Seeing Beyond Imperfections


Part Four

In which the hellmouth opens and things get bad

Spike didn't see a great deal of Xander that week. He spent most of his free time wearing the ring, with Dawn or Buffy and Angel, who was staying for a couple of weeks, over the holidays.

At first, he didn't even really notice. It wasn't that Xander was avoiding him; on the contrary, he was almost always there with a grin and a sarcastic comment when Spike went looking for him. But after a few days, he was forced to admit that something about the man was different. And when he actually put his mind to it, it wasn't hard to figure out what had been bothering him. Xander had been supportive, obviously thrilled for him, and whether they were alone or in company, treated him like a friend. But never anything more than that. Really, his behavior hadn't changed at all, and there was only one difference Spike could actually point to. Xander had stopped touching him; stopped reaching out to take his hand when they spoke; stopped leaning in when they sat together so Spike could feel him breathe. He never pushed him away if Spike initiated it but he also never made the first move.

Spike couldn't understand what it meant, if it even meant anything, other than Xander's wanting to give him some space to become reacquainted with his family.

So it hadn't really made an impression to start with. Someone was always by his side these days anyway. But he missed his friend, the man who had brought him back from the brink of insanity, changed what had promised to be a lonely, loveless eternity, made him remember what it was like to feel, to be human. It felt like something was slipping away from him and Spike didn't understand why, or how to stop it.

He knew that once upon a time, he would have simply gotten in the man's face and demanded to know what was going on. But then, once upon a time, he would have made his interest known a long time ago, fuck consideration and consequences. He just didn't have that possessive, violent instinct any longer. Alive, he had always been the archetypal gentle soul, selfless, uncertain and, while one hundred-and-fifty years as a demon had changed him almost beyond recognition, that much of his nature had survived to reassert itself.

Still, after a few days, he was seriously considering bringing the subject up, no matter how stupid it might make him look.

But that never happened because, on December thirtieth, Xander had a vision. And on the last day of the year the hellmouth under Cleveland opened.

Xander had wanted to go, but Buffy had vetoed that, and secretly Spike had been immensely relieved. She and Angel had taken Willow, Wesley, Gunn and the three slayers still living in the house over the holidays and raced to Cleveland to meet with Faith, Robin Wood, and the other two slayers stationed over the hellmouth. Xander had insisted that the other nearby slayers be called, but Spike knew they would never be able to make it in time to help.

Spike had not left the Slayer Headquarters immediately, partly because he knew he could simply appear in Cleveland when he was needed, but mostly because of Xander. He had rarely seen the other man like this, and never in the few months since he had learned to phase. There was a weight of guilt and despair in the seer's eyes that spoke volumes about what he had seen. He didn't say anything, but Spike could tell he didn't expect everyone to survive. Occasionally, his eyes would defocus, his face would go blank, and Spike knew he was reliving the images. And every time he did so, the pain was shoved ruthlessly aside, the fear and the anger channeled into research, meetings, phone calls, anything to help, to keep his mind occupied.

Spike had read the report, knew what to expect and, as daunting as it sounded, he would have said they had done everything they could to prepare for what was coming, that they had a good chance of winning, were it not for that look in Xander's eyes. If he hadn't known the man so well, he might not have even noticed that there was anything wrong. He put on a good show, somber, concerned, but always encouraging optimism in the people around him. Spike supposed he'd had a lot of practice. Which wasn't so much encouraging as it was indicative of just how much he had had to endure over the last ten years.

Dawn saw it was well, and when Spike finally decided it was time for him to get going, she pulled him into a tight embrace, demanding that he take care of them, and pleading with her eyes that he look after her sister. He looked her in the eye and swore it. About to remove his ring, he paused and turned back to her. 'Look after him, Dawn. For me.' He didn't elaborate, but her blue eyes widened and she nodded once.

It was nothing like the last time. The portal was still in the very center of town, but this one was out in the open, part of a system of caves that opened into a popular picnic spot. Xander had seen it happening at sunset. They would have cleared out the park, formed a defensive circle around the hellmouth, but the enemy was already there.

As they made their way through the snow, shivering in the cold, Spike counted twelve bodies, slashed open to lie spread-eagled, like an offering, blood painting the pristine snow perversely beautiful colors. Marina gasped as they passed this, and Rachel breathed one shocked and angry, 'Shit,' but no one else said anything.

The atmosphere, though, changed. Spike could see the change in Buffy and Willow particularly. Now they were angry. Now, it was personal.

Spike thought of Xander. Had he seen these deaths? Were these more people he would never get to know but never be able to let go of?

There was a roar, and the group fanned out. Spike wasn't really part of the plan. They couldn't see him to direct him and, besides, he had his own purpose. He was the tool of the Powers, there to protect them. The roar was followed by another, then another, and suddenly, they burst into a clearing to discover the hellmouth, surrounded by at least one hundred demons, all carrying weapons and arrayed in battle formation.

They had seven slayers, five civilians, one witch and himself, with Angel standing in reserve. He began to understand the look in Xander's eyes.

They had known what to expect, and had armed themselves accordingly, but there was no way they would be able to get through all those demons in time to prevent the sorceress at their center from opening the hellmouth. The sun was setting even as the first rank charged.

Then his mind shut down, and instinct took over. His senses were screaming at him, tugging him in different directions as slayer after slayer found herself in mortal danger. Again and again, he plunged his hand into demon's chests, squeezing his fist around the bright light that signified the center of their life force, allowing his own soul, his own light, to burn brighter until it consumed the other completely. The process was tiring, but he couldn't rest.

He had his fist in his tenth demon when he lost his first chosen. He felt the sharp tug, but the demon was bearing down on Rachel, and she was moments from decorating the end of a sword herself. So he didn't move, and a moment later he felt the tug dissipate, become something else, even as the demon before him dropped dead with Rachel's axe perforating its chest.

Sparing her barely a glance, he appeared beside Marianne, one of the resident Cleveland slayers. She was looking around in confusion, and Spike reached out to place a hand on her arm. Her eyes widened as one of the demons passed harmlessly through them, but he ignored it. This was the other part of his job, and at the moment, it was more important than the fighting going on around him. She looked up and met his eyes, one corner of her mouth lifting in a wry, sad smile. 'You must be Spike.'

He couldn't help a slightly surprised smile at that. They never used to know who he was. It was... maybe not nice, but gratifying perhaps. 'That's me, luv. I'm here to say thank you.'

She crinkled her forehead for a moment, then smirked. 'I bet you say that to all the girls.' He laughed softly, ducking his head.

'Well, yeah, but I mean it every time,' he replied gently.

The smile faded as her face became sad. 'Tell my husband and my daughter that I love them. And that this is the way it should be.'

'Will do, luv.' He squeezed her arm and let go.

She was already fading when her mouth quirked again. 'Xan always says everything happens for a reason.'

Spike didn't know what to say to that, but she was almost gone, so he just smiled and nodded, knowing that in this case, at least, that was true. That the Powers had called her home. He knew that if he couldn't protect them, they weren't meant to be saved. He might not always like it, but that was the way it worked.

As hard as he tried, she wasn't the last one who died. Every one of them threw themselves into the battle but it wasn't enough to stop the hellmouth from opening. Dozens of demons escaped before Buffy finally waded in and furiously hacked at the sorceress, spraying her blood over the portal, closing it. He could not have done it himself. He killed without blood, and only the living blood of the one who opened it could have closed it. But he was at her side, just as he had always been, and she didn't die.

With the portal closed, the demons scattered, and they came upon more innocent victims as they tracked down each and every thing that had come though the gate.

There had been worse battles, but this was bad enough.

Hours later, the survivors gathered at Faith's house. They would drive back tomorrow but, for now, Spike knew there was nothing he could do there. He needed to go back to Marion. Buffy had called but he would be able to tell them exactly what had happened. Besides, he wanted to get away from the sight of all that carnage. He wanted to see Xander.

With no way to let them know what he was doing, Spike simply disappeared, appearing a moment later beside Xander. He was sitting in the conference room with Dawn and a young woman he identified as Fiona. They all looked tired, drawn. Dawn looked like she hadn't slept in days, and she had pulled her chair over to the young woman's, whom she held in a gentle embrace. Fiona had dried tear tracks running down her face, and Spike realized that this was Rachel's sister. Rachel had been wounded in the fight but wasn't in any danger at the moment.

Xander was hunched over the table, his pen moving unhesitatingly over a piece of paper. Spike thought for a moment that he was okay but, when Xander turned his head, he could see the vacant look in his eyes, the blank expression on his face. It was obvious Xander's hand was moving independently of his thoughts, and Spike's heart broke a little as he watched this man relive the death and the pain of too many innocent people.

The box containing his ring was sitting on the table. They all looked up when it opened and he picked up the ring. There was a momentary prick as he placed it on his finger, then a flash of light and they were looking at him directly. He immediately turned to Xander, almost automatically picking up his hand as it lay on the table. He quashed the disappointment he felt when the other man didn't respond.

Xander had turned his gaze on Spike but his face was still blank. Spike glanced at Dawn, sitting opposite, and she gave him a very small, bleak smile, a twitch of lips that was gone almost before it appeared. He turned back to Xander.

'How many?' the man asked quietly.

'Marianne and Jason,' he named one of the Cleveland watchers. 'Marina, Rachel and Robin were the worst injuries, but they'll be alright. Everyone else is just banged up.'

Xander was watching him steadily, giving nothing away. 'How many others?'

Spike hesitated before replying, but he was going to know sooner or later. 'Forty-eight, by my count,' he eventually answered quietly. Xander nodded, and for a moment, his eyes reflected all the guilt and the grief he was holding inside. Then the shields were back up and he lowered his head, one hand coming up to run over his eyes.

'Not as bad as it might have been,' he murmured distantly.

'Xander, it's not your fault, you know that.' Spike was worried. This was a Xander he saw only rarely, and had little experience with. Most of the time, he could almost forget that this man was fifteen years older than the one he had known. This isolated, wounded individual was the product of those years, and while he had seen him, usually it was only because Xander allowed it. This was different, and Spike began to understand what Xander must have been like when he first received the visions. Although even now, there was still strength. He wasn't letting himself drown, but he was closer than Spike had ever seen him.

But Xander took a deep breath, closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them he was at least present. Spike relaxed a little when Xander smiled sadly at him. 'Sure, I know. It's just... hard, you know.' Spike nodded, looking at him searchingly, but easier at heart. 'We should call Buffy, let her know where you are.' He looked over at Dawn and Fiona, who were wilting in their chairs now the adrenalin was wearing off, and smiled softly. 'Why don't you guys get some sleep? They won't be back 'till tomorrow. There's not much we can do 'till then. I'll call you if anything happens.' Even Spike could hardly see through the reassuring tone. Fiona nodded gratefully, giving Dawn a final hug before heading out. Dawn stood as well, but headed around the table to stand before Xander. She pulled him into her arms and he laid his head on her own where it tucked into his shoulder, threading his arms about her.

'I'm sorry we couldn't save them all, Xander,' she whispered tiredly.

Xander let out a little puff of sad laughter. 'Me too, Dawnie. But it really could have been worse. We saved a lot lives tonight. More than they need to know about,' he added, almost to himself, and Spike wondered again exactly what he had seen.

Dawn shuddered. 'Yes,' she agreed fervently. Her arms tightened for a moment before she stepped away from him.

Xander smiled down at her, and then turned to Spike. He opened his mouth, but didn't seem to know what to say. For a moment he looked so lost, and all Spike wanted was to hold him in his arms and take all the pain away. But he didn't know how Xander would react to that, and the past week he had been so strange, that all he could do was hold out his hand. It almost brought tears to his eyes when Xander reached out and took it, squeezing gently as they looked into each other's eyes. 'Spike, I...' His voice was full of an emotion Spike couldn't identify, but it caused something to tighten in his gut. He thought maybe it was hope. But Xander was pulling away from him again. 'I'll talk to you later, Spike. Thank you for everything you did tonight. I know it would have been worse without you.'

He smiled one last time, before turning and walking out of the room. Spike was left standing, one arm reaching out to the man who had once again turned away from him. 'Xander... damn it,' he whispered.

He started when Dawn touched his shoulder. He'd forgotten she was even there. 'He'll be alright. Just give him a bit of time. He's always done this, pushes things away until he's ready to feel them. It was actually pretty useful back in Sunnydale.' Spike sighed and nodded.

'I just want to help,' he said.

She smiled. 'You will, you do. He'll need you when this all comes crashing down.'

Spike smiled ruefully. 'He doesn't need me, Bit. I just wish I could say the same about him.'

Her eyes darted over to him. He winced. He hadn't meant to say that out loud. But she didn't look surprised. 'That man has a hard time admitting he needs anything. We don't let it stand in our way.' She grinned faintly, turning him to face her. She looked into his eyes seriously. 'I'm going to tell you something, Spike, 'cause I'm not sure it'll ever work itself out on his own. Xan may not admit it, but he does need you, just as much as he needs us, to be his friend, to be his family. But he also wants you, more than he thinks he should, in his words. And it's pretty obvious you want him, too. Don't give up on him, Spike,' she said quietly. 'He's been happier the past few months than we've seen him in years. You make him happy. If it's anything like the same for you... That's worth fighting for.'

Spike narrowed his eyes in confusion. Xander wanted him? 'He told you that?'

Dawn smirked. 'That he wanted you? Yeah, we got him to admit it. But it's pretty obvious.'

'Well, then...' What had this last week been all about? Spike had to admit, he'd been fairly sure of Xander's interest previously. Enough to want to take a chance, anyway. But ever since Willow had given him that ring for Christmas, since he'd been able to interact with everyone again... Spike rolled his eyes as everything clicked into place. Xander leaving him alone to be with Buffy and Dawn, treating him like a friend, not going out of his way to touch him. 'The bleedin' nitwit,' he muttered. 'He thinks I don't want him now I've got this thing.' He waved his hand around.

Dawn chuckled. 'That sounds about right. He could barely bring himself to believe it when we told him you didn't hate him back when you were a vampire.'

Spike heaved an exasperated sigh, his mouth quirking a little. 'Always puttin' himself down, ain't he? He probably thought I'd want to go back to Buffy.'

She stared at him searchingly for a moment. 'I guess you'll just have to convince him otherwise.'

He glanced at her, reading clearly the question she was asking. He smirked self-deprecatingly, trying to reassure her with his eyes. 'Damn straight.'

Dawn relaxed, nodding firmly. 'Good. Now, back to the battle. First of all, thank you for protecting them, all of them, especially Buffy.'

'Always, Bit.' He smiled. 'You know that.'

'Was it bad?'

He sighed. 'Yeah, pretty bad. Messy.' He shuddered, remembering.

Dawn reached out to run a hand down his arm, rubbing gently. 'You alright?' she asked, peering at him carefully.

'Tired, is all.' Having to kill that many demons with his energy was always a little draining.

She nodded sympathetically. 'Right there with you. Why don't you crash in Buffy's room? We can go over everything tomorrow.' He nodded gratefully, and they made their way upstairs. He paused as they passed Xander's room, but Dawn drew him past with a quiet, 'Not yet,' so he kept walking. He was about to open the door to Buffy's room when Dawn turned back to him with an exclamation. 'Spike! I completely forgot. It's after midnight.' She grinned.

He frowned at her, confused. 'Yeah, so?'

'So,' she rolled her eyes, 'Happy New Year.'

His eyes widened. 'Huh, well, look at that. So it is. Happy New Year to you, too.' He leaned over and gave her a light kiss on the lips. 'Now, go to bed. 'M tried.'

She chuckled and shook her head. 'No sense of occasion. Night, Spike, sleep well.'

She turned and walked away. He smiled at her back. 'You, too, Dawn.'

Part Four B

In which Xander falls apart and Spike puts him back together

Over the next couple of days, Spike didn't see Xander because this time the man actually was avoiding him. Not that he could really take it personally. He avoided all of them, withdrew into his own little world. The girls would look at him sympathetically, say that he did this occasionally, when a vision had gone badly, just give him a little space, but Spike was starting to get impatient. For someone who professed to understand that what had happened was not his fault, Xander sure seemed to be swimming in guilt. Of course, thinking things like that only served to make him feel bad. If anyone was able to understand what Xander was going through, it should be Spike. But at least he had actually been there for his memories.

He managed to contain himself for four days, vacillating between irritation and understanding, before deciding he had to say something.

Everyone had gone to bed early on Thursday and Spike had used the early evening to check up on all the slayers around the world, answering one call to protect a slayer in India, but mostly just picking up his usual rounds, which had been somewhat disturbed the past couple of weeks. When he reappeared the house was dark, quiet, the only lights in Xander's suite and the one that was always on in the kitchen.

Spike made his way up the stairs to Xander's office automatically, pausing only when he came to the closed door. He stared at it for a long moment. Dawn had told him to wait, but she had also said that he had to fight for what he, and possibly Xander, wanted. And every time Spike went near the other man, he could feel him drawing further away. If it went on for too much longer, Spike was afraid Xander would have talked himself out of any feelings he may have ever had for him. That was something he just couldn't risk, no matter how much space he was supposed to give him. He would help Xander get past this, just as Xander had helped him, and hope that their relationship wasn't already fucked up beyond repair, that there was still a chance that it could be something more.

With a deep breath, he steeled himself and walked through the door.

It took him a moment to realize that Xander wasn't there, and he felt an unwarranted flicker of irritation. He was getting just a little sick of this.

He narrowed his eyes and appeared a moment later in the gym, out behind the main house.

Xander was alone. There was only one light on, casting most of the place into shadow. Xander was standing in the middle of the open practice area, as far away from the light as he could get without actually losing himself in the shadows. He had out his broadsword and was slashing it through the air, smoothly moving from one position to the next, never pausing, tension radiating from his shoulders.

It was almost exactly as Spike had imagined it, but he found he wasn't able to appreciate the picture. Xander's movements were violent, focused, and he attacked the empty air in front of him as though his very life depended on it. One look at his face, however, and all Spike's frustration just seemed to bleed away. Xander had his eyes closed and, while his expression was blank, Spike could see the strain around his mouth. And he could see the tears that crept down Xander's face, falling past long, damp lashes to dry unnoticed on pale cheeks, occasionally making it far enough to drip off his chin and become lost in the sweat that soaked his shirt.

He was close enough that the sword passed though his chest, but Spike barely noticed. Xander turned, following the movement of his swing, and Spike reached out a hand to the muscled back, wanting more than anything to touch it, to rest his fingers on the warm flesh, not just have them pass, invisible, through the glowing light that was the human's soul.

But Xander didn't know he was there, and Spike knew he wouldn't until his next vision forced him to phase.

So he was surprised when Xander suddenly swung around, his eyes open and confused, the point of the sword falling to the floor. 'Hello?' he called out, looking around carefully. Not knowing what, exactly, he had done, Spike reached out to pass his hand through Xander again, jerking back in shock when the man frowned. When he still didn't see anything, Spike thought he was going to go back to his exercises, but suddenly Xander was solid, looking at him curiously.

'Spike, hey, I thought I felt something. What are you doing here?' It was said mildly enough, but Spike couldn't help taking exception to the question.

However, he carefully regulated his tone when he answered, 'Haven't seen much of you lately, came to see how you're doing.'

Xander smiled tightly at him. 'I'm fine.'

''S that so? 'Cause, you know, you look like shit. Haven't been eating, doesn't look like you've been getting much sleep either.' He examined the circles under Xander's eyes critically, smirking inwardly at the irritation that flashed over the other man's face.

'I'm fine,' he repeated, finality in his tone.

Spike just raised an eyebrow. 'Uh, huh. So you haven't been hiding yourself away from us, from me, for the past four days. Haven't been blaming yourself for all those people we couldn't save. Aren't, in fact, here, now, taking out your guilt on some invisible enemy. And those aren't tears on your face, you just got something in your eye, right?' He had started out calmly enough, but he was glaring at the man by the end of his tirade.

Xander took one step backwards and narrowed his eyes, his whole body tensing up. 'This is none of your business, Spike,' he bit out angrily. Spike actually felt a little better at this show of emotion. It didn't stop him pushing though.

'I'm making it my business, Harris. Believe it or not, I actually care about you, and so do all the people up in that house. It's true, they have no concept of what the visions are like, what you feel when you get them. But I get the guilt, Xander. I also know that you know that you aren't responsible for the deaths of those people. You weren't the only one there. Hell, you weren't even there at all. You think we don't all regret that we couldn't do more? But we did everything we could. You did everything you could. It's not your fault.'

Xander regarded him for a moment from beneath lowered lashes. Eventually he heaved a sigh, some of the tension draining from his limbs. He smirked half-heartedly as he looked up. 'Do you know how weird it is to be getting a pep talk from you, Spike?' Before he could respond, Xander sighed again, running a hand through his hair. 'It's not guilt, Spike,' he said softly. Spike couldn't contain a snort of disbelief, and Xander shot him an amused smirk. 'Well, not entirely guilt, then. I know it's not my fault. It's... grief, I suppose. I told you how my visions work...' He turned around suddenly and strode over to the weapons rack. Spike followed slowly as he just stood there, staring vacantly at the rows of swords. He started when Spike appeared beside him, flashing a small smile as he hung up his broadsword.

Tentatively, Spike wound a hand around his wrist, pleased, and relieved, when for the first time in days Xander didn't draw away. He tugged Xander over to one of the benches lining the walls, and they sat down. Xander leaned back and closed his eyes, his face telegraphing pain and exhaustion. Spike sighed, turning to face him. 'Mate, what's going on?'

Spike was a little disturbed by the bleak smile that this produced. 'You know, Spike, sometimes I really hate this shit.'

'Oh, that's real nice, Harris. I'll have you know I only wanted to help.'

'Not you, Spike,' he sighed. 'This,' he gestured to his head, ''gift' of mine.'

He sat up abruptly. 'All this crap in my head... You wanna know why this time was different? Why it's taking me so long to process it? What you saw, Spike, those people who died? That was only the beginning. You stopped my vision from coming true. That was good. Just think for a moment what bad would have been like. That's what I saw. I felt the death of hundreds of innocents, and I have to go through every one of them, sort out those we did save from those we didn't. I have to. I have to know, have to say goodbye. It's the only way to make the screaming stop...'

Spike just stared at him for a moment, wordless. There were a thousand thoughts running through his head, but he didn't know how to say anything without it sounding like pity.

But there was one thing he had to know. 'Why do you do it? The visions I mean. I realize you've had a lot of practice and all that, but it's been ten years, mate. Red said you didn't have to keep them. That night you died, she said she could heal you, and pass the visions on. You're nothing special. Good mind, strong body, stubborn to a fault, but so are a lot of other people, or demons if you will. Why do you keep doing this to yourself?'

Xander was smirking at him. 'Geez, Spike, was that supposed to be a compliment, 'cause I think it got lost in all those insults.' Spike just narrowed his eyes and glared. Xander eyed him mutinously, but eventually he sighed and dropped his head. 'I do it because I want to help, want to be more than just the backup. I do it because I swore to the Powers that I would, because there are thousands of innocent people out there who don't deserve to live like we do. And yes, because I'm good at it. But mostly, Spike, I do it because I can.' He paused for a moment, turning to eye him seriously. 'How many seers have you met, Spike?'

'A few,' he answered warily. 'I lived with one going on one hundred years. Granted Dru wasn't quite like you, but she was still a seer. Met one in Poland once, 'nother in Japan. Both seemed a bit touched in the head, if you ask me. Cordelia, though before she got them. Yesrah. Why?'

Xander shrugged. 'You know how Yesrah died?' Spike did, but Xander didn't wait for an answer. 'He was thirty-one. He'd had the visions for eight years. He was part human, part fucking Schofas demon. And they drove him insane. He couldn't deal with them. Yeah, he was injured in battle, but he didn't even try to step out of the way of that axe... You just admitted the three seers you've known have also been crazy. For whatever reason, I'm not. Maybe I'm just too stubborn to give up. It doesn't matter. The point is, I can deal with them. All opinions to the contrary, I'm not insane. Not likely to go that way either, far as I can tell. Who's to say the next sucker is gonna be so lucky?'

Spike grimaced. He wanted to say he didn't give a flying fuck about the next seer. Problem was, he couldn't even really say it convincingly to himself. It was so much easier when you were a demon and didn't have to care about people. 'Yeah.' They sat next to each other for a few moments, both staring off into space, lost in their thoughts. Spike laced his hands over his stomach and looked sideways at Xander. 'So, the question is, is it worth it?' he eventually asked blandly.

Xander flicked him a look. 'Maybe, yeah, I think so. You?'

'Yeah. Even after everything. Right now... Yeah.' Xander looked at him curiously for a moment, before settling back against the wall, stretching his feet out in front of him. After a minute, he lent over so their shoulders were touching, and Spike allowed a tiny smile to appear on his face.

They stayed that way for a while, both soaking up the comfortable silence. Spike spoke without thinking. 'We are two seriously fucked up individuals, mate.'

Thankfully, Xander just chuckled softly, glancing at him out of the corner of one eye. 'Amen to that, Spike.' He looked away and said ruefully, 'You know, I didn't mean to make you think I was avoiding you.'

'Yeah, well,' Spike cleared his throat. 'Got used to having you around, didn't I?'

'What about the others?' Spike thought he heard a slight tension in Xander's voice, but that could have been wishful thinking.

'What about them? They're not you.'

Spike caught the confusion on Xander's face and mentally rolled his eyes. Subtlety was obviously not going to work in this case.

But apparently now wasn't the time to practice candor either. As he watched, Xander's face clouded, his mouth tensing as weary resignation flashed in his eyes. Eyes that went blank a moment later, as the vision claimed him.

As always, it was over in less than a minute. It was only because they were sitting so close that Spike noticed the faint trembling in the man beside him. Almost unconsciously, Spike picked up one tightly clenched fist, but Xander didn't seem to notice. When his eyes cleared, Xander lowered his head, but not before Spike saw the tears that gathered in his eyes, the hopelessness that momentarily flashed across his face.

Not looking at him, Xander stood and went over to his bag to collect pen and paper. Spike stayed where he was, still caught by the despair he had seen in the other man's eyes.

However, he jumped up when he heard the pen Xander had been holding clatter to the ground. He rushed over, but was once again brought up short. Xander was looking blankly down at the ground, his hand shaking uncontrollably. His eyes seemed to focus on the pen that had rolled over to rest near Spike's boot.

Slowly, mechanically, he knelt, never taking his eyes off it. Spike was a little disgusted with himself for the thrill he felt at seeing Xander in this position. However, all thought flew from his head a moment later, when Xander's trembling, outstretched hand stopped halfway to the ground, and a single fat tear rolled down his face to splash on the floor between them.

Spike was appalled. He honestly didn't know what to do. He'd had plenty of experience with distraught females, but this was Xander. Xander never cried. He never had, and Spike had been through enough heart-wrenching disasters with him to know that. He became angry, or withdrawn, but he didn't cry, and certainly not when there was anyone else to witness it.

He hadn't known... All this time, he had thought he was beginning to understand Xander - that he knew the pain the other man endured. That Xander had let him in, lowered his shields, allowed him to see into his heart.

And maybe he had, to a certain extent. But like all the rest of them, Spike had seen the light, the love the other man was prepared to offer, and had assumed that meant the darkness wasn't so bad. He had known it was there. He even had a feeling he had been allowed to see more of Xander than even Buffy and Dawn.

But he hadn't really understood. He had been too wrapped up in his own affairs, and Xander had kept his problems out of the limelight, partly because he wasn't the type to share but, mostly, because that was the sort of friend he was. Maybe he wasn't going insane, but the visions were sucking the life out of this man. A person couldn't live without hope. He knew that Xander would fight, would pull himself out of this funk, but it was only a matter of time before it happened again, and Spike was suddenly terrified that a day would come when Xander didn't have the strength or the will to bring himself back.

He had thought that he would leave Xander one day, and had been okay with that. But it had never occurred to him that Xander might be the one to go. The very thought made him feel ill. It couldn't happen. He wouldn't let it happen. Xander maintained that Spike deserved to be redeemed, to be happy. That he had given his life in the service of a higher power, for a greater good and that, because of that, his past sins had been forgiven. Yet Xander had fought for the Powers far longer than he had, had never wavered, had given up his future because of his desire to protect the innocent, to keep them that way.

He had wanted Xander because he had thought the man would make him happy. But all of a sudden, his own happiness seemed irrelevant. He would not let Xander lose himself to the darkness. Xander had saved him, pulled him out of a downward spiral he hadn't even been aware he was on, given him something to hope for, something to come back to. He could do nothing less. Whatever it took, whatever the cost, if had to defy the Powers themselves, he would see this man happy.

Xander refused to allow himself to cry. He knew that if he started, he wouldn't be able to stop. He could picture himself drowning, as wave after wave of his tears washed over him. He could hear them, rushing in his ears, coming for him. And all the dead people who lived in his mind would wrap their hands around his ankles and hold him under, their blood tingeing his tears red, as he struggled to find the surface.

He didn't want to drown. He knew this, but the image was so real, so captivating... In some lucid part of his brain, he supposed that his tears probably wouldn't kill him, that the people in his head didn't hate him but, with that vision running through his mind, he was paralyzed, too afraid to take the chance.

So he willed them away. He would cry later, he promised himself. They would scream at him, he would cry for them, and maybe, just maybe, they would forgive him. He only wanted them to stop dying. Was that so much to ask? He didn't want to kill them anymore. Every time he went to sleep he killed them again, only to wake up sweating or screaming. Every time he closed his eyes they cried for someone to save them...

But he was stronger than that. It was incredibly difficult to have to grieve for so many at once but he had done it before, and he had no doubt he would have to do it again before the end. But it was true what he had told Spike, he could do it. He would grieve for them, and he would never forget them, but he would not let them drag him down. He had too much still to do. They didn't even really blame him. He knew that, too. They didn't even know he existed, for the most part. He had been given a chance to save them, nothing more than that. And as long as there was still a chance he could save anyone else, he refused to give up.

Which brought his mind back to the vision he had just had. It hadn't been particularly horrific but it had caught him unawares. Spike had taken his mind off things for a moment, turned his attention away from all his carefully erected emotional barriers. So the image of that one young woman being gutted by the Inferni demon had hit him harder than usual, bringing back the memories of the hellmouth opening only a few days before.

He realized dimly that he was kneeling on the floor. His pen was resting next to a large black boot. One look at his hands told him how it must have gotten there. He was holding himself so tightly his whole arm was shaking.

The boots were suddenly replaced by a pair of black-clad knees. He followed with his eyes as the pen rolled across the floor, dislodged by a thoughtless foot, distantly wondering how he would save them now, if he could never tell anyone what was going to happen. When it came to rest against the wall, Xander lifted his head carefully to find Spike watching him warily. His eyes were bright, and Xander cocked his head as he wondered what was wrong. He almost wanted to smile at the thought, except it wasn't funny. It was all wrong, always wrong. Spike had just as many dead people living in his head as Xander did. Of course there was something wrong. He felt a tear run down his face and his heart sped up, the rushing in his ears getting louder.

He heard Spike say something, but he couldn't focus past the noise, couldn't see past the faces, so many faces.

He felt two hands on his face, pulling his head up, and he latched onto the sensation. All the others, the screams, the pain, they weren't real. He wasn't dying, being carved open, stabbed, broken, beaten and cast aside. It wasn't happening. Not happening. Not this time. Not to him.

He wrenched his eyes open desperately, and then he could see something else. He could see Spike and it was like water to a dying man, or a hand to a drowning one.

'...have to breathe.' The words came from too far away but he understood them. He fixed his eyes on the top button of Spike's shirt. 'Xander, love, come back. Come on, don't do this to yourself. It's not you. Not your fault. They don't blame you.' Spike. He could feel hands running over his face, frantic.

He needed to get away, needed to think of something else, say something, not to worry, he was fine, not to worry, not to worry. 'Shhh, love. I know.'

'They're dead. I don't want them to be dead,' he whispered wretchedly to Spike's neck.

Hands running through his hair, coming to rest at the back of his neck. And it felt nice, not wrong. 'Oh, love... You can't change what happened, but they're all right. We both know that. I wanted you to know... I was with Marianne after she died. And you know what the very last thing she said was? She said, Xan always says everything happens for a reason. I'm starting to believe that's true, love. It'll be alright.'

He knew that the words were true, and it helped to hear them, a little. But there was something in Spike's voice that cut through all the emotion, all the noise, and lodged painfully in his heart. His eyes found Spike's. They were crying. Crying for all the innocents, for their families, but most of all for him. He reached one shaking hand up, catching a drop on the end of a finger as it hovered on the edge of his chin. Averting his eyes, he slumped against Spike, leaning into the curve of his neck, winding arms about his waist. Spike felt so alive, so real. So right.

Spike whispered, just loud enough for him to hear, even as close as they were. 'Not gonna let go of you, love. Never let go.' It was a promise, and with it the sound receded. He buried his face as his tears started to fall, silently washing away guilt and grief.

All the while Spike held him, and he didn't drown.

Part Four C

In which Spike makes a declaration of intent and Xander takes it fairly well

The memorial service was, as always, at once immensely painful and blessedly cathartic. Xander had watched in awe as Spike quietly spoke to Marianne's family, the faint golden glow he emitted lending the scene an aura that Steven and his daughter obviously took comfort in. For himself, he sought out the families of each and every person who had died, not to try to explain what their loved ones had been thinking in their last moments - this was hardly the time or the place to be explaining to these people what he was - but to fix them in his own mind, make them real so that he could let them go. It didn't change what he would have to live with but it somehow made it easier to know they would have people to remember them when they faded from his mind.

Still, he kept to himself for a few days. Buffy, Willow, all of them had their own pain to deal with, but he knew that they had each other to lean on, so he felt he could take some time to work through everything on his own. And it wasn't like this had never happened before. They knew the routine as well as he did.

It actually took him a while to realize that Spike wasn't leaving him alone. Whether it was because he had become so used to his presence over the last couple of months, or it was because he was too lost in his head to notice, the fact remained; Spike was spending almost all his free hours hanging around him.

Actually, Xander couldn't quite bring himself to mind. He didn't want to talk and Spike didn't make him; most nights they spent in comfortable silence, Xander ignoring Spike, and Spike surreptitiously watching Xander.

Actually, it was this that first started to draw him out. Spike kept looking at him. He wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Xander would be writing or brooding -yes, he could admit it - and would suddenly look up to catch Spike watching him with this... soft look in his eyes. Spike, being Spike, refused to look away of course, merely raising an eyebrow if Xander looked at him strangely.

That wasn't even the worst of it. Sometimes, Xander would catch him smiling, a beautiful, gentle curve of his lips. Then, the smile would widen into a grin, but he didn't lose that look in his eyes. If it had been anyone else, Xander might have been tempted to call it loving. But that was ridiculous. Besides, Spike had not looked at Buffy like that, had he?

Eventually, curiosity, verging on irritation, overcame his distraction, and he simply had to say something.

It was the middle of the night, they were sitting in his office, and Xander had just caught him doing the smile thing again. This time, instead of turning away with a slightly confused smile of his own, Xander stopped to glare at Spike. 'Alright, Blondie, just what the hell is going on?' he demanded, exasperated.

Spike actually looked confused. 'What'd I do?'

Xander waggled a finger at his face accusingly. 'You keep smiling at me. All nice and... caring. It's getting creepy,' he complained.

Now Spike looked hurt. Xander reviewed what he'd said and inwardly winced. But he still wanted to know what was going on. 'I, ah... see. So, no more smiling. I'll try to keep that in mind.'

Oh, shit, it looked like he was going to leave. Since when was Spike this sensitive anyway? Xander reached out and snagged an arm, pulling Spike back towards him. 'No, Spike, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that. You've just been... different, lately. What's going on?'

Spike regarded him hesitantly for a moment, before nodding his head resolutely and sitting back down. 'Been thinking about things. About you.' He nodded in Xander's direction.

'Me?' Xander was startled, a fairly stupid reaction given the fact that Spike had been staring at him for the last few days. He cleared his throat. 'What about me?'

'You wanna talk about this now, then,' Spike asked, looking at him closely.

Xander found himself somewhat distracted by the expression in those eyes. 'Ahh... sure?'

He sure as hell didn't sound sure, but it was apparently enough for Spike. 'Right then,' he said decisively. 'So this is what I want to know. Are you happy?'

Xander waited. Spike just looked at him expectantly. Eventually, Xander realized there wasn't going to be anything more and raised an eyebrow. 'That's it? Am I happy? Why do you want to know that?' He almost wanted to laugh, except Spike didn't look like he was joking.

''S important, that's why. Just answer the question.'

Now he was just confused. What was this about? 'Well, what the hell do you mean, am I happy?'

Spike sighed. ''S a fairly straightforward question, mate. Happy. Content. At peace. Wanting for nothing.'

Xander stared at him for a moment longer. 'Right at the moment? I'd have to go with no. I am confused, just a little irritated, and I want to know what this is all about.'

Spike glared at him. 'Not right now, generally.'

'Generally.' Xander shook his head, looking at Spike curiously. 'Spike-'

'Xander, please. Just... tell me.' Xander took a breath, prepared to evade the question, but that look was back in Spike's eyes again. He really didn't understand this, but he had also never seen Spike look so earnest. Frowning, he made a decision. Maybe it really was important.

'Fine. Ok. Generally speaking. Well, I don't know if I'd call it happiness, but... I've got my family, my friends, a purpose in life. It might not be perfect, but it's mine, and yes, I'm... content, most of the time.' Spike was staring at him again, as if he could read the truth in his eyes. Xander resisted the urge to squirm. 'What's all this about, Spike?'

'You've got a shitty job with bad hours, painful headaches, no pay, very little gratitude and whole loads of existential angst. I want to know if you're happy anyway, and if you're not, I want to know what's going to make your life easier so I can change it myself, or go bug the Slayer to do something about it. I want to make you happy but if I can't do that, then I want to see you happy. And don't go thinking you can get out of it. I've made up my mind and that's all there is to it.'

'I get paid.' It was the first thing that came out of his mouth, mainly because the rest of his brain was currently booking itself on a plane to Hawaii. Spike stared at him for a moment, then snorted. He opened his mouth to say something, but Xander held up a hand, furiously trying to engage his wits. 'Sorry. Wait. Just... wait a minute. Let me see if I've got this. You don't think my calling, my sacred mission for the Powers That Be, is making me 'happy', so you've decided to what? Make me your pet project? I thought we were supposed to be making you happy. And what does that even mean, you want to make me happy? Why?'

Xander had a feeling that came out slightly more annoyed than he had intended it to, but a look at Spike told him the man had decided not to take offence. In fact, he was looking at him so intently that Xander was starting to feel like a bug under a microscope. And that smile was back again. The... soft, caring one that belied the exasperated tone of his voice. 'I should have thought that was fairly obvious, pet. I love you.' The smile... loving. Fucking hell. He didn't know what to do.

Spike sat back with a smirk as Xander opened his mouth a good six or seven times before actually managing to articulate a sentence. Almost. 'I... You... What? When? What?'

'I love you,' he repeated calmly.

This was... so totally unexpected he couldn't even begin to process it. How could Spike possibly be in love with him? He'd never even said anything about his attraction to the man. Maybe it was... a joke. Yeah, that was something the old Spike would have done, and he was smirking. Maybe the soul was taking a break, or reliving the old demon days. It could happen. Except, he knew Spike now, except apparently for the fact that the man was in love with him. But leaving that aside for the moment, he would have said with utter confidence that this Spike wouldn't play with his emotions like that. So... maybe he just meant it in a friend way. He would probably never have said it, but he did love Spike. Could have fallen in love with him if they'd ever gotten that far. Which apparently they had, he thought slightly hysterically. But, yeah, that was probably it. Friends.

Calming down a little, he said, 'How do you mean?' Which wasn't what he had wanted to say at all.

Spike grinned wolfishly. Xander gulped. That was not a friendly smile. 'I want you. I want all of you. I want to give you a reason to live. I want to love you. I want you to want me. I want to make you forget, and I want to lose myself in you. We're two of a kind, luv.' He smiled and Xander felt a little faint. 'How does it go? You're everything I never knew I always wanted. You make me remember what it's like to be alive. You've already given me back my family, my sanity, my hope. You are my light. You deserve to be happy, Xander. More than I ever did or ever will. I want to see that you are.'

Xander gaped. 'Jesus Christ, Spike,' he whispered roughly. His head was spinning. 'A few more speeches like that and I don't think you'll have any problems at all.'

If possible, the smile became even more suggestive - and maybe just a little smug. 'That so, pet? I'll keep it in mind. Can I take this to mean you won't run screaming from the room then when I tell you what I want most of all?'

The smug was finally infiltrating Xander's brain. It was like a bucket of cold water to his thoughts. Smug Spike was always irritating. It was probably mostly why nothing like this could ever have happened when Spike was alive. Even if there hadn't been Anya and Buffy, Spike had just been so superior that Xander would have been more inclined to wipe the smirk off his face with his fist than with anything else. As his intellect finally caught up to the conversation, he discovered that the impulse to remove the smirk was just as strong as ever. With a roll of his eyes, he shot Spike a knowing look. 'Go on then. I promise not to run screaming. Try not to surprise me with anything too original.' He relaxed back into his seat, waving a hand for Spike to continue.

Spike narrowed his eyes momentarily, before snorting and apparently giving up. 'You're ruining my dramatic moment, pet. How'm I supposed to swoop in and shock you with a passionate kiss now?' he complained.

'That's what you want most of all, Spike? I find myself strangely disappointed.' He grinned. 'But,' he rubbed his hands together, leaning forward, 'that's no reason not to give it a go. If you're still interested, of course?' He raised an eyebrow.

'It was the gloating that did it, wasn't it? You always hate it when I'm smug. You know, it's all the demon's fault. Never would have happened when I was human. Now I can't get out of the habit-'

'Spike,' Xander interrupted. 'Shut up and kiss me.'

Spike's eyes widened as a grin slowly made its way over his face. 'Well, ok, then.'

Xander rolled his eyes, letting a small smile flicker over his own face as he leant in, one hand coming up to tug Spike's chin towards him. This was apparently all the encouragement Spike required. He knocked Xander's hand away with a quicksilver grin, tilted his head, and swooped in to press their mouths together.

For a moment, it was just like the other two times they had kissed, then Spike moved his lips and it was nothing like anything they'd done before. He felt fingers curling around his upper arm, and watched delightedly as Spike's eyes drifted shut. He let his eyelids lower and pressed himself into the kiss, taking Spike's lower lip between his own and caressing it with his the tip of his tongue. He let it slide out through his teeth, slitting open his eyes as Spike moaned softly and opened his mouth. He pulled back slightly, grinning faintly when the fingers around his arm tightened in frustration and Spike's head unconsciously followed his movement. He didn't have to wait long for Spike to open his eyes, his grin widening when they glared at him in frustration.

The second Spike took in his expression, his eyes darkened and a wicked grin flashed over his face. Xander couldn't help the shiver that traveled up his spine at that look, or the challenge that darkened his own eyes. Once again, Spike displayed his initiative, and he was being pushed back into the couch as Spike leaned into him. Smiling inside his head, he opened his mouth obligingly to the tongue industriously seeking entrance. He had just enough time to curl one hand into Spike's hair and one tightly around his waist. Then a warm, wet tongue tickled the roof of his mouth and all higher brain function ceased as he was treated to a kiss with one hundred and fifty years of experience behind it.

It wasn't like him to just sit there and take it, and he did try to reciprocate, really he did. And from the moans he could feel deep in Spike's throat, he wasn't doing too badly. But it was all instinct, and either way he got the feeling he was getting the better end of the deal.

Not that he was complaining. No sirree, no-one complaining here.

Spike explored his mouth enthusiastically, tracing around his teeth, his tongue, and his lips, coming back to the roof of his mouth when it made him shiver. He hummed in approval when Xander stroked his tongue gently, winding his own about it.

When Spike pulled away, he couldn't even work up the mental acuity to be mortified by the whimper that escaped. Not that he could go far, seeing as Xander was still holding him tight against his chest. Still somewhat dazed, it took Xander a moment to realize this, but he eventually loosened his grasp and allowed Spike to sit back.

Spike was wearing a satisfied smirk as Xander slowly sat up. He licked his lips thoughtfully and the smirk deepened. He didn't know what Spike was looking so smug about. Sure, there'd been some sort of challenge, although for the life of him he couldn't think what at the moment. But whatever it had been, he was pretty sure he must have won. 'Cause if this was losing, he was just gonna have to stop trying.

He was even prepared to forgive the smug look at the moment. Still... He relaxed into the cushions and regarded Spike thoughtfully. After a moment, the smirk slipped a little and Xander grinned inwardly and raised his eyebrows. Then Spike was just smiling at him. 'Well?' he asked impatiently.

'Not bad,' Xander nodded approvingly. Spike raised an eyebrow. It had been a whole lot better than just not bad.

'That so? Well, it has been a while. Just need to find my feet again, I expect. Work on my skills, so to speak.'

Xander shivered a little at the heat in Spike's eyes, the promise. He knew they really had to talk about this, where it was going, what Spike expected of him, but it just felt so right. It was easy, fun even, and when Spike smiled at him like that all he knew was that he wanted him. He raised a hand to touch his thumb gently to that smile, holding Spike's jaw in the palm of his hand. He felt muscles shift under his hand as Spike swallowed and raised his eyes from pink lips that had parted slightly from the pressure of his thumb.

He knew he was supposed to be making some smart-ass comment, but one look at those wide blue eyes and he felt the world spiral away. Pain, longing, need, desire... He wondered distantly if this was what people felt when they looked into his eye, like drowning in someone's soul, as the rest of the world faded away. It occurred to him for the first time that Spike had actually meant it. That, for whatever reason, he really did love him. He couldn't profess to understand it, but right now, he thought he could see it.

'Sure,' was all he could manage to whisper as he drew Spike's mouth towards him.

Spike held his eyes for as long as he could. Then they were locked together and the kiss was so deep, so desperate that Xander felt like he was crawling inside the other man, owning him, being taken over. Spike seemed to be pouring everything he felt into the kiss, everything Xander had seen in his eyes. And passion. Maybe it was just Spike, but he had never felt such naked desire infused into a single kiss before. It had his heart racing, his blood thundering around his body.

And in his mind something broke, as he accepted everything Spike offered. Maybe he wasn't in love with him yet, but he could be. It would be so easy to fall for this man. Spike. Who had never given him a second glance eighteen years ago, whom he had more recently been content to just be friends with. A man he now knew almost better than he knew himself, whom he had rescued from the brink of insanity, who had then turned around and returned the favor. They really were two of a kind. Battered, broken, chained to a past they weren't even responsible for, laden with guilt and desperately looking for understanding, for a connection, and for forgiveness. He could love Spike for that. But there was so much more to it. First and foremost, Spike would always be a friend. After all the pain and heartache faded, if that ever happened, he could still see them together. They had more in common than sorrow and death. The past six months had been exhilarating, liberating. If he let him, he knew that Spike could give him something else to live for.

He didn't want to get hurt, knew that chances were good that he would lose Spike sooner rather than later, but he was starting to think that maybe it was worth the risk.

He was breathing heavily when they finally parted and opened his eyes to Spike's fingers running tenderly over his face. When he looked into his eyes, however, he was greeted with a slightly guarded expression. He couldn't honestly say he was surprised. That had been a kiss to make or break a relationship. It would be almost impossible to go back to what they'd had before, and now Spike was waiting for his reaction. He could only hope he didn't screw it up completely.

He took a deep breath and smiled gently. 'So, you love me.'

It wasn't a question, but Spike answered with a poor imitation of his usual smirk. 'Uh, yeah. 'S that gonna be a problem?'

'No,' he said firmly. 'Not a problem. It's good, wonderful. But,' he felt Spike tense and flinched inwardly, but hurried on, 'where is this going, Spike? I mean, you're meant to be finding happiness and I thought, Buffy...' He trailed off, uncertain.

Spike cocked his head and regarded him for a moment. Xander couldn't read his expression and started to draw away, cursing himself for saying the wrong thing already. But Spike dropped his fingers away from Xander's face only to pick up his hand, smiling a little.

'I know what you thought and I can never tell you how grateful I am to have found her again. She fascinated my demon, and I feel for her, for everything she had to endure. But she's not mine, love, she never was. I don't love her anymore. Me, the soul, never really did. Whatever the demon made me, it couldn't change what I am. I can't give her what she needs, the violence she gets from Angel, not anymore. I don't want that. I don't what this to be like that.' Spike paused, his eyes darkening. Xander waited, and after a moment, he began again, speaking regretfully. 'You used to remind me of myself, back when I was alive. We could have been friends. I think that's why I treated you like shit most of the time. Especially when my humanity began to reassert itself. You represented everything the demon hated. And now... well, now everything is different. You, me, Buffy, everything. Whatever I had with her, it wasn't happiness, or peace. Six months ago I would have said I was as content as I was ever likely to get. You changed that, love. Not Buffy, not Dawn or Willow, you. You gave me a way to find peace and you make me happy. I don't know how long it'll last, but I want you for as long as I can have you. I can't give you a normal relationship, if that's what you're looking for. But you do get me, heart and soul.' He smirked a little. 'To do with what you will, for as long as you want me.'

Xander just sat there, and after a moment, Spike put a finger under his chin and pushed his jaw shut with a grin. Xander blinked. 'I'm gonna get a lot of those, aren't I?' he commented eventually. Spike had always had a way with words. Although it was good to see he was putting his super powers to better use these days.

Spike gave him that guarded smile again, hope lurking in the depths of his eyes. 'I don't know. Are you?'

Xander gave him a lopsided smile. 'You know, I almost had a normal life once, after you and Anya died. I must've drifted off your radar for a while there.' He looked at Spike sideways, raised a curious eyebrow.

Spike frowned. 'Now you mention it, yeah. There were a couple of years you did kinda disappear.'

Xander smiled a little wistfully, remembering. 'Yep, I managed to spend nearly two years without getting myself into mortal danger once. It was unbelievably boring.' He grinned. 'Actually, that's not true. It was good for a while.' His smile slipped. 'I was just so tired after that year. I helped set up the new council, got Buffy and Dawn settled, but then I had to split, to get away from it for a while.'

He'd still been hurting for Anya, although he had moved on. But more than that it was just the whole lifestyle. In a moment of weakness that even then he had despised himself for, he'd said fuck the responsibility, they could do it without him, he didn't care anymore. Even though it was tearing him up inside, he had calmly stated one day that he was leaving, moving away from the hellmouth and resuming his construction career in Washington. They had cried, but they had let him go, and none of them could say that they didn't understand. 'Found myself a nice guy, not a demon, didn't even believe in magic... just a nice, normal guy. But it didn't last. It couldn't. Eventually, it just wasn't enough.'

He had needed the break, but it had only served to remind him of what he fought for. He had been happy for a while. But one day he had been passing an alley to see a young woman being attacked by a vampire and it had all come rushing back. It had been so easy to fall back onto his training, exhilarating to have saved the woman, and he had suddenly realized how purposeless his life had felt. He had always been able to feel Buffy and Willow and Giles in the back of his mind, ever since the spell they had used to defeat Adam had bound them together forever, but now it was like they were calling to him, calling him home.

'I used to think I wanted a normal life. But I don't. It's part of why I never married Anya. I could live with the fact that she'd been a demon, had killed more people than I could probably even imagine. And she told me about a lot of them, so that's saying something. But the second things started to seem normal, when she started to be more simply human than ex-demon... I'd seen normal. For sixteen years that was all I knew. And it's not worth it. I hate the thought that I could stop caring about the fight, about the people I love.'

Xander paused and watched Spike for a moment. He couldn't really imagine how this could work. They couldn't live together. Spike wasn't even alive. He didn't eat, wouldn't leave towels lying around, wouldn't forget to do his laundry or wash the blood out of his mugs. He had hated living with Spike the first two times, but now... he wondered how much he would miss all those little things that every normal relationship had. Would it make it easier or harder? Still, he meant it when he said he didn't need a normal life. If he was going to commit himself to this, then whatever they had would be enough. Nothing else mattered.

'I'm not in love with you,' he continued bluntly, trying to ignore the hurt that suddenly appeared in Spike's eyes. 'But I like you, and I want you. I don't want to lose you, and I'm going to, which makes this that much harder. But, right now, none of that seems to matter. Unlike you, apparently, I've been happy before. You make remember what that's like. I reckon that's worth a little risk.'

'Yeah?' If he hadn't been sure before, the light that suddenly appeared in Spike's eyes would have been enough.

He shrugged and nodded. 'Yeah.' He grinned suddenly. 'So, is this the part where you ask if I wanna go out with you?'

Spike snorted. 'Little late for that, don't ya think, love? Personally, I reckon we should just get back to the snogging.'

'And people say romance is dead.'

Spike grinned and pulled him in for a short, passionate kiss.

'And to them I say, good riddance,' he panted when Spike let him go.

Spike gave him a smile so beautiful it shot straight to his heart. He brought Xander's hand to his lips and kissed his palm, never taking his eyes off the other man's face. Dear god, this was going to be so much easier than he had thought. 'Gonna make you happy, love,' Spike whispered, breath ghosting across his skin and making him shiver. Xander could only nod, stretching his fingers so they touched Spike's cheek. He believed him.

Part Four D

4d - In which Spike finds peace and then finds himself faced with a decision:
to die or to forget

It was actually kind of amazing how little seemed to change over the next few weeks. It wasn't that nothing was different; much making out followed by sex was certainly a pleasant addition to Xander's daily schedule. And everything that Spike said or did seemed to take on new layers of meaning. But, for the most part, he didn't actually say anything he'd never said before, and life just went on much as it always had.

Xander wasn't entirely sure what he'd been expecting, when he stopped to think about it. He could only suppose that faced with one of those life-altering types of declarations, it seemed strange that the rest of the world hadn't somehow tilted on its axis and plunged everyone else into the same turmoil he found himself.

In fact, no one really seemed surprised by the newfound status of his relationship. Which, if was going to be honest, was kind of a disappointment. Although Buffy, Dawn and Willow did manage to come up with a few gratifyingly girly-squeals when he told them, particularly when he recounted a few of Spike's more memorable speeches. He'd noticed Buffy's slightly wistful look at this and had asked her later if she really was okay with him and Spike.

She'd looked at him searchingly. 'Would it make a difference if I wasn't, Xan?' she'd asked seriously.

He hadn't really known what to say. Would it make a difference? Would he give Spike up if Buffy said she wanted him back? More to the point, would Spike want to go? He thought probably not. And if he did, then yes, he would let him go. But if Buffy simply didn't approve? Didn't think Spike would be good for him, was afraid he'd get hurt. Then, yeah, it would make a difference, but would it make him give it all up? 'No,' he'd said thoughtfully. 'I mean, yeah, of course, I never want to hurt you, Buff. But... in the end, and unless you had one hell of a reason... No, no, I don't think it would.' He'd grinned a little as he came to this realization. He wasn't gonna just give Spike up. That felt... good. Better than good, it felt right.

Buffy had looked at him knowingly. 'And nothing else matters. Right?' She'd smiled as he nodded. 'You know, I appreciate you being all sensitive to my 'history' with Spike, but I am actually in love with Angel. I'm gonna start taking it personally if you don't stop trying to break us up.'

Even Angel hadn't batted an eyelash. Although he had given Xander a thorough and graphic lecture on what would happen to him if he found out he was hurting Spike. Dawn had stood beside him and added the occasional helpful comment. The whole thing had been seriously disturbing, up to and most definitely including the part where Angel had pulled him into a vampire-strength hug. Which had been followed by hurried reassurances on his part as he beat a hasty retreat from this disconcerting new father-in-law-type Angel. He'd really had no idea that Spike was that important to Angel, and had to wonder if Spike himself did either.

Of course, the whole thing had become much more amusing when Spike told him that Willow and Buffy had cornered him and given him an equally terrifying version of the shovel talk. They didn't have to say it, but they both knew how lucky they were.

It was only after this that Xander started to notice that things were different. It had been so subtle at first that he wasn't aware of anything off. Early on he'd discovered that examining all of Spike's actions to try and determine if any of them were making him happy was not conducive to actually just being happy. So after a couple of days of pointless Spike-analysis, he'd decided to just let it go and try to enjoy himself.

But he was sitting alone in his room a couple of days later, at something of a lose end, thinking about getting started on his new book, when he realized that for the past couple of weeks, he'd been almost constantly busy. The time in between his visions, that had become something of a chore over the past few months, as he wasn't incapacitated by the pain and had very little else to do around the house, had somehow been filled.

He'd started working on carving a new weapons chest for Buffy, had plans for bookshelves for Dawn and a cabinet for Willow. He'd volunteered to organize repairs for the mansion, spent a lot of his time on the phone to craftsmen or jotting off e-mails to various suppliers. He'd also started writing to all the slayers all around the world. Now that Spike could tell him what they were up to, he realized he'd been neglecting these friendships and spent hours each night catching up on their lives, chatting on-line. Especially when everyone came back after the holidays, he found himself spending more and more time down in the gym after dinner, sparring with the girls long after Buffy and Dawn had gone to bed, or staying up and chatting or watching TV with the ones who came home in the middle of the night.

He used his laptop to write up his reports almost exclusively now, carting it around the house. Dawn and the watchers had scanned the entire library years ago, so although he had always liked to use real books, it wasn't strictly necessary. And in the early hours of the morning, Spike would appear and join him in whatever he was doing, or they would go down to the gym, where Spike would thoroughly trounce him with any weapon he would care to name, before carefully instructing him in how to use it properly.

But looking back on all this, he could suddenly see that most of his newfound activity was due entirely to suggestions that had actually come from Spike. For the first time in years, he was actually living his life. Within the strict confines of his mission for the PTB, sure, but there were moments in between when he felt like his life was his, just his. That he was more than just a tool for a group of seemingly indifferent higher beings.

And that did make him happy.

It also made him look at Spike in a whole new light. Here was purely selfless act. Spike had nothing to gain from any of it, hadn't even drawn attention to what he was doing. He couldn't deny that he still had reservations, but he also had to admit they were rapidly disappearing.


Xander was dreaming. He was lying in bed, holding Spike in his arms. He couldn't remember ever feeling so peaceful. He could feel the smooth, cool skin of Spike's chest under his fingers, rising softly with each inhalation. It felt so real. And in his dream he smiled, as a connection was made. This was wonderful, but the real thing was better.

He opened his eyes.

He smiled again as he realized he must have drifted off. Spike did tend to be rather... energetic, and he wasn't as young as he used to be. Usually, he tried not to fall asleep straight away, if only because when he woke up, Spike was almost always already gone. He didn't really mind. Spike didn't need to sleep, after all, and he couldn't realistically expect him to just while away the day lying in his bed, doing nothing, when he should be out protecting people.

Still... as much as he loved going to sleep with Spike in his arms, waking up to find him still there always made him feel pleasantly mushy inside.

Spike was lying on his back, his eyes closed, his bare chest rising and falling rhythmically with his breaths. One arm hung off the edge of the bed, while the other curled next to Xander's, slung over his stomach. Xander propped himself up on his other elbow, gazing down at this beautiful body.

The room was dark, even though it was midday outside, but Spike was clearly visible. With his ring on, he gave off a faint golden glow that only emphasized the paleness of his skin, made his mussed hair look almost metallic.

Xander had flatly refused to have sex with him without the ring after the first time Spike had lost his concentration and left Xander fucking the mattress with Spike two stories beneath him. However hilariously funny it may have been in retrospect, it had put a serious crimp in the evening.

Xander shook his head a little, the hand resting on Spike's stomach shifting, drawn inexorably to that perfect face. He soothed his fingertips over sharp cheekbones, soft lips, and a high forehead that lost all its harsh lines when Spike was like this. That had been slowly losing its lines even when Spike was awake. It was beautiful, perfect. He grinned slightly; the face that launched a thousand ships.

He traced around Spike's jaw, barely touching, his eyes following as they made their way back up around his mouth, over his cheek, and finally to eyes that had slit open and were regarding him amusedly. Xander moved his hand back to Spike's chest, where it was immediately captured, and grinned at him.

'What are you grinning at then, love?' Spike asked with a smile, his other hand appearing to touch Xander's jaw.

Xander's grin turned into a smirk. 'Literary analogies,' he said.

Spike raised an eyebrow and tilted his head. 'Yeah? Who're you comparing me to?'

Xander cleared his throat and his eyes darted away, but his smirk deepened. 'I don't think you want to know,' he answered, patting Spike's chest consolingly.

The hand at his jaw moved to poke him in the chest. 'Oh, no. Now you've got to tell me. I've got to know what you think of me, don't I? Come on, how bad can it be? Unless it's someone from your comic book collection, then you're right, I don't want to know.' Spike smirked.

'Hey! I don't have a comic book collection anymore.' He grinned and squeezed the hand he was holding.

'Only because it got destroyed along with the rest of Sunnydale. You'll always be a geek at heart, love.'

'Helen of Troy,' Xander stated with a satisfied smirk. 'I was comparing you to Helen of Troy.'

Spike's eyebrows shot up his forehead and he let out a surprised bark of laughter. 'What?'

'Well, sure,' Xander commented reasonably, his eyes laughing. 'Stolen away by Prince Alexander, favorite of the gods-'

Spike interrupted. 'Who then either dies or ditches her and dies, depending on the story, although not before making her responsible for one of the most infamous wars in mythology, and she still just ends up back with her first husband. You trying to tell me something, love?'

Xander chuckled. 'Ok, so it's not a perfect analogy...'

Spike snorted. 'If we're going to go around comparing people to ancient Greek chits, I woulda thought you and Cassandra'd be more appropriate.' Xander narrowed his eyes as he thought about this. He couldn't imagine what it would be like if people didn't believe in his visions. That probably would drive him mad.

He felt Spike's fingers on his face. He focused on blue eyes that had filled with sympathy. Spike lent up and dropped a sweet kiss on his lips. 'Maybe not, huh? 'Sides,' Spike leered at him playfully, 'she was s'posed to be chaste.'

Xander smiled back, his eyes clearing, before leaning down to return the kiss. 'Just meant you're beautiful,' he murmured into Spike's mouth. Spike smiled and moved into the kiss, pressing his body along Xander's. Xander moaned when Spike pulled away to press tiny kisses down his chin, laving his neck with his tongue, and relaxed back into the pillows.

Then he managed to entirely ruin the mood by yawning hugely, cracking his jaw. Spike chuckled, sending vibrations through Xander's skin where it was still connected to Spike's mouth. 'You need to get some sleep, love.' Xander sighed petulantly. Sometimes not being a teenager with boundless energy really sucked. 'Until the Powers decide to give you a day off, sex marathons are just gonna have to wait.'

As if crippling headaches and horrifying visions weren't enough, The Powers That Be were making him go without sex marathons, too? Sex marathons with Spike? He swore that, when he died for real, they were gonna have a hell of a lot to answer for. He grimaced and opened his mouth, but the traitorous thing took that opportunity to yawn again. He shut his jaw with a snap and glared sleepily at Spike as the next best thing to glaring at the Powers themselves, who probably wouldn't even notice, or care if they did.

But Spike just chuckled again and smoothed his fingers through Xander's hair. 'Sleep first.'

Xander sighed and gave up. Spike was right, after all. Although he was definitely going to have to look into getting a day off. 'You staying?' he asked.

Spike nodded. ''Course.'

So Xander grinned and pulled Spike down to rest against his chest. He felt the other man smile. 'Night Xan. Love you.' Xander tightened his arms in reply and dropped a kiss on the soft curls tickling his chin.

He held Spike like that for a long moment, silently marveling at the creature in his arms. This beautiful, flawed man who loved him. And he believed that. Over the past month Spike hadn't said it much, hadn't pressed him, and certainly hadn't chained him up like he once had Buffy, literally or metaphorically. But he had shown him. In every touch, every gesture, every lingering look, it was obvious. It was also finally becoming obvious to Xander that Spike wasn't toying with him. He still couldn't profess to understand what he'd done to deserve any of this, what Spike could possibly see in him to warrant this much devotion, but the fact was he did, Spike did. He wasn't second best. He was needed and wanted, and even though they didn't know what the Powers had in store for him, Spike didn't want to lose him, wouldn't want to leave him.

There was nothing more he could ask for.

When he realized that, he felt the last of his reservations fall away. He'd been treated almost as badly as Spike by the gods of relationships. For years he'd just given his heart away to anyone who looked like they might want him. But he'd learned his lesson with Anya, had tried to protect his heart before it got broken. Maybe he hadn't needed to in this case, but Sunnydale mentality taught you it was better to be safe than sorry.

'I love you, Spike,' he whispered. He did. Of course he did. How could he not? He had never felt as safe as he did when Spike was holding him in his arms.

It amazed him sometimes that so much should have changed, to make something like that not just possible, but to make it feel like the most natural thing in the world. But then, as often as he and Spike had lashed out at each other all those years ago, they had also always protected each other, frequently to the bemusement of all involved. Their entire history had taken on a rosy glow that Xander knew intellectually it didn't deserve, but that knowledge wasn't enough to fade it.

Spike shifted so he could look Xander in the eye. 'Yeah?' There was a slow grin spreading over his face.

Xander quirked up the corner of his mouth and nodded. 'Yeah, I do.'

Spike's eyes were suspiciously bright as he opened his mouth a couple of times, seemingly at a loss for words, just staring, grinning, at him. 'What?' Xander said after a moment, starting to get self-conscious.

Spike shook his head. 'Don't think anyone's ever said that to me before. Well, not and meant it. 'Cept maybe Dru, but then it was always hard to tell with her.'

Xander smiled and leaned up for a kiss. 'Well then it's a shame you're so set on me sleeping, or we could celebrate. Love,' he added with a suggestive leer.

Spike growled, his eyes dilating. Xander barely had time to raise an eyebrow before he was covered in six feet of glowing ex-vampire. 'Fuck that,' Spike muttered, before using his tongue to show him just how much he appreciated the sentiment. His mouth was busy, but Xander's eyes reflected the self-satisfied smile it would have shown.

But Spike was kissing him with very little of his usual finesse, grinding against him desperately. Xander's eyes softened as he realized this. He wrapped both his arms around Spike, forcing him to still and gently pulled away from the kiss. Bright blue eyes fluttered open, filled with desire, confusion, impatience, but Xander just smiled, running the fingers of one hand over Spike's backbone, relishing the little shiver this produced.

When he was certain he had the man's full attention, he stilled his hand and repeated, 'I love you. And I wasn't planning on changing my mind anytime in the near future, so I think we can spare a few extra minutes to get this right, don't you think?' Then he smiled.

There was a different sort of desperation in Spike's eyes now. 'Xan... I... please -' His voice broke and at the tears in his eyes Xander's heart followed suit. God, he loved this man. Right at that moment he couldn't remember ever having felt anything else. It was like looking into forever. One hundred and fifty years and no one had ever just loved him, wanted him, for everything he was, everything he wasn't.

He rolled them over so he could look down at Spike. 'I promise,' he whispered. Spike moaned as he leant down and kissed him deeply for a moment. When Xander pulled away, Spike's eyes had dilated and he was breathing heavily, but the need was still evident in his face. So Xander breathed a final, 'Love you,' into his ear and proceeded to prove to him that he wasn't going anywhere, and that when he said he loved him, he meant it.


Xander had fallen asleep at last. Spike sat up against the headboard, carding his fingers through soft brown hair as he looked down at the other man. His face softened into a smile. Xander looked so young like this, sleeping peacefully. He knew from experience how that peaceful fašade would be shattered even in sleep when Xander started dreaming. Then the lines would deepen in his forehead, his teeth would grit, his mouth pursed in a grimace of pain as he twitched anxiously, fighting against unseen enemies.

It was a spectacle Spike was familiar with even from his nights spent in Xander's basement, tied to a chair, when the unconscious fear rolling off the youth had been entertaining more than anything else. And just as back then Xander had always made light of those dreams and his reactions to them, so now he merely brushed them off when he woke. Still, every time, Spike's relief was tempered by a deep and abiding sadness that Xander, Buffy, any of them, should live in a world so full of monsters and darkness that even nightmares that woke them screaming and sweating should be so easily dismissed.

However, Xander had been dreaming less, recently, which felt to Spike like a greater victory than it probably was. But a victory nonetheless, and it made him hope that he really was helping, that everything he'd done over the past couple of weeks was making Xander's life better, happier.

His eyes drifted shut. He could hear the occasional raised voice, slammed door, rushing footstep from the house below them, but it was distant, unimportant. He relaxed backwards, allowing his thoughts to spiral aimlessly.

It was so quiet inside his head these days. For sixteen years he'd grown so used to the voices, the screaming, they'd become just white noise, except when something brought back a memory.

He still thought about them. Every night he'd confront another ghost, and there'd been one more session on the roof that had left both of them mentally and physically exhausted. But more importantly had left Spike forgiven, free. He didn't forget them, wasn't sure he would be allowed to, even had he wanted to. Xander had suggested he get one of the watchers to write everything down. He was still one of the most infamous vampires in history. Even the new and improved council had jumped at the opportunity to know more about the life and death of William the Bloody, and once again he had related every gory detail and everything Xander told him about the people he had killed. As his life was put down on paper, it had started to feel like he was fulfilling some responsibility to the people inside his head, and that, more than anything, had reinforced the peace that had become so much easier to hold onto.

With his eyes shut, it took him a moment to realize that the room seemed to be getting brighter. He started to feel like the Powers were pulling him somewhere and quickly slipped the ring off his finger, but when he focused on the feeling it didn't lead him anywhere. He opened his eyes in confusion. The room, and Xander, was gone. The light was everywhere.

He'd only seen this once before. He felt a momentary rush of panic, but even as he tried to grab hold of it, it drifted away. Glancing down at himself, he was relieved to note he seemed to be solid, unlike the last time, and clothed, which was a little confusing.

Tears formed in his eyes. This was it then. One hundred and fifty years, and still all he could think was that it wasn't enough. Not now. Not when he'd finally found something worth living for.

But he screwed his eyes shut impatiently and willed them away. There had to be a way out of this. There had to be.

Suddenly he was looking at a young blond woman. His eyes widened in surprise and he took a step backwards. She was perfect. And ordinary. His brain couldn't quite reconcile the two impressions. On the one hand, he felt he probably wouldn't look twice at her if he'd passed her on the street. On the other, he couldn't believe he'd ever seen anything more beautiful. It was like she was a part of the light all around them. Her skin was whiter than her gown, translucent almost. He could see golden traceries over her arms and neck like veins. He looked at her face, but was having trouble focusing on it. Even as he gazed at her, he knew he would forget her the moment he looked away.

Her right eye was a brilliant icy blue, her left a pure flat white. Spike frowned when he noticed this, but didn't immediately understand why he found them disturbing. As he watched, the whiteness started swirling, like clouds over the moon, and an oddly familiar blue eye emerged.

She'd appeared directly in front of him and was smiling. He heard her voice inside his head.

'William,' she said.

'Yeah,' he answered warily. 'Who're you?'

'I am Theirs.' The Powers That Be had appeared as a little chit in a white dress? He hadn't seen that one coming. Spike shrugged mentally. He didn't really care. They could be whatever they chose, so long as they did what he wanted.

'And what do you want, William?' The voice echoed around his head.

Xander, was his first thought. He wanted Xander.

'Why?' she asked him. There was no inflection to her voice, not even curiosity. He got the feeling she already knew the answer to anything she might ask.

It wasn't the sort of question you could just answer anyway. How did you put longing, desire into words? How did he describe what the very thought of Xander made him feel?

He frowned and attempted to answer. 'Because I love him. Because he makes me happy. When I'm with him I feel whole. Complete. Because I think I make him happy, too. And he deserves that.' He didn't add, 'after everything you've done to him', but he wanted to.

The young woman smiled at him knowingly. 'Believe it or not, William, I want our seer to be happy. And you are right. You do give him peace. He loves you as much as he loves his family. All of you combined are his sanity, but you, William, are his joy.'

'Then don't make me leave him.'

'We made you a guardian so you could find peace and happiness, William. You not only found it, you went looking for it.'

'And so now I'm just going to be dead? After what you said about Xander, after every goddamned thing I've done for you-' He broke off, glaring desperately at the complacent figure before him.

'You are not dead, William. But this is an end. You have found peace.'

'I have found life. Everything I never had when I was alive, when I was dead, when I was your fucking guardian. Everything William ever dreamed he'd have. Love, family, a purpose. Not even perfect happiness, 'cause let's admit, that'd be bloody boring in the long term. But yeah, lying in his arms just now, I felt it. For the first time, I felt it. And it was like my heart had started beating.' He stopped, closed his eyes and took a calming breath. Opening his eyes, her found her watching him impassively. 'I've found things worth dying for before,' he continued quietly. 'But what I have now - Xander, Dawn, Buffy. They're worth living for. I can't lose that. You asked me why I wanted him. Well that's it. He makes me feel alive. I'll be your sodding guardian. Whatever you want. For as long as he's alive I'll be anything you want. You gave me this gig 'cause I wasn't ready. Well, I'm still not ready. You can't give me this and then just take it away.'

'Death is not about losing those you love, William. What you feel for the seer does not disappear. You would live forever in your perfect moment. He would never leave you, would always love you, and there would be no room for doubt, for despair.'

'And what about Xander? He needs me.'

'Are you so sure of that, William?'

'Yes, I'm bloody well sure. I'm sure.' This last was added in a desperate whisper. He believed it. He did. It didn't matter that Xander had never said it. He felt it.

She regarded him for a moment, the absent look in her eyes suddenly disturbingly familiar.

'Then we will give you a choice, William,' she said before he could say anything. 'You cannot return as you were.' No! He opened his mouth to protest. This couldn't be it. He was not going to fucking let it end this way. But she raised a hand, her eyes suddenly hard as steel, and he was forcibly reminded that here was a messenger for The Powers That Be, not just a pretty young woman. Her voice in his head was almost enough to drive him to his knees, although it hadn't gotten any louder. 'No, William, your time as a guardian is over. You have come to terms with your death, your demon, accepted your forgiveness. You have achieved redemption. The scales have been balanced. But, we will give you back your life, if you wish it. You will be giving up your redemption. "Spike" will die. Everything that happened from the night you were rejected by Cecily Underwood, everything that led up to this point has been resolved. Your saving the world will mean as little as your attempts to destroy it. You will remember none of it. However you choose to live your life from now on is all that will determine your fate. Or you may take the peace you have found, the redemption you have earned, and die. You will see your seer again, and until you do you will hold his love in your heart. There will be no pain, no decisions, no doubt, no responsibility, and you have our word that the seer will be happy without you. Our gift will not destroy him. And you will have found the peace you have spent so many years searching for.'

Spike was silent. These were his choices?

She was right. A lot of him did want it to be over. To be able to give up the fight to someone else and finally get some rest. To forever feel like he had tonight, lying in Xander's arms, knowing that the man he loved would be safe, and happy, and that someday they would meet again. He believed her when she promised Xander would be happy, and not just because she was meant to be one of the good guys.

'It's yours, isn't it? You love him, too.' Her eyes softened and a faint smile appeared at the corners of her mouth.

'I gave him my eye, yes. Not because I loved him. But now, I know his heart because of it. It will hurt him to lose you William. Immeasurably. But he will be happy. I swear it.'

Or he could become human again. Give up the assurance of redemption and peace. Live out the remainder of his life, become anything he wanted to be, make his own choices. But he honestly didn't think he could just walk away from everything he knew. And he knew he wouldn't be able to just walk away from Xander, Buffy and Dawn. Or would he? Would he remember how much he loved them? He didn't understand how he could lose this feeling, but what if he could? It was unthinkable. But was it better to never hold Xander in his arms again? 'If I go back, will I still love him? All of them? Will I even remember it?'

'We cannot change your soul, William. Other than that, I can't say.'

Spike nodded, supremely unsatisfied, but understanding he wasn't likely to get anything else out of her. He ran a hand over his hair and closed his eyes for a moment. He couldn't do this. He shouldn't have to make this decision; it was just too hard. 'Don't s'pose you could give me some time to decide,' he asked, not really expecting an answer.

She smiled suddenly. 'We can.' Spike glanced up, startled.

'Really? How long?'

'Long enough for you to make a choice.' She looked at him intently for a moment. 'There is no wrong decision, William. Remember that, too.'

The light flared. As it faded, Spike found himself back in the bedroom, standing by the bed. Xander was sitting up against the headboard, legs crossed, his hands in his lap clenching convulsively. They were the only sign of his distress. His face was clear, controlled, which Spike supposed should have tipped him off straight away. But it was only when he really looked into Xander's eyes that he recognized the deep sadness hiding behind all those carefully constructed walls for what it was.

Then he smiled, and Spike felt his world fall apart.

Xander had smiled like that when he'd said he loved him, had smiled at him like that in a million different ways over the past few months. The mischief in his face, the joy in his eyes that couldn't be contained even by the deepest sorrow. It was love, sincerity; everything that made up Xander was reflected there. And he loved it. For that more than anything else. Couldn't picture his existence without it. He imagined it was branded upon his soul.

And suddenly the decision was simple. It didn't matter that he'd been redeemed, that he would have some sort of heavenly reward for dying a champion. It didn't matter that his record would be wiped clean, at least as clean as it has been when he was alive. It didn't really even matter that he wouldn't remember the last one hundred and thirty-five years of his life, up to and including the last few months. She'd said they couldn't change his soul. So all it came down to was whether he wanted to spend the next fifty years, or however long it might be, with Xander, before being with him forever. Or if he wanted to spend them happy, at peace, but alone. Holding onto his one perfect moment, but never allowing for the possibility of another one. They'd never end, never have to feel the pain of love faded, broken. But he'd never get the chance to see every variation of that smile, never argue over some pointlessly mundane thing, never find out what sort of an old man Xander would turn into, or finally take him on the vacation of a lifetime when he decided the visions were too much for him to take any longer.

Dying would be easy, and after so long it was a temptation he couldn't deny the appeal of.

Life, on the other hand, held no guarantees. He had no idea how hard it would be to build their relationship again, although from what he remembered of William, it would take more than a feeling. But it was a feeling he knew would be impossible to ignore. With Xander, he was already alive in every way that counted. Memories or not, he would still be himself, and maybe one day they would find a way to restore them.

Besides, he'd never been all that fussed with making things easy for himself.

He couldn't have said what had changed, but Xander's smile suddenly held an edge of cautious hope. 'Spike, no,' he whispered. 'You don't have to do this. Not for me. Don't give up everything you've suffered for. I'll understand, really. I'm happy as long as you're happy. And you are. We both knew this wasn't going to last forever.'

Spike smirked and tilted his head to the side. He looked into Xander's eyes for a long moment. 'Tell me you want me to leave, Xan,' he eventually said gently. 'Tell me you'd be happier if I wasn't here. Not because you think I'd be happy, or better off. Just because you never want to hold me in your arms again. Mean it. Tell me you don't want me.'

Xander stared at him, his eyes huge, bright, his hands still now, but clenched so tight his knuckles were white. He opened his mouth. Spike waited, a tiny smile on his face, but nothing came out. He took a step forward, close enough to touch. The smile slipped from his face, and he just stared into the eyes of the man he loved. 'Then tell me what you want. Tell me the truth, Xander,' he whispered.

Spike watched Xander's face crumple and faster than thought was on the bed with his arms around him. Xander pushed weakly at him, but he ignored it. 'Of course I don't want you to leave, you bastard. I love you. I need you. You're everything...' His voice broke and he pulled back to look Spike in the eye. 'You're my everything,' he repeated fiercely.

Spike wanted to raise a smug eyebrow, or at least voice a small 'I knew it'. Instead he just smiled. 'Same goes, love. Makes it pretty easy, once you think about it.'

Xander let out a slightly despairing laugh. 'Spike, are you sure? Everything will be different. You'll suddenly find yourself in the twenty-first century, for god's sake. I heard what she said. You won't remember any of this. Hell, you'll barely be the same person. Do you have any idea how hard this is going to be?'

They were good points, but Spike hadn't missed the fact that Xander still hadn't said he didn't want to do it. 'They can't change who I am, Xan, who I've always been. If you think you won't love me without my memories then tell me now. But as long as I've got you it's worth the price.'

Xander sighed. 'I will always love you, Spike. It's just... it feels like an end. Even if you're still here, it feels like you'll have left me. I never understood how you fell in love with me once. What are the chances of it happening again?'

Spike smiled and relaxed. 'It won't have to, love. Although if I start acting like some sort of shy nancy-boy virgin, you have my permission to beat me over the head with my biography.' He grinned, thrilled at the rolled eyes and wry smirk that Xander sent his way. 'Right then?'

'Yeah.' Xander's smile lit up his face. Spike had to kiss it. Xander's lips were sweet and warm, and never quite managed to lose the smile. Even as tongues stroked and twisted, Spike could feel it like joy, bubbling over and lodging somewhere deep in his gut. But the most wonderful thing was, it didn't feel like goodbye. When they broke away they were both grinning. 'So,' Xander laughed, still a little breathless, 'should I start calling you William? Billy the Bloody, maybe?'

'Only if you feel like getting the crap kicked out of you,' Spike replied pleasantly.

Xander just chuckled. 'Check. No Billy the Bloody.' He sobered a little and sighed. 'You've decided then?'

Spike nodded. 'Yeah. Yeah, I have.'


William was aware that something was different. He felt strange. Like he'd been... gone. Gone where? For that matter, where was he now? He thought back. What was the last thing he remembered? Leaving for the party at the Hoxtons', where Cecily was going to be. He waited for the expected rush of giddiness that the thought of her always produced, but there was nothing. He frowned mentally and thought of her again. Lustrous brown curls he would have given his life to touch were... just hair. She felt so far away, and if he hadn't known better, he would have thought he hadn't seen her in years. Suddenly his mind flashed to shorter, darker hair, rumpled, but his hand twitched and he could feel how smooth it was under his fingers. There was a brief flash of sparkling brown and blue eyes, then the impression was gone, leaving him unaccountably light, happy. Who was this person? Had they done something to him? Why couldn't he remember more? He had heard of people losing their memories after an injury or a traumatic event. Perhaps that was what had happened. It struck him, then, that he should be panicking. And while he did feel a little off balance, for some reason he wasn't worried.

He felt himself settle into his body a little more firmly and determined that he should open his eyes if he wished answers to his questions. He could feel that he was lying on a bed, probably, but by flexing his limbs it was obvious that he was clothed.

His eyes flickered open to an unfamiliar ceiling. 'Sp- um, William?' a strange female voice said hesitantly and he rolled his head to the side, blinking a little at the light. There were two women standing by the side of what was most definitely a bed. They were beautiful, stunning, and he felt his heart start to beat a little faster in his chest. He couldn't even begin to understand why that felt so strange, so he shook his head and pulled himself up a little, not taking his eyes off these two angels. He didn't remember them, but he got the oddest feeling that he did know them. The way he felt, as he looked at them... protected, cared for, like he would do anything to keep them safe. And it was so familiar. He couldn't even bring himself to question the emotion.

'Yes,' he said belatedly, realizing they were waiting for him to answer. The smaller woman sagged in relief and smiled at him, while the other shot him such a warm grin that he felt himself responding automatically.

He was about to ask one of the many questions whirling around his brain when a deeper voice spoke from the other side of the room. 'How do you feel?'

He froze, his mouth half open as the voice reached him. It felt like a needle straight to his heart and for a split second he forgot how to breathe. Longing, love, desire, protectiveness, peace, joy. They slammed into him and washed over him, leaving him panting as he caught his breath again. And with them came flashes of that brown hair again, dark, light, deep eyes, and how was that even possible? Filled with joy, with tears, a smile... But he couldn't put the images together, couldn't see... He closed his eyes, desperately trying to recapture the impressions even as they fragmented like shattered glass.

'William?' He heard the man say again, concerned now, but once again he couldn't open his eyes. The word echoed around his head, sparking a memory of something that had never happened.

'William.' Said with amusement, maybe a little uncertainty, testing, tasting the sound of it on his tongue. A smile. Gentle, loving, teasing. One of his favorites. Favorites? A flash of eyes, dark and light again, boring into him. Truth. They were truth. 'I will always love you.' Determination. Certainty. Lips pressing against his own, their heat branding him. A kiss full of passion, love, promise.

His own voice answering. 'I'll remember, love. I promise. I'll always remember.'**

His eyes snapped open even as he pressed his fingers to still tingling lips. Who was this person? What had been done to him? The man was standing in front of him, looking a little worried. If he'd thought the rush of emotion was strong before, it was nothing compared to what he felt as he actually looked at this stranger who was definitely not a stranger. 'Who are you?' he whispered, awed and just a little frightened.

The man cocked his head to the side. 'Xander,' he answered.

Then he smiled, and William felt his world come together.

He didn't understand what was happening, had thousands of questions about where he was, where he'd been, why his surroundings looked so strange, why he felt so calm in the face of all this uncertainty. Somewhere deep down he knew that something had changed; his life was different, would never be the same again.

Intellectually, he certainly didn't understand why he felt so drawn to the people in this room. But at that smile, something clicked. He didn't understand the sensation, so deep it was almost visceral, lodging in his heart. It was at once calming and exhilarating.

And the soul he was no longer aware of thrummed in recognition and even through all the doubt, the confusion, one thought formed clearer than all the others in the back of his mind.

Home. He was home.

The End

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