Part Twenty-Eight

Dawn was in trouble. This was hardly an unusual situation, but it was the first time Xander was directly responsible for it. The teckla smirked at him like it knew there was nothing Xander could do about its scheme. Xander hadn’t known his own face was physically capable of looking that smug. The trap was neatly sprung, only it was Dawn who was in its jaws, and Xander had no idea where this thing had sent her.

He was going to find out.

Xander lunged across the seat to slam the teckla’s head against the side window. “Where is she, creep!”

It seemed this was not the reaction the Xander-clone had expected, as he fought to keep the car on the road while being pummeled. It didn’t work. The car skidded off the road and into a ditch. Xander’s shoulder slammed into the steering wheel, but he barely noticed. He didn’t loosen his grip on his look-alike and, when the door popped open, both of them went tumbling from the vehicle.

Xander got in a couple more good punches before scrambling away from his evil twin. Now that trying to keep the car on the road was no longer a distraction, Xander couldn’t let the teckla touch him. He was vastly irritated with himself for his own arrogance. He’d been so certain the mental defenses they had set up were all he needed that he wasn’t carrying anything but a stake. A crossbow would be mighty handy about now.

Fortunately, evil twin didn’t seem to have any distance weapons on him either. They circled each other. Xander couldn’t afford to be incapacitated until he’d gotten a warning to Dawn. They hadn’t traveled that far from the bar. If he could outpace the teckla, he might be able to get to Spike and hope like hell he wasn’t too late. He had no idea what they planned to do to Dawn once they had her, and absolutely no desire to find out.

Xander tried to get his bearings while staying out of reach. If he was going to make a run for it, going the wrong direction would be a possibly fatal waste of time.

A set of headlights came into view. He was without landmarks here in the dark, but he was pretty sure they were approaching from the direction of the bar. He was just trying to figure out how to flag the car down when it came to a screeching halt ten feet away.

Spike leaped out of the driver’s side. Xander was so happy to see him he almost didn’t avoid evil twin’s lunge forward.

“Quick Spike!” evil twin shouted. “It’s the teckla, you’ve gotta kill it.”

If he’d had more time, Xander would have given his evil twin a zero for originality, probably heckled the completely cliché delivery as well. As it was he didn’t have time. “Call Dawn! He’s sent her somewhere. The trap was for her.”

The comical expression Spike wore at staring at two Xanders distracted him for a second. He was even more distracted by the look that crossed Spike’s face before he even finished speaking. It was a look that promised violence and pleasure in equal measure and Xander knew Spike had them sorted out.

Spike made a grab for the evil twin, who realized the lame ruse hadn’t worked a couple seconds too soon. Xander relaxed fractionally once he was able to deliver the message to Spike and was unprepared for the flying tackle headed his way. He tried to step out of the way but it was an all or nothing leap at close range and collision was inevitable. He got a good look at his own face headed for his chest, then impact.


He shook his head to clear it and realized a couple of things at once. He was tied to a straight-backed chair and there was a blindfold over his eyes. He had no idea where he was or how long he’d been out.

He took comfort from the fact that he had managed to deliver his message to Spike. By now he’d be pulling Dawn out of whatever trap they had set off. Meaning Xander needed to worry about his own skin. Since he couldn’t see, he concentrated on what he could hear. There was a shuffling noise as if someone were walking around nearby and a muffled whimpering sound. There was the sickly sweet stench of recent death in the room. Put together with the whimpering, Xander concluded he was in the lair of the Jerib gang and that they had arrived too late for some of the captives.

Rachel’s haunted face flashed across his mind. He could imagine half a dozen faces just like hers staring at him in sightless accusation. Some rescuer he turned out to be. He pushed anger at his failure out of his mind to focus on more practical matters. Trying to be subtle in his movements, he tested the rope that secured his hands behind his back. There wasn’t a whole lot of give.

“Bout time you woke up,” Spike’s jovial voice was unexpected.

“Spike! What are you doing here? Where’s Dawn?”

A comforting hand fell on his shoulder. “Relax, luv. She’s right here, safe and sound.”

The words were more confusing than reassuring. If Dawn was here and safe, he must have been out a lot longer than he thought. He wasn’t sure what was going on, but he wasn’t going to find out tied to this chair. “Quit fooling around and untie me, Spike.”

“I kinda like you like this,” Spike said seductively, running a hand up his neck.

Xander jerked his head away. In a low enough voice he prayed only Spike could hear him, he said, “No bondage fun in front of Dawn, Spike. Now untie me.”

“Can’t wait for the big reveal, eh? Can’t untie you, but I can get rid of this for you.” Spike untied the blindfold and took it away. Xander blinked in the sudden brightness. Once his eyes adjusted, he saw that he was back home, in the living room where they had performed the spells a few hours ago. He turned toward Spike, who had a very self satisfied look on his blood-streaked face.

“Are you hurt? Where is everyone?” Xander heard his voice rise to a whiny pitch. He hated it, but he was battling a major freak out right at the moment.

“Me?” Spike gave him a smirk Xander hadn’t seen in years, as he crouched down to speak softly inches away from Xander’s ear. “I’m tip top. No more nasty circuitry screwing up the works.” Xander had barely grasped what that sentence might mean when Spike grasped his chin and moved his head so he was looking into the dining room. “And everyone else is right here, right where they’re supposed to be.”

Xander was too shocked to scream. It was like his whole body had been suddenly dunked into ice water. Willow, Tara and Giles were thrown together in an untidy pile, arms and legs tangled together like a pile of jackstraws, their clothes spattered in gore from their ripped out throats.

“They make quite a picture, don’t they?” Spike turned Xander to face him again. He laid claim to Xander’s mouth with a deep, passionate kiss, foul with the blood of his friends. Xander didn’t respond, he didn’t pull away, he might as well have been one of Drusilla’s dolls. His thoughts wouldn’t catch up with the scene, like an out-of-synch soundtrack. “Well, that was disappointing,” Spike complained. “Aren’t you happy for me?”

From the snarled chains of thought in his head Xander managed to draw out one statement, a life raft to cling to. “You said Dawn was safe.” His voice barely rose above a whisper.

“And so she is,” Spike sing songed. He brightened as if he’d figured out the cause of Xander’s distress. He turned Xander to the opposite corner from the bodies. Dawn was tied in another dining room chair, whimpering softly around a gag. Tear tracks marred her cheeks but there were no fresh tears, as if she had run dry.

“Not a mark on her,” Spike assured. “Saved her for your first meal.”

Something inside Xander snapped. This couldn’t be real. Spike might kill Giles, Willow, Tara, even himself, but not Dawn, never Dawn. No matter how real this felt, and the unyielding wood of the chair and the scratchiness of the rope felt very real, this had to be a nightmare.

Then it clicked. Of course it was a nightmare, this was how the teckla operated. He closed his eyes, shutting out the sights and trying to ignore Dawn’s pitiful whimpers and Spike nuzzling at his neck. He concentrated on the shillelagh, holding it in his bound hands. Instantly, it was there. He rubbed a thumb over the jet bound into the head and opened his eyes again. The unreality of the scene became more apparent. Unless he’d been out for days, there was no way Spike had time to perform the carnage displayed before him. The teckla had tapped into an old fear that had troubled his sleep over a year ago. He wasn’t buying it.

He ignored the not-real Spike and concentrated on the feel of the amethyst against his chest, then he looked around for his true assailant. He spotted her by the door. She was a spindly, insect-like thing in a rather unpleasant shade of puce. “You had me going there for a minute, Carmen,” Xander taunted. “But you took it just a little too far.”

While it was true his best weapon had always been his mouth, being tied to a chair was not getting him out of here. He needed to get untied and end this. A gasp of pain escaped him as fake Spike bit into his neck. He bit down on a scream, chanting to himself that this wasn’t real.

In reality, he was lying defenseless by the side of the road, which was not a good place to be, particularly in Sunnydale. Spike was getting Dawn out of trouble and Xander was on his own. Spike wouldn’t have taken him with him, because then the teckla would just have more available victims, ones without the magical protections Xander possessed. Even if he had, this was taking place inside Xander’s head. It wasn’t like he could lend a helping hand here.

Xander felt like a complete idiot.

It was his head. He controlled the environment in here, especially now that he was fully aware of the teckla’s manipulations. He wasn’t tied to a chair if he didn’t want to be. He gripped the shillelagh more tightly and reminded himself the ropes weren’t real. The vampire fangs currently piercing his neck weren’t real either. He focused his mind inward, like Giles had taught him, ignoring the physical sensations and replacing them with what he knew to be real. The ropes and the extraneous characters disappeared, and he stood with his weapon at the ready.

“Guess you’ve never seen the Matrix, huh?”

He couldn’t be sure, but the teckla seemed to be cowering. That was all well and good, but he needed it out of his head, not just cringing from him.

“Just call me Neo,” he said, as he attacked. The teckla fell under the force of the blow. The scene shifted and dissolved. Now he was standing in the middle of a warehouse. The teckla scrambled away from him. Xander looked up and kept on looking up at the hulking vampire in a suit that the teckla was hiding behind.

“Impressive,” the dapper monster admitted. “I’ve never seen someone defeat her before.”

Xander was just wondering if he could take this guy, when movement around him alerted him to the fact that there were others ranged around the warehouse.

“I’m so screwed,” he grumbled under his breath.

Part Twenty-Nine

Xander stared at a vampire built like a super-sized linebacker stuffed into an Armani suit and sought another escape route. In his peripheral vision, he spotted the other vampires closing in on him. He knew he’d never make it if they had a chance to circle him. Making a wild swing with the shillelagh, more to scatter his opponents than actually intending to hit anything, he charged to break through the line.

A glancing blow hit the vampire to the left but the one on the right closed faster. Xander cursed vampiric speed. He was cuffed on the side of the head hard enough that his ears rang. He got a momentary thrill of satisfaction when he rammed his club into his assailant’s stomach. His opponent clearly hadn’t expected him to counterattack after that blow, but Xander had long since gotten the hang of fighting while impaired.

His triumph was seriously short lived: the precious seconds the scuffle had taken allowed two others to tackle him from behind. Somehow, he managed to hang on to his weapon, not that it did him much good as he was thoroughly pinned to the cold concrete floor. Vampires’ affinity for warehouses was a mystery he supposed he’d never solve.

At least two of them held him to the floor, his cheek pressed against the rough concrete. Someone’s knee embedded itself in his back and his arms and legs were immobilized. He had a good view of the polished guy and not much else.

“That was less impressive,” he said, before turning his back on Xander and addressing the teckla. “You look famished, my dear. Why don’t you take the blonde witch. She looks tasty.”

From his worm’s eye view, Xander tracked where the guy was pointing. Behind him Willow, Tara and Giles sat trussed up and gagged. Tara’s eyes were huge as the teckla moved her direction.

“No!” Xander screamed. Tara was only now recovering from Glory’s mental tortures. Xander wasn’t sure she could survive what the teckla might put her through.

“You’re in no position to bargain, little hero,” the Jerib leader told him conversationally. He leaned back against a stack of boxes. “I must say, I’m a bit disappointed. I expected more of a fight. All that preparation, contingency plans, hiding in this ridiculous warehouse, just to drown kittens in a barrel.”

Tara tried to squirm out of reach of the teckla. It brushed its hand over her cheek and she shuddered.

“If you touch her, I’ll kill you,” Xander gritted out, knowing it was an empty threat. He struggled futilely to get loose. There was no give in the hands that secured him in place. Further threats were prevented by the increase in pressure from the knee in his back. Sucking in enough air to breathe was rapidly becoming his top priority.

The teckla disappeared into Tara, and her body convulsed. Her eyes rolled back into her head and she lay still. Tears flowed down Willow’s ashen face. She didn’t look at him, she didn’t take her eyes off Tara, as if she could somehow share her suffering by observing it.

Xander went through his options. There weren’t many. He scanned the tiny bit of the room that he could see around him, trying to find something to facilitate an escape attempt. Instead, his gaze landed on Dawn, tied to a chair in the corner. The parallels with the nightmare the teckla had put him in were eerie.

“I see you’ve spotted our guest,” the Jerib leader observed. It was maddening how damned civilized he appeared. “Amazing what you can accomplish when you have a hostage your opponents are unwilling to sacrifice.”

Dawn cried in hitching sobs. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have gotten caught.”

“Not your fault, Dawn,” Xander gasped, meaning every word. It wasn’t Dawn’s fault. It was his. There was one piece of equipment he needed to make their plan work and he’d lost it. He’d thought he was so clever putting the cell in his jacket pocket, thinking he could get to it more surreptitiously that way. If he had a brain at all he would have remembered they were springing a trap. All he’d done was make it dead easy for Carmen to snag it out of his pocket without him ever being aware of it. Dawn had gotten a call from him, on his cell phone. She had every reason to believe the call was genuine.

Dawn stared at the ground, defeat and pain in every line of her body. His words of reassurance wasted breath. A glance back at the others showed Tara out for the count. Willow seemed frozen to the spot, her eyes on Tara’s limp figure. Giles stared at him, a look of profound disappointment in his eyes, then he bent his head and looked away.

Xander’s stomach twisted into an even smaller knot than before. That look screamed that Giles expected nothing from him, considered him useless excess baggage. Xander hadn’t seen it since high school, but he couldn’t dispute its validity. They’d poured all this magic into him and, with one stupid mistake, he’d let them all down. He struggled to suck in enough air to breathe. He didn’t have enough to spare for idle threats or words of comfort.

All he could do now was hope Spike had some clever plan. There had to be a way to take these guys by surprise. When Spike made his move, he had to be ready to cause a distraction.

The Jerib leader must have read his mind. “I imagine you are wondering about your vampire ally. You expect him to save you.” He turned to a part of the warehouse Xander couldn’t see and motioned someone over. “He did try.” The false sympathy in the vampire’s voice sickened him. The bastard was playing mind games, Spike couldn’t be captured, not even he carried that much bad luck with him.

Two other vampires came into his line of sight, dragging a bloody and broken man by his arms between them. White blond hair, matted with blond, and the remains of a leather coat identified him as Spike, even as Xander’s mind rebelled at the idea. He looked worse than after he’d fallen from the tower. His limbs were twisted, trailing limply behind him. A broken neck would explain the stillness. Spike had loathed being stuck in a wheelchair, being a quadriplegic could only be Spike’s version of hell. Even if they got out of here, and their prospects were dimming by the second, they faced a torturous recovery, and Spike might hate him by the end of it.

One of the vampires holding Spike lifted his head by his hair. Spike’s face was a mass of cuts and bruises, one eye was swollen completely shut, the other held nothing but despair.

The Jerib leader strolled between Xander and Spike, casually grasping Spike’s hair to turn his face up. “He put up a passable fight, but the end was never in doubt. He knew his life was forfeit either way.”

There was a stake in the Jerib leader’s hand. As if it was nothing at all he stabbed Spike through the heart with it. Spike’s body reacted to the blow with no more acknowledgement than a sack of flour. The one working eye fixed on the Jerib leader in gratitude. Xander silently begged for one last look from Spike, but Spike collapsed into dust without glancing his way. Crushed by more weight than the two vampires on top of him, Xander stopped forcing air into his lungs, all hope and desire to keep trying dying inside him.

Xander couldn’t draw in the air to scream as Spike’s dust settled to the floor. Dawn did it for him.

Dawn’s scream drowned out all other sounds, and Xander closed his eyes to shut out one more source of misery. If he’d only been faster, fought better, been smarter, he could have stopped this. There was always a way out. But they’d left it to stupid, clumsy, normal Xander to save the day, and he had failed.

His hand convulsed around the shaft of the shillelagh, and he concentrated on the feel of the wood. It was smooth and slightly warm in his fist, reminding him of his friends’ love, of the jaunty balloon that had been tied onto the end.

It reminded him of how stupidly gullible he could sometimes be.

This weapon didn’t exist outside the confines of his own mind: the teckla had tricked him again. There was no one holding him, he was not pressed flat against concrete, struggling to pull air into straining lungs. Neo was back in business.

Just for the sheer poetic justice of it, he imagined the vampires on top of him dusted.

The pressure lifted from his back and limbs, and Xander used his weapon to regain his feet. The Jerib leader had looked imposing before, now he looked ridiculous, too over the top to be believable.

“You aren’t real!” Xander shouted as he swung his club through the vampire. He dispersed like mist before the onslaught. The images of his friends remained. They sat bound, resigned and accusatory. These were harder to banish.

He crouched down beside Tara’s still form, ran a hand over her clammy forehead. The teckla was hiding behind her form. Even knowing that, he couldn’t raise a hand against her. He’d have to find another way.

“I’m not as smart as any of you.” Xander let his gaze sweep over each of them in turn. He knew he was talking to himself here, but that didn’t matter. It was him that needed the convincing. “I don’t have magical powers, or super strength, or arcane knowledge. I’m just a normal human, a regular guy, who loves you all to the depth of my soul. But I’m stubborn, and I believe we’re going to win. They’ll have to kill us to stop us and, really, they’re not that good.”

The dark expressions of his friends were replaced with mischievous, encouraging grins before they wavered like heat haze and disappeared. The teckla crouched before him in Tara’s place.

“Guess it’s just you and me now, huh?” Xander rose to stand over the creature. “We going to do this the easy way or the hard way?”

The teckla hissed at him, then he was in a graveyard at night, surrounded by his friends in vamp face. Dawn made a lunge at him.

“Oh please. You aren’t even trying now.” He walked through her, scanning the terrain for his prey. “Hard way we can do.”

He spotted the teckla behind a tree and headed for it. It broke into a run. The scene changed around him, he ignored the lightshow. He ran through obstacles, confident in their lack of substance. He caught up to it and tackled it to the ground.

They struggled, rolling in clinging mud, sharp rocks, itching thorns, anything the creature could come up with to distract. Xander barely noted the changes in passing and pressed on.

At last, he straddled the teckla’s waist, holding the club across its throat. He looked into its terrified face and didn’t flinch, even as that face became Giles, Willow or Dawn. He just kept pushing until he felt bone and tissue give under his hands and all the struggling ceased. Even then he didn’t stop.

The staff disappeared and he was kneeling in gravel beside a road. Still he kept throttling the limp form beneath him with his bare hands.

A hand rested lightly on his shoulder. “Its dead, luv.”

Something in Xander’s chest eased at the sound of Spike’s voice, but he couldn’t trust it. The teckla had fooled him twice already, it wasn’t getting another shot.

He released his grip on the body beneath him. The creature’s neck was a pulpy mess; there was no sign of life. Then again, playing possum would be an art form for the demon. There had to be some way to be sure, some test. Spike’s arm braced across his back felt real enough, but that was no proof. Spike shouldn’t be here, he should be wherever Dawn was, protecting her.

“Dawn?” The one word took more effort to utter than he expected. He ached all over, especially his right shoulder where he’d hit the steering wheel. His vision was wavering in and out of focus. He needed to figure this out right now, before he passed out.

Spike was crouched down beside him, Xander suspected Spike’s arm was all that was holding him up at the moment. “Safe at home,” Spike assured him. “They all are. You were the last one fighting. Let’s get you in the car, time to go home.”

Everyone safe. He wanted to believe in that reality, but he had to be sure. He attempted to summon his weapon to his hand. Nothing happened. It was shaky proof, he might be too wiped out to call it up, but it would do. Besides, his subconscious mind would have known Spike was off rescuing Dawn, not guarding him. A goofy grin spread across his face even as he slumped against Spike’s shoulder. Spike helped him up and kept him moving to the car. “You stayed.”

“Course I stayed. Think I was going to leave you by the roadside like yesterday’s trash?”

Xander didn’t feel like telling Spike that was exactly what he’d thought. Dawn was in trouble, but Spike had stayed for him. He grinned a little bigger as Spike manhandled him into the passenger seat, he really didn’t have the strength to maneuver himself. Psychic battles really took it out of you.

“Thanks.” He was pretty sure he got the word out before the world went from gray to black.

Part Thirty

The stabbing pain in Xander’s right shoulder propelled him to consciousness.

“Ow!” he complained, shoving Spike away.

“Told you we should cut the damn shirt off,” Spike said as he released him back to his comfortable position on the couch.

At the threat to his last Hawaiian shirt, Xander levered himself back up and let Tara help him take it off. His body ached from the beating it suffered from the car wreck and the brief fight with the teckla, and he sank back against the fluffy pillow placed on the arm of the couch. Spike and Tara seem to have divided him in half, with Tara taking care of above the waist and Spike below.

Nice as that should be, Spike’s hands were completely clinical as they checked for injuries, and Tara’s gentle touch made him squirm as it moved over tender ribs and his sore shoulder. This didn’t feel like a hallucination, but then, neither had any of the other scenarios.

“Nothing seems to be broken,” Tara reassured him. “But you’ve got some deep bruises.”

Given the night’s activities, he knew how lucky he was. He focused in on the rest of the room. Willow, Giles, Dawn and Jonathan sat in a semicircle facing the couch, all of them staring at him intently. Jonathan hadn’t appeared in any of the other scenes the teckla had staged for him. The whole set up was different than any situation he thought the teckla would create, but he’d already been fooled twice. He wanted this to be real so very badly, but he had to be sure.

“Willow, quick, explain a calculus function to me,” Xander demanded desperately.

“What?” Willow asked, baffled. She turned to Tara. “Are you sure he doesn’t have a head injury?”

“Willow, just, say something smart, something I wouldn’t understand,” Xander pleaded.

Willow rattled off some incomprehensible equation that Xander didn’t understand a word of.

“Wahoo!” He thrust both arms in the air, wincing as he jarred his shoulder. “I’m really home.”

“Yes. Interesting test,” Giles said, “Since the induced hallucinations came from your own mind, anything your mind could not readily grasp is unlikely to be part of a delusion created from your subconscious thoughts.”

If anything, Xander’s grin broadened. “Don’t change, Giles. Never change.”

Dawn shook her head at all of them, giving the impression she believed herself trapped in a house with a bunch of lunatics. She just might be right. “How are you feeling, Xander?”

“Kind of wrung out,” Xander admitted. Tara was rubbing some kind of salve into his shoulder and Spike was bending his leg. “Apparently, I’m fully poseable too.”

“Git,” Spike grumbled, but moved on to rotating his foot one way then another. “Lucky bastard didn’t even sprain anything.”

“You sound disappointed, Spike,” Willow teased. “Were you hoping to nurse him back to health?”

“Might have kept him from risking his neck for a few days, anyway,” Spike continued his manipulations with the other leg. He was finding some tender spots, but all parts seemed present and in good working order.

“You used a lot of mental energy fighting the teckla,” Tara explained, drawing Xander’s attention away from what Spike was doing. “There’s a physical cost to that.”

Willow must have noted the slight panic that crossed his face because she hastened to add. “But a good night’s sleep should have you back in tip top shape.”

“I staked a vampire,” Jonathan declared from left field. He was riding a high of adrenaline and pride that Xander knew well. Give the guy an hour or two and he’d be crashing hard.

“We know, Jonathan,” Giles spoke as if he’d repeated the words many times already.

Xander smiled as the irritated tone rolled right off Jonathan’s fixed exuberance. Seconds later, Xander’s brain jostled into gear enough to remember he hadn’t been the only one fighting tonight. “How about you guys, any injuries?”

“Thankfully, no,” Giles said. The calm assurance of his voice soothed Xander’s fears but not his guilt.

“Dawn, I’m so sorry,” he said, tears threatening. “I should never have let her get her hands on my cell.”

For reasons Xander couldn’t comprehend, that brought a huge grin to Dawn’s face. “Don’t worry about it, Xander. It’s no big deal.”

Xander was still blinking at her when Giles commented. “In point of fact, it was quite fortuitous. Dawn played a pivotal role in tonight’s proceedings.”

“Huh?” Xander asked intelligently, all threat of crying erased.

Spike took a seat on the end of the couch and pulled Xander’s legs across his lap. Tara, finished with her nursing duties, leaned back against Willow’s chair. It was story time.

Xander realized that Spike had his arm draped casually over Xander’s hips and no one commented or even looked disapproving. He wasn’t stupid enough to question the détente, he was just grateful for it.

“Mr. Overprotective over there,” Dawn glowered ineffectively at Spike. “Insisted that I verify any call I got, even if it was from one of you.”

“Wait,” Xander gave Spike’s leg a half-hearted kick. “You knew they could become specific people? When were you planning on sharing with the rest of the class?”

“Hey,” Spike pinned his legs down. “I didn’t. Was thinking more along the lines of a hostage situation.”

“It was a good precaution,” Tara said, looking at Spike with approval.

Xander sheepishly mouthed “thank you” to Spike. Spike gave a dismissive hand wave in return.

“So when Dawn got the call from you,” Willow picked up the tale. “She called Spike.”

“How I knew you’d left the bar,” Spike said, softly. Xander suspected Spike was embarrassed that he’d missed their exit.

Dawn fairly bounced in her eagerness to share her story. “Once Spike told me things weren’t the way fake you told me they were, he dashed off after you and I called the others and let them know where the vampires tried to send me and the bot.”

“She saved the day,” Tara agreed.

“One handy dandy cloak spell later, we were inside their hideout.” Willow took over again. “We were able to scope out the area, and we staked three of them before they even realized we were there.”

“I staked a vampire,” Jonathan repeated. Xander wondered how long it had been since he’d said anything else.

“Don’t get cocky,” Xander cautioned. “It’s not so easy when they know you’re there.”

“Actually, that’s not when he staked his vampire,” Giles said with a smile.

“I, um, I missed,” Jonathan admitted.

Tara leapt to his defense. “Willow and I were trying to do a freeze spell when one of the vampires came up behind us.”

“So, I ran over and staked him in the back,” Jonathan interrupted in his enthusiasm.

“Yes, but you were supposed to be getting the captives to safety,” Giles added sourly.

Xander didn’t want Giles’s disgruntlement over a messy operation to dampen Jonathon’s spirits, so he threw in his two cents worth. “Well, as a long time fan of our two witches, I’m glad you saved them instead. You’re a real Scooby now.”

“I am?” Jonathan appeared ready to keel over from the affirmation.

Xander turned back to Giles. Even with the magical misdirection they had still been outnumbered in the vampire’s stronghold. “So, just the four of you against ten of these guys?” Xander asked in amazement.

“Eight,” Spike corrected. “I did for the two that came to collect you.”

“Indeed,” Giles allowed. “We were fortunate tonight. We caught them off guard.”

“Yeah,” Dawn interjected. “They thought I’d go running out of here with the bot like a total spaz. Idiots.”

“I believe everyone can be proud of their efforts tonight,” Giles commended. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes in obvious exhaustion. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to go home and go to bed.”

“What, no victory party?” Willow cajoled.

“Perhaps later,” Giles said. “Jonathan, would you like me to drop you at your house?”

Jonathan looked like the evening was catching up with him, he nodded.

Xander swung around to be upright on the couch but needed Spike’s help to get to his feet. Spike’s arm slid into place around his back, keeping Xander standing. Goodnights were said and Giles and Jonathan headed home.

“I’ve got a shift at the Doublemeat tomorrow. Blearg,” Willow griped.

“Yeah, but next week the bot takes over,” Xander reminded her.

“Then you get to do all that cool programming stuff,” Tara encouraged.

Willow seemed marginally mollified. “What are you doing tomorrow, Xander?”

“Sleeping in,” he stated without hesitation. Then he caught Dawn’s eye. “How about we go get a Christmas tree tomorrow afternoon?”

He’d debated decorating for Christmas for weeks now. He didn’t know if it would be too much of a reminder of the people they’d lost. Dawn’s response flattened that worry.

“Can we?” she chirped, throwing her arms around his neck. “We can get the ornaments out of the attic, I know right where everything goes, and—“

“Okay, okay,” Xander conceded, prying her arms from their stranglehold. “Spike and I will help you get every last box down tomorrow.”

“We will?” Spike quirked an inquiring eyebrow at him.

“We will,” Xander reiterated firmly. Spike was not going to sit around and laugh and point. Participation was required. It was time to chase some of the ghosts out of the corners of this house. “But right now I need sleep.”

Dawn bounded upstairs, rattling off decorating plans as she went. Willow suggested Winter Solstice touches to add to the festivities. Tara just shook her head, but she looked happy as she followed them up.

“Well, that’s one disaster averted,” Xander sighed. He was glad for Spike’s supporting arm, which was carrying practically his entire weight. Sometimes vampiric strength was a definite asset. As they headed for the basement, Xander laid his head on Spike’s shoulder. “I had all kinds of sexy plans for tonight, but all I’m up for is about twelve hours of sleep. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Spike whispered, planting a kiss on his forehead. “I’ll make my own fun. Soundly as you sleep, bet I could write song lyrics across your arse without you waking up.”

“How about you just settle for ‘property of Spike,’” Xander suggested while nuzzling harder against Spike’s shoulder.

“Could do that -- the truth after all,” he agreed.

“That it is.” Maybe they were a different “three little words” than the traditional, but they meant the same thing.

The End

Epilogue 1

For Sparrow2000 who requested the morning after the night before.  So this takes place the morning after the end of the story.

Xander found himself sprawled face down across his half of the bed. The events of the previous evening bore more than a passing resemblance to the Wizard of Oz. He supposed it wasn’t really surprising his dreams had taken that turn.

A rubbing pressure kneaded the base of his spine and he moaned appreciatively. He was still all kinds of sore from yesterday. He opened his eyes to find Spike propped on his elbow eying him with a considering look.

“I will do any depraved activity you want in exchange for a backrub,” he mumbled, not fully awake.

Spike’s grin broadened even as he shifted position over Xander to employ both hands on rubbing his back. “Foursome with the witches it is, then.”

“Okay,” Xander murmured agreeably. “Although toad sex sounds pretty boring.”

Spike’s chuckle warmed him. It was great to be back in the real world, with decorating and Christmas tree shopping the only things on his day’s to do list. One or two depraved acts could make it onto the schedule while he was at it.

Spike’s hands moved up his back, working the muscles across his shoulders. “I’d offer you my first born, but I’m not likely to have one.”

“Never know, you might.” Spike’s voice strove for causal but it wasn’t in the neighborhood.

Sensing he’d hit some painful nerve with his joke he flipped over so he could see Spike’s face. “Well, I’m not volunteering for some mystical male pregnancy, how about you?”

Spike sat back, exuding nonchalance. Xander wasn’t buying it. “Just saying, some day, you and some nice chit might do the whole white picket fence thing.”

It wasn’t a new revelation that Spike could be insecure, just that he would be insecure now seemed idiotic. “Spike, you do realize you’re talking crazy, right?”

“Just saying,” Spike looked a bit sheepish. “Someday you might want more.”

“Wait a minute,” Xander narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “Is this some kind of ploy to get out of helping me pull down Christmas decorations?”

Shocked innocence was never a convincing look on Spike. “I’m pouring out my poor wounded heart here, and you’re making accusations.”

Xander took the opportunity to flip Spike onto his back. “You are a part of this family, and as such you will crawl in an unair-conditioned attic with me.” Xander leaned over his captive vampire and nibbled along his neck, paying a little more attention to the join of neck and shoulder that was one of Spike’s big hot spots. “Then you’re going with me to pick out the biggest, tackiest tree we can fit in the living room.” He ran his tongue over Spike’s collarbone while his hands began caressing the lean hips he was straddling. “Then, you’re going to join us all in decorating it.”

Spike was thrusting up against Xander, their erections rubbing together in a very pleasant fashion. “Depravity first?” Spike queried with hope gleaming in his eye.

“Oh hell yes,” Xander assured, getting down to some serious grinding.

Spike flipped them back over. “Good, all that wholesome family fun’s likely to rot my fangs.” Then he proceeded to lick a path down Xander’s sternum. Xander melted into the mattress under the assault, more than happy to relax and be ravished.

He found his hands wandering to Spike’s ass. It was an exceptionally nice ass and his hands had grown very familiar with it over the last few weeks. “I’m game for anything that doesn’t require too much movement on my part.”

Spike slid their erections together again, drawing a pleasured gasp from them both. “I’ll even give you that backrub after.”

“I knew there was a good reason I love you,” Xander declared, his eyes closed in enjoyment of the sensations.

Sensations that came to an abrupt, unexpected stop.

Xander cracked his eyes open to see his vampire with an almost goofy, awed expression.

“Really?” Spike asked.

“Really what?” Xander asked in puzzled confusion.

The grin slipped a bit as uncertainty stole across his face. “Love me.”

Xander raised himself on his elbows and glowered at Spike. “I’ve outed myself to my stake happy friends, turned my life upside down, how could you not know I love you?”

Spike made an adorable attempt at a pout. “You never said.”

Xander flopped onto his back, arms spread wide. “We’re guys, we don’t say, we do.”

Spike licked his chin and there was a devilish gleam in his eye. “I’m going to have to pound you through the mattress now.”

“Pound away,” Xander said agreeably, wrapping his legs around Spike’s waist, grinning at the promising direction this was taking.

“Pretty sure I love you as well,” Spike mumbled as his fumbled for the lube.

Xander cupped Spike’s face in his hands, “Kinda figured.” He drew Spike down into a long, deep kiss. He released him to grin unrepentantly at the vampire. “Now, get with the pounding.”

Spike snatched the lube and prepared to oblige, grinning like the fiend he was. “Shag you proper, then give you a nice rubdown.”

Xander nodded sagely as Spike slid two slicked fingers into him. “You’re still not getting out of helping with the decorations.”

Spike scowled at him but Xander was pretty sure his heart wasn’t in it. Especially when he did that little twist with his fingers that made Xander see stars.

Epilogue 2

For miss_murchison who wanted the Christmas decorating.  This actually turned out much more serious than I expected.

Is that my good rum, Spike?” Giles demanded.

“Course it is,” Spike said without pausing in pouring a healthy dose of rum into the eggnog. “Not like Xander buys any of the good stuff.”

“I resent that,” Xander declared, rounding the corner into the kitchen. “I can’t argue it but I certainly resent it.” He glanced at Spike next to the eggnog. “May I assume the eggnog is no longer Dawn friendly?”

“I rescued some before Spike got to it,” Tara assured him.

“And the rest of us will be able to get through this evening.” Spike scooped up a mug of eggnog and drank it all in one go. “Thought you were helping trim the tree.”

“Couldn’t resist the lure of the roast beast, had to get a sniff.” Xander grinned at Tara basting the prime rib, releasing a rich aroma into the room. She looked pleased. “Besides, I’m leaving the angel vs. star argument up to Willow and Dawn.”

“Oh we are not putting bloody angel on the top of the tree,” Spike snarled and stomped out to throw in his two cents.

Giles gave up his contemplation of the wine. As far as Xander could tell, Giles and Spike had no actual business in the kitchen, they were just evading Dawn, the Christmas decorating fiend. “Spike seems out of sorts,” Giles observed as he snagged a bit of beef. Tara covered it again to prevent further predation.

“He’s just grumpy because I made him crawl in the attic after decoration boxes.” Xander tried to make light of it, but he could tell Spike was on edge. “You should have seen him when I threatened to take him tree shopping.”

“It wasn’t a pretty sight,” Tara offered, shoving the roast back in the oven. “Xander, could you set the table for me?”

“No problem, we going china and silver?”

“I think that would be nice, don’t you? But the dishes probably need to be rinsed.”

“I think I can just about manage that. Giles, when they decide, it’ll have to be you or me putting the tree topper on or there could be serious mayhem with a stepladder.” He headed for the dining room and the china cabinet, while Giles grumbled behind him.

Xander pulled six place settings from the china cabinet and brought them back into the kitchen for a quick rinse. Ordinarily he’d feel bad for Tara being stuck with cooking the big meal but she liked cooking and the kitchen was clearly a favored refuge spot today. He’d spent the last several hours hauling in the tree, stringing lights and hanging holly up in the hard to reach places. He’d also been enlisted to build a fire. Didn’t matter how hot it was, the Summers household had a fire in the fireplace on Christmas Eve. He did have to admit the smell of the Yule log lent a certain festive air, even if they had to turn the AC on to keep from broiling.

As he was wiping off the plates he couldn’t help but think how there were fewer place settings than had been there last Christmas.

“How do you think Dawn’s holding up?” Xander quizzed Tara while keeping his gaze firmly on the plates in his hands. He still wasn’t sure he’d made the right call in suggesting they do the whole Christmas thing.

As if she could read his mind, Tara answered, “It was the right choice, Xander. Dawn needs to know that this can still be a wonderful season even if her mom and sister are gone.”

“I guess,” Xander conceded, setting the last plate aside. “It’s not easy though, for any of us.”

“I know.” Tara gave him a one-armed hug while she stirred something on the stove. Xander squeezed her back and took the plates back to the dining room.

From the living room he heard Spike and Giles trying to talk Dawn out of putting even more tinsel on the tree. At this point Xander suspected she was doing it just to bedevil them. He noticed the star now graced the top of the tree so they had obviously prevailed there. Spike and Giles were the only two people who disliked Angel even more than he did.

Idly, he wondered what would have happened if everything had turned out the way it should have, if Joyce, Buffy and Anya hadn’t died, and Spike was joining them for this Christmas dinner anyway. Would Joyce have stuck Dawn with the odd place setting? Somehow he thought she would have taken it herself, making sure everyone else felt special. Joyce had been like that, taking care of them all in her own quiet way, unfazed by the weird curve balls they threw her.

He was just finishing the table when angry words from the living room broke in. “I’m going out for more alcohol, don’t wait up.”

Spike stomped into the dining room making a beeline for the back door. Xander snagged him before he reached the kitchen and pulled him out of the line of sight of the rest of the house. “Not in the mood, pet,” Spike gruffed out.

“Tough.” Xander pulled Spike back against his chest. This conversation might be easier if they didn’t have to see each other. “You’ve been grumping all day, you’re not going anywhere until you talk to me. What’s the matter?”

Xander could tell that something serious was afoot when Spike sagged back against him instead of squirming to get away. “It’s nothing needs talking about.”

Xander looped his arms around Spike’s waist a little more firmly. “Try me.”

He followed up with a nuzzle to Spike’s neck. That always got at least a smile out of him, maybe it would elicit words as well. It might take time, but Xander was prepared to wait. Spike smelled of evergreen, he must have made an attempt to put the star up himself.

“Last couple years, what with the slayer off at college, I’d drop by every once in awhile to visit with Joyce. She was a classy lady, reminded me of my own mum. Each year she’d get me a Christmas present. Nothing much, candles or some knick knack to make the crypt more homey, but she thought of me. She saw me.”

Xander couldn’t help a bit of relief that the gift he had under the tree wouldn’t be rejected because Christmas gifts were poncy, whatever that meant. He’d been worried. As far as Spike’s problem went, that was easy to see because he felt it himself. “Special occasions really bring out the grief. It’s like you can’t ignore the empty space at times like these.”

“Haven’t felt grief in over 100 years, not supposed to be part of the vampire package,” Spike pouted.

“Well, you’re an exceptional kind of vampire,” Xander soothed. “Look, it sucks, not denying that at all, but here’s what I figured out, life is short, at least it is for us humans.”

“That’s it?” Spike turned his face to glare at him. “Life’s short, that’s all you’ve got?”

“Yep.” Xander stole a quick kiss. “And I don’t plan on wasting any of it.”

He let Spike slip out of his arms. Spike stared at him with his head tilted as if he was trying to determine what loco weed he’d been smoking. Then he straightened and pulled on the bad ass attitude. “Guess I don’t want to miss the big do. Glinda’s a right good cook.”

“That she is,” Xander agreed wholeheartedly.

The End

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