Authors: [info]sentine  and [info]whichclothes 
Pairing: Spike/Xander
Rating: NC-17
Disclaimer: We're not Joss
Summary: Xander is bait. Who will he catch?
A/N: Art, title, and inspiration by [info]sentine , story by [info]whichclothes . For [info]spring_with_xan . Thank you to [info]silk_labyrinth  for the wonderful beta work!

The Smallest Mask


“Hey, man, we’re heading to Lucky Bob’s. Wanna join us?”

Xander smiled and clapped Terry on the back. “Thanks, I’d love to. But I gotta head out. The old lady’s expecting me, you know.”

“She keeps you on a pretty short leash.”

“Well, that she does. See ya, Terry.” Xander turned left and found his Honda among the sea of employee cars. It was charcoal colored, unremarkable. He unlocked it and slipped inside. When he turned on the ignition, Johnny Cash belted out Ring of Fire. Strangely appropriate.

Dusk was just falling, the sky painted in lurid oranges and purples like something from a bad acid trip. Everyone was in an it’s-Wednesday-and-I’m-tired-and-I-just-wanna-get-home mood, so traffic was murder. Xander didn’t care. The festivities wouldn’t start without him.

He crawled forward for a few miles. As he came up on an In-N-Out he realized he was hungry and detoured to the drive-through before continuing on his way. He turned a few times until he was in an industrial park, the type with pre-fab buildings that housed car repair places and tile showrooms. By this time of day it was pretty deserted. He drove to the farthest cluster of buildings, the one that abutted the field full of foxtails and wild sunflowers, and pulled into the lot. There were three other cars there, all as nondescript as his, and an unmarked, dull-gray truck that looked like it was probably an armored car in a former life.

Grabbing his paper bag and cup, Xander climbed out of the car and ambled toward the door. The door was unmarked as well, just plain metal with the orangey paint badly scuffed and scraped. Xander kicked at the door with one foot—bam bam-bam-bam—and it quickly swung inward.

“It’s about time,” groused the man who’d opened it.

“Working man here. Gotta commute.”

Thompson pointed at the sack in Xander’s hand. “Commute, huh?”

“Hey, gotta eat, too.” He set the cup down on the card table that lay just inside the door and, as Thompson locked the door behind them, pulled out his burger. He unwrapped it halfway and took a big, satisfying bite. “So,” he said with his mouth full, “whatta we got this time?”

“How the fuck do I know? It’s big and ugly.”

“That doesn’t much narrow it down.” Xander took a few more bites and washed them down with a long swallow of root beer. Then he finished off the burger, had another drink, and belched. “Okey-doke. Let’s go meet bachelor number one.”

He knocked on the interior door, the one made of businesslike steel. It flew open so quickly he knew exactly the annoyed expression he’d find on Poole’s face. “Where have you been?” she demanded. She looked like she’d just bit into a lemon, her beady little eyes all screwed up under her glasses, her thin mouth pursed tightly. She was about 35 or so, only a few years older than Xander, but she was one of those people who was probably born disgruntled and middle-aged.

He sighed heavily. “Work. You’re the one who wanted me to get a job, remember? ‘You must blend in, Mr. Harris. You must appear a normal citizen, Mr. Harris.’”

“But your primary responsibility remains with us. And we have been waiting.”

“Yeah, yeah. Tell that to the guy whose computer froze up in the middle of printing out this month’s payroll. Took me a while to walk him through it. The demon’ll wait. They always do.”

Poole just glared. She and Xander walked over to a small, square table, where the other two members of the crew waited. Jacinda raised her eyebrows and popped her bubblegum at him. Cath just rolled her eyes.

“Hi, ladies!” He pulled out a chair and sat between the Slayers. Poole sat opposite him. “What’s up?”

“This, dude.” Cath pushed a book over to him. It was an old book and it was open to a woodcut of something big and ugly. This particular b and u was skinny and tall, with random little knobby things sticking out of its body, a long thin chin—or maybe a goatee; he couldn’t tell—and a swirly topknot of hair.

“Pretty. What is it?”

Poole answered. “Z’ghrighri, we believe.”

“Friend or foe?”

“It eats human flesh.”

“Ah. Foe, then.” He took another look at the picture and shuddered slightly. What was the deal with all the demons who munched on people? Who designated homo sapiens the demonic snack-pack of choice? “So whereabouts is it?”

“The victims have been homeless people camped near the river.”

He made a face. He should have brought mosquito repellant. Then he stood and stretched. “Night’s not getting any younger, ladies. Let’s go.” As they left the room, he tried not to look at the chains that hung in one corner and the various items piled near them. They made him uncomfortable.

Outside, Thompson and the Slayers piled into the armored car, but Xander and Poole went in his car. As Xander pulled out of the lot behind Cath, Poole made a little noise at him. “You’re getting too involved in this…this job you have.”

“Yeah, well, it puts more money in my pocket than the Council does, and tends not to result in me getting chomped on.” He merged onto the freeway and headed south.

“But it’s not your primary focus. The mission is this.” She waved around, and he knew she didn’t mean the highway. “It should be your priority.”

He didn’t bother to answer as he passed a line of semis. He’d heard this speech before, and he had a pretty good idea where it was going.

She cleared her throat. “We’ll be leaving at the end of the month. We should have matters sorted here by then.”

“Peachy. And what hellhole—literally—will we be visiting next? Not Louisville, please not Louisville.”

“No. We shall be remaining in the west. Spokane.”

He stirred his limited geography skills. “Idaho?”

“Washington. Honestly, Xander, this is your country, isn’t it?”

He mumbled something less than polite and moved over to the right lane so he could exit. Cath was just ahead. Xander hadn’t been in the happiest of moods to begin with, but now he felt especially surly. It wasn’t as if he expected to stick around here, and it wasn’t as if doing tech support was his dream job. But he’d just settled in, learned his way around, even sort of made a few friends. Yeah. Like that was going to work out anyway.

Still scowling, he parked alongside Cath in a lot belonging to a defunct second-hand shop. The greenbelt that ran along the riverbank was just a few yards away, studded here and there with small stands of trees. Not too far away, the traffic roared overhead on the highway, where it crossed the river on a boring concrete bridge.

Cath and Jacinda were out of the car already, stretching and checking their weapons. Thompson was leaning up against the truck with his arms crossed, looking bored. Poole pulled a little notebook out of her jacket pocket and peered at it in the dim streetlight. “Most of the attacks have been very close to here,” she said. “This demon is quite fast and relies little on stealth.”

“Great.” Xander adjusted his eyepatch and squinted toward the river. “Any superpowers or special deadly treats this baby’s got in store for me?” He shuddered slightly, remembering the Ytoreal demon they’d fought several months ago. It could spit poison like a cobra, and one of its deadly strikes had barely missed his remaining eye.

“No, nothing unusual. Sharp teeth. It’s not especially strong, but it has a longer reach than a human.”

Xander nodded and patted his back pocket for his handy-dandy, all-purpose weapon. A wooden stake might not be very high tech, but when rightly placed it did a pretty good job of killing most things, and at least slowing down the rest. If all went according to plan, he wouldn’t be using it at all, but it was always best to be prepared.

Xander strolled across the blacktop. Without looking back, he stepped onto the scraggly grass along the riverbank. There was a path here of sorts, and he made his way to it. He meandered down the path slowly, weaving a little as if he were drunk, looking down at the discarded syringes and broken bottles and bits of plastic that littered his way. It seemed to him that lots of people managed to do themselves in just fine, without any demonic help at all.

The pathway wound around some bushes. Three men were huddled on the ground on plastic tarps and flattened cardboard boxes. They eyed Xander warily as he passed but didn’t say anything to him. He considered warning them, and then thought better of it. The demon probably wouldn’t attack a group of humans anyway, and soon enough he hoped that the demon would be history.

The path dipped down until it was only a few feet from the water itself. Xander heard some kind of commotion from behind, probably back where the three men had been. But when he turned around to look, something large leapt out from behind a tree trunk and attacked him. It reeked like rotting fish and it was making horrible chittering noises like a giant bug. Although it was too dark to get a good look, Xander had no doubt that this was the Z’ghrighri in the flesh. It was grabbing at him with its very long arms and Xander was trying to scrabble away at least far enough to draw his stake.

“Where the fuck are you?” he bellowed at his supposed back-up, but the only answer was a series of crashes and shouts and howls from up the path. Fantastic. It looked like his back-up had got distracted, leaving him alone to fight this monster.

Big and ugly scraped blunt claws along Xander’s shoulder as it tried to keep hold of him. It ripped his shirt, and that really pissed him off because he was wearing one of his five office-friendly outfits. Now he was going to have to either buy a new one or do his laundry more than once a week. Assuming he survived, of course.

“Son of a bitch!” Xander yelled as the thing tried to take a bite out of his shoulder. He managed to wrench his arm from the demon’s grip, yank out his stake, and slam the wood through the demon’s chest. The demon howled and let go of him. It clawed at its own chest for a moment before collapsing in an angular pile on the dirt.

 Xander jerked the stake out and wiped it on a clump of grass. No use letting a perfectly good weapon go to waste. Just as he jammed the stake back into his pocket, Thompson ran up, panting breathlessly. “Harris, are you— Oh. Looks like you got it.” He peered at the stinky corpse.

“Yeah, no thanks to you guys. Need I remind you of our job descriptions? I am the bait. You people are the killers. Got it? Bait”—he pointed at himself, and then— “killer”—at Thompson.

“Sorry. We got kind of distracted back there. There was—”

“You know what? I don’t care. Is it gonna kill me?”

Thompson shook his head. “No. It’s taken care of.”

“Good. Then you can do cleanup. I’m going home.”

Xander left Thompson standing there and stomped up the bank, not wanting to meet up with the rest of his crew. He didn’t feel like being drafted for demon burial duty. Back up at street level, he cut across a couple of parking lots until he found his car. He got in and drove home.

His apartment was a cramped one-bedroom not far from downtown. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t horrible either. The furniture was comfortable, there was a gym he sometimes used on weekends, and the satellite TV was free. It was a pretty quiet complex, too. Mostly single working people, a few retired folks. He hadn’t had a chance to get to know his neighbors, but they’d nod at each other when they passed. Tonight, though, he didn’t see anyone, which was just as well, given the state of his clothing.

He had just shut the door behind him and was heading for the fridge when his phone began to play a song. The Eagles, Witchy Woman. He groaned and fished it out of his pocket.

“Hey, Will. How’s tricks?” As he talked, he yanked open the fridge, grabbed a bottle of Heineken, and popped the cap off with the opener he kept on the counter. Then he headed back into the living room and collapsed on the couch.

“I’m good, Xan. We’ve been busy here. You?”

“Same old same old.” He took a big sip of beer and then let his head loll back on the couch cushions.

“You’re still in Flagstaff?”

“That was, like, three moves ago. And it doesn’t matter, because we’re moving again in two more weeks.”

“You could always come here, you know. Be more with the staying put. Maybe meet someone….”

“We’ve been through this before. That’s…not going to work.” He didn’t say what they both knew, which was the reason it wouldn’t work. He didn’t get along with Willow’s girlfriend or Buffy’s husband, he annoyed Giles, and he’d spent the entire eight months he’d lived in England miserable and longing for home. And the only someones he’d met there were Slayers and Watchers and a few of their minions, and he’d had enough of feeling like the stupid, weak half, thanks very much.

Willow sighed, long and loud. “Okay. But if you change your mind--”

“Thanks, Will. So what have you been doing?”

“There are these ogre things—can you believe it? Actual ogres!—and they’re terrorizing people outside Lucerne. Not actually killing people, more like ‘Boo!’ and then running away. Which is okay, I guess, but when someone’s driving, not so much. We can’t figure out what their motive is.” She talked for a long time after that about their plans, and Xander sipped at his beer and half-listened, occasionally interjecting an interested-sounding grunt or two. When she finally paused, he figured the story was over.

“Well, good luck with that,” he said. “And it’s good talking with you, but I gotta hit the hay. It’s late here.”

“Are you sure you’re okay? You sound kind of…off.”

He moved a little and the claw marks on his shoulder twinged. “Just tired, Wills. We’ll talk next week, okay? Best of luck with your ogre problem.”

After she hung up, he lay still on the couch, wondering if he had enough energy to make it to the bed. Ah, but tomorrow was another day, and he had to set his alarm for work.


Shortly after Xander clocked in, Terry walked to Xander’s cubicle and slapped Xander’s shoulder. It made Xander wince, but Terry didn’t notice. “Man, you should have been there last night. Belinda—you know her, right? Over in accounting?—she had about four drinks too many and started bitching about Goodman. But Larissa was there, and she and Goodman kind of have something going on. A little something-something on the side ‘cause they’re both married. Larissa gets pissed at Belinda and tears right into her. Man, we practically had a catfight right there in Lucky Bob’s! You shoulda been there.”

“Sounds a little too violent for me,” Xander said.

“Yeah? What’d you spend the evening doing? Probably watching chick flicks and massaging the old lady’s feet.”

Xander grinned. “Something like that.”

It was a normal day. People called with the usual problems and most of the time he helped them fix them. One lady was seriously ticked off because she was having to pay for a software upgrade. Xander listened to her rant and rave for a while and then cheerfully foisted the lady off on his boss. A guy who called later sounded like he was about one hundred years old and this was his first computer, and Xander had to patiently walk him through doing things like using his mouse and learning to double-click. That kept him busy until lunchtime, when he grabbed a turkey sandwich from the Subway a few doors down and ate it in the break room, leafing through a three-month-old issue of Entertainment Weekly. The afternoon was more of the same, ordinary people who had problems that no doubt seemed earth-shaking to them even though they didn’t involve a single apocalypse.

About fifteen minutes before clock-out time, Xander’s cell phone began to play again. He was on the headset talking some guy through a reinstallation so he didn’t answer his own phone. He didn’t have to, to know who was calling, though. The song was The Bitch Is Back.

A short time later, Xander waved at Terry, who was still stuck with a customer, and left. He listened to his voicemail on the way to his car. As he’d expected, Poole wanted him there pronto.

Once again, traffic was heavy. This afternoon, Xander listened to talk radio—someone conservative and bombastic—mostly because he was in the mood for yelling. He didn’t actually follow politics much. Or, well, ever.

This time he didn’t bother to stop for dinner. Hopefully, whatever Poole needed from him would be brief and then he could go home and nuke something. He was pretty sure there was some lasagna in the freezer.

They were all waiting for him in the small outer room when he arrived, and they were looking impatient. Cath had a pretty good shiner. He decided to counter their glares with his own. “What the hell happened to you people last night? I’m supposed to lure ‘em, not finish them off.”

“There was an unexpected complication,” Poole said.

“Of course there was. What?”

Jacinda pointed a finger at him. Her nails were long and glittery and multicolored. “We was following you, but so was somethin’ else. A vampire.”

Xander’s eyebrows rose. “A vamp? Really? I thought there wasn’t much undead activity around here.”

“There wasn’t,” Poole said crisply. “Perhaps this one was new to town.”

“Well, great. I’m sure you gave it the welcome basket. I still don’t understand why it took you so long. Two Slayers, two Watchers, one vamp. Should have been no contest.”

Poole frowned. “Correct. However, when Jacinda was about to stake him, he did something very odd.”

“He grew wings and fluttered away?”

“He called out your name.”

For several moments, Xander just stood there, stunned. The vampire knew his name. How would a vampire know his name? Why would a vampire know his name? Finally, in a voice that sounded weak and thready, he asked, “Did you dust him?”

“No.” Poole crossed her arms. “We are concerned that perhaps word of our activities—and your identity—has spread among the demon community. With some difficulty, we managed to restrain the vampire. We have been questioning him most of the day, but I’m afraid he has been less than cooperative.”

Xander looked away. He knew all about how Poole questioned demons, and it made his stomach churn. He consistently tried to remind himself it was all for the good, that you had to use inhumane methods when dealing with inhuman creatures, but the reminders never worked. He always felt sick about it.

“What did you call me for?” he asked.

She shrugged. “He claims to know you.”

Xander kept his gaze carefully down at the concrete floor as they entered the larger room. It was badly cracked, he noticed. Probably a bad cement mix. These structures were thrown up pretty quickly. He could have done better. But he hadn’t done any construction work in five or six years. Not since Sunnydale.

Eventually they stopped walking and everyone was waiting expectantly for him, and he had to do something. Reluctantly, he lifted his gaze. Slowly.

The first thing he noticed was that the vampire was naked. That was pretty much standard for Poole’s interrogations. She said if the demon was one that wore clothes to begin with, taking the clothes away made it feel more vulnerable, which made it easier to intimidate. Xander sometimes wondered whether she did it to help her dehumanize the creatures even more. Or maybe she just got her jollies out of it.

In any case, this one was bare and, obviously, male. He was hanging so that his toes were several inches off the floor. A small puddle of blood had dried underneath him. His skin was very white. His legs were crusted with blood; they weren’t especially long or bulky, but they were corded with muscles. His hips were narrow and his uncircumcised cock hung from a nest of light brown curls. Xander winced over the state of his balls, which were bruised and swollen-looking. Xander’s eye traveled upward past a flat belly, over a compact chest. The vamp's arms were extended over his head, and his head was bowed so all that Xander could see was his hair, which was curly and the color of old gold. His torso was crisscrossed with welts and cuts and bruises. He was breathing, but there was a whistling, bubbly sound to it that sounded like a punctured lung.

Jacinda walked behind the vampire and slapped him hard on the ass. He twitched and moaned and slowly raised his head.

Xander could barely recognize him, what with the victim's eyes puffed nearly shut and his nose smashed and his lips cut and purpled. But he recognized Xander, because his eyes widened a fraction of an inch and his breath caught. “Harris,” he croaked.

Xander backed away.

The vampire moved again, feebly, his chains rattling loudly in the room. “Harris,” he repeated.

“You—you’re dead!” It was more of a squeak than a sentence.

“For over a century.”

“No! I mean—you’re really dead. Dust.”

“Not quite.”

Xander spent several minutes gaping at the apparition before him, until Poole clicked her tongue. “Well? Do you know him, Harris?”

Xander swallowed. “I…yeah. For Christ’s sake, unchain him.”

“Unchain him? This is a vampire, Harris.”

“Kind of aware of that, actually.” He wanted to step forward, to do something, but he felt as frozen as a fly trapped in amber. “But he’s Spike. You know—”

“William the Bloody,” she spat.

“He has a soul, Poole. He—”

“He had a soul. Vampires have been known to lose them, you know.” She made a sour face.

“Soul’s still here,” Spike said. His voice was cracked and broken, as if he’d been screaming a lot. “’M not bloody ‘Gelus.”

Poole acted as if Spike hadn’t spoken. “And soul or not, he’s a vampire, a demon, and demons cannot be trusted.”

Xander looked at the pale body hanging in front of him, and then at Cath and Jacinda, who seemed likely to pull out stakes at any moment. Spike just slumped in his bonds.

Finally, Xander was able to move. He stepped close to Spike and, in a low voice, said, “What are you doing?”

Spike snorted. “Being tortured, berk.”

“Here, in this town. Yesterday, when you were, what? Following me?”

Spike moaned, or sighed. Xander wasn’t sure which. “Was tracking a demon, and you showed up. Didn’t realize this lot would come after.”

“Tracking a demon? Why?”

With some effort, Spike pried his eyes open and glared at Xander. “To kill it, pillock.”

Xander stared uncertainly at him for a moment more and then turned to Poole. “Let him down.”

“But he’s—”

“I know. Demon, yadda yadda yadda. He’s…sort of my demon, I guess. Unchain him.”

Poole narrowed her eyes at him and didn’t move. Xander sighed and marched to the wall, where he released a lever. The chains from which Spike was suspended dropped with an ear-shattering squeal and Spike dropped with them, his body thunking horribly on the floor when it hit. As the others watched apprehensively, Xander knelt beside the fallen vampire. “Spike?” he said.

Spike moaned slightly in response.

After a slight hesitation, Xander put a hand out and touched Spike’s shoulder. He felt cold, like a corpse, but his skin twitched slightly under Xander’s contact. Xander twisted around and snarled at Poole, “Give me the fucking keys!”

For a long moment, he was certain she was going to refuse, and he wasn’t sure what he’d do. Arm-wrestle her for them, when she had a pair of Slayers and a junior Watcher as backup? Luckily he didn’t have to make that decision. Her scowl deepened but she dug in the pocket of her perfectly pressed slacks and tossed the keys at him. They hit Spike’s back when they landed, and Spike twitched again.

As Xander unlocked the manacles, Poole crossed her arms over her chest. “You will be held personally responsible for any damage this demon causes.”

“Dandy.” Xander noted that Spike’s wrists were raw and bloody where the metal had dug in.

“I shall be contacting the Council.”

“Of course you shall.” Xander stood and then, as gently as he could, scooped Spike into his arms. Spike was heavy. With a great deal of difficulty, and nearly dropping Spike in the process, Xander managed to drape the vampire over his shoulder, hugging the weakened legs firmly. The position gave him a disturbing view of Spike's ass, which was crossed with painful-looking welts and little circular marks that looked like burns. “You go ahead and tell them I interrupted your little BDSM party. I’m going home.”

To Xander’s relief, nobody tried to stop him as he left the building. As usual, the parking lot was empty of bystanders, so there was nobody to witness him swearing and grunting as he attempted to juggle an unconscious, naked vampire into his Civic. Once in the passenger seat, Spike lolled and flopped alarmingly, so Xander put the seat all the way back and buckled Spike in. But then he realized that driving around with a nude and mangled passenger might not be wise. He rustled around in the back seat, trying to find something to cover Spike with. The best he could manage was a sweat-stained t-shirt, which he arranged across Spike’s lap, and some hamburger wrappers that he spread over Spike’s belly and chest. He hoped Spike didn’t wake up and decide to bite him over the indignity of it.

But Spike didn’t move at all as Xander drove home. In the apartment parking lot, Xander looked around furtively, but nobody seemed to be around. He unbuckled Spike and heaved him back over his shoulder, draping the t-shirt over Spike’s butt, as if that would make everything okay should they encounter a neighbor.

Spike got heavier and heavier as Xander carried him towards his building, up the stairs, and down the walkway. Xander got the door open but was repelled by an invisible something when he tried to enter. “Oh, for Christ’s sake,” he muttered. “Of course he’s invited in—I’m fucking carrying him.” But the laws of physics, or whatever it was that made up vampire rules, didn’t budge, and he had to say, “Come in, Spike,” before he could enter. By then, Spike weighed as much as a young elephant and Xander’s shoulder was screaming in pain. Xander ended up dumping Spike on his bed with a little less grace and finesse than he’d intended. Spike didn’t seem to notice.

Xander stood beside the bed, looking down at Spike in dismay. Now what the hell was he going to do? But his thoughts were interrupted by the sound of AC/DC emanating from his pocket. Night Prowler.

“Fuck,” he said and flipped his phone open. “Hey, Buff.”

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she demanded.

“Yeah, it’s nice to hear from you, too.”

“Xander! What’s wrong with you?”

“Look, Buff, I’m tired. Can I have a haranguing raincheck?”

She modulated her voice a little. “Poole says you freed a vampire. Is that true? Have you forgotten what you’re supposed to be doing?”

He leaned up against the doorframe and closed his eye. “Did she tell you which vampire, by any chance?”

That made her pause. “No. Why?”

“It’s Spike, Buffy.”

“Oh.” She sounded surprised, but not in a 'my former lover who I thought was ashes has suddenly reappeared' sort of way.

“Something you wanna share, Buff?”

“Umm, just a sec.”

He waited. It was more than a sec, probably closer to five minutes, actually, when the phone on the other side was picked up again. “Xander.”

With some difficulty, Xander ungritted his teeth. “Angel.”

“Spike’s there?”

“Yeah. Funny thing about that, ‘cause last I heard he was frying beneath Sunnydale.”

Angel huffed out an impatient noise. “Let me talk to him.”

“Sorry, Spike can’t come to the phone right now,” Xander said brightly. “He’s sort of been tortured into a coma.”

“Damn it!”

“Angel, what’s going on? Why isn’t he dead?”

“He was…resurrected. It’s a long story. He was with me in LA, that last year or so.”

“Doing what?”

“Helping,” Angel said begrudgingly. “At least part of the time, when he wasn’t being a pain in the ass. He was there during the battle. After we won and I shanshued, he took off. Haven’t heard from him since.”

“And you didn’t bother to tell anyone he wasn’t dust?”

“I told Buffy. A few years ago, before we got married.”

“Great. Thanks for sharing, guys. It’s nice to be in the loop.”

“What do you care? You two weren’t best pals.”

Angel did have a point, but Xander wasn’t about to admit it. “Okay, whatever. Look, I got a banged-up vamp here. What do I need to do to patch him up?”

“Feed him and he’ll be fine.” Angel sighed. “He always is. Have him call me when he’s conscious, okay?”

“Fine.” Xander clicked off the phone and shoved it back in his pocket.

He didn’t exactly have A-Pos filling up his fridge, and he was pretty sure blood bank withdrawals were out of the question, especially at ten at night.

He pulled a spare blanket from the closet and draped it over Spike’s motionless form. Just in case Spike was more aware than he seemed, Xander announced, “Gonna do a blood run. Be back soon.” Not surprisingly, he received no response.

FoodMaxx was open 24 hours. The bulky guy behind the butcher counter gave him a strange look when he asked for all the cow’s blood they could get him, but then he shrugged, muttered something in Portuguese, and walked away. He came back several minutes later with a cart laden with a half dozen gallon-size tubs of liquid. He scratched his head for a few seconds, trying to decide what to price them, and then scrawled “99¢ on one of them. Xander thanked him, paid, and went home.

It took two trips to get all the blood inside the apartment. He peeked in on Spike after the first one and saw that the vampire hadn’t moved. So he brought the rest in and shoved most of it in the fridge. Luckily, the only other things in there were a jar of salsa, three bottles of beer, something that may once have been cheese, and a bruised apple, so there was plenty of room. He poured some blood into a mug and heated it slightly in the microwave.

Okay, but how was he supposed to get it into Spike? He tried gently shaking Spike’s shoulder and calling his name, but Spike only groaned softly. So Xander ended up climbing into bed himself and sort of propping Spike’s head on his lap, then slowly tipping the liquid into Spike’s slack mouth.

The first drizzle of blood overflowed Spike’s mouth and dripped down his cheek before soaking into Xander’s jeans. But then Spike’s eyelids fluttered and he swallowed. He choked a little, but then swallowed again, and again, and soon his eyes were open and he was reaching up to help hold the mug. When the mug was empty, he blinked quizzically at Xander.

“More?” Xander asked. “I have a lot.”

“Yeah. Ta.” Spike’s voice was still ragged.

In the end, Spike drank seven cupfuls. By the third mug he was sitting up against the pillows, by the fourth he could hold the cup himself, and after the seventh he was staring at Xander in a way that made Xander feel like a butterfly pinned to cardboard.

“Where are the others?” Spike finally asked.

“I don’t know. Probably having long distance snit-fits to Watchers’ HQ because I took their toy away from them.”

Spike shook his head. “No, not them, whelp. The other Scoobies.”

“Oh. They’re in England.”

Spike tilted his head. “You’re flying solo, then?”

“Well, you met Poole and her gang. I’ve been with them…let’s see…a little over a year. Before that, I was with this prick who makes Poole seem pleasant. Reynolds. But he and his Slayer got chomped—not my fault!—and the Council decided to double up.”

“And what do you do?”

“I’m bait. Remember how I always attracted every horned, mucus-y, scaly thing for miles? Still do.”

“Why aren’t you with your little friends?”

Xander shrugged. “We outgrew each other. Besides, Angel’s there.”

Spike made a face. “Not any more agreeable when he’s a real boy, is he?”

“He’s really not. All the broodiness and twice the self-righteousness.” Xander was struck by a thought. “He…um…him and Buffy. I don’t know whether you know—”

“All shacked up, are they?”

“Married. They have a two-year-old. Kathleen Joyce.”

Spike sucked in his bottom lip, nodded, and looked away. “Right, then. Knew he’d head straight for her once his heart started beating.”

Spike looked wounded, Xander thought, and not just physically. So Xander smiled wickedly. “You know what? I saw a picture recently. He’s put on, like, twenty pounds and his hair is thinning.”

Spike turned his face back and actually managed a small smile.


Spike still looked exhausted and worn down, so Xander left him on the bed and went to sleep on the couch. He woke up feeling cramped and sore, his muscles protesting all of the previous night’s vampire hauling. As he sat up, he glanced at his watch. “Fuck!” He pulled his phone from his pocket—and that hadn’t been remotely comfortable to sleep on—and punched in the numbers for work. His boss wasn’t at all happy to hear from him, especially since Xander should have been there forty-five minutes earlier, but Xander told him a not entirely false tale of an old friend in dire straits, and his boss grudgingly forgave him. Xander promised to be in on time on Monday.

“Demon bait by night, office boy by day?”

Xander looked up. Spike was standing in the bedroom doorway, still naked and covered in his own dried blood, but considerably more intact-looking.

“It’s, um, my cover,” Xander said, feeling himself blush over Spike’s nudity, which was stupid, considering Xander had been dragging him around in the buff the night before. “I’m supposed to be normal guy when we’re not stalking nasties. And it brings in a few bucks.”

Spike twitched his eyebrows and then stalked by on his way to the fridge. Xander watched as he made himself at home, finding his mug from the night before, rinsing it out, pouring himself some blood, then zapping it. Spike turned around and leaned against the counter to sip. “Fancying the view, are you?” he leered.

Xander turned a little pinker. “I saw plenty of that view yesterday.” The truth was, it was a pretty nice view. Over the past few years, Xander had discovered he enjoyed dancing on the other side of the street just as well. But Spike didn’t need to know that—the last thing the vampire needed was more ammunition for snark attacks against Xander.

But Spike smirked knowingly. “If you don’t want more of it, I’ll be needing some clothing.”

Spike sauntered off to the bathroom then, and took a shower so long that Xander was certain he’d used up the entire building’s worth of hot water. He emerged with his hair all tousled and curly and one of Xander’s cheap towels wrapped precariously around his hips. When he stood expectantly in front of Xander, blocking Xander’s view of the TV, Xander got up, went to his bedroom, and then returned, wordlessly handing him a pair of jeans and a plain white tee.

Spike let the towel fall to the carpet, then he pulled on the clothes. The jeans were a little big on him—Xander was pretty trim nowadays, but not as lean as Spike—and the shirt was baggier than his usual, but they were serviceable.

Spike plopped himself down beside Xander and stuck his feet up on the battered coffee table. He eyed them morosely. “I don’t expect those pillocks saved my Docs.”

“Probably not their first priority.” Xander glanced at the room’s single window, where bands of sunlight crept in through the closed blinds. “You want me to go to your place and get you some shoes?”

Spike looked at him. “My place?”

“Yeah. Wherever you’re living—uh, staying. Where your stuff is.”

“Don’t have any stuff, whelp. Well, I had a lighter and a few dollars, but I expect those wankers have taken those as well.”

“But…where have you been staying during the day?”

Spike shrugged. “Whatever’s handy. Sewers, empty houses, a mausoleum or two.”

“How are you eating? You’re not snacking on humans, are you?”

“Only when they want me to. Some fancy a little nibble, yeah?”

Xander remembered Riley Finn and nodded.

“Sometimes I can nick some blood from a hospital. Or I do a little freelance work, ridding people of their demon pests in exchange for a bit of dosh. I manage.”

“Is that what you were doing the other night? Working for someone?”

“Nah. I smelled the Z’ghrighri when I was looking for a spot to kip. Found one of its victims as well. Thought a bit of a hunt would be nice. And then you went blundering on by, and before I could find out what you were about, your Slayers caught me.”

Xander had a flashback to the way Spike had looked the night before, strung up and battered. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

“Wasn’t your fault, was it?” Spike gave him a long, appraising look. “You got me out of there right away. Why?”

“I don’t know. I mean, you didn’t deserve that, and you’re kind of a good guy, more or less, and we were sort of…comrades, once. You saved my ass a few times.” He fingered the patch over his empty eye socket.

Spike just kept looking at him, and Xander was suddenly very uncomfortable. He scrambled to his feet, not very gracefully. “Hey, I’m starved. How about if I go pick up some chow and some suds? While I’m out I can get you some footwear, too.”

Spike nodded slowly. “Yeah. All right.”

So Xander took a quick shower and changed into fresh clothing. Spike stayed on the couch, apparently engrossed with Ellen DeGeneres. Xander consulted him about shoe sizes and then left.

When he came back two hours later, Xander’s arms were full and Spike was still watching TV. Xander set the pizza and Heineken down on the kitchen table, then tossed the other bags at Spike. Spike pulled out a new pair of black Docs, a pair of black jeans a couple sizes smaller than the ones he was wearing, and a wrapped package that contained three black tees. He looked utterly surprised for a moment, and then gave Xander a broad, sunny smile. “Cheers.”

“Want some pizza? Dig in.”

Spike joined Xander at the table. He nibbled a bit on a slice of pepperoni and drank a lot more blood, then started in on the beers, while Xander demolished a good bit of the food and beer himself.

Slightly bloated and pleasantly buzzed, Xander retired to the couch, and Spike did the same. They argued over the remote control for a few minutes before settling on something mutually agreeable—Reno 911! reruns. They’d brought the beer with them and they drank companionably. Xander realized it was the first time he’d had company in a very long time, and even though it was Spike, he found himself having fun.

In fact, his level of enjoyment rose in direct proportion to the number of empty bottles that accumulated on the coffee table. He was enjoying so much that when Spike scooted closer and flung an arm around Xander’s shoulders, Xander didn’t mind. Hey, they were pals. Sort of. And when Spike moved even closer, so that they were pressed together from torso to hip to thigh to knee, no problem. Buddies did that in a friendly mood. They both laughed heartily at a scene involving Deputy Junior, looked at each other to share the joke, and then clashed their mouths together in a friendly, buddy-like manner.

Oh, Christ, Spike was a good kisser. His lips were surprisingly soft, but he took quick charge of the kiss, grabbing Xander’s head in his hands and licking his tongue against the seam of Xander’s mouth until Xander allowed him entry. He took his time exploring Xander’s teeth, the roof of his mouth, as if he were trying to memorize the taste and feel of him. To Xander, Spike tasted like alcohol and copper pennies, a combination that was much more pleasant than he would have anticipated.

Xander’s hands fluttered uncertainly for a moment, then rose to grasp Spike’s firm shoulders. Spike apparently took this as some sort of invitation, because he squirmed and wiggled until he was actually sitting astride Xander’s lap, straddling him so that their crotches were squashed together. Xander was briefly horrified that Spike would feel Xander’s sudden and urgent erection, but that fear was quickly dispelled as Xander realized that Spike was as hard as he was. Spike ground their flies together, making desperate, sexy little moaning sounds into Xander’s mouth.

While Spike still had a death grip on Xander’s hair, Xander’s hands wandered, seemingly of their own accord, down Spike’s back, until they settled on the denim just below the back of Spike’s waistband. Xander could feel Spike’s muscles bunching and flexing under the fabric.

Xander wasn’t really capable of rational thought anymore, but a few random bits did flash through his cranium, like Holy shit, I’m making out with Spike! and Man, it’s not fair he can have a body like this without even working out, and, slightly worryingly, Wonder what it feels like when he bites? But then even those fled from his mind as Spike pulled himself away with a gasp, slithered down Xander’s body to land kneeling between Xander’s legs, and popped open the buttons on Xander’s fly.

A warm hand—warmed from Xander’s own body heat—pulled out Xander’s cock. Xander’s cock was very happy to be free of confining clothing, but even happier when it was confined a moment later in Spike’s moist mouth.

Xander was going to say something. He wasn’t sure what. But then Spike busily undid his own jeans and took his own hard-on in hand and began to stroke in rhythm with his sucking and licking, and all Xander could manage was a strangled gurgle. He threaded his fingers through Spike’s hair and hoped he wouldn't embarrass himself too badly. But it had been a long time since he’d flown any way but solo, and Spike was deep-throating him and it felt so goddamn good, and well before he would have wished, he was crying out and spilling down Spike’s throat.

Spike nursed on him as the aftershocks of Xander’s climax rumbled through him and then, with a last, long lick, released him and sat back on his heels. Xander fumbled for an apology for coming so soon, or maybe an excuse, but then he saw that Spike’s left hand was coated with sticky fluid. Spike grinned up at him. “That took the edge off, didn’t it?”

“Uh, yeah,” Xander managed to say.

Spike stood. His half-hard cock was still sticking out of the open jeans, and then the pants slid down over his narrow hips to pool at his feet. He stepped out of them more nimbly than possible—it must be one of those special vampire skills, Xander thought. “Fancy a second round?” Spike asked.

Xander was going to respond, “You’ve got to be kidding.” He was, after all, only human. But then Spike stuck out the pointed tip of his tongue and licked at a spot of semen—Xander’s semen—that was at the corner of his mouth, and Xander realized that a second round was not out of the question at all. “I’ll l give it my best shot,” he said.

Spike yanked off his t-shirt, raised an eyebrow, and spun around. He stalked off toward the bedroom, not bothering to look behind himself as he said, “Your bed. Naked. Now.”

It wasn’t an order Xander intended to refuse. He lurched to his feet, stripped off his clothing with considerably less finesse than Spike, and practically ran into the other room.

What he found there completely took his breath away. Spike was spread out on top of Xander’s unmade bed. His knees were bent, the soles of his feet flat against the mattress, and he was slowly, delicately, fingering his hole with one hand, while his other teased and plucked at his nipples. He’d apparently found the K-Y Xander kept in his nightstand drawer, because the little tube lay uncapped on one of the pillows.

Without slowing his movements, Spike raked his eyes up and down Xander’s body. He must have liked what he found, because he smiled broadly. “Lovely.”

Xander smiled stupidly back.

“It’s better as a participation sport, pet,” Spike said.

Xander made his legs move to the side of the bed, then he climbed clumsily on board. Spike stopped what he’d been doing and reached over to grab him, to draw him closer. They spent a long time after that softly petting one another’s skin—Spike’s was fine and nearly hairless, but he seemed to like playing with the dark hairs that ran in a line down Xander’s belly—and licking and nibbling lightly at each other. Xander discovered that Spike was slightly ticklish, and that he was satisfyingly responsive to touches of all kinds, writhing and whimpering when Xander sucked on his nipples, cursing steadily under his breath when Xander pressed his teeth lightly into Spike’s neck. Meanwhile, Spike played his nimble fingers across Xander’s body as if Xander were an instrument, pressing just here, stroking just there. Oh, gods, just there.

Soon Xander’s cock was as hard as could be, as if it had forgotten that really nice orgasm he’d had not very long before. Spike’s was equally forgetful, bobbing damply against the vampire’s belly with the foreskin retracted to reveal the plum-colored head. Spike seemed to want to move things along eventually, because he grabbed Xander’s hand and moved it down between his own legs. Xander took the hint, inserting two fingers into the slick opening. He crooked them so that they pressed against Spike’s prostate, and Spike swore and tried to impale himself more fully.

“Done this before, have we?” Spike panted.


“How about you put that pretty prick of yours to good use?”

Again, Xander didn’t need to be asked twice. Spike raised and spread his knees, bending himself nearly in half. He looked at Xander expectantly. Xander scooched over. He lined his cock against Spike’s pink, twitching hole, pressed against it and, with one more disbelieving thought that he was doing this with Spike, sank slowly inside.

“Jesus Christ,” Xander said.

Spike smirked. “Not even close, pet.”

Xander rocked his hips, moving in and out as slowly as he could. Spike felt incredible around him, tight and silky and slightly cool. Xander had been in this position a few times before, but never without a condom. Somehow “safe sex” and “fucking a vampire” seemed so contradictory that he hadn’t even considered using one. Besides, it’s not as if either of them was going to catch anything from the other.

Xander tried to keep the pace gradual. But Spike, unsurprisingly, was impatient. “Bloody move,” he demanded. “I won’t break.”

So Xander pumped faster and Spike reached down and began to fist his own cock. He was a stunning sight—his pupils blown wide, his eyelashes fluttering, his bottom lip hanging slightly open. His gaze never left Xander’s face. He reached up with his free hand and pulled the patch off Xander, then tossed it aside. “Want to see all of you,” he said.

“It’s ugly.” Xander never took the thing off in front of other people. He rarely even looked at himself in the mirror for long without it.

Spike stroked his fingertips against Xander’s cheekbone. “No. You’re beautiful, Xander.” It was the first time Xander could remember Spike using his name in a non-sarcastic way.

Things moved along briskly after that. Xander pistoned in and not quite out, Spike squirmed and wanked, they both grunted and groaned and mumbled half-completed expletives. Xander’s arms gave out and he collapsed against Spike’s chest, so that Spike couldn’t really move his hand anymore; but the vampire didn’t seem to mind, especially since it meant he could capture Xander’s mouth in another blistering kiss.

Just when Xander figured his sensory input was pretty much maxed out, Spike gently pushed Xander’s face away and looked at him with blue eyes that sparked with amber. “Xander, can I, God, please, can I—”

Xander wondered how much restraint Spike had had to use so far. “Yes,” he said, and tilted his head to the side.

Spike gave a long, shuddering sigh and vamped out. For the first time in Xander’s life, the proximity of fangs didn’t scare him one bit. Still moving his hips, he leaned his neck closer.

With remarkable gentleness, Spike sank his teeth into Xander’s flesh. It hurt a little, but only a little, like getting a shaving nick. But the pinprick pressure also sent a tingle straight down Xander’s spine, like the most pleasant electric shock ever, and when he came he screamed and almost blacked out with the intensity of it.

When Xander was able to exert voluntary control over his muscles again, he rolled off of Spike and settled beside him. Spike didn’t seem capable of much better. He turned on his side, pressed his back tightly against Xander’s front, and mumbled something that may have been “Brilliant, love.”

Xander pulled the blankets up over them both. He curled his arm around Spike’s waist and promptly fell asleep.


Xander woke up feeling completely disoriented, as if he wasn’t in his own bed. He glanced groggily at the alarm clock: 3:18. It took him a little while to figure out that that was a.m. It took him a few moments longer to realize that he was the only one in bed.

He stood and rubbed his eye and scratched absently at the itchy, flaky mess on his stomach. He stumbled into the other room. The lights were on in there, but the room was empty.

A mostly-drained container of blood and a mug sat on the counter.

Xander’s jeans and tee, the clothes that Spike had borrowed, were on the floor where Spike had dropped them when he took them off. The boots and clothing Xander had bought him were gone, just the plastic bags and shoebox remaining.

Xander’s wallet lay open on the kitchen table. He hadn’t had a lot of cash, maybe sixty bucks, but it was all gone.

Xander sank into one of the kitchen chairs and buried his face in his hands. He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t surprised. He was just…disappointed, he supposed. And tired. So very tired.


“Are you sure you don’t want to come? It’s Friday, dude. The Goalpost’ll have the game on the big screen. Maybe the Sonics’ll even win for a change.”

Xander had to hand it to Jason—the guy was persistent. He’d invited Xander to join them almost every week for the three months since he'd started working in Spokane, and every time Xander said no. But Jason kept on asking. Xander wasn’t sure why. Stubbornness, maybe, or the desire to drag some personal information out of him. This time, Xander unbuckled his tool belt and smiled. “Can’t. Sorry. But thanks.”

Jason shrugged good-naturedly.

It didn’t matter anyway, Xander thought as he trudged out of the building and towards his Civic. A light coating of snow covered his windshield, and he cranked the heater as soon as the engine was running. Poole said they’d be moving on again soon. Reno, this time. Great. Just when he’d finally had a chance to get a construction job again, and now he’d probably end up working in a crappy casino.

The roads were slick. He drove fast anyway, not particularly caring whether he ended up spinning into a telephone pole. Telephone pole, demon…sooner or later, his number would be up. Then the Council would have to find some other way to fish for nasties.

Spokane wasn’t a very big city, though, and it didn’t take long to get to their local HQ. He didn’t collide with anything on the way. The wind had picked up in the meantime, and as he got out of his car it blew grit and miniscule bits of ice into his eye.

Poole had rented a building that had once housed a restaurant. Xander pounded on the door until it swung open. He and Thompson grunted at each other and Xander brushed by him. He walked past the dusty tables and chairs, through the kitchen, in which a faucet dripped endlessly and loudly into a stainless steel sink, and to the door that led to the basement.

As soon as he was at the bottom of the creaky steps, he shed his coat so that he wore only jeans and a sleeveless tee. He wasn’t sure whether Poole kept the heat down here deliberately high, or whether there was no way to turn it down, but it always felt subtropical. His boots echoed loudly on the concrete floor, and for some reason the sound of them irritated him tonight, so he stopped and took them off. He slid off his socks as well and padded barefoot to where Poole and Cath and Jacinda waited for him. He slouched down into the sole empty chair.

“So?” he said.

“There’s one remaining nest of Fonatel, not far from here. Just adjacent to the university,” Poole said

He nodded. “Same plan as before?”


He didn’t know why he even bothered to ask. The plan was nearly always the same—he strolled in, teased the demon du jour a little if necessary, and then hoped the Slayers got there before it did anything too fatal to him. He sank farther into the uncomfortable chair. “When?”

“We leave in an hour.”

He wondered whether the Fonatel had some special schedule she was going by, or whether she’d just picked the time at random. But he didn’t bother asking. Instead, he said, “Can we eat first, then?”

Jacinda stood. “I’ll go get us something. What you want?”

“Steak. T-bone. Medium rare, with a baked potato on the side, no chives.”

She glared at him.

He shrugged. “I don’t care. How about a run for the border? We haven’t had tacos this week.”

She stomped away. He didn’t even bother to watch the way her tight little ass moved inside her even tighter jeans. Poole and Cath fell into a long discussion about something he didn’t even give enough of a shit about to figure out what it was, and he tipped his head back until he was looking up at the low beams of the ceiling. He shut his eye and slipped into a light doze.

Jacinda returned eventually. The tacos tasted like sawdust and his Coke seemed sickly sweet. But he hadn’t bothered to eat at all that day, so he forced himself to chew and swallow. He’d been losing weight lately. His clothes hung on him in an unflattering way. It wouldn’t do to be hypoglycemic when a monster was chasing him.

Not long after the food was gone, they all tromped upstairs. The others all squeezed into the truck, while he followed behind in his car. It only took a few minutes to reach their destination, a Holiday Inn Express. The Fonatel liked to hang out near motels. They’d attack unwary travelers, infect them with demon spawn, and then send them on their way. The victims wouldn’t even remember the event and they’d go home. A couple months later the baby demons would grow bigger and eat their way out of the victims' intestines. Nice. They’d already rid the city of five groups of these creatures, and Xander was looking forward to seeing the last of them.

Everyone piled out of their vehicles. The Slayers and Watchers hunkered down behind the truck, while Xander zipped up his coat and walked slowly across the parking lot. Nothing jumped out at him by the time he’d reached the other side—Fonatel looked a little like oversized centipedes with purplish shells—so he stopped, turned, and started walking back the other way. “Oh, demons,” he mumbled. “Dinner’s served. Come and get it.”

“You do look like a nummy treat.”

Xander shrieked and leapt about a mile straight up.

Spike crossed his arms and smirked at him.

“Y-you!” Xander sputtered. “What the hell?”

“Took me some time to find you, you know. Could you have chosen someplace more in the middle of absolutely bloody nowhere?”

“But what—”

Xander’s bewilderment was interrupted as the rest of his contingent came racing across the parking lot and skidded to a halt beside him and Spike. Everyone was brandishing weapons.

“Stand down!” Xander yelled. “He’s a friend.”

Poole took one step closer and squinted at Spike. “It’s that vampire,” she hissed.

Xander moved between them. “He’s my friend,” he repeated. He glanced back at Spike, who didn’t look overly concerned.

“What do you want?” Poole’s voice was sharp as blades. “We’re working here.”

“Looked to me more like you were sitting on your arses, dangling my boy into danger again.”

Xander spun around. “Your boy?”

He heard Spike’s throat click as he swallowed. “Yeah. You will be, won’t you? Or give it a go, anyhow.”

“Give it a—Spike, you walked out on me. Didn’t even leave me a fucking note.”

“I know. I panicked. I was afraid to face you when you woke up. Thought you might be appalled at what we’d done. I couldn’t bear to have you look at me with disgust, Xander.” His blue eyes were shiny under the parking lot lights.

“I wouldn’t…I don’t….” Xander struggled mightily to get his thoughts into order.

But Poole butted in again. “I don’t know what you two are up to, but this is completely inappropriate. We are on a mission here, and—”

“Bugger off!” Spike snarled at her and then grabbed Xander’s shoulders. “Come on, pet. Tell me you felt something. Tell me not to go.” His face was tight with desperation.

Xander felt a little dizzy with it all. “What do you want, Spike? What do you want me to do?”

“Forget these tossers. We can kill demons together, if you fancy it, or we can go someplace warm and get a house with a picket fence and a sodding golden retriever. We can even go to bloody England and haunt the Scoobies, if you like. I don’t care. Xander, that one day I spent with you was the best I’ve had in…in ages. And I don’t just mean the shagging, either. You were…we were mates, yeah?” His fingertips dug into Xander’s shoulders, right through the heavy fabric of Xander’s coat, as if Spike were hanging on for dear life.

Poole tried again. “Stop this immediately! I will—”

“Shut it!” Spike roared. Poole stepped back. Cath and Jacinda and Thompson just watched, their mouths slightly gaping, as if this were the best entertainment they’d had in years. Maybe it was.

“Xander?” Spike said.

“But…this is what I do. This is what I’ve always done, since I was fifteen. Half my life. It’s who I am. Bait.”

Spike shook his head. “No. You’re more than that. Never mind what other people think you are, love. Be what you want to be.”

Xander looked back and forth, between the humans who waited with their weapons still drawn and the demon who watched him with naked anguish. The wind gusted again and Xander blinked against the grit. He thought about the people he’d been close to—his parents, Anya, Willow and Buffy and Giles and Dawn, Jesse and Tara—and the masks he’d put on for all of them. He’d been what they wanted, what they expected. The Zeppo, the provider, the loser, the big brother, the shoulder to cry on.

“I don’t know what I want to be,” he said to Spike.

Spike’s shoulders slumped and his gaze fell to the pavement.

Xander put a hand under Spike’s chin and lifted his face back up. With his free hand, he tore the eyepatch off and dropped it to the ground. “I don’t know what I want to be,” he repeated. “But I guess it’s high time I figured that out.”

He grabbed Spike’s hand. It was cold, but the vampire’s smile was as warm as the sun. They turned their backs on the others and together headed back to the Civic. Spike’s arm felt strong and comfortable around Xander’s waist, and Xander’s arm fit perfectly around Spike, as if they had always been meant to fit together like that, side by side.

The End

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