Rating: NC-17
Pairings: Spike/Xander, Spike/Angel
Story Notes: Direct sequel to The Approved Mode of Payback
Disclaimer: All hail Joss from whom all these characters flow.
Completed: May 2006.
Thanks: To The Deadly Hook. Who pummelled this to ... adequacy. Thanks, sweetie, for those few lines of dialogue you donated, too.

Summary: Spike finds that doing right by a Xander suffering from deep psychic wounds after his time in Africa, is a more complex task than he first realized. Love's a funny thing.



Blue-Eyed Boy


by
Herself_nyc


"Spike! You really are ali—not dead. I mean, not gone. Okay, uh ... you're also naked."

"Yeah, 'cause I'm at home. An' you're on other side of the planet talkin' to me on the phone—" He waggled the handset at her in disgust. There was a disconcerting echo when the person on the other end of your call was suddenly standing in the same room with you.

"But you said it was urgent." Willow pressed the off button on her sat phone, ending their call, and stowed it in her pocket. "I've perfected this great spell that pinpoints the mobile signal, so I can teleport right to—and you so don't care. What's happening? Where is he?"

Spike tossed Xander's mobile back into his bag. So much for the day's grace he assumed they'd have, before Xander's real friends reclaimed him. So much for getting back into bed, his formerly lonely bed, warmed now by someone who, at least for the moment, said he wanted him.

So much for round two.

"In there." Spike gestured towards the bedroom. "Sleeping."

Willow glanced, but stayed put. Surveying him. She seemed to be over her discomfiture; her gaze swept him from head to toe. Not exactly a hostile gaze, more: assessing.

At least she looked impressed.

"Sleeping! Oh. I guess that's good. Is that good?" She spoke in a loud whisper. "If he's in trouble, he must be tired. So, ah ... here you are, not buried in the rubble. Which—is—good. Isn't it? You look good, Spike."

"You always were a terrible liar, pet."

She ambled sideways towards the bedroom, her eyes still fixed on him. "So—" Glanced in, then stopped. "Uh—curioser and curioser. Xander is naked too. He's in your bed. You and Xander are both naked at the same time. In the same place." She frowned, like this was too hard to figure out.

"Don't worry yourself 'bout that. Point is, he's hurting, he needs his old friends to look after him now."

"You ... you were looking after him?"

"For a bit, yeah. But it's not really my job, is it?"

"Not your—" Willow blinked. Despite her teleporting skills, she was perpetually a step behind. How had things stretched so thin between her and Xander that she didn't know what was going on with him? It made Spike sad.

Sadder.

Still, she was the one. The right one for this. Xander's oldest friend. With the thick and the thin. He'd talked her down from destroying the world, and now she would talk him down from ....

"Gonna grab my clothes out of there an' then I'll leave you in possession of the field."

"Leave—?"

"Give you a bit of room. So you an' he—"

Willow's brow was still furrowed. "Spike, wait a minute. What's happening here, exactly?"

"I'm evil again—just turned Harris, an' now I'm goin' to let him eat you soon's he rises."

"Spike, be serious! Tell me—what's this trouble? And why is he here? I thought he was in London. And are you two—I mean—is this a one-time thing, or is there—is there—a thing?"

"You want to get some food in him. There's a Chinese that delivers, menu's on the counter."




Of course it was broad daylight, so he had to take the sewers to get to the bar. Ordered a beer, and sat well away from the other clientele, sipping, cradling his chin in one hand so he could inhale Xander's scent from his fingers.

Was bloody hard, all around, not to have a bit of leeway. Time to chat a bit more. To get Xander something to eat. He'd rather fancied the idea of seeing him eat a bit.

But that was Willow. When she did a thing, she did it to the hilt.

When the bottle was empty, he thought about phoning home—checking on the situation. But that seemed like a fussy girlish thing to do, and anyway he didn't have a phone, and didn't know the number of Xander's. So he ordered another round—a boilermaker this time. Which he downed in a single manly gulp.

But that did nothing to dispell what was definitely coalescing into a bad feeling. Regret.

He could've waited a while. There'd have been time to call for the cavalry the next time Xander dozed.

Bloody soul. Was like lying on a bed of nails. No matter which way you turned, it was always what you rested on, could never forget it.

He wasn't thirsty anymore. It was his flat, he had a perfect right to go back to it. Back he'd go. See that things were all right. See Xander reunited with his best friend. Say—say—something.

But when he arrived, the apartment was empty.

Xander was gone ... home ... where he belonged.







For a few days he stayed inside. Thinking that if Xander returned, he mustn't find no one there. Of course, Spike didn't expect a return. Willow had certainly poufed him off to a safe place, where all the people who knew him, who'd always loved him, would rally round to his aid. Safe as houses he was now, and certainly regretting the glimpse of soft underbelly he'd given his old enemy. Probably cringed inside to think of it, thanked his stars he'd gone no farther than he had.

That's how it always went. Because of all of that lot, Xander was the one who'd really loathe it. Knowing he'd broken down in front of Spike. Let himself be touched by Spike. Because unlike the others, Xander truly hated him.

Between them, it was always personal.

Illyria didn't return either.

Spike tried to distract himself. But the TV and the XBox were wrecked. His volumes of poetry were too full of the inanity of hope, and the paperback mysteries he brought back from the laundromat just reminded him that everything was for shit.

All that left was beer, hot baths, and wanking.

He indulged freely in all three at once. Too damn bad he couldn't drown.




He was facing away from the stage where Sunshine was doing her indolent gyrations, contemplating his beer while he wondered if tonight was the night to do a little light breaking-and-entering, get a new TV, when he was jerked back by his jacket collar, punched to the floor, and roundly kicked in the ribs.

Two other patrons were already pulling his assailant off as Spike scrambled up; dragging him towards the huge bouncer striding towards them between the tables like a mighty Orc.

What the fuck. This wasn't a fighty kind of club. It was a get-half-stoned-and-gawk-at-the-girls place. So everyone craned to watch the progress of the bouncing, and eyes widened when the guy getting bounced shouted, "You lied to me, you skanky undead bastard!"

Spike closed the distance in a flash, plucked at the bouncer's sleeve. "Here, let him go."

"He's out, and so're you if you start anything. You want to retaliate, do it somewhere else."

Orc-man shoved Xander out onto the sidewalk; Spike shot forward and caught him before he stumbled.

Harris was sloppy drunk. Reeked of it, and of blood sweat and tears besides. He was bleeding from the knuckles—hadn't washed in ... a while. And his eyes were wild. Well, the blue one always had a wildness to it, that horror movie stare, but the real one too, leaking tears, stared in fury. As soon as Spike got him balanced on his feet again, he swung out.

"I'm gonna kick your lying ass! Stand still so I can punch you!"

"Am standin' still. You're the one's bobbin' and weavin'. Gonna make yourself sick."

As if suggestion was command, Xander stagged backwards, half turned, and hurled a lengthy spray of sludgy puke into the gutter.

Spike thought about holding his shoulders. Thought about pulling him away afterwards when Xander stayed hunched, hands on knees, gasping for breath with his face a foot away from his former lunch. But he just stayed where he was, watching.

They were always so damn beautiful when they came to him. Came with the best of themselves.

A couple of guys emerged from the club, stared, and walked on by before Xander managed to right himself, and turn.

He raised an admonishing finger, opening his mouth. But all that came out was a loud hiccup.

"C'mon," Spike said, grabbing his elbow. "Gettin' you out of here."





Should've let them pitch him out and not interfered. Or should've punched Harris down himself—wasn't he allowed to be angry, after the way Xander laid all his pain on him and then fucked off without so much as leaving a bread and butter note?

How many times in his unlife was he going to stand still for that? Just because ... just because it was part of a pattern he'd begun when he was a slip of a boy at school. Didn't mean a bloke couldn't change. Stand up for himself a bit. He'd been Champion To The Slayer, once upon a time. That ought to get him a bit of respect.

Spike worried these thoughts like gristle between his teeth while, through the closed door and over the rush of the shower, he heard Harris muttering and coughing. The kettle boiled then, adding its shrill whistle to the melange of noise. Putting enough leaves in the brown pot to make tea black as witches' eyes, Spike brewed up. Just as the tea had steeped enough, the shower cut off. Opening the door a crack, so the steam curled out into Spike's face, redolent of Xander's particular smell, he thrust in the brimming cup.

"Drink up, Harris. Time to be sober."

More muttering, but after a moment the cup was taken, and Spike pulled the door to again.




He still couldn't figure why Xander was back. Like the cat in that maddening song.

"Took you no time to be on your way. Thought I'd seen the last of you." Spike wanted to sound cool. Absolutely neutral.

But he knew he'd failed by the way Xander glanced up, quick, sharp. The eye, that brown eye with its amazing depths, fixed on him. Narrowed for a moment. Like there was a camera inside, capturing him.

"Fuck you. You were the one in a tearing hurry to get rid of me."

"Think so? Then what're you doin' here now?"

Xander rubbed the bridge of his nose. He was slumped on a kitchen chair, wearing nothing but a damp towel around his waist, another slung around his neck. His wet hair, still short but marginally longer than last time, stuck up all around.

"I don't know. I've got nowhere else."

"That's bollocks. You've got your friends—hidin' from them wasn't doin' you any good—"

Xander scrunched his face. "If you didn't want ... why didn't you just say? Christ. You are a shit. You haven't changed. You couldn't even wait for me to wake up. You had to get rid of me in my sleep." He scrubbed at his hair, grimacing. "You should've just eaten me! I'd feel better!"

"You think I was tryin' to—barkin' up the wrong tree, Harris. Called for help. Thought she'd fly in, didn't bloody know she'd arrive like the Ride of the Bloody Instant Valkyries, did I? But just goes to show how much she cares for you. You an' her, you're friends. Anyway, you went off without so much as—"

Xander started out of his chair, which tipped over with a crash. "You brought her here and you left me alone with her!"

" ... yeah. Wanted to give you two a bit of space, without me hornin' in on—"

"You're the most boneheaded vampire that ever walked! You told me I could stay! But no, you fucking liar, you summon Willow the minute I doze off, and she conjures me halfway round the world before I can open my mouth! And then—and then—" Xander slammed the table so the tea things jumped. "Why am I even talking to you? Where are my clothes? Gimme my damn clothes!"

"Harris—"

"Shut up!"

Xander tore around the room. Spike leapt up, caught him. It was like catching hold of a cut power cable, fifty thousand volts slashing the air. Xander was wild, he was insane. With a cry he shoved Spike, knocking him down, and bolted again, a buzzing fly dashing itself repeatedly against a window.

From the floor, Spike said, "Clothes're in the bathroom. You took 'em off yourself, remember?"

"Oh God." Xander was frozen now, in that half-hunch that accentuated his air of desperation. Then he sank down, landing—though by sheer chance—on the coffee table, where he didn't seem aware that he was sitting on the remote. "Oh God." He dropped his head between his knees. He was breathing like a winded racehorse.

"Harris." Spike scrambled up. "Didn't lie to you. Was tryin' to get you some real help. You told me yourself, that you still had your friends. I thought you should have 'em by you, 'stead of ... instead of just me."

"You said I could stay."

"You belong with them. They care about you, they—"

"You said I could stay."

The cuts on his knuckles were open again, Spike smelled the blood. He went into the bathroom, grabbed up the pile of dirty clothes Xander had discarded, his shoes. Brought them to him. Xander didn't take them, didn't move, so Spike laid the pile beside him on the table and backed off. After a minute Xander glanced at them, laid a hand on the jeans and held them up. "You're so fucking helpful. So fucking helpful when you want to show me the door." Slowly he got up, hitching the dank towel higher on his waist. "What's the matter? Wasn't I a good fuck? You'd rather have that scrawny blue chick? I don't think she could get you off the way I could. She doesn't know you like I do. Anyway, she's gone, isn't she?"

Know him? Spike repressed a snort. Ah, the Scoobies, the Scoobies. The liberties they took. "Look, Harris—"

Xander began to laugh.

"I know, I know, go back to my friends! The friends of my bosom! They're the universal panacea! You know what's crazy, Spike? I'm in the club! Not—not—Buffy isn't in it. But the others ... Will. Giles. Andrew. Faith. My An. It's the Killed A Man club. You know. I've been jumped in. It should be so cozy with them now. I was the only one without a notch—how pathetic was that? But now I'm in like Flynn." That laugh again that reminded Spike of what Xander said, about the hyena. Why a hyena? Maybe he'd seen some in Africa. They were the sort of animal that stuck with you.

"You're not responsible for what you did when they took your will."

Xander waved a hand. "Oh, that's what they all say."

"They may say, but I know."

"Yeah? So you don't fret about those people you ate on The First's watch? You leave them out of the count. Not that I see you wearing a hair shirt. You're more of the Exotic Dancers Writhe For My Atonement school."

"You're not even makin' sense anymore. Time for you to go to bed."

"What, so you can call the Harris Police to come back and arrest me again? You think I'd go to sleep anywhere near you? Fool me once, shame on—"

"Shut up. You're becomin' hysterical. C'mon, before I change my mind."

This time when he touched Xander's shoulder, it was like grasping a cadaver. Cool and clammy, limp. The fight was gone out of him in a breath. He let Spike steer him towards the bedroom.

"Get some rest. You need anything, I'll be on the sofa."

Xander paused in the doorway, surveying the neatly made bed. "I don't have a phone anymore," he announced. "I threw it in the ocean."

"Wise move. Now lie down 'fore you fall down."

"Spike ...."

"I'll be on the sofa."

"No. The thing is ... I was too scared."

"What?"

"I wanted to ... but I was too scared."

Somehow Spike understood what Xander couldn't bring himself to say. That he'd tried to off himself, and lost his nerve.

"That's as it should be. Now shut up an' sleep it off."

When Xander moved into the room, Spike pulled the door shut before he could give him an abject come-hither look, or say anything else.

This just beat all. Bloody Harris comes after him in the first place, keeps coming back, gives him the deluxe tour of his personal hell, and then when Spike does the responsible thing, the All Souled Up Now So Not Taking Advantage Of The Wounded thing, somehow he's the liar, the betrayer.

"Didn't ask for this," Spike muttered at the closed bedroom door.





Didn't ask, didn't expect, but then ... couldn't say he wasn't gobsmacked either. Sure, he'd hinted that things on the old home front weren't exactly hunky dory recently, that there was distance. Like what happened to Buffy in those last few months, as the stress and impossibility of it all mounted, and she withdrew from everyone around her. But he'd never thought Xander would scrabble away from Willow like an abused rat in a cage.

Or that he'd come back here, seek him out again.

As the slightly softer alternative to actual suicide.

'Course if what Xander wanted was to be his snack, he'd be disappointed.

Spike heaped the tea things in the sink, started washing. Would be disappointed no matter what, because ... because it was simply crazy, him coming back here. And he was crazy, taking him in again.

Not my job, he'd said to Willow. Not my place.

He put the things away. Nothing he had here was nice—it was all plain stuff picked up here or there out of the garbage or from the Goodwill. But he'd always valued tidiness. Couldn't think amidst disorder—which was a laugh, given how much he'd used to relish the creation of disorder, with himself at the heart of it. But not at home. At home—and he'd always had a home, of some sort—he liked things just so.

What to do now? Obviously getting back in touch with Willow was out of the question. He wondered about Buffy. Surely Buffy and Xander couldn't be on the outs? Was she still in Asia? There didn't seem to be any way he could track her down.

Listening through the door, Spike could hear that Xander was asleep—the deep sleep that came off a bender. He'd been on a big one, fueled by booze and rage and adrenaline. He'd be out for a while. Might as well have something on hand for Harris to eat when he awoke.

After leaving a note—I'm not a wanker, not that way anyhow—Spike locked up and took the stairs that led up to the building's lobby, which was largish and dusty and though the building was fully occupied, always deserted.

There was a woman on the step outside, face framed by two hands against the glass of the outer door, trying to see in past the vestibule and the inside door. It was that kind of neighborhood. Full of transients, lots of random teenies and slackers scouting around for their street-corner pals.

None of his business.

Except that, seeing him approach, she began to knock on the glass, and then to jump up and down.

It was the jumping that placed her.

He almost gave in to his urge to dart back the way he'd come, exit through the alley and the sewers. But she'd seen him, and anyway ... he was seized with a sudden fierce need to see her.

He opened the door and Dawn leapt into his arms. "Oh my God—Spike! You really—you are—" She was laughing, and then crying, hugging him hard. "I can't believe it! I can't believe it!"

He couldn't quite believe it either. The last time he'd seen Dawn she was cold-shouldering him with all the preternatural force of a resentful teenager.

That seemed to be all forgotten now. Her embrace would've smothered a breathing man. Then she went back at arm's length, taking him in. Looking delighted. Was all he could do not to glance over his shoulder, seeking whatever she was really beaming at, because no one ever smiled like that at him.

"You look exactly the same. It's so good to see you."

"An' you're still a beauty. All grown up now."

Her eyes shone. She was beautiful. Just like always.

"I'm glad you finally came out, because—you don't have a doorbell, Spike." She pointed at the rows of buttons on the intercom, most of which had no names beside them, and some of which—including his, though it wasn't marked as such, were broken off altogether.

"Better for a fellow like me."

"I've been out here for like forty minutes. This isn't a nice neighborhood." Her smile gave way to an uncertain frown.

Ah, now they'd be getting down to business. But he wasn't going to be the first to broach the subject. "You on your own?"

She nodded. "Spike ... as great as it is to see you again—and it is—I'm not just here to visit you."

Big surprise there. "No?"

"Is Xander with you?"

Ah, the direct approach.

"Willow dispatch you?"

Dawn shook her head. "They had some kind of big blow-up. I didn't know he was back in London until he was gone—I didn't even get to see him! Now Xander is missing. And I'm so worried."

"Missing, huh?"

"Willow said he was here, that you called her because he was in trouble, and that when she brought him home he wigged. I've been in LA for days now. He never answers his phone. I come by at different times, hoping I can get into—this is a weird building, Spike."

"Reckon so. How's your sister? Haven't heard news of her in a long long while."

"She's okay. She's not around much. She was resting for a long time, but all she does lately is slay. Listen, I'm really worried about Xander. We ... we used to be in touch all the time. Even though he was in Africa and I'm at Cambridge—we texted, we emailed, we talked. But then he sort of fell off the planet, and that's never good, and then I did see him a little in London, this was months ago, and he was ... he got sick out there, but he was also just off. All distant and pissed off and not Xandery at all."

Listening to her yammer, it hit Spike, with a pang he didn't want to examine, that the Bit was in love with Harris. Not exactly a bolt from the blue—in those last couple months in Sunnydale he'd noticed signs she was sweet on him ... and he on her too, though he was trying to make things right with Demongirl at the time, and probably still thought of her as a child.

Dawn was no longer a child—she was a tall, coltish young woman, lush of body and direct of gaze.

"Do you know where Xander is, Spike?"

The question direct. In her gaze he saw all the frankness and trust she'd shown him that summer after Buffy's leap. He'd lived up to that promise—it was the making of him. That her trust in him was still intact, after everything ... was a testament to ... something. The goodness of the Summers women. Goodness that never died.

Spike put a hand on Dawn's shoulder.

He still wanted to be good to her. Always.

But someone else had gotten there first.

"No, pet. Haven't seen him since he took off with Willow."




Was touch and go for a moment—he had to endure the big-eyed pout, the anxious stare in the middle distance—but Dawn accepted his lie.

Then she insisted they get coffee, get caught up. She slipped her arm through his as they walked.

"You have to tell me how you survived. And why didn't you call us! That's criminal, mister! Buffy and I were so sad afterwards, we missed you. I was sorry I never made up with you before ... I think you knew Buffy forgave you, but so did I. Only I didn't tell you and that was wrong. I'm telling you now. I want us to be friends again. Can we be friends again?"

It warmed him to hear this, though he couldn't quite get his credulity stretched far enough to cover Buffy being sad over his death. In the greasy spoon around the corner, he quickly got the subject off of him and on to her—got Dawn chattering about her studies, her friends at university, her ambition to be head of research at the Watcher's Council some day.

Though she talked readily enough about herself, she always brought the conversation back to Xander. Or really, back to herself and Xander: how could he worry her like this? How could be just drop out of contact, when they were so close?

It didn't sound like she knew much about the disarray and low morale at the Council. Her understanding of Xander's ordeal in Africa was that it was very bad but that he'd walked away from it in one piece. And it was excusable that she didn't find that extraordinary, because you couldn't grow up the way she had and not start to take it for granted that the incredible was real, and the unspeakable could be ... could be transcended. Overcome and laughed about later on. As concerned as she was about Xander, Dawn clearly didn't know the extent of what he'd suffered, or just how wrecked he was.

The minutes ticked by, and Spike wondered if he'd make it back before Harris woke up. Though he'd left a note, he didn't want him left alone. He might bolt.

It pissed Spike off, that he cared about Harris, about any of them, anymore. The ones he did care about, Angel, Fred Burkle, Charlie and Wes, were all dead. None of them had exactly clasped him to their bosoms—well, Angel clasped, but sentiment was something they kept a firm rein on—but they'd treated him like a team-member, and not a second-class one at that. Gave him something to do every day, a purpose.

Everything with a soul needed a purpose. And now all the purpose he had was, apparently, Harris.

Better be getting back.

"We're you stayin'? I'll find you a cab."

"I have a car. I'm staying with the family of one of my school friends. In Malibu. Here's my phone numbers, and my email." She had the info already written out on a notecard that she fished from her purse. "Will you please call me? In fact, I'd like to take you out to dinner. Somewhere nice, where we can relax and talk some more. I still haven't heard about you. How about tomorrow night? There's this restaurant near—"

"Can't tomorrow night, Sweet Bit."

"Well, the night after. Don't tell me you have a whole social calendar, because—well, maybe you do. Maybe you have lots of friends and work to do and I don't know you at all anymore and I'm so presumptuous assuming you have nothing else on but waiting on me."

This made him smile. "All right, night after. Be glad to."

"Yes!" She named the place, and the time, and made him swear he'd call if there was any hold up.

As he held the door for her to precede him back onto the street, Dawn glanced back at him. "Spike, one thing."

From her expression he feared she was going to say she knew he was lying, demand he come across with Harris.

But it wasn't that. "Do you want me ... Buffy doesn't know yet. About you. Do you want me to tell her? Or—or—I could give you the number of her sat phone."

"Better not, pet. Not yet anyway."

"But, aren't you—"

"All that's in the long-ago. No need to distract her now from what she's doin'."

Dawn looked like she wanted to debate this further, but she closed her mouth, biting the lower lip, and was silent.

When they said goodbye beside her borrowed car, she kissed him on the mouth. Didn't even need to go up on tiptoe anymore—she'd grown taller than he.

"My friend," she said, engaging him with a firm, no-nonsense look, a squeeze of the hand. "Say it."

"Yeah."

"No, Spike. Say it."

"Friends. You an' me. Thank you, Bit."

He stood there as she pulled out, until the red convertible turned a corner and was gone from sight.

Maybe Dawn would be able to help Harris. Maybe it should be her.

Except that there was so much about him she didn't know. Harris was miles ahead of her, and maybe there was no closing that gap.

Still. Wasn't for him to say.

Stopping off for a big sack of Chinese take-out, Spike hastened back.





Xander was splayed out on the sofa, wearing one of Spike's clean teeshirts and a pair of his jeans, staring into space with a beer at his lips.

"Hey—don't start up on that again," Spike said, dropping the food, going to pluck the can from his hand.

"Thought I told you last time that I'm not your patient."

"No you're not. I don't know what you are. 'Cept an unpleasant drunk."

"I may be an unpleasant drunken freak, but I have rights! I—"

"Shut yer gob. There's food, come eat some."

Xander staggered up. Apparently it hurt to move, no surprise there. As he shuffled towards the table where Spike was unpacking the ubiquitous white cartons, he held his head, squinting.

"... why ... why're you being so decent?"

"You took me in a time or two when I was in extremis."

"But never of my own free will," Xander pointed out, putting some of his old zzzt into it despite the hangover.

"Aimin' to fuck you again. That self-serving enough for you?" Spike intended this as just another snappy riposte, but when the words were out, he was acutely aware of the tug of his desire. Not just desire to fuck him like any warm body, though the warm bodies were pretty few and far between for him anymore, but for him. To find again that thread of kindness they'd spun between them. Before he fucked it up by summoning help Harris didn't want.

Spike longed to sleep with him, and have him there when he woke up. Even though rage and pain pulsed through Harris like electricity in a defective machine, likely to zap you to ash if you touched it wrong.

Wanting Harris made him feel sad—worse than sad, lost. Here he was again, swamped with the urge to take care of someone bare and broken, someone with the power to rip him to shreds.

He could laugh himself to scorn. Why didn't he go out into the world and look for Drusilla? Stood to reason that if she was still around, he ought to try to reform her before anything else. Now he was the world's damn goodie two shoes.

Was unfinished business there, too.

Broken raptors, my specialty.

Xander, either out of avoidance or tact, didn't answer him. He was prying open all the cartons, coaxing the green and brown glop out onto a bed of rice with the inadequate plastic spoons.

Spike went to where his clothes still lay heaped on the coffee table, fished the wallet out of the jeans, and helped himself to twenty dollars. Harris didn't seem to notice he was being robbed, so Spike took out another twenty, and let the wallet drop.

Hung over or not, Harris was practically feeding himself with both hands. Spike put the kettle on. Usually that kind of salty greasy people-feed made him peckish, but something held him back from grabbing a plate and tucking in.

He wasn't quite ready to just break bread with Harris.

Harris who didn't seem to notice that Spike wasn't eating, wasn't sitting, wasn't really engaging.

"Eggrolls—eggrolls were invented by the gods."

Spike wanted to tell him he wasn't charming when he spoke with his mouth full, but the kettle was starting to rattle.

"You making tea? I could use some tea."

"Tea, sure."

"That's the English thing, cuppa tea, cuppa tea, cuppa tea. Every five minutes. I thought Giles was obsessed but then I got to London. The whole town's steeped." Xander followed his movements as he took the solid brown teapot down again, and thumbed opened the tea caddy. "Hey, what're you doing? We've got tea bags right here, from the Chinese."

"Those're shite. Anyway, you been to Albion, should know bags're are strictly for foreigners."

"Huh. So what's in the tin? Some super-sekrit speshul demon blend?"

"They were fresh out of that as it happens, so had to fall back on Darjeeling. Or there's good black Pekoe, if you like that. Was Illyria's, but she's left it behind."

"Darjeeling's good." Xander gestured at Spike with a sparerib. "Never saw you drinking tea before now. Booze, blood. Not very British of you, really."

"Wouldn't have done my Big Bad image any good, would it, if you lot saw me brewin' up all the time." Spike said, as the kettle began to bang.

"So now—? You don't care about your image anymore, Bleachboy?" Xander gnawed his bone. "Man, look at you, all domesticated." A mean grin split his face. "Where's your cardigan and—"

Ribs and rice went flying when Spike snatched him up, snarling, and hoisted him in the air, to hang precariously over slavering fangs.

"Whoa, whoa whoa! Okay, I get it!"

"You get it?" He kept the tone conversational. The menace was elsewhere. "What is it you get?"

Harris scrabbled at his arm, kicking, but it was no trouble to hold him this way, straight overhead, no strain at all. No strain to peer up at him through devil eyes, to breathe in his odor of alarm and breathe out in growls.

"Uh, water's boiling!"

"What is it you get, pet? Do tell a fellow."

"You're a demon—a—big—bad—hella strong—demon. Who takes tea in the manliest of ways."

"And—?"

"There's an and?"

Spike gave him a little shake. "Must be."

"And—and—and—you're not domesticated. Nothing soft about you, no sir! You're—hard." Xander squirmed, but he'd stopped struggling. "...And you're making me hard."

"Is that a fact?" Spike let him down, but didn't release him. Pulled him in instead, to catch Xander's breathless mouth against his own. He could feel Xander's pulse pounding in his lips; his swarming tongue was hot.

The kettle shrieked.

"This what you come back for then, Harris? What you hate. You crave it. The interview with the vampire."





"You want it. What disgusts you, what terrifies you. You like lookin' it in the face. You like takin' it up your arse. An' the more trauma you absorb, the more shit you slog through, the more you need it. It thrills you."

"No—lemme go. I'm not gonna—we can't—LET ME GO!"

Ricochet Harris. Okay then. Spike released his shirt-front. Xander snatched the kettle off the burner, cutting it off mid-shriek.

"Scared you little too much? You are a pussy, Harris."

"Not scared. What I am is someone who isn't into fucking Cousin It. Why do you call yourself that?"

"Huh? Not exactly a tiffin party here—were about to play cobra an' mongoose on the floor. Who cares who's it?"

Xander rubbed his hair with one hand, his face momentarily slack. Then he was back, his brown eye snapping. "Because I didn't come here for any kind of it. I came here for you. Spike. William The— What is your name, anyway? What is your real name?"

"Spike."

"No, your real—"

"Spike. Okay, so first you get your nasty digs in, an' then when I react you want to teach me a lesson about bloody self esteem?"

Xander shook his head. Deflated. "No. No, I really don't. I just wanted to hang out here. With you. Not cobra and mongoose. Christ, I'm on my last shred here. I came back because you're the only one I can—fuck."

"Well, yeah. Fuck." Now it was Spike who found himself grinning, perversity in full flower, making his fangs itch. He reached for him, but Xander twisted out of the way.

"I'm talking here! That was an I'm frustrated fuck, not a let's fuck."

I knew that. Just didn't care. Spike folded his arms. "So talk."

Xander paced, gesticulating silently while his back was turned. Looked like he might burst. When he turned, he reminded Spike, oddly, of Giles. Giles when he was being peremptory. "I don't get you. Why do you run yourself down like that?"

"Yeah, seems silly, doesn't it, now you're here to do it for me."

Xander pinched the bridge of his nose. Headache was back, apparently. "Look, I'm sorry. For— I'm sorry you thought I walked out on you."

"Didn't think that," Spike said, though of course he had and they both knew it and they both also knew he was in full out perversity mode now. Like a little boy screaming out of exhaustion that he didn't need a nap.

"Because not so much with the walking. Jeez, Spike! You tell me we're cool, I go to sleep with you. And then you're gone and she's there."

"Thought I was reuniting you with a friend. Didn't know she'd abduct you. If that's what happened."

"I've had my fill of my friends. I told you that."

"Not exactly the reliable narrator, are you Harris? Rosenberg definitely didn't get the memo about you two bein' kaput. She showed up for you." Bit too fast, but that was just a detail.

Spike thought about Dawn. Her earnest seeking. Had Xander had his fill of her? Or was he forgetting about her, putting her out of mind, because he didn't want to mix her in with the filth that filled him up, that overflowed every time he opened his mouth, every time he moved, or dreamed?

Xander sighed. "God I'm thirsty. Could we have that tea?"

Spike's hands shook a little as he resumed measuring out the leaves. He was still in game-face, his cock straining behind his fly, visions blooming in his mind of bending Xander over the table, fucking him dry and hard and fast, fangs sunk in his neck. Swallowing down his fevery blood, coming as he died. Not turning him, just leaving him there, face down in the moo goo gai pan, and getting the hell out of here forever.

The fantasy didn't disgust him as much as it should.

Didn't trust Harris an inch. Harris could be conciliatory, pretend to care how Spike treated himself, but all that meant was that he was creating an opening, an opening into which he would drive the shiv.

He was quite the streetfighter now. Quite the mindfucker. A hyena, like he'd said.

Had to respect that, really.

He'd make a hell of a vampire.

The water, still hot, boiled again quickly; Spike poured some into the pot, swirled it around, poured it out. Threw in the loose tea, and began to fill it.

Then Xander was right up against his back, his arms stealing around Spike's. Taking the hot kettle, setting it aside. Reaching to brush the backs of fingers against one ridged cheekbone, breathing quietly against the back of an ear. "I like it that you called me on my shit. You're amazing when you're angry. Fierce. Ten feet tall." The other hand felt its way, lower down. Pushed in where Spike's middle was pressed against the edge of the counter, to brush over the swollen fly. "That you get hard for me ...." Nimble fingers undoing the buttons. Xander drew him halfway around as he freed his cock. "... that knocks me out, y'know?" Spike's erection was in his hand now, the palm hot and dry but the thumb brushing over the slit, spreading the wetness around the crown.

"Thought you were thirsty."

"I want to suck you off. I want your big cock in my mouth. Pumping across my tongue. Not it. You." Xander knelt, nosing him first, taking deep whiffs of his pubic hair, his balls—poking his tongue out to taste. Hands on his hips, curling around his ass. Cheek so warm against Spike's thigh.

And Spike wanted just to drive into his mouth and choke him with it.

Jerked back, so his cock swung, spattering pre-come on Harris's face. Forced it back into confinement, though it ached for release. But kept the fangs on. Because there was no way those would go down. Not yet.

"Don't want you here."

"Spike—"

"You don't go, gonna hurt you!"

Xander got to his feet, but without hurry. His heart beat, fast enough to fuel his own excitement, didn't ratchet up into panic.

He smiled. "Know what? I just realized what's going on here. Why it's so fucked up, and why we need each other, too."

"Mistaken there. Don't need you. And I'm done bein' your bloody grief counselor, git. Get out."

"No, no, listen! Because it's really pretty funny! I remind you of you. Don't I? Maybe I always have, in a way, but now I really ... And you remind me of myself. Now that I'm shoved full of—I see what I've become, when I look into that face."

That face. Spike forced the demon down. Forced himself to match Harris's smug smile. "You're not this pretty, and you never were."

Xander sobered. "Spike. Please don't turn me out. I don't know where else I'd go. Where else I'd feel safe."

Safe? He repressed a laugh.

Could send him to Dawn. Dawn who adored him. She could soothe him with her little girl love, pure and strong as sunlight. Bake the evil right out of him.

If he didn't ruin her first with the filth that oozed out every pore. Even Harris's aura was filthy.

Harris was no fit company for Dawn Summers. Not anymore.

About the only company he was fit for ... was the company he'd sought.

Tormented soul to tormented soul.

This time when Harris dropped to his knees and tore open his fly, Spike just grabbed his head and rode on in.





"Since when d'you have such a yen for cock?"

"Turns out, since always. But I never admitted it to myself until Sunnydale was buried. All my past went down with it, and then stuff that seemed important before ... not so much anymore. And vice-versa."

"Cock's important," Spike said.

"Wouldn't have thought you'd say so." Xander was sitting on the floor now, between the splayed legs of Spike, who'd dropped into a kitchen chair. A little while ago he'd come in Xander's mouth like a runaway stage coach, but his erection was reviving again, as Xander played with his prick and balls, with his right hand, while wanking himself slowly with the left. The bottle of cooking oil stood near Spike's floppy ankle.

"Cunny's important too. Neither's better than the other, it's ... it's about who's attached to 'em. It's about—" He stopped. Wasn't going to say the 'L' word to Harris.

"Heat," Xander supplied. "Life."

Should be my line, Spike thought. Wasn't about to point out that he had neither, and it was quite possible that Xander was oblivious to the irony, as he stared with languid hunger at Spike's engorging penis.

"You raise wood on a dime. How do you do that?" Xander mused. "I guess it's all part of the possessed-by-an-impure-thing thing. Damned for all eternity, but with orgasms a-go-go."

"Somethin' like that." Spike laid a hand on Xander's head. Combed the hair through his fingers, drawing it forward in a mass, then back. It was nice hair, but there wasn't enough of it, for Spike's taste. Harris ought to let it grow. Should have something to soften his boneyness.

He leaned into Spike's caress like an animal. Rested his neck against Spike's denim-covered thigh. His breath warmed Spike's shaft. The whole arrangement, cock, balls, and patch of pale brown hair, was framed and thrust upward by the strained edges of denim flies. The jeans were pulled down just enough to be a semi-restraint. Xander had pushed his teeshirt halfway up his chest, too, in order to lick the latticework of muscle around his navel. Now, circling it with thumb and first finger, he slowly stripped Spike's cock, so that each movement flicked a dab of pre-come onto Spike's belly.

"Where'd you pick all this up, ducks? You've had practice."

"I sucked my first cock at a truckstop in Nevada. The slayer bus broke down and we were short of funds. All those hot teenage girls there, but the mechanic winked at me. After that I've never had a problem getting it when I look around. Learned all the ins-and-outs of real buggery in London, though. They invented it there, right? Le vice anglais. But once I was sent to Africa, was feast-or-famine. When I thought it wouldn't kill me, I'd get all I could."

Was a picture to contemplate, Harris's international rites of initiation. Spike continued to pet his hair, and Xander continued to administer his slow, enthralling tease. "Anyone special?"

"Still haven't met up with the One Cock In All The World."

And do you expect to? Spike didn't ask.

He thought of Angel then, how his sire liked to sit as he was now sitting, with his Will on the floor before him, eye-level with his splitter.

Afterwards Angel would tip his face up, lean down and kiss him.

He was generous, at the end, with kisses. It was one of those surprising little things about Angel, and a differentiator from Angelus, how willing he was to give necking its proper due. Maybe that was a residue of his time with the Slayer. That's what teenage girls liked, after all. What they permitted. Nicely-brought-up girls like Buffy, anyway. Miles of kisses and not much else. (At least until she finally surrendered the pink and they all paid and paid.)

But Angel wasn't Angelus, and Angel loved to kiss. Knew how to give them gently, how to build slowly, with restraint, so that by the time he was fucking Spike's mouth with his tongue, he was half out of his mind, and his cock still in his jeans.

Spike leaned down, tipping Harris's chin up, and did what he was thinking about.

Xander's mouth was pliant, the lips a little chapped, rubbery from stretching around his girth. When Spike began to withdraw, he grabbed his hair, to keep him. And then crawled up, onto his knees, and higher, moving to straddle Spike's lap, kisses deepening. They held each other's heads. Harris's breaths were short and hard. Then one hand dropped; he clasped their cocks together, rubbing the slick heads, shivering with it.

"We'd better fuck," Harris whispered, his tone coaxing, almost sweet. "Fuck me, Spike."

Harris's good eye was humid with need, and there was nothing in his expression, his flush, his grip, to suggest that he was concealing a sting.

Still, Spike couldn't help but be wary. Harris was playing quite tame, but he'd still called him, a few minutes ago, an impure thing. A remark tossed off with such casual confidence that Spike was sure, despite the ad hoc lessons in self-esteem, of Harris's ultimate disdain.

Convenient. Buffy's voice rose up out of the jumble of memory that always ran in the back of his mind. They came to him, awash in grief and desire, on the sly. Denied him when they were done.

"Say I do. What d'you think's goin' to come of it?"

"I'm gonna shoot like Old Faithful?"

"I get you so fucking hot. So crazy. See that right well. But—"

Spike was afraid, because he was starting to care. Hell, he'd started way before this, started when he first saw Harris in that bar, weeks ago. By now his caring had reached an exquisite pitch like tooth-ache, only temporarily numb-able. This sparring, this sexing, it was involving, it kept the boredom at bay, but the caring was making it impossible. He was too vulnerable. Whether Harris realized it or not. Spike wasn't sure which was worse, that Harris be aware of his power to hurt, or so wrapped up in his own shit that he was oblivious.

"No more talking," Xander said, getting to his feet, tugging on Spike's hand.

Seizing Xander's quivering cock, Spike wrung it out with three sharp twists of the wrist, so he came with an affronted yip, splattering them both.

"What did you do that for? I wanted—"

"Everything isn't all about what you want. I still want to talk, an' I want you to mind me."

Harris pouted like a girl.

"What am I, here? Your time-out? Play-thing, 'til you make up your mind to go back to your friends, or off yourself for good? Can't be doing with this, Harris."

"You were doing with it just fine a little while ago when your boner was tickling my tonsillectomy scar. And you're not the only one with trust issues! You tell me you want me to stay, and then the minute I drop off, you—"

"You pillock, thought I explained that to you."

"Yeah, you explained it. You—shit." Xander went to pile of clothes on the coffee table, started putting them on.

"What're you doing?"

"What you want me to do. I'm getting out of your way. Returning was a big mistake. Just like coming here in the first place. Just me being Idiotboy for the emty-billionth time. After watching the subversion of the slayer ideal and surviving the big Magical Demonic Possession, I should've headed to Disneyland. But there's still time."

Does he think I'm gonna stop him? Spike pulled his own clothes together.

He didn't love Xander, so why ... why was it so hard to bear his anger, washing back at him through the stale air? Why so hard to watch him leave?

Wanker.

Xander slung his pack, was at the door.

"Wait."

Took him aback, how instantly he stopped. Turned.

"Wanna trust you, Harris."

"I trusted you. I—" His gaze dropped to the floor. "Yeah. Want that too."

Then Xander let the bag slide to the floor, and came back across the room. Came right up next to Spike, hands stealing around his face, kissing as he danced him slowly backwards towards the bed. Tipped over, still kissing.

"Oh man," Xander breathed, when Spike tore his clothes. "Oh maaann." Again when he entered him. One of Harris's legs on his shoulder, the other around his waist, and the rest of him splayed out on his back for easy viewing, easy access, each with a hand grappling his cock as Spike's own sank in to the hilt.

"Gonna take you nice and slow," Spike said. "Gonna make you feel it."

"Feel it," Xander babbled. "I feel it."

"Seein' you like that, makes me so damn hard."

"Fuck me."

"Yeah. Fuckin' you. But gonna make it last."

"Last—"

"This's all I'm good for, isn't it? But I'm bloody good. Aren't I? Aren't I, Harris?"

"No."

Spike stopped his slow stirring in mid-thrust. "No?"

"Not—not—all you're good for. You—Oh God—there's so much more—

"More what?"

"More—more—more to you—than—oh God—technique—and—and—and—amazing huge cock and—don't ask me to take inventory when I'm getting fucked!"

"But I'm a thing. Impure thing. You like gettin' filled up by an impure thing? Like doin' the slow grind with this?" He fanged out. Wasn't really sure why, why he was pushing like this, when Harris had come back. There was a shade, a tinge to this, of bathroom business at 1630, a memory he cringed away from whenever it arose.

But Harris wasn't screaming and crying.

Harris was struggling up onto his elbows. Harris was reaching for his neck, hauling himself up. Looking at him, with a new cast to his features. Something Spike had seen years ago, when Harris spoke to Dawn, to Buffy. But never never to him.

Especially when he was all bumps and ridges and slavering fangs.

"I do like it. And you're not a thing. You're a demon, and yeah, I like dancing with demons. But you're not just that, you're a person, and I—I'm drawn to you. I'm drawn to the man Spike, I want to know him. Like I said before, I ... I feel safe with you."

Spike opened his mouth, but Harris put a finger on his lips. On his hard distended game-face mouth, as if it was nothing, nothing but just his mouth.

"Lemme finish. I'm gonna try ... try to keep you from regretting that you let me in here. Okay? Because you deserve that. You deserve respect. And I'm not just saying that because getting boned by you with your fangs out is the biggest turn-on in my enormous pantheon of turn-ons."

He shivered as he said it, a full top-to-toe shiver and hard blush that made Spike's cock jump in its tight sheath, made his skin feel almost warm where Xander's pressed against it.

Harris waited, regarding him like he was looking into a cipher.

Spike waited too, but he didn't quite know for what.

Until Xander breathed against his mouth, and said please.







"Spill, mister. I want to hear all about it."

Spike was hinky enough about sneaking off for this meet with Dawn, without her saying stuff that startled him into thinking she knew what he was hiding.

But she didn't know. She just wanted to be friends with him—her idea of friends, which still felt like the teen-age way, giggling together over mochas. Sharing confidences.

Except he wasn't going to share with her that he'd arisen from a bedful of warm Harris to come to this restaurant in Malibu.

This was the first time in nearly three days that he'd been farther afield than the Chinese take-out two doors down, and he'd gone there in a dash, no socks inside his boots, shirt unbuttoned over a chest marked with love-bites.

Even when he saw him dressed up more than he probably ever had—decent black linen shirt, trousers not made of denim—Harris had been curiously, but conveniently, uninterested in where Spike was going this evening. Hadn't offered to come with. Showed no indication that he was ready to get up.

When they weren't fucking like bunnies, Harris slept. His exhaustion seemed deeper than what could be attributed to frequent bouts of sex. He was a noisy sleeper, but his nightmares, if he had them, didn't wake him. Instead, he was difficult to rouse; Spike could shake him for a long time with no response, or suck him off nearly to orgasm before he'd crack his eyelids.

He was a little feverish.

Spike liked that. Made it cozier, spooning him, and added a languor to their screwing that was not at all unwelcome.

Liked too how polite Harris was. No more calling him a "thing". Ever since that first please escaped his lips, he was all pleading and thank-yous.

Thanked Spike for fucking him. For running his bath. For fetching in hot food.

Even thanked him once for holding him in his sleep.

Scares me sometimes, he said, waking up alone. So this is good. You're good to me.

Now he was seated opposite Dawn, on a terrace overlooking the ocean, surrounded by twinkling lights. The breeze played with Dawn's pretty hair as she told him to order anything he liked, told him to have a drink, lots of drinks if he wanted them. Her treat. Should they get a bottle of champagne? To celebrate, she said, that they were both here, friends again?

Spike didn't want any champagne, didn't feel like celebrating. But to refuse this would've been to disappoint her.

This was an event for her. She wore a new dress. More low-cut than he'd have liked—wasn't she still too young for that, and all the make-up?

She prodded again, after their order was taken, so he told her, in the G-rated Cliff Notes version—the story of his year at Wolfram & Hart. Dawn leaned towards him, her elbows on the table and her chin in her hands, listening with all the attention he remembered from his crypt-days, when she'd visit him after school to be regaled with tales of modified mayhem.

He didn't like filling her ears with that stuff anymore. Telling her about Angel's team, about how they all messed up, and suffered, and died ... made him feel like a Bad Rude Man. And like a man who'd been robbed. Because he shouldn't have survived. Not survived where Angel didn't.

Even when he was deep inside Harris, and knew that Harris was lost in him, he thought of Angel.

There were certain things—not many—about Xander, that evoked him. His broad shoulders, seen from behind in the dark, where the different skin color was less obvious. The disorder of his black hair.

And a few hours ago, when Xander fucked him from behind, his face buried in the pillow, he'd had the privacy to imagine it was his Sire again, riding him, using him. He spent with a sob.

Dawn asked about Xander again. "I mean, I know you'd have told me right away if there was anything ...."

"Sorry love." Spike was glad humans lacked the sense of smell he enjoyed; though he'd showered, he still reeked of Harris. But Dawn couldn't know that.

"I have to go back to Cambridge tomorrow. I've put it off as long as I could—hols were over last week. But I really thought ... I hoped ...."

"Bet he's all right, wherever he is," Spike said. "Harris's nothin' if not resilient."

"Oh, I know." She frowned. "Even if he's all right ... I'm not. I have this big hole in my life, where he used to be. And it's not fair, that—but I don't want to be selfish."

"S'not selfish to miss someone."

"I used to think. To ... wish—but not in the bad wish way!—that eventually Xander and I might—I mean, he's really not that much older than I am. Now I'm almost twenty—"

"Sure, pet. Only ..." Spike felt he was stepping out onto thin ice. "... might not be such a good idea, to fix your sights on someone who's known you since you were a little girl. Once a fellow thinks of you that way, can be hard to change."

"People do it all the time!"

"Just sayin'."

After that, the conversation was stilted, and they still had appetizers and entrees to get through.

Spike hadn't spent much time in the last decade in places like this. In the old days, before Dru was hurt in Prague, they'd gone everywhere and done everything. Managed, wherever they were, to insinuate themselves into whatever company seemed most intriguing. Got invited to the right parties, the right clubs. Dressed the part and made the scene.

But all of that was so long ago.

Dawn broke his reverie. "So when are you going to come back?"

"Back?"

"To us. To ... to the Scoobies."

"Didn't think there was a Scoobies as such anymore."

"To the Council, then. We could totally use you on the team. And I know you and Giles weren't exactly seeing eye to eye, but I'm sure you could work all that out."

"Maybe so. But I'm stayin' here. An' I don't want you campaigning on my behalf either, you hear? We agreed, you'd keep schtum with your sis."

When he mentioned the slayer, Dawn looked furtive, her gaze dropping to her plate. She took a long swallow of wine. "You know, Spike. About Buffy. I think ... I really think if you were to call her ...."

"That ship's sailed, 'Bit."

"But that's what I mean. I don't believe she'd think so. Her gangplank would still be down. For you. If she knew you weren't dead."

"Well, I'm sorry for that, but I 'spect you're wrong. Anyway, it can't be helped."

"So you're just going to stay on here all by yourself?"

"Reckon so."

Her eyebrow quirked up. For a second she looked so much like her sister—whom she ordinarily barely resembled—that he was spooked. "Spike. What aren't you telling me?"

"What?"

"You must have something going on. Someone?"

Better, he decided quickly, to let her think so. "Loose lips, an' all that, Platelet."

Her smile was half worried, half hopeful. "Something good? Someone nice?"

"Could be. Anyway, aim to stick around. So don't you worry about me. Go back to Cambridge, an' do your studies, and once in a while you can write me a letter. If you still know how to stick a stamp on an envelope in this digital age."

"I can figure it out."

He declined dessert, and they parted in the parking lot, with an awkward hug that Dawn put too much into, and he not quite enough.




When he returned, with a bag of groceries and a couple sacks of beef blood, Xander was in the bath.

He'd bathed, in the last three days, six times. Spike got the sense that it wasn't the fug of their fucking he wanted to wash off, but something else, something not susceptible to lashings of hot water. But he didn't ask. Xander would tell him, sooner or later, what had happened with Willow, and what it was that made him, after fleeing Africa, flee London as well. Or he wouldn't. Either way, Spike wasn't going to press.

"Bought some eggs and what-not, could do a big fry-up if you fancy it."

"You don't have to fix everything for me," Xander said. "I mean, it's nice, but it's getting a little weird. I'll cook us something. Just give me a few more minutes here." He turned the hot tap with his toes.

Spike put the kettle on, put the things away. Glanced around the room when he was finished. The place smelled now of Xander, of sex and wok-fried food. He couldn't say the flat was any less bleak.

Or that what he and Xander were doing felt any less transient.

The water boiled, and he made tea.

Xander emerged from the bathroom, yawning, moist, nude. "You want eggs?"

"Not now," Spike said.

"You were gone a while." He prowled towards the fridge, looked inside, then checked out the other things in the cabinet, on the counter top, before selecting an orange from the bag. When he broke the peel with his thumbs, the sharp sweetness of citrus filled the space.

"Had an engagement to dine with a lady."

"What's that a euphemism for? Maybe I don't want to know." Xander dropped pieces of peel into the empty grocery bag. Dug his fingers into the fruit. "Are you a callboy, Spike?"

"Couldn't be, could I? Got no phone."

"That's right." Xander shrugged. "So much for that theory." He tore the orange into sections, trailing slowly towards the sofa, where he dropped down alongside Spike. Began, matter of factly, not quite looking at him, to feed him, and himself, with orange slices. When their mouths were slippery with juice, Xander seized the back of Spike's neck, pulled him in to kiss.

"We could use a TV," Xander remarked. "A better sofa than this hard piece of junk." His fingers dug into Spike's nape. "A bigger bed."

"Could use a few things," Spike echoed, thinking We? Not asking: Are you really staying that long?

"Shopping doesn't take much time, though," Xander continued. "After that, what'll we do?"

"What do you mean, do?"

"Council's still paying me. I'm on disabled leave. But I'm thinking I might see if I can work construction. Seemed like there was a lot of building going on around the city, and I never let my union membership lapse. Wouldn't mind the fresh air. It's good to do a day's work and be tired at the end of it. And the likelihood of demons at a building site in broad day is usually pretty low."

"You do that, though, an' you'll be sleepin' while I'm awake."

"Well yeah, there is that. Would cut into our prime fucking hours."

Our. We.

"What were you planning, Spike? Any ideas?"

"Wasn't planning anything until you showed up."

"Right. You were babysitting your blue god. You were drifting. How long did you think you could keep that up?"

Xander's hands smelled strongly of orange. One still rested on Spike's neck, but with the other he was beginning to caress himself. Spike stared at Harris's cock. It was such a good one, hefty and pretty, and in just a few days he'd developed a powerful fascination with it.

Spike sighed. "Dunno. New telly, right bloke warmin' my big new bed ... could drift a while, an' not notice."

"We could patrol. Something we could do together. And I don't mind sleeping while its light out. It's still fresh air and honest physical exertion."

This was startling. "Thought you were done with all that."

"I don't think I'll ever be done with it. I'm done with Africa. I think I'm done with slayers. But, present company excepted, I still hate vampires. And besides a hell of a righteous indignation, I've got all these skills now, and knowledge, and you've got a soul and a powerful right arm."

"No," Spike said. The enormity of his resistance astonished him.

"No?"

"I get that you're experienced now. But you're still just a man. I'd have to watch your back every second. And if I flubbed it, if somethin' happened ... couldn't take that. Just ... no."

Harris was looking at him now, seriously. Hands off his cock.

"You don't want me on your conscience."

"That's right."

"Will me reminding you that I can take care of myself make any difference?"

"Harris, that interestin' scar on your hip is testament to the sad fact that no matter what, you're vulnerable. S'not for me to wrap you up in cotton wool, but on the other hand, don't feature playin' at Batman and Robin with you either. If I wanted to be out huntin' down vamps, I'd've been doin' it all along. Fact is, people in this city who get chomped on by street vamps usually deserve it. S'nature's way of culling the herd. Getting rid of the defectives."

"You're a pig, Spike."

"I'm a vampire, berk. And present company sometimes excepted, I don't think much of the human race except for entertainment purposes."

"Entertainment, huh?"

"That's right."

"You're a damn liar, Spike."

"Not changin' my mind here, Harris."

Xander pressed now on the back of the Spike's neck. Urging him down towards the prick that, as he resumed stroking it, rose up towards his belly.

"Entertain this," Xander said.

Spike took it in his mouth.







"No no and no."

"I think it's a little late for no." Xander leaned against the brick wall, hands on knees, huffing for breath. But laughing. A few feet away, a rat scurried up into a dumpster.

"Told you—"

"I staked three of them. You saw that, right? One even came at me on my blind side, and still—"

"Your blind side! Right. You have a blind side. So fightin' vamps is such a good idea."

"I didn't start it, you'll recall. They jumped us."

"'Cause you insisted on short-cuttin' through an alley."

"C'mon, you can't say that wasn't fun. You were having big fun, I saw you."

"Doesn't matter. We're not doin' this again."

"What, never? But next Saturday they're screening The Devil In Miss Jones."

"Didn't mean we're never goin' to Classic Porn Night at the Palace. I meant— Look, Harris, are you forgettin' what happened to you in Africa?"

"Uh, lemme think. Gee, no. Power-mad slayers made me their butt-monkey." He'd stopped laughing. "Again."

"You really believe streetfightin's the best way to deal with it?"

"Who died and made you Freud?"

"Fucking hell. Don't want to argue with you. Only—"

"Hey, ever think it's you that's lost the mission! Or maybe you never really had the mission. What you had was Buffy. Or what you wanted, anyway. Now she's not in your life, you're content to just sit on your ass night after night and—"

Xander didn't finish his point because he was too busy struggling to stand up, which wasn't quite easy when he needed one hand to staunch the blood pouring from his nose.

"You shut up about me an' the mission! You don't know what I've done since Sunnydale. You think Buffy's got aught to do with anythin' anymore, you're out of yer mind!"

Xander had no further thoughts on the subject.

That night Spike took the couch.




Awoke to the gush of running water, and beneath that, the suppressed sound of another kind of water, trickling.

Xander was hunched at the bathroom sink, shoulders trembling, dabbing at his bruised nose, where the blood was flowing again. His reflection showed the tears dropping down his cheeks.

"Lemme see that."

"Leave me alone."

"What happened? How'd it start bleeding again?"

"I don't know! Leave me alone. Shit. It won't stop."

"Did you have a nightmare? Cripes, Harris, don't ... don't cry."

When Spike started to take him in his arms, Xander hit out. Distraught though he was, he could still land a punch. Spike fell backwards, hit the door jamb. But Xander's face was all crumpled, and he shook like he wasn't going to stay upright for long. Spike tried again.

"Hush, pet. S'all right, innit? You're not on your own. I'm here."

Water still gushed from the tap. Spike wet the corner of a towel, brought it slowly up to Harris's nose. The blood smelled wonderful; filled him with an urge to lick it off.

"I'm not yours," The words burst out of him like a refutation. He didn't pull away, but went rigid, as if with disgust. "Willow said the last thing I needed was to be anywhere near you." Snatching the towel from Spike's hand, he pressed it against his nose himself. "She said what people like us need after ... after we totally fuck over any chance we'll ever be right with ourselves and others ever again ... is to stay among good people."

"What happened to you in Africa's nothing like what she did, an' it's like her arrogance to imply it is. She went dark. You—you were taken into the dark against your will."

"Do you really think that's possible, though? I've been dark before. It was fun. I loved being hyena-boy. What made me such a good zombie-murderslave, if not that part of me wanted to do all that?"

"Harris, you're not makin' sense."

"You think Buffy could've been taken over that way? Made to maim and murder? No way. Dawn? Never. They'd die first. But I didn't try to die. I got filled up with all that magic static and I did what they pointed me at. I did it to the goddamn hilt." He wasn't looking at Spike, or at anything, as he spoke, and his whole body trembled harder and harder. "I'm a worse monster than you. Hell, when you ate all those people in Sunnydale, and turned them—you didn't torture them first, did you? You just—picked 'em like fruit off the vine. I bet it barely hurt at all. Maybe it was sexy, even. You're one sexy beast."

"Harris—"

"I made it hurt. Oh, yeah. That's how Twinkle wanted it, she loved seeing her watcher perform. I just gave and gave."

Spike wondered if Harris had lied at first, when he said he didn't remember most of the details of what he'd done until the possession spell, or if his mental barriers were crashing now. "What was the worst one? Tell me what haunts you most."

Xander shook his head. He was leaning on Spike now, forehead on his shoulder.

"Then come back to bed. It's barely six. Kip a bit more."

"I can't be there alone."

"I'll come with you. I've got you, Harris. It's all right."

"Nothing is. Nothing is, Spike. You know that, buddy. That's why I came to you."




That's why I came to you.

Well, yeah. Not like that came as any sort of surprise. And shoved full of a hunka burnin' soul, Spike was all about the bleeding heart for anyone who had terrible things on his conscience.

And fuck, it was hard to think of Xander carrying all this—all God knew what—in his fragile human self. Was one thing when you were a demon, and had been alive for a hundred and a half years.

He was asleep now. Now that Spike was spooning him, holding him in his temperatureless arms.

How far far off was Xander, that he could only find some rest with him.





It got so they had a reputation. Of course, it didn't take much to build up a rep in the demon world—three weeks of nightly stakings, a few nests in abandoned buildings burned to the ground, and the names Spike and Harris were a local legend—they were five storeys tall and had stakes for hands.

Harris had indeed come a long way from the summer after Buffy's death, which was the last time they'd patrolled together. The skills he'd bragged about were there. Along with the very streak—miles wide—Spike most dreaded. He was freakily brave, in a don't much care about the outcome way. Spike had to rescue him a few times from almost certain maiming or death—rescues that made Harris laugh like he was high, and which usually led to frantic acts of sex in public places.

But not to talking.

He wanted to think all the slaying and mayhem was doing Harris some good.

The fevery glow was mostly off his flesh.

He bought a set of barbells.

After a pack of vamps tracked Spike home early one evening from an innocent grocery run, and fell upon him with the viciousness of the betrayed, they had to move to a different flat.

Xander had enough funds on tap, as it turned out, to rent a one-bedroom place in a somewhat nicer neighborhood. No more basement—they put up black-out blinds.

"Now we're living," Xander said, flopping onto their new sofa—gently used leather snagged off Craigslist.

The next night they met a little posse of slayers. Two of them separated Spike out of a demon puppy pile, just as his attackers were about to play at corkscrews with his head.

Expected the girls to slay him—he was in game-face, and they were bristling with weapons, their eyes shining with the jollity of the brawl. But they laughed instead.

"Hey, he is real."

"Whaddaya know? Andrew doesn't make it all up."

Xander stayed in the shadows. The girls didn't see him, but Spike could hear his heart beating, feel his irritation.

He was going to thank them for saving his bacon, and fade off into the shadows too, when the third slayer, done with the last straggler a hundred feet away, let out a little shriek of delight and came running at him. "Spike! Oh my, it's really you! Spike, don't you remember me?" Before he knew it, he was folded into her hug.

"Sure I remember you, Vi. Where's that little hat you were always sportin'?"

"Hat? Oh no, I forgot about that! It was so long ago. Wow, it's amazing to see you. Maria, Yoko, Spike's the first vampire I ever saw. Before I was called. He taught me everything I know."

"Buffy taught you. Faith taught you. All I did was growl a little."

"But you saved us all." She beamed at him, this pretty little orange-haired Vi, like he really was a savior.

"Someone else here you'll be glad to see." He wasn't at all sure this was the right thing to do, as he turned to glance where Harris was secreted. "Better come out now."

But he wasn't there. He'd gone.





Getting away from the slayers wasn't too difficult—Maria and Yoko, having slayed, seemed eager to go get on the outside of some hamburgers. Vi insisted on giving Spike her number, and talked about maybe teaming up sometime.

Once they were gone, he tried to follow Xander's trail by scent, but this was harder to do in a big city, over so much terrain. He'd left the warehouse, but after a couple of streets Spike lost the trail.

Okay, it was dumb, putting him on the spot like that. Assuming that because he knew Vi from before, he'd want to come out and chat up the slayers.

Except it was hard to wrap his mind around the way Harris saw slayers now. Okay, the ones in Africa were one story, a terrifying one, the inevitable outcome of too much magic, except that the inevitability factor always seemed to escape the Scoobies until it was too late. But this was LA, and these girls weren't like that. Vi was one of the original band, she knew Buffy and was in at the apocalypse; she was all right. And the other two were like her—they hadn't rushed to judgment on him, had they? They were nothing if not good-natured.

In fact, the whole encounter had buoyed Spike's spirit immensely, right up until he realized Harris had bolted.

Probably he'd be at home.

He wasn't. Spike tried his cell phone—they both had phones now, though they were hardly ever apart and had no one they cared to call except each other. It went straight to voicemail, which meant he was either talking to someone else, or had shut it off. And what were the odds he was talking to someone else?

Okay, he'd gone walkabout. Spike knew about that. He'd probably show up around sun-up, drunk and maudlin, or drunk and angry. Either of which Spike could deal with.

He'd wait up.

But sun-up turned to noon, and then late afternoon, and no Harris.

Could this be it? One stupid little encounter with some perfectly tame slayers, the thing that would make Harris go jump off a bridge? Spike kept the TV on all day, switching among the various news channels, watching the crawls, but it wasn't necessarily a given that a suicide would even be reported on. Harris wasn't famous and if he was going to off himself he was unlikely to do it in a way that involved innocent bystanders.

When dusk came, and Spike could open the blinds to look down into the street, he knew what the next step was.

The phone book yielded a number of listings for occult bookshops, but being in a hurry, Spike headed to the first one—AAAAAA Occult, Curious & Rare Books Open Noon 'til 4 a.m. Best Collection In Western U.S. Convenient Downtown Location.

It was just six blocks away. Leaving a note in case Harris turned up, Spike headed out.

AAAAAA Occult, Curious & Rare Books was housed in what passed in LA for a quaint old storefront, on a stretch that included three Asian restaurants and a tattoo parlor. It was picturesque, with the name painted in gold on the windows, which were filled with forbidding volumes, some open to display dark, suggestive woodcuts. And inside the floor-to-ceiling stacks bulged with heavy leather-bound books. No popular demon compendiums and paperback love-spell books here, this was serious stuff, like Giles used to keep in that locked cage in the high school library. The shop smelled more than musty—as he stepped in onto the first of a series of threadbare persian rugs, Spike inhaled the residue of other places and dimensions, of expired or latent magicks.

The smoke-stained ceiling was pressed tin in a oblique design of vines and tendrils that seemed to move when Spike glanced up; green-shaded lamps burned here and there. There wasn't much light—probably because so many of the books were fragile. Browsing would take too long. Spike stepped right through to the back, where the counter was. An open door gave onto a dark flight of stairs descending to the basement. He found no clerk, but a bell, which he rang.

Footsteps crossed below him.

"Need a refresher on a basic locator spell," Spike called out, as the tread began on the stairs. "And need it double-quick."

"For someone who was going to live forever, you always were in a tearing hurry."

The voice went through Spike like a bolt. He froze.

The speaker took the last couple of steps—he didn't speed up—and materialized out of the dark doorway.

"And I see that hasn't changed. Hello, Will."

Spike stepped around the counter, reaching, expecting his hand to pass right through the massive shape—because certainly this was a trick. The return of The First? Some kind of glamour? Something out to get him anyway.

But the hand connected—thin cashmere sweater, the bump of shirt buttons underneath, and ...

The beating heart.

There was a beating heart in this man's chest.

Spike jumped back like he'd been burned. Slipped into game-face so he could see more clearly.

His sire obliged him by switching on the desk-lamp. Which illuminated him from below, his great head like an Easter Island idol.

"Fucking hell! Thought—thought you signed away the shanshu."

"So did I." He didn't seem particularly happy about it. He was stern, still. Wary. Spike wasn't used to reading his emotional signature in the air the way he did Harris's. But it was there now—radiant warmth, a steady pulse.

And a distinctive physical odor, much stronger than what he'd ever given off as a regularly-bathed vampire, but which set up an immediate and absolute assocation for Spike: Angel. This was Angel. The real thing, the man. It was all he could do not to reach for him again, not to pull him close and take deep breaths of him, feel the low steady tremble of life thrumming in his body. It was astonishing. Overwhelming.

"So you've been here, since—?"

"Since May of five, yeah. But for quite a while, I didn't know that I'd ever been anywhere else."

"What d'you mean?"

"This new ... identity ... was given to me by the Powers. At least, I've got to assume so. I had no memory of anything else. Being undead, being so old, none of it. I was always who I am right now. Then little by little, the knowledge of what I once was ... filtered back to me. First in dreams, and then when I was awake. Made me think I was going insane at first. But then I understood. It's how they chose it to be for me. So I'd get settled. Into my place."

"Your place?"

Angel shrugged in a way that indicated their surroundings, the books. Spike's eye fell on a business card holder on the desk, next to the lamp.

Liam O'Connor

Dealer in Occult, Curious & Rare Books

"Did you know about me?"

"No. I was able to find proof of Wesley's death, and Gunn's. They were both John Does, interred at the public expense. But I tracked down the records. Identified the remains."

"No way to identify my dust, I guess."

Angel shook his head. "I couldn't really believe ... it seemed too much to hope."

"Illyria rescued me, in the end. Managed to open a portal, shunt most of 'em off into it. We were together for a good while afterwards, but she's scarpered."

"That what you want the location spell for?"

"No. Not for her." This incredible reunion had knocked the anxiety about Harris right out of his mind, but it roared back now.

"Just as well," Angel said, heading towards one of the stacks with a purposeful stride. "Putting together a spell to find an interdimensional being like her would take a lot more power than you're ever likely to muster. If it's a human being you're after, I've got what you need right—wait a minute." He stopped. Looked at Spike with a frown. "How do I ... how do I know this isn't your lunch you're tracking down?"

"What, you think I'm evil again? Can't you tell—"

"I'm only human," Angel said, half turning away to run a finger across the spines. Spike couldn't quite parse his tone.

"Still got my white hat, don't I? I'm trying to find a friend. He might hurt himself on his own. Which is why the hurry."

"A friend."

"Don't remind me that I haven't got any. I do have."

"All right. Here." Angel took down a volume identical to one Spike recalled seeing in Giles's hands, and Willow's, many times in Sunnydale.

"Yeah, that's the one. Just need to double-check the—"

But Angel held the book against his chest. "This friend. Anyone I know?"

"If it was anyone you knew, wouldn't you know about me?"

Again Angel wouldn't quite look at him.

"You haven't told anyone? That you're here?"

Angel flipped the book open. "Do you have the materials? You need—"

"Buffy? You haven't rung her up?"

"—something that belongs to your friend, and a good map, and—"

"Why not? You're bloody human! You're—"

"Spike. Do you want my help, or shall I just ring you up and send you on your way? This particular volume is $250, but I can give you 10% off because you're in the trade."

"In the trade! I like that!" Spike had to snicker. "How the mighty have fallen! Here you are, Angelus—in trade. S'a laugh, really. Darla always despised tradesmen."

"When you're done having your little taunt, would you like to find your friend?"

"Yeah, all right. Need to get this goin'. I brought something of—of his. You got the other stuff on tap?"

"Yes, I can pull it together." With the book under his arm, Angel headed back towards the stairs.

As he clattered down, Spike was stuck at the top.

"You live down there? In the basement."

Angel glanced back. A dry chuckle escaped him. "Hard to believe ... I forgot. Vampires have to be invited. Well, come in, Spike."

The apartment was a basement, but it wasn't bad for all that. It was as big or maybe bigger than the shop floor above, and broken up into discrete spaces though there were no interior walls. Rather like that first place he'd had in LA, in that old office building. Walls and floor of brick, good solid wooden columns holding up the ground floor above. Nice old sturdy furnishings—Sire always did insist on his luxuries. Framed paintings and drawings hanging here and there. Lots more books—Spike couldn't tell if they were overstock or Angel's personal collection. One corner held a rack of free weights, a bench, an elliptical trainer. In another a table had art supplies neatly laid out in trays and bins—an easel held a half-completed painting. A landscape, wide and low, all in greens, with a glimpse in the distance of what might've been sea, though it was too early to tell. Spike glanced around the room again. The windows were tiny, and covered in shades. The whole flat was so dark. Hard to imagine working on such a thing in a dank place like this. About as far as you could get from plein air.

"It comes from here," Angel said, touching his temple. "My memory."

"That your home place?"

"Yeah. A view I liked when I was a lad. Spent so much time with it, so many years ... it's burned on me."

"You always did like to draw. But was always people, wasn't it? Usually those you were about to eat, or had eaten already."

"And now I like to paint. But not my supper. Come this way, Spike, we'll get started."

Though he'd meant to return home to do the spell, Spike had plucked a pair of Harris's clean socks from the pile of laundry they hadn't yet bothered to put away. He took them from his pocket as Angel spread a map of LA and environs out on the kitchen table.

He looked at the socks, and crooked an eyebrow at Spike.

Who waited for him to comment on the identity of his companion, which he would surely scent by the—except not.

Angel no longer had his predator's sense of smell.

He was like Harris now. Couldn't tell anyone's identity by sniffing their clean laundry.

Which was a world of disquieting.

"Never you mind," Spike blustered. "Was easiest bit to grab in a hurry. Let's get on with it. Time's wasting, and he's in trouble, wherever he is."

"I need his name for the incantation."

"I'll do the bloody incantation!"

"So would you like me to leave you to it? So you can keep the secret of your paramour's identity?"

"Who said anythin' about a paramour?"

Angel shrugged. "I know you, Spike."

"It's Harris."

"Harris?"

"Xander Harris. You must remember him. Think you're the vampire he hates even more than he ever hated me."

"—was the vampire—"

"Whatever, yeah! Get on with it! Berk is suicidal, an' if he offs himself on my watch, I'll fucking well feel it!"

Angel's brow rose again, but otherwise he let this pass without comment, bringing out the pendulum, and the herbs in a little metal bowl. Sliding the book across to Spike. "You've done this before?"

"A time or two. Not lately. But I've seen it done. S'not difficult."

"Mind your Latin. Mess that up, and—"

"I know, I know. The person can disappear more than they already are. But who took a first in Classics? Wasn't you, Liam."

"I've forgotten more Latin than you ever knew, you puppy."

Spike darted a fist towards him, but Angel ducked. "Thought you were in a hurry."

Dropping a lit match into the herbs, Spike took up the pendulum and began.




"Bloody fuck. He's not in LA. D'you have a bigger map?"

"A wider-ranging spell requires blood."

"Hell, I'll give blood. He's—"

"Your friend, yeah. Which I don't exactly buy, but okay. Except it won't work with undead blood. Has to be alive."

"Well, one of us is alive. Or are you all squeamish 'bout that now your digestive system works?"

Without replying, Angel fetched a more extensive map—the westernmost states with parts of Canada and Mexico, and a sharp kitchen knife.

"If he's farther away than this, there's nothing else I can do about it. You'd have to consult an actual witch."

"Let's hope it doesn't come to that, since the only witch I've got on speed dial scares the feckin' crap out of me."

"And you wonder why I haven't made that phone call," Angel murmured. Holding his hand up, he ran the knife into the fleshy part of the palm. The smell and sight of his blood—live blood!—made Spike instantly tense, and hungry. His cock stirred in his jeans; he leaned against the table, hoping Angel wouldn't notice. There was so much confusion, boiling up into what was supposed to be his single-focus on finding Harris. Angel wasn't gone. Wasn't dead.

The blood spell produced nothing but a little singeing at the edges of the paper.

"Looks like your dear friend Xander has lit out for the territories," Angel said. "Couldn't get away from you fast enough, hmm?"

"S'not a joke."

"He must really be suicidal, otherwise what would he be doing with you?"

"Dunno! Couldn't have anything to do with what you got from me, in your fancy bed in your fancy digs! You wouldn't know anything about that!"

Spike would never have thought the old man could blench—he'd always been so pale. But the color drained from his face, and he turned away.

"Right," Spike said. "You weren't goin' to be first to mention that, were you? Now you're all cleansed an' blesséd."

Angel walked away. Spike heard him fussing around with something on the other side of the flat, but didn't follow. Just stood where he was, staring at the map. California, Oregon, Washington. Xander wasn't anywhere nearby. Either he'd gotten on a plane, or ... he'd done himself in.

There was no handy spell to test for that.

Would be nice to be able to think he'd had an epiphany, and was on his way back to England. That in a few hours he'd be finding his way through a foggy morning to Dawn's Cambridge quad, climbing the ancient stone stairs to knock on her door.

But that wasn't likely. That was about the least likely thing of all.

Bloody fucking Harris must've done something rash.

Angel was coming back towards him now, with a card in his hand.

"If you still want to find him, this person can probably help. She's very powerful. And expensive."

"Ta." As he reached for the card, Angel thrust it awkwardly towards him. Their hands touched. Angel's skin felt red-hot. They both flinched. Spike looked at the name on the card, which meant nothing to him, thrust it into his pocket. "Right then, I'm off."

"Let me ... let me know what happens."

"Will do, yeah." Spike was already on the stairs. Was there enough Jack Daniels in LA to blot all this out?

Only way to find out was to find out.







He couldn't find out.

Not that there wasn't plenty of Jack, or that a good deal of it didn't find its way down his throat.

But somehow Spike just couldn't get blotto.

Couldn't stop thinking about Xander, who wasn't there.

And Angel, who so improbably was.

Spike was drinking at home. While not pleasant, it felt preferable to drinking at any of the few thousand licensed establishments in the city, because he didn't want to have to talk to anyone. Or see anyone.

Or smell anyone.

And he didn't call the witch whose name was on the card, because what was the point? Either Xander had fled him, in which case he'd be a total prat to try to reel him back in. Or he'd killed himself, in which case he was dead and gone.

And here he was, in a flat with Harris's name on the lease, and all he had to show for their—what was it? Affair?—was some clean laundry and an aroma clinging to the bed linens that gave the illusion there was someone else there.

The illusion that everything alive didn't flee from him, sooner or later.

Except it was always sooner.







Spike strode towards the counter.

When he got there, he set down the bottle of wine.

Angel wasn't so fond of JD; he preferred good French vintages. This was a $50 bottle of red. He didn't need to know it was nicked.

Nicking the wine made Spike feel a little less disgusted with himself for showing up here at all.

But Xander had been gone more than 24 hours, and there was no damn point sitting in the flat waiting for him.

Angel might as well have been waiting for Spike. There was no one in the shop when he stalked in shortly after nightfall. The old man was seated behind the counter, reading.

"Why d'you live like that? Underground, with the shades drawn?"

"It's how I like it. What are you doing here? Find your friend?"

"You know I didn't. Got a corkscrew? Let's drink this."

"I'm working."

"Looks a lot like sitting."

"I'm minding the store. Responsibility, Spike. You should look into it some time."

"Keep meanin' to, but something always comes up. Why don't we go out for a bite, an' you can tell me all about it."

"I said, I'm minding the store."

"Don't you have a clerk?"

"No."

"Ad said you were open six days a week from noon to four in the morning. You tellin' me that all that time it's just you here?"

"It's how I like it."

"But wolfgirl comes over, right, nights she's not so hairy? Cooks for you, messes you about a bit in bed?"

"Spike, if there's nothing you need, then get out. I'm trying to run a business here."

"Looks like you can run it and have a drink at the same time. Punters not exactly battering down the door, are they, to buy up the mystical mumbo jumbo. I'll go find the corkscrew."

Without waiting for permission, Spike vaulted the counter and went for the stairs. Angel didn't move, but as Spike started down, he called out, "Drawer next to the kitchen sink."

Spike found it, and a pair of glasses. Opened the fridge to see what might go with a good lashing of red, something meaty, cheesy, salty. Found nothing but some uncooked chicken parts, a few salad vegetables, skim milk and some apples. No beer, no cheese, no ice cream. The cabinets were similarly bare: half a packet of Ryvita. A box of raisin bran. Hell, he didn't need to eat, and his larder was better stocked than this.

Spike walked slowly around the space, taking good hard whiffs here and there. Oil pigments and turpentine. Hair gel. Cleansers. Old paper and leather. Reek of sweat by the exercise equipment, which wasn't dusty—he used it every day. The bed smelled only of Angel; no one else had ever lain in it with him. The air was generally musty and still, not dirty, but it was obvious that the sun never shone in here, the windows, tiny as they were, were never thrown open.

"You come back to glorious life an' you feed yourself like some timid old bint. What's that about?"

"It's—"

"—how you like it, right."

Angel scowled. "If I ate what I wanted, I'd be a whale. Took me a year to lose the sixty pounds I put on in the first three months after the shanshu. Go ahead, Spike, laugh it up."

Spike didn't laugh. Sure, the mental image of the old man all bloated up and slack-bellied was pretty damn hilarious, but it wasn't funny to think of Angel living such a purposefully restricted life. He was a man now, his soul firmly fixed. He should be free to indulge himself.

To be happy.

Spike uncorked the wine. Poured a bit into one glass and pushed it across to Angel. "M'sieur approves?"

Angel gave him a lowering look from beneath his brow, but tasted the wine, and nodded without comment. Spike poured them each a generous portion, and raised his glass.

"To livin'."

Angel wouldn't return the toast. But he knocked back the wine in one gulp, and held his glass out for more.




Angel wouldn't talk much. Spike needled him—brought up Drogan's death, asked if he'd ever heard anything since about Lorne. Angel just shook his head.

"Don't tell me you haven't looked up wolfgirl."

"I'm not telling you."

"Nina really fancied you. Would think you bein' a real live boy would be right up her street. Could marry her an' have cubs. Though wonder what happens with a pregnant werewolf. Is the fetus a werewolf too? That could be inconvenient. Go into labor on the wrong night an' the exit's more like Alien."

Angel didn't rise to this, just shook his head again.

"Don't you like kiddies? Thought all the Irish did. Though never could imagine you dandlin' a baby. Least, not when it wasn't to shut it up 'fore you ate it."

"Gonna shut you up if you don't change the subject."

"Change it, then. Tell me your adventures. Must have plenty, in a place like this." Not.

Spike emptied the second bottle—he'd gone out for two more—into Angel's glass. He'd kept the old man company glass for glass, but wine was like cherry pop to a vampire—didn't even give him a buzz.

Angel though was properly stewed. Slurring just a bit, moving even more slowly, not that he was moving much at all, just to bring the glass to his lips.

Spike opened the third bottle. "Drink up while this breathes."

"Breathes. Like you know anything about wine."

"I don't. But I know 'bout beer, rock'n'roll, an' taking someone pretty to bed so you can rut up a storm. How about you?"

Angel kept his eyes on his glass.

"Gotten a good sunburn yet? Sand up your foreskin, salt water up your nose? Gotten the clap? Nothin' like a good dose of clap to know you're alive. But you've probably still got the clap you had when Darla turned you. You must've been riddled with it back then. Should see a doctor, Liam. Good dose of penicillin'll clear those 18th century bacilli right up. And then out you'll go and find yourself a nice little blonde."

Angel growled, but the sound was more like a cough. He'd lost the facility for snarling when he got the heartbeat back.

Slowly he rose. Pushed his glass away. "You should go, Spike. While you're sitting here, your friend might—"

"He isn't!" Spike cut him off. Didn't want to be reminded, not right now, that after all the seeming progress they'd made together, Xander fucked off without a word or a look. "There's nowhere else I need to be."

"How'd that happen, anyway? You and Xander?"

This was the first sign of normal human curiosity Angel had exhibited, so instead of sniping at him, Spike explained. How Harris had gone to Africa, and had a superlatively bad time there. How they'd run into each other, and one angry fucked-up thing led to another.

"... you fell in love with him," Angel said. "You always do that."

"No," Spike said. "No. Not ... not yet." Not now. Ship's sailed. No, scratch that. Sunk.

"Is that what you tell yourself? You've always loved broken toys."

"Guess you'd know, since it was usually you who broke 'em."

Angel sneered. "Go away, Spike."

"Typical. Drink up all my good wine, an' throw me out."

But as he turned to leave, Angel came out from behind the counter, laid a hand on his shoulder.

"I've thought about ... about your good wine."

Spike closed his eyes. He could see behind his lids what they must look like; the big man's supplicating hand, reaching out across an enormous—unbridgeable? infathomable?—gap, full of a nostalgia without real regard. Habit, and sadness, and something stirring out of the stillness he'd fallen into. Reaching. But not into the light. Reaching for more darkness.

The hand was warm, he felt its pulse, felt the stirring of desire for what was alive that always arose in him when touched. And then the further yawning desire because it was Angel. Desire he didn't want to feel. I have mourned you and missed you so much. Loved my memories of us so much. None of what we did would've happened if you didn't know, however unknowingly, that soon you'd be separated from me for good.

Spike thought, Better teach myself to be alone. Better school myself in solitude. Better than this, over an' over. Better.

"All right then." He turned back, laying a hand on Angel's fly. Folding to his knees.

But Angel stepped back. "No. That's not what I meant. Will you come to bed?"

Was the same mistake Lot's wife made. Shouldn't have looked. If he just hadn't looked into Angel's face, didn't see the expression that went with that voice, he'd have been able to walk out.

Will by name, willin' by nature was what Angelus used to say, before turning him upside down and fucking him until he tore the carpet through with his fangs.






Spike was pretty sure, as he undressed and slipped between the crisp sheets of Angel's too-cool bed, that this was the first time his sire had shut up shop when it wasn't four of a morning. He heard him overhead, locking the door, moving about making things secure. When he'd touched him, Angel was hazy-heated with arousal, the kind of reined-in hot-eyed need Spike had never associated with him before. But his tread was still measured, unhurried. He took the stairs slowly, evenly. Paused at the bottom to remove his shoes and socks. Wended his way towards the bed with that same quiet, pulling his sweater off as he came, letting it fall on the back of the sofa.

Watching Angel disclose his body made Spike's eyes sting. He resisted blinking, determined to keep that to himself. So he just lolled back, watching Angel open his belt, drop his trousers and step out of them. Pushed the sheet down so Angel could see him take himself in hand, wank slowly as he stared.

Angel was not entirely the same, but he was still beautiful. Maybe more beautiful, because now every one of his living cells was rushing towards its destruction. Satiny skin breaking down. Everything getting older even as Spike eyed him. Twenty-six-year-old brooding hottie made out of an animated corpse. Snatched out of life, then plunked back in.

Spike was glad it wasn't him. Much as he'd pretended otherwise—or not pretended, but wanted it only because the change was supposed to be Angel's—the shanshu didn't seem like much of a prize. Not when you were accustomed to the perks of being immortal.

God, Angel was warm. Warm, and ... sticky. As he lowered himself to the bed, he broke into a verdant sweat. A sharp salt stink escaped his arm pit as he reached towards Spike.

And while Harris had plenty of earthy moments, none of which repulsed Spike in the slightest, this was different, because it was Angel. Angel who always mastered him without a thought—or with all the thought in the world, intention so collected and focused it could burn diamonds. But now his heart was racing, and when Spike pulled him in he groaned, a helpless groan as if he'd lost his footing, as if he was falling.

"Ah, Christ. Christ!" Suddenly they were grappling, struggling.

Spike realized he wasn't sure what Angel wanted, and that his instinct was to take him from behind. Head-down, no eye contact, no kissing, easy access.

But Angel resisted.

Resisted with a lot less force than he was—or used to be—capable of.

Spike let him go. Held up his hands. "Not gonna hurt you."

"That what you do with Xander? Just push him down and—no wonder he left."

"No—well, yeah, sometimes, only—look, dunno what happened there. Begin again."

Angel gave him a sidelong look, a sort of dirty look. But behind it Spike thought he saw all the uncertainty he could feel in Angel's elevated heart rate, his seething breaths.

He wasn't sure what it was—compassion?—that made him clamber to the floor, to kneel at Angel's feet with head bowed. "Sire."

"Goddamnit. That isn't going to work." Angel rose. His heavy cock was still limp. Sweat drying, leaving trails of aroma in the air as he moved. Spike rose too, stepped in his way before he could head off away from the bed.

"Dunno how—what did you have in mind, exactly?"

Angel shrugged, eyes averted, and for a moment Spike was sure he was going to shove him aside and that would be the end of that.

He wasn't what—who—Angel really wanted. Even as Angel drew him close and began kissing him, mouth and tongue warm and wet and hungry; even as he pulled Spike's hand down to his rising cock. Angel didn't know it, wasn't admitting it to himself, but it had to be true. Spike felt certain.

"Will. Did you miss me at all?"

You sodding fool. Still, it was his own fault for plying the old man with wine. Drink made Irishmen sentimental, and even Angelus had harbored a sentimental streak he sometimes unleashed to disastrous results.

Spike didn't want to tell him how he'd missed him. How, knowing for sure that he was dead, Spike had wanted him. Reconstructed every minute of their intimate time together, over and over. Getting off to it, shedding tears.

How he loved him.

People were easy to love when they were gone.

"You shouldn't keep so much to yourself," he said, working Angel's cock slowly in his fist. "No reason anymore for you to keep yourself apart."

"You don't know—"

"Guess I don't at that. You a prisoner of this place? Can't cross the threshold?"

"Don't be stupid."

"Can't help it, can I?"

"Don't analyze me, Will."

"There's a whole world out there of people who don't even know vampires exist. Go find yourself one of them. Live this life they gave you."

Angel caught Spike's mouth with his, jerked him around by the shoulders. "Shut. Up."

Spike let himself be guided backwards, toppled over. Angel's kisses were fierce; his grip would leave bruises.

Not that Spike ever stayed bruised for long.

The whole thing was over very quickly. Spike guessed it was about two and half minutes from lubing up to shooting, Angel sunk into him at an awkward angle he didn't bother to protest, then rolling off, huffing hard, to stare at the ceiling.

"Ah, love's young dream. Well well. Always wanted to know what it was like to go with a drunken Dublin shirtlifter, an' now I do."

"S'been a while."

"But you've forgotten how?"

"Spike. Not helping."

"Oh, is that what I was meant to be doing? I thought we were havin' a fuck."

"I think you'd better go after all."

"Yeah, you'd like that, wouldn't you? Could blame this whole farrago on me. Nuh-uh. You asked me to come to bed, an' we're goin' to do our bed business good an' proper."

"I don't ... I can't ...."

"Right. Not what you used to be. But then, you never were."

"Nothing is the same."

"Yeah, but you're twenty-soddin'-six. Just like Harris. Harris managed three goes at my ass in a night, an' so can you."

"And the mental image of Xander in the nude is really gonna make that happen."

"What, you never fancied him? He was always a tasty morsel. Got a bit pudgy for a while there before I sacrificed myself for all mankind, but you should see him now. Probably wouldn't recognize him. And he's got an admirable todger."

"If all you're going to do is talk about your other man, then I'll go."

"He's not my—" Funny, how this worked. How he could be minding his own business, say running his mouth off in his ex-Sire's bed, when whoomp! it clocked him: Harris had gone. Harris, whom he used to despise and whom he still didn't exactly love but whose snarky remarks, warm hard body, and generous sexual favors he'd grown to ... okay, yeah. He loved all that. Who wouldn't?

Couldn't bear it if all that was gone. All at once he was picturing Harris wandering off into the dark alone, finding some lonely place to destroy himself. All the kinds of violence he could do to snuff himself out. The fierceness of the pain that could make him—who had always been so monumentally brave—unable to go on.

Shit. Spike's erection, and his will to badger Angel, wilted. He laid an arm across his eyes. Maybe the old man would fall asleep and he could just sneak out.




"Oh God. Oh God. Oh God. Spike—there—there—Oh God."

"See? Told you any man's better for gettin' his arsehole properly rummaged. An' you're no exception."

"Shut up and fuck. Oh God. FUCK. This is—"

"—more like it. Yeah. Oh you're lovely. Nice an' hot an' tighter than a gnat's esophagus. What a sweet lay you turn out to be, our Liam."




"Eat it."

"No."

"Eat it, Liam."

"Spike, I can't."

"An' I say you can."

"I'm full. Really. I already—"

"Not goin' to watch you bloody deny yourself while I'm here. Eat the last one 'fore it congeals."

Angel took the barbecued spare rib Spike was thrusting at him, and bit into it. "When did you develop this weird mother hen thing? You weren't this bad when we were at Wolfram & Hart."

"Dunno. Hate everybody, but that gets boring, so I try an' take an interest."

Angel looked up then, squinted at him across the stained take-out cartons.

"And that works for you? I mean, no one sticks around with you when the going gets tough, do they? Dru threw you over, Buffy abandoned you in the hellmouth, and your friend Xander seems to have preferred suicide over your company."

"You may say that. But meanwhile I've been gettin' more trim than you seem to be before tonight."

"Before ... you said you loved me."

This was the kind of non-sequitor he didn't associate with Angel. But then this whole situation was pretty fresh. "I know you're new to catchin', so a word in your ear: whatever a fellow says when he's shooting, best not to hold him to it."

Angel appeared unabashed. "Except I think you did mean it. Before the battle, when we ... I know you were involved, Spike." He took a breath. "We were involved."

Angel rose, came around the table. Grabbed Spike by the biceps and pulled him out his chair, so he could speak right into his ear. His warm breath tickled as he murmured, "I'm feeling some renewed involvement now."

"Feeling it, or wantin' to feel it?

"Both."

"That a fact?"

"Come back to bed, Will. Like you said, I find there's more where that came from."




"It's not enough. Nothing's enough anymore."

"You're alive." Spike licked Angel's jism off his fingers. Warm. Still couldn't get over that.

"It's all ... everything moves too fast. Everything's over before I can even get started. Eating, sex. Or else it seems to take too long—I watch The Seven Samurai but all I can think is how I'll never get that two hours back. My body ... things cramp, ache. I get tired. My eyes get bleery. I lift weights for two hours a day every single day, and I'm ... weak. I get a cold every three weeks. Last winter I had the flu for a month. I remember, with my whole body and mind, how I felt before, and now ... it's like I'm cut off at the knees. But what I was before was unclean. I've been purified and forgiven and set free, so why ...."

"Why aren't you happy? Oh, it's a puzzle."

"I'm ... confused."

"So it seems."

"You think I like admitting this to you? You're the only one who ... the only person who knows me."

"First of all: not a person. Big bad vampire, here. Second of all, you're forgetting there are people who know you. They reside on different continents, that's all. There's this new-fangled invention though, that—"

"That's out of the question."

"Right. So brings us back to: make some new friends. Just don't ask me how, because we all know I've never been an expert in that field. Though fairly sure that involves leavin' the flat. Or at least gettin' on the internet."

"Maybe ... maybe you turning up now means something. I mean—here I am with all the knowledge at my fingertips, and here you are, with the—"

"Fabulously buff body."

"Well, that too, but I was referring to the mission. Maybe this is supposed to be about resurrecting Angel Investigations. You know, we help the helpless. My role would have to be different, but ...."

Not working for you, ponce."

"Angel and Spike Investigations, then. Fifty-fifty."

"You proposin', lover?"

Angel sat forward, rubbed his eyes. Acting all nonchalant, but Spike could hear his heart, could smell that this was important to him, even though the idea may have just occured. Enormously important—he trembled, waiting for an answer.

And really, what would be the point now of saying no? The Harris interlude was just that: an interlude. He certainly wasn't going to go knocking on the Council's door asking for a job. But ongoing existence required purpose—required marking something in the positive column so his benighted soul would let him enjoy his beer and his wanks and his XBox.

Or, given what Angel was really asking for—enjoying a partnership of expediency—albeit sexy expediency—with his ex-sire.

This was a nice flat. And already all vamp-safe. Convenient, that.

"Yeah, could do. Go ahead an' order the business cards."

When Angel looked at him now, there was a light in his eyes Spike hadn't seen before. He looked like ...

... he'd been rescued.

"I think this is how it's meant to be. And it'll be good, Will. Upstairs, and down here. You'll see."

"Gives us a kiss then, to seal the deal."

Angel kissed him, and went on to break the Harris record. Spike promised himself he wouldn't think of Harris anymore.

Fate had led him here.




When he awoke, Spike could smell the sunset. He was alone in the bed. But he could hear Angel upstairs, moving around. Was he imagining it, or did his tread sound different? Lighter, quicker?

The apartment smelled like fresh coffee. Spike poured a cup. Looked in the fridge, but of course there was no blood there. He'd have to go out—go home—for some. Could use some fresh clothes too.

When he came upstairs, Angel was actually talking to a customer. A quite normal looking man who was seeking an old tome only tangentially related to demonics.

He gave Spike a glance, a quick smile, as he went on with his conversation.

Look at you, all suave an' professional, Spike thought. "Goin' out for a bit."

Angel nodded.

Might as well start to pack up—he wouldn't need to keep the other flat. As he walked back towards it, Spike took a mental inventory of what he'd take and what he'd leave. There wasn't much he cared about besides his clothes—the XBox, maybe the stereo, a couple dozen books.

He'd just leave the furniture for the landlord. Didn't want anything to remind him of Harris. Best to put that firmly in the past, along with his other dubious conquests.

Partnering up with Angel wouldn't be so bad. Might look up Vi, see if they could work some sort of slayer's auxiliary thing. Plenty of work for everybody within the city limits, right?

Not bad at all.

Letting himself in, Spike headed straight for the fridge. After all that fucking, he was famished.

"Spike. Man, where have you been?"




Xander rose from the kitchen table so fast that his chair overturned with a crash. Closed the space between them in two bounds, reaching for Spike's arm.

But his hand fell away before making contact. He stood stock still, mouth half open, like he'd been hit with a freeze-ray.

He looked—exactly the same. Enough stubble to suggest a real beard. Maybe a little more tan, if that was possible. Hair a micron longer. He smelled sourly of unwashed sweat, adrenaline, and beer—three empty bottles stood on the table, their labels peeled off and shredded into bits.

He'd only been gone for the inside of a week—not even—but he might as well have been brought back from the dead.

"Where've I been? Where'd you sodding go?"

"I'm sorry. I—it's hard to explain. I will explain. If you—I mean, if you still give a shit. You're probably going to throw me out, and that's perfectly understandable, because I've done nothing but jerk you around from the beginning of this—this—whatever it is we have. Or had. Because I dunno if we still have it anymore. I think I've blown it this time. So maybe I should just go."

He jerked into motion, dodging around Spike, who had to move vampire-fast to block the kitchen doorway. Xander stopped just short of colliding with him.

No touch.

"Don't go. Fucking hell, I thought you were dead." Every one of Spike's nerve ends was singing, a chorus of relief and anxiety—Harris was alive, Harris had come back, but it might still all be wrong, and Harris might yet leave again. It was like ants marching beneath his skin. He had to restrain a powerful urge to vamp out, as if somehow that would relieve the unbearable emotional itch.

"I almost was." Xander backed up to the table, dropped into a chair like his strings had been cut. Cradled his head in both hands. "Shit. I really almost was."

"What happened?"

"God, Spike. When I got back here and you were gone ... I didn't know what to do."

Slowly, Spike came towards him. Xander looked up. His eyes, the real one and the false one, were both glassy with tears. It felt wrong that he should stand over him, so Spike dropped into a crouch.

When Spike laid a hand on his thigh, a thrill ran through Xander, almost a spasm.

Under the tan, he was pale, the corners of his mouth quivering and ticcing. "You should probably tell me to leave. I'm all fucked up. I'm ... I'm sick. Probably not such fit company for a soul-carrying do-gooding vampire."

Spike answered gently. As wrought up as he was, he knew he had to conceal that, had to keep Xander calm. He was brittle as a dry stick. "What makes you say that?"

"It's my fault. It's totally my fault. You didn't want me to do it. The patrolling thing. That was bad. Bad."

"Seein' the slayers."

"Spike, I wanted to hurt those girls. I wanted to kill them. I mean, not just in the 'oh, I could so kill you' way. In my head, I was hacking them up. I ... I know what it feels like. To hack a person to death. I've done it." Xander touched his own upper arm, pressed on it, gingerly. "What it feels like to raise the machete, the heft of it, the blows, you feel it here, in the muscle, the resistance and how the flesh gives way and then how the knife drags as you pull it out. How the blood splatters your face. The sounds." He winced, as if splashed by something hot and wet. "Oh God. It was so vivid, it was like I was doing it all over again."

"So you ran."

"I can't ... I can't be around them. That power they have, that thing, I don't even know what to call it, but I feel it now, the way I never did back when it was just Buffy and Faith. You must know what I mean, but I kinda hope you don't, because no one should have to feel that. No one."

"Harris—"

"I had to get away from there. Watching you talk to Vi, like she was just a friend ... I couldn't stand it. But I couldn't get away from myself."

"Where've you been, then?" Spike laid his hand again on Xander's leg. Again he felt that deep tremble, like it was all Harris could do not to shoot up and run.

I went up the coast. There's a place that has cliffs over the sea. I wanted to jump. I could see myself getting dashed to pieces on the rocks and that seemed like the best thing left for me. The right thing for me. I couldn't get there fast enough."

Xander took up one of the beer empties, turned it in his hands. "I spent a whole night out on that edge. Listening to the ocean, looking down. There was a moon, it was so bright, I could see everything. See those sharp rocks that were going to take me out of myself. The water crashing against them, over and over, the white spume flying up. All I had to do was sail." He swallowed hard. Set the bottle firmly down. "I really thought I needed to die. To just ... stop. Because they, those slayers in Africa, ruined me, and I am ruined, and no good for anything anymore." The tears ran down his face, into his beard stubble, though he didn't seem to feel them. "I was going to jump. But then. I realized something."

"What's that?"

"I thought of you. How ... how far you've come. How kind to me you were for no good reason I could think of, because I've been nothing but shit to you even after you changed. And I knew, even though it felt so hard for me to believe. That if I didn't come back, you would suffer. And I didn't want you to suffer, on my account."

Harris turned then in the chair, turned to face Spike head on, and slipped down, onto the floor, level with him. The one brown eye looking at him, regarding him with a wild bewilderment, like a tormented dog.

"Remember how grossed out we always used to be when you'd say you loved Buffy? Because monsters can't love, they shouldn't, their love is foul, the whole idea is obscene and disgusting. No one wants to hear it. No one with a soul, wants to know that some unclean .... You don't want to hear it."

"Hear what, pet?"

"... that ... that when it came to throwing myself onto those rocks, I couldn't do it, because ... I thought it might hurt you more for me to disappear, than if I came back and told you. Even though you really don't want to hear ... hear that I'm in love with you."




Spike wanted to ask him to repeat this. So he could be sure he'd really heard what the ants inside him, the ants singing beneath his skin, were already sure of. But there was no chance to ask a question, because the question now was whether Harris was going to spring up and hit the ceiling, or heel over and vomit. But when Spike pulled him in, Xander's arms went around him tight, his body rolling with hard choking spasms. In another moment they were sprawled half under the table, and Xander was moving against him in a way that wasn't sexual but seemed to be some approximation of climbing inside. Xander bit hard into the tendon at the base of Spike's throat, as if every part of him was hanging on against being ripped away.

It hurt, but the pain was good, it helped clear his head.

Kept him from being washed away into some sympathetic agony, as Harris writhed and groaned.

When Xander finally went limp, Spike could feel blood trickling down into his shirt. The bite wound smarted.

"It's all right now, Harris. Did the right thing. No cliff, no rocks."

"The right thing?" He sounded whoozy, like he was emerging from ether.

"Comin' back to me."

He wasn't going to hold Harris to his mad declaration.

But it was good ... so damn good ... to hold him.

"You don't need this, though. You don't need this."

"What, a beautiful dark-eyed half-crazy hysteric? Been too long since I had one."

Xander raised his head. He touched Spike's neck, turning his jaw a little to see better. "God, look what I did. I bit you." Then he looked closer. "What's all ... you have these marks all around your neck. Have you been fighting? What made these?"

"Have a bit of a tale of my own to tell, pet, won't lie. But it can wait a bit."

"When I came back and you weren't here."

"Yeah?"

"I thought you left. I was sitting here thinking my last chance was gone."

"When did you get back?"

"I ... I don't know. A few hours. I thought I'd never get to tell you, to try to show you—"

"Was just out for a bit. That's all."

"I feel sick."

"You're thirsty an' could use a wash. C'mon."

"Why're you so nice to me?"

"I'm not. Just want to make you fat an' complacent so when I tear out your throat, you'll taste extra sweet." Spike drew Xander out from under the table. Poured him a glass of water, which he swallowed as if it was a thimbleful, then took a blood bag from the freezer. As he moved to put it in the microwave, Xander stopped him.

"Let me."

Spike watched him pop the microwave door, set the bag inside. "All those years of watching cooking programs on cable," Xander said, pressing the buttons, "finally pay off when you can fix a nice meal for the object of your oh-so-twisted affection."

This wasn't entirely flattering, and Harris looked like utter hell, but that he could still venture a joke made Spike's dead heart swell with gratitude.

While the blood heated they both leaned on the counter, a few feet apart. Xander drank more water, and stared at nothing.

But when the microwave dinged he moved first, retrieving the bag, slitting it open, pouring the blood into a mug.

"You look like you're hungry."

"Am, yeah."

Spike drank it down quickly, because he was empty, and because Xander looked like he'd topple in another moment.

Spike guided him, lurching, towards the bathroom. Where Harris pissed like a stallion, filling the smallest room with a heavy fug. Spike breathed it in, glad even for that, and got the shower going.

"There. Leave you to it. "

"Don't—don't leave. I can't let you leave."

"Won't then." Spike lowered the toilet lid, sat down. Watched as Xander undressed with tremorous fingers. His clothes were streaked with dirt. Spike could smell the brine from being near the ocean. Harris may have been there more than one night—he smelled like it. Lurking on that cliff, without food, maybe without much water. Getting burned by the sun, the wind, by his raging thoughts.

When he'd stripped off, Xander just stood, swaying slightly, until Spike rose, shed his own clothes, and drew him under the shower spray.

"I want to wash you," Xander said. "Can I do that?"

"I'd think you'd want a quick rinse and then go to bed. You're about to drop."

"Please, I want—"

"Sure, pet. Whatever you like."

Xander didn't use the washcloth, just soaped up his hands and applied them to Spike's body. Spike stood still beneath the hot spray, his throat tight and eyes stinging, as Xander touched him in a way he'd scarcely ever been touched before. Perhaps the nursemaid who'd washed him as a baby had done so this tenderly, but Spike couldn't remember.

Xander knelt and soaped his feet, up his legs. Head bowed, but when he reached the upper thighs, he looked at Spike's cock, looked at it like it was a face he was studying, to know better, to understand. Spike had to tip his head back, fang out and bite his tongue, to keep from getting hard as Xander lathered his pubic hair, his ballsac, his prick. Getting hard now would be bad. Spike wasn't sure how he knew that, but he did.

"Oh God."

Harris's hands went still, then slid away.

"You ... you have marks all over you. There's ... there's teeth marks on your hip. You've been with someone else."

It took a moment, over the rush of the falling water, and Spike's own intake of breath, to realize that Harris had begun to cry.




Spike shut off the water. In the sudden silence, Xander let out one loud sob, then sniffed hard, jerked back. "Proving once again that I'm the world's biggest loser. I had it all wrong. I thought you—but no, the minute I step out, you're off shagging the next one. It means nothing to you."

"Harris—"

"No! I get it, all right? Why would you want me? I'm too busted up to be fun even for you!" He batted Spike's hand away, leapt to his feet. They were both still soapy; as he started out of the tub, Xander slipped, and Spike caught him. They fell back against the tile wall, half falling, half sliding to the bottom. Spike kept Xander from hitting too hard. Held onto him, though he struggled.

"Listen to me. Got the wrong end of it. So just bloody listen. I have been with someone else. I was going to tell you soon's as you'd had a bit of rest. But it's not like you think."

"Gosh no, how could it be?"

"At first I thought you'd gone to get a drunk on, that you'd come back in a few hours. When a day went by without you, I was afraid. Decided to do a locator spell, find where you were so I could fetch you back. Found an occult bookshop nearby, went there for some info so I could do the spell. But I couldn't find you. Not in LA, not in 10 states. You were off the map. And so I had no choice but to think you'd changed your mind about all this, an' flown off back to your people. Or that ... that you were dead. Either way, was convinced you were finished with me."

"So you just went out and found the first warm body who'd cover you in hickies?"

"This book shop ... look, I know you won't like this. But I'm not gonna hide anything from you. Turns out ... turns out Angel didn't die in the big LA apocalypse of ought-five. He's alive. Human. He was there in the shop."

"Angel. Oh, this story is getting so good. Wait a minute, I want to make some popcorn."

"Harris, just listen. Know you hate Angel. But he an' I ... we go back a long time. He's my sire. That's a thing goes beyond love an' hate. But for a little while—was just a few weeks, really—in ought-five, before the big battle, we were involved. It was very intense for me. New things happened between us—an' things that were as old as our history together. I've been mourning him all this time. Never mentioned it to you because it didn't seem right thing to bring up. So when I walk into this place and there he is—and then I have good reason to believe you're not comin' back ...."

"Oh. Oh sure. You just happen to fall on top of him when you're both naked. Or does he fall on top of you? And fuck, I cannot believe that shitbird is human when there's all these rats that are still rats."

Spike felt so full of things to say, explanations and commiserations and pleadings, that he couldn't say anything. He was consumed by conflicting impulses—to knock Xander out with one blow to his head. To bend him over the sink and fuck him 'til he bled. To take him to bed, fold him in his arms and sleep. He had to steel himself, to remain still, calm.

"Why do I go on trying to play with the big kids? The demons, the slayers, everything that can stomp me into a bloody paste, I'm right there with the please-sir-may-I-have-another. The villains make lousy lovers, but you know what? So do the heroes. So do the heroes. They don't even see what's so far below their big clompy hero feet."

Xander struggled up, turned the water back on. Didn't glance down at Spike, who didn't move. The water, too hot, punishing, sluiced over him too. When he cut it off again, Spike wanted to cry out.

"Harris—Xander. This doesn't need to be about hurtin' you if you don't let it."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means that—"

Harris wagged a finger. "You think I'm an idiot, don't you? Here I am, dopey little human Xander, going up against the clash of the vampire titans—or ex-vampire titans. You've got this whole mystical-fristical relationship to Angel's dong, which I must imagine is huge and stupid like the rest of him, and you want me to know that this goes back a hundred-fifty years and it's a demon thing and I wouldn't understand. And to make matters worse, I'm the kind of guy who learned everything he knows from girls, so along with the cocksucking I want the faithfulness and the trust and the knowing my man isn't going to let some other guy gnaw on him the second I wander off to kill myself. But then I pick a man who isn't, and I wonder why it never works."

Okay, now one feeling sorted itself out of the spaghetti and stood up proud on its hind legs. Spike's bumps wanted to spring up, he was ready to growl. "Bein' a trifle unfair here, aren't you, pet? You bugger off an' I can't find you. I came upon Angel while I was seekin' you, you git. Got good reason to believe you've done away with yourself, an' there's nothing I can do about it. Any idea how that makes me feel? After bein' braced with you every second, waiting for you to to disappear again? An' there he is, an' yeah, sorry to say Angel means something to me. You're dead or gone or both, an' there he is out of the clear blue sky, an' we've got unfinished business. Never would've gone there if you'd stayed put an' talked to me stead of running. Not blaming you for what you felt, it's hell, I know it is. But you're paintin' me going with Angel as a betrayal, an' I'm saying it's not true."

Xander stared at him while he talked, and went on staring when he stopped. Staring long into his turn to talk, his mouth agape, expression nearly blank.

This sitting in the tub was getting old, so Spike got up, grabbed for a towel. Harris backed up to give him room. Why, Spike wondered, did he end up having these horrible confrontations with his lovers in bathrooms? He wanted out of here. "Move."

But Harris didn't move. He put a hand on the knob and leaned against the door. "Are you telling me that if ... that if I hadn't gone, and you ran into Angel anyway—"

"—I wouldn't have touched him. Yeah, that's what I'm saying. Because I'm with you. Even though you keep reminding me that me bein' undead is an issue for you."

Xander blinked. "Uh, except when you fuck me with your fangs out. Then it's more of a feature than a bug."

"Gettin' tired though. Gotta admit, Harris, anyone'd wonder when a fellow tells him he's in love, just who it is he imagines he's in love with. An' what for."

For a moment Xander was looking anywhere but at him. But when he raised his head, fixed Spike with his good eye, that eye was clear. "Okay. Balls on the table here, because, by now, why not? Worst that can happen is that I'll die, and I can do that."

"Balls on the table."

"I am fucked beyond the telling of it. I am so far past being allowed to put judgments on anybody, I'm not even on the same planet. But yeah, I try to let that go, the despising you for a demon thing, and it won't entirely go. Maybe it never will. But it's not like I adore me either. That's what I'm saying. I meant it when I said I'm no good. But ... but I want to be with you. When I left, I felt so ... bereft, alone ... but that's not all it was. It was you I wanted. Craved. Not anybody else. I came back to you. And this isn't only a sex thing. Sex is part of it. Okay, a huge part. But it's you. I've got this need going in me, that's only satisfied by being where I can see you and touch you and talk to you. Knowing that Angel was inside you—it shatters me. Spike, it just ... it shatters ...."

Spike wasn't quite sure which of them moved first, but Xander was in his arms, his mouth scorching, tongue invading. Propelling him back against the sink, so Spike's head hit the mirror with a sharp crack, and Xander's hands closed around his jaw and held him in place for hard demanding kisses without end. They were both hard now, erections prodding through the toweling.

Spike grasped Xander's wrists, wrenched them away. "Love—yes—but stop a bit. Have to—"

"What? It can wait!" Xander breathed like he was running a race; probably without even realizing it, he was grinding his cock against Spike's belly.

"No. Wouldn't be right. Not yet. Angel thinks I went out to get a few things, that I'm coming back. I have to tell him it's not going to be like he expects."

"Oh God." Xander went pale, so he was nearly green under the deep bronze. Pale and all at once skatty, breathing and pulse gone all wonky.

This was the crash. Spike caught him as he started to slide. "You need to lie down. You're done in." He swung Harris up, carried him to bed. He didn't protest, and when Spike laid him down, didn't move.

There wasn't much to eat in the kitchen—Xander was more partial to spontaneous take-out than laying in groceries. Spike spread peanut butter onto a few slices of bread, brought them back with another tall glass of water.

"You eat this up, and then go to sleep. I'm going to go talk to Angel. I will be back here when you wake up. You don't need to worry 'bout that."

Xander was nearly breathless. "I don't need to worry that you're going back to your sire? The one with all the history? Oh yeah, I won't worry."

"Harris. Stop bein' a dick. You can start trustin' me by trustin' me."

"It's just ... you have all this power. That I gave you." Harris's eyelashes were so long. Spike noticed that now—noticed it again. The way they fluttered as his eyelids drooped. "To hurt me."

"I know it. I'll be back to hurt you real slow an' sweet, hurt you for hours in every way I can. In a little while. You rest up now, so you'll be good for me. Can't hurt you when you're half dead like this."

He rose, but Xander plucked at his arm. "Spike. If you want him more ... I'm saying, don't come back here if it's just because you feel obligated. Obligation sucks."

"Gonna be plenty sucking when I get back an' none of it'll be obligatory. No more now. Go to sleep."





Instead of going straight to Angel's, Spike ducked into the narrow old diner around the corner. Took the back booth, the only one that wasn't next to the big plate glass windows where he had no reflection against the dark. Ordered a cup of joe and a slice of pie from the waitress who always did the winky thing with him when he came in late at night.

When she set the pie in front of him, and they'd done their obligatory 30 seconds of flirting, Spike took his phone out of his pocket and looked through his wallet for the contact info from Dawn.

It was something like four in the morning in Cambridge, but it was time to use it.

"Hullo, Bit? Spike here. 'Scuse me for skippin' the pleasantries, but need to get in touch with big sis ASAP."




He was finishing his third cup of coffee when the diner door slammed open with a clap like thunder. Which was unusual, since it was one of those slow heavy glass ones.

But then, that was a pretty typical kind of entrance for a furious Slayer.

And here she was, just forty minutes from phone call to five foot two of the Wrath of God, marching towards him between the booths and the row of empty stools.

Her punch knocked him against the boothback like he was a rag doll. Luckily the place was empty, and his flirty waitress was in the kitchen.

"I can't believe you're alive and you never told me!"

"See, it's convenient an' all, but never will get used to this instantaneous teleportation thing," Spike drawled, blinking to dispense with the circling birdies.

Buffy pouted. "I know. I just had to throw up in the trash can on the corner. And then get some chewing gum, because yuck."

"No fear. Smell minty fresh from here."

"Like I'm going to kiss you!"

This would've been a fraught topic for him even six months ago, but now it was almost academic. His passion for her was ... not exactly gone, but moved so far down the queue that any number of other heavy things would have to shift around before it might be reinstated. He hoped he wasn't going to have to explain that to her. Probably not. Almost certainly she was just glad his attention was focused elsewhere.

She hadn't meant it, what she'd said in the Hellmouth. Never believed she had.

"No fear of that either. S'not why I asked you to come here in such a hurry."

"Dawnie said it was a big vague end-of-the-world thing," Buffy said, throwing her weekender bag into the booth and sliding in behind it. "I believe the phrase she used was Spike's got his knickers in a huge twist, and he doesn't even wear knickers. Which I have no idea how she knows that."

"There was an unfortunate forgettin'-to-knock incident that summer you were dead. She missed my Main Attraction though, so don't worry. Listen, Slayer. This is about Xander."

"Xander. Xander Harris? How do you have anything to do with Xander?"

"Dawn said you've been slaying a lot in exotic places, so I guess you're not up on what a bad way he's fallen into."

"What, you're accusing me of being a bad friend? You? Are accusing me?"

"If you'd just listen! Not sayin' that! It's not your fault. It's his. He's so flayed."

"I guess it's really bad then, if you're trying to get him help."

Spike had been leaning forward, hands on the table, but now he sat back, as far from her as he could get. "An' you wonder why I didn't tell you I was still alive."

Buffy's brow wrinkled. "Okay, that came out way more harsh than what I meant. I meant—you and Xander were never buds, so it's like ... like if Principal Snyder suddenly called me up and said Xander needed help. Except, Snyder really is dead." Buffy glanced around, then gave a little leap in her seat. "Xander isn't dying, is he? Where is he? Oh God, are you evil again? Is he your hostage?"

"What, just because I'm not clamorin' to kiss you, I'm evil?"

"I don't know! I don't know what this is! I thought you were dead! There's too much to take in!"

"This is me knowin' how much you cherish Harris, an' he cherishes you. He needs you, Buffy, but he's too strung out to tell you himself."

Again, her brow wrinkled. "Needs me? Needs me how?"




Now she was really listening, really honed in. He told her—well, almost everything. Left out the sex. She didn't need to know that to get the gist of the situation, and he wasn't sure if Xander was out, or would want Buffy to know what they had going. And much as it burned him to be the dirty little secret to yet another Scooby, he'd made up his mind when he summoned her that he'd let Xander decide if and when Buffy would be let in on that particular truth.

Buffy accepted, without much more than a murmur and a little frown, that Xander, having run across Spike by chance, accepted his hospitality in the same spirit he's once extended his own—gross expediency. And that after the debacle with Willow witching him off against his will, he'd returned in the same manner—because it seemed to him that he had nowhere else to go.

"Look, terrible thing is this. Harris identifies with me now. Since he's killed. Doesn't matter that it wasn't his fault, that he was a magical puppet with a machete. He's all spun around. And because it was slayers that used him, made him chop up innocent people in their way, he's spun around about them too. He's all clogged up with this filth, so he thinks he's the filth."

As Buffy heard this, her eyes went round and bright with gathering tears. "I didn't know. I mean, I knew things in Africa didn't go well, but I didn't know this. What you're telling me."

"No way you could've. But here's what I'm thinkin'. When I was possessed by The First, you helped me square what I done under its influence, let me and everyone else know I was worthy to be part of your fight. Harris saw all that, it impressed him. Now you can do the same for him. Let him know he's still Xander, still has a right to his life, a purpose. Doesn't have to throw himself away. He'd believe it if you showed him its so."

Buffy's lip tremblied. She sucked it beneath her teeth, caught up Spike's coffee spoon, and tied it into a neat bow. Once more in command of herself, Buffy met his eyes. For a moment, hers softened, she gave him one of those rare looks he remembered, the kind he used to treasure up for days.

"I see I was right about you," she said. Quiet. Convinced. "You have turned into a good man."

Spike picked up the knotted spoon. Pash or no pash, it was overwhelming to hear her say that, to be bathed in the slayer's affectionate gaze.

But when she laid a hand on top of his, he drew his away.

Slowly, so it wouldn't feel too much like a rebuke.

The moment was definitely over. Buffy took up her bag. "Okay, let's go. Take me to him."

"Uh ... yeah. Not so fast. Can't just spring you on him, Buffy, not after what happened with Willow, an' then when we ran into Vi an' those other slayers."

"He'd freak?"

"Could do. I need to get his permission. Think I can. You bein' Buffy will outweigh you bein' a slayer. Knowing you came from other side of the planet for him—that'll get through, I know it will. But you need to give me 'til tomorrow to sort it out. Can put you in a cab now, get you to a hotel. An' we'll talk in the morning. That suit you?"

"Well ... I guess so. I'd like to see Xander as soon as possible."

He could see there was still some suspicion in her eyes.

"Even if I wasn't leery of just dropping you on him, tonight would be too soon. He's exhausted. He's asleep in my flat. Whole thing will go better tomorrow."

"Okay. If I don't hear from you by noon, I'll call."

"You'll hear."

He followed her to the door, where she paused, a hand on the thick glass handle, now cracked from her big entrance. "Spike. I don't know if you care any more. I'm getting the idea that: not so much. Which is, okay, your choice. But just for the record: I meant it. You know what I'm referring to."

"I know, slayer."

"Topic for another time, I guess."

"Another time."

"Good night, Spike. Thank you. For helping Xander. If it's anything like how you helped me, I know ... I know ..." She blushed. "It's very helpful. Okay, bye."

She darted out, and was halfway up the block before he had money out to pay the check. Still, she was the slayer, so no particular need to flag down a taxi for her. Probably she'd walk around, have a think, maybe find something to slay before she went to a hotel.

She'd be fine. She always was.

He glanced at the clock above the counter as he left his tip. It was just coming on for eleven. Plenty of time to have his sad little chat with Angel and be in bed with Harris long before he woke.





AAAAAA Occult, Curious & Rare Books was dark.

The door was locked, and a small card affixed to the glass said, in Angel's old-fashioned writing, Closed this evening. Open tomorrow at noon.

Spike knocked on the door, but there was no movement inside. He walked around to the alley, bent to knock at one of the low windows of Angel's basement apartment.

Again nothing.

He stilled himself, listening. There was no one inside.

Sire had gone out.




Spike heard the voices inside his flat as he left the elevator and walked the carpeted hallway to his door. They weren't raised—if anything, they were rather low.

Xander wasn't alone.

Had Buffy done an end-run on him?

Except he hadn't told her his address. She only had his mobile number.

When he reached the door, Spike knew.

And almost busted it down going in.

Xander and Angel both started to their feet when he came into the room.

They'd been sitting as far from each other as was possible—Xander on the second-hand leather sofa, Angel on a chair in a corner they never used.

Xander, in pajama bottoms and bedhead, looked sleepy and sick still, like he had the flu.

Angel said, "I came looking for you. Was going to help carrying stuff back."

Xander said, "His ringing woke me up. I came to the door, I thought it was you. Forgot you'd have a key."

Couldn't quite read the signature of the scene. Xander was simmering, anxiety crackling around his edges—nothing like the state he'd been in before, but not quite calm. Spike wanted to take his hand, give it a squeeze. But somehow he didn't think Xander would like that, in front of Angel.

"So you've been havin' a chat?"

Xander looked up at him as he came near, with that tinge in his good eye of the mute suffering animal. A tinge that made him want to turn on his sire and punch his lights out.

"Angel told me—"

"Harris, listen, never mind what he might've told you. I'm not walkin' out on—"

"No! Angel told me this scar on my hip is part of what's making me so crazy."

"What?" Spike wheeled. His first idea was that Angel was fucking with Xander—because he was vulnerable. Because he was Xander.

But Angel sat forward, blocky and defensive, elbows on knees, hands clasped. The opposite of an Angelus stance. He looked at his hands when he spoke. "I saw the scar as soon as Xander opened the door. He wasn't ... uh ... he'd just gotten out of bed. A few years back, AI had a case like this. It's a Tarantalo Mark. It's made by the mystical controller his captor implanted in Xander, to make him do her bidding. While he was under her direct control, it would've been an open wound. Suppurating but never getting any better or worse. The fact that it's scarred over means he's technically free of direct control, but the magical connector is still inside him. It could be reactivated, though the person working the magic would have to be geographically much closer."

"Okay, but this Twinkle cunt's in Africa, an' Harris is never goin' back there, so—"

"Angel said it's got a slow poison thing swinging," Xander said. His voice was dry. Numb.

"That's the real problem. There's a—call it a pellet—inside Xander now. It acts slowly, insidiously. But no one who bears it survives for long."

"What the fuck?"

"They kill themselves," Xander said. "And they take others with them if they can."

"Xander seems to be more resilient than the cases I've already seen," Angel said. "But the pellet must be removed. It's glamoured so it doesn't show on physical examination or images, which is why whoever sewed him up missed it. That's why the locator spell failed too, Xander was mystically cloaked. There's a healer I know here in LA, experienced in this thing. He owes me a favor. He should be able to get it out."

Spike glanced back at Xander. He'd pulled his legs up, and was visibly drooping back towards sleep. Knowing that he was still under a spell, that his behavior was not entirely self-directed, lit Spike up with rage and pride and uncertainty.

Rage because Harris had already taken so much shit. Pride in Xander's strength—he'd managed to resist the loathsome impulses this long.

And uncertainty because if he wasn't himself, then how credible was his desire to be with him?

When he was truly free, wouldn't he want nothing more to do with dark creatures? With him?

"Would like to go back to Africa an' have that Twinkle for my third slayer. Do her proper, no matter how much dirty magic she's got. Still be pickin' her out of my fangs a month later."

Xander groaned, and raised his head as if it weighed a ton. "No. Spike, promise me you won't go anywhere near her."

The raw despair in Xander's voice made Angel fidget. Spike went to Xander, laid a hand on his shoulder. "Not going away from you long as you need me." To Angel he said, "Where's this healer?"

As if in answer, the buzzer sounded.

"That'll be him," Angel said.







The healer, Zyryx, was one of those gliding-around-in-a-long-black-cloak types. He spoke only a clicking popping language Angel had to interpret for them. The cloak disclosed a being far from human—there were clammy tentacles of a bilious paleness, and a large face like a squashed frog, with a huge wet pouting sucker of a mouth, which was never still even when the creature wasn't speaking. Looking at it made Spike's balls want to crawl up into his body.

Xander shuddered at the sight of him, and when Angel revealed that Zyryx would excise the pellet from his hip by sucking it out, he leapt up and tried to make a run for it.

Spike had to sit on him, but Zyryx refused to proceed without, as Angel translated, informed consent of the patient.

"Patient's under a bloody spell! I'm holdin' him down, just do it!"

In the end Harris fainted, possibly due to fright or possibly due to the way Spike was pressing on his diaphragm, and Angel persuaded the healer that now was the time to get the operation over with.

When the demon tentacles wrapped around him and the huge pullulating lips came near Xander's pubic arch, Spike had to turn away. But there was no avoiding the obscene wet smacking sound of the procedure. It went on and on, as if the thing was sucking out the complete contents of Harris's torso.

"What the fuck's takin' so long?" Spike hissed at Angel. When he peeked, Xander was shaking all over, his eyes rolled back to the whites. An erection tented his pajama trousers, but it didn't look like he was enjoying anything.

"It takes as long as it takes. He's not just removing the pellet, he's absorbing the dark magic into himself. Diffusing it. I've seen this before. There's nothing wrong." Angel leaned against the wall, arms crossed, watching the demon as if he was a mechanic working on his car.

"Nothin' wrong! He puts any of those tentacles anywhere near Harris's weddin' tackle, I'll cut 'em off!"

"He's not interested in Xander's prick," Angel said. "That's just you."

Yeah, well," Spike muttered. "Look, Angel—"

At that moment, Zyryx detached himself from Xander with a loud digusting pop like a fart. The growing smell in the room was reminiscent of the same thing, heavy and muggy. Zyryx's body was ungulating now, like some gross undersea animal getting ready to spew a million tiny offspring into the water.

"What's he doin' now? Apart from asphyxiatin' us?"

"This part's where he dispells the magic. Breaks it down."

"Hence the stink."

"Apparently."

The process took a while. Now that Xander was no longer in contact with Zyryx, the spasming stopped. The skin around the scar was stretched and white, but strangely unbroken. His erection went down, and he began to look not so much passed out as asleep.

When the demon announced that he was done, Angel went to show him out. Spike gathered Harris up, and carried him back to bed. Held him, a big warm silky bundle of man, listening to the thub of his heart, soaking up his fevery heat. This might be the last time he'd get to touch him. Xander might wake up and find he was himself again in all the old ways.

Including the self that despised Spike, that would never fuck him even with another man's dick.

"Sleep on, pet. That's the way," Spike murmured, pulling the sheet up over him.




Zyryx had departed, his favor repaid, leaving only a lingering funk that would fade as soon as Spike opened all the windows on the late night air.

"I don't need to stick around," Angel said. "Better go open the shop again." He went to the door. Spike followed.

"I'm glad he didn't die," Angel said, in the same tone he might've said, Beans are on special at Kroger.

"Yeah. Thanks for this."

"Would've done it for anyone."

"Right. What I promised you yesterday. That's off."

"So I gathered," Angel said. He didn't look at Spike. "Good thing I didn't order the cards. Suppose it would've been a backwards move, anyway, trying to start Angel Investigations up again."

"You don't really know about that."

"But I do know who you're on fire for, and it isn't me. Not any more."

"Sorry."

For a moment Angel might've been ready to call him on that limp 'sorry', but at the same time Xander cried out from the bedroom. As Spike ran to him, Angel slipped out.

"Cut the caterwaulin, Harris."

"Spike. I had this dream—there was this—just unbelievably foul—thing on top of me. I can't even des—" Xander's face twisted with revulsion, and then he shot up, grabbed the trash basket, and vomited.

When he'd collapsed back on the bed, covered in sweat and breathing like a caught fish, Spike covered him up again. "You're all right now, Harris. All free." Spike leaned in, not touching him, but close. Close enough to smell his intimate stink, feel his lovely heat. "You'll be on your way soon. Nearly good as new."

But Xander was already asleep again, and couldn't have heard.

After texting Buffy that she'd hear from him again in the early evening, Spike went to lie on the leather sofa, listening to the early morning traffic through the open, draped windows, thinking about the agony of wanting love from these so fragile, so fitful human beings.







Spike woke to find Harris wrapped around him.

Falling down on the big bad predator tip, if you don't even rouse when clumsy Human comes an' lies on top of you.

Xander was sleeping, an arm and a leg hooked around Spike's body, his breath making a warm wet patch on Spike's nape, a semi pressing into the small of Spike's back. His body seemed to hum, vibrating at a high pitch like a smoothly-running machine, throwing off heat. He didn't smell any too good.

It was lovely, though, waking up to this.

Outside the traffic sounds were louder; it was broad day, coming on for noon, Spike guessed. Despite the hour, he wasn't going to disturb Xander; man needed his rest.

And he needed this embrace. Maybe it would turn out to be nothing but a sop, but for the moment Harris's body at least was heavily committed.

Bodies were a funny thing.

I know who you're on fire for, and it isn't me.

How had that happened, Spike wondered. In those weeks before the showdown with the Circle, he was on fire for Angel, Angelus, his big brooding terrible sire. So what was different now? Was it only that Harris came along in between? Or that Angel was human now? Neither of those seemed entirely to explain it.

And what about Buffy? He'd had no chance after their conversation to think about it, but her words, her looks in the diner last night came strongly back now. She'd been angry at him, confused and disappointed, and obviously full of things to say, but the Harris business had distracted her, as it was meant to, Harris being Job One.

He hadn't expected her to say that, about meaning her last words to him.

For the first time it occurred to Spike that maybe, all this time while he'd made sure she wouldn't learn about his survival, she might've been mourning him. Missing him.

Wanting him?

Hardly seemed possible. Certainly wasn't what he'd call right.

But if it was true?

The idea of her filled him still with a nearly insupportable tenderness.

But he felt no more worthy of her than he ever had. No less sure that the choice to leave her be was the right one.

Just never considered that she might feel otherwise.

At his back, Xander stirred. Swallowed, coughed a bit, but didn't retract his embrace.

"Spike." His name was a whisper of breath on his neck.

"Yeah."

"When I woke up and you weren't there, I got scared. Why didn't you sleep with me? It's because I smell like a landfill."

"Just thought you should have your space."

"Do you want your space?" The arm and leg that pinned him stiffened, ready to withdraw.

Spike snuggled back into the curve of Harris's body. "Likin' this."

"I think ... I think that dream about the gut-sucking demon I had last night wasn't a dream."

"That horrorshow healed you. At least so said Angel. How do you feel now?"

"Not ready to go skipping through the daisies."

"But maybe less with wantin' to toss your sweet body onto the rocks?"

"You think I'm sweet?" Xander said.

"For what it's worth."

"Whereas you're ... hot'n'spicy. Like chorizo."

"An' you like chorizo, Harris?"

"I like the hot stuff, oh yeah."

"Guess you are feeling better."

"I really should wash. But I don't want to move."

"No rush, pet. Actually, there's somethin' I need to tell you."

Again the stiffening, and not the good kind. Harris was braced for something bad, and Spike wasn't sure if it would be bad or not. He was almost afraid to say her name.

"Someone important to you's come to LA. She'd like to see you today."

Xander pulled away then, tumbled to the floor, and scrambled up. "No. No way. Not—"

"Not who?" Spike sat up too, full of sorrow.

"Not anyone! Haven't you meddled enough with my so-called friends?"

"Dunno what's happened 'tween you and Red, but Buffy's no so-called. You know how much she cares for you. No way I'm gonna believe that's any different than it was."

"Did you forget that the last time I was near a slayer I—"

"That's supposed to be all over, now you've been sucked out. If you let Buffy come an' see you, you'll know for sure. That the magic is all gone out of you. That you're really free."

"I don't want to see her! How could you go behind my back like this again!"

"Because I'm tryin' to look out for you, you stupid git!"

"I never wanted her to see me like this. How can ... after what I've done, the killings ... I'm not the person she liked anymore ...."

"Wouldn't it be better to let her be the judge of that?"

"She's Buffy. She isn't going to associate with—"

"You'd better let her tell you who'll she associate with an' who she won't."

"You're a shit, Spike!" Xander stomped off towards the bathroom. Spike heard the shower go on.

He washed his own face at the kitchen sink, and heated a cup of blood. While he was drinking it Xander returned, wrapped in a moist robe, smelling better, still angry.

"What about you and Buffy? Because I'm starting to think this is all a diversionary tactic so you can get back into her pants."

"Oh yeah. That'd be quite an obscure plan, even for me."

Though barefoot, Harris kicked a chair. "Like you don't want to! All you wanted for three years was to get over on her! It was disgusting!"

This was too fucking much. Harris's ever recurring nerve had no end! The rage was right there, boiled up behind his eyes, which he knew must be flashing gold. The anger of the chained mastiff, taunted one time too many.

He made quick work of the three empty beer bottles, whipping them past Xander's head to go smash smash smash against the wall. "You're welcome, Harris! Now you're mojo-free, can go right back to hating us evil disgusting things! Think anythin' 'bout me you like—never mind where you'd be if I didn't give you a hand! Good thing Buffy's here now—can compare notes with her 'bout what it's like to work out your demons on a demon! Go ahead! That'll make you feel fine all right!"

Xander looked like he was going to hurl some further insult. But nothing came, and he dropped into one of the kitchen chairs, buried his face in his hands.

"You always hated me. Dunno why I ever spoke to you in that bar." But he did know. Behind the massed boiling rage was the quieter horror, of knowing how he could never tear himself away from those whose hatred so fascinated and attracted him. Something in him that yearned, blind and dumb, to win that hatred round. Harris was like the tar-baby. He was sunk in. Thoroughly mucked up and stuck.

"Shit! Shit! I don't know—!" Xander's voice was muffled behind his palms, but then he threw his hands down, thrusting his head back. His mouth was pulled into a grimace, all self-restraint fallen away in a rush of raw emotion. "I didn't mean that! Okay! I didn't mean it! But I don't know about you! You frighten me! I spill my guts to you, and you don't say anything—! And then you bring Buffy, she's going to want to take me away somewhere and fuss at me, when I just want to stay with you. But I don't know if you want me. You haven't said."

There was a moment of silence, during which Spike could hear Harris's stomach gurgle.

Then he couldn't help it, he roared with harsh laughter. Hadn't said! "You really are the stupidest boy to walk this earth, Harris."

Xander sank down further. He might, at any moment, disappear beneath the table altogether. "My kindergarten teacher told me that the first week of school, and yeah ... it's always been true."

"Lemme lay it out for you in words of one syllable. Not that you fuckin' deserve—"

"I said I didn't mean it! God Spike, let it go!"

"Sure. Sure I'll let it go. What's another insult from you? I'm soakin' in 'em." All at once, Spike felt like he was floating, like he separated from his body, which was leaning, weary and beset, against the counter, while he floated up to the ceiling, to look down at the scene as a detached observer. It was stupid, this flailing, this anger, these wailing reproaches. Stupid, love and desire and trying to communicate to another person when they were all just these empty shells full of idiotic fancies and it was impossible to understand oneself let alone anybody else.

Then Harris got out of his chair and crossed his body over to stand arm's length from where Spike's body stood, and Harris's hand reached out to touch Spike's face. He still looked stupid, supremely sublimely stupid. His blue glass eye made him into some kind of idiotic toy, that would soon wind down and stop. Spike shied from the touch.

From up on the ceiling, he saw it all.

"You thought after that demon guy did his thing on me, I'd revert to type and leave you flat."

When Spike didn't answer, Harris edged a little closer. But his hands stayed down. He eyed Spike sidewise, like he was afraid looking at him straight on would burn his eye.

"And I did. With the reverting. I reverted like a champ." Harris shuffled a bit, like he thought he should withdraw, but was afraid to. Afraid also to come any closer. "Oh God." Sounded like he was talking to someone else. Or himself. "I keep fucking this up. I keep saying the wrong thing. When I'm so sick and scared and tired I need to shut up. Why do I never shut up?"

Spike looked at the broken glass littering the floor. Thought what it would be like, to walk on it barefoot.

"You're going to stop giving me another chance. You should."

Spike didn't answer. Spike watched from above.

"But just one more, okay? Please. Even though I'm stupid."

Harris reached out again, his hand flailing slo-mo towards Spike.

Then Spike wasn't on the ceiling anymore, he was back inside himself. He caught Xander's hand. It was too warm and too dry, like the skin was half-way to leather. Half way to death. Even a demon that big and powerful could only leech out so much of the poison in a person.

There would always be some left.

"Sucks to be you, Harris."

At this, Harris closed his eyes. Swayed, like he was going to swoon out. But when he dropped to his knees, it wasn't a swoon. He laid his face against Spike's fly. Hands on his hips.

Unbuttoned him with his teeth. Tears teeming from both eyes.

And Spike was hard, because this kind of thing—blinding rage and decades of hatred and resentment and disdain and denial—made him hard. A man in tears, beautiful, wounded, lost and drowning in his remorse and self-loathing, made him hard.

Harris welcomed that hardness into his grieving mouth. Sucked Spike in down to the root. Then let the wet shaft go, let it slide across his cheeks, against his ears, into his hair, before encompassing it hungrily again. When Spike fisted his hair, Xander groaned assent, opening wider.

Spike could see he would assent to anything now.

Spike could do anything to him.

But he drew him to his feet. Pulled him close, kissed his wet, sad mouth.

"S'all right, Harris. No call for that. Forget it."

"Really?"

"Yeah."

Then Harris was saying thank you with kisses, and so was Spike.

But being Spike, he had to risk ruining this sweet and sour little reunion, by bringing up the slayer again. "Will you see her?"

"I didn't want her to know any of this."

"If there's anyone strong enough to absorb what happened to you, it's her. Ever think that after all the slayin', she'd welcome a chance to nurture somethin' for a bit instead?"

"No."

"That was the magic thingie, was doin' the driving. But that's gone now. You can think for yourself. Remember what she means to you."

"Spike, I'm still a killer. Those people aren't coming back to life. And I've still got all this shit in my head. I'm still all fucked up. As I just so ably demonstrated."

"I know, pet. You and me both."

This, neither of them needed to say, was why they were here now. Like to like, both seeking with only intermittent hope, to recover from what couldn't be undone.

The slayer had made so much possible for him. Trusting him again when she had every reason not to. Entrusting him with so much. Expecting him to meet her standards. To be a man.

She'd do that for Harris. If anyone could buck him up, make him remember his own goodness, it would be her.

"So you'll see Buffy?"

"I guess I have to."

"That's the spirit."

"Okay." Xander said. He plucked at one of Spike's belt loops. "But first, can I finish sucking you off?"





In Spike's experience, the sixty-nine was a position better suited to fantasy than action—in the doing there was more distraction than satisfaction. But at this moment, when both he and Harris were so eager for one another, both wanting more to give pleasure than receive it, they fell into it without negotiation, devouring each other hot and fast, groaning and thrashing.

Harris came quickly, and the pulsing of his cock in Spike's mouth, the mushroomy taste of him, made him spill too.

They rolled onto their backs, laughing.

"I'm not usually—"

"Nah, that was perfect." Spike pressed a kiss on the hip scar, which was still there, the raised whorls rough and bumpy under his tongue. Now though it had a different look to it, less like some exotic tribal marking, and more like the remnant of some awful accident.

Harris's prick was too sensitive now to bear any further touch, but he continued to play with Spike's, which rose up again almost at once, thick and red-headed.

"Okay, this is a feature that's never gonna get old. How do you do that?"

"Always happens when some sexy fellow handles it like that."

"You really ... you're really turned on by me?"

"No, been fakin' it every time."

"I will ask annoying questions. You might as well get used to it."

"Already am. I've known you a while, as you will recall."

"So ... I don't really want to talk about what you and Angel did while I was gone, because I've got this whole jealous thing working. But ...."

"But if you're askin' how you compare, can tell you I'm well content with what I've got right here. Feelin' right fortunate, I am."

Xander blushed. To cover his embarrassment, he buried his nose in Spike's balls. Delved beneath them, pushing Spike's legs apart. Came up for air. "Can I rim you?"

"Wouldn't say no."

Spike started to roll onto his belly, but Xander stopped him. I want you like this. Put your legs over my shoulders. This is an amazing view. I wish you could see it."

Xander began slowly, licking Spike's balls, then down the stretched seam of his body. Breathing his delicious warm breath against his arse, then giving him just little teasing tongue-flecks that made Spike tense and groan and flex.

"That's it, love. Oh that's good. Oh Christ!"




"That time I walked in on you doing the naked push-ups."

"Was on top of Buffy. She was invisible."

"I know that now. It's not why I bring it up."

Spike waited.

"Seeing you that way got me hard. Afterwards I jerked off, thinking about it. Imagining the parts of your body I didn't get to see. What it would be like if you were on top of me." Xander circled Spike's nipple with the pad of his finger. "That wasn't quite the beginning of me knowing I wanted cock, but it was the most disturbing."

"Been disturbin' the herd for a hundred fifty years. I'm damn good at it."

"Don't take that wrong."

"No pet. I don't. Know how you used to feel about me. Wouldn't hold it against you."

It's different now. And I want you held against me all the time. God I feel sappy right now. Can I ask you something?"

"Sure." Spike was agreeably flattened, stretched out like warm taffy. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had a seeing to like this. Harris had eaten him out like he was a seven course dinner.

"Do you prefer one or the other? I mean, I can't help noticing that in Sunnydale you were always with women. And now—now you seem to be gay."

"The undead don't care 'bout labels. I fuck whom I like. Like cock 'an pussy both. Like I told you t'other day."

"It's just ... the whole time I was with the girls, I always felt like there was something missing. Anya and I had some pretty great sex. I'm not knockin' it. But always in the back of my mind was the idea that it wasn't ... for me, it wasn't ...."

"Got what you like now, do you, pet?"

"Yeah. And I like it when you call me 'pet'. It makes me feel safe."

"Both know you don't always want to feel safe, though."

Xander stared at the ceiling. "I really like the fang face."

"Gets you hot."

"The time might come when I'll offer you a taste. What will you do?"

Spike wasn't ready for this question. What would he do? Didn't even want to think about it.

"I haven't bitten anyone in a long time." Cordelia. She was the last. Sorry for that now, frightenin' her when it was her last day on earth. "S'a slippery slope. To you it's sexy-scary, but to me it's—" Bread and butter.

"I don't want to be a vampire. I just ...."

"Might not be the best notion. Once a vamp—any vamp—gets a taste of a particular person ... sooner or later leads to him finishin' that person off."

"Like with Buffy and Dracula that time? When he put her in thrall? Kept taking little tastes?"

Xander sounded like he might enjoy being in thrall to Spike, or maybe as if he thought he already was.

"A bit, yeah, but Drac went in for a lot of hocus-pocus that the Aurelians used to laugh at him for behind his back. Silly ponce. I ... I just don't want to start playin' blood games with you. With anyone. Was never my thing. An' wouldn't feel right, now ...."

"... you have a soul. Okay. I understand. Maybe ... maybe that's what I hoped you'd say."

Rolling over, Xander climbed across him, kissing Spike's shoulders, nuzzling his neck. When Spike threw his head back, Xander chuckled, nipping at his throat, at the line below his ear that went straight to the groin. Spike was hardening again, and now Harris was too.

"Look, I don't want you to think I'm only here because you're a vampire. Please don't think that. If you got that thing, that Angel got—I wouldn't lose interest in you."

"Right. But you like it, just like you like my tight little bum. S'one of my charms."

"Exactly," Xander said. "One of your myriad attractions for a guy like me who is a big kinky demon-lovin' freak."

Spike wondered what it cost Harris, to finally admit this. Respected him all the more, for not pretending. Either the fascination, or the broad streak of revulsion that still ran through it. The revulsion would probably grow less, if they lasted. But for now Spike thought he could live with it.




"It's cool out. That's good. I like the cool air."

"S'a nice night, yeah."

"And hey—we're walkin' here. You and me."

"How about that." Spike sunk his hands in his pockets.

"And in a few minutes I'm going to see Buffy. Good old Buffy. The dear friend of my youth. My bosom friend. Friend of my youthful bosom." Xander cleared his throat. "How not youthful I feel. No one ever told me you could be twenty-four and feel ancient."

"Was no ancient of days fucked me just now."

"Innocence. Didn't realize how long I kept mine until ...."

"When did you last spend any time with Buffy?"

"When I got back from Africa she was around a little. I saw her at some Council get-togethers. And those were real hootenannies, lemme tell you."

"Can imagine."

"But the last time we had anything like a heart-to-heart was before I went out there the first time. So ... it's been a while."

They were nearing the lighted windows of the all-night diner. Xander stopped.

"I—I don't know if I can do this. I'm not ready. This is all just too ... it's too much."

"Didn't tell her about our thing."

"Wh-what?"

"Leavin' that up you. Needn't tell her at all if you don't like it."

"I—oh."

Xander stood frozen, and his expression made something inside Spike chill up too.

"Better yet—you go in on your own. Nothin' to be afraid of. Don't need me distractin' you both. I'll wait for you at the flat."

Xander grabbed for him. "NO! No ... I can't do this alone. She—oh shit. She used to think I was brave, and—and—decent. Basically decent. When I wasn't leaving my fiancée at the altar. I mean, that was about the worst thing I ever did, and now I'm so far beyond decent there isn't a word for it. I'm someone who should be in prison for life. Who should be marched out somewhere and shot. I don't even know how many I slaughtered. It was a lot, Spike. Children. Women. Pregnant women."

"Couldn't help it, could you? Weren't in control of yourself."

"That's not the point!"

"It is the bloody point. C'mon, she's in there, waitin'." Seizing Harris's elbow, Spike tried to drag him forward.

"No." He sagged. "Really, Spike. I can't. Don't ... don't make me."

"Harris—"

"Xander!"

Too late. There she was. Hastening towards them, in a cute little white belted trenchcoat, a trendy tiny bag dangling from her shoulder, blonde hair streaming, like she was out shopping. When they saw her, Buffy broke into a run, colliding with Xander, going up on tiptoe to throw her arms around him.

"Oh, it's so good to see you!"

"H-h-hi Buff."

"You're late, mister. I was sitting in there starting to feel foolish, so I decided to peek out and see if you were coming."

"Here I am." Xander gave off a mirthless laugh. He was sweating.

Buffy glanced at Spike, eyes brimming and full of questions.

"You're all right now," Spike said. "Get yourselves some coffee, chat a bit."

"Don't go!" Xander said. At the same time Buffy said, "Spike, you don't have to leave."

"Like to give you a bit of privacy. No reason you need your old enemy eavesdroppin' on your—"

Buffy said, "You're not my enemy!"

Grabbing at his arm, Xander said, "I can't do this without you."

That elicited a double-take from Buffy, which Harris didn't seem to notice. They moved back towards the diner, and took Spike's habitual back booth. There was an awkward moment, after Spike and Buffy took opposite seats, when Xander hesitated which side to choose. Then he slid in beside Buffy.

Spike resisted the kick of dismay in his chest. Made no difference, where Harris sat.

Buffy immediately wrapped her arm around Xander's, placing her hand in his. "I wanted to tell you that I'm sorry I've been so out of touch. I get the feeling that I've failed you, that you needed me and I was too far away and busy to know. I told Giles that I'm taking some time off, that I'm going to spend it with you. That is, if you'd like me to. Will told me she tried to bring you home and that didn't go too well. So I'm going to let you tell me what you'd like us to do. I'm at your disposal, Xander."

"I don't know."

Buffy stroked Xander's arm with her other hand. He was looking bilious; beads of sweat dotted his upper lip. "You don't have to know right now. You don't have to say anything or do anything. We can just have pie."

"I can eat pie."

"That's my Xander." Buffy beamed at him. Her manner could've so easily been condescending, emasculating. But all she was, Spike thought, was sweet. Radiating concern and affection like a small sun.

Not always the greatest people person, his slayer, but when she was on, she was on.

The waitress came and took their order. She seemed surprised to find Spike with so much company, and gave him a private inquiring wink. He tapped the side of his nose, which made her snort in amusement as she went off to cut their pie.

"So," Buffy said. "Here we are. In Los Angeles. Maybe tomorrow you and I could go shopping. Get you some new clothes? Retail therapy is my specialty."

"I don't know," Xander repeated.

"Well, or we could go to the beach. Relax. Would you like that?"

"Spike can't go to the beach."

Again Buffy glanced at him, her eyes bright with confusion and inquiry. He avoided them, plucking a menu out of the holder, scanning it, even though they'd already ordered.

"I don't think Spike will mind if we go. He'll ... he'll be asleep, won't he?"

"That's right," Spike said. "Sawin' logs, that's what I'll be."

"No," Xander said.

"Okay," Buffy said. "Who needs all that sand in your pants, anyway? You're right. Not the beach."

The waitress returned then, juggling three cups and saucers and three plates of pie on one arm. As soon as she started to set them down, Xander lurched up, barely avoiding her. "I can't! I can't do this! I'm going home."

Buffy rose to follow, but Xander pushed her down. "Please. Just—I need a little time. Spike, drink your coffee. Okay? Just—a little time."

"You feelin'—feelin'—" Spike couldn't think of an appropriate word. Murderous? Bloodthirsty? Didn't want to say those out loud.

"No. No, really. But I can't stay here now. I've gotta go."

It was all he could do not to follow anyway, not to pull Harris into his arms. But the trust thing, he realized, had to go both ways. Couldn't dog his every step. He said he was going home, so had to believe he really was. Buffy was turned around in her seat, watching Xander bolt to the door, shoot out and away.

"Oh God, he's—"

"In a bad way. Like I told you. He can't reconcile himself to what those bad slayers made him do. They forced him to be an assassin, an' there's ... we both know what that does to a person."

"You know better than I do," Buffy said, sinking back. She stared at her blueberry pie. "I guess ... I guess that's why he's gravitated to you." She frowned. Clearly this still bothered her, there was an unexplained mystery at the heart of what Xander was doing with him.

"I think, despite appearances just now, that he may be over the worst." Spike told her then about the Mark of Tarantalo, about Zyryx. Omitted mention of Angel—that was a detail too many for the situation, and there would be time later to spill those beans.

"Okay, so the bad juju is out of him, but he's still got to live with what he did. That's going to take time."

"Everythin' does. Thought there's no one better'n you to impress him with his worthiness. He'll listen to you. You go on lovin' him, will teach him it's all right to love himself again."

"Sometimes I wonder how much Xander ever loved himself." Buffy stirred her coffee. "Why is everything so hard?"

He wasn't prepared for the sudden way she fixed on him, or for her hand shooting out and grasping his.

"Spike. I know this is maybe not the best time for me to be thinking about myself—about us. But I can't not. Seeing you yesterday—I was so angry—I ...."

He wanted to free his hand, wanted not to feel the insistent heat and pulse of her. But pulling away now would be too much, even he could feel that. "Never meant to hurt you, Slayer. Meant to spare you ... thought you'd be better off in your new life without havin' to ...."

"You didn't believe me. Which, okay, I don't know how you could've missed that I—but it must be my fault. I should've told you sooner. Why didn't I tell you sooner? That last night. Oh God. I was thinking it, every second. Every second."

"Buffy, don't—"

"No. Please, just let me say this. I mean, don't you get it? I need to know ... can we be together? Can we try? Because I want that so much."

Maybe he was under a spell. Some kind of crazy spell that turned everyone who used to disdain him, kick him around, use him for their convenience, into a supplicating lover.

Never in all his life and unlife had he been faced with anything like this.

The sight of Buffy, bright with ardor, made him want to die. How easily, how willingly, he'd die for her! Right now, right here. Let some great hell beast lumber in, he'd ... but it wasn't going to be like that. Nor was he going to be able to split himself in two, so that one Spike could be whatever she wanted, and the other ... the other could follow his own heart. Which, curious and disorienting to realize, was no longer fixed on her.

It belonged to Harris now.

Love was a funny thing. Funny like syphilis.

"Slayer. You're timin's always true in a fight. But now ... kills me to say ...."

"My timing? Oh. Oh." Slowly, she withdrew her hand. Her own became a fist. Such a pretty, tiny fist. "There's someone else." A laugh burst out of her. "God!"

"God an' me still not on such great terms, but, yeah ... there's—"

"I can't believe you did this. I—I just—how? How could you have not let me know you didn't die?"

"Buffy ... I'm sorry."

"Don't say that!"

"Look, when I first came back, I was incorporeal. Was stuck in Angel's evil law office—hauntin' it, like. Tried to leave there, would've tried to go to you, but was impossible. Then when I got my body back, was all ready to set sail for Europe, but ... Angel persuaded me otherwise. An' then the more I thought of it, more it seemed like ... like it was for the best."

She was crying now. Soundlessly, soblessly. Just tears running down her frozen face. Eyes the size of hubcaps.

Had there been a stake handy, Spike would've impaled himself on it.

"I can't believe this. I can't believe this."

She had that same stricken look as when Joyce died. Like nothing in all the world made sense to her.

Spike could scarcely comprehend it. That the Slayer—Buffy The Wrath of God Summers—should weep so for him.

"Slayer, don't. I'm not worth this. Please."

"Why should I spare you! You were a huge pain in my ass for years, and now the shoe's on the other foot, you better damn well take it!"

"Okay. Okay. Just ... dunno what's to be done. Bad timin' all around."

She sniffled then, big noseful of snot, and grabbing a wad of napkins from the dispenser, blew, then wiped her cheeks and mouth. "Nothing. Nothing's to be done. You've moved on. You never moved on when I wanted you to, but now ... now you have. So I just have to deal. Anyway, I'm here for Xander. I think it's time for one of us to go after him."

"I'll bring you there. You go up on your own an' talk to him. I'll take a walk."




Buffy was silent until they reached Spike's building, but when he let her into the foyer, she glanced back. "Don't go. I think ... I think Xander would probably prefer if you were there. He seems ... to like you to be with him. And I think he's kind of afraid of me."

"I—"

"Unless you have to rush off and see your new girlfriend."

"No. Not that."

"C'mon then."

"Right. Got your back, Slayer. That'll never change."

"Huh."

She was quiet in the elevator. Spike listened to her heart racketing in her chest, and was filled with tenderness for her. How had they managed to make such a huge messy misunderstanding out of what should have only ever been ... been his own wishful thinking and delusions.

He'd always liked a mess. Was usually to be found, with Dru at his side, in the middle of some big bloody gorey mess. Mess dripping from his fangs.

But now he wondered if he was going to be able to do this. Whether it wouldn't be better after all to tell Harris not to be a fool, to find himself a real man instead of the likes of him.

Maybe it would be better to never see any of Buffy's crowd again. Go off somewhere where none of them would ever run across him. In fifty years they'd all be dead, and then he could come and go in London or LA or anywhere with no worries.

But the idea of missing Harris's fifty years made him want to kill something. And then they were at his door.

Buffy gave him a strange glance. "Lookit you, with an apartment on the fifteenth floor."

"Times change I suppose."





Harris leapt up from the sofa when they came in.

"Buff! Here you are in our place!"

Spike was standing behind her, so couldn't see how Buffy reacted to that our.

"Do you want the tour? Or do you want a beer? We always have a lot of beer."

She went to him. Laid a hand on his arm. Kept her voice quiet, calming. "We can just sit down and visit a little. I don't need a tour. I don't need anything. I just want to sit with you, Xander."

"Okay! We can do that."

Harris looked at him then—a burning look, a look that begged. But Spike didn't quite know what to do with that beseeching. He moved off into the kitchen, stood just inside, out of sight from the sitting room, but well able to hear as Buffy coaxed Xander to sit beside her on the couch.

They were quiet for a few moments.

Then Buffy began to talk. She talked about Willow. About Willow on Kingman's Bluff, and how Xander talked her down from her world-ending rage. She hadn't been there, of course; Spike realized that the Slayer was recounting to Harris the story as Harris must've once told it to her. But she embroidered on it, because Spike was pretty sure Harris didn't describe himself, his actions, in the glowing, heroic terms Buffy chose.

After speaking about Willow, she mentioned Andrew. Talked about what he'd made himself into, the good work he did.

Then she told him that Giles had killed Ben, so that Glory would die.

"Giles only told me this recently, and I never meant to share it with anyone else, but I think he would want you to know. He would want you to know that he also ...."

"But not like me," Harris said. "It's not like—"

"No. He chose to do it. Willow chose, and Andrew chose. But you, Xander, you didn't choose. It was a horrible horrible thing that happened to you. And I know you did atrocious things, when you were under that spell. But your free will was taken from you. And you're not responsible for what you do when you have no will. You're just not. I know you feel that isn't true. And that no matter what, you feel the terrible weight of what you were forced to do. But you don't have to atone for it by ruining the rest of your life. You went to Africa to do good work. What happened there is not your fault. You're still my Xander. I love you so much and I don't want you to suffer and suffer."

They talked a little more, and then, to Spike's surprise, Buffy got up to leave.

"I'll call you tomorrow, and maybe we can visit again, okay?"

Xander sounded steadier now. "Sure, Buff. That's good."

"Not too early, right?"

"... uh, yeah. Where's Spike?"

He emerged then. "Right here."

Buffy gave Xander a hug. They moved towards the door.

Then Buffy said, "So have you met her?"

"What?"

"Spike's new honey. Is she a slayer?"

Xander blinked. Glanced at him, then back at Buffy, as the color drained from his face.

"Um ... I guess you haven't met her. Look, never mind. I shouldn't have brought it up."

In another time and place, this kind of thing—Buffy and Harris in confusion and misery—would've made Spike howl with nasty glee.

Now he just wanted to sink into the floor.

Harris glanced at him, perplexed. "You told Buffy you had a girlfriend? Why ... why would you tell her that?"

"Only told her ... I wasn't free."

Buffy listened to this, baffled, big-eyed. Turning from one to the other like they were a tennis match.

Then her mouth dropped open.

Oh my God. It's ... it's you, isn't it? Xander?"

Spike opened his mouth to say No, No It Isn't, Don't Be Absurd, because the last thing Harris looked ready for, strong enough for, was to own him in front of the Slayer.

But Harris wasn't looking at her now. He moved closer, slipped a finger into one of Spike's front belt loops. "She asked you if you were free?"

"Can talk about this later."

"But you told her no. Right?" That begging tone again, that made Spike's heart twist in his throat. "You told her no."

"She's standin' right here, Harris."

"God," Buffy said. "I am so stupid. I am so stupid!" She fumbled with the doorknob, yanked it open, and flung herself into the corridor.

Xander tore after her.

Again Spike heard them talking—hoarse harsh whispers by the elevator call button.

Heard Buffy say that he, Harris, should be careful, because he, Spike, was dangerous. A dangerous lover. Dangerous to love. Heard Xander work out, as if it really had never occurred to him before, that Buffy's passion for him was more than a temporary aberration, more than a kink and a fetish. Buffy said she didn't care that Harris was gay, it didn't matter, but that Spike. And Harris said she didn't know him the way he did, that he wasn't afraid, but he was sorry that this hurt her. He'd never in a million years imagined. And Buffy said of course he had to decide for himself. And that this wouldn't change her plan to spend time with him. But she felt so stupid. Stupid! No, Harris said. She couldn't have known. He was sorry. Nothing to be sorry for, Buffy said. Her voice was stiff and brittle.

Spike thumbed his wallet out of his pocket. In for a penny, in for a pound. Walked out to them. They watched him coming; they stood close together, both in that half-hunched stance that whispering imposed. Neither looked glad for his intrusion.

Spike held out the little white card. "Might ... might want to stop in at this place 'fore you go back to your hotel. Could be there's somethin' there that'll take a bit of the edge off this."

Buffy's look said How dare you even talk to me?, but she took the card. Stared at it for a moment, uncomprehending. "Occult, rare and curious books? Is this a joke? Because I do not—"

"No joke, Slayer. Just ... just a suggestion."

Her parting glance was blood-curdling. She went without waiting for the elevator. Spike stood and listened to her clatter down the first five flights of stairs. Then Harris plucked at his arm, and they went back into the flat.

"I'm confused," Xander said.

"What about?"

"Buffy is in love with you."

"Doubt she'd say so now."

"She proposed to you. At the diner. Didn't she?"

"She—said some things."

"Why didn't you go with her?"

"You forgettin' everything we talked about for the last two days?"

"But you love her. That's all you were about. For years. Buffy."

"True. But not now. Never meant to make her unhappy. Threw me for a loop, her sayin' what she did. Tears me up. But ... you don't really think that undoes what we've started on, do you?"

"I don't know. Shouldn't it? I mean, if Buffy wants—"

"What about what you want? What about what we want?"

"But—"

Harris's beleagured mind was so hung up on the gobsmacking astonishment of learning he'd been wrong about Buffy, that he could get no further than the absolute of her therefore getting what he'd been so certain she'd never sought.

"Harris. Never wanted to hurt the Slayer, but I'm not gonna be her man. It's just not on. An' I thought we were makin' a go. You're not backing out, are you?"

"No. It's just—Buffy."

"Don't dwell on it. She's pissed off an' hurt, yeah, but she'll visit that address on the card, an' I expect she'll find something there that'll suit."

Xander looked unhappy and bewildered, like nothing that they'd said up 'til now satisfied him at all. But instead of asking more questions, he threaded his arms around Spike's waist, and laid his forehead against Spike's.

"She said she couldn't believe I'd like you, after everything."

"Well, was a bit startlin' for me too."

"She said you were callous. Because you didn't tell her you weren't dead. She said that you'd hurt me. That I shouldn't rely on you."

"Have to judge that for yourself, pet."

"It's too late, though. I already do."

Spike kissed him, and Harris kissed back, nuzzling in, sighing against his mouth.

"Will you rely on me too? I won't always be this weepy and clingy. The calm capable manliness will return. And I can fix things around the apartment."

"'Spect I'll manage with you almost however you are. I'll put up with a deal of aggravation, to have my cock sucked like you do it."

"This conversation is getting too mushy. It's not how men talk. And I'm tired, Spike. This has all been a little too much, and I'm not firing on all thrusters."

"Go to bed, then."

"Come too?"

Reluctant to uncouple, they lurched slowly through the apartment, arms still around each other's waists, bumping hips lightly as they turned out the lights, and pulled the window shades.

The bed was still rumpled, the sheets streaked with dried jism, from that afternoon.

"So tired," Xander said, unbuckling his belt, dropping his jeans. "Buffy hates me now, and I'm too sleepy to worry about it properly."

Spike pulled the sheets straight. Naked now, Xander crawled up into his place and collapsed. Spike climbed in beside him, drew up the sheet. Xander rolled to spoon him.

"Try not to worry, pet," Spike murmured.

But Xander was already snoring lightly, and didn't hear.




"Buffy hates me."

Spike opened his eyes. They were still lying in the same position, Xander fitted against his back. For a second Spike wasn't sure he'd fallen asleep at all, but he could feel the daylight outside the black-out shades, and the clock on the bedside table said it was getting on for nine.

"She doesn't. An' I don't think she'll be sore for much longer. Not at you, anyway."

"Yeah, but what do you know? You thought she didn't care about you. Whereas she wants to marry you."

"Not marry exactly."

"You're not very astute."

"Not always, no."

Xander's arm was snugged around him. He spread his hand out now over Spike's belly, caressing the long taut muscles. "You're so beautiful. Do you know that, Spike? You drive me crazy, looking at you. Touching you. Every single part of you." Xander kissed his shoulder. "Oh maaan, I sound like a Lifetime movie."

"Pet."

"And you're so kind. How does a vampire know how to be that? It's gets me so worked up, when you're kind to me. Gives me a throbbing boner. Is that weird?"

"All part of my evil vampiric master plan."

Xander mouthed his nape. Then whispered into the fine hairs at the top of his neck. "I'm afraid you're going to leave me for Buffy."

"Never will happen."

"Do you love me, Spike? I told you but you still haven't told me. Remember, I was trained by girls. I need to hear it."

"Don't I show you?"

"... yeah. But show me again. I'm kinda slow."

Spike rolled over. It was too dark in the room for Harris to see him, but he could see how wide his eyes were, how receptive his expression. His whole body. Wide open.

Could still do anything with him. Nothing Harris wouldn't permit, wouldn't welcome.

Spike reached up and turned on the reading light over the bed. Xander blinked. Smiled.

"I can see you."

"Know you like that." Spike dipped his head, began to kiss Xander's body. The points of his shoulders, the sloping pecs. Took one nipple in his teeth, tugging and worrying it until Xander threw his head back on the pillow.

"Ought to have little rings in these," Spike said, twisting the other in his fingers. "Wouldn't that be pretty?"

"I'll do it today."

"Will you? Would be right nice."

"Yes. Oh God."

"What a lovely man you are. Always thought so. Liked seein' you in your silly underwear when you were a boy in your basement. Like seein' you naked now."

"You ... you thought of me back then?"

"Would've fucked you if you'd invited me. An' it would've been good. But not so good as now. Because now—"

"Now—what? What, Spike?"

"Now—" Spike moved lower, to mouth Xander's stomach, rubbing his face against the brown weathered skin, reveling in all the scars, large and the small, in the flex of the muscles beneath. The little gurglings and pulsings audible within. "Now when I spread you open, when you take me in to the hilt so I feel your heart beatin' all 'round my cock, an' you sob an' groan 'cause you're so full ...." Spike buried his nose in Harris's pubic patch, the hair rough and fragrant against his mouth and chin. He smiled into it, wanting to laugh. "... an' your sweet arse is stretched open round my shaft, so tight and hot and luscious for me, an' your body's like a strung bow, an' it makes me so hard an' so strong, so I can do you for hours, do you 'til you scream and beg and sing ... now—"

"Now you love me?"

Spike looked up. "Thought you wanted to hear me say it."

"I do. I'll be quiet now."

"Love you, Harris. Xander. Never guessed I ever would. But I do."

Spike was focused on his face, but it was still obvious how the words excited Harris; his cock, which was only starting to thicken as he caressed him with his mouth and his words, was suddenly pressing into Spike's hovering throat, painting a line of dribble along his jaw. Grabbing the lube out of the bedside drawer, Spike slicked it up, squeezing hard, so Harris jerked and gasped, pumping up into his fist.

"You like to hear it like a girl, so I'm gonna give it you like a girl."

"God yes, please." Harris was already trying, rather comically, to put his legs over Spike's shoulders, to present himself. Smiling, Spike drove a slicked thumb into Harris's fundament, making him ready; he yelped, wriggling all over, and then tried to fuck himself on it, but Spike pulled his hand away. "Not yet."

"I want you. I need you to fuck me."

"An' I need to fuck you, love. Gonna fuck you now."

"Yes. Yes. Please. Cock now."

He loved this. Loved Harris reduced to words of one syllable, dirty words with hard consonants, that he spat out with such helpless abandon, such unconcealed need. Spike's own cock was hard and aching; he crawled up Harris's body, straddling his chest, and presented it to Harris's gaping mouth.

"Give it a suck. Make it good an' wet."

Harris gave the tip a long slobbery slurping kiss, then raised his head to take in more, moaning around it. One fist began to beat at the mattress, the other hand closed around Spike's ballsac, feeling and tugging and squeezing. For a moment Spike thought he'd like to come this way, and let Harris wait a bit for him to get hard again. But they were both too eager, and there would be plenty of other times to inflict exquisite torment, to make Harris serve him as he so clearly longed to do.

"Gonna fuck you now." He scooted back; lifted Xander's legs to his shoulders. Pushed in fast, knowing Harris liked that, liked the feeling of invasion, of not being quite ready, even though he was ready, he'd been ready since awakening him fifteen minutes ago.

What a good fuck he was; flexing athletically into Spike's thrusts, finding the silky rhythm that suited them both, barking hoarse encouragement. Spike wouldn't let him touch his cock, he kept that for himself, wanking it with maddeningly light touches even as he drove into him faster and faster.

Xander came first, in a spasm of rippling muscle. Shouting, head thrown way back, body half twisted around, he jerked like a puppet. His come sprayed his chest, the sheets. Scooping some up on his finger, Spike tasted it, and his own climax exploded out of him, long rolling pulses that made the whole room blink out, so there was nothing but Harris and the infinite universe.

They fell away from each other, both vibrating too high for contact. Spike was bent nearly double, his knees splayed, and struggled to roll over. Then there was a period of time he couldn't codify, because thought was impossible. There was nothing but the after-throb of all that pleasure. Gradually deflating like some great balloon, lowering him back into time.

He found Harris staring off to the side, blinking, slack-jawed.

"I think—I think I saw Battlestar Galactica there, way off to my right, as I went whizzing past."

"That what that was?"

"Oh yeah. We were way out there."

"How are you, Harris? Sleep well?"

"Yeah. I think ... sanity might be making a gradual—at least partial—return. Between the spaceship sightings."

"Glad of that."

They drifted for a half hour, dozing, not touching, except for Harris's hand laid against his face.

Then Harris yawned, and stretched. "My back teeth are swimming." He struggled up, rubbing at his disordered hair. "This room stinks of shameless rutting."

He went to the door. Glanced back at Spike. "I hope it always will."

Amen, Spike thought, to that.

He listened to Harris piss, and brush his teeth. When the shower went on, Spike got up, and joined him there.





Epilogue



"Slayer! Phone's ringin'!"

"You answer it! You're closer!"

"Busy, ain't I?"

"What am I now? The official phone answerer? Is that all I'm good for? Answer the phone, Slayer. Ring up that customer, Slayer. Whittle some stakes, Slayer. Make me a sandwich, Slayer. But does anyone ever say, Slay me a vampire, Slayer? Not anymore." Reaching the phone, Buffy snatched it up. "Aurelian Investigations. We help the helpless. May I, uh, help you? Oh. Yeah, that's not us. Bye." She hung up.

"What was that?" Vi asked, glancing up from her physics book.

"Wrong number." Buffy pouted. "Why do we have to be one digit off from the Thai place?"

"You know," Vi said, "I only asked you to whittle for me that one time. And it was because I had a practicum in the morning, and—"

"Remarks weren't really addressed to you, kid." Angel came up behind Buffy, circling her roundness in his arms. "You have complaints, Mrs O'Connor? Speak to the boss."

Three voices in near-unison protested: "You're not the boss of me!" Only Vi never bristled under Angel's direction. She just smiled at them, and at Spike and Xander, who had paused in their practice sparring to kibbitz this discussion, and went back to her studying.

"Anyway," Angel continued, "the last sandwich that was made, was made by me for you, as you will recall. It consisted of pickles and butter on raisin bread and was assembled at three this morning while I was half-asleep. And you got to stay warm in bed while I made it. And then the bedroom stank of pickles the rest of the night. As did your breath."

"You're lucky to have me even with pickle breath." Buffy said, snuggling into his encompassing arms. "Pickle breath only enhances my many beauties."

Spike glanced at Xander. "You ever get pregnant, Harris, I'll rejoice, but I'm tellin' you right now, no pickles in our bed."

"If I'm ever pregnant," Xander said, "shoot me."

"Oh!" Buffy cried. "Kicking! There's kicking!"

They all rushed to her.

"One at a time, one at a time! Form a line."

"That's what she'll be saying every ten minutes for the next eighteen years," Xander said.

"Like a real Irish wife," Spike agreed.

"I feel it!" Vi said. "That's so weird. Is that Tweedledum, or Tweedledee, or Tweedledon't?"

"Only Spike can tell them apart yet." Buffy winched up her nose. "About which, the less said, the better."

Xander lifted Vi's hand away and replaced it with his own. "Wow. Someone in there is knocking to get out. Does it hurt?"

"Not really. But they're getting so big. I'm getting so big."

"Gonna give birth to a trio of great hulkin' knuckle-draggin' brutes. Like their Da. The girl included. Her nickname'll be The Brow."

"Spike, shut up," Angel said.

"Just like him to be dead for near three hundred years, an' then put Buffy up the spout for a triple-header. That's what you get for forgivin' him for not tellin' you he was all alive-o."

Buffy made a face at him. "It's Amazing Instant Family Concentrate! Heir and a spare and a girl for us to spoil, all in one package, just add ... uh ... hopefully not a forty-hour agonizing labor. But! It means I won't have to go through this childbearing thing ever again. Because, with the cravings, and the fatness—"

"You're not fat," Angel said. "And—" He dropped to a whisper, but Spike could still hear perfectly well, "—your breasts are incredible now."

"Those are not meant for you!" Buffy hissed.

"Better not do this again, Slayer," Spike said. "You already waddle like a duck, an' still two months to go. Sendin' you to answer the phone's all the exercise you get now you're in pup, so ought to make the most of it."

"Spike. I can still punch you."

"As can I," Angel said. "And it isn't the only exercise she—"

Spike covered Vi's ears. "None of that filthy talk in here—mustn't bring a blush to the cheek of the young person."

Vi peeled his hands away. "I'm not blushing!" she said, even as her laughter made her whole face redden.

"Little Vi doesn't know where triplets come from. Only just learned how they make fledging vampires, haven't you?"

"I've been a slayer for years!"

"She knows everything," Buffy said. "Can't tell her one blessed thing she doesn't know."

The two slayers exchanged meaningful smiles.

Unlife was good, in their little corner of the world. Aurelian Investigations, consisting of the core four of them, plus Angel's son Connor when he was on break from Stanford, and aided by a rotating cadre of local slayers and former useful contacts of Angel's, both human and demon, was a going concern, run out of the AAAAA Occult Book Shop.

Buffy refused to live in the shop basement, no matter how well appointed, so Angel at last commenced life above ground, buying her a nice 1920s stucco cottage with a pretty garden, not far from the beach. Which would be too small once the babies started toddling. His former flat was now a work-and-training space, and a gathering place for the slayers and White Hats of the greater Los Angeles area.

Spike and Xander still occupied their one-bedroom on the 15th floor, and their bedroom always did smell like sex, even though they changed the sheets almost every day. Xander succumbed less and less to the corkscrewing doubts about himself. Sometimes he'd wake from bad dreams and tell Spike some new and gutwrenching detail, newly arisen from repressed memory. But the present was so absorbing, he was able to let the past be; to mourn it mostly only at set times.

One day Xander came home wearing a new glass eye, the same brown as his own.

"What's become of the blue one?" Spike asked.

"I'm not going to wear it anymore."

"An' why's that?" He'd never learned why Harris wore it in the first place. He'd grown used to, if not exactly quite comfortable, with the startling contrast.

"Because Twinkle filched it from the corpse of an NGO doctor, after she cut off her head. Then she plucked my own glass one out, crushed it under her bare heel, and made me wear that one instead. Said I was her blue-eyed boy. And then she made me do all that she made me do." Xander paused. Didn't breathe at all for a long moment, staring into the distance. "It was time for a change. I'm not hers anymore."

Spike put an arm around him. Was relieved when Harris breathed, a deep rattling intake that seemed to steady him. "Haven't been that for some time."

"But now I'm sure. That I belong only to myself." He brought Spike's hand up, kissed it. "And to you."

Harris carefully packed and mailed the blue eye, with a condolence letter that mentioned nothing about magicks or slayers, to the doctor's family in Lincoln Nebraska. It was all of her remains they'd ever see again.

Twinkle and the other rogue slayers still reigned unchecked in their country, which, thanks to them, was barely a country at all anymore. They were a problem the Council couldn't begin to deal with. A line item on the quarterly Council Directors' Meeting agenda, and nothing more.

And the Slayer's sister was still bitterly angry at Spike, who, even after she'd confided in him, and forgiven him for assaulting Buffy, had concealed Xander's whereabouts, withheld information. Treated her, as she asserted, like a child, worse, like a person of no importance at all. She was even angrier at Xander, an anger hot with the chagrin of spurned love, because she'd spun castles in the air about him, while he hadn't mentioned the whole gay now thing, much less shared his pressing troubles with her.

Dawn's smouldering looks and indignant silences had made for some uncomfortable quarter hours over the four days of Angel and Buffy's wedding celebrations. She'd already made flimsy excuses for why her work wouldn't permit her to come stay with them when the triplets were born, even though the due date was a good two weeks after the end of her last term at Cambridge.

Spike didn't pretend she wasn't overlooked during the crisis, milked for information and kept in the dark. So was a bit hard to blame her exactly. Except to think that a more grown-up young woman would find some way, over a year later, to make her peace with them, for the sake of the family. Because they were family now. All the family each of them had.

Buffy and Xander were closer now than they'd ever been. So intimate, in every way but the bedroom way, that there were times both Spike and Angel were chafed with a jealousy each knew was unworthy.

But then, they had their way of reminiscing, that made Buffy roll her eyes, and Xander often get up and leave the room:

Angel would say something like: Vladivostok in 1889. The bear. Followed by gales of fierce laughter. Then Spike would counter with: Dieppe, that summer was so hot, was it in 'ninety-six or seven?—an' you had that pash on for the girl in the beer garden. Bought yourself a ridiculous flowered waistcoat, you did, to impress her. An' then spoilt it with all that gore.

Ancient adventures he could call up in memory, clear as photographs.

As he might someday recall these pleasant moments from the premises of AAAAAA Occult, Curious & Rare Books, for the triplets' eventual great-grandchildren, another century from now.




The End



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