The Dark Cavalier


by
Sabershadowkat



Part Thirteen

Xander was smiling as he stepped past Giles's door, he was smiling when he joined the other Collectors, he was smiling when they caught the Choata, he was smiling when they retrieved the Choata he'd decapitated, he was smiling on the walk back to the mansion. He winced when Death removed his stitches but started smiling again when he remembered who stitched him up to begin with.

"Spike likes me," Xander said, smiling dopily, unable to contain the newfound feeling of happiness.

Death let out a tiny sigh, his long fingers nimbly working the needle and thread as he expertly re-stitched Xander's wound. "Yes, Dearheart, so you told me."

"I know," Xander said. "But it's worth repeating. Spike likes me."

Hazel eyes rolled, but an indulgent smile curved Death's lips. "And what are you going to do about that little revelation?"

"Have lots of sex."

"I take it you don't mean with me," Death said dryly.

"Sorry," Xander said, his dark eyes dancing with happiness. "But Spike likes me."

The Last Lover chuckled as he tied off the thick, waterproof thread. "It sounds as though you like the mortal, too."

Xander nodded emphatically. "He's cute and funny, and he likes me, and he's smart and naughty, and he likes me, and he thinks what I do is neat, oh, and he likes me." The brunette beamed.

"Well, you have your fun." Death patted Xander's leg and stood, the needle and thread vanishing. "Just remember, he's mortal. He won't be alive forever."

The smile was replaced by a stricken look. "You can't take him!"

"When the Time comes, I can and I will," Death said, heading for the door.

Xander scrambled from the bed as if something were propelling him. "No! Master, please," he grabbed Death's arm and held tight, his brown eyes pleading, "don't take him. Make him one of us."

Death removed Xander's hand from his arm. "I've already asked. He said no."

"But... but...," Xander's eyes filled with tears, "...but he likes me."

"Oh, my sweet Darkling," Death pulled Xander into his embrace, "I know he likes you."

There was a strange ripping pain in Xander's chest that had nothing to do with his injury. Unlike before, the tears that came this time hurt. He knew he was acting totally out of character, but he couldn't seem to stop. It was as if Spike had opened the lid on the jar labeled "Xander's feelings" and everything had come pouring out, leaving him vulnerable.

Xander didn't like it. He didn't like not being in control. He wanted a refund on the whole feeling package. However, all he could do was bury his face against Death's shoulder and cry into the soft material of his black oxford shirt.

"Hush, Boy," Death comforted softly, rubbing his hand over Xander's back. "Tears aren't necessary. Vampires live for a very long while, if they're careful. Shh..."

The rapid flap of wings and the familiar coo of a pigeon finally slowed Xander's tears. He sniffed loudly, and he remembered what Spike had said about snot and lack of tissues. He laughed hollowly, pulling away from Death and wiping his nose with the back of his hand.

"Okay, Darkling?" Death asked with concern.

Xander nodded and turned away. He picked up his tee-shirt from the end of the bed and put it on, wincing as he did. He could feel Death's eyes on him as he struggled to regain control.

"You can go if you want," Xander said in a tear-roughened voice, his back still to his Master. "I'm fine."

"Very well," Death said. "I have work to do at the Academy. You can find me there if you need me."

Xander nodded again, but didn't turn. After a moment, he heard the bedroom door click shut.

The brunette's shoulders slumped, and he rubbed his moist eyes. He hadn't realized that liking someone, or having someone like him, hurt so much. He wanted to go back to being the uncaring Dark Cavalier. This feeling thing sucked. It was making him act like such a... a... a mortal.

Rusty cooed again and ruffled her feathers. Xander glanced over at her and sighed unhappily. "Hi, Rusty. Another day, another damn list, huh?"

Xander dug his notebook and pen out of the jeans he'd been wearing when he'd fought the Choata. He tossed both on the bed and went over to the window to untie the scroll from Rusty's leg.

The tiny blue ribbon that tied the scroll to Rusty looked familiar. As the bird flew off, Xander studied the ribbon. The light abruptly went on, and he quickly left the bedroom.

"Mystery solved," Xander commented to himself, matching the blue ribbon to the one still sitting on the hall table where he'd put it the other day. Normally, he pitched the ribbons in the trash with the scrolls after he'd transferred the names to his notebook. He wondered how this one had gotten into the hallway.

Xander grinned as he scooped up the ribbon and returned to the bedroom. The one he'd found in the hall must've been trying to make its escape. It probably had a family of ribbonlings it wanted to get back to, or maybe a frilly pink ribbon mate.

A picture of Spike giving him a "you are weird" look popped into Xander's brain. A sad smile replaced his grin, but then the Spike in his head suddenly had a hairful of blue ribbons tied into bows and the immortal laughed out loud.

Instead of tossing the two ribbons into the garbage can, he pocketed them before starting to transfer the ten names from the scroll to his notebook.

*****

Collectors could enter any structure through a doorway, even if the door itself was shut, locked, electrified and alarmed. It was a handy trick when the mortal supposed to die refused to come out of the house. It was also a benefit when fetching a soon-to-be lover ordered to stay inside no matter what.

The sun had set a half hour before, and Xander had finally finished Collecting the mortals on his list. A few of them had been stubborn, hiding from him and dragging out his workday. He hadn't thought he'd ever finish.

Anticipation had stoked Xander's libido, and he was practically salivating at the thought of getting Spike naked and pliant beneath him. The horrid feelings from earlier had been buried deep, never to be examined again if he had anything to say about it.

Xander skipped walking down the steps to Giles's courtyard, instead leaping the distance from the top to the stone picnic table. He tapped a quick time-step on the hard surface, his boots thumping rhythmically, then flipped off the end of the table like a gymnast.

A hungry smile graced Xander's lips as he strode to Giles's condo and through the closed door. A glass shattered, a curse was exclaimed, and a female squeaked at his sudden appearance. He sighed. "Willow."

The redhead at the desk blushed. "Sorry," she said weakly.

Xander gave her a hard glare, but he was in too good of a mood to think of a suitable punishment. His eyes flitted around the room, looking for his evening's entertainment. Willow, Tara, Giles, Buffy and Riley. "Where's Spike?"

"Right here, mate," Spike said, coming down the stairs from the loft, dressed in familiar black jeans and a tee-shirt.

Xander's hungry grin returned and his eyes glittered with wicked intent. "Have you been good?"

Spike stopped in front of Xander and winked. "Not even close."

"Giles," Buffy hissed.

Giles cleared his throat. "Er, X-Xander--"

"Xander's dead," Xander interrupted, his eyes never leaving Spike's sparkling blue gaze. "He's been Gone for close to two Earth years, and he won't be coming back. Remember the mortal fondly, but know that the immortal version isn't someone you'd like."

"Pretty speech, pet," Spike commented. "Can we go now?"

"Anxious, my lickable one?" Xander teased with a smirk.

Spike's answering grin was devilish and he spoke loud enough for everyone to hear. "Anxious to get your bollocks to the wind and plunder that delightful body of yours."

"Going now," Xander said quickly. He latched onto Spike's arm, opened the door, and dragged the vampire out into the night.

Spike laughed heartily at the protests coming from Giles's through the open door. They'd be all over him for more answers when he resurfaced, and he looked forward to describing in great detail what he and Xander were about to do. Perhaps he'd turn the Witches' faces permanently red.

"Spike, do you have a home, or am I just going to throw you down in the middle of the street?" Xander asked, his face alight with hungry anticipation and happiness.

"I still have my crypt," Spike replied, taking the lead. "Complete with lock on the door and comfy bed."

The blond suddenly spun around, grabbed Xander by his shirt and backed him up against the yellow wall of the condominium across the street from Giles's. The overhanging trees filtered the streetlight, casting them in partial darkness.

"But," Spike continued huskily, "I can't wait that long."

Xander put his hands on Spike's hips and yanked the blond against him. Their denim-covered bulges ground together as the immortal rotated his pelvis. "Good," he rumbled. "Me, neither."

Spike's nostrils flared in excitement a second before he dragged Xander into a voracious kiss. Wet and sloppy, their mouths and tongues met in a frenzied battle of lust. Blunt teeth cracked against each other. Unconscious moans and whimpers accompanied harsh panting. The sounds of the night -- the rest of the world itself -- disappeared completely.

Xander broke away and hauled Spike's black tee over his head. His mouth latched onto a light-colored nipple, tugging at the pebbled peak. Hands ran down his back and pulled at the material of his own tee, untucking it from his blue jeans. He let Spike remove the obstructing garment before the brunette attacked the other nipple.

Inhumanly strong fingers plunged into Xander's hair, and he was yanked upright and into another ravenous kiss. He allowed Spike free access to his mouth as he fumbled with the vampire's belt buckle and fastenings on his jeans.

Xander shoved the denim down immediately upon success, and he grabbed the taut buttocks exposed. His fingers bruised the pale skin as he roughly massaged the muscular globes.

Spike tore his mouth away from Xander's, tugged at the other man's waistband, and snarled, "Off."

Xander wasted no time in complying. In a blink, the rest of their clothing vanished, and the brunette had Spike pressed face first against the wall. Xander kissed, licked and nipped at the vampire's spine, starting from the nape of his neck and moving lower. Spike moaned and arched under Xander's assault, shivering from the warmth against his cool skin.

Xander dropped to his knees and feasted his feverish gaze on the smooth alabaster body before him. Without hesitation, he parted the taut buttocks and ran his tongue along exposed sensitive skin. Spike's nails scraped against the wall when Xander's tongue darted into the rosy hole and the vampire made a throaty sound of want.

The brunette gave him what he wanted and more. "Aaah, fuck, Xander," Spike gasped, pushing back against the tongue invading him. The rough wall scratched him as he uncontrollably rolled his forehead against it, fighting against the searing desire to come.

The tongue abruptly disappeared to be immediately replaced with the knobby end of Xander's cock. Spike made himself relax, but it didn't matter because Xander slid easily inside of him, bringing him the burning pleasure and fullness he ached for.

"Spike," Xander groaned, pressing himself firmly into the blond. "Oh hell, Spike."

Xander began to move, and the world could have fallen down around them without either noticing. Xander did not hesitate to wrap his hand around Spike's body and grasp the vampire's swollen length. With a firm fist, the brunette stroked in opposition to his thrusts, eliciting breathy mewls of pleasure from Spike.

Sex was well and good and fun, but it had never felt like this, Xander thought, his eyes rolling beneath closed lids as the velvety tightness repeatedly grasped his shaft. He felt a connection with Spike that was more than just sexual, maybe even more than just liking him. It felt as though he'd been waiting 840 years for this very moment.

"Shit, Xander, I'm going to come," Spike rasped, writhing against Xander. Sparks danced behind the blond's eyelids, and he couldn't seem to catch the breath he supposedly didn't need. White-hot pressure pooled low in his belly, and his sac tightened as his body prepared to explode.

Spike's words sent Xander careening off the precipice into a whirlwind of intense pleasure. He heard a roar, but couldn't tell if it came from the vampire or himself. The body in front of him jerked and spasmed, and his cock felt as if it was being squeezed by a vice. A grey haziness swarmed around him, and he was falling... falling... falling...

At first, Xander thought the Choata had returned, and he rolled up to the balls of his feet, searching the semi-darkness for the beast. It took him a moment to realize that the low rumble was coming from the vampire curled on the ground like a lithe albino cat.

Xander's lips twitched and he relaxed his guard. He knelt beside the prone mortal and ran his fingers through the blond's hair. The sound increased in volume and pitch. Bright blue eyes blinked open and a sated smile curved pale pink lips.

The brunette tilted his head and studied Spike for a moment. His heart expanded in his chest and he burst into a delighted laugh.

"You laugh at me whenever I speak about sex, and now you're laughin' at me after we've had sex," Spike murmured after his purr tapered off. "My ego has been effectively squashed."

"I like you, Spike," Xander said emphatically, tracing his finger along the shell of Spike's ear.

A beautiful, purely happy smile spread slowly across Spike's face, lighting up his features and creasing the corners of his eyes. "I like you, too, luv."

Xander leaned forward and caught that smile, reveling in the feel of Spike's lips against his. His body tingled all over, an ecstatic-hyper-want-more-sex tingle that ran from his head to his feet.

His mouth lingered on Spike's when he reluctantly broke the kiss. Opening his eyes, he focused on a magickally re-clothed blond and gave him a salacious grin. "Let's go try out that bed of yours."





Part Fourteen

It was purely by chance that Xander glanced behind them. He had been so involved in listening to Spike that he'd allowed his guard to drop completely. The blue ribbon he had surreptitiously tied into the vampire's hair had kept a humorous hold on his attention on their trek to Spike's crypt. But by dropping his guard, he'd endangered himself... and Spike.

The stake traveled end over end at high speed, heading directly for the blond vampire. With a screamed "NO!", Xander whipped around and caught the stake in his palm. The sharply pointed wood pierced his skin and lodged halfway into his hand, centimeters from Spike's back.

Spike spun around and dropped into a defensive stance. The scent of Xander's blood hit his nose, but he ignored it.

"Ow, damn it!" A slight wind stirred as Xander yanked the stake out of his hand and gripped the bloody object tightly. He searched the night for whoever had thrown it, planning on shoving it into that person's throat to see how they liked being staked. If it turned out to be Buffy, he'd be really mad.

"Are you protecting this mortal, Xander?"

Xander started as Death emerged from the shadows where the stake had come from, joining them in the street. "Of course I'm protecting him," the brunette said with confusion.

"I hadn't wanted to believe it...," Death trailed off and gave Xander a disheartened look. "I'm disappointed in you, Darkling."

"What?" Xander was stunned. "Why?"

"I know you like him, but you know the Rules, my Dark Cavalier," Death said. "When a mortal's Time has come to an end, he must be Collected, no matter what your feelings are."

"I know the Rules," Xander said, confusion returning. He tucked the stake into the waistband of his jeans.

"Then I gather you're simply waiting until closer to the deadline to Collect Spike?"

"What?" Dark eyes widened in shock, and Xander quickly grabbed the notebook from his back pocket. He flipped it open to the last written page and scanned the list of names. His pounding heart began to calm. There were only ten names, all crossed off, just as he'd thought. "Spike's not on the list," he said.

"List?" Spike looked very concerned. "The to-be-killed list?"

Death shook his head sadly, removed a small scroll from his pocket and unrolled it. "This is your Collection list for today. It bears your watermark..."

Xander snatched the scroll from Death's hand. Each of the Collectors had their own watermarked scrolls to prevent tampering of the lists. The names on the lists were also handwritten by an individual scribe assigned to each apprentice to discourage forgery.

The Dark Cavalier's hand began to tremble. The watermark was definitely his, and the names on the dated list matched the names in his notebook... all except for the last one.

No. 11 -- Spike.

"No," Xander shook his head rapidly, "this isn't my list. This is a forgery."

"Xander--"

"No!" Xander thrust the scroll and his notebook at Death. "I copy the names into my notebook after I receive the list, you know that! This is a forgery!"

Death glanced between the two, but the sad expression remained on his face. "I am sorry, Darkling, but--"

"Damn it!" Xander interrupted with a shout, the wind whipping through his shaggy hair. "It's a setup, don't you see?! Being assigned to my mortal homeplace, the Choata... the ribbon!" The immortal snatched the tiny blue bow from Spike's head, making the vampire yelp when his hair was torn out. "I found a ribbon in the hallway outside my bedroom. I always throw them in the trash can with the scrolls. Someone must've dropped it when they stole one of the lists from the garbage!"

"Enough of this nonsense," Death snapped, his jaw tight. "You have until midnight, Earth time, to Collect the mortal known as Spike. Do not disappoint me, Boy. You will not like the outcome if you do."

Xander stared at Death's back in stunned disbelief as the Master Over Life strode angrily away. The small scroll and blue notebook lay on the ground where Death had dropped them, taunting the Dark Cavalier.

"Xander?" Spike said, tentatively touching the brunette on the shoulder.

Xander jerked away, bent down and snatched up the scroll and notebook. He then grabbed Spike by the upper arm and forcefully dragged him toward the closest oak tree.

"Oi!" Spike exclaimed in protest.

"Shut up," Xander growled. Into the oak tree, a quick turn-around, and they were back outside of Giles's condo. The immortal did not release his punishing grip on Spike's arm as he pulled the vampire across the street and down into the courtyard.

At Giles's door, Xander suddenly spun Spike around and slammed him against the hard wood. He smashed his mouth down upon Spike's, kissing the blond roughly. The wind kicked up again, flicking the leaves in the trees and ruffling the back of Xander's hair.

Xander broke the kiss and stared hard into confused blue eyes. "I hate you," he stated harshly.

Spike blinked. "What?"

"I wish you never saw me," Xander went on in a rough tone. "I wish I could kill you without a second thought."

Xander shoved away from Spike and started out of the courtyard. Spike took two steps forward, hurt hidden under a cold mask. "So, that's it?" the vampire said angrily. "Thanks for the fuck, but now I have to kill you?"

"You should be used to it; isn't that what vampires do?" Xander called over his shoulder as he climbed the steps.

"You forgot lying," Spike sneered. "Like when I said I liked you."

Xander's head whipped around and he pinned the blond with an icy glare. "Do you think I wanted you to like me?"

Neither of the men noticed that Giles's door had opened. Spike advanced closer to Xander, stopping near the stone picnic table. "I think your blubbering like a baby when I said it answers that question," the blond taunted.

Faster than the eye could see, Xander grabbed the stake from the waistband of his jeans, spun around, and threw it. The wood splintered, its cracking hidden under the whistling of the wind, as it imbedded into the stone surface of the picnic table next to where Spike stood.

"I hate you!" Xander spat. "You've made me feel things that I haven't felt in over seven hundred and fifty-fucking-years!" He stalked down the stairs, each step punctuated with an angry sentence. "I am the Dark Cavalier; I am Death's Boy; I've killed over four million mortals and I didn't care about a single one!"

The trees in the area bowed from the wind. Window rattled. Dirt, fallen leaves, and garbage lifted and swirled in the air. The five in the open doorway stared on with horrid fascination.

Xander stopped directly in front of Spike, his dark eyes flashing with otherwordly sparks of light. His voice was cold as he continued. "I came to Sunnydale to do my job, just like I've done it in countless other realms. I didn't come here to fall in love with you."

"Yeah, well, I didn't plan to fall in love with you, either," Spike snapped back.

The violent wind abruptly stopped. The instant silence was shocking. When Xander next spoke, his voice seemed overly loud in the sudden quiet.

"I can't kill you, Spike," he said in a jagged whisper. "At midnight, I will trade my eternal death for yours. Congratulations, you've beaten Death. Very few can say the same."

Spike opened his mouth, closed it, wrapped his hand behind Xander's neck and kissed him hard. Then, he pressed his forehead against Xander's and looked deep into his eyes. "No one's dying tonight, pet," the vampire said roughly. "Not you, not me, not even the stupid Slayer, unless I can help."

"Hey!" came from the direction of Giles's door.

Xander smiled tremulously, his dark eyes filled with tears, and Spike pressed another quick kiss to his lips before releasing him. "Now," the blond said. "Didn't you say something about a forgery?"

"Yeah," Xander cleared the knot in his throat and dashed away his tears, "I swear that your name wasn't on the list from Rusty."

"Could this Rusty bloke have changed it?" Spike asked, surreptitiously wiping at his own cheeks.

The brunette snickered. "It'd be kind of hard to do, considering she's a homing pigeon."

"Right," Spike said, glancing towards their audience. "It's not the bird, and I'm not the idiot who suggested it was." He focused on Willow. "How 'bout this, luv: first we prove the forgery, then we concentrate on the whodunit."

Xander removed the scroll from his pocket, unrolled it, and studied number eleven with a troubled frown. "How? All the writing matches."

"Red, I know you're listening," Spike called over to the Witch.

"Um...," Willow hesitantly stepped outside, wringing her hands, "...well, I could, uh, you know, scan it into the computer and run it through a handwriting analysis program. I don't have one, but I can probably find it on the 'Net. That is, if you want me to." Xander looked over at her, and she back-peddled nervously. "Or-or not. I don't have to help. It was a dumb idea, anyway."

"No, it's good," Xander corrected, returning his focus to the scroll. "It's a very good idea."

Xander cleared his throat again, straightened to his full height, and turned to the group at the door. "My name is Xander Harris. I am Death's Dark Cavalier. I am in love with my mortal bondmate, and I would appreciate any assistance in preventing his demise."

There was a small squeak from his left, and he shot Spike a quizzical look. Spike hooked his hands over his belt, put on his "I'm evil, damn it," face, and said, in a deeper-than-normal voice, "Swallowed a mouse."


~*~*~*~*~


Spike watched Xander from his vantage point in Giles's kitchen. The brunette was crouched in front of the over-packed bookcase, running his fingers along the book spines. Earlier, he'd prowled around the living room, picking up and examining items curiously. He wouldn't allow anyone to touch him, and his answers to questions were vague.

Spike was uncomfortably aware that everyone was uncomfortably aware of the dead man in the living room. After Xander's initial explanation of who and what he was, the Slayer and her ex-military beau had surreptitiously taken up positions where they could easily attack the immortal or defend their friends. Spike wasn't very happy about the fact that they ignored him completely. Another chunk was viciously cut from his ego when he realized the Fighters of Evil didn't think him to be a threat at all.

"Giles," Xander said, pulling a slim green book from the shelf. "Uj et wruiths olm Neth?"

Giles, who was sitting at the counter opposite Spike, blinked rapidly behind his glasses and stammered, "P-Pardon?"

"I asked if you spoke Neth," Xander started to page through the book, "but I guess you don't."

"You speak Neth?" Giles asked in amazement.

"I speak everything," he replied absently.

Interested, Spike dug through his brain for an obscure demon dialect he'd learned. "Aaroush Husbwif?"

"Januu apri ita repassesh eht litnu lanoititdda, noishaasf emocni."

Pause.

"Spike, are you blushing?"

"No," Spike scowled, despite his pink-tinged cheeks. Why couldn't they be ignoring him now?

Xander began to laugh, causing all eyes to swing back to him. The rich, warm sound rolled through the living room, stunning everyone, except for the vampire, because it'd been so long since they'd heard that laugh. Spike simply glared at the brunette over the cut-out counter.

After putting the book back on the shelf, Xander straightened and crossed to the kitchen, disregarding the way Buffy and Riley tensed when he did so. Dark brown eyes twinkled in merriment as he stopped in front of the pouting peroxide-blond vampire. Leaning closer, Xander whispered, "Ecnedive ni yrammus ith daip dah rettaam."

The pink tinge darkened. Spike shifted, crossed his arms over his chest, and glanced over at the others, who were watching with unabashed interest. "Cut it out, pillock."

"Tush ni sih," Xander raised his hand and brushed his thumb against Spike's lower lip, "a redro emitaah eht otereh."

"Yeah, well, it's not reciprocated," Spike grumbled uncomfortably. He pointedly ignored the gushy feeling that had taken root in the center of his chest. So what if Xander spouted flowery nonsense about beautiful vampires that made him happy? Spike was neither beautiful nor happy-making. He was evil; a bad, bad man. Grr, hiss, spit.

"Tush ni sih," Xander repeated softly. ~You're so beautiful.~

"Oh! It's done," Willow announced from her seat in front of the computer. Giles moved from his spot at the counter to examine the computer screen.

"Is it a forgery?" Buffy asked, exchanging a quick glance with Riley before they both looked expectantly at the hacker.

"It's a great big phoney-baloney," Willow confirmed. She pointed to the screen, and Giles and Tara leaned closer. "See here, the slant is off, indicating it wasn't written at the same time as the other names. And this letter, the 'e', it's too stiff. A ruler was used to draw a perfectly straight cross-line."

"Very good, Willow," Giles praised. He straightened and turned to the kitchen. "Now that we know it's a forgery...," his words trailed off, catching the gang's attention.

Buffy, Willow, Riley and Tara all looked over the counter and into the kitchen. Xander and Spike were clinched in a lover's embrace, their mouths moving hungrily against one another's. Spike was on his toes, his hands buried in Xander's thick hair. Xander's arms were around Spike's lean body, his hands spanning the vampire's ass and holding the blond firmly against him.

Giles cleared his throat loudly. "Shall I book the kitchen for you two overnight, or only charge by the hour?"

Spike dragged his mouth from Xander's, breathing heavily, albeit unnecessarily. His face was flaming again, and Xander refused to release his indecent hold, increasing the vampire's embarrassment further. "Xander," he begged quietly. What was it about the immortal that turned him into a flustery, blushing virgin?

Xander dropped a kiss on Spike's nose. "You're too cute."

Oh no, Spike's hard-as-nails reputation wasn't ruined forever after that. Not at all.

Spike glanced over the cut-out counter to see the Slayer giving him a sappy, all-too-female look. The two Witches were equally as mushy-looking. Giles was shaking his head in his normal "sigh, children" way. Riley wore a smirk that rivaled one of Angelus's smirks.

Midnight was too long to wait for death.

"Wills, forgery, right on," Xander said, sliding around behind the vampire to rest his chin on Spike's shoulder, his hands hooked over Spike's belt buckle. "Can you, uh, print that?"

"Sure," Willow agreed.

"So wh-what's next?" Tara asked from beside her girlfriend.

"Now we try to figure out who the hell the forger is," Xander replied. "Right, Spike?"

Hellmouth? Yoo-hoo, apocalypse? Anytime now, Spike was mentally pleading, due to Xander's let's-turn-Spike-into-a-girl position. What was worse than the embarrassment he felt over the position was the fact that he liked having Xander hold him like this. He glanced down at his shirt, wondering if there was a giant 'P' on the front, for 'Poof.'

A tongue flicked his ear. Spike squeaked. Colored again. 'Poof' to the tune of Spam -- his new theme song -- started revolving through his brain. "What?" he snarled in a manly fashion.

Xander chuckled, the vibration against Spike's back sending shivers down his spine. "We're to the whodunit part, Spike. Pay attention."

"It's hard to pay attention with your lover plastered to your back like a bloody cheap coat," Spike bitched.

"Oh look, a lover's quarrel," Buffy said, grinning evilly at Spike. "How cute."

"Bite me, Slayer," Spike said.

"Nuh-uh-uh," Xander tisked, releasing Spike. He started back into the living room. "The only one who gets to bite Spike is me. I'm possessive like that."

Spike dropped his head and groaned as Buffy and Riley snickered. He was never going to live this night down. Never, never, never. And it was all Xander and his silver cock-piercing's fault... which Spike would have to tell Xander to leave in the next time they shagged.

Xander accepted the printout from Willow with a "Thank you" and a smile. He walked over to the couch and perched on the arm, nibbling his lower lip as he studied the paper.

Spike pulled himself out of Humiliation Hell and ventured into the living room. They had a whodunit to solve before Xander suffered for an eternity -- something Spike definitely wanted to prevent.

Because, despite his emasculation in front of the others, he was head-over-effin'-heels in love with Xander Harris.

It wasn't that surprising of a revelation to Spike. When he fell in love, he always fell hard, fast, and completely. Of course, the downside was, when his heart was broken, his entire world came tumbling down, and it took a long time to rebuild it.

Spike dropped down onto the couch beside Xander, snatching the paper from the brunette. "Start with the simple questions first, Watson," the vampire said. "Who would like to see me dust?"

"Ooh! Ooh!" Buffy raised her hand and waved it like an enthusiastic student. "I would! I would!"

Spike flicked her off.

"I don't think the forger was targeting you," Xander said, half-leaning onto the back of the couch behind Spike. He began to card his fingers through the peroxide-blond's hair.

Spike started to purr, noticed what he was doing, shifted and cleared his throat. "Er... my name's on the soddin' list," he pointed out. "I'd say that paints a big bulls-eye on my arse."

"Who do you think it'd hurt worse if you died?" Xander inquired softly. "You, or the guy who loves you?"

"Xander's right," Willow piped up. "When the bad guys want to really, really hurt Buffy, they go after Angel." Mortification crossed her face. "And Riley! And anyone else she loves... or has loved... or even will love in the future..."

Buffy glared at the redhead. "Although someone's now off that list."

"Don't worry, Willow," Riley spoke up, only slightly stiffer than usual. "I know what you meant."

"I believe the next step would be to narrow down the list of those who wish to hurt you, Xander," Giles said, returning to the subject at hand. "This person would have to have a- a strong anger towards you to go as far as to add Spike's name to your, er..."

"Collections list," Xander supplied. "Still, it could be anyone."

"No, it couldn't," Tara countered. She ducked her head when everyone looked at her. "It- it could only be someone who, um, kn- knows who Spike is."

"She's right," Spike said, desperately trying not to rub his head against Xander's hand like a bleedin' cat. "Far as we know, that Anthony bloke didn't spread the news about me."

Xander's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "Anthony Hodgkins."

"That annoying git, Samuel, knows who I am, too," Spike said. "Oh, and Death."

"Do you really think Xander's own boss would want to hurt him?" Willow asked.

"If he was testing me," Xander answered. He twined a lock of blond hair around his finger. "But it doesn't fit with how the Big Kahuna acted when I told him about being assigned to Sunnydale, or with the Choata."

"What about jealousy?" Riley suggested, so obviously not glancing at Buffy. "People have been known to do some crazy things when they're jealous."

"Jealous?" Xander laughed. "Do you know how hard it is to be Death's number one apprentice? My Master is a perfectionist, which means I have to be even more perfect." He shook his head. "I wouldn't wish anyone into my place. It's only been in the last two hundred years that Death has treated me more like a companion, rather than a whipping boy."

Xander began petting Spike again, his eyes growing distant. "I remember wishing that I'd said 'no' during the first fifty years of immortality. Gods, it was so hard trying to learn everything he wanted me to learn, and you know I wasn't ever any good at school, Wills."

"You've always been smart, Xander," Willow countered quietly.

The brunette laughed sardonically a second time. "If that'd been the case, I probably wouldn't have gotten my ass beat so much."

A deep, rumbling growl floated up from the couch. This time, Xander's laugh was one of amusement, and he leaned forward and kissed the top of Spike's head. "Sweet mortal. My ass is just for you, now."

"Eew, TMI, TMI," Buffy shuddered. "Waaaaay Too Much Information."

Xander sent her a lopsided grin. "Anyway, the jealousy idea is a good one. Anthony and I have been at each other's throats since we met."

"So you've decided it's him?" Spike asked.

Xander nodded. "He's got the motive, the means, and he knows who you are. I wouldn't put it past him to have used Samuel's friendship with me to get into the mansion, or to learn where I spent my mortal life."

"What about this Samuel guy himself?" Willow said. "On A&E, it's always the person least suspected that's the culprit."

"Too obvious," Xander discounted. "At most, I'd say Samuel's helping Anthony, because of how buddy-buddy they are."

"It seems as though you have a prime suspect, as well as proof of foul play," Giles said. "What is your next step?"

"I'm going to have sex with Spike, and then I'm going to call Anthony out," Xander replied.

Spike didn't fight the grin caused by the brunette's bluntness. He tilted his head back to look at Xander. "I love you."

"Of course you do," Xander said with a wink. He lightly tugged at Spike's hair before he stood. "Well, guys, it's been...," he thought for a moment, and a true smile blossomed on his face, "...actually not that bad, to see you again. When it's your Time, I'll see if I can get Death to offer you a job."

The brunette took Spike's hand after the vampire had stood. "I'll bring the Bleached One back after I screw him stupid... er."

"Very funny, mate," Spike said dryly.

"I thought so," Xander said. "Bye all."

"Yeah, uh, bye," Spike called over his shoulder as he followed Xander out the door.

Before the door closed, the blond vampire poked his head back inside. "Oh, and fetch me some blood and a pack of smokes before I get back. I have a feeling I'm going to need 'em."





Part Fifteen

Caressing, gliding. Soft touches. In and out. Gentle moans and tender sighs. Breathy words, pleasure-filled hisses. "Yessss...", "...please, pet...", "...love you..." Teasing. Tasting. Light laughter, deep kisses.

Fingers entwined, arms pinned high above a mussed blond head. Face to face, body to body, sated flesh to sated flesh. Chocolate eyes melting beneath a cerulean gaze.

"How can I love you so much?" Xander asked softly. "I've only been with you for a single Earth day, and I can't imagine what forever would be like without you."

Bashful smile. Faint rosy blush. Gruff reply: "You've just succeeded in turning this demon into a big pile of mush. My reputation will never be the same."

"Funny," Xander circled his hips, "you feel pretty solid to me."

"Lovely," Spike sighed. "I'm shaggin' a bloody comedian. A rotten one, at that."

Xander grinned, dropped a quick peck on Spike's well-kissed lips, and moved off the vampire. He propped himself on his side, his head resting against his hand. "So...," he prompted.

"So why do you love me... aside from the obvious, right?" Spike teased, gesturing down at his nude body.

The brunette snorted indelicately, earning a rude salute from his bedmate. Spike tucked one arm behind his head and let his gaze wander along the cracked ceiling of the crypt as he searched for a real answer to Xander's question. Spike's other hand lay on his stomach, and the immortal was lightly outlining his fingers. It tickled, but he wasn't about to say so. He'd been enough of a nancy for one evening, thank you very much.

A hundred candles had been lit in the dim tomb where Spike made his home, and the pale golden glow made the place actually seem more romantic, rather than just a hovel where an undead guy roomed with a dead girl in a stone coffin. The double bed they were laying on had been a gift from Harmony years ago when the blond airhead had decided Spike would make a good boyfriend. Spike had only put up with her because she was a pretty decent lay. That relationship lasted about six months. Now, she was in France or some other European country that she'd never stopped yammering on about.

"Love is interesting, pet," Spike began, a smile curving his pale pink lips. "It's what makes the effin' world go round, if you believe the namby-pamby sentimentalists and Hallmark writers."

He glanced over at Xander. "Thing is, love doesn't hit everyone the same way. For some, it's instant -- love at first sight, or sniff, or wiggle, depending on the species. For others, it's a slow awareness -- one day, you're sitting around shootin' the shit with your friend or lover, and you come to realize that your whole universe is centered around just wanting to see him or her smile."

Xander smiled, his eyes crinkling in the corners. "Were you a poet in a past life, or one of those namby-pamby Hallmark writers?"

"No," Spike said quickly, looking away and once again cursing the fact that vampires could blush. "I may've ate a few poets, but there's no way in hell I was one. No bloody way. Not me. Not at all."

A dark brow rose. "Trying to convince yourself, or me?"

Spike scowled. "Fuck off."

"Can't. Limp," Xander teased. He tapped Spike's stomach above the vampire's hand. "And you still haven't answered my question. Why the heck do I love you so much?"

"Because you're touched in the head," Spike replied. Xander rolled his eyes, and the blond shrugged. "You can't control who you love, ducks. It's an emotion that controls you. The only thing you can do is go with the flow, and hope that the pillock you're in love with loves you back."

"Do you?"

Spike frowned at the ceiling. "Do I what?"

"Love me back?" Xander asked with a nervous quietness.

The blond turned to Xander and saw vulnerability etched on the immortal's normally stoic features. Spike captured the hand on his stomach, entwining their fingers, and smiled tenderly. "Yes, this pillock that you're in love with loves you back. And I can't see living forever without you around to make my unlife interesting."

Xander inhaled a slow, shaky breath, and he blinked rapidly against the tears forming in his eyes. "Squishy feeling in my chest. Not so squishy feeling a little lower."

Spike glanced down Xander's body, grinned, and suddenly rolled so he was on top of the other man. "More?"

"You're insatiable," Xander said.

"Have to be," Spike nipped at the brunette's neck, "what with you being the greatest shag in the universe and all."

"Flattery will get you...," the vampire sucked hard and Xander moaned, "...oh so well-fucked."

"Mmm," Spike purred. With his tongue, he traced a path up the immortal's neck to his ear, and whispered into it, "Sounds good to me."

"But we can't."

Incredulous stare. "Eh?"

"It's running on midnight, and I still have to get you back to Giles's," Xander said with a glance at the chronograph on his wrist.

Spike stuck his lower lip out. "Why can't I stay here, in my lovely crypt, with my lovely bed and my lovely lover?"

"Because Buffy and the others will protect you in case Anthony has a trick up his sleeve," Xander answered. He smacked the blond's bare butt. "Now, scoot. Get dressed. The sooner we leave, the sooner we return and I let you have your wily wicked way with me."

*****



Utilizing the shortcut provided by the Hall of Doors, Xander and Spike were across the street from Giles's with twenty minutes left until midnight. Xander held Spike's hand, unashamed of the feminine action. Despite the brunette's confidence in his abilities, there was still a chance that Anthony would defeat him, and he'd never get to see Spike's mischievous smile again. The thought was completely depressing, and made Xander snippier then usual.

"Once you're inside, I need you to stay with Giles until I come and get you." Xander looked at Spike, his expression serious. "Don't leave with anyone, even if they say that I said to pick you up."

"When will you return?" Spike asked.

"As soon as I can," Xander replied, looking both ways before starting across the street. It wouldn't do to have Spike get hit by a car this close to the deadline. Mortals were funny, they could die from the most innocuous things, even if they had partial invulnerability, like vampires.

But, the danger didn't come in the form of a car speeding up the street. Instead, danger was dressed in a three-piece black suit with a black silk shirt and matching tie.

"Darkling," Death greeted solemnly. "Spike."

"Master," Xander said without inflection. He turned to Spike, cupped his cheek, and pressed a hard kiss to his lips. "Get inside," the brunette ordered softly.

Spike eyed Death, then shook his head. "No. Forget it."

"Spike, now isn't the time," Xander said, his tone growing cold. He took a step back from the vampire. "Go."

"My name's on that bloody list," Spike growled, "and I'm not leaving until it's off without either of us dying."

"Damn it, Spike!" Xander exclaimed. Why did the idiot have to chose now to challenge him? "I said go!"

"No," Spike ground out firmly.

"Don't make me--"

"Well, well, well, isn't this a treat. The Dark Cavalier is fighting with his pet. How... mortal."

Xander's angry gaze whipped towards the familiar voice and his eyes narrowed. "Anthony."

"Is everything okay, Xander?" Samuel asked, walking up with Anthony to stand beside Death.

Xander wasn't surprised to see either of them. He'd had a feeling Anthony would show up to gloat. However, Xander had wanted Spike out of the way before the real fighting began. "Everything's fine, Samuel," he said, keeping his eyes on Anthony.

"Are you sure?" Samuel said. "I know it must be hard for you to have to Collect Spike. It's easy to see how much you like him. That's why we're here. If you want, we can take care of him for you."

"The only one who's going to get taken care of is Anthony," Xander snarled.

Anthony looked startled. "Pardon me?"

A faint breeze kicked up. "Don't play innocent, you bastard," the Dark Cavalier said. He pulled Willow's printout from his pocket. "I have proof that you set me up. Showing up here at the final hour only adds to my evidence, and the Scales of Justice say you're going to hurt."

"Poetic," Spike murmured.

Xander shot a glare at Spike and hissed, "There are 2,384 ways to torture a man. Unless you want to experience all of them, get the fuck out of here!"

Spike's eyes widened, and he reared back slightly. With a quick nod, he took off towards Giles's.

Xander watched until the vampire disappeared from sight, then turned back to the trio standing four paces away. He looked at each of them in turn, his dark eyes shining with otherworldly light. "No one is to harm even one single hair on that mortal's head."

Death's brow went up. "Is that an order?"

"Yes."

The second brow joined the first. "Boy, I don't think--"

"That's right -- don't think," Xander interrupted. "Just do what I say."

Samuel gasped in horror. Even Anthony seemed agog at Xander's impertinence.

Death, on the other hand, simply smirked. "I take it you wish me to erase Spike's name from the list?" Xander nodded once, the faint breeze dying down. The Last Lover sighed good-naturedly. "Very well, Darkling, as long--"

"What?!" Samuel exclaimed, interrupting Death. He began to sputter and gesticulate wildly. "But- but- but--"

Anthony glared angrily at Xander, the breeze kicking up again. "You prick. It's bad enough that everyone worships the ground you walk on--"

"Shut up," Xander snapped. "Spike wasn't on the list to begin with, and you know it."

"What do you mean?" Anthony took a step towards the brunette. "Are you implying--"

"I'm not implying, I'm saying it outright," Xander snarled. He shook the printout in his hand. "You forged Spike's name because you knew I liked him and it would hurt me if I had to Collect him; just like you sent the Choata to hurt me, and how you got me sent to my mortal homeplace to hurt me."

Anthony's long raven hair blew around his face as the magickal wind increased. "You're not only a sanctimonious jackass, you're a liar, as well! And this," he gestured to the printout, "with erasing Spike's name. Now, I have proof of favoritism. I cannot wait to tell the other apprentices -- the mighty Dark Cavalier is nothing but a liar and a cheat. No one will respect you again, because everyone will know the truth -- you're just a plaything; Death's Boy," he sneered.

Xander shoved the printout into his pocket, his scythe materializing in his other hand. "You won't be saying anything after I rip your throat out!"

Anthony smirked, his own scythe appearing in his hands. "Ooh, someone's afraid of the truth getting around."

Abruptly, a cold mask descended over Xander's features and the coiled tension beneath his skin relaxed. He twirled the scythe so it was behind him, the pole resting against his arm and back, the curved blade held at an angle to his knees. The wind still whipped around the four in the street, causing fallen leaves to meet for an angry dance in the air.

On the path that led into the condominium complex from the street, half-hidden around the corner of the garage, Spike watched the events unfolding. His blue eyes were filled with strong emotion, and his thumbnail was already chewed down to the quick.

"Master," Xander said, his emotionless voice audible to everyone despite the whistling wind. "Permission to cause Anthony Hodgkins's eternal death."

Death unbuttoned his suitcoat, pushed the material back, and stuck his hands in his pockets of his pleated black trousers. He rocked on his well-shined black wingtips as he silently studied Xander. "Permission granted."

"What?!" Samuel squeaked again.

The words were barely out of Death's mouth when Xander attacked. He bent his knees and leapt into the air, somersaulting over Anthony's head. He landed behind the tall, raven-haired immortal, spun around, and swung his scythe for a decapitating blow.

Anthony wasn't a wet-behind-the-ears apprentice, however. With a flick of his wrist, he twirled his scythe behind his back and blocked Xander's strike. The gaunt man pivoted, catching the end of his weapon and holding it parallel in front of him, blocking Xander's second attack.

The flaring of Xander's nostrils was the only reaction to Anthony's defensive success. Xander rolled his scythe against Anthony's and thrust the pole end up between the other man's legs.

Anthony clamped his thighs together, capturing Xander's scythe before it hit. He twisted his own weapon, the curved blade gliding on a straight path towards Xander's neck.

Xander threw himself backwards, yanking his scythe from between the other immortal's legs as he fell to the ground. He quickly rolled to his left as Anthony swung his weapon like an axe. Sparks shot out from the blade as it connected the pavement.

Xander's scythe disappeared as he arched to his feet, then re-materialized in his hands in time to block Anthony's swing. The Dark Cavalier leapt into the air again, landing sure-footedly between Anthony and where Samuel and Death stood. The two combatant's blades clanged as they came together, the metallic sound carrying on the wind.

Xander ducked a jab with the blunt end of Anthony's scythe. The brunette immortal let his own weapon slide in his hands until he was gripping the very end, then swung the scythe like a golf club. Before it could hit, Anthony launched himself straight upwards into the air.

A corner of Xander's lips went up as he repositioned his scythe, his eyes on the raven-haired immortal. There was no way for Anthony to avoid coming down in the same spot as he'd occupied a moment before, giving Xander the perfect opportunity for victory.

"Xander! Behind you!"

Xander's attention jerked from Anthony towards where Spike's shout of warning came from, distracting him for a few precious seconds. He heard the fall of a footstep behind him, but before he could turn, he felt a searing line of fire across his shoulders.

The scythe dropped from his nerveless fingers, and it clattered loudly to the pavement. Anthony landed on the pole, lost his footing, and fell to the ground, his own scythe clacking against the street. The raven-haired man stared, dumbfounded, past Xander as a silver blade flashed under the streetlight.

"You sonofabitch!" Samuel yelled, the wickedly sharp scythe in his hands slicing another line across Xander's back, from left shoulder to right hip. "You will not win this fight!"

Xander arched against the strike, hissing between clenched teeth. He dove forward on his right shoulder, somersaulting up to his feet, and he quickly turned to face the new threat. "Samuel, what the hell are you doing?"

The wind stung as its speed increased. Red-faced, Samuel's eyes glowed dangerously as he glared at Xander, his lips twisted into a threatening snarl. His knuckles were white as he gripped the scythe tightly in his hands.

Xander whipped around when he heard pounding footsteps on the pavement behind him. "Spike, get back!" he barked at the approaching vampire.

"Look out!" Spike exclaimed.

The Dark Cavalier dropped to a crouch, and the whizz of the blade was loud as it sliced through the air where his head had been. He used his position to push off, leaping up and back, crashing blindly into Samuel.

They both tumbled to the ground. Xander rolled quickly to his feet again and faced Samuel. The brunette sent a round kick at Samuel's face as the rotund Collector started to stand. Samuel's head snapped to the side, but that did not stop him from pushing himself off the ground into a flying tackle.

Samuel clipped Xander in the legs right below the knees, sending the Dark Cavalier into an uncontrolled flip. His head hit the ground first, cracking open on the hard pavement, before he continued over onto his injured back. His legs smacked the ground with a loud slap, and he laid there on the street, breathless and in shock, blinking rapidly against the haziness clouding his vision.

There was a wild howl, and Xander saw a flash of black shoot past him. Snarls and growls were caught in the wind and tossed about, filling the area with sound.

With a clench of his teeth, Xander sat up and twisted to look behind him. Samuel was on his feet, his nostrils flaring with every angry breath he took, scythe once again in his hands. Death was holding a hissing, struggling, vamped-out Spike, preventing him from interfering. Anthony had risen to his feet, but was still staring at Samuel as if he'd never seen the other immortal before.

Xander got to his knees and faced Samuel before he roared, "What the hell is going on?!"

"I hate you." Samuel's ragged voice dripped with venom as he spoke. "Anthony should be Death's number one apprentice, not you."

Xander blinked in disbelief. "What?"

"Anthony was five points away from a perfect score on the MCE, but does anyone care?" Samuel fumed. "No, because Death's pet immortal took the exam at the same time, and the Proctors, of course, had to give Xander Harris the highest marks ever."

Samuel stalked towards Xander, eyes spitting fire. "Does anyone care that Anthony traded for a second tour on Bavarish because he knew Maru Kessl'ete wouldn't be able to handle the children's realm, and he wanted to spare her from the Graveyard?" he said. "Does anyone care that not a single Collector who attended Anthony's teaching tour has ever failed? Does anyone care that Anthony volunteers to capture the Choata after the death-hunters complete their assignments in order to keep others safe? Does anyone care that Anthony takes no special favors, helps anyone who asks, and has never once been praised by the Board or Death?"

Samuel stopped directly in front of Xander and glared down at the kneeling brunette. "The answer is no. No one cares a fig about Anthony Hodgkins. Everyone's too enamored with Death's Boy, the infallible Xander Harris, who's so perfect and wonderful he even gets his own special name -- the Dark Cavalier.

"Well, let me tell you something, Mr. Harris," Samuel continued. "You are nothing compared to Anthony, and once I end your phony reign as Death's best Collector, everyone will know who the real number one apprentice is."

Xander was flabbergasted. "You're the one who set me up," he said in shock.

Samuel nodded. "I forged Spike's name. I wanted you to fail, to take an innocent life or give yours in exchange, but since you're Death's butt-toy...," he trailed off and raised his scythe. "Although now, I guess Death will have to get a new plaything."

"NO!!" Spike screamed roughly.

A hand suddenly wrapped around the weapon and stopped Samuel from cleaving Xander's head. Xander was again flabbergasted when he saw who was his rescuer.

"Samuel, don't," Anthony said, taking the scythe from Samuel.

Samuel turned to the taller immortal. "Why? If I don't get rid of him, no one will know that you're the best."

For the first time ever, Xander saw Anthony truly smile; a non-mocking, eye-crinkling, completely sincere smile. "All the praise and all the recognition in the universe would never compare to how I feel at this very moment," Anthony said, reaching out to brush the backs of his fingers against Samuel's cheek. "You were going to destroy Xander... for me."

"Of course it was for you," Samuel said. "I'd do anything for you."

"Oh, Samuel," Anthony said softly. "Eight hundred years together, and you still find ways to make me love you more."

The wind died down and the scythes disappeared as Anthony and Samuel's lips met in a tender kiss.

Love. Samuel tried to send Xander to his eternal death because of love. A day ago, Xander wouldn't have recognized the emotion that flowed between the two standing in front of him. A day ago, he wouldn't have cared why Samuel had attacked him. A day ago, he would have been using the other two immortals' distraction to destroy them both.

That was a day ago, before he'd learned about love.

Xander leaned over to look past the two Collectors. Spike, still in game-face but no longer struggling, was staring in his direction with fear and anger. The brunette raised his gaze and saw Death's amused smirk. The Last Lover shook his head, sighed, and released the vampire.

The Dark Cavalier lifted his arms and caught Spike in a tight embrace. It hurt -- it hurt lots, he'd underestimated the little fucker -- but he wasn't about to relinquish the feeling of holding Spike. He'd almost lost. If it hadn't been for Anthony, he would have. Death wouldn't have saved him, because Death did not know real love.

Neither had Xander, which was what had made him the perfect apprentice... until he'd literally run into Spike.

"I'm going to kill them," Spike growled in the brunette's ear. "Let me up, so I can tear their bodies inside out."

Xander chuckled and squeezed the vampire a little tighter. "That's okay, Spike. No one needs to die tonight."

Death cleared his throat loudly, breaking apart Anthony and Samuel's kiss. "Darkling, I don't mean to be the downer, but it's one minute to midnight, and Spike's name is still on the list."

Xander released Spike as he gave his Master a puzzled look. "But Spike's name was forged. Samuel admitted to setting me up."

"Then it is Samuel who shall take Spike's place," Death said.

"No, he will not," Anthony stated, pushing Samuel protectively behind him. "I would spend an eternity in torment before I allowed you to even look disparagingly at Samuel."

Death's brow went up. "I gather that means you're taking Samuel's place."

"No." Xander climbed to his feet, with some help from Spike, and moved to stand beside Anthony. "I can't let you take Anthony."

"And so my Dark Cavalier now chooses to replace Anthony," Death said, crossing his arms over his chest. "Tell me, Dearheart, are you prepared for everlasting pain?"

"There's no bloody way I'm letting a nonce like you hurt Xander," Spike growled, stepping close to Xander's side. "You'll have to dust me first."

"Anyone else?" Death asked wryly.

"Y-Yes," Samuel stuttered, peeking around Anthony. "Spike's an innocent, and I put his name on the list, so I should be the one to, um, g-go."

"And we've circled back to the beginning," Death sighed. "Love, a misbegotten emotion that leads both mortals and immortals to do the stupidest things."

"Does that mean you're erasing Spike's name from the list?" Xander asked warily.

Death studied the four defiant ones for a moment, then rolled his eyes. "Oh, very well. Spike is no longer on your list."

Xander turned to Spike, grinning widely, and was about to pull the vampire into another hug when Death interrupted him.

"But," Death said, giving Xander a pointed look. "I have a feeling that your pet mortal may knock you from your pedestal of perfection, and I cannot have my number one apprentice shame me."

Xander shifted uncomfortably. "I won't, Master. I promise."

Death clucked his tongue. "I wasn't finished speaking, Boy."

Xander flushed bright red and bowed his head, chastised. He heard Anthony snicker and fought against reacting.

"As I was saying," Death went on. "Since I cannot have my best Collector disgrace me, I shall simply have to cut you loose and give you your own apprentice to train."

Xander's head shot up. "What?"

Death ignored Xander and turned to Spike. "Spike, how would you like a job as the Dark Cavalier's apprentice?"





Part Sixteen

Death suspended Samuel for two months, effective immediately, and confined him to the Academy grounds for his nefarious activities. In the same breath, Death praised Anthony for centuries of good work, rewarded him with a two month vacation, effective immediately, and did he know that the Academy was lovely this time of year?

Perhaps Death knew more about love than Xander had previously thought.

After a quick patch-up of Xander's back, Death had informed Xander that he was temporarily relieved of his duties, effective immediately, so that he could take on an apprentice. The Master of Mortals had wished Xander luck, and then had started to laugh as he escorted Anthony and Samuel away. Xander knew that Death had been laughing at him, and it did nothing to quell the sudden nervousness he felt about having his own apprentice.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" Xander asked the blond vampire as they stopped outside of Giles's door. "It's not too late to change your mind."

"Are you kidding?" Spike gave him a crooked grin. "I get to become practically invincible, kill mortals, and shag you for an eternity. You bet your sweet arse I want this."

Xander chuckled. "Okay then," he gestured to the door, "after you."

Buffy and Willow were sitting on the couch and Giles was in the kitchen when Spike and Xander entered. The original Scoobies, Xander thought. It seemed fitting that the four who had first battled Spike were together to witness the vampire's mortal demise.

"I take it you were successful in thwarting your antagonist?" Giles inquired.

"Yes," Xander said. He smiled at Willow. "And you were right, Wills. It was Samuel, the one I least suspected. I wouldn't make a good A&E detective."

"Ooh, what was his motive?" Willow asked excitedly. "Jealousy? Revenge? Bad hair day?"

"Love."

Confused, as were the others, Buffy asked, "This Samuel was trying to kill both you and Spike out of love?"

"He was channeling his inner-Angelus," Spike sniggered.

Buffy scowled. "Not funny."

"No, it wasn't," Xander turned to Spike and winked, "I think you should stake him for that, Buffy."

"Don't tempt me," the Slayer commented.

"Actually, that's why we're here," Xander said, looking back at Buffy. "I thought you'd like the honors of staking the Peroxide Wonder."

"Huh?"

"Xander, you can't be serious," Willow said. "Buffy can't stake Spike."

"Yes, I can," Buffy said quickly.

"Willow is right," Giles said, joining them in the living room. "As much as it pains me to admit this, Spike has been invaluable to us... at times. When he's feeling altruistic, or is in dire need of money. Plus, he is, in essence, still a- a somewhat defenseless creature because of his chip, and it's our duty to protect him," he paused, "and now I need something strong to wash this bad taste from my mouth."

Xander looked at Spike and rolled his eyes. "I guess I should have explained first," the brunette said. "Spike is going to join the ranks of apprentices, and in order for him to do that, his mortal life needs to end."

"I said I'll do it," Buffy piped up.

"But won't Spike go poof?" Willow said. "How can he be an apprentice if he's a big pile of dust?"

"It's only temporary poofage, Willow," Xander explained. "He'll be wholly fuckable again within minutes."

"So, can I stake him now?" Buffy said, looking hopefully at Giles.

"I think that's Spike's decision," Giles said. "He is, after all, the one going to be staked."

All eyes focused on the vampire. Spike's cockiness had disappeared as the conversation had flowed around him and doubts began to surface. He crossed his arms over his chest and shifted uncomfortably. "I... uh..."

Xander put his hands on Spike's arms and looked into his scared blue eyes. "We don't have to do this," the immortal said quietly. "I'll still love you if you choose to stay mortal."

Spike pursed his lips for a moment, searching Xander's gaze. "You sure I'll come back after Buffy stakes me?"

"I'm positive."

Spike swallowed, took a purposeful breath and blew it out quickly. He nodded. "Let's do this."

Xander smiled gently, leaned forward and brushed his lips across Spike's. "I love you," he murmured softly.

"Same here," Spike said hoarsely. He cleared his throat and looked past Xander's shoulder. "Well, Slayer, it looks like this is your lucky night."

"Goody!" Buffy jumped up, grabbed a stake from the coffee table, and quickly rounded the couch. "I've been wanting to do this for so long."

Xander squeezed Spike's arms, then stepped back. Spike squared his shoulders, set his jaw, and slightly spread his arms. "Do it."

"Maybe we'll get lucky and you won't come back," Buffy said wistfully, just before she plunged the stake into Spike's chest.

Xander caught Spike's wide-eyed, fear-filled gaze before the vampire disintegrated into a pile of ash.

"Oh my God," Willow breathed, staring at the dust on the floor in front of Buffy. "I can't believe you actually staked him."

Buffy blinked several times, a stunned look on her face. "Me, neither."

"I'm a bit dazed, myself," Giles added.

As the blond Slayer backed slowly away, Xander crouched beside his lover's remains. He plucked a small metallic object from the ash and tossed it to Giles. "One chip, finally removed."

"Fascinating," Giles said, removing his glasses to look closer at the chip. "This tiny thing was all that was stopping Spike from killing."

"Willow, I don't feel happy," Buffy said, sinking onto the couch beside the redhead. "Why don't I feel happy?"

Willow half-embraced the blond, tears in her eyes. "He'll be back soon," she raised her voice, "Right, Xander? He'll be back soon."

The ash in front of Xander began to shift and glow. "Sooner than I thought," the brunette replied.

Buffy and Willow quickly turned, kneeling up on the couch to easily see over the back. Giles backed partially into the hallway and put his glasses back on. Xander stayed crouched where he was, his gaze not moving from the vampire's ashes.

Particles of glowing golden dust rose from the floor and danced together, like pixie dust in Disney movies. The particles began to twirl faster and faster, spinning a glowing flaxen cocoon that grew larger and larger.

The otherworldly light from the golden cocoon suddenly pulsed brightly, blinding everyone for a second. When their vision cleared, the glowing dust was gone, and Spike lay on the floor half-curled on his side, as naked as a newborn babe.

"Wow," Willow breathed. "No wonder Xander likes to have wild monkey sex with him."

"I knew he wasn't a true blond," Buffy commented. She and Willow exchanged glances and giggled.

"Here," Giles said, retrieving a black duster which had been thrown over the stair rail. He passed it to Xander. "Buffy found Spike's duster while she was on patrol earlier. Use it to cover him up before I have a naked Spike permanently tattooed in my mind."

"Thanks, Giles," Xander said. He carefully laid the well-worn leather coat over Spike, who was just opening his eyes. "Well, hi, there," the brunette said quietly. "Welcome back."

Spike moved like lightning, scrambling to his feet, clutching the coat to him. He started panting animalistically, suddenly game-faced, his yellow eyes wild as he looked from person to person.

"Spike?" Xander said tentatively as he straightened.

Spike growled once, then ground out through his fangs, "Don't ever let me do something that stupid again."

Xander threw back his head and laughed. He opened his arms, and Spike stepped into his embrace. He pressed a kiss to the vampire's temple, still chuckling. "This is going to be fun."

"My duster!" Spike exclaimed abruptly, his features returning to human. He wiggled out of Xander's arms and looked at the coat still clutched in his hands. "You found my duster!" There was a slight breeze and he looked down. "And you took my clothes."

"You look better naked, anyway," Xander flirted.

"Here, here," Willow whispered to Buffy. The girls giggled again.

"Oi! Unless you have money, no gawking at the merchandise!" Spike slid his coat on, holding it closed in front, effectively covering all his dangly bits.

"Spike, I think that you would like to keep this more than I would." Giles held out his hand. "Or-or perhaps you'd like the honors of destroying it."

"Is that what I think it is?" Spike said, taking the small metal chip from Giles's hand.

"You're chip-free and primed for killing mortals," Xander confirmed.

Spike perked up. "Can I start with Buffy?"

"Watch it, Blondie," Buffy said. "I staked you once, I can do it again."

"No more killing tonight," Xander said. "As of right now, Spike, you are my apprentice and my word is law. If I say 'hemrik,' you say 'lemlin yfid.'"

Spike's scarred brow went up. "What language was that?"

"Just one of an unbelievable number of languages that you'll have to learn," Xander replied, starting for the door.

"You're leaving?" Willow said.

Xander stopped, looked back at the redhead, and nodded. "Yeah."

"Will we ever see you again?" she asked, forlornly.

"You weren't supposed to see me in the first place," Xander replied. "Your friend Xander Harris died two Earth years ago, Willow, and he's not coming back."

"Can I still miss you?"

Xander smiled gently at her, then looked to Spike. "Come along, Brightling, we have work to do. Your first lesson requires soft sheets and pillows, and will be graded on participation." He winked, turned, and walked through the door.

Spike quickly walked to the door, stopped in front of it, and faced the others again. "I guess this is goodbye, folks. I won't miss you, and I can't say that it's been fun."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Mutual, Spike."

"Yes, we shall all shed many a tear at your departure," Giles said dryly. He removed his glasses and started to wipe the lenses as he added, "Take care of him, will you?"

"I will," Spike promised. He suddenly smiled devilishly. "Hey Slayer."

"Yeah, Spike?"

Spike yanked his coat open, flashed her, then stepped through the closed door.

Xander was leaning against the stone picnic table, a half-smile on his face. "Ready?" he asked the blond when he appeared.

"Yeah," Spike said, pocketing the chip as he crossed to Xander. He grabbed for the ends of his coat belt, but Xander stopped him, a twinkle in his dark eyes.

"You remember what I said about your first lesson?" Xander said, sliding his hands beneath the vampire's open duster.

"Sheets, pillows and participation," Spike replied, wrapping his arms around the brunette's neck and pressing his nude body to Xander's clothed one.

The Dark Cavalier's smile gleamed in the darkness. "Forget the sheets and pillows part."

"I can do that," Spike said before snatching Xander's smile up in a kiss.

At the top of the stairs to the courtyard, Death shook his sun-kissed blond head and sighed. "Love. I've lost so many of my personally-trained apprentices to that silly emotion, one would start to think that I encouraged them to find it."

The Choata at his side looked up at him and softly whined.

Death wrinkled his nose at the death-hunter. "Oh shush. Just because I assigned Xander to a tour of duty at his mortal homeplace and knew that he'd run into his mortal bondmate, doesn't mean that I set him up."

The Choata snorted.

"Although, I was surprised by Samuel forging Spike's name to my Darkling's list," Death continued. "I should have thought of that myself."

The Choata made a sound like a rumbling laugh and started to leave.

Death smiled, took one last look at the couple entwined on the stone picnic table below, then followed the Choata. A frown replaced the smile, and he said to his furry companion, "Tell me the truth: was sending your brethren after them overkill...."




The End




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