Chocolatey Goodness


by
Mad Poetess



15 Chocolate Oranges

"Spike?" Xander called out loudly over 'Video Killed The Radio Star,' which was blasting down from Willow's CD-drive through the hole in the ceiling.

They had what was left of Angel's flat to themselves, since Angel and Wesley had climbed up the makeshift ladder in the lift shaft a few minutes ago. Allegedly to watch Willow perform last-rites on Cordelia's computer, but actually to give them some time alone, which was suspiciously nice of Angel. Spike's Sire had muttered something about not getting peanut butter in his bed, which made Spike blink for a few seconds before deciding that Angel was either doing some freaky Drusilla thing and reading his memories, or he was just a raving nutter. And did that mean he was actually offering his collapsed but still usable bed, provided there was no peanut butter involved? Could Xander be persuaded to use it, even if he was? These and other questions will be answered on today's episode of Passions...

"Hello, larcenous vampire I happen to be sleeping with." That was said a bit more softly, and from closer in. Followed by Xander singing a little "Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh" along with the bubblegum chorus. More or less in tune. In that the tune was closer to the original than it was to, say, the Hallelujah Chorus.

Spike looked up from where he was crouched sorting Angel's un-charred clothes into 'Steal for Xander' and 'Let the Poof Keep 'Em' piles. The first one had a nice set of chains at the bottom of it, but was reluctantly leather-free, since he knew damn well when Angel had last worn those black leather trousers, and didn't think his lover would appreciate the reminder. Said lover was standing in the doorway to Angel's mostly intact bedroom, dressed like a cross between Indiana Jones and Magnum P.I.

"Yeah. C'mere, I wanna see if this shirt looks as good on you as I think it will. Vague possibility of hotness, and couldn't be worse than what you're wearing now, anyway. " The where-the-hell-did-Angel-get-that-thing fedora looked just fine on Xander, but not when combined with a shirt that Tom Selleck's wardobe-mistress would've probably turned down as being too loud, and yes, Spike watched too much telly. What else did he have to do besides shag and not kill people?

Xander shook his head as if he should've known better than to expect Spike to be doing anything useful, but he walked into the room. "Angel tossed me down the key to that trunk you couldn't get open. He said you might want this." Xander held out a large oblong shape wrapped in some sort of black cloth, and Spike took it from him, handing over a black silk shirt in fair exchange. Xander examined the shirt critically, while Spike did the same with the package he'd been handed. The cloth was old, velvet and lace, and fringed.

"This was Dru's," he said suddenly. "We bought it for her in Yorkshire." Spike fingered the shawl for a moment. "Well, I picked his pocket an' bought it for her." He slowly unwrapped it, not really daring to give in to his guess at what might be inside. It was correct, though. "Bugger. Bugger it all, he kept it."

Xander paused in taking off the bilious blue and red shirt with parrots-probably-shagging on it, and stepped close to look over Spike's shoulder. "That's..."

It was Spike. And Angelus, and Drusilla, neatly done up in watercolors, framed in dark walnut. Not brilliant by any means, but it was them. Dru wearing the black shawl over a crushed velvet dress, Angelus in dark gray and emerald green, like an overgrown leprechaun, and Spike in black and red. But not a good red-- that awful reddish-pinkish silk waistcoat with the raspberries embroidered on it that Dru had picked out in a booth in the Shambles.

"Raspberries," she'd crooned, and the dark gray eyes had lit up, and he could see the stars beyond the cobwebs in them. "All red and sticky, like blood, and sweet, like my little Spike. It's delicious!" Hideous, is what it was, and Angelus had only bought it to torment him because he knew Spike thought so, and Spike had only worn it because...

Spike looked down at his current attire, and choked back a laugh. And what was shagging on this shirt of Xander's that he was wearing-- against his will and every ounce of fashion sense he possessed-- now? Oversexed ferns? He'd only worn the waistcoat because Drusilla asked him to, and he sure as hell hadn't changed all that much over the years, no matter how smarmily Angel wanted to tweak him about having fallen in love with a human.

"That's your real hair color?" Xander asked, dragging him firmly into the present. He reached out a finger to outline the shape of a dark blond wave that had fallen on Spike's forehead an unlifetime ago, and then tugged not all that gently at its peroxided counterpart. "You said you weren't a natural blond. Undead liar guy."

Spike grinned. "Actually, you said I wasn't. I wasn't really in any condition to argue with you at the time, considering you had your hands on my cock and it'd been a few months since anybody but me'd had the privilege." If there was one thing he'd learned in a hundred and twenty-whatever-he-decided-to-say-today years, it was that the truth worked as good as a lie, sometimes.

Xander hmm-hmmmed, which meant he was blushing and trying not to attract Spike's attention to it. Good luck, when your lover can sense the blood rushing to your face. He didn't blush this much when they were really alone; it was as if being around his friends had turned Xander back into the vulnerable, head-trippable kid he'd been this spring. Or maybe it wasn't his friends, maybe it was last night, or maybe it was any of a hundred things stuffed into that random-access head of his. Spike took a little pity. Just a little; he was evil, after all.

"Alright, so I'm the original cuffs-and-collars boy. I'd really thought it was darker, frankly." Hadn't he dreamed not that long ago that they'd been a matched set, him and Dru and the Irish Bastard, with Darla the odd one out? That he'd bleached his hair to wipe out his likeness to Angelus. And that was laughable, because he was nothing like Angel, souled or unsouled. Why had he done it? Because he wasn't blond enough? Thinking Angelus would come back for Spike like he came back for the Bitch in China, like he could smell the bleach from halfway round the world? His mental chorus laughed in his ear. Christ, but you're a broody git, these days, Spike. You bleached it 'cos you're a fuckin' vain little prick and you thought it made you look like a serious badass.

He shrugged. "You wait 'til you haven't seen yourself in a mirror for a hundred and twenty years, then try and remember your natural color."

Xander was oddly silent for a bit, and then said, "A hundred and twenty? What, you were six when you were turned? You've gotta pick an age, Spike. You're worse than my mom."

"I was twenty-four." Twenty-four and a complete virgin, for all the good his mooning about after Cecily Cardew and at least six other muffin-headed London society girls before her had ever done. Dru and Angelus had made short work of that problem, though. "It was eighteen eighty, don't bother tryin' to do the maths, it won't come out right. All the things I lie about, and you're worried about my age ?"

"Thought I'd start out with that, and work my way up slowly to the big things like 'Did you break my disco ball' and of course the most important, 'Do you really think I'm hot, or are you just saying that so I'll keep feeding you and letting you have your wicked demonic way with me?' " Now there was a grin, something half shy, half lascivious.

"No, I didn't break your sodding disco ball, but I'll buy you a new one if it means that much to you. Er...if you'll lend me the cash." Xander laughed at him. "And I didn't so much imply that you're hot, as that you make me hot." Another flush, and Spike smirked, wondering if he might be able to give up lying completely. Just tell Xander some embarrassing but less important truth every time he stepped too close to a ticklish subject, instead. "So can I have my wicked demonic way with you again?" He gave Xander his own lascivious glance, and random-blush-boy looked down at the portrait to escape it.

"A room and a half away from Willow? I think not, somehow." Xander stared at the picture, and Spike wondered what was going through his head. Was there some unwritten law that said he could read any git in the world except the man he was in love with? "Hey, I know that face," Xander said after a moment, pointing at the painted Spike, with a bit of a smarmy Xandergrin replacing the blush. Spike raised an eyebrow at him.

"I should hope so; you've been lookin' at it on and off for two and a half years now."

Xander thumped him on the skull with his knuckles, and then pointed again, tracing the edge of the smile on the other Spike's face. "That face. That's your 'I've just been fucked until I made little squeaky noises, and ain't I happy about it' face."

Spike gave Xander an arch glance, one that Angelus had taught him a hundred and twenty years ago, give or take. "Oh, you know that look, do you?" It was shot right back at him with a nod-and-a-half, and Spike had to laugh. He learned far too fast, Alexander Harris did. "Well, you're right. I had. Gotta give him that, he got us all down."

Xander snorted. "And then you ate him, right?"

"Well, not right afterwards. We gave him time to clean his brushes first." Xander gave him an "Oh" and Spike rolled his eyes. He smacked his lover lightly on the seat of his trousers. "Angelus painted it, you git. From a photograph." And they had given him time to clean his brushes first. Just. Mostly because they'd been promised unspecified treats if they would stay the hell out of the room until he'd finished painting.

"They had cameras back then?" Which went to show that Xander Harris learned fast when he was paying attention, but not when he was staring at his History teacher's knockers. Or possibly when he was trying to pretend he wasn't staring at his History teacher's cock, Spike mentally appended.

"Yes, Mister Radio Killed The Music Hall Star. They had indoor plumbing, too, even the sort that flushed, if you had the dosh for it, and those little round things we used to call wheels were catching on in the smarter circles. It was eighteen eighty-six, not the bleedin' stone age, Xander. Maybe you should watch a bit more History Channel and a bit less Cartoon Network."

"Or we could watch a bit more Blackadder. That's vaguely historical, right?" Xander was still staring at the picture, and Spike held it up so he could get a closer look. So Spike could get a closer look as well, though it was behind his eyes if he closed them. Dru staring off somewhere, seeing the stars only knew what, Angelus looking straight at where the camera would have been, all serious except for the twitch of a smile at one corner of his mouth-- and Spike himself. With, as Xander had said, the look of a man who's just been fucked into smug insensibility. Spike closed his eyes, and he could almost smell the chocolate oranges.

"Okay, tell me about it," said Xander, sitting down next to Spike on an overturned bookcase, and slipping off his shirt. Putting his warm, bare chest up against Spike's t-shirted back, and it felt almost as hot as the fire had been in that little room in York.

"Really?" He hadn't thought Xander would want to hear about anything Angelus-related, given his jealousy of Angel. Which was suddenly not too hard to pick up, now that somebody didn't have his bleached head stuck completely up his fiendishly attractive arse. He opened his eyes, and Xander was nodding, a small smile on his face. It made no sense, but it seemed to be a good sort of senselessness, so Spike didn't question it too hard. "You want me to tell you about me getting shagged?"

"Yeah, you're obviously dying to. Fell asleep during the last Spike-gets-fucked bedtime story you tried to tell me. Here's your chance to come up with one that's interesting enough to keep me awake. You've got a better chance now-- it's noon, and I'm not in bed."

"Which is pretty bloody rare." Xander thwapped him again, and Spike grinned. "Alright-- though we could correct that, y'know. There's a perfectly good bed right over there, and the door still shuts on this room and everything..." Xander flipped him the finger, and he sighed tragically. "Fine. We were in Yorkshire. York proper, actually. Dru liked it, 'cos of the Shambles. Little alley market, and she just loved to look at the pretties on the market stalls. Clothes, girls, ribbons, fresh raspberries. Oranges. She'd eat fruit, for some reason. Blood and fresh fruit. Chocolate if you fed it to her, though she didn't care much one way or the other about it."

"That's 'cause she's insane."

"True enough, though that doesn't exactly explain you and me." If anything did. "Anyhow, we'd walked all the way round the city on the wall the day before, to show her you could do it, and probably because the great Irish poofter thought it would wear me out and I wouldn't be so likely to drive him buggy--fat chance of that. Himself noticed this little shop where a professor-type was doing photographs and got some daft idea of us doing a family portrait, even though her high-and-mightyness was off in London."

"Who?"

"Oh, the Bitch. Angel's Sire. Bane of my bloody existence, she was, and you think he's got no sense of humor? Eh. She wasn't there, though, wandered off to London to see her Sire, and me and Dru got the dubious joy of havin' the Poof to ourselves for a year or three. So. York. That next day he dolled us all up in those fancified threads, and said we had to be good for an hour while the professor-git wanked about with his equipment. Aside from in bed, have you ever seen me be good for an hour?"

*****

"I can't believe you made me wear this fairycake getup." Spike tugged at his collar as Drusilla leaned against him, and Angelus cuffed him across the head.

"As if you've never worn a gentleman's clothes before, brat. Hush and behave, or I'll give you somethin' to complain about."

Sodding waistcoat with the sodding raspberries that looked like somebody'd squished a sodding jelly-roll on him... "Promises, promises."

"You promised me a lolly if I'd be good," Dru said sincerely, turning her head to look back at their Sire.

"That I did, precious." Leaning his head close to Spike's ear, Angelus whispered, "Which one was Lolly again?"

"The little dark-haired chit in the chocolate shop. Promised me a lolly too, you did."

Angelus smacked him on the skull again. "That I did not. Might find you something else to lick, though."

Spike pouted. He'd got quite good at that, since the Bitch took off and he didn't have to play the bully-boy anymore unless he felt like it. With a sigh, his Sire smoothed his hair. "I've a chocolate orange for you in my pocket."

*****

"Geez, and I thought you acted like a kid around him now." Xander had slipped Angel's shirt on, and yeah, the boy definitely needed to wear more black. Spike tore his eyes away reluctantly, and found them caught by his own painted reflection.

"Well, he let me, then. I'd not had the chance to be one, really, the first time, and he knew it, so he let me get away with acting as young as Dru did. Up to a point. Even though she couldn't help it, and I could. Mostly."

*****

"Daddy, I'm feeling wick-ed," Drusilla sang after about ten minutes, her eyes sparkling, and Angelus groaned. Spike grinned. Family portrait or not, Dru wasn't supposed to be calling him Daddy and confusing the poor little professor fellow. Not when Daddy only looked two or three years older than the both of them, at most. "Can I play with the little man?"

"No, Princess. Not now. He has to be around to develop the photograph. Next week, then you can play. Just sit still and wait while he fixes his equipment." Angelus fussed a bit with her hair, and she hummed happily, momentarily distracted. Spike, meanwhile... "And Will, stay out of my pocket. Y' can have the chocolate when we get home." Bugger. Caught red-handed.

"But I'm bored now." Spike looked around the shop for something to occupy his twitchy mind. Shelves full of books, which might've been interesting enough, if his body wasn't feeling just as twitchy. They should've gone walking today; that would've worn him out a bit, but it hadn't been cloudy like yesterday, and they'd had to wait until true twilight to venture out.

"And chocolate's going to make you more likely to sit still? You must take me for a bigger idgit than you."

Spike looked him up and down. "You are a bigger idgit than me. 'Bout three stone bigger, at least. You should've shared that vicar on the way here-- you're getting fat." Another cuff, this time on the ear, and he grinned again. Sire-baiting. A much more entertaining game than sitting still and staring at the skinny little wanker with the glasses as he messed about over his camera and plates.

"Miss Millicent says you boys aren't to fight, or she'll be cross." Dru held up her doll, a new one that she'd taken off her latest snack.

*****

"I so didn't need to hear that part."

"Sorry, shall I pretend she popped over to the magical faerie toy shoppe and picked it out? If it helps any, I never fancied kids m'self. Takes too many to make a mouthful, and they don't fight back enough."

"That's...oddly comforting. Alright, go on, but try to gloss over the gourmet dining reviews, okay?"

*****

Twenty more minutes, and Spike had been up and down three times. Over to the bookshelves, thumbing through a treatise on blacksmithing, a collection of Irish fairytales, and a copy of 'Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There.' He'd brought that last one back to read to Dru, but lost interest himself after a few minutes, and handed it over to Angelus, who was doing his best to explain to Drusilla that no, you couldn't just walk into mirrors, and her looking glass girl hadn't run away somewhere because she was ugly.

Across the room to stare over Professor Certified Plum-Duff's shoulder at the camera, and make grr faces behind his back, which had Angelus snarling terrible things at him in Gaelic. Back to sit and fidget for a bit, before he couldn't take it anymore and bounded up again, this time pacing the room and studying the ugly little linotypes of political figures on the walls.

"William, sit down before I have to come over there and knock you down."

It was a bad day, and he really couldn't help it. The devil was in him-- not the demon that he actually was, but the May-mad one that he really had no leash on. Spike threw himself into his seat with a petulant growl and started picking at the threads in his tie. He wasn't usually so restless; it was just that every so often, when the wind was wrong or the moon was too bright, he needed to...

*****

"To what?"

"I dunno. Throw m'self against the walls and see how hard I could bounce off, I s'pose. See where the edges of the playground were."

*****

"And the spiders said you shan't, you shan't, but Mummy knew better, didn't she, darling?" Dru was crooning to her doll. Angelus had given up any attempt at interesting her in the book again, but at least she'd been relatively good, which was more than Spike could say for himself.

He'd tried once more to filch the chocolate from his Sire's pocket, and been smacked on the hand for his pains. So he'd proceeded to unbutton the back of Drusilla's dress, slipping his hand inside and tickling her back, with an eye to reaching all the way round the front, given time. That might've been alright if she hadn't started going on about the tarantulas wanting to dance with her, and stood up, whirling around and letting the front of her dress fall to her waist.

Luckily for his fragile human sanity, Professor Whatzit had his back turned. Angelus had grabbed Dru, buttoned up her dress, set her down with her doll, and told her if she'd be Daddy's best Princess, he'd punish her when they got home, which had her beaming. Then he grabbed Spike by the ear. "Pardon me, sir, I'll just be a minute," to the photographer, who waved him off with a distracted 'Of course, quite all right,' and obviously wouldn't have noticed if Dru were dancing naked with a thousand hairy spiders, just so long as he had the right lens in his big black box.

Then it was into the room next door, which was much warmer, what with the roaring fire and all, and slam went the door to the kick of Angelus' foot, and a rough push sent Spike stumbling in the direction of the big oak trestle in front of the fireplace.

"Over the table, Spike," Angelus growled in that Sire-says, don't arse about, do it now or else voice, and Spike was forgetting any hope of a fight, just stripping his jacket off, stupid raspberry waistcoat off, dropping the braces from his shoulders. Trousers round his ankles and bare-arsed over the warm wood before Angelus had even shrugged off his coat. Spike lay there, listening. Listening to the rustle of wool as it fell against the tabletop, the little snarls of annoyance. Impatience with him, and hadn't he been asking for it. Begging for it. Listening to the sound of hands fiddling with that shiny Celtic knot on the buckle of the wide belt. Eyes closed, waiting. Waiting for the first blow. The first crack.

*****

"Pet?" Xander was warm behind him again, a layer of silk between them now but that didn't mean Spike couldn't still feel the heartbeat speed up, the body tense. Then black-silk-covered arms wrapped around his own, and Xander's chin was on his shoulder, hat knocked off somewhere. Beating of the heart against his back, throbbing of the throat-pulse, echo skittering across his shoulderblade. Shallow breath in his ear, but no words, so Spike gave them. "You do remember I like that sort of thing? Did back then, too."

Liked was really too ridiculous a word. Loved. Loved and hated. Loved the touch, loved the hit and the hot and the hurt spreading across his skin like fire, but a safe one. Loved the loss of control, giving it up, letting somebody else tell him how far it was alright to go, because that somebody knew. Hated the feeling of being a child again, and loved it with an uneasy mix of worship and not-quite-shame. Hated the knowledge that he was being punished, like any child hates it, and the knowledge that he was asking for it, and loved the touch and the hands behind it with a passion that had terrified him even then.

"With a belt?" And it wasn't just the heartbeat that twitched against him.

"Could've stood up and walked out any time." Which was both truth and lie. There was more to that Sire-says voice than just Pavlovian conditioning-- there was blood in it. There was always blood in it. "But he was good at it. Why would I want to? Good with his hands, too." He closed his eyes, and listened to Xander breathe. "Dru wasn't half bad, really, but her heart wasn't in it. She liked rougher stuff, and she'd rather take it than dish it out."

"You're a complete sicko, you know that, right? I mean, I'm not informing you of anything that slipped your mind?" There was a touch of sarcasm in that voice, as if mocking Spike for thinking he needed to remind Xander that he was a sicko, but it was shallow. Beneath it was something else. The warm hands slipped down his torso towards Spike's own belt buckle, not quite touching it.

"Anytime you want to use it on me, you can have it, luv." He waited. Tasted the air like a snake, mouth open and silent. Tested a theory. "And if you want to try it the other way, all you have to do is ask." Beat-BEAT. "Anyhow, I was waiting for Angel to whale the tar out of me..." And there was the twitch again, though the timing was odd, and he smiled.

*****

Heavy sound of leather being drawn through beltloops, and Spike was hard against the table, and screwing his eyes shut. Waiting. Still. Now he could hold still, now that he was waiting, in this completely undignified position for a grown man of thirty, or even a vampire of six years. Waiting to be beaten until he blubbered, and he always did, when it was this kind of day.

There'd be no being held over his Sire's knees, smacked with his hand, something simple and safe no matter how hard it got, the sort of thing they did for fun as much as anything else. Not now. He'd passed that about ten minutes and four hundred fidgets ago. But after it was over, that way or this way, Himself would pull Spike up onto his lap and hold him while he cried it out. Whatever was in him today. Whatever he needed this for. And sometimes that was the best part. He could almost hear the whistle through the air that would start the whole thing going.

Which was why he jumped when a heavy body bent itself over him. Pushed him flat and whispered in his ear.

"Why always so hard, so much trouble, Will? Can't you just ask?" He shook his head, felt his hair brush against Angelus' chin, and scrape in the bristle there. Why he wouldn't just grow a beard and get it over with... No, Spike couldn't just ask, and his Sire knew damn well, and Spike knew damn well it was a rhetorical question. "No, y' never can. Can't help it, can you." Spike silently shook his head again. "I don't think you even know, do you." And what the hell did that mean?

Then the touch was gone, and he was cold again, though the fire wasn't really all that far from his bared backside, and he should've been worried about it, probably. But all he wanted was that touch back, any touch. Anything against his body, against his skin, as long as it came from his Sire. What was he doing-- oiling the damn thing up so it would swing better?

But he was fiddling around in that great heavy wool coat that smelled of old blood and night air and mostly of him, so much that Spike would sometimes lay with his head pillowed against it, when Angelus was off somewhere with Darla, and Dru was in one of her untouchable moods. Just lie there and smell him, and be easy.

Now there was a crinkling of paper, and then the smell, faint before in the other room, hit him. Chocolate. Not English chocolate, wonderful and sweet and cheap enough for him to fall in love with even on the little money he'd had free to spend when he was alive. No, this was something dark and rich that had made its way here from the Continent. Something that Angelus had spent real money on, for him.

Could've just taken it and killed the shopgirl, but not when Dru wanted her for a pressie on their going-away night, so he'd forked over some ungodly amount of the cash that he carried in those hundreds of pockets. Hadn't let Spike in to see what he was buying, just said it was a surprise, and would he watch Dru before she snatched another pram away, because they always made such a fuss about the infants. He could smell it, though, even wrapped in paper and hidden away for later, and now Angelus was going to what-- really punish him by throwing it in the fire? He'd moved over there, and Spike could smell melting chocolate, and the over-sugared tang of glacé oranges. Couldn't say he didn't deserve it, but...

"Get it over with, will you?" he begged finally, in as low a voice as he could manage, and he didn't know whether he meant the torment of smelling his treat go up in flames, or the waiting, or the beating, or what. Maybe that was what Angelus thought he didn't know, and if so, he was bloody annoyingly right as usual. He waited, again. Waited and waited, and at last his Sire was behind him, picking up the belt from the table--

And tossing it to the floor.

He twitched. Fidgeted. Didn't know what was going on. "Dammit, Angelus, you fucking nancyboy of an artiste, don't torture me, just get on with it!" Whatever it was, and Spike twitched again, until large fingers, warm from the heat of the fire, touched him in that spot. The one on the small of his back, just there, and it was automatic: he lifted up into that touch and purred, and rested his head against the tabletop. He smelled chocolate again, so strong that he couldn't believe he wasn't in the doorway of the sweet shop, eyeing that pretty girl Dru was so peckish for. But he was seeing his Sire's hand, instead, holding a warm candied orange in front of his face. Streaked with just the barest trace of dark brown.

"Chew on that, Will, and shut up." Spike accepted it between his lips in utter confusion, and bound himself to waiting again-- but there was no more of that. Fire-warmed, dry hand returning to his back in half a second, and the other, slick and warmer still, touching his arse with practiced ease, and pushing inside him. He was so shocked, he bit clean through the candy. Never. Angelus never did this, not on a bounce-off-the-walls day. Might throw him over a table and bugger him senseless and dry, just for a change, and that was good too, but never this. Never slow and warm and sweet and easy on a bad day.

Never, but as he twitched again, squirming against his will, he felt the warmth inside him move, and he relaxed. Gave himself over just as he would have to the leather, but this was slick and sweet inside him, and the scent of the melted chocolate on his Sire's fingers made him melt as well, onto the table. Just let go and fall into that place where he was being held and done to, and it was better than anything, because it was Him.

Candy orange in his mouth, and the whole room was full of the smell of chocolate, heated by the fire, being heated again by the movement in and out of him. The long, slow touch inside him at the place that made him try to either push back against the fingers or fall forward against the table while his head filled with chocolate and stars, and his body couldn't decide. He couldn't decide. The touch disappeared, for the tiniest of seconds, and then that heavy body was against him again, and the cock sliding into him, so damn slowly, so perfect. Taking forever, but it wasn't waiting, now, it was being. Being there, with Angelus in him. Bent over him and whispering in his ear.

"I know you can't help it, mo chroi. I know." And strong arms, stronger than his own, were around his shoulders. Tight enough to make him feel held. Loose enough that if he wanted to, he could've pulled away easily. The illusion of being trapped, the knowledge of freedom, and the feel of Angelus against him, pushing in and pulling out, rubbing him against the table at the same time. Slow, each time. Letting him choose whether to be still or not. Let go and be a child or accept this as something given freely from one man to another --and give it back. "Sire," he whispered once, and then "Angelus."

He wrapped his hands around those arms. Fell into the rhythm, lifting up for him, but controlling it at the same time, with his own movements, his own sounds and sighs. Being together with Angelus. Not just his boy. Always his boy, but not only. Being thirty years old instead of six, with a man behind him, moving with him, who was not his father, no matter how much they liked to play at it. Faster, warmer, and he knew he was making little noises, the kind that made Angelus smile wickedly, and thrust in harder. He'd seen that smile, other times, when they were facing each other. Just the two of them, moving together.

He finally did collapse forward on the table, as Angelus filled him. Spike grinned his own wickedness, because even if Himself couldn't be teased or pleasured into mew-squeaking like a bloody kitten, there was always that long, low groan at the end, that tickled the hairs on his neck, that made his ears vibrate for what seemed like hours in the silence afterward. Then he was pulled up, just a little.

One hand left Spike's arm for a moment to reach beneath. To touch Spike's own aching need, and Spike let his hand join his Sire's again there, stroking that need together until it left him in a flood of insanity and helplessness and power and love that ached just as much when he was spent. For only a second or two, he lay still, not actually breathing, but tasting. The room, the air... Dark and sweet and full of chocolate and sex and the smell of him. Of them. Then Angelus helped him up, and stood him straight. Pulled up his trousers and brushed the long strands of hair out of his dry eyes. Looked him in the face. "Better?"

"Yeah." Spike reached up to kiss him, and he reached down. They met somewhere in the middle, man and boy and man, and if they were both monsters and shouldn't be thinking themselves either one, there was nobody in here to tell them so. "Love you."

*****

"Bastard always knew," Spike said slowly, leaning back against Xander. Looking not at himself in the portrait, but at the man standing behind him, the man who painted it. "Even when I didn't know. When I couldn't even ask." He kept giving these little pieces of himself away to Xander, and he still didn't know where they went or what his lover did with them. If he knew what they were, even.

"Knew what?" It was a still, small voice, at odds with the hardness against Spike's back.

"When I needed to be a kid. When I needed to be a man."

The voice had been a boy's, that had asked him, but the body against him was something else. Over and over, the both of them. A lost child in his arms one minute. A confident adult protecting Spike from grumpy Sires or teasing cheerleaders, the next. And Spike was no better, still, though he might pretend to hold tight to that warm body at night just for Xander's sake. Or just to leech some heat.

Well, it worked, as long as somebody was playing the grown-up when they got arrested for public indecency, as he was sure would happen one of these days, or needed to look old enough to buy a few bottles of Diamond White. Just God help poor prats like Angel when the timing was off and they both had to be kids, because... Oh, the fun they could get up to with a certain party's credit card number that a certain other party had memorized purely by Braille while he had his hands on the party of the first part's wallet for a few brief seconds.

*****

When Spike was presentable again, Angelus gave him a nod, and he grinned. Shook his hair out slightly, undoing all the lovely work his Sire had put into combing it. Gave him a smarmy two-fingered salute, then thumbed his nose. "Just couldn't resist me, could ya."

"Don't flatter yourself." But Himself was grinning too. "I could hardly beat ye senseless if I wanted that ugly face of yours to look nice in the photo, could I. And I didn't see you as very likely to be still if I tanned y'r backside and then made you sit on it." Not that he hadn't done that before, and watched Spike squirm his way through an entire bloody dinner party, with a smile that made his 'wicked' one look positively angelic.

"Makes you think I'm goin' to be still now?" Spike answered back, with the devil in him again. This time it was his own devil, though, and they both knew it.

"I bought two chocolate oranges."

*****

"Course, when we got out there, Dru was sittin' in the chair and lickin' her fingers, and the poor little professor was just puttin' his jacket back on and trying to pretend we couldn't all see the steam on his specs. Angelus did tell her not to eat anybody while we were gone, but --heh-- that wasn't really what he meant. Can't say I blame her. She got bored, and Miss Millicent wasn't really entertaining company for somebody with an attention-span shorter than mine. Y'could tell Professor Whozit thought she'd been good while we were gone, anyway." He came to a stopping place, and waited. Could still feel Xander, close against him, and not remotely asleep.

"I'll...um... be right back."

And then bang, zoom, no more Xander. Out the door and up the ladder and Spike just sat there, shaking his head. Lightly cursing himself out. "Bloody well knew you shouldn't be describin' in detail how somebody else fucked you mindless, but oooooh no, you have to be Spike, Vampire Porn Star. Christ, he was insecure enough to give you a blowjob in a sewer tunnel a few hours ago, " ---and only Xander could possibly make a blowjob in a sewer tunnel romantic, somehow. When he'd laid his head against Spike's thigh--- "and you're tellin' him afternoon bedtime stories about you and the bloke upstairs with the fussy hair."

Spike sorted clothes. He could do that. He could concentrate on that, and sooner or later, Xander would come back down. This one for Xander, this one for Angel. This one for-- actually, this one wouldn't look bad on Spike himself. It must have been somebody's daft idea of a pressie, because there was no way Angel could've ever squeezed into it. He put it into a third pile, and tried not to think.

*****

"Hey doofus, are you done stealing clothes for me, or do you feel the need to dis my fashion-sense in private for a few more hours?"

Of course he was done-- it was an hour and a half later, and even the Poof didn't have that big of a wardrobe. Spike had absently stuck Xander's hat on his own head, and he was staring mindlessly at that portrait again. Could still almost smell the chocolate oranges. He looked up to watch Xander in the doorway. Still wearing Angel's shirt, and still looking a damn sight better in it than he had in the Hawaiian thing. This one clung to his muscular chest, tight stomach, as if it had been tailored for him. Now if only Spike could get him out of those baggy cargo pants and into... Was there an into? Out of sounded pretty good, all by itself.

"Done. You wanna try some on?" If he could get Xander out of, they could worry about into after an appropriate interval, after all. Say, four days or so.

Xander smiled at him. "No. But you can change out of that shirt, if you want. Even though you kinda look like Sting, P.I. You know..." He made mushy noises. "Cuuuuuuuute." Alright, now the bastard was just torturing Spike for the hell of it, and... wait, he was free?

Spike looked down at himself. Followed the pattern of green and blood-red leaves on the shirt and shuddered. Cute? Xander thought he looked cute in this thing? He ripped it off with a little squeaky happy noise, oddly reminiscent of certain sounds that might've been heard not long before his expression in that portrait was captured forever on film. He was reaching for the shirt he'd found for himself, something slinky and silver, when he felt a hand on his bare back. Tracing up and down his spine, and then settling in that spot. He hissed softly, then purred, as Xander's fingers splayed across his skin.

"Sorry it took so long-- there was a line, and I-no-longer-have-scones-up-my-ass wanted Aero bars, and Willow and Tara wanted Dairy Milk, and Cordy wanted anything chocolate that didn't list how many calories there are on the package, and Angel-- get this, Angel's up there eating jelly babies..." Xander babbled into his ear and rubbed his back at the same time, and Spike was hard put to decide whether to ask him what the hell he was talking about, or just stand there and moan slightly. "And I have to say, Smarties suck. I'll go with the English chocolate is better theory on everything else, but give me M&M's any day."

Then Spike felt something round and metallic pressed into his hand. "Bought you something," and he was flashing back and forth against his will, with a man against his back whom he loved to a level that petrified him, and the scent of chocolate oranges in his head. Spike was pretty sure he was going crazier than usual, until he opened his eyes and looked down at the brightly-colored ball in his hand. A Terry's chocolate orange, and he could smell the dark chocolate and the orange oils that flavored it even through the foil wrapper.

"I know it's not quite the same thing," Xander apologized, pulling Spike back against him as he studied it, and wrapping his arms loosely around Spike's waist. Hands on his stomach, drumming to the rhythm of whatever Bronze-music CD Willow was playing upstairs now.

"No, they didn't invent these things 'til the thirties," Spike answered, and Xander's arms tightened around him. He turned to face his lover. There was uncertainty in the dark eyes, and it wasn't about candy. He touched Xander's lips with his own, and then tasted-- and Xander had been tasting on the way back from whatever import shop he'd found nearby, because he had chocolate orange on his breath. Dark chocolate and fake orange flavor and a fading hint of essence-of-Spike, from hours ago.

"Like 'em, though. Not worse, just different," Spike said finally. If I said 'better,' would you believe me? Do I have to explain it in words even somebody who can't pay attention in History class would understand? Xander smiled at him, and maybe he didn't.

Spike pulled the hat off his head and tossed it on the bed. With a last look at the portrait, he dropped it gently onto the 'Let the Poof Keep It' pile. "There. Was that maudlin and romance-novelish enough for you?"

"I just thought you might like some chocolate. You're the one who decided to go all Harlequin on me." A shrug, but there was a smile on the quirky lips that hadn't been there a few seconds ago. "Or no, Mills and Boone, right? That you--yeah, right--just read to Dru 'cause she made you."

"You want Mills and Boone?" Spike challenged, and grabbed Xander. Pulled him close and pressed lips together and bent him backwards in a pose that was so completely unmanly it was ludicrous, all the while engaging in one of those stick-my-tongue-so-far-down-your-throat-I-can-taste-your-toenails kisses. Xander went with it, fake-swooning, one hand to his forehead, and Spike dragged him melodramatically over to the bed, before letting him drop with a thump onto the mattress. Fell down on top of him and started reaching for the waist fastening on those baggy trousers, but Xander stopped him.

"What did I say about having sex a room and a half away from my friends who don't know we're having sex?"

"We should do it more often?"

Xander whacked the chocolate orange against Spike's skull.

"We should tell them we're having sex, which would clear up the whole problem?"

"Yes, that would solve all our problems." Whack.

"We should have sex really loudly, so there's no doubt about it?"

"Thank you, Anya the Bloody." Whack!

"Ow. I think it's ready to eat now."

"Oh, let's give it one more, just to make sure." Whack. They unwrapped it, and the slices of chocolate fell in sections. "Would it be too sappy if I fed you some?"

Yes, Harris, I have moral and religious objections to you putting chocolate in my mouth. Twit. Spike shook his head, and they lay there on the bed for a long time, just eating chocolate. With occasional interludes of shin-tickling. When the last section was gone, Spike made a mournful noise, and Xander smiled mysteriously.

"What?"

"Oh no, I'm not telling you. You lie about your age, you lie about your natural hair color, you don't like my clothes, you steal Angel's, you're a sick, twisted masochist..."

"Er... yeah, and?"

"And you don't deserve to know that I have another chocolate orange in the glove compartment. For later."

"It's ninety-five degrees out there-- it'll melt!"

"That's kind of the idea."

 

*****

Spike fell asleep, afterwards. A few hours afterwards.

After stealing all kinds of things Xander didn't even want to think about and mostly sitting around laughing at other people doing the actual work, but that was Spike for you. After bitching loudly that he wasn't getting back in that damned bodybag again, it smelled like dead people--which got him the obvious comment from Cordy-- and they'd just wait here 'til nightfall. Meet the witches at the Rosa Grande Hotel after the sun went down, with 'Yippee' bubbling somewhere between Xander's ears, and no, wait, Spike's looking, a science fiction convention, how boring, don't make us go.

After Xander had gone back out to the car, and returned. After he had let Cordy drive it, the girls, and a load of salvageable stuff back to her place, with yet more bitching from Spike about how come she got to drive the car without an hour and a half of argument first, until Xander had elbowed him sharply in the ribs, and the moron had finally taken the hint.

After Xander had given Angel a Look. A new Look, one he didn't quite have the hang of, yet. He really needed to memorize the muscle-positions for that look, or make sure there was a mirror around the next time it actually worked, because, unbelievably, Angel had nodded and taken Wesley off down the tunnels to show him where they'd been attacked by the Fyarl demon. Or that was what he said they were going to do. Xander really didn't want to think of Angel and Wesley doing what he and Spike had been doing in the tunnels, so he had whispered 'Soul. Curse. Good guy. Just going to look at demon tracks,' to his imagination, and for once it had left him alone.

After all that. And just...afterwards. Spike fell asleep, afterwards.

Might have had something to do with the beforewards. Might have had something to do with lack of sleep last night. Might have had something to do with the fact that Xander was stroking that weird kitty-cat spot of his, over and over and over.

When he was pretty certain that Spike wasn't going to wake up and get all macho with him about it, Xander stood up and walked over to the two piles of clothes on the floor. Grinning, he dropped Spike's cabana shirt into the Angel pile. The other vampire would never wear it, but just the thought of Angel in it was enough to set him giggling quietly.

Then he crouched down to pick up the portrait. Stared at it, lost in it for a while, as lost as Spike had been. Weirdly beautiful, all three of them, and nothing of Xander there at all. No living twentieth-century people who were addicted to Doritos and Ding-Dongs and weren't quite sure when the camera was invented. Just Dru, who wasn't here, and Angel, who wasn't the same, and---

He glanced back to the bed. Is he watching me? Is he sleeping? He's dead, and he doesn't snore-- how the hell do I know for sure? Xander rolled his eyes at himself. Real Spike's back was turned, and it wasn't like Spike from a hundred and whatever years ago was going to tell anybody he was acting like a complete idiot.

He touched Spike's smile again. It was enough, for now. Enough that he knew that smile, because at least once --no, twice-- he'd put it there himself. He buried the portrait, Angelus, Dru, natural-blond liar-guy Spike and all, in the middle of the Xander pile, trying to pretend he couldn't hear the chains rattle at the bottom when he nudged them with his foot.

"Video Killed the Radio Star" is by the Buggles. You remember them, right?





16 Conventional Relationships

"Why am I carrying this again?" Xander fingered the shoulder-strap of his green canvas duffel bag as they walked through the hotel lobby.

"Er, 'cos it's yours?" Spike answered, as if he was really confused by the question. Xander held it out at arm's length, and pointedly hefted the four foot long bag by the strap-- with two fingers.

"Yeah, but once upon a time it was too heavy for me to carry. Needed some vampire superhero guy to play 'Sir Walter bloody Raleigh.' Now unless we both did some sucking when I wasn't looking..."

Guilty little grin from Spike. Guilty as in 'I wasn't expecting to get caught this soon,' not 'I truly feel remorse.' Sucking in of cheeks that really didn't need to be sucked in any further. "Well... Princess said somethin' about donatin' some of the Sire's foofy clothes to charity, before she left to take the witches round to her place. I might've mentioned that you're a charitably-inclined sort of lad."

Xander tipped his hat up with his other hand so he could give Spike a stern glare, and cold water dripped down the back of his neck. He blushed. He could feel the heat in his face, and Spike just looked innocently at him, as if it wasn't all his fault. Xander couldn't touch, look at, or think about the hat without blushing, now, all because of Spike's oh, so eloquent request to Angel before the lovers had left for the hotel: "Oh, by the way-- I want the hat, mate." Insert pained 'why' from Angel. "So's I can shag him while he's wearin' it, dolt." Just in case Angel hadn't gotten it, Spike had waggled his eyebrows and added, "Just the hat." Just another annoy-the-Sire tactic, but did he have to say the whole thing in front of Wesley, too? The sympathetic glance Xander had received from the ex-Watcher hadn't actually helped matters.

Angel had told Spike -- no, ordered him, while grinding his teeth loud enough for even Xander to hear-- to take it. Take the hat, take the clothes, take anything of his Sire's that he'd touched, or even looked at, and never speak of it again. Which had sounded scarily like Giles, and had sent Spike into little spasms of evil ecstasy. The whole exchange had made Xander wish, not for the first time, that he could think of a way to duct-tape Spike's mouth shut and still be able to kiss him. He was working on a design, somewhere on track eighteen of his twenty-two track mind. For the moment, however, all he had was a cool hat that made him blush all the time, and a bag full of Angel's clothes.

Xander slung the bag back over his shoulder, still glaring Black Death at Spike, but his lover/personal fashion critic didn't seem to want to take the hint and die, or whatever it was that undead people did. Spike was just looking around at the red-velvet-covered lobby, with an appreciative air. Xander had to admit that the Rosa Grande was a seriously stylish hotel. Thick carpet, comfy matching furniture scattered all over the place, for those times when you just had to flop and sit and stare into nothingness. Count up how much money you had left, and decide whether you could eat tomorrow, or buy that autographed photo of the Robot from 'Lost In Space. '

Even plastered with cartoon not-quite-M&M's advertising Multi Media 2000, the place announced in no uncertain terms that the two of them couldn't even afford to wait for a cab here, let alone spend the night. Xander had only ever managed it in his misspent youth because Willow's family had paid for his membership, and their room. Now here they were, kind-of-sort-of being paid to spend the night, screw around, and have a good time. At least, their room and memberships were being sprung for by Angel Investigations, and Cordelia swore the whole thing could be deducted. On the whole, a situation that approached awesomeness, if Xander's memories of Multi-Media didn't consist entirely of nostalgia and too many Scooby-related concussions.

Of course, he wasn't going to admit that out loud, since that would imply that he'd been to Multi-Media before-- that he was, in fact, a complete sci-fi geek, instead of a tiny bit of one. If he did that, Spike would snicker at him -- which would be such a big change, of course, but he could at least try to limit the vampire's opportunities. Snicker at me naked, fine. Then at least we understand each other. Snicker at me in front of the cast of Battlestar Galactica, and I might just have to turn so red I spontaneously combust. The only thing that might put a kink in the good times was trying to hide the fact that he was actually having a good time. He snerked to himself; you had to appreciate the irony.

"Spike! Xander! Over here!" Oh look-- Perkywillow, standing by the con sign-in table. Bouncing up and down on tennis-shoed feet, arms full of various plastic bags which undoubtedly contained all kinds of fannish goodness that Xander wouldn't be able to drool over as obviously as he'd like to. She was accompanied by an equally-burdened Tara, who held out manila envelopes towards them with an apologetic smile -- I'm so sorry, I just sleep with her, I don't control her sugar-intake.

"Hey, ladies." Xander, with a last glare at Spike, led him across the crowded lobby. When they reached the table, Xander took his envelope from Tara. "I see you guys started celebrating early." They were both wearing 'Multi-Media' t-shirts, with not-Red-M&M and not-Yellow-M&M holding hands on the front.

Willow nodded enthusiastically. Then looked Xander and Spike up and down, throwing in another head-to-toe bounce. "You're all wet!" Bounce, bounce.

"You think?" Spike shook his head like a dog, if there was a breed of dogs that bleached their hair and wore leather jackets, spraying water everywhere. Willow and Tara ducked. Xander didn't bother, since he was almost as soaked, shagging-hat having offered very little protection against the sudden downpour that was still downpouring outside. Neither had the turned-down top to the Chevy convertible, and thank God the interior was leather and wiped off easily. "'Bout ten minutes ago it started pissin' like a Frost Giant who just drank a lakeful of beer." Spike's weather report was muffled by the fact that he spoke while ripping open the free bag of M&M's attached to his registration packet-- with his teeth.

"That's very...colorful." Tara winced at his description, or maybe it was at Spike pouring the entire package of candy down his throat. After smacking his lips like it had been O Positive straight from the still-struggling tap, Spike started going through his packet, snorting every so often.

"It's weird, though, " Willow said. "I mean, that thing about it never raining in southern California isn't true, but it's pretty close during this part of the summer." Tara nodded, starting to say something in reply, but it was too late; Willow had gone full-steam into Knowledge Girl mode. Poor Tara, if she hadn't learned to recognize this incarnation of her girlfriend by now. Xander smiled politely, and waited while Willow bubbled on. "In fact, the average precipitation for this whole area, even Sunnydale, is about zero in June and July--- I did a study in high school, and it's only during periods of mystical upheaval that..." She rolled to a stop, as everyone but Spike continued to look at her. "You don't care, do you?"

Tara, who obviously was familiar with Knowledge Girl, assured her otherwise. "Oh, no, we care. It's fascinating."

"We don't care," Spike said, more truthfully.

Willow made a face at him. "Well, I did have a point. It's probably somebody working up some big magic somewhere. That can affect the weather patterns, and then you get all kinds of freaky stuff. It's a good thing Angel's on the case, and whatever's going down is really going down at the other hotel. 'Cause we all know he just sent you two along to keep you out of his hair, and..." She didn't sound like she was going to pause for breath soon.

"You had coffee, didn't you," Xander interrupted her sternly, finally figuring out why Perkywillow was extra perky tonight. She gave him a reflection of his own best puppy-dog eyes, but it didn't work very well when hers were jumping up and down and screaming 'Yes! Yes! I am the Caffeine Goddess, run around in circles, bounce off the ceiling, and worship me!' More stern looks produced more puppy eyes, but no answer. "Willow? Coffee?"

"Um, maybe I had a little."

"Maybe she got four free double-espressos at the central Ops table because she helped them set up the computer gaming room," Tara said sadly, pulling Willow away from the flyer-strewn table.

"Well, it's a con! You have to be able to stay up all night. It's tradition!" Willow smiled broadly, bouncing even more as they walked back through the milling crowd of assorted fans, some in brightly-colored costumes. Tara looked mildly frightened-- of Willow, or the fans, or possibly both.

"Willow, put down the palm pilot and the java and step away from the computers," Xander teased. "You're here to have a good time, not hack into the Pentagon so the Quake addicts can play Global Thermonuclear War." Willow's eyes glittered, like she didn't quite think the two were incompatible, and she hadn't stopped bouncing. It was starting to make him a little queasy, and he looked at Spike just to stop his eyes from bouncing up and down as fast as Willow was.

It didn't help a lot-- Spike, with his water-darkened hair plastered in little waves against his face, made Xander want to drag him off somewhere and lick all the rain droplets off him. Yet another fun activity that he wouldn't get any chance to enjoy this weekend, not with the four of them in the same room. He decided to look at Tara. She was a safe enough sight, smiling and watching Willow with fond amusement in her dark blue eyes.

"We," Xander indicated Spike and himself, "are not here to have a good time. Or to be kept out of Angel's hair. We're detectives." He adjusted his fedora to what felt like a fairly rakish angle. And blushed.

Willow giggled at him. Fine. See if Xander saved her ass when the baddies attacked while everybody was busy MST3K-ing 'The Day the Earth Stood Still.' "I like the hat, Xan," she said. "It was nice of Angel to let you keep it."

Which triggered another blush from Xander, and a smirk from Spike, but Willow was too wired to notice either, thank God. Quoth Xander in his best attempt at a Bogart voice: "Thank you kindly. Harris, P.I, and his sidekick, Spike, the Default Good Guy. On the hunt for demons, ma'am. Or at least people who'd hire demons to attack Angel."

"Yeah, that narrows it down, " Spike muttered absently, squinting at the convention program. "And I'm not your sidekick, whelp," he added after a second. "If anybody's the detective, it's me. I've got the better threads, after all."

Yeah, just 'cause he looks better, he's automatically the hero? Fine. See if I save his ass, when-- Okay, fine. We all know Spike would save my ass. A guy can dream, though. While Xander was whining to himself and mentally hauling dream-Spike out of danger for once, real-Spike gave a startled exclamation, then groaned, holding up his nametag under one of the fancy fake gas lamps that dotted the plush lobby. Far away from him, as if the tag had been smeared with garlic.

"What?" Xander fished out his own, and studied it. 'Alexander L. Harris. 2 day membership, all activities.' It looked just fine. He glanced back over at Spike's. Read the bold laser-printed text. Blinked repeatedly, just to make sure he wasn't hallucinating. Maybe it was the light, bouncing off the plastic casing of the tag? "William.. ah... um... Willow?"

She shrugged happily. Bouncily. Not remotely apologetically. "Well, they wanted a real name. No 'Hi, I'm Spike' allowed. And 'the Bloody' was a no-go, too."

Xander stared at the nametag, still blinking furiously. In denial. In severe denial. William... "And you couldn't give him your name?"

"Does he look like a Rosenberg?"

"Well, what about Buffy's name? They at least almost got married once."

Spike growled, for real. Almost a vampire growl, low and gritty. "I'm not wandering about telling people I'm William Summers. I would sooner marry you."

Xander shrugged, not sure whether to be irritated or amused, or if he should give in to that tiny part of himself that said mine whenever Spike could be manipulated into wearing Xander's clothes, like he had this morning. Indulge the Spike-belongs-to-me fantasy. Admit, at least under his shagging-hat, that the thought of Spike being William Harris did something funny to his insides. As did the sight of Spike shrugging, wiping off the rain drops that had fallen onto the badge from his hair, and pinning it to his Angel-inherited shirt, where it could be seen clearly under the open duster. The vampire Xander didn't really own looked at him, then sighed pitifully. "It's fine. I understand. No ring, no chapel, no flowers, just a name badge, and I s'pose I'll have to do the dishes and clean the floors and pay for my own blood and choccies..."

"Why start now?" Xander asked with a snort. "But Wills... I mean..."

Spike grabbed him around the shoulders. "What, honey? Don't you want everybody to know how much you lurrrrrrrve me?"

No, asshole. I'm trying hard enough not to let you know how much I lurrrrrve you. Xander elbowed him in the arm, and the girls helped out immensely by giggling. Xander glared at Willow, hard, but the Caffeine Goddess was about as impressed by him as she'd been by Spike. "Fine," he said at last, shaking off his demented lover. "You're my idiot cousin from Pittsburgh. Say it, Spike."

"I'm your idiot cousin from Pittsburgh," Spike repeated with a straight face, in an accent that sounded like somebody from Monty Python's Flying Circus trying to eat three Milky Ways and talk at the same time.

"Correction. You're my idiot cousin from Liverpool."

"I'm not from Liver..."

"Shut up."

"Yes, dear." Spike smirked silently at him all the way out of the lobby.

*****

-Interlude in a Sunnydale Condo-

Rupert was dreaming. In the Citroen again, which ran as well as it ever had, driving Willow and Xander home. That night, that first night, exhausted both in mind and in body. Strangely ecstatic, because, if nothing else, they'd survived. Buffy already gone -- dropped off a block from her house so she could sneak in the window. Willow babbling senselessly in his ear, Xander silent in the back seat. When was Xander ever silent?

Willow beside him, smelling of Ivory soap and innocence, and yet it was gone, gone with the first snarling monster that had pushed itself at her as they'd guided screaming teens out of the Bronze, gone with the first sizzle of holy water against a wrinkled brow. "...and we have to get to school on Monday, so I should get home so I can sleep and do my homework, and tell Tara all about the Harvest..."

Something wrong there, but as he stared at the road, trying to see through the rain that his one working wiper did bugger all to get rid of, he couldn't think what. Silence louder than Willow's nervous stream of nonsense, and he glanced in the rearview mirror at Xander. Gone. Almost gone. Fading from view, as if he were one of the vampires they'd staked tonight. Rupert looked over his shoulder, and Xander was there, just... not there. It was empty behind his eyes, though his lips formed those words, the last ones he'd heard Xander speak, back on the dust-scattered dance floor of the Bronze. Nothing will ever be the same again. Rupert called back to him, but there was no answer, and Willow turned as well. "Xander? Xander, wake up."

"Wake up, love." He tasted chocolate, warm and sweet, being gently brushed across his lips. "Rupert?" A moment, and the chocolate was replaced by lips that were just as warm. A blink, and the haziness of the dream that had been half truth was replaced by skin as smooth and dark as that chocolate, and a pair of somewhat worried brown eyes.

"Well, I've been awakened in more pleasant ways," he said slowly, and Olivia frowned at him, "but I can't remember when." A smile, then. And a purr? No, she'd dropped a small black and white kitten on his chest. "Hello, you." A greeting shared by both his sometime lover and Willow and Tara's cat, both of whom reacted favorably. "Aero?"

"No, Flake. You ate all the Aeros. Bad dream?" Olivia curled up beside him, while Miss Kitty kneaded sharp claws into his shirt, every so often into his chest.

"No. No, not really. Just something that happened a long time ago." Rupert stared for a moment at the ceiling of his loft. "I'm not a flake, and I didn't eat all the Aeros. I distinctly remember..." He laughed at his own Xanderish joke, and his own childish possessiveness. My imported chocolate that a vampire bought for me, and I'm not going to ask why. I'm not. It's mine. Besides, he couldn't distinctly remember anything. "Is it morning? Did I sleep that long?"

She chuckled, low and so familiar. Afternoons in a dingy flat in Cheltenham, listening to horrible bands on a scratchy stereo, making love on the floor with an empty six-pack of beer or cider bottles scattered about them. "No, it's only about half past eight. An hour or so."

"God, I'm past it already. Taking evening naps..." Rupert rubbed his hand through his mussed hair.

Olivia ran soft fingers through the hair on his chest, while the kitten chased them, planting one tiny paw on her hand every so often. "Hardly, Ripper. You fought off a pack of... whatever those things were, with... whatever that thing was. You deserve a little rest."

He glanced down at her, and noted that the worry, or concern, or something else, was back on her face. "Hellhounds, and it was a helm-axe."

"Yes, very convenient, how it just happened to be stuck in the light-pole we happened to be passing when those things happened to show up." Olivia raised a sculptured eyebrow at him.

He laughed again. "Yes, all a bit out of the ordinary, including the hellhounds, but for some reason I'm more concerned about the fact that it's my helm-axe. I lent it to Xander, rather as a joke, when he told me he'd let Spike move back into his basement."

"Interesting choice of flatmate, but at least it means he isn't staying here."

"Xander?" Rupert couldn't keep the surprise, and a tiny bit of hurt, out of his voice.

"Your funny little surrogate son?" He made chuffing noises to deny it, but she ignored him. "No, you sentimental old duffer. I meant Spike. Where is he from, anyway? His accent's all over the place."

"Hell, I suspect. Or Eastcheap."

More of that Cheltenham afternoon chuckling, rippling against his skin this time, but then it got quiet. "So your patrols aren't usually like that? No getting attacked by hellhounds every night?"

Could he answer that in the negative with any degree of truth? Should he be trying to? Was there ever anything usual in Sunnydale? What had he once said to Wesley? Something about a lack of controlled circumstances. "Not usually hellhounds, and I don't usually go on patrol. Not anymore." Which answered nothing, though he'd used her word, as if it had some meaning. "Buffy can handle it herself, most of the time, though she often takes the others with her. They're younger; they can bounce back without multiple hours of recuperation time."

Olivia rested her head on the pillow next to him, and he listened to the unreasonable, unseasonable rain falling on the roof. They'd both come in drenched to the skin, giggling like children. Two bottles each of Diamond White, sipping it between chocolates, him telling her about the safer ghosts, the funnier demons, had helped. Temporarily smoothed away her fears of what he did, what Buffy did, what was real that she'd never believed in before. Then they were young for a while, in this bed, or they had pretended to be, listening to something scratchy and awful rising up from the stereo downstairs. Afterwards, he'd rested, while she went to make some coffee, and he'd drifted off into that uneasy mix of memory and dream.

Plink and plonk on rooftop and tile outside, and something behind it like the hiss of an amp turned up too high with nothing coming though but white noise, or an LP that had reached its ending, and just kept circling on that last unrecorded track. This rain had invaded his dream, twisted things just slightly sideways, for it had been dry, hot, that night when he'd driven them home. Driven Willow home, and Xander...

"They're children," Olivia said slowly, and it echoed the memories that were still driving a beaten-up Citroen around the inside of his skull. "They're children, and they face this sort of thing every day, don't they."

He shook his head, feeling her hair both soft and rough against his skin. "No. No, they're not. They're not children, not anymore. If they ever were."

*****

Bounce! Bounce! Bounce! "You're gonna hit your head on the ceiling, Spike," Willow warned him. Spike rolled his eyes and continued to bounce on the bed that didn't have Willow and Tara's gear spread all over it.

"Am not, and don't care if I did. It's a real bed!" A sleigh bed, of all things, dark cherry wood that curved up at the foot and head into finely-carved knots and rolls. This place really was high-end. There was a fridge in the room for his blood, as well, and the girls had stocked it to overflowing with supermarket-type snacks that he fully intended to explore at a later date. There was also a data jack, whatever that was, in the phone, so Willow could plug in her computer and get onto the internet. Which reminded him of his reason for getting her to show him to the room instead of letting her lovergirl do it, as Willow had suggested.

Smack! The top of his skull hit the stuccoed ceiling with a painful crack, and Spike grabbed his head, tucking up his legs and bouncing down on his arse this time. "Told you," from Willow, and he rubbed his head, scowling at her. He didn't need a mother, thank you. He already had a Sire, somewhere off across town in a room that most likely looked exactly like this one. Possibly snogging with his little public school wizardy type, probably being all noble and denying that one chocolate-induced kiss had ever happened. Much more fun when you didn't really. But then maybe Angel wasn't in the market for another boy, seeing as his first one had turned out so badly.

Willow got all coffee-squeaky again as she sat down on her own bed, and gave an experimental bounce. Literally-- she squeaked. "Okay, I take it back. Aren't the beds great? Must be a real step up from sleeping in that barcalounger thing of Xander's. I've done it; it's nasty."

Right. The red chair. The last time he'd slept in that thing, not counting falling asleep on top of Xander a few nights ago, was when? That Friday afternoon before the whole choco-blood-cereal-kissy episode? "Ah, yeah. Bloody thing puts a crick in my back like you wouldn't believe." He bounced a bit more on his arse, and grinned. "Like the room, Red, even if I have to share it with you and Blondie and Snore-Boy."

Willow gave him a look, as she rifled through a collection of multi-colored sheets of paper that were scattered on her dark blue duvet. "Do you ever call anybody by their real names?"

Spike huffed. "Oh, like you lot have real names? Buffy? Willow? Xander? Slayer sounds like a teen facial care product, you're a Jewish tree, donut-lad's got a real name but who ever abbreviates it that way? Your smoochie downstairs might have a shot, but it's supposed to be Tah-rah, as in rah-boom-dee-ay, not Tear-ah, as in tear somebody a new one. We won't even go into Angel, or Windbag-Pryce." He'd almost run out of alternate names for Angel -- there were only so many things you could say about his hair or his poofiness before the joke got stale. "Rupert's the only one with a decent name. And Cordelia, possibly, but it's just more fun to call 'er Princess." Plus it reminded him of Dru, in a nice, mostly-non-melancholy way. "In short, yes, you all need new names, and you should be honored at the ones I've chosen for you."

"Yes, because Spike Harris obviously gave your and Xander's wedding invitations that 'touch of classic elegance'," Willow teased.

Bloody hell. Bad enough he had almost married the Slayer --and that was all Willow's fault-- but now witchy-poo was quoting things at him that he'd said under the influence of a spell she wasn't supposed to ever mention again, no matter how many chocolate chip cookies she baked him to make up for it? And Willow hadn't even been about when he'd had that particularly mortifying conversation with Buffy, which meant-- Grr. Spike reminded himself once again to kill the big-mouthed Slayer. Then he reminded himself that he couldn't kill the big-mouthed Slayer, because it would hurt Xander. Bugger.

He glanced down at the name badge pinned to his shirt. William Harris. Lovely. Not that he minded displaying the fact that he belonged to Xander, even if no one knew it, but it sounded so…human. Like a Default Good Guy. He snorted, letting Willow take it as she would. She was plugging her laptop into the telephone jack now, and he leaped at the opportunity. "Ah, ah, Tear-ah wouldn't want you cloistering yourself up here away from all the fun, would she?"

Guilty eyes from the little red witch. "I just want to check my e-mail. Then I'll go back downstairs." Beep-beep-bip-bip song, as the thing dialed up to the great network connection in the sky, and Spike bounced up, moved over, and bounced down on the other bed next to her, to look over her shoulder. "Do you mind?" she said, tilting the screen so he couldn't quite read it.

"What, do I mind watchin' you read steamy love letters? No, but what would your girlie say?"

"No, do you mind, you're sitting on my filksong sing-along sheets, and I don't want to be the only one in the room who doesn't know the words to 'New Sins For Old' because it's got Spike-Butt-Creases all over it. And you're still all wet. Yuck." But Willow clicked and typed quickly, and the white screen was soon replaced by a yellow one. Multiple rows of dancing cartoon rodents gyrated before Spike's eyes.

Spike snortled at her. "Come on, Red. I don't care if you read internet porn. Hell, I don't care if you write it." She blinked at him, and he raised an eyebrow. Nah. Not innocent little Willow... He snickered, and she thumped him on his poor, sore head with a convenient pillow.

"Do you have some reason for snooping, Spike, or are you just generally trying to be annoying?"

"I want you to teach me how to use this thing," he said honestly.

It would give him something to do during the times when he got tired of torturing Xander by pretending he didn't know the boy could refer to episode titles when discussing Star Trek plots. Something to do besides avoiding the non-closeted Sci-Fi fans downstairs. Pretending he was supposed to be sniffing round for demons when he knew damned well Willow was right, and whatever fun stuff was happening would be happening at the Rosa Grande East, where Angel and his Fang Gang were hard at work.

Also, it would serve to distract him from at least two days worth of no sex in his pitiful future. Forget that he'd been worried about five days of no sex when this whole grand adventure started. Forget that he'd gotten Xanderized twice today. That was then, this was now, and how was he supposed to share a bed with the boy and not shag him senseless? Especially with that hat around. He sighed. Suddenly having a grown-up moment, despite being in the same city as his Sire, which always seemed to make him shrink at least three inches in height. It wasn't that he thought of nothing but sex--he'd gone without for months, before Xander, after all.

It was just that the sex stopped him from thinking of the other things. Mostly. At least until it got dark, and he held a warm body in his arms, and wondered. How screwed up either of them really were. Where Xander had gone, when he'd fallen away inside himself a few nights ago. What it was that made him break down and cry in Spike's arms last night. How long he himself had left, before Xander caught on to how much he needed the smiles, and the touches, and holding him in the darkness, or being held. Got scared, got wise, and pushed him away.

Red was staring at him. Wanted something from him, and he'd gone off himself, to some broody Angel place. "You want me to teach you how to use the computer?" she asked, somewhere between suspicious and surprised.

Spike covered his own discomfiture with a quickly-snapped, "No, the remote control for the telly." Which he picked up and flipped on. Ooh-- free HBO -- didn't have that in the Basement of Doom. Nor a working remote. Yet another available distraction. He turned to look at Willow, after a few seconds of staring at someone doing something soft-core and soft-focus, on the screen. "Yes, I want you to teach me how to use the computer. Or rather, the internet. Sick of bein' a technologically backwards vamp; I want to go cruise the information superhighway."

Willow stared at him, her mouth rounded into an O of surprise. He'd figured she wouldn't be able to resist the lure of spreading her nerdism, and he was right, because she turned the screen so he could see it. "Ooooo-kay. I don't know whether I'm more scared at the idea of you loose on the web, or you loose on my computer." Spike batted his eyelashes at her innocently, and she gave him a look he'd already seen at least twenty times on Cordelia's face in the last day, and more times than he could count on Xander's. It was usually accompanied by the phrase, 'puh-leeeze.' "I guess it'll keep you out of other trouble, but c'mon, Spike. Why do you want to go out on the internet? Really."

He told her. He told her with a refined leer and a big grin, and waited for Willow's face to turn as red as her hair, and her to start stammering and stuttering and just generally proving that she and Xander were in fact soul-twins. He told her in great detail, including what sort of pictures he'd like to look at, and what genders of people should be in them--any, in all combinations-- and the name of that site Xander had gotten his Spike-as-Banana-Split idea from: 'Nancy's Home for Lost Boys,' or something.

"Wayward Boys," she corrected him with a cheery chirp. He stared questioningly at her. "It's on the Favorites list, under 'Willow and Tara's Fun Places To Visit.' " With that, she picked up his hand, and put it on the clicky-thing at the bottom of the keyboard. Not even a nervous tremor in her breathing, Spike noticed with barely-concealed disappointment. "Now, not to patronize you or anything, but are we at the 'Computer is a box that goes bing' stage, or the 'I know what the mouse is, please show me how to use that program' stage?"

"I know what the mouse is, please show me how to find the naked pictures," he answered sullenly.

"Oh, Nancy's site has fiction, too. You'll like it." She leaned over him, and her hair brushed against his, and he was thankful, for some reason, that he couldn't blush.

*****

Down in the Dealers' Room, Xander felt a tap on his shoulder, and jumped. "Uh, what? I wasn't looking at...um... anything." The anything he hadn't been looking at was a pile of adult-rated fanzines, the kind he really never had looked at when he and Willow had attended the convention in middle school. Though he'd snuck a peek at some of the interesting ones-- the ones whose covers had semi-nude drawings of Trek girls on them-- the summer after their freshman year of high school. The last summer that they'd come here.

Tara smiled at him. "Okay. Well, when you're done not looking at anything over here, I thought you might want to come over and not look at the jewelry and knives table with me. I'm thinking of buying Willow a new pentacle, and they've got some nice ones. Just thought I'd ask your advice, since you've known her longer than I have."

Xander blinked. Longer, sure, but Tara had to know her better, didn't she? Since they were lovers, they ought to know each other... Yes, because you know Spike better than any random demon off the street knows him, right? Aside from his ticklish spots and his natural hair color? "Well, I know her, but not in a.. y'know. .. um... biblical... I should just not follow that thought, right?"

"Probably." She had that 'Xander's so cute' look on her face, which was great because it meant he hadn't offended her, but also annoying because the only females who ever seemed to get it were other people's moms and women who were dating other women. It was also disconcerting, because he was pretty sure he'd seen that look on Spike's face a couple of times in the last few weeks.

"So... you like the convention so far? It's trés cool, no? I mean, in a totally geeky, not at all my usual kind of--"

Tara put a hand on his arm. "Xander, Willow told me you used to go to these things together."

"Oh." He looked down, realized this meant he was looking at the pile of adults-only zines, and looked quickly back up. "Oh. Well, yeah. It's just Spike has enough chances to make fun of me, y'know?"

Right, so why are you living with him, he finished for her mentally. She just nodded. "Willow figured it was something like that. Don't worry, we won't blow your cover," she tugged at the brim of his hat, "Detective Harris." Tara picked up the top fanzine, which had a picture of Kirk doing something to Spock that he'd never done in the series, on the cover. "Oh. Wow. Um." She put it back down. "So. Yeah. It's fun. Kinda neat to meet people as weird as me, even though I'm not necessarily a big science fiction fan."

"That'll change. Wait 'til Willow drags you into one of the all-night screening rooms. And you mean people as weird as you, besides us, right?" He grinned at her, and she shuffled a little, holding her shopping bag in front of her, looking at the floor. Then she looked up and grinned back.

"Well, I wasn't gonna say it."

"Guess this could seem a little tame, compared to hanging out with the Slayer." A grade-schooler in full Minbari ceremonial dress ran past, being chased by a teenage Obi-Wan, who whapped Xander on the head with his plastic lightsaber as he passed. "Or not. Ow." Xander pushed his hat back into place. "It's nice to free the inner geek anyway, once in a while." Tara looked at him, and he sighed. "Okay, it's nice to be allowed to admit that I'm always a geek."

"Me too. Quick, before Spike gets back, let's go be geeks together." Tara stared to haul him off towards the shiny-and-sharp-things table, then stopped. "Um, were you gonna buy that?"

Oh God. What did he have in his hands? Something with Kirk and Spock on the cover? Maybe at least it was Janeway and Torres. Ivanova and anybody? Xander looked down. He was holding a model of the U.S.S. Defiant. One that, in fact, he already owned. Blink, blink. He put it down with a little shiver--whether of relief or just wigginess that he hadn't realized he was holding it, he wasn't sure.

"No. I..." At Tara's curious glance, Xander shook his head. "I used to always pick up a model for a friend of Willow's and mine. He wasn't a Trek fan, but he liked putting things together, so we'd hang out in my basement after we got back from the con, and build stuff. Try not to sniff the glue fumes too much."

Summer of ninety-six, and what was the last thing he'd brought back for Jesse-- a Trek model, like this? No, it had been a full-scale castle, with a drawbridge and a moat you could fill with water. A little too Dungeons and Dragons even for Xander --for the great book of geekerdom sayeth that interbreeding between the sci-fi geeks and the fantasy geeks can be dangerous-- but it had been fun to build. The two of them, just laughing and drinking Pepsi. Eating way too much junk food-- probably Three Musketeers, because they were Jesse's favorite.

"That sounds fun. So, are you gonna buy it for him?"

Xander shook his head. "Not a lot of point. He's dead." He'd forgotten, just for a moment. That the last time he'd been here, things had been so different. Tara stared at him, and he shrugged. Didn't know what else to say. "Hellmouth got him. It happens." Three musketeers became two, became three, four, seven-- became the Scoobies. It happened. Tara didn't reply, and when he tried to catch her eye, she started looking at the floor again. "It was a long time ago, Tara. Hey, c'mon. Lighten up. Let's go look at expensive pewter stuff that we can pretend we have the money to buy. Then we can go buy less expensive plastic stuff that we don't have the money to buy either." Xander tugged on her arm, and was rewarded with a little smile as he pulled her across the open convention-hall floor.

"You know, you're still dripping all over everything," she pointed out. "Don't you want to go upstairs and change into some dry clothes?"

"And lose valuable Spike-free geekage time?" Xander studied himself as best he could. The black silk shirt he'd inherited from Angel was a little clingy when wet, granted, and his cargo pants would probably shrink, which would make Spike happy. "Does it look that bad? Are people staring at me?"

Tara shook her head. "No. Well, actually that girl over there was, but I think it's a compliment." She pointed subtly towards the table full of recordings-of-questionable-origin, where Xander could see a woman with long dark hair, her face mostly turned away, picking through a large stack of DVD's. If she'd been staring at him before, she wasn't now.

"You're crazy," he told Tara. "But in a good way. You fit right in."

*****

"Spike's insane-- have I mentioned that?" Willow asked, slipping into a seat in the darkened screening room next to Tara, a few hours later.

"I think you've said something along those lines," Tara answered. Only about ten or twelve times. On the screen, still clips of a black and white Doctor Who episode were being flashed, with subtitles and a soundtrack in the background. It was all about the little guy in the fur coat, who was being chased by the clunky robot things who couldn't climb stairs, but were somehow supposed to be the most terrifying monsters on the face of the planet. She was trying to understand the attraction, she really was. "What's he doing now?"

"Oh, last time I checked, he was in the filksinging room with Xander, making up new words to 'What You Gonna Do With A Cowboy.' I didn't even know Spike listens to country, and I'm not sure I wanted to. No, I mean before that. I came back to the room to drop off some fanzines and found him stretched out on his and Xander's bed, downloading I don't want to know what, with about forty of those little free packs of M&M's spread around him."

Tara shrugged. "So he likes chocolate. We knew that." She'd only had about fifteen packs of M&M's so far herself, today…

"He was separating out all of the blue ones. He says they're evil, and shouldn't be allowed to touch the others. And I always thought Drusilla was the crazy one." Willow's eyes got big. "You realize we're gonna be sleeping in the same room as an insane, M&M-segregating vampire?"

Tara couldn't resist giggling at her. "You realize you could've just left off everything but vampire, and a year ago I would've completely freaked out?" Willow conceded the point with a tilt of her head.

There was weird stuff in an Alabama hill town, of course, Tara's own family being among the weirdest, but it couldn't begin to compare with what she'd experienced in Sunnydale. Even the Hellmouth's ever-present vampires seemed pretty tame, compared to the other things she'd run into since she met Willow. After having been chased through the dorm by spooky undertaker guys, chased through the fine arts building by Willow's wolfed-out ex-boyfriend, chased down the hall by a hairy, naked, opposite-of-Jonathan monster --was she sensing a pattern, here?-- it was hard to get creeped out by a plain old bloodsucker, insane or otherwise.

Besides-- Spike? Please. Like he's gonna have any time to spare from trying to keep his hands off Xander, to bother us. God, I wish those two would just come out, already. "Anyway," she said to Willow, trying for a lascivious grin, and probably just looking goofy, "Who says we're gonna be sleeping?"

Willow smiled, then frowned. "With Spike and Xander in the room? I'm not doing anything else, no matter how much Xander begs."

Tara looked innocently at her. "Pervert. I meant all that coffee you drank. You'll be up until three."

"Yeah, but then I'll crash and burn and sleep like a dead woman. You won't be able to tell the difference between me and Spike."

"Um, yeah. I think I will." Willow had better legs, among other important features, although it might be a toss-up as to who had the best lips. Tara leaned across and kissed her girlfriend. Nope. Definitely Willow. She glanced around. What the heck, it was dark, no one could see them, and anyway, who cared? She'd seen two guys standing in the middle of the lobby earlier, embracing in a not-quite-R-rated manner and cleaning each other's tonsils at the same time, and nobody had even batted an eyelash. Like two girls kissing in the back of a darkened room were going to draw any attention, with all the monsters and aliens and life-size comic book characters running around? "Mmm. By the way, I think I see why demons might want to set up shop in the middle of a science fiction convention, after all."

She pointed to the fully made-up somethings, all under five feet tall, who were lined up at the front of the room, sitting cross-legged on the floor and watching the screen with unwavering attention. Then she kissed Willow again, while her lover was distracted. Willow nodded, a bit dazedly. "Uh-huh. Good point." After a moment: "Yeah, I kinda forgot about all the opportunities for camouflage. But Spike says he can smell real demons, so we should be okay. Besides, I called Cordelia's room at the other hotel to check in, and she said there's some people from Wolfram and Hart registered there. That's the firm of evil lawyers who keep trying to mess with Angel." When Tara didn't answer her, didn't move, in fact, Willow laughed. "Okay, eviler lawyers."

"Spike can smell demons?" Maybe she hadn't heard Willow correctly.

"Well, he wouldn't know if somebody was possessed by one, or something. But he said he could tell if one of these guys was a human in a costume, or something else."

Tara relaxed in her seat. Holding a little panic in reserve, if necessary, but deciding that if Spike hadn't spilled all her secrets by now, he either didn't know, or didn't care. "Oh."

"Except Spike lies a lot, so even that might not be true." Willow was still coffee-bouncing, even after several hours. Kind of rocking against her. It was nice. "Look, let's face it, Angel sent them along to get them out of his way, not to protect us from bad guys. Whatever's happening has got to be over at the Rosa Grande East." She pointed at the screen. "I used to hide behind the couch when those things came on. Xander would sit on the floor in front and protect me." Tara watched, as the black and white image flickered, and was replaced by another.

*****

-Interlude at the Rosa Grande East-

Cordelia Chase was a beautiful woman. Lindsey had to give her that much. She thought she was hard, too, but that very desire to be strong, to be something more than pretty, was her own personal handle. He could see it, almost, growing out of her spine. Made of flesh and bone, hot and hard like that certain part of him couldn't help getting when he was around her, around any woman. His, though, after years of practice, his wasn't a handle, and hers was. He could reach out and grab, reach out with his plastic hand, and twist, just so, push and she'd walk any direction he chose.

"Lindsey. " Standing outside his hotel room like she'd just accidentally wandered past, like she didn't know he was here, and him just coming out, and oops, so sorry. "What a surprise. Did you get evicted from the rock you were living under?"

"It's always such a pleasure to see you, Cordelia. Were you on your way to a...business meeting? Or from?"

On the third floor of a hotel like this one, there was only one kind of business meeting she'd be attending. She was dressed for it, but then she always dressed for it, an impeccably-chosen wardrobe that never screamed anything, just implied whatever you wanted it to, so she could deny it later. I'm a struggling actress, though Lindsey MacDonald, at least, could see through every character she'd ever played in front of him. I'm a rich man's daughter, though she wasn't anymore. I'm an expensive whore, though she thought she wasn't. Unless you counted working for a vampire with a hero complex, and that wasn't expensive, not for the clients. Whoring for the Powers That Be, who took you and used you and left two dollars on your dresser in the morning. He'd rather be the honest kind of whore, himself. The law school kind.

Her perfect model's face didn't even twitch at his suggestion, but he hadn't expected it to. "Oh, please. Hooker jokes? And lame hooker jokes, at that? The guy I dated in high school could do better than you. Oh, wait, the guy I dated in high school has done better than you. He may be a stockboy, but he's still got a soul."

"And he's registered across town, at the other branch of this very hotel. Did you know that?" No need to pretend he didn't know everything about her, from which dentist put on her first cap, to what brand of toothpaste she bought at the Buy-n-Save. No need for her to pretend that she didn't know what he, they, Wolfram and Hart, knew.

"What makes you think I care?" Which meant she knew, and she cared. He could almost see the handle forming, swelling out of the bare, tan skin between her shoulderblades.

"Did you know he's got a boyfriend?" Harris and Harris, and Rosenberg and Maclay, and wasn't it just a cosy little room over there at the RG West, he was betting.

Since the fiasco with Faith last year, the two brightest stars of the Special Projects team were determined never to look like fools in front of the big bosses again, so he and Lilah had dug deeper into Angel's past, and those of his employees-- especially where those pasts combined. Sunnydale, California, where they rolled up the streets when the sun went down, had more vampires on any given rolled-up street corner than sat on the W&H board of directors. Plus Angel's ex, the non-incarcerated Slayer, and her little band of kids, one of whom Cordelia Chase used to be. Three of whom were sharing a room across town, and Lindsey still didn't know who the fourth guy was, but Alexander Harris didn't have a brother, so there was a good guess.

Now Cordelia was laughing at him. Impressive laughter. Almost believable. "Xander? Has a boyfriend?"

"What, aren't you overjoyed that you ruined him for all other women?" Waiting for the twitch, but it never came, because she thought she was hard. Just a little more, then. Just a little more, and he could reach out and push. He stood, silent, patient, reaching for just the right thing to say. Maybe something about her not being able to keep a man?

Meanwhile, Cordelia smacked her palm against her forehead. "God, you're an idiot, Lindsey. I guess I am, too, because I almost believed you for a second." She shook her head, perfect hair swinging over her shoulder, and gazed at him, some kind of enlightenment spreading across her face along with that superior little smirk. "Not that I care -- if he had a boyfriend, I'd be happy for him -- but you mean the guy he's registered with." A little gasp of real laughter, or was it just a very good fabrication? "Huh. Boyfriend."

She stopped smiling, and gave him a hard look, then-- and damn it, he couldn't see though it. Didn't know who was wearing the clothes or what they meant him to think she was, today. The handle was shrinking before his imagination's eye, and Cordelia moved close to him. God, she was warm. Maybe he was spending too much time around vampires, or lawyers, but god, she was warm, and her skin was inches from his. She bent close to him, breath warm, too, across his cheek. Knee just so, just poised where it could bend to wrap around his leg, or jerk to send him doubling over to the ground, and he wasn't sure.

"What are you two doing here, really? I mean, Lilah can skank up and down the halls trying not to look sneaky, you and Angel can paw the ground at each other, and Wesley can act all calm and supportive and English and then run around like a chicken with its English head cut off when whatever this is comes down, but don't you think we could cut through all this shit and just get to it already?" Her hand sliding down, towards his --no, fuck, it wasn't a handle. There. Just brushing the edge of his fly, just an accidental, oh so sorry, fancy meeting you here.

"Nothing," he answered. Choked, really, and she laughed again. "We're not doing anything. All perfectly legal--" Another laugh. "And above board."

And now she was choking. Laughing too loudly for him to know whether it was real or fake, acting the bitch or being one, or truly amused at him. She was also pulling away. "Oh, God, Lindsey, that was a good one. I've really gotta hand it to you. You almost had me." She brushed him, once, again, another plausibly-deniable accident, then she was off down the hall. Away, long legs striding around a corner and gone, just a view of her ass, swaying like a last goodbye.

"Well, that worked." Lilah opened the door behind him, all the way, stepping out of the shadows of the unlit room, leading their wide-eyed blonde guest behind her. "I was very impressed."

"I've got her --them-- right where we want them," he said, still staring at where Cordelia wasn't. "She'll run off to Angel and get him all paranoid about what we're doing here. They'll spend the weekend going absolutely insane, and all because I told her the truth-- that we're not up to anything. Nothing we weren't already doing, anyway."

"Which she'd never believe, coming from you. Yes, very clever, Lindsey. Very darkly ironic. And I'm not going to complain about being hired to mess with Angel's head. Not even going to ask too many questions, considering it gives us a chance to parade our new friend past him and see if she catches his eye. But I have to know something."

Lilah bent down close to him, and was she a thousand feet tall, or had Cordelia just made him feel shorter than he really was? She was as close as Cordelia had been. Honey-colored hair touching his collar, lips almost coming onto contact with his earlobe, a faint odor of some expensive perfume, and yes, she was cold. There was something to the lawyer jokes after all, unless she had a cosier relationship with the board of directors than he'd thought. Her breath stirred the little hairs inside his ear.

"Did you almost have her, Linds, or did she almost have you?" Her fingers brushed him, too, and she winked, then she was past him and down the hall. Their biggest Special Project --whom they were definitely not supposed to have taken along on this little private venture, but try to tell Lilah that when she had an idea up her sleeve-- followed her, with a last look back at Lindsey. A little smile from her, too, and he didn't have a hope of trying to read that one.

*****

"I'm telling you, I smell something weird," Spike said, as the four of them walked down the endless white corridors of the fourth floor, following the signs that allegedly led towards 'The Best Room Party Of All Time.' Willow had wondered out loud why Spike was suddenly so gung-ho on the subject, since he was the one who'd dragged them out of the screening room and across the hotel, but Xander knew. Free food. Probably free booze. And the chance for Spike to be the center of attention, yet again, since he was currently walking around in vamp-face, and everybody thought it was just excellent make-up.

"You said that last time, and it turned out to be an excuse to wander into the sports bar and order imported beer," Xander pointed out. Under his breath, where no one but Spike could hear, he added, "After stealing my song."

Spike turned around and poked him in the chest. "I bought you a cider, didn't I? And for the last time, I did not steal your bloody song. I was just sharing the joy with all the geeks and geekettes. Spreading the lurrrrve. Besides, what's yours is mine, and what's mine is yours, all that rot. Community property, darling."

"You bought me a cider, and your beer, with my money. Community property, my ass. I don't see a ring on this finger." Xander held up his left hand. Which was a mistake, of course. Willow and Tara started in with the giggling that seemed to be his theme music for this trip, as Spike cocked his head, pulled a skull-and-crossbones ring off his right middle finger, and jammed it onto Xander's left ring finger.

"Ooh, how romantic," Willow said, ducking away from the Xander-Noogie that she so richly deserved.

"Didn't use your money, anyhow-- check your wallet." Spike turned the corner and groaned. "More bloody corridors. Tunnels and corridors, that's all I ever see. You ever feel like your life's one endless Doctor Who episode?"

Willow nodded, while Tara gave a half-assed humor-the-crazy-vampire smile. Xander debated adding something about them needing a rock quarry that they could pretend was an alien planet, to make the atmosphere complete. He didn't, though. This was a trap. It had to be. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

Spike stopped, leaned against the wall, and laughed at him. "Come on, Harris. Come out of the closet and bring your anorak with you."

It was definitely a trap, and Xander was not falling for it. "I repeat, I have no idea what you're talking about." Step away from the lighting, Xander. God has a good aim, and he doesn't like little boys who break the...um, which Commandment was that? He was a little hazy on them, these days, but he was pretty sure he'd blown at least three or four just since he woke up today. Was there one about sleeping with one's evil undead roommate, or was that covered under coveting thy neighbor's ass? Anyway, it was the lying one that he was worried about at the moment. "I'm not in any kind of closet, and if I were, why would I have a passenger train in there with me?"

Spike goggled at him, and Willow giggled at him, and none of it was fair. Here he was, in what should be one of the most fun places in the universe, with the exception of maybe a hot tub with a naked Spike, and he wasn't allowed to enjoy it, because non-naked Spike would think he was a complete goober if he did. He already thinks you're a goober, Xander. Why not give in and enjoy it? his brain taunted him, but he was firm. Resolute.

"Xander, an anorak is a jacket," Willow informed him gently.

"Okay, so why am I supposed to bring my jacket out of this closet that I'm not in?" Xander responded. "No. Don't answer that, don't wanna know, it's obviously some smarmy English vampire thing, and by the way," he pulled Spike's ring off his finger and held it up, "this would be so much less insulting if it wasn't the one you gave Buffy." That said, he plopped the ring into Spike's hand and took off, striding quickly down yet another hallway. He had a sneaking suspicion they'd either been going in circles, or this hotel was designed by M.C. Escher. Art-appreciation class strikes again. Look, Willow, I remembered another piece of academic trivia with no value to my future career as a laid-off supermarket employee.

Spike caught up with him long before the girls came around the corner, and drizzled evil promises into his ear as they walked. "If you'll admit you're a Trekkie, I'll tell you where the hot-tub is..."

"I'm not a Trekk-ie, I'm a Trekk-er... and... oh, shut up. What makes you think I wanna be in a hot-tub with you, anyway? You're annoying and obnoxious, and you did too steal my song." It was hard to concentrate on how annoying Spike was when he had his tongue stuck in your ear, however. Hard to walk down the hall, too, but he managed it.

"Maybe. Didn't steal your cash, though." Spike reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out a wad not quite big enough to choke a horse, but maybe a small Shetland pony. How he managed to fit anything in his jeans pocket was still a mystery to Xander. And Spike was telling the truth-- that much money hadn't come out of Xander's pocket. Which meant, of course, that Spike's hands had been groping around in his pants earlier for purely personal reasons.

"Who did you steal it from, then?" Xander asked him, staring at the money, plagued by visions of hotel detectives chasing them down. "God, they're gonna arrest us. Honest, sir, he's my idiot cousin from Liverpool. He's out on a weekend-pass."

"Not from Liverpool. God, Paul McCartney's from Liverpool. Do I sound like Paul McCartney?"

"No, you sound like Rowan Atkinson, with a little Eric Idle thrown in. Fine, North London. Wherever the hell you're from."

"Barking."

"What?" Was Spike? Really? Completely? Barking mad, as Giles had said on numerous occasions, only usually about Xander? He looked away from the money, at the knobbly white ceiling, letting Spike's arm around him guide him down the hall, and letting Spike's tongue return to doing whatever it wanted to do, which was apparently to swipe cool, raspy paths across his cheek-- in between muttering growly English nonsense like:

"Barking. It's a little fishing village. Was, anyway. Pretty much a suburb of London now, but a bit on the poncy side when I was a nipper. Another one of those things where if you tell Rupert, I'll have to never shag you again, 'cos he's bloody educated enough to know what it was like back then."

Xander didn't want to think about never again, so he concentrated on Spike-as-sex-fiend, and pretended it was specifically directed at him, as opposed to just being eternal vampiric horniness. "Please. Like you could go for a week without shagging me, let alone never again." It was easy to pretend, since Spike's mouth was on his neck, now. Where were the girls? Shouldn't they have caught up? Hadn't he and Spike stopped moving at some point? Why did he care when Spike's lips were sucking gently at his pulse point, fangs just touching, barely denting his skin, making him feel like Spike really couldn't live without him, had to have him there in the middle of the hallway and damn whoever came around the corner. So easy to pretend. "So this Barking thing is like the you not having written really bad poetry for a living while you were living, thing."

"Didn't do it for a living, did it for art. Or possibly love, though on reflection she was an incredibly silly twat." Anyanka --and the name stirred a thought in Xander's brain, but he couldn't quite dredge it up-- would've turned Spike into a leper, if she'd heard him, and Xander told him so. Spike shrugged against him. "She's a dead twat, Xander. Don't think she cares about me insultin' her good name. Anyhow, I clerked at a law firm for a living. Pretty much a big step up for me, becoming a demon."

Great, Xander was being felt up by an almost ex-lawyer, as well as being dragged into his unlife of crime. "Who'd you steal the cash from, Spike?" If it was Angel, he could probably spare it. If it was Giles, Xander would make sure Spike paid it back. If it was some random stranger, well, Spike was wearing Xander's last name on his shirt. A shuffling sound on the carpeted floor around the corner indicated that Willow and Tara had finally almost caught up with them, and Xander pulled away quickly.

"I didn't steal the bloody cash," Spike protested, straightening his collar. "I sold the weapons in the trunk to Angel, since some police bint nicked all of theirs." Well, at least he'd cleaned up the language, though Xander didn't hold out any hope that it was in deference to the presence of girls. Women. Whatever. Spike was just varying his extremely colorful vocabulary.

"Oh, that's what you had in that bag in the trunk. The one that didn't have Spike in it," Willow said thoughtfully as she and Tara appeared in the hall behind them. She held out a paper sign that read 'Best Room Party of All Time Has Been Relocated To The Seventh Floor,' and Xander groaned. "So where'd you guys get weapons to sell?"

"Found 'em," Spike answered defensively. Willow scrutinized him, and he did the chest-puffing thing, which could go on all night, if somebody didn't cut in.

Xander took the sign from her. "Amazingly, he's telling the truth," he explained as he tried to remember where the elevators were. "We found them in this cave, out by Miller's Beach. A Dagonish Demon used to live there, but the place hadn't been touched for days. Spike figures it's dead, wherever it is."

"You guys are patrolling together, now?"

"He makes good demon-bait," Spike said succinctly. "Take him along and I have an eighty-percent chance of running into somethin' I can actually hit." That, and they could make out in any number of dark, semi-public, but not quite, spots along the way, Xander noted to himself with a purely internal smile.

Tara chuckled. "Well, you did say Xander was a demon magnet, Willow." Her girlfriend elbowed her gently in the ribs. Shut up, Xander's not supposed to know we think his taste in women sucks. If they only knew about his taste in men.

"No, you're right, I am a demon magnet." Xander defended Tara, a little too late to save her poor ribs. "Might as well put it to good use. At least this way some nasty things get beat up, and I get half of the spoils. " He turned to Spike. "Community property, remember?"

He never had gotten the chance to go through the bag to see if there was a weapon in there he could use; he certainly wasn't going to give up his share of the proceeds. Hand held out flat, the universal symbol for give me my money and give it to me now. Spike grumbled and mumbled, tried to look big, then tried to look cute, but under the triple glare of two witches and a Xander, he rolled his eyes, folded, and handed Xander half of the cash. Tucked into the pants and thank-you-very-much, it's been a business doing pleasure with you. Or something like that.

Two hallways and a drinking fountain later, they finally found a double set of elevators. When both arrived at the same time, Spike grinned, let the women get into the almost full one ahead of him, then gripped Xander by the collar as he was about to follow. "Oops. No room. See you on the seventh floor, girls." Willow started to dart out, but the doors shut in her face, and Spike manhandled Xander into the empty elevator.

"Nice, Spike. Very subtle." That was what Xander was trying to say, anyway, but since he said it into Spike's shoulder, as the vampire was pushing the emergency stop button, it came out a bit indistinctly. "See," he added, his fingers making their way around to the back of Spike's shirt, sneaking beneath, touching the smooth skin of Spike's back, "You just can't keep your hands off me. Never shag me again, my ass." He made little rain-pattering motions up and down his lover's spine.

"Of course I can keep my hands off you," Spike challenged, demonstrating this in no way whatsoever. Fang-nibbling at Xander's collarbone where the unbuttoned neck of the black shirt left it all exposed and helpless for any random English vampire who happened to be walking by. "You think I have no other facets besides badness, endless sex appeal, a knack for languages, and a brain full of useless trivia? I can control myself. I'm a hundred and..." slurp, suck, slurp "...years old, Xander. You're the teenager."

"I'm almost twenty," Xander protested, and he wondered what he was arguing about. The evil demon he was in love with was starting hot and heavy foreplay in yet another semi-public place, which would have had him cringing if it were Anya, the former evil demon he hadn't been in love with, but with Spike... Eyes closed, staring at the pretty afterimages left by the fluorescent lights in the ceiling, Xander leaned back and let Spike... let Spike... He pushed the cool lips, the strong arms, away, and he couldn't tell whether the growl came from Spike, or from within himself.

"Wha..?"

"I'm almost twenty, and you're permanently twenty-four, even though you try to act like you're some jaded vamp-of-the-world, and you can't keep your hands off me." Maybe it was true, and maybe it was a game of pretend, but saying it out loud made Xander realize it was true enough the other way around, most of the time. So Xander crossed his arms and didn't bother to keep the smugness from his voice now. Yeah, that's right, I resisted you. You and the porno jeans and the hair and the smirk and the fangs and the accent and the fact that I love you, Spike Harris. "You're addicted to the Xander-lovin'."

"Yeah?" Grrr-arrgh growl, and had Spike just called him something nasty in Fyarl?

"Yeah." As a mature, almost twenty year old, Xander resisted the urge to stick out his tongue, especially since he mostly felt like sticking it into Spike's mouth. He resisted that urge, too.

Spike glared at him with glowing gold eyes. Since that didn't have any effect other than to widen Xander's smirk, Spike proceeded to glare at him harder. Xander leaned back against the elevator wall and smiled. His Higher Brain Functions, whom he'd long ago told to fuck off, but they kept showing back up, were proud of him. Little Xander --his dick, not the five year old who just wanted Spike to cuddle him when they were in bed together-- was yelling at him that he was missing one of the weekend's few opportunities to get his fix of Spike-lovin'. Xander himself was somewhere in the middle on the subject, but he was enjoying the view of Spike shifting his jaw, clenching his fists, and desperately trying to look casual. For about three seconds.

"I propose a little wager, then." Spike was suddenly all smooth, seductive blond panther-cat again. Muscles that had been twitching at him seconds ago were relaxed. Looking soft enough to reach out and-- no. Not touch. Spike was almost literally purring at him, and Xander, amazingly, didn't fall into the trap. He just looked at Spike with calm curiosity. Like Spike was Willow, talking about Hellmouthy weather patterns. "We're not gonna get a chance to shag with the chits in the room anyhow, so let's just make it easy on...you. No groping. No fondling. No hands or mouths below the belt. First one to feel the other up loses, and the winner gets..." Spike lifted an eyebrow.

"Yeah?"

"Hmmm. Gets to buy the loser a whole new wardrobe. I'm sure Princess C. would be happy to take us shopping in the discount fashion district, so I can spend what's left of my weapons-lugging-about money on you."

"You already gave half my clothes away, so I think we're even in the money department," Xander accused. "And you burdened me with at least a week's worth of Angelwear, so why do you need to buy me more?"

"Eh. Piffle. Doesn't count. I'm talking real clothes. Stuff that actually fits you. And leather. When I win, you're wearing leather."

Leather? Wearing leather? Xander's mind boggled at the thought, though not necessarily in a bad way. Still, this thing had possibilities other than Spike managing to completely sway Xander to the Kinky Side of the Force, he realized. "When I win, you're wearing colors. Green, Spike. Blue. Possibly magenta." Spike's eyes almost crossed at the last word, and Xander knew he had his lover on the run. "Plaid, Spike. Plaid."

"You wouldn't make me wear plaid. You've got a soul, an' all." Spike didn't sound too sure.

He was right, unfortunately. Xander wanted to dress Spike up in clothes that would make Xander immediately need to rip them off, yes, but because they made Spike look hot, not because he couldn't stand the sight of them. He might wear the occasional tropical print shirt, but he had some standards. Xander shook his head sadly. "True. No plaid. But green, definitely."

"Fine."

"Fine." No hands below the belt, huh? Xander took stock of where everyone's hands were currently. Well, his and Spike's hands. Willow's and Tara's could do whatever they wanted to, over in the other elevator. One of Spike's hands was on his ass, one on the back of his neck. Xander's own were technically above the waist, but not very far above, since they were shoved as far down the back of Spike's too-tight jeans as they would go. "When does this bet start, may I ask?"

"In about thirty seconds." Spike kissed him.

Forty seconds afterwards, the doors opened to let them out onto the seventh floor. Xander took a deep, ragged breath, hoped he didn't have any obvious fang-marks on him, and wondered what he was getting himself into. Then he decided it was way to late to start wondering that.

Willow and Tara were standing in the open area near the elevator, chatting animatedly with-- "I told you I smelled something weird!" Spike stalked over to the little group, and grabbed the tall figure by the collar. Well, the front of his shirt, since Spike couldn't quite reach his collar.

"Oh, hey, Spike. Xander! Hi!" The Kaillif demon pulled loose from Spike and threw an arm around Xander's shoulders. "I didn't know you were heading here."

Willow was putting two and two together to come up with the square root of sixteen, obviously, because she turned a little green, as she studied the forehead horns, and the jaw horns, and the slightly pointed ears, none of which were any more make-up than Spike's brow ridges and yellow eyes were. "You're a real demon, aren't you."

"Yeah, he is," Xander answered for him. "Willow, Tara, this is Weido. Spike and I met him when we stopped for dinner last night." To Weido, he explained, "We didn't know we were coming either. That is, we weren't heading here, specifically. I mean, why would we be heading for an science fiction convention?" Spike sniggered at him, but he ignored it. "And Spike wasn't saying you smell weird--" A grunt of indeterminate meaning from Spike, which he also ignored, pointedly. "--He just meant he thought he smelled another demon."

"Makes sense. We weren't either. Heading for the convention, I mean. But when I found out our shipment was coming to this hotel anyway, I decided to stay for the day."

"You're a real demon," Willow repeated.

"Ah, yeah. " Weido didn't actually have eyebrows, but he scrunched up his face in a way that indicated he wasn't sure the red-headed human girl was all there.

"But you like Empire Strikes Back, and hate the Phantom Menace," Willow said slowly.

"Yeah. Please-- Jar Jar Binks?" Weido made a face that was the same on human or demon: blecch.

"I kinda liked Jar Jar," Xander commented. They all turned to stare at him. He shrugged. "It was something about his tongue. Or maybe the ears. I don't know; he was cute."

Spike pulled Xander out from under Weido's arm, and threw his own arm around Xander. "Don't mind him. He's my idiot cousin from Sunnydale, out on a weekend-pass."

"Sunnydale? You live on the Hellmouth?" Weido looked impressed.

"We all do," Willow said proudly.

"Should've known, with these two hanging out togeth..." Weido stared at them for a second, and Xander felt like crawling out from under Spike's arm, too, for some reason. His lips moved faintly, and Xander realized he was reading Spike's nametag. "Oh... hey, I didn't know you guys were together together. Xander, I wouldn't have let Jesha go on flirting with you like that if I'd realized."

Jesha had been flirting with him? She hadn't spoken a word the entire time they'd been sitting in the next booth at the ghost-diner. Geez, what kind of signals did she think I was sending her, then. And---wait--- All twenty-two tracks of his mind caught up with each other. "To...together...?" Xander choked.

Now Willow was laughing, her culture shock at meeting up with a demon who liked science fiction --Xander remembered the feeling himself-- apparently nothing compared with the idea that Spike might actually want to be married to somebody like him. "Oh, God, Spike and Xander?" She buried her face against Tara's shoulder, and just laughed. "I mean, we're together, but them ? Hahahahahaha...." It went on.

"Um, yeah. What she said," Xander told Weido, and now he did duck out from under Spike's arm. "My personal demonic tormentor just needed a last name, and my loving friends decided to give him mine, without asking my permission."

Spike pretended to pout. "See, I told you he didn't love me anymore," he said as if confiding to Tara, who continued to humor the crazy vampire. "Gave me back the ring, and everything."

A slow nod from Weido. "Uh-huh. Okay. Whatever you say. Should I tell Jesh that you're available, then, Xander?"

Xander gulped. Six feet of muscular dark demoness... no. He had enough troubles with his own demon; he didn't need yet another. "Ah... Maybe not so much. With the availability." He leaned suggestively against Spike, and hoped he could explain it all away to Willow and Tara without being struck by too many bolts of divine lightning. Somewhere in the middle of that, a detective-like thought occurred to him. "Ah... shipment. You guys wouldn't by any chance have delivered something nasty that's gonna ruin the entire weekend?" After all, Spike had told him that Kaillifs were usually bruiser, bouncer, muscle-for-hire badguy types. Weido and his brother and sister had seemed nice enough in the diner, but that was a no-touchy, no-hurty zone. Out here?

Weido grinned. "Not unless you can think of something nasty to do with two and a half truckloads of M&M's." Spike undoubtedly could, but Xander slapped his hand over Spike's mouth before he could say so.

After a bit of final chitchat about why the only redeeming feature of the Phantom Menace was the whole Padawan thing, Xander's insane fascination with Jar Jar notwithstanding, Weido took off down the hall. Only, however, after also telling them that the Best Room Party of All Time was now on the eleventh floor, from whence he'd just come, and they were giving away free chocolate. Not M&M's, but the real stuff-- apparently there was an international chocolatiers' convention at the RG East, and somebody on staff had brought some of the samples over.

"Right, Angel dies, slowly," Spike whispered to Xander as the four of them got into the same elevator. Xander nodded in agreement, and realized he was still pressed up against Spike.

Willow was looking at them questioningly, and Xander moved away, wiping himself off as if to get rid of Spike-cooties. "You'd have to see that guy's sister to understand. I've done the demoness thing, and believe me, one's enough. This one... Picture Faith, with Weido's build and coloring."

"Scary visual places," Willow agreed. "Well, you're supposed to meet up with old friends and make new ones at these things, but I wasn't expecting that to include demons. Aside from the normal one."

"Spike's normal?" Xander ducked a half-hearted smack at his hat from Spike. "Weido's hardly an old friend, though, since we just met him yesterday. I already met my requisite old friend for the weekend-- "

He gave her a just-between-Xander-and-Willow smile, and she sent it back to him, maybe with a little pinch of Xander's so cute and he may need to be fed cookies. The tiniest flicker in her eyes, and he wasn't sure he liked what he saw reflected there. The guy looked just a little too...bruiseable, to quote Spike. He started to finish the sentence, but the elevator dinged. The doors opened. Outside stood somebody who made Weido's sister Jesha look like a fluffy bunny.

"Supaiku..." the Asian woman hissed with a sound like the rain that was still falling outside, that battered steadily against the window at the end of the hall, and Spike cursed. Low, but Xander could still hear it.

"Bugger."

*****

Nineteen forty-one, and Drusilla had a new game. A wonderful game, Spike had discovered, though he'd been dubious about it at first: they were angels of mercy. Washed ashore on some nameless pacific island when they'd tried to escape the fall of Singapore, they'd disappeared into the nighttime jungle, and watched. Watched from the hot, wet shadows as the women were separated from the men. Marched off into Japanese internment camps. Sent out to the jungle under guard to chop wood, gather what herbs they could find, if a woman wandered off now and then, there wasn't much hue and cry. Perhaps the other prisoners were punished, but that was just an added bonus from Spike's and Dru's points of view. She'd hear the screams in the night, beg him to make her scream that loud, and he'd do his best.

Then she had rolled her eyes one night, back up into her head, and swayed, and danced, and when she stood up straight again, she had a new game. In the middle of the night, they'd slip vampire-silent into the women's camp, past the bored and yawning guards. Search out the ones on the punishment poles, the ones left to fry and die in the hot sun, and put them out of their misery. Ending of pain, and he'd never thought it could be a good thing, but Dru was right. The looks in those women's eyes when the two of them approached. Seeing well-fed, pale European faces, hearing English voices greet them quietly, and tell them that it was all over. All the pain, all the starvation, all the fear, and it would end that night, in one quick razor slice, one moment of loss, then heaven, or whatever they believed in.

There had been fear and madness, and there had been silent stoicism, but not one of them had ever screamed. Then there had been the few, the few who looked them straight in the eyes and saw them for what they were when they changed, and had lifted their heads to bare their throats. Not giving, not truly willing, nothing like taking from someone who loves you, but welcoming; if their hands hadn't been tied, they would have spread their arms wide. The blood had tasted like rich, dark chocolate, or at least in Spike's memory, it had.

They'd bumped into her purely by accident: Drusilla had heard a particularly beautiful scream coming not from the punishment poles, but the sick hut, where they wouldn't usually go. Not that they couldn't drink the blood of the ill, not that it didn't have its own strange bouquet, but it was harder to slip in and out without being noticed by the sharp-eyed women who passed for nurses. Dru had pulled him by the hand, though, grinning like she'd found herself a new dolly, and he'd followed. They'd tiptoed up and watched through an open flap of canvas as a sun-reddened, emaciated teenaged girl, dying from the last stages of beriberi, had moaned and screamed and almost sung, then fallen silent, but fitful.

Sleeping, dreaming, and a shadow had separated itself from the other shadows of the hut, moving over her bed like a thundercloud, gray and formless. Then she had stilled, though she breathed quietly, and Drusilla's smile had been as wide as the crescent moon above. Watching, as the girl's breathing slowed and faltered, and disappeared to the hush of the night. Gray smoke, gray fog, had drifted towards them. Spike had pulled Dru back, unsure, away from the hut and into deeper shadows. That separate shadow followed them, and Dru laughed softly. "It's a friend, Spike. One of us. So beautiful, like cobwebs in a ball, like a pretty china doll..."

"I am Japanese, actually," the cloud had said in sing-song accents, and had shaped itself as it spoke into the woman who stood before him now.

*****

"Reikoku," Spike said, moving a little closer to Xander, but trying not to be obvious about it. She bowed deeply, a little ironically for this day and age, and gestured for them all to exit the lift before it closed on them.

"It's been a long time, Supaiku," she almost hummed, using the name that Drusilla had loved to hear, so close to his own. Dru had said it was like a little song in her head. Rei's English was unaccented now, and as textbook perfect as it had always been, though she'd discovered contractions somewhere along the line, along with twentieth century clothes. "You've changed greatly, I see. I like the hair."

He ran a hand over it reflexively, and wondered if he was getting as coiff-conscious as Angel, because the inane thought popped into his head that he needed to re-bleach, soon. Even Buffy had noticed his roots. Reikoku was looking keenly at him, but she looked that way at everyone, so he couldn't really hold that against her. It was Willow who finally broke the silence.

"Are you gonna introduce us to your friend, Spike?" The witches must both have picked up something of what Rei was, because they leaned against the wall, hands clasped not-quite-casually; though someone else who wasn't Spike, who knew people, or Xander, who knew Willow, might not have caught it. Xander did, Spike knew, because he could hear the heartbeat next to him speed up: a notch faster when he'd said 'bugger.' A notch faster yet, the moment Willow and Tara's hands had touched.

"Yes, please. I'd like to know just what sort of power could persuade William the Bloody to keep company with humans." A smile, all very friendly, but if people thought Spike looked like a shark when he smiled, it was only because they'd never met this one.

"Oh, he's not keeping company with us," Willow ventured bravely. "He's... he's our bodyguard. We hired him!"

Spike smiled a little at that, flashing on Willow in his crypt the night after he'd helped rescue her ex, another plate of chocolate chip cookies in her hands. He might be an evil bastard, but he's our evil bastard, eh? Nice of her to try to salvage his long-lost dignity, though it wasn't much of a step up, as Rei was only too happy to point out:

"So? Is this true? You've taken to working for a living? How amusing," Reikoku's lips closed as if in a private joke, then skinned open again for another shark-smile. "I myself am between commissions at the moment, but if you need a job when this one is finished, I can introduce you to a good agent."

Spike? Work for a living? Xander nudged his elbow, and Spike turned to give his lover an incredulous look. Right, I'll find a way to help with the bloody rent, but it won't involve working for anybody she's working for, you perfectly edible dolt. Not if you want me to try to be a Default Good Guy. Xander's lips gave a nervous twitch, then the hint of a smile, and Spike realized he'd just been teased, quite professionally, with that Xander Harris bollocks-under-pressure humor he was coming to love almost as much as he loved Xander Harris.

He snorted. "Sorry, Rei. All booked up for the foreseeable future."

"Lucky you. Guarding humans, to whom you have yet to introduce me. I shall be forced to introduce myself, I suppose. My name is Reikawa Reikoku." She bowed again, then stuck out her hand English-style, though nobody moved to take it.

"Means river ghost. First part does, anyhow. Terribly creative, since she threw herself in a bloody river when she was seventeen," Spike supplied for them.

"I thought so, at the time," she said with an ironic tone. "I was young and stupid, and hadn't yet met anyone who could teach me the finer points of naming oneself after construction implements."

Tara opened her mouth, wonder of wonders. "You're a gh...ghost?" Which had to be the classic Scooby-Doo line of all time, and somewhere Spike was sure Buffy was beaming, that she'd taught the chicklette so well.

"She's a gaki. Which is sort of a ghost, and sort of a vampire, and sort of a pain in the arse," Spike grumbled. "She eats dreams. You lot really want to socialize? Fine. Rei, these are Willow, Tara, and Alexander, my--" He winced. "Bodyguardees. Bodies. Whatever. We done here? We have a party to get to."

Long, pale fingers through long black hair, almond eyes laughing at him, as they laughed at everyone. "The Best Room Party Of All Time?"

Xander groaned. "Don't tell me-- they've moved it to the Rosa Grande East."

She laughed, and it was the sound of something brittle and glassy, breaking into a thousand pieces. She and Dru had almost made music together when they'd laughed, high and low, after they had got off that little island, and were tearing up Tokyo during the later years of the war. "No, it's just down the hall."

Hungry gaze raking over the kids now. Always wanting something, Rei was, which was probably why she and Dru had gotten on so well together. This was mostly a professional gaze, though, trying to suss out what they were. To see if she could profit from it somehow, because first and foremost, Reikawa Reikoku was a mercenary-- not in the fighting sense, but in the sell yourself to the highest bidder sense. Spike had always admired that about her, and he still did, just not when that gaze was directed at something, or rather some one, who was his.

"So, your… employers, Spike? What's so important about these ones, then?" He'd been about to ask her what she was doing here, just out of professional curiosity, but the question threw him, and he was silent for a moment. Reikoku licked her finger, and held it in the air. "I smell power, that's true enough."

Willow stepped an inch forward, in front of Tara. "That's right. We're witches. Powerful witches." So don't mess with us, lady, was the unspoken kitten-growl that accompanied it, and Spike suppressed a smile.

Rei nodded, an elegant movement of her bone-china face, sharp chin. "So powerful that you need a vampire to protect you?"

"Well, no. I mean, yes. There's people who might want to hurt us, and they don't all respond to magic." Which was truer than Willow knew. Spike looked sharply at her, and beyond the nervousness in her eyes, there was something else. Maybe she had an inkling--big-eyed Tara, gripping her hand, obviously did. Reikoku was a predator, if a relatively harmless one, and magic wouldn't do much against her, for instance.

"So. And the boy?"

The Gaki looked Xander up and down, and Spike forced himself to be casual. Less than casual. "Oh, him? Just their tagalong. He can't do anything special."

Xander stepped forward. "Well, I can play the flugelhorn." His dark eyes flicked across Rei's amused expression, and he backed up again. "Okay, badly, and not since eighth grade. But I kick ass at Scrabble, and I can name twenty-three different ways to get your skull cracked without actually having to visit the emergency room."

She laughed again. Windows shattering in a thunderstorm. "Oh, I like this one. Useless, perhaps, but not boring, and I could use a new pet; they wear out so easily these days. May I buy him from you, ladies?"

"No, you can't. He's ours," Willow said firmly, with less kitten than full-grown lioness in her voice. Reikoku inclined her head graciously.

Spike moved away, much as he wanted to be moving closer to Xander. His pet, dammit. Calm down, already, Spike. Nothing she can bloody do to any of you. He couldn't quite figure out why she was raising his hackles after decades of not having seen her, and finally shrugged it off as the work of that demon-animal-thing he had crammed down so low in his subconscious he could barely hear it whining at him these days. Just territorial bollocks. "Lovely catching up and all, Rei, but we done here? The chits want to go dancing."

"Not much room in there for dancing." she said politely. "But you should enjoy the party, Spike. There's an abundance of expensive chocolate, cheap liquor, and cretinous humans whose blood will be tainted with both, I imagine. I prefer them uninebriated, myself. They have such wonderful dreams, these children who pretend to live in other worlds-- their little lives are so mundane, but when they sleep..." Something of the rapture of feeding passed over her face, and Spike felt the echo in himself-- the hunger they both shared, she for something easily replaced in most, he for the last flowing of life's blood. "I truly am pleased to have discovered these conventions; they're a feast, old friend. Enjoy your banquet, and I shall go off to mine."

He nodded, still thinking, still remembering. Rei bowed again, and faded into smoke, which drifted off down the corridor in the opposite direction from where she'd indicated the party was.

After a moment of silence, Willow took a deep breath. "Ooookay. Wanna tell me what that was, and how I can never, ever meet one again?"

*****

An hour and a half later, Willow was wishing they'd just stayed in the screening room and watched the Tomorrow People marathon. It was long past late, the party was long past loud, and Willow was long past bored. Eating way too many imported chocolates could only make up for so much blaring music, cigarette smoke, and tipsy passes from earnest-looking Java programmers. After politely declining at least three different mixed drinks, each accompanied by a proposition of varying degrees of subtlety, she and Tara had taken to necking passionately whenever anyone came near them. It worked, but it was less than fun, since she really didn't want an audience, and neither did Tara.

Why had she thought the Dad-forbidden room parties were such a cool thing, way back when? Merely because they were forbidden, and it had seemed like something so much cooler than staying up all night in the room with Xander, cramming themselves with snacks until they got sick, and watching the free cable? Frankly, that didn't sound too bad right now, except for the snacks. She'd been trying to get Xander alone all day anyway, and kept being foiled. Cordelia's computer problems, Spike whining about not wanting to ride in the trunk again, Spike nudging her upstairs so he could learn how to look at porn sites on the web-- and hadn't that taken every ounce of acting ability she had, not to freak out when he told her.

The bleached pervert --as if she could talk, of course-- was nowhere in sight. Sure, tell them all creepy bedtime stories about this Japanese ghost thing, then disappear off into the smoky room, after assuring them that Reikoku couldn't actually do anything to them except nibble on their dreams a little, unless they were really sick and weak, which they weren't. Fine, but what was she doing here? Just nibbling on conventioneers? Xander had tried to get Spike to call Angel, to let him know that there was somebody from the Dark Side over here, but Spike had pooh-poohed that idea. 'Call Bat-Vamp if y'like, but don't blame me if 'e laughs his arse off at you. She's harmless, kid. Like you." Xander had turned away and shrugged, and maybe he hadn't heard Spike add, 'Like me,' and maybe he had, but he didn't make the call, and Willow had let him lead, rather than make him feel even more inconsequential. She liked Spike --he was funny, and even sometimes nice, for a soulless demon-- but he could be a really insensitive bastard. For a soulless demon.

"Hey, did you see where Xander went?" She had to shout at Tara, because someone had cranked a Korn album up to brain-cell-killing levels.

"I think he said he was going back up to the room," Tara shouted back. "When you went to get me that Pepsi. Either that, or he was going to go look at the moon." Highly unlikely, since not only was it still raining-- though Willow had stopped being able to hear it drumming on the windows about four clicks of the volume knob ago-- but it was a new moon out there beyond the clouds. Nothing to see.

"You wanna go back too? I think I'm about to fall off that caffeine high and plummet to my death, and I'd rather do it with a bed around. Preferably one not covered with half-drunk systems analysts." Tara shook her head, but it wasn't 'no,' it was 'I have no idea what you just said,' so Willow just pointed to the door. That got an enthusiastic heads-up, and they rose from the couch, narrowly avoiding a giggling woman in a t-shirt that read 'My friends went to Hell, and all I got was this stupid t-shirt and a Chinese puzzle-box. Think I should open it?' They'd almost made it to the doorway when a little guy in purple nylon wizard's robes, complete with stars and moons, popped out of the suite's kitchen, which wasn't much bigger than he was.

"Hey, I'm David-- I'm hosting this little shindig. You ladies leaving already?" He was pitifully cheerful, really, and he didn't sound drunk at all, unlike the rest of the overpopulated population of the room. Willow smiled and nodded, not wanting to tell him that the Best Room Party Of All Time was giving her the Excedrin Headache Of All Time. Not sure if he'd hear her if she tried. He kept babbling at them, and they kept smiling at him, and it looked like it was going to be the Longest Room Party Of All Time, too, until Tara finally tapped her surreptitiously on the arm, and mouthed the word 'Go,' at her. 'You sure?' back, and a nod, and Willow was out the door, her lover having thrown herself to the proverbial, if friendly, wolves.

As she slipped her key card in the lock and opened the door to their room, she could hear the sound of water running. Either Xander was here, and in the shower, or somebody had left the sliding glass doors open and the rain was coming in. Nope. The empty room was dry and warm and toasty. Well, good. Maybe I can get a few minutes alone with Xander after all, then. She tossed her goodie-bag of imported --blech, had too much already-- chocolate on her bed, then knocked softly on the bathroom door.

No answer, and she could still hear the shower running, so Willow opened the door, just slightly. It wasn't a clear shower curtain, after all. "Xander?" She pushed the door open a bit wider, and stuck her head in, so he could hear her. "Xander, can I talk to y…"

Feet. On the floor, which was a good place for them. There was something she was supposed to be noticing about those feet, aside from the fact that they were awfully pale for a guy who'd spent last summer in Oxnard, washing dishes, occasionally dancing on stage--which she was never supposed to tell anybody-- and getting an all-over tan on the roof of the crackerbox apartment he'd rented. A tan that had lasted all year, and wasn't in evidence on those feet that she was supposed to be noticing something else about, something that she couldn't hold onto, because her eyes were traveling up, even though she told them not to. Up to lean white calves, slim thighs, and---

Ass. She was staring at Spike's ass, and there had to be a special Hell reserved for girls who dated shiksas and practiced witchcraft and stared at naked vampire ass. She'd have to ask Nana Rabinowitz, who was the expert in those matters. Jewish hells, not naked Spike ass, which was standing in front of her, rounded and pale, and he had a tattoo? Of…

"Tigger?" she squeaked, unable to stop herself. Spike turned around, and all thoughts of feet and asses and bouncy stuffed orange tigers disappeared from her brain, and she remembered why she should never, ever, drink coffee anymore, because she was pretty sure it was at least five minutes past her bedtime, and she was still awake.

*****

Xander had forgotten how much fun these things could be, if you let go. If you could afford to let go. He'd gotten into a brief argument with two engineer-types at the party, about whether the Marty McFly who ended up with the girl at the end of Back to the Future Three was really the same one from the first movie, because the timeline change had created a parallel universe. He had reached the point of staring at the diagram this guy had drawn on the screen of his Palm Pilot, before he realized he'd been discussing heavy sci-fi stuff in front of Spike, who'd done nothing more than grin, wave, and head off for the wetbar. Not worth teasing him? Truly didn't care? Just wanted to get drunk and forget he was shagging a geek? Which, Xander finally admitted to himself, he knew Spike knew.

But Xander couldn't quite bring himself to admit he knew, so he had left, finally. Gone walkabout in the hotel, and he was surprised he hadn't gotten lost. Thought maybe he could find Weido, maybe even try to explain about the whole Spike and I are together but they don't know we're together thing, but Xander hadn't seen him anywhere, and didn't know what room he was in, or even if he was staying at the hotel. He wandered aimlessly, stopping to stare at signs, listening to conversations, and trying not to think too hard about what Spike had said about him.

He knew Spike was just downplaying him so his old buddy-in-evil wouldn't think the Big Bad was hanging out with a human, let alone fucking one, and that was fine. He was happy to protect Spike's rep, so at least one of them didn't feel like a loser. (Not counting the cabana shirt this morning, which, frankly, Spike had deserved. And he did look cute in it.) And Xander knew he wasn't completely useless--if nothing else, he could always clean weapons, carve stakes, and provide his friends with discount grocery products, assuming he got his job back after the owners' kids went back to college. He could shag Spike stupid, too, quote unquote.

The words had stung, though-- tagalong, can't do anything special. All those Zeppo things he'd thought he was long past, had tossed over the side of Uncle Rory's car into the Sunnydale night when he'd driven the Chevy Bel Air around town after fifteen minutes in a motel room with Faith. A year and a half later, and where had that guy gone? Had Faith choked the life out of him, and somebody else walked away? He'd had a dream like that, once, he vaguely remembered. Or maybe he had survived, but got lost on the way back from Oxnard last summer, leaving just the old tenth grade loser behind. Because the words had still hurt, and Xander hadn't wanted Spike to know. To know he cared that much about Spike's opinion of him, no matter what anyone else thought. The vampire whose ass he hadn't thought was worth kicking back in December, and now...

Wandering. Hands in his pockets, and yes, his pants had shrunk, though probably not enough to make Spike happy. Couldn't go out and look at the moon, since it was still raining, so he eventually made his way down to the main floor, past the up-all-night college kids who'd had a few too many strawberry daiquiris in the sports bar, and were now scattered all over the lounge, having deep philosophical conversations. Shades of last year's beer-cursed philosophy majors, but he'd listened in anyway. 'Take Beaker as Christ,' he heard one guy say in a perfectly serious tone. 'If you consider Doctor Bunsen Honeydew as Pontius Pilate…' And they all wondered why he didn't apply to UC Sunnydale, when yeah, he could probably get in if he tried? His grades weren't that bad, really. He wasn't that much of a loser. At least he didn't worship Muppets. (Except for Gonzo, but everybody loved Gonzo, right?)

He finally got tired of trying not to think, and just plain tired, and decided to head back to the room. Maybe sleep. Maybe stay awake, watch TV, and not acknowledge that he didn't want to sleep without Spike there, cool against him, arms around him, purring in his ear. Which wasn't something they could do even if Spike were there, and not somewhere back at that loud, smoky party getting not-remotely-blasted on the free beer. Maybe they sold Spike-sized teddy bears in the gift shop? Because that wouldn't provoke any questions from the girls... He had to grin.

Xander found himself at the door, without even really realizing how he'd gotten there. Homing device in the keycard? Still grinning when he got inside, trying to pretend the techno-geeky doorlock didn't remind him of crew quarters on the Enterprise, it took him a minute to notice that he wasn't alone. There was Willow, sitting on the edge of her bed, staring off into space. What, brain suckers? Hypnotized by the Master-- the Doctor Who one, not the vampire one? "Willow?"

She blinked, slooooowly. "Uh…"

"You okay?"

"Spike."

"No, Xander. That's it, you're never drinking coffee again."

"Noooo…. Spike. Shower. Naked." Her feet tapped a muted nervous beat on the carpeted floor, and she had a pillow on her lap, which she was stroking obliviously with the back of her hand.

"Yes, I convinced him to shower naked, and use the laundry machine for washing his clothes. That was before Tara did that no-more-wrinkles spell, and he just can't seem to get out of the habit, now." No laugh. Uh-oh. Had Spike gotten Willow in a semi-broody mood, too? Or had she just blown out that brilliant mind with too much unfamiliar caffeine? "Willow, what are you talking about?"

"Spike. Shower. Naked."

"Oh." The image flashed in his head, and after shaking off the urge to drool, Xander finally put Willow's words together in a way that made a nasty sort of sense. He walked over to the bathroom, knocked on the door, then walked in without bothering to wait for a response. It wasn't as if Spike ever did. "Spike?

Water-sodden blond head stuck out of the curtain. "Yeah? Oh, s'you. C'mon in."

"I don't think so, considering that Willow is out there. Wil-low. You know. Flashee number three for the weekend?"

Spike hung his head, and actually looked guilty. Real guilt, not sorry-I-got-caught guilt. "I did not do that on purpose. I was just standin' about waiting for the water to get hot. Not my fault Red barged in." Blue eyes got very wide, almost truly innocent, then narrowed, and proved that Spike was indeed an evil demon. He opened the shower curtain a bit more. "Sure y'don't want to barge in too?"

It took most of Xander's remaining almost twenty-year-old maturity to resist the offer.   --No, Willow's out there, no, I don't care how cute he looks when he's guilty, no, I don't care that one of the things I can do is hold my breath in the shower. Plus I'm not letting him pick out clothes for me, at least any more than he already has. No, no, no.--   "No, thanks. I've got to go try to put Willow back together. Hopefully shock treatment won't be necessary." He shut his eyes, backed out, and closed the door.

"Ah, so. Spike, naked," he said, returning to Willow's side. She nodded, brain apparently crawling back to some semblance of working order.

"Um, yeah. Do you…dry mouth, here. Do you have anything hard, to suck on?" Her eyes widened, wider than Spike's had been, and she bent over, hiding her face in the pillow. "Oh, God, I did not just say that."

He sat down next to her, and patted her on the back. "Could've been worse. You could've said it to Spike."

Her head shot up. Now her face was pink, and Xander made a note--if she started in on the hat, he just had to mention Spike. Shower. Naked. "Oh, God. Gods," she moaned. "Any of them. Just pick one, and let him, her, or it kill me now."

"Leviathan?" Xander asked with a straight face. She stared at him. "How about Gozir?" A sliver of a smile on Willow's lips. "Ares? C'mon-- leather, beard, smirk... You'd die happy."

Greenish eyes twinkled, and finally Willow laughed. "Only me. Only Willow Rosenberg could walk in on Spike naked. Did you know…" her voice lowered. "Did you know he has a tattoo? Of Tigger?"

"Ah, no," Xander lied, and waited for the lightning to strike him. When it didn't, he smiled at her. "But thank you. That'll give me blackmail material for a few days, at least. Oh, speaking of tattoos--" He jumped up, rolled across his own bed, and grabbed his smaller duffle bag. "I forgot to give this to you before." He tossed her the plastic bubble container, and she squeaked.

"Ooh! Hello Kitty! Thanks, Tara's been wanting to…" Willow dropped the bubble into the bag on the table between the beds, not finishing her sentence. "This would be the part where I don't tell you something that would make you crack another 'doing spells together' joke, and you pretend I didn't start to." Xander made a show of thinking about it, then nodded. Willow stared off into space for a few more seconds, and he thought maybe shock treatment would be necessary after all, but she finally shook her head, and spoke. "Brush my hair?" He wasn't sure he'd heard her correctly, and he made her repeat it. He had.

But he hadn't. Hadn't done that since it was so long she could sit on it. Since it was a darker red, close to the burnt umber crayon in the sixty-four colors box, and she'd parted it so you could see her widow's peak. Once upon a time, before it got weird between them, before touching her meant giving her some kind of hope that it meant something other than 'you're my best friend, you're my twin sister, and I love you.' Before they'd kissed, and all the insanity that had followed after. Once upon a time, he'd sat in her room, with a hairbrush in his hand, and the brush hadn't had any naughty Spike-induced connotations to it.

He was sitting behind her. Somehow he'd gotten the brush from her bag without even thinking about whether he was going to say yes or no, and he was sitting behind her. Soft bristles, and he stroked them down through her hair. It felt so weird, to be doing it at all, and for her hair to be so short, compared to the way it used to be. He used to say that she had Barbie-doll hair, because you could brush it and brush it, and she never screamed when you pulled it accidentally. He must have asked her about it once, because Xander had a little film clip in his memory of Willow turning to him and saying, 'Yes, it hurts, but I like to have my hair brushed more than I care about that.'

So it was her hair that was the trap, the thing that made him stay there on the bed, listening to the rain outside, and the gentle sshsh of the bristles, parting copper Miss Clairol curls. Every so often, he'd have to touch it, just to separate a tangle, even though she wouldn't scream. It was soft, as soft as Spike's, though he could feel the warmth of her skin near the roots, like he never could when he put his hands in Spike's hair. It was her hair that hypnotized him, so that he didn't move, didn't jump and run and duck and cover when after an eternity of just sitting, she said, "So, do I get to meet him?"

***

In third grade, Xander's mom had stopped packing his lunches for him. Not because they couldn't afford it, not because she was mad at him, as far as he knew. Just because she was too tired. For months, he'd gone without, or cadged from Willow and Jesse. Lived for those days when some kid had a birthday party in class and brought ding-dongs or chocolate cupcakes. Finally Willow had gotten this big serious look on her face and hauled him aside on the playground. Sitting on the swings, twisting the chains around and unspinning so he didn't have to look at her, he had listened to her ask him why he didn't have a lunch, and he had shrugged.

He didn't have any real explanation. If he'd asked his mom, she might have either dragged herself out of bed and made it, or at least told him how to do it himself. It just hadn't occurred to him. It was his problem, and you didn't ask for help with stuff like that. Willow had taken him home with her after school, and asked her mom to show them how to make their own lunches. Sheila Rosenberg thought it was sweet that they were growing up so fast, taking responsibility-- and Willow had never told her the truth. Never told anyone, not even Jesse.

***

"I suppose you wouldn't believe me if I said I have no idea what you're talking about," Xander answered her slowly, now, never stopping his hand from shush-shushing the brush through her hair.

"About as much as Spike believes you when you say it about not being a sci-fi geek," she answered.

  --She doesn't know it's Spike,--   he thought.   --At least she doesn't know it's Spike. God, I think she doesn't know it's Spike. What if she knows it's Spike?--   Here came the panic, or at least the babble that would let his brain take a few seconds to decide whether it was too late to panic or not. "Yeah, well. I know Spike knows and he knows I know he knows and I know he knows I know he.."

"Xander?"

His brain had made its choice. "Yeah. Sorry," he said, more calmly than he'd ever expected. "I take it you didn't actually think the person you saw in my bed on Scooby-Snack-making-day was a girl." Willow shook her head, and the brush caught on her hair. It must have hurt, but she didn't make a sound, other than to answer him.

"Not unless she has very big feet. Does she have very big feet?"

She didn't know it was Spike. He could lie. He damn well wasn't ready to say it was Spike, not when he didn't even know how Spike felt about anybody from Sunnydale knowing, jokes about shagging loudly near Willow and Tara aside. Not when he didn't know how Spike felt about him. But he'd done enough lying for the night. One more would just taste bitter and nasty in his mouth, like last night's tears had, early this morning, like something had died there.

"No. He doesn't have very big feet." Brush. Shush. His fingers on her hair, keeping him calm. "That was pretty observant, Ms. Rosenberg. Also sneaky, since you let me think you didn't know."

Silence for a moment, then another little jerk of her head. "Sorry. I didn't really know what to say. Didn't know if you wanted me to say anything. And, um... I didn't have to be all that observant to notice the shoebox in the glove compartment." Was it too late to just run back downstairs and talk to those guys about joining the Muppet Cult? Xander was thankful Willow couldn't see his face, and she was probably thankful he couldn't see hers. "The box that says 'TV drawer' on it? The one with the…things."

Ahh, yes, the things. The trick handcuffs and the lube and the leftover courtesy-of-Anya condoms, which they had yet to have need of, but at least Willow thought he was practicing safe sex. Which it was, if you considered anything done with Spike to be safe. Spike! Shit, naked picture of Spike in there, covered with whipped cream and topped off with maraschino cherries...   --No. Breathe, Xander. Inhale, exhale, yeah, that's it.--   He'd taken it out and put it in his wallet when he was packing the drawer.   --Right, we now return you to Xander's fiftieth nervous breakdown, already in progress.--  

"Oh. That one."

"Cordelia kind of hit a pothole. And it fell out." Willow was looking down now, because he could see her hair parting at the back of her neck, see the little darker hairs along the nape, that old burnt umber color. "She didn't see what was inside or anything. Just me. She was a little more worried about not hitting pedestrians. Tara was a little more worried about Cordelia not hitting pedestrians."

"Remind me not to let Cordy drive again. Except in case of apocalypse." Which was nice and safe, and didn't answer anything that she hadn't actually asked, and didn't require him to lie, and he could come up with Cordy-clichés all night, if he needed to, but he didn't. He just waited for her to actually ask.

"Are you okay?" Which wasn't what he expected her to ask. What he expected her to ask had the word 'Who' in it, and the response he didn't know if he could give started with William, and ended either in 'Bloody' or in his own name, depending who you asked.

"Am I… yeah. I'm fine, Wills." Of course he was okay, aside from the occasional brain liquification thing.

"Is that 'I'm fine,' as in 'I'm fine, Mulder?' When you're really pregnant with an alien baby and have nose cancer?" Willow's voice was soft. Quiet as it had been that day on the swings.

"You got me. I'm due in November." He was close enough to smell that she and Tara were wearing the same perfume, something he'd noticed in the dealers' room and remembered without even knowing he knew it, something that smelled like lemons and vanilla.

"Xander…" She'd said it the same way years ago, when it was all about learning how to make peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Her coffee high had finally worn off, and her voice was steady and calm. "You're not fine, you're jumpy and happy and sad and down and up and down, and you're eating chocolate like Hershey's just went out of business."

"Willow, don't even joke about things like that."

"Xander…" There it was again, and he was ready to follow her anywhere, if she could show him how to make everything right. Was being in love with Spike as easy as learning how to make a peanut butter, chocolate, and vampire sandwich for lunch? "It's okay," she said slowly. "You don't have to be afraid of anybody being freaked, or…" He hadn't stopped brushing, but at last she turned her head, and he'd have to brush her ear if he wanted to continue, so he put the brush down in his lap. "Well, no, people will be freaked. You're not an idiot, you know that. But nobody who matters." He couldn't lie if she asked. Couldn't lie if she asked. Didn't want to let her think it was about something it wasn't about, anyway. He was as quiet as he knew how to be, but she could hear him breathing, or the wheels in his head turning, or she was reading his fucking mind, which was a terrifying thought. "That's...not what's wrong, is it."

Xander put a hand on her shoulder. Half afraid she would look at him, half afraid she wouldn't. "No. It's not about it being a guy." He pulled her back. Close to him, so they were sitting the way they used to sit, before it mattered. His arms wrapped around her, his head on her shoulder, mouth near her ear. "It's just..." What was it just? It couldn't be just that it was the guy with the Tigger tattoo. Couldn't say it, though he wanted to. So, another truth. Maybe the more important one. Quiet, because he didn't know how loud the shower was, quiet because he couldn't be sure how good Spike's hearing was, though he could apparently hear Angel's and Wesley's lips smacking against each other across Angel's demolished basement apartment. "It's just that I'm in love with him."

She stiffened a little in the circle of his arms, then Willow leaned her head back, resting against his. "Oh." Soft. Quiet. Just rain, outside, tapping on the glass. Finally, she added, a little more conversationally, "After three weeks? That's fast."

Huh? It had been two, not three, but still too damned close, and what the hell was she talking about? "Three weeks?"

"Since Anya broke it off."

He let out a sigh of relief. "Oh. No. Well, maybe. I mean, I've known him for a lot longer than that, but I wasn't cheating on Anya, or anything." Pause, while the reason the name kept buzzing in his ear finally came clear. "Oh hell." A questioning noise. "Anya. I knew there was something. I was supposed to call her, see if she's all right." He couldn't see the hand he had resting on Willow's arm, but he'd bet the ink from Cordy's pen had faded away by now.

Willow pulled his arms a little tighter. "She's fine. Tara and I saw her Thursday afternoon. In fact, I told you that when we went bowling. Weren't you listening to a word I was saying?" Well, his mind might have been on other things, like watching a certain ass in a certain pair of tight jeans execute three spares in a row. He made a noncommittal sound, and she exhaled at him. Xander's so cute, et cetera. He glanced at the phone, and Willow must have felt him turn his head, or she read his mind again. "It's the middle of the night-- you can call her later. Maybe you should worry about Xander, instead of Anya, for the moment?"

"Nah. Xander's fine. Really." Quiet, quiet, couldn't let it get too quiet or he'd have to admit that they were having a Taster's Choice Coffee moment. "He's so fine, as a matter of fact, that he's used his most excellent detective skills to figure out that you brought home extra chocolate from the party." He peered over her shoulder at the crumpled bag next to her, that smelled of Swiss mocha and other enticing things.

"Blech. Take it. Eat it. May you have much joy of it." She handed him the bag, and he kept one arm around her while he unwrapped something possibly more evil than Spike, and popped it into his mouth. He hugged her again. She called him a copycat, and he gave her that noogie she'd avoided so deftly, earlier.

Then, when she asked, he whispered to her around a mouthful of brandy and chocolate. Whispered the things that he hadn't been able to say to anyone else. Why, if there was a why, and how Spike made him feel-- safe and loved and afraid of losing it, all at the same time. A few-half truths about what his undead roommate did and didn't know. He whispered everything but who, and occasionally thought as he listened to himself not say it, that life might have been easier with Anya, even though he didn't love her.

*****

-Interlude in a Sunnydale Parking Lot-

Of all the ridiculous places to have a flat tire, her car had to pick this one? Right outside the all-night Sunnydale Bowl-O-Rama, about the only place in town besides Wal-Mart and the supermarket that was open 24 hours? Granted, there were men in there who could change a tire, which was about all most men were good for besides sex and opening peanut butter jars. But these would be big, smelly, beer-drinking men, who would laugh at her bedraggled rain-wet dress, laugh at her tiny happy cute green Plymouth Neon, and call her 'little lady' to her face, when they weren't trying to fondle her ass. No thank you, Anya would be perfectly happy to try to change the thing herself. If she could get the spare tire out, and find the jack. If she could be sure she knew what the jack looked like.

"Can I help you with that?" came a man's voice from the shadows between a pickup truck and a Honda Accord, and she controlled the urge to jump. Woman alone, darkish parking lot, possibility of vampires and only moderately good with a stake, plus no ability to curse strange human men with penis rot… But the strange man was pretty small, from the height of the umbrella he was holding, which hid his face, and his voice sounded young. She could take him if she needed to. He held out the little umbrella in her general direction, and she gave him a stare that had turned bigger men into trolls, before realizing that if she couldn't see him, he probably couldn't see her.

"That's not exactly helpful, since I'm already soaking wet," she told him honestly. "If you have a tow truck and don't feel like charging me, that would be helpful. Or a very large blow dryer. Or a handy dimensional portal that would get me the hell out of Sunnydale-- I could specify at least five nicer dimensions, one of which is perfect if you don't like shellfish." No response. Maybe he liked shellfish. "Or if you can change a tire, that would also be helpful."

"None of those, really. I guess I make a pretty crummy Sir Walter Raleigh." He was still trying to hand her the umbrella, so she finally took it. Needless to say, it dripped on her head.

"That's actually a good thing. He was pretty much a pig-- kept hitting on the Queen even after he was married and only got off execution so many times because he sent suck-up letters from the Tower and whimpered all the way to the chopping block. I told her she should've cut off something besides his head, but would she ever listen?" Anya finally got a look at her would-be rescuer, and stopped reminiscing. "Oh. It's you."

Short brown hair plastered flat to his head, perpetual confused look, finally accompanied by a shy smile. "You remember me?"

"Of course, why wouldn't I?" He might have bespelled all of Sunnydale into believing that he was the center of the universe, which was somewhat pathetic, but he still had the most lickable shoulders she'd ever seen, and they weren't remotely forgettable. She still had no idea why Xander hadn't wanted to ask him to a threesome when she bugged him about it; she never could get that boy to do anything adventurous.

"Well, most people don't. I... did you used to be a demon?" He frowned, as if trying to snatch something from that months-ago time when he'd known all there was to know about the Scoobies, and they'd looked to him for guidance on everything from fashion to fighting. Anya nodded enthusiastically, picturing a certain page of a certain swimsuit calendar that no longer ever existed. Things were looking up. "Well. It's Anya, right? Um. I can't change a tire, but I do have triple-A. You want to come inside with me?" He offered her his arm, which was more gallant than anything Walter Raleigh had ever really done, and she took it.

*****

Bounce! Bounce! Bounce! This time Spike made sure to duck his head, and he didn't hit it on the ceiling. He did, however, get a pillow thrown at him by his lover, who had just finished tucking an almost-catatonic Willow under the covers of her bed. The sound of the shower mixed with the sound of the rain against the windows, a sort of surround-sound shsh-ing noise.

"Why are you doing that?"

"Because," --bounce-- "that's" --bounce-- "what Tiggers do best!" Bounce. Xander made a face at him, then grinned, a little shyly. "Besides," Spike added, with his own grin, "it's a real"--bounce--"bed." Even if they couldn't use it for the obvious purpose, it still didn't have a too-thin mattress and a murderous support bar that kept threatening to permanently do his back in. Even sans Magic Fingers, this was pure Class-A, double-spring delight.

"What makes you think you're sleeping in it?" Xander asked. Spike stopped bouncing and took a close look at him. He didn't seem pissed off.

"You mad about me flashing Red?" Willow didn't even turn or murmur at the sound of her official Spike-given nickname. Dead to the world. Xander shook his head, dark curls tousled from hours of wearing the Fedora that was now hung neatly on the cherry-wood hatstand in the corner.

"No, that really wasn't your fault. For once." Well, no, though Spike had done a certain amount of triumphant smirking behind the closed shower curtain once she stammered and backed out. Teach her to not be embarrassed by pics of naked blokes shagging on her computer screen.

"Didn't fancy me takin' off at the party, then? Just thought you'd like to not be a science fiction geek in peace, for a bit."

Xander shook his head again. "No. I 'm not mad about anything. You're just not sleeping in that bed. You'll cheat, and then you'll try to pretend I lost the bet, and I wouldn't want to tempt you to do anything that diabolical, given your Default Good Guy status." Which was Xander's way of saying that if they slept together, Spike wouldn't be able to stop himself from trying to hold him. Even if Xander didn't quite know that was what he meant, Spike couldn't deny it.

The noise of the shower shut off, and a waterlogged Tara in shorts and a t-shirt came out of the bathroom a few minutes later, towel around her neck. She stared for a while at the sight of Spike making up a pallet on the floor, between the wall and Xander's bed: extra bedding from the closet, hotel pillow with his duster rolled up beneath it. "You're sleeping on the floor?"

Spike wriggled his toes, newly warm in a borrowed pair of Xander's socks, and slipped under his duvet. "Not sleeping in the bloody chair. Sick of chairs."

She stared at him for a moment longer, then at Xander, already tucked up nicely under the bedclothes, with half a bag of imported chocolates on one side of him, and a pile of M&M's next to it. "Or you could be grown-ups, and sleep in the same bed."

"He's/I'm sleeping on the floor," they replied in unison. When Tara gave them an odd look, Xander offered her some of his chocolate. Distraction. Smart boy. She refused, babbling some ridiculous nonsense about having had too much already. He offered again, this time with a look on his face that would make it very difficult for Spike to sleep on the floor tonight. "You know you want it…." he sing-songed. The blonde witch looked at the floor, looked back at Xander… Spike's boy really would make such a fine vamp-- he had an evil streak a mile wide. Finally, chocolates in hand, Tara turned out the light, and padded past Spike to get to her own bed.

Spike moved a little closer to Xander's bed, lying on his back, staring at the grainy patterns on the ceiling, which he could just barely see in the pitch-dark room. Wondering if he shouldn't try to convince Xander to tell the girls, after all. Just so they didn't have to sleep alone. Either of them. Not sure, in the darkness, with the percussive sound of the rain outside washing Spike towards a sleep he wasn't certain he wanted to meet, whether he could deal with another night like the last one.

After a few minutes, a warm hand dropped down. Accidentally? On purpose? It was better than nothing. Much better than nothing. Spike pushed his pillow up against the side of the carved bedframe, and wrapped his own fingers around Xander's.

*****

A gasp. Tara woke in the night. Morning, really; it had been technically morning when she'd fallen asleep. There still wasn't a speck of light peeking through the curtains, though, and the rain still beat against the glass doors on the other side, next to her bed. Willow was warm and silent in her arms, sleeping like the dead, just like she'd warned, so it hadn't been she who had made the noise. Another sound, small and low, and another intake of surprised breath. Then the shuffling and sudden creaking of the other bed, as someone got in.

"Xan... pet, you all right?" Whispered, but still loud enough for her to make out over Willow's steady, soft breathing, a sound Tara never even noticed anymore, it was so much a part of herself.

"Hmmm? Yeah. M'fine, Spike." Xander's voice was rough with sleep, confused, his breathing loud enough for her to hear.

"You had another nightmare."

"Yeah, I..."

"Tell me. Can't bite 'em up if you don't tell me."

"Don't remember."

The sound of Spike, Spike, sighing. Once. "Xander..."

"No, I mean it. I remember being scared, just don't remember what it was. No big deal; they're usually like that." Silence, for a long while. The only sounds were the rain, three humans breathing, and one vampire not. Then Xander's voice again. "This is in no way you attempting to cop a feel while thinking I won't count it because you're being all uncharacteristically well-behaved, right?"

"No, this is something entirely different, and much more diabolical. It's called cuddling."

Silence again, and if there was any more, she didn't hear it. Tara stared at the darkness for a while, gently stroking Willow's hair. Not wondering how it was possible for a demon to love. How could she wonder? Finally the rain and the rhythm of someone's breathing, she couldn't be sure whose, lulled her to sleep.






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