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part six

The Watchers had stayed. Xander wondered if they were going to reread every report that Giles had filed, and all of his old journals. The were obviously reevaluating certain assumptions they had previously made. He tried to not let it disrupt what passed for normal life for Dawn and the rest of the gang. But having the academics loitering around the shop - or worse asking inopportune questions - was unsettling. Apparently Buffy not staying dead the first time, and splitting the Slayer line, had interfered with their ability to find the new Slayer. They had to wait until they stumbled across a girl dusting vampires, or wait for Faith to die. Xander wasn't sure they
planned on waiting. It came to a head Wednesday night when shouting erupted over the test they had run on Buffy when she had turned eighteen. They implied Giles had weakened Buffy by interfering, and Giles maintained the whole test undermined the credibly of the organization. Xander figured that with the 'test', and the attempt to whack Buffy while she was in Faith's body, and then the 'we will deport Giles if you do not follow our orders' maneuver, the Watchers had no credibility. Somewhere along the way they had moved from the prey we protect, to the predatory against which we must guard the pack. *And again with the Hyena thoughts, bad Xander.* Especially since Dawn had slipped like a ghost off to the practice room. He saw Spike, in his usual spot lounging on the staircase, watching her and almost get up to follow, but he met Xander's eyes and gave a tilt of his head in the direction Dawn had vanished. Xander nodded to him and casually followed her back into the practice room. He was quiet at the door for a few seconds, just watching her pound the heavy bag with her little fists. He was struck, not for the first time, by how much she was like Buffy, except for the whole strength thing; when she hit it the bag it barely moved.

He slowly paced the length of the room, stopping just behind the bag. He placed both hands on it and asked, "Want me to spot you on it?"

She answered with a strange blend of laughter and tears. "Xander."

Frustrations, grief, anger; so much in one word. He pulled her under his arm, wondering when she had gotten taller than Willow, and steered her over to the inner wall. They slid down the wall and sat on the floor. Xander kept his arm across Dawn's shoulders and she sniffed and wiped her eyes on the back of her hand. The arguing in the other room had quieted, but it still reminded Xander of so many nights lying awake listening to his parents and feeling so powerless. "I feel like I'm always crying," she said resting her head on his shoulder.

"Yeah, me too." Dawn went very still at his soft words.

"You cry? Wait I didn't mean that the way it sounded. It's always seem're just always there. You're always ready...for whatever.... I don't think I'm saying what I want to say." She had tensed up while speaking and Xander lifted the hand from her shoulder and gently stroked her hair.

"I know. It's okay. It's all going to be okay." Well, Buffy would still be dead, and Joyce. They still hadn't heard from Mr. Summers, and wasn't that odd. But tonight was going to end and soon the Watchers would leave. They had people they trusted to watch their backs and their pack, such as it was, would stand together against whatever life or death threw at them. He hoped she understood that, because he wasn't sure he could put it into words.

"How do you do it?" she asked.

"Do what?" What had he done? Xander wondered if he should have tapped Willow and tag-teamed this conversation.

"How do you know what to do? What to feel? Who to ...I don't... Xander, everything is so complicated." She punctuated her frustration with a light rap on his chest. Xander remembered when Dawn was younger and cried tears of frustration because Buffy would bar Dawn from her room because she was always pestering. Yet the reason Dawn pestered was because she wanted desperately to be with the 'big kids'. He used to take her down to the kitchen, because hey, the kitchen, food. He would make up outrageous stories for her with Willow, Buffy and himself as the main characters. Never Angel, unless he was a monster, although sometimes Giles made an appearance as an oracle or a wizard. She would listen so seriously, all the while serving up whatever dessert Joyce had made the night before. Xander couldn't really grasp that all those memories of milk and pie had been planted by the monks. He bet Dawn couldn't really wrap her mind around it either, even knowing she's the Key.

So instead of answering her questions he said, "A very long time ago, when the world was new, people discovered that not everything was what it seemed. They knew the world was dangerous. It was very wild. You could die from a fall or a fire; wild animals saw you as dinner and wouldn't hesitate to attack. There wasn't always food to eat. Crops would fail, and animals died. People would die and other people didn't always know what killed them. But
they dealt with it, because it was part of life. Life was short. Twenty was old. People started their families at fourteen or fifteen and often never lived to reach thirty.

"One day something horrible happen, no one knows what because it was so bad hardly anyone lived through it, and those who did where so traumatized they could never speak of it. The most horrible thing about it was that it wasn't natural. It was supernatural. It was outside the normal rhythms of live and was so devastating because the only way to stop it was to step outside of the sacred balance.

"One day a great king approached this great Evil and said 'I have come to fight you.' And the Evil replied 'Why do you fight me?' The king answered 'This is my world, and I will not have you slaughter my people.' and the
king was no more. Another day a famous hero confronted the Evil and said 'I will destroy you.' And the Evil replied 'Why will you destroy me?' 'I would rather die fighting for what is right, then live under your rule,' the hero replied, and was no more. A holy man was next to oppose the Evil and he said, 'I banish thee.' And the Evil replied 'Why do you banish me?' 'You are unnatural. You are not of this place. The balance must be restored.' and the holy man was no more.

"Now, people had pretty much given up hope. The apocalypse was over and the world had lost. The Evil would always be a part of this world and there was no use fighting it.

"Then, quite unexpectedly; without the pomp and ceremony of the King; or the war drums of the hero; or even the incense of the holy man, a young girl approached the Evil. There was a tremble to her step, but she straightened
her back and climbed the steps to the dais where the Evil sat on its throne of skulls. She said 'I'm going to stop you from killing any more people.' And the Evil replied 'Why will you stop me from killing any more people?' and the girl said 'Because I love them.' And the Evil was no more.

"Now that wasn't the last evil, you know. We still fight it today. But what you have to remember is it started with just the girl. She wasn't alone. Even then there were people who considered her to be their girl. They loved her. Back then, they were her parents, her siblings, her friends, and her lovers. They fought alongside her, helping where they could, sometimes just loving her, letting her know she wasn't alone. Eventually, as in any story of a life, that life ends. The girl died. But when she died another was chosen. The people, who loved the first girl, helped the next one. They passed on what the first girl had learned, hoping the knowledge would help the next girl live longer, hoping it would give her some advantage in the fight that never ends.

"But they were just people, and the girl never lived long. It was hard to reach out to the newest girl. Hard to love her, or hard to let themselves love her when they knew no matter what they did, no matter how hard they tried, they would lose her too. So they organized and concentrated on teaching and training, but never loving, because that would interfere. They became the Watchers. And they record and research and do everything but the most important thing.

"Which is why, in answer to your question, I know everything will be fine. You see," Xander leaned over and kissed Dawn on the forehead. "It's not complicated if you remember the most important thing. Love the girl. Everything else is just window dressing."

The clapping startled them both. They looked over and saw Spike and Giles standing at the doorway. Giles ignored Spike's applause, but added, "While not historically accurate, once again you've managed to reduce a quite
complex dispute into its basic components. Quite well done, Xander." Giles entered the room and looked down at Dawn as she huddled against Xander. "It is getting late, dear, and it doesn't seem likely that we'll finish here in
the immediate future. Tara and Willow have extended an invitation for you to spend the night with them. Would that meet with your approval, Dawn?"


Dawn love staying at the dorms, and even though she did it about once a week now she still would get bouncy and excited. At least she got, as bouncy and excited as she ever got since That Day. No, she didn't need to stop at
Giles' place for an overnight bag. Yes, she had clothes at Willow's room. Yes, she had a toothbrush in her knapsack. Why did he want to know why she carried a toothbrush? Can we leave now please? Xander liked seeing her like this, she seemed almost the same as before. As Spike followed the girls out onto the dark streets of Sunnydale, Xander paused at the door. He caught Giles' eye and raised an eyebrow. He didn't feel comfortable leaving Giles alone and outnumbered.

"It's fine, Xander, we're only going to exchange information."


As he nodded and turned to leave, he noticed that slime lady and almost-impaled guy were giving him uneasy looks. That reminded him that no one had referred to him as 'the boy' during this visit. He wasn't sure he found that very reassuring.


By Friday, things were back to normal. Sunnydale normal. The Watchers had left the day before. Giles had hinted that they might stop by the LA operation and have a chat with Wesley and Cordy. Remembering their original
meeting with Spike during their pre-Glory Buffy investigation, Xander had to wonder just how many crosses and stakes they would need to be in the same room with an unchipped Angelus. *But all in all, better them than us,*
Xander sighed. It hadn't been very Hellmouthy lately. Except for the dragon. Vamp activity was down and the Glory thing had wiped out a great number of demons. Spike was scowling as he stalked back to where Willow and Xander waited in the cemetery.

"Anything?" Willow sounded disappointed, and Xander was hoping it didn't mean there was a spell in the testing stage she was preparing to use. Spike just shook his head and stomped off in the other direction. As Willow and
Xander followed in his wake she said "I'm going to call it a night - we want to leave early for the Faire tomorrow. We're going to rent costumes, gotta admit I'm almost as excited as Dawn."

"You just keep an eye on her, witch," Spike growled back at them. Willow frowned and looked as if she was going to give Spike more than just a piece of her mind, and not in the Glory sense, because eww. She took exception to
Spike's attitude that no one but him was capable of taking care of Dawn.

So Xander poked her gently in the ribs and teased, "Awhh, he's worried about you. You know in Spike-speak what he just said was 'even though you're leaving Sunnydale, don't let your guard down. It's a big bad world out
there.' And on behalf of myself may I just say, renting costumes, my you do like to live dangerously."

Willow poked him back. Then she said goodnight, and walked off towards campus. So Xander and Spike followed her back to the dorm, then walked in silence until they were back at the cemetery. "She's right, this place is dead." Xander winced at his own pun, and gave Spike an apologetic smile.

"Bronze?" Spike asked raising an eyebrow.

"Too many kids. My place? It's quiet." *Oh God! Did I just proposition him? Does he think I just propositioned him? If I did, do I want to have done it? Do I want to do it? Do IT? Oh God? He's not laughing, and hey, we're walking in the direction of my apartment Can he hear my heart racing? Wait, get off the train, Xander, you're not fifteen, it's entirely possible that he assumed that after the week of the Watchers you don't want to spend the
evening in a club packed with sweaty bodies and loud music.*


This is nice, Xander thought. They sat on the couch, feet up on the coffee table, with only the glow cast by the television illuminating the room. On the way back from the kitchen to get a couple of beers, Xander had noticed
that the lighting made Spike look eerie and otherworldly; not scary, just beautiful and aloof. Now that they sat side by side in the dim quiet room he reexamined his attraction to Spike. Spike was attractive, very attractive.
Hell, he reeked of raw sensuality; Xander could admit that. Willow was smart, the Hellmouth was dangerous, and Spike was sexy, there were just certain truisms you knew down to your bones. A commercial came on and Spike
turned and caught Xander looking at him.

"You sure she'll be all right?"

"She'll be with Willow. Can you imagine what would happen if anyone crossed Willow?" Spike snorted and looked back at the TV. Just to rattle his chain, Xander added, "Summer vacation is starting soon. How are you going to handle her being out on her own every day?" He regretted it the minute he saw Spike's wild-eyed look of panic. Spike was willing to let Dawn stay with Giles, although Xander knew he occasionally stood guard outside, smoking and making it clear to everyone that what was inside was his and they had better stay clear. But it was obvious that the idea of all those hours of sunlight when Xander was at work and Spike could not follow Dawn did not appeal to him. "It'll be okay."

"I'm not Dawn, whelp. I know what's what. Someone finds out what she is, there's a hundred different rituals they could use her in." And so not a reassuring thought. *Thanks, Spike.* Xander sighed. He set his empty bottle on the table, and tucked the leg closest to Spike underneath him. He put his hands on his knees and looked into those angry blue eyes.

He took a calming breath and used the same tone he had used with the guidance counselor, "That's not going to happen. No one knows but us and we are not telling anyone. Listen, I know you made promises to Buffy. I respect
that. But you're not alone in this." He tried to lighten the mood and added, "Look at it this way; even I managed to survive growing up on the Hellmouth with Willow's help."

Spike was not amused. "You had Buffy."

"Dawn has us, she's not alone. You're not alone. None of us are alone in this; we never will be." That was when Xander lost his mind. At least that was what he told himself. If fact he could hear the same voice that had been
screaming at him about propositioning Spike earlier asking just what the Hell he thought he was doing. What he was doing was leaning forward and, oh yes he was, he was kissing Spike on his bottom lip. When Spike didn't pull
back, Xander parted his own lips just enough to take that bottom lip in between them. Spike surprised him with a low-throated rumbly noise. Xander felt quite daring when he raised his hand and tentatively stroked the side of Spike's face. He pulled back to watch his fingers trace the sharp angles of Spike's face. When their eyes met, Xander was at a loss for words. Words normally bubbled up, with no consideration to his brain, but now they were gone and he had no idea what to say to the naked hunger in Spike's eyes. So he tried the truth, "I...I really don't want to be alone tonight. Will... will you stay?"

And it had been that easy. There hadn't been a mad rush to the bedroom. None of the frantic scrambling like with Anya. There had been more soft kisses on the couch while they slowly undressed and took time to admire each other's bodies with glances and caresses. It was much like Xander had always imagined his first time would be, before Faith had introduced him to the joys of autoerotic foreplay. When they moved to the bedroom Spike had asked for lube as if this was something Xander did every night. "I think we'll have to improvise. Oil?" Spike smiled. It was a real smile. Not sneering or maniacal, it was the kind of smile Xander had only seen directed at Dawn.
*And isn't that a disturbing thought when I'm naked.* By the time Xander's conscious had finish chastising him for thoughts of Dawn when sex was imminent Spike had come out of the bathroom with couple towels and the
bottle of oil.

"It's likely to get a mite messy, Pet." Spike said in answer to what Xander was sure was a look of utter bewilderment at the towels. Spike laid one of them on the bed and positioned Xander in front of it and gently pushed him back until he was first sitting and then lying on the towel. Spike lay down beside him and brushed Xander's hair off his face and, well, petted him. He caressed his face and stroked his hair, but it was different than it had been on the couch, more soothing.

"You've never done this before have you?" Was that Spike? His voice was barely above a whisper, even his accent sounded different. *Oh God, do not let me start crying. I started this and now he's treating me like a skittish

"I...Spike, I think...Please, I think I really need this." Xander looked over into those blue eyes and willed him with all his might to see him as an adult, not some scared kid, holding on to anything in a world turned upside down. And it worked. It must have worked because Spike was kissing him. Oh was he kissing him; it felt so good. These weren't the teasing; tasting kisses from before, these were invasive and possessive, demanding and colored with lust and desire. He was breathless when Spike stopped to open the oil. Unexpectedly, he poured some on Xander's stomach. Spike laughed at his gasp as the cool liquid contacted his skin. But Xander didn't have a chance to say anything, because Spike's mouth was back, stealing his breath and scattering his thoughts. Spike dragged his fingertips thought the oil and began to coat first his cock and then Xander's balls with the slippery substance. Spike's hands were never still and when the first finger breached and then slid deep into Xander's body, Xander reach blindly for Spike. Spike made the softest shhhing noises while Xander whimpered with need. A second
finger moved inside and sparks exploded behind Xander's eyes. He tried to pull Spike closer but he seemed so far away. Xander gulped in air like a drowning man, and managed to say "Please..."

Spike crooned in that strangely accented soft voice, "Luv, this will be easier for you on your stomach."

"No. Here. Stay. Please. Stay." Xander had no idea what he had just said, but it didn't sound like English. He moaned and prayed Spike spoke whatever language that was. By the size of the grin on Spike's face whatever Xander had said had pleased him. For a moment he seemed to be moving away, but a whimper from Xander summoned him back for a kiss. Spike positioned himself between Xander's legs, and lifted those legs up and over his shoulders. It
was only then that he removed his fingers, and almost before Xander could register the lose, he began to slowly replace them with his cock. Xander had expected many things, but not this, never this. He had never felt so
connected. He looked up and Spike was so close, so near. This felt right. Spike moved. He moved so slowly, his eyes locked on Xander, so focused. Xander felt his face start to hurt and realized it had be too long since he
smiled this much.

He laughed, out loud. Which made Spike grin and ask, "Good, Pet?"

"Yes!" *Yes, God yes. I need this. Don't stop. Wait what's he laughing at? Please tell me I'm not saying this out loud?* "Move, damn it!" Spike moved. With every thrust Xander felt fuller and closer to him. Xander didn't know
when Spike's hand had started to stroke his cock in time to those thrusts but he felt his whole body shudder as if he hadn't come in years. A few more thrusts, and before his own seed could cool on his stomach he felt Spike
follow him over the edge. After Xander's breathing returned to normal - Spike's had never stopped being normal since being normal meant that it wasn't there - Spike slowly slipped out of Xander's body. *Oh yeah, the towels were a good idea.* Xander felt boneless. He wanted to reach out to Spike, who was wiping them both down with the oil and remaining towel. Spike seemed to sense that, and after sealing the bottle, tossed it and the towels in the general direction of the bathroom. Spike tucked Xander under his arm, and kissed his temple and stroked his face, rubbing his thumb against Xander's bottom lip.

Xander's eyelids were starting to droop and he was surprised to hear Spike whisper, "Thank you."

Xander made the colossal effort and turned his head to look into Spike's eyes. He really intended to say thank you back, but really good sex sometimes disconnects the brain so what came out just before he plummeted into sleep was, "I need you."


part seven

How the hell did that happen? Xander couldn't tell if it was minutes or hours later that he found himself blinking into the darkness. He wasn't sure if he was seeing or imagining the vague shapes. It was his room. Since his brain knew what was there, maybe it was supplying impressions of what he thought he should see. What was real? Did perception make reality? *Hey, no, stop that, see this is why I don't think,* his internal babble shouted at him. *Here, there be dragons.* He suppressed a sigh and admitted to himself that questioning reality was probably a bad idea for someone who had lived though the lowering of the walls between the worlds. *Hey, wait, there had been a dragon, hadn't there?* The day Buffy died. The day Anya left. The day Dawn became a ghost of her former self. The day Giles started to doubt himself. The day Spike had transformed into the adult of their little group. Willow was still Willow, but between trying to take care of all of them and trying to hold herself together even she was starting to look worn around the edges. If she hadn't had Tara with her constantly, Xander thought, she
might just shatter into a million pieces. She was his best friend, his soul-sib, he would have cut off a limb for her, but that wouldn't help and he didn't know what would. He wanted to ease her stress, her fear, whatever it was that seemed to vibrate through her spirit and made her appear even tinier and more fragile than he had always seen her. But he didn't know how. Didn't know what to say. Didn't know if anything he did would help, or if it would be that one last thing that would fracture her, finally breaking the strongest one of them.

About six feet ahead of him the flat black shape was a window. He lay on his side, looking with all his might, trying to make out the outline of the window. It should be easy being that there was no curtains or blinds. He'd
left it that way so the sun would save him from sleeping in and losing his job. No curtains, Xander thought. Or blinds. Sun. That could be a problem for the undead guy whose arm was wrapped around his waist. The undead guy pressed so tightly against Xander's back that he would have been breathing down his neck, if undead guys breathed. *Hummm, morning after conversation, versus removing recent lover from the bed with a dustbuster, tough call.* Xander didn't have a dustbuster, so he stealthily slipped out of the bed. He had some supplies left, from when he had built the training room at the shop, in the storage closet near the balcony. He turned a light on in the living room and sorted out what he would need. *Hammer and nails are out if I don't want shot by the neighbors,* he mused. He settled on a heavy drop cloth and some wood clamps, it was quick and quiet and would do until he could rig something more permanent. *Hey? What? More permanent? See, thinking bad. Bad Xander.* He left the bedroom door open while he worked, enough to shed light on the window but not on the bed. He made sure that the cloth wasn't heavy enough to pull down the clamps or what they were clamped to, and soon had it secured. He spent more time fussing with the edges to make sure no light would sneak in than it had taken to get, and hang the drop cloth. Room temperature hands gently slid from his waist to his abdomen, stroked down and back out to his hips. His hips were pulled back until his ass came into firm contact with his naked lover.

"You've got a gallant streak in you, Pet." Spike purred in the low growly voice that bent Xander's mind into abstract shapes. "You really are a white knight, aren't you?" Xander could hear the smirk in that voice, but it was
gentle teasing, from the gentle man whose cock was twitching against his bare ass. He turned slowly, luxuriating in the feel of Spike's hands never leaving his body as they slid across said ass, and stomach, to end up on the
opposite sides they had held before. He tilted his head until their foreheads touch, and thought again how perfectly Spike's height complimented his own.

"Well," he said suppressing a smirk of his own, "I don't have the proper cleaning supplies for combustible lovers." Xander moved his parted lips to just barely brush them across Spike's lips. Once, twice, and in between the brief contacts his own warm breath ghosted against Spike's mouth, and the patented Spike Smirk was replaced by a genuine smile. Xander kept teasing and soon felt a hint of wetness as Spike upped the ante and brought his tongue into play. Spike's hands slid back and down, until they firmly grasp both cheeks of Xander's ass. Xander felt a wide grin spread across his face as he desperately tried to continue the kiss/sparring, maneuvered his lover
back into bed, and not break out laughing. It was almost impossible to keep up the persistent worrying. He wasn't alone; he had to trust the others not to break the way they trusted him. *And hey?* "White knight?" He had never
told anyone what Angelus had said outside Buffy's hospital room, just that he had come to kill her and left after the making the appropriate threats.

"Think I didn't hear about that? You really pissed him off, Pet." Xander leaned over and claimed Spike's mouth. *This is so not a person we should be talking about during sex. We are going to have sex, aren't we?* Just to
confirm it, Xander trailed kisses across Spike's jaw and down his neck. When he met the bunch of muscle above his collarbone he gave it a soft nip.

Completely independent of his brain, which wanted nothing to do with thoughts of Angel while feeling up Spike in bed, his mouth said, "Oh, yeah. Nothing like threatening to die loudly and messily to really get under Angel's skin." Since Spike had made such a nice noise the first time, Xander nipped him again.

There was a blur of movement and Xander found himself underneath Spike staring at his game face. His gold eyes reflected the limited light from the living room. "Now Pet, it's not nice to bite when I can't bite back." For a
moment, Xander just lay stunned, looking up into the face of a demon. He knew Spike was soulless. He had always prided himself on being aware of his place on the food chain. He had never trusted Angel. He knew, chipped or unchipped, that Spike was a dangerous killer. But Spike was his friend, he was sure of that. Spike was pack. He trusted him. Slowly he lifted his hand to stroke the ridges of Spike's face. Xander slid his hand to the back of
Spike's neck and gently pulled him down. He kissed him softly and then slipped his tongue in to slide against his fangs. In a voice so quiet it belied the ridges and fangs Spike said, "You really have no idea how special you are, do you Luv?" Xander didn't have an answer to that so he just pressed their cocks together and began to thrust against his lover. After they came, Spike again cleaned them up and pulled Xander against him. This time Xander faced him and wrapped Spike in his arms as well.


part eight

The routine changed over the next few weeks, or rather evolved. Dawn's school let out, Tara and Willow started a new summer schedule. The patrols continued, but usually ended with Spike coming home with Xander. Giles hired Jonathan of all people to help in the shop. *Well, it's not like he doesn't have an interest in magic, and at least this way we can keep an eye on him.* Dawn was with them in the evenings, but spent most days with her friends;
swimming, shopping, doing girl stuff. Xander was surprised she came to him instead of Giles to ask things like, 'can I go to the mall, can I sleep over at Stephanie's, can I go to the concert?' The answers were 'Yes you can go to the mall, just be back before sunset. Who's Stephanie? You're staying inside all night, right? You'll call if her parents are aliens or demons or robots? You can go to concert only it you promise not to get pissed when Spike and I follow you; those things are a freaking smorgasbord. You don't want to get eaten do you? Err... wait! -- you don't...erm ah Spike help me out here.' All in all Dawn was amazingly tolerant of their smothering... ah, hovering... err, concern.

The first time she caught Xander who had oh so casually stopped by the mall after work to shirts, yeah shirts, she had let him lie himself into a corner. She had spotted him unobtrusively using one of the security
mirrors to watch her, while pretending to check out the merchandise. Dawn had been with a group of three other girls, and had disengaged herself with to the sound of catcalls and giggles. "What. Are. You. Doing. Here." Poke.
Poke. Poke. A sharp little finger to the rib cage punctuated each word.

"What? Shopping." Disbelieving look, and raised eyebrow. *Hey that's Willow's look.* "Dawn, I shop." *Oh oh, arms crossed, foot tapping, time for a defensive diversion.* "You think it's easy to look this good? The Xander style takes constant maintenance." *Okay, it wasn't that funny*

"You are not buying that shirt." *Dear God, she sounds like Cordelia. Wait, what's wrong with this shirt?*

"You don't like orange and pink?"


This just proved lying was bad. The whole 'Willow said to kick his ass, Buffy' thing and the Amy spell deal, which in addendum had been blackmail, not lying, but still had spooky scary end results, so there you go. Here he was, shopping with Dawn, Spike and the witches. The whole hell concept was so overrated. Why worry about the afterlife when you could suffer immediately for the consequences of your actions, right here on Earth. *I should have stuck with the truth. Yes, Dawn, I am stalking you. It's not that I don't trust you, I just wanted to make sure none of your friends were going to turn into a hyena. But no, I had to go with the 'I desperately need new clothing' excuse. So help me, if any of them show me one more black shirt I'll bang my head against the wall. You'd think they've forgotten I have a pulse.*

"How about this one?" Tara held up a dark gray, loose-knit sweater, and Xander went over to look at the display from which she had selected it.

"Hey, it comes in green." *Well light green, but it's a larger size and that's what's important.*

"Spike," Dawn cupped her hand in front of her mouth and whispered loudly. "Do you think Xander is colorblind?"

After two hours and buying more clothes than he could possibly ever need, Xander manipulated... ah, maneuvered the gang into the food court. Willow had gone to the Potato Patch to get fries and drinks and had dragged Spike
with her to help carry. Tara and Dawn were having a hushed discussion about Willow's birthday dinner. It wasn't a surprise. Willow had suggested that they stay in this year, but Dawn and Tara were keeping the menu secret.

"I'll get the cake." Xander said, when he heard they were now having salmon.

"Xander." Dawn gave him the junior varsity version of the Buffy pout.

"I want to do something, too." Xander saw he pout and raised her big eyes.

She laughed, "You want to get the cake so that you can be sure it's chocolate cake with chocolate icing."

"Dawn." *Busted*

"You're supposed to try to get something Willow would like."

*Yes, Joyce.* "I think I know what Willow likes." *Did she really think she could win this?*

"Okay, what does Willow like?" Dawn had that 'girls remember everything about each other' smile, and was daring him to guess wrong.

"Willow likes to make people happy. Chocolate makes me happy. Therefore Willow likes chocolate." Xander folded both arms on the table and was leaning forward when he finished, because Spike and Willow were on their way

Tara laughed. "Well, you can't argue with that flawless logic."


The dinner was subdued. The food was excellent, and it felt so good to be together with no prominent crisis, but something was missing. Obviously. Xander kept looking around, expecting to see her. When Tara and Dawn had
splashed water all over the kitchen, and then shrieked with laughter as they tried to clean up before the party started, he could picture Buffy with them right in the thick of things. When Giles toasted Willow and commented on 'what a wonderful young woman she had become' he could see the tears that would have formed in Buff's eyes. Even when Spike had said "You're all right, Red," he almost heard the classic Buffy comeback of, "She's much more than all right, bleach boy."

Tara had brought videos, so they grouped around the television the way Victorian families must have gathered around the fire. He would have to ask Spike about that. Xander sprawled on the couch next to Spike. Giles sat in a
rocker to the right of the reading lamp and was paging though Xander's yearbook; it had been on the end table. Willow took an oversized chair to the right of the couch. Tara and Dawn sat at her feet. Xander felt his eyes droop and he forced them open, thinking it would be in bad form for the host to crash at the party. But it was a Julia Roberts film, with no sex and no car chases and for as quiet as it had been, the evening had been emotionally
draining. Willow was French braiding Tara's hair. Dawn had asked to be next. The movement of the brush through the golden strands was mesmerizing. Xander felt hypnotized watching Willow's fingers weaving the hair back and under.

The next thing he knew Willow was looking down, wearing her concerned look, and stroking his face. "Xan, we're leaving. Don't get up. I had a really good time." Xander was never at his best when he first woke. He blinked, and
decided he should probably try to say something.

"Happy Birthday. I love you." *Well, that must have been coherent - she's smiling.* He had almost rolled over and went back to sleep. In fact he started to, but got a face, full of Spike's lap. He sat up and ran both hands through his hair, and ventured a look at Willow. *Great, she's smirking.* Since he was felt like living dangerously he decide to see how Giles was handling his head gravitating into Spike's lap while he slept. *Yep, that is definitely a 'we will talk about this later' look.* Dawn took it in stride.

She kissed him on the cheek before saying, "Good night Xander. Get some sleep." She kissed Spike and led the others out the door.

"You all right, Pet?" *What no smirk, no snort, no merciless teasing for my lap diving?* He looked into Spike's eyes, and occasionally, like now, he was almost certain that he saw what William had been like before he met Dru in that dark alley. Xander remembered how when Jessie had been turned, there had been something of him there. Not a soul; but something, something that made him Jessie and not Bob or Steve. That was there in Spike's eyes, some memory of humanity.

"I..I just..." Xander hated that he never seemed to have the words. He never could hold on to the emotions long enough to choke them out. "I'm....really glad you're here."

"What brought this on, Luv?" Funny how the softer Spike spoke the closer he felt. Right now, right now felt so good. Just, this. This was good. If he only had the words.

"I... tonight.. When the shit hits the fan, and hey, the shit always hits the fan, you look back on times like these and you think of the people you lost." His voice broke and Xander took a steadying breath. "You wish you ... you wish you had told them how much it much they important.....I ...I'm just really glad you're here."

And it was all right, because Spike was petting him. Running his fingers through his hair, across his chest, up his thighs, and it felt so good to have him here. It wasn't always like this. After patrols, there was frantic scrambling that started before they finished undressing and ended in the shower, on the floor, even on the kitchen table or against the wall. But sometimes, it was almost like the first time again, reverent and hushed. Xander pulled Spike up to face him from where he'd been dipping his tongue in Xander's navel. "It's just, important, you know?"

And Spike had nodded, "I know, Xander. I know."


It was his own fault. With Dawn staying over at Stephanie's and the witches engrossed in spell books at the research table, he should have known he was walking into a Giles lecture.

"How did you get it in the first place?" *He never asked how I get over fourteen units of whole human blood a week, but he want to know where I got the beer? Can you say priorities, G-Man?* The blank look had worked and Giles continued in a more reasonable tone. "She looks up to you Xander, you must realize that your actions speak louder than your words. The fact that you're only a few months under age and she is several years is not a justifiable excuse."

"Hey, I told her it was Spike's." *An improvisation I was rather proud of.*

"Really? As in the community property sense?" *I am so not ready to have that conversation with you. Time for a diversionary tactic.*

"I gave her the 'Beer Bad' speech. I told her how it de-evolves people ala cave Slayer." *Take that, Ripper.*

"Did you also give her the 'Boy Smells Good' lecture?" *Erp? Sex? Talk about Sex with Dawn? Help?*

"I thought you'd do that, you're the adult." *Ha! I still have the sex with Joyce on the hood of a police car in my arsenal.*

Giles looked at Xander. Xander looked at Giles. Blink. Blink. Blink. Ding! Light bulb! "Willow?" *Oh look, stereo.*


part nine

After the party, Xander expected the concerned look from Willow, or a sternly worded lecture from Giles. It never happened. Willow never said, 'I want to talk'; Giles never took him aside and recommended he read ancient texts on the dangers of vampiric lovers. He knew they knew. It wasn't overnight, but gradually the names Xander and Spike became 'Xander and Spike'. They started calling Xander's apartment instead of checking Spike's crypt when he wasn't at the shop.

Spike hadn't taken Buffy's place. There was still a gaping hole in their lives. Not one of them didn't occasionally look around, expecting to see her there, and realize all over again that she never would be. Spike still grieved, they all did. Xander wished he had the words to tell him how much Spike staying and keeping his promise to Buffy meant to them, meant to him.

Not much changed; Dawn became more Dawnlike, Willow and Tara started a new summer schedule of classes, Spike still laughed at him. *Oh, like sex was going to stop that, snort. Now I'm snorting like him, next it'll be smoking and bad fake accents. I so know that's a fake accent. Not that he doesn't have an accent, and a damn sexy one, 'cause I heard it, but it's not the one he uses every day. No, it comes out to play with the moans and the purrs and the whimpers. The everyday one hangs with the snorts and the snickers and the "Nice to see you're embracing the lifestyle, Pet." I dye the laundry pink once and I'm branded for life. To think that when it happened I thought I was lucky it had only been a load of socks and underwear. I forgot who sees my underwear. Accident my ass, lurking around the Hellmouth laundromats and throwing demonic red items in with unsuspecting loads of whites is probably in that '101 evil acts you can still perform while chipped' book he's writing.*

Xander took off his tee shirt and wiped his face with it. It didn't help; it was soaked. Summer had hit Sunnydale hard and the basement of the magic shop was hot and stuffy. Xander had spent all morning building a new storage unit and was now organizing the eclectic stock. Spike had joined him about an hour ago, and while his tee shirt was dusty, it wasn't marred by sweat. *And yet another advantage to no body temperature.* Xander draped his wet shirt over the banister of the stairs leading up to the shop, and started to sort though a new box. He didn't know how long he had been staring at the button eyes of the floppy bunny that had so scared Anya That Night when he felt Spike's arms slip around his waist. His whipcord body felt firm and sure, and Xander leaned back, knowing Spike was more than strong enough to support him.

He hadn't talked to anyone about Anya, not really, other than a reflexive 'I'm fine, really' to Willow's frequent offers to talk about how he was feeling. He wondered if he could talk to Spike, if he should.... What was the relationship etiquette involving this? He had never been too sharp on major do's and don'ts in the conventional boy/girl relationships, let alone this, whatever this was. Where did the line between friend and lover blur? Would it be uncaring and insensitive to talk to Spike now? He desperately did not want to hurt him; God knew they had all had enough pain. Maybe he should say nothing. But if he did, wouldn't that be just as cruel, not letting Spike know what he felt, especially now that Spike had, at least Xander hoped he had, a vested interest in what was in his heart? Xander didn't have a clue, but at least he thought, *I'm smart enough to know howclueless I am. That's a start, isn't it?*

"What magical properties does that have, Pet?" Spike's voice was low and suggested inopportune sex with the possible discovery by Giles, or, oh no, Willow, or eep, Dawn.

"It scares the bejesus out of vengeance demons." He gave the toy a menacing wag and felt Spike smile against the side of his neck. "You wouldn't happen to know how this got here, would you?" *Oh yeah, you are so busted*

"Might." Spike's hands slid back until they rested on Xander's hips. "Might have hid it for that girl of yours. She had a fine scream, and it's not like it would set off the chip." Spike's tone had hushed when he spoke of Anya, like you would talk to an animal to keep it calm.

"She didn't scream, not really, but she was scared, she thought it was an omen." Xander picked at the rabbit's fur; it was amazingly soft, the kind of toy you got for really little kids so that they couldn't hurt themselves. "She was sure it meant that the world was going to end."

"But it didn't." Spike pointed out.

"Yes, it did." Xander dropped the toy and turned to face Spike. "We're just to stupid to give up." Xander softened his words with a kiss, much like that first one they had shared, and then he continued, "That's why we're rebuilding it." He pulled away and took Spike's hands in his and looked down. He thought he was probably making the worst decision of his life but something told him he had to open this wound. He just prayed that opening it
with Spike was going to help it heal, not add salt. "I...I ask her to marry me." It was hard, but Spike's silence compelled him to look up, to meet his eyes.

"What did she say?" He used the real accent, the one that spoke the truest words, the one that matched the wide- eyed concern and let Xander know he hadn't ruined everything by mentioning 'his girl'. Because Spike never
called her Anya, always 'your girl' or 'the demon girl' and come to think of Spike never mentioned her at all now that she was gone.

"She said yes, and no. She was angry and scared and frustrated." Xander looked away. He couldn't help but laugh when he thought of it, so he did. "I asked her That Night. I carried the damn ring around for weeks, and I picked
that night to ask her. Can you imagine it?"

Spike wasn't laughing. He pulled Xander close and wrapped him in his arms. It took very little maneuvering before they were sitting on the wooden steps. Xander sat one step below Spike and leaned back into his embrace.
"The thing is ...I understand why she left ...I just..." Xander pulled away again and twisted until he could look Spike in the eyes. "It's the how that hurts so much...Spike, we were friends. Beyond the orgasms and interlocking parts.... I thought we were friends. I was her first friend...but I thought even after everything else, we were still friends."

Xander waited and watched Spike. He looked for some sign that Spike didn't want to hear this, or a word that said he did. Instead, those riveting blue eyes never broke contact and strong fingers reached up to gently stroke his
face. "Is it stupid of me to want a letter, or a call? Just 'Xander, I'm okay, I'm happy, the world outside the Hellmouth is fine.' I can live without the 'wish you were here' but this not knowing... It's bad. If I knew she had her center of power, then at least she could..."

Xander was stopped by a blatant eye roll, and bit his lip thinking he'd said too much. "Luv, are you listening to yourself? You do remember that when she had the bloody trinket she worked for the other side." Spike leaned in for a kiss, which took the sting out of his trademark sarcasm.

"You mean your side." Xander murmured into the kiss and nipped at Spike's lower lip.

"Oy!" Spike pulled back and tried to scowl, lost it and laughed. "Only you love, only you."

"Only me what?" Xander asked. * Did he call me Luv or love?*

"Only you would feel the need to take care of a chit who spent over a millennium finding creative ways to make men's heads explode." Spike said and gave one quick pull, and had Xander sitting on his lap.

"Hey, a little sympathy for the fellow demon." Xander whispered as he lowered his head so that he could nibble Spike's earlobe, and continued more seriously, "Can you imagine eleven hundred years, never feeling pain, never
being sick, anytime you have a problem you wave your center of power and poof, it's gone. Then one-day bam! Bad hair days, zits, P. M. S., indigestion, and you're trapped in this flesh sack that you can feel dying around you. And on top of that, she had all of her memories, every case year by year. God knows she recounted most of them to me during prom. She didn't even have the luxury of denial, she knew the worst of what was out there; hell, she had been the worst and now she was trapped here on the Hellmouth." Xander had pulled back to look Spike in the eye while he spoke. *Hell even I know talking about your ex while making out is just wrong. So why is he still petting me, why doesn't he say something?* "I'm sorry. You don't need to hear this."

"I need to hear whatever you need to say." Spike's hands were busy, but they had stayed above Xander's waist. They had been together long enough that Xander had figured out that hands below the waist meant 'shag now' *Well, duh.* but that hands above the waist meant you're tired; you're stressed; you're empty; you're sad; come let me fix it.

"You want to hear a story?" Xander peeked up though his lashes and the over-long locks of his hair, which really did need to be cut.

Spike snorted, then tilted his head to look past the hair and tucked Xander against him. Spike rested his chin on top of Xander's head and said, "Yes Luv, tell me a story."

"Not so very long ago, on the Hellmouth, there was a school. It was a very scary place filled with math and history and teachers, some of whom were really giant preying mantises. Vampires occasionally came to that place to
bash people in the head with science equipment. Children were imprisoned there and only the lucky ones were allowed to leave, after enduring the torture for twelve years.

"Time went by and an evil man decided that he needed a final evil act to culminate his ascension to greater demonhood. He decide that the most evil thing he could do would be to wait for the day the children were scheduled to be released from the horrible prison and destroy not only their lives, but their hope of freedom. The children decided to fight back.

"Shortly before the day of release, a boy saw a girl crying in the courtyard. Other students walked past rushing to class. No one seemed to see the girl. The bell rang, and still the girl cried. Now the boy knew the girl had been laid off from a job of which she had been very fond, and he knew that she was an eleven hundred year old girl and that she knew the evil man was not going to let the children leave the horrible school. He thought that either of these were very good reasons to cry, but when he saw her cry his heart hurt. Being rather fond of his heart he thought he should do something to make her stop crying.

"So he walked over to her and asked, "Why are you crying?" And she showed him; on her finger was a tiny cut. She had turned the page of a book too quickly and the book had bitten her. The tears that streamed down her face
weren't angry tears for the power she no longer had. The tears weren't frightened tears because she knew the time was approaching for the evil man to come. The tears were the tears of a child. A child hurt for the very first time, who can't conceive that there is an end to pain or that it will get better. Because all that the girl knew was the now, and the now hurt. And at that moment, the boy realized how alone the girl was. It wasn't just that she had no friends, and had no family. She was trapped in a bubble of 'me'. Her whole world was so new and so strange that she couldn't understand anything but herself, and because of that no one could understand her. At that moment the boy decided that he would try and understand her, that he would be her friend."

Xander sighed and added, "I really tried to be a good friend."

"What did you do about her paper cut?" Spike asked absently.

"Bought her a soda from the vending machine and told her to hold the can against it." Xander squirmed on Spike's lap so that he could see him. "I never told the others about that. For a long time they thought it was just sex, but ...but she needed me, and it was good.... to be needed."

"I need you." Spike said in a very serious tone.

"You do? What do you need me to do?" Xander ask in an equally grave voice.

"Move some more," Spike whispered, using blunt teeth to trace the line of Xander's jaw. Xander tilted his head back to give Spike better access to his neck. He felt Spike's face morph while it pressed softly against his skin and the blunt teeth were replaced by bladelike sharpness tracing the pulse points with a feather-soft touch. Xander squirmed again, torn between desperately wanting more contact and his finely honed survival instincts that still, on occasion, backhanded his cerebral cortex and asked 'What the hell do you think you're doing?' Spike's fingers moved up to tease around, but never quite touching, Xander's nipples. Blindly, Xander grabbed Spike's hand and placed it on the fabric of his cargo pants that covered his rising erection.

The door opened and Tara stood at the top of the stairs. She blinked, she blushed, she looked at her feet. Willow's voice came from behind her. "What? Giles said he was down ...." Willow blushed. She looked at Tara. They both

Tara said, "I don't think he wants sushi." Willow shut the door. Xander blushed and looked down, then he looked at Spike, laughed and pulled him close for a kiss.

"You're one of a kind, Pet." Spike picked him up, *and can you say disconcerting,* and moved him out of sight of the door, near the old shelves. He set Xander down to stand by a sturdy table Xander had used earlier to brace the planks he had cut for the shelves. Spike reached into a basket on the top of the shelf and pulled out a tube of lube.

"You are so busted." Xander started to turn towards him, but Spike placed both of Xander's hands firmly on the table, then removed his own shirt.

"Now, now, you have a suspicious nature. I just had that there for an emergency," Spike purred and place the tube on the table. He kicked off his boots. *And just when did he untie those?* Then he dropped his jeans and stepped out of them.

"What kind of an emergency?" Xander had trouble following the conversation since Spike was busy; his hands were unzipping Xander's cargo pants and pulling back on his hips and Spike's foot was nudging Xander's feet into a
wider stance.

"This kind of an emergency." Xander felt air replace fabric from his mid-thighs up, and the light, soft kiss Spike placed on the spot where his neck met his spine. Soft kisses trailed down the vertebra, each bump worshipped as Spike slowly sank to his knees. By the time Spike's mouth reached Xander's tailbone Spike was softly caressing Xander's inner thighs with light sweeping strokes which started almost at the knees and stopped just shy of his balls. Xander felt his whole body tremble and Spike hadn't even reached for the lube. He bucked forward wildly when Spike's tongue penetrated him. If not for Spike's strong, sure grip he would have hurt himself on the table. The table and Spike's hold on him were the only thing keeping him standing as stars exploded behind his eyelids. When he was sure he couldn't take any more without losing complete use of every muscle in his body for days, Spike stood up and turned him around.

"That was the most amazing thing..." Xander whispered.

"Like that, do you?" Spike grinned, and softly kissed him.

"Hell yeah!" Xander looked at the table, and the tube Spike had been so obvious in placing there. Not that this wasn't good, but why...? "Spike? What's the lube for?"

He climbed onto the table facing Xander and lifted his knees and said, "Thought you might want to use it."


part ten

Either Willow didn't tell Giles about 'the basement incident' or he was implementing the same denial skills he had perfected during the Anya/Xander circus of debauchery and semi-public sex. Xander was betting on the latter.
The smell alone, in an area as poorly ventilated as the storage room, would take days to dissipate. So he endured Willow's knowing smirks and Tara's shy smiles, yet was spared any awkwardness with Giles, for which he was deeply grateful. Dawn knew, not about the sex in the basement, or that time in the training room, or the kitchen, but she knew that Xander and Spike were more than just friends who spent a lot of time together. Xander had only one truly terrifying moment when Dawn had looked at him all wide-eyed and earnest and said, "You realize you've scarred me for life, don't you?" But when that remark had met with blind panic from Xander, she had been unable to keep a straight face. "I'm joking, you moron. Although," and her voice became so wistful that he wasn't sure if it was real or shammed. "It isn't every girl whose first two major crushes end up together, but I think I'll
get over it."

June ended with a 'bugger' call. The kind of phone call where Giles said 'Bugger!' loudly, and then proceeded to grill the caller for details, while the rest of them waited for him to get off the line and tell them how the world was going to end. They gathered around the research table while Giles was on the phone. After a while, Willow looked at Xander with a single raised eyebrow, so he returned it with two raised eyebrows and a "humph." Dawn giggled. Spike snorted. Tara said, "I'll make some tea," and went to in the small galley kitchen. Giles was still on the phone when she returned with the tea things.

Dawn took Giles a cup fixed the way he liked it and was rewarded with a smile and a nod, but he gave no sign of wrapping up the call. "Any idea what it's about?" she whispered as she perched on one of the iron stairs, on a
step slightly lower than the one on which Spike was lounging. She was answered by assorted shrugs and head shakes, but the focus of their attention was still Giles and his interrogation of the caller. Tara and Willow sat at the table with Xander and fussed with the tea and cookies. Tara handed Spike the blood she had warmed. *Go T, with Martha Stewart's Undead Living.* Dawn had opted out of the 'at least beverages give us something to do with our hands' stall and worried the skin along her thumbnail. Willow reached over without looking and gently tugged her hand away from her mouth, but replaced it with a cookie so that it didn't count as nagging.

Giles finally hung up the phone. "Apocalypse?" Willow and Xander asked in unison, paused for a startled look and said "Jinx!" And then both hung their heads, at least appearing guilty for acting like kids.

It was Tara who voiced the question they all had been thinking. "Has something bad happened?"

"Well," Giles paused to refill his cup. *Oh so not good, a two cup crisis, something bad has happened, all right.* "Actually," Giles continued, "it seems that something bad is about to happen. Something that the Powers That Be have brought to Angel's attention; he's apparently involved in the resolution. That was Wesley, it seems Cordelia has had a vision concerning the Hellmouth." *And, oh bonus, the LA team is road-tripping it to the Hellmouth.* Xander watched Dawn for her reaction. She seemed to have come to terms, though it had been a struggle, with the whole 'Key' concept. It had helped that when she did find out, she had had a few months of real memories to back up the manufactured ones. He knew she had memories of Cordelia and Angel, and even Wesley, but had never really met them. This might just serve as a test run to what her reaction to Mr. Summers would be when he came back into her life. Xander had thought about asking Willow if there was a spell involved in his continued absence, but wasn't sure he wanted to know if there was. He wasn't sure how he would handle it if a complete stranger,
albeit her father, showed up and tried to take Dawn, but he was pretty sure how Spike would react. Willow hadn't told Angel about 'the Key', just that Glory had needed something to lower the walls between the worlds and that
Buffy had stopped her, with her life. Willow had also told Xander that Angel was keeping eye on Faith, and visited her frequently in prison. Xander had been concerned about Faith himself. Not the way he worried about the gang,
more along the lines of how he worried about the Watchers, and the Initiative *and didn't Riley's bailing put to rest any false hope we may have had that that bunch of genocidal thugs had dispersed with the Adam catastrophe* and akin to the way he worried that Angel would one day check that pesky soul in a locker at the nearest bus station and show up one night and kill them all. Xander had always considered it wise to know who wanted to kill him and where they were, but over the years the number had grown to the point he was thinking of starting a Rolodex.

Giles decided that since the vision had been sent to Cordelia that they should wait for Angel to arrive before attempting any physical reconnaissance. So they hit the books, checking out demonic holy days and various enigmatic prophecies. They were well ensconced in the research when the four of them strode into the shop like they were on camera. 'Sheesh, Hollywood.*

"Cordy...your makes you look..." *OH GOD! Abort! Abort! She'll kill me. Think of something, think of something.* "famous." Xander stammered *and it's a fabulous save by Alexander Harris; the crowd goes wild. Well
maybe not wild, but it did earn me Queen C's million dollar smile and a big hug. Wait, did she just growl? Spike? Jealous Spike? Okay, in a stunning display of my ability to multitask I have warm gooshy feelings and am scared
stiff at the same time, and not stiff in a good way* "Angel. Wesley." Xander nodded to each and checked out the new guy while Cordelia introduced him around. From the way he was sizing him up Xander figured this Gunn must be Cordy's new boy toy. Xander wondered if she let this one be seen with her in public.

Giles and Wesley went back to the office, to exchange secret Watcher handshakes or swap gossip about who was who in the 'even though we study things too weird to be believed we can still manage to make the dissertations about them boring' club. They couldn't have been talking about the 'case' since between the limited information Cordy had, and what the rest of them had found with the research they had done so far, they had squat. Apparently Cordy's 'visions' weren't full-blown SenSurround experiences like Buffy's dreams had occasionally been. Even Buffy's dreams had been open to interpretation and usually could only be completely understood after it was too late. Willow and Tara, after making the polite social small talk, excused themselves, saying they were going to get some components for a scrying spell out of the storage room. Xander saw right through that and figured they were going to the storage room for the same reason he and Spike would have been if he had been quick enough to call it first. Angel and Spike, after a brief round of 'wanker vs. psychopath', had retired to neutral corners. Spike was not-so-casually lounging on the stairs near the research table and obviously, to Xander, standing guard over Dawn. Angel lurked near the front of the shop, feigning interest in the merchandise. Xander figured Dawn's presence would forestall any bloodshed, so when Cordy asked to see the rest of the shop he gave her and Gunn the tour, Angel having declined to take in the highlights so that he could continue to not watch Spike not watch him.

Xander was preening under Gunn's praise of the training facility. He had seemed especially impressed by a storage unit Xander had installed along the wall near the back door. It was built in, but Xander had kept the design simple. He wondered which the tall black man was really impressed by, the functional design or the fact that one of Cordy's spoiled suburban friends had a job from which you actually got dirty and developed calluses. They hadn't been there long when Dawn rushed in and without a word began trying to pull Xander toward the back door. The silent tears were back and she didn't even seem to notice. "Dawn, honey, what's the matter?" Xander soothed and began to stroke her hair with the hand attached to the arm which was not in the death grip. She didn't answer immediately but turned a wide-eyed, suspicious stare on Gunn and then Cordy.

"Dawnie, you know me..." Cordy didn't finish; she had reached out while she spoke and Dawn stepped back out of reach and pulled Xander close.

Dawn stood up on her toes to get closer to Xander's ear and whispered, "Angel...he.... Angel and Spike were arguing.... I...They went outside." Her eyes pleaded with him to do something, to fix it, to not let her go through
yet another loss. She was scared and frustrated, and yes, Xander thought, looking at the deepest, most basic raw emotion in her eyes, she was resigned. Resigned to the belief that Fate was yet again going to kick the legs right out from under her, and leave her broken and alone.

"You stay here, with Cordy and Gunn. I'll take care of this." Gunn made as if to come with him, but Xander just shook his head and nodded at the girls. He paused at the storage unit by the door. Most of the cubbyholes held
personal items, textbooks, shoes, umbrellas, sweaters, and purses but the two nearest the door held a supply of stakes and several flasks of holy water. Xander grabbed one of each and went out the back door.

The alley was wide and had plenty of room for a fight. As he suspected, Spike and Angel had degenerated past the name calling stage and had moved on to slamming each other against the walls. He had to stop this before someone got dusted. Angel currently had Spike pinned face forward against the wall and was growling out something about Spike's lack of brains. Xander resolutely walked over and stopped just out of reach before saying, "This stops now, right now."

"Xander, get inside. This has nothing to do with you, it's between Spike and I." But Angel had taken his attention off of Spike for a fraction of a second and it was a fraction of a second too long. Spike reared back and cracked his skull loudly against Angel's face and in a flash their positions were reversed. Xander stepped forward, and placed his hand on Spike's bicep, not grabbing, just touching.

"Spike, go inside. Please." Spike looked like he was about to argue and Xander added, "Dawn is really upset." And he went, without a word. That seemed to surprise Angel more than the broken nose.

"We have to talk." Xander watched as Angel pulled out an old fashioned handkerchief and blotted his nose. *But hey, vampire, so it'll probably heal by the end of the night.*

"I said that this is between Spike and I." Angel growled.

"Wrong. It ceased to be just the two of you when you dragged Dawn into it." Xander snapped. *Am I insane? Well, obviously. I wonder if he'll kill me?*

"Xander, he's a killer." Angel reasoned

*You know Angel I'd be more inclined to listen to you if you didn't always talk to me like I've had one too many head injuries.* Xander thought, but what he said was, "So are you." *Oh, and what's with the pained look? You
supposedly spend all your time working on penance for your sins, but no one's allowed to point out the truth?*

"Xander, listen," Angel started, but Xander saw where the conversation was going and decided it would be a waste of time that they didn't have.

"No. You listen. Spike is part of the team. If that's something you can't or won't deal with you should have just called this one in and stayed in LA. Do you understand? You don't get a vote. He is one of us. Whatever is between
you two, deal with it." It had taken every bit of Xander's control to keep his voice low and emotionless. He wanted nothing more than to rage at this man who seemed to posses the uncanny ability to sweep out of the shadows and mess up his life.

He walked back to the door of the shop, but stopped and whispered just before opening the door, trusting that the vampire would hear him. "You selfish bastard. I know you're hurting. We're all hurting. But what ever you feel, it's only a fraction of what Dawn's going through. Did you even notice what you did to her?"

Xander walked back into the main room of the store. Over at the table, Dawn was sitting on Spike's lap and someone had made hot chocolate. *It has to be ninety degrees out. This is taking comfort food too far.* Tara and Willow had been looking for scrying supplies, or at least they were smart enough to follow through with their cover story. Cordy just looked stymied as she watched Spike stroking Dawn's hair. Spike and Dawn spoke in hushed voices as Willow bounced and explained a great idea; she had a 'new spell in the testing stage - everybody duck'. Gunn wasn't faking interest well, and Tara had a mildly worried look that Xander found telling, and he went to warn Giles.


next part (more posted soon, as it comes out of beta)