others, Spike had a valid reason to kill him. These realizations raced through his mind even as he counted each of the fiery blows of the belt.
At ten, Spike stepped back, wrapping the belt around his hand as he struggled for control. Gods, the man presented a beautiful image, spread out with welts raised across his buttocks and thighs. Even as his heart ached for the pain that brought them to this place, his cock strained against the tight leather pants, longing to sink deep into the pliant body before him. Shaking off images of being buried balls deep in that ass, he moved once more into Xander’s line of sight.
Xander moved stiffly to his feet, keeping his eyes lowered, wary of what might come next. Despite a year under the hands of various dominants, he felt continually off-balance under Spike’s ministrations.
Spike stared at the man so visibly struggling to hold himself still. Sweat beaded on his forehead and slid down the side of his face. He’s hiding, Spike realized suddenly. Except instead of hiding behind the humor that served him so well with his friends, he hid now behind the mask of the submissive.
“Take off your eye patch.”
Xander balked. He never took off the patch, not where anyone could see him.
“Do I need to tell you again, pet?” Spike let the growl bleed through.
“I…” He reached up and fingered the patch uncertainly before steeling himself to obey. “No, Master.” Just another command, just another command, I can do this. He slid the patch off and offered it to Spike in a hand that shook visibly.
Spike took the scrap of material without comment, placing it on the dresser, relieved to see a more definite sign that they were cracking through Xander’s façades as the man’s struggle to remain in position became more apparent in the fine trembling that moved through his form.
The vampire’s frank appraisal had Xander ready to break into a distracting babble and retreat, and when Spike’s slim fingers came up to caress the ruined eye, Xander flinched backward, nearly stumbling over his own feet. A strong hand reached out to steady him.
Xander regained his balance and cursed himself for his tortured breathing that bordered on hyperventilating, or worse, on breaking into tears at the vulnerability he felt.
Holding him steady with one hand and gently stroking Xander’s chest with the other, Spike worked to soothe the man to the point where they could continue. Part of him wished he could stop now and pull the man into a crushing embrace to help drive the pain away, but that would countermand the goal for the evening. With that in mind, he released Xander and stepped back.
In response, Xander took a couple of deep settling breaths, bringing himself back to the submissive role that would both protect him and bring him the punishment he still needed so desperately. Pain would make him clean, make him better, save him from himself.
“Ready to continue?”
“Yes, Master. Please.” Xander hated the shaking in his voice, but couldn’t bear the thought that Spike might stop now.
“Right then.” Spike let the belt dangle at his side. “Let’s try that last question again. Why do you need to be punished, Xander?”
A shudder ran through him at hearing his name on the vampire’s lips in this context, but he focused on the question.
“I killed Buffy.”
The words, so stark and simple, hung between them. Spike reached out to run a cool soothing hand over Xander’s flushed cheek.
“That’s right. You killed Buffy.”
Xander wanted to pull away from the comforting touch that confused him. He admitted what he did, and that should bring pain, not comfort. Instead he schooled himself to obey and held still as the fingers caressed his skin.
“Why did you kill Buffy?” Spike continued his stroking as he noted the sudden frantic jump in heart rate and breathing.
“Spike?” Xander asked uncertain how to answer.
“Why did you kill Buffy?”
“I…I…Ethan…Ethan Rayne…he turned me into a vampire,” he stuttered through the facts. The hand left his face.
“That’s how, not why.” Spike observed. “One more chance, pet. Why did you kill Buffy?”
Xander remained silent, searching for a way to answer the question to the vampire’s satisfaction.
“That’s five more. Bend over, hands on your thighs.” He watched as Xander moved quickly to obey.
He welcomed the pain as the belt whipped across his buttocks, causing his cock to bounce and twitch. He couldn’t answer this question, couldn’t look at the whys when the fact of what he had done already overwhelmed him. Tears sprang to his eyes as the five strokes blazed against his already burning ass.
Spike heart ached, but he clamped down on the pity that rose in the face of the man’s pain and confusion. He had no doubt that he could use this route to finally reach the core of the pain, a core of guilt and betrayal. To stop now could mean losing that chance and condemning Xander to his personal demons.
Xander shakily straightened up.
“You’re doing so well, pet.” Once again the gentle fingers carded through sweat-dampened hair.
A tear slipped down Xander’s cheek, set loose by the combination of shame and praise. Spike wiped the tear away with his thumb and brought it to his lips as a precious gift, trying to take Xander’s pain into himself and share it.
“Tell me about being a vampire, Xander.” He resumed his gentle petting.
“It was…I could see and hear…” Xander struggled to convey the experience, “it seemed like everything. And…I was so strong.” His voice fell to a whisper. “Hungry, so hungry. And…” he faltered, “so angry. I wanted…I wanted to hunt…and hurt…and kill.” The last came out strangled.
“Yeah, that’s the demon. Wants. Takes what it wants. Pure instinct.” Spike soothed the trembling arms that still managed to stay at the man’s side even though the vampire could sense Xander’s desire to break form and wrap those arms around himself.
“Tell me about the anger. Was the anger why you attacked Buffy?”
“She didn’t know, at first. She couldn’t sense me as a vampire, I think, because it wasn’t real exactly, just a spell. But when she came close, I must have…must have changed, and she stepped back. Not afraid, not really, but I could see that she didn’t want to believe it. And then,” his voice took on a harshness, “she pitied me. She felt sorry for me, and I got so angry, so tired of being the victim of every evil that wandered through town.” The shuddering became more pronounced and words were gasped out.
“Why did you kill Buffy?” Spike returned to his original question.
“I hated her.” Tears clogged Xander’s throat. “When I looked at her…I hated her.”
“Not because you were a vampire.” Spike made it into a statement rather than a question.
Xander shook his head in misery, gut clenching with shame at the admission. How could he hate his friend, the beautiful woman who sacrificed herself to save the world, to save him, time and time again?
“Why did you hate Buffy, Xander?” Spike pressed.
“I didn’t want to hate her. It’s not her fault, I know it’s not her fault.” Xander insisted through his tears.
“We’re not talkin’ about her, mate. I wanna know about you. Why did you hate Buffy?” Spike could see what it was costing Xander to have admitted that much. The most loyal of all the Scoobies, he loved his friends to extremes, so to recognize that he also hated one of his closest friends had to be tearing him apart.
“When she looked at me, I could tell, she blamed herself…that I was a vampire.” Xander paused, pulling in a deep breath. “I blamed her, too. For all of it. For everything.”
“Everything?” Spike prompted softly when it appeared that Xander wasn’t going to continue.
Choked off whimpers forced their way past Xander’s closed lips, and Spike gave in to the need to hold the trembling form. Xander brought up his hands to cling to the vampire as the pain rolled over him.
“I hated her for all the pain, all of our suffering. For my eye. For Tara. For Anya. For Jesse. I looked at her and the hate…it took over. I killed her because I hated her and I finally had the power to hurt her back.”
Xander pressed closer, clenching his eyes shut, focusing on the strong arms holding him together.
“But she wouldn’t fight, not really. She tried to stay out of my way, but she wouldn’t hit me. The more she moved away, the more I wanted to hurt her.” He shuddered, every muscled tense. Suddenly he couldn’t bear being held, being comforted as the words spilled out and he pushed at Spike, needing to get away from the comforting embrace.
Spike allowed Xander to push him away. He stepped back as Xander dropped immediately to his knees, arms clasped in front of him, head down. Spike struggled with his control once more as arousal, sorrow, and anger all thrummed through him. He wanted to rail at the Powers for having let this happen, wanted to tear Rayne limb from limb for playing with Xander and Buffy so cruelly. Reluctantly, he also recognized that part of him wanted to punish Xander as he requested to be punished, to give in to the rage at the man who had murdered the woman who had at one time been his obsession with light and love, to exact revenge.
He shook his head. He could well imagine the fight: Xander as the enraged vampire set on the kill while Buffy held back, unwilling to kill a friend, demon or no. At the same time, a small voice in the back of his head whispered that maybe Buffy had finally given in to the dance he had explained to her all those years ago, and he couldn’t help but wonder if the call of heaven and rest played a role in causing the most accomplished slayer in history to fall before a single, untrained pseudo-vamp.
In response to Xander’s plea to return to the submissive, to the punishing pain, Spike picked up the belt he had allowed to drop when he had moved to embrace the man. He ran the leather through his hands, considering, not entirely trusting that he could safely step back into the role of dominant.
Spike flicked out a single lash across the strong back.
“Why am I punishing you, pet?”
“Please, Spike, please just hit me…I can’t…no more questions.” With the images of Buffy assaulting him, Xander couldn’t think. He needed the pain to make it all okay, to make him okay.
The belt dropped to the floor in front of him.
“If you can’t tell me, if there isn’t a reason, then this stops.”
“No, no, please, Spike.” Xander crumpled to the floor. Without the physical pain to ground him, he could feel his heart breaking, pulling him to pieces, shattering him. Strong arms wrapped around him once more and picked him up, settling them both on the bed. He gasped against the tears clogging this throat.
“Let it go, pet. Let it all go.” He gently rocked the
man as the tremors turned into full-blown sobs as Xander poured out all the pain that had been poisoning him for so long.
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