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part sixteen

It was a tight fit when they all crowed into the office. Since Angel had insisted on adding Gunn and Cordy, Jonathan was out front with Jeff, a swim team survivor, and Marcia, a former Cordette, handling operations. Fortunately, Giles had angled an ornamental mirror on the wall across from the window in the office's door so that the front of the shop was visible. Xander divided his attention between what was happening in the office and the steady stream of people out front. He would just have to trust that Laura would not blow up the training room now that she had been left alone with the groceries and the hot plates.

"I called Megan's, her mom said they went to the mall. She isn't answering her phone but Megan's mom said they were going to a movie..." Willow looked appealingly at Xander. In under fifteen minutes she had erected a barrier which not only blocked any form of technological eavesdropping but also any magical eavesdropping and yet she seemed to think she had failed Xander by not producing Dawn.

"I'm sure she's okay. If we don't hear from here within the hour can you and Tara find know?" Xander made a wavy motion with his hand.

Willow smiled and started to bounce but it was Tara who said, "We can track her anywhere. We made it part of a slumber party game. Even if another magic user tried to block it we could follow the blank space."

"Good." Xander didn't mean to cut Willow off but she had looked like she was going to elaborate. While he was impressed, proud, and a little frightened by how powerful the two witches were together, now was not the time to find out how they did what they did. "The important thing is that she is safe and out of this."

"What is this?" Angel asked. "Do we know any more than we did last night?"

"What we know is that Cordy's vision said that the Hellmouth was going to have an attempt made to open it, that if that attempt was successful... Well, we all know the drill. Since then we have been setting up a system to find out who or what is going to do that, and getting ready to take it out before it can completes its objective." Xander sat on the edge of Giles' desk with his back to the wall. He ran his fingers though his hair. "We have a vague description of who will be there when the attempt is made from Cordy's vision."

"So, help me." Cordelia interrupted. "If one more person," and she shot Xander a meaningful look, says one more thing to me about little green men."

"Big," Xander cut in calmly. "Big buff commando types, with 'moldy' camouflaged faces."

Silence greeted that remark. Tara graped Willow hand, her eyes never leaving her. Willow looked at Xander. He could see that brilliant brain of hers realizing the implications. Her lips moved but no words came out, her eyes filled with tears and she looked to Giles. "But... Riley said... There is no more Initiative. Is there?" Her voice begged Giles to tell her Xander was wrong. Xander would have given his right arm to tell her that there was no chance that the well organized, highly trained, weapon-wielding commandos weren't going to be the ones they were throwing the remaining members of their graduating class at in a desperate bid to save the world. But he couldn't. Couldn't lie to her. Couldn't lie to himself no matter how much wanted to.

About a week after her birthday, Willow and Tara had come over for another movie night. Spike had been getting drunk on JD and the girls had been sipping peach schnapps. Xander had missed the exchange, he and Tara had been in the kitchen making snacks, but Spike had told him later. Spike had been cursing the 'fucking soldier boys' as usual. He said he had offhandedly made a remark to Red about how he knew since they had been protecting humans that
she probably thought they were the good guys. She had shocked him when in a soft breathless voice she had said no, that she thought they were scarier than anything she had ever met, including Glory. Xander wasn't surprised. He had learned about the Holocaust at the knee of the same grandmother that Willow had. In everything else Willow was the most liberal person Xander knew, but the moment something seemed to take the power from people and put it into the hand of a bureaucracy, especially a government backed bureaucracy, she became very conservative.

Giles seemed at a loss looking into Willow's eyes. Then he straightened and once again became their foundation. "While we can be sure that the installation at the university is now defunct, we have had every indication that the agency behind it is still very much active. We know when Buffy faced the Quellor demon that while Riley did show up late, he did not arrive alone. That suggests that he had a means, other that the one Buffy used to summon the doctor when he was ill, to contact them. We also know that when he left Sunnydale, he went as a part of a team with enough influence to rate what Buffy described as a 'black ops' type helicopter.

Willow smiled weakly at Xander and asked, "Is it too late to put the Omega Plan into play?"

He nodded and smiled back. "We'll have to save that one for when we have more notice about an Armageddon."

"What is the Omega Plan?" Wesley asked.

"We're almost positive we can break Faith out of prison, and with a combination of illusion and a magically enhanced computer virus we should be able to wipe out any record of her existence." Seeing the shocked looks on Cordelia, Wesley and Angel's faces, Xander said to Angel. "What? You're the one who thinks she's all changed and stuff."

Jeff knocked at the door and opened it without waiting for a response. "Xand, I got T.J. on line one, he has to speak with you now."

"Thanks." Xander nodded a dismissal and Jeff closed the door. Xander took the call from the desk's phone. "T.J.?"

"Dude, I wanna know who your sources are. You're amazing." He sounded like he was calling from outside and Xander could hear engines in the background.

"What d'you have?" Xander grabbed a pen and Spike handed him his clipboard.

"Twenty minutes ago two fucking huge choppers set down with biological cargo. Whatever it is it came from a base out in Nevada and they have more guards on it than the president. They're locking everything down, every cellular and digital signal in a three-mile radius should be toast. All the landlines on the base are inoperational. Whoever these Special Forces are they should be moving out within the next two hours."

"Thanks. Anything else?" Xander set aside the clipboard.

"Yeah, I just wish I was there." T.J. sighed.

Xander hung up, sighed and rubbed his face with both hands. *What the hell is everyone looking at me for?* He looked at Spike and then Angel. "You heard?"

"Fill in those of us with a pulse," Gunn said.

"The Initiative is back it town. They brought someone or something with them and are mobilizing a major effort. For those of you just joining us these guys are the KKK of the demon world. They drew a line between species that they couldn't enforce and one of their little biological experiments nearly started a race war, as in humans verses everybody else." Xander was tired, bone deep tired like he hadn't been since that first empty week after Buffy had died.

He had told Dawn that when you loved people you kept a piece of them with you even after they died and because they loved you back, they took a piece of you with them to heaven. He had wondered if the binding they had used to take down Adam hadn't exchanged a large part of them all with Buffy, if the reason he felt so tired was because part of him had died with Buffy. Was part of Giles and Willow also missing? If they lived through the night maybe they could discuss it. "Cordy, I need you to move operation to the beta site. Use who and what you have to but get everyone and everything there in one hour. All communication from now on is landline only. Will, can you extend the spell blocking any taps on the phone to cover the incoming lines at the new base?"

He looked at Cordy; she seemed to be waiting for more. "That's it?" she asked in a disbelieving tone. He knew it was going to be like evacuating a sinking ship but he thought she could pull it off if anyone could.

"Yeah, you might want to get started. Load up the weapons; pack every thing in the U-Haul. Get the rocket launcher out of the storeroom and bring that damn thing the fairies gave you."

"Sprites," Willow corrected, as Cordy pulled Gunn out of the office.

"Xander, as we realized with the dragon, the rocket launcher won't be useful without ammunition," Giles said.

"Gunn and I picked that up while grocery shopping." Xander frowned down at the list, now resting on the desk. "Now if I can just think of a safe way to transport the bombs Laura's making."

"Bombs?" *Oh look, Wesley and Angel can do the stereo thing too.*


part seventeen

The group dispersed. Giles and Wesley went to pack up the texts they had sorted out to take. Tara and Willow were going to rely on the others to bring spell components, and were tracking down Dawn to make sure she would be somewhere safe for the rest of the night. The sun wouldn't set for a couple of hours at this time of the summer, but Xander thought Angel and Spike would be safe in the back of the U-Haul for the move to the new site. Before the vampires could be drafted for grunt work, Xander gestured for them to follow him. He led them to the 'changing room', really a remodeled closet, but Buffy had used it to change from street clothes to workout gear so the name had stuck.

"Angel, I had to guess at your size, but I want both of you to put these on." He held up slick, long sleeved black body suits. They would cover them from ankle to wrist and had hoods.

"Pet, you shouldn't have." Spike looked at the skin-tight suit with some distaste. *Meanwhile, I'm supposed to do the dance of joy when he picks out my wardrobe.*

"It's not a fashion statement, chip-dip; this is a thermal suit. The soldier boys use this to change their thermal signatures. It's going to give you a body temperature so they can't spot you with the thermal scopes. Well - they will spot you - but you'll look human."

Spike looked impressed. Angel looked like Xander had suggested he switch hair gels. "Xander, I don't think..."

Xander cut him off. "It's not your call. This is where you're vulnerable. Any liability to you is a liability to us." Xander really looked at Angel, met his eyes firmly and unflinching, in a way he never had before. "Trust me. You do not want to be at these peoples' mercy."

"Xander, you can't go at this like these people are monsters, they're human." Angel was looking martyred, as usual.

Xander didn't have the time or the strength to coddle him. "So help me God, if you start angsting about souls right now, I will slap you." Angel looked too shocked to comment and Spike, of course, was grinning like he had said
it instead of Xander. "Listen, I realize you have a blind spot about redemption and all... Angel some of the most heinous acts in history have been committed by humans to humans. Having a soul is no guarantee that you or anyone else is going to do the right thing." Xander turned to Spike. He didn't want his lover's need to 'kick Sire in the arse' to interrupt this conversation. "Go change; I don't want an argument. Then find Willow and find out what she has on Dawn. Bring Willow back here with you." Spike hesitated, glaring at Angel. "Now, Spike." Xander softened his last words with a squeeze to Spike's hand.

Xander leaned back against the wall; they were out of the traffic pattern but the place boiled with activity. At that moment he felt the weight of every bad decision he ever made, every day of his twenty years, every person he had ever let down, resting on his shoulders. "Angel," his voice was almost a whisper, but vampire hearing and all, "I need to know. If I tell you to kill someone, if it comes to that, can I depend on you?"

Angel clenched his jaw. His eyes looked away at the young men and women bustling about. Xander watched the play of emotions on his face, the fear, the resignation. He wondered when he had started looking out for Angel. *Wouldn't Buffy get a laugh out of this?* Angel looked down at the younger man. "I'm worried if I start," he said in a pain-filled voice, "I won't stop."

"If this gets to the point that you have to start killing humans, stopping won't be an issue." Xander swallowed and figured since in all likelihood he would be dead by morning, he had nothing to lose. "I'm trusting you with my pack. Can I depend on you?"

Angel just nodded, and since he didn't react to the hyena-speak, Xander continued. "If I go down, keep Willow and Tara together; they're both more powerful together than apart. Willow doesn't go for the kill on her first shot. That's a liability. She thinks too much in a combat situation. Don't shackle her with instructions that are too specific. She's creative under pressure, just don't let her waste time with explanations. Just tell her the end result you want and how fast you need it. She will come through or die trying - another reason to keep Tara close. Tara will watch out for Willow. Tara's practical. She sees the big picture. Any perceived threat to Tara will get Willow past her reluctance for violence. Don't under estimate Giles, he's not just knowledge guy. He will do whatever is necessary. But if one or more of us go down tonight, do not leave him alone when this is over." Xander stopped and focused back on the tall vampire in front of him. "We almost lost him after Buffy.... Dawn will know how to handle Giles, but she...She's had a lot on her plate. She's strong, like Joyce, she'll be there for him."

"What about Spike?" Angel voice sounded heavy and tired.

Xander wasn't sure if Angel really wanted him to evaluate his Childe's assets and liabilities, but decide to go with the truth. "If I go down, that won't be an issue. You know that." Angel's eyes widened and Xander said, "If none of us make it, take Dawn to LA. Willow has the contingency plans in her dorm room. Have Wes use the Omega plan to bust Faith out. Tell her...tell her I said she owes us - that she owes Joyce and Buffy. Tell her that from that day forward she is to treat Dawn as an extension of herself. To protect her like she would herself. And you, do not let either of them out of your sight; consider yourself her parole office. Relocate. I don't give a damn about the 'lawyers from hell', find another city to protect, change your name, change Faith's name and whatever you do keep Dawn safe."

"Xander, don't you think that's a little extreme?" Angel looked like he was starting to doubt Xander's sanity.

Xander wasn't going to risk it even with Willow's spell. None of them spoke about the Key any more, not since the Watcher's visit. The hadn't agreed on it or talked about it. He knew it still crossed his mind so he didn't think it was a magic compulsion or anything, they just referred to it obliquely. "Angel, the last promise any of us made to Buffy was... This is what she needed. Her last request before the final battle. Can I depend on you?"

"You can." Angel said quietly and then again louder. "You can." They clasped hands, levelly taking each other's measure. It occurred to Xander that in five years they had never spoken this much at one time. He left Angel to finish changing.


Xander leaned over Cordelia's shoulder and reviewed her notes while she detailed what supplies had been delivered while he and Gunn had been gone. Jeff, Marcia and Jonathan were contacting the field units and redirecting them to the new site. Gunn was rounding up labor from among the people who had returned to the shop to assemble the next load for the U-Haul. "Xander, I moved the triage back to this side of the building," she pointed to the schematic of the parking garage a block from the old high school. Fortunately, unlike most in California, this garage was entirely
underground, having a park and large fountain on the ground level. Since his call earlier in the day the bottom two floors had had signs up saying they were closed to repaint the lines on the floors. Even now the 'children of the Hellmouth' were being discreetly let into the closed sections. Those in cars parked on the bottom floor. Those on foot went straight to the next level, where the food, charts and weapons - which had already been forwarded - were transforming their new base of operations. "It's farther away from the school and has easier access for the ambulances afterward," she continued.

"Good call. How are we doing for time?" he asked. She was Cordy, and yet she wasn't. The proud girl who had been embarrassed by what people would think if, perish the thought, she had a job, was gone. She was intelligent and confident. Xander was relieved to have her to depend on in this crisis. She hadn't changed so much as she had been refined. Whatever she had lived through since graduation had burned away all the assumed shallowness she had hidden behind. He was saddened to think of what pain had most likely caused that, and felt guilty for not keeping in touch with her. What he had said to Spike about Anya applied to Cordy as well; first and foremost they had been friends. If tomorrow did come, he promised himself to do better. A two-hour trip by freeway wasn't that far, and Dawn would love shopping/bonding with the prom queen.

"Twenty minutes tops and the whole operation except the explosives and flammables with be centralized. Any ideas on transporting that stuff without taking out the vehicle and driver?" As she looked up over her shoulder to ask him that question, Xander heard a low vicious growl behind him. He straightened and turned to see Spike in game face with Willow beside him.

Willow ignored the snarling vampire and said, "Dawn and Megan are going to sleep over at Stephanie's. She promised that they would not leave the house between sunrise and sunset. Megan is still in the dark, but Dawn filled Stephanie in weeks ago on why night is bad in Sunnydale."

"And she believed her?" Xander was impressed. He hadn't believed until he came face to face with Darla.

"Spike went all 'grrr' on her as proof and Dawn has an oddly morbid list of mortality rates that either support vampires or the large pack of wild dogs theory." Willow bounced, a too-much-caffeine and not a 'this is good news'
bounce. *Willow bounces, yet another language like Spike snorts and Cordelia eye rolls that I can't put on my resume.* "Spike said you needed to see me?"

"Yeah, let's go to Giles office." As the three of them filed into the back he asked casually, "Did you ever get a chance to do that animal testing we talked about?"

Willow stilled. She blinked and said nothing as Spike closed the door behind them. "Tara and I....We did some volunteer work at the shelter we got Miss Kitty from... the preliminary results are good. It should work. I... Xander, are you sure?"

"Did you lose any subjects?" He watched her carefully.

"No, there isn't even a great deal of pain, but.... Now?" Willow looked nervous.

Xander knew he couldn't give her time to psych herself out of doing this. "Now."

"You're sure?" Her eyes drifted over to where Spike was lounging on the desk, looking bored and unconcerned with the conversation.

"What do you need?" Xander asked.

"Stillness, quiet, Tara. I'll be right back." Willow slipped out of the office, into the slowly dispersing hubbub outside.

"Spike?" Xander took his hand and pulled Spike into a standing position. Spike gave him a sad smile and pulled back until the young man was in his arms. For a moment they just held on, drinking in each other's scents. Spike didn't look that different in his new outfit. He wore his jeans and Docs over the thermal suit. It was unzipped and showed his pale collarbone and the lean muscles that corded his throat and chest. The hood hanging back was the only jarring difference from his everyday attire. Xander kissed and then nibbled on his bottom lip. Immediately both of their bodies vibrated with Spike's subsonic purring. "The thing to remember about giving orders," Xander said conversationally. "Is that if someone," he poked his lover in the chest with his index finger, "Is inclined not to follow them, just order them to do what they were going to do any way."

"What are my orders, love?" Spike asked.

"Stay with me. What ever happens, you stay with me." Xander said as softly as he could, looking though the fall of overlong hair that blocked his vision.

"Through the gates of Hell." Spike said. He seemed to think about what Xander had said and added. "You don't have to protect me. I know they're human but..."

He was interrupted by Willow and Tara coming into the office. "We're ready," Willow said. "Are you ready?" She looked from Xander to Spike.

"What's this about, Red?" Spike started to turn to the witches, but Xander held him fast.

"Do you trust me?" Xander asked.

Spike looked confused, and hundreds of questions flashed behind those intelligent blue eyes. He asked none. He squared his shoulders and looked straight into Xander's eyes. "I trust you."

"Close you eyes, and stand perfectly still. Don't move until I say so." Xander firmly took Spike's hips in his hands and tipped his head until their foreheads nearly touched.

Willow and Tara were chanting softly in an island rhythm. Tara held Willow's left hand as Willow reached up with her right and began to brush her fingertips slowly against the back of Spike's neck, then moving over the base of his skull. Xander closed his eyes and strained to sense his lover. Spike remained as immobile as a statue. It seemed to last forever. The soft words repeated by the girls over and over, the sensation of movement in stillness. Xander heard Willow sigh and the chanting stopped. He pulled back but kept his hands on Spike's hips. Willow held up a small white rectangle, smaller than a pencil eraser. It was inconceivable that this it. The product of all that government funding, the greatest creation of Maggie Walsh. Somehow Xander had pictured it much larger and metallic, but this almost
looked ceramic.

"Open your eyes," Xander said. Spike looked at him and them followed Xander's gaze to the tiny object Willow held in the palm of her hand.


part eighteen

After they arrived at the parking garage, Spike shadowed Xander's long strides as he checked over the preparations. Spike still had a look of awed wonder whenever he glanced at Xander. Xander was confused. Willow had done all the work and yet Spike was looking at him like he had removed the chip.

Kelly's truck slowly pulled onto the operations floor. Laura was in the back watching over the cases that Kelly had rigged into a hammock for transport. Both of them had assured Xander that the precautions were unnecessary but he had insisted. If Kelly had had his broadsword in his hand when he had stopped by the shop, Xander figured he would be missing his head by now. *How was I to know what he meant by 'keep her out of the kitchen'? Technically she wasn't in the kitchen due to the whole ventilation issue.*

As soon as Kelly had arrived, Laura had bounced over to her boyfriend and brandished what she called a modified pipe bomb. By which she said meant she had experimented on the usual recipe and used a pipe with a much wider circumference and packed in roofing nails with the homemade plastique. She believed, if it worked, it would produce 'one hell of a shrapnel effect', but it was untested. She had made half as many experimentals as the regular ones and had filled similar transport devices in three other trucks with Molotov cocktails, which for obvious reasons were being stored elsewhere. Laura had said she wanted to wait for Kelly to really 'cook'. That should have tipped Xander off to the whole 'kitchen' analogy, but to tell the truth he hadn't really been listening to the little pyromaniac.

"Jonathan!" Xander, practiced at being heard over a din at the construction site, summoned the young man for an update. "How are we doing?" he asked as Jonathan jogged over and fell in beside he and Spike as they prowled the

Jonathan consulted his own clipboard and said, "We have the two phone landlines, each roll to two other numbers. Cellulars are shot - you were right, something is jamming all radio and digital communications. We do have two modified scanners; they're picking up some activity on the upper 800 megahertz but it's scrambled - we think it's the target. Recon says there are two unidentified observers, one on the roof of those new loft conversion units and one on the signaling tower. I know the tower is pretty far but I've got three confirmed sighting. It would be a clear shot to the entrance, but at that distance..."

"Anyone see a weapon?" Xander finally stopped and looked squarely at Jonathan.

"Um... I... Yes on the rooftop. Not positive on the tower, the guy is dressed in a work-style coverall and has tools but..."

"But what?" Xander prompted, attempting to hide his impatience.

"Xander, it's after six, you really think the guys legit?" Jonathan scoffed.


"Well, I'd rather not shoot him just 'cause he's pulling overtime." Xander said. Jonathan gulped and Xander reconsidered how he sounded. "Good work. I'll see what we can do. Anything else?"

"So far no one has gone into the school since you set up monitors this afternoon. Gunn and that Angel guy went to check and see if some sort of tunnel access is still available. You know about that right?" Seeing Xander nod, he continued. "Kelly wants to know if they should mix up the big stuff here, and Willow needs to talk with you." Jonathan seemed to calm down a bit as he spoke.

"How volatile is that stuff?" Xander frowned as he scanned the floor of the garage. Along the wall, the explosives were being neatly stacked as far away from the weapons as possible. They had far more explosives than firearms. Their normal weapons, staffs, stakes, crossbows, and swords, weren't suited for going up against the Initiative. *Where's a demon when you need one? Well, right beside me, duh.* He gave Spike a goofy grin, completely out of place with the fact that they were going to kill or be killed. It seemed to rattle Spike as much as it did Jonathan.

"Err, ah, not at all, actually. I... I think that's what Willow needs to talk to you about." Jonathan stammered.

"Then tell him to start cooking. Where is Willow?" Xander clapped his hands and Jonathan jumped. "O.. over b.. by the triage with Mr. Giles." He said.

*So much for being calm.* Xander thought. "Jon, you're doing fine. We're doing fine. We have a plan." Xander was surprised at how confident he sounded.

"We do?" he asked.

"We do. It's all coming together. We'll make it through this." Xander reassured him. The young man gave him a shaky smile and headed back to the operation/communication table.

As they headed over to where Cordelia and Tara had set up the infirmary Spike asked, "What is the plan?"

"We play it by ear." Xander laughed and kissed him quickly before hurrying ahead.


He and Willow hadn't had a chance to talk after the chip removal. Xander had left her with Spike while he took Tara to review the set up of the medical supplies and the evacuation plans for the wounded. Kayla had shown up just as they were leaving the store and had shyly shrugged. "I won't be any use in the front lines, but I did take a class in first aid."

Xander knew that just walking in the door had taken more courage for her than he could imagine. He made sure to give her a smile and hug before turning her over to Tara. They had set up a makeshift infirmary off the parking level in a room containing the elevators and vending machines. Kayla was organizing piles of blankets and first aid supplies. She looked up as Xander came in and offered him a brave smile.

"All alone?" Xander looked around the room, he hoped they wouldn't fill it before the night was over.

"The others got called to a conference on the top floor; they're in the office. They said they sent for you." She shrugged and gestured toward the elevators.

"Go have Jonathan assign three people to run this place with you. Have someone set up one of the coffee makers in here and bring in a couple of the cases of juice."

She nodded and headed out into the parking level. Xander and Spike took the stairs up to the highest level of the garage. Sunlight spilled into the east and west sides through the vehicle entrances, but it was softening as the day faded to evening. They kept to the deep shadows along the wall as they crossed from a similar room near this floor's elevator bank to the office behind the glass-enclosed cashiers. Inside, Angel and Gunn pointed to details on the blueprints of the old high school, updating the others on changes to the substructure and its accessibility since it had been remodeled by explosives.

The room fell silent as Spike and Xander entered. *Oh come on guys - it Xander. You really aren't going to let me make all the decisions are you?* He smiled weakly and asked, "How's it going?"

"It's a tight fit, but we can get people into the school without going above ground." Angel said.

Simultaneously, Willow said, "That damn Rennie wants me to do a temporal acceleration spell on his fertilizer bombs. Do you know how dangerous that would be?"

Giles said, "Quite." Gunn scowled; Cordy rolled her eyes; Tara squeezed Willow's hand; and Wesley, thankfully, was the one person in the room not looking to Xander for an answer.

Xander ran the fingers of both hands back though his hair in what was becoming a nervous habit. Briefly, he wondered it the stress of his lifestyle would cause him to go bald from it before that lifestyle got him killed. "No, Will, I haven't a clue. Magic's right up there with math and French in the things you've never really been able to explain to me. Is there anyway to make it safer? We need firepower."

"Well..." She worried her lip between her teeth and looked at Tara. Tara gave her an encouraging smile and an almost imperceptible nod. "I think... It's still in the testing phase..." Xander tried to hide his shudder. "With Giles' and Wesley's help I think we can set it all up ahead of time with the spell set to activate on a password." Now it was Giles' turn to suppress a shudder. He offered Xander a conspiratorial smile at the thought of testing yet another computer- programming-meet-witchcraft spell. "We may even be able to rig a countdown to the spell so we have a chance to clear out before everything blows up." Willow offered a smile and nodded at the end of the babble. Xander really hoped it was him she was trying to convince and not herself, but judging by Tara's expression whatever Willow had just said must be at least feasible.

"Okay, make it so, Number One. Now, how stable is this backdoor and is there any chance they know it's there?" Xander turned his attention to Angel.


Since Angel had used his vampiric mining abilities to reopen the tunnel access to the school, they were reasonably sure that the Initiative didn't know they had breached the target. Even if the guy on the tower was one of their lookouts they should be able to secure the library without him reporting it. In a little under an hour the explosives were moved from the parking garage and secreted about the school. A communication system was organized between the school and the base and lines of defense were drawn up and manned.

One minute they were alone, and the next the troops poured into the building with eerily silent efficiency. Runners brought messages from the garage and from closer to the school's entrance. The fertilizer bombs were in place. One word from one of their four magic users would start the detonation countdown. It might be overkill but if Xander died today he wanted the piece of mind of knowing that the Hellmouth was buried under several thousand tons of rubble.

Xander tensed. Impatient, yet dreading the confrontation, he felt Spike's reassuring presence against his back. Looking across the hall he saw Gunn and Angel also primed and ready. They were the last line of defense before the library. Willow, Tara, Giles and Wesley were inside behind the barricade. He hoped it didn't come down to Willow and Tara blocking the assault with their combined power. He didn't feel comfortable with the Initiative knowing just what his witches were capable of; the girls lacked the ruthlessness necessary to break free if captured by that organization.

As the first sound of a taser firing echoed down the halls from the only stable entrance of the school, Jeff came skidding around the corner. Gasping, with his hands on his knees, he didn't even look up as he spoke. "We have the snipers, one's unconscious, one has a broken leg. Stripped them naked and tied them up in the infirmary. Jon said reports are that thirty armed assailants, three lab-coated administrative types and one guy in restraints were dropped off. We took the drivers and blew the trucks just before I left; they've probably been stripped by now."

"Why are you taking their clothes?" Angel asked.

*Oh sure, look at me like it's my idea. Actually it not a bad idea, if we were doing something covert-y we could use the uniforms. I wonder why we're taking their clothes?* "Laura said it was the only way to be sure they weren't hiding weapons or communication devices." Jeff answered, and looked at Xander to see if that was right.

The sound of explosives announced that the Molotov cocktails were being brought into play. Xander nodded to Jeff and said, "Have Cordelia interrogate them each separately; if she can't get any info she will at least make them rethink their career choices."

Jeff had just dashed off further into the dilapidated building when two uniformed figures cautiously rounded the corner. Angel and Gunn body-checked them in a move they must have spent nights choreographing it was so beautiful. They pinned them to the wall using the commandos' own rifles to choke them.

Just for a second Xander was stunned then he said, "Well, well, well, Riley Finn."


part nineteen

"Xander," Riley gasped, his eyes darting from Angel to Spike and back. As far as he knew Spike was still chipped and Angel had kicked his ass before so it was Angel he kept a wary eye on.

"Who's you friend, Ri?" Xander nodded to Gunn and Angel, they released the commandos but kept their weapons. Gunn and Spike took up positions with the tasers watching the direction from which the men had come.

"Graham Miller, Xander Harris." The quick response to Xander's unspoken orders seemed to have Riley reevaluating the command structure.

"Welcome to the Hellmouth, Mr. Miller. I think I remember you. Didn't you try to kill Riley once?" Xander pitched his voice light and conversational, but warily watched the tall, powerfully built commando. *This one is dangerous.*

"Xander, what the hell is going on here?" Riley interrupted the two warriors' silent assessment of each other.

"You tell me," Xander said, his attention still on Miller. "What's the cargo? Why are you storming the Hellmouth?"

"You know we won't talk," Miller said quietly.

"I know you guys haven't always shown a strong survival instinct. Frankly, I'm tired of cleaning up your messes. I'm prepared to do whatever it takes to see that this doesn't turn into another Adam. Are you sure you're on the right side, Mr. Miller?"

Xander could practically see the thoughts whirling behind Miller's eyes. He knew no matter what he said Riley would think he was bluffing. He really hoped he could get through to Miller; he didn't have time to bluff. The floor shook with an explosion and a pained scream was heard in the distance. Xander almost flinched; these were his people he did not have time for this macho bullshit. "Riley, how's that little addiction of yours?" Xander still watched Miller and saw, even though his stoicism, the slightest look of surprise. "I bet the past twelve hours have been a living hell for you.
Finding out that because you weren't man enough to face your shortcomings, that your cowardice left the woman you loved alone at the worst period of her oh-so-short life. There probably isn't anything you want more right now than oblivion. I've been there. You can't stand the sight of yourself. If you had only been a little stronger, a little faster, a little braver, you could have saved her. Instead, she died alone and exhausted, beaten by life and betrayed by someone she loved." Xander's voice remained calm and clear, even though he felt like throwing up at his own words. "There isn't a bottle deep enough or a drug strong enough to shut out your memory of how things could have been. But you know what'll make it better. What you turned to every time you couldn't face..."

"Shut up, Xander." Riley voice was ragged and broken as he cut into Xander's taunt. "Just shut up." There were tears streaming down his face. Angel looked at Xander with bewildered distaste.

"Ri?" Miller was torn by Riley's outburst. Xander could see as Riley slid down the wall into a sobbing heap that the other commando wasn't sure how to react.

"It's okay, Riley. I can get you what you need." Xander's words felt oily and he hated himself as he said. "It'll be all better, just tell me what you know."

"It... the power here is too unstable..." he started.

"Finn!" Miller finally showed emotion, only to be slammed into the wall by Angel. Riley watched and seemed to be in shock, not quite registering the action. He continued, "We just want to tap it. That way we can release it when it builds up - like a safety valve." He did seem to notice the sounds of gunfire and explosion as he looked up at Xander, who squatted down in front of where he had collapsed. "What is this? Xander, no one was to suppose to get hurt. We were just to escort the guy in, have him tap the source and get out. What is this?"

"What guy?" Xander ask softly. Riley seemed to see though whatever haze had been making him docile and launched himself at Xander. The two of them had hardly hit the floor before Spike lifted Finn by his throat and shook him
before slamming him into the wall.

"Let him go, Spike." Xander said getting to his feet, and Spike dropped him instantly. "He can't tell us anything if he's unconscious." Xander offered his lover a rueful smile and said, "Thanks. Make sure we're not interrupted."

Spike went back to his position with Gunn, and Angel apparently just realized that the chip was gone. So did Riley, judging by the pale clammy color he had turned and the beads of sweat that began to drip from his forehead.

"The cargo, who is it?" Xander prompted.

"Xander." Riley gasped, his eyes frantically darting between Angel and Spike.

"Come on, Ri, don't make me break your kneecaps, it'll ruin you career." Xander spoke in a joking voice but his eyes were cold as he stood toe to toe with Buffy's ex. Xander was alarmed by the fact that he knew he could slam a heel right in to Riley's knee and move on to the next order of business.

Now Riley's full attention was on Xander, and he didn't appear to think Xander was bluffing. He licked his lips and rasped out, "Ethan Rayne."

"Fuck," Xander whispered softly, but not soft enough to get past vampire hearing.

"Pet?" Spike didn't take his eyes off the corridor but his voice held concern.

"Angel," Xander barked. "Take these two inside. Tell Giles what's going down. If they try to escape break something non-fatal. If they try to contact anyone from this society of asinine death-wish junkies snap their necks so loud we can hear it out here."

When Angel had gone into the library Xander turned to Gunn. "Watch the door, I'll send someone to back you up as soon as I can."

"Where are you going?" Gunn said.

"The objective has changed. If I know Rayne we're going to have to protect the Initiative from him." Xander took off down the hall, not even checking to see if Spike followed. He knew he would.


Within the hour, Spike and Xander squeezed past the temporary barricade they had put in front of the library and reunited with the others. Finn and Miller were still unarmed but hadn't been restrained. Xander crossed over to where Giles and Wesley were set up behind a table, which seemed to have been thrown together out of scrap materials. Angel was keeping an eye on the prisoners and Spike joined Gunn who was now watching the door from the inside. Willow and Tara sat cross-legged on the floor on either side of a large blue ceramic bowl and chanted softly. Willow held the Thing in her hand and the bowl began to emit a shimmering light that lit up both witches in a weird blue glow.

"We pulled everyone back to the base. No fatalities among the Children but there are six dead commandos and ten more aren't mobile." At Giles' sharp look Xander sputtered, "Spike didn't do it!" He continued more reasonably, "We do have one really bad injury - Jeff took a hell of an electrical jolt from one of the tasers. He's twitchy and he smells like burned meat but Kayla said he should be okay. There are four commandos, two white coats and Rayne himself unaccounted for. They're somewhere in the building; we have all the exits secured. There was a dead white coat not far from here, just down the hall. He didn't have a mark on him, Spike says he smelled funny."

"Smelled funny?" Wesley raised an eyebrow, asking Xander to elaborate. *How does someone manage to give a look with a British accent?* Xander just shrugged and waggled his hand it the universally understood Xander-speak that said, *Hey, you're the one who does magic, I just kill dead things.* Xander was torn. He didn't want to distract Spike and Gunn, because that was the most likely direction of attack. He didn't want to distract the witches, because they were busy doing something witchy and besides, *magic + Xander = Bad.* Giles and Wesley had returned to discussing something that was way over his head, and that only left Angel.

"So, how's it going?" Xander asked leaning against the wall near Angel. *Well that's a feeble attempt at a conversation starter, way to go Xand-man.*

"He doesn't look so good." Angel nodded in Riley's direction. He was right. The young man had gotten even paler since hearing Xander run down the list of fatalities and wounded. "Is this 'addiction' something we should worry he'll go into withdrawal over?"

Riley's head snapped up from his contemplation of the floor and glared at Angel.

"No. It endangers him, and the lives of everyone who trust him, but right now he is safer than in rehab. I can practically guarantee he can't feed his habit - and right now he probably doesn't want to." Xander sighed and tilted
his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. It was about 10:30 PM, and Rayne, being the predictable bastard he was, would probably time his assault so that he could capture the Hellmouth by midnight. Xander expected a response from Angel. Angel had never been known to share the title of cryptic guy willingly. But it was Riley's voice that cut into his moment of rest.

"How can you say that? I never endangered Buffy. I loved Buffy." Xander had had about enough of Riley blaming everyone else. If Finn had stayed at least long enough to talk things out with Buffy she might not have died blaming
herself for their meltdown.

"You really believe that, don't you? How many times did she pull a punch when you surprised her on patrol? How many times in the thick of battle did she stop herself from staking you? What would it have been like for her to
find your cold drained body when sweeping the park? I know what coming home to find Joyce did to her. What would your death done? Would she have blamed herself? She certainly wouldn't have blamed you. It would never have occurred to her that you hadn't been killed because you were the Slayer's boyfriend. It would never have occurred to her that you were getting your rocks off having mindless fledges feed from you." Xander now had not only Riley's attention, but Angel's and Miller's as well.

"If Spike hadn't..."

Riley tried to jump in, but Xander ruthlessly continued. "If Spike hadn't what? Told Buffy she might come home to find Joyce and Dawn drained and you waiting for her? That some night when she stopped herself from staking you
on patrol you may have just turned the tables on her, may have distracted her long enough so whoever sired you could get a Slayer under their belt? Listen, asshole, you owe him, if not for saving your life by telling Buffy then at least for not taking it." Xander clenched his fist to keep from grabbing Riley and banging his head against the wall.

"He would have killed me if he could. Chipped, he settled for destroying my relationship with Buffy, that was the worst he could do." Riley spat out.

"Shit, man, I could do worse than that chipped and I don't have his creativity or experience to draw on. He's William the Bloody, Slayer of Slayers. He let you live, farm boy, not because he had to, but because...because it would have hurt Buffy. God, Riley, use your head. One word in the ear of one of those blood whores and you would have been meat." Xander sighed in exasperation and shook his head.

"He didn't do it to protect Buffy." Riley said. "He did it to hurt her."

"Killing you would have done that; she loved you." Xander said. That stopped the retort on Riley's lips.

Xander watched as Riley looked back down. "Riley, you're endangering everybody on that squad. One of these days you're going to get killed or turned playing this game."

Xander gave up. He crossed back over to Giles and Wesley who had stopped with the book thing to listen to the confrontation. Angel and Miller had just stayed back. They were both hard to read in an over-controlled facial expression kind of way. Miller reached out and put a hand on Riley's shoulder. Xander heard Angel say softly, "Riley, I've seen this before; it never ends well." He handed Riley a business card and said "I know some people, I might be able to get you some help. If we survive this, that is." *And hey, humor? From Angel? The world really is going to end.* Xander contented himself with pacing the defenses and checking the weapons, several times. He knew that it was just to fill the time; the final conflict would be a battle of magic. Two distinctive roars cut through the silence. *Or not.*

"That's Fyarl," Spike said.

"Well," Giles added, adjusting his glasses, "Ethan is nothing if not predictable. Do try not to kill them; it's highly likely those are the missing members of the Initiative."

Angel looked at Xander. Xander looked at Angel. Xander shrugged. "Arm them. They're idiots but they don't deserve to die without at least fighting back."

Angel gave Miller and Finn each one of the captured tasers. Spike put down the rifle and reached for a steel crow bar. He twirled it like a baton and grinned at Xander. Xander met his twinkling blue eyes and hoisted the rocket launcher, sighting on the door and smiled. Nothing happen for several tense moments and then a darkness seemed to seep under the door. When it touched Gunn he dropped to the floor. Angel started to rush forward to his friend.

"Hold position." Xander bellowed. "Ah, guys?" He didn't take his attention away from the door but sensed Tara and Willow moving forward. Gunn's body lifted and skittered across the floor until he was safely back against the far wall. The witches kept walking forward, hands linked. Willow still held the Thing. They brought the blue light with them and it shot out sparks into the creeping darkness. As the darkness recoiled the doors burst open.

"Well, Ripper...." Whatever witty Britishism Rayne had been about to hurl at Giles died on his lips when he saw the rocket launcher. *Ha, ha, ha, he who has the biggest gun - wins. And is this really the right time for an inappropriate phallic moment?* Just as Xander noticed Rayne gesture, he felt the rocket launcher and himself thrown against the wall.

Two of the Fyarls attacked. One shot mucus at Riley and then punched him to the floor with a sickening crunch once he was trapped. Miller stood over Xander firing at the second demon. Xander shook off his ringing headache in time to see Ethan thrown against the wall by the witches. Light burst out of the Thing and the demons dropped to the floor in their human forms. Spike pulled the crowbar out of the now-human corpse he had prevented from reaching the witches.

Giles got to be the adult by default. The Children of the Hellmouth faded into the gray light of the Sunnydale dawn. Giles summoned the Watchers to take Ethan, who was still in a coma. Miller said he would smooth things over with the Initiative. He didn't think it would be too hard considering how badly they had fucked up. Xander had still wanted to level the high school, but was vetoed by Willow and Giles. They felt it was an unnecessary risk but had agreed to leave the explosives hidden in place, just in case. Angel wanted to talk to him. Xander had a feeling that it had something to do with the chip and begged off, pleading exhaustion. He told him to call him after the weekend. He thought Angel just might, and oddly enough, he wasn't dreading hearing from him. They shook hands as Angel helped Gunn limp back to the base. After kissing Cordelia goodbye, Xander collected Spike and went home.


part twenty

Unsurprisingly, after stumbling into the apartment in the pale light of morning Xander slept all the way through Saturday. Surprisingly, he woke alone. Groggy from too much sleep he looked around his empty bedroom and wondered where Spike had gone. He had vague memories of struggling to consciousness several times in the past twenty four hours, and there had always been a slim hard body wrapped around him. Naked, he walked over to the window and peeked around the blackout curtain to see if it was daylight. Blinded from the white glare he quickly let go of the window covering and groped about for something to wear.

July was opening with sweltering heat. Even with the AC cranked it was going to be hot. Xander wore only a pair of thin cutoff sweat pants as he padded from the bedroom in search of his absent lover. Xander leaned against the
frame of the doorway to the kitchen, watching as a barefoot Spike gulped down a mug of blood. Spike then removed the second bag he had heated and refilled the mug.

"Should I keep restocking that?" Xander asked as Spike put the empty bag in the small medical waste container they kept in the cupboard underneath the microwave.

"Thinking of chucking me out, pet?" Spike spoke with his eyes cast down at his meal. His voice was soft and controlled, but Xander wondered if his eyes were blue or gold.

"No dipshit. I thought... I figured you might want... to start..." Xander's head hurt. *I should have stayed in bed. Should have avoided this subject as long as possible. Should have at least figured out what to say when he wants to go back to a diet of happy meals with legs. What if...?*

In a flash that line of thought was ended. There wasn't even a blur of movement. Suddenly, Spike's mug was on the counter and he had pinned Xander to the kitchen wall. Growling, golden-eyed, fangs bared Spike pressed his body into Xander's, their faces almost touching. Spike sneered out his words in a low silky voice, "What? Thought I'd start culling the herd?"

Xander couldn't look him in the eyes. Using his dark lashes to veil his vision of the angry vampire, Xander kept his head lowered as his spoke. "I don't want you to leave." His voice was barely above a whisper. "I don't want to lose you."

With a lightning lunge Spike's fangs were scraping along Xander's jugular, as gently as when he had been chipped. "I'm not going anywhere," he murmured against the pulse point. "Not ever. We clear on that?" he asked as he pulled
back to look Xander in the eyes.

Wide-eyed, Xander met his gaze as Spike's eyes shimmered from gold back to blue. Xander swallowed and asked the question that been haunting him since Willow had removed the chip. "Are you going to turn me?"

"Do you want me to?" Spike asked forcefully.

"Do you want to?" Xander shot back with equal strength.

"Xander." Spike loosened his hold on Xander, but Xander grabbed both hands and held them where they had rested on his hips.

"I need to know what you want. I need to know... how you feel." Xander looked down again, not sure which answer he wanted to hear less.

"I want you," Spike hissed. "However I can have you, for as long as I can have you. If Red can find a way for you to still be you - then fine, but otherwise..." He finished in a sardonic voice, "I can bag it for your lifetime."

"And Dawn's?" Xander lifted a hand to caress Spike's angular cheek.

"And Dawn's," he said with a smile.

Xander felt a great big goofy grin nearly crack his face, but didn't care. He got to keep Spike, or Spike got to keep him - it really didn't matter which. "I have something for you." He reached into the pocket of his shorts and pulled out a small jewelry box.

"This better not be an engagement ring, pet." Spike tried to sound annoyed but his hand trembled when he opened the box.

Inside, mounted to a pendent on a silver chain, was the chip. He had had the pendant and chain since Spike had moved in with him. The back had previously been the front and had an ornate 'S' and 'X' engraved on it. The chip had
been mounted by Kelly before the battle, when Xander had been helping move the bombs.

"What's this?" Spike asked.

"What do you mean 'What's this?'" Xander did a credible imitation of Spike's everyday accent.

"What does it mean, Xander?" Spike asked, switching to the bedroom accent.

"It means...." And for a moment he was stumped. *What does it mean?* Then, thinking back to some pillow talk about Victorian times, he said, "It means, I greatly esteem you." *Okay, so not working the Victorian speak.* Spike snorted and rolled his eyes. "I do, you know. You didn't just survive this." Xander gestured toward the chip. "You conquered it. I... If I haven't told you, I admire you. Your tenacity, your strength. You've really come through for me, for all of us." Xander faltered into a whisper. *Great! Any minute now, he's going to call me a big girl.*

Spike took the necklace from the box and stared at it a long moment. Then he lifted his deep blue eyes and stared at Xander. "Put it on for me, eh pet?"

Xander reverently placed the necklace on Spike. Willow had chosen the perfect length for the chain. It was suspended just over the spot where Spike's collarbone met his ribcage. Xander's favorite place to bite. Xander leaned in and softly kissed Spike's lips. He trailed kisses down the line of Spike's jaw and as he reached his neck began to intermix them with tiny nips. He pulled back to gaze at the handsome creature in front of him. After a few moments under his stare Spike laughed and said, "Say something, Pet."

"Fuck me?" Xander's voice was breathless and heady.

Spike's grip on Xander's hips tightened and he smoothly lifted him off the floor. "Here, or in the bedroom?"

Xander seemed torn only for a moment before answering. "Both?"

Spike lowered Xander down and emitted a low predatory growl as he turned him to the wall. The growl transformed to a purr as Spike ripped Xander's shorts neatly down the seam. Xander pressed his arms against the wall, spread his legs and thrust his hips back toward his lover. Kneeling behind him Spike pressed in and gently scrapped his blunt teeth against Xander's balls. With sweeping licks Spike slowly worked his way back toward Xander's opening. Xander moaned, his eyelids fluttered open just in time to see Spike lift the mug down from the counter. "Rule four, rule four!" he hissed, bucking his hips in time with his lover's tongue.

Which caused Spike to stop his assault and ask in a teasing voice, "What was rule four again?"

Xander whimpered at the lose of contact but manage to gasp out, ."No using
blood as lube."

"Need something, Pet." Spike said, returning to his task with vigor, but thankfully setting the mug aside.

Supporting himself with one arm Xander frantically reached toward the counter, while attempting to maintain contact with Spike's talented mouth. The salt shaker bounced across the floor, but Xander managed to snag the bottle of olive oil. He passed it down to his lover and waited for the cool liquid to be worked into him. Xander relaxed and leaned into him as Spike rose behind him while working his fingers deep inside. Spike was still fully clothed and snickered softly in Xander's ear. *Nothing like having a lover who can monitor your heartbeat to thoroughly map out your kinks.* Spike had teased Xander often about how quickly he got hot when he was naked and Spike was still dressed. Xander sighed and lay his head back on Spike's shoulder. Spike's purr kicked up a notch as he began to lave the corded muscles along the top of his shoulder with his tongue. Each thrust of his fingers sent waves of desire trembling over Xander's body.

Spike whispered softly against Xander's neck, ."Want you. Want to mark you. Deep in the muscle, leave a scar. Want to claim you." It was his human visage Spike rubbed along Xander's neck and across his shoulders, like a rutting cat. "Xander," Spike hissed with passion and need.

Xander moaned, his mind scrambling around a thousand thoughts. He knew what this meant to Spike, and what it would mean for him. They had had this talk when Spike was still chipped. Would the others understand? Xander didn't care about the rest of the world, but Dawn? Willow? Giles and Tara? Would they misinterpret this, blame Spike? Could they know what it meant to them, both of them? "Do it," he gasped. He was acutely aware of the flesh rending
for one brief moment, then ecstasy. He never felt more alive, more connected. The fact that he knew what this meant to Spike was intoxicating. He had a guilty flare of sympathy for Riley. *No wonder this was too much for him to resist. Although, the thought of letting just anyone - anyone other than Spike - do something this intimate is revolting.* Then, euphoria swept over him, obliterating all thought.

Slowly Xander became aware of the world around him. Spike was bathing the mark with long sweeps from shoulder to neck. Spike's fingers were still lazily moving inside Xander. His strong arm holding Xander around the chest were the only thing that had prevent the young man from collapsing to the floor with the force of his orgasm. Xander's come was dripping down the wall and Spike hadn't even undressed yet.

Spike slipped his fingers out and turned Xander to face him, never releasing his firm grip. Exerting tremendous effort and fighting post coital languor, Xander lifted arms and draped them around Spike's neck. Wishing he could purr himself, he settled for Spike's steady vibrations. Xander drowsily requested, "Bed now?"

Spike didn't throw him over his shoulder, like Xander expected. He gathered him into his arms and in a disconcerting show of vampire strength carried him slowly to the bedroom. After laying Xander down on the crumpled sheets, Spike knelt on the bed beside him and admired him like a work of art. Spike's look of unbridled lust, and something else deeper and more permanent, was making Xander wish his had a vampire's recuperative powers. Spike's fingers ghosted across Xander's naked flesh, brushing his lips, his nipples, trailing through the line of dark hair between his navel and genitals, but stopped nowhere.

"Please." Xander hoped his eyes and his feeble attempt to lift Spike's tee shirt conveyed his need for Spike to get naked. He knew he was down to wrapping his mind around only a few words and didn't think they would be very coherent.

Spike, ever the linguist, laughed as he leaned back and pulled his shirt off. He slowly unbuttoned his jeans, smirking at Xander's obvious frustration. His cock sprang out, rigid and ready as he tossed the denims off the bed. "For me?" Xander whispered, determined to show his lover he had been working on the whole retaining-the-ability-to-speak-during-sex thing.

Spike's laugh deepened and he crawled over Xander wearing nothing but the necklace and tongue kissed the mark. "Mine." Spike's voiced sounded happier than Xander had ever heard him. It contained none of the possessiveness he had expected; instead the rich deep tones were almost giddy. "My beautiful brown-eyed boy; my sweet precious pet; my Xander, so sweet." His hands tumbled and tickled, rolling Xander into a gasping giggling ball of desire. Spike finally lifted Xander's ankles over his shoulder and slid home into the well-oiled passage.

Xander bucked up into his purring, laughing lover and called out, "More, faster, harder, now, Spike, now." *So much for the whole speech thing.*

Spike obliged him by quickly increasing the tempo of his thrusts and angling for his prostate. As the repeated stimulation sent blood pounding to his head Xander could just make out Spike's words. "O, how thy worth with manners may I sing, When thou art all the better part of me? What can mine own praise to mine own self bring? And what is't but mine own, when I praise thee?[1]"

Xander hugged Spike tightly to him with both his arms and legs to prevent Spike from rolling off his body after his climax. He asked, "Did you write that?"

Spike lifted his head from where it was tucked under Xander's chin and met Xander drooping gaze with an incredulous look. His voice held exasperation and affection when he said, "Idiot."

Time passed. Basking in the afterglow segued into lazing about in bed, until the front door bell nudged Xander out of a light doze. "I told you Red was bringing over Chinese for supper, didn't I?" Spike asked, lifting his head up off Xander's stomach, which he had been using as a pillow.

Xander bolted from the bed, pulling on a crumpled pair of jeans as he left the bedroom. *Bad vampire. Bad Xander, going commando with Willow in the apartment.* Xander ran toward the front door, doubled back and slingshot into the kitchen. He scooped up the remains of his shorts and mopped up the spilled oil off of the floor. Using the oil soaked rag he wiped the dry come off the wall. Tossing the damp item into the covered trash bin, he flipped the switch on the fan above the stove in an attempt to get rid of the reek of sex. He finished his dash to the door just as the bell rang again.

Being Sunnydale, even though it was Sunday afternoon, he checked the peephole. *So not Willow and Tara, and speaking of commando.* Outside the door were the two commandos, Riley and Miller. Xander felt Spike stroking his bare spine and turned to be handed a tee shirt. *Spike? Covering me up? He spends all his time ripping my clothes off.* Spike smiled at Xander's confusion and trailed a finger across the mark. *Oh, duh. Goofy grin back. Erection back; commandos outside the door. Thanks, Spike.*

"It's Riley and that Miller guy. I'll totally lose the cleaning deposit if you kill them," Xander joked while biting his bottom lip.

"Told you I wouldn't," Spike scowled.

Xander pulled on the shirt and leaned in to plant a calming kiss on his pissed off lover. "Actually, you said you wouldn't hunt to feed, you never swore off revenge. Vengeance... Well, let's not go into my experience with vengeance." Xander offered Spike a wobbly smile. "But I owe Miller, and Finn's an asshole but he's Buffy's asshole. Wait... That really came out really wrong."

Spike snorted and turned and strolled back in to the apartment. "Unless they hurt you, Pet they're safe for now."

Thinking that was as much as he could hope for from Spike, Xander opened the door. Riley was using a pair of crutches and sported a cast from the top of this thigh to his ankle. Xander invited both men in, and lead the way into
the living room. The bedroom door was shut and there was no sign of Spike. "Can I get you anything?" Xander asked the men.

"No. Thanks. Xander, I just wanted to say..." Riley faltered and looked to his friend for moral support. Graham didn't say anything, but he gave Riley a slight nod. "You were right," Riley said. "About everything."

"Riley... some of that stuff... I would have said anything to get you to talk. Those were my people in the front lines; the sooner we stopped you the fewer would die..." Xander temporized, but Riley cut in.

"It was true, and you know it. I was a liability to Buffy, to all of you. I put you in danger, and I'm doing the same thing to my unit now. I'm going to resign my commission and get some help." He looked down at the floor, seeming almost as broken as he had seemed the two nights ago. Miller looked uncomfortable, like he wanted to offer support to Riley but didn't want to make him seem any weaker in front of Xander.

"I'm sorry to hear that." Xander said. "Not sorry you're getting help, but that you're resigning. You've learned some hard lessons about blindly following orders and not questioning the results. I believe that deep down you're a good man, Riley Finn. I think that if good men leave the hard jobs to those without the moral conscious for it to bother them then only the bad men are doing those jobs."

"Thanks, Xander, that means a lot." Riley clenched his jaw and squared his shoulders. Graham placed a supportive hand on his back.

"She loved you," Xander said softly. "Believe that that means you're worth loving. I do."

The doorbell rang and Riley used the distraction to break eye contact with Xander's frank gaze. Spike emerged from the bedroom, much to the surprise of the commandos. "That'll be the girls," he said as he continued to stroll to the door.

Riley looked like he was going to say something, but was interrupted by the sounds from the doorway. Dawn squealed and threw her arms around Spike's neck and the men in the living room heard her clear voice say, "I always miss the explosions!"

Spike snorted and swung her up in his arms. He carried her into the apartment, trailed by witches bearing paper sacks of Chinese food. Dawn stopped laughing when she saw Riley. Spike set her down on her feet, but she locked both arms around his waist and pressed close.

"Hi, Dawn." Riley said.

"Riley." She answered. Her eyes darted from one commando to another. If she looked this scared with them in street clothes, Xander was glad she hadn't run into them in uniform.

"I can't tell you how sorry I am. About your mom, about Buffy...."

The young man looked so helpless, apparently Willow couldn't stand to let him twist in the wind. "Thank you, we appreciate your sympathy," Willow said quietly, setting her bag down on the dining table and turned to take Tara's and doing the same. "I feel horrible about your finding out like that," Willow continued. *That's my Willow, always ready to forgive and forget.* Willow crossed to stand near Dawn and Spike. "We would have told you as soon
as it happened, but of course we couldn't. We tried to reach you before Buffy died." She gently stroked Dawn's hair. *Or maybe not, maybe she's just going to bludgeon him with a shovel.*

Xander stepped in before Riley and his friend ended up sharing a cage with Amy. He cast a significant glance at the little group standing so close together, complete now that Tara had sidled up to Willow. *Maybe the whole pack thing isn't just hyena-speak.* "We're all glad to hear you're getting help, Riley. We've lost too many good people to the Hellmouth.

The doorbell rang again, and Riley and Graham declined to stay for dinner. Xander let Giles in while he let the commandos out. He responded to Giles' raised eyebrow with a shrug and a shake of his head. They could discuss it
later. For now, food beckoned and all else was secondary. Xander sat at his table. He watched Dawn pumping Spike for details about the battle. He caught Tara's covert eye roll to Willow over some piece of Spike hyperbole. He looked across the table at Giles and smiled. This was home.

This was family. Whatever tomorrow brought, they could face it together.

1. Shakespeare


The End