The claxon of the alarm went off five minutes after Xander went to sleep. Despite the fact the clock was telling him it had been five hours, he knew it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes. There was obviously a time warp at work here.
He slapped off the alarm and then disentangled himself from the vampire attached to him like a limpet. Spike barely woke up enough to burrow deeper into the covers after the loss of his hot blood bottle.
Stumbling into the bathroom, he discovered that his toiletries had migrated downstairs during the night. He grinned, wondering if this was Spike’s idea of subtlety.
The shower helped him wake up, at least enough to worry. Spike could be obnoxiously charming when he put his mind to it, but Tara was immune. Still, Spike didn’t seem worried and he had Willow in his corner. Maybe something could be worked out that would let the blonde witch at least occupy the same room with the two of them.
His own situation might prove to be the more harrowing. Giles was going to come at him with watcherly disapproval and vast amounts of well researched arguments. All he had was his gut feeling and a dating track record that didn’t stand up well to close examination.
He pulled away enough cover to find skin and kissed his bed partner goodbye. A sleepy mumble was the only response and he reburied the blond. He’d think of something to tell Giles.
He called Giles from work and gave him the rundown on what Spike had discovered the previous night. Predictably, he asked to see Xander after work to discuss the situation. Xander doubted that the situation he wanted to discuss had to do with the Teckla. Nevertheless, he agreed to attend the firing squad as soon as his shift ended.
He managed to work a full four hours before anxiety goaded him into calling to check in on the situation at home.
“’Lo,” answered a British baritone voice.
Relief that Spike hadn’t been messily disposed of caused Xander to catch his breath rather than reply. He hadn’t realized just how worried he was until that moment.
Spike’s voice turned irritated. “We don’t need your soddin’ wonder whisk!”
“Spike, it’s me,” Xander intervened before Spike could start insulting his heritage. “Just wanted to see how it was going.”
All signs of irritation melted out of Spike’s voice. “Lookin’ for a little phone sex? I could be persuaded,” he teased.
Xander was fairly sure his face was beet red as he hissed, “Spike, I’m at work.”
“Can’t blame a bloke for trying,” Spike insisted. “Will’s gone off for her first day at hamburger hell. Tara and the Bit are off to the grocers. It’s bloody boring around here.”
“Enjoy it while you can,” Xander advised, sinking into his chair in relief. “We don’t get boring often enough.” Like a sore tooth you just can’t stop poking with your tongue, the source of his unease demanded attention. “So, you haven’t talked to Tara yet?”
“It’s taken care of Xander,” Spike assured far too smoothly. “You worry about Rupert.”
“I’ll be home late,” Xander groaned, he leaned back in his chair, feeling the headache rapidly approaching. “I’m sure I’ll be grilled extra crispy after Giles is through with me.”
“Good, that’ll give Lil Bit and me more time to move your things downstairs. I’ve a tragic accident planned for some of your clothes.” There was an unconscionable amount of glee in Spike’s voice.
“Hey, I need those!” Xander sprang forward in his seat, indignation ringing in his voice. “Most of those are work clothes.”
“Most of them are bloody awful,” Spike retaliated. “Don’t worry, Dawn’s shopping for some decent ones for you.”
The light dawned for Xander. “That’s what you and she were whispering about.”
“Makes her feel a part of things. Involved.”
“I guess that’s worth the loss of a few shirts,” Xander allowed. “Just leave me my suit and a few of my old clothes, please.”
“Not to worry, pet. I’ll leave a couple hideous Hawaiian shirts but that blue monstrosity has to go.”
“My Aunt Carol gave me that. Burn away,” Xander said magnanimously. “I’d better get back to work.”
“Good luck, pet.”
“Thanks, I think I’ll need it. You be careful.”
A rude noise was his only answer. It seems vampires weren’t told to be careful. Xander chuckled and got back to work. He had a command performance this evening.
Giles’s door loomed larger than it should in the little courtyard. Taking a deep breath, he pushed open the door and let out a cheery hello.
Giles was seated at his desk, stacks of dusty tomes surrounding him. “Xander, I’m glad you could make it.” He sounded like Giles always did at the beginning of a research session. For a few minutes he hoped this would go like any of a hundred other research parties. “I’ve been studying the Teckla in depth. As it becomes incorporeal to feed, it will be extraordinarily difficult to defeat.”
“Yeah, they looked pretty nasty. I don’t remember seeing anything that took them out,” Xander said, grabbing the book Giles handed him.
“In their corporeal forms they are not particularly fearsome, however, once inside the victim’s mind they can manipulate the subconscious to bring to the fore one’s greatest fears. All they need to gain entrance is physical contact, so fighting them becomes extremely problematic. Skin to skin contact is not necessary.”
“Sounds like we need a good distance weapon,” Xander said, dropping onto the couch and leafing through the book in his hands.
“That will do us little good unless we can positively identify it,” Giles growled. “Which is deucedly difficult until they attack. It is also beside the point until we can find their location.”
“Spike says these guys aren’t making friends in the demon community either, at the moment. None of his snitches know where they’re holed up.” Xander grimaced at a woodcut of the Teckla in its natural form. It was an ugly critter to have romping through your mind.
“I suppose we are to take Spike’s word on that,” Giles said in a snippy tone.
Xander closed his eyes and counted to ten. He’d known this was the real reason he’d been asked over. He’d just hoped to delay it a little longer. “Yes, Giles. We trust him to beat up demons, give us the information, to babysit Dawn and to patrol. We’ve been doing it for over a year now. Why would that change now?”
“Before,” Giles kept his eyes on the book in his hands as if his attention was primarily directed there. “I didn’t question your judgment where a murdering beast such as Spike was concerned.”
If there was a faint hope of letting the subject drop, Xander wanted to seize it, so he turned back to his own book, poring over it for weaknesses. There were plenty. The Teckla was as vulnerable as a normal human in its corporeal form. Problem was, it was undistinguishable from a normal human as well and could appear as a wide variety of them. It would only revert to type once killed. ‘Great,’ Xander thought, ‘all we have to do is kill anyone we suspect of being the Teckla. If the body stays human, we say oops.’ Sometimes he hated this business.
He was absorbed enough in what he was reading to not hear Giles come up behind him. “I have something I would like you to read,” he announced, handing another thick book to Xander.
The book he had been perusing hadn’t given any new insight, so Xander shut it in favor of the next book. Opening it to the first page, he found it principally concerned the Master. While he was all for reviewing victories of the past, he didn’t see how this would help them now. Searching for relevance, he asked, “did the Master use a Teckla at some point?”
“It details the more notorious vampires in the Aurelian line. I thought it wise for you to know just what sort of creature shared your bed,” Giles huffed.
Xander slammed the book closed. This was too far. He leapt to his feet and brandished the book at the older man like he contemplated throwing it at him. “Tell me, did you do this to Buffy when she started dating fucking Angelus?”
“I didn’t particularly approve of Buffy’s affair, but his soul was a mitigating factor, far more so than a simple electronic leash.” They were both on their feet now, shouting from semi-neutral corners. “As I recall, even the soul wasn’t enough for you.”
“I was jealous, Giles!” Exasperation threaded through his voice. “Then he lost the soul like it was a set of keys or something and people I loved died, and it looked like Buffy was willing to just let it keep happening if there was a hope she could get her boyfriend back.”
“Just what do you expect to happen once Spike’s chip ceases to function?”
“I don’t know,” Xander slumped back to the couch. It was a question he didn’t like to ponder too much himself. “If I’m really lucky, I’ll be dead and gone by the time that happens. I do know he won’t go on a murderous rampage and try to kill us all.”
“Why not? Are you so naïve you think he’s changed that much?” Sensing weakness Giles pressed forward.
“He won’t try to kill us,” Xander insisted. “That’s not Spike.” Xander’s fingers flexed on the book for a moment as he gathered his patience and his next words, he waved the book Giles had handed him. “I’ll read this book if it’ll make you feel better, Giles. I doubt it’ll tell me anything I don’t already know. If Spike’s done something Anya hasn’t at some point in her past, I’ll have to give him points for creativity. Probably right after I throw up. The thing is, the Watchers that wrote this didn’t know Spike, not like I do.”
“I should hope not,” Giles sighed, sinking into the couch beside him.
“He’s not your everyday vampire,” Xander held onto his temper with both hands.
“No, I dare say he’s not,” Giles admitted.
“Spike becomes whatever the person he’s devoted to needs him to be,” Xander explained. He laid a hand on the book. “This is full of all the things he did when he was devoted to Drusilla. She needed him to be a bad ass, monster and devourer of the innocent, so he was. Buffy needed him to be a hero, and he tried his best to be one.”
Skepticism rolled off Giles like a cologne. “According to your theory, now that he’s devoted to you, he will behave accordingly?”
Xander shook his head at the misreading, “He’s not devoted to me.” He rethought that sentence at Giles’s raised eyebrow. “Okay, he is … but I’m not his primary anchor. Dawn is. She needs a big, scary monster protector, and he’s very good at protector mode.”
Now Giles was giving Xander his puzzled face, and Xander was attempting not to laugh. “You are romantically involved with Spike; I would presume that would make you his first concern.”
Xander did laugh at that. “Trust me, if Dawn and I were both in trouble, Spike wouldn’t even look my way before running to rescue her.”
This did not allay the puzzled factor. “Wouldn’t you expect to rank higher than that in his estimation?”
Xander had hoped he wouldn’t have to explain the vagaries of his relationship with Spike to Giles. Old and stuffy he may be but he was a man. With a sigh he explained. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m important to him, just like he’s important to me. Dawn’s just more important, and I’m thinking that’s the way it should be.”
Giles shook his head, his argument completely derailed. “Sometimes I don’t understand what goes on in your mind,” he groused.
Xander had already dismissed the argument. He’d said all he planned to say on the subject. But the exasperated words sparked an odd connection for him. “Giles, that’s it!” he exclaimed.
“Spike!” Xander called as soon as he got inside. He wanted to assure himself his lover had made it through his confrontation with Tara intact. “Where are you?”
Spike emerged from the kitchen with a mug of blood clasped in his hand. “Bout time you got home. I was starting to worry the Watcher had you chained up in his tub.”
“Nah,” Xander waved Spike’s concern off as he bounced onto the couch, leaving plenty of room for Spike to join him. “I baffled him with my witty repartee and slipped out while he was regrouping. How did things go with Tara?”
Spike dropped to the couch next to him. “All worked out,” he said dismissively. “What did Rupert say about the Teckla?”
A wave of Spike’s hand was not going to mollify him on the Tara issue. “Just like that? What happened? You didn’t convince Willow to do a spell, did you?”
Spike looked genuinely appalled at the suggestion. “Are you brain damaged? Don’t fancy chasing flies for dinner the rest of my life. I just talked to her, she’s a smart girl, she saw reason.”
Xander leveled a disbelieving stare at him. “Guess I’ll have to ask her what happened,” he said, rising from the couch to suit word to action.
Spike’s hand grabbed his wrist and pulled him back down to the couch. “Fine.” His disgruntlement at being caught out evident in his tone. “I offered to let her do whatever it took to make her feel better about things, geas, truth spell, whatever.”
“You what!” Xander exploded, grabbing Spike’s shoulders. “You told a white witch she could do what she liked to a soulless demon? Do you have any idea what she could have done to you?”
Spike pried Xander’s hands away testily. “Would you pipe down? Course I knew, just like I knew she wouldn’t. She’s got no interest in hurting me or you. She did a reading, salt circle, a little incense, holding hands.”
“What did she see?” Xander asked, curious despite his worry.
“That Spike is an evil, soulless killer,” Tara answered as she and Willow descended the stairs. “Who is utterly devoted to the people in this family.”
Tara’s smile was still a little tentative but she seemed content with things. Willow was beaming as she took up the explanation. “As far as we’re concerned, his motives are pure.”
“Well, unharmful, at any rate,” Willow amended, eyeing Xander. “Just keep the naughty stuff under wraps, okay.”
Xander found himself blushing furiously. Spike, naturally, was spurred to come up with something provocative in response. “I was thinking a little foursome action might be nice,” he got out before Xander clapped a hand over his mouth.
“Where’s Dawn?” he asked hopelessly, certain she was upstairs drinking in every word.
“At Janice’s,” Willow assured him, “which is the only reason you’re not in big trouble right now, mister.” She glowered at Spike. Spike was too busy playing his tongue over Xander’s palm to notice. Xander removed his hand a bit reluctantly.
Obviously desperate for a change of topic Tara asked, “What did Mr. Giles have to say about the Teckla?”
“Oh,” Xander squirmed in his seat just a bit. “Well, it’s probably going to take all of us to take it down. You can’t tell it’s our monster when it’s corporeal, so we were thinking we could attack it while it’s incorporeal.”
“You want to hit it while it’s feeding?” Spike asked incredulous.
Giles entered carrying a stack of books. Willow grabbed a couple off the top that looked in danger of toppling to the ground. “Oh good, you’re all here,” Giles said, making his way to the dining room table. “Has Xander filled you in on his plan?”
Spike pinned Xander to the couch with a suspicious glare. “He’d just mentioned someone playing bait for this thing. Just who’d you have in mind, luv.”
Xander squirmed a bit more and gave the answer everyone already knew. “Me.”
“Absolutely not,” Spike growled.
“No, it makes sense,” Xander insisted. “It’s about time my demon magnet status came in handy. I let them chat me up, lead me to their base with all of you following, and we put the smackdown on them.”
Spike’s eyes flashed golden in his fury and he leveled a glare at Willow and Tara behind Xander.
“Don’t look at us,” Willow placated. “This is the first I’ve heard of it.”
Giles was remaining annoyingly quiet. He’d given the plan his approval back at his place. Sure, he’d amended it and demanded more research, but approval was had. Xander stepped forward and put a hand on Spike’s shoulder. “Don’t you think you should hear the whole plan before you start going all grr about it?”
Spike knocked his hand away. “Don’t have to hear any more to know I hate it. I can’t believe you had the gall to yell at me for letting Tara get a little reassurance when you had this idiocy in your brain.”
Xander crossed his arms as his own anger began to simmer. “I wouldn’t be going in defenseless. We have two witches who specialize in mind mojo to shield me up. Not to mention you’d all be tailing me the whole time.”
Spike didn’t budge an inch, his finger jabbing at Xander’s breastbone as he strove to drive his point home. “While this thing tries to shred your sanity with the worst nightmares you’ve got stored in your noggin.”
“No,” Xander challenged, knocking the jabbing finger away. “While I’m killing it, using the weapon our resident Watcher and witches are going to come up with for me.”
Leaning in until his face was a mere inch from Spike’s ridges and fangs, Xander went for the killing stroke. “I can do this Spike, or was all that training just humoring the defenseless human?”
Apparently, it wasn’t as much of a killing stroke as he thought because Spike immediately struck back. “We’re talking about some evil nasty taking over your subconscious, moronboy, not a good, honest brawl.”
“While rash, I believe it is a workable plan.” Giles spoke with a certainty of being listened to.
Spike transferred his hard glare from Xander to Giles. “You approve of this shite?”
“With proper research and preparation, yes.”
“I think,” Tara whispered. “I have s-some books on m-mental shielding upstairs.” Then she bolted from the field of battle. Xander didn’t expect her to return anytime soon. All the shouting so far, and the shouting to come, must grate on her nerves like sandpaper.
“Such a good plan, how about you play the bait then,” Spike suggested silkily.
Xander noted a touch of embarrassment creep into Giles’s demeanor. “I’m afraid I don’t fit the profile. Thus far all the victims have been between the ages of 18 and 25.”
“Young meat,” Spike sighed, like he could taste it on his tongue.
Xander wrested Spike’s attention back before things could degenerate further. “You’re not an option because tecklas can’t affect vampires.” He stared into Spike’s eyes, daring him to suggest one of the girls play bait in his place.
“Which would explain a vampire clan working with one, because otherwise you’re not so much partners as dinner, and who wants that?” Willow chimed in, mind ticking over the plan as she talked. “I’ve been working with Dawn on an athame. I bet with some tweaking we could make it a mental weapon.” She began sorting through the stack of books on the table and muttering to herself.
“Fine,” Spike conceded. “Stay here, do your research, make your plans. I’m going to take this town apart until I find these fuckers, and bring back this thing’s head.”
Spike’s dramatic storming away was spoiled by Xander’s hand on his sleeve. “Hold up. I’m coming with you.”
Spike looked heavenward as if seeking strength or divine intervention. “I’ll be going to some pretty dangerous places, Xander.”
“That’s why I’m going with you,” Xander replied in what he knew was an irritating tone.
“Don’t have any of your fancy protection or weapons now,” Spike said. “We find these wankers you head for the hills. Don’t want that slimy thing getting its mitts on you.”
“Agreed.” Xander had no desire to take on something that could attack him with his own worst nightmares without some powerful protection at his back. He was also relatively certain they weren’t going to find the vampire clan tonight, and Spike might just do something stupid trying.
Spike gave a sharp nod and headed for the door. Xander grabbed his favorite ax and headed for the door. Before exiting, he glanced back at Giles, curious how the man would interpret the scene he’d just witnessed. The inscrutable expression on the older man’s face was as unrevealing as his neutral “good luck” just before he returned to his books.
They hadn’t gone far before the silence started getting to Xander, so he filled it with chatter. “Where are you going to go that you haven’t already tried, Spike? Didn’t you terrify the snitches enough the first time around?”
Xander meant the comment to be joking, but Spike was not in the mood for humor. “Terrified them plenty. This clan plans to take over the Hellmouth, they either have to kill me, or get me to bend the knee to them. Can’t say I’m fond of either option.”
“So,” Xander cut back on the teasing tone as anxiety over what Spike might be planning took over. “What is the plan? What haven’t you tried already?”
Spike snarled his answer. “Was planning on checking out every crypt, abandoned building and tunnel in this stinking town. The bloody pillocks have to be hiding somewhere.”
Xander gaped at him. “Spike, that would take months, possibly years. The Mayor built this town for demons, and there have to be hundreds of miles of tunnels under us.”
“Well, I don’t see letting that slimy creature into your head. Why’d you think of something like that anyway?” Spike’s brows crashed down in consternation.
“Because it’s impossible to tell the Teckla from a human until it attacks,” Xander explained, knowing Spike wouldn’t understand. “I don’t want someone getting hurt because we made a mistake.”
“How about this then? Give me a gun, a real one mind, and I point it at whoever’s making moves in the bars. If I don’t get a headache I pull the trigger,” Spike said with calm logic.
Xander rubbed the back of his neck to stave off the headache this conversation was giving him. “There are so many problems with that plan I don’t know where to begin.”
“What’s wrong with it?” Spike was legitimately puzzled.
“For one thing,” Xander hissed. “The minute you pull a gun in a bar you’re going to have security all over you. Human security. I’d really rather not think about what could happen to you if you got arrested.”
“You don’t give me any credit for subtlety, do you? This coat hides a multitude of sins.” Spike curled his tongue behind his teeth and grinned just so Xander would have no doubts about what kind of sins it did, and sometimes didn’t, hide.
Xander chose to ignore the display, sticking with his serious objections. “Even if you could conceal it and, let’s face it, with the number of people hitting on each other in these places you’d be having a migraine every five minutes. I don’t consider you rolling around on the floor in pain a viable option.”
“Beats the hell out of you letting this thing tap dance through your cranium.”
Xander stopped and leaned on his ax. It said something about the mindset of this town that he was certain Spike with a gun would be noticed, but a bunch of people lugging medieval weaponry never were. “Okay, give me a viable alternative, one that won’t take six months.”
“There is something else we can try,” Spike allowed, his eyes running appraisingly over Xander head to foot. “If you’re willing that is.”
“I’m going to have to sit down for this, aren’t I?” Xander had begun to wonder if following Spike out was such a good idea after all.
“You’re a tasty treat, we get you into some proper clothes. How’d you feel about playing my pet for the evening?”
Xander’s heart skipped a couple beats and he thudded against the wall they were walking beside. “Your pet,” he choked out.
Spike nodded, entirely serious. “There’s a demon club just outside town, strictly high rollers, aristocratic,” Spike said the word as if it tasted bad. “Just possible they might know about powerful players rolling into town. Keep track of high profile bloodlines and such like. Don’t let vampires without pets among them, they consider hunting common.”
Xander attempted to jumpstart his brain, but he suspected he was a few steps behind since he couldn’t quite get over the part where he’d be playing Spike’s pet. A nice little fantasy in the privacy of Spike’s crypt was one thing, this was something else. This was like Angel gripping him around the neck and offering him to Spike as a snack. He did the only thing he could think of: stalled for time. “Why haven’t we cleaned them out before now?”
Spike rolled his eyes and leaned against the wall Xander was currently propping up. “Told you, they don’t hunt, consider it beneath them.” His voice said “stupid wanker” but the hand that had crept up to massage the back of his neck said something more tender. “Also, the place is a fortress, with heavy security. Much more trouble than it’s worth to take out a bunch of demons that aren’t hurting anybody.”
Xander blinked at this bizarre concept. He was afraid he knew the answer but he still felt compelled to ask. “How do pets figure into this little scenario?”
“Vampire’s gotta eat.” Spike’s reasonableness set Xander’s teeth on edge. “Got enough human pets, no need to hunt. You’d be surprised how many stupid humans think it’s sexy being a demon’s pet.”
Xander’s scowl only made Spike smile more broadly. “Pets for real: human cattle,” Spike clarified, then leaned forward and kissed him gently. Xander melted into the feel of Spike pressed against him, allowed it to calm his anger and irritation.
“What would I have to do?” Xander found himself willing to consider the plan; they could really use more information.
“Dress nice, walk behind me with your eyes down and your mouth shut. Look pretty sitting at my feet once we’re inside. Think you could handle that?” Spike was laughing at him with his eyes. He clearly expected Xander to refuse. Why, he wasn’t sure, but there was an angle. There had to be.
“Okay,” he breathed, calling Spike’s bluff.
The quiet answer snapped Spike to attention. Xander saw calculations dance behind his partner’s eyes before the shocked expression melted into a considering look that Xander found a bit worrisome. “Got your wallet?”
“Yeah,” Xander replied with caution. “Why?”
Spike pulled him away from the wall and toward downtown. “We’re going shopping.”
“Mind telling me why I just shelled out a thousand bucks for clothes?” Xander demanded while unlocking the back door to the Magic Box.
“It was barely eight hundred. Quality costs money,” Spike assured him. “If we’re going to walk into this place, we’ve got to look the part.”
Xander retrieved his ax from the corner where he’d stashed it before their impromptu shopping trip. Here he’d thought having a male significant other would mean he’d never have to endure another shopping trip. Still, he had to admit that he’d breathed a sigh of relief when he found out they were headed for a men’s suit store rather than some weird fetish place. “It’s still a lot of money, Spike.”
“It’s not like I make a habit of this.” Spike’s innocent act could use some work. “I haven’t had a bespoke suit in an age.” He shuddered. “Thank hell we don’t have starched collars anymore.”
“Bespoke? Okay now you’re speaking in some strange foreign language,” Xander insisted. Weapons retrieved, they headed back out into the night.
“It’s called English, you twit. Means custom made.”
“If you say so,” Xander snickered. “Where are we going?”
Spike’s put upon expression gave way to a grimly clenched jaw and a faster pace. “Got a couple of possible leads last night, places this gang might hole up. Thought we could try them first.”
“Sounds good.” Xander matched Spike’s stride as he strove to focus in on the present danger, the possibility of encountering a vampire clan and a teckla. Instead, his mind kept racing back to where they were going tomorrow night, after picking up Spike’s tailored suit. “Will I need to wear the collar?”
Spike gave him a condescending look. “If we can’t convince them you belong to me without it, the collar won’t help. I’ll say you’re a new acquisition, it’ll explain the lack of visible bite marks and cover a few mistakes.”
Xander nodded. It made sense. He wondered just how worried he should be that one of Spike’s plans was making good strategic sense. “What kinds of demons will be there?”
“Peaceful types mostly. A few really old vampires and other nasties.” Spike stopped and said solicitously, “We don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”
Xander could see the triumphant smile behind the considerate façade, and he stiffened his spine. He was not going to back down. “We need the information.”
“Unless we find them tonight,” Spike amended.
“If these are such hot prospects, why didn’t you check them out last night?” Xander asked, peeved.
“Because last night they were long shots,” Spike said, deflating before Xander’s eyes. “Tonight, they’re my only shot at keeping you away from that mind sucker.”
“Why Spike,” Xander batted his eyelashes at him and grinned. “You say the sweetest things.”
Spike growled and set off at a brisk jog. Xander got a warm tingle from fingertips to toes and found himself less worried about tomorrow night.
Their destination proved to be a rambling Spanish style estate with a red tile roof and white stucco walls on Crawford, just down the street from Angel’s old place. It had been a nice place at one time. Now the windows were all boarded up, tiles were missing from the roof and the stucco was pock marked from wear and neglect. They peered through the slats in one of the windows. There was no sign of activity inside. Then again, it was prime hunting time, if you were a vampire, so that might not mean anything.
They found an unlocked door around the back and ventured inside. Spike took point while Xander kept watch behind them.
After six huge, completely unoccupied rooms, though, he wasn’t feeling the sense of eminent menace anymore. “They’re not here, Spike.”
The tension in Spike’s back eased marginally. “Think you’re right. Still, we should check the place out, they might have been here, left something.”
Once again sound reasoning, Xander was tempted to check around the house for large pods. “If you take that wing,” Xander pointed past the kitchen to the master suite, “and I take that wing,” he indicated the other direction, “we should be finished in ten minutes and we can go on to the next house.”
He could tell Spike hated the idea so, before objections could be raised he added. “If I see anything at all I’ll scream for you, fair?”
“Ten minutes,” Spike conceded and headed through the kitchen to search his area. Xander suspected he’d have company again in five; it was a nice feeling.
He headed into the bedroom wing of the house. Convinced as he was of the house’s emptiness that didn’t mean he wasn’t cautious. He reached a hallway with bedrooms and bathrooms branching off from it. He opened each door with the head of his ax, peering inside to confirm its emptiness before proceeding. Most of the rooms had a piece of furniture or two, a dresser or a couple of chairs. A quick glance revealed the lack of occupancy. This was going to take three minutes, not ten.
In the third bedroom there was a lone bed with a sheet draped over it. He was about to move on when he detected a slight movement. He paused at the door. It could have been a slight breeze but he’d have to go closer to be sure. Not relishing the idea of calling Spike to slay a sheet for him, he stepped inside the room and crouched to be on eye level with the underside of the bed, ax held at full extension before him he used the blade to lift the trailing bed linens. A pair of human eyes stared back at him.
Clutching the ax closer to him Xander fell back and, true to his word, screamed, “Spike!”
Xander scuttled back to the door to the bedroom, eyes never leaving the bed. He used the doorframe to hoist himself back to his feet. There was no movement from the bed. An arm wrapped around his waist and yanked him back. He screeched (but still manly damn it) before he realized it was Spike pulling him out of the doorway.
Xander pressed his back against the wall. “Under the bed,” he gasped.
Spike threw the sheet off the bed to reveal a figure pressed back against the wall. Spike dropped to the floor, blocking Xander’s view. He could see Spike fishing under the bed for whatever it was. “Come here you,” Spike demanded.
Spike made a yanking motion and then howled in pain, clutching his head. Xander darted forward and pulled Spike away from the bed. Maybe they’d been wrong about the Teckla’s ability to affect vampires. Before he could do more than get an arm around him, though, Spike solved the mystery. “Definitely human.”
Spike shook Xander off and stood up, the effects of the chip blast dissipating. Xander moved forward on hands and knees and peeked under the bed. A form that looked more like a pile of rumpled laundry than a person lay huddled against the wall, staring at him fearfully.
“It’s okay,” Xander said, using the most soothing voice he could muster. “We’re not going to hurt you.”
There was no movement from the indistinct shape. After Xander’s screaming and Spike’s grabbing, they probably had no intention of coming out.
“Too weak most likely.” Xander glanced up at Spike’s commentary. “She’s pretty banged up, just grabbing her set the chip off.”
Xander nodded and contemplated the scene for a moment. “If she needs help we have to get her out of there. Think we should move the bed?”
“Worth a try.” Spike took the head of the bed and Xander took the foot and they eased it away from the wall. The girl stayed still, like some kind of wounded animal hoping against all logic to escape notice.
Xander knelt beside the teenager. Her clothes were torn and dirty, ragged bite marks marred her arms, shoulders and throat. Her eyes looked glassy and hopeless. More soft assurances that they weren’t going to hurt her made no impression, so he reached out his hand. She fixated on it like it was a dangerous snake.
“Not going to talk her down, Xander,” Spike kibitzed from the sidelines. “Grab her and let’s get out of here.”
Ignoring Spike, Xander reached forward until his hand rested on the girl’s shoulder. She cringed back but there was nowhere to go. Moving slowly, he slid his arm around her shoulders and pulled her away from the wall. She struggled weakly, muttering under her breath. “We’re taking you to the hospital,” he said as he got his other arm under her and picked her up.
Now that she was so close he could hear what she was muttering, “You came back, no escape, you came back.”
“Spike,” Xander said softly.
“Yeah,” he cut Xander off. “I hear her. They’ve been here.”
Xander called an ambulance and got the girl outside while Spike searched the house for any clues to where the clan might have gone. Xander doubted they’d left a change of address form lying around.
The ambulance drivers didn’t ask too many questions. In this town they’d no doubt stopped asking when they saw bites like the ones she was covered in. They let him ride with her to the hospital.
The admitting nurse had a host of questions he had no answers to, starting with her name. He gave the standard story about passing by this old, abandoned house, hearing a noise and investigating. It helped that it wasn’t that far from the actual truth. Once she had given up on him as a source of information, he plopped himself down in the waiting room and called the gang. He had a long wait before Spike joined him.
“House came up empty,” Spike confirmed Xander’s suspicions. “How about her?”
“She’s gonna be fine. She seemed to get a little less scared once we got here,” Xander said, turning to face Spike. “They said they might let us see her after they’re finished treating her. What took you so long?”
Spike shrugged off the question as if it was of no consequence. “You call the others?”
“Yeah, they’re moved to the Magic Box. We’re supposed to join them there later.” Having answered the reasonable question, Xander insisted on an answer to his own. “You checked out the other places alone, didn’t you?”
“Turned out nothing was there. Dead ends.”
Spike’s careless response had no chance of placating Xander. “Yeah, and it could have been you dead in them. Damn it, Spike, we’re a team, we don’t go running off without backup when there’s a big threat out there.”
Spike’s, no doubt, wholly unsatisfactory answer was cut off by the approach of a perky, dark haired nurse. Her name badge read Emma-Lee. “Are you Xander Harris, the one who found Rachel?”
“We found her, actually,” he said, making a gesture to incorporate Spike. “You got her name, that’s great.” Chances were this lady had been taking all Rachel’s information down straight from the source at the same time he was being grilled by Miss Personality, the admitting nurse.
“It took a little while, but she’s talking now. We called her parents, they’re on their way,” Emma-Lee’s smile had happy ending written all over it. Meanwhile, Xander worried their new source of information was about to disappear.
“If you want to sit with her while she waits, you can,” Emma-Lee added, resurrecting his hopes.
“That would be great,” Xander said a little too enthusiastically. Spike gave a snort of derision behind him, but Xander ignored it as they trailed the nurse into an area lined with hospital beds with the heads of the beds against the wall. Green partitions separated each small area, but it was virtually empty and most of the green drapes were open. Rachel sat propped up in a bed near the middle of the room. Spike leaned against the wall, not too near and in her line of sight. Xander slouched on the adjoining bed. Both were careful not to stand between her and the door.
“Hi,” Xander conjured up his goofiest, most disarming smile. “Remember me?”
The girl followed their movements with her eyes, eyes darting back to the nurse who smiled brightly at her. She nodded slightly, trying to keep them all in view at once. She had to be at least eighteen but she looked so much younger, small and vulnerable in the hospital bed, hooked up to an IV with bandages on her arms and shoulders and a cast on her forearm for her broken wrist. Her face was pale and eyes sunken, a look Xander had seen dozens of times on vampire victims. It was difficult to tell if she was pretty or not. No one looked good under these lights.
“Your parents will be here in a few minutes,” Emma-Lee assured her. The phone she wore at her waist buzzed and the nurse checked the number. “I’ve got to get back to my rounds. Do you want them to sit with you until your parents get here?”
Rachel glanced at all three of them then nodded firmly.
“If you need anything, just hit the buzzer,” she called over her shoulder just as she moved out the door at a brisk pace.
“I’m Xander,” he hooked a thumb at Spike, “That’s Spike, don’t worry, his bark is worse than his bite.” He used the same harmless tone that had convinced many teachers he was a moron, hoping to put her at ease.
It seemed to work, or maybe it was just that her escape route was now unblocked. In either case, Xander seized his opportunity to talk to her without hospital interference. His tone turned earnest. “Listen, we know what grabbed you and we’re trying to stop it, but we need your help.”
She shook her head and edged away from him. “You’re safe here,” Xander reeled himself back in. “We’re going to get rid of the things that did this to you, I promise.”
Hope entered her eyes as she stared at him, looking for something, truth perhaps.
“Rachel,” Xander was almost hesitant to remind her of the horrors she had just endured, but they were running way short on time. “Do you know where the vampires went? Did they say anything that would give you an idea?”
Fear crept back into her eyes and Xander hated himself for putting it there. But her voice was stronger as she said, “No, they didn’t talk around us, just,” she gulped and fought to get the next word out, “played.”
“Don’t fret yourself,” Spike’s smooth, soothing voice startled her and she fixed her eyes on him. “You don’t have to tell us what they did, unless you want to. We know about them. The beastie that gets in your head too.”
Rachel shivered but seemed grateful not to have to explain. “We talked, among ourselves sometimes. We were all so happy someone pretty wanted to talk to us, we just walked right out with it.”
All of Xander’s instincts told him a hug was called for at this moment, but when he shifted forward to offer it she shifted back. A stranger’s touch wouldn’t help just now and Xander felt powerless.
Spike diverted the awkward moment with another question. “How many vampires were there, luv?”
She scrunched up her nose in concentration. “Ten. I think ten. It was hard to tell they were in and out so much.”
“That’s okay,” Xander hastened to reassure her. “It helps.”
“He said he’d make my dreams come true.” Rachel looked down at her tightly clasped hands. “Then he did.”
Before Xander could come up with a response there was a commotion at the door. A man and woman who looked like they’d barely gotten their shoes on before leaving the house rushed in and descended on Rachel. They both grabbed her in a hug and he watched Rachel flinch and the parents pull back in surprise. Physical reassurance rebuffed they shifted to verbal, exclaiming how worried they’d been, how happy they were to have her back safe.
Xander made eye contact with Spike and tilted his head toward the exit. They both exited the teary family reunion without another word. Xander didn’t think they’d been noticed at all.
On their way to the shop, Xander thought about Rachel flinching from the embrace of her parents, and a cold rage seized him. “We’re going to get these things, Spike, whatever it takes, we’re taking them down.”
Spike didn’t argue.
Willow, Tara and Giles sat at the back table at the shop, surrounded by open books and various spell components.
“Is that progress I smell?” Xander leaned over Willow’s shoulder to examine the book she was reading.
“Yep,” Willow chirped. “Just doing the fine tuning now.”
Giles retrieved a dark, twisty stick from the side of the table. “This is blackthorn,” he said, handing it to Xander. “We would like you to fashion a weapon out of it.”
The stick was about five feet long and about twice as thick as his thumb in most places. It was way too knobbly to make a good sword or even a dagger, wouldn’t be his first choice for an ax handle either. It felt strange in his hands. “What do you want me to make?”
“A shillelagh would be traditional,” Spike supplied smoothly from his place on the stairs.
Giles turned to glare at him. “We did not want to influence him.”
Tara interjected herself before hostilities could ensue. “The weapon has to be fashioned by your hand,” she told Xander in her soft voice. “Like an extension of yourself.”
“When you finish with it,” Willow piped up, excitement at working on complex magic bubbling to the surface. “We’ve got the ritual worked out, we’ll infuse it with Dawn’s blood and—“
“You’ll what!” Spike’s voice could best be described as a roar, as he leapt off the stairs and got right in Willow’s face. “You’re not touching Dawn for this nonsense. Her blood is dangerous, and enough people have tried to take it from her, I don’t fancy us adding to the list.”
Xander wondered for a moment if he should intervene, but Willow was unfazed by Spike’s proximity. She was caught up in the fever of knowledge. “It was Dawn’s idea,” she countered. “She thought there had to be some way to make use of the power of her blood, and there is.”
“I thought Dawn’s blood broke down the walls between dimensions,” Xander said. He didn’t know which side of this argument to fall on. Spike was worried about reenacting the trauma of the tower, and Willow was talking about channeling that power into something useful, making Dawn feel better about who and what she was.
“Only in a specific time and place,” Tara answered. “We’re going to use it to break down the walls between reality and your subconscious, to create a mental weapon.”
“If we are successful. When the creature attacks you,” Giles explained, “we will have supplied you with a weapon that can’t be taken from you. It will be present and available to you in whatever scenario the teckla places you in.”
Xander twisted the stick in his hands, getting the weight of it. There was a substantial knob on one end, part of the root, he assumed, that would make a good club. It wouldn’t need much carving, just some shaping and sanding.
Spike had backed off to the stairs again. “I’m talking to Bit first,” he grumbled.
Willow wasn’t offended, in fact she smiled at Spike like he was a grumpy teddy bear.
Giles made a sour face and allowed, “If you must.”
“So, now I have a stick to throw at the paralyzing-terror-inducing demon.” Xander was starting to feel the prickles of fear up his spine. This was real now.
“We were discussing mental shields when you entered,” Giles explained. “We have several choices.”
“We’ve got intel,” Xander chimed in before Giles could go on a long discussion of the various options. He trusted them to pick out the best one, and his head was already spinning. “We found one of the victims.”
“Indeed. Did you find their lair?” Giles perked up at the new source of information.
Xander shook his head. “They’d moved on, but she told us there were ten vampires.”
“And the beastie goes after losers,” Spike added with a smirk.
Xander resisted the urge to stick out his tongue at him with difficulty. He left Giles to grill Spike about the abandoned lair in favor of cornering Willow.
“So, witchy girl, I haven’t heard about your first day as a burger slinger yet,” he invited.
A repulsed shiver swept over her. “If anything could make me more determined to finish college, that was it.”
Remembering his own minimum wage days with no nostalgia whatsoever he responded, “So, you don’t hear the siren call of the fast food manager, eh?”
“Definitely not. But the routines are going to be super simple to program. I kind of kept myself awake by figuring out how I was going to program the bot during training. I should be ready next week.” She practically vibrated in her seat as she talked of subroutines and protocols.
Xander indulged her for awhile as she talked about things he didn’t understand. Eventually he asked, “So what’s this shillelagh that I’m supposed to make out of this?” Xander held up his stick.
“Oh, let me show you.” She pulled her laptop over and turned it on. “I’ve got pictures!”
Xander let her enthusiasm wash over him, trying not to think of Rachel’s haunted eyes.
Xander worked on his shillelagh during his lunch hour and any spare moment he could find during the day. Smoothing the rough edges of the twisty, hard wood became an almost meditative act. It helped keep his mind off where he and Spike were going to go that night. By the time night fell, the stick looked more like a hiking stick than a piece of firewood and felt comfortable in his hand. Tara insisted that its use as a weapon was largely metaphorical, so it didn’t need to be perfectly complete, and Xander saw no reason to disagree with her.
Forced to abandon the comforting task, it was time to let Spike play Ken doll with him.
“This shirt makes me feel girly,” Xander complained, tucking in the emerald, silk shirt into his new black dress slacks.
Spike unbuttoned one more button over his protests. “It makes your eyes sparkle,” Spike said as if he was talking about setting up a piece of art to best effect.
Xander couldn’t help but notice that Spike’s hands lingered on the soft material. Every part of his new outfit was lushly tactile. “Not exactly an issue since I’m going to be walking around with my head bowed,” he griped.
Spike gripped his chin, forcing their gazes to meet. “You will walk with your chin up and your back straight. You are the pet of William the Bloody, not some cringing blood whore. You keep your eyes downcast because no one may speak to you without my permission, you stand behind me to guard my back -- and because no one may touch you without my permission. You will move with grace and elegance and be a credit to me tonight, or we’ll both have reason to regret this little outing. Do you understand me?”
Xander caught his breath at the vicious pride blazing in Spike’s eyes and had only one answer. “Yes, master.”
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