Xander seethed as he shut himself into his bedroom. Spike didn’t trust him. He’d laid himself bare for the vampire, thrown out years of justified hatred of the undead to place himself at the mercy of a creature without any. How dare Spike not trust him?
He wished he had a nice wrecking project to work on. This was the perfect mood for taking a sledgehammer to a wall or chopping firewood. Sunset was still a couple hours away, patrolling might be good. He could call Giles, see if he was up for some light violence.
He rang up the shop.
“Magic Box, how may I help you?”
“Hey Giles, you up for keeping Sunnydale safe for fast food and oblivious teenagers tonight?”
“Xander? I need to put together an order tonight. Do you have reason to believe it’s necessary? Patrols have been extremely quiet of late.”
Xander briefly considered manufacturing some hot tip to entice the watcher out with him. “Nah, just wanted to stretch the slaying muscles tonight.”
Assured there was no apocalypse bearing down on them the watcher’s voice grew distracted. “Why don’t you and Spike sweep the cemeteries then?”
Just what he needed, alone time with Spike. “Maybe, or maybe I’ll take the bot for a shakedown cruise.”
“Fine. I’m afraid I’m rather swamped at the moment. Good hunting, Xander.”
Xander said goodbye to a dead phone line.
The bot was a possibility, it was safer than going out alone, but the thing put his teeth on edge, and he couldn’t rely on it to watch his back the way he would any of the gang. Still, it was better than sitting and fuming.
It wasn’t quite dusk yet and, he wasn’t all that jazzed about asking Willow to fire up the bot for him. Dinner sounded like the perfect stall. With exams, study sessions and general insanity, family dinners were on hold. Tara had finally thrown up her hands and bought a freezer full of semi-healthy TV dinners. Xander grabbed something non-dietary and shoved it in the microwave. He didn’t feel like hanging around: too much chance of an encounter with Spike, and he’d said all he had to say to the blond menace for the time being.
He talked himself out of a beer with difficulty. In this mood one would lead to another, and then patrol would be out, and he’d be stuck at the house thinking all night. Nothing good could come of that. So instead he sipped on a Coke and stared at the timer counting down.
He’d just settled at the table with his sirloin tips and pasta when Spike emerged from the basement and made a beeline for the fridge. He rummaged for a second before pulling out a carton of pig’s blood. It wasn’t as if he had to waste time debating what to eat.
Xander hunkered down over his dinner and tried to pretend he was alone in the room. Spike didn’t seem inclined to allow that. He sprawled on the chair opposite Xander brandishing his mug of blood his direction. Xander had long since ceased to be grossed out by Spike’s eating habits. He wondered if it was a sign of mental collapse when you found a blood moustache cute.
“You up for a spot of patrolling tonight?” Spike asked as if nothing had happened earlier.
“I thought I’d take the bot to Restfield, might be some vamp activity over there,” Xander answered with a pointed glare. The bot was pretty good Spike repellent, and he wanted a large can of it right now.
Spike tipped his chair back on two legs, a study in nonchalance. “The witches going with you?”
Xander stabbed an elusive piece of meat with more violence than was strictly necessary. “No. Just me and the bot, feel free to hit the other side of town.”
The legs of the chair gave a sharp report as all four feet hit the kitchen tile at once. “The bot isn’t enough back up. Not for Restfield. You want to patrol with it, take the west side of town.”
Intrigued in spite of himself, Xander lay his fork by his mostly finished supper and leaned forward to ask, “What’s so special about Restfield?”
“It’s my territory,” Spike said as if Xander were particularly slow for needing this explained to him. “Any big nasty looking to challenge me is going to head there.”
“Cause you’re the local sheriff and the bad guys want to call you out,” Xander chuckled, picturing Spike in a white hat. He tossed the disposable tray and dropped the silverware in the sink. It was time to get moving.
“Something like that, do you listen at all when I talk to you?” Spike chastened, twisting around to follow Xander’s movements. “Far as the demon world is concerned I’m currently master of the Hellmouth and every tin pot nut job is looking to take a poke at yours truly. Tasty snack like you comes along they consider it a bonus.”
First Spike doesn’t trust him, now he insults his fighting ability. Looked like all that progress he thought they’d made was just an illusion. “Thanks for your concern, but I need something to hit tonight, and Restfield is the only place that promises any action. If I run across any of your fan club I’ll give them your regards.” His own misgivings about going out with just the bot pushed to the side, he headed up to get Willow to power the thing up.
Half an hour later he was reassessing that stance. The bot sashayed through the graveyard without any caution. Xander trailed in its wake, responding only occasionally to its string of babble. It didn’t seem to notice, which was fine by him. He was more concerned with tuning it out and scanning their surroundings for possible signs of attack. One of the adjustments that needed to be made to the programming was the lack of defense of teammates. All teammates that weren’t Spike at least.
In retrospect, he thought it was possible he should have listened to Spike about patrolling this cemetery with nothing but the bot for backup. Especially since he was fairly certain they were being followed by something. He didn’t hear anything, and only got a glimpse of something bright through the trees twice. Mostly it was an itching between his shoulder blades of being watched. He’d been heading to the older part of the cemetery as they walked, hoping to get amongst the bigger crypts that dotted that section before whatever it was got tired of playing cat and mouse.
Off to the right he caught another flash of something bright reflecting moonlight. Whatever it was, it was fast. Just what was gunning for Spike out here? If there were contenders for king of the Hellmouth what was Spike doing coming out here without back up?
A sufficiently large mausoleum came into view on their left, he grabbed the bot and motioned it to follow him around the side of the large structure. There was no other cover in its immediate vicinity. Their stalker would have to come around one of the sides or over the top. In either case there were enough dead leaves on the ground here that it would be hard to get close without making some noise. He set the bot to watching the less likely approach and waited.
He flattened himself against the cold granite wall, adjusting his grip on the haft of his axe while he waited for whatever it was to approach. He heard a rustle of leaves and motioned the bot to remain still. He was pretty sure it would attack if he screamed loud enough when he came face to face with the big nasty. At the moment, he hoped to get in one good hit before it knew they were lying in wait.
From the sound it had to be almost to the corner of the mausoleum. Xander sprang out with his axe already arcing in at chest height.
He barely managed to stop it mid-swing. “Spike!” he shouted in disgust.
“Careful with that thing,” Spike cautioned, leaping back. “You just about took my head off.”
Xander gritted his teeth. He should have known, how could Spike sneak up on anyone with those combat boots he habitually wore? He gripped the axe tighter to conceal the way his hands shook as he realized just how close he came to decapitating Spike. “It’s no more than you deserve if you want to sneak up on people like that.”
“Spike!” the bot chirped. “Have you come to patrol with us?”
Xander and Spike winced in tandem.
“I think there was a big nasty demon over by Riverbend,” Spike said in encouraging tones to the bot. “Go. Slay.”
“I’ll teach him to rampage in my town,” it said brightly and strode off to slay.
Xander narrowed his eyes at Spike. “That was dirty pool.” They had long since discovered that issuing contradictory commands to the bot caused it to shut down.
Spike smirked unrepentantly. “You ‘bout finished here?”
“I am now,” Xander growled. It had been a frustrating night all the way around. Spike following them was the only action there’d been all night. The whole excursion had given his ire no outlet, and he felt like a too taut bow string.
Spike slouched against the mausoleum wall. “No need to rush off on my account.”
“Yes, there is, don’t you get that, Spike? I don’t want to see you,” Xander ground out.
“That’ll be tough, living in the same house and all. Not like avoiding each other is going to solve anything,” Spike said in a voice that sounded far too mature for the hyperactive vampire.
“It’ll keep me from punching you in the face, for one thing,” Xander cautioned. He needed time and space to cool off. He really needed Spike to get out of his face with this grown up act that made him feel like a kid having a tantrum.
“This should be easier than I thought,” said a dry, deep voice from the other side of the mausoleum. Xander raised his axe to battle readiness, his argument with Spike forgotten for the moment. A tall, lean, reptilian creature strode around the structure, three others of its kind fanned out behind him.
Out of the corner of his eye Xander noticed Spike tense briefly before adopting an exaggeratedly casual air. “How’s that, then?”
“Anyone who allows their minions to show such disrespect can’t be much of a leader,” the creature responded in a mild tone.
“I’m not a minion,” Xander insisted. He felt petty the minute the words were out of his mouth.
Spike was lighting up a cigarette as if he was standing on the front porch discussing the weather. “Got no use for minions. Unreliable lot.” It felt like Spike was talking more to him than to the demons, but Xander couldn’t take his eyes off the demons long enough to be sure.
The head reptile demon snorted and sauntered closer. “The Slayer is elsewhere. I think my boys and I can take you and your lone minion,” he taunted, putting emphasis on the refuted word.
“I’m thinking not,” Spike said in the same lazy tone, drawing on his cigarette.
“Still not a minion,” Xander added with a growl, switching his anger at Spike to these new targets.
Two of the henchmen began to circle around behind them, and Xander shifted with them, taking a position at Spike’s back.
“They’re not that tough,” Spike related conversationally, “but they’re quick.”
Xander wished he had a sword rather than the heavy axe but quick short jabs should hold them back fairly well. “Poison?” he asked, remembering the Graknor with a shudder.
“Naw, but they are toothy buggers.” Then he tossed his cigarette aside. As if that was a signal of some kind, the demons pounced on them.
Xander managed to keep the two facing him back with a few swings of the axe. They ducked and swayed out of the way with no trouble, but they didn’t get any closer either. Winning wasn’t the goal here, all he had to do was keep them occupied and stay alive until Spike finished the other two.
The one on his right leapt forward, and he jabbed his axe at it, trying to keep it back. In his peripheral vision he saw the one on his left maneuver to attack Spike from behind. It looked like it might work too. Spike was wholly engaged with the leader of this little band, sparing no attention for what was going on behind him. Xander had a horrifying flash of the demon ripping into Spike’s undefended back and leaped on it, ignoring the demon that had been trying to engage him.
Taken by surprise, the demon caught the axe blade square in the back and was pinned to the ground before it could wheel on its attacker.
Remembering his other opponent, Xander spared a glance behind him. He was just in time to witness Spike breaking the neck of the leader before spinning to face their last opponent. Said opponent had taken the moment that Xander leaping away gave him to survey the new situation. With his three compatriots down he took the better part of valor and fled.
“Should we let it get away?” Xander asked while dispatching the demon he’d pinned. It was immensely satisfying to bury the axe blade in the prone demon’s neck. He wouldn’t mind chasing the last one down to repeat the process.
Spike leaned forward with his hands on his knees as if he were winded. “Might as well, can’t hurt the rep. We’ll be ten feet tall and breathe fire by the time that one’s through telling his tale.”
Xander wiped the sweat from his face with a shirt sleeve and redirected his murderous urges to Spike. “What the hell did you think you were doing?”
Spike moved to lean against the wall of a crypt and said in all innocence. “Don’t know what you mean.”
Xander kept up his scowl as he indicated the dead demon at his feet. “This guy nearly had you. You weren’t paying any attention to what was happening behind you.”
It was some of Spike’s most prevalent combat advice. Always be aware of the location of all your opponents, shift your ground to keep them in sight.
Calmly Spike replied, “Didn’t have to, did I? Knew you had my back.”
Breathing hard, adrenaline still pumping, Xander tried to decide if he wanted to punch Spike out for nearly getting killed or kiss him senseless. That Spike trusted him, and his fighting ability, enough to leave himself completely exposed like that had him bursting with pride. It was also as close to an apology as Spike was ever likely to give him.
He turned from the bodies of the three demons to Spike lounging against the crypt wall. At least it seemed like the blond was lounging, until closer inspection revealed a twitching leg and tapping fingers as hints of nervousness. How long had it been since Spike could really trust anyone? How hard was it for him to try?
Mind made up, Xander stepped over the body at his feet to press himself up against the vampire. He took that beautiful, angular face in his hands and pressed a soft, tender kiss to his mouth.
One of Spike’s hands slid into his hair, the other arm came around his waist; both pulled him closer. The kiss turned hard and hungry and was in serious danger of becoming x-rated in the middle of the cemetery.
They parted when Xander needed to gasp for breath. “My crypt’s five minutes away,” Spike offered.
“Think we can wait that long?” Xander mocked with a smile.
Spike grinned back. “Could be there in three if we run.”
They took off, dodging or springing over tombstones in their path like they were five years old. They slammed into the crypt laughing like schoolboys as they tumbled together onto the floor. Xander gasped for breath while still chortling.
Spike recovered faster and started tugging at Xander’s shirt as he resumed their interrupted kissing. Spike took the pause necessitated by pulling his t-shirt over his head to pull them toward the trap door to the lower level.
“Got a bed, might as well use it,” he suggested as he dropped into the lower level.
Xander struggled out of his own t-shirt and followed by way of the ladder. A twisted ankle would so ruin the whole evening.
By the time he made it down the ladder Spike had divested himself of the last of his clothing and flung himself on the bed. He gave Xander a come hither look, and Xander was all too eager to comply. As he dived in for more passionate, devouring kisses while they both tore at his fly.
As the last of the clothing exited stage right, Spike reached to fondle Xander’s exposed cock only to have his hand slapped aside.
“My turn,” Xander said with a mischievous smile and slid down to nibble at Spike’s collarbone, pinning the blond to the bed with his body. Spike subsided, letting his hands smooth over Xander’s back and shoulders instead. Xander kissed his way down the center of the pale chest beneath him, a definite destination in mind. His fingers danced over Spike’s ribs and stomach looking for things that would make him moan. He grinned when he succeeded and laughed when Spike jerked and glowered when he hit a ticklish spot. He filed the latter locations away for future reference.
Eventually he reached his goal and had Spike’s tumescent cock against his lips. He gave the underside an experimental lick and was gratified by the twitch and moan his effort initiated.
“You’re killing me here, Xander,” he groaned.
“Not yet I’m not,” Xander corrected and took the head into his mouth.
He licked, nibbled and hummed “Rubber Ducky” while Spike writhed. Please and yes and more spilled from Spike’s mouth, along with incoherent sounds that might have been words or might have been groans, but it was all encouragement and highly ego-stroking. Xander’s mouth was too full to smile but there was an ear to ear grin lurking in his head. Ignoring his own erection in favor of fondling Spike’s balls and perineum, Xander pressed his tongue right there. Score! He made the Big Bad pant.
A little more suction, a slightly firmer stroke and he was tasting essence of Spike on his tongue. He swallowed and sat back on his heels, immensely pleased with himself.
Spike raised up on his elbows and peered down the length of the bed. “You think you’re all that and a bag of chips, don’t you?” Spike growled.
Xander’s earsplitting grin had taken up residence on his face. “Umm hmm.”
“Come here, you.” A grin now lighted Spike’s features as he levered himself up, caught Xander under the arms, and tossed him on his back onto the bed, where the brunet laughed as he bounced.
On the second bounce Spike inhaled Xander’s erection, and the laugh turned into a gasp. The advantages inherit in having a lover who didn’t need to breathe immediately apparent. Xander dug his hands into the bedding to keep from grabbing Spike’s head. Pleasure shot through him as Spike hummed what sounded like “God Save the Queen” and swallowed. Xander exploded in embarrassingly short order. He may have babbled something about Spike being the god of blowjobs.
Afterwards he lay there trying to recollect his scattered brain cells and wondering if his legs would work. Spike flopped beside him, and they lay in sated repose for a couple minutes.
“What do you say to round two?” Spike asked with a waggle of his eyebrows. He drew designs on the side of Xander’s neck with his tongue to add persuasiveness to his position.
“I say, I’d love to but we can’t.” One more session and the inevitable post coital nap would take them well into time for the girls to worry. Reluctantly, he shoved the sulking blond away. “Put the lip away, if we don’t get home the girls will think something ate us on patrol.”
“Best run home then, hadn’t you,” Spike said as he moved to the other side of the bed.
“Not like we don’t have beds at home, bleach brain,” he responded, happy to be sailing easily through the shoals of relationship disaster now that he knew what was bugging his lover.
“Yeah?” There was careful hope in Spike’s eyes, as if he expected to be shot down.
“Yeah,” Xander chided. “Gotta tell Willow first. Best friend privilege and all that. Besides, she’d probably turn me into a stink beetle if anyone else found out before her.”
“So, you’re thinking what?” It was a little disconcerting how Spike was leaving the whole big reveal up to him.
“We’ve got a Scooby meeting Tuesday night, want to just make an announcement?” he suggested as he pried himself off the bed and reached for his jeans.
“They’re not going to like it,” Spike warned, maintaining a position of neutral repose on the bed.
Xander finished zipping up his pants and leaned down for a kiss. “We’re making an announcement, not asking for permission.”
The way Spike stared at him made Xander wonder what miracle he had just performed. “You really mean that, don’t you?”
Spike crawled off the bed and started gathering his clothes. There was a lightness to him that hadn’t been there a moment before. Xander just shook his head and headed up the ladder for the rest of his clothing. This had been one of Anya’s charms as well: it was so very easy to make them happy.
Not that Xander wasn’t pretty darn happy himself, even if they had to settle for a quickie this time. There would be time in the future for long sessions. Their relationship had a future now and that pleased Xander inexpressibly. Pleased as he was, he hadn’t forgotten that Spike had been taking foolish chances.
Spike joined him on the upper level as he was putting on his shoes, and Xander asked with deceptive nonchalance. “So, those clowns tonight typical of the guys wanting to take over the Hellmouth?”
“One or two are tougher, most of them are even more pathetic,” Spike said offhandedly.
Something in that sentence really bothered Xander, but he’d inquire further before exploding. That in mind he casually asked. “So, how often does this happen?”
“Once or twice a week,” Spike responded, unaware there was any problem whatsoever.
“And you were planning to tell the rest of us this when?” Xander growled.
Unperturbed, Spike strode to the crypt entrance and held the door open, motioning Xander out. Xander stomped past him but continued to stare his direction as if he could will an answer from him.
“Soon as there was a threat I couldn’t handle,” Spike answered as he started walking toward home.
“Which would be about the time some big nasty ripped your head off,” Xander vehemently declared. “You’re part of a team now, no more lone wolf patrols. Besides, I’d be really ticked if you got yourself dusted.”
There was no hint of repentance on Spike’s face. He seemed more amused than anything else. “Planning on watching my back full time?”
Xander ogled the back in question briefly; he could think of worse occupations. He forced his eyes back up to Spike’s face. This was important and it wouldn’t do to let himself get distracted. “We all watch each other’s backs here. You don’t go out alone again.”
“And if everyone’s too busy?”
It had been hard for anyone to find time to patrol the past few weeks, it had been easy to just let Spike take up the slack. That came to a screeching halt right now. “Then you don’t go out either.”
That made the vampire’s jaw drop. “You’re suggesting we leave the whole freaking Hellmouth unguarded?”
Xander was inordinately pleased with the reaction he’d elicited. “If necessary. You realize I can still tie you to a chair if I need to.”
Spike took the provocative bait like Xander knew he would. “Sure you can’t think of something more interesting to tie me to?”
“That depends, you going to play be the rules?” Sensing victory, Xander struggled to keep a smile off his face.
“Better check with the others on that one,” Spike cautioned.
“We will, Tuesday night.”
“Fine,” Spike said in a longsuffering tone that Xander was fairly certain was insincere.
“Good, I’ll go with you tomorrow and Monday.”
“That mean I get to bend you over a tombstone?” Spike leered.
“Could be,” Xander allowed, letting his grin out to play.
Not being suicidal, Xander waited until Willow’s exams were over before approaching her with his news. In the meantime, he and Spike patrolled, with benefits. It was fun in an illicit pleasure kind of way, but Xander found he was looking forward to getting the announcing out of the way.
After work Monday, he rushed home. Willow’s last final would be finished, and he’d have an hour or two when he could catch her alone. He slipped in the front door, noting the quiet of the house with nervous anticipation. The door to Willow and Tara’s room was ajar and he leaned in to find Willow working on her laptop.
“So, all examed out?” Xander asked with hope in his voice.
Willow nodded. “Just getting caught up on the state of weird in Sunnydale the last two weeks,” she said. “I kinda let that slip while I was studying.”
“Mind if I?” He indicated the room in general, if she was in the middle of something, this might not be the best time to talk.
“Pull up a bed, I can do this later.” She closed the laptop and gave him her full attention with a smile. “Something’s up,” she surmised, taking in his fidgeting.
Xander sank onto the bed, leaning against the headboard. He’d gone over what to say multiple times in the past two days. Now that it got to the point he couldn’t think how to start. “I wanted to tell you something, tell you first, and I’m not sure how you’re going to take it.”
Her gaze softened and she gave him an inviting smile. “You can tell me anything, silly. You know that.”
Just like that, she was his Willow, the one who loved him more than anyone else. Things hadn’t been that way for awhile, too much had come between them, but the bedrock was still there underneath. He smiled back, at ease. “Even that Spike and I are having illicit sex in graveyards?”
She started to laugh, then caught a better look at his face. “You’re not joking are you?”
“Nope,” he said with a pop. A grin split his face. He couldn’t help it; it felt so good to have it out in the open.
Willow, on the other hand, looked to be hyperventilating. He reached across and grasped her hand. “Wills, you okay?”
She stared at him like he’d grown another head. “Want to give a girl some warning before you turn her world upside down,” she complained, half joking, as she squeezed his hand back.
“Not upside down, just a little askew,” he dissembled.
“Uh huh, in one sentence you tell me you’re gay, Spike’s gay and you’ve gone from hating vampires to sleeping with them. That’s upside down, buddy,” she assured.
“Hey, still liking the women parts!” he protested. For an instant, he let himself imagine what he, Anya and Spike might have been like together. It was a nice visual, even if it was tinged with regret. “I’ve just gotten – flexible. I still hate Angel. Does that help?”
“Little Xanny in love with a vampire,” she quipped, seeming to find her footing at last in this strange conversation.
“Whoa, who said anything about love?”
Willow arched an eyebrow at him. “You’re not much for casual sex, Xand,” she spoke with the authority of long acquaintance.
“It’s not casual, it’s just--” Not for the first time, Xander wondered why women had to define things that did well enough without definition. He grappled with putting something he understood in his gut into words. “We’ve been through some intense stuff together. We’ve got a manly kind of bond going on, where we watch each other’s backs between bouts of incredibly hot sex.” His smile wavered when he saw this explanation was not budging his audience. “We’ve both lost the great loves of our lives, Wills. We’re not looking to replace them.”
Willow shook her head and gave Xander an annoyingly pitying look. “You don’t think he loves you, do you? You deserve better than that.”
“Wills, it’s not a matter of what I deserve,” he objected as he got up to pace. “Spike’s last serious relationship lasted over 100 years. He’s a long haul kind of guy, but he can’t have his long haul with me. He’s an immortal creature, I’m a human on the Hellmouth. There’s every chance I’ll be dead before I hit thirty. We understand each other, we have something good going. It’s enough.”
He stopped pacing to drop to his knees in front of her. Taking her hands he stared into her eyes, willing her to understand. “I’m happy, Wills, happier than I’ve been since Anya died. Can you be happy for me?”
Willow closed her eyes for a second, as if she was gathering her strength. When she opened them again there was a quiet sadness in them that he couldn’t quite comprehend. “It’s going to take some getting used to, but I think I can.”
Everyone was seated around the dinning room table munching pizza, except for Spike, who kept hovering behind Xander’s chair. Xander picked a piece of pepperoni off his pizza and popped it in his mouth. He was too nervous to do more than nibble. This was his family, they loved him, but this was a pretty hefty bombshell he was about to drop on them. Willow had taken it fairly well, but she was pretty stunned. Now that she’d had time to think about it she might be ready to torpedo him.
He risked a glance her direction and saw her placidly eating her pizza, fingers entwined with Tara’s. She wasn’t looking his direction at all.
Giles began to ask Willow if she’d been able to catch up on the police reports. This was his moment. If he got the announcement in before the serious Scooby business, he could distract them with monsters when things got too hairy.
“Just a sec, Giles,” Xander interrupted. “Before we get neck deep in the monster mash I’d like--” He paused as he felt Spike’s hand rest lightly on his shoulder, it eased him to know he wasn’t here alone. “That is, we’d like to say something now that we’re all here.”
Everyone eyed him curiously. Willow gave him a reassuring smile. “Spike and I are together. Thought you’d want to know.”
Spike sniggered at his abrupt news, and he knew he’d be hearing about his lack of finesse later. “Sorry Giles, what were you asking?” Spike’s hand moved to the nape of his neck and, ever so slightly, Xander leaned back into the caress.
About then Giles regained use of his voice. “What has caused you to take leave of your senses this time?”
Tara was still mute but looked utterly horrified. Dawn’s expression was more hurt and confused.
Giles sprang from his chair, whipping the glasses from his face. He paced about the living room as he attempted to determine exactly when the spell had befallen Xander.
Xander knew it was hopeless but tried to dispel the idea anyway. “Nope, got all the senses I had before. My brain has been neither folded, spindled nor magically altered.”
Spike had moved toward Dawn. He crouched down to whisper something to her about Xander’s wardrobe. All he was sure about was that the moment shopping was mentioned Dawn’s face lit up, and she was practically bouncing in her seat. It looked like Spike had her well in hand.
“This is wrong, Xander.” Tara insisted. “He’s a vampire, his aura is black. Do you know what that means?”
“Stop it, all of you!” Willow’s voice rose above the din.
Willow so rarely shouted that her outburst brought immediate silence. Xander grabbed Spike’s arm, keeping him close. If things were about to take a turn for the ugly Xander wanted him where he could see him, no fair sinking into the nearest wall.
“There’s no spell, Giles.” She turned apologetic eyes on Xander. “I’m sorry, Xander, I had to check, just to make sure.”
As many times as one of them had done crazy stuff under the influence of spell or possession he could hardly blame her. “It’s fine, Wills.”
“I hated Cordelia,” there was still a touch of disapproval in the look she shot at Xander. “I thought you were insane to date her, I mean you were treasurer of the we hate Cordelia club.”
Xander was pretty sure he was never going to live that one down. Willow’s dislike for Cordy was too deep seated. She couldn’t really see that there was another side to the cheerleader apart from the cutting remarks and superior attitude.
Willow ducked her head in shame at her next words, “I didn’t like Anya much better. I never really gave her a chance.” She fidgeted, clasping and unclasping her hands as she tried to get her words out. Typically, they burst forth in a rush. “She wasn’t the type of person I thought my best friend should be involved with. Turns out I’m a big dummy, cause she’s who Xander wanted and now it’s too late, and I missed out on being there for him when he really needed me.” Willow bowed her head and took a shuddering breath like she might start crying. Xander wanted to go to her but was reluctant to release his hold on Spike.
After a second, Willow looked up again, eyes bright with unshed tears, and continued on. “Xander saw something in her, and Cordelia,” she added grudgingly, “that I didn’t, something that made him love them, and I respect his judgment.”
She chuckled a bit and glanced at Xander’s grip on Spike’s arm before giving Spike her full attention. “Actually, you have a lot in common with them. Guess you’re his type.”
She paused for a breath and then turned more serious. “You were there for him when I wasn’t. Thank you. Welcome to the family and don’t hurt him.”
Although Willow’s little speech seemed to have made no impact on either Giles’s sour expression or Tara’s unhappy hand wringing it had completely melted Xander’s heart.
“Appreciate the vote of confidence,” Spike said, sinking into the chair next to Xander at long last.
Xander couldn’t contain himself with words and leaned over to hug her fiercely. “You’re the best, Wills. The absolute best.” Then he whispered, for her ears alone. “This is when I needed you most, you always come through for me.”
“And don’t you forget it, mister,” she replied, dashing tears from her cheeks.
“As impassioned as that all was,” Giles said like a whole vat of cold water as he rubbed the bridge of his nose, glasses dangling from his hand. “I am not convinced of Xander’s good judgment in this matter. It would be unwise to rule out the possibility of thrall. Drusilla was quite adept at it, after all.”
With Willow on their side Spike seemed to have lost his reticence. “Can’t do thrall, Rupert. Never had the knack. Besides, you know what it’s like to be under the influence. Does he look it to you?”
Giles glared at him to no effect. “I’m warning you, Spike. If this is some nefarious scheme of yours—“
Spike leaned back in his chair, totally at ease. “Only nefarious scheme I had was to get in Harris’s knickers. Worked too.”
Willow blushed furiously. “Spike, young ears in the room,” she hissed.
“Oh please,” Dawn insisted with an eye roll. “Like it wasn’t obvious they were doing it. I just wonder—“
“No, no, a thousand times no,” Xander cut her off, waving his hands desperately. “There will be no wondering, ever.” A distraction was definitely in order. “Come on, isn’t anyone surprised I’m macking on a man?”
Giles glared at him, “Frankly Xander, after I observed you eyeing Wesley’s arse I despaired of you having any discernment in your sexual preferences.”
“Hey,” Xander protested. “That was just checking out the competition!”
Dawn heaved an aggrieved sigh and let it drop. Distraction accomplished.
During this exchange Xander took note of Tara slinking away from the table. This news wasn’t going over with her. Willow noticed her moving away and tried to lay a comforting hand on her. Tara jerked away from her touch and fled up the stairs. Willow looked ready to cry again.
Xander was intensely grateful for Willow’s support, but he’d never forgive himself if it damaged her relationship with Tara.
“Spike is an evil, soulless creature who revels in causing misery and destruction,” Giles insisted, leaning forward over the back of a dining room chair.
“Well, yeah,” Xander allowed. “Not telling me anything I didn’t know. I’m a big boy, Giles. I’m not being magically influenced so this is my decision to make. Let’s get back to the topic at hand.”
“Which is? I’ve quite forgotten in this rash of insanity.” Giles said with deep sarcasm as he sank back into his chair.
Spike had moved over to a distraught Willow and was whispering something to her. They both cast quick glances up the stairs so he assumed they were discussing Tara. He wanted to be over there, doing the comforting thing and smoothing the problems between his two favorite witches. Then he saw something Spike said make her smile, just a little, and he had to concede Spike seemed to be doing fine on his own. He plastered on a smile and addressed Giles. “Hellmouth business, what else?”
“Duh, Giles,” Dawn chirped. She was getting far too much enjoyment out of the chaos. “Did you forget why you called this meeting?”
“Spike and I have been patrolling the last few nights,” Xander hurried on, hoping to rush past the watcher’s outburst. “Turns out mister macho over here,” he thrust a finger at Spike, “has been fighting off a couple contenders a week for lord of the Hellmouth, and not telling us about it.”
Spike didn’t even have the grace to look ashamed, but he and Willow did disengage from their private consult. “Not the biggest problem we’ve got,” Spike replied. “What I’ve been fighting were small fry. My guess is the real contenders are keeping a low profile, letting us clear the field before they make a move.”
“I hate to be the bearer of more bad news,” Willow interjected shyly. “But people have been disappearing at a steady rate, one or two a night for the past two weeks, but no bodies have been found, and we’re not seeing an increase in the number of vampires. Could be someone is hiding the bodies really well, or it could be something nastier.”
“Most likely a larder,” Giles speculated with a penetrating look cast at Spike.
“Ew.” Dawn scrunched up her nose in distaste. “Larder for what? Do we have any idea what grabbed them?”
Trust Willow to already have her information cross indexed. “Each of the victims was last seen exiting a club with an attractive member of the opposite sex. But none of the descriptions match up.”
“Could be a lot of different vamps,” Xander offered.
“One for each? Not enough to feed a large group of vampires for two weeks,” Spike said, scowling in thought. “My guess is a shape shifter of some kind.”
Giles was nibbling on the end of his glasses, animosity forgotten for the moment with a puzzle in front of him. “Agreed, or at least something that can project a variety of human guises. Although I doubt it’s the main threat. Most shape shifters aren’t powerful enough to lay claim to large territories.”
“Especially prime real estate like the Hellmouth,” Willow concurred. “So we’re looking for shape shifters that work with other demons, huh?”
“Research!” Dawn’s excitement was unsettling. Xander couldn’t help but think Giles had corrupted her.
“Willow, was there any commonality between these people the victims left with? Distinguishing marks, a piece of jewelry?” Giles asked while leafing through a tome.
Willow shook her head. “Nothing was mentioned but I doubt people were paying close attention.”
“Goody,” Xander sighed snagging a book off the stack. “Oh well, how many shape shifters can there be?”
Willow and Dawn both threw paper wads at his head. “Are you trying to jinx us?” Willow demanded.
Xander looked sheepish. Spike rose and stretched, a carefree smile gracing his features. “While you lot hit the books, think I’ll go shake down a few demons for information.”
“You’re not patrolling alone,” Xander stated with finality.
“Just shaking down some snitches, pet,” he raised Xander’s face to his with the tips of his fingers. “Don’t worry so.” Then he laid a passionate kiss on him.
Xander was unable to speak in protest until Spike was already out the door.
Willow blushed and buried her head in her book, Giles polished his glasses furiously, but Dawn felt no need to be circumspect. “That was seriously hot,” she declared with a little fanning motion.
Xander ducked his head and pretended to read, but he was in absolute agreement with the sentiment.
As it turned out, there were over forty different demons that could mimic humans. Fortunately, there were fewer than twenty that could do the variety pack. They went out on a bit of a limb and reduced it to the seven who could do both men and women, on the assumption that there was only one creature.
By midnight even Dawn’s enthusiasm had begun to flag. There was just no way to narrow the field further without more information. After agreeing to resume the search in the morning, Giles packed up and headed home. Dawn and Willow headed upstairs but Xander couldn’t sleep. He was tired enough, but the fact was he and Spike had never discussed the night’s sleeping arrangements, which left him uncertain where to lay his weary head. He was fairly certain he would be welcome in the bed downstairs, but presuming might initiate an awkward situation. Crashing upstairs could send a message he didn’t mean.
It was a great relief when he heard the key in the lock around one thirty.
“What are you doing still up?” Spike asked, scowling at him as if he were an errant school boy up past his bedtime.
Xander rubbed the back of his neck, looking down in uncertainty. “Thing is, we never talked sleeping arrangements.”
“Bed upstairs is a mite small for both of us,” Spike pointed out, a wide grin spreading across his face.
“Big bed downstairs though,” Xander allowed with an answering grin. Spike slid the lock home as they descended the stairs. Xander was eager to get to sleep, but he couldn’t help asking, “What did you find out?”
“Best way to get people to talk is have them tell you things they think you already know,” Spike said as he started stripping. “Complain loudly enough about the unfairness of the big boys using a shape shifter to do their dirty work and eventually someone lets slip it’s a Teckla demon.”
Xander remembered reading about Tecklas, they were on their short list. He whistled as he divested himself of shoes and socks. The things fed on terror. They got in your head and manufactured your worst fears.
Spike pulled off his shirt and continued, “Vampire clan running the show gets fresh blood, Teckla gets fed, no bodies to alert the Slayer, everybody’s happy.”
“Except the victims,” Xander pointed out, he felt sick to his stomach.
“Yep,” Spike conceded without a hint of sympathy. “They get insane.”
“So where are they?”
“No one knows. Must be planning an iron fist approach because they’ve already wiped out a few nests of vampires we didn’t know about. Don’t like the competition it seems. So we’re not the only ones looking.” Spike crawled into bed, eyeing Xander like he was hoping for more than sleep.
Xander wasn’t in the mood. Not with images of terrified insane people being fed on by laughing vampires running through his head. It wasn’t an image he wanted to go to sleep with either, so he changed the subject. “What were you and Willow whispering about?”
Spike put his hands behind his head, a smug look on his face. “Just assuring harmony at home.”
“Spike, what are you planning?” The vampire’s ease spelled trouble as far as Xander could see.
Spike grabbed his hand and pulled him onto the bed. “Nothing you’ll object to. Don’t fret, luv. Just bringing the family back together. I’ll take the witch, you take the watcher and everything will work out. You’ll see.”
As he sank into Spike’s good night kiss, he gave up arguing and just hoped Spike was right.
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