Learning Curve


Part Ten

Manip by Lit Gal
Xander showered until he exhausted the hot water heater, and then he sat on the toilet seat rather gingerly. Yeah, he had done it. He could now officially call himself gay. Or bisexual maybe because there were still Faith and Anya in the old closet of love. Not that Faith had been a love. Faith had been more of a quick fuck. Xander flinched away from comparing that night to tonight.

It hadn't been the same what with Faith just using him, but still, he wasn't going to get what he wanted more than anything else. He wasn't going to get held. Sure, this time Blair would leave instead of handing him clothing and kicking him out half-dressed. But still.

Xander took a deep breath as he tried to sort out what had happened. Okay, Blair was the big guru, teacher type and he wanted to help Xander through a tough spot. It wasn't some sordid one night stand. Or actually, it probably was a one-night stand in that it wouldn't happen again, but it wasn't sordid. Or Xander assumed it wasn't sordid. Xander realized he didn't actually know what sordid meant, so maybe what he'd done was sordid.

Xander felt the pain of loneliness more sharply than ever, and suddenly he wondered if it was possible for Giles to send him to some place like Mars looking for potentials. Buffy couldn't worry about malaria on Mars. Nope, Mars was a big non-malarial planet. He could wander around picking up rocks and then have a reason for feeling lonely because feeling lonely when people who should make you feel safe and loved were standing two feet away…

Xander reached over and turned on the sink to cover the sounds of his own rough breathing. He hadn't ever realized it, but that's what was wrong. While he was in Africa he could tell himself he was lonely because Willow was back in England. What the hell was he supposed to tell himself when she was in the next room and he still felt like he had this empty place in his soul where she used to be? She didn't need him, not him or his jokes or his help, and god he was worthless.

And Spike? Oh god. He had always told himself that it was the whole him not being gay thing, but now he would have to look Spike in the eye knowing that he technically was gay and the only reason he wasn't with Spike was because Spike didn't want him. Xander pushed his eye patch up and off so that he could rub his face without feeling that thing in the way. God, he was pathetic. Standing up, he looked in the mirror at the bloodshot eye and puckered skin around the missing eye and the wet hair plastered against his head, and he had no idea who he was looking at.

Xander put a hand in the running water and splashed it over his face as he tried to force all of the feeling back into whatever pathetic little corner of his mind they had slipped out of. Okay, he'd probably been in the bathroom close to an hour, so if he was lucky, Blair was upstairs asleep in Jim's arms and he could slink into his own bed. Or maybe he could quietly pack up while the guys slept. He'd pretty much learned whatever he was going to learn about Sentinels already, and even Willow had commented that his reports were a little light in the actual reporting part.

Slipping the eye patch back in place, Xander pulled the door open a little and peaked out. A light was on in the living room, but Blair probably just left it on so that Xander didn't come out in the dark. He debated going and turning it off, but he voted instead for a quick dash to his room just a few feet away.

"Xander," a deep voice said as Jim walked out of the kitchen, appearing without warning near the table.

"Jim, hey. Sorry about the bathroom. You could've just like told me to get out if you needed to use it 'cause I'm a big old bathroom hog, but at least now I'm one less person trying to get a shower in the morning, which is of the good, right?" Xander babbled as he wavered between running back into the bathroom and making a dash for the bedroom. The bedroom was the obvious choice, but that meant getting dangerously close to the Sentinel less than an hour after sleeping with that Sentinel's guide. Oh yeah, not of the good.

"I don't need the bathroom, Sport," Jim said as he leaned against the pillar. "How are you doing?"

"Me? Fine. Very much of the good, and boy are you a lucky man and please don't kill me for saying that," Xander blurted.

"Harris, I'm not going to kill you. I am however, a little worried about you."

"Okay, killage would be better than talkage right about now," Xander said with a sigh.

"Tough because I'm not killing you, Sport. Not unless you upset Blair that badly again."

"Blair?" Xander looked at the ceiling above him where he had expected Blair and Jim to be wrapped up in each other.

"He thinks he hurt you. Sent me down to sniff for blood, see if you were hiding some injury."

"What? He didn't. I mean, not that I want to talk about this with you, but it was sorta good in the absolutely mind-blowing way."

"Yeah, I know," Jim said, his voice getting soft, and Xander felt that stab of pain again. Blair had Jim and Jim had Blair, and he was the afterthought. He should be used to that by now. "Let's go sit down; I can't have this conversation without a beer. You want one?" Jim's voice became far more businesslike as he talked about things other than Blair.

"Um, am I going to be looking for a cab soon because I find drunk and homeless a bad combination."

"Harris, I'm not throwing you out."

"Okay, maybe one beer then," Xander said as he went in the living room and pulled his robe around him before sitting in his favorite chair. He watched cautiously as Jim pulled two beers from the fridge, offering him one before dropping onto the couch wearing just boxer shorts.

"First, I'm not upset. Blair and I talked about how much you needed someone, how much you needed a connection. I don't have a problem with what you two did."

"Um, okay?"

"I also have a pretty good guess about why you just spent two hours sitting in my bathroom."

"Two…?" Xander looked over at the clock.

"Blair doesn't get what it's like to have your insides rearranged, to watch people die and see pieces of yourself go with them. I get the feeling you do," Jim said it so calmly that the words didn't sink in right away as Xander tried to figure out where the missing time had gone.

"What? You have that totally wrong since I am so not the warrior type. I'm the sidekick who stays in the truck unlike you and Blair. Only difference is that I usually hide behind Buffy and Spike… or Buffy and Angel although I'm not big on the hiding behind Angel part. Of course there was the summer I hid behind the Buffy-bot, and boy do I have some interesting stories from that time."

"And you've seen friends die, and you've seen your own death coming right at you," Jim interrupted him before taking another drink.

"Hey, I don't know…"

"I do. I've seen too many men with that same desperate need to hold onto something who have an equally strong belief that whatever they hold onto will turn to dust in their arms." Jim's words drove a knife so deeply into Xander that he gasped in pain as though physically hurt. Silence filled the loft for several seconds before Jim started talking again. "Xander, I've been there. I married a woman because I needed to hold someone and then I drove her away because I was terrified that I would wake up and find her gone. It's a hard way to live."

"I don't…" Xander started, and then he had to take a deep breath as he felt the pain deepen and the tears threaten. "Okay, pathetic much?" he asked himself as his breath shuddered.

"Human much?" Jim returned in the same tone of voice. Jim drained the last of his beer and rested the bottle against his thigh. "It's human to need that contact, and it's human to be afraid of it after seeing the kinds of things I think you've seen."

"I'm just having some freakage. I'll be fine in the morning," Xander promised as he looked at the ceiling and tightened his hold on the beer he hadn't yet touched.

"No, you'll have your front back on in the morning. It's not the same thing," Jim countered.

"I thought Blair was supposed to be the pushy one," Xander said as he glanced over at Jim's determined face.

"He is. He just doesn't understand what he stepped into. I guess I thought he understood since he walked into this emotional mess with me." Jim shrugged. "I guessed wrong. He doesn't understand why he hurt you so much by offering to let you in. His heart is big enough for everyone, but I don't think he understands.

Xander would have asked what Jim was talking about, but he understood all too well. Blair had shown him something that didn't fit in his life anymore, and now he found himself dying for a connection he couldn't have. "I'm fine," he lied softly.

"I know what it does to a person to see battle," Jim said calmly. My worst was probably this kid I had in my unit. We were doing a joint mission with another agency and he took a bullet in the leg. He kept telling me that he was only shot in the leg and he knew he'd be fine. He kept saying that as I held a field dressing that turned into a red sponge as his femoral artery pumped out all his blood. He fell asleep and died telling me how he'd be fine." Jim's voice sounded so calm that Xander almost missed the tremor at the end. "I've had more than one nightmare where Blair's face is on that boy. So, how about you?" Jim asked as he stared at the empty beer bottle resting against his thigh.

"I had to, um, stake my best friend," Xander said as he felt the tears start. "And when Sunnydale went down, I listened to those girls fight over the bathroom and talk about their dreams, and then I watched as they saw their own guts spill on the floor. And afterwards, I would give the survivors the big pep talk about how they were fighting the good fight." Xander's face felt alternately hot and cold as his tears slid silently down his face leaving wet trails to dry in the air.

"I hated working with recruits," Jim agreed. "When I went out with seasoned soldiers, they knew the score, but the new ones expected battle to be heroic."

"It's just ugly," Xander said.

"Yeah, it is. Xander, come to bed."

"Huh?" Xander looked over to find that Jim had stood up.

"Come sleep upstairs, Sport. That way Blair doesn't have to give himself the guilt trip in the morning. If he wakes up grumpy, he's a pain in the ass all day." Jim took a step closer and snagged the untouched beer bottle from Xander's hand before heading to the kitchen and dropping them on the counter.

"I don't want to…"

"You don't want to be alone, Sport, so get your ass upstairs while I use the bathroom," Jim ordered. Xander considered ignoring the order when Jim turned and disappeared down the short hall. In the end though, he really didn't want to be alone. He climbed the stairs slowly and looked at the large bed where Blair sprawled near the center. He walked around to the far side where Blair's body left a smaller gap on the bed. Pulling his robe off, he draped it on the railing of the loft before slipping under the covers.

The heat of Blair's body warmed Xander and he lay in the dark waiting for Jim. When the man appeared at the top of the stairs, he stood for a moment considering the bed.

"He's a bed hog, but at least he sleeps like a log," Jim whispered as he leaned over the bed and got an arm under Blair's shoulders and hips. He pulled until Blair's body slid away from Xander and to the edge of the bed closest to the stairs. Xander stayed put, allowing that heat to slide away. He imagined it was hard enough for Jim to have him there at all, so having him touching Blair was probably more than Jim's instincts could take.

Jim walked around the bed to Xander's side.

"Shove over." Jim pushed at Xander's shoulder. In shock, Xander slid into the middle of the bed as Jim slipped in behind him, a strong arm sliding around his waist as he pressed into Blair's warm back. Suddenly Xander realized how utterly exhausted he was, and he closed his eyes and let himself drift to sleep as strong arms held him.

Part Eleven

Xander flipped past a dozen different channels as he searched for something to help keep his mind off the subject of temporary roommates. Jim and Blair would be home soon, but until they did come home, Xander really wasn't sure where to go to bed. Waking up in the middle of a pile of slowly moving male limbs had been… okay, it had been more than a little nice. He'd woken up warm and safe, and Blair had accepted him with a simple kiss and a quick grope. He'd also woken up with a slightly throbbing ass that had lasted through a day bouncing around in Jim's truck.

He desperately wanted to wake up like that again, and he really wouldn't mind waking up throbbing again. However, he wasn't sure the invitation was still open. And if he went to bed in the small room under the loft before the guys came home from the big emergency meeting, he wouldn't ever know if he did still have that invitation. So instead he sat on the couch in his robe and flipped through advertisements for extra-special cheese graters that could make meals by themselves through the magic of made for television kitchen gadgets.

The sudden pounding at the door was so loud that Xander dropped the remote and nearly fell off the couch.

"Oi, open the bloody door," a familiar voice yelled from the far side of the door. Xander leapt up and stood in the middle of the room feeling a wave of panic wash through him. He so did not want to deal with this, not now. He was still trying to figure out where he was with Blair and Jim and he did not want to figure out where he was with Spike, especially since he had a pretty good idea where his place was with Spike. And that place was not a place he wanted to go what with the mocking and the eye rolling and the British insults.

The pounding at the door came again, loud enough that Xander was fairly sure all the neighbors could hear. And considering the weirdage that went on in this apartment, the neighbors were probably already calling the cops.

"Open the soddin' door," Spike yelled, and Xander flinched even as he went for the door.

"I'm coming," Xander yelled back as he worked the locks on the door. Pulling the door open, he found Spike complete with leather coat leaning against the wall in the hallway.


"Yeah, who else would get sent ta fetch your sorry arse back? Now invite me in," Spike said as he threw a cigarette to the floor and crushed it with his boot.

"Um, not my house, not sure Jim would appreciate me doing the invite thing," Xander pointed out as he crossed his arms.

"Fine, then pack your bags and come out here."

"Hey! I'm the boss of me here. You can't just come here and…"

"Bloody fuckin' hell. Buffy sent me ta get ya out of here and that's what I'm going to do. Ya got three choices. One, you invite me in. Two, you come out here. Three, I burn the bloody building down and grab your sorry arse when you go running out like a rat off a sinkin' ship."

"HEY! There will be no burnage! Jim would be so hacked off he'd give birth to kittens or something, and I mean that as a figure of speech since we aren't on a Hellmouth and that kind of stuff generally doesn't happen."

"Invite me in or I'll just start the fire now," Spike threatened as he took out his silver lighter and flipped the top open.

"Ass," Xander complained, "Come in, oh great pushy one." Xander turned his back and returned to the couch where he dropped onto the cushion before reaching down for the remote on the floor.

"Why are you here?"

"Ya still are a few brain cells short of retarded, aren't you? I told ya that Buffy sent me. She don't like the idea of you tangling with a Shaman."

"Not tangling with one," Xander protested before his brain sent an image of his limbs and Blair's limbs tangled together in that big bed upstairs, and maybe there was some tangling involved, but it wasn't of the bad. "And how did she know about the Shaman thing?"

"Wot, you think Buffy and Red don't talk?"

"No, I'm thinking I never told Willow. In fact, I'm thinking you're the only person I told, so if there's a rat here, that'd be you." Xander didn't miss the look of surprise on Spike's face at that one, but the vamp recovered quickly.

"Yeah, well I already told you that I'm not going to have months of weepin' and hair pullin' because you've gone and done somethin' even stupider than usual."


"Just pack your bag so we can get the hell out of this soddin' dump."

"Not going."

"You bloody well are."

"Am not."

"Pack your bags."

"Nope. Nuh-huh. Not going to happen," Xander insisted as he crossed his arms and leaned back into the couch.

"Listen lack-brain, you've got yourself mixed up with a Shaman. Don't bloody care about some Sentinel since a Sentinel is still a garden-variety human in a fight, but a Shaman has powers that you don't want to mess with. So get your bloody arse up and pack your things or I'll drag you out without the soddin' clothes. Be better off losing some of those abominations ya wear anyway."

"Hey! There will be no draggage. I will so call Willow and tell on you if you try to drag me out of here."

"Yeah, and maybe then I'd be tellin' her how the place where you're stayin' smells like a whore house."

"Okay, rude much?"

"So, ya finally get your cherry popped then, pet? Is that why you're hanging around here? Find someone willing to have your sad little arse?" Spike's smirk grew into something ugly, and Xander just looked up at the vampire in frozen horror. When Spike just stared back with a smug expression, Xander focused on the television where a bald man was spray painting his head.

"Get out, Spike," Xander said softly as he focused on the dots of light from the television.

"Get your things."

"No." Xander was focusing on the television, so he didn't even see Spike move before supernaturally strong arms pulled him over the back of the couch and slammed him onto his back on the dining table. Xander pulled at the hands that fisted his robe, but he couldn't move them an inch.

"Let go!" he shouted.

"You bloody little wanker. They're all worried that you're in over your head again, and you're fucking these bastards. Newsflash, Harris, fucking a Shaman is bein' in way over your head. If ya want to get your sorry hide stripped from your bones, don't do it on company time. Don't you make Willow and Buffy and even the stuck up prick of a watcher live with sendin' ya into a battle where you don't come back."

Spike was in full game face now, yellow eyes flashing down at Xander whose prey instincts had kicked in so that he lay still in Spike's grip, like if he were really, really quiet the big bad predator would forget he was there. It occurred to Xander that the bunnies on National Geographic who used this strategy usually ended up wolf-food. He didn't want to be wolf-food. He didn't want to be food for anything, but Spike's expression was bordering on homicidal and Xander thought he might be about to be vamp-food.

"So if you want to get bloody killed, do it on your own time."

"And if you don't want to get killed, you'll step away from Xander," a cold voice came from the door. Xander looked over to find Jim pointing a crossbow at Spike's heart. For a half-second, Xander could see a warrior imposed over Jim's body, face paint and a naked chest decorated with lines and circles. With a blink, that was gone and Jim stood there in a casual shirt and beige pants and a crossbow. Slightly freaky choice of weapons for a cop but effective.

Spike stood so that he wasn't bent over Xander, but one hand stayed on Xander's chest, keeping Xander bent over backwards and trapped.

"So, would you be the Sentinel or the Shaman?" Spike asked calmly. Xander tried to push himself up, but Spike's hand kept him pinned down. Nice... now Jim and Blair got to see him doing his helpless and needing rescuing routine.

"I'm the Shaman," Blair said as he stepped to the side far enough to see while still standing behind Jim.

"Right then. So I'm takin' the whelp and we're goin' back to merry old England. Get your kit together," Spike's last order came with a fist pulling him up by the lapels of his robe.

"And again, I'm repeating the 'you are not the boss of me' portion of our earlier discussion," Xander complained as he stood next to the table with Spike still holding him still with one hand.

"And I'm seconding that. Step away from him before I have to use the vacuum cleaner to get your ashes out of my carpet," Jim said in a voice that had absolutely no emotion. It was even scarier than Spike's scary voice, and Xander held his breath as his heart tightened with fear. Now if he could just figure out who he was afraid for.

"Not likely, mate. Faced off against more than a single crossbow in my century or so of fighting."

"And I don't go into battle without being prepared. So step away from Xander before you discover just how prepared I am for a vampire attack." Spike looked from Jim to Blair before stepping away as he searched his pockets for his ever-present cigarettes.

"So, you're the blokes who fucked the boy even more senseless, huh?" Spike asked as he pulled a cigarette out of package and stuck it between his lips.

"Don't you even..." Blair started, and Spike flipped his lighter open and lit it before cutting Blair off mid-sentence.

"The Slayer sent me to fetch the boy back, and that's what I aim to do."

"Um, guys, this is Spike. Spike, that's Jim and Blair," Xander said as he gestured toward the two men still in the doorway.

"I figured that. Otherwise he'd be drifting in the breeze," Jim growled.

"Better than you have tried, mate."

"Hey, I have an idea, let's not threaten each other with permanent death," Xander interrupted. "So, Spike, nice of you to drop by, but it's getting late and I'll catch up with you tomorrow. You know, after I call Buffy and explain why you coming here is big on the bad o'meter. We humans are just going to go to bed... to sleep. Sleepage is good at one in the morning."

"Actually, Sport, we aren't. We have a problem, and we just stopped by to pick you up. Any chance you could give us a hand with the vibes?"

"Vibes?" Spike turned and looked at him with a single raised eyebrow.

"Later, huh? Like after the next Armageddon or so," Xander answered Spike's unspoken question before turning to Jim. "Just give me a chance to get dressed." Xander glanced at Spike whose body practically trembled with coiled energy and Jim who still stood in the open door with the crossbow leveled at the vampire. "Blair, any chance you could, I don't know, keep them from killing each other."

"I'll do my best," Blair answered as he put a hand on Jim's arm. Jim kept the crossbow aimed, but Xander could feel the tension in the room drop.

"I'll just hurry," Xander said as he made a dash for the room under the stairs.

Part Twelve

Manip by Lit Gal
"No bloody way," Spike cursed when he spotted the truck.

"Good. You can wait here then," Jim shot back, and Xander could feel the Sentinel's hand on his back urging him forward, away from Spike. He was starting to feel a little like a pull toy as Spike darted forward and gripped his arm, pulling him away from Jim.

"I stay, he stays."

"I'm not staying. They need my help," Xander protested and then he flinched as Spike snorted his disbelief.

"Oh man, you're just rude. Death is no reason to cop an attitude," Blair said, and Xander felt his other arm grabbed by Blair who pulled him away. Xander was surprised Spike had let go, but the vampire had dropped into a defensive pose focused on Blair, and now Jim stepped in, pulling both him and Blair behind his own large frame.

"Anyone else feeling like we're having some sort of bizarre dance?" Xander asked quietly.

"Yeah, a Maori haka… a kind of tribal dance," Blair whispered. "Of course, not all haka were about war and killing. Some were just about intimidating the shit out of the other side."

"Ride in the back or stay here, I don't care, but Xander makes his own decision," Jim snarled. Xander found himself pushed toward the cab of the truck. He scrambled to get in and then Blair got in behind him. He watched out the side window as Spike considered him with narrowed eyes. He somehow thought Spike would be happy to go through Jim to get to him, but the vamp was strangely reluctant to get in a direct fight with Blair. Xander turned away from that angry glare as Jim got in the driver's side door and started the truck. Xander thought that Spike had given up, but when Jim put the truck into gear, the entire truck shook from the impact of Spike landing in the back.

"Great," Jim snarled sarcastically.

"Hey, at least he's not in here," Blair pointed out.

"He better back off or I'll give him to Miss Schmidt for her roses. She's always asking for the ash from the fireplace." Jim said the words so calmly that it took a second for them to sink in.

"Hey!" Xander protested. "No stakeage. Yeah, he's a big undead pain in the ass, but he's died saving the world and that deserves some... well some putting up with his general pissiness."

"Jim's not going to stake him," Blair promised, and Jim just rolled his eyes as he guided the truck around a turn. "Besides, we have more important problems than a vampire with an anger management problem." Blair pulled a file off the dash and handed it over. The minute Xander opened the brown folder, he wished he was back on the Hellmouth chasing some slime demon. Slime demons were nicer. The pudgy face of an average-looking man was paper clipped to one side of the folder and inside were crime scene photos--dozens of them. Little girls dressed up in women's make-up, their legs sprawled obscenely in death… their skin red and slick with their own blood.

"Stop the truck... stop it," Xander demanded. Jim didn't even ask, he pulled the truck to one side immediately, but Xander still didn't even have time to let Blair out. He lay over Blair's lap and vomited out the side of the truck. He heaved as Blair ran fingers through his hair with one hand and put the other hand on the small of his back, anchoring him as he continued dry heaving long after his dinner was gone.

"Xander? Ya alright?" a British voice asked.

"Peachy," Xander answered as he continued to hang head down out the passenger side of the truck. He heard a door open and slam shut before hearing paper rustling and he figured Spike was looking at the file. That would explain the colorful string of curse words from Spike.

"Why the bloody hell would ya show him rot like this?" Spike demanded with murder in his voice.

"No killage," Xander protested weakly without raising his head. Blair started tracing circles on his back and then a water bottle came into his line of vision. Xander grabbed for it, twisting the lid off.

"We need him to help catch this bastard. I wouldn't show him this if I didn't need his help."

"What the fucking hell do you think he's goin' to do 'cept decorate the sidewalk with his guts."

"I think he's going to help track him." Jim answered. Xander swished the water around in his mouth and then spit it out before answering.

"Ixnay on the Amanshay," he barely whispered, just knowing that Jim would be listening closely to him.

"What about a Shaman?" Spike immediately demanded, and damn vamp hearing.

"That's something you can take up with Xander later. We have a criminal to catch," Jim said. Xander pushed himself up in time to see Jim walking around the front of the truck. He pushed himself farther up to find Spike staring at him with a suspicious expression.

"Great," Xander said shakily as Blair helped push him back up. Xander took a deep breath before drinking more water.

"Xander, we hate asking you this, but this guy slipped away from the surveillance units and if he gets out of the area he may disappear..."

"And more little girls will show up like that," Xander said with a shaky voice.

"Yeah," Blair answered softly. Then Jim got in the truck and started it without a word.

"Sport, don't focus on what he did. Focus on stopping him from doing it again."

"Right. I can do this," Xander whispered as he let his eyes fall closed.

"Okay, just relax and let yourself feel the vibrations," Blair counseled him. Xander shivered as he managed to open that door in himself that Blair had spent a good week teaching him how to close. The tingles that he had always called a Hellmouth vibe shimmied across him like fingernails down a chalkboard. Some were far away and some close. Most were soft, a minor aggravation humming just below the surface. Xander allowed the image of that little girl to float to the top of his mind as he felt the vibrations around him.

A sudden twang told him that it was there. Somewhere. Xander turned his head in the direction of the sound and pulled up the girl's image again. He could feel his head starting to pound with the effort of listening to the aggravating noise. A second echoing twang had him turning a slightly different directions.

"All cars we have a location on the suspect on the Charlie-1-7-2 . Blue Ford Mustang, white racing stripe, two doors. Southbound Central Ave. All units respond. Code Niner. All units respond." The sound of the car radio slammed Xander out of his half trance and back into the real world. Jim flipped on the lights on the truck and hit the accelerator.

"We're minutes away," Jim said as he reached for the radio. "This is unit Echo-Seven responding to the Code Nine, southbound on 3rd toward Central."

"See, I'm not so needed after all," Xander said, relieved that everything wasn't going to rely on his own slightly wonky sense of evil vibes or danger vibes or whatever they were vibes which had a bad habit of blinking on and off now that Xander understood it better. Which really... was still better than having it always on and just being drawn to evil.

Jim took a corner much sharper than the truck was designed for, and Xander found himself plastered to Blair by the force of the turn.

"Got him," Jim said as the turn brought them onto Central where three patrol cars with sirens running already followed the Mustang. "Okay, Xander, if you can, lock on to him just in case he has a trick up his sleeve," Jim ordered, his lips pressed into a thin line and his knuckles white on the steering wheel.

"Right, just in case," Xander said. He focused on the car and let the door in his mind creak open a slot. Instantly, the threads of sound wormed into his awareness. Xander really wished that focusing his power didn't screw up his hearing since he hated this muffled partial deafness he seemed to suffer when he intentionally opened himself.

"Uh, guys? Problemage." Xander opened the door in his mind wider as he searched for the thread he had early found.

"Problem? What problem?" Jim demanded darkly, his expression making Xander wish he wasn't pressed right up against the man in the truck as they took a turn in the opposite direction. He hoped they hadn't left Spike plastered to the side of some building somewhere. That would be bad. Xander pushed that thought away and concentrated on the job.

"The guy who hurt those girls... he isn't in that car," Xander said as he closed his eye and started sweeping again, the sounds of the sirens muffled by the undercurrents that hissed and squealed in his mind.

"Shit. This is unit Echo-Seven ending pursuit. Engine trouble," Jim's voice immediately announced, sounding like a radio someone had dropped a wet towel over.

"Oh, yeah, like that's believable. Sweetheart runs better than most of the patrol cars."

"So maybe I should say our visiting Shaman has the wrong vibes and I learned that ignoring Shamans leads to big trouble?"

"Oh man, go with the engine story." Xander ignored their distorted voices as he thought of what the man had done and then found that echoing twang in the vibe. He could feel the truck turn under him.

"Major vibage," Xander said as the sound sent a cold shiver down his spine that made his muscles tense up.

"Close?" Xander could barely hear Jim over the sound that vibrated his soul. A warm hand rested on his forearm and he focused on that rather than the noise that made him flinch.

"Way too close for comfort," Xander said, struggling to close that opening into his mind that allowed him to hear those echoes. The evil he could feel threatened to overwhelm him.

"The playground," Blair said, and the truck rattled to a stop. Xander blinked his eye open and found the truck parked under a street light, the colorful playset appeared to be shades of gray in the low light, and trees cast black shadows from the dim streetlights along the perimeter.

"Is he here?" Jim asked as he opened his door. Xander slid out after Blair.

"Oh yeah. It's just... I can't..." Xander struggled to explain why he couldn't open himself up enough to track the man any farther.

"Don't worry about it Sport. You've gotten us this far, so I think it's my turn to take over," Jim said as he came around the truck and put a hand on Xander's shoulder.

"Bloody hell. Don't need any help to track that scent," Spike snapped as he jumped from the back of the truck. Xander was nearly knocked over as Blair flinched back from the sight of Spike in game face.

"Spike?" Xander asked at the same time that Jim stepped forward while reaching for his waistband. Before Xander had a chance to worry about impending stakeage, Spike took off across the park still in game face.

"Shit. He's right, that's blood," Jim said before taking off across the damp grass. Xander and Blair exchanged a quick glance before taking off after the two. "Stay behind me," Jim yelled.

"Yeah, yeah," Blair gasped as they followed. "Oh god," he added as they came around the corner of the brick building that housed the bathrooms. A small arm was visible in the hallway beyond Jim's kneeling form.

"She's alive. Call it in," Jim said tersely and that's when Xander spotted Spike holding the suspect up a good foot off the ground, yellow dripping off the man's shoes from where he had peed himself. In the background he heard Blair on the cell phone as Xander closed the distance between himself and Spike.

"You soddin' little piece of shit. I ought to rip your throat out."

"Spike," Xander said softly.

"You can't. I have rights... rights... I have 'em." Xander recognized the true babble of terror, and the smell of pee. Kinda ewww. Not as eww as what the man had done though.

"Small problem… not a cop. As far as the constables are concerned, I don't exist. I'm the shadow in your nightmares."

"Spike, killage would be bad. Hard to explain bodies when the police aren't Hellmouthy stupid. Come on Spike, don't make me call Buffy on you," Xander pleaded. Yellow eyes turned to look at him sharply.

"Fuckin' well deserves ta die."

"Not arguing. Just thinking that he fucking well deserves to go to prison where he'll be raped and tortured by people who hate him as much as you do. Scary people. Scary people with tattoos and names like Bubba." Xander put a hand on Spike's shoulder and the vamp tilted his head to one side as though struggling with his own thoughts.

"Listen ya little wanker," Spike snarled at the man. When he didn't get any response, Spike shook him, grinning with a feral expression as the man's head snapped forward and back. "Fuckin' listen up. You hurt anyone ever again, and I'll find ya. Never been much for torture, but I learned from the best. I bloody well know how ta make it last for weeks, and if you ever touch another child, I'll find ya.

"I'll tie you down and skin your cock before makin' you eat it one piece at a time. I'll torture you 'til ya scream for mercy and then beg for death in a hoarse whisper and then fall silent because you've screamed your voice away. I'll break you until you don't have a coherent thought left. Then I'll turn ya so that I can rip your guts out of your body over and over again. I'll stick splinters into your eyes until you rip them out of your own head to make the pain stop. So you think of that if you ever consider hurting another person."

Spike dropped the man who fell to the ground and hid his face in his arms, shaking so hard he was doing a good impression of a seizure. When Xander turned around, Jim stood there with a satisfied expression on his face as he looked down.

"Sorry mate, didn't mean ta step on your territory there," Spike said as he stepped back and started digging through his pockets. "Think we might want to take a hike seein' as how I can hear sirens."

"Not a problem," Jim said in a satisfied voice. "Just take off."

"Right, come on then," Xander didn't even realize that Spike was talking to him until the strong hand landed on his arm and started pushing him back from the weeping pedophile.

"He stays," Jim insisted as he stepped forward.

"Xand, we need to do some talkin', and I'd rather your name not show up on some police report. So tell Starsky and Hutch here ta back off." Xander looked at the open expression on Spike's face, the slight confusion and concern and something that looked like it might be relief.

"I'll see you guys later. Spike's right about the whole police report thing because Simon is starting to look constipated every time I just happen to show up on a scene," Xander said with a shrug as he started backing away. For a second, Jim looked like he might follow, and then Blair came up behind him, a small body in his arms, and put a hand on the Sentinel's shoulder. Xander couldn't hear what he said, but he watched as Jim snapped back into cop-mode, pulling the suspect up and cuffing him.

"Right, get the lead out then, pet." Spike started trotting across the parking lot to a gas station on the corner, coat flying out behind him, and Xander had to run to catch up.

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