No Place Like Home


by
Whichclothes



Part Three

The morning was eerily quiet. Usually, activity on the street below began well before dawn, with people heading off to work and the street vendors calling enticements for bread and sausages and tea and fruit. But this morning if anyone went to work they were silent about it, and the vendors were conspicuously absent. Xander could almost feel the tension covering the city, thick and viscous like old paint. Even the sky looked angry, with the usual fog replaced by ominous clouds.

“Looks like a lovely day for a vampire,” Spike remarked as he buttoned his shirt.

“But maybe not so much for a temporarily human guy.”

“Not going to hear any news holed up here, Xan.”

Xander sighed. “I know. Spike, can we just say the magic words and return to home sweet home? I have a really bad feeling about this place.” He knew Spike would refuse—and really, Xander didn’t want to abandon the mission either—but he had to say it.

Spike gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. “Make yourself busy today. The missus can find you jobs. I’ll return as soon as I suss out what happened.”

With a proprietary pat on Spike’s ass and an unhappy grumble, Xander walked him to the door. He wanted to tell him to be careful, but he bit his tongue instead and watched Spike walk down the hall.

Usually the boarding house residents grabbed a quick bite on their way out the door—most of them worked in shops and had to get to work early. But today the stores must have been closed and breakfast was a subdued affair. They all clustered around the big, worn dining table, slurping coffee and half-heartedly spooning porridge. There was very little talk amongst them, just a lot of fearful glances out the window alternating with morose staring at dishes. Xander wondered if they had any clue what was going on, or whether they were simply worried about any events that would have the Guards so unhappy.

Eventually all the food was eaten and the coffee drunk, and the residents wandered off to brood in their rooms or haunt the parlor. Xander again helped Fiana clear the table and wash up, and then made it clear that he was eager for more work. She thought about it for a few moments, rubbing at her chin, and then nodded decisively. She pointed at the toolbox, which he hefted in one hand.

In back of the house was a tiny yard with a few plants that Xander suspected were some kind of herbs, as well as a couple of rosebushes with slightly blowsy pink blooms. Fiana led him a few yards down a brick path. It had started to rain. Not the full-scale downpour that those dark clouds promised, not yet anyway, but just a cold drizzle that dripped its way down the back of Xander’s collar, making him shiver as he walked.

A slightly tumble-down shed stood at the back of the garden. Fiana unlocked the door and they went inside. The shed might once have been a stable—it smelled very faintly of horses and hay—but now Fiana seemed to be using it for storage. There were no gaslights in the shed, but she’d brought a kerosene lamp with her; she lit it and hung it on a hook near the door. Then she walked over to a bulky object that turned out to be a wooden bed frame. She pointed to one of the long boards, which was cracked, and Xander nodded. Right. Today he was furniture repair guy.

Fiana waved her hands around and said something which he interpreted to mean, “Knock yourself out.” The shed must be purgatory for busted stuff. Plenty to keep him occupied.

He thanked her and she left him alone to work.


~*~*~*~*~


Xander was so busy trying to fix a broken wheelbarrow type thing that he didn’t hear Spike enter the shed. Spike set a hand on his shoulder, which made Xander scream, jump up, and nearly brain his lover with a hammer.

“Nice reflexes,” Spike said with a grin.

Xander tried to calm his racing heart. “My nice reflexes just about gave you a pretty dent in your forehead. Don’t do that!”

Spike didn’t look the least bit repentant. He cast a quick glance over his shoulder, moved in to give Xander a warm kiss, and then moved away again to straddle a chair that had two cracked rails in the backrest. Xander stood there, hammer still clutched in one hand. “You can go back to what you were doing, pet. I’ll just supervise,” Spike said airily.

Xander snorted but knelt beside the little wagon again. He didn’t understand why, but Spike had a serious kink for watching Xander repair or build things. All Xander had to do was pull out his leather tool belt and Spike would go all leering and purring. Sometimes Xander suspected his lover broke things just so he’d get to watch Xander fix them. Not that Xander minded—he was all for an appreciative audience and then a good shag when he was done. Spike didn’t even care if Xander got all sweaty; he’d simply lick the sweat right off Xander’s skin as if it were a rare delicacy.

And all of this was so not what should be on Xander’s mind right now.

“So?” Xander asked, grunting as he loosened a tight bolt on one wheel. “Got the 411?”

“Bloody inappropriate term in a place where telephones have yet to be invented, pet.”

“If you don’t spill I may use the hammer on you after all.”

Spike smiled a little before his face turned serious. “I went to a pub the Guards fancy when they’re off duty. The Dancing Bear. Not my favorite place—the Guards make me uneasy and the ale’s watered. But the best place for news, I expect, and in any case most of the other pubs were empty today.”

Xander made a face but figured it was too late to protest Spike’s choice of watering holes. “And?”

“Dunno whether it’s bad news for us or not. But last night the Chief’s son—”

“The one whose family died in the quake?”

“No, that was the heir. This was the younger. Bit of a layabout once, but he’d lately become apprenticed to the wizard.” Spike shrugged. “That didn’t seem to go well. Last night the son attacked the wizard and then ran off with a slave. A male slave, who’d apparently been secretly sharing his bed for some time.”

“Oh. I bet the Chief’s pissed.” As they’d suspected from the start, Praesidium wasn’t exactly a top candidate to be hosting the next gay pride event.

“Chiefs have had their own sons killed or enslaved for less.”

“No PFLAG here either, huh? Well, Tony would have tried to kick my ass if he’d known I was up with the love that dare not speak its name.”

“Wanker,” Spike muttered.

“So is the wizard dead?”

“No. They’ve a punishment they use here on the worst offenders. The poor sods are frozen, like. Suspended animation, like one of your science fiction stories. They call it Stasis.”

“That doesn’t sound so awful.” Xander had finally released the bolt and now he pulled the wheel off the axle, which was warped.

“They keep them that way for years, Xan. Decades. Centuries even, sometimes. When the prisoners wake up everyone they knew is dead and the prisoners spend the rest of their days as slaves.”

“Okay, I take it back. That does sound awful.”

“Last night the son pulled all the prisoners out of Stasis and put the wizard in. And because it was the wizard’s job to sort these things, nobody knows how to get him out.”

Xander squinted up at Spike. The rain had stopped a while ago and now a little sunlight came in through the shed’s single window. Motes of dust sparkled as they floated down. “So he’s stuck, unless they catch the son. That sucks.”

“From what I understand, the wizard is a real horror. Even the guards are terrified of him. And with him frozen we may have an easier time searching for our stone. But nobody knows how the Chief will react. An unhappy tyrant makes for uneasy rabble.”

Xander nodded as he drew the axle out. He could understand that. He remembered when Tony used to come home after his boss had given him a hard time at work—Xander had always tried to make himself very scarce on those evenings. If he’d had an invisibility spell he would have used it. Then an unhappy thought struck him. “If the wizard did have our rock, isn’t it possible that the son took it with him?”

“’T’s possible. But perhaps the sodding thing is only valuable to the vengeance demons. Besides, sounds as if the son left in rather a hurry.”

Over in the corner Xander had seen another wheelbarrow, that one with a badly broken handle. He thought he might be able to swap its axle for the warped one; one good cart was better than two useless ones. He rolled the second cart over and started on the bolt, which was even more stubborn than the other had been. “Why do you suppose he did it? The son, I mean. He probably had a pretty good thing going: bigwig Daddy, cool supernatural job, helpless manmeat chained up in his bed.”

Spike lifted an eyebrow. “Entertaining a bit of a fantasy there, pet?”

Xander actually blushed. “Um…maybe.”

“Peaches has some chains in the cellar still. We can borrow them when we return. Do you fancy playing helpless captive or cruel master?”

“Uh…flip a coin?” Xander tried to will away his incipient hard-on.

Spike chuckled, a sound that didn’t help calm Xander at all. “Perhaps the son wanted freedom for his slave, or just wanted to be able to shag a bloke in peace.”

“Well, I can understand that. It’s…kinda romantic maybe.”

“You’ve been spending too much time with Kyna.”

Xander chose to ignore that. The bolt came free and he removed the wheel. He eyed the axle carefully: yes, nice and straight. “Do you think they’ll catch him?” He realized he was rooting for the son and the slave to escape, which was stupid. For all he knew, the son was a sadistic bastard who raped and tortured his slave daily.

“Dunno. He’s some experience with ships—he was portmaster for a time. But he won’t get far if he doesn’t have a sympathetic friend. Or strong magic.”

Xander slid the good axle into place on the wheelbarrow with the intact handles and then stuck the wheel where it belonged. With only a few twists of his wrist he had one perfectly operational cart. Not a major victory maybe, but he’d learned to take satisfaction in everything he fixed, whether it was small or big. He stood and stretched his sore muscles. He’d been working in the shed for hours, interrupted only once when Fiana brought him some soup and bread, and now he really wanted a decent meal and that bath he’d been talking about. He had cobwebs in his hair.

Spike stood as well and brushed dirt from the seat of his trousers. “Things could be very unpleasant here for some time. We need to finish and get out.”

As if Xander hadn’t been saying that for days. Xander glared. “I never thought of that, oh great alpha.”

“Git,” Spike replied absently. He was thinking; Xander could tell by the little line between his eyebrows. But then Spike shook his head. “Let’s go inside. I’ll manage a scheme later.”

Xander looked out at the empty yard, swept Spike into his embrace, and planted a kiss on Spike’s full lips. “Scheme away,” he said.


~*~*~*~*~


Spike negotiated free baths for both of them. Xander’s labors had been worth at least a little hot water. Sadly, they couldn’t actually bathe at the same time. Xander missed the big tub he’d installed in their suite at the Hyperion. The two of them spent a lot of post-coital—and pre-coital—hours in that tub, soaking until Spike was nice and warm and melty, and they were both as wrinkled as old men. But no, here Xander had a fairly quick wash and then pulled on clean clothes as the tub refilled for Spike. He couldn’t even sit and chat as Spike scrubbed up. But maybe that was just as well; all that creamy bare skin would have been too tempting to resist.

Dinner that night was steak, slightly overcooked for Xander’s taste but still good. Fiana gave him the biggest one, and his slice of almond cake was twice the size of anyone else’s. The morning silence had lifted, and now everyone chatted almost frantically, all of them probably trying to figure out what was likely to happen next. Spike mostly listened, and Xander chewed and swallowed.

Sometimes after dinner the residents gathered in the parlor, and one of them—a mousy girl with a pockmarked face—would play the instrument Fiana kept there. Xander had no idea what the thing was called, but it was kind of like a harp and looked like something a goddess might strum while hanging around Mount Olympus. He didn’t much enjoy the music, but that was what passed for entertainment and it was better than sitting around awkwardly while everyone else talked.

In any case, tonight there was no music, just talking and nervous peeks through the window curtains. Again, Spike mostly listened. And Xander mostly watched Spike. He could see Spike taking everything in, his sharp eyes and ears missing nothing, and Xander wondered how the others could be so oblivious to a predator in their midst. Yeah, Spike was human at the moment, but he’d had those instincts for a century and a half; the simple addition of a pulse wasn’t going to change that. Xander had been a wolf for only a few years, but he still found himself thinking like one here, watching the subtle plays of power and hierarchy among his neighbors, the little signs of dominance and submission that even the players themselves might not have realized they were displaying.

The night dragged on and on…and on, so that Xander was half-dozing, half-wondering if this place wasn’t actually a well-disguised hell. But Spike must have seen him nodding off, because he stood up from the floral sofa where he’d been planted all night and announced something that Xander fervently hoped meant it was bedtime. Sure enough, everyone chorused, “Vale,” and Spike walked over to Xander’s uncomfortable wooden chair.

“Let’s go, Xan,” he said.

Xander stood too and nodded at everyone before following Spike upstairs.

They took turns using the toilet—Spike bitching as usual about the curse of human biological needs—and they cleaned their teeth with the medicinal-tasting powder Spike had bought them. Then they changed into the ridiculous nightshirts that always made Xander feel like Ebenezer Scrooge. Spike turned off the room’s single light and they climbed into their narrow, lonely beds. If Xander lifted his arm and reached, he still wouldn’t quite be able to touch Spike's body. They could hold hands though, and sometimes they did that for a little bit, but it really wasn’t very comfortable. And it was certainly no substitute for their usual spooning and gentle neck sucking.

Xander was almost asleep when Spike said quietly, “I’ve an idea.”

“Does it involve having sex?”

“Sorry. Not that sort of idea.”

“Oh. I take it that it’s a magic rock finding idea, then.”

“Yeah. But you won’t like it.”

That pretty much went without saying, Xander thought. Out loud he said, “Spit it out.”

“Those slaves we’ve seen about? Technically, they belong to Praesidium itself. People only borrow them.”

“Lovely.”

“Your own country had a convict leasing system not so long ago, and it wasn’t all that different, love.”

“Thanks for the history lesson, prof. This affects us how?”

It was too dark for Xander to see, but he was certain that Spike rolled his eyes. “When someone wants to lease a slave or wants to return one, he goes to the Keep. Someone there does all the paperwork. Loads of stamps and seals and signatures, I’ll wager. Despots love that sort of thing.”

“So you’re going to go rent a slave?”

“No, berk. I’m going to pretend that I already have one that I fancy exchanging. That’ll get us inside, at least.”

Xander took a moment to mull this over. “How come I have to be the slave?”

“Because you can’t speak the tongue. All a slave has to do is keep his mouth shut and look…servile.”

“Not so sure I’m good with the servile, Spike. Besides, who wants a slave with a missing eye?”

“A foreigner who didn’t know any better and now reckons he’s got the wrong end of the deal.”

Xander thought again, this time for a very long time. Spike waited patiently. But no brilliant plan appeared in Xander’s mind and he really, really wanted to go home. Where were ruby slippers when you needed them? He let out a long, resigned breath.

“Fine, Master.”





Part Four

Xander shambled along at Spike’s side, trying to keep his eye cast down meekly. He couldn’t see Spike very well like that and sometimes he fell too far behind. Then Spike would give a gentle tug on the leash. It was bad enough wearing a collar and leash when he was furry—it was just plain humiliating as a man.

“Don’t keep your back so straight,” Spike hissed as they waited to cross a street. “You’re meant to look defeated, yeah?”

Xander bent his shoulders obediently. His hair hung in his face, obscuring his vision even worse. He trusted Spike not to lead him into a racing carriage or under the hooves of a galloping horse, but that didn’t mean some clueless pedestrian wouldn’t crash into him.

As it happened though, everyone gave Xander a wide berth. Slave cooties, maybe. Or perhaps they got one look at the really gross clothes Spike had unearthed for him somewhere and decided they didn’t want to risk contact. For once, Xander was glad he didn’t have his usual acute sense of smell, because he reeked.

And while he was mentally complaining, he might as well bitch about the collar. It wasn’t butter-soft leather studded with shiny points like the one the Los Angeles ordinance  made him wear in public when he was a wolf (Spike wore it sometimes too, but in private). This one was metal—thick and wide and heavy—with slightly sharp edges that chafed his skin. Spike had found out that real slave collars were permanently welded on with some kind of magic, and of course that wasn’t going to work. But he was nothing if not resourceful and had scrounged around until he unearthed an old collar, abandoned in a junk shop. It was rusted open, but Xander had spent the better part of a morning messing with it, making the hinges open and close smoothly and rigging a hidden latch so it looked like it was on him for good, but in reality could be easily detached. As he’d worked on it, he’d wondered whether some poor guy had died with the thing around his neck.

What was it like to live as a slave with no comfort or hope, and then die as one? Would there at least be someone at your side when you went, offering you a tiny bit of solace? What would happen to your body? God, Xander was really hoping the Chief's missing son did care about his slave, and that the two of them made it to peace and safety.

It seemed to take forever to reach the Keep, and Xander shivered the whole way. His feet hurt, too. The cobblestones were surprisingly rough, and apparently slaves weren’t allowed to wear shoes.

In the week that had passed since the Chief’s son absconded, things had calmed a little around Praesidium. The Guards were cracking down on anything that was officially considered immoral—slavery didn’t count—and a pall of uneasiness still hung heavily over the city. But people had returned to work, the markets were open again, and foreign sailors were once more allowed on shore. In front of the Keep itself, a dozen or so Guards paced vigilantly back and forth. Xander didn’t know whether that was the normal number. None of them paid much attention to Spike and Xander as they made their way to the enormous double doors.

Xander snuck a peek at the man guarding the doors and then wished he hadn’t. The Guard reminded him so much of that mustached man outside the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz that Xander had to bite his lip hard to keep a straight face. Sniggering was probably not approved slave behavior.

But the Guard didn’t notice Xander’s disrespect, because after he asked Spike a few questions in an incredibly bored-sounding way, he let them inside.

The interior of the Keep was as bleak and foreboding as the outside, all gray stone without any softness or decoration in sight. Well, except for an enormous painting of a scowling man with graying, curly hair and a solid build. Xander guessed he must be the Chief, and he sure didn’t look like the life of any party. Another Guard sat behind a wooden desk so huge that it would've taken an elephant to move it. Spike asked something and the Guard gave them both a disdainful look before pointing to his right and uttering a string of what must have been directions. With a grunt of thanks, Spike tugged on the leash, leading Xander down the hall.

It was a fairly wide hall, although with a low ceiling. It was noisy, too, as hurrying footsteps echoed back and forth. There were a few more Guards in the corridor, but also men in suits and women in fancy dresses, all of whom carried sheaves of paper; and more lowly-looking types who were probably servants, with trays of food and drink; and huddling on their knees, scrubbing at the stone floors, a man and a woman in collars and clothing as bad as Xander’s. The slaves didn’t look up as anyone passed, not even Spike and Xander. Their eyes looked dead and blank. Xander shuddered.

Spike turned a few times and Xander realized the Keep was a lot bigger than he’d realized. The builders must have tunneled right into the hill, and he wondered just how far the maze of hallways stretched. Not just how wide, but how deep. He shuddered again with a slight attack of claustrophobia.

When they got to a quiet stretch of corridor where nobody else was in sight, Spike grabbed Xander’s elbow and yanked him into a dark alcove. “Holding up all right, pet?”

“Hunky-dory, Master. But where to?”

Spike grinned and pulled a folded paper from inside his coat. “Nicked this on the way in.” Xander looked: it was a map, a schematic of the Keep with rooms carefully labeled.

“When did you do that?” Xander demanded. “I didn’t see anything.”

“Just because I’m human doesn’t mean I’ve lost all my skills. I’ve been stealing things since before your great-grandmother was born.”

Xander couldn’t resist—he kissed Spike’s cheek. “That’s my big bad.”

The light was so dim that it was difficult to read the map, and it didn’t help that one of them was monocular and the other was too cool to admit he needed reading glasses. But after a certain amount of squinting and underbreath cursing they found an upstairs room that was marked Laboratorium.

“Is that where wizards hang out?” Xander asked.

“I expect so. But we need to get there without being stopped, and that’s not going to happen if we’re dressed like this.”

“Costume change?”

“Yeah.”

Spike peered at the map a few moments more and then led Xander down the hall, up a couple flights of stairs, and through some more twists and turns. This part of the Keep was much quieter, with only a few other people passing through. Xander and Spike could hear people’s footsteps from some distance away, and then they’d hide around a corner or in an especially dark spot until the person had passed. Xander wasn’t sure exactly what Spike was looking for, and Spike didn’t seem inclined to slow down enough to explain, so Xander just put his trust in his lover and followed.

Finally Spike came to an abrupt stop, putting his arm out to halt Xander as well. Xander peeked over Spike’s shoulder and saw yet another hallway, this one empty except for two half-asleep Guards standing in front of a door. Spike pulled Xander farther away and then whispered in his ear: “We’re going to attack those blokes and steal their uniforms.”

“But they’re armed,” Xander whispered back. “And we’re only human, remember?”

“But we both still know how to fight and we’ve the advantage of surprise. The one on the right’s yours. Just wait until I give the signal to begin.”

“And how do we know there’s not a hundred guys on the other side of that door waiting to get us?”

“We don’t. But this wing’s marked as private quarters—bedrooms, yeah? Not the Chief’s, though. He has much grander ones elsewhere. I reckon that may have been the missing son’s rooms.”

“Ah,” Xander said, and before he could think of another reason not to do this, Spike was tugging him along by the leash.

The Guards woke up a little as Spike and Xander approached, but they seemed more annoyed than alarmed. The one on the right yelled something at Spike, and Spike responded with something that sounded slurred, even if Xander couldn’t understand the words. The Guard responded with irritation, pointing back the way they came, and Spike pasted a confused look on his face, lurching drunkenly toward the door and dragging Xander along with.

Neither of the Guards made any move for his weapon as Spike swayed closer. He scratched at his head and pointed down the hall, asking another question. Then he stumbled, almost falling against the Guard on the left, who instinctively reached out to catch him. As that happened, Spike dropped the leash and shouted, “Xan!”

Xander leapt at the guy on the right, who clearly hadn’t expected to be attacked by a slave.

Spike was right—these guys were armed but kind of slow, and within minutes Spike and Xander had subdued them and given each a hard enough blow to knock them unconscious. Then Spike opened the door, which thankfully wasn’t locked, and they dragged the men into the room.

“They won’t be out for long, Xan. I’ll strip off the uniforms while you find something to bind them with.”

Xander looked around quickly. As Spike had said, they were in a bedroom. It was rather plainly decorated, although the furniture was well made. Inside a large wardrobe he found several silk ties, mostly in somber navies and grays. He grabbed them and brought them over to Spike, who by then had the Guards down to their long underwear. Spike and Xander hogtied the men securely and then gagged them with socks and more ties. The men were still out cold, but it’d be a good long time before they worked themselves free.

“Nicely done, pet,” Spike said, briefly groping Xander’s ass when Xander pulled off the tattered trousers he was wearing.

“Ditto.” Xander unhooked the collar, opened it, and, with considerable relief, tossed it onto the bed. Then he put on one of the Guards' uniforms. It fit pretty well. Spike’s was a little long in the legs and a little loose around the waist, but he cinched the pants tightly with a belt. It would do for a while, anyway.

As Spike looked at the map again, figuring out the best way to get the laboratory, Xander took a more careful look around. The room was a mess, as if someone had rummaged through it and then left in a hurry. The big bed was unmade, blue covers rumpled. There was a table by one window, and it held some tiny bottles of paints, a few brushes and colored pencils, and a bunch of papers.

Xander flipped the top paper over. It was a drawing of a man. The man was reclining on the room’s bed, bare-chested and with the blankets drawn to his waist. He looked like he’d just awakened, with a head full of messy dark curls and a sleepy smile on his face. He looked familiar, and it took Xander a moment to place him. He was a younger, softer version of the Chief. The drawing had been partially colored in but not finished, and part of it was marred by a boot print. But although Xander was no art critic, could tell that the artist was skilled. As he looked at it, he became certain that the man on the bed—who must have been the Chief’s son—had true affection for whomever drew him. And the artist’s own love for his subject shone through in every careful pencil mark.

“What’s that?” Spike asked, walking over.

“Something that shouldn’t be thrown away,” replied Xander. He folded the paper carefully and tucked it into one of the pockets of his stolen uniform coat. “Let’s go.”

Before they left the room, Xander remembered to remove his eye patch and stuff it in a pocket. There probably weren’t too many one-eyed Guards. Neither glass eyeballs nor hair dye were close at hand, so he had to hope that passersby wouldn’t pay close attention to the ick that was where his left eye used to be, or think too hard about the color of Spike’s hair.

Once again, Spike played guide as they made their way to the laboratory. When they passed other people, they both tried to look stern and purposeful, and nobody gave them a second glance. Most people seemed too busy to look carefully and notice anything odd about them.

The laboratory was located near the top of the tower in an area that was almost deserted; Xander could understand that—he wouldn’t want to be a next-door neighbor to most wizards. There was another pair of Guards outside this door, so Xander and Spike had a hurried, whispered conference in which Xander agreed to follow Spike’s lead.

Spike carried himself very confidently as he marched his way to the Guards, the sneer on his face clearly conveying his low opinion of them. He looked like a superior officer who was about to chew them out for something, and that clearly confused them. They frowned at Spike and Xander but, like the pair who were now tied up, made no move to reach for their weapons.

One of the Guards said something that almost certainly meant, “Who the hell are you?”

Spike answered back with something that sounded suspiciously like swearing. Both Guards leapt at him, but he was ready for them, and Xander threw himself into the fray pretty quickly.

These guys were better fighters than the first two, and it took Spike and Xander a little longer to subdue them. In the process, Spike got a swollen eye that left him as half-blind as Xander, and Xander got a blade slash to his upper arm that only stung a little at the moment but was probably going to hurt like a bitch in the near future. It bled quite a lot too, so once the Guards were trussed up and gagged with strips of cloth cut from their own clothing, and after Spike had dragged them into the laboratory, Spike ripped some of his shirt to create a makeshift bandage for Xander. Before he applied it, though, he licked delicately at the wound.

“Thought you’d lost your taste for the stuff,” Xander said.

“I’ll never lose my taste for you, pet,” replied Spike with a grin. “Now let’s see if we can find the sodding pebble and be free of this place.”

Unfortunately, that was much easier said than done. The word “laboratory” had conjured in Xander’s head the image of a room with gleaming stainless steel counters and maybe a few beakers bubbling over Bunsen burners. The reality was more like a mystical hoarder’s junkshop. The room was very large, and it was crammed with tables and shelves and cabinets and chests—and every one of those things contained piles and jars and bags full of…stuff. Shells and dried herbs and something that looked like bones; mummified remains of creatures Xander couldn’t recognize; jewels and chains and bolts of fabric; carvings of wood and stone; scrolls and maps and lots and lots of books. And rocks—those too: stones of every imaginable size, shape, and color.

Xander groaned. “We’re gonna be here till we die of old age. Till Angel grows up and goes to college and becomes an insurance salesman. Till—”

“Stop yapping and start looking, pet.”

Xander sighed. “Yeah. Okay.”

Rubbing at his arm, he wandered around a little, keeping his eye open for anything that resembled what they were looking for: a stone the size of a softball, mostly pink but speckled with gray. The vengeance demons who were responsible for turning Angel into an infant had said that the stone was once a part of their sacred…something that they went on explaining for a long time and Xander stopped listening to. It evidently had magic qualities of its own—it made demon veins shinier or something, important only to them; he didn’t know and didn’t care. They said it had been stolen from them centuries earlier and spirited to another dimension, one that they apparently couldn’t be bothered to visit themselves even if they wanted their trinket back.

“What if it’s not even here?” Xander said, making a face at a bowl full of something sticky and smelly, into which he’d almost dipped his hand.

Spike turned around from a shelf laden with ceramic urns. “Then we’re fucked.” He shrugged. “You need to have faith, love.”

Xander bit back the sarcastic retort about Faith having had him, and also managed not to point out the irony of a demon lecturing him about belief. He rubbed his face with one hand and peered up a steep set of stairs that was almost hidden behind some hanging strips of cloth. “There’s another room up there, Spike. I’m gonna check it out.”

Spike grunted a reply and started rooting through something that looked like a treasure chest.

The upstairs room was considerably smaller and less cluttered. It was an observatory of some kind, Xander realized, with a roof made of many panes of glass, and a telescope in the middle. A single door led to a rooftop. But there were shelves as well, and while these contained fewer items than those in the room below, the things up here looked more valuable. There was a lot of shiny gold in nuggets and bars and formed into jewelry and statues. There were also precious gems and fancy filigreed amulets, and one pulsing, sparkly thing that looked to Xander like a miniature galaxy. He was almost hypnotized by its movements when, out of the corner of his eye, he spied something. A rock. Not very pretty compared to these other treasures, just smooth and pink with little gray spots.

With a grin of triumph, Xander hefted the stone in his hand, looked it over for a moment, and then stuffed it in his inside coat pocket. Feeling almost giddy with relief, he made his way to the top of the stairs.

“Hey—” he started to say, just as a crash and a lot of shouting came from below.

Xander wasn’t a coward, he really wasn’t. He would throw himself into any fight he thought was just, and he’d face anything if he thought his beloved was in danger. But he also wasn’t stupid—you don’t just go rushing into a battle without some clue of what was going on, at least not if you could help it.

So instead of running down the stairs he peeked down instead. What he saw instantly made his stomach tighten and his heart race. Eight or nine Guards had burst into the room. One of them was checking over his colleagues who were tied up and bleeding, but the rest were surrounding Spike. Three of them were holding Spike tight, and while he swore and shouted and kicked, he couldn’t get free. He stilled when one of them unsheathed a sword and held the tip against Spike’s Adam’s apple.

Xander had to hold on to the railing to stop himself from doing something suicidal. That was his lover’s neck, the pale, almost delicate neck that Xander so enjoyed licking and nibbling.

The Guard with the sword yelled at Spike and Spike yelled back. The men holding him tightened their grips and another of the Guards got into the act by punching Spike hard in the gut.

The only good thing about the situation was that none of the Guards seemed to have any clue that Xander was there. The tied-up Guards could have told them there was a second man, but they were too busy being unconscious. Spike sure wasn’t going to volunteer that information. And amidst the general commotion, as well as the crowded and chaotic condition of the room itself, the Guards seemed to have overlooked the existence of the stairs and the second story room. Xander could understand that—he hadn’t noticed them at first either, and he hadn’t been wrestling with a pissed-off former vampire.

The Guards managed to wrest Spike’s hands behind him and one of them shoved his wrists into a pair of handcuffs. Then they began to drag him away, out the door. Xander perched silently at the top of the stairs, feeling incredibly impotent. Just before Spike was shoved out into the hallway, he spared a quick look in Xander’s direction. “Go home, Xander,” he said.

Xander shook his head fiercely.

The Guards must have figured Spike was just swearing at them in his own language, because none of them looked up. They took Spike away. Two of them waited in the room, though, until they were joined a few minutes later by harried-looking servants with stretchers. The wounded Guards were plopped onto the stretchers and then everyone left.

Everyone but Xander, of course.




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