He hadn’t stayed long in Vegas. The horrible, fakey glitz had got to him, all the faux glamour and cheerful tawdriness grating against his nerves. How many fucking Cirques du Soleil did there need to be? So he’d headed north to Reno, where the sleaziness was more honest, and where good, clean mountains loomed nearby, and where he didn’t have that creepy feeling like someone was watching him.
Well, usually he didn’t have that creepy feeling. At the moment he felt very much like eyes were boring into the back of his skull, and he knew from the way the dealer was shifting his eyes toward the floorman, and the floorman was glancing up toward the ceiling, that someone had got himself a clue. And somewhere, the pit manager was staring intently at the suspicious customer through the security monitors.
Time to go.
Xander sighed slightly and scooped up his chips. He flipped a couple of them toward the dealer—who was only doing his job, after all—and stood, then lurched his way over to the cashier. He kept his eye on the garish carpet as he went, concentrating on ignoring the pain. He hated bringing his cane with him when he played; the eyepatch and the scars made him feel enough like a freak as it was.
The cashier was a grayish woman of indeterminate age who looked like she was sliding out of, or maybe into, a bad meth habit. She had that hard look to her eyes, and that thinness of the face. But she took his chips and, a moment later, shoved a pile of bills back through the slot. It was just a little over three thousand bucks, which would be enough to tide him over for a while, anyway.
He turned and headed toward the exit, still glaring at the carpet, debating with himself whether to grab a burger at the sports pub, or maybe just pick up a pizza and head back to his room. He almost made it out the door. But he was brought up short when a pair of legs planted themselves solidly in front of him. He took in the worn black boots and the tight black jeans, and then his head snapped upward.
He hadn’t expected to see that smirk again, that head of nuclear hair, that scarred eyebrow cocked questioningly at him.
“Going somewhere, Harris?”
Xander opened his mouth, shut it with a snap, then let it fall open again. He had a sudden certainty that his bum knee wasn’t going to hold him any longer. But before he could humiliate himself by collapsing to that stupid carpet, a pair of cold hands were gripping him just above the elbows, bracing him. “Steady, mate,” his confronter said.
“Spike?!” Xander finally managed to spit out. “What the fuck?”
Spike glanced around quickly. “Let’s…let’s go to my office, yeah?” He jerked his head toward the back of the big room, where Xander knew there was a set of doors.
“Your office?” Xander said, feeling as if he were at least three explanations behind.
Spike rolled his eyes. “A room with chairs and four walls and a door, where none of these wankers will be listening in.”
“Uh…okay,” Xander replied, because he couldn’t think of anything more brilliant.
Spike released Xander’s arms and began to stalk across the room with Xander in his wake. After a moment, though, he seemed to realize that Xander was struggling to keep up, and he slowed his pace considerably. “Looks like you’ve been through a bloody war,” he observed.
Feels like it, too, Xander said to himself. Out loud, though, he said, “You’re the one who’s supposed to be dead. Deader.”
“I was. Didn’t fancy it.”
With that cryptic statement, Spike led him through the doors, down a short, nondescript hallway, and to a plain metal door. A plastic sign next to the door read “Pit Mgr.” Spike brought out a key and unlocked the door. The room inside smelled like decades’ worth of cigarette smoke. The walls were a beigish color that might once have been white, and the only thing that adorned them was a large, plain clock, of the type that had hung in the classrooms at Sunnydale High. There were two tall metal file cabinets, a pair of wooden chairs with seats of worn brown leather, and a large desk. The desk might originally have been expensive, but it now sported various dents and scrapes, and a small piece was broken off one corner. Three monitors were arrayed across it, and there was a buff-colored phone and an overflowing ashtray and a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels.
Spike plopped himself down on the larger chair behind the desk and pulled a pair of glass tumblers from a drawer. He filled one with whiskey and was about to pour into the other when Xander put out a hand. “None for me,” he said, although he hadn’t wanted a drink this badly in a long time.
“Don’t like Jack?”
“Jack doesn’t like me. Or maybe he likes me too much.”
Spike looked at him for a long moment, shrugged, and put the extra glass away. Then he gestured at one of the empty chairs. Xander had to suppress a groan of relief when he sat.
They regarded each other silently for a while.
“You weren’t counting cards,” Spike said at last. “Don’t expect you’ve the brainpower for it anyway, unless you’re like that Rainman bloke.”
Xander ignored the jibe. “Maybe I’m just really lucky.”
Spike shook his head. “Nobody’s that lucky.”
“So what’re you gonna do? Send some goons to beat me up?”
“Looks as if the goons have been there already,” Spike said, waving his hand at Xander.
“No goons.” Xander pointed at his knee. “Water fairies. Who are way bigger and meaner than the name implies.” Then he pointed at the mark that bisected his left cheek. “Elptah demon. Talons. And the eye, you already knew about that one. There’s more, but we’d have to be much closer friends before you saw those.”
Spike took a slug of his drink. “Where are the rest of your lot?” He might have been trying for nonchalance, but didn't quite pull it off.
“Right now? I don’t know. Will called me from Costa Rica a couple weeks ago. But I think Buff’s somewhere in West Africa, and Giles and Dawn are in England.”
Now Spike looked slightly relieved, but Xander wasn’t certain why. Spike took another drink, draining the glass. As he refilled it, he asked, “Why aren’t you with any of them?”
Xander tapped his knee. “Can’t fight. Always did suck at research. So I retired.”
“To make a living cheating at cards.”
“Nothing left of the Watchers’ Council to pay me disability, and I can’t work construction anymore. Willow gave me a tiny little spell.”
There went Spike’s eyebrow again. “A spell?”
“I can...influence the cards a little bit. Not much. Enough to win at blackjack.”
Spike just looked at him, and that reminded Xander that the vampire was supposed to be ashes under Sunnydale, not sitting in an office in Reno and swilling whiskey and giving Xander the third degree. “Spike, what the hell?”
“Got resurrected in LA fought with the ponce nearly got dusted again tilting at his sodding windmills and finally told him to bugger off.” Spike said it all tonelessly and very fast, so that it took Xander a few seconds to catch up with his words.
“You what with who?”
Spike sighed and downed his second glass. “Rose again in Angel’s bloody office,” he said slowly, as if Xander was a very stupid child. “Fought there for a time. Won, just barely. Couldn’t stand the tosser any longer and I left.”
“To manage a casino.”
“’T’s something I can do at night. Pays for my home and my feed. I get to beat up someone now and then. Belligerent drunks. Blokes who cheat.”
Xander stood, his knee giving him a sharp protest. He dug in his pocket and pulled out his winnings, which he dumped on the desk. “Here. You want to beat me up, too? Go ahead. You wouldn’t be the first demon to take a swing at me. Tear my goddamn throat out if you want. I’m tired of caring.”
When Spike didn’t respond, Xander huffed angrily and turned and left, slamming the office door behind him. He more than halfway expected to feel those hands on him again, but this time he limped his way to the door without being stopped. When he got outside, he took a deep breath. The cool air felt cleansing.
His rathole of a motel was only a few blocks away, and he’d walked to the casino. He owned a car, a battered Toyota, but the transmission was iffy and gas was expensive and he wasn’t exactly insured, so he used it only when necessary. Now, though, he wished he’d driven, because by the time he made it to the Lady Luck Lodge, his leg could barely hold him. Inside his room, he collapsed backwards onto the orange and yellow comforter and let out a long, hissing breath, and realized he hadn’t had any dinner after all. Maybe that was just as well—he only had about fifty bucks left to his name and the room was only paid for two more nights. After that, he’d be out on his ass.
He guessed he could try another casino the next night, someplace where security was not overseen by familiar not-dead-enough vampires.
He must have dozed off after a while, because he was startled awake by a knock on the door. He shook his head sleepily and wondered if it was the cops again. They’d stopped by twice, once in search of a drug dealer who used to have room 113, and once when they were vacating the entire motel because of a suicide in room 125. But he heard no sirens, and there were no red lights flashing outside the window. He moaned slightly and glanced at the bedside table. It was 4:38 a.m.
“What?” he shouted.
The only answer he received was what sounded like someone kicking the door. Hard. The cheap lock wouldn’t hold, so he might as well open up, he figured. With some difficulty, he made his way to his feet. This time he grabbed his cane, which he’d left leaning against one wall. It made a reasonable weapon, at least.
It was Spike at the door.
“How did you find me?” Xander demanded.
Spike smirked and tapped his nose.
“Okay, and that is not in any way gross,” Xander said. “Was it a slow night? You decided to kill me after all?”
“Wouldn’t be enough of a challenge.”
“Sorry to disappoint.”
“Aren’t you going to invite an old mate in?”
“We were never mates, Spike. Um, in any sense of the word. And no.”
Spike looked over Xander’s shoulder at the dingy room. “Don’t fancy me sullying your luxurious abode?”
“I’ve stayed in worse places,” Xander said truthfully.
“Like that awful basement.”
“Those who live in glass crypts shouldn’t throw stones.”
Spike gave him a look. “A glass crypt would be a horrible idea. Vamp would fry in a moment. Unless it was necrotinted, of course.” He reached in his pocket—and how did he still manage to have that duster, Xander wondered—and pulled out his lighter and a pack of Marlboros. Xander watched as he shook out a cigarette and lit it, blowing the smoke off to one side.
Xander felt achy and beyond exhausted. “Spike, what the hell do you want?”
Spike shoved the box and lighter back away, and his hand came out clutching a roll of bills. “Here,” he said, holding it out.
Xander stared at it. “What?”
“The money you won.”
“But I cheated.”
“The owners can spare a few thousand, berk.”
“I don’t want charity from you,” Xander said.
Did he imagine the look of hurt that flashed across the vampire’s face? “Consider it payment, then. Rent for the time I stayed in your cupboard. When I was a bit…barmy.”
Xander snorted. “More than a bit.” But he felt his resolve, or maybe his pride, wavering. He really could use the dough. He steeled himself. “You don’t owe me anything. You came out of my closet a long time ago.” Spike grinned, and Xander realized that last statement hadn’t quite emerged as intended.
“Just take it,” Spike said. He tried to push his hand forward, but it met with an invisible barrier at the doorway. Spike shrugged and let the bills drop. “Fine. Let your junkie neighbors have it then. Doesn’t matter to me.” And with a swirl of his duster, he was gone.
Xander stood at the open door for a long time, watching a pair of moths wheel and flutter under a lightbulb. Then he bent—awkwardly—and retrieved the money and went back inside.
He didn’t realize the error until the next afternoon. He’d slept almost until 1, and then he’d showered, trying to get himself clean without lingering too long on any of the ugly marks that were scattered across his body. If anyone had asked, he could have said exactly where each one had come from, could have described the particular creature and the particular fight in detail. Some people had photographic memory; he had perfect recollection for injuries.
Of course nobody ever asked, because nobody ever saw the scars that his clothing covered. And even if they had, he wouldn’t have told them the truth, which was that some of those marks—the little circular burns on his belly and bicep, the thin lines on his ass and shoulders, the fucking toothprints on one finger—hadn’t been put there by demons at all, but instead by monsters of the all-too-human variety, long before the supernatural creepy-crawlies had had their shot at him.
After he showered, he got dressed in his last remaining clean clothing—he had five sets of clothes, and it looked like he needed to hit the Laundromat today—and then his stomach reminded him that a meal was way overdue. A good steak, maybe. He hadn’t had one in a long time. There were a couple of decent places nearby. Or maybe he was in the mood for a seafood buffet. As he considered his options, he grabbed his wallet, intending to stash away the wad of bills Spike had given him. It sure wasn’t safe here in his room. But as he sorted through the pile, his breath caught. He re-counted, and then again.
Instead of $3000, Spike had given him exactly $10,000.
He should have noticed the mistake at the time, of course, but he’d been tired and more than a little distracted. Crap. Now what?
He decided that he’d think better on a full stomach. So an hour later, as he dug into his barbecued ribs at the place in Circus Circus, he made up his mind. Tonight he’d return the $7000 to Spike and then get out of town before Spike decided to take the rest back as well. Maybe Xander would cross back into California and hit a couple of the Indian casinos. Maybe he’d gather enough cash to support him for a few months, and he’d head all the way to the coast and spend some time as a beach bum.
He still had plenty of time to kill when his meal was finished. He always had time nowadays, and not much to fill it. Today he drove to the Laundromat—the nice one he’d found, quite a way from downtown, where there was a Jamba Juice a few doors down and significantly fewer drug dealers than in his neighborhood. He’d almost stopped caring about the way people stared at him when they thought he wasn’t looking, but hey, he was only half-blind, and the gawkers were a lot more obvious than they thought. Sometimes a kid would even be brave enough to ask him what happened, and he’d make stuff up. Iraq, he’d say. Car wreck. Farm equipment catastrophe. If he was in a pissy mood, he’d tell them the truth, and then they’d give him even warier stares before edging away.
But this day, nobody asked, and he drank his juice in peace. There was a Best Buy nearby, too, so he wandered there for a while, lusting over the huge TVs and wondering whether he should give in to Willow’s pleas and get a laptop one of these days. When his goddamn leg started complaining again, he went back to the Laundromat, sat, and watched his underwear tumble.
It was a Friday night and by 9:30 p.m., the casino was crowded, stuffed full of a busload of Chinese tourists and a bunch of retired people and a group of salesmen wearing bad suits and name-tags from a solar panel conference. Xander wound his way through the maze of card tables and noisy slot machines until he came to the set of doors at the back of the room. There he hesitated, unsure whether he should march right in. But he was spotted by one of the floormen, a skinny guy with crooked teeth and a tattoo on his right wrist, peeking out from under his shirt cuff.
“Sir, you can’t go in there. Employees only. The bathroom’s that way.” The man pointed off to one side.
“Yeah, I know. I need to talk to the pit manager. Uh….” It occurred to him that he didn’t know what name Spike was using. “Pale British guy, wears a lot of black.”
“Sir, if you have a concern, I’m sure I can help you.”
“No. No concern. I just need to talk to him, okay?”
The man looked at him skeptically, and Xander sighed. “Look, can you just tell him Xander Harris is here and wants to see him? Please?”
The man frowned, but then nodded. “Fine. But you stay here, right?”
The man disappeared. When he came back a minute later, he looked surprised. He held the door open. “Boss says you can come in. It’s the third door—”
“Yeah, I know,” Xander said, shuffling past him. “Thanks.”
Spike’s door was slightly ajar. Xander knocked on it lightly. “Yeah, come in,” Spike called, and Xander complied.
Spike was at his desk again, a pile of papers stacked in front of him. He had a pen in his left hand and a lit cigarette in his right. He glanced up. “Come to nick some more dosh?”
“No.” Xander clomped to the desk and set a stack of greenbacks on it. “Came to return some.” Spike’s brows flew up. “You brought me too much,” Xander said. “I only won three grand.”
Spike tilted his head. “Let me get this straight. You’re only willing to keep the amount you gainfully stole yourself?”
Xander rubbed at his neck. It did sound pretty stupid, put like that. “I’m not greedy, okay? Three’s enough to tide me over for a while.”
“As long as you stay in shitholes like the Lady Luck and drive a crap car.”
“Yeah, I guess. When Willow gave me the spell, I promised I’d keep it small, keep a low profile. It’s not like I was used to living the high life anyway.”
Spike blew out a cloud of smoke. “Some friend. I’ll wager she’s not staying in the midst of meth labs.”
“Why do you care where I stay, Spike?”
Spike’s jaw worked and then he stubbed out his cigarette. “Don’t. Sleep in the middle of the freeway for all I care.”
Xander sighed. Why was it that just a few minutes in the vampire’s presence and he was exhausted and confused? “Whatever,” Xander said, turning to leave. “Have a nice unlife.”
Xander stopped and turned. “Did you tell Buffy about me?” Spike asked.
“No. Not yet.”
“Don’t. Please.” And he looked honestly beseeching.
“Why not?” It hadn’t occurred to Xander until just then to wonder why Spike hadn’t contacted her himself. Okay, she might not be listed in the phone book, but she wouldn’t be that hard for a resourceful vamp to track down.
Spike’s eyes shifted to the side. “She’s moved on with her life, yeah? I couldn’t bear it if she…. It’s best to let things go.”
Shit, Xander thought. Spike’s afraid she’ll reject him again. In a softer voice than he’d intended, Xander said, “Okay. Mum’s the word.”
Spike nodded stiffly, and Xander made for the door again. But Spike was suddenly there, stuffing his hand into Xander’s back pocket, which made Xander squeal in an embarrassing way. Spike chuckled. “Take the money, berk.” Then he walked away, down the corridor and out into the casino, leaving Xander standing there.
He was too tired to leave town that night, and he didn’t really want to chance making it over the mountains in the wee hours in his shitty car. He could have moved to a better place for the night, though. The Silver Legacy and a few other hotels were very close. But he’d already paid for tonight at the Lady Luck, and some frugal part of him refused to waste forty bucks. Ten grand was more than he’d ever owned at once, but he wasn’t stupid enough to think it was a real fortune. “Tomorrow night, we’ll splurge on the luxury of a Holiday Inn Express,” he promised himself out loud. Then he undressed and climbed onto the too-soft mattress and watched cop shows until he fell asleep.
Once again, a pounding at the door woke him well before dawn. He was still half asleep as he almost fell out of bed, which meant he neglected to remember he was naked until it was too late and the door was open, and there was Spike gaping at him.
His first impulse was to just slam the door shut. But then that would be admitting he felt fairly mortified, so he pretended he wasn’t blushing and he stood tall. Spike looked him up and down, very slowly, and Xander waited for the vampire’s features to curl with disgust. Instead, though, Spike leered. “Kept yourself fit, Harris.”
Okay, so that wasn’t what Xander had expected. But to his consternation, he felt his face grow even redder. “What do you want?”
Spike didn’t stop grinning. “Your demon bint told me, you know—more than once—but I thought she was exaggerating. Apparently not.” He did that thing with his tongue and his teeth.
Could a human blush himself to death? Xander tried.
But then Spike frowned. “What happened to her? You two got together again shortly before I burned, didn’t you?”
It had been nearly eight years, so Xander’s breath was almost steady. “Yeah, sort of. And then she died. Right before you did, actually. Only more permanently.”
Spike actually flinched slightly. “Oh. Sorry. I didn’t know.”
The busty redhead who turned tricks two rooms down walked by, pausing only briefly to stare at Xander. Xander sighed. “Come in, Spike.”
A shadow of Spike’s smile returned and he entered the room. Xander shut the door behind him, then walked over to the bed and picked up the pair of jeans that were on the floor beside it and, with his usual difficulty, managed to get them on.
Spike watched like the whole thing was really entertaining. “That knee gets in the way,” he observed as Xander zipped up.
“Yeah. At least it’s still attached, though.”
“How long since you hurt it?”
Xander had to think about that. “About two years, I guess.”
“And it’s not mended any better?”
“Not a vampire, Spike. This is as mended as it’s gonna get. Doctor said I’m lucky to walk on it at all. But hey, that’s me. Lucky.” Talking about the damn thing only made it worse, and he sat heavily on the bed. Spike went through the routine of getting out a cigarette and lighter, but just before he lit up, he looked somewhat guiltily at Xander and stuffed it all away again.
“How about we go have a few pints?” Spike asked. “Regular bars are closed, but I know a demon place—”
“I don’t drink,” Xander interrupted. “Not anymore.”
“Why the bloody hell not?”
“Because I learned that instead of making my problems go away, it tended to make them worse.” And that hadn’t been an easy lesson, either. “Really, what do you want? I already told you I won’t say anything to Buffy, and I won’t use the spell in your casino anymore, and I don’t know what else you want from me.”
Spike actually looked down at his feet, looking absurdly like an abashed child. “You could tell me what you lot have been up to, I expect,” he almost whispered.
Ah, that was it. He wanted tales about Buffy. “Fine. But look, I don’t keep vamp hours, and I’m wiped. Could we do this tomorrow, maybe?”
“Tomorrow’s my day off.”
Xander couldn’t help but smile at the thought of a vampire having days off. I wonder if he gets paid holidays, he thought. Out loud, he said, “Great. We can meet somewhere.”
Spike nodded slowly and looked like he was going to leave. But then he paused. “See here, Xander. This place really is a pisshole. I’ve plenty of room. Come back with me.”
Xander squinted at him, uncertain. Had Spike ever called him by his first name before?
Spike smiled. “I have a swimming pool and a hot tub.”
That, Xander had to see. He pulled on his shirt and shoes and stuffed his few belongings in his ratty old suitcase. He picked up his cane. “That’s it?” Spike asked.
“All my worldly possessions.”
“No comic books? No dolls…ah, action figures? No collectors’ plates?”
Xander scowled at him. “Gone with Sunnydale. I’ve learned to travel light.”
Spike shrugged and they left the room. As they started for the parking lot, Xander struggling a little as always, Spike tried to take the suitcase. But Xander held on tight. “I’m not a complete cripple, Spike. I’ve dragged this thing all over the place all by my lonesome without any demonic assistance whatsoever.”
Spike’s car was a Studebaker, a streamlined two-seater from the ‘50s with, of course, shiny black paint. “Nice,” Xander said.
Spike patted the hood. “She’ll do.”
Xander threw his suitcase into his own ugly car and then climbed behind the wheel.
He followed Spike for so long that he was beginning to wonder whether the guy was playing some kind of elaborate joke on him. But finally, nearly twenty minutes south of downtown, Spike pulled off the highway and into one of the new subdivisions that sprawled up the hillside. They made their way near a strip mall with a grocery store, past a library and a grade school with a playground beside it, and down a few winding streets lined with beige stucco houses. Finally Spike turned into the driveway of a single-story home. The double garage door opened and Spike parked the Studebaker inside. He gestured to Xander, who piloted the Toyota in beside it. As Xander climbed out of the car, the garage door closed.
Spike bounded over and took the suitcase out of Xander’s trunk. “Come on, then,” he ordered. Xander followed him into the house.
It was a perfectly ordinary house. Pretty nice, actually. They’d entered near a great room with bamboo floors, which was adjacent to a spacious kitchen with maple cabinets and granite counters. The furniture was sparse but good quality, mainly big, solid pieces of oak and leather. There was a flat-screen television and an overflowing bookcase. Through the French doors, Xander could see the back yard, where a good-sized pool glowed with underwater lighting. Very heavy navy draperies hung from all the windows.
“This is your house?” Xander asked, slightly dazed.
“Of course. All I had to do was drain the original owners, and it was all mine.”
Xander shot Spike an alarmed look, and Spike rolled his eyes. “I bought it, berk. Got it when the market tanked. It was a short sale. I had some money from Peaches, after we beat the lawyers.”
Xander wasn’t exactly sure what Spike was talking about. “It’s nice,” he said lamely, but Spike actually beamed for a moment before picking up the suitcase again.
“I’ll show you your room so you don’t miss out on your beauty sleep,” Spike said.
Xander glanced curiously into the master bedroom as they passed, but it was unremarkable. Large and kind of nicely decorated and really tidy, as was the rest of the place. Xander tried and failed to imagine Spike dusting and pushing a vacuum. Did he have a maid service? Xander couldn’t suppress a slightly hysterical giggle, and Spike gave him an odd look.
The room Spike led Xander to was also pretty big. It contained a king-sized bed and a few other pieces of furniture, as well as its own TV, hanging on the wall. Spike gestured toward a closed door. “Loo’s there, with towels and whatnot. Hang on.” He opened another door, which granted access to a closet, and emerged with a set of folded sheets in dark maroon. “Fresh bedding,” he explained, dropping the pile on a chair near the bed. “I expect you can make the bed yourself. Leave the old bedding on the floor somewhere.”
“Why do you need a guest room, Spike?”
Spike glared at him. “Guests.” Then his expression softened a little. “Well, guest. Once in a while the pouf stops by.”
Xander blinked. “Angel comes a-visitin’?”
“He passes through. He travels about. You know, vanquishing evil, his cape all aflutter.”
“Oh.” Xander decided this piece of odd news was too much to deal with, and he set it aside for now. “So, uh, I think I’m gonna crash.”
“Yeah. I’ll likely still be asleep when you wake up. Feel free to use the pool.”
“I don’t have swim trunks,” Xander mumbled. He was feeling a little wigged out over host-Spike.
Spike leered again. “Don’t need ‘em. Neighbors can’t see in.”
Xander had a sudden mental image of Spike skinny-dipping in the moonlight. The fact that the image didn’t disturb him was…kind of disturbing. Okay. Brain obviously on overload.
“Sweet dreams,” Spike laughed, and then left the room.
He slept better than he had in forever. Maybe it was the lack of gunshots or screaming outside his door, or maybe it was the completely wonderful mattress with the soft, zillion-thread-count sheets that smelled faintly of lavender. Maybe it was those thick drapes, which blocked out all hints of sunlight so that he was surprised to discover it was well past noon. In any case, he woke up feeling mellow and less sore than usual. His good mood only improved when he discovered that the bathroom—which was a pretty fancy one, all marble and gleaming chrome—had one of those rainforest shower heads, and that the towels were oversized and thick and soft.
He put on some jeans and wandered down the hallway. Spike’s door was closed. But on the kitchen counter, Xander discovered a pink bakery box full of donuts and a coffee maker with a bag of Starbucks Sumatra leaning against it. Xander couldn’t help but grin, although he was really beginning to wonder what the hell had gotten into Spike. As the coffee brewed, Xander grabbed a Boston cream and wandered into the great room. Everything was so neat-as-a-pin that he half-expected to find issues of Architectural Digest or House Beautiful arrayed on the coffee table. The bookcase housed an eclectic collection, everything from some classics in English and Latin, to collections of poetry (Spike seemed to favor Walt Whitman), to Stephen King and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Clive Cussler.
Xander had a second donut—chocolate old-fashioned, this time—while he drank his coffee and gazed out at the back yard.
When he was finished, there was still no sign of the vampire, and Xander decided to heed the call of the pool. He grabbed a towel from his bathroom and padded outside. There was a covered patio up against the house, and the pool—rimmed in blue tile—sparkled invitingly in the bright sun. A good-sized in-ground hot tub was off to one side. Most of the rest of the yard was attractively xeriscaped with gravel and bushy grasses and a few flowering plants that buzzed with honeybees. One little corner of the yard, though, had emerald sod and a few rosebushes and other, herby-looking things. It looked to Xander like a miniature English garden, which made him smile. Spike must have a yard service as well as a housecleaner, he thought.
Xander glanced around and saw that Spike had been telling the truth: because of the fence and the angle of the slope, Spike’s yard would be free from neighbors’ prying eyes. Still, Xander looked around guiltily once more before he unzipped and then shucked his pants. He spared himself a moment to frown at his marred and pasty-white body, reminded himself that he’d look like a lobster if he stayed too long in the sun, and jumped into the water.
It felt like heaven. Not just the temperature, which was just cool enough to be refreshing without making his balls try to crawl completely into his body cavity, but also the water itself. He hadn’t been swimming in…well, longer than he could remember. Years, probably. He didn’t exactly tend to stay in places with pools. He’d always been a strong swimmer, though, and he remembered wryly his short stint on the Sunnydale team.
As he kicked his way the length of the pool, he realized that part of why he was enjoying his swim was that he was moving, really moving, strong and sure, and his stupid knee wasn’t giving him any grief or slowing him down. The doctors had recommended hydrotherapy, actually, but without insurance he hadn’t been able to pull that off.
He was beginning to tire a little and his skin was feeling ominously warm when he glanced toward the house. Spike was leaning against the wall in the shade of the patio cover. A blue mug in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and wearing his usual black jeans, he stared toward Xander with a look of undisguised longing. Of course, Xander thought. Spike had this gorgeous pool and he’d never know how great it felt to swim with the warm sun on his back.
“Thanks for breakfast,” Xander called out, treading water. He decided not to be embarrassed over his nudity, because he’d already gone through that the night before.
“Did you do enough laps to work off the calories?” Spike asked.
“Probably. But when I get out I’m gonna have another anyway.”
“You’re a good swimmer.”
That was the second compliment from Spike in less than twenty-four hours. An apocalypse must be near, Xander thought.
Spike watched, poker-faced, as Xander climbed out of the pool and grabbed his towel and wrapped it around his hips. He couldn’t quite hide a grimace as his knee again had to bear his full weight.
“Don’t stop on my account,” Spike said, sipping at what was probably blood.
“If I don’t get out of the sun I’ll burn like a vampire.”
“You used to be tan.”
Spike had noticed his tan? Weird. “I used to not gross people out when they saw my body.”
Spike gave him a long, careful look, like he was noticing the scars for the first time. “I think a few marks make a bloke look more interesting,” he finally said, cocking his own scarred eyebrow to emphasize the point.
“A few scars, maybe. A lot make him look like a puzzle someone put together wrong.”
Spike shrugged slightly and puffed at his cigarette.
The conversation was strange, and the way Spike was looking at him stranger still. So Xander marched past him and into the house. He took another quick shower to get rid of the chlorine and then took his time dressing and combing his hair. He started to put his eyepatch back on, then stopped. “Fuck it,” he muttered, throwing the scrap of leather onto the bed. Spike had already seen the damage anyway. Hell, Spike had been there when the damage occurred and was responsible for the fact that it hadn’t been infinitely worse.
Spike was watching TV when Xander returned to the great room. Xander grabbed another donut—jelly filled—and joined him on the couch.
“Soccer?” Xander said with his mouth full.
“Football,” Spike growled. “Heathen.”
“Bunch o’ guys running back and forth, bonking things with their heads but rarely actually scoring. That’s not football. Football is big, manly men.”
“Big, manly men who pat each other on the arse and wear pads and helmets and hardly ever actually touch the ball with their feet. That’s not football.”
Xander didn’t really even like American football, but he was about to argue the point, just for the sake of arguing. But then Spike clicked at the remote and the game was replaced by a bunch of men in a submarine, all shouting at each other in German. “Had more than enough of that rubbish,” Spike grumbled and changed the channel again. Now they were watching a reality show, a bunch of whiny D-list actors being idiots. Spike snorted and clicked again, to a program in which a British couple was trying to find a vacation villa in Italy.
Spike looked questioningly at Xander, who shrugged. “Yeah, okay,” Xander said.
They watched for a while, commenting now and then on the houses the couple looked at. “I’ll wager they buy the third one,” Spike said during a commercial. “Chit had her eye on that garden.”
“Nope. It’s gonna be the second one,” Xander said confidently.
“The medieval ruins with the three hundred stairs? You’re barmy.”
“Want to bet?”
Spike scowled. “You’ll use Red’s bloody mojo.”
“I’m pretty sure the spell only works on cards, not real estate shows. But I’ll still win, ‘cause I know how people are when they see a place they fall in love with. Those people love the ruins. They’re gonna have to spend hundreds of thousands making the place livable, but it’ll be spectacular when they do.”
Spike turned his head from the TV and gave Xander another of his considering looks. “You know this, do you?”
Xander pointed at the screen. “Watch and see.”
Sure enough, the couple bought the ruins.
When the show was over, Spike turned the TV off and scooted around on the cushion until he was facing Xander. Spike was still shirtless, his perfect skin tight over hard muscles. “How’d you know?” he asked.
“I told you. I used to be in construction, remember? I know stuff about houses, and I’ve seen what it’s like when people love a home. Like, you don’t love this one, do you?”
Spike’s eyes shifted a little. “It’s nice enough. Just a house.”
“Exactly. It’s a really nice one, too, but you’re not in love with it.” Xander smiled. “There’s no romance between you.”
“And you’re an expert on romance, too, are you?”
“Only the building-related kind. In the human—or, well, nearly human—kind, I’m sadly lacking in experience.”
“No great loves since your demon—since Anya?”
“No great loves even with Anya. I mean, I loved her, I think, but not enough. Not like she deserved.” And this was another strange conversation to be having with Spike, but being honest about it felt oddly good.
“Could be worse. I’ve been in love four times. Not one of them really loved me back.” He said it tonelessly, very matter-of-fact, but he couldn’t hide the hurt behind the words. Before Xander could craft a reply, Spike stood and left the room, only the thud of his slammed bedroom door left behind.
It took Xander a minute to start wondering who the fourth person had been who had broken Spike’s heart.
Spike remained shut in his room until after dark, and Xander was just considering whether to get into the Toyota and drive away when Spike emerged, still shirtless. “Going to go soak,” he announced. “Fancy joining me?”
“Hang on.” Spike stopped in the kitchen and pulled a pizza box from the freezer.
“You keep Freschetta on hand?” Xander asked as Spike stuck the food in the oven.
“Picked it up while you were asleep.”
Xander wasn’t sure what to make of that, so he didn’t comment. Instead, he followed Spike outside, where they both shed their clothing and then lowered themselves into the spa. Spike punched some buttons and the water began to bubble as the jets turned on. Xander groaned.
“Something wrong?” Spike asked.
“Christ, no. It feels really good on my knee. Better than the pool, even.”
“Oh,” Spike said, and settled back against the edge. There was a full moon, and Spike’s skin glowed softly in a way that made Xander think of sparkly vamps, and he had to duck his head to hide a smile.
Then the oven beeped, and Spike rose out of the water to fetch it. When Xander realized he was watching that wet, perfect ass a bit too intently, he shut his eye and leaned his head back against the edge.
“You’re a bundle of energy,” Spike said, lowering himself back into the water. The luscious smell of hot pepperoni hit Xander’s nose and he lifted his head and opened his eye. Spike had set a plate down beside Xander, and was currently biting into a slice of his own.
“I think I’m melting. And I didn’t know you ate the stuff,” Xander said, lifting his hands and allowing them to drip dry a little.
“Now and then. I expect I would have fancied it if they’d had it when I was human.”
They ate in silence for a while, then Xander licked his fingers clean. He lowered his hands back into the tub, to discover Spike giving him a very strange look. “What?” Xander said defensively.
Spike shook his head slightly, as if he were trying to wake himself up. “Nothing.” He sighed. “You were going to tell me what you’ve been doing since Sunnydale.”
“Um, okay. Well, we went to Cleveland first, ‘cause there was supposed to be a Hellmouth there, but that was kind of a bust. So after that we dragged ourselves to Oklahoma instead—yuck!—and Buffy and Faith kind of had it out again. Faith finally took off with most of the Slayers, and Buff decided to go it on her own, more or less. A couple of the girls stayed with. And, um, Buff met this guy…. I don’t know how much you want to hear about those parts.” He glanced at Spike.
“Never mind the Slayer. What happened to you?”
Xander blinked. “Me? I thought—” Maybe Spike just found the Buffy news too painful. “Um, I stuck around for a while, too. But I didn’t get along very well with…well, with that guy I mentioned.” Which was an understatement. Xander had thought Theo was an enormous prick, and Theo treated Xander like a mentally challenged minion. Spike waved Xander on impatiently. “So Willow and Giles had this idea that I could sort of travel ahead, scouting places out, seeing what was what. Which worked pretty well, because if there were demons anywhere in the neighborhood, I always seemed to find them. Or, actually, they seemed to find me. I don’t know why.”
Spike muttered something that sounded like “Smell bloody good, that’s why.” But that couldn’t have been what he said at all. Then, more loudly, he said, “Those people who called themselves your friends just hung you out there as bait, let the nasties carve you up before the rescue squad came in swinging.”
Xander didn’t understand why Spike looked so angry about it. “Well, yeah, but I was willing. And it’s what I was good for. Besides, I wasn’t completely defenseless. I’ve made a few demons regret messing with me.”
“I’m sure you have, whelp,” Spike said condescendingly. “Doesn’t make it any better.”
“Hey, look. I—”
“Forget it. Fine, so you were bait. Tell me about it.”
And, to Xander’s surprise, he did. He talked about his adventures all over the globe—some scary, some exciting, some sad—until his voice was hoarse and he was feeling really waterlogged. And Spike listened intently, asking questions or interjecting comments now and then, seeming genuinely interested, although Xander couldn’t imagine why.
When Xander was talked out, and pretty much caught up to the present day in any case, they both climbed out of the tub. They were reaching for their towels when they bumped into one another.
Afterwards, Xander tried to piece together the sequence of events that ensued. He was pretty sure that his stupid knee sort of wobbled, and that he instinctively reached for Spike to keep from falling. So, arguably, he started it. And then, he was fairly certain, Spike grabbed him back, those strong hands clutching his arms just as they had in the casino when they were first reunited.
After that, though, it got fuzzy.
Someone brought their bare bodies together so that they were pressed close from chest to feet. Spike’s skin was warmed from the hot tub. Someone leaned forward and captured the other’s mouth in a hard, teeth-clacking kiss. Someone grabbed Xander’s ass—okay, that had to have been Spike, but that meant it was Xander who grabbed Spike’s ass back and squeezed. Someone tumbled them roughly down onto the concrete and rolled them over so that Spike was on top between Xander’s sprawled legs, frantically rubbing their hard cocks together, licking and sucking at Xander’s jawline, his neck, his peaked nipples. Someone was panting and moaning and half-screaming curses. That might have been both of them, actually. And then Xander came—he was sure of that part—and a split second later, so did Spike, so that their semen mingled and rubbed into their bellies.
With a final, strangled noise, Spike rolled off Xander and flopped heavily onto his back. They lay side by side, trying to catch their breaths and, in Xander’s case at least, trying to muster some higher brain activity.
The first thing Xander managed to say was, “I’m not gay.”
He could feel Spike laughing beside him. “Fooled me pretty well, love.”
Xander levered himself up on his elbows. “No, I’m not! Really! I mean, I’ve never, um, not with a man…or a male…or a male vampire…or….” He was overcome with the absurdity of the entire situation and collapsed back down, bumping his head. “Ow.”
Spike sighed. “Look, it’s been ages since you got your end away, yeah? Under those circumstances, a young man might not be so choosy over the particulars of his partner.”
“Not so young. I’m almost thirty.”
Spike snorted. “Same age as when I was turned. Still ruled by your dick more than your head, half the time.”
Xander was so confused then he couldn’t even answer. Confused and, well, more. Because even as his and Spike’s spunk dried on him, making his skin itch, he could feel that body atop his, could see that beautiful face above his in the moonlight, and his cock actually twitched and began to fill again.
“Shit,” he said, and with considerable difficulty, he made his way to his feet. He grabbed his towel and decided it was too late to bother wrapping it around himself. But before Xander went inside to take his third shower of the day, he paused and looked back. Spike was still sprawled on his back, unmoving. Gorgeous.
“Who was the fourth?” Xander asked.
Spike’s brow creased into a frown. “What?”
“The fourth one you loved. I got Buffy and Drusilla, and that girl you were into when you were human—”
“Okay, Cecily. But who was the fourth?”
Spike’s jaw worked. “Angel,” he whispered, and then turned his head away.
“You don’t have to go,” Spike said. “I won’t bloody molest you if you stay.”
Xander paused in his packing. It was the following day, and he’d tossed and turned most of the night, trying to figure out what had happened, trying to reach a decision. “I’m not afraid of you, Spike,” he replied. “I just…what the hell do you want from me?”
Spike looked at him, his face as haunted as a dead man’s could be. In a very quiet voice, he said, “’M lonely.”
Oh, Christ. “I’m not a…a security blanket. I’m Xander Harris, remember? The cripple formerly known as Donut Boy. Or…what did you call me? Droopy. You never even used to like me. I’m not a Buffy substitute, I’m not—”
Spike growled. “I never mistook you for her.”
“Right.” Xander slammed his suitcase shut. He looked around quickly to see if he’d forgotten anything, but then admitted to himself that his few belongings were hardly irreplaceable. He hefted the luggage in one hand and picked up his cane in the other. He brushed past Spike, who stood near the guest room’s doorway. “Thanks for the bed and the pool and the food and…whatever.”
His knee protested especially vigorously as he stomped to the garage. But he ignored it, and he shoved his suitcase into the Toyota’s trunk. He pressed the button to open the garage and got behind the wheel and started the engine.
It was only as he backed out of the driveway and glanced up one last time at the house that he saw Spike. The vampire was standing just outside the garage, his arms hanging limply at his sides. Xander suddenly remembered the taste of him—cigarettes and pepperoni and something else that was probably just Spike—and Xander’s throat closed up and he found himself desperately fighting back tears.
He threw the gear shift into Drive and he left.
He ended up in Sacramento. It was too close to Reno and too far from the ocean. But he found himself an apartment there, a real, honest-to-God apartment. It was in midtown, on the second floor of a yellow Victorian that had been converted to a fourplex, and it came furnished. He had a bedroom and a living room and a kitchen and a bathroom with a claw-foot tub. He had a tiny balcony that looked out over the back garden. He could walk to several coffee houses where sometimes he sat all day among students or politician-types, and he read magazines or the newspaper or just sat and people-watched and eavesdropped on other people’s conversations.
He could imagine himself enrolling in the community college, maybe getting a real job. Would people buy a house from a scarred, one-eyed, limping Realtor?
Once, out of curiosity, he went to the capitol building, and he saw Arnold making his way down a hallway with his entourage of flunkies.
The center of state government wasn’t the only thing he was curious about. But he wasn’t sure how to explore his more pressing dilemma, because he didn’t drink and couldn’t dance. But he joined a gym with a fantastic pool, and one afternoon in the locker room he didn’t look away when he saw a muscular guy who reminded him a little of Riley giving him the eye. The guy didn’t seem turned off by Xander’s scars. In fact, he lifted his eyebrows questioningly and, when Xander smiled, grinned back widely.
Xander and Dustin went out to dinner and a movie, just like an old-fashioned date. Dustin was an electrician, as it turned out, and a pretty nice guy. He didn’t back off in horror when Xander told him that he was sort of testing the gay waters. When he dropped Xander off in front of the four-plex, they kissed, and Xander was able to reach a couple of conclusions. One was that he liked kissing men. Liked it a lot, in fact, and he could also picture himself doing more than kissing, and the idea of that was more intriguing than frightening. So, okay. Gay now. Or bi, anyway. He wondered how Willow would take the news. Was there a secret handshake or some sort of initiation ceremony?
The second thing he concluded was that, while Dustin was sweet and handsome and tasted like spearmint gum, he didn’t light a spark in Xander. It was a nice kiss, a pleasant kiss, but it didn’t make Xander want to rip the guy’s clothes off. It didn’t make his heart race. It didn’t make him lose all sense of himself, of who he was and what he’d done.
It wasn’t like kissing Spike.
Maybe Dustin felt just as unimpressed. In any case, he seemed amiable enough about being told good night.
They didn’t try to kiss again after that, or to go out on any dates, but they became friends and sometimes they went out somewhere—a Kings game, a concert in a park, an afternoon on Dustin’s brother’s boat—and they had a good time. Xander hadn’t had a friend in a long time.
Xander dated a couple men after that and, once, maybe just for the hell of it, a pretty girl named Laura who worked in a bank. Again, mostly very pleasant, but that was all.
When he was down to his last $500 he stared at the little pile of bills. “Time to play cards,” he said out loud.
That evening he got in his Toyota—it was still ugly, but the transmission was improved, thanks to a mechanic named Rick whom he’d dated a couple of times—and piloted himself onto I-80. But when he got to Lincoln, home of the Thunder Valley Indian Casino, he didn’t exit. He continued east instead, and before he knew it he was up over Donner Pass and zooming past Truckee, and then he was descending into the Great Basin. The lights of Reno sparkled beneath him, making the Biggest Little City in the World look almost magical.
Even if Reno was no Vegas, there were still plenty of casinos. He passed a few as he drove. Willow’s spell would work equally well at any of them. But still he parked his car in one of the garages downtown and walked outside and then entered the doors of the slightly seedy place where Spike worked.
It was a slow night. A few people sat at the slot machines, mostly old ladies who looked like they’d been sitting there since 1953. The people clustered here and there at the card tables appeared tired and worn and hopeless, as if the casino were some kind of purgatory and they’d never be redeemed.
Xander sat down at a blackjack table. The dealer was a portly, middle-aged guy who nodded at him. There were four other people playing there, three men and a woman, but Xander didn’t pay them much attention. He slapped five twenties down on the felt, and the dealer handed over a pile of chips. And then, as the dealer shuffled, Xander silently recited the Mandarin Chinese words Willow had taught him.
He had about four thousand worth of chips in front of him when he felt a finger tap on his shoulder. He recognized the floorman; he was the guy with the bad teeth and the tat on his wrist. “Boss wants to see you,” the man said.
Xander scooped up his winnings and shoved them in his pocket, and he limped along behind the guy toward the doors in the back of the room. He could feel the eyes of the other gamblers following him, boring into the back of his head.
Spike was behind his desk, wearing a black t-shirt, smoking a cigarette. He gestured at one of the empty chairs and waited for Xander to sit and the floorman to leave. Even after the door was shut, though, he only stared impassively at Xander.
“You gonna beat me up this time?” Xander finally said.
“Why are you here?”
Xander shrugged. “I ran out of money.”
“And you could have stolen from a thousand other places. Why here?” He didn’t sound angry. But Xander couldn’t identify what emotion Spike was feeling.
“I don’t know,” Xander said, completely honest. “I didn’t plan to come. I just sort of…ended up here.”
Spike stared a while, stubbed out his cigarette, lit another. “Fine,” he finally said. “You’ve more dosh now. Go.”
Xander felt as surprised by his own stubborn refusal as Spike looked.
“No?” Spike repeated. “Why? Haven’t nicked enough yet? Here.” He opened his desk drawer and pulled out a pile of bills, which he threw down near Xander. “That’s twenty grand. Take it and go.”
Xander goggled at the amount—he’d never seen that much money at once. But he didn’t reach for it, and again he said, “No.”
Spike threw up his hands. “What is it you bloody want, then?” he cried.
Quietly, but firmly, Xander answered, “You.”
Spike’s arms fell down and his face went very still. “What did you say?”
“You heard me just fine, Spike. I want…I want you.”
The look on Spike’s face then—vulnerable, wary, a little hopeful—just about broke Xander’s heart. “You’re taking the piss,” Spike said.
“I’m not. I…. Christ. I don’t have the words, Spike. Maybe there’s nothing between us. Maybe that thing that happened, it was just a fluke. But I don’t think it was. And I’ve been thinking about you a lot, dreaming about you. I’ve been fucking craving you, worse than the way I used to crave booze. I want you…if you’ll have me.”
He hadn’t planned to make a speech. Hell, he hadn’t planned any of this, and he felt like he’d been taken over, maybe possessed again, only the words that were coming out of his mouth were the absolute truth. He held his breath as he waited for some kind of response other than complete astonishment.
Don’t reject me , he said in his head, like a spell. Please don’t reject me.
Spike stood and walked slowly around the desk. Xander flinched slightly as he came near, but Spike knelt beside his chair, knocking the cane to the floor, and looked up at him. “You left me,” Spike said. “We shagged and I asked you to stay and you ran away.”
“I panicked. I…my head was a mess. More than usual. I was scared.”
Spike lifted his chin. “Scared of me? Scared of the filthy demon?”
“No. I haven’t been scared of you in a long time. And fuck, Spike, you’re the cleanest demon I know. You’re…you’re the strongest man I know.”
Spike closed his eyes for a moment and let out a deep breath. When he opened his lids again, his blue eyes were shiny with unshed tears. “Scared of what, then?” he asked hoarsely.
“Scared of myself. It’s just that I’ve been losing so long. I’m afraid to do anything else.” Dammit, his voice was thick and choked-sounding, too.
Spike cupped Xander’s cheeks in his hands and pulled Xander’s head gently forward. Not for a kiss, but instead to lean their foreheads together. Xander reached out and grabbed the fabric over Spike’s shoulders tightly in his fists.
“All right, then,” Spike whispered. “I reckon it’s time we both learned to win.”
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