The limousine seemed like a small extravagance when compared to the money they had spent on the clothes. They only hired it for their grand entrance, since they both acknowledged that their exit might be on the rapid side, and a status symbol wouldn’t make a good getaway car. So they’d stashed Xander’s car in a 7-11 parking lot down the road.
The limo driver looked bemused to be picking them up by the side of the road, on the outskirts of town, but he was getting his fifty bucks for a two mile drive so he could damn well cope.
The plush interior of the vehicle was a very appropriate setting for Spike at the moment. Xander had stopped complaining about the money the suit cost when he saw Spike in it. The suit was a close fitting, matte black, very formal affair that made Spike look like a blond James Bond. He was used to Spike’s badass charm, and he’d had a taste of the college boy chic he’d sported for the social worker. He’d never seen the cool sophisticate that shared the back of the limo with him. The image took his mind off where they were going and why. The confidence and élan exuding off Spike made him believe they were going to succeed.
Although, on the remote chance they didn’t, they’d left a note for the others where they would most likely find it in a few hours. This was one of the times it was better to ask forgiveness than permission.
The limo stopped, and Xander ceased ogling Spike long enough to take in their surroundings. They’d pulled up to something that looked more like a French castle than a mansion. It even had a turret. The driver opened the door for them, and they stepped out onto a cobblestone path. Spike ignored the driver and strode to the front door as if it were his own house, leaving Xander rushing to join him. He could well imagine the driver shaking his head as he drove away, but that wasn’t his problem.
Xander barely had time to admire the carved stone pillars before a man in a tux was opening the door, and he had to take his position at Spike’s right shoulder.
“Name, sir?” The maitre ‘d asked.
“William of Aurelius and companion.” Spike was using the high brow accent again, only this time it rang with authority and haughtiness.
“Very good, sir.” The man stepped back and swung the door wide. “You are expected.”
The thoughts of trap and danger arising from that statement were not happy making ones. Xander hoped Spike had been doing some behind the scenes maneuvering. Spike didn’t pause as he entered the great hall, so Xander kept himself as close to Spike as he could without tripping them both and hoped for the best.
The foyer held more of the carved stone pillars and was three stories tall, with a skylight gracing the roof. Xander realized he wasn’t supposed to be gawking like a tourist and returned his attention to the eye candy of Spike in a suit instead, but he still grabbed glances at the dual staircase and the ten foot stone archway they were passing beneath.
On the other side was a ballroom with a hardwood floor. The room was lined with small alcoves with two or three plush armchairs in them. Against one wall was an enormous buffet, some of the food Xander recognized and much of it he didn’t want to. Against the other wall was a gigantic bar made of walnut. The variety of patrons at both locations boggled Xander. He’d seen some of the species while patrolling, and it was bizarre seeing them not causing mayhem. More of them he didn’t recognize at all.
A distinctly snakey demon in a copper evening gown stepped forward and clasped Spike’s hand. A beautiful, dark haired woman stood at her left shoulder, eyes downcast and back ramrod straight.
“William, how good to see you,” snake lady said in a delighted tone.
Spike lifted her hand to his lips in a courtly gesture and responded, “So good of you to invite me, Felicia.”
“I invited you six months ago,” she scolded as if Spike was some kind of naughty boy. “There are many here who want to take your measure.”
“Want to see if I can hold the Hellmouth, don’t you mean,” Spike responded in a sly voice.
Questions whirled through Xander’s mind about the likelihood of Spike having to fight to prove some demony worth or something. Since Spike seemed unconcerned, he kept his sensors at yellow alert.
“Come upstairs, I’ll introduce you around.” She glided away back through the archway they had just passed through. Spike, and therefore Xander, followed in her wake.
The second floor balcony overlooked the foyer on one side and was lined with doors on the other. Their guide opened the first one, and Xander was astonished by the rich sound that instantly enveloped them. The soundproofing on these rooms had to be amazing since he hadn’t heard a peep before. Inside, a small group gathered around a baby grand where a gorgeous blonde played some complicated piece of music, while her high, clear voice rang out in Italian, or possibly Latin.
They joined the gathering and listened quietly until she finished. Polite applause broke out as she curtsied and took position behind a gray, craggy demon in a suit. It took Xander a moment to realize the congratulations on the performance were being given to the demon, who stroked one claw tipped finger over his pet’s cheek while he accepted the other’s praise.
Eventually they were presented to the craggy demon. “She’s a rare talent,” Spike complimented.
“Training,” the demon corrected. “I sent her to Julliard.”
“Indeed,” Spike commented mildly. He didn’t sound impressed.
“Will your pet be performing for us tonight?” The question was a clear challenge, and Xander felt himself panicking. He couldn’t sing, and he doubted the kazoo was a musical instrument this black tie crowd would appreciate.
“If you like,” Spike said blandly, snagging a glass of wine from a passing waitress. “He’s quite proficient at killing demons. Is there someone you would like him to eliminate?”
Xander shifted his stance, preparing for battle. He was certain the whole room would come down on them after an idiotic statement like that. There were no swords or axes conveniently hanging on the walls; it would be a short fight.
The craggy demon pulled himself up and stalked off. Their guide, Felicia, smiled and shook her head as if Spike had just pulled a schoolyard prank, while leading them to the next room. Every eye in the room was on them, but no one moved to attack.
Possibly hearing his thundering heartbeat, Spike reached back and gave his arm a quick squeeze. “It’s called counting coup, pet.”
Spike obviously meant the statement to be reassuring. Xander had to trust that Spike knew what he was doing. Since they hadn’t been instantly pounded into paste, it might even be true.
During the next hour they traveled from room to room, being introduced to various demons. Xander had never suspected he could be this bored surrounded by things that could kill him with a pinky, or whatever small appendage was applicable. The whole thing was a game of one-upmanship in pointless subjects. The field of combat was knowledge of art, literature, history: none of them Xander’s strongest subjects. He marveled at Spike’s easy answers when asked his opinion on some obscure statue or poem. More than ever, he was certain Spike was lying about his London slum past.
Demons with pets used them for their superiority games. After watching a gymnastics performance that would have impressed Buffy, the demon accepted accolades for her pet’s performance, then called upon him to comment on the picture that hung by the door. Xander didn’t understand one word in ten and wondered if a blue period meant the artist was depressed when he did the painting.
Xander wasn’t asked to speak, for which he was eternally grateful. Not a single subject came up that he was knowledgeable about. Not that he expected there to be in depth questions on the merits of various comic book creative teams, or whether Deep Space 9 was derivative of Babylon 5 or vice versa, but it was definitely unfair when they broke into French or Latin unexpectedly. It got to be a very repetitive pattern.
“My Philippe speaks nine languages fluently.”
“Celeste is a financial advisor for Wolfram and Hart. To think, two years ago I rescued her from the gutter in Paris.”
“Megan is getting her doctorate at Vanderbilt.”
Xander felt like a mongrel that had wandered into a pedigree dog show. Every pet was gorgeous, accomplished and graceful. Willow would have been able to impress the other demons with her magic and massive brain. All Xander could do was kneel passively next to Spike and try not to nod off. He felt Spike’s cool hand rubbing the nape of his neck, massaging the tension away. It was a blatantly proprietary move but it felt too good for Xander to even think about arguing.
There was a pale green demon lounging across from Spike. Felicia had led them into this alcove with it’s two cushy armchairs, introduced the new guy as Reginald and left as if she’d gotten them to their destination at last. Soft pads next to the chairs provided kneeling space for him and Reginald’s pet. Reginald didn’t try to amaze them with his art collection or his pet’s talents. Not that the fact she was ravishing and graceful weren’t obvious to anyone with eyes. Instead he asked a question. “Have you enjoyed your evening here?”
“It hasn’t been as enlightening as I had hoped.” Spike looked relaxed but his eyes never left Reginald’s. He wasn’t dismissing this guy.
“A shame that, the patrons of my little club so pride themselves on their expertise,” Reginald said with a rueful smile.
“I had noticed.” The fingers on the back of Xander’s neck were making tight circles. “I was hoping for more practical information. Are all your guests obliged to run the gauntlet?”
Reginald ran a finger idly around the rim of his wine glass. “Your rashness is rather legendary. I must say, I’m intrigued by your restraint.”
“I’ve had to learn patience in the last few years.” Xander kept facing forward, eyes trained on Reginald for any sign of hostile movement, but he wanted to reach out and touch Spike. Spike sounded calm, but Xander could tell he was near his snapping point.
“Ah yes, the chip,” Reginald responded as if he had just remembered it. “I must say, your method of coping with that handicap is unique: taking on a dead slayer’s minions as your own, defending a Hellmouth with them. It’s unprecedented.”
Xander bit his tongue before he could growl out that the Scoobies were not minions. If Spike could show patience and discretion then so could he. The fingers stopped moving entirely.
“You’ve been misinformed. The Slayer is very much alive,” Spike answered, his jaw rigid.
Reginald spread his arms in an expansive gesture. “Let us speak frankly, Spike. That is the sobriquet you prefer isn’t it?”
Spike gave a jerky nod.
“Dimensional rifts opening, dragons in the sky, do you take me for the blind humans that inhabit this town? What patrols the Hellmouth at night is a mechanical toy. The Slayer is dead, you have taken her minions as your own, and have continued guarding the Hellmouth in her stead.” He spoke in a calm, measured tone as he began to stroke his pet’s back. She arched into the touch.
“Those she cared about are under my protection,” Spike said ambiguously. The fingers began moving again with a lighter pressure.
“So noted.” A touch on the shoulder and Reginald’s pet snuggled her head and upper body into his lap.
Spike duplicated the touch on Xander, and he snuggled himself, wishing he moved with the fluid grace of the girl. This seemed to be some bizarre form of sheathing weapons. Whatever it was, he was grateful to relax from the stiff posture he’d held all night. He gave Spike’s thigh a covert squeeze.
“So, do you have information for me, or have I wasted my time here tonight?”
“Less than you might desire,” Reginald admitted. “The Jerib clan knows about the Slayer’s death. They may even know of your plans to move against them. They’ve been watching you and your humans for months. They aren’t planning to confront you directly. They plan to take the robot and reprogram it, use it to keep the other contenders in line.”
“How many of them are there?”
“Ten, you already know about the teckla, I presume.”
Spike’s fingers tightened on Xander’s neck, almost to the point of pain. “Yes.”
“I see.” Xander suspected that their plan to use him as bait wasn’t so secret anymore. “In truth, I wish you good hunting. The Jerib clan is ruthless and efficient but short on the social niceties. I would prefer you as a neighbor.”
Observing those social niceties Spike asked, “So, tell me about the accomplishments of your girl there, I know you’ve been waiting all night.”
Reginald’s indulgent smile looked strange on a mouth full of fangs. He brushed his hand along her long, brown hair. “Patrice can speak for herself.”
“I’m an aerospace engineer at JPL,” she said in a small voice, averting her eyes.
“You must forgive Patrice,” Reginald apologized. “She is terribly shy when speaking of herself. Now, if you were to ask her about the Mars rover she would chatter all night.” His eyes narrowed in annoyance. “It takes her away from me for months at a time.”
Patrice gave Reginald an indulgent smile in the face of his glare. “The FIDO field tests are only ten days long. I was barely gone a month last time.”
“I suppose I should be pleased you’re safe at the labs rather than scampering over the Mojave Desert,” he conceded. “And how long do you plan to be away from home this time?”
Patrice’s eyes glittered with interest. “Three months, but then I’ll be back home for six.” She tapped a finger to his nose affectionately. “Remember, you promised not to get grumpy about it.”
Reginald sighed heavily and returned his attention to Spike and Xander. “The sacrifices one must make for science.”
Patrice giggled. Xander didn’t know rocket scientists did that. Xander was tempted to start up a conversation with her. He could ask all kinds of questions, and she could give him lengthy answers he wouldn’t understand. It would be kind of like hanging around Willow.
“I know your time is short tonight,” Reginald continued, his long face growing serious. “Tell me, what are your plans for your boy there?”
Spike didn’t miss a beat. “I was thinking of architecture.”
“Colombia is a good school.”
“I’m leaning towards Cal Poly, I want him close to home.” Xander barely restrained himself from rolling his eyes. Spike was laying it on a bit thick. “Xander has work in the morning, I should get him home.”
“Of course, if you come again, we shall dispense with the gauntlet and perhaps have time for conversation.” Reginald smiled a toothy smile. They all rose to their feet, and Reginald and Spike shook hands.
Walking back to Xander’s car, Spike grumbled about jumping through hoops for nothing.
“At least you won’t be playing bait now,” Spike sighed.
Xander bristled. “What gives you that idiotic idea?”
“They know we’re coming, don’t they? It would be suicide.”
“No, we just need to be careful.”
“How do you figure we’re going to unscramble your brain after that thing is through with you?” Spike looked close to vamping out.
“Not too worried about it. It’s not like a whole hell of a lot is happening up there as it is,” Xander said, shifting to joking mode. “What was all that about Cal Poly anyway?”
Spike shrugged. “You have a talent for building things. I thought you might like being an architect.”
“Spike, do you know how hard architecture school is? Willow had to hold my hand so I could get a C in high school math.” Xander had never dreamed Spike was serious. Xander wasn’t college material, he knew that.
Spike flipped one elegant hand dismissively. “You’ve a practical mind, Xander. Bet if I asked you how many sheets of drywall you need for a 24 x 18 room, you could tell me. Besides, I’ve seen you draw up blueprints.”
“Thirty-four, but that’s not the point, and those were blueprints for a remodel of the basement.”
“Same principle, isn’t it?” Spike stopped and gave Xander his full attention. “You’re smart. You can do anything you set your mind to. We might have to wrangle the money a bit, but don’t hold yourself back with this bollocks about being stupid.”
Conversation closed, as far as he was concerned, Spike headed on toward the car once more. Xander stood transfixed for a moment trying to catch his breath. Spike wasn’t just yanking his chain, he was being far too casual about the whole thing for that. Even worse, he was starting Xander thinking along the lines of the long haul, making the kind of long term plans Xander struggled to guard against, because he could be dead tomorrow, and more than likely would be. He felt like he was standing on a fault line that had just begun to rumble.
The alarm clock went off at an ungodly hour. At least, it was an ungodly hour if you’d spent until midnight at a demon club, then another hour being lectured by your friends about the idiocy of going to said demon club without letting them know. Pointing out they had left a note had been met with frosty disapproval. He hit the off button and eased his head back down to Spike’s chest. Luckily, Spike didn’t wake up for much short of a nuclear strike.
At least it was Friday, and sleeping in would be possible tomorrow. He’d need the extra sleep after the demon battle tonight. Willow thought she had a pattern sussed out to know where they would strike tonight. Sunnydale only had three clubs and the pattern seemed pretty predictable. Spike had used this as further evidence that their plan was exposed, and they should abandon the whole idea. He’d been overruled. Even if the Jerib clan was laying a trap for them, the defenses they were going to give Xander should be sufficient to keep the teckla from overwhelming him. The worried look in Spike’s eyes did strange things to Xander’s stomach.
Spike’s cool chest felt good under his cheek and he could have easily dropped back to sleep. Spike had one arm thrown over Xander’s waist and didn’t seem inclined to let go anytime soon. It made Xander feel safe in a way he wasn’t sure he wanted to examine too closely. Waking up next to Spike made him feel more whole than he had since Anya died.
That realization was enough to propel him out of bed. Things were good, comfortable. Thinking about getting more, about permanence, could lead nowhere. He knew the score; he was happy with the way things were. Falling in love with Spike would just force Spike to hurt him, and neither of them wanted that.
Even so, he stood at the foot of the bed, showered and dressed, for a full five minutes watching Spike not breathe.
Xander knocked off work early. A lot of prep was going into the evening’s monster hunt. When he got home, Willow and Tara had already pushed back all the furniture in the living room to make space for the ritual they intended to perform.
“Need any help?” he asked.
“Not really,” Willow told him with a smile. “We got Spike to do all the heavy work for us.”
Given Spike’s feelings about the plan he was a bit surprised. “Where is he?”
“Sulking in the basement,” Tara informed him, while setting out red pillar candles.
Snippy as Tara was being, Xander was pretty sure her observation was accurate. “Guess I need to go downstairs and find good bait clothes.”
Willow squeezed Tara’s waist, peering at Xander over her girlfriend’s shoulder. “Giles and Dawn will be bringing the rest of the supplies in an hour. How’s about Chinese food for dinner, then spell casting?”
“Sounds good to me. Don’t forget the orange beef,” he called over his shoulder. He suspected they were about to get down to some serious snuggling, and be too distracted to order dinner. He didn’t mind, he might even get some snuggling of his own in before dinner.
The lights weren’t on in the basement, never a good sign. Spike could see perfectly well in the dark, but skulking in a dark room was much more Angel’s shtick than Spike’s. Xander knew better than to point this out unless things got desperate.
“Hi honey, I’m home!” Xander brazened it out, flipping the light on as he came down the stairs.
Spike was lounging in bed, the sheets pooled provocatively around his hips. “You’re home early.” Spike’s voice was a seductive purr.
Xander went to the closet, turning his back on the alluring picture as rapidly as he could. Drooling would weaken his bargaining position. “Lots to do for tonight. You might want to get dressed, the girls are ordering Chinese.”
“Got a better idea,” Spike whispered in his ear, suddenly mere inches away. Spike’s arm snaked around his waist, his hands tugging at Xander’s waistband. He could feel that Spike was naked as he pressed against his back. “How about you get undressed instead?”
Xander swallowed hard. Spike had the ability to win arguments by making Xander’s brain dribble out his ears with a few well chosen words and touches. A completely unfair advantage in Xander’s book. He grasped Spike’s hands to still the clever fingers that were about to divest him of his pants. “You’re not going to talk me out of this, Spike.”
Spike’s response was to nip at his ear while grinding against Xander’s ass. “Wasn’t planning on talking, pet.”
He was going to have to get undressed to change anyway, there was probably time for a quick session before dinner. Xander knew he was making excuses, but it was difficult to care. Releasing Spike’s hands he turned in his embrace to get access to all that gloriously naked pale skin. Spike availed himself of the change of angle to nibble and lick along his neck. Xander tilted his head to grant greater access while his hands roamed Spike’s back and ass, pulling him up tight against him. Sometimes he worried that having a vampire attached to his neck got him rock hard in seconds; it might adversely affect his Scooby reflexes. It might bother him later, but not right now. Instead, he attacked Spike’s neck with equal fervor.
Xander’s pants pooled around his ankles, he’d been too distracted to notice Spike undoing them, but he sure noticed the greater contact the lack afforded.
He pulled away long enough to pull off his t-shirt and kick off his shoes, then they were both tumbling onto the bed. Spike pounced on Xander’s erection, swallowing it down to the root. Xander was intensely grateful for the magical soundproofing Willow had done on the basement as he shouted Spike’s name at the sudden pleasure.
Dimly, he was aware of Spike handling his ankles, but it was impossible to pay attention with that tight throat milking his cock.
Spike pulled off, grinning up at him like a maniac. Xander groaned in protest but pulled Spike up until they lay face to face with Spike sprawled over his chest. “You make me crazy, you know that don’t you?”
“My specialty,” Spike replied. “Any complaints?”
“Oh, hell no.”
Spike plundered Xander’s mouth with his tongue, rubbing their cocks together while pinning his arms near the headboard. Distracting as this was, it wasn’t quite as all consuming as the blowjob had been, so Xander noticed when Spike started pulling at one wrist. Experimentally, he tried to move his leg and found it secured to the footboard. He twisted his arm out of Spike’s grip hard enough for him to grimace in pain and for the chip to send out a minor blast.
“Spike, what are you doing?”
“Trying to molest you. Thought you were enjoying it,” he complained, rubbing his aching head.
“You know this isn’t going to work, don’t you?” Xander chided. “They know I’m down here. If I didn’t show up for dinner they’d send someone down. I might never be able to look Giles in the eye again.”
With horrifying clarity, he could see that humiliating scene continuing. Giles would take in Xander’s situation, conclude the evil, soulless vampire was hurting him, and drive a stake through Spike’s heart while Xander lay there, helpless to intervene.
Xander dove for the cuffs restraining his ankles. “Get them off, get them off!”
Spike undid his left ankle while Xander attacked the right one. “Didn’t mean to scare you, luv. You seemed to like it be—“
The instant his feet were free Xander tackled Spike to the bed, covering him from hips to shoulders. He was being stupid and irrational and Xander didn’t care. Spike was fragile, he realized, a well placed stake, a hastily opened curtain, a flash of fire and he’d be left holding nothing but a handful of dust.
“Get off me you great lummox,” Spike protested, shoving Xander to the side. “What’s come over you?”
“I can’t lose you,” Xander whispered, laying a hand on Spike’s nicely solid, non-dusty chest.
“That’s it, you’ve gone daft. I’ll tell the Watcher you can’t do this bit of senselessness tonight.” Spike smiled in triumph while holding Xander’s hand in place with his own.
Xander thought of Rachel flinching away from her parents. Somewhere out there a dozen more people were being tortured, just like she was, and the Scoobies were their only hope. These were the thoughts that had kept his resolve good and firm all day.
Now the image of Spike, outnumbered and vulnerable, refusing to give in, dissolving to dust under their stakes made that resolve immovable. Maybe he wasn’t any better than Spike, who didn’t care about random humans, after all.
Xander smoothed his free hand over Spike’s forehead. “How’s your head?”
“All right,” Spike grumbled.
“I’m sorry.” Xander braced himself over Spike, gave him a suggestive grin. “Can I make it up to you?”
“Course you can.” Spike laid a hand on Xander’s cheek. “Don’t go.”
Xander turned and kissed Spike’s palm. “I have to.” He glanced at the clock. “But I’ve got fifteen minutes to see if I can’t make you forget you ever had a headache.”
He was reaching for the lube in the nightstand before Spike could say anything else. Straddling Spike’s torso, he enjoyed the feel of Spike’s ribs clamped between his legs. He made a great show of squirting the lube onto his fingers, leaving Spike guessing where he was planning to apply it as he set the bottle back on the nightstand. Spike clasped his hands behind his head, enjoying the show and leaving the driving to Xander.
Slowly, Xander reached behind and began preparing himself. He loved watching Spike’s eyes dilate. He loved it even more when Spike abandoned his observer pose to run his hands over Xander’s chest, shoulders, neck, anywhere he could reach, like he just had to touch. He rested one hand over Xander’s heart, feeling it beat beneath his fingertips.
Xander’s erection had wilted with the earlier scare but was rapidly springing back to full hardness now. His breath was starting to come in quick pants as he stretched himself. He was always careful to do a thorough job in deference to the chip, but the anticipation drove them both insane. Finally, he removed his fingers and gave Spike’s cock a quick swipe with the remains of the lube before guiding it to his entrance.
Spike went completely still under him as Xander gently eased himself down until he was cradled by Spike’s pelvis. Spike’s hands went to his hips, fingers flexing, but he didn’t buck up or urge Xander to move. Xander was enjoying the view of Spike spread beneath him, and if this position also ensured that he could fall forward and cover all Spike’s vulnerable areas at once, so much the better.
He began moving at a steady, measured pace, feeling every inch as it slid in and out of him. It was true that time was limited, but Xander wasn’t stupid enough to discount the possibility he might just die tonight. If he did, he didn’t want his last time with Spike to be a hurried affair, the way it had been with Anya. He wanted to take his time, savor the connection. He braced his hands on Spike’s chest, increasing the points of contact, pouring all his love and devotion into the unbeating chest even if the words were forbidden.
Spike didn’t hurry him, instead he slipped one hand behind Xander’s head and drew him down for a kiss. Xander was happy to comply. Kissing Spike was like an electric current, like he was unleashing his own strength into Xander’s merely mortal body. They barely moved while they kissed, basking in the closeness. Eventually, Xander came up for air and, with a lascivious grin, increased the pace. He changed angles so that Spike’s cock hit in just the right place, adding a squeeze and a twist that wrung expletives of encouragement out of his partner.
Spike began stripping Xander’s cock, trying to match the rhythm Xander was setting. It wasn’t a perfect match but it didn’t matter. Spike’s touch was light, but the double stimulation meant Xander wasn’t going to last long. With a groan of regret that he couldn’t hold out longer, he spurted over Spike’s chest and stomach. Spike released his spent cock and braced his hands against Xander’s chest. He pumped his hips up as if he could fuse the two of them together. His back arched, head thrown back and Xander felt his release deep inside.
Xander managed to collapse next to Spike, rather than on top of him, but it was a near thing.
“That was amazing, luv,” Spike sighed, running a hand through Xander’s sweaty hair.
“Glad to oblige,” Xander said, burrowing his face into Spike’s shoulder. It would be nice to just lie there and take a post coital nap, but that wasn’t in the game plan. “I’ve got to shower.” He raised himself up enough to survey Spike’s spattered body. “So do you.” He grinned. “Want to share.”
“Course, pet. I’ll help you wash all those hard to reach places.” Spike’s anticipatory smile should be cataloged as a lethal weapon, in Xander’s opinion.
Xander had to insist the shower be cut shorter than either of them wanted. He was hardly ready to go again, but they both seemed to need to touch each other more than usual at the moment.
Standing in front of the closet he surveyed the contents, searching for some of his old clothes that would scream loudly, “I’m a social outcast, come get me!” There weren’t a lot of choices. Spike and Dawn had taken a buzz saw to his wardrobe. He pulled out a Hawaiian shirt and a pair of baggy cargoes that he thought might do the trick.
”Do you know what to do tonight?” Spike asked from his position on the bed.
“I think I can remember how to be a geek boy loser, yeah,” Xander replied with more bitterness than he intended.
Spike growled at him. “I meant do you know how you’re going to signal me that you’re leaving the club?”
Embarrassed, Xander opted for answering the original question, over trying to dig his way out, while he dressed. “You’re number one on my speed dial, I’ll just reach in my pocket and ring you.”
“I’ll have it on vibrate.” Spike leered at him. “Where I’ll be sure to feel it.”
“Don’t you ever get enough?” Xander shoved him over so he could sit on the foot of the bed to put on his socks and shoes.
“Nope,” Spike said with a pop. “Insatiable I am.”
“Well, maybe we can do something about that later tonight,” Xander allowed.
A knock on the basement door interrupted whatever Spike would have said. “Boys, dinner’s here!” shouted Willow. She didn’t even try the doorknob, smart girl that she was.
“We’ll be right there!” Xander shouted back.
“Just hope they remembered the orange beef,” Spike muttered as he made his way up the stairs.
Tara and Dawn were putting out plates and unpacking cartons while Giles and Willow shuffled the books and papers out of the way.
“Taking drink orders,” Xander offered, since he was standing in the kitchen. Spike snagged his own beer as he passed through. The girls talked over each other but he hardly needed to hear the answers: they were creatures of habit.
He entered the dining room with a tower of soda cans. Giles could fix his own hot tea since he insisted Xander never did it right.
“So, all systems go?” Xander asked, piling mushu pork and orange beef on his plate.
“We’ve got all the elements,” Willow said, digging into the cashew chicken. “Who wants chopsticks?”
Chopsticks disappeared from the fan of them she held.
“Are you sure the Copper Tank will be their target tonight?” Giles directed his question to Willow.
“It fits the pattern, which, considering this is a trap, makes it pretty darn likely.”
Spike scowled. “Still say this is an idiotic plan.” He stole a piece of orange beef off Xander’s plate.
Xander tried, unsuccessfully, to fend him off with his fork but Spike was far too nimble with the chopsticks. “Get your own plate.”
“Tastes better off yours,” was the smug reply.
“We’re set up for the rituals, are you two ready for tonight?” Tara interrupted. She seemed needled by their horseplay.
“I go play bait in the club,” Xander recited. “When a likely candidate talks me into leaving with them I speed dial Spike. He uses these bat ears of his and I give him the direction we’re going. He follows me. Once we reach wherever they’re keeping their hostages, he calls the rest of you in and we clean house. Do I get a cookie?”
Dawn pelted him with a fortune cookie.
“Except for Dawn, who stays here with the bot in case they try to attack while we’re gone,” he amended.
“You never let me in on the fun,” she pouted. “It’s embarrassing having the Buffybot babysit me.”
“Think of it as you protecting the Buffybot, Dawn,” Tara said in her most reasonable voice. “I mean, that’s what they’re after, isn’t it?”
The affirmation made Dawn sit up a little straighter in her chair. “So, when do we get to the ritual?”
Xander pushed away his empty plate, “I’m ready.”
Xander sat in the middle of the living room, the blackthorn shillelagh lying by his right hand, while the others gathered spell ingredients. He’d been advised he was going to be sitting there awhile so he should get comfortable. The beanbag chair was probably more leeway than he was going to get, so sitting cross legged would have to do.
Giles laid a black stone by his right hand. “This is jet from Whitby. It represents water. The staff itself represents earth.”
Willow was busily drawing a chalk circle on the hardwood floor. It was sidewalk chalk and Xander hoped it would mop up without too much trouble. Otherwise they were going to need a big area rug to cover it up. Willow, Tara and Giles were still trying to explain the ceremony to him. He’d begged them not to, but they insisted it would help him manipulate the energies if he needed to, whatever that meant.
“Dawn’s blood will represent spirit,” Willow explained.
Tara placed the last pillar candle at its compass point on the edge of the circle. “The candles will represent fire.”
“I’ve got air!” Dawn bounced in trailed by a Mylar balloon which proudly proclaimed “It’s a boy!” in baby blue letters surrounded by confetti.
“That’ll be fine, Dawn,” Tara said in a tight voice, as if she was trying not to burst out laughing. “Would you hold on to it until we need it?”
Plopping down just behind Xander’s right shoulder, Dawn held tight to the merrily bobbing balloon with every indication of being pleased with herself.
Willow finished the circle. It encompassed all of them and most of the living room. “The circle is sealed. Let no malevolent influence cross its bounds. So mote it be.”
She and Tara lit the candles then Willow positioned herself directly in front of him. He felt Tara settle behind him. The two witches lit sage smudges and chanted a cleansing spell while they circled him with them. Xander closed his eyes to keep from getting the smoke in them. The sage made an odd mix with the cinnamon scent of the candles, like turkey stuffing and apple pie on one plate. Many more spells like this and they’d need to repaint in here.
Being the center of attention was a deeply strange sensation for Xander. It made him twitchy. When the chanting for the cleansing was finished, his eye couldn’t help but be drawn to the single member of the group outside the circle.
Spike sat in the dining room, well away from the proceedings, making a great show of polishing off the orange beef.
Willow called his attention back to the proceedings within the circle. “Xander, pick up the staff.”
He carefully swung the weapon to the front, lying it across his open palms so he faced Willow with it. “As the work of your hands, this staff is intimately tied to you. It can only be used in defense against an invader, but it cannot be taken from you.” She lit another candle between them. Once the flame was steady she guided him to stretch the staff beyond the candle, then pull it back toward himself through the flame.
“The flame is for purity,” Willow explained. “Do you accept its energy into yourself?”
If Willow said so, that was good enough for him. “I do.” He let her direct his hands back until he held the staff across his chest, over his heart, before returning it to its former position on his lap.
Next, Giles picked up the shard of jet. “This is for clarity of mind. Should the teckla enter your mind, touching this should allow you to remember that the images presented to you are not real and suppress your fear.”
After a short incantation, Giles tied the stone in place just below the head of the shillelagh.
“Tie the balloon below the jet, Dawn,” Tara instructed.
As she did so, Tara told him, “As you battle this creature, carry the love and joy of your friends with you.” Xander had to admit, he couldn’t look at the balloon without smiling, even as it rebounded off his head.
Then Giles pulled out a white-handled, single-edged knife. Dawn extended her left arm over the shaft of the shillelagh, batting the bobbing balloon out of her way to do so. Giles wanted to make sure she could still do her homework without complaining her writing hand hurt too much.
“Are you ready, Dawn?” Giles asked gently, squeezing her fingers.
Dawn nodded. She looked up briefly, as if she were trying to remember something, then locked eyes with Xander. “I gift you with my blood freely and with a full heart.”
At her words, Giles made a very shallow cut across her palm. Dawn turned her hand over to let the blood drip onto the wood. After a few moments Giles took her hand and began wrapping gauze around it.
Reciting the words Willow had given them earlier, Xander said, “I accept your gift with humility and gratitude.” He was pleased to note Dawn was smiling. Maybe it was a good thing to be using her blood for something protective.
Willow closed her hands over his, interlocking their fingers. “The blood of the Key transforms this staff from a physical to a spiritual weapon,” she stated.
He nodded his understanding and closed his eyes. She began to chant and he felt a tingling in his hands. Xander concentrated on breathing steadily and remaining calm. Willow’s chant stopped and Xander opened his eyes. Their hands were still linked but the shillelagh was gone.
A proud smile graced Willow’s mouth as she gave Xander’s hands a friendly squeeze. “If you need it, just concentrate and it’ll appear in your hands.”
Sounded pretty nifty.
Xander felt Tara’s hands as she slipped something over his head. When it slipped down to rest over his breastbone, he saw it was a piece of amethyst on a silver chain. “This is for true seeing. It will help you see the invader in your mind.” Resting her hands on the top of his head, she whispered something soft and lilting that he didn’t understand, but he felt something shift inside his head.
He turned to say something to Dawn and was faced with a Dawn-shaped column of swirling green fairy lights. He shook his head, trying to refocus and he was looking at Dawn again. “Okay, that was weird.”
Willow drew a line of chalk across a portion of the circle as she and Tara blew out the candles. “The circle is broken,” she declared. “May its energy heal and bless the Earth. Blessed be.”
Almost immediately, Spike’s hand appeared in front of his face. “Need a hand, pet?”
Xander grabbed hold and let Spike steady him on his feet. “I think Flora, Fauna and Merryweather here overstuffed my brain.”
“Are you all right, Xander?” Willow’s anxious face stuttered before him like he was seeing her with a strobe light. The colors of the room were more saturated, the edges sharper. He turned to Spike, who was still supporting him, and saw the human face and demon face overlaying each other. The different aspects of each shifted in prominence. Blue eyes and fangs made a jarring combination. He blinked, trying to clear his vision.
“Just a little disoriented, Wills,” he tried for reassuring. It was better than freaking out.
“It’s no wonder, were you going to try to cram the kitchen sink into his head next?” Spike carped.
“Xander,” Giles’s voice was gentle but firm and ignored Spike entirely. “Close your eyes. Concentrate on how things should look.”
Xander followed his advice. Breathing slowly and leaning on Spike, he called up an image of the living room. He nodded to let Giles know he had it.
“Good. Now, open your eyes.”
Xander squinted one eye open. When nothing squirrelly appeared he opened them both. Dawn was nice and solid and Spike’s human face was the only one he saw.
“Okay, I’m good to go,” he laughed. He pulled away from Spike and helped Willow and Tara put the living room to rights.
When it was time to shift the furniture back, he looked around for Spike. What good was supernatural strength if you couldn’t put it to work moving furniture?
He spotted Spike in the dining room in close conference with Dawn. He was probably drilling her on last minute instructions on what to do in case of vamp attack. Spike’s intensity brought a smile to Xander’s face. If he was really lucky, maybe he’d get a lecture before heading into battle.
Xander hated how easy it was to slip into the role of the Zeppo again. The crowd in the Copper Tank was older than the Bronze, no one under 21 was allowed in, but the dynamics were the same. Everyone was trying to make a connection. Cool guys trying to chat up hot girls; no dweebs, of either gender, need apply.
For two years, Xander had walked into places like this only when Anya wanted to go dancing. With a beautiful girl on his arm, “the scene” was simply unnoticed background noise. Now, the hot blond he was with was lurking in a nearby alleyway waiting for his signal. It would be reassuring to have his friends there, but they were hanging out at the Magic Box, waiting to be told where the action was. That left Xander floundering with lame pick up lines and a return to being the kid always picked last for the team.
“Want to dance?” His hopeful, puppy dog tone didn’t sway the willowy blonde sitting alone at the bar. She scanned him briefly as if he were a pair of high heels she were considering buying, clearly found him wanting, and turned away without bothering to reply. Not that she needed to.
He couldn’t even get the bartender’s attention. He guessed he didn’t look like a big tipper.
A leggy brunette leaned on the bar beside him. She motioned to the bartender, who responded to her immediately. Who could blame him? She was a knockout by anyone’s definition of the term. “What can I get for you?”
“White Russian,” she said in a deep, sultry voice. Then she turned to Xander. “How about you? My treat.”
‘We have a winner,’ he thought. Now that the moment was here, he found himself tongue tied. With any luck she’d think it was nervousness over a pretty girl talking to him. “Jack and Coke.”
The bartender took the orders, shaking his head as if he couldn’t believe Xander’s luck. Xander couldn’t believe his luck either. Maybe Willow and Tara could find a spell to reverse demon magnetism.
“You don’t come in here very often, do you?”
Xander forced himself to stand still and feed her the cover story rather than edge away. “No. I had a girlfriend for a couple years, but she dumped me, so I’m out on the market again. I work construction so it’s not like I’m going to meet a lot of people to date at the office.”
She looked around the bar, clearly weighing its merits as a place to meet someone. She made a sour face. “Not many choices in here either.”
Their drinks were placed in front of them. The brunette paid, giving the bartender a smile that showed off amazing dimples. Then she turned that same smile on Xander. “I’m Carmen.” She thrust her hand forward.
Xander took it with only the slightest bit of hesitation. He was relatively sure she wouldn’t pick a public spot like this one to feed in. He aimed for casual chatter. “Xander. So, you don’t like what you see?”
She wrinkled her nose. It was cute. “Too fake. Nobody’s here looking to meet a kindred soul. They’re looking for a good portfolio. Trophy wife wanna bes and guys looking for an edge. But that’s not your game, is it, Xander?”
Xander took a very small sip of his drink. The last thing he wanted to be right now was drunk. “I just didn’t know where else to look.” He stared into his glass, the picture of patheticness. “Being alone sucks.”
She leaned in close, her words whispered into his ear. “Let’s get out of here and I’ll make all your dreams come true.”
“Your place or mine?” He stammered the cliché. No way this thing was ever going to his home.
“Mine, I think,” she purred, giving him that dimpled smile, pressing against him as if they were already intimates. “Wait for me while I go powder my nose?”
Xander nodded, grateful for the break. He watched her disappear around the corner to the restrooms and took another sip of his drink before setting it down. From here the plan was simple, get in her car, dial up Spike and avoid letting Carmen touch him until the cavalry showed up.
“So, you rich?”
“Huh?” Xander turned to see the bartender right behind him. “Excuse me?’
“Scoring a hot babe like that.” The bartender flipped a hand to where Carmen had disappeared behind the corner. “You rich?”
“No,” Xander replied, staring at the spot. “Just lucky, I guess.”
The bartender made a disbelieving noise and moved off to wait on other customers. Xander was still shaking his head at the accusation when Carmen reappeared. He met her at the door.
“My car’s right over here,” she invited, pointing to a mustang convertible. She wasn’t leaving anything to chance, it seemed.
Xander slid into the passenger side, fastened his seatbelt, and reached a hand into his jacket pocket for his phone.
It wasn’t there. He tried to be subtle about patting down his pants pockets in the hopes that he’d placed it there instead. Carmen was pulling out of the parking lot, and he’d dropped the stupid phone back at the bar. He was so very screwed. Time for a little creative thinking.
“Carmen, can I borrow your cell for a minute. I need to let my roommate know I won’t be home tonight.” It was a long shot, but if he could call Spike he might be able to get him on their tail.
“Aw,” she cooed, giving him that million dollar smile and waving his cell phone in her hand. “Did you lose this?”
Xander called himself ten kinds of fool for allowing her to pick his pocket. “Very funny. Give it back, please.” He lunged for it but the seatbelt brought him up short. She tossed the phone out the window.
“Sorry, sweetie,” she said, her voice like sticky fake chocolate. “I needed it to call Dawn. Had to tell her where to bring the robot slayer.”
Xander released his seatbelt and hoped he could survive a leap from a moving vehicle. He froze when he saw Carmen’s features morph into the same face he saw every morning while shaving.
“Wouldn’t want her to miss the party,” his double said.
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