Seeing Beyond Imperfections


by
Melissa



Part One


In which Xander dies - but not permanently

Xander sat alone in his office-cum-apartment on the top floor of the Slayers Council headquarters building. It was a big old manor house on the outskirts of Marion, Ohio, with extensive grounds, perfect for housing and training the dozen or so slayers that were called each year.

They had originally set up the Council on the hellmouth in Cleveland. Eventually, however, they had decided they needed a slightly less demon-infested town in which to train the new slayers. So, Faith had stayed with Kennedy and some of the others who had been there for the final battle, while Buffy, Dawn and Giles had moved the headquarters here to Marion, still close enough in an emergency, but safer nonetheless. He, Buffy and Dawn all lived in the house on a permanent basis, each occupying a suite on the top floor. The rooms were old fashioned, with high ceilings and cold floors, but when he got a fire started in the grate it warmed up quickly enough. And it was quiet, far away from anything that might distract him from the pounding in his head.

Xander sighed slightly. His job meant he spent a great deal of his time alone. Sure, he got visitors every hour or so; employees come to pick up the reports of his latest visions. And although he knew all of them by name they weren't really friends, or even colleagues. Most of them were either too afraid to disturb him, or too freaked out by the way his eyes would film over white every so often to make the effort to get to know him. Not that he made much of an effort, either. He was always pleasant but most of them just didn't understand what he and his friends had been through - what it had been like when there was only one slayer, the constant fear that had stolen away their childhood. He smirked slightly at himself. Melodramatic, much? he thought. Besides, he didn't really mind being alone.

Every day, he remembered the people he had lost along the way. But if it hadn't been for their sacrifice, he never would have made it to where he was today. And nothing could make him regret his decision to become a seer to the slayers - not his lost childhood, his dead friends, or the pain he endured as a result of the visions. If it ever seemed like the blinding headaches or the violence he witnessed almost every hour was becoming too much, all he had to do was remember all the lives that were saved everyday because of his efforts.

Still, when he glanced at the clock and noticed that it was nearly eight a.m., he couldn't help the small sigh of relief that escaped. That meant that his visions would stop for the next ten hours or so, allowing him to get some rest. He would go have breakfast (dinner for him) with Buffy and Dawn, then take a couple of aspirin and hit the sack.

Finishing up his report, he tucked his pad and pen into a pocket and made his way down three flights of stairs to the dining room on the ground floor. On the second floor, he stopped in at Marissa's office. She and James were the ones who e-mailed his reports all over the country, and occasionally the world, although most other countries had their own resident seers.

He greeted her with a smile and handed over the sheaf of paper. 'Hey, Marissa, last one for today, I think.'

'Hello, Alexander, how was your day?' Marissa insisted on calling him by his full name. She was originally from England, and had received a classical education. She maintained that Alexander was a truly auspicious name, and that he should be proud of it. He suspected that his attempts to convince her otherwise were the main reason she continued to use it. For the first couple of months it had truly wigged him out each time he heard it. It made him feel like his mother was standing over his shoulder. But eventually he had gotten used to it, and now couldn't imagine her calling him anything else.

'Not too bad. The pain has been getting worse the past couple of days. I think I might have to call Willow, have her jack up the power on the spell.' When he had received his powers, Willow had found a spell that was supposed to stop his brain from degenerating the way Cordy's had done before she became part demon. Recently, however, it had been harder and harder to ignore the pounding in his skull that came with each vision. He hadn't spoken to Willow in months, partly because he didn't want to worry her, and partly because he was just too busy to spare the time. 'Still,' he said with a smile, 'can't complain, can I? Not like I didn't ask for it.' She frowned, and he forestalled any argument by saying he needed to get to dinner. 'I'll see you tomorrow, Marissa.'

Walking into the dining room, Xander smiled at the two sisters. Physically, Buffy had changed hardly at all over the last fifteen years. In her mid-thirties, she still didn't look a day over twenty-five. Slayer physique and all that, Xander supposed. Still, she had... softened, he supposed. Not that she had gone soft, but without the constant stress of trying to save the world, she had allowed The Slayer to fade into the background more. She had been able to become the, if not entirely normal, then happy young woman that she had always wanted to be. Dawn had matured in her own way. She had grown into her tall figure to become a truly beautiful woman. There were still hints of the teenager they had grown up with, but she had become a force to be reckoned with professionally. It had been touch and go there for a while after Sunnydale had been destroyed, but eventually the two had rediscovered what it meant to be sisters, and were now closer than ever.

Buffy had cooked dinner for them, a light chicken and veggie soup by the looks of it. Over the past fifteen years, Buffy had gotten to do many of the simple things she never thought that she would live to experience. Training potential slayers was a gruelling job, to be certain, but it had left her time to do things like learn to cook. She and Dawn used to alternate, but Dawn had even less time on her hands than her sister these days. She had taken over the Slayers Council in America last year. When Dawn had turned thirty, Giles had decided that it was time for him to retire once and for all. She worked exceptionally hard, but always found time for these early morning dinners, and Xander knew that it was because she often felt just as alone as he did. Even Buffy, who was around people all day, cherished these times when it was just them. It reminded them all of Sunnydale, growing up there, the good times, before everything went bad. The times when Willow and Giles were there were the best. It was almost as if their family was whole again.

They stopped chatting as he walked over and eyed him critically. After he had kissed them both on the cheek, Dawn demanded, without preliminary, 'Xander, did you eat today? You look terrible. How is your head? Is the pain still getting worse?' She was on edge today.

Xander chuckled and shared an amused glance with Buffy. AGM, she mouthed at him. Of course, the Annual General Meeting of the Slayers Council was tomorrow. Each year, the heads of the council in every country would meet to discuss demons, prophesies, the slayers, plans for the future, that sort of thing. Xander had attended a few years ago, but with his visions had decided it was just too much trouble. This would be Dawn's first meeting as head of the council in America, and she had to host the thing. They would be meeting at a hotel in the city, so as not to disturb the slayers, but Dawn had been making preparations for weeks. He grinned a bit. It also meant that Willow would be coming back for a couple of days.

He picked up his spoon and started to eat. 'Yes, mom. You'll be happy to know I had breakfast and lunch.' He didn't mention that both meals had consisted only of toast and water. Even that, he had been hard pressed to keep down. 'My head does hurt, but it's nothing I can't handle. Willow's spell still seems to be holding up fairly well, although when she gets here I'll get her to have a look at it, make sure everything is still in order.' Dawn seemed satisfied, but Buffy gave him a speculative look.

He knew he was playing down his symptoms, but every time he thought about telling them just exactly how much pain he was in, he couldn't help but worry that if they knew, they might try to take the visions away from him. He could endure the pain with equanimity for as long as he could still hold a pen, even if it did end up killing him. But he would not give them up. He knew, with the sort of certainty that only someone with a link to the Powers That Be could understand, that this was what he was meant to do. They all had their place. Willow travelled the world, searching out the slayers as she felt them wake. Buffy trained them, and helped them to protect the world from the demons. Dawn protected the slayers themselves, gave them their watchers, whom she personally helped train. And he gave them direction, showed them the innocents they had been taught to protect. He would never give that up. He continued quickly.

'I actually had a fairly slow day, today. Only twelve visions all up. Ten knowns and two unknowns.' This was for Buffy' s benefit; Dawn received his visions only shortly after he did. 'I didn't hear back from anyone, so I take it things went well?' he asked Dawn.

'Yeah, we're cool,' she replied. 'We figured out your unknown demons fairly easily. They aren't native to this dimension, which is probably why you couldn't find them in your library. But your descriptions were flawless, as usual. Beats the hell out of those pictures Cordy still tries to draw for us. Thank god we broke you of that habit.' She shuddered comically.

'Hey!' he said indignantly.

Buffy grinned at Dawn. 'Remember the last time we tried to play Pictionary? I swear, the only way he and Willow managed to score any points is because she read his mind.'

Well, that was true. But it was only because his clues were so hard. Had nothing to do with his drawing. He cleared his throat, interrupting the continuing disparaging comments about his artistic ability. 'And today's innocents are...?'

They turned back to him, knowing looks on their faces, but obviously prepared to humor him. 'Innocent still. I've got back nine reports of success. The other three are still on the table. I'll let you know if anything happens.'

They talked for about an hour. Buffy filled him in on the progress of the ten slayers they currently had in residence. They were expecting a new one to arrive with Willow today or tomorrow. She filled him in on how Angel and the L.A. gang were doing. He often spoke to Cordy himself, but he hated to deprive Buffy of a chance to talk about Angel. As much as he had always disliked the ensouled vampire, he did love the way Buffy's eyes lit up at the thought of him. It had taken her nearly two years, but she had finally gotten over Spike's death and decided that she was ready to try a real relationship with Angel. He was still cursed, but Buffy had never been happier.

Dawn groused about the AGM for nearly fifteen minutes before declaring she didn't want to talk about it. She told him a bit about the two unknown demons he had seen earlier that day, so he would be able to identify them if he ever saw them again. They talked for a while about Willow. They were all looking forward to seeing her. Buffy announced that Giles had promised to come up for a couple of days, so they could all be together again.

Eventually, Xander had to admit that he was practically falling asleep in his chair, and he gave his girls a hug before leaving them to their days.

His head was pounding as he made his way into his bedroom. It felt like someone was poking hot knives into his brain. He stumbled a bit as he exited the bathroom, but he had spent the last ten years ignoring headaches, and managed to pull himself upright. The aspirin wouldn't kick in for a couple of minutes, but he lay down on his bed and closed his eyes. He frowned a bit as he tried to relax. The pain had never been this bad before. Had something happened to Willow's shields? Was the spell failing? Even as he thought it, he reached one hand out weakly for the phone on his side table.

There was something seriously wrong. Perhaps he should have said something to Buffy after all. He remembered what Cordelia used to say about her visions. Was this what she had felt? He was suddenly immensely grateful that the Powers had given her demon DNA, if she had gone through this on a regular basis. What the hell was wrong with him?

His suddenly nerveless fingers dropped the phone as a scream ripped through him. His shields came crashing down as the spell failed and ten years worth of suppressed pain tore through his brain, leaving neurons overloaded, nerves fried, and severe hemorrhaging. He barely noticed the blood dripping down his face as the pain dragged him down, until he could no longer feel anything at all.


~*~*~*~*~


Buffy was watching the girls spar when she heard the scream. It took her a moment to realize that no one else was reacting; the scream had come from inside her head. 'Xander,' she gasped. She took off over the lawn, using every one of her slayer muscles. Seconds later she was racing up the stairs to his room, screaming to anyone listening to get Dawn. She burst into the room, ready to fight whatever was threatening her friend.

She was brought up short as Willow and another girl materialized in front of her.


~*~*~*~*~


Willow looked around the room wildly. She had been waiting with Marina at the airport for a cab when she had felt her spell fail, and heard Xander's scream lash through her brain. She had known she had to get to him. He didn't have much time. With barely a thought, she had dragged the confused girl into the bathroom, where hopefully no one would notice them, wrapped her power around them, and stepped into Xander's room at the council headquarters. She spotted Buffy, who looked stunned for only a fraction of a second, then The Slayer took over and she nodded her head once, before racing over to Xander's bedroom. Willow was right behind her.

'The spell failed,' Willow called as she ran directly to Xander's side. His heart had stopped. She sent a bolt of energy into his chest, and was relieved to feel it start beating again. But it wasn't enough. She couldn't sense any brain activity. 'The one keeping the visions from damaging his brain.'

Buffy halted her search of the room and turned to Willow. 'What? How?' She took in Willow's unsurprised state. 'You knew this would happen?' she asked incredulously.

Willow sighed and turned to her. She had enough time to explain. 'No, I didn't know. I was afraid it might. Cordy said her visions got stronger over time. I wondered if it wasn't just her brain dying that made the pain worse, if the visions were becoming more powerful, less easy to contain. But Xander was fine for such a long time. Eventually I thought I must have been wrong, and the spell was sufficient to keep him alive. Buffy, I'm so sorry,' she whispered.

Buffy's face softened and she walked over to Willow. 'Is it too late to save him?' she asked quietly.

Willow's back stiffened, and Buffy watched as she brought out The Witch. Willow was quite possibly one of the most powerful people on the planet. It amazed her sometimes that this being could hide inside her quiet, funny friend. Then again, she supposed they all had their alternate personalities. Willow shook her head, and Buffy felt the power start to fill the room. 'No, it isn't. I can revive him, and repair the damage to his brain. But the old spell won't work any more. There is another spell I thought about performing ten years ago, but...' she hesitated, looking suddenly unsure. 'I'm not sure how it will change him.'

Buffy stared at her for a moment. 'What does it do?'

'It... how do I explain it... loosens his consciousness.' She waved her hands around for a moment, as though it would make it clearer. Buffy waited. 'I guess you could say... His mind would occupy a higher plane than his body, although they would still be connected. His visions are received by his mind, his soul, if you will, but as he is at the moment, the enormous amounts of energy that are pumped through the link are too much for his brain to handle. My spell siphoned off some of that energy, which was why his brain wasn't permanently damaged. I didn't realize that energy was being stored behind his shields. The pressure must have become too much and they crumbled. This phase spell shouldn't change him physically, but in a way, when he has a vision, his mind will occupy another level of reality, one that isn't completely connected to his physical body. Most likely, there would still be pain. But it's a big risk, and I don't know what else might happen to him.'

Buffy gazed down at the still form of her friend. He had died. If Willow hadn't been so close, he would be dead. 'No,' she murmured. Then more strongly, 'No. Willow, enough is enough. Why do you have to do the spell at all? Just heal him. Bring him back, let him pass the damn visions on to someone else. I can't lose him. I'm not gonna lose him.'

'Buffy...' She hesitated for a moment. She wanted to. Goddess knew, she hated to see him like this. But... 'Buffy, I can't-'

'Why not?' she interrupted desperately. 'I know you can heal him.' Her voice hardened. 'It's been so long, Wills. I hate what those visions have done to him.'

Willow didn't move from the bed, but she reached out to grasp Buffy's hand. 'I know. Goddess, I know. But you know how much the visions mean to him, to all of us. He's worked so hard to remember every demon, every city, every town, and every slayer. I know he's afraid that we would try take them away if it ever got too much for him, and Goddess knows I'm tempted. But we can't, Buffy. He would never forgive us.' She looked into Buffy's eyes, and they shared a moment of pained understanding.

Buffy started a bit as a voice spoke up beside her. 'Willow's right, Buffy,' Dawn said softly. 'This isn't about you. I know you don't want to lose him. Neither do I. But you know as well as I do what Xander would want. If there are consequences, we'll figure them out. But if he can be healthy, and keep the visions, then you have to do it.'

Buffy wavered for a moment. 'With the spell, will he still be Xander?' Willow nodded. 'And he'll keep the visions?' She nodded again. 'And can you promise me this will never happen again?'

Willow looked at her steadily. 'I can't promise he's never going to die. I can't even say exactly what this spell is going to do to him. But this will never happen again. The visions aren't going to be a danger any longer.'

She waited a moment longer before Buffy closed her eyes in defeat and nodded. 'You're right. You have to do it, Wills.' Willow squeezed the hand she was still holding gently, watching as Buffy shrugged away her pain, squared her shoulders and brought her mind back to the task at hand. The decision had been made. 'What do you need?'

Willow smiled sadly and turned away. 'Just give me a bit of space.'

Once upon a time she would have needed all sorts of things to focus her mind. Candles, incense, crystals. For some spells, she still needed those things. But she knew Xander better than anyone else, inside and out, and she had thought about this spell so many times in the first few years it was almost second nature. There was laughingly little to it. Just a supplication chant and an enormous amount of very carefully directed energy. Although that was probably a good thing considering the state Xander was in. He didn't have time for anything more complicated.

Buffy and Dawn backed up to the doorway as Willow stood, her eyes filming over a pure white. They listened as she began to chant. They couldn't see anything, but both could feel the power building in the room and knew that Willow was channeling it into Xander. Willow's voice rose demandingly and she held one hand out over Xander, the other held up just to the left of his body. With one final shout, they felt her push the energy into the man on the bed.

Buffy leapt forward to catch Willow as her knees buckled and she fell to the floor. She nodded her head, exhausted. 'It's done,' she confirmed. They all looked at Xander, who seemed to flicker for a moment, as he opened his eyes and looked up at them blankly.


~*~*~*~*~


Xander felt like he'd been floating forever. It was nice, really. He had some vague memory of pain, but it didn't bother him here, so he didn't worry about it. Here everything was light, and peace.

Suddenly he felt a phantom pain in his chest. He frowned. There was no pain here, there never had been. But the sensation came again, and again, beating in his chest, pulling him forward. He started following, and suddenly the beating no longer hurt.

A thought came to him; He was still alive. He needed to go back, back to the pain.You can stay The voice came from inside his head. He wavered for a moment. He could? It was nice here... so calm, so peaceful... No! He needed to go back. He needed to keep helping people, his friends, the slayers, the innocents. It was his purpose. Yes The voice came again - this time it sounded satisfied.


~*~*~*~*~


Then he was back. He experienced an instant of blinding pain before it all just seemed to... stop. He felt different, like he was somewhere else, but the feeling started to fade and he opened his eyes. Willow and Buffy were on the floor. When did Willow get here?, he wondered momentarily. Dawn was in the doorway, Spike standing just behind her, in the other room. No, Spike was dead. He had been for over fifteen years. Xander frowned and blinked. When he opened his eyes again, the blond man had gone, and the room was starting to look solid again.

By that time, the girls were all crowded around his bed, looking worried and hopeful. He realized he felt fine. In fact he felt better than fine, he felt better than he had in years. He'd gotten so used to the pain he barely even noticed it anymore. It was like he was floating. That gave him pause, and he pushed his arms down into the mattress. Nope, not floating. But still...he could get used to this.

He stretched and leered playfully up at them. 'Three beautiful women in my bed... I oughta die and come back more often.'

He was touched by the relief on their faces, right before they all slapped whatever part of him was closest. He grinned as he sat up. 'Definitely more often.' He gathered them into his arms and held them for a moment. 'What happened?' he asked quietly.

Dawn started angrily. 'They killed you Xander, the visions killed you. Why didn't you tell us they were getting so much worse? Why didn't you trust us? Did you really think we wouldn't have helped? That we would have taken them away from you?' She stopped and sighed as she caught the guilty expression on his face.

Willow lent over and kissed him on the forehead. 'You should have trusted us Xander,' she said quietly. 'I know you think we don't understand, but we do. All of us.' Dawn nodded, and Buffy just looked at him, her eyes full of sadness, and understanding.

He felt like an idiot. How could he have underestimated his girls? He'd known, of course he'd known. But he'd just been so afraid... Some all-powerful seer he'd turned out to be. 'I'm so sorry.' He looked up into their stern faces and gave them the eyes. 'I promise it won't happen again?'

He felt it the moment they began to crack. He knew they were still angry with him, but hey, he'd just died, surely he deserved a bit of a break.

'Yeah, well, you better damn well see that it doesn't,' Dawn groused.

He smiled cheerfully. 'So, what'd you do to me? I feel better than I have in almost ten years.'

He listened carefully as Willow explained about the phase spell. It wasn't like the other one, which had been an ongoing thing, kept in place by Willow's power. This was permanent. She had irrevocably changed his basic make-up. It wasn't a big change, but he wasn't about to snap back to the way he was before.

'In a way, you can now occupy two different planes of reality. The other one, you know, not this one, is the next highest plane. It's also metaphysical. To us, anyway. I guess it would be solid to the things that belong there. I don't know if there will be any side effects. There are lots of things out there that we don't usually see, because we aren't tuned into them properly. You might start picking some of them up. Energy waves, that sort of thing. But if it does happen, it should only be while you're phased, which should only happen while you're having a vision, so you probably won't see anything anyway. Except for the visions, of course. I don't know about the visions. They might be clearer. Seeing as you'll be receiving them on a higher plane, you'll be just that much closer to the Powers who are sending them. You'll still be able to remember them the same way. I think.'

He waited for her to trail off. Willow only talked like this when she was nervous. 'Willow, whatever happens, I know you tried your best. And considering you're like the most powerful witch in the country, that's saying something. It'll be fine. Thank you for bringing me back.'

Willow smiled and buried her head in his chest. 'I almost lost you, Xander,' she whispered brokenly.

He held her tightly and stroked her hair. 'Take more than that to get rid of the Xand-man. Nearly thirty-five years and all the nasties out there still haven't managed to get rid of us. I've decided we must all be destined to live to a ripe old age and die in our sleep. And we all know I'm never wrong.'

He sat there for a moment longer, feeling his eyes start to droop, before nudging Willow out of his arms. 'Now, if you don't mind, I really need to get some rest. Something tells me the Powers That Be won't care that I had a rough night. And I'm sure you all have work to do.' He yawned hugely and lay back down. He stayed that way for a moment before noticing that they weren't leaving. He sighed and turned to face them. 'Guy's Guys, I'm fine, I feel fine. When I was... dead... I heard something, or someone, I don't know. But... this is where I'm supposed to be. Now, like this. They aren't going to take me away again. I think they just needed to be sure that I was sure. And I am. So, either get in this bed with me for some hot Xander lovin', or go away and let me get some sleep.'

He didn't see the glances they exchanged, but he did feel it as they each got up and kissed him on the forehead. 'My head doesn't hurt,' they heard him murmur delightedly as he drifted off into sleep.





One B


In which Xander gets used to life after death and discovers that Spike might not be as dead as they all assumed

He was alone when his inner clock woke him about six hours later. He still felt amazing. Rested, and ready for a busy night, full of visions. He winced slightly when he remembered that he would still get headaches, but for the moment he felt wonderful, and decided not to let it depress him. He glanced over at the clock. Five forty-five. The girls wouldn't be coming in for dinner for another half an hour. Just enough time for him to have a quick shower and head down into the kitchen to get things started.

So he was surprised to see Buffy was at the table with four other slayers, when he sauntered into the dining room fifteen minutes later.

'Xander! What are you doing up. We thought you'd sleep late, what with... you know.' She jumped up to give him a hug, before holding him at arms length to examine him. 'You look... great.' She sounded slightly confused. 'I thought you'd look, you know, different. I always feel different when you bring me back from the dead. Certainly not like I've just had the best night's sleep in a long time.'

He grinned at her. 'I feel great. Must be because Willow fixed my brain. The headaches'll probably come back when the visions start, but 'till then, I really don't want to think about it.'

He looked around at the slayers, who had been watching Buffy and himself. 'How are you lovely young things this afternoon? You're finished kind of early haven't you?'

Jessica smirked. 'Buffy hasn't been able to concentrate all day. We gave up about an hour ago. Some of the girls have gone into town. They said to say hi, if we saw you, and hope you're feeling better.'

Xander did make an effort to get to know all the slayers. If he was going to be sending them into danger, he felt he owed them at least that much. And besides, they were a nice bunch of girls. He was happy to count them as friends. He grinned slightly to himself. He doubted there was another man on the planet with as many female friends as him. Not to mention young, beautiful, fit female friends. Even so, he had never pursued any of them romantically. He had gone out on a few dates after Anya had died, only two of whom had turned out to be demons, and had one serious relationship. But then he had received the visions and discovered that there was nothing that killed the mood more thoroughly than having his eyes film over, followed by several minutes of frantic writing as he tried to get every detail down. Not to mention the very manly squeals that occasionally accompanied the stabbing headaches. Sure, he sometimes felt the loss, but he had his family, not to mention all the people in his head. He was content.

Cameron spoke up shyly. 'Yeah, we heard about what happened. I'm glad you're still with us, Xander.' The others nodded their agreement.

He grinned at them. 'Got to say, not hating the not being dead thing, either.'

Jesse added, 'Besides, if you hadn't come back, who would we have to send us out on dangerous, hair-raising missions. No fun being a slayer if there ain't no demons to kick the crap out of.' She grinned wickedly at him.

'Aw, I knew it! You only love me for my mind. You guy's sticking around for breakfast?'

Phillipa shook her head as she and the other girls got up. 'We have already eaten, but thank you all the same, Xander. We must be going. The four of us have organized to drive into town this afternoon. We are going to see a film before it is time to patrol. Shall we see you tomorrow?'

'Sure, I'll come down and say hi. You girls have a good time.' They all pecked him on the cheek as they made their way outside. He glanced down as he heard Buffy's snort of amusement. 'What?' he grinned.

'You have no idea, do you?' she asked, a grin playing around the corners of her mouth. 'You have got to be one of the most protected people in the world. There are what, like two hundred slayers in the world at the moment?'

'Two hundred and twelve, I think,' he answered. 'Why?'

She rolled her eyes at him. For someone who was meant to be a seer, he sure as hell didn't see a lot when it came to how people felt about him. 'At least half of them were probably in love with you at some stage. By the end of their stay here, most of them have adopted you as some sort of a brother/father figure, and would happily battle the very army of hell itself if it meant keeping you safe. If someone sent out a general e-mail that said 'Xander is in danger' we would have every slayer here within a matter of days. You have to know that.'

Xander closed his mouth, and then opened it again. 'Um, yeah, well now I do. They do know that...'

Buffy interrupted, 'Yeah, they know you're not looking for anyone. Like I said, most of them get over it fairly quickly. But you've got a bigger family than you think,' she finished quietly.

Xander mulled over this for a moment. He decided it felt good to have so many people actually care about him. He sure as hell hadn't had much of the unconditional love thing growing up with his 'real' family. He smiled as they started walking into the kitchen. 'So, tell me about the countless numbers of beautiful girls who've been in love with me over the past ten years.'

'Oh, no. I've said all I'm going to say. That was a big enough ego-boost for one afternoon.'

They bantered lightly while they prepared pancakes and coffee. Dawn joined them at half past six, and they all sat down to wait for Willow. She stumbled in at a quarter to seven, still yawning. Buffy had told him she had preceded the phase spell with a translocation spell, performed on not one, but two people and quite a bit of luggage. He'd been ready to have breakfast without her, but Buffy said that Willow had insisted on being there. She dropped into a chair and treated him to an intense stare, followed by a satisfied smile, and breakfast got underway.

Just before seven thirty, Xander got out the pad and pencil he carried with him at all times, and placed them on the dining table. He looked at the three women, seeing his own nervousness reflected in their eyes.

Willow tried to smile reassuringly. 'Everything should be fine, Xander. There's nothing to worry about. You should feel a bit of a tug just before the vision starts. Follow it with your mind until the room starts to go out of focus just a little bit. You probably felt it this morning, after the spell. When the vision finishes, you should just slip into this plane again naturally. Remember, don't panic.'

'Right. Got it. Simple.' They waited for a moment, but nothing happened. Xander started to panic. Maybe he'd lost them, maybe he really was meant to be dead and the Powers had taken the visions away. Maybe...

He felt it. The tug. It was like the vision was being directed somewhere just outside his head, and he had to let go his mind in order to get to it. Mindful of what Willow had said, he allowed his mind to follow, and gasped a bit as he saw the room start to go out of focus. For a fraction of a second he thought he saw Spike again, leaning up against the far wall and watching him curiously. He would have sworn he saw blue eyes widen as he met them with his own. Then all thought of Spike faded as his eyes filmed over, and all he saw were the pictures in his head.

It started as it always did, above, looking down. Then he was moving toward the earth. America... California... San Francisco... the Bay... the moon, setting... a street sign, Parson Road... an old toy factory, abandoned, Jacob and Sons Toys... inside... six demons, Abigor, major players from the hell dimensions... a magic symbol on the floor... zooming in on it, memorizing it; triangle, inverted, six skulls around the outside... the sacrifice in the center, two innocents, children, the demons cutting their hearts out... an obsidian knife, the blood dripping... a portal opening, more of their kind emerging... killing, bloodshed...

And then it was over.

Xander felt his eyes clear, and for a moment the room was fuzzy, before it slid into focus as he remembered it doing this morning. He immediately picked up pen and paper and started writing. There was no chance he would forget any of it, but it was best to give the California slayers as much time as possible.

He started talking as he was writing. If there was one thing ten years of visions had taught him, it was how to disconnect his hand from his mouth. He could write down everything he had seen, while carrying on a conversation with no trouble at all.

He smiled briefly at the women, who were all looking at him anxiously. 'Well, first and foremost, I think the fact that I'm still alive deserves a 'yay'. All things considered, I feel pretty good. My head hurts, but nowhere near as bad as it did last night, 'bout the same as it always used to be, actually. Nothing I can't handle. Honestly and I mean it.' He looked up at them for a moment, before they all said they believed him. 'It was just like you said, Wills. I felt the tug, and the room went a little translucent, just before the vision started. There was something weird though. I thought I saw Spike for a moment. And not as a part of the vision.'

Buffy frowned. 'Spike? As in our Spike? Are you sure he wasn't part of the vision? Maybe he fought the beasts at some point... Or maybe you're just thinking about him. It is coming up to the anniversary of his death, and you did die last night. It's probably only natural...' She trailed off.

Xander shrugged. 'I guess so. Like I said, he didn't feel like part of the vision, but maybe you should check it out anyway, Dawnie. I'll make a note at the bottom.'

'But other than that, everything went fine?' Willow cut in, still sounding concerned. 'You didn't flicker the way you did last night. You were still solid in this plane, but you did go a little insubstantial around the edges. I couldn't see into the other plane, but your mind seemed to move fairly easily between them.'

Xander nodded. 'Yeah, there were no problems that way. When the vision finished, I just kind of let myself slide back, although I probably could have held on, if I'd wanted to.'

'Really?' Willow sounded surprised. 'It hadn't occurred to me that you might be able to control the phase, but I suppose there's no reason why you shouldn't. You probably shouldn't try it until you've gotten used to the visions though. Speaking of. Were the visions all right? You seemed to be under for a little longer than usual.'

'Actually, the vision itself was fine. You were right again. It was easier to concentrate, especially without the pain. Oh, yeah, the pain only started when the vision finished. So, I reckon I probably got more details. The smells and sounds were sharper, too, although they were always pretty good before, so I don't know how much practical difference it's going to make.'

Willow asked a few more questions, and examined his head with her magic, before she finally announced that she was satisfied. She grinned, relaxing back in her chair. 'I really think this is going to work,' she said happily.

Xander finished writing and looked up at Willow. 'Thank you for this Wills, all of you.' He looked around at them. 'I think you know how much it means to me.'

Willow smiled at him. 'Hey, you're happy, we're happy. You are happy?'

'Absolutely.' He waved around the piece of paper in his hand. 'Every time I hear that something like this has been prevented... Well, let's just say very little compares. Speaking of which, I should probably get back to my office. I know these demons, got a good chapter on them in one of my books.' It still amused him sometimes to think that he, the illiterate one, had a library in his office...and that he actually used it. 'And I want to get a good look at the map. Find out just where it is we're supposed to be going.' He also had what had to be the world's largest collection of street directories. 'We've got 'till the moon sets, but I'd like to get the report out as soon as possible.'

Dawn rose from her seat. 'Yeah, I should probably get back to work as well. Oh! I almost forgot. I called Giles. He should be here for breakfast tomorrow. He's really worried about you, Xander. I'll give him another call to let him know everything seems to be fine, but be prepared.' She grinned at him.

He grimaced and grumbled, 'Great. May 14th, breakfast, get the third degree from Giles. And I suppose I'm gonna have to tidy my room.' Then he brightened. 'Oh, hey! What if you don't tell him I'm all better? 'Cause, you know, I did just die. That's got to be worth a few laundry-free days, don't you think? If I lie in bed looking really pathetic, I bet he'd get all mother-y and do it for me. I mean, sure, it's a little dishonest, and he'd probably complain, but... no laundry.' He grinned hopefully at them.

''Xander, you can't do that to Giles.' Buffy chided him. Then she grinned 'Besides, the last time I died there was a distinct lack of sympathy cleaning.'

'Well, yeah, but that was the third time. You're old hat. Me, I'm new to the ranks of the resurrected. Scared and need to be looked after. Maybe you should get me a maid, just to be on the safe side.'

Dawn rolled her eyes at them, smirking. 'Xander, you're not getting a maid. I'm going to tell Giles you're fine. And could you two please stop talking about being dead. It's creeping me out.'

Buffy and Xander exchanged an amused glance, but dutifully apologised.

'You coming down soon? Or do you want to forgo training for today?' Buffy asked as she, too, got up.

'No, I'll be there.' It was kind of hard to find the time to train when he didn't know exactly when a vision would hit him, but for a couple of hours at sunset he would go down to the gym and work out in between the occasional vision. He supposed that he could have used the exercise machine for his room and made it easier for himself, but he appreciated Buffy's company, and enjoyed seeing the girls, if any of them weren't out patrolling.

He looked over at Willow, only to see her head cushioned on her arms, resting on the table. He laughed. 'Come on, Wills. I'll walk you to your room. You look like you could do with another few hours sleep.'

They all left the room with a light step. Xander was really ok for the first time in a long time, Willow was back, and by tomorrow morning Giles would be there, and they would all be together again.


~*~*~*~*~


Everything progressed smoothly for the next couple of weeks. Both Giles and Willow stayed for nearly a week, and Xander spent every spare second with them. Giles would sit with him for hours at a time, and they would spend the time researching his visions, or just talking about the past and the future. They talked about Dawn, and Giles confessed he thought she was one of the best watchers he had ever known, and that he was so proud of her for the way she had handled the Council at the Annual General Meeting. Naturally Giles swore him to secrecy, and naturally Xander told Dawn exactly what he had said the very next day. She had cried, and gone straight to Giles, but neither of them had said anything. It was their way.

Occasionally, Buffy and Willow would join them as well, the original Scooby Gang, and Xander would close his eyes and pretend for a moment that they were back in the library. He had a feeling the others did the same thing. They weren't trying to bring back the past. They had lost so much, but from that they had built something truly worthy. If it wasn't for the past, they wouldn't have the present, and it did them good to remember that.

The visions also seemed to be going well. Xander was becoming more adept at phasing in and out of the two planes he could exist in. He could hold onto the shift indefinitely after a vision, and was fairly sure that with a little practice would be able to phase even without the stimulus of a vision. He was in less pain than he had been for months. The headaches continued to plague him, but they disappeared far more quickly than they used to, and he often found that he could wake up after a good day's sleep in no pain at all.

The only thing that continued to bother him was his visions of Spike. He received glimpses of the man before or after a vision, when he was still phased. For the first week, he had only had them maybe once a day, not enough for him to really worry about. Willow had told him they were most probably just memories, which, if they were strong enough, could become a kind of independent energy. He had accepted this theory. After all, he usually only saw them when he was around Buffy or Dawn, whose memories of the vampire would certainly be the strongest.

Since Willow and Giles had left the previous Sunday, however, he had started to pay more attention when he saw the man. He just didn't seem to act like a memory. The way he watched them, relaxed but alert. And he was almost certain Spike was avoiding him. The way he would be there before a vision, but gone afterwards. It was... weird. Xander couldn't put his finger on it exactly, but by the end of the second week he knew he had to find out what was going on. He didn't have time to observe Spike more closely before a vision, and afterwards he had to phase back in so he could write up his reports. He was convinced if he wanted to see what was going on, he would have to phase without the aid of a vision.

He figured he should make his attempts when Spike wasn't likely to be around, if he really was trying to avoid him. So he decided he'd give it a go in the middle of one of his days, the middle of the night for Buffy and Dawn. He'd never seen Spike at that time of the day.

He sat a little nervously in the big chair in front of the fireplace in his office on Monday night. The last vision had been an easy one, and he figured he had a little while before the next one. He was pretty sure he could do this. He knew the theory, and had felt the phase often enough in the past couple of weeks to be completely familiar with it. But still, he was a little worried that if he did it deliberately, it would be different. Maybe he wouldn't be able to come back.

He shook his head, focusing. The tug felt like it came from above him, generally, which he supposed made sense, if he was moving into a higher plane. He closed his eyes and tried to picture the sensation. He could feel where he wanted to go, hovering just beyond his consciousness, but he wasn't sure how to get there. He shook his head again and tried to reason through it. Usually, he had the visions to pull him into the other plane. He needed to somehow get there himself... Maybe if he pictured himself stepping across...

He felt it the second it happened, like tiny streams of electricity running over his skin. He opened his eyes slowly. The room looked the same, maybe a little out of focus, although the fire in the grate was a bright, pulsing light. Everything seemed sort of... insubstantial, as though he should be able to pass his hand through it. He reached out to the glass of water on the coffee table and was mildly surprised when his fingers connected with the smooth surface. He put the glass back down and looked around the rest of the room. There were faint waves of light running through the room - energy, he supposed - but otherwise everything seemed entirely normal. He got up and wandered over to the doorway. He wasn't sure how long he would be able to stay like this. He'd never stayed phased for more than ten minutes before. He shrugged. It was about time for lunch, anyway. He would see if he could hold it all the way down to the kitchen.

He made his way slowly along the corridors, having to concentrate on not bumping into things. He passed a full-length mirror on the second floor, and was interested to note that his reflection was almost totally obscured by the bands of light running around him. Obviously, he wouldn't be able to live this way. He had just reached the main entrance hall when a group of the girls bounded in from a night of patrolling. They didn't see him standing in the doorway and headed straight for the kitchen. They were all faintly glowing, making it hard for him to recognize them. It was actually kind of disconcerting. He figured he must have been phased for about fifteen minutes now, and although it didn't seem to be making him tired, he was about to drop it and join the girls in the kitchen, when he saw him.

Spike. He followed the girls through the door. Actually through the door, as the last girl shut it behind herself. Xander could hear him laughing softly at something one of the girls had said. He was the only one in the room that wasn't glowing. In fact, he was the most substantial looking thing Xander had seen yet. None of the girls noticed as he followed them over to the dining room doorway. There, however, Xander was surprised to see him stop, looking slightly sad.

Without really giving himself time to think about it, Xander paced quietly over to the other side of the hallway, reached out, and placed his hand on Spike's shoulder - only to find himself flat on his back a moment later with one extremely pissed looking blond glaring at him.

Seconds later, Spike was on his feet again, staring down at Xander with an equal mix of horror and astonishment.

Okay, definitely not a memory, he thought to himself. He levered himself up so that he was leaning on his elbows and smiled up into that shocked face. 'Spike, good to see you again,' he said nonchalantly. He reached out a hand for Spike to help him up. Spike just stared at it for so long that Xander rolled his eyes and pulled himself to his feet. The expression on the blond man's face would have been funny, if he hadn't looked so honestly panicked. Xander sighed and took pity on him. He supposed Spike, whatever he was now, wasn't used to people being able to see him. 'Spike,' he said softly, ducking his head down to make eye contact. 'Spike, I think we need to talk. Can we take this to my office?' Finally, a reaction. His face hardened and he nodded once, motioning for Xander to lead the way.

A little concerned at the silence from the other man, Xander held his tongue as they made their way up the stairs to his office. He glanced around frequently to make sure Spike was still there, but he was always following a couple of steps behind. In fact, by the time he finally made it to the door of his office, Xander had stumbled into three tables, two walls, and tripped up at least half a dozen stairs. He was sure Spike was trying not to smirk. He opened the door and motioned for Spike to come in.

He stood in the middle of the room, and took his first good look at the man before him. From the various glimpses he'd had over the past couple of weeks, he would have said that Spike had changed hardly at all. The bleached hair, the unrelieved black of his wardrobe, the sure, almost arrogant way he held himself, all screamed Spike to his experienced eye. Looking closer now, however, he could see that the last fifteen years had not left the man unscathed. In addition to the glaring absence of the leather duster, there was a... softness almost, about him. Or if not that, then at least a lot of the coiled tension and suppressed violence with which he had moved was gone. It made it all the more obvious that Spike was no longer a vampire. Xander had no idea where the blond had been for the past fifteen years, even if he was alive or dead. But it was obvious even to him that the years hadn't been a walk in the park. Spike held himself too carefully, pursed his mouth a little too tightly, as though he was afraid any sudden movements might cause him to break. It reminded Xander a little of how he had acted that last year, after he had gotten his soul, especially when they had been living together, when he hadn't been able to help just waiting for the vampire to shatter.

He cautiously met Spike's eyes, unsure what he would find there. They were one thing that had never changed, through everything the vampire had had to endure. Xander had never quite been able to understand that, but there it was.

They were the same. Those blue eyes reflected the same man who had respectively been a hated enemy, a reluctant ally, an even more reluctant friend, and finally a fellow champion, or victim of fate, depending on how he was feeling on any given day. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, he found himself unsure of what to say. 'Sooo... how've you been?'

Spike laughed. He couldn't help it. He had been expecting all kinds of painful and difficult questions. It was good to know some things never changed. 'Dead, mate.'

Xander smirked. 'You were always dead, Spike. Didn't stop you having a good time.'

'Not quite the same, this time.'

Xander nodded. Obviously not. 'Come on, let's sit down, you've got a lot of talking to do.' Spike hesitated. 'Spike, I know you can sit down, I've seen you do it.' He took a step forward before stopping again. Xander sighed and walked over to him. 'What's wrong? Are you not allowed to talk to me?'

Spike smiled sadly and looked into the worried eyes before him. 'No, no. It's not that.' Spike ran a hand through his hair. Xander smiled a little at the familiar gesture. 'It's just that... Xander, I'm... like a ghost, I guess, although not really. I have been for nearly fifteen years. I haven't been able to speak to anyone, to touch anyone. I'm almost entirely invisible to the world around me. And now all of a sudden you can not only see me and hear me, but I can touch you... I haven't been able to touch anyone for so long. You have to understand that it's a bit overwhelming.'

Xander was stunned. And he'd thought his was a solitary existence.

He didn't know what to say. He had so many questions, but none of them really seemed appropriate at the moment. He found that he wanted to reassure the man in front of him. But how did you tell someone who hadn't been alive for the past fifteen years that it was going to be all right? He wished fleetingly that Dawn were there, she would have known what to say. Finally, he did the only thing he could think of. He stepped forward and placed his solid arms around the solid figure in front of him. He figured that if he had gone fifteen years without feeling the touch of another person, this is what he would want.

Spike stiffened for a moment as he felt the arms snake around him, before relaxing and heaving a great sigh of relief. This was heaven. Well, ok, maybe not heaven. But it was the closest he had come in fifteen years to that feeling of peace and contentment he had been searching for. He couldn't stop his hands, didn't want to, as they ran themselves over Xander's back, his shoulders, through his hair. He could feel Xander's heart beating where their chests were touching. He closed his eyes, reveling in the sensations.

Xander just stood there, one hand making small circles on Spike's back as he let himself be touched. Eventually Spike came back to himself enough to realize he'd been practically fondling the man in front of him, and pulled away in embarrassment. He half expected Xander to either laugh at him or yell at him, so he was surprised to see the gentle smile gracing the other man's face.

'Better?'

He cleared away the lump in his throat. 'Um, yeah, thanks. Sorry about all that...'

Xander waved it away. 'S'ok.' He grinned. 'The girls only love me for my mind. It's about time I had someone who appreciated me for my body.'

Spike snorted. 'Buffy was right, you are completely clueless.' He winced inwardly as Xander stilled. Great, he sighed to himself. Outwardly he smirked wryly. 'Let me guess, it's time for that talk, isn't it?'

Xander started to nod, but all of a sudden his expression became blank. Spike had seen this often enough to know what was happening. He thought momentarily about leaving while Xander was effectively blind, but then he felt a hand clamp over his wrist. Or he could stay. Perhaps the kid wasn't so clueless after all. He patiently waited for the vision to finish, not attempting to remove his hand from the vice-like grip holding it. Actually, he quite liked it. At the moment, any touch was a good thing, as far as he was concerned, and it wasn't like he really had any blood to stop circulating. Being a guardian was kind of like being a vampire, except for the whole, existing on a metaphysical plane bit. He watched the hand holding his as he gently flexed all the muscles in his fingers, grinning slightly each time he felt the pressure against his hand change.

As he stood there, he came to realize that he could feel, faintly, the pulse in Xander's wrist, and the warmth of the blood under the skin. He remembered that he'd been able to feel his heartbeat as he held him earlier. It wasn't just Xander's metaphysical body he was holding. He had felt them a couple of times over the years, as he came into contact with other guardians existing on this plane. Somehow, Xander's ability to exist in both planes simultaneously was allowing him to feel the other man's physical body as well.

Even though it had only inhabited his vampire body for a year, Spike's soul had developed an appreciation for the warmth of the living. After fifteen years without, he had almost forgotten how intoxicating it was. He found he'd inched closer to Xander, although he hadn't taken his eyes off the boy's hand. Their bodies weren't touching, but if he concentrated, he could feel the heat radiating from him.

He started a little as the hand holding his flexed, and he looked up to see Xander grinning at him. 'You look like you've just discovered chocolate. Either that, or you're a vampire ghost and you want to suck my blood.' Mmmm... chocolate and blood. He could remember liking chocolate and blood. Xander looked suddenly alarmed. 'You're not, are you?'

'Nah, mate, not a vampire anymore. You're just nice'n'warm.'

Xander looked at him as if to say 'you're sure you're not a vampire'. 'Cross my heart, pet.'

He received a speculative look, before Xander shrugged philosophically. 'Well, last chance to experience my toasty goodness, blondie. I've got a report to write up, and this one is going to take some research. It'll be hands off for at least the next half an hour.'

Spike felt a momentary rush of disappointment, but shrugged it off. He dropped the hand he had been holding and stepped away. 'I've been at this for fifteen years, mate, I think I can manage.'

Xander pinned him suddenly with a glare. 'Don't go too far. We still need to have that talk.' Spike gave him his most innocent look. Apparently it wasn't very good, because Xander laughed once before shaking his head and phasing back into the physical plane.





One C


In which Spike and Xander have that talk

Normally, after the last of the slayers came back from patrol, Spike would walk around the house and the grounds, make sure there was nothing threatening the people who lived there. There almost never was, but it gave him something to do until Buffy, Dawn and the other slayers got up at sunrise. Occasionally he would check in with Angel and his people in L.A. He still couldn't say he particularly liked the man, but the year before he died had given him a good idea of what Angel had gone through when he received his soul, and the past fifteen years, without the anger of his demon to fuel him, had allowed him to mellow a great deal.

He had even checked in with Xander on occasion, as the young man spent the night in his room, alone, visited by what had to be horrific visions accompanied by terrible headaches. In a way, he knew what it was like to carry around pictures like that in your head. Although his demon was dead, he could remember everything that it had done, and the visions still haunted him, when he allowed himself to think about it. Xander had no choice but to think about the things he saw. He was responsible for the salvation of thousands of innocent lives each year. He had come to admire Xander's stoicism, his constant good cheer in the face of such a burden. He was very like Cordelia in that respect, although she still complained about the visions a whole lot more than Xander did. They really were an unlikely pair, to be chosen by the Powers for such an important purpose. He had been worried when Xander had volunteered to carry the visions ten years ago. At the time he hadn't really been aware of the strength the youth contained. But Xander had thrown himself into his new role, determined to be the very best seer that he could be. And like Cordelia, he had managed to surprise them all with his dedication.

Spike thought for a moment about leaving, doing a quick sweep of the grounds, but something in him was urging him to stay and so he sat down on the window seat and prepared to wait for Xander to finish up his report.

He smiled a bit as he thought about the way Xander had been treating him. A part of him kept expecting the same sort of contempt the boy had always shown him when he was alive. Looking back, though, he could see in that last year how the young man's attitude towards him had changed. They had never been friends, but Xander had started to accept him as a... colleague, perhaps, or at least as the man who was in love with his best friend. Now, Xander was being positively nice, understanding even. It was... strange, although certainly not unpleasant.

He watched as Xander pulled a couple of books down from his shelves - the man had an impressive library - and dug out a street directory from the bottom of a huge pile. He spent the next half an hour or so filling up a good three pages in one of the legal pads he went through like he'd once gone through chocolate, referring occasionally to the books beside him, but more often just scribbling down the details from memory. Eventually, he signed the bottom and closed the books. Then he moved over to his desk and pushed a button on the phone.

'That's it,' he announced, Spike assumed for his benefit. 'Someone'll be up in a sec. Then we can get talking.' Xander ducked into the bathroom for an aspirin, before heading over to the door, papers in hand. He handed them over to the boy waiting outside. 'Thanks, Dan, see you in a bit.'

The kid nodded his head and gave him a grin. 'No problem, Mr. Harris.'

Xander grimaced. 'Xander, please Dan, I'm begging you.'

Dan grinned again. 'Told you, I'm thinking about it.' He waved and took off down the corridor. Xander just shook his head ruefully and closed the door.

Spike stood up and moved over to the fireplace as Xander shifted into his plane, becoming solid again. Xander joined him on the two-seater couch, propping his feet up on the coffee table.

'Mr. Harris?' he asked as Xander got comfortable, smirking slightly.

Xander rolled his eyes and looked over at Spike. 'Dan's fifteen, came in with his sister Jesse, one of the slayers?' Spike nodded. Jesse was a lot of fun, although she tended to get into more trouble than some of the other slayers. 'Well, he seems to think I'm too old to be called Xander. Said it'd be like calling his teachers at school by their first names. 'Course, he only does it 'cause he knows it annoys the hell out of me.'

Xander fell silent, and they sat for a moment, neither entirely sure where to start. Eventually Xander sighed and moved around so he could look at Spike directly. 'I guess I should start with the most obvious questions.' He hesitated, chuckling nervously. 'This is weird... Well, I guess, what happened? What are you exactly? A ghost? I think I'm convinced at this point you're not just a memory. But... why are you here? For that matter, how long have you been here? Not that I'm complaining, it's good to see you again. But, you're dead, you told me that yourself. Just... well, what happened?'

Yeah, that fell into the category of painful and difficult. He had expected this, had been trying to prepare what he could say in his head. At some point, without even thinking about it, he had decided to tell Xander the truth. No one had ever told him not to. No one had ever mentioned what he should do in this sort of situation. But still, now it came down to it, he didn't know what to say. He was nervous, which was making him irritated. And what the hell did he have to be nervous about? It's not like he was obligated to explain himself. He'd been perfectly happy before all this started. He glanced over at Xander, who was looking at him expectantly. Which was just making him more nervous. Fine, he wanted an explanation.

'Let's see, shall we,' he said harshly. 'I died, again, went to heaven, decided I didn't like it, so they sent me back. End of story.'

Xander smiled slightly, although his gaze remained steely. 'That's the irritable Spike I remember. And here I thought you were a changed man.'

Seeing how composed Xander was being was pissing him off. 'Yeah, well, maybe I'm not, maybe I'm just as evil as ever. What the hell would you know? I'm sure as hell no more human than I used to be. So why don't you just pretend none of this ever happened and go back to hating me.'

Xander was looking at him seriously, sympathetically. Shit. He didn't need this. He wasn't looking for pity. 'I haven't hated you in a long time, Spike. We may never have been the best of friends, but I could see that you had the potential to be a good person.'

A good person?! 'Except I was never a 'person', was I, seer? I was an unholy demon with a soul. And now? I'm even more dead than I was before.'

He jumped out of his seat and started pacing around the room. Xander wasn't saying anything. That was fine. Why should he care? Man thought he could just waltz in and screw with his head, pretend like he cared, touch him... make him remember things he would be better off forgetting. And now he thought-

Spike was brought up short when Xander stepped in front of him, a hard look on his face. 'You may be dead, Spike, but it seems to me you're more human than you have been in a long time.' He paused for a moment, stepping back slightly. 'This thing, how I am, it's permanent. So unless you plan to avoid me for the rest of my life, which wouldn't accomplish anything, I suggest we sit down and discuss this like rational adults.' He took a calming breath and tried again. 'Look, I'm sorry if this is messing with your comfortable routine, Spike, but getting mad isn't going to just make it, or me, go away. If the past ten years have taught me anything, it's that the Powers generally have a good reason - well, a reason anyway - for the things they do. Most of the time we don't get to understand it, we just get to accept it.'

Spike felt some the anger wash out of him. Xander was right. He could hardly avoid the man for the rest of his existence, however long that was going to be. He couldn't guard anyone if he wasn't even around. Besides, nothing Xander did could hurt him now, so what was the harm? He took a fortifying breath, gathered his thoughts and began his story.

'I guess it all started when my soul was returned. I'm the only vampire ever to have died with a soul, you know? I'd been doing all right, but that day, under the hellmouth, I felt it, and I felt everything I had ever done as a demon, and for a moment I just wanted to die. My soul was screaming and all I wanted was for it to stop. When I saw my chance to save Buffy and all the rest of them, I knew that I had to take it. Didn't matter that it'd kill me, that it'd be agonizing, I just knew... I had to do it.' He stopped, the memories of that day flooding back. For weeks, he had willed his soul into submission, for the sake of the slayer and for the fight against the First. He had tired to accommodate it, justify his actions as a vampire and finally settled on ignoring it. That day, however, facing that horde of vampires, it had all come screaming back. Maybe he would have done it anyway, but it had made the decision, the sacrifice, that much easier. And it had been agonizing, for just a moment, before he felt his body crumble to dust. That had been one of the most disturbing things he had ever experienced. But then the pain hadn't stopped, and he had realized that his soul was still screaming. That was when he had truly understood what he had given up. A chance to find peace, to come to terms with his past and the people he loved.

He shook his head, not looking at Xander, and resumed his story. 'Yeah. So, the demon was dead, and there was I, too good for hell, not ready for heaven. When Buffy died, after she came back, she told me about heaven, and I think I was there. It was like I could... remember it, somehow. It was...' How could he describe it?

'Peace,' Xander said quietly. Spike looked over at him sharply.

'How...?'

Xander smiled sadly at him. 'I died two weeks ago Spike. Granted it was only for a few minutes. But... it was also forever. I don't know where I was, but it was peace. I could have stayed, I just wasn't ready for it.'

'Got something in common, then, don't we? Unfortunately, unlike you, I didn't have a nice healthy body to come back to. But I couldn't stay there, either. So your bleedin' Powers That Be decided to make me a deal. I got to come back, keep fighting demons, as long as I fought for them and protected you lot. Sounded like a bloody good deal at the time. Someone neglected to mention the non-corporeal bit. Don't even get to beat anything up, most of the time.' Spike sounded so despondent, Xander couldn't help smiling a bit. It would seem this vampire had, indeed, changed less than he had thought.

'Being a vampire for a hundred years spoiled you for the peaceful life, huh?' Xander smirked at him.

Spike winced a bit at that. 'Death. But yeah, that about sums it up.'

Xander cursed himself for his flippancy. He hadn't meant it like that. Still, these were the answers he had wanted. He decided to plough ahead. Spike didn't have to answer if he didn't want to. 'Why? I thought you'd pretty much come to terms with all that being an evil vampire stuff.'

Spike looked at him darkly. Well, okay, that might have been a little insensitive but it was also the truth. 'Not so much, no.'

In truth, Spike had only been starting to deal with the things that the demon had done with his body before he died. Yes, he had understood that he had acted only according to his nature, but every time he closed his eyes he had seen the faces of the people whose lives he had cut short. Given time, he might have been able to make peace with himself, but he had given up that peace for a greater cause, even if it hadn't felt like it at the time.

Xander just looked at him for a moment with eyes that saw more than they should, then nodded and moved on. 'Okay. So you protect us for the Powers. Makes a guy feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Who us? All the slayers, or just us from Sunnydale?'

'Yeah, any of you - you're all touched by The Powers - Buffy, Dawn, Red, Angel and his lot, any of the slayers...you. Long as no one's on the brink of death it's mostly up to me.'

Which explained why he was around Buffy and Dawn so often. 'And how, exactly, is that supposed to work. Aren't you supposed to be incorporeal? You said you hadn't touched anyone in fifteen years. So, if you can't touch the monsters, how are you supposed to fight them, let alone kill them?'

'Killing them is easy. Explaining it isn't. You'll just have to trust me that it works. Besides, there are some things that exist only in this reality, or in this one as well as yours, kind of like you do. Them, I can fight. So I guess I have had some contact, 'though it's not quite the same.' Spike smirked a little at that. As much as he enjoyed being able to actually fight the creatures he was killing, as opposed to just making them dead or unconscious, it didn't really feel like contact, and it didn't happen all that often anyway.

'So, what, you protect us 'till we die? What then? How long are you going to have to stay here?'

Spike looked a little uncomfortable at the question. 'How should I know?'

Xander frowned for a moment and his eyes went a little vacant. For a moment Spike thought he was about to have another vision, but then he pinned Spike with a glare. 'You're not just here to protect us, Spike. Why did they send you back?'

Shit. Spike sighed. He was going to have to explain himself. 'It's like this, see. I was given a second chance to find peace. And happiness. Apparently I had never managed that in the hundred and fifty odd years I'd been around.' He winced. God, this was sappy. The part of him that had been a vampire for over a century cringed at the poncy-ness of it all. 'I was apparently judged 'worthy'. 'Selfless act' and all that rubbish. So, they make me a higher being, give me another chance. Still, fact remains that I hadn't been ready to die, and I sure as hell got a better deal than some. I guess. Least this way I get to make sure nothing happens to any of you. So, yeah, I get to stay here for as long as I want, or at least until I find myself some peace and happiness.'

'And how's that working out for you?' Xander asked with a perfectly straight face. Spike couldn't tell if he was taking the piss or not. The old Xander would have been, but now...? Still, it was not the sort of thing he particularly wanted to discuss with either of them. Why would the kid care anyway? Xander had barely tolerated him, let alone liked him, before he became a big pile of dust.

'No problem. Ecstatic, I am,' he replied harshly. He was surprised at the sad look that appeared momentarily, before it was replaced by a smirk he remembered on a much younger Xander.

'Well, you've got me now, so things are bound to get better.' Xander joked lightly, but the smile didn't reach his eyes.

Spike shot him a glare. 'Oh, ha, bloody, ha, mate.'

Xander wasn't sure why he cared about what Spike was going through. He supposed it had started when Buffy had told him about what had happened down in the hellmouth. He had grieved for Anya, was proud of her for how bravely she had fought, for the sacrifice she had made, but ultimately he had understood why she had made it. Spike, on the other hand...

He had given Spike a lot of thought in the months after the destruction of Sunnydale, when they had stayed in L.A. with Angel, before moving on to Cleveland. He had assumed at first that Spike's sacrifice had simply been for Buffy. But as he talked to the others, Dawn in particular, he had been forced to rethink some of his memories of the vampire, what they told him about Spike. It was true, what he had told Spike earlier, that even before he died he had begun to see Spike's potential to be a good person. After his death, he had been forced to admit to himself that very little of that had to do with the fact that he had regained his soul. Even before then, the way he had always protected Dawn and Joyce, especially what he had done for them during the whole Glory incident. Then he had been invaluable to them after Buffy's death. And although his affair with Buffy and later with Anya was something he had never been able to understand, he had come to realize that Spike was not the only one at fault. His soul may have tamed his demon somewhat, but by that time Spike had changed anyway.

So, even though Spike was no longer around to appreciate it, and probably wouldn't have even if he had been, Xander had made what peace he could with the blond vampire and had started to think of him as a friend, even if it was only in his own head. He didn't really think about the fact that this Spike didn't know that, that he would expect the old Xander, the one who had never appreciated him.

So, yeah, he cared. It hurt that Spike would assume he didn't, if he was going to be honest. He didn't know how Spike was supposed to find peace and happiness, but he did plan to help. If nothing else, he could help him make peace with the rest of the Scoobies.

Spike, however, was still looking irritated. 'So, peace and happiness, huh? Well, that's easy. Just find yourself a nice non-corporeal girl and get laid. Works for Deadboy.'

Spike rolled his eyes, although Xander was sure he was trying to conceal a smirk. 'I don't think that's going to do it, Harris.'

'Riiiight, you said there weren't any people, didn't you? Well, you could always proposition the next demon that shows up solid. You know, 'Oh, sure, I am going to kill you, but could we just get it on first?' How could they resist?' He grinned when Spike finally gave up on the scowl and snorted.

'You haven't changed a bit, have you, mate?'

'What, except for totally and utterly? Nah, no point. I wouldn't have me any other way. Although, neither will anyone else.' He paused for a moment and smiled. 'Seriously, though, Spike, I'll do whatever I can to help.'

Spike just looked at him for a moment and Xander could see the confusion in his eyes. 'Thanks, mate,' he said finally.

Xander stuck out his hand. He couldn't help a small smile at the momentary contentment on Spike's face as he took it with his own. It was so different to anything he had ever seen on it when he was a vampire.

He was struck again with how hard the last fifteen years must have been for the man, that a simple handshake could mean so much to him. It was hardly likely to amount to peace and happiness, but his touch obviously meant something to Spike. He couldn't find it in his heart to deny him, no matter how uncomfortable it might make him personally. Besides, he had always been very tactile with his friends and Spike now counted as one of them.

He grimaced a little as he felt the tug once again and automatically tightened his grip when he felt Spike start to draw his hand away. He quickly looked over to the man sitting beside him and smiled. 'Duty calls...' he said as his eyes filmed over.





One D


In which we have angst all round and our boys discover they have a disturbing amount in common

Spike watched curiously as Xander's eyes went blank. It was kind of strange, actually. They weren't just normal one minute and white the next; rather, the white swirled over his irises like a cloud, slowly obscuring them. He hadn't been there when the Powers gave Xander back the eye he had lost, although he had heard Buffy, Dawn and Willow talk about it afterwards. The previous seer, the one who had passed his abilities on to Xander, had been with them for a couple of years before he was seriously injured. Xander had volunteered to take his place, and in return, Yesrah had promised the Powers would replace his eye. Now, his left eye was a brilliant blue. It was a startling contrast to his other deep brown eye and probably partly why, as Buffy had said, half the new slayers fell for him.

Spike gazed out the open window as he waited patiently for Xander's vision to end. It wasn't even starting to get light yet. It had only been two and a half hours since he had knocked Xander down in the front foyer, since his entire existence had been turned on its head. It felt like longer, somehow. Or at least like it should have been longer. Surely these things should happen in slow motion or something, give a person time to take it all in. On the other hand, that was one good thing at least about having a conversation with the seer. He periodically gave you time to gather your thoughts. And Spike hadn't had many conversations recently, so he appreciated the silence.

He was back to looking at Xander when his eyes started to de-cloud. He winced a bit in sympathy when he saw the headache hit, then Xander swung his head around and grinned at him.

'Is this going to become a habit, do you think?' Spike frowned slightly. What was he talking about? The hand still holding his flexed a little and he started. 'Is this some previously undiscovered hand-fetish?' He hadn't even realized he hadn't let go. God, Xander was right, he was starting to act like he had when he was alive. Holding hands and thinking about the man's eyes? How much more of a wanker could he turn into?

Xander smirked a little when his hand was dropped like a particularly hot coal. Not that he had really minded the contact. It was just such an un-Spike-like thing to do. Although after fifteen years and minus one demon he had to wonder just how much of what he remembered could apply to the being in front of him. Spike scowled at him and said, 'Hey, you're the one who didn't let me go, not the other way 'round, Harris.'

Xander just nodded his head agreeably, his eyes laughing. 'Suuure, Casper, whatever gets you through the day.' Spike looked like he wanted to hit something, probably him. Xander laughed again, then sobered up as he remembered he had to get to work. He really wanted to keep talking to Spike, but knew that the man probably had someone he was supposed to be protecting. And he, personally, was in amazingly little danger just sitting here in his room. He still had questions, but now that Spike wasn't avoiding him, he supposed he could ask them some other time. He ignored the vague niggle of disappointment and stood up.

'It's times like this I wish I could have a normal conversation with someone,' he said wistfully. He smiled over at Spike, feeling a little awkward. 'Got a possession to research, I'm afraid Spike. You don't have to stick around this time. I realize you must have things to do.' Spike, however, interrupted him.

'S'ok, mate. Don't usually have much to do 'round this time anyway, after the patrols come home. I can stick around. I mean, if you don't mind. Something tells me you're not done with me yet, anyway.'

Xander shook his head a little, once again amazed by the change in Spike. He couldn't remember a time when the vampire had actually volunteered to spend time with him. He had come to respect the Spike he had known, but he was actually starting to like this one. He snorted to himself. He would be asking if they could be friends, next. Spike was probably just starved for company, and god knew he often wished he had someone to talk to during the night. Still, he felt a little bad about making him wait around with nothing to do...

He was struck by a sudden inspiration. This was Spike after all. He probably knew almost as much about demons and the like as Xander did himself. 'Well, if you're going to stick around,' he said, 'maybe you can give me a hand with this demon possession thing. Identifying it anyway.'

Spike rolled his eyes, but Xander didn't miss the surprise and pleasure that flashed though them. 'Three hours, and already I'm being roped into research. Got to be some sort of record,' he grumbled.

Xander took that as a yes and jumped right into the vision. 'Ok, well, like I said, demon possession. I couldn't tell what sort of demon it was.' Xander's eyes defocused slightly as he concentrated on the picture in his head, letting the outside world fade away. His voice was entirely devoid of emotion as he began to describe the vision. 'The innocent being possessed is a young man, Greg Talbot, late twenty's, white, upper middle class, brown hair, although I suppose that isn't really relevant. I see him at home. His wife and child are being murdered by the demon. Pretty young woman, girl looks to be about five. It uses a kitchen knife to torture them, focuses on causing pain, but not quite enough to kill them, then lets them bleed out as it sets the house on fire, using the gas stove. I can tell you exactly how it tortures the victims, if you think it's relevant.' He looked over towards Spike, who just shook his head and indicated that he should continue. Xander noticed distantly that Spike's face was entirely blank. 'Right, the demon itself has physically altered the host only slightly. He's still recognizable, but there are lesions on his face, deep cuts that aren't bleeding, but are kind of gaping open. There is one on his forehead, over his right eye, one under his left eye, one on the right side of his chin, and another on his neck under his left ear. His brow is pebbly, in a 'v' shape, coming to a point over his eyes. He has the eyes of the demon. Deep green, with a slit pupil.' Xander cocked his head slightly, as though he were examining something. 'His hands have the same sort of injuries as his face. I can't see the rest. He's very strong... not sure what else.'

He glanced back to Spike, who was looking very grim, and just a little disgusted. 'How was it acting?' he asked. 'I mean, did it seem like random violence, or was it calculated.'

Xander nodded his head thoughtfully and ran the images through his mind again. 'I'd have to say it seems quite calculated, although it obviously takes pleasure in the pain it's causing.'

'What do you get from the man it's possessed? Anything?' Spike knew from previous experience that Xander would occasionally receive the emotions of the innocents in his visions.

'Yeah, actually. The demon is very powerful, and obviously in complete control, but I get a definite sense of awareness from the host.' Spike watched as Xander allowed his emotions to leak though for a second. The seer's face filled with pain as he stood silently, feeling the emotions of the man trapped inside his own body. 'The poor man,' he whispered. Then, with a silent prayer, he directed his attention back to the facts, his face becoming impassive once again. 'Thoughts?' he demanded.

Spike had to admit he was severely shaken. He had never seen Xander like this before. The man almost never actually spoke of a vision. Even when he was around the girls, he would just get out his paper and pen and write down what he had seen, and Spike had never read one of those reports. If he did say anything, it was just general stuff; where the problem was, what sort of demon was involved, the number or nature of the innocents. It wasn't that he had assumed that was all that he saw, but to hear it described in such clinical detail...

He answered Xander quietly. 'It sounds like an Ethros demon. I've only come across a few in my time. They are very powerful, very large in their natural form. They thrive on violence, but are also intelligent, and can manipulate the people around them by skimming the surface of their minds. They leave behind a phosphorescent green goo.'

Xander nodded. 'Yeah, actually, I noticed something like that around the outside of the house.'

'That'll be the one then. You'll have to check your books, but I think they can be removed from the host with an exorcism.'

Suddenly, Xander was looking at him directly. 'You ok, Spike? You look a little...' He waved his hands around a bit.

Spike shook himself mentally and gave Xander a forced smile. 'Sure, mate. Try your Havelock's Companion first. Got a good bit on possession demons. You better get going, don't have all night, do you?'

Xander continued to look concerned, but nodded his agreement. 'All right. I'll see you in a bit, then.' With that he phased back.

The minute he was gone, Spike drew in a shuddering breath and got up out of the chair. Without a backward glance he walked straight through the wall and out into the corridor. There he sat down and leaned against the wall, attempting to gather his thoughts. He didn't know quite what was bothering him so much, but he couldn't get Xander's expression as he'd asked if he wanted him to describe the torture of the woman and child out of his head. Intellectually, he'd known that the visions Xander received had to be horrible. Dawn often commented on the detail and accuracy of his reports, and he'd been there on more than one occasion to see them prevented. And it wasn't so much the description, although that had certainly been bad, it was the way Xander had given it with almost no show of emotion. He had been The Seer, in the same way Buffy, when she had to, could become The Slayer. He was tempted to think that Xander didn't care about the people in his visions, but knew that couldn't be true. The time the man spent making sure the slayers had all the information they could need, the way he demanded to know over breakfast if the missions had been a success or not. But most of all the flicker of pain he had seen on Xander's face convinced him that the stoic mask was just that.

It was that, more than anything, which brought home to him just how much this man had had to endure over the past ten years. And that was where he ground to a halt. If it was true that Xander felt everything the innocents in his visions did, that he was bombarded hourly by the fear and desperation of these people, how could he face each day so calmly? How had he been able to simply suppress all that emotion and describe that vision to him, like he was commenting on the weather? How did he get past he people in his head? And if he asked, would Xander tell him?

Spike's breath hitched a little and he lowered his head into his hands, as he realized that this was what he really wanted to know. The memories of his own past still tormented him. They were always there, in the back of his mind, waiting for him to let his guard down so they could all come rushing back. He had never had time to deal with those memories while he was still a vampire. The First had always been looking over their shoulders, and Buffy had needed him strong, not held back by a guilty soul. Back then it had been easier, with the vampire there to balance the soul, to explain the sensations. And when it had all become too much, the demon had been there to take control, to keep fighting, even if it could no longer be the bloodthirsty monster of history. But the vampire had died, and the only way Spike had found to cope was to push the crippling memories to the back of his mind and try to forget they were there. And in a way that had worked, he had been able to complete his work for the powers, to see Buffy every day, knowing what he had done to her, without falling apart. But he had never dealt with them, never managed to make peace with the shades of his past. Unlike Xander, he couldn't get past the pictures in his head.

He wasn't aware of the time passing as he just sat there, gathering his thoughts and pulling himself back together. The sound of voices barely registered before he felt a warm hand come to rest on his knee.

Xander looked down in shock at the still form on the floor. He quickly sent Dan away with his report and crouched before him. Spike had his head buried in his hands, his elbows rested on bent knees. He couldn't see his face, but everything about the man seemed to scream pain. He looked tired. Exhausted, more like, Xander thought. His back was hunched, his head hanging, as though there was some great weight pressing down on him. Xander frowned. Had he said something to do this to him? Was it the vision? Xander had simply assumed that Spike would be able to handle the violence that he had described. He had seen things just as bad in his own time, been the cause of some of them, and helped prevent no few others.

Xander reached out hesitantly, placing a hand on one cold knee. 'Spike. Hey, what's wrong?' he asked gently. The eyes that looked up at him were calm, composed, but Xander could see the world of pain and guilt they were trying to hide. Hell, he'd seen the same expression on his own face often enough over the last ten years.

'How do you do it, Xander? How do you make them go away?' Spike spoke quietly, but his eyes were desperate.

Xander closed his eyes at the whispered plea and he felt understanding sweep through him. Everything he remembered about that last year with Spike, what he had said about his last moments, the pain in his soul, his second chance to find peace. All this had started with him describing that vision. He had been too distracted to notice at the time, but he had been peripherally aware of the way Spike had tensed up with his offer to describe the torture, his reaction to Xander's admission that he felt the pain of the innocents as his own. Spike had never dealt with his vampire's actions, memories that were obviously tormenting him still. As he opened his eyes, he let his emotional shields drop away, let everything he felt when he was forced to witness what the world was capable of fill his face.

'They never go away, Spike. You know that,' he murmured eventually. Spike didn't answer, and Xander slid to the floor beside him, leaning up against the wall so their shoulders touched. He latched onto the hand Spike had snatched away from him earlier and squeezed it gently. 'Every vision I've ever had is in here somewhere. I can recall any one of them, given a little time. I dream about them sometimes, and they're worse than nightmares, because I'm there, really there. I can smell, touch, taste and hear everything. The worst ones are when I experience what the demon is feeling, but then I guess you would know all about that.'

Spike squeezed his eyes shut for a moment and winced, but otherwise ignored that opening. 'But you're always so... How does it not tear you apart? Is it because you know you saved them?'

Xander stared fixedly at the hand he held in his own, unconsciously stroking his thumb slightly over the soft skin. 'You obviously weren't around for those first couple of weeks.' He tried to say it lightly, but he couldn't disguise the pain. 'They were... almost more than I could take. I've never told anyone, although Buffy and Willow probably guessed, but I seriously considered getting rid of them, or myself if that was the only way. I didn't eat, could barely sleep. I told them that it was just the headaches - that they were worse than I expected them to be. I tried to explain how the suffering that I saw made me feel, but they never really got it. I mean, we'd all witnessed suffering, right? But there was just so much, and it wasn't even as though it was happening to strangers. I know them, all of them. I see their lives, feel what they feel, fear what they fear... Every time I had a vision, I saw someone I might have known, might have been friends with, who deserved so much more than death at the hands of some monster... Every night for nearly two years I cried myself to sleep. But I couldn't let it tear me apart. It wasn't so much that I did save them, it was the thought of all the ones that might still be saved that kept me going. If I just gave up, it'd be partly my fault if they died.' He paused for a moment, lost in his recollections, unaware that Spike had turned to face him. 'Did you know that Dawn sends me all the reports she gets of the successful missions? I read them, try to change the pictures in my head, and yeah, it does help a little, to know that they've been saved. It's the ones that aren't successful that haunt me the most. I used to torture myself over each and every one of them. I knew it had to be my fault, if I'd just included more information, got the report out earlier, done something, anything, different... Those are the ones that I still see when I close my eyes, the ones I dream about, where it's me that's the demon... It took me the longest time to realize that it isn't my fault when a mission fails. But they're part of the reason, why I don't fall apart any more. I owe them more than that.'

Spike finally spoke up. 'I hardly ever hear it anymore, but deep down, my soul is still screaming,' he said quietly. 'You can't blame yourself for what you see, but the things that I've done...' He trailed off.

'We're not so different, Spike. You're responsible for the suffering that you remember as much as I am for the people in my visions who don't get saved.'

'I try to tell myself that, mate, really. But... I can remember everything the demon felt when I did those things. The joy, the bloodlust...'

Xander looked at him strangely for a moment. 'You can remember it's emotions, but the demon's dead, Spike. What do you feel about what it did?'

Spike didn't answer, but a line of confusion appeared between his eyes. Xander knew Spike would need time to think about that, beyond just the obvious answer, so he got to his feet, pulling Spike up by the hand he was still holding. 'As much as I love sitting on the floor in the corridor, I, well... don't, so let's get back inside. It's nearly dawn, and I like to watch the sunrise from the balcony. You can brood out there for a while.' The reference to brooding seemed to put some life into the dead man, as Xander had assumed it would.

'Hey, I don't brood, mate. And even if I did, I think I've got every right to,' he said as he followed Xander into the bedroom, and out the sliding doors to the small balcony.

As he got settled, pen and paper at the ready beside him, Xander decided to bring up something that had been bothering him. 'Listen,' he said uncertainly, 'I'm sorry if I freaked you out a bit back there. I didn't mean to sound so uncaring. I don't want you to think that I don't care. I never used to be able to describe the visions at all, let alone like that. I had a secretary for the first couple of days, but most of the time I just couldn't get all the details out. When I started writing down what I saw myself it was easier, not having to hear it out loud. Eventually, I got to the point where I could just disconnect my emotions from what was on the page. After a few years, I could do the same thing with the visions themselves and I could examine them clinically, get the most out of them that I could. It was hard, still is, but it's better this way. I've never actually done it out loud. I didn't realize how it might sound. So... yeah, sorry. I won't ask you to help again, if you don't want.'

Spike seemed to give it some serious thought, but when he answered, Xander thought he sounded sincere. 'I reckon I'm more jealous than anything. The way you spoke about that vision, I just wasn't expecting it. It brought back lots of memories. Made me wish I could deal with my own demons that easily, to be honest. I don't mind lending a hand now and then. Least now I know what to expect, right?' He gave Xander a genuine smile. ''Sides, I could get used to having someone to talk to now and then. Don't want to go 'round alienating the only person in the world who can actually see me.'

Xander grinned back at him. 'You're all just using me, aren't you?'

They sat on the balcony, watching the sun rise, chatting aimlessly for the next couple of hours, interrupted periodically by three more visions. Xander asked Spike for help on the third vision, trying to edit out some of the more gruesome details before Spike lost his patience and told him to stop treating him like a bloody child, he knew what to expect now, and he knew what it meant. And besides, how was he meant to identify anything from 'it's very big and powerful'. Xander had looked at him doubtfully, but had complied, and Spike certainly hadn't seemed to have any problems with it this time around.

In between, Xander discovered that Spike, as a higher being, could go anywhere he wanted with a simple thought, and often spent his time jumping between Marion, Cleveland and L.A.. They spent some time talking about their mutual tolerance of Angel, although neither man could confess to actually liking the ensouled vampire. Xander asked after Cordy, and Theo and Georgia, the other two slayers there at the moment, before realizing that Spike could jump around to check on all the slayers all over the world, which he immediately asked him to do.

Eventually, at around seven-thirty, Xander was forced to bring up the issue of Buffy and Dawn. He had been trying to decide what he should say to them for the past half-hour. Would it be easier for them if they continued to think that Spike was dead and gone? They still wouldn't be able to see him, so for all intents and purposes he would be. Still, Xander knew that he wouldn't be able to keep this from his girls for long. To be honest he didn't really want to. Spike was a part of their family, and they deserved to know that he was there, that he had always been there, even if he wasn't exactly alive, or visible.

He glanced over at Spike. He seemed so real. It was weird to think that he was the only person who could see the man. He sighed to himself. Maybe he should have given this whole, 'find out if I'm really seeing Spike' thing a little more thought. Really, he hadn't expected to find anything. How could he have seen this coming? He didn't know what he would do if Spike didn't want Buffy and Dawn to know about him. He sighed again and Spike flicked him an amused glance.

'What the bloody hell is with all the heartfelts, Harris? You got something on your mind?'

Xander grimaced an apology. 'It's Buffy and Dawn. I don't know what you want me to do, but I should tell you that if you want me to try and keep you a secret it isn't going to work. I'm crap when it comes to lying to them, and if Buffy thinks something is really wrong, you know she'll get it out of me, and if she can't she'll just call Willow and have her come here and read my mind. I don't want to lie to them Spike. They both loved you so much, Dawn especially; you were a part of our family, and they deserve to know what happened. I won't say anything today if you don't want me too, but I will have to tell them eventually. I know that it's going to be awkward, but still... you should think about it.'

Spike grimaced a little. He had in fact been thinking about the very same thing himself, although he'd been kind of hoping the other man would overlook this particular problem. A part of him was overjoyed at the thought that he could speak to Buffy and Dawn again after all these years, even if it was indirectly. A bigger part of him was so panicked at the thought of actually interacting with the world again that it could barely think. Harris was one thing, but his history with the boy was a bloody turn among the tulips compared to the slayer and her sister. And he'd changed since his death. He could no longer say that he was in love with Buffy. In all truth, it was his vampire that had loved her with such passion. The return of his soul had not changed the feelings of the vampire, but neither had it entirely shared them. When the demon died he had been left with the memories of its obsession, and in a way did still love Buffy, but more than that he wanted to protect her, wanted her to be happy. He didn't really even resent her relationship with Angel. Like Xander, he could see the look in her eyes when she talked about him, and it didn't make him jealous. The soppy romance of it all made him want to stick his finger down his throat sometimes, but he was happy for them.

And Dawn. She'd fallen apart after the destruction of Sunnydale. He knew that a lot of that was because of him. That had been right after he'd been sent back by the Powers That Be, and he had spent hours just trying to make Dawn understand that he was there with her, cursing fate, the Powers and anything else he could think of when he couldn't find a way to let her know, to comfort her. That was when he'd truly started wondering what he had agreed to. It had taken her a long time to accept what had happened, and Spike knew that he had Xander to thank for finally bringing her out of it, in large part. Buffy had tried to help her, but she had had so much of her own pain to deal with. Even though he had obviously been cut up over Anya's death, Xander had managed to be there for Dawn, to let her cry on his shoulder, talk to him and even let her lash out when she needed to.

They had moved on with their lives, and so had he, in a manner of speaking. Still, Xander was right, he was going to have to deal with it sooner or later. He certainly wasn't going to hide away in a corner and hope it all went away. He might have when he was human, but being a vampire had given him some balls, if nothing else. Probably best to get all these conversations over at once, anyway.

He looked over at Xander, who was managing to look determined and hesitant at the same time. He snorted a little. 'Tell them whatever you want, Harris. S'all gonna come out in the end anyway. I s'pose I can handle one more heartfelt conversation today. You're just lucky I'm not a vampire anymore - wouldn't have had the patience.' He tried to sound put-upon, but he suspected Xander could hear the nervousness in his voice.

Still, he didn't say anything, and the look of relief on his face almost entirely obscured the hint of amusement in his eyes. 'Good, I really am so bad at lying to them.'

Xander glanced at his watch. It was about time to be heading downstairs anyway, so he got up and stretched, smiling at the sun on his face. That was one thing he hated about having to work at night. He usually slept half the day away. He used to love sitting outside in the sun, probably a reaction to living on a hellmouth with vampires, but these days he only got to see sunrise and sunset. He glanced over at Spike, who was looking at him strangely and jerked his head towards the door. 'Come on, like you said, no point delaying the inevitable.'




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