Most of the time Xander was thankful that Sunnydale had been sucked deep into the earth and that the earth hadn't spit it back out. His parents had gotten out in time, along with most of the people he'd known. There was a Sunnydale Survivors web site; every now and then he checked in and read the message boards. His mom was sunny89, and she had a lot of recipe tips for her prior neighbors, now scattered across the United States. It was kind of weird and fascinating to see those relationships developing online; he was pretty sure that his mother had never known metaphoria and timbuk2 and nomoremonsters in real life, but they'd become her fast friends in the aftermath. Next year, the city's first off-site reunion was planned for Los Angeles. He planned to be on the other side of the globe that September.
He'd spent the last few years scouting for slayers in Africa and Europe. Buffy, after a while spent wandering Spain, Italy, and France, had moved on to Asia; she'd wanted a totally different landscape, she said. Someplace where people looked at her and knew she was different at a glance, where her greater difference would blend into her whiteness and American accent and blondeness, just a few more ingredients in the dough. He hadn't entirely gotten the dough metaphor, but her postcards were colorful, cramped with cursive stories, and upbeat ("Killed three Ewoks last night. Monk robes are pretty!"), so he figured her instincts had been good.
After blowing his knee out, he'd headed to London, just another scarred player forced to retire from the game. They welcomed him there, Giles and Willow and, god help them all, Andrew. He found a flat with Willow's help. "They call them flats here," she said, "I don't know why, they're no flatter than regular apartments," telling him what he already knew in her eager desire to help him settle, and regenerating his older, less complicated best-friend love, before she went Darth Willow and made him worry about her.
Then one day, out of the blue, Spike turned up on the doorstep of the new Council of Watchers headquarters, a duffle slung over one shoulder, tiredness in his face. He didn't have a lot to say at first, and the things everyone else said were said in whispers. Giles put him up for a week until he found a place of his own, and Spike started coming in for mission assignments and going off to kill and rescue and collect things, a steady to and fro that didn't invite socializing, even if they brushed sleeves in the hallway.
Xander made two unsuccessful attempts to wrangle Spike into a pub to lift a few pints. It seemed the thing to do; chew over old beefs, wax nostalgic, bond enough that they could manage more than mutual nods. He was gearing up for his third try on one wet and foggy Friday when Giles called him into his office and said, "I'd like you to go to Australia and help Erickson establish a branch office of the council."
And so a year passed.
"You cut your hair," Xander said, staring at Spike's shorn scalp. It wasn't a buzz cut, but it was short enough to be trendy. The duster was gone too. Spike was wearing a sweater with his jeans. He looked like a college student. "Your hair," he said again, gesturing at the lack of it. "It's gone."
Spike nodded, face immobile and serious. "Fell off with the chemo," he said, gazing steadily into Xander's eyes.
Xander gaped, horrified, confused, and then saw the smile cracking one corner of Spike's lips. "Asshole," Xander said with a head shake, relieved that he wouldn't have to wrap his mind around six new impossibilities, then scolded in an equally familiar way: "Don't joke about that."
"I'm a vampire, Harris. You expect better of me?" His voice was dry, but something in its almost imperceptible edge, in the tip of Spike's head, alerted Xander that it might not be a rhetorical question.
"You've joined the ranks of the souled. New social standards apply." Xander kept it light, ducked his head a notch in a friendly way.
"Oh, I've been housebroken." Spike glanced at the laptop he was working on, expression drying out even further as if he couldn't believe the circumstances he found himself in. "No worries there."
"It's a good look for you." When Spike's gaze returned to him, he recovered the fumble. "The hair, I mean. And the whole...sweater thing."
Spike had always been resilient, tough as nails and old leather, but now that Xander could see the clean shape of his head he seemed more fragile. His sweater was dark green, a heavily cable-knit wool. Lands' End could make even a vampire fade into the woodwork, which is apparently what Spike wanted to do.
This time around, When Xander invited him for a pint, he went. They talked. Spike ate pistachios and made stacked designs of the shells. Over the course of the evening he slid further down in his seat and thawed, talked about recent events in more detail. Then time rolled back further and he talked about Wolfram & Hart, Angel, subjects Xander couldn't entirely focus on, because he was paying more attention to the speaking of Spike's hands and the shadows passing across his face. Eventually he reminisced about Buffy, and that might have been awkward, if Xander had been less softened by ale. Instead, he nodded in the right places and listened more closely and tried to size up who Spike had become.
"He's grown," Willow told him over coffee, when Xander tried to pry out information; gossip, guesses, anything.
"Grown?" An image of a mushroom growing in the dark entered his mind, something clean and creamy and spongy poking up from the soil. His thoughts were not cryptic in intent. The mushroom was blatant and compelling.
"I think it's being in London. He's living only ten blocks from his old house."
Xander's mind clicked online and he stared at her. "His house house. The one he grew up in, back when he was a real boy?"
"I think he goes to look at it sometimes--you know, lurkily." She made the information into a whispered confidence, though they were in a public café, well off council premises. "He'll complain about how the bricks need cleaning, or there's graffiti on the pillars."
"Back to the growing thing."
"Oh, I don't know." She frowned and fiddled with her coffee. "It's just, Giles says he's not as keen on fighting the way he used to be. And sometimes he goes to the theater."
"Pacifism and theater." He worked that around in his thoughts. Through the café window he watched a tourist family consult an unfolded map. The father pivoted in a circle, face turned toward the sky as if the flight of pigeons might aid navigation.
When he turned his head back, Willow was giving him a cockeyed look. "When did you get so interested in Spike?"
When I saw his head, Xander thought, the knowledge coming to him immediately. It had been a while since he had sex, not that he planned to mention that. He decided it was time to have the talk, though.
"I like guys," he said. "Girls too, but also guys." He wondered how nonchalant he looked, leaning back in the booth with an arm on the table, water glass fitted to his hand, his other hand splayed on his thigh. One finger, the one he'd broken in Zaire, twinged, but not in a big way. Casual, relaxed, that was him. Willow would get it, after all.
Her grin was immediate and comforting, and her body language cried: giddy! "That's so--oh my god, Xander, we're family. Like, 'family'." She was making air quotes, but he still didn't get it and she must have seen his puzzlement. "The big rainbow family of gayness. Sisterhood and brotherhood."
"We've always been family," he said in gentle correction. But she was happy and so was he. They smiled at each other.
After he spilled the beans, Willow went yenta and kept nudging him in Spike's direction at every opportunity, but he stopped her before she could commit vice versa. "I want to take it slow," he told her. "Get to know him."
"You've grown," she said, her compliment like a butterfly brushing his cheeks with heat.
"I like to think I picked up a clue or two in Africa," he said diffidently. "Not that they came cheap, but with the exchange rate--" He paused. "That analogy hit the wall, didn't it."
Getting to know Spike was a reasonable plan, but Spike always made things difficult, sometimes just by being himself. Xander wasn't sure how to date a vampire. He was used to thinking of dating as dinner, with everything else--movies, conversation, walks in the park--a frill on the evening. Taking someone to dinner showed that you were a provider; feed the body and you fed the caveman brain where mammoth haunches bought sex and sex translated into survival of the species. But he wasn't going to have babies with Spike, and short of feeding him hot Harris blood direct from the vein, dinner was out.
"You want to go to the movies?" he asked Spike one day.
He named the latest James Bond film, Something Gun Forever Golden Death Something, and Spike tipped his head and said, "Yeah, sure."
He'd forgotten that Spike actually did eat, in a manner of speaking. Xander wasn't sure what nutritive value popcorn had for vampires, but Spike ate half the bucket and was no worse the wear for it that he could tell.
So he took him for coffee at the same bookstore café he liked to go with Willow. Spike ordered ten shots of espresso. "Can you put some sugar in that?" he asked the barista as an afterthought. The girl--retro mohawk and a pound of metal in her flesh--looked at him as if memorizing his face, then created his drink in a reverent ritual. Xander saw her and the other counter girls whispering and looking in Spike's direction afterward, as if he were a rock star fallen to earth. He couldn't blame them.
After five dates, Spike still didn't know they were dating, and Xander was okay with that. He didn't want to spook the guy. They went to the movies a few more times, and out for drinks, and once to a gallery opening, because there was a postcard for it in the café and Xander had never been to one. Openings were boring, he decided, but there was free wine and crackers and you could mock people. Spike and he clearly had the same interests in that direction.
"The guy with the bow tie," Xander said, gesturing with his glass.
"Malcolm," Spike decided. "Malcolm Fetherbridge. Owns an antique shop with his mum. Used to have a girlfriend, but she left him for a banker five years back. Still has her piccie in his bedside drawer and wanks off to it every Thursday."
"Ouch." Xander grinned. "What about her?" Another discreet finger wave.
"Patricia. Patricia Hymen-Smythe." Sly triumph held Spike's jaw in a smile. He wasn't looking at Xander, but it made a pretty profile.
"I think you're reaching. Come on. Hymen?"
Spike ignored him. "Divorced, put her kids in boot camp, runs one of those consignment shops. Gets her knickers moist picking through bags of blouses, telling all the haus fraus they should've taken better care. Keeps collecting those little dogs with smashed faces."
"Yeah." Lowered brow and an accusatory glower at Patricia, as if this all were true. "Hate those bloody things."
It went pretty well, this first stage of getting to know Spike--getting to know him second time around. Spike, reheated by his soul, wasn't a bad sort. Which is how Xander put it to himself when thoughts of Spike struck him at odd moments, and he was trying to pretend he had everything under control. "Not a bad sort," as if Spike were some guy he'd met in a bar who knew how to make small talk and liked the same bands, when the truth was he was beautiful and had steady lucid eyes and a voice like the pages of an old book, turning under your fingers--a thick, rich, lapping sound that was starting to make Xander hard at the most inconvenient times, café tables barely hiding his condition.
Spike was sometimes still a jerk, and that tethered Xander to the past, grounded him and kept him from floating away. He couldn't let Spike fill his heart like a balloon and send it drifting--not before he was sure Spike felt the same way. Spike could be abrasive, sharp, charmingly petty. Xander liked these qualities in moderation. It amused him when Spike bitched about the watchers and their toffee-nosed demands, about the filing system in the council library, about the price of cigarettes and movie tickets.
Whenever he rested a hand against Spike's back, Spike didn't pull away. He could mark on his calendar the time--within a few days--when Spike started looking at him in a new light, sort of sideways and contemplative and uncertain. It gave him a wild and shocking rush like no other rush in the history of rushes, the Grand Prix of rushes.
"Have I got that dopey, heart-on-my-sleeve look?" Xander asked Willow, cornering her and begging for a sanity check, trying not to jitter.
"Maybe just a bit."
"Do you think other people can tell?"
"I don't know," Willow said, and patted his arm in her kindly fashion. "I don't think it matters. As long as he sees it."
Xander bought tickets to a play, wore a jacket, drawing the line at a tie, but only just barely. They sat side by side, both of them bored stiff--he could tell by the polite lines of Spike's body.
"Sorry," he said afterwards.
"No worries. Still better than Survivor, year eight."
They stood paused on the sidewalk. Xander took a breath, let strangers brush by them. "Just so you know, this is me seducing you." He paused, jingled some change in his right pocket. "And I thought...maybe I'd check in. See how that's going."
He looked up and found Spike gazing at him, eyes wider and brighter than usual, smile like a million flashbulbs going off--not that big, but glowing more than the marquee. It was loud and quiet on the street. Groups of people whooped and horns honked; Xander heard nothing but Spike saying, "Going pretty well, last time I looked."
"Good," a shaky breath, "good to know."
They walked down the street bumping shoulders, threading through kids and tourists and hand-holding couples. They didn't hold hands, but they didn't need to just yet. There was plenty of time for that.
The world was finally slowing down for them.
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