Notes: Slashficathon fic for eliade, who wanted S/X schmoop, AU. It's, um, kind of long. Because I didn't have time to make it shorter. Was it Dickens who said that? Or James? I don't think James had that much of a sense of humour about his own work.
Anyway. Um. Here it is.
::wrings hands in anxiety::



Lt. Uhura and the Change of Life


by
Witling


"I'm afraid not," Giles said. "Well, perhaps - " He seemed to consult with himself, leaned over the desk, flipped a few pages, and then sat back definitively. "No. No, there would be an immediately recognizable smell of corkboard. I'm afraid we're stuck with it."

"Stuck with what?" Buffy asked, giving him a wary look.

"Corkboard?" Willow asked. "What smells like corkboard?" Giles slid the book toward her.

"The Peregrinatory Waggish Bunyip. I thought there might be some possibility of its being one of those, but without the odor - "

"You said stuck with," Buffy said. "Stuck with is bad. I want to know what we're stuck with."

"Stuck with can be good," Xander said. "Like, you stick with what works. "

"That's stick with. He said stuck with."

"Stuck with is bad," Spike confirmed, from somewhere in the stacks. "Been stuck with you lot for bloody centuries, feels like."

"Oh wow," Willow said, studying the book. "Um, I think if she was a Bunyip we'd have noticed the...cloaca." She raised an eyebrow at Buffy, who started to lean forward for a look.

Giles pulled the book back and snapped the cover shut. "The Bunyip assumes different appearances according to its environment. There's no reason it couldn't take the shape of - "

"Of a blistering hot woman with a smile could melt paint off a battleship, and a pair of - " Spike's voice dropped to a mumble, and Willow looked at Xander.

"This doesn't threaten you?"

He shrugged. "She's one smokin' demon woman."

"She's a pain in my ass," Buffy said. "And weren't we talking about what exact species of pain she is?"

"Ah," Giles said. "Yes. Well, unfortunately, given the lack of any telltale demonic characteristics - a flaky appearance to the skin, the spontaneous appearance of boll weevils, the distinctive cork aroma - "

"Giles," Xander said.

"I'm afraid I've ruled everything out."

There was a pause.

"Everything?" Buffy said. "So, what, she doesn't exist?"

"Oh, no. What I mean to say is, she's not a demon. She's human."

" Human?" Willow breathed.

"With legs like that, she's human?" Buffy asked.

"I'm afraid so."

"Human bitch," Buffy grumped, and Willow patted her shoulder.

"So what about the amulet?"

"Ah, yes. She seems to be using it to attract certain kinds of demons to the bar she frequents, and if that Pennywise Malfeasant we caught last night is to be believed - "

"Malfeasants," Xander muttered, fingering the bruise on his hip. "I hate those guys."

" - if it can be believed," Giles went on, with a glance at Xander, "then she's been attempting to interest them in some sort of pooled-resource fund."

"I don't get that," Willow said. "What are they pooling, exactly?"

"Very little, in the Pennywise's case," Giles replied. "Apparently it's a misnomer. But some demons are very skilled financially, and of course many have the advantage of extreme longevity - "

Spike wandered out of the stacks with a book in hand, and they all looked at him. He was wearing ripped jeans and Xander's old green Oxford, the top button missing and the cuffs frayed white. For some reason, he was barefoot.

"And some of them spend eternity going through other people's coat pockets for spare change," Xander said, watching Spike make his way over without looking up from the book. "I'm still waiting on that whole financial security clause."

"Okay," Buffy said, turning back to Giles. "So she works for Bank of The Damned. She's attracting demons. Here. Where we need no more."

"No offense," Willow said, looking at Spike.

"None taken," he said absently, settling on the step beside Xander and nudging him with the corner of the book. As usual, it was opened to a woodcut of a female demon with large, bare breasts. And tentacles. Xander perused it briefly, raised an eyebrow at Spike, and turned back to the conversation.

"So how do we get rid of her?" Buffy was asking. "I slay. I don't so much buy out."

"No," Giles said. "Slaying is quite out of the question, given that she's human."

"Well, really, she's not the problem anyway," Willow said. "It's the amulet that's attracting them, right?"

Giles nodded, considering. "Yes, if we can destroy the amulet, I imagine she'd be finished. The problem is, of course, that she knows Buffy now. And she'd never let you close enough to take it from her."

Buffy stacked her fists on the table and rested her chin on them. "I could just, maybe, punch her?" she suggested hopefully.

"She's attracting relatively harmless demons and selling them financial services. I rather think violence is overreacting."

"I could try a glamour," Willow said. "I could make Buffy look like...Rhea Perlman, and then when she asked for an autograph - " She saw the look on Buffy's face, and stopped. "Or...Salma Hayek?"

"No glamours," Giles said firmly. "No magic. This is a simple enough problem, and we only need to apply ourselves - "

"Rhea Perlman?" Buffy repeated.

"Or I could, um, make you look like a really beautiful demon - "

"No magic," Giles said again, and then paused. "However, the idea of having a demon approach her - " He trailed off and stared thoughtfully at Spike, who was sprawled on the step beside Xander, leafing through the text. Willow and Buffy looked around too.

"They're looking at us," Xander said out of the side of his mouth. "Actually, you."

"Yeah, pet," Spike said from behind the book. "Tell them that's a grand plan, happy to oblige, and when I take the thing from her and she kicks me in the shins and grabs it back, we can all have a good laugh together."

"He says - "

"Yes, thank you, Xander," Giles said. "Of course, Spike's right. She's human, so the chip renders him impotent in this - "

Spike lowered the book and stared at the ceiling. "I've told you lot a hundred times," he said in a low, aggravated voice. "I'm not impotent."

"He's not," Xander confirmed, and shrugged when Willow rolled her eyes. "I'm just saying."

"Christ." Spike lifted the book back over his face and started flipping pages again. "Get a bit of hardware in the nut and next thing you know you've got paunchy quondam librarians taking the piss at every opportunity."

"Do try not to get any of your vitriol on Bufwulder's Chrestomathy," Giles said mildly. "It's quite rare."

"So okay," Xander said. "Maybe we could pay some other demon to do it."

"We don't exactly have a community chest," Buffy said morosely. "And the last time we paid a demon to help us out, he never followed through."

"I got hit on the head with a frozen bream," Spike said, without looking away from the book. "It's a rider, love. I get knocked out, I consider my duties fulfilled."

"Plus, what if we paid someone, or, um, something to take the amulet, and it...ate her?" Willow gave Buffy a worried look. "That would be sort of the opposite of slaying, right?"

Xander lay back and propped his head on the step above, letting one hand fall onto Spike's hair. Crispy. Spike lifted his head to let Xander rub his skull, and that always gave him a dumb little thrill, because nobody was allowed to futz with Spike's head except him. It was a hair thing. Underneath that, it was a chip thing. He shouldn't like knowing that, but he did.

"Okay," he said, rubbing his thumb down the groove of Spike's neck. "So, what would Kirk do?"

"Emote?" Willow asked glumly.

"Nah. Well, yeah. And then he'd beam all the senior officers down to ground zero. But then he'd..." He paused, stumped. Spike turned his neck a fraction to the side, not enough for anyone to notice, just enough to let Xander at his vertebrae. He was reading about...the contributions of Islamic learning to Western demonology. Go figure. "He'd...I don't know. Send Uhura in to distract the guys with a fan dance."

"Guys?" Buffy looked confused. "There are guys, now?"

"I think what Xander's talking about," Willow said, "is a good old-fashioned bait-and-switch." She grinned at Xander. "That's what you're saying, isn't it?"

"Sure," he said. "Yeah, okay."

"Okay, all we need is an Uhura," Buffy said. "That's a great plan. We just need some studly guy to go to that bar, chat her up, talk her out of her amulet, and bring it back to us." She raised her eyebrows at Giles. "And if I knew any studly guys? I so wouldn't be spending Friday night fixing the pommel horse."

There was silence, and after a minute, Xander looked up from studying the top of Spike's head. Giles was looking...thoughtful.

"Giles?" Buffy said. "You know a stud?"

Giles looked over at the staircase. At Xander, for a moment that felt like an eternity. Xander swallowed and started to open his mouth, but Giles's gaze had already traveled over him to settle on Spike. Buffy and Willow turned and looked, too. Xander levered himself up on his elbow and looked too, since it was the thing to do.

After a minute, Spike lowered the book and stared back at them in annoyance. "What?"
They looked at him in silence. He frowned, seemed to mentally replay the last few seconds of conversation, and then...smiled. A slow, dark, amused smile. "Oh. Right."

"Uhuuuuuura," Buffy said, under her breath.

 

 

They had to get him some new clothes. Partly because Buffy didn't think rough trade would go over well with the mutual fund advisor, and partly because Spike never missed an opportunity. Willow and Buffy went shopping, with Giles's credit card. Xander didn't go. He had to work. They'd build greenhouses without windows if he wasn't there.

He came late to the Box, because there'd been some loose ends to tie up, a little paperwork, some filing, dull pencils. He had to pause a minute outside the door, brace himself, and try on a smile. It felt...like crap. He embraced it and headed in.

As soon as he opened the door, he saw that his timing had been impeccable. The Box was silent. Buffy and Willow were sitting at the research table; Giles was leaning against the sales counter. They were all looking at Spike, who was standing in the doorway to the workout room. Who had obviously just walked through the doorway. Who was framed by the doorway like a picture perfectly hung. A really expensive picture. In a really nice gallery. Somewhere else.

He was wearing dark trousers and a pale shirt, open at the neck. The shirt was...the girls would call it cream. Or dove or sand or possibly sex. The sleeves were rolled halfway up his arms, sort of loose and crisp at the same time, and you could tell from looking how strong his hands were. They were really strong hands. But careful, too. And not just because of the chip. He'd taken the nail polish off. His fingers looked strangely naked without it.

That was it, really. Just a nice cream/sex shirt, and a pair of good trousers, and nice shoes. He was wearing shoes. With neat laces that weren't knotted in the instep, and without thirty-two grommets. Just plain clean shoes, and Xander kept staring at them, because he'd never seen Spike wear just shoes before, and because he was having trouble looking any higher right now.

"Wow," Willow said faintly.

Spike's feet took a step forward, and Xander looked up. Spike was looking straight at him, an illegal smile on his lips, his eyes bright and predatory. His hair was carefully disheveled, as if he'd just run his hands through it and called it good, which couldn't be the case because that's what he usually did.

"What d'you think, love?" He held his hands out from his sides and did a slow circle until he was facing Xander again. Those eyes torched into him, devilish blue.

Xander realized the others were looking at him too now; he was leaving too long a silence. "You look terrific," he croaked, and cleared his throat. "Whoah. Sorry. You look...great."

"Speechless!" Willow whispered delightedly to Buffy.

"What I fail to understand," Giles said, giving Xander a quick glance, "is how this admitted upgrade totalled close to a thousand dollars on my Diner's Club account."

"We'll take it back tomorrow," Buffy said quickly. "Spike, don't get anything on it."

"Do my best," he said, holding Xander's eyes and pushing the smile past illegal to immoral. Xander smiled back stiffly. He felt Willow looking him over, and took a breath.

"Okay, so tonight's the night, huh? This is one fast-moving sting operation."

"No reason to wait," Buffy said. "The sooner she's amuletless, the sooner we can put her on a plane back to Beardstown." She sighed and stood up. "We taking the Gilesmobile?"

"Unless you think Spike should arrive by bus," Giles said. "Spike, bring your own clothes along with us, so you can change immediately afterward."

"Might want to keep this on a bit," Spike said, still smiling at Xander. "Feels pretty good."

"Well, it will feel less good when you owe me five hundred quid. We'll meet you at the car." Giles stood, patted his pockets, and led the girls out. Buffy smiled as she went past, and Willow gave Xander a quick, worried look. He leaned on the stair railing and smiled, and when they were all gone, stood with his head lowered, staring at the floor.

He didn't look up right away when he heard Spike come back in, the familiar stride in the unfamiliar shoes. Shoes. Jesus. Time to stop being a baby. He looked up, and Spike was walking toward him with his old clothes bundled under one arm, his boots hanging off his hooked fingers. His throat was bare inside the shirt. Pale and firm, and the line of it went up behind his ear and down inside the shirt, and Xander knew from extensive experience all the places it went from there. Spike was smiling a small, knowing smile.

"See something you like?" He walked straight up to Xander and leaned close, head tipped, studying Xander's face with that same evil smile on his lips. Xander hesitated, then lifted one hand and touched Spike's hair tentatively. Spike half-closed his eyes and leaned closer. His lips brushed Xander's jaw, and Xander inhaled the familiar smell of him. A little cleaner, a little less rough trade, but it always got him hard and now was no exception. He lowered his head and kissed Spike. A chaste kiss, as kisses with Spike went. Spike's old clothes pressed softly into his chest, and Spike made a low sound deep in his chest. He had such soft lips. It was always a surprise.

Xander moved his hand to Spike's jaw, then to his shoulder, and pulled gently away. His heart was pummeling his ribs.

"Could break these in a little." Spike leaned forward again and breathed against Xander's throat. "See if they work."

"They work." Xander fingered the fabric over Spike's shoulder lightly. "You look... Spike, you look amazing." That was pathetic, and he blushed hard. "I mean, you're - " It felt too velvet-painting to say beautiful, so he just trailed off, and kept touching Spike' s shoulder, feeling his face heat up.

"Hot?" Spike was grinning, kissing Xander's neck. "Sexy?" He breathed up to Xander's ear and bit the lobe lightly. "Fuckable?" He was laughing, just slightly; Xander could feel the breeze in his ear.

"Smug." He flattened his hand on Spike's shoulder and pushed him back a step. Spike stood there smiling smugly. "And yeah. Fuckable." And fuck sometimes seemed like the word he'd said most often to Spike since they'd started, but now it made him skittish. He looked down at the pile of clothes in Spike's arm. His own old green Oxford, Spike's jeans and T-shirt. "Listen."

They just stood there a minute, Xander's hand resting on Spike's shoulder, nothing happening. Spike shifted.

"You having second thoughts about this, love?"

"No." Xander shook his head and made himself look up. Spike was watching him with slightly narrowed eyes. "No, really. It's fine. You look terrific. She's not going to know what hit her."

"No," Spike said, the smile making a slow return. "She isn't."

Xander's belly tightened. "Just - " A pause, and Spike raised one eyebrow. "Just...there's ground rules, right?" Spike looked nonplussed, and he hurried on. "I mean, so, you pick her up, you work the mojo, you take her back to her place, and then - " He trailed off. Spike watched him silently. No help there. "I mean, you're not going to - ?" He couldn't quite finish that.

Spike's expression closed a little. "How many women like that you think Sunnydale's going to see?" he asked.

Xander took a breath, steeled himself, and said, "Very few."

"Not exactly dropping out of the trees, are they?"

"No."

"So, can hardly blame a bloke, given a golden opportunity like this, can you?"

Xander took his hand off Spike's shoulder and leaned away against the railing. "No."

Spike stood staring at him with a strange expression for a minute, then said, "You're a deeply stupid pillock sometimes, Harris."

Xander stood nodding slightly, silently. "Yeah," he said after a minute. "I guess I am."

Spike stared at him while Xander's entire body filled slowly with cement. Then Spike sighed, shook his head, and leaned forward. "I was joking," he said quietly, and kissed the corner of Xander's lips. "Git."

Xander stood blinking, clinging to the rail behind him, while the cogs in his brain spun wild and free. After a second he said, "Oh." Then he smiled, and reached for Spike's shoulder. "Asshole."

Kissing Spike was like licking syrup off a spoon. Like drinking cool water. Like being fucked. It was sharp and hard in all the right ways, soft and wet in all the other right ways. It was all right ways, every way you went. And when he made that sound in his throat, that sound that made Xander's hand rise automatically to feel the vibration in the tips of his fingers, in his palm - it was unbelievable. It was fireworks.

"Want to get you out of these," Xander muttered, yanking Spike's shirt up and rubbing his palm flat over the hard belly beneath. "God, you're fuckable."

Spike laughed, an arm around Xander's neck, the bundle of clothes dropped and forgotten, their dicks nuzzling between them. The door opened with a jingle, and Xander froze.

"Giles says five hundred quid," Willow's voice said. "And, uh, we're ready to go now."

The door jingled again and she was gone. Xander stood blushing painfully, frozen in place with one hand on Spike's belly, the other on his ass. Spike kissed him, laughing, then backed off and started tucking his shirt back in.

"Showtime."

Xander carried the pile of Spike's old clothes out, strategically positioned. Spike didn't give a damn. They got the back seat to themselves.

 

 

"He has money, right?" Willow turned to Giles with a frown. "What if he has to buy her a drink?"

"He's got money," Xander said. "He's got my wallet."

"You gave him your wallet?" Buffy shook her head. "You've got it bad, mister."

"I didn't give it to him. He took it." Xander propped his elbow on the back of Giles's seat and stared at the bar front. "Or at least I don't have it anymore, so I assume it's with him."

"Well, he shouldn't have much time to spend any of it," Giles said. "The idea is not for him to engage her in lengthy debate, but to - " He paused and cleared his throat. "Move things along quickly," he finished after a minute.

"And you're okay with this, right?" Willow turned in the passenger seat and gave Xander a searching look. "I mean, you guys did talk about this?"

"About him chatting up a beautiful woman, heading back to her place, and getting her naked?" Xander rubbed a hand over his eyes. "I gave him my wallet, didn't I?" He felt Willow's hand on his knee, and looked at her. "What? I'm fine."

She kept looking at him, using the X-ray gaze, and he tried to relax. "We talked, Wills. It's cool."

"Maybe we should have thought of something else - "

"Will, it's fine. He's not going to fu - " He glanced at the back of Giles's head and caught himself. "He's just going to, you know, get this stupid amulet thing. No hanky, no panky. Just good clean semi-naked espionage." He smiled. "And hey, did he look hot or what?"

"He really did," Buffy murmured, and then looked shocked. "I so did not say that."

"Edible," Willow confirmed, and glanced at Giles. "Edible, right?"

"I really couldn't say," Giles said in a pained voice. Then he glanced in the rear view mirror at Xander, and said quietly, "He looked very handsome, Xander. And he also looked mainly at you."

Xander smiled at his thumbs, then went back to staring at the bar front.

 

Three hours later, the car was seeming very small, and Giles's Lyle Mays tape was wearing very thin. It was past midnight, and there'd been a steady trickle of patrons leaving the bar for the last forty-five minutes, with almost no one going in. Past midnight was late for a Wednesday.

Willow had her shoes off and her feet on the dashboard, and she was reading an English-Russian dictionary that she'd found under the seat. Buffy was sunk deep in the back seat opposite Xander, reshaping a fingernail with furtive nibbles. Giles had his head tipped back against the rest, his hand propped on the wheel and his glasses dangling from his fingers.

"We should have sent Xander," Willow said, without looking up from the book.

"Xander's not a demon," Giles pointed out.

"Xander's not in her league," Buffy said, and then looked up guiltily. "I mean, uh - "

"That's okay," he said. He was logging American makes and imports in the far intersection. Not watching the bar front anymore. Sitting with his back to it. "Her league is major."

"I'm not in it either," Buffy offered, smiling sheepishly. "I mean, even if I could be the one to do the dirty work. Not that there's going to be any dirty." She sighed and stretched her legs out so her feet rested in his lap. "I'm gonna break something, jamming my feet in my mouth like this."

He patted her toes. "It's okay, Buff. He's probably just taking the opportunity to charge some stuff over the phone."

"If he takes advantage of you, Xander - "

"Kidding." He patted her toes some more. "But thanks."

"What time does this place close?" Willow asked. "I mean, they'll get kicked out sooner or later, right?"

"Knowing Spike, he'll find a way to make it an after-hours scene," Xander said, going back to the intersection. There must be a hell of a Saab dealership in town.

"Or not," Willow said. "That's them, right?"

If he hadn't been with friends, Xander would have been embarrassed by the popping sound his neck made when his head whipped around. It was them, yeah, and the minute you saw them you had to worry just a little about Willow's relationship with reality. It wasn't like it could be anyone else. Wasn't like Sunnydale was filled with people who looked like that.

Spike was holding the door for her, and she was lifting her hair out of the back of her coat, looking around - and God, she was beautiful. They filled magazines with people like her. People with long shiny blunt-cut hair and perfect jawlines and little feet in strappy sandals that made you want to ask if there was anything, anything at all that you could do for the person in them. She had a blue dress on under the coat, sort of sheer and plain and low-key, because she was smart enough to know not to gild. It matched the amulet. Her hands were brown and bare, and she was turning her head to Spike, laughing at something he was saying, nodding. Searching her purse for something.

And Spike was hanging on the door, laughing too, bracing it with the small of his back and his hands, so his whole body was on display. The shirt glowed under the streetlights, his hair glowed. The muscles in his hands and forearms stood out cleanly. He was watching her, waiting for her to find whatever she was looking for, and his face was amused and private and wholly interested. Absorbed in her. Because she was probably the most beautiful woman in the world, and he was definitely the most beautiful man. Demon. Man.

Xander looked down at his own lap, at the shabby trousers he'd worn straight from work. At his rough, dark, twice-stapled hand still resting on Buffy's toes. He swallowed.

"They're going," Willow said.

"Thank God," Giles said. "Please take your feet off my dashboard."

Xander lifted his head and looked back at the most beautiful couple in the world. They were walking to a grey BMW parked on the opposite side of the street, and she was pointing a remote key at it. Spike was walking close to her, in step with her, one hand hovering at the small of her back, and when he came around the driver's side and opened the door for her, he touched her there. Just lightly, the flat of his hand in the curve of her back, his thumb along her spine. She got in and he closed the door behind her.

He turned and flashed a quick smile across the street, straight at them. A second of brilliance, like a flash popping. Then he sloped around the front of the car and got in the passenger's side.

"All right," Giles said, and checked his watch. "We should be home by...one o'clock."

"Synchronize your watches," Buffy muttered, watching the BMW cruise past them in the opposite direction. "Legs like that and a Beamer? Giles, maybe I could start a sideline in...being her?"

"You're perfectly fine as you are," he said absently, starting the engine. "I hope she lives in town."

They pulled out, and Xander sank down in the seat with his head against the window. Spike had kissed him, and called him a git. There was some comfort to be had in that.

 

 

Forty-five minutes later, parked outside her apartment, the comfort was dwindling fast. He tried to keep it alive by calling himself a pillock, but it didn't sound the same as when Spike said it. He tried to think about Spike leaning into him, breathing into his ear, smirking. Smug bastard. Smug, fuckable bastard. He thought again of the way Spike had looked at her, and wasn't it pretty much the way he looked at Xander? He'd always kind of thought that was a Xander-only look.

He sighed, rummaged in his mental trunk of things Spike called him in moments of duress, and settled for berk. He was a berk. Sometime he'd have to ask what that was. He looked back up at the light in her window. Was that the living room, or the -

"How long does it take?" Buffy groaned. "I have class tomorrow, Giles. Today. This morning. In - " She checked the dashboard clock. "Seven hours. Can't we...I don't know, send him a smoke signal or something? Get him to hurry it up?"

"I suppose so," Giles said thoughtfully. "Or we could scale the wall of the building, rap at the window to draw his attention, and mouth our request through the glass." He was looking kind of rumpled and grumpy, Xander noticed. "Or perhaps I should use the horn."

"Maybe it takes longer than we think," Willow said. "I mean, when's the last time any of us seduced a stranger from a bar?"

"Not that there's seducing," Buffy said quickly, and poked Willow around the side of her seat.

"No! Right! No seducing! Just...I mean, just talking, and maybe some backgammon, a game of crokinole - "

Xander turned back to the apartment, and it was as if his timing was always going to be perfect: the light went out. They all sat in silence for a few seconds, staring at the dark window.

"Okay," Willow said. "So now he's going to come out and we can all go home."

They waited.

The apartment door didn't open. Spike didn't come out. Xander stared at the door, blinked, and looked back at the window. Still dark. More than anything, he just felt confused.

"I don't get it," he said. "They're playing backgammon in the dark?"

Nobody said anything, and he sat staring at the window, until suddenly he had a quick flash of that educational video they watched in fifth grade, the one with the time-lapse photography of the rose wilting. Wilting and drooping and falling apart. He swallowed again. Berk. Pillock. He was such a total moron.

"I think we should - " Buffy said, and stopped.

"Give him a minute," Giles said quietly. "Let's not leap to conclusions."

"No," Xander said. "Yeah. Right." He stared at the window, where nothing was moving or chatting or playing backgammon, and then down at his hand. Big ugly hand. After a minute he jammed it under his leg and stared at the seat back instead.

They gave it a minute. They gave it ten minutes. Then Giles said suddenly, "We're leaving," and reached for the key.

"No," Xander said.

"Xander," Buffy said. "Come on. We don't have to be here for this."

"For what?" He turned and looked at her. "What do you think he's doing in there, exactly?" Buffy didn't say anything, just looked at him, and he tried to soften his tone. "He wouldn't do that. I mean - I know how it looks. But he's not going to do that."

"Maybe we should just go anyway," Willow said quietly. "I mean, it is late, and - "

"He wouldn't do that," Xander said again, and looked back up at the window. "You guys head if you want. I'll hang here."

There was a pause, and then Giles let go of the ignition key. "We'll stay, of course," he said.

Buffy slipped her shoes off and tucked her toes under Xander's leg, and he gave her a little smile. "It'll be fine," he said. "And hey, I need my wallet back, right?"

She smiled bleakly, and he looked back at the dark window.

 

It was almost five o'clock when the apartment door opened and Spike came out. He stood on the step for a minute, not moving, and Xander stared at him. The clean pale shirt, the slim line of his waist. His hair white and tousled, really messed up. The way it looked when Xander had been at it, crushing it in his fists for an hour or two.

The shirt was still perfect. No creases, no marks. His face looked worn-out. He stood there staring at his toes, then rubbed the back of his neck and stepped down onto the path. Then he walked across the lawn, across the street, straight to the side of the car. None of them said anything as he approached.

Giles didn't open his window. Spike had to knock. Then he stepped back and stared up the street while Giles ran it down. When it was open, he fished in his back pocket and pulled out the amulet.

"Here." He dropped it in Giles's hand, then took a step back, stared away up the street again, and said, "I'll take my smokes."

"They're in your clothes," Giles said, and gave a slight nod back at Xander, in the seat behind him. Spike paused, then took a careful, formal step to his right, so he was at Xander's window. He tapped.

Xander sat for a second, staring at Spike's old clothes, bundled in his lap. Well, Spike's T-shirt and jeans, and his own button-down. It seemed totally bizarre, almost unbelievable, that Spike had worn his shirt. Or kissed him. Or called him a git for worrying.

He was a deeply stupid pillock.

He lowered the window, and Spike said quietly, "Smokes, love." The cigarettes were in the back pocket of his jeans. Xander sat there for a second, then fished them out and handed them to him. Spike took them with the briefest of glances, his eyes skating over Xander's face and then off, away, back up the street. He looked distant, almost angry. He lit a cigarette and inhaled hard.

"Right, then. I'll walk."

"Yeah you will," Buffy muttered. Then she raised her voice and said, "And, Spike? Don't come around anymore."

There was a pause. Spike blew out a cloud of smoke, shrugged, and then dipped into his trousers pocket as if he'd just remembered something. "Here." He passed Xander's wallet through the window. Xander took it. It felt light. "Had to buy a few drinks to get her to talk to me."

"Sure." He dropped the wallet on the seat beside him. "Okay."

"Giles," Willow said, "can we go now?"

"With great pleasure," Giles said, and put it in drive.

Just before they turned the corner, Xander risked a look back, and saw the perfect white shirt, the messy white hair, floating in the middle of the dark street. He was standing there staring up at the stars, like the world's best-looking Boy Scout, lost in the woods.

 

 

He called in sick and sat at the kitchen table with a glass of orange juice, staring into space. Spike's old clothes faced him from the other kitchen chair, where he'd dropped them when he came in. There was half a bowl of Weetabix and blood congealing in the sink. A Clash CD on top of his stereo. Comic books and a battered, coverless Tempest splayed face-down on the coffee table.

Willow and Buffy had wanted to stay, or at least come in, but he'd begged off. The place was a mess. And he had stuff to do. Manly, masculine stuff.

He put his hands over his eyes, rested his elbows on the table, and took a deep shuddering breath. He was just starting to get a good salt tap going when there was a knock at the door.

He sat up, wiped his eyes, and went to open it. Big surprise. It was on his way home, after all.

They stood there in silence. Spike's mouth was hard and tight, and his eyes were hard too, he was all hard angles and sharp tight sideways glances until he glanced at Xander's face. Then his eyes widened slightly, and he swallowed and looked away. His shoulders dropped. He scratched his ear, then ran a finger over the doorbell, but didn't press it.

"Gonna ask me in?"

"You can come in," Xander said automatically. It was just a statement of fact. Spike gave him another quick look, then walked past him and stood facing the sink, fussing with the cuff of the shirt. He smelled strongly of cigarette smoke. Xander closed the door.

He went around Spike, picked up the orange juice, and stood with his back braced against the counter. Spike kept fiddling with the button on his left cuff. Xander watched him for a few seconds, then looked down into his juice.

"Nice walk?"

Spike didn't answer. He kept at the button, then finally gave up, shaking his hand in irritation. He dropped to one knee and started untying a shoe. Xander put the glass carefully down on the counter.

"Don't take this the wrong way," he said. "But you can do that at your place." He nodded at the bundle of clothes on the chair beside Spike. "Your stuff's there. And you can keep the shirt."

Spike's hands stilled, and after a second he lifted his head and looked up at Xander. His face was tired and drawn. Not rakishly lean now; just thin. He let go of the laces and crossed his arms loosely on his raised knee. The veins in his hands stood out.

"Come here," he said quietly.

Xander thought about it for a minute, then walked forward. Spike looked up at him, then lifted his left hand and laced the fingers through Xander's. Xander flinched and started to pull away. Spike tugged.

"Spike, I'm not - "

"C'mere." He tugged again, locking their knuckles, and Xander took a deep breath and crouched down. They looked at each other, their hands linked.

"You and me and the post," Spike said. Xander just looked at him. Spike gave his hand a little shake. "Sub rosa, love."

"Spike." Xander tried again to pull his hand back, and Spike didn't let him. "I don't want details, okay? And I don't want to hear how you couldn't help yourself - "

"Xander." Spike's voice was quiet. "I didn't - "

"Oh come on, I'm not a total moron."

"Love - "

"You played Wink Murder all night, and that's why you needed a cigarette when you came out?"

"Love - "

"That's why you walked home?"

"Love, I'm trying to tell you - "

"You read Bible verses, yeah, and now you're all redeemed and shit, and that's why you won't look at me - "

"Xander." Spike grabbed Xander's shoulder in his right hand and squeezed. "It was a joke."

Xander's brain took a second to catch up, to process the look on Spike's face. Grim and tired and shaken.

"I don't get it," he said slowly. "Who's there?"

"I was a joke," Spike said. "She laughed at me." They stared at each other a moment longer, and then Spike pulled his fingers out of Xander's, let go of his shoulder, and went back to his shoelaces. Xander watched him. His fingers looked small without the polish. He got one lace undone, yanked it loose, and started on the other.

"I don't get it," Xander said again. He reached backward, braced a palm on the floor, and sat heavily back onto his butt. "What are you saying?"

Spike didn't answer. He untied his shoelace, loosened it, and then sat back on the linoleum facing Xander. He wiggled his feet, frowned, and hooked his fingers into the shoes to slip them off. He was wearing black socks. New ones, without holes. Xander stared at them. It was strange to see Spike's feet in clean socks.

"Shoes been pinching me all bloody night," Spike said absently, and rubbed one foot. Then he stripped the socks off, balled them up, and threw them under the table. He still had black polish on three of his toenails.

"Let me get this straight," Xander said, staring at Spike's feet. "You didn't - I mean... nothing happened."

"Oh, things happened," Spike said. "Plenty bloody happened. I know more about long-term personal investment schemes than I did going in. Mutual funds, IRAs..." He paused and looked intently at Xander. "She kept coming back to retirement plans. Do I look like I'm going to retire anytime soon?"

Xander considered. "No."

"No, I don't. And I'm not. Bitch."

"Okay. But wait." Xander held up a finger. "You were in there all night. Talking money. In the dark."

Spike shook his head. "In the study."

"The study."

"Off the living room." Spike leaned forward slightly and rubbed his feet. "Windows give the other direction, love."

Xander sat in silence, staring at Spike's hands. After a minute he put a finger of his own out and poked Spike's big toe. "And you were Captain Mysterioso when you came out because...?"

Spike stopped rubbing and looked at him. He looked aged and tired and frustrated. Still beautiful. Still the most beautiful man in the room. But not the cocky, bright-eyed bastard who'd hung laughing on the door of the bar.

"Xander," he said quietly. "She turned me down."

"Which means you offered," Xander said.

"Of course I bloody offered. Well, I didn't exactly offer, I don't offer, I just - " He swallowed something back and stared at Xander. "I talk to her all bloody night, laugh at her jokes, go back to her flat, and every time I sit next to her on the couch she bloody gets up for another portfolio." He pressed his fingers hard into his instep. "I tell her she puts Elizabeth Taylor in the shade and she bloody laughs." Something cracked in his foot. "Like I'm some cow-eyed teenager with a fistful of daisies."

He dropped his head and kneaded his foot harder, his neck cording with the effort. Xander watched for a minute, then spread his own hand over Spike's to still it. Spike looked up, his mouth tight and sullen.

"You're beautiful," Xander said.

Spike stared at him for a few seconds, then dropped his head again. There was a long silence.

"Haven't eaten anyone in years," he said at last. "Fucking chip, right? Not exactly the creature of the night I used to be." He raised one hand, and Xander waited for it to go to the back of his head, where it always went. It went to his cheek instead. He fingered the line of his cheekbone, then scratched it roughly. Self-consciously. "Not exactly anything I used to be, seems like."

Xander waited to see if there would be any more, but that was it. He sighed, leaned forward, and took both of Spike's hands in his. "Hey. Droopy."

Spike looked up, his mouth tight and his eyes watchful. Xander rubbed his thumbs across Spike's palms.

"You're beautiful," he said. "And you got turned down. You'll live."

"I'm dead, pet."

"And you still expect to pull." Xander lifted Spike's right hand, studied the knuckles, and kissed them lightly. "So, tell me something."

Quiet in the apartment. Outside, the world was starting up. Birds singing, cars in the street. Spike's fingers smelled like smoke.

"What."

Xander lowered Spike's right hand, and raised his left. "If she hadn't said no," he said, "would you have been tempted?"

Spike said nothing, and Xander let it go a few seconds, then lowered Spike's left hand too. "It's okay," he said, digging for a game smile. "She's totally - "

"I didn't say yes," Spike said sharply. Xander glanced at his face; he was staring back intently. "Didn't say it and didn't mean it." Xander tested the tip of his finger against Spike's thumbnail, and said nothing. After a minute, Spike said, "Told you before, you're a deeply stupid pillock."

"Check."

"I wasn't tempted," Spike said, slowly and clearly, as if Xander were a foreign exchange student. "I didn't want her. Don't."

"But you wanted her to want you."

"Of course."

"Of course."

"Look." Spike turned his hands in Xander's and took hold of his wrists, thumbs over his pulse. "I'm not a lot of things I used to be. And I am a lot of things I never..." He paused, shook his head, and examined Xander's inner elbow. To Xander's inner elbow, he said quietly, "I'm yours."

Xander sat in silence. Birdsong outside the window, and a slow smile blooming from his chest up through his throat. He looked down at his inner elbow too, studied Spike's thumbs on his wrists, then leaned forward, dipped his head, and came up from below to kiss him. Spike's lips were soft, and he tasted like cigarettes. He let himself be kissed.

"Mine," Xander said after a minute, the smile all the way up to his mouth now. He turned his hands in Spike's, grabbed his elbows, and hooked his heels behind Spike's hips. A tug and a jerk, and they were pressed together, Xander's legs crossed behind Spike's back, a little grin starting on Spike's lips.

"Mine," Xander said, and raised an eyebrow suggestively. "Servant to my every whim."

"Yeah," Spike said. "Hell, yeah."

"Wash the dishes," Xander said, and kissed him. He loved feeling Spike laugh against his mouth. Loved feeling Spike's hands on his back. Loved telling him he was beautiful, even if it was kind of poofy, even if most of the time he didn't seem to need to hear it. Because sometimes, apparently, he did.

Xander pulled away and studied Spike's face. He looked a little better, a little happier. Not quite so edgy. He tasted like whiskey and cigarettes. "You," Xander said, "are a deeply stupid pillock."

Spike gave him a sideways grin and leaned forward, but Xander stopped him with a palm. "So you did this to yourself?" he said, touching the handwrung mess of Spike's hair.

"Did what?" Spike rolled his eyes up, trying to see his own hairline.

"Uh huh. And...hang on. Wait a second. You got the amulet."

"What's wrong with my hair?"

"How did you get the amulet, if you didn't sleep with her?"

Spike reached up and touched his hair. "Looked all right when I went out, didn't it? Had my head in my hands all bloody night though - "

"Spike."

Spike leaned forward again, and Xander stopped him again. "You're avoiding the question, aren't you?"

Spike narrowed his eyes. "What question, love?"

Xander just waited. After a minute, Spike sighed and rolled his eyes. "Well I'm not a complete waste of space, am I?"

"Meaning...?"

Spike fiddled with his cuff, then gave him a level look. "She had knockout pills in the loo. Put a few in her drink while she wasn't looking, and..." He made a plane-falling gesture with one hand, and gave a quick, unselfconscious grin. "Bloody stopped her talking, at least."

"You drugged her."

"Yeah."

"You drugged the demon mutual funds advisor."

A little pause, and Spike fiddled with his cuff again. "Yeah."

Xander held up a palm. "My man."

Spike shot him a quick, wary glance, then settled his shoulders and sneered at the palm. "Piss off, Harris."

"Can I tell you something?"

"Maybe."

"I hated this plan."

Spike just smiled and leaned forward, and it was whiskey and cigarettes again, cool lips he once thought he'd never get used to. Xander slid his hand inside the collar of the sex shirt, and felt Spike's cool firm neck, the slope of his cool firm shoulder, the arm and the underarm and the ribs and everywhere the lines led him. There was a pop and a ping, and they both looked down at the button skittering across the linoleum.

"Oh crap," Xander said.

"Five hundred quid," Spike said.

"Which reminds me. You spent all my money on drinks for this woman?"

Spike reached out, picked up the button, and put it carefully into his pocket.

"I just cashed a paycheck, Spike. There was almost three hundred bucks in there."

"Right. Well, I was going to tell you - "

"Spike."

"I was stuck up there five bloody hours, love - "

"Spike. Tell me you didn't."

"And I had to make her think I was interested, didn't I? Had to make her think I was on the hook."

"Spike."

"It's good rates. Twelve percent historically, better than the markets."

"Oh Christ."

"'Course, you can't collapse it till 2340, but it'll be a tidy sum by then."

"2340?"

"Compound interest, yeah."

"Spike, in 2340, I'll be..." He ran the numbers quickly on his fingers. "Dead."

"Y'never know."

"And also - " Xander looked up from his fingers. "What are we going to tell them?"

"Tell who?"

"Everyone. Willow. Buffy. Giles. They think you did the deed. Willow was talking about scabies spells on the way home."

Spike swallowed.

"We'll tell them - " He trailed off and rubbed the arch of his foot with his thumb. "You'll think of something."

"Me? But I'm a deeply stupid - "

Spike leaned forward and kissed him again, cool and soft, a hand against his jaw. The kind of kiss that made 2340 seem like a goal worth shooting for. That made five hundred quid seem like an okay price to pay.

"Beautiful," he murmured, and Spike's mouth agreed, and another button sprang free in a tiny, uncontainable parabola of joy.




The End





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