“Xander, what the fuck are you doing here?” Spike demanded.
Defiance sparked in Xander’s eye as he took in Spike on his knees and severely beaten. “I came to make sure you don’t dust yourself here.”
Spike found the energy to get off his knees and stumble toward Xander. “I told you I had to do this alone. I thought you understood.” Spike feared that, now Xander was here, he’d suffer the same fate Spike did.
“Oh you’re doing great on your own.” Xander’s sarcasm was mitigated by the gentleness of his hands when he supported Spike, drawing him into a careful embrace. “You can barely stand. This is officially over with. You’re coming home with me.”
At this point, Spike considered the offer. He wasn’t going to survive his next fight and pride seemed less important with Xander holding him and offering him home. Of course, he’d forgotten about the demon who had merely drawn to the side, observing.
“Once joined, the trials cannot be ended until success or death results.” Rocky sounded like a bored announcer. The least he could do is offer a villainous cackle or something.
“Bullshit!” Xander shouted. “He walked in here of his own free will and he’s walking out the same way.”
Spike surged with pride for his boy while letting his head rest on his broad shoulder, just for a moment until he got his breath back. A craggy, seven foot, winged demon barely made Xander blink. The demon seemed equally unimpressed with Xander. “If he leaves without finishing the trials, he forfeits his life. He understood this when he entered.”
As little as Spike cared for the concept of fair play he couldn’t deny this. He’d received plenty of warning. Besides, the demon had enough mojo at his command that escape was unlikely. Spike burrowed closer to Xander‘s warmth, inhaling the scent of fresh cut wood that hung around him. “He’s right, Xander. I’ve got one more fight and I win. Just wait out of the way and we’ll go home together.” He entertained the tinniest shred of hope that Xander would listen to him.
“Spike, you look worse than you did after Glory worked you over. You can’t fight anymore.” To prove his point, Xander lowered him to the cave floor and Spike found he didn’t have the strength to remain upright without the support. He sprawled on his back, vainly trying to will his body to move as he wanted it to. He groaned at his own weakness.
Xander turned to face the demon. “Fine, we’re making a substitution. I’ll fight Spike’s last fight for him.”
Spike thought of his various opponents. Some of them Xander could have taken given a proper weapon, but bare handed he’d never stand a chance. Before he could voice his own objections the big demon intervened. “You can not fight in his stead. If he does not complete the trials himself, he will perish.”
Spike found himself royally sick of the monotone, unemotional declarations. He’d love to irritate the big demon again, but getting Xander out of here was more important. “You heard the man, luv. How about you wait in the SUV outside and I’ll be out as soon as I polish off this last mook.” Spike suspected he’d be more convincing if he wasn’t delivering this speech from the floor, where he‘d just managed to rise up on his elbows. Still, he didn’t want Xander to watch this last fight. The chance he might do something to intervene and get killed for his trouble was too high.
Xander turned back to Spike and dropped beside him. Spike struggled up into a sitting position so he could face him properly. Xander appeared so earnest and intent. “Spike, I’m not leaving you here, so just forget it. We’re both walking out of here or not at all.”
Spike felt his ribs shift as he leaned forward, his attempt to cover his wince of pain failed he surmised from the corresponding pain on Xander’s face. “I don’t want you here, Xander. He’ll use you against me, throw me off in the middle of the fight.” It was the only tactic he could think of that stood a chance of working with Xander.
“You’re in no shape to fight. You need blood. Fortunately, I come with a ready supply.” Xander grinned at him so widely Spike lost his train of thought. He felt punchy and disoriented and wondered which bout had addled his brains.
“You brought me blood?” Spike asked in confusion, peering around Xander for a previously unseen flask or thermos.
Xander reached out and gently tipped Spike’s head to make him look Xander in the eye. “I don’t even want to know what customs would do if I tried to bring a cooler of blood through. I meant me.” Again Spike faced that beaming smile.
Spike crab walked backwards, away from temptation and damnation. “Not a chance in hell, pet.”
Xander pursued him on hands and knees, a scowl creasing his face. “Are you trying to tell me my blood is suddenly repellent to you? If you won’t let me fight for you, at least I can feed you, help you heal.”
Spike kept backing away until he fetched up against the cave wall. “I can’t feed from you, Xander!” He wanted to scream at Xander for making him say it out loud but he didn‘t have the breath. “I’m injured.”
“I seem to recall I fed you when you were injured the day Buffy died,” Xander pressed, using that hyper reasonable tone Spike hated, while pressing close. With the offer on the table Xander smelled delicious, his heat and vitality hitting Spike in a sensory wave.
“Different circumstances,” Spike explained through gritted teeth. The movement had exacerbated all his injuries and talking was torture, but he had to make Xander understand. “You cut yourself, I just licked up the blood, besides, Rupert was sitting right there, making sure it didn’t go too far.”
“I trust you, Spike.” Xander tilted his head, exposing a tantalizing stretch of neck toward Spike.
Spike squeezed his eyes shut to block it out. His gums itched with the desire to vamp out and take what was mere inches away. He felt utterly empty, his last meal might as well have been weeks rather than days ago. “I don’t,” he growled. “Xander, I’m starving, I get a taste of you in my mouth there’s a good chance I won’t stop ‘til I’ve drained the last drop.”
Xander moved forward again, his palms cupping Spike’s face. He stared intently into Spike’s eyes, forcing him to acknowledge his sincerity. “It’s a chance I’m willing to take. I’d much rather you drain me dry than have you die in this miserable cave.”
Spike cupped Xander’s face in return, willing him to see his determination. “You think I could live with that? Step over your lifeless body and skip merrily on my way?”
“So you’re just going to die here,” Xander protested. He rose and started pacing in front of Spike. “For what, a soul? What the hell do you need a soul for anyway?”
Spike shook his head, wishing he possessed the words to explain. But words that would satisfy Xander escaped him. “It’s part of me. it was ripped from me and I want it back.”
Xander dropped to his knees beside Spike, the pleading look on his face breaking Spike’s heart. “Fine. Fight for your soul, take out this last opponent and get your heart’s desire.” He leaned forward and pulled his shirt collar away in a ridiculously theatrical gesture. “But you need blood to do it.”
“I could kill you,” Spike protested.
Xander’s grin reminded Spike of all the times Xander went rushing heedlessly into battle. “Then I get to die giving you what you need. I can’t think of a better way to go. Now drink.”
Spike realized he’d never win this argument. Xander’s love and stubbornness couldn’t be overcome by logic. So he took Xander’s face in his hands and kissed him as deeply and passionately as his battered body would allow. Kissed him goodbye. When they separated, Xander panted for breath. “Come here, luv, let me hold you.”
Sensing victory, Xander settled with his back to Spike’s chest. Spike grabbed Xander in a sleeper hold and held on as Xander struggled against him. Even that brief struggle, with Xander desperate not to harm his assailant, took the last of Spike’s waning strength. Once Xander’s head lolled against his shoulder, Spike released the hold and, as gently as he could manage, lowered Xander to the sand of the cave floor. He allowed himself one last kiss before he staggered to his feet, determined to meet his end with whatever dignity he could muster.
“Bring on your champion,” he challenged. “Whatever happens to me, no harm is to come to him. He’s not part of this, understand?”
“On the contrary, vampire, he is very much part of this,” Rocky insisted. “The need for fighting has passed.”
Exhaustion and weakness had to be making him stupid, because Spike couldn’t understand what Rocky was on about. His confusion must have been obvious because Rocky continued. “You have passed the trials, the prize is yours.”
Spike reeled with that information, but suspected a trick, another price. “What about Xander?”
“He is safe at home.”
Spike turned to where he had left Xander moments ago and found the space empty, no sign Xander had ever been there. The shock was too much and he hit his knees again, still staring at the empty place by the wall. Xander had felt so real, sounded just as he remembered, argued and fought with him like the real Xander. Of course, if that version of Xander had come from his mind how could he act as anything but exactly what Spike expected?
“You have endured the required trials. We will return your soul.” Rocky stood behind him and Spike was still attempting to comprehend that he won when a huge, rough hand reached over his shoulder and landed over his heart.
Pain radiated out from his chest until it blazed along every nerve ending. He screamed, certain fire had to be shooting out from his body and he would collapse into ash any second. Then the pain consumed him and he fell into darkness.
Spike heard the murmur of voices speaking a language he didn’t understand. He rested on a soft pallet with a fresh smelling sheet and blanket draped over him. A fire crackled nearby, warming his left side. It didn’t sound or feel like hell. He risked opening his eyes and saw he was in a hut, probably one of the huts close to the mouth of the cave. Two people stood in the doorway, blocking the fading light of the setting sun.
He got a moment to take in the fact that he didn’t dust in that cave before the soul he’d won made its presence felt. He cried out as every act he’d committed in the past one hundred and twenty years was cast into a new light. Deaths he’d barely taken notice of suddenly weighed him down into the dirt. He arched his back, the pain in his mind demanding physical expression and the agony that caused his abused body rivaled the torture of his soul.
A gentle hand laid on his shoulder, trying to press him back into the pallet. “You must be still. You are gravely injured,” a woman’s voice insisted.
Taking shallow breaths, Spike attempted to obey the injunction. “Who are you?”
“Miriam,” she answered with a smile. “You have survived the trials and so we will tend your wounds and provide shelter until you regain your strength.”
“Shouldn’t be around me,” Spike shivered, feeling as if he was transferring his depravity to her through her touch. “You don’t know what I am.”
Miriam smiled broadly at him. “Of course I do.” Another villager entered the hut and handed Miriam a mug. They exchanged a few words, then Miriam turned back to him and slipped an arm beneath his shoulders to raise him to a half sitting position. Then she held the mug out to him. “You must drink to regain your strength.”
He took the mug almost reflexively. The smell pricked his senses immediately, it was blood. The taste identified it as cow blood. Relief flooded him, he didn’t think he could take human blood just at that moment. It also answered the question of whether they knew what he was or not. They were clearly aware of the needs of the monster they harbored. It did bring to mind another question. “Why are you helping me?”
“It is our task to tend to those who complete the trials,” Miriam answered brightly.
“Keeps you busy, does it?”
“Oh no.” She shook her head and her dangling gold earrings danced in the firelight. “There has not been a survivor of the trials since my mother was a young girl. It is very exciting!”
Spike drained the mug and sank back onto the pallet. He twitched as scenes of the mayhem he’d caused, the lives he’d destroyed, flashed through his mind. But one thought rose out of the pain and self recrimination. As Miriam took the mug from him, he grabbed her wrist before she could move away. “Please, in my car there’s a satellite phone, I need to make a call.”
“Of course,” she responded, her smile never dimming.
Spike released her arm and eased back onto the pallet. “How long was I in there?” he asked.
“Two days,” she answered and left the hut.
Spike stared up at the thatching that made up the roof and tried desperately not to give in to the overwhelming guilt that threatened to consume him. He cataloged his many injuries to distract himself. A week might not suffice to heal all his wounds, but he’d at least be mobile in time to catch his flight.
He lost track of time, sinking back into a Technicolor rewind of his “glory days,” and Miriam’s return to the hut startled him.
She handed him the phone with a titter. Clearly, his entertainment value exceeded expectations. “Thank you,” he said, hoping she would take the hint and give him some privacy. He hoped in vain, as she wated to see what new tricks he might do. Ignoring her for the moment he dialed.
Xander answered on the first ring. “Spike?”
“I made it, I’m coming home.”
By the end of a week, Spike’s wounds healed enough for him to get around. His movements remained a bit stiff, but not enough to keep him from flying. The battle raging between his demon and his soul promised to go on longer.
Spike felt like a civil war rampaged inside his skull. The soul reminded Spike of every misdeed and why it was wrong. So appallingly, gut wrenchingly wrong. The demon didn’t appreciate guilt thrust upon it for being a demon. The demon particularly resented Spike putting the soul in the driver’s seat. Seeing as Spike had gone through this whole, extremely painful, process just to have the soul’s guidance in daily life, that issue was non-negotiable.
He caught sleep in cat naps, his dreams tended to cause him to wake up screaming. Over one hundred years of not caring about anything except catering to Drusilla’s needs and whims gave a fertile playground for guilt-soaked nights. Dru had a fondness for children and Spike had procured them for her, beautiful girls in beautiful dresses, living dolls for Dru’s macabre tea parties. He and Dru went through orphanages the way Angelus went through nunneries. At the time, all he’d seen was Dru’s delight in the gifts, twirling the tots around in glee, disemboweling them to read their entrails, crooning lullabies the whole time.
Now he could see the children. Huge, frightened eyes turned to him, pleading for hope, uncomprehending that fate handed them over for slaughter. All of them short-lived playthings for his dark princess. He remembered laughing as they struggled or whimpered in fear; finding amusement in their pathetic attempts to escape. He often woke to dry heaving, grateful his appetite was spotty at the moment.
Then there were the kills he couldn’t even partially blame on Dru. It began with his torture of the poor fools who flung their petty insults at him, mocking his awful poetry. At the time he’d felt fully justified. There followed a seemingly endless parade of young men and women who took him for a friend or possible lover only to find ugly death the second they were alone with him. Even worse were the victims he felt obliged to torture for hours or days, just to prove he wasn’t soft to other demons. The bitter irony of those memories burned. He hadn’t even enjoyed those deaths at the time. He’d just never developed much of a taste for torture. Unless you had reason to hate someone it was a tedious waste of time and perfectly good blood.
Between the battle waging in his skull and the lack of real sleep, Spike felt like he was going mad.
Miriam kept plying him with blood and talking to him. She pulled out of him the less blood-soaked of his memories of his long life. Even when he tried to push her away, feeling unworthy of human company, she stayed and talked to him, teasing him out of his darker contemplations.
Miriam served as a reminder of the good that came with having his soul back, reminded him that it existed to do more than torment him. Her compassion and empathy kept him from going completely round the twist. She got him talking about the one thing the demon and soul both agreed on, his family. Dozens of stories of Dawn, the witches, Joyce, Anya, Buffy, Rupert and most of all Xander fell from his lips at her urging.
Those stories and the feelings they engendered highlighted one of the other advantages of possessing a soul. He loved them before, he remained certain of that, but it paled compared to how he loved them now. Sometimes the feelings bubbled up so strongly that he thought his chest would burst with them. Even his love for Dru intensified, tempered by pain at the atrocities they committed together, but burning brightly just the same. At times the joy pulsed so powerfully it overwhelmed the remorse and pain over his past sins. Other times he feared the twin sensations might rip him apart.
The daily phone calls back home were a lifeline. Everyone wanted a few minutes to assure themselves he remained undead. Each one of them shattered his delusion of being unwanted in their own way. Dawn insisted she was flunking history and English without him, Willow babbled incoherently, but it was a pleasure to hear, Tara told him she looked forward to reading his aura anew when he got home, Rupert spluttered and stuttered as if the words he wanted to say crowded his mouth too full for expression. He did finally manage to thank Spike for the Scotch and promised to wait for his return to crack it open.
Xander, oh Xander lavished words on him that they had both been too concerned with maintaining a manly image to speak. Spike fell into his words like a warm blanket and gave back every poncy syllable until he was forced to make salacious comments of the things he wished to do to Xander upon his return just to save a little face. It had been a long dry spell for them both after all.
Only the realization that the phone bill could break them allowed him to ring off at all.
Still, without Miriam, bearing that first week would have destroyed him. After the third time he awoke screaming from his futile attempt to sleep, she brought him a talisman.
“You can only use this if someone you trust watches over you. It will impart dreamless sleep. You may put it on but another must remove it. While you wear it you will not awake, even in sunlight,” she cautioned.
Spike ran his fingers over the bright beads. “Not sure I deserve restful sleep.”
Miriam made an unladylike noise and clasped his hand. “You must work through your memories, sort out the mess up there.” She tapped his forehead with one calloused finger. Somehow, Spike didn’t mind her mocking him so much. “But you must sleep or you will go crazy. Wait too long, you begin to see things that aren’t there.”
Spike could all too well imagine the hallucinations he would have. He squeezed her hand. “Would you watch out for me?” he asked, holding the talisman out to her.
Her bright smile nearly blinded him. “Of course,” she said, as if he was silly for having to ask. She slipped the thong over his neck and whispered, “Sleep well” with a kiss to his cheek before he slipped into unconsciousness.
The plane ride home was pure torture. The anticipated guilt over flying first class on a dead drug dealer’s money failed to materialize, but sleep proved impossible. He couldn’t use the talisman without risking immolation by an innocently raised window shade. Without it, his screaming and flailing as the inevitable nightmares took hold promised to draw unwelcome attention. So he watched the drivel programming, listened to music, read a book he picked up at the airport and basically fought sleep, haunted by the gnawing fear that, despite their many reassurances, he wouldn’t be welcome back home.
By the time he hit Sunnydale, he hadn’t slept in close to three days and he felt wrung out. Xander waited for him in the baggage claim and Spike found himself frozen to the spot when he saw him. His exhausted brain refused to formulate a proper response to him. Fortunately, Xander suffered from no such impediment. He strode across the intervening space, took Spike’s face between his large, oh so warm palms and kissed him thoroughly. Spike fell into the kiss, wrapping his arms around Xander automatically. Unmindful of the bustle around them, they surfaced an unknowable amount of time later.
“God, I missed you,” Xander whispered, keeping a hand on Spike as if he feared Spike might disappear. He closed his eyes briefly and blew out a breath. “So, we should get your luggage.”
“This is it, Luv,” Spike said, hefting his duffle. “I’m good to go.”
Xander began towing him toward the exit. “I’m parked in the garage, we can be there in two minutes.”
Spike wondered if Xander’s eagerness proceeded from a desire to get him somewhere private or because he looked ready to keel over. He got his answer a moment later when Xander asked, “When’s the last time you slept?”
“Miriam made sure I got a full eight hours before I left for the airport. Couldn’t afford it after that,” Spike confessed, pushing himself to catch up with Xander rather than dragging behind.
Xander appeared to be doing some mental calculations then stared at Spike in dismay. “You must be dead on your feet.”
“Wouldn’t say no to a good kip,” Spike allowed with a small smile. Their bed at home would be a very welcome sight. “But I know I’ve got a round of welcome backs to go through before we get to that. Please tell me you didn‘t plan a welcome home party.”
“No party that I’m aware of. Don’t worry, I’ll run interference for you,” Xander offered. They arrived at the truck and Xander seemed reluctant to let go so they could both climb in. Spike didn’t begrudge him the hesitation. Since the last time he thought he’d seen Xander he’d disappeared into thin air, caution seemed entirely reasonable, so did the sigh of relief Xander let out when they were both in the cab of the truck.
Xander turned to face him without starting the engine “Listen, there are some things I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you to worry with everything you were facing, but I think you should know before we get home.”
Spike didn’t like the sound of that. Just what catastrophe had Xander thought Spike shouldn’t worry about?
Xander gripped his wrist and ran his other hand lightly up and down the inside of his arm. “It’s nothing catastrophic,” Xander said as if he could read Spike’s mind. “But Robin is part of the team now and I don’t want you taken by surprise if you see him.”
For several long seconds Spike tried to figure out who Robin was, the answer seemed so improbable he couldn’t grasp it at first. “Wood?”
“Yeah, I kinda thought you’d react that way,” Xander replied, redoubling his efforts to soothe Spike. “He and Faith ran into each other on patrol. And, well, they kind of hit it off. They both have that animal magnetism thing going for them, I guess. Actually, he’s not such a bad guy when you get to know him, calls Faith on a lot of her bullshit …” Xander trailed off when he noticed Spike’s glare. “Okay, the point is, he and Faith are out tonight so you shouldn’t have to see him right off the bat. I just wanted to give you fair warning.”
Xander stared earnestly into Spike’s eyes while grasping his upper arms. “It’s been made very clear to him that he is not to threaten you in any way. That still stands, Spike. That will always stand.”
Spike sighed as he took this information in, his feelings about Wood were far too complicated to contemplate on so little sleep. Xander’s expression made it very clear that at his word Wood got thrown out on his arse. Soon enough he could assess the situation for himself. “Can always use another strong fighter,” he allowed.
Xander kissed him like he simply couldn’t help himself and Spike, not in the least adverse to this, pulled him close to do a bit of return ravishing. They were both panting when they pulled apart.
Xander shook himself to regain focus. “One more bit of important news and we’re headed home,” he assured. “Both Faith and Robin know Buffy is dead. It just wasn’t possible to keep it from them long term.”
Spike nodded his acceptance of this truth and Xander looked relieved. “They don’t know about Dawn and it’s staying that way.” Spike got the impression there had been a rather intense Scooby meeting about that and couldn’t help a lopsided smile. “Right,” Xander visibly forced himself to disengage and turn to face front. “That’s everything, time to head home.”
Spike allowed himself to relax back into the seat. “So, Wood doing right by you lot?”
“Even better, he’s good for Faith. He doesn’t have old baggage with her so he can say things the rest of us can’t.” Xander’s fond smile won Wood a few more brownie points in Spike’s estimation.
Spike laid his head back against the headrest and closed his eyes, enjoying the gentle motion of the truck. He struggled not to give in to exhaustion, he needed to brace himself for the reunion at home. Intellectually, he knew everyone was happy to have him home, they’d all assured him of that over the phone. He still couldn’t help the fluttery feeling in his stomach when he anticipated his reception.
“So, Miriam’s a pretty special lady, isn’t she?” Xander asked casually.
Spike smiled thinking of Miriam’s warm smile and gentle hands. “She held me together after the trials. Don’t know what I would have done without her; gone crazy, I suspect.”
“Beautiful. And her laugh is like music.” Spike rolled his head toward Xander as the tone of his voice finally processed. One look at Xander practically grinding his teeth and his head snapped up and he turned to face Xander. “You’re jealous!” he shouted, incredulous.
Xander’s practically growled out. “It should have been me there holding you together.”
Spike reached out to cup Xander’s cheek. “You were there. Every step of the way. Sometimes I needed Miriam to remind me of that fact. She pestered me for stories of all of you when I started getting lost in the nightmares, made me remember people loved me. That you still loved me. If you think you have a rival, you’re dafter than I took you for.” Somehow, Xander’s jealousy eased some of the worry in his gut.
Xander kept his eyes on the road but he leaned into the touch, snaking one hand up to cover Spike’s and hold him there. “I just felt so helpless,” he confessed.
“I know,” Spike sympathized. “But I’m glad you weren’t there. Thought I was going to die and the only comfort I had was knowing you were safe.” Spike figured he could tell Xander the details of the trials later, much later, when he felt more awake.
Without meaning to, Spike dozed the rest of the ride home. Xander shook his shoulder gently. “We’re home.”
Spike took a deep breath and climbed out of the truck. There must have been a sentry at the window because he hadn’t managed to shut the door when he found his arms full of excited teenager. “You’re home, you’re home!” she chanted. She lifted her face from where she had it buried in his chest to level a glare at him. “You can’t ever do that again, understand?”
“I think it’s safe to say I’m home to stay, Dawn,” he told her, stroking her hair back from where it had fallen in her face. It felt wonderful to have her close again, she’d shot up another couple inches during his absence.
Willow and Tara made it a group hug a moment later. The front lawn seemed a poor place for a proper reunion. Xander apparently agreed. He laid a proprietary hand on Spike’s shoulder to steer him toward the front door while shooing the girls away. “Let’s take this inside ladies,” Xander advised while herding them all into the house.
The girls quizzed him on how he felt, offered him food and blood faster than he could answer their queries. Xander proved excellent at running interference. He sent Dawn off to heat Spike some blood, after two days on planes and in airports Spike admitted he was peckish. Willow and Tara he commissioned to bring out the snacks and drinks that waited in the kitchen. Aside from the giggling coming from the kitchen, the house got much quieter.
Rupert took the opportunity to step forward and clasp Spike’s hand. “Welcome home, Spike,” he said with a broad grin and a manly clap on the back. “We’ve missed you.”
Spike flailed for the proper thing to say and found himself settling on. “Thank you for looking out for them, and the research and such.“
“Wait,“ Xander stopped, clearly unhappy. “You helped him track down this demon?“
Spike thought it wise to intervene before Xander got too stroppy. “I would have gone anyway, Rupert made sure I had the information I needed. Might not have survived without it.”
“Yes, well,” Rupert’s eyes signaled appreciation for the diversion, and he continued on with a quick subject change. “Faith is staying with Robin tonight so you shouldn’t have to deal with anyone but us before tomorrow at the earliest.
Spike nodded his gratitude. Sounded like they all called Wood “Robin” around here now. Seemed likely he needed to adjust his feelings toward the man.
The girls bustled back in bearing food and blood. The warm blood they plied him with felt good sliding down his throat. He hadn’t realized just how hungry he was.
“Do you want some more?” Willow asked brightly. “We stocked up.”
He scanned the people surrounding him and broke a little inside. He found himself nearly gasping for breath as his emotions threatened to overwhelm him. Hiding his face, Spike tried to keep from openly weeping like a big girl’s blouse. The assault of everyone’s love, approval and care overwhelmed him. The intensity of emotions still caught him by surprise. His defenses low from exhaustion, he failed to process it all.
He heard Xander trying to calm everyone down, even as he moved to sit next to Spike on the couch. Spike breathed in his scent, the feel of his arm around him and wrested control back. He set the mug down as he stood. “Sorry everyone,” he apologized. “Just a bit overtired. Expect I‘ll be better after some sleep.”
“All right folks,” Xander’s voice chimed in, his arm firmly wrapped around Spike‘s shoulders. “I know you’re all glad he’s home, but I think it’s time I took my vamp to bed.” Then Xander gently, but firmly, steered him toward the basement. Everyone made understanding noises and Spike let himself be maneuvered into the kitchen to the basement stairs.
Spike looked for differences as he descended the stairs. Xander tinkered with their living space constantly, shelves, cabinets, weapon racks springing up regularly. The place sported no new additions. “The place looks the same,” Spike commented, counting on Xander to know what he meant.
“I don’t spend a lot of time down here,” Xander responded sheepishly. “Without you around it just wasn’t fun.”
Spike caught Xander in an affectionate headlock. “If I weren’t done in I’d say let’s rechristen the place.”
He dropped his duffle by the side of the bed and began taking off his boots. The knots seemed to tangle no matter how he pulled at them.
“You really are tired,” Xander observed, as he dropped to his knees and took over the removal of Spike’s boots. Spike managed his own shirt but let Xander help him with the rest. Spike pulled out his talisman and contemplated it.
“Not sure you want to use it?” Xander asked, clearly reading his mind.
“I use this I’m out, like my brain is switched off. I’d like to be aware, know I’m home.” He looked up at Xander, beseechingly. “Feel your arms around me.”
Xander took the talisman from him and placed it carefully on the nightstand. Then he began divesting himself of his own clothes. “How about we see if I can keep the nightmares at bay?”
Blood, pleading eyes, Dru’s mad laughter assaulted his mind while guilt and pain threatened to smother him. Another sound started up, barely heard through the screams and recriminations. Deep voiced and reassuring the sound pulled him away from the nightly visitation of his past crimes, his victims baying for his blood. He became just aware enough to acknowledge delicious warmth pressed against one side, then slipped into more restful sleep.
When he awoke Xander was right beside him, watching him with an affectionate grin. “Afternoon, sleeping beauty.”
Spike squinted at the clock over Xander’s shoulder. It read 1:30. “Have you been here all day, luv?” Spike asked, incredulous. By that reckoning he’d been asleep nearly twelve hours.
“I’m sure the novelty of watching you sleep will wear off eventually,” Xander said, leaning in for a kiss. “But not anytime soon. I took the week off work just so I could indulge.”
Spike reflected that he didn’t deserve the man lying next to him, but he would do nothing to endanger the chance of staying right where he found himself.
“Please tell me you’ve eaten at least,” Spike admonished. He‘d expected another catnap, maybe two or three hours. “I can‘t believe I slept so long.”
“The girls made sure I got lunch. They all think you‘re cute asleep, by the way,” Xander teased. Spike wasn’t quite able to scowl at him properly. “You had a few bad dreams but a little judicious back rubbing and off key crooning put you back to sleep. Hungry?”
“Famished,” Spike allowed. He felt refreshed and ready to take on the day. He reached for his duffle only to find it gone. He was casting about the room, trying to determine where he'd dropped it when Xander cleared his throat pointedly. Spike raised an eyebrow at him.
“I unpacked for you,” he confessed. “It’s not like I didn’t know where stuff went.”
Spike couldn’t manage to pretend to mind. “Ta, luv.” He scrambled out of bed and got dressed enough to head upstairs. It felt good to pull freshly laundered clothes out of his own dresser. Xander had apparently made good use of his time and the washing machine while watching him sleep. The feeling of belonging practically overwhelmed him.
“Okay, that’s going to take some getting used to,” Xander declared.
“What?” Spike asked, confused.
“That was the same look you had last night, like everything was just too much,” Xander replied from his sprawl on the bed.
“That’s pretty much exactly what it is. The soul does more than torment, Xan. Wouldn’t be much point in getting one otherwise,” Spike pointed out matter of factly.
Xander seated himself cross legged on the bed as if anticipating a story. “What’s it like?”
Spike momentarily thought of misunderstanding or teasing him, but ultimately decided the subject was too important. “It’s like that bit in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy walks out of the farmhouse into all this deep, intense color. It’s going to take some adjusting.” Deeply flawed as the analogy was, Xander stared in something approaching awe at him. It probably did the trick for now, and he didn’t want to delve further on an empty stomach.
“Now you may have had lunch but I didn’t,” Spike said as he climbed the stairs.
He found Tara puttering in the kitchen. “Finally,” she said, sporting an impish smile. “I thought we would have to feed Xander dinner down there as well.”
“Sorry.” Spike smiled, not sorry at all. “Had a bit of a sleep deficit to make up.” He noted that Tara seemed more relaxed around him than she had the entire time they had known each other. Seemed the soul had a few extra benefits. “So, aura not as scary anymore?”
Tara ducked her head and grinned. “It’s similar to Angel’s actually.” She pulled a bottle out of the refrigerator and poured a mug brimful.
“Take that back!” Spike protested. “I’m nothing like Angel. Angel’s dull as a table lamp. And we have very different coloring.”
Tara chuckled and Spike scowled at her, which seemed to incite more laughter. Alarmed that she might spill the blood on herself Spike reached for it. “Let me take care of that. No need to wait on me.”
Tara deftly moved the mug away and into the microwave. “I want to,” she insisted. She set the timer and turned back to Spike and leaned back against the counter. “I meant that I can see the demon and the soul all twined together. The soul is a very pretty green with the demon twined around it. But you’re right, you are different from Angel. The demon struggles to overwhelm the soul in him, yours is more partnered. It’s fascinating, really.”
Spike very definitely didn’t want to hear about his fascinating aura. Thankfully, the microwave dinged at that moment and Tara handed him the mug. The smell reminded him of his growling stomach. He took the interruption for a convenient subject change. “Ta, luv. Will the Slayer and Wood be by tonight?”
He took a drink while Tara stammered. “They don’t have to be, if you’re not ready, that is, if you want to wait, we’d understand.”
Spike hid a smile in a second gulp of blood. Everyone falling over themselves to protect him amused him. But Spike never saw the point in putting necessary things off. This situation needed dealing with and better now than later. “So, they dropping by for dinner or what?”
“We could do dinner,” Tara allowed, still looking skeptical.
“It’s settled then,” Spike said with finality. Before he might have viewed Tara’s stammering and reluctance as weakness, now he appreciated the caring that it denoted. “Anyone else at home right now?”
“Dawn and Willow are both at school,” Tara accepted the subject change, with gratifying alacrity. “They should both be home soon though.”
Spike finished off his blood. “Good, didn’t get a chance to properly see everyone last night.”
Xander emerged from the basement behind him. “You’ll have lots of time to say hi to everyone. Not like you’re leaving again, right?” Xander said pointedly.
Spike had to grin at Xander’s emphatic declaration. “Not going anywhere,” he agreed. “Course, leaving wasn’t exactly my idea, as I recall.”
Xander’s shame faced expression took all the fun out of the teasing. “I’m sorry, Spike. I was a coward. I should have had more faith in you.”
Spike cupped Xander’s cheek. “I understand why you did it, luv. Took traveling to the other side of the world and a lot of pain and suffering but I understand now. And you were right.”
Xander’s eyes begged for forgiveness Spike found himself all too willing to give. “It was the right decision.”
Xander seemed to find what he sought in Spike’s eyes. Their lips met and the kitchen melted away. Spike pulled away, enjoying the look of stunned lust on Xander’s face. After a few seconds Xander found his voice. “You know, you’re all not sleep deprived and fed, how about rechristening the bedroom?”
Spike indulged in a somewhat less passionate kiss. “I would love to, but I need to go talk to Rupert before the Slayer and Wood get here.”
Xander looked sharply over at Tara. “They’re coming here?”
Tara shrugged. “Spike said he wanted to see them.”
“Are you sure?” Xander asked pointedly, illustrating perfectly why he needed to speak to Rupert. Everyone else tried to wrap him in cotton wool, he required a more dispassionate lay of the land.
“I’m very sure,” Spike said, giving Xander a reassuring smile. “I take it Rupert’s at the shop?”
“I just get you home and you’re already running off,” Xander complained with a ridiculously cute pout.
“I’ll be home in time for dinner, I promise,” Spike assured with a lecherous grin. “Don’t make plans for after dinner.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Xander agreed with a hopeful smile. After another few seconds he released Spike. “Yeah, he’s at the Magic Box.”
“I’ll see you soon,” he told Xander, nodded at Tara and headed out. He’d never feared the sun like most vampires, willing to risk flirting with the deadly rays to get where he wanted to go. The manhole twenty feet from the house helped as well.
He came up through the basement of the Magic Box without incident. Nothing nasty had moved into the sewers between the house and the shop in his absence, to his great relief.
Rupert was just finishing with a customer when he emerged from the back. “Spike! This is a surprise.” Rupert looked genuinely pleased to see him, which gratified him more than his reputation could stand. “I felt certain you and Xander would be making up for lost time.”
“I’ve got that scheduled a mite later,” Spike said with a grin. He glanced around the shop. A couple of customers browsed but it didn’t look busy. “I needed to talk to you.”
Rupert cast his own eye about the shop. “Certainly, should I close?”
“It’s not an impending apocalypse this time,” Spike assured. “Just some advice.”
Rupert smiled back and directed him to the table where so much Helllmouth business had been conducted. It afforded a reasonable view of the register while allowing for some small bit of privacy. Spike perched on the edge of the table. “In that case, how may I help you?”
“I need to know what the situation with Faith is? Are you her watcher now?” Spike watched a complex set of emotions cross Rupert’s face as he took off his glasses and examined them, as if they might require polishing.
Before he ever opened his mouth, Spike knew a few things with certainty. Rupert might guide and teach Faith but he’d never be the watcher to her that he’d been to Buffy, that part of him resided in the grave with her.
“As we are keeping Faith’s whereabouts secret from the Council, I suppose I am, after a fashion,” he allowed.
“You don’t seem too certain about it,” Spike prodded. “It sounds like she and Wood are a package deal and I may be about to piss Wood off mightily. I need to know what trouble I’m causing before I do more.”
“I see,” Rupert said, replacing his glasses. “It is a matter I have given some thought. Now that you have returned to defend the Hellmouth, your established territory, I fancy Faith and Robin may find it advantageous to move elsewhere. There is another Hellmouth in Cleveland I’m given to understand.”
Spike chuckled to himself, which caused Rupert to flash him a disapproving look. “I fail to see what is so amusing.”
“Just the irony,” Spike admitted, unsure if he was bitter or merely tired. “Faith is the slayer, the chosen one. By rights, everything should revolve around her. Yet here she is struggling to fit in with the previous slayer’s merry band of misfits. One of whom happens to be a recently souled vampire. Fate has one wicked sense of humor.”
Rupert dropped into a seat and stared into the shop, although Spike doubted he saw the milling customers. More likely he saw the golden haired girl who embodied the center of their small universe once upon a time. “I see what you mean,” Rupert said softly. “Faith has always stood apart. I’m unsure if she desires to be part of our family or not. Until she makes up her mind it is difficult to fully accept her.“ Then, proving that he never forgot an idle comment, added, “In what way are you expecting to piss Robin off.”
Spike found sitting still impossible for this conversation. He paced in front of the table. “I’m trying to decide what to say to him when I see him tonight.”
Rupert nodded encouragingly.
“On one hand, I won’t have many chances to apologize to the families of my victims. I hate squandering the opportunity. But the thing is, Nicki Wood’s death isn’t one I feel guilty about,” he explained.
At Rupert’s raised eyebrow he dropped into a chair, leaning forward in the intensity of his emotion. “She was a slayer, not some defenseless victim I lured into an alley to die. It was a fair, one on one fight. My toughest fight, until I met Buffy. I wouldn’t do it now, but I’m not ashamed and I don’t think I can pretend to be.”
This time Rupert did polish his glasses. “You realize, as a watcher, I have a different perspective.”
“I’m not saying I don’t regret it. Killing a mother with a little one at home, of course I do. Although, in my defense, slayer’s don’t usually come with a kid in tow. Damned irresponsible if you ask me.”
“I’m quite sure the Watcher’s Council agreed with you, fervently,” Rupert said with a sour expression.
“Be that as it may, she was the slayer, I was a vampire without a soul, not really reasonable to expect me to throw myself on her stake is it?” Spike pulled out the belligerent attitude like a protective cloak.
“I suppose not. Although I believe you actively sought her out.” Rupert’s superior knowledge irked Spike at times.
“Course I did, the rush of fighting someone that powerful, it intoxicated me. A fair fight, I won, broke her neck quick and clean. No torture, no threatening her loved ones, I’m not bloody Angelus,” Spike insisted, defensive despite himself. “I’ve done evil, Rupert, so much that it keeps me up screaming at night, feeling like I’m burning with the shame of it. But her death wasn’t evil.”
“I imagine one could view it as two enemy combatants,” Rupert allowed. “Are you asking for absolution?”
“No, I killed his mum, no one could forgive that. I want to know if I should leave, turn right back around and let Robin and Faith have this place. Go defend the Hellmouth in Cleveland or some such instead.”
The blow was unexpected and held enough force to knock him out of his chair. “How dare you,” Rupert intoned in a cold and deadly voice. “Everything you’ve put them through and you’d just flounce off and leave them again?”
Spike felt his jaw gingerly, staring up at Rupert towering over him. He didn’t move. “I don’t want to, I’m asking you if I should.”
Rupert crouched down before him. “Then listen well. Faith is a good slayer and Robin is an exceptional fighter, but neither of them fight with the heart and passion I know you can. Neither of them will throw all caution to the wind to protect any of the people you love. Are you still willing to leave?”
A growl started in the back of Spike’s throat, the thought of Xander, Willow or Tara being sacrificed to tactical expediency enraged him. “No!”
Rupert offered a hand up. “Good, I’m glad that is settled.”
Spike rode back to the house with Rupert, in plenty of time for dinner, as promised. Facing Wood still gave him pause, but ceding his place was off the table. Of course, they were the last to arrive.
Spike entered the house with Rupert at his shoulder. Conversation ceased when they walked in. Wood turned to face him, running his eyes up and down Spike as if searching for visible signs of the soul, eying the duster he wore. Spike drew himself up at the scrutiny, sparing a glance for Faith who stood at Wood’s elbow. She looked poised to attack in defense of her man. She needn’t bother, attacking the bloke held no appeal.
“Might as well get this over with,” Spike broke the silence. “Your mum was a great slayer. I won’t apologize for killing her, you couldn’t accept it and I can’t feel guilty enough to suit you. I was a different person then, not saying that as an excuse, just a fact. I know you want the coat, but I’m not giving it up, I’ve worn this for nearly thirty years, it’s part of me. Rest assured I will wear it carrying on her mission, I’m afraid that will have to do for comfort.”
Spike surveyed Wood’s stony face and wondered just what he could say to this man. In his typical fashion he winged it, not terribly interested in sugar coating the truth. “We can work together, we can avoid each other, or we can have it out once and for all, but I’m back to stay and I won’t be giving up my place.”
Spike risked taking his eyes off Wood to scan the other occupants of the room. Willow, Tara and Dawn were all frozen in place, possibly holding their breath. Xander’s gaze didn’t waver from Wood, clearly prepared to back Spike up if necessary.
Wood’s eyes flicked to Rupert behind Spike. Spike wasn’t foolish enough to turn around to follow his gaze and what he might see in the older watcher’s face was a mystery. Whatever it was, it decided him. He gave a sharp nod. “I’ll never forgive you, and I don’t trust you,” Wood began. “But they do.” He indicated the assembled Scoobies. “And that’s good enough for me to work with you.”
“Fair enough.” It was a considerably better outcome than he’d had any right to expect. The tension in the room was still ridiculously intense. He turned to Tara and clapped his hands together. “So, I imagine you’ve fixed something delicious.”
Xander fell into step next to him and Spike appreciated the sentiment too much to complain. He smiled at the table seating as people arranged for Wood and him to sit on opposite ends. It suited Spike as it afforded him a bit more time with Xander and Willow with Dawn and Tara serving as the buffer layer. He could tune into what Robin, Faith and Rupert discussed at the other end of the table, but his current companions interested him more. He relished his new perspective that allowed him to see them more fully as the people he loved when before the demon evaluated them accord to their utility.
“Okay, if you don’t want to talk about it I understand that,” Xander said, dishing up enough chicken cacciatore to feed a small army. “But I’m very curious. Bad dreams aside, you’re not brooding half as much as I thought you might. I mean, from what I understand, Angel hung out in alleys eating rats for a hundred years, and you seem, well, normal.”
Spike took a healthy helping of the stuffed hot peppers he suspected Tara made just for him while he contemplated his answer.
“Spike asked for the soul, Angel had his forced on him,” Willow postulated. “Tara told me about your aura.”
“That’s part of it,” Spike agreed. Obviously he needed to give this more thought as dropping the subject seemed unlikely.
“Spike just wasn’t as evil as Angelus,” Dawn stated authoritatively. “Not as much to atone for.”
As sweet as he found the assertion, Spike insisted on disabusing her of the notion. “Oh I did my fair share of evil, make no mistake. Has a bit more to do with our religious upbringing I think. See Angelus was Irish Catholic and I imagine he’s still trying to come up with an act of penitence that will come close to squaring him with eating his way through three nunneries that I know of. Not exactly the sort of thing that comes easily. I’m willing to bet he’s got a big board somewhere where he keeps a tally of all the people he’s saved.”
Xander snickered. “I’ll have to call Cordy and find out.”
“I didn’t see one while I was there,” Will said with a smile, “but it might have been hidden in an upstairs bedroom. So what’s so different about being Church of England?”
“For one thing, I don’t believe it’s possible to atone. My family were never Ritualists so we pretty much rely strictly on grace. When you’ve done as much wrong as I have, the fact that works won’t even get you halfway home becomes painfully clear. The regret burns just as deep, but the desperation isn’t as intense. And I happen to know Angel didn‘t spend all that time in alleys eating rats. I spent some quality time on the ocean floor thanks to him”
Calls for that story effectively changed the conversation as Spike intended it should. He still struggled to get his head around the forgiveness thing and discussing it around the dinner table wasn’t going to get it any straighter.
After dessert, he and Xander excused themselves for the promised alone time. Spike chose to ignore the look of disgust Wood threw their way. Much more pleasant things awaited him.
They barely got downstairs before the urge to feel bare skin overcame them both. Spike slipped his hands under Xander’s t-shirt, managing to slip it over his head before Xander could do the same for him. Getting rid of his own shirt took seconds and then they slammed together again, relearning each other’s mouths and fumbling to rid each other of their jeans. It took longer since they remained fused at the mouth while they kicked off shoes and stepped out of the rest of their clothes but that didn’t matter. They tumbled onto the bed together, hungry for each other, hands roaming purposefully to map newly revealed skin.
Spike found himself drawn to the juncture of Xander’s neck and shoulder, the faint outline of where he’d bitten before remained, marking the skin like a brand of ownership. Spike fastened his mouth on the spot, sucking and licking, contemplating biting again.
Xander tilted his head to the side, running a hand down his spine. “Anything you want, Spike. I’m all yours.”
Xander relaxed beneath him, offering his body for Spike’s pleasure. The demon inside howled in triumph at the submission, but the demon didn’t get unfettered control anymore. Xander’s submission carried the taint of premeditation to it and Spike wanted to know what idea had crawled into that shaggy head. With difficulty and regret he pulled himself far enough away to look Xander in the eye. “We playing a game, luv?”
Xander looked back with earnest sincerity and shook his head. “No game. Anything you want, it’s yours. There’s a soul torturing your demon, and I’m happy to give you anything you need to make the demon okay with that.” Xander gave a wry smile. “Being dominated by you isn’t actually a hardship, you know.”
Spike framed Xander’s face with his hands, kissing him softly. “Oh my brave, lovely boy,” he said, his heart choking him at the gift Xander wanted to give him. “We can do that, hell yes, we can do that, but not to appease the demon, and I had something else in mind for tonight, something long overdue.”
With that Spike rolled them so that Xander lay on top, nestled between Spike’s thighs. “I thought you could steer tonight.”
Bewilderment clouded Xander’s eyes for a moment, but was rather quickly replaced with lust as Spike arched beneath him to get him on the proper page. Spike loved that Xander didn’t waste time questioning his choice, but attacked his neck with blunt teeth, hands kneading Spike’s ass and pulling their bodies closer together as they rutted against each other.
Xander’s passion crashed over Spike and he gave himself up to the pure pleasure of the experience. Originally, he'd intended to give this to Xander as a gift, recompense for Xander’s acceptance of the demon’s need to dominate and control. As it happened, giving Xander the dominant role was no hardship for him either.
“God,” Xander gasped. “I’m not sure I can last long enough to get inside you.”
“I have faith in your stamina,” Spike whispered in his ear and shimmied against Xander, making him shudder.
“Not fair,” Xander gritted out, hips thrusting forward involuntarily.
Spike got his hand on Xander’s cock, gave it a squeeze and a twisting stroke and felt his hand and chest covered in warm and wet while Xander shivered in aftershock.
“Bastard,” Xander mumbled without heat into Spike‘s shoulder. “I’d really counted on lasting longer than that.”
“So,” Spike purred in challenge. “Now you can take your time and do it properly.”
Xander opened one eye to glare at Spike. It lacked effectiveness coupled with his sated expression. Just to prove his point Xander continued to lie prone across Spike for a full minute. Spike had no objection, luxuriating iin Xander’s warmth like a particularly heavy but comfortable blanket.
With a put upon sigh, Xander eventually heaved himself up. “My steering looks suspiciously like you steering from here.”
Spike spread his arms wide across the bed. “No more interfering on my part, I promise.” He couldn’t quite suppress the smug smile that crossed his face. He’d never imagined how delicious being loved this way could be.
Xander appeared to be considering breaking out the restraints, not that Spike would object to that either. Xander climbed off the bed to rummage in the nightstand, moments later he triumphantly produced a tube of lube.
“Hm, I have you at my mercy and time to play,” Xander said, clearly finding the prospect appealing. “Let’s see how your stamina holds out.”
Xander proceeded to tease and torment him mercilessly and Spike wondered why he had denied himself the pleasure of being at Xander’s mercy before. Xander was relentless, ramping him up and then pulling back just before he reached completion. Spike soaked up the attention and stayed true to his word, he gave no directions and kept his hands busy caressing tanned skin instead of guiding Xander where he wanted him. Although the former took a not inconsiderable amount of willpower as Xander had him dancing on the edge Spike longed to fall over.
Spike decided that begging didn’t count as steering and, eventually, Xander deemed Spike prepped to his satisfaction. Spike keened in pleasure as Xander slid home.
Xander seemed stuck on the theme of slow and gentle. “Xander,” Spike drew his name out to extra syllables. “You’re killing me here.”
Xander smirked and reminded him, “You’re already dead.” Then he leaned in for a long kiss, pressing Spike more firmly into the bed.
But mercy tempered his smugness and he picked up the pace of his thrusting, getting a nice angle that had Spike writhing in ecstasy. Xander arched his neck in clear invitation. “Some participation here Spike?“ Xander asked, as if there was a chance Spike could resist at this point. Spike sank his fangs deep into the muscle, Xander’s rich taste flooded his mouth and he spilled all over himself. After a few more erratic thrusts Xander followed suit, managing to roll off Spike before he collapsed.
They lay there limp and sated. “You definitely get to drive more often,” Spike declared, idly running his fingers over Xander’s chest.
Xander’s goofy grin solidified that resolve. “I had fun. As long as you’re sure.”
Spike saw that Xander still had reservations about the soul’s effect on him. Time to put those to rest, and he finally thought he had the words to do it. “The soul isn’t a prison, Xander. For the first time I understand you.” Spike laid his hand over Xander’s heart. “Truly understand you. I love you and the girls better.” He stumbled, that not being exactly the word he wanted. “More fully than I did before. Everything is richer now, I appreciate things I couldn’t before. I didn’t get the soul for you, I got it for me. Because however much it hurts, a human soul is an infinitely precious thing.”
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