This story is now now no longer being archived anywhere else that I can find, the old links to it are broken, so on request I am releasing my private copy. If anyone has an outside link to this story I will happily redirect readers to it instead.




{Oh, you have got to be kidding me. 'S bad enough I've got this bloody chip in the first place, but now I got pawned off on the whelp like the barmy old maiden aunt in the attic. Or basement. Whatever. Jesus bloody Christ!}

Xander Harris was thinking similar thoughts, for different reasons. Almost in a panic, he wheedled, blustered, coaxed, and begged, but in the end, he did what they wanted. Just like always. Xander had to suppress a small surge of bitterness. Why in the world couldn't they see that there might be a more valid reason for his not wanting Spike there, than the selfish, responsibility-hating ones?

Was it really so impossible to believe that he might have problems of his own now and then?

{Jesus God, I don't want to think about what he'll do to me, if he finds Spike there. Please God. Please don't let him find Spike there.}

The rest of the evening passed somewhat quietly, as Xander sat in one corner, brooding with the best of them, but still trying to listen in on the rest of the meeting. All too soon, it seemed, the meeting was over, and it was time to go home. Buffy looked him over, critically.

"Are you sure you're all right, Xander? You know we wouldn't ask you to take him, if there was anything else we could do with him. There's just no one else here that has the privacy you do. If there was any other way..."

"Yeah, I know, Buffy." And the bad thing was, he *did* know. He felt a brief rush of guilt. He wasn't being fair to them, and he knew it. Over the years, he had gotten very adept at hiding the evidence of his father's drunken rages, and he had also worked hard on the "bumbling fool/errand boy" cover that he maintained. Was it their fault that they believed the act he had perfected?

"It's alright. I know, there's nothing else we can really do with him." Buffy smiled at him, and he could see how relieved she was that he wasn't really upset. His shoulders slumped a little, but he managed a small smile for her, and she patted him on the back as she turned to leave with Willow.

His façade of belligerence and sulkiness gone, he walked dejectedly out the door, with Spike in tow behind him, closing it softly in their wake.

Once they were out of the house, Xander let go of Spike's duster, and walked morosely down the street towards "home".

God, what he would give if he didn't ever have to call that place "home" again, being the pathetic mockery of the work that it was.

"We've got to get you in through the basement window when we get there. Mom and Dad are probably home by now." Probably drunk out of their minds by now, he meant, but wild horses wouldn't have dragged that out of him. It might be obvious, but it damned well was going to go unspoken.

* * * * *

Spike looked over at the boy critically. Most people think "evil blood-sucking vampire" and automatically assume that any observational skills were lost upon turning. It was one of his best advantages, and he exploited it ruthlessly.

It was quite obvious that the boy was terrified to have Spike coming home with him, and Spike might have been flattered at the emotion.

Except it wasn't for him. Walking down the streets at night with Spike an armlength away, the boy was fine. Not a hint of fear coming off of him.

But back at the Watcher's, when they brought the idea up, he had been instantly terrified. And while Spike usually loved the scent of fear, something in Xander's had disturbed him. The acrid tang had been unpleasant, and he had wanted it to stop.

{So if he's not scared of bringing me into the house, then it must be something already there that's terrifying him...}

The only thing already at Xander's house was his parents. But why would he-

"What? Are you waiting for an engraved invitation? I already asked you in once." Xander stood impatiently by the small window just a little above ground level, tapping his foot, and scowling softly at Spike. Spike was shocked to realize they were already at the whelp's house, which meant that he had spent the entire trip over, daydreaming. He scowled, himself. That was a really good way to get yourself staked, which was something he'd never forgotten in the past. Troubled, a little, yet enjoying Xander's discomfiture, he rolled his eyes, and lowered himself, slithering through the small window gracefully.

"Kind of dank and gloomy. I like it, pet." Xander's look told him exactly how much he cared whether Spike liked it or not.

"There's a kitchenette through there. A walk in closet there, and the rest of home-sweet-home, you're looking at." Spike blinked at him.

"A walk-in closet? Doesn't really fit with the...Spartan décor, pet," he said, smirking a little.

"It used to be a utility area, until I converted it into a closet, 'cause I didn't have one."

Spike mmm-hmm'ed disinterestedly, already moving on to greener pastures.

Poking and prodding, he nosed through the kitchenette, investigating everything. Xander had to snort a laugh.

"Spike, you don't eat. What do you care what's in there?"

"I don't. I was just-" {Nosing through your stuff to be sure you had enough. Oh, yeah. Way to keep that evil reputation intact, Spike!}

"-browsing." Spike finished, somewhat lamely. "Besides. I eat. Human food just isn't my main supplement. That would be the humans." Spike grinned evilly.

Xander cocked an eyebrow at him.

"Whatever, Spike. As long as you don't get any wild ideas about killing me in my sleep, I couldn't care less."

Spike snorted softly at that.

"If I could do that, I wouldn't need a place to stay at all, now would I, pet?"

Xander supposed that only made sense.

The continued silence in the house was tantalizing Xander, and he finally headed up the stairs to see if his parents were back.

The empty and silent house brought a rush of memory back, followed by an almost savage joy.

November 6th. They're gone. Won't be back for another two weeks. The obligatory yearly visit for Grandmum's birthday...

Xander's maternal grandmother had hated children all her life, and had ruled her own with an iron fist.

Every year at this time, Xander's mother and father took off, and spent two weeks with the hateful old woman, on the off chance they might be included in the will.

She never wanted to see Xander, so he was, luckily, exempt from the yearly visits.
The only downside was the fact that he paid for his two week vacation, dearly.

The mood his father was in when they got back last year had earned him the worst beating of the year, and a rape on top of that.

The times that his father raped him were few and far between, but they hurt so damned badly that they really stuck out in his mind. If there was one thing he was sure of, it was that he *did not* want Spike there if his father raped him when he got home.

{Yeah, right. Keep dreaming, kid. That's not an "if". It's a "when". You know damned well he's going to. He spends two weeks being utterly humiliated by Grandmum, so he's got to come home and prove his masculinity by raping you.}

Xander really hated that sardonic little voice in his head. Especially since it was nearly always right. He was just going to have to find something to keep Spike occupied the day they came back. His father would work him over, then wouldn't want anything else to do with him for a while.

At least if he held true to pattern.

{Hell, Xander, he's held to this pattern for the last ten years or so. What makes you think he'd change it at this late date?}

Hmm. True.

So. Just needed to do something with Spike.

(Two Weeks Later)

Xander was beyond tired, and rapidly progressing into the zombie realm.

"Alright, Spike," he said to the seemingly comatose vampire he was currently hauling down his stairs. "Giles is sure you can hear me, but you sure as hell don't look like you're catching much of the action here, Bub. This is just a healing sleep. You're going to be fine."

Xander had a sneaking suspicion that he was speaking more for his own benefit, than Spike's. In the two weeks they had been rooming together, they had developed an abiding tolerance for one another, and Xander had noticed that the barbs they had been trading were more friendly banter, lately, and less cutting, and spiteful backbiting. He still didn't trust the vampire, but Spike was a good companion that filled the lonely hours after work, when Buffy and the rest of the gang were off doing...Slayer-y things. He wasn't always needed for gruntwork, but at the last meeting they had attended, he could have sworn that Spike had been looking at him with the strangest look in his eyes. Almost...sorrow? Why he had looked like that, Xander had no idea. All he knew was, he still didn't trust the vampire as far as he could throw him.

Tonight, though, he had thought his heart would beat its' way out of his chest, when the demon they had been fighting had impaled Spike perilously close to the heart. They had carried him back to the Watcher's and forced several bags of blood down him, only to have his eyes flutter closed, and all motion stop.

Giles had insisted he would be fine, and described his condition as sort of an odd fugue state that vampires entered to heal from serious wounds. Xander hated the fact that Spike was, for the next twenty-four hours, completely, and totally dependent upon him. Xander was worried about him.

The revelation was a surprise, even to himself.

"Spike, if you can really hear me, everything's gonna be fine. Just think of it as twenty-four hours of nice, peaceful sleep, and you'll wake up, and feel a lot better. It's midnight now, so when you wake up, I'll have some dinner for you. Giles said you would be starving when you came out of it. We can share the bed tonight, though.

God, I'm tired." Talking to Spike like this was kind of nice. It was like talking to yourself, but didn't feel quite so...psychotic. The oddest things kept popping out of him mouth. That was fine. Xander was still pretty sure that Spike wouldn't remember any of this, once he woke up.

"Goodnight, Spike."

"night, pet.."

But Xander was already asleep, and he didn't hear the whispered reply from cold, unmoving lips.

* * * * *

Spike hated the rejuvenating sleep more than almost anything. It was like being
trapped. A prisoner in his own body, as it healed. He felt completely helpless, and he hated that, but Xander's words, and his obvious concern for Spike's well-being lessened the panic that was teasing at his mind.

He forced himself to relax, and concentrate on Xander's steady breathing, and heartbeat.

The last few weeks had been...not so terrible. As much as he hated to admit it, the whelp had been a pretty damned accommodating host, and the more Spike watched him, the more he respected him.

Xander was persistent. Spike had to admire that. He was the only one of the Scooby gang that didn't have a...talent. He was the comic relief half the time, and Spike could tell it was a role Xander wasn't completely comfortable with. The rest of the gang wasn't cruelly oblivious to the boy, but with all that the Hellmouth could throw at them, there just wasn't enough time for them to be that attentive to Xander. Spike could tell that it hurt him, but he still couldn't resist teasing him about it, now and then. After all, he couldn't be *nice* to the boy. Xander would probably have a heart attack from the shock.

A loud slam from the front door, directly above them startled Spike, but still, he couldn't move

"Alexander! Where the hell are you, you worthless piece of shit??"

{What the fuck?}

The heartbeat next to Spike's ear went from steady, restful sleep, to terrified, panicked pounding in a split second. Xander's breathing became labored, and accelerated to match as he began to pant out,

"Oh God, oh God, oh God. Stupid. You're so stupid. Oh, God. You knew. You knew he was coming back. You idiot."

The smell of stark terror roiled off the human's sweaty skin, making Spike faintly nauseous, and he found himself fighting his body, which was still holding him prisoner.

Spike felt hands unceremoniously grab him, and haul him up by sheer will-power, and adrenaline. The sound of a sliding door opening, and Spike belatedly realized that he was being pulled in the walk-in closet. He cursed virulently in his mind, wanting more than anything to be able to talk to Xander.

Xander wrestled him in behind the clothes and settled him quickly on the floor, with a pillow behind his head.

That hated fear-scent drew closer and Spike flinched internally before shock rolled through him, as Xander ghosted a trembling hand across Spike's cheek. The pounding upstairs was getting closer, but he felt Xander lean forward over him.

"Spike, you've been a good houseguest, and I wanted to thank you. I realize if you were awake, you'd probably rip me apart for this, or at least want to,'ve been a real friend. Thank you..." Xander stopped for a moment, then, as the knob on the door leading upstairs began to rattle, he spoke again, urgently.

"Spike, please. If there's any way...don't listen to this. I don't want you to listen to it. Not that it'll particularly bother you,'ll bother me. It's bad enough that you're going to have to clean up the mess once you wake up tonight. I'd really rather you didn't hear the whole thing as it was happening, the first time around."

{Sorry. Fat chance, mate. I don' know what the fuck is goin' on, but I'm not completely checking out on you, here. I hate bein' left in the dark.}

The trembling hand was back on his cheek again, for a split second, stroking lightly.

"Don't worry, Spike. I won't let him get you. I'd kill him before I let him touch you. That, or he'd kill me first."

Xander's whispered words sent a bolt of terror through Spoke, and he fought frantically to open his eyes. Move. *Something*.

"I'm sorry, Spike." With that, the clothes rustled back in front of him, and the doors slid shut, leaving him alone, but still able to hear what was happening out in the room a few feet away.

Spike heard the sound of wood splintering as the door was kicked open, and heavy booted feet pounded in an uneven, drunken rhythm, down stairs he had climbed often in the last two weeks.

"Dad-" Xander's voice had an odd note that sounded like he was about to try to placate the enraged man in front of him. Coaxing, cajoling against the inevitable.

The sound of a fist hitting flesh seemed loud in Spike's ears. A forceful thump, as a booted foot connected. With Xander's ribs, if the breath exhaled on a sob was any indication.

Spike's mind seemed to be split in two, even his demon. Part of him was standing back, clinically dissecting the sounds that he heard coming from the room behind him. The only reaction the beating produced from this part of him, was a mild distaste for the crudeness of the attack. The liquor dimmed all potential the mortal might have had for finesse, and left him with a simple, clumsy bloodlust that someone with Spike's experience and refinement could only disdain.

The other half of his demon was roaring in outrage. The boy was his! No one hurt something that was his, without his permission.

{At all. No one hurts Xander, at all!!.} Spike shook off the annoying voice that had been plaguing him more and more often in the last week or so, once again getting caught up in the sounds of the grisly dance being played out not ten feet away from him.

A flurry of kicks, and punches followed, all with a backdrop of softly wheezing breath, but no screams from the boy, which called forth an unexpected surge of pride, in Spike.

The sound of tearing cloth, and the rustle of leather sliding over denim reached his ears. Then, the stunningly loud snap of thick leather over vulnerable skin.

A whimper, but still no scream. Crack after crack, as the belt rained down furiously, striking heavily time and again, and Spike was trying to grit his teeth, even paralyzed, as his eyes glowed gold. He longed to rip the human's throat out, ignoring the little twinges of warning pain, as his vivid imagination conjured images of what he would do to the man before he killed him.

"Dad..." Xander moaned, almost incoherently. "Please..."

"Yeah, you beg me. Beg, and maybe I'll let you live." The calm, rational side of Spike vowed to remember those words, and make Xander's father regret ever uttering them, before he died.

"Beg me!" But there were no more words from Xander, and the blows rained down even harder in retaliation.

"Stupid, worthless little slut. I should have killed you years ago." More cloth rustled, and the thick, heavy smell of male arousal filled the air, slapping Spike in the face, and sending him spiraling even further into an impotent rage. At that moment, he had no doubt that, chip or no chip, he would kill Harris if he could move.

"By, God, at least you're good for something around here, you little fuck." With those words, Spike heard the sound of flesh tearing, and Xander's father finally got his screams, as his son howled out his pain, until his throat must have been raw.

But still he never begged. A small, tight, evil smile graced Spike's face, as he felt the first of the sleep beginning to wear off, though it would still be several hours before he could move again.

{He would make a hell of a vampire.}

"Yeah. Scream for me. God! It's so good..." Xander was reduced to low moans, and whimpers as his father slammed into his vulnerable body again, and again. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the man bellowed like a wounded bull, and the scent of semen filled the air. A last groan of pleasure, and the slick sound of him pulling out was followed by the sound of another, half-hearted kick, which produced only a weak murmur.

"Get this blood cleaned up, boy. And don't forget the rent's due in three days."

* * * * *

Spike lay in the closet, feeling the trace of wetness on his cheek, but refusing to acknowledge it, even to himself.

Vampires didn't cry.

"I-I'm all right, Spike. I need some help, but I'll live. I'll be fine until you can get up. It's only about three more hours until midnight. I'm...I'm bleeding, but it's mostly just surface tearing. I don't think he ruptured anything..." Xander trailed off, and Spike thought he'd fallen unconscious.

{*Only* three more hours until I can get up. And just how the fuck does he know what an internal rupture feels like? Christ. It's a miracle he's lived this long.}

The closet doors slid open, and Spike felt the air currents shift erratically as Xander crawled painfully across the floor to him. He lay his head gently on Spike's chest, whimpering softly and continuously.

"it hurts Spike...oh, God it hurts so bad." The scent of blood flooded Spike's nose, and his mouth watered, as he wanted nothing more than to sink his fangs into his mortal's neck, marking him as Spike's, for the rest of his life. But with a shock, he realized that he wanted that with a whole Xander.

He didn't want a meal off the boy, even now, as hungry as he was. He just wanted Xander. Unafraid, and willingly his.

A wave of sadness hit the vampire as he admitted to himself that the chances of getting an unafraid and willing Xander to bed with him, after this, were about the same as him being welcomed into Heaven after the Slayer dusted him.

Using every bit of force and will-power he possessed, he very slowly inched his hand up, a bit at a time, until it settled on Xander's naked back. Rage filled him yet again, at the slick feel of blood under his fingers.

The boy moaned in his sleep but didn't move away, and Spike, exhausted by the small effort, promptly fell asleep, holding him.

Three hours later, Spike's eyes jerked open, and he immediately turned, seeking Xander, who was lying in a heap on his side, facing the back of the closet.

Spike moved towards him, wanting to get the boy off the ground and into a soft, warm bed, but the smell of blood was tantalizing him and he realized he wouldn't be able to help Xander until he had fed.

Spike clambered painfully to his feet and staggered out of the closet. He listened instinctively, but Xander's mother and father were gone.

Just as well. Now he didn't have to waste his energy, trying to restrain himself from killing them before tending to Xander.

Growling, he jerked the refrigerator door open and yanked out a bag of blood. Unwilling to wait long enough for it to heat, he ripped it open, and drank the blood cold, grimacing in distaste all the while, before hurrying back to the open closet door.

Reaching inside, he grasped Xander's arms and pulled him out as gently as he could. Xander still whimpered in pain.

Spike growled.

"Jesus Bloody Christ!" Spike muttered angrily. Xander's entire body was a backdrop of black and blue, fist-sized bruises, and boot-marks, where his father had punched and kicked him.

His back, though. Jesus, his back would be permanently scarred. The leather of the belt must have had a sharp edge on it, because every stroke had sliced the skin, and Xander's entire back was split open, and ragged. Spike was at a loss. He didn't even know where to start.

"Xander, luv. I think you need to go to the hospital. Some of these are going to have to be sewn up." Terror flashed through Xander again, at the suggestion, and he forced himself to rouse enough to respond.



"No, Spike. Absolutely not." Xander's voice was weak, and he was obviously in pain, but his eyes were steady, and calm. "If you take me to the hospital, they'll probably have to file a report on me, as bad as I look. They'll want to press charges against my father."

"Jesus, pet," Spike sighed in irritation. "Don't you think that would be best? Look at what he did to you!" Just a bit of Spike's anger was making itself known in the tone of his voice, and Xander cursed himself, even as he involuntarily flinched back. Usually he wasn't that jumpy, even after all his father had done, but right then, it was just too fresh in his mind.

Spike didn't apologize, but his eyes softened, and a hand came up to stroke gently along his arm.

"Spike," Xander said reasonably. "It'll destroy my entire family. My dad will go to jail, then who'd support my mom? She sure as hell can't get out there and work, and I wouldn't be much help, bringing in minimum wage from a job I probably won't keep past two months, anyway. I'd probably have to move, and I'll lose everyone I care about, including you." A look crossed Xander's face that told Spike he wished he hadn't said that last part, but the vampire let it pass without comment.

Everything that Xander said made sense, and for some reason, that pissed Spike off. He didn't feel like making sense. He was angry, and he didn't want coherent, perfectly logical rationalizations as to why he shouldn't take Xander to the hospital, when he so obviously needed to be there. Another low growl was working it's way up Spike's throat, and he did nothing to quell it, though it didn't even take the edge off his rage. Why in the hell did the boy care so much about destroying his family, when they obviously had *no* problem trying to destroy him?

"Can you sew?" Spike blinked.

"What?" Xander looked at him patiently.

"You heard me. Can you sew? Surely in you hundred and twenty-five years, or whatever, you've needed to stitch up a comrade-in-arms, or something.


"I knew it. You can."

"Yeah," Spike said grudgingly, not liking the direction this was heading in at all. "Yeah, I can sew."

"Well, then. Do it. I have a friend whose mom is a pharmacist. He can get hold of some antibiotics for me tomorrow."

"It'll hurt, pet. I don't have anything to dull the pain, like a hospital would," Spike warned. Xander rolled his eyes, weakly, having exhausted most of his energy arguing with the stubborn vampire.

"It already hurts, Spike. Just do it. Please?" Spike reluctantly went and got the first-aid kit from the kitchenette, noting with no surprise that it was *extremely* well stocked. He supposed Xander had found it to be a necessity, in the past.

Five minutes later, Xander was lying on his bed, face down, and Spike was looking at the ravaged skin on his back, trying to still his shaking hands so that he could sew neatly, and at least minimize the scarring.

The longer Spike sat and looked at Xander's back, the angrier he became. That son-of-a-bitch had *raped* his own son. A mortal under Spike's protection. That couldn't go unpunished. Xander was Spike's, and *no one* damaged what was his!

Spike was working himself up again, and his demon was roaring it's displeasure, and this was definitely no way to get his hands to quit shaking so he could work. Spike took a deep, calming breath and leaned forward until he was almost brushing Xander's ear.

"It's alright, pet," he crooned softly, unconsciously dropping his voice down a register, until it was close to a rumbling purr, hoping that the vibrations would have the same effect on Xander that they did on other vampires.

It did. Xander relaxed almost immediately, actually arching his head and neck up just a little into Spike's hands. "I swear you won't feel any pain. Just trust me. Trust Spike. Everything's going to be alright." His voice was low and hypnotic as he whispered to Xander over and over, soothing him slowly, until he relaxed further, bit by bit. In an unconscious imitation of Xander's motions from a few hours before, Spike smoothed the back of his hand over Xander's cheek, bringing his other hand up to stroke the back of his head, almost tenderly

Xander's eyes slowly met Spike's, and he could see the traces of shock in the dilation of them, and the overly-bright quality of the pupils.

Spike seemed to hold his gaze by sheer willpower, instructing him silently not to look away, as he stroked his hands soothingly over Xander's head, and down his neck, over and over, making sure to keep up the soft purring as he did so. Tight muscles slowly relaxed, losing the painful tension the terror of the night had caused, and Spike smiled softly as a glimmer of trust began to glow in the soft brown eyes.

Spike gentled his touch on Xander's neck even further, still stroking softly, until he could see that the combination of the light touch and the rumble in his chest was starting to lull Xander into a haze, bordering on sleep.

Spike trailed his hands over the sensitive nerves in Xander's neck, before strong fingers pressed down hard on them, quickly, expertly.

Xander's eyes rolled back in his head, and his entire body went limp.

Spike quickly and efficiently went to work.

Amazing as it was, by the time Spike had finished stitching Xander's back up, he had almost forgotten that the boy's father had raped him. It wasn't until he got to the tears in the skin on his lower back, that he saw the blood still congealed on his buttocks.

"Stupid, bloody wanker," Spike muttered to himself. He cleaned Xander up as gently as possible, and examined him thoroughly, needing to make sure that the boy hadn't been hurt more seriously than he thought. Even unconscious, Xander moaned softly when Spike touched him there, and he whispered to him, purring softly until he quieted again. Pulling antibiotic ointment from the kit, he hoped that his cool skin would be soothing, and not another source of further pain for Xander, as he smoothed the medicine on his skin. Xander sighed, and relaxed, and Spike smiled slightly as he recapped the ointment, and went to wash his hands, before returning to the bed, and getting in for a nap.

* * * * *

Xander awoke to more pain than he had ever been in, in his life. He hadn't done much more than moan, when hand gently cupped his head, and a cup was tilted to his dry lips.

"Just water, pet." Xander took another sip, then found a pill resting at his mouth.

"Open up. You need these, Xander." Xander responded to the serious tone and swallowed three pills, one after another, grimacing as they scraped his throat, already raw from screaming.

"What-?" he managed.

"Antibiotics, and a pain pill."


"Shhh. Don't worry about it, pet. I've got friends too, you know. I'll get you whatever you need."

"Why?" Xander asked softly. "Why are you...being so me?" Spike smoothed a soft hand over Xander's hair, and he leaned into the touch, finding it much more soothing that he could ever have imagined. Spike smiled, but his eyes were serious as he answered.

"Loyalty. You defended me when I was completely dependent on you. If you had showed your father where I was, he would have hurt me badly, even though he probably wouldn't have killed me. Regardless, you could have gotten away from him in the scuffle. You sacrificed yourself to save me, and he damned near beat you to death, in return. I won't forget that, pet." Just a bare hint of a smile touched Xander's face, and his eyes slid closed.

"Always protect you, Spike," he whispered on a sigh. "You're mine." Xander was asleep before he felt the cool body slide between the sheets with him, careful not to brush too closely across the torn flesh of his back. An arm slipped over his waist and held him as close as possible.

"Yes," Spike agreed softly. "And you're mine. And by God or Hell, no one will ever strike you in anger again."





Xander awoke the next morning with the peculiar sensation that his head was floating about three feet above his body.

{God. Those must have been some killer pain pills he gave me.}

The somewhat goofy smile that had been on his face at the thought of the drugs faded quickly.


Xander's face heated almost painfully, and as he blushed hard, he felt an unexpected swell of shame rise in him. He pushed it away forcibly and turned his head experimentally, wanting to see just *how* sore he was this morning.

OW! Pretty goddamned sore.

His back shrieked at him and he lay still for a moment, staring at the weak sunlight streaming in the small window. Involuntarily, his eyes darted to the motionless form in the bed with him, making sure none of the pesky stray sunbeams were preparing to fry his bedmate.

His eyes softened again as the embarrassment crept back in. Spike had been *kind* to him the previous night. While it was true that the two of them had seemed to declare a cease-fire in the war of words, the truce was tentative at best.

Xander was off-balance and confused this morning. He had been sure that he was finally starting to understand the dynamic between the two of them, but last night had turned all his certainties to dust.

The sexual tension between them had always been palpable, but Xander had opted to pretend ignorance in order to avoid the whole "sleeping with the undead" question. As attractive as Spike was, Xander wasn't at all sure that he was ready to have sex with a corpse.

Sexual tension and truces aside, a small voice inside Xander was actually a little worried that the vampire would wake up this evening mocking him for the whole episode. Granted, it was only a *very* small voice, but it was still there, nagging at him.

{For God's sake! Why would he have been so nice last night, only to rip you to shreds tonight?}

Hell, why did Spike do anything? Befriending Spike felt something like trying to tame a half-wild dog. You never knew if it was going to lick you or tear your throat out. There was a decent-sized evil streak in Spike, of which Xander had been on the receiving end more than once. He looked over at the blond figure laying beside him. Even in sleep, there was something about Spike. A subdued violence that was only hinted at in the set of his jaw. The unconscious, fractional arch of an eyebrow, giving him a faintly sardonic look, even when he was completely at rest.

Xander's hand acted of its own accord and reached out, smoothing back a white-blond lock of hair. He was startled a bit at the softness of it, and wondered if Spike had gotten up and taken a shower sometime the night before. Thinking back, he pulled a blank. Once he had fallen asleep, he had pretty well been dead to the world.

Well, so to speak.

His fingers combed through Spike's hair again, even as his mind yelled at him, demanding to know what the hell he was doing. With a studied casualness, he ignored the little voice in his brain and kept right on with it, fascinated with the texture and play of it, until a low rumbling started in the inert form under his hand.

Startled, Xander jerked his hand away and scooted backwards a bit, ignoring the stinging pain in his back, and the throbbing twinges in his ribs. The rumbling continued unabated, and slowly Xander crept forward again.

{Was he doing this last night?}

Once again his hand stretched forward, but this time he lay it on Spike's chest. A small, delighted grin crossed Xander's face as he felt the vibrations under his hand.

{He *was*! I remember this.} Listening to it now made him want nothing more than curl back up, and go back to sleep.

His bladder, however, had differing plans. Moving slowly, he reached out and grasped the semi-sturdy table by the bed, hauling himself upright.

"Okay... so far, so good," he whispered, moving on shaky legs toward the bathroom.

Crossing the room by groping from one landmark to another really sucked, even though it was something he had a great deal of practice at, but he finally reached his destination. Xander stood motionless at the sink for a moment, holding on tightly as he tried to get his breath back. Almost reluctantly, he looked up into the mirror and then winced. God, he had to stay inside as a public service, just so he wouldn't scare any little kids.

The thought provoked an unexpected smile to form on his bruised mouth. Spike would enjoy that. Hell, he'd probably want to parade Xander around himself, just to get the full reaction value.

{Now where did *that* thought come from? Why in the world would I *care* what Spike wants to do with me?} Now didn't *that* just conjure up wonderful images in Xander's all-too-vivid imagination?

Sighing, he got down to business and turned to the toilet. And waited. And waited.

"Okay, a little cooperation would be good here."
{Pretty damned pathetic when you're talking to your dick *out loud* there, Harris.}

{Shut up.}

Just as he was beginning to wonder if he was going to pass out before he got to pee, a thin stream splashed into the bowl.

"Jesus H. Christ!!!" Xander's knees almost buckled at the wave of pain that struck him, and he held his breath for a moment, to see if his yell would wake Spike up. A few seconds produced no movement from the bedroom, and Xander breathed a sigh of relief. He just didn't think he could deal with needing Spike to come and hold him up while he peed. Looking down, he was barely able to stifle another shout. His dad had kicked him in the kidneys before, but somehow, the water had never looked quite *that* red the day after. After what seemed like forever, he was finally finished. Xander swallowed hard, praying no permanent damage had been done, and shook himself off before straightening his boxers and turning to wash his hands.

"Christ," he said again, softly, leaning heavily on the sink. A wave of sorrow and hatred washed over him. Part of him wanted to cry, and part of him wanted to rip his father's balls off. He blamed his father, and he blamed himself. He hated his father, and he loved him.

Xander looked up at his reflection in the mirror.

"You're so fucked up, it's pathetic." Turning, Xander started walking slowly back to bed.

Spike had stopped purring by the time Xander got back, but he was tired again, so he only frowned over it for a moment before closing his eyes, and scooting closer to the cool body next to him. He was asleep in minutes.

* * * * *

The next time he woke up, it was with the same hideous *creeping* feeling he always used to get when his father would stand in his bedroom door and stare. Shivering, Xander looked over and saw bright, cold blue eyes, instead of muddy brown ones that were clouded with alcohol and rage. Xander blinked.

"Spike." It wasn't really a question...more of a verbal recognition and acknowledgement of the vampire, in place of his father. An arched eyebrow told Xander that Spike hadn't missed the nuances in his tone.

Not that Spike seemed to miss much at all, most of the time.

Spike was looking at him evenly and unwaveringly enough that Xander was starting to feel uncomfortable. He had to resist the urge to fidget and drop his eyes to his hands, one of the few instinctive mannerisms that he hadn't ever quite been able to conquer. It was always better never to meet the predator's eyes. Direct challenges made for worse beatings. Even though it was almost impossible, Xander somehow managed to meet Spike's stare until the vampire looked away first.

Xander wondered why it felt like a victory. Not over Spike, but over his father.

"You need to eat something, and take some more antibiotics. I also need to check your back. If you can stand to nap on your stomach, it'll do you some good to leave the dressings off for a while and get some fresh air to the cuts." Xander looked Spike over consideringly. The vampire's words were downright solicitous, but his tone was as flat and bored, as if he had been talking about the weather.

"Alright, Spike." Xander took a moment to wonder where that quiet, meek tone he was using was coming from, and thought that, perhaps, he was still in a bit of shock. Spike either didn't notice, or pretended not to, and instead nodded decisively and was up and off the bed before Xander even had a chance to ask what his meal was going to be. Xander blinked again. If he didn't know better, he'd say that Spike was trying to coddle him, without being too obvious about it.

Xander watched surreptitiously from the bed as Spike bustled (and *who* in their right minds would have thought the vampire could *bustle*?) around in his kitchen, making chicken noodle soup, of all things.

Granted, it was Campbell's, but still, Xander probably wouldn't have been much more surprised if Spike had whipped some up from scratch. While the soup was heating, Xander just sat and wallowed in the joy of watching Spike move around in those tight black jeans and t-shirt.

Hey, just because he wasn't sure if he wanted to sleep with the Fangless Wonder didn't mean he couldn't appreciate the scenery, especially when it was paraded under his nose, so to speak.

Xander slowly realized that he felt a lot worse than when he had woken up earlier that morning, and he admitted that, maybe, he shouldn't have made that trip to the bathroom without a little assistance. He was fairly sure that he had pulled some of his stitches, and to be honest, he felt a little feverish, and weak as a kitten. Grunting a little, he slowly inched down and twisted, so that he was propped up slightly on the pillow, and laying on his slightly less sore, left side. Spike might be eye-candy, but the way Xander's head was spinning, he wasn't really enjoying it as much as he should have been, anyway.

In what seemed like no time, probably due to the fact that Xander was fading in and out every few seconds, Spike was standing beside the bed, holding a bowl in one hand and a coffee mug in the other. He set both down on the bedside table, and Xander busied himself trying to figure out how to feed himself from the one semi-comfortable position he had managed to achieve all night. Xander was just in the process of attempting a roll-over of epic proportions from his careful balance on his side, when a hand reached out and grasped him softly.

"Don't." He looked up as Spike reached out and grabbed the chair he'd been keeping watch from, pulling it over to the bed. When the vampire sat down and hunched over with his elbows on his knees and the soup bowl in his hands, he was roughly eye-level with Xander.

Spike took the spoon and dipped it in the soup, waiting patiently while staring at Xander.

Spike was going to *feed* him? Xander looked at him mistrustfully, trying very hard to get some sense of what the vampire was thinking, but all he got was that same blank mask Spike had been wearing since Xander woke up. Shivering a little, Xander scooted up a bit more on the pillow, and obediently opened his mouth. Spike slipped the spoon past his lips, careful not to tap it on his teeth for some reason, and Xander wondered vaguely if vampire fangs were more sensitive than human teeth.

Xander swallowed, then decided he was either really, really hungry, or that Spike had the ability to make Campbell's soup into something that tasted like it came out of Grandma's kitchen.

He eagerly opened his mouth for the second spoonful, his discomfort with Spike feeding him taking a backseat to his sudden hunger. Just the slight hint of a smile played on Spike's mouth as he gave Xander another spoonful, and another.

All too soon the soup was gone, and Spike was back with pain pills, water, more bandages, bandage scissors, antibiotic ointments and assorted other little treasures that Xander really didn't care about, as long as they made him feel better.
Spike handed Xander his pain pills, and gave him a sip of water, his eyes never leaving the boy as he downed almost half the glass before handing it back.

"Flip over on your stomach." Spike's voice was still brisk and almost impersonal. However, after Spike set his collection down, Xander felt gentle hands helping him turn over and find the position that pulled on his ribs the least.

"Thank you, Spike." Xander's words were whispered so quietly, he wouldn't have been surprised if the vampire had missed them completely.

He didn't, though.

Xander felt Spike's hands hesitate a moment before they dropped to his back again. One hand strayed down to stroke softly over an unbroken patch of skin on his flank, and the other reached up to skim the line of his neck gently.

But Spike never answered him.

* * * * *

The blond head bent over Xander's back finally lifted for the first time in over an hour. Spike had had to soak the bandages off in places, and he meticulously cleaned every cut again, ruthlessly cutting off any reaction to the sight of Xander's face becoming paler and paler as he worked. The relief he had felt when Xander finally passed out brought on a wave of self-disgust.

{What the hell happened to the sadistic vampire who got off on torturing his victims?}

{Xander's not your victim.} The little voice in his head was back again, and Spike gritted his teeth against the truth of its statement.

{If I'm not careful, the little bugger'll probably get an infection and die on me.} Spike refused to admit how much that concept bothered him.

He was pretty much refusing to admit *anything* at that point. The flaming, all-encompassing rage that had consumed him the night before was thoroughly banked, and Spike refused to allow any feeling to cross his mind and heart, lest it return.

For the first time in his existence, he was finding it necessary to plan. Planning had never been his strong suit. That had been more along Angelus's line. Spike was good with force. He saw the objective, and he went, and achieved it. If he wanted something, he took it, and damn the consequences. There *were no* consequences for him, because he did whatever he bloody well pleased.

As soon as he heard The Bastard raping his son, Spike's instant and wholehearted reaction was to want to tear his heart out and offer it to Xander as a gift.

Spike's lips quirked, despite the flash of murderous rage in his blue eyes. Somehow, he thought his pet might not like his gift so well. He frowned again, and traced a finger gently over one of the worst cuts.

Then again, maybe he would love it. If Spike had his way, he was going to find out first-hand. But that was for later. He was the hunter and The Bastard was the hunted. It was of no matter how long the chase lasted. His first and foremost priority had to be getting Xander out of this hellhole.

Regardless of what the boy said, Spike had no use for Xander's mother. The woman had stood impassively by for the last nineteen years, and let her husband beat and rape his son. She could have left him. She could have saved Xander years and years ago, but she had been selectively blind, and mercy was not one of Spike's strong points when it came to someone hurting what was his. All he cared about was getting Xander out. The whelp needed more money than his pathetic minimum wage job was making, not that he had a pathetic minimum wage job anymore. Spike heard the message Xander's boss had left on his machine, before he had turned the ringer off earlier, and he moved the man up near the top on his "must kill" list, right after Dear Old Dad, as soon as he got rid of the bloody chip.

An idea was niggling at the back of Spike's mind, but before it could fully take shape, another awareness was niggling there as well. Spike cocked his head a moment, before sliding softly off the bed and moving quickly up the stairs and out the front door.

* * * * *

"I'm sure he's fine. He probably just forgot about the meeting, that's all." Buffy and Willow strolled toward the Harris household, Willow's steps just a little more hurried than her friend's as they headed for the front door.

"Then why didn't he answer the phone?"

Buffy sighed, certain that Willow was making a mountain out of a molehill. After all, it wasn't the first time that Xander had skipped a meeting. He was a part of the group when he was there, but it didn't kill them if he blew it off now and then.

"He probably wanted to crash early. Didn't you say he's been working a lot lately?" Buffy pulled them to a stop before they reached the front steps. "Let's go around to his window. If he's just sleeping, I don't want to wake him up. We can talk in a few days."

"Yeah, ok," Willow mumbled as they altered course, and headed around to the side of the house. "I just have a bad feeling. I wanted to check on him."

"Then we will," Buffy soothed. "If nothing else, if he's awake, we can visit for awhile. It's been a couple of weeks since we've really gotten to sit and talk with him." Willow nodded, but the uneasy feeling remained. Xander had known about the meeting for the last week or so. Granted, it was more of a group project to settle Giles into the magic shop than a meeting, but he had still been enthusiastic about coming. She didn't think he would blow it off.

Xander had seemed so down lately, but Willow was at a loss on how to include him. Things were so different since she and Buffy had started college and Xander had opted to just try and find a decent job. They didn't run with the same circle of friends anymore, and talking about anything other than demons and vampires was becoming increasingly difficult.

Willow had the uncomfortable feeling that her best friend was growing away from her. Or maybe she was growing away from him.

"Oh. My. GOD!!!" Willow was jerked out of her thoughts by the indignant shout coming from the Slayer standing in front of her. She followed Buffy's line of sight through the window and gasped, tears filling her eyes, as she took in Xander's still form on the bed.

"Xand?" Willow whispered.

Buffy stared, transfixed at the sight of Xander's back, until a slight noise in the bushes beside the window made her jerk her head around. Her eyes widened, and sparked in anger.

"You!" Buffy hissed. Willow startled a bit as Buffy pulled a stake out of her purse, and lunged just to the left of Willow.

Spike dodged her, but made no move to attack her himself.

"What the hell did you do, Spike? How could you do that to him?"

"Shut up!" Spike hissed at her. "I didn't do it, you stupid, bloody bint! How the hell could I? I can't even hit *you* in self-defense, so how the fuck could I slice all the skin off his back for fun?" Spike glanced around, almost furtively. He couldn't kill The Bastard, but he sure as hell didn't want the bloody slayer to have the honor, if the soddin' git should stagger out the door! "Bleedin' hell! If you don't stop making all this bloody racket, you're gonna wake the one that *did* do it!" Buffy stopped advancing on him and stood, stake still poised aggressively.

"If you didn't do it, then who did?" Spike eyed her coolly, all trace of emotion wiped once more from his face, save for his eyes, which fired with insane anger as he answered.

"His father."

* * * * *

"What? You expect us to believe that Xander's father did that to him?" Spike looked at her with unconcealed disgust.

"No. Not really. I don't expect you to believe anything other than what you *want* to believe, just like you don't *see* anything but what you want to see. His father's been doing this for God knows how many years, and you haven't seen a damned thing." He turned to Willow, and looked her in the eyes though his voice, strangely, lacked the accusing note it should have carried.

"I thought you were supposed to be his best friend." Willow flinched, as though slapped.

"I......I...I never thought- He never said-" She trailed off, her face pale.

"I would never hurt him. He's my best friend, and I love him."

Spike looked at her, unmoved, and said nothing in response.

"All right," Buffy said, calling their attention to her, and away from the staring contest they had going. Her shaking voice betrayed her distress, but it was in her nature to take charge and take action. It went against everything she was to sit and do nothing while one of her friends was being hurt. "None of that really matters at this point. All that matters is, we have to get him out of there."

"He won't go," Spike said flatly.

Buffy stuttered to a stop, and just looked at Spike. "What? Why not?" Spike shook his head.

"Worried about his bloody mother. Bitch stood by, and let his father hit him all this time. I say he dump her and never look back. That, and the fact that he doesn't have a job as of this afternoon...well...where's he supposed to go?"

"B-But the police..."

"Will arrest his father. What good will that do? Will that get him a job? An apartment? He's over eighteen. It's not like he'll have a foster home to go to when he gets booted out of here." Buffy stood still, looking thunderstruck. "But...but...there's got to be something..."

Spike looked at her dispassionately. "If you think of something I've missed over the last day or so, let me know. Otherwise, get the hell out of here. I've treated his wounds, given him his pain medicine and antibiotics, and fed him. You're *not* going in and getting him hysterical until he's a *lot* better than he is right now." Spike's voice never lost that flat, monotone quality it had had through the entire conversation, and the hair on Buffy's neck stood on end. She tried to figure out what it was that was disturbing her on a primal level, but it continued to elude her.

"Why, Spike? Why are you doing all this for him? What do you get out of it?" Spike's eyes flashed dangerously yellow at the question, the largest show of emotion they had seen all night, and it startled them.

"I'm doing it because he's mine, and no one hurts what's mine!"

Turning on his heel, he stalked back into the house, leaving a confused and miserable Buffy and Willow standing in the middle of the yard.

Buffy stood still for a moment, looking after the retreating figure. Spike's shoulders were hunched forward, almost as if in pain. Why would Spike feel pain over Xander, though? Her eyes hardened. Spike could be dealt with later, whatever his motivations were. They had some planning to do, if they were going to find a way to help Xander, so that he would actually accept their assistance.

"Come on, Willow. We need to talk." Buffy put her arm around her friend, and with one last look at the house, guided them both away from Xander's bedroom window.

* * * * *

Back in the basement of the Harris's house, Spike sat motionless in the chair next to the bed, his hands steepled in front of his face as he stared with empty eyes at the still form in front of him.






"Willow, there's got to be something we can do," Buffy said for the fourth time in the last half-hour.

Willow gritted her teeth to keep from shouting at her friend. It had only been two days since they'd found Xander and already, Buffy was going crazy with the need to *do* something. She needed very badly to go out and beat the crap out of something, in Willow's opinion.

"We should tell Giles," Buffy said decisively.

Willow's eyes narrowed and her features took on the stubborn, set expression of her "resolve face". "No. Absolutely not. Buffy, if Xander were a minor, that would be the best choice but he's an adult now. We can't *force* him to leave. So since he has to make the decision on his own, we can't afford to alienate him. He's going to be pissed when he finds out we know, imagine what he'd feel like if *Giles* showed up to talk to him."

"Fine. I'll go over there and kill his father. There wouldn't be a problem with him leaving then, would there?" Buffy said flatly.

"Buffy!" Willow said sharply. Not that Willow didn't agree with the sentiment but she was pretty sure Buffy wouldn't be able to handle killing a human quite as easily as she thought she would. Buffy shot her a mutinous look that showed her to be completely unrepentant.

"Well, what do you expect me to do, Willow? That's what I do. When something's threatening one of my friends, I go out and kill it!"

"I expect you to calm down, and use your head as something other than a battering ram for the nearest brick wall!" Buffy blinked at her in shock for a moment and Willow softened her tone somewhat. "Buffy, brute force doesn't always work. You know that. If it did, then there wouldn't be any need for Watchers, would there? You Slayers could just go around the world kicking butt and not worrying about anything else. You can't just walk in there and drag Xander out by the scruff of the neck."

Abruptly, Buffy dropped down into the nearest chair, and rested her head in her hands. "You're right. I know you're right, Willow. It's just...God, did you see his back? It's going to scar..."

It was on the tip of Willow's tongue to scream that of course she saw it, for God's sake. She sure hadn't been crying over the dismal interior decorating job in the basement. "Yeah, Buffy. Yeah, I saw it." Willow sat down next to Buffy and put an arm around her as she started to sniffle a little. "We've got to look at this in a practical way, as hard as it may be in this case. If we can't force him to leave, then we have to make it so that he *can* leave. Spike said he doesn't have the money right now. That means he has to get a job that pays more than minimum wage, right?"

"Yeah, so? Where are we going to find him a job that pays really good money in Sunnydale?"

Willow's grin was calculating. "You remember Kenny? The guy I was tutoring in Chemistry...?"

* * * * *

Spike sat in the basement, supposedly watching a late-night rerun of Passions. In reality, though, he was listening to the muffled curses coming from the bathroom, where Xander had disappeared a couple of minutes before. Spike had finally caught a clue earlier that evening, when he had gone in the bathroom directly after the boy, and the faint hint of blood in the air had made his mouth water.

Spike cursed himself for an idiot for not thinking that the kicks to the kidneys might have caused some damage. He resolved to pay attention, and if the blood and curses when Xander hit the bathroom didn't stop in the next five days or so, he'd be going to the hospital, even if Spike had to knock him out to get him there.

There was the sound of a toilet flushing and water running in the sink, then Xander walked out the door a moment later. Spike very carefully *didn't* look up as Xander picked a slow path across the room. The boy had seemed more nervous during the second day after the attack, and by this, the third day, Xander jumped and got the "kicked puppy" look that Spike absolutely hated, at any little thing Spike did.

Sighing, Spike turned off the television and right on cue, Xander jumped nervously. Spike frowned irritably, but his voice was soft as he said,

"It's not you."

"W-What? What are you talking about?" If Xander's voice got any higher he'd be singing soprano.

"You didn't do anything. I'm not mad at you. I'm not ashamed of you. I'm not going to make fun of you. At least not because of this. I don't think any less of you, not that I thought that much of you to begin with.." Spike said this with a small, sardonic smile on his face to let Xander know he was teasing him. "The only one who holds the blame in my eyes is that bugger-fucking father of yours and he's going to die before too long, now," he said matter-of-factly. "Do we have any blood left?"

Spike was up and out of the chair before Xander could stop gaping like a fish. Possible responses kept coming to mind and were rejected, one by one. Finally, his mouth shut with an audible pop, and he said, "There's an emergency stock in the freezer." A moment of silence went by, in which they both tried very hard to pretend they weren't tense enough to shatter.

"Thanks, Spike. I'm going to take a nap." Xander blurted everything out in a rush, then scurried for the bed, and safety. Spike pulled a frozen packet of blood out and started heating it up, wordlessly.

Upon returning, he turned the television back on, only to find he'd made it back in time for the last five minutes of Passions. Rolling his eyes, he sat and drank his blood in silence.

* * * * *

Xander lay in bed, pretending to be asleep, while he knew there wasn't any way in the world he was fooling the vampire. Good God, how had Spike known just what Xander needed to hear? There was a big part of him that expected Spike to look at him in disgust after what had happened, regardless of how many times he had heard the "abuse is not the victim's fault" lecture at school.

That was for women. He was a man. He should have stopped his father. Damnit, Xander was nineteen years old, he shouldn't need anyone to rescue him! The old, familiar fear washed over him and he wondered what he had done to make his father come after him "that way". The beatings he could handle but the thought that he was putting out some kind of weird, gay *fuck me* signal was terrifying. Terrifying mainly because if it had been a certain bleached vampire, rather than his father, he would have loved the existence of just such a signal. Despair washed over him and he sniffled a bit as he turned, very carefully angling onto his back to see if it could handle any weight on it. He hissed a little but it itched more than it hurt, so long as he didn't move.

God, he wanted more than anything to just pick up and leave. Hit the road and never come back. If not for his mother, he would have been gone years ago. Anger and pity swelled within him as he pictured her at her familiar post at the kitchen table. Many of his memories of her were of a small, mousy woman with her head down, staring into the coffee mug that was filled with more liquor than coffee as his father backhanded him into the wall. He could remember vividly the expression on her face at times like that. Desperate sorrow for him, weariness with the entire situation and the stronger feeling of relief that it wasn't her. It was this last emotion, Xander knew, that had kept her silent. The fear that if she said anything, his father would turn his rage on her, not that he didn't most of the time, anyway.

Having quit school in the eleventh grade, there was nothing his mother could do to earn her way in the world, and after twenty-some-odd years with the elder Mr. Harris, she was just too terrified to try. At least she knew, and was familiar with, the demon that resided in her home.

{She doesn't know just how real those *other* demons out there are, does she Alexander?} Xander couldn't restrain a watery, bittersweet chuckle. It was pretty goddamned pathetic when he lived on the Hellmouth, hung out with the Slayer, fought demons on a regular basis and yet stood an almost fifty-fifty chance of getting killed at home, rather than on the streets of Sunnydale.

Xander was horrified when the ironic chuckle turned into a weak sob that he couldn't, quite, stifle in time. He immediately flipped back over on his side, away from Spike, praying that Spike would honor their unspoken agreement to just *not hear* some stuff. Silent tears wound their way down his cheeks and he stiffened as the television was clicked off with a soft sigh from the other occupant of the room. The rustle of cloth sliding over skin and then,

"Shove over. I wanna take a nap." As covers went, it was pretty pathetic but it allowed them to keep at least the semblance of macho aloofness.

Which was immediately blown to hell as Spike's cool arm slipped around Xander's waist, and his head rested proprietarily on the boy's shoulder. Xander felt the outline of the sharp cheekbone against his skin as Spike *nuzzled* him softly, attempting to comfort him.

For a moment, Xander stiffened so much, Spike would have though there was a steel bar up his spine. In response, Spike started that familiar rumble in his chest that seemed to massage its way up and down Xander's sore back, and it was all Xander could do not to moan in happiness. He slowly relaxed again and they lay silently for a few minutes.

"It's all so fucked up, Spike," Xander whispered unhappily as the last of the quiet tears trailed off, leaving only emptiness behind. "I can't ever leave. I'll be here until he kills me, or her, or both of us."

Spike's arms tightened fractionally, and he whispered harshly into Xander's ear, "You're gonna get out of here soon, Xander. You and your mum. I promise. There's no way I'll let that bloody bastard kill you, pet."

Xander's only response was a light sniffle and a tug to pull Spike's arm closer around him.

Spike's head tilted up a little, leaning in to Xander's ear, and the vampire whispered, "Do you believe me, pet?"

Xander squeezed Spike's hand softly. "No. Go to sleep."

* * * * *

Spike lay motionless as he waited for Xander to fall asleep, his thoughts swirling around in chaos. He didn't know why, but it seemed important to him that Xander believe that Spike was going to get him out of the mess that was his life. There was just something about the way Xander had answered "no" so easily, that bothered Spike. He wanted the boy to trust him and Xander had answered in a tone that carried an unspoken, "I don't believe you but I love it that *you* actually believe what you're saying". The inherent world-weariness in that tone had almost hurt Spike to listen to. He tightened his hold on Xander, who let out a little squeak of protest, without waking up. Spike stroked apologetically over Xander's stomach and let up on some of the pressure.

Spike's thoughts returned to the half-formed idea of the night before. He wanted Xander out of the basement more than almost anything, but the boy had to have a job that could support him and keep Spike in blood and smokes. Unfortunately, Spike couldn't really help him get a *legal* job that paid well. The only people Spike knew well enough to get the whelp a job would be likely to put Xander in one of There was no way *his* Xan-pet was going to be anyone's whore, *or* an appetizer during the evening show. Don't think so.

So if *he* couldn't get Xander a job, then he'd just have to find someone who could, which led him back to his almost-thought of the night before. The Witch and the Slayer were in college. They had to be friends with a lot of blokes that had decent jobs to cover their outrageous tuition bills. Surely they could put out feelers for *something*... thinking back over some of the jobs the boy had had, Spike knew Xander wasn't picky about *where* he worked.

Spike glanced over at the digital clock by the bed. Already two a.m. Too late to call either of them tonight. He'd have to do it early the next evening. Surely Red would be able to find something out for him. He *really* hated to think about having to ask the Slayer for help, but he would if there were no other alternative.

He lay there for the next several hours, unable to calm down enough to sleep. Burning for some outlet for the rage-spawned energy of the last couple of days, but unwilling to leave Xander in the middle of the night to go and beat the crap out of some nameless demon somewhere.

Just to make sure the whelp didn't hurt himself falling out of bed, of course. Not because it just wasn't the same without the boy's sarcastic wit as the soundtrack for the night.

{Yeah. Never mind the fact that he's doing a lot better today and is currently sleeping like a log.}

{Did I ask you?} The voice slowly subsided and Spike gritted his teeth, trying to force his body to go to sleep early. Maybe they could go out on a limited patrol tomorrow, with Xander in an "observer only" status. He needed to talk to Red, anyway...

* * * * *

Loud thumping upstairs woke Xander and he held his breath, praying that his father would just pass out instead of coming downstairs. A few tense moments later and the main floor of the house was silent. Xander let out a shaky breath. He was living on borrowed time and he knew it. His father had given him three days to get the rent to him and time was ticking by quickly. If he didn't have the money by that night...

Xander swung his legs around and stood up carefully, noting that he was feeling a *lot* less woozy this morning. Good thing, too, since he was going to have to go get what little he'd managed to earn from Jack-in-the-Box before he'd been fired. He actually thought it was sweet, the way that Spike erased the message a little more aggressively then absolutely necessary. He was growling the whole time, too, and that had gone a long way toward warming Xander's insides. It was nice that *someone* was protective of him, at least a little.

Xander frowned as he stepped carefully into his jeans. The only person who'd shown him any hint of protectiveness was a one-hundred-twenty-five year old killer vampire.

Yep. His fucked up life, no doubt about it.

He rooted through the closet and grabbed his loosest fitting shirt, slipping it gingerly over his head as he turned back to the bed to check on Spike. Still out like a light and safely away from any sunbeams. Xander stood by the bed for a moment, an unexpected swell of emotion threatening to choke him. For someone who was supposed to be evil incarnate, Spike had been incredibly gentle and patient with him the last couple of days. Oh, he tried to talk a tough game but actions spoke louder than words, and the extreme care he had taken with Xander was more than what was strictly warranted by the chip.

"I'll be back in a couple of hours, Spike. Sweet dreams." God, he was turning into a sap. Maybe his father had given him a concussion this time and he just hadn't realized it. Shaking his head at his own insanity, Xander walked quietly up the stairs. Once his father had passed out for the day, that was pretty well it, but he didn't want to tempt fate. He hated the thought of leaving Spike alone in the house with him, but if Xander didn't get the rent money, Spike was going to be pulling a lot more nursing duty, or Xander was going to end up in the hospital. Neither prospect sounded appealing, so Xander pushed his worry for the vampire out of his mind and resolved to get back as quickly as possible.

Two hours later, he was back home, two-hundred and seventy-five dollars richer... for about ten minutes. As he walked into the living room, his father was staggering out of the bedroom, hours ahead of schedule. Xander swallowed a surge of nausea at the thought of his father waking and going looking for him while he'd been gone...

"Here's this month's rent."

Xander's father took it wordlessly. He reached out, slapping Xander with more force and better aim than the boy would have thought him capable of, considering he was still wasted. Xander staggered backwards, tripped over an end table and crashed to the floor.

His father grunted but never looked up from his bee-line to the bathroom. Xander lay there for a long while, taking short, panting breaths and trying to get the black spots in front of his eyes to go away. By the time he'd succeeded, his father was back in his bedroom snoring, so the way to the basement was safe. White as a sheet and holding his ribs protectively, Xander groped for the railing, holding it in a death grip, as he was sure a fall down the stairs wasn't the best idea at the moment.

He staggered to the bed and collapsed on it, still fully dressed.

{It could have been worse. At least he didn't re-injure anything.} A spark of fury lit in Xander's eyes.

{Damn it. I didn't do anything! I just handed him the rent. Why the hell did he have to hit me?}

{Don't be a fool. He's never needed a reason to hit you and you know it. Moaning about it isn't going to change anything, so live with it, or leave. You've known the options for a great many years, now.} Tears stung his eyes and he couldn't figure out for the life of him if they were tears of rage or sorrow. The little boy inside him railed at the unfairness of the blow. Against the fact that he had done nothing to provoke it, even though it had happened that same way many, many times in the past.

{I hate him! God, I hate him so much! What the hell did I ever do to him? Why couldn't he love me the way Joyce loves Buffy? I did my best...}

Xander was hard-pressed to ignore the sudden, fierce desire for Spike's comforting touch of the last few days. It was only early afternoon and Spike wouldn't wake for another three or four hours at least. Cursing himself as ten different kinds of an idiot, he still snuggled up to the motionless form sharing his bed. Spike was sleeping with his shirt off and Xander rested his throbbing cheek on the cool skin of the vampire's shoulder, tucking his head under Spike's chin almost defiantly.

Still preoccupied with thoughts of his father, Xander closed his eyes and tried to sleep. It was a wasted effort, though, as he lay there, watching the shadows lengthening across his floor, unconsciously counting the minutes until Spike might wake up.

At almost five-thirty, the body under his stirred a little and Xander almost moved off of him. At the last moment, he decided to wait and see what Spike would do. A ripple of surprise went through him as Spike's arm came up to settle around his shoulders and the vampire let out a contented sigh. Long, pale fingers began to tangle in his hair, petting him.

"Mmmm...everything all right, pet."

"Sure. Everything's fine, Spike." The words didn't come out quite as steadily, or as strongly, as he'd wished and Spike tensed under him, shifting him easily to the side as he slid out from under Xander.

"You're dressed."

"You think?" Xander snapped back, sitting up, and somewhat irritated at having his pillow taken away.

Spike grinned slightly. "I meant to say, Why are you dressed, pet?"

"I had to go get my last paycheck so I could pay the rent." Xander turned his head and looked away from Spike as he spoke. Instantly Spike started growling fiercely and Xander barely stopped himself from jumping back across the bed as the vampire's hand shot out and grasped his chin. He couldn't restrain a sharp flinch, but Spike still refused to let him go, though he kept his grip gentle. He angled Xander's head slightly towards the bedside lamp.

"Did *he* do this?"

Xander opened his mouth to make a flippant reply, or a joke, but the look on Spike's face killed the words before he could voice them. Instead, he nodded once, very slightly. Spike surged to his feet, his features shimmering into gameface. Xander pulled back, more than a little frightened as he watched Spike pace the room. From the look of him, he was searching intently for something to rip to shreds.

Angry. Spike was angry. Because his father had hit him. Just a little slap, that's all. Nothing serious. But Spike was furious. Rage and helplessness broadcast itself at top volume in Spike's body language and Xander felt something inside himself melt as he watched the blonde man pace around his bed. Xander stood and took a step forward.

* * * * *

His demon roared in fury. *Twice*. It had happened twice and both bloody times, Spike had been *asleep*. Once was bad enough, but twice... He was going to kill The Bastard. If it took him to the ends of the earth, if it was the last thing he saw before he went to hell, he would see The Bastard's still-beating heart ripped from his chest.

Spike panted with the need to hit something. Howl at the sky. Drain someone. Something. But there was nothing. He was so involved in his own inner conflict, he never heard Xander move. Gentle hands turned him around and calm, dark brown eyes stared into his yellow ones. Xander looked almost hypnotized as his hand reached up and trailed softly across Spike's brow ridges, his fingers molding the curves and points just over the bridge of Spike's nose. Spike gasped in unexpected pleasure.

"Pet, what..."

Xander leaned up and very, very, gently, pressed his lips against Spike's. Just like that, all the rage went out of Spike and his arms crept around Xander's waist. Xander's mouth opened slightly and his tongue danced across Spike's fangs delicately, tracing them down to the very point and back up again.

Spike groaned into Xander's mouth and fought the urge to throw the boy down onto the bed. Never. He would *never* treat Xander like The Bastard had.

Reluctantly, he pulled back, gameface shifting away as his eyes searched for Xander's.

"Why'd ya do that, pet?"

Xander looked at him steadily for a moment. "Because you make me happy."

Spike blinked at him, confused. "Me pacing around, raging like a useless bloody poof makes you happy?"

"No," Xander answered evenly. "You getting this upset over something as simple as a slap makes me happy."

Spike's eyes flared yellow, just a little. "Yeah, well. Nobody bloody well gets to slap you unless I'm there to make fun of you for it."

Xander's soft smile told Spike that his attempt at blustering hadn't worked but strangely, Spike couldn't bring himself to care all that much.

"How are you feeling tonight, pet? Still really sore?" Spike knew this came out with an almost pathetic expression of hope on his face and an eager note in his voice.

Xander arched an eyebrow. "I was a little sore earlier. When he hit me, I fell against an end table and my ribs were very unhappy with me for it, but I feel a lot better after my nap." Xander's eyes narrowed. "Why?"

Spike blinked innocently. "I just thought you might like a nice, quiet outing this evening."

Xander snorted. "Nice, quiet evening? In Sunnydale? You wanna go beat the hell out of some poor demon."

"Uh huh. So? You wanna?" Spike asked hopefully.

Xander sighed. He didn't really feel up to demonic aerobics already, but Spike had been so incredibly kind to him that he didn't really have the heart to refuse him.

"As long as I'm limited to the cheering section only, it sounds okay. Let's call Buffy and Willow."

* * * * *

As it turned out, Willow had been about to call him. He was nervous. She had all but squealed when she heard who it was on the phone and had immediately demanded that he and Spike head over to Buffy's house before they go patrolling.

Xander stayed fairly quiet during the first part of the walk over. "She sounded so eager, Spike. She only sounds that way when she has some idea, like the one that blew up the chemistry lab in ninth grade. I'm scared."

Spike smirked at him. "Well, I'm sure if she's planning on blowing anything up, she'll make sure you're out of the way, first."

Xander kicked at a rock morosely. "Hell. Half the time, the great ideas directly concern me and they almost always get me into trouble. She gets this look on her face that makes you think of Zeus directing the lives of his pathetic little mortals."

Spike's smirk grew bigger. "Nice imagery, pet. I should give that a try sometime."

Xander made a face at him. "Immortal you may be, but Zeus you are *not*. Don't even think about getting any delusions of godhood with me."

"Hmmph. As if you'd let me." They kept up their playful bantering all the way to Willow's house, but Spike was a little distracted. He couldn't stop thinking about that kiss. Or, more accurately, about Xander's reaction to it. The boy hadn't shown any indication of regretting it, or being uncomfortable about it in the least. Spike was elated. If Xander was that comfortable with it, then that meant there was a chance, someday, of the two of them getting together.

Spike wouldn't push it, but an almost evil smile crossed his face as he realized he might possibly be taking himself a consort sometime soon.

Xander drifted closer to Spike as they walked and by the time they reached the path at Buffy's house, they were almost brushing shoulders. Spike glanced over at him in amusement, but said nothing to discourage him. It was obvious that the boy was still nervous about Red's plotting and if Spike got to reap the rewards of that...well...all the better.

Spike jumped a bit as the front door slammed open and what looked like a Willow on speed came flying out.

"Xander! God, I'm so glad to see you up and moving around! Are you okay? Are you feeling better? How's your back? You didn't run into your father when you left tonight, did you?"

Spike looked at her in open-mouthed horror. Whatever she had on her mind, it must have sapped her brain cells as well.

"Willow!" he hissed.

She stopped her babbling and looked over at Spike, then back at the confused expression on Xander's face which was rapidly changing into a look of betrayal. "You didn't tell him."

"No, you stupid bint, but you did, so I guess we don't have to worry about it now, huh?" Spike shot back somewhat acidly.

"Wills, how did you know..." Xander's dark brown eyes glinted at her, not quite accusing, but almost.

"We were worried about you when you missed the meeting at Giles'. We went over and Buffy thought you might just be asleep, so we went to the window to see and Spike had just finished cleaning your back, so we saw..." Willow broke off her monologue miserably and looked down at her hands. Xander turned and looked at Spike.

"You told her," he said flatly. Spike shrugged nonchalantly, but his eyes were reproachful.

"He didn't have a choice, seeing as I was about to stake him at the time since I thought he was the one who did it." Buffy stepped off the front step and looked at him critically. "That bruise on your cheek doesn't look four days old," she said noncommittally. Xander flushed miserably and Spike surprised them all by putting an arm around his shoulders.

She looked at them a while longer, then said, "Come inside. Willow's got something she needs to tell you before she explodes." A look over at Willow revealed that, yes, she was back to hyper again, all but shoving them in the house as she scurried up the stairs.

* * * * *

Spike and Xander found themselves sitting on the sofa next to each other, under the assessing stare of the Slayer. Xander shifted like a kid in the principal's office but Spike just smirked at her and slung his arm around Xander.

"So where's Joyce?" Xander asked, searching desperately for a topic that would keep the conversation away from himself.

"She's visiting Giles. They have...I don't know...Tea Time, or something, once or twice a week. I think they really like each other." Buffy looked distracted for a moment as she answered and Xander wondered just how comfortable she'd be having her Watcher as a step-father.

The kitchen door opened, startling them all, and Willow walked out carrying four Diet Cokes. Xander took his gratefully, happy just to have something to occupy his hands.
Spike looked at the can Willow set down in front of him like it was about to bite him.

"What the bloody hell am I supposed to do with that?" Willow just stared at him a minute, then blushed beet red.

"Uh, yeah. I guess you wouldn't like Diet Coke much, would you. With the whole drinking blood thing and all..." All three of them just stared at Willow. "I can't help it," she said defensively. "I get forgetful when I'm nervous."

"Then maybe you should tell us why you're nervous," Xander said reasonably.

"Yeah. Okay. I could do that. Okay. Well, I know you might still be upset about the whole 'Buffy and I finding out about your dad' thing, but Xander, you really need to get out of there." She looked at him seriously, her eyes betraying her concern for him and he couldn't find it in his heart to be angry with her.

"Willow, I can't... There're problems...with me leaving."

Willow brightened at this. "Yeah, I know. Spike told us you didn't really have the money to move out, so I asked around campus and Kenny, in my Chemistry class, says there's a job on his construction site. His dad owns the site and Kenny says the job's yours, if you want it. It's hourly pay, $12.50 starting out. It's heavy work but you're strong. You can do it. And it'll make you more than enough to move out. So...what do you think?"

Xander's mouth opened and closed convulsively for a moment. "Wills, I don't know what to say."

Buffy and Spike were staring at him as well and Xander was starting to feel like a bug under a microscope.

"Just say you'll take the job and get out of there," Buffy said seriously.

"I-I can't." {Christ}, Xander thought. {That didn't even sound forceful to *me*}

"What???" All three of them chorused. Xander had to suppress an hysterical giggle.

"My Mom-"

"Can bloody fucking well grow a spine and leave, just like you're going to!!" Spike growled dangerously at Xander's tentative protest. "Xander, she's watched him beat the shit out of you for years and done nothing. You don't owe her bloody *anything*."

"As much as I hate to say it, Spike's right, Xander," Buffy said with a warning glare shot to the vampire. "Unless the victim in an abusive relationship is ready to leave, no amount of coaxing is going to get them to make a stand. You're ready to leave, Xander. If she isn't then...too bad for her."

"Buffy!" Willow hissed.
"Sorry, Willow. I'd feel a whole hell of a lot more sympathetic towards her if she hadn't just stood by and watched her husband beat the hell out of her son."

"Guys, she's my mom. I can't just leave her there with him."

Buffy turned and looked him in the eyes. "Then you tell her you're leaving. Ask her to come with you and if she says no, she has to deal with the consequences of her actions."

"She's a grown woman, Xander," Willow said softly. "I know she's your mother and you want to protect her but you have to think of yourself, now. If she says no, she says no. All you can do, is be there for her when she *is* ready and you can't do that if he beats you to death, now can you?"

"I...I......It just seems so...disloyal, somehow."

Buffy and Spike were visibly fighting to keep from lashing out at this but Willow was the diplomatic one.

"If you're going to talk loyalty, Xander, I think hers was gone a long, long time ago. Think of it as Tough Love. If it works on kids, it'll work on adults too." She leaned in close and laid her hand on his knee, palm up. "You know it's the only way."

Xander bowed his head and blinked furiously to keep the tears at bay. God, he didn't want to be hearing this. He didn't want to have to make these decisions. He wanted his mother to just wake up one morning and decide *that day* was the day they were leaving...

"Yeah," he said finally. "I know it. I was just trying to pretend I didn't." He looked up at Willow miserably, but grasped her outstretched hand, and squeezed tightly.

"We're leaving, then?" Spike asked quietly.

Xander cleared his throat before he answered, much more strongly than before.

"Yeah, Fangless. We're leaving."





"No. Now drop it, Spike."

Xander's stubborn, set expression and crossed arms in front of an aggressive stance told the vampire he was pushing too hard. Again. Spike couldn't help it, though. He had awakened that night feeling even antsier than what was normal for him as of late. He was *itching* to get out of The Bastard's house. Vampires being the territorial creatures that they were, it was going completely against Spike's nature to live for an extended period of time in his mortal enemy's home territory.

He couldn't relax anymore. He was nervous and jumpy all the time and he felt constantly in need of a fag, a fuck, or a fight. He knew there had been several times that he'd snapped at the whelp for no good reason. The brief flashes of hurt, quickly concealed behind biting sarcasm, always made Spike feel like something scraped off the bottom of his boot in a cow pasture.
That, in turn, made him feel vulnerable, which made him angry, which made him snap at Xander again.

Damnit, all of this would be avoided if the damned stupid, chivalrous pillock would just bloody *move out* already!!

Sighing, Spike worked hard to keep his voice soft. "Xan-pet, stalling isn't going to change her answer when you finally ask her."

Xander's expression betrayed a hint of panic for just a second, before a mask of calm slipped into place again. Xander turned away from Spike and grabbed Spike's pack of cigarettes from the end table, mainly so he wouldn't have to look the vampire in the eye as he answered.

"I don't know what you're talking about, Spike. I'm not stalling. I just can't leave until I get my first paycheck. That could be up to another three weeks." He pulled a cigarette from the pack, only to find himself empty-handed a moment later as Spike snatched it from him. "Hey! What the hell are you doing?"

Spike stuck the cigarette between his lips and lit it, taking a long drag. "I'm already dead, pet. Don't have much cause for concern about lung cancer, now do I? If you wanna kill yourself, I've got lots more entertaining ways to do it than this."

* * * * *

Xander shuddered a little, the look on Spike's face making him think that the vampire wasn't entirely kidding. Not for the first time, Xander wondered just how long he would remain human if he *did* decide to become involved with Spike.

{Become involved with Spike,} the little voice inside his head mocked. {Christ, if you sounded any more P.C., people might start to mistake you for Giles.} Xander glanced at Spike, trying to decide if the vampire was tense enough to push the subject this time. Xander was living on borrowed time and he knew it. He knew how difficult it was for Spike to live there. The tension in the atmosphere had become a third roommate, lately. He was running out of maneuvering room, but he just couldn't bring himself to leave his mother. He kept stalling, thinking in some remote part of himself, that if he waited just a week more, something would happen that would drive her to want to leave on her own. Something that hadn't happened in the other twenty-five years she'd been with her husband. In the meantime, Spike was going slowly insane with the pressure of living in constant danger from Xander's father. Buffy and Willow were becoming increasingly irritated with and worried about him. Even his own "little voice" inside him was railing at him, demanding he leave. The day he got his first paycheck from this new job, the last excuse would be gone. He would *have* to move.

Sighing, Xander set the pack of cigarettes down, ignoring Spike's smirk as he flopped down on his bed. Spike turned, conceding the battle for the moment as he went to the kitchenette; for a snack, presumably. The moment pressure hit Xander's back, the almost healed cuts started itching furiously. Spike had taken the stitches out late the previous evening, which seemed to have started the itching in earnest. He glanced at the vampire, seeing only the bleached blonde hair and nicely shaped back. Xander shifted surreptitiously on the bed, trying not to attract his "mother hen's" attention.

"Stop that," Spike said, obviously exasperated.

Xander frowned irritably. Spike hadn't even looked over at him. How the hell did he know?

"If it itches, tell me and I'll put some aloe on it. Don't scratch."

Xander had to work hard to disguise the surge of bitterness at Spike's words. What the hell was the point? Why shouldn't he scratch if he wanted? Not like he wasn't going to have scars no matter what he did anyway, right? He looked at the vampire covertly again. Spike's voice had held the same toneless, dangerous quality it always did when he mentioned any of Xander's injuries. Ever since the night it had happened, Spike had been careful to keep any and all emotion out of his voice when he spoke of it. If it weren't for the flashes of gold in the vampire's eyes, the rigid tension in his muscles and the careful, infinitely gentle way he treated Xander, the boy would swear Spike didn't care one way or another.
And how pathetic was it that he always got a little thrill at the flashes of almost insane fury, there and gone in a second, that always appeared in Spike's eyes after the vampire treated his back for the night?

Nah. He wasn't starved for affection. Not at all.

Xander had leaned back and closed his eyes against his turbulent thoughts, so the touch of cool, almost cold, skin brushing against his cheek caught him by surprise. He jumped a little and his eyes shot open. Spike had virtually no expression on his face as the back of his fingers brushed softly over Xander's cheek, as if fascinated with the feel of the light stubble on Xander's face. Xander's breathing hitched a little, but he didn't move away as Spike's hand slid down his face and brushed against his jugular, forefinger tracing it gently, feeling the quickening beat of the blood through Xander's veins. Xander's head fell back slightly, baring his throat as he looked Spike in the eye while the vampire stood over the bed. Spike gasped audibly at the unwitting submissiveness of the gesture, but then his whole face seemed to shutter as his eyes narrowed and he drew back fractionally.

"We need to put this on. Only a couple more nights of it, most likely. You'll still be sore a while longer, but you won't need the aloe anymore. Your kidneys still hurting you?"

Unbelievably, Xander still possessed the ability to be embarrassed by Spike. He flushed hotly. "How did you know about that?"

Spike smirked. "Got a nose, don't I, pet? Bit of a hard thing for a vampire to ignore, what with the fresh blood scent 'an all"

Xander blushed harder, but he finally mumbled that he was feeling a lot better before pulling his shirt off quickly and flipping over onto his stomach, pillowing his head on his arms. Spike's cool touch and the soothing aloe had him sighing in relief as the itching subsided. Strong hands went from stroking to massaging and in bare moments, Xander felt his eyelids start to droop as he sprawled bonelessly. A moment later, he was asleep.

* * * * *

Spike gloated to himself. All his time spent soothing Dru had apparently taught him *something*. It had taken him less than five minutes to put the whelp to sleep. He sat back with a self-satisfied smile that was short lived as he traced a finger over the red lines on the boy's back. The cuts had healed, for the most part, and some of them had faded to pink, but it was obvious they were going to be there for the rest of Xander's life. Spike's fingers traced line after line as he found himself reminiscing unwillingly.

There were no scars on his body. Something about that fact had bothered him after his first few decades. It seemed that with all the fights he'd been in and all the beatings he'd endured, all his toughness and resiliency should have shown in *some* kind of a physical representation. But he had nothing. His flesh was as smooth and flawless as it had been the day he had been turned. When he hadn't been Spike, but William, the pathetic mortal who poured his heart into terrible poetry dedicated to a woman who couldn't even be troubled to look down at him.

William had been an innocent. He had been naïve and trusting. And he had been killed for it. After all the years he had been *Spike*, it had seemed unfair that he still wore the body of William. William, who had been almost exactly like Xander was now. Except that Xander had an awareness of darkness in him, as evidenced by a latticework of thin red lines on his back, that William had never had.

Strange that Spike wished for the distinguishing marks that he loathed seeing on Xander's skin. On himself, they would be a mark of distinction he had never been allowed. The times he had survived Angelus's punishments. Remnants he should have had from his battles with two different Slayers. Marks he had earned that had been denied him by the nature of his existence.

Spike's hand moved off Xander's skin and formed a fist, causing the sleeping mortal to shift restlessly at the loss of contact.

The marks on Xander weren't scars he'd earned. They were permanent reminders that someone else had touched *Spike's* property. Defiled *Spike's* territory without his permission. It couldn't be allowed.

It *wouldn't* go unpunished.

* * * * *

Xander walked onto the site the next morning, feeling that there was a flock of birds in his stomach, forget about butterflies. His hands flexed convulsively into fists and he wished for something to keep them occupied so he didn't look quite so psychotic. Not that he really had much to worry about. The fact that Kenny liked Willow as much as he did pretty well assured Xander a position on the team. It was, however, up to him to impress his bosses enough to make them want to keep him. And strangely enough, he really, *really* wanted to keep this job. Almost as much as he wanted to run out of here without getting it in the first place. This was his first real chance to get out of his parent's house and Xander found that the thought was equal parts terrifying and exhilarating. A surprisingly large part of Xander was somehow comfortable, even in his periodic misery there. It was familiar. There might be beatings, but there were no surprises, day to day. The routine never changed, it seemed. The logical part of Xander recognized that this was the same thinking that kept his mother trapped, only to a lesser degree. This was the true danger of his situation and he knew it. In a sudden flash, Xander had a terrifying realization that, if he hadn't had Spike, Willow and Buffy he probably would have stayed in his parents house until his father actually beat him to death one day, out of a sense of obligation to his mother.

*No! No, I'm not going to do that! I love her, but I won't martyr myself for her when there's absolutely no need. That's not loyalty or devotion. That's stupidity and I'm *not* stupid!*

Xander's faltering steps strengthened and he squared his shoulders as he stepped up to the door of the small building serving as the managers' office. Stepping inside, his eyes watered a little as they adjusted to the dim lighting, after the brilliant sunlight of the day outside. Slowly, he focused on a burly man sitting behind the somewhat battered desk at the back of the office.

"Can I help you, son?" Well, he sounded friendly enough, Xander supposed.

"Yeah, I'm looking for Roger Waneswood. I'm Xander Harris-"

"Ah. Our new worker. I'm Roger Waneswood. Everybody just calls me Boss, or Boss Roger." He squinted at Xander critically. "You could use a little more meat on you, but we'll take care of that pretty soon." Xander pasted on a very fake-feeling smile. Usually when someone remarked on the meat on him, it was because they were looking to remove it in assorted painful ways. He'd been living in Sunnydale *way* too long.

"You know as well as I do that you're here as a favour to my son. Most likely because he wants a piece of some girl somewhere, as that usually has something to do with favours he asks of me. I don't mind, though. We really need workers and you look able-bodied enough." The man's friendly eyes never changed, but his tone hardened. "If you need work, that's fine. That's the kind I like. If you're here because your family decided it was time you got off your butt and did something, know that I'm not a babysitter. If you aren't serious about this, your ass is gone. I love my son, but I run a business, not a daycare center."

Xander smiled, honestly this time. The speech had gone a long, long way toward making him feel at ease. "I'll tell you honestly, Boss Roger. I need this job and I'm here to work. I've got a-" *vampire* "dependent to support and I've got to have the money. You won't be running a day care for me."

Waneswood smiled happily and held out his hand. "Well that's all right then. Welcome aboard."

Xander shook the offered hand, working hard not to flinch. Waneswood wasn't kidding about building those muscles up, if his own were any indication of where Xander's needed to be.

"Now let's get this paperwork out of the way and you can get your hard hat and get started."

"Today?" Xander asked, startled.

Waneswood laughed a little. "No time like the present my boy. Daylight's wasting and why should you put off 'till tomorrow, what you could do today? Want any more cliché's to go with that?"

Xander grinned. "Nah, that oughta do it."

"Siddown, then."

Xander sat, still grinning like an idiot for some reason. Maybe this job wasn't going to suck *that* bad.

Ten hours later, he was wondering if he was going to have to change his opinion. He'd always thought the expression "work from sunup to sundown" was just an old saying, but some people apparently still believed in it. Xander had just worked from eight o'clock in the morning until six o'clock that evening, doing some of the most backbreaking physical labour he had ever had the misfortune to come across. His back was screaming at him, both the *almost* healed cuts on the surface and the strained muscles underneath. He wanted to do nothing more than soak in a tub of blissfully hot water for about...oh...ten years would be nice.

Creeping into the house, he thanked all the gods he knew, (which, thanks to Giles, was a great many more than two years before) that his father wasn't home yet and crept down the stairs, doing his best not to whimper.

Rough hands grabbed him and slammed him into the wall. He yelped and at the same instant, the hands released him and he heard a soft groan. Surprisingly, the hands were back a moment later, only marginally gentler than they were the first time, and he was hauled out into the middle of the room before being lifted onto his toes. Hands that might as well have been granite had fisted themselves in his shirt and, rather than struggle in an undignified and futile manner, he contented himself with simply *hanging* and glaring death rays at his captor.

Gold eyes bored into his own from underneath a heavily ridged brow and words were ground out from between clenched fangs.

"Where in the *bloody fucking HELL* have you been?" Xander arched an eyebrow at him.

"Working, Spike. I think we might have discussed that whole 'me getting a decent job so we can get the hell out of here' thing. Ring a bell?" Xander snarled nastily at Spike, who returned it much more impressively.

*So what? He's got fangs. Unfair advantage.*

"You were only supposed to go for an interview today. You never came home. I got up this afternoon and you weren't here. I thought..."

Abruptly, Spike's hands released him and Xander stumbled back a few steps before catching himself. He groaned audibly.

*Good God. He was worried about me! That's what this is all about. He's pissed off because he didn't know where I was and he was afraid my father had gotten hold of me...* Xander didn't need a mirror to know that there was a sappy smile on his face. Spike's hissing snarl told him as much as the vampire turned and stalked away. "They put me to work about eight o'clock this morning. The foreman was really nice and so were the other guys there. I think...I think this might be a good place to work." Xander limped halfway to the bathroom before mumbling, "Well, in a month or so, anyway- HEY!"

Spike's hands had grabbed him again, although they were much more careful with him this time as they pulled his shirt up and over his head. Xander actually thought it was rather considerate that Spike didn't rip it.

"Bloody hell! If you ripped any of those cuts open, I'll sodding kill you myself!"

"Spike," Xander said reasonably. "The cuts were already healed, for the most part. They're just sore. Nothing ripped. Nothing's bleeding. I'll be fine."

Spike probed his back gently, ignoring him completely, and Xander sighed. He supposed he should have been irritated at Spike's manhandling, but he just couldn't bring himself to be angry when it showed so very clearly that Spike was worried about him. It felt damned good to have people worried about him.

*The moments with Spike that give me warm fuzzies, as Willow would say, are the times that he manhandles me, or gets insanely angry and homicidal on my behalf. Are we seeing the very bad direction this is heading?* Xander calmly turned around, blocking Spike's view of his back. Spike was still in gameface and Xander wondered when it was that Spike in fangs had ceased to be frightening and become somewhat comforting?

"Spike. I'm fine. I'm going to have a long soak, then I'm going to bed. You need to let off some steam. If I felt any better I'd go with you, but I've got to loosen up some before work tomorrow, or I won't be able to move. Go out and kill some demons. Get in a bar brawl. *Something* that requires gratuitous violence. It'll make you feel better and it'll keep me from getting any more bruises."

Spike stepped back, angry confusion flickering clearly across his face. "I...I'm..."

"It's all right Spike." Xander took pity on him.

Spike stared at him a moment longer, then strode across the room and grabbed his duster before heading for the stairs. He paused about halfway up, his hand on the railing, but not turning around. "You gonna be-?"

"I'll be fine, Spike. Go on."

Without another word, Spike all but ran out of the basement.

* * * * *

*What in the hell were you doing?* Spike snarled to himself as he strode along. *You scared the shit out of him and hurt him on top of that? That's supposed to let him know you were worried about him?*
Long legs ate up the distance quickly as Spike strode into one of the worst parts of Sunnydale, looking for anything of the non-human variety that he could conveniently kill.

*I didn't mean to hurt him. I was just...concerned when he didn't come home earlier. Besides. He's mine. I can hurt him if I want.*

*Not with the chip in you can't. And do you really want to hurt him, anyway?*

*Of course! I'm a vampire! It's what I do. I hurt things.*

*Even things you love?*

"I *don't* love him, goddamnit! Bloody fucking hell!" He strode along, his eyes glowing gold, unnecessary breath rasping heavily as he panted in anger.

"This is Sunnydale? Where the bloody hell are all the demons?!?" He needed to beat something to a pulp and there was nothing! What? Was this a Creatures of the Night vacation day and no one told him?

"BLOODY HELL!!" he roared.

"Needing to work on that anger management, I'm guessing." The ironic voice caught him by surprise and he jumped, whirling around to snap at whatever was behind him. "Now what would you be doing out here, Spike? It's a quiet night. Not much happening. I haven't gotten a bite all evening, not including you."

Spike pulled himself together enough to shift out of gameface. "I might ask the same thing of you. Seems kind of silly for the Slayer to be out here wasting her time. Surely there's other, more worthwhile things for you to be doing."

"Well, I tend to patrol to blow off about you?"

Spike looked over at her in surprise. It was a concession for her. She had admitted that she was worried about something, hence the need to blow off steam in the first place. Now she was daring him to admit the same thing. "Yeah. That's usually what I tend to do. Not much action though, so it's kinda pointless tonight."

Without warning, Buffy threw a spinning kick straight at his head. He blocked it easily and the two of them stood ready, each eyeing the other warily.

"So who is the "he" you "don't love", Spike?"

Spike's eyes widened and he threw a punch at her, which she blocked, and countered with a sweep of her legs to take his feet out from under him. "None of your bloody business, Slayer!"

She flipped over his head, landing lightly on her feet behind him and throwing a punch at his kidneys. "Oh, I think it is when it's one of my friends you're in love with."

Spike ducked and rolled, coming smoothly to his feet before exchanging a flurry of blocked punches with her. "I'M NOT IN LOVE WITH XANDER!!!"

Buffy pulled back a little and looked at him evenly. "Who are you trying to convince? Me or yourself?" When his eyes shifted away in guilt, she lashed out with a lightening quick punch, splitting his lip. He looked back up at her, snarling slightly. "Don't hurt him, Spike," she said. Her features were hard and cold, but her eyes held a hint of understanding. "He's my friend. I know you love him, whether you want to admit it or not. I've seen it in the way you look at him. You look at him like you used to look at Dru. But if you can't admit, at least to yourself, that you love him, you're going to hurt him badly. I won't let you do that. So do yourself a favour and take your head out of your ass. You can't see much up there." She turned on her heel and walked away.

"Thanks for the match, Spike."

Stunned blue eyes watched her walk away. Spike sat heavily on an overturned crate lying nearby. All the pent-up anger was mysteriously gone.

It wasn't possible. He didn't love the whelp. Vampires *didn't* fall in love with humans. Humans were food. Nothing more. They were convenient diversions when the need arose and they were wonderful as cannon fodder in a fight, but no matter how you put it, *they* *were* *expendable*. You never, ever, allowed yourself to need one in any way, shape or form. It was all right for Xander to be his possession, but for Spike to start thinking of him as a companion...... It was unthinkable.

But apparently it wasn't *that* unthinkable, because even now, with the rage burned away by the stunning revelations from the Slayer, Spike found himself wanting to go home to Xander.

*Home* to Xander. When was the last time Spike had had a home?

"Bloody hell," Spike whispered, hugging his knees to his chest. "Bloody fucking hell..."

* * * * *

Xander sighed as he relaxed into the steaming bathwater. The job was his and he *knew* he could do it. He knew instinctively that that day had been the hardest one and he had made it. It wasn't just an impossible dream. He really was going to move out of his father's house. Soon. His first payday was two weeks away and that one check would be enough to move he and Spike into a fairly nice new apartment. They might not have much furniture to speak of for a few months, but they would be out of the basement. Now, the only question was, would they be moving out alone? Xander's happy smile dimmed as he thought, again, of his mother. She was sitting upstairs, he knew. Watching television and drinking God-knew-what. Not that it mattered as long as it had alcohol in it in high concentrations.

Feeling slightly more human from the bath and almost courageous from the inspiring first day at work, Xander got out of the water and dried off before grabbing his clothes. Dressing quickly, he started up the stairs before his new-found bravery could desert him.

Stepping into the living room always held the aura of menace that one would expect upon entering a lion's den. Even when his father wasn't home, Xander still tensed and his eyes darted around nervously when he came out of the relative security of the basement and into the more dangerous area of his father's main haunt. That day, though, there was no sign of anyone but his mother, watching Wheel of Fortune. Or, more likely, staring vacantly at the television in an imitation of watching. Rounding the side of the couch, he looked at her. Her large brown eyes were fixed on the screen, but not really registering anything and her right hand was curled around the remote, even as her left was clutching a coffee mug.

*If someone had done a painting, this could have been my childhood in a nutshell,* he thought bitterly. Knowing it was the only way to get her attention, he went over and turned the TV off, standing in front of it so the remote didn't work. She blinked owlishly up at him.

"Can we talk, Mom?"

"Since when do you wanna talk to me?"

Xander winced at the words, though he'd heard them before, many times. The times they did speak, she would mournfully accuse him of abandoning her to face his father alone. Her mixture of insidious insults and pitiful vulnerability cutting him to the core every time, so that he started working hard to avoid the encounters at all. But not this time. This time was too important.

"I wanna talk to you, Mom. I love you." He paused for a moment, trying to tell if his words had any effect on her. To his recollection, those three words hadn't passed the lips of anyone living in that house in years. She never even blinked. He glanced down, already feeling the futility of his mission before the request was even out of his mouth. "Mom, I got a new job. I'm going to be leaving in a couple of weeks." That got a reaction.

Her eyes widened and a horrible *betrayed* look entered her eyes. "I shoulda known you'd leave me alone someday. Off on your own and to hell with what anyone else needs, that it Alexander?"

"No!" he said forcefully. "That's *not* it! You can come with me. I'm going to get an apartment on the other side of town. You can come stay with me for awhile..." Xander trailed off at the look of horror on her face.

"I can't leave your father!" She sounded so completely scandalized that Xander realized, with a sinking feeling, that the idea had never once crossed her mind in twenty-five years.

"Yes, you can, Mom! He beats you! He beats me! Hell, he-" *rapes me.* "he's lousy to the both of us. All you have to do is get up and walk out the door-"

"No!" His mother sounded clear-headed for the first time in Xander's recent memory. "You're talking nonsense, Alexander! If you just wouldn't make him so mad all the time he wouldn't hit you. I make him mad too, I know, but he's my husband and *your* father. I can understand you leaving, I guess. Kids grow up and leave, but I'm married to him 'till death do we part! I'm not going anywhere."

"Yeah, but whose death is it going to be, Mom? He's going to kill you one day and you know it!" Xander spat out in desperation.

A sharp crack echoed in the room, signaling an instant end to the fight. Xander's head swung sharply to the left and a bright red handprint appeared almost instantly on his right cheek. His mouth snapped shut and his eyes watered a little. He looked at her disbelievingly. She looked more than a little stunned herself. It was nothing compared to what he normally got- his mother's strength was non-existent compared to his father's. It was just the shock of it. He couldn't remember his mother *ever* hitting him. She always turned a blind eye to it, but she *never* joined in and the intense feeling of shocked betrayal surprised Xander.

He turned sadly and headed for the stairs without another word, ignoring the soft gasp behind him. Spike had been right. She wasn't going to leave with him. He was actually going to have to go and leave her here...with *him*. It was unbelievable.

Xander crept down the stairs, still feeling as though he were in shock. Moving like an automaton, he turned out the lights and laid down on the bed, curling into himself before he let the silent tears wind their way down his cheeks.

* * * * *

"Shit!" Spike mumbled. The Bastard was home, which meant he was reduced to crawling in through the basement window. Again. He stalked around to the side of the house, feeling a frisson of alarm at the dark window. Xander *always* left a light on for him. Pulling the window open quietly, he slipped in, his stronger eyes able to see easily. Xander was curled up, asleep on the bed and Spike found himself just staring, momentarily. Something was a little off. Xander smelled of total misery. More so than normal. And he was letting out the odd little sniffle as he slept, a sure sign that he had cried himself to sleep. Xander would most likely be mortified if he realized Spike could tell that just by scenting him. Nothing tended to anger and frustrate the mortal quite like having Spike see his tears. Xander was so intensely private with his emotions and he didn't trust Spike. Not that Spike could blame him.

Even at this point, Spike wasn't sure if Xander *should* trust him. He had good intentions toward a mortal, perhaps for the first time since he'd been turned, but he didn't even trust *himself* so why should he expect Xander to?

Spike stepped forward, and stroked the hair out of the boy's face lightly.

"I can't say I love you. I'm not sure I even know what love is. But I won't kill you or hurt you. You'll just have to make do with that, for now."

"I guess that's enough, then." The sleepy voice shocked the hell out of Spike and he looked at the open eyes in disbelief.

"How the bloody hell did you do that? Your heartbeat didn't even speed up when I touched you!"

"I knew it was you. Why would I be scared?"

Spike grunted and reached over for the bedside lamp.


Spike saw the reason for the exclamation immediately. The handprint on Xander's cheek was swollen by then. Spike's eyes went cold, but he kept his fury contained, since he noticed the tear tracks still on Xander's face, as well as the fact that the handprint was far too small to have been made by Xander's father. "You talked to her, then?" he asked mildly. He saw Xander's jaw clench and his throat work convulsively.

His voice was steady and relatively calm when he answered, though. "She won't be coming with us."

Spike nodded a bit. "I expected as much."

Xander's wandering eyes finally met Spike's blue ones. Moving slowly, Xander kept his eyes locked on Spike's, even as he slid his arms around the vampire's waist, only breaking his gaze when he moved his head forward and laid it on Spike chest, directly over the spot where his heart didn't beat. He relaxed into Spike completely, letting the cool body support his entirely, head burrowing in as he took much needed comfort from the contact.

Spike sat rigidly for a moment, fighting his instinct to curl around the warmth in his lap. Finally, unwillingly, his hand inched up and buried itself in Xander's hair as the other crept around the boy's back. Scalding hot droplets soaked through his silk shirt and he shivered. "We'll figure it out. We'll get her out of here somehow, Xander."

Xander didn't answer him, but he burrowed closer and held on tighter.

The next two weeks passed quickly for Xander. He had two more run-ins with his mother, trying desperately to change her mind, but after that first time, she refused to speak to him at all.

Almost against his will, he found his attention turning away from his home life, turning towards enjoying the labour that almost immediately stopped wearing him out and started exhilarating him. The people that he worked with liked him, and relied on him more and more as he learned the job and picked up the tricks of the trade. Buffy and Willow insisted he come patrolling almost nightly. Mostly, he thought, so they could make sure he was still all right. Spike, however, was unusually quiet the entire time. He seemed to be responding to Xander's increasing dread of the move with an unspoken support that was completely unlike his normal, devilish, self.

On Xander's day off, two days before payday, he went apartment hunting. Five hours later, he wondered if he was subconsciously sabotaging his efforts. No matter what he found, there was always *something* wrong with it. Too big, too small, too bright, too dark, too expensive, in a bad part of town. There was always something.

Until the last one. Five hundred dollars a month for a two bedroom, two bath apartment. The kitchen was huge, for an apartment. The bathrooms were spacious, as were the bedrooms and the living room had a fireplace and a high ceiling that made it look bigger than it really was. It was bright, airy and open, with lots of windows. The ones in the bedroom would have to be covered, of course, but he had already budgeted for draperies before they ever moved in...

Almost in a panic, Xander realized that there was nothing wrong with this place. The price was much lower than what he'd budgeted for and it was in a good part of town. It was......perfect.

Xander felt like he was swallowing his tongue as he told the landlord he'd take it and be back in two days with the deposit.

"Xan? You O.K.?"

Xander looked up and saw all his workmates looking at him with varying degrees of concern. He mustered a small smile. "Yeah, Bill. I'm fine. I'm moving out tonight. Just a little nervous."

Bill was a huge bear of a man that looked much like a biker from hell. He was the kindest man Xander had ever known and he seemed to have semi-adopted Xander. He reached out and tousled Xander's hair fondly. "Little man's finally gettin' out on his own. In't that cute?"

"Fuck off," Xander said good-naturedly. They all roared with laughter and Xander actually found himself feeling a little better.

After work and a quick trip to the bank, where he stood for an embarrassing length of time, gaping at the amount on his check, he headed to the apartment complex. An hour later, the apartment was in his name and all that was left was to collect his vampire and beg his mother to come along one more time.

Xander wondered if he might throw up.

"Get out the window," Xander hissed, shoving the bags out. "I won't chance him seeing you. You wait out there for me until I finish in here."

"I think I like this new, aggressive you, pet," Spike smirked.

Xander actually blushed, but he still stood with his arms crossed, glaring meaningfully at the window.

With a put-upon sigh, Spike hefted himself up and shimmied through the tight space. His eyes were dancing with excitement, but his voice held a note of warning as he said,

"Ten minutes, Xander. You're not out here and I'll bloody come in and get you, chip or no chip."

Xander shivered a bit, thinking of Spike getting a hold of his father.

*No! Stop it! You're better than that!*

Between the two of them, it had only taken four bags to get all of Xander's stuff out of the basement. Xander was depressed. Almost twenty years and all he had to show for it was four lousy bags of shit. His steps heavy, he climbed the stairs.

He worked hard to surpress a surge of fear when he saw his father sitting in his armchair and his mother on the couch.

"I'm leaving."

"Good riddance," his father muttered, not even looking at him.

"Mom, please come with me," he begged, his desperation making his ask, even though his father was sitting there and he knew it was pointless.

"She's not going anywhere!" his father roared. "You want out, you get your worthless ass out. She's staying right here!"

"Mom?" Xander's mother never even looked at him, but his father roared angrily and picked up the nearest projectile, to save himself the trouble of getting up. His ashtray sailed at Xander, his father's horrendous aim causing it to slam into his empty left hand, rather than his head.
Xander yelped and finally conceded the battle, recognizing that discretion was the better part of valor.

He took some pleasure in slamming the door as he left, cradling his injured hand to his chest slightly.

Xander knew Spike missed nothing of his appearance, from the angry tears sparkling in his eyes, to the way he favoured his left hand, but to his credit, he said nothing when Xander snapped, "Let's go!" and climbed angrily into Spike's DeSoto.

The ride over to the apartment was quiet and Xander flexed his hand gingerly, finding it sore, but not broken. He stared out the window, going over the last two weeks again and again. Was there anything he could have said or done that would have changed her mind? Any opportunity he had missed-

"You did the best you could." *Hell, you did a lot more than I would even have considered, pet.* Spike had only been able to deal with the last couple of weeks by going out on patrol almost nightly; he and Buffy beating the shit out of whatever hapless demon crossed their paths. She seemed to be the only one that understood his need for violence; indeed, seemed to share it as she ripped into the enemy with a vengeance. At home, he had been as supportive as he could without making himself sick with the sweetness of it. Apparently it had worked. His human had held himself together and so had Spike. That was all that mattered.

"It wasn't enough though, was it?" Xander answered bitterly. "I really thought that if I pushed hard enough, I'd get her to leave. If I just argued convincingly enough, she'd see the truth. But it never mattered what I said. She never listened."

"You can't force her, pet. I don't really see the problem, but you humans are just so *touchy* about stuff like that."

That coaxed a small smile out of Xander.

"Which building, Xander?"

"The second one. Apartment #235."

Xander walked up in silence, carrying one of the bags and unlocking the door. "Here we are. Home sweet apartment."

Spike looked over the threshold meaningfully.

"Oh. Sorry. Come in, Spike."

Spike looked around the depressingly empty apartment and saw the potential. It was big and just begged for some decent furniture. He did note, with an odd warm feeling in his chest, that every window in the apartment had black draperies hung perfectly. That must have cost Xander a pretty penny.

Mirroring his thoughts, the boy said, "There would have been more furniture, but the bed and the draperies took every bit of spare cash I had from this paycheck as well as all the savings I had in the bank. I was originally only going to hang draperies in the bedroom, but knowing the way you tend to get up during the day, I didn't want you to end up trapped in one room." He shrugged a little self-consciously. "Look at it this way, though. They let me keep working the hours I have been since I started and this place'll be fully furnished in less than two months." Xander took a deep breath and looked back at Spike.

"I know it's not Buckingham Palace, it all right?"

Spike moved closer to him. "Pet, as long as your father's not living upstairs, this might as well be Buckingham Palace."

Xander nodded at him. "Yeah. Yeah, that's true." Xander looked around the empty apartment. "What the hell am I getting into here, Spike?"

Spike looked at him seriously. "A new life."

Xander looked at him for a long moment, unsmiling. Finally, he nodded again. "I guess I am." Looking away for a moment. "You know, I'm really tired tonight. I think I'm gonna go to bed."

Spike stepped back from him, unaccountably hurt at the statement.

Xander stopped just outside the master bedroom. When he spoke, his voice betrayed a hint a nervousness. "You coming?"

Spike looked up at him in surprise, but Xander didn't turn around. "If you want me to, pet. Are you sure?"

Xander shrugged a little uncomfortably. "Well, I could only afford one bed and I don't want to make you sleep on the floor and all..."

Spike cocked an eyebrow disbelievingly. This from the person that had kept him tied in a chair the first few nights in the basement. Seeing the tense line of the muscles in Xander's neck and shoulders, Spike kept his voice soft when he said, "I'd like that, pet."

Without turning, Xander reached back, holding out his hand in a tentative invitation.

Spike reached forward and took it.





*Somehow, when I thought about sleeping with the whelp, this wasn't exactly what I was picturing,* Spike thought wryly. They'd only been in the apartment for two days, but both days Spike had awakened in the evening with Xander curled up in bed next to him, reading a book while he waited for Spike to wake up. Xander hadn't really said anything, but Spike could tell that he was reveling in the new-found security of the apartment. For someone who had spent his entire life terrified of walking into a room and finding his father there, the freedom and stability of having his own place had to be heady. The two of them had gone out on short patrols the two nights previous and the intensity with which Xander fought told Spike that the boy was still very worried about his mother.

Spike fumed sullenly to himself. *Can't believe 'm going to be reduced to thinkin' up a plan to save that bint! I couldn't care less if she rots there, but it don't look like the whelp's gonna get out of brood mode until we go get her and we sure as hell don't need another Angelus lurking about. Bloody hell! The things I'll do to make him happy!*

Spike propped himself up on an elbow and rested his chin on Xander's shoulder. It was a little more of a proprietary gesture than he'd made before, and he was curious how Xander would react to it.

A soft smile curved Xander's lips and the boy's head shifted just the tiniest bit to the right, making a little more room.

Spike responded by nuzzling into the crook of Xander's neck and shoulder softly, rumbling deep in his chest when Xander just sighed in response. *God, we're so domestic, it's sickening. Glad none of the other demons are here to see this. Bloody laugh their arses off at me. It's like we're married, just without the sex.*

Despite himself, Spike was missing that. He nature. That was putting it *very* politely. The demon in him was snarling that he still hadn't claimed the boy. Not in the real sense, or even the sexual sense. Each was just as impossible as the other, at the moment. Spike couldn't bite Xander, so the boy couldn't be claimed the way he should be, and he sure as hell couldn't fuck Xander, so he couldn't even be claimed by that half-assed method. Pathetic.

Bored and frustrated, Spike looked down at the book Xander was so immersed in.

And started laughing out loud.

Xander looked up at him in irritation. "What?"

Spike snorted and snickered for a minute, grabbing at the book Xander was holding before answering. "Sorry, pet. Just would have thought you'd get enough of the creepy crawlies living where you do. Never pictured you reading Stephen King."

Xander frowned and snatched his book back. "I happen to like Stephen King. After all the stuff we see here, you honestly think that walking topiary, dead women in bathtubs and bloody murders are going to scare me?"

Spike's eyes lit up. "Dead women in bathtubs? Bloody murders? Sounds like my kind of book. Don't know about the walking topiary thing, though. Sounds a little barmy to me." He snatched the book back again, looking at it a little more seriously this time.

Xander looked at him incredulously. "You've never read 'The Shining'?"

"Hmm...Nope," Spike answered distractedly, already absorbed by reading the blurb on the back.

Xander grabbed it back again. "Well you can read it after I get finished with it. I had it first, you know."

"Oi!!" Spike made as if to reach for it again and Xander yanked it behind his back.

"No! Bad vampire! Be glad I didn't say you had to go out and buy your own copy."

Spike sat back and looked at him, smiling angelically. After all, Xander worked the next day. Spike could just nick it while the boy was gone.

Xander squinted at Spike suspiciously before continuing slowly. "Anyway, you need to get dressed."

Spike looked down. Boxers and a black t-shirt. Nothing wrong with that. Xander, however, was staring at him like he was the world biggest moron. He must have forgotten something. What? Hmm.........

Xander sighed.

"No, wait. I can get it!"

Xander thumped him on the arm, but gently.

"Our pseudo-surprise housewarming party. Whereupon we have eight people in this apartment and no place for anyone to sit. I told them all to bring sleeping bags."

Spike slumped back on the bed with a groan. "They're *not* stayin' over! No sleep-over unless I get to eat one of them."

"Hey! No eating our friends!"

"*Our* friends?" Spike snorted derisively. "Right."

"Besides, it could have been worse. At least I remembered to go to the store and stop to pick up some movies. Just think what would have happened if we couldn't have kept them fed and entertained."

Spike smirked at him. "Bet I could have come up with something to keep them entertained, pet."

Xander whapped him on the back of the head with the book. "Get dressed, bleachboy."

Spike mock-snarled at him as he climbed off the bed and headed for the bathroom.

Xander watched the shapely backside as Spike stalked to the bathroom, something he had been doing quite often lately. The touches between the two of them were getting more frequent and more personal every day, it seemed. Xander wasn't stupid enough to think that Spike loved him, but he was slowly starting to think that the vampire cared for him, at least a little. Spike had been so careful with him during this whole mess with his parents that Xander really didn't know what to think anymore. Willow was the only one who had ever touched him gently at all. The only time people ever made any kind of contact with him was usually to smack him. Either in play, when he bugged the hell out of them, or in earnest, like his father. There was something incongruous about Spike, being who and what he was, treating him as carefully as he had. It threw Xander off-balance and made him suspicious, except for those rare times he let himself go and just enjoyed it without thinking about *why* Spike was doing it. A large part of Xander thought that, maybe, he needed to not think about it more often. It was certainly when he was the happiest lately.

Heavy pounding on the door made Xander's heartbeat speed up and his palms grow clammy. Normally, when he heard pounding, it was footsteps and it meant he was in serious trouble if he didn't hightail it. Even now, his muscles were tensed with the subconscious desire to bolt for the nearest exit. Taking a deep breath, he forced his hands to relax from white-knuckled fists and wiped his palms on his thighs as he stood up.

"Xander?" More pounding.

Buffy. Damn, the girl never did know her own strength. Forcing his voice into some semblance of cheerfulness, he called, "Coming, Buffy! Don't get your knickers in a twist!" *Good God! Did that really just come out of my mouth?*

Xander suppressed the urge to wince as he opened the door. He'd been hanging around with Spike *way* too much lately, if he was starting to talk like him.

Buffy looked at him curiously. "'Don't get your knickers in a twist?' You've been taking English lessons from Spike now?"

Xander flushed hotly. "Umm-"


Xander grunted as a full grocery bag made forceful contact with his chest. "Good evening to you too, Anya."

"Hello, Xander. Buffy said you were going to entertain us this evening in exchange for bribes of common household items. So what are we watching first?"

Xander's lips quirked into a grin, despite himself, as he watched Buffy squirm uncomfortably. "Well, that's a pretty...unique explanation of a housewarming party, I guess." Xander got a kick out of watching the ex-demon and the Slayer together. Ever since Riley had left, Anya seemed to be making an almost-subtle-for-her attempt to cheer Buffy up. Even more amazing was the fact that it seemed to be working. Buffy still moped, but with Anya around, it was almost impossible for her to stay in a bad mood all the time.

Xander carried the heavy bag into the kitchen, depositing it gratefully on the counter before starting to rummage through it. "Jesus, Anya!" he hollered. "Did you guys get every type of junk food known to man?"

"We tried our best," Buffy said from right behind him, snickering softly when he jumped as if goosed.

Xander grinned to cover his discomfiture. He detested it when people came up behind him and scared him. "I'm gonna go ahead and call in the pizza order. Just let me go find out what the rest of the gang wants."

Buffy looked at him as if she were about to apologize for scaring him and he prayed desperately that she wouldn't. It was a lot easier for him to pretend that she had just startled him, if she didn't say anything about it. Thankfully she didn't. After a moment, her mouth closed and she mustered a rather forced-looking smile.

"Yeah, okay. You go call in the order and I'll get drinks and snacks set up for everyone."

Xander grinned at her again, for real this time. "Thanks, Buff."

She brightened at his acceptance of her unspoken apology. "No problem."

As she turned to the counter and started to unpack the chips and cookies, he headed out into the living room. Everyone had already pretty well made themselves at home; it wasn't as if they were strangers to roughing it a little. Sleeping bags had been tossed on the floor in front of the TV, the one floor lamp in the room casting a soft, cozy glow over the group as the sat and talked. Willow and Tara were snuggled up together, with Dawn sitting across from them. Anya was in the middle, sitting cross-legged, with the four of them forming a rough semi-circle.

Xander frowned. "Where's-"

The doorbell chimed.

"-Giles? Never mind." He pulled the door open, only to be greeted with the unlikely sight of Giles standing there, holding a dark blue sleeping bag. He raised an eyebrow.

"What?" Giles asked defensively. "You said it was a "bring your own sleeping bag and watch movies" kind of housewarming party."

"Well, yes. I did. Somehow, though, it just messes with my sense of reality to know that you *have* a sleeping bag. You're just not a 'sleeping bag'-y type of guy, you know?"

"I *have* been on sleep-overs before, Xander," Giles said dryly. "Granted, it hasn't been for a long while, but I'm not *that* ancient."

Xander shrugged. "Great. Well, come on in. You're just in time. What kind of pizza do you all want?" A moment later and he had one vote for meat-lovers, two for supreme, two for cheese and two for veggie.

" about a large half-cheese half-veggie and a large half-supreme half-meat lovers?" Smiles all around and Xander was congratulating himself on his peacemaker skills. "Okay, then. I'll be back in a minute."

He headed into the bedroom, for the only phone in the apartment thus far, scowling as he went. *Chicken-shit vampire!* Not thinking, Xander opened the master bathroom door when he heard the shower still running.

"All right, Spike! Enough stalling! You don't get to hide in the bathroom all night to avoid-" Xander's jaw dropped as he stared into the steamy room. Spike had paused in surprise when Xander opened the door and now they stood, both frozen as they stared at each other. Spike stood, half-in half-out of the shower, one hand holding the curtain as he dripped water on the floor.

He was magnificent. All symmetrical planes and sharp angles as Xander followed the path of the water down the ivory skin, his mouth going dry as he looked down past the hard muscles of Spike's abs. His eyes widened as they swept over Spike's cock, which immediately began to harden, as if looking at it was the same as a physical touch.

Heat rushed into his cheeks and Xander knew he was blushing furiously, even as he knew Spike must be able to smell him...smell how this was affecting him. "I-I'm sorry. I thought you were hiding in here to- I'll just-" He flushed harder. Damned if it didn't seem impossible to finish a sentence and this just obviously wasn't going to get any better so it would probably be best to- "I-I'll just-"

He fled, almost slamming the door behind him in his rush, completely unable to look Spike in the face even once before he went.

Sitting on the bed, he ran a shaky hand through his hair. *What the hell was that?* The surge of lust he had felt upon seeing Spike wasn't much of a surprise. He had definitely been working his way in that direction for awhile now. The *intensity* of it was the surprise. His response had been immediate and incredibly strong, as an image of pinning the vampire to the wall of the shower had flooded his brain.

A hint of a smile touched his face. Judging from Spike's reaction, the vampire must have been having similar thoughts.

*Of course he was. Why wouldn't he want to fuck you? That's the only thing he could possibly be hanging around for.*

Xander instinctively recoiled from the scathing inner voice. The matter-of-fact tone and almost bored delivery made it all the more devastating. That wasn't true. He knew it wasn't true. He had worth. He had value.

*Oh, come on. Give me a break. Your own father couldn't find anything redeeming about you but the fact you're good at taking it up the ass. That's pretty self-evident, even for you.*

Xander shuddered a little and resolutely pushed the voice far away as he reached for the phone to place his order for dinner.

Spike dried himself off slowly while he thought over the little encounter of a few minutes before. Granted, he had been taking a while in the shower. Perhaps taking a little extra time about getting his hair washed.


Okay. So he'd been stalling. He'd finally gotten out, at least. Just in time for the whelp to open the bathroom door without so much as a hint of a knock. Spike had been honestly surprised, but he had been almost stunned by the flood of pheromones that had all but slapped him in the face.

He smirked. Xander had wanted him, that much was obvious. The blush had been cute, too. If the boy had gotten any darker red, Spike would have been afraid that he was going to spontaneously combust. Xander had run before Spike could say anything and the vampire was left wondering how he needed to handle this. Spike didn't want to push the boy, but he was afraid that if he pretended it hadn't happened, Xander would think Spike wasn't interested.

"Bloody hell. It's just like dealing with Dru," he muttered disgustedly. Well...almost like dealing with Dru. At least Xander didn't think the stars and moon were talking to him.

Spike hastily finished drying himself off and slipped into his jeans and t-shirt before opening the door to the bedroom. Xander was still sitting on the bed, talking on the phone. As soon as Spike came in the bedroom, Xander blushed again, his eyes lighting anywhere in the room, except on the vampire standing in the doorway.

Spike stood and waited easily enough as Xander finished ordering the pizza, noticing that the boy took a long time to put the receiver down, as though he would be giving up his last defense if he did so.

"I'm not going to force you, whelp."

Xander's head shot up instantly, his eyes locking with Spike's as he glowered at the vampire. "I never thought you would! If you were going to force me, you've had a lot more wonderful opportunities before this."

Spike ignored his outburst. "I'm not going to force you," he repeated gently. "I'm not going to pressure you. I wanna shag you, that much is pretty obvious, but I don't wanna shag you because that's all you're good for. You're worth more than that, Xander and I swear to God, when I get this bloody chip out of my skull, that's *one* thing your father's going to know for certain before he dies."

*Jesus,* Xander thought, averting his eyes again. *How sick is it that his threats to kill my father make me think I could love him, and that gleam in his eyes makes me want to fuck him through the mattress? That's pretty goddamn sick, Harris.*

The bed dipped slightly as Spike sat down next to him. Not much; Spike really didn't weigh a lot. Xander had often marveled that such an efficient killing machine could come in such a small package. Of course, Spike really couldn't be called a machine, either. Not with that soft skin and those gentle hands. Hands that were currently sliding up his arms, to his shoulders, one skating lightly over his throat and coming up to trace along his jaw. He shivered a bit, almost ticklish as the sensations coursed over him, and had the sudden, insane thought of a cat racing around in his mind.

Helpless giggles rose in his throat as his mind churned out an image of a little white-blonde coloured kitten with golden eyes, rubbing against his face. Jesus God, what was wrong with him?

Spike's hands strayed down his chest, momentarily and Xander's breath caught in his throat a little as he stared at Spike, the vampire features nowhere in evidence this time, making it all the more real. Less dreamlike than the last time they had done this. The urge to laugh had completely deserted him.

Spike's head lowered and Xander tilted his own slightly, exposing the vulnerable line of his throat. Spike unexpectedly bypassed Xander's mouth and dipped down to his neck. Xander's pulse involuntarily sped up a little and Spike made soft, barely-there shushing noises as he scented the length of Xander's throat, starting just below the collarbone.

Xander shuddered a little as a cool tongue traced the line of his pulse and Spike's hand came up the other side of his neck to his face, cupping gently.

Never. Xander would never have thought that *anyone* could make him feel so special. So cared for. That anyone would take this kind of time with him and worship him with his mouth the way Spike was doing. And Jesus God, if Spike could do this to him just by licking his neck, what would happen if he were licking *other* parts of Xander?
"Please...please, Spike," he whispered.

Spike's mouth finally reached the ridge of Xander's jaw and traced over it to his mouth, tongue still tasting Xander's skin lightly and flickering at his lips gently.

Xander's mouth opened on a moan and Spike's lips seemed *so* soft as they traced over his own. Xander's hands came up, running over the human planes of Spike's face, so different from the ridges on its vampiric counterpart. His sharp cheekbones were in starker relief like this, and felt strangely delicate to Xander's questing fingers.

Spike's tongue lapped softly at Xander's lips, tracing over his teeth a moment before Xander's tongue tentatively stroked his, slightly cool meeting oh-so-hot in a contrast that shocked Xander, even as Spike moaned in the back of his throat.

An almost inaudible gasp and a very quietly cleared throat made the two jerk apart quickly.

Buffy stood in the doorway, blushing faintly. "If you guys are gonna extract each others' tonsils like that, you might wanna close the door first. I don't think Giles is quite ready for *that* much of a show yet." She seemed very interested in the bedroom's décor, but not much in the two occupants sitting on the bed, one blushing furiously, the other scowling just as furiously. "They're getting a little worried. You know, thinking Spike ate you or something."

Spike couldn't help the little snort of laughter that escaped and Buffy blushed harder. Taking that as a sign, she left, shutting the door quietly behind her.

Spike caught Xander by the chin before he could avoid Spike's eyes. The vampire's mouth swooped in again, this time in a quick, soft, almost chaste kiss on closed lips. "I can wait for you, pet," he murmured against Xander's closed mouth. "Take as much time as you need."

Xander blinked furiously. He *was not* going to cry in front of Spike, on top of everything else.

"Thanks, Spike."

By unspoken consent, the two of them got up to see to their guests, Spike wisely not commenting on the light sheen of moisture in Xander's eyes, or the husky quality of his voice.

Right before they left the bedroom, Spike felt Xander's fingers curl around his hand and give it a brief, almost loving, squeeze.

Spike couldn't help but think of the kiss as a breakthrough, but it definitely *wasn't* one he wanted to share with all the whelp's friends. More than anything, he wanted to walk through the door of the living room and find that they'd all disappeared.

"Hey, Spike! Go in the kitchen and grab the chips and salsa, would you?"

It was all he could do not to snarl at them. He *wasn't* the bloody serving boy. They were in *his* home. Monopolizing time he could be spending with *his* Xander. Could anyone blame him if he was a little pissy? Still grumbling to himself, he stalked over to the counter to get the requested items, moving things around just a little harder than necessary while chafing against the fact that he was acting like a five year old. Damn! Things had really gone to hell when he was reduced to this.

A touch of melancholy, as always, when he thought of times, not so very long ago, when he would rather have been a pile of dust than in the situation he was in now. Catering to a bunch of the Slayer's friends and, let's be honest, not entirely unwilling to do so. He knew the only reason for that, as well.

Deep down, in a part of him he would never admit to having, he enjoyed the fact that Xander brought out a bit of the mortal he had once been. He conjured up the good memories of what it was to be human. The painful, embarrassing moments were still there, but they weren't always the focus any longer and Spike was beginning to find that he could think about the mortal William with fondness. Without calling up all the defensive rage and sarcasm that 'Spike' had been created to personify.

'Spike' hadn't appeared until sometime in the early twentieth century and the direct reason for this was the fact that the he had been terrified of Angelus losing interest in him. By God, if he was annoying the shit out of his adopted Sire, he wasn't being overlooked. He had been overlooked enough in his mortal life and he had sworn that would never happen again after he was turned.

For the first time in over a hundred years, he felt as if it *might* be safe to let go of a little bit of Spike. Might be safe to show Xander just a little bit of William, now and then.

Ruefully, Spike realized that William probably would have been able to handle Xander more easily than he was doing. He was constantly scared that he would do something wrong. Push too hard or not hard enough.

"Spike! Did you die in there? Oh, wait. I forgot. You're already dead!" Buffy's voice rang out from the living room, sounding completely normal. As if she hadn't walked in to see he and Xander getting hot and heavy in nearly full view of anyone who cared to look.

With a start, Spike realized he'd been standing motionless for a couple of minutes, a bowl of chips in one hand, a jar of salsa in the other.

"Yeah, yeah. Keep your bloody knickers on!" He banged back out into the living room just in time to see the strangest look cross Buffy's face. He stared at her in confusion for a moment, before slapping the bowl and the jar down on the floor in the center of the circle they'd all made.

The television was showing some old sitcom. Not something Spike had ever much gotten into, but it shed a soft, homey light over the group while the noise helped fill the silence a little. Willow and Tara were still snuggled together, wrapped tightly in their sleeping bag as they, Buffy, Dawn and Anya chattered. Giles joined in every so often, if asked a question, but mostly just sat with a soft, fatherly look on his face as he studied the group beside him.

Spike wondered, for a moment, what it would do to the Watcher when the Slayer was killed. Or one of the others in their little group. They insisted on getting themselves involved, so it wasn't a matter of *if* it would happen, but a matter of *when*. Spike supposed it was a shame, but to be honest, he could only see it as a shame in the fact that it would hurt his Xander terribly when the inevitable occurred. An insidious voice insisted on whispering how it could *be* his Xanpet that was killed.

No. It wouldn't. Never. Spike wouldn't allow it.

A strong hand reached up and caught his. Before Spike knew what was happening, Xander had dragged him down to sit in front of him and wound his arms around Spike's waist. Spike's ass was nestled comfortably in the "V" of Xander's legs. Nestled, in fact, right next to a semi-hard bulge that conjured interesting images for Spike's vivid imagination.

"You're thinking too much. I can see it." Spike's eyes widened in alarm. The voice was inches away from his ear, whispering softly. Spike knew what kind of picture they must have made together.

"Pet, what the bloody hell...?" Spike turned his head. Yup. They were definitely the center of attention now. Six pairs of eyes focused on them with emotions ranging from astonishment to calm acceptance.

Buffy appeared quite honestly shocked, but Spike figured she was probably shocked at Xander's open show of affection for Spike. She had probably thought Xander wasn't ready to tell the rest of the group just yet. Spike had pretty well thought that himself.

Dawn's eyes held the wide, curious gleam of adolescence that meant she was currently learning something new and heretofore undreamed of. It was with some relief that Spike and Xander both saw no hint of disgust.

Willow and Tara were staring at them and Spike had no trouble picking up the worry and half-formed accusation on Willow's face as she glared at him. He met her gaze evenly.

Anya had a strange, secretive gleam in her eyes as she stared straight at Spike, but there wasn't a hint of surprise anywhere on her features. The vampire shifted uncomfortably in Xander's arms, feeling unaccountably laid bare by the sharp intelligence in the ex-demon's direct gaze

It was Giles that everyone finally turned to, however. Xander more slowly than the rest, obviously frightened of what he would see there. Giles' eyes held only a little surprise. "I would suppose that this is the reason Buffy and Willow have been tiptoeing around me for the last month or so?"

Everyone jumped, the silent spell that seemed to have taken over the room the moment Spike nestled into Xander's arms broken.

Giles' voice was even, with no hint of anger and as Xander stared him in the eyes, he could have sworn he saw a hint of recognition. A feeling of tentative camaraderie. It gave him the courage he needed for his answer. "A part of the reason, yes."

All eyes were once again on him and Xander repeated to himself over and over that he needed to do this. He needed to tell them. A small part of him wondered if he might even feel better about the whole thing once it was out in the open. Xander had been thinking about this a lot in the few days since he had found out about the housewarming party and he had slowly realized that he just couldn't do it. He couldn't continue to go to meetings and head out for patrols, all the while pretending he was just tolerating Spike. He just couldn't stand to lie anymore. He'd been lying about his parents his whole life and he'd be damned if he was going to lie about his relationship with Spike, as well!

The silence in the room was heavy with expectation and all eyes were trained upon him, everyone instinctively knowing that something big was coming.

"About a month ago, Mom and Dad went to visit my grandmother. When they got back, my father was in a terrible mood, like he usually is after he visits her. He came after me the night that demon got Spike; you remember, Giles."

Xander looked over at the Watcher, quite obviously stalling as his hands gripped Spike's tightly and he squeezed his arms around the vampire's waist. Spike returned the pressure, giving Xander an anchor to hold onto.

Giles nodded his head slowly, his eyes searching into Xander's. "I remember, Xander."

Xander nodded almost convulsively. "Okay. You remember he couldn't move. You remember he was helpless. There was nothing he could do. You remember that, right?"

Giles leaned forward and repeated softly, "I remember, Xander. Whatever it is, I know Spike didn't do it."

Xander closed his eyes, his breathing speeding up as he swallowed heavily. Finally, he looked around again, nodding to himself.

*God, just *do* it, for Christ's sake! It's not going to get any easier so just *do* it!*

"I heard him coming and I pulled Spike in the closet just before he broke in." Xander was shaking now and he wondered why he was torturing himself with the details. Why he couldn't just spit it out in one sentence, instead of playing around with it?

Without warning, Spike turned quickly, and suddenly their places were reversed. He was being held against an impossibly strong chest, Spike's arms encircling him and oh God, this was what he needed to go on. Just that little bit extra.

"I've got you, pet. If you bloody *have* to do this right now, I'm here. Nothing's gonna hurt you. Not ever."

Spike spoke quietly enough that no one else could hear him, but Xander still detected the hint of irritation in the vampire's voice that the others were seeing what Spike considered their own, private moment. He squeezed Spike's arm in silent apology, but there really wasn't any other way he could see to do it. Not without having to tell the story six different times and he just *could not* do that. No way. No how. Buffy and Willow didn't even know the whole story and a part of Xander shuddered to think what might happen when they *did* find out...

"Thank you, Spike," he whispered. He continued at a normal tone of voice, giving it everything he had to not drop his eyes and stare at his lap. It didn't work. "He broke in just after I'd gotten Spike into the closet. He beat me. Bad. And...and he raped me." Gasps echoed in the large room. Xander continued without looking up. "Spike had to listen to it all and when he'd healed enough, he cleaned me up. Took care of me. Eventually persuaded me to move out. So. That's why we're here in the first place."

There was silence. No one asked any questions and, eventually, Xander couldn't stand it anymore and he looked up. Willow was crying softly, Tara trying to comfort her. Dawn stared at him in shock and he had a moment to wish she hadn't been there. He wanted very much to protect her, even as he knew it wasn't possible. Especially not living where they did. Still, she was like his kid sister and he loved her. She was so young to have to hear about something so horrible.

*You were pretty damned young the first time it *happened* to you, weren't you?*

Anya's eyes held a muted anger, but once again, no surprise. He supposed she'd seen a lot worse in her thousand years of life. Hell, she'd probably *done* a lot worse in her life.

Buffy and Giles, though. They scared him. Xander had never seen such ice-cold hatred in Buffy's eyes as he did at that moment. Giles...He could see where the name Ripper might have come from. Where Buffy was ice, Giles was fire. Glaring fury that burned as Xander watched.

"I'm going to kill him." Buffy spoke quietly and unemotionally and that scared Xander more than anything. Made him think that she was really going to. And what was worse, Giles was making no move to stop her. Xander opened his mouth to reason with her.

"The hell you are."

Xander blinked. That hadn't come from him.

A moment later, Spike and Buffy were in each others' faces and *now* there was emotion.

"He's my friend! Jesus, I saw what that sick fuck did to his back, but I never dreamed... I'm going to kill him. I'm going to go over there right now; right this minute, and serve him his spleen for dinner!"

"No, you're bloody well not! He's mine! Mine to torture and kill and you'd best believe I'm going to!"

"You," Buffy sneered. "You couldn't torture and kill a rabbit. How the hell are you gonna kill that bastard?"

"I have patience, unlike some! I can wait, until it can be done the way it *should* be done!" Spike roared.

Buffy reached out and shoved him, not really a fighting move, but more a demonstration of the rage and complete helplessness she felt.

Spike shoved back and they both stood toe to toe, while the others gaped at them.

"He's my friend and that fucking BASTARD deserves to die!" she screamed in his face.

"Yes, he does, but it's my right to kill him, not yours!" Spike didn't back down an inch.


"Because Xander belongs to me and it's my right to avenge him, you stupid bint!!"

Buffy's face worked convulsively and for a moment, Spike was sure she was going to go all out on him. Maybe kill him. Instead, she let out a single sob and stepped forward to wrap her arms around him.

Once again, everyone in the room gaped but as Spike's eyes darted to Xander's, he saw pity there.

Slowly, he put his arms around the Slayer and rested his cheek on her head. This was something he could truly empathize with. He knew what it was like to feel the sting of failure, when you vowed to protect your charge and it was injured anyway. How many times had he sworn he would protect Drusilla from Angelus, only to listen to her screams as he wept in impotent fury. Enough times that, in the end, she had craved it. Craved the cruelty, more than she had craved him, even. He had known, then, the same bitter taste the Slayer must surely have in her mouth at this moment. The vile taste of failure at great cost.

The sound of a soft knock at the door was loud enough that it shocked all of them, as tense as they were. Tara emitted a tiny little "yip" of surprise and Xander jumped slightly before clambering up and heading to the front door.

He smiled nervously at the pizza boy who stared at him fearfully, obviously having heard the screaming match on who got to kill some poor guy somewhere.

'T-Twenty-four six-sixteen."

Xander handed him thirty dollars. "Keep the change." He took the pizzas and closed the door gently as the young man backed away a few steps, then all but ran for his car, not even bothering to put the money away first. Xander sighed. At least the police hadn't come. Yet.

"Pizza's here." Painfully forced cheer and a broad fake smile to accompany it as Xander tried to salvage what was left of their party.

He really knew how to ruin a mood.

At two in the morning, they had all, finally, departed, Giles insisting that he drive everyone home so he would still have a Slaying crew the next day. The party had, surprisingly, not been that bad once they had been able to get past the nasty surprise Xander had dropped on them.

Xander felt a little guilty, but, hell, it was his own party he'd ruined. It wasn't like the news he gave them was going to become any more pleasant if he'd put it off until some other time. As the group had shaken off the pall he had cast on the evening, they had loosened up and enjoyed the movies. Laughing and talking just like old times, and God, Xander had missed that. They had stayed, opening presents at their leisure through the course of the evening and Xander and Spike were now the proud owners of a new blender, a toaster, an entire stack of towels and washcloths, a set of semi-nice china and semi-nice silverware to go with it. A gift from an anonymous giver: a new set of sheets with a comforter to match. Solid black. Xander had blushed at this, as it was obviously something the vampire would like, that had been given to the both of them but Spike had been thrilled.

Buffy had winked at him mischievously and suddenly...miraculously...he'd been feeling a lot better. By the time they'd all left, Xander was actually feeling contented. And rich. Well, not really, but he and Spike had definitely made off with quite a haul. The rest of the group had been more than generous.

Xander sighed softly, still looking out the window, where he'd been standing since Giles' car had pulled away. A cool hand stroked his neck and his smile widened when he didn't even have to stop himself from jumping.

"You all right, pet?"

Xander leaned back into Spike, wishing for a moment that the vampire was taller, so he could rest his head on Spike's shoulder without getting a crick in his neck. "Yeah, Spike, I am. I really am."

Spike nestled his chin on Xander's shoulder, in what seemed to be his favourite position lately.

"I'm glad."

Xander heard the truth in the words and his heart swelled a little. "This lasted a lot longer than I thought it was gonna, Spike. It's way late. I have to be at work in exactly five hours, which means I'm gonna be a pissy zombie when I get up in the morning. I wanna take a shower, then go to bed."

Spike reluctantly released the boy when he turned around, then almost swallowed his tongue at the words that he heard next, whispered so softly he thought for a moment that he'd imagined them.

"Will you come with me?"

Spike couldn't prevent the small growl that rose in his throat, his cock hardening instantly as he saw images of a wet, slippery Xander covered in lather and nothing else. "Jesus, pet," he groaned.

Xander looked at him nervously, his eyes dilated slightly with desire.

Spike all but slammed his mouth down on Xander's, nowhere near as gentle as he'd been that afternoon. He thrust his tongue aggressively into Xander's mouth, but the boy didn't try to pull away, or struggle, except to try and get Spike's shirt off. Spike was extremely careful not to hold or restrain Xander in any way, keeping well away from the boy's hands so Xander wouldn't feel trapped. As excited as Spike was, he was well aware this had the potential to end very badly if he wasn't very careful. "Come on, pet." He tugged on Xander's arm, not wanting to give up his claim on the boy's lips for a moment, but needing to when he bent to take off his boots and jeans.

By silent, unspoken agreement they stripped as fast as possible, all but falling through the bathroom door. Spike already had the shower started and steaming by the time he turned to look at Xander.

"Bloody hell, pet. Take your shirt off." Spike would have had to be a fool not to notice that the erection Xander was sporting drooped at bit at his command and his eyes immediately softened. His voice was rough, though, when he grabbed Xander's chin and forced his lover's eyes to meet his. "Don't *ever* do that! There is *no* part of you that disgusts me!" Spike's hands dropped to the hem of Xander's shirt and from the moment of panic in Xander's eyes, Spike knew he thought the vampire would just tear it off.

Spike gently pulled it up, tugging until Xander reluctantly raised his arms, then slipping it over his head.

Xander stared straight ahead, not looking at Spike at all, but his lower lip trembled just a bit. He was embarrassed. He just couldn't help it. The first time he had been able to crane his neck around enough to see the healed scars, he had been disgusted. They weren't thick, terrible scars like he would have had from a burn, but there were so many of them, striping him from the top of his shoulders to just below his buttocks. They were ugly. He knew. He *knew* Spike had seen them. Surely the vampire had the latticework memorized by that time. But this was different.

He wanted Spike. And he wanted Spike to want him. He wanted to be attractive to the vampire, but God, how could he ever stand up to Spike's ivory perfection now?

*Not that you could before, anyway* the hated voice chimed in again. Xander bit his lower lip viciously, determined not to cry.

The tip of a cool tongue traced the gouges in his lip, soothing them softly and lapping the bead of blood that welled up. Xander gasped raggedly at the exquisite sensation.

"Beautiful," Spike's soft voice whispered. "You're beautiful."

Spike slid behind him, stroking his skin softly as the sound of the running water pounded his eardrums.

*Wasn't I supposed to be taking a shower?* Did he really care?

A full-body shudder wracked him when he sensed Spike going to his knees behind him, a hint of movement spotted out of the corner of his eye. Then that tongue was on him again, tracing the contours of the scars marring his back, barely touching the skin and how could something so cool burn him like fire? Spike ran just the very tip of his tongue over the scars on Xander's buttocks, making the boy shudder and moan at the sensations. The vampire made the leisurely, sensual trip all the way up his back, making love to Xander with his mouth on a part of Xander's body that he'd never imagined to be an erogenous zone before.

By the time Spike reached the last of the scars just under the boy's neck, Xander was weak-kneed, with an iron grip on the sink beside him to keep him from sliding bonelessly to the floor. "G-God, Spike."

Spike's head was back on his shoulder again and the vampire's arms wound tightly around him. "We're gonna run out of hot water, pet."

"Uh huh," Xander said intelligently. He was so hard, he ached and was on the verge of begging Spike. *Anything*, just please, please. Do something.

Spike took his hands and pulled him willingly into the shower.

Xander pulled back a moment, taking the time to look the vampire over appreciatively. "God, you're beautiful."

An instant, honest smile crossed Spike's face, calling an answering one from Xander.

"You have a really nice smile. You oughta use it more often."

Spike looked at him, confused. "I smile all the time, pet."

"No you don't. You smirk. You glower. You leer. Those aren't smiles. Not like the one I just saw. It-it lights up your face." This last was said is a near whisper, but with a defiant glare thrown at Spike, as if daring the vampire to laugh at him.

Spike kissed the tip of his nose. "I'll work on it, pet.

Spike's hand seemed to come out of nowhere, holding a bar of soap that he appeared to be just as talented with as he was with his tongue.

Xander knew he'd never had a more enjoyable shower in his life as Spike soothed and pampered him, washing him lovingly from head to toe, touching every inch of him except his cock, which was rock hard and throbbing. He surprised Xander by even washing his hair and massaging his scalp for him as Xander's head lolled back and his hips thrust forward, working unconsciously.

When the long-awaited touch finally came, Xander's eyes snapped open, and a hoarse yell left his throat, his gaze locking instantly with Spike's as the vampire's slick hand worked him with an intensity that bordered on pain. A moment later and Spike's own hard cock touched Xander's, Spike's fingers closing around them both. Xander's head fell forward onto Spike shoulder as their pace quickened and his hand reached between their bodies to join the vampire's, needing to feel Spike. Needing to have an active part in their intimacy.

His eyes squeezed tightly shut a moment later and he let out a strangled sob as he spasmed, dimly aware of Spike's similar motions and the feel of a slightly cool, sticky substance against the water-heated skin of his stomach.

His knees buckled and Spike caught him, holding him upright with no apparent effort, regardless of their difference in heights.

Xander continued to drift in a soft cloud of contentment as Spike pulled him out of the shower and dried him off, only dimly aware of slipping, naked, under soft cotton sheets with a slightly cool body pressed against his back. The moment Spike stopped moving, Xander was asleep instantly.

It was only in the early hours of morning, as the promise of sunrise was prickling along his neck, that Spike allowed himself to whisper the words that had been circling in his brain for hours.

"I love you, Xander."


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