The Hermit of Werleyville

by
Whichclothes



Part One

Werleyville was a monument to misplaced optimism. The main street—the only street—was very wide, as if the builders had pictured swarms of wagons bustling to and fro. The half dozen buildings that lined each side of the street were two-story edifices built of native limestone and imported granite. Two of the buildings sported ornate pillars and fancy carved friezes involving leaves and flowers and fruits and animals: symbols of bounty and wealth. Xander suspected that one of those buildings had been the Werleyville Bank and the other was intended as the courthouse. There was a grand fountain near one end of the street, with chastely dressed mermaids in the middle and stone benches around the edges. If it had ever been hooked up to a water source, that well had long since run dry. But someone must have imagined men in top hats and women in wide skirts gathering around that fountain, cooled by the trickling sound as they gossiped.

In reality, only a few wagons had ever traveled the wide street, and nobody had ever chatted around the fountain. The bank may have briefly held some treasure, but not a single case had ever been heard in the courthouse. The gold mine on which Werleyville had placed its hopes played out early.  Even as the last bits of value were being scraped and dug from beneath the earth, a shaft had collapsed and a dozen men had died a terrible death. The survivors abandoned Werleyville, and the city that never was died too.

Xander bought the place on eBay for $648,000.

It was a good deal. The stone buildings had been constructed well and they remained fairly intact over the decades. At some point in the 1970s someone had hoped to turn the city into a tourist attraction, and that person—a foolish optimist as well—had fixed the place up a little, paving the road into Werleyville from the state highway, repairing a few of the buildings, and sinking a brand-new well.

The well was located directly behind the former Werleyville Saloon, so that was the building Xander chose to move into. Besides, the long oak bar was still there, the tin ceiling was in decent shape, and on the wall there was a dusty and warped painting of naked ladies cavorting with satyrs in a mythical forest glen.

At first, Xander had to live pretty rough, although he had a generator for power and a roof over his head. But he had plenty of time on his hands, and within less than a year after he’d moved in he had running water—hot and cold—and solar power. He had satellite TV and internet with Skype. He’d glazed the windows and had the road repaved. He had a small but functional kitchen, complete with two huge freezers, a fridge, a stove, and a microwave. He’d polished the bar until the old wood gleamed, he’d painted the tin ceiling, and the naked ladies were still a little warped but no longer dusty. He had named some of them; the chubby blonde in the bottom left corner was Gretchen.

He had also started a little garden behind the well, which had been backbreaking work because the ground in Werleyville was mostly rock and not much soil. He’d eventually had a truckload of topsoil delivered, and had driven to the nearest town—thirty miles distant—to fill the back of his pickup with bags of manure. Due to marauding deer, a fence around the plot had been a necessity too. Now he had fresh veggies though, and they tasted infinitely better than the plastic crap from the supermarket. He’d even planted a few trees—apples and plums and cherries—and although they were too small now, in a few years he hoped he’d have fruit and a little more shade.

When he’d first moved in, he had slept on an air mattress and kept his stuff in cardboard boxes. But then he’d carved and assembled himself a bed. A few of the spindles on the headboard were a little uneven, but overall he thought it looked pretty nice and he was proud of it. He put the bed in the largest of the upstairs rooms and he’d built a bathroom there too. It wasn’t very aesthetically pleasing—he figured he’d have time later to make it pretty—but it had a huge claw-foot tub that he’d found at an architectural salvage place in Emeryville, and he’d rigged up a shower too. And of course he’d installed a toilet and sink and mirror, so he had all the basics covered.

Next he’d made himself a round table—oak to match the bar—and two chairs. He didn’t know why he bothered with the second chair, except that having only one seemed lopsided and pathetic. He bought the couch since major upholstery was beyond his current skill set. It was leather and really comfy, and he’d placed it underneath the partying ladies and the satyrs.

He would probably build a dresser next. He had the materials already and a general idea of what he wanted. He was looking forward to the sweet oblivion of woodworking, when his mind would be too busy with his task to occupy itself with other matters, when the entire rest of the world would just fall away for a few hours.

In the evenings Xander would sprawl on his couch, cold beer in hand, watching his big-screen TV. Rocko would be curled up at his side, sometimes barking softly in his sleep. Xander wondered if his dreams were good ones.

Rocko was a medium-sized dog, sort of yellowish, with one ear that stood straight up and one that flopped. He wasn’t especially smart. Xander had nearly run him over on one of his rare trips into town; the dog had been just standing there in the middle of the road, too dumb to run from cars. He was skinny and dirty and wasn’t wearing a collar. Xander had stopped and opened the door, intending to shoo him away, but then Rocko had wagged his tail and limped on over. He hopped right into the cab, scrambled over Xander’s lap, and settled onto the passenger seat as if he’d been doing so his entire life.

Xander took him to the one vet in town, a tall, graying man who mostly treated livestock. “Someone dumped him,” Dr. Adamson said. He knew Xander was the eccentric hermit who’d bought that useless old ghost town, and he wondered what the hell had happened to Xander’s left eye. “People have a pet they don’t want anymore and they just shove ’em out their cars in the middle of nowhere. Fool themselves into thinking the animals will survive in the wild. Assholes.”

Xander agreed.

Dr. Adamson went on to treat the dog’s torn paws, then discovered and removed several stones from his stomach: the genesis of Rocko’s name. As Xander was paying the bill, he realized that he seemed to have acquired a dog. Possibly a chow/lab/retriever/border collie mix, the vet said. Or possibly not. Dr. Adamson—deciding that Xander was a softhearted fool and maybe a little touched in the head but a good enough guy—had neutered poor Rocko for free.

Rocko was ecstatic with his new home. He dug holes and unsuccessfully hunted rodents and barked at things. He found the only dead skunk for miles and rolled in it. During the winter he tracked mud all over the plank floors that Xander had lovingly refinished. He snored. He listened when Xander had conversations with him and he cuddled next to him on the couch. If Xander didn’t watch him carefully, he still ate rocks.

 

***

 

Xander regretfully admitted to himself that it was time to go into town again. He needed to restock the freezer, he was almost out of beer, and Rocko’s supply of kibble was running low. Besides, if he was ever going to tackle that dresser he needed a dovetail jig and some new drill bits.

“A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” he said to Rocko, who thumped his tail in happy agreement.

Xander showered—reminding himself to get soap and shampoo while he was in town—shaved off his beard and combed his hair, which had grown ridiculously long. Having someone cut it for him was out of the question and he wasn’t brave enough to do the job himself. He used a rubber band to tie it back, hoping it would make him look slightly less Tarzanesque, then pulled on jeans and a clean but faded shirt.

Rocko jumped into the truck beside him and they rumbled slowly down the road; Xander wasn’t in a hurry. Since he got crappy radio reception out here and his CD player was on the fritz, he sang as he drove. Show tunes, because Rocko didn’t mind. Songs from Oklahoma and West Side Story and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. He was still warbling about the sobbin’ women when the noise in his head began.

It wasn’t too bad at first: just a stray phrase or two when he passed another car or when he drove by one of the few, scattered houses. …should have hit the bathroom before we left … I’m not gonna make rent next month if Sam doesn’t … have tuna sandwiches for dinner and then tomorrow … hate the way she won’t call me back… The thoughts drifted away almost faster than he could catch them and that was dandy with him.

But as he crossed the city limits, the sounds grew louder. It was only a two-stoplight town but there were still enough people for the thoughts to overlap, to flow into his brain like waves battering a beach. That guy in the red Ford was about to be late to a doctor appointment because he hadn’t wanted to go and his wife had made him. That teenager inside the Dairy Queen was certain her boyfriend was cheating on her. The woman who worked in the post office was thinking again about retiring. All at once and all speaking over each other, until his hands were gripping the steering wheel hard enough to turn his knuckles white, and his single eye was squinted to a slit as if that would protect him from the onslaught.

He parked his truck in front of Timmons’ Hardware and Garden. Rocko hopped out when he did and followed him into the store.

Much to Xander’s relief, the store was empty except for the middle-aged cashier with a droopy mustache and a stock boy who was hidden away somewhere in the back. Xander grabbed a shopping cart and headed to the tool aisle.

The stock boy was seventeen so he was thinking about sex. Xander tried very hard to shut him out; any sex other than solo had been off-limits for a long time, and the entire topic was very uncomfortable for him. The clerk’s thoughts were only slightly less discomfiting. …get that strike settled soon so the season can begin. Man, I was hoping the Niners would have a good year. There’s that crazy guy and his mutt again. Good customer. Bet he’s doing something weird up there in Werleyville. Something kinky I bet. Or maybe he’s some kinda gangster. That would explain the eye. Could be one of them religious weirdos. Kind that thinks Jesus is gonna come swoop him up in a spaceship or something. Still, he’s a good customer.

As he always did, Xander tried to ignore the voices, instead focusing on the small array of saws and jigs on the shelf in front of him. He’d known for a long time what the locals thought of him. Hell, he knew what everyone thought of him, and that was only one of the many costs of his “gift.” Beside him, Rocko nosed at a leaf blower and seemed to be considering the benefits of lifting his leg. Xander decided it was time to go. He grabbed the dovetail jig, added it to the other purchases in his cart, and wheeled his way to the cash register.

“Hello,” he said to the clerk, flashing his goofiest grin. It wouldn’t do him any good to let people know what was really going on inside his head.

The man gave a nod. “Afternoon.” They remained silent while he rang up the purchases and Xander handed over his Platinum Visa. The clerk took it without comment.

Xander stowed his plastic bags inside the locked compartment in the bed of his truck. Then he and Rocko hopped back in the cab and he drove slowly down the street. He looked longingly at Mo’s Bakery and Coffee as he passed. Xander had tried to eat there once, shortly after he’d arrived in town and before he had anything resembling a kitchen hooked up. The coffee had been good and the slice of peach pie had been wonderful. But he couldn’t finish it—too many voices clamoring inside his head: Wondering who he was and what he was up to. Judging him. Going on and on about things that had nothing to do with him, many of them really, really private. He’d felt ill and left the pie only half eaten.

Buying dog food was easy. Xander backed his truck into the loading space alongside the feed store and a gangly kid in his late teens came ambling out. He stuck his hand in through the passenger side window and scratched Rocko’s ears, which sent the dog into bouts of tail-whacking euphoria. “How many bags, Mr. Harris?” the kid asked.

“Three. And throw in a couple boxes of Milk-Bones and a rawhide bone or two. Oh, and a three-pack of pig ears.”

“Sure thing.” The feed store kid wasn’t especially bright. He thought almost exclusively about his parents’ ranch and the car he hoped to buy someday. It was kind of refreshing, and Xander always tipped him a couple of bucks for loading up the truck.

There was one grocery store in town. Xander had to tie Rocko up outside, and as always, the dog looked mournful. Xander suspected that every time he left Rocko, the dog thought he would never come back. So Xander reassured him as he always did—“Back in fifteen, buddy”—took a deep breath, and entered the store.

There were a lot more people here and the internal din was much, much worse. He smiled wanly at people as he passed them with his shopping cart, all the time wishing he didn’t know who had a kink for dirty underwear or who just had a disturbing diagnosis or who was thinking about shooting himself in the head if he didn’t get a decent job soon.

Xander filled his cart quickly with a lot of meat, with a few staples like ketchup and mustard, with a bunch of loaves of bread he could freeze, and with a few boxes of Twinkies and Oreos. He remembered the soap and shampoo. The cart was overflowing by the time he pushed it to the front. The checkout woman was old enough to be his mother, but her thoughts were anything but maternal: she thought he was cute, like a sexy pirate or something. He resisted the temptation to say, “Ahoy, me matey!” After she’d rung up everything in his cart and he’d told her to add a dozen cases of Coors to his tab, he paid and began toting groceries to the truck. Rocko watched him walk back and forth, and soon the truck bed was packed full.

Xander untied his dog as he made the last journey across the parking lot. A pretty young woman was just getting out of a car two spaces over. He smiled at her as she came around to unstrap her toddler from a car seat. Oh my God, what a creep! What if he wants to kidnap me? What if he wants to kidnap Mallory? I bet he uses that dog to lure children. I bet he’s on Megan’s list. I’m so gonna look him up when I get home. Ought to be easy with that creepy eye patch. What’s his license plate number?

With a heavy sigh, Xander climbed into the truck, waited for Rocko to settle beside him, and drove home.





Part Two

Xander missed pizza a lot. There was no pizza delivery service in town, and even if there were, he certainly would have lived out of range. Out of necessity he’d become a decent cook; sometimes he even looked up recipes online. After his return from town, he decided on caveman food: a really nice rib-eye barely browned over flames in the fire pit behind the saloon, a hunk of bread to sop up the juices, and a couple of tomatoes he’d grown himself. He didn’t even bother with silverware, because who was going to complain about his table manners? Hell, Rocko was pleased as punch to lick the mess off Xander’s fingers when the meal was over.

Another nice thing about living with a dog was that Xander could lounge around wearing whatever he wanted; in the summer that meant boxer shorts. He liked being able to sprawl on his couch and watch SyFy in his underwear. Back when he’d lived at Slayer headquarters, the couches were always too crowded for sprawling, the TV schedule was heavy on crime shows and chick flicks, and he had to wear pants.

Now, however, Xander reposed comfortably, his stomach pleasingly full, a can of beer within easy reach, and a movie involving exploding aliens on the big screen. It was all good. And then Rocko started to bark.

Rocko barking was nothing unusual. He barked at mice and beetles and dust bunnies, and sometimes he barked at nothing at all. So the only attention Xander paid at first was to turn up the television volume. But then the barking grew louder and more insistent, and Rocko ran to the front door, growling as if all the demons in hell had come to visit. Which wasn’t impossible, the way Xander’s life went.

Xander sighed and clicked the TV off. He padded to the door. Maybe it was a coyote; Rocko had a grudge against them, the same way a person might detest their disreputable redneck cousin. But then there was a brief pause between barks—maybe Rocko had to catch his breath—and Xander caught the sound of an approaching engine. On very rare occasions, a lost tourist showed up in Werleyville, but not at night. Xander considered putting on some jeans, but then decided against it. If someone was going to intrude in his town, that someone was going to have to deal with the town’s owner in boxers.

The road was hidden by a bend right before it reached the buildings, so Xander saw the headlights before he saw the car. Even once the car came into view it was hard to make out any details because Main Street was lit only by stars and moon and the light that came through the saloon’s open doorway. It wasn’t as if installing streetlights had been one of Xander’s major priorities. As the car pulled to a halt across the street from him, Xander could tell by the faint silhouette that it was an old muscle car, a Charger maybe. The engine cut off and the car just sat there, hot metal ticking loudly. Even Rocko seemed confused; he’d stopped barking and now sat slightly in front of Xander, staring at the car, his head cocked to the floppy-eared side.

After what felt like a millennium, the driver’s side door opened. A long minute or two later, someone climbed out. Xander still couldn’t make out the person’s features in the darkness, especially since the person seemed to be dressed in dark clothes. But he could hear the slight crunch of boots on asphalt as the person approached. And then the intruder stopped to light a cigarette, and in the brief time that the lighter flamed, Xander could see his face.

“Spike!”

Spike didn’t answer. He put his lighter away, took a few puffs from his cigarette,  then prowled closer. He stopped a good ten feet from the saloon’s long front porch; he just stood there, staring at Xander and Rocko. He was wearing the same outfit as always—duster, jeans, tee—but his hair was what Xander presumed was his natural color, and it was cut short instead of slicked back. He had that slight smirk on his face, as if Xander were doing something especially amusing. “Didn’t realize the dress code was so casual,” Spike finally said.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Xander demanded impatiently. He didn’t step off the porch. “If Buffy sent you to try and convince me to come back—”

“Slayer didn’t send me,” Spike interrupted. Xander wasn’t sure if he was relieved or disappointed. The truth was, at the very end, his presence at Slayer headquarters had been as uncomfortable for his friends as it had been for him. Nobody likes having their secrets laid bare all the time. Buffy and Willow and Giles had put up only token resistance when he announced his plans to leave.

Xander crossed his arms over his bare chest. “Then why are you here?”

Spike dropped the cigarette and ground the butt with his heel. “Invite me in and I’ll tell you.”

Xander took a moment to ponder the vampire’s request. Maybe Spike had lost his soul and wanted a nice nibble of Xander for dinner. Except Spike didn't just happen to be passing by—and surely there must have been more convenient people for him to eat. It wasn’t as if they hated one another enough for Spike to go out of his way to track Xander down, not even in the bad old days. A few years after Sunnydale collapsed, Spike had shocked everyone by showing up at headquarters, sort of bedraggled and somehow older-looking, but definitely not dust. He’d hung around for a little while, told a horrific tale about a battle in LA and Angel’s final death, and then disappeared again. He’d reappear every few months after that, usually in bad shape, and he’d help out with the Armageddon du jour before riding off into the sunset again. During these infrequent visits, Spike and Xander hadn’t exactly become besties, but they hadn’t tried to kill each other either. Sometimes they even hid out with Giles in his library, drinking whiskey and bantering and generally taking an estrogen vacation.

“Come on in, Spike,” Xander said with a sigh.

Spike marched up onto the porch. He surprised Xander by scritching Rocko’s head as he passed by, and then he sauntered into the saloon and stood there, looking around. Xander and Rocko followed him inside and Xander shut the door.

“Gotta say, whelp, never occurred to me to live in a pub. Would’ve saved myself loads of walking.”

“It’s not a pub, Spike. In case you haven’t noticed, this isn’t exactly Stratford-on-Avon. It’s a saloon.”

“Don’t see John Wayne or Clint Eastwood hanging about either.” Spike grinned at him. “Is it a working saloon? ’Cause right now I’d fancy some rotgut or even plonk or Yank piss-water.”

Xander interpreted this as a request for adult beverages. “I got beer. Hang on.”

Rocko stayed with Spike as Xander went to the kitchen and fetched a can of Coors from the fridge. Then he had second thoughts and grabbed another, even though he had a half-full can near the couch. He had the feeling that more alcohol was going to be a good thing tonight.

Back in the main room, Xander handed Spike a can. Spike made a face but popped it open anyway and took a long swallow. Xander chugged the rest of his half-can and then started on the freshie. As Spike closely examined the painting of the naked women and the satyrs, absently petting Rocko with his free hand, Xander collapsed onto the couch. “You promised explanations,” he said.

“Yeah. I expect I did.” Spike sat down at the opposite end of the couch and Rocko immediately leapt up and settled into the space between them, tongue lolling happily as if the dog had been waiting for this all along.

And then Spike said nothing for a long time. He played with his beer can and stared up at the ceiling and jiggled his legs. For once, Xander actually tried to use his curse to find out what was going on in Spike’s head, but he got nothing. That wasn’t too unusual—people who were aware he was telepathic could usually block him out for a while. Unfortunately, within a few hours the telepathy always found its way around those barriers and then those thoughts would come through as loud and clear as everyone else’s.

Xander was still impatient. On the other hand, it wasn’t as if he had to be anywhere. And it was kind of nice to have company, company whose thoughts weren’t dancing through Xander’s head, even if that company was Spike. So Xander said nothing either. He sipped his Coors and stroked Rocko’s back.

At long last, Spike cleared his throat. “Slayer told me you’d moved to the arsehole of nowhere because you’d been cursed. Didn’t specify the affliction, though. I reckoned I’d find you all hideous-like. Oozing pus or with horns and a tail or summat.”

“No pus, horns, or tail,” Xander replied with a sigh. “Just the ability to read minds.”

Spike looked startled. “Read— So you know what I’m thinking right now?”

“No. Not yet.” Something tugged at the corner of Xander’s brain, some logical step he was missing, but he didn’t pursue it.

“Oh. How’d you get saddled with this then?”

Xander didn’t want to tell the story. It was just too—stupid. Typical. Harrislike. But Spike was looking at him with one eyebrow raised, and Xander figured that if the vampire really wanted to know, he’d find out from Buffy or someone else. “I was dating a vengeance demon,” Xander said wearily.

Spike barked out a laugh. “Again? ’T’s your type, is it?”

“No. It’s just … everyone I date turns out to be a demon anyway, and I figured at least this one wasn’t gonna want to eat me, and I kinda know the territory already.”

“Good in the sack as well, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Xander replied a little wistfully. “Experienced and inventive.”

“And you fucked it up.”

“Yep. I mean, things were going pretty well. We’d been seeing each other for six, seven months. But then we got in this huge fight because I wasn’t being romantic enough or something. I don’t know. I wasn’t meeting his needs, he said.”

Spike blinked. “Wait. His?”

“Yeah, Spike. I’m officially flying the rainbow demon flag. Have been for a long time.”

“Thought you liked birds.”

“I do. I like men and women. Or, apparently, I like male and female demons. I’m a bi-demosexual.”

He half-expected Spike to start making fun of him, maybe pulling out one of the ten thousand British ways to call someone a pansy, but Spike only shrugged. “So you and your bloke were having a row…” he prompted.

“We were. He said I wasn’t meeting his needs and I said how the fuck was I supposed to know what his needs were if he didn’t tell me. I’m not a mind-reader.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. Oh is right.”

“And he won’t lift the curse?”

Xander shook his head. “No. I stopped seeing him, of course, which only pissed him off worse, and then I didn’t want to tell anyone about it because I felt like such an idiot. Didn’t need them judging me—to my face or in their thoughts. By the time I spilled to the gang a few weeks had gone by, and Darko said it was stuck on for good. Buffy threatened to slay him and he still stuck with his story, so I guess it was true. Giles and Willow looked stuff up to see if they could magic the curse away, but they couldn’t find anything.”

Spike thought for a moment. “You dated a vengeance demon called Darko and then were surprised when things went sour.”

“But I wasn’t surprised. Things always go sour for me, Spike. I just didn’t know the specific way my life would be fucked up this time.” Xander squinted at the TV screen, which was blank. “Besides, he was really hot.”

To Xander’s surprise, Spike chuckled. “Well, can’t say I’ve never fallen for pretty trouble myself, can I?” He shifted around a little on the couch and ran his fingers through the funny little patch of lighter fur near Rocko’s right hind leg. Rocko looked slightly overcome with his good fortune in being petted by two people at once. “So once you decided the telepathy was permanent, you moved as far from people as you could get.”

“Pretty much,” Xander agreed.

“Where’d you get the dosh?”

Now it was Xander’s turn to chuckle. “I won it. Might as well make the fucking curse pay its way. I spent a few months traveling around, playing poker in Vegas and Reno and card rooms.” And Christ, it had been really painful for him to spend time among the crowds in those places, but in the end he’d come away set for life, at least as long as he didn’t get carried away with cocaine or diamond jewelry or private jets.

Spike nodded and then stood. He walked across the room and disappeared into the kitchen, returning a few seconds later with more beer for them both. Xander took his gratefully. Spike spent more time wandering around, running his hand along the smooth wood of the bar, poking at the ancient woodstove Xander kept in the corner even though it was too dilapidated to use, kicking at the copper spittoon where Xander stored his muddy boots during winter. Then he turned back to look at Xander. “And what do you do up here, all by your lonesome? Aside from watching telly and exercising your cowboy nudism kink.”

Xander smiled. “A kinky cowboy nudist would wear chaps and nothing else. Mmm … maybe a Stetson. Anyway, this place keeps me really busy. It was pretty much in ruins when I bought it. Most of the town still is, but I’ve got the saloon pretty livable. It’s a hell of a lot of work to fix up old buildings like these.”

“Last time people drank in this saloon, I reckon I was still alive,” Spike said thoughtfully. He was still pacing slowly, still touching everything. “I read penny dreadfuls when I was a boy. I’d spend my pocket money on the Boys Own Pocket Library, tripe like that. Tales of wild Red Indians and stagecoach drivers and sharpshooters and herds of bison and… It all seemed so exotic to me. I drove my mum to distraction, running about the garden and pretending I was a cowboy.” His voice became very quiet near the end and he glanced over at Xander as if he were embarrassed.

But Xander was imagining a blue-eyed boy in short pants, his face smudged with dirt, shooting his finger at imaginary war-painted foes. He smiled. “I used to want to play cowboys and Indians, too, but Willow insisted on calling them indigenous peoples and she wouldn’t let the cowboys shoot at them, so that pretty much took all the fun out of it for me. We usually ended up playing house instead.”

“Which is why you turned into a poofter,” Spike said with a grin.

“Yeah, that’s right. A few more turns with the Barbies and the Easy-Bake and I’d've been a completely flaming fairy instead of just bi.”

Rocko suddenly hopped off the couch and ran to the door. Xander hurried to let him out, and the dog ran off into the darkness. Rocko was housebroken when Xander found him but, like a small child, he didn’t seem to realize he had to go until it was almost too late. Xander had learned the hard way that when Rocko wanted out, fleet feet were an asset.

Spike walked over and stood beside Xander in the doorway, peering down Main Street as if watching Rocko take a dump was fascinating. Xander hadn’t stood so close to anyone in a long time, at least not for longer than a few seconds. The sensation was disconcerting. “Why are you here?” he asked.

“Haven’t been getting on with the Slayers.”

“Well, that’s nothing new. Every time you came by, Giles and I practically placed bets on whether one of ’em was gonna stake you that week. So you’re … taking a break from them again. Why here?”

“ ’T’s more than a break,” Spike said with a slight shake of his head. “I can’t … can’t manage it at all anymore. ’T’s not just the time I’m with them—it’s the time I’m away.”

Xander didn’t understand what Spike meant. “So if you’re not getting along, go away and stay away. Hang out with someone—” He stopped suddenly as Spike turned his head to shoot him a dark look. Then Xander understood. “Oh ... nobody?”

Spike practically growled at him. “Dru’s been gone for ages, Peaches and his crew are all dead, and there’s not exactly an eHarmony for souled vampires, is there? In my big-bad days I might’ve turned myself a mate, but now …” His laughter was humorless. “Perhaps I ought to get a dog.”

As if on cue, Rocko came shooting back into the saloon. He did a quick run around the room, sniffed suspiciously at a table leg, and then collapsed onto the floor with a little huff.

Xander felt an odd twisting sensation in his chest as he finally realized why Spike had arrived. “You want to stay here,” he said.

Spike nodded without looking at him.

“I’m sorry, Spike. You can’t.” He was somewhat surprised to find that he meant it—he truly was sorry.

But Spike spun to glare at him. “ ’T’s all right to shag a vengeance demon but you can’t abide a vampire?”

“No, it’s not that. I—”

“I’m not a bother, you know. Won’t eat your food—can hunt deer and the like for myself.”

“I’m sure you can. It’s not you, Spike. It’s me and my goddamn curse. You have no idea what it’s like. It’s not just embarrassing or annoying. If I hadn’t moved out here I would have gone fucking crazy.”

Spike’s anger melted away into something else. Sympathy, maybe. “I can stay in another building. I know the rest of them are still wrecks, but they can’t be any worse than the crypts I’ve lived in.”

“This town ain’t big enough for the both of us,” Xander said with a forced smile. “Literally. My range is longer than Main Street.”

Spike slumped as if he’d been wounded. “Right then. Ta for the beer.” He stepped out onto the porch but Xander caught his arm.

“Wait. I’m gonna turn in soon anyway. Why don’t you spend the night here? Save you from having to find a place to crash before morning. There’s not much around here. You can head out at sunset tomorrow.”

They both remained frozen like that for a moment, Xander in and Spike out, Xander’s hand on Spike’s arm. Then Spike nodded. “Yeah. Okay.”

Rocko seemed pleased with the decision—he thumped his tail twice when Spike reentered. Then Spike and Xander sat on the couch again, and they drank a couple more beers apiece, and they watched forgettable crap on TV. Spike took off his duster and boots. Xander kept on his boxers. Eventually Xander dozed off a little, waking with a start when a loud commercial for running shoes came on.

“You snore,” Spike announced.

Xander grinned sleepily. “Sorry, your majesty.” Then he stood and stretched. “I’m gonna head upstairs.”

“Bit early for me. All right if I watch the telly a while longer?”

“Yeah, sure. Just leave me some beer, okay? And, uh … I only have the one bed. You gonna be okay with the couch? It’s pretty comfy. Obviously.”

“ ’T’s fine.”

“There’s no windows down here, so I guess you’re safe from immolation.”

“Another benefit of living in a saloon.”

“Well, good night then.”

Spike gave him a little wave.

Rocko looked back and forth between the two of them and then hopped onto the couch, the traitor.

Xander trudged up the stairs. The railing and most of the treads had rotted away long before he moved in. He had repaired the steps themselves but not the banister, which would possibly violate safety codes, if Werleyville had any. But Xander didn’t care; he had an in with the mayor. When he got upstairs, Xander grabbed one of the pillows off his bed and a spare blanket from one of the cardboard boxes. He walked back to the stairs and tossed the bedding over the edge, making Spike look up in surprise. “Sweet dreams,” Xander said.

“Cheers, mate.”

Xander headed to his bare-bones bathroom, where he pissed and brushed his teeth and flossed. Then he ambled to the bed, stretched once more, and collapsed onto the mattress. Because it was warm out he had only a light blanket, which he pulled to his chin. It was strange how empty the bed felt with just him. He was used to Rocko’s company. Xander reached over and flicked off the lamp.

And then it hit him, the thing that had been niggling at his brain the whole evening, the way a flea might torment Rocko. His telepathy hadn’t worked on Spike that night, even before Spike knew about the curse.  Spike hadn’t been blocking Xander purposely. Xander just couldn’t read his thoughts.

 

***

 

“I always knew there was nothing going on in your brain!” Xander hooted happily.

Spike poked his head out from the blanket and blinked blearily at him. He looked sort of adorable. “Wha’?”

Xander cackled at him. “Hang on. Gotta get the door.” And he ran, because Rocko had apparently decided that it was time to wake up and that his bladder was most urgently full. Xander barely made it and Rocko ended up pissing all over one of the porch pillars, not for the first time. It was a fine day, Xander saw as he walked onto the porch: blue skies with a few wispy clouds, a little bit of a breeze making the tree leaves dance.

Eyes dropping to street level, he noted that Spike did indeed drive a Charger, a beat-up-looking thing that had more primer than paint. Xander decided that it was kind of nice having two vehicles parked in the street instead of just one. It was Werleyville’s equivalent of a traffic jam. Made the place look more … lived in.

Rocko followed Xander through the door, pausing to nuzzle a thank you and good morning with his cold wet nose onto Xander’s bare thigh. Then he stood expectantly near the kitchen doorway, waiting for breakfast. But Xander plopped down on the couch instead; Spike pulled his feet away just in time to avoid getting sat on.

“What’s going on, you daft bugger?” Spike asked with a yawn.

“I want you to think at me, Spike.”

“Wha’?”

“Think. Think thoughts. Any kind of thoughts at all, doesn’t matter. Just concentrate, okay?”

Spike blinked some more, then frowned. Xander listened. And all he heard was Rocko panting and a jay calling noisily outside. He grinned. “Do you watch HBO, Spike?”

“Wha’?” Spike asked for the third time.

“HBO. You know, cable TV. Or in my case, satellite. They have pretty good shows. Lately I’ve been kind of into this one show, Game of Thrones. It’s got these medieval kings and stuff.”

Spike finally sat up all the way, pulling the blanket with him. His shoulders and upper chest were bare; Xander spied the pile of black clothing next to the couch and realized that unless Spike had unexpectedly taken to wearing underwear, the vampire was probably naked under that blanket. Interesting, but not important at the moment. “What are you on about?” Spike asked him slowly, as if Xander were foreign or addled.

“There’s another show on HBO that I never watch ’cause it has vampires and werewolves and that kind of stuff and frankly, I have enough of that already. But a couple of the Slayers were into it and I caught parts of a few episodes before I moved here. There’s this girl in the show who’s psychic, right? They didn’t really get that part right on the show, because she seems pretty okay around people most of the time. But the thing is, she can’t read vampires’ minds. So she falls in love with this dark and broody one, but then there’s this sexy blond who also wants her and … um, not the point.”

“There is a point, is there?” Spike asked.

“Yep! The stupid HBO show is right. I can’t read your mind!”

It took Spike a few moments to process this. “You can’t… Why not?”

“Dunno. I can read humans. Even Slayers and witches. And I can read demons—which, ew, usually not very pleasant. Do you have any idea what flits through a Po’gh’anti’s brain? But I can’t read you at all. You’re just a great big blank to me.” He smiled in triumph.

Spike frowned and ran his fingers through his short hair, as if he were trying to massage some thoughts loose. If he was successful, Xander couldn’t tell because he heard nothing except Rocko’s impatient and pitiful little breakfast whine.

“Maybe it’s because you’re dead,” Xander offered. “I’m a little unclear on the whole vampire physiology thing, but I guess if you don’t have a pulse you probably don’t have electrical activity in your brain. How do you work, Spike?”

Spike looked slightly alarmed, as if he thought Xander intended to take him apart and see what made him tick. “Dunno, do I? Just … am. And I definitely think!”

“Occasionally,” Xander teased, which earned him a half-hearted glare. “Look, we could probably ask Giles and he could probably give us a dissertation on the subject, but in the end the reason doesn’t matter. You’re not in my head, Spike. And that means  if you still want to, you can stay. Shake the dust off your travelin' boots and … and mosey a while in Werleyville.”

Finally, Spike stopped looking confused. Instead, he smiled widely. “Only if you promise to give the cowboy lingo a rest.”

Xander patted Spike’s blanket-covered knee. “Sure thing, pardner.” Then he stood and went to prepare toast and kibble.