Chocolatey Goodness


by
Mad Poetess



a The Wrong Side of the Bed

He heard his own name, felt it breathed across his skin. A faint, soft brush at his temple, like insect wings. Xander rolled to face his lover, seeing nothing in the lightless room, but there were cool arms close around his shoulders. Soft lips pressed against his, silently demanding entrance to his mouth. He gave it without hesitation, to the tongue that also spoke without voice. It whispered poetry against his palate in a language that had no meaning to him, held only the sound of falling rain, of water rushing over rocks, of movement and stillness. Some beautiful lie of Spike's, that Xander gladly accepted into his mouth, invited into his own body in tiny bites. Tentative little nibbles with his own blunt human teeth, at Spike's lips, at his chin, down his throat.

He could rip, tear, devour, could eat Spike up in an instant, if he allowed himself to think it. Or drink him down, drink in the words that Spike whispered and suck the vampire in after them, until Xander was full of everything. Rain and Spike and poetry and the dark, and he'd never have to let any of it go, if he was fast enough to catch it. Strong hands swept across his skin, and something was wrong with that, he was supposed to be winning something because of that, but he wasn't going to speak to say so. Couldn't shouldn't talk; there was some reason they had to be quiet as mice. He could only swallow his groan, as a leg was thrown over him, cool flesh pressed to his own heated groin; twin erections slid against each other, rubbing in the silence. Something not right, not right, but you don't think when you have this against your body, don't try to make it real, just take it for what you have, what you can get.

His own arms wrapped tight around the shifting muscles in that slim torso, pulling Spike to him as they each sought completion in the other. Sharp teeth in his neck, pain as silent as the rest, and oh yeah. He wanted this. Wanted to give and take, until he lost himself in Spike. Found himself again in his reflection in Spike's half-glowing eyes. His own blood flowed warm from him to Spike, and Xander took it back with tiny sips at the blood-warmed mouth. Tasting himself, tasting Spike, feasting in nibbles. Stroking and pushing and flowing, and building until there was nowhere to go but up, thrusting against Spike and losing his mind.

All in the silence and the dark, with only the hush of his own breath, his own pulse pounding in his ears and---something else.

Something was there. Watching them. Something there in the dark. He peered out into the shadows that surrounded the bed, and thought he saw it move. The pounding pulse became a hammer in his skull as he sat up, reached for Spike's shoulder, pointed.

"S'all right," came Spike's voice, and a touch on his cheek. "I'll take care of it. I'll protect you."

Xander opened his mouth to say no, they would deal with it together-- you talk about its mother, I'll swing the helm axe-- but his mouth wouldn't work right, and Spike was up and gone before he could do more than squeak. Up and gone, diving into the darkness. Xander was alone in the bed. "Spike?" he was finally able to call.

Nothing, not even the echo of his own voice, but still that feeling that something was out there. He twitched a toe, then his whole foot, working up the courage to actually get out of bed and go look. The thing moved again -- a glimmer of wet silver-gray, against the black.

"Spike?" he shouted again. The presence disappeared, in an instant.

Xander sat up and looked around the room, blinking. Gone, whatever it was. Whatever it wasn't. Chased away by the sound of the alarm going off, shrill in the silence. Not by Spike, who wasn't there at all.

 

*****

 

Spike had made his way down to the screening rooms early in the morning, still half asleep on his feet even after what passed for a meal these days. Trying to play Watcher to his sleeping bedmate for the second night in a row hadn't done much for his own undead nervous system, and microwaved stolen-from-Sire cow's blood wasn't exactly the vampire equivalent of a power breakfast. He'd tried to stay awake after he sat down, not really relishing the idea of sleeping alone, but at last he gave in to his drooping eyelids, and nodded off in front of a scratchy copy of 'Forbidden Planet.'

He woke up to the feel of Xander smacking him across the back of the head with his hat, and found the video playing was one from halfway through the first season of 'Red Dwarf.' He'd been napping for a good four or five hours at least, according to the video schedule.

Spike shook his head, then smiled as Xander settled in next to him, smelling of soap and Old Spice deodorant and watermelon-and-pineapple shampoo. Eau de freshly-showered-Xander. He tried to concentrate on the videos, but it took him another two episodes before he was able to erase the fantasy of Xander, naked and streaked with foam, standing under the hot needle-spray, from his mind. Not to mention convincing Spike Junior, otherwise known as William-the-horny, that it could just bog off and leave him alone, because it wasn't coming out to play any time soon.

He covered his sigh with a yawn, as he glanced over at Xander. He'd had a moment this morning, had Spike, that had made him wonder if he deserved this, sitting next to him now. When he had woken in bed, his internal alarm attuned to the slightest hint that either of the girls were stirring, he'd seen Tara stretch and turn over in the darkness, wrapping her arm tightly around Willow, and he'd thought... The same sort of things he'd thought last night, really: that wistful human crap about wanting to lie easy in bed with Xander like that, in the same room as his friends, and not have to scarper away in the morning. That wasn't the moment, that was the same sort of Angel-brooding he'd been doing for weeks.

But he'd bent to kiss the high forehead that lay on the pillow next to him, and there'd been the moment. In that instant, he had known that if he did, he wouldn't get out of bed. If he woke Xander up, Spike would try to convince him to stay there, tough it out, face the consequences, tell them the truth. It was tempting, and he'd almost done it. Almost asked. He'd brought his lips within an inch of Xander's skin, before he pulled back. He'd slid out of Xander's arms and out of bed, and settled the covers back over him. Grabbed his boots and a bag of blood, and slipped out the door. Because he was a coward, at heart, and he was afraid of what the answer would be.

"We've seen this one before-- let's go... do something." Xander's voice was soft now, maybe a bit whiney, in Spike's ear, bringing him back to the dark, almost empty function-room and the sound of someone singing about goldfish bowls eating her toes, coming from the speakers.

"Do what, 'xactly?" Spike stalled.

"Anything." Xander shifted in his chair. "Well, murder, mayhem, and sex are pretty much out, but anything else," he corrected, with something between a glare and a grin.

"Which leaves what -- lightsaber fights?"

Xander shrugged, tapping his foot off-rhythm on the floor, and Spike resisted the urge to join him. One obsessive-compulsive episode at a time was enough, thanks. The boy had been...antsy, since he'd gotten here. Couldn't quite sit still, much like a certain unbleached vampire back in his wild-child days.

Spike could have suggested they check the convention programme for an activity non-geeky enough that they could both keep their rapidly-dwindling dignity about them, but the thing of it was, he didn't want to go do something. Now that he'd managed to relax, he was having something frighteningly close to a good time. Just watching with his lover as two men on a ship the size of a small planet still managed to drive each other crazy, and pointedly not drawing parallels. No biting, no fighting, no shagging, just sitting there, centimeters of wooden chair-arm between them, human and vampire, being together, sort of. He was reasonably sure it would get him booted out of the Legion of Supervillains if anyone ever found out, but it was something near to right. So damned close. A touch away.

So he kept his mouth shut as Xander fidgeted, and tried not to fidget, himself. He watched as the dredlocked figure on the movie screen attempted to play guitar, one booted foot propped up on his bunk, grimy t-shirt and boxer shorts his only attire. Enough dirty clothes to make up for several million years in suspended animation lay scattered across his bunkroom floor. Dave Lister, the last living human in the universe, and he had to have the same flair for interior decorating as Spike's erstwhile basementmate. Similar taste in sleepwear, too.

"Did you..." Xander said suddenly, then shook his head.

"What?" Spike glanced away from the caterwauling actor.

"Nothing. I just... Did you find a microwave for your blood?"

"Yeah, there's a little vending place round the corner from the gift shop. Drank it straight outta the bag, in full gameface, and nobody batted an eye. 'Cept some dink in a Forever Knight t-shirt, wanted to know who did my make-up. Told him I didn't wear make-up, besides the occasional bit o' black nail varnish, and all 'e did was compliment me for stayin' in character. Nutters, the lot of you."

Xander nodded, but didn't say anything further. Spike yawned again, then nonchalantly stretched his arms, one of which then fell back down, still nonchalantly, around Xander's shoulders. Which was why Spike really didn't want to leave, but there was something a bit unmanly, somehow, about explaining that you just wanted to cuddle in the dark, and was that all right. Just for a minute, where nobody could see.

A bark of laughter from his lover, a bit sharp, like maybe he'd caught on to the fact that Spike was pretending this was a real theatre. Sans the eating of the usherette and hysterical screaming when the dancing hot dogs came on that had always accompanied a movie date with Dru, of course. "Oh subtlety, thy name is Spike. Were you planning on holding hands in the popcorn bucket, too?"

Yup, totally onto him. Bugger. "No, seeing as we haven't got one. Got M&M's, though." If nothing else, distract 'em with chocolate.

Xander paused, then, after a second, held out his hand, and Spike happily placed a crumpled paper sack of clicky-clacky candies there. Happily, because Xander hadn't shaken off his arm. After a few seconds of silence-- punctuated by Lister attempting to actually sing as he played guitar, and Spike being reminded that there actually was someone in the world more tone-deaf than his Sire-- Xander tapped him on the wrist. "Why are all these M&M's blue?"

" 'Cos I don't like the blue ones. They're all yours, crunch away."

"Spike, it's food coloring. All the colors taste the same."

"Didn't say they taste different, I said I don't like them. There's something inherently wrong with bright blue M&M's. Contrary to the natural order of the universe."

"They have blue Smarties; I've seen 'em."

"That's different. Always been blue Smarties. This M&M thing is just wrong."

"You do realize you're deranged, right?"

"It's been pointed out to me. So, you want to hold hands in the M&M bag?" La la la la, I'm a grown-up, hardass vamp, and I did not just ask my human lover if he wants to have middle-school finger-sex in a paper bag. Yes, you did. Oh, sod off, you.

Snort. "You are kidding, right?"

"Of course." Of course he was.

Xander was quiet for a second. Then he said -- as if he were figuring out a complex mathematical problem that someone had set him, and it had nothing to do with Spike having just made a complete wet noodle out of himself-- "Aside from the logistical impossibility of both of our hands fitting in there at the same time--which is on par with trying to make out in the back seat of a Neon-- they lie when they say those things don't melt in your hands. We'd get chocolate all over 'em."

And there's a problem with this? But at last Spike ventured, slowly, unsure of the answer he'd get, "Could just hold hands, then, if you like."

More silence from his lover, while on the screen Lister's holographic bunkmate threatened to do nasty things to him with various parts of that guitar if he ever played it again. Finally, a warm hand found Spike's, brushing it tentatively where it lay across the seatback, then lacing the fingers through his. "This isn't classified as groping or fondling, right?" Xander asked quietly.

He grinned, wondering if he should say yes, and start an argument about having won their no-shagging bet, and could they find a nice quiet closet somewhere so he could celebrate... Perhaps they could ring up Cordelia, who probably knew all the convenient broom-cupboards in the L.A. area. But he decided against it, the strange, sweet feel of Xander's hand in his somehow more important right now than snarking about, no matter how much fun he might have. "Nah. This is more like snuggling, with vague hints of light petting. Nothing you couldn't do on a Sunday School field trip."

Yet more silence. Awkward silence, as if snuggling were the sort of thing that was only allowed at home in the basement of doom. Or under the covers. Occasionally in the car. Never to be mentioned out loud in the daytime, in L.A., even in a darkened room. And yeah, he was nineteen, and yeah, he wasn't out to the world, and yeah, they were both grrr-arrgh manly men, but... But Spike thought too much about shit like that, he did. Let it go, let it be, take it as it comes.

What came was Xander's fingers slipping from Spike's, eventually. Falling gently onto his lap. Spike's arm tightened around the wide shoulders, as if he could protect Xander from something he couldn't even see or smell or name, much less kill. Reflex. Couldn't help it. Hated the squirming that followed, but he just had this feeling that if he let go...

"You're getting awfully up close and personal, y'know, " Xander informed him, shifting a bit, but not breaking out of the embrace. "For somebody who's supposed to be worrying that I'll start dressing him up like Lister if he loses this my-hormones-don't-rule-me bet." Not quite breaking away, though he pulled against Spike's arm for a moment, then, with a soft, untranslatable sigh, curled in against him. "Or maybe you'd prefer the Rimmer look," he mused quietly. "We could get you a nice kinky little uniform complete with fake medals. Even a nametag that says 'Second Technician Spike, BSC.' For 'blood-sucking-certificate.'"

"Beats going about having people think I'm William Harris. No offense, but I don't think I'd fit in at your family's little Fourth of July reunion." Spike fingered his name badge absently with his free hand. "I'll wear the badge, if you like, but no uniform. I look horrible in khaki."

Xander snerked. "And olive drab-- you're right, military guy, you're not. Still, it's not like Rimmer wears that outfit through the whole series."

"No, it gets worse. At some point there's blue sequins involved, if I remember rightly. Blecch. I've got more fashion-sense in my left bollock than that whingey little git does in his whole body."

"And you wonder why I don't want you picking out my clothes, if that's where you store your fashion sense? Still, if it makes you feel better..." Xander addressed the screen. "My undead roomie's better dressed than yours is, nyah-nyah..."

"Hmm. You think Rimsey and Listey are shagging, too?"

Utter, echoing silence, while they contemplated the mental picture. "Eew," came the eventual whisper, and Spike silently agreed, wondering what had prompted him to dredge up that image. No comparisons, remember? "I like his tattoo, though," Xander said after a while. "I think we should do that for vampires. You all get a big V in the middle of your foreheads. Then everybody'll know who to stake, and Buffy can retire and have a normal life."

Spike snickered. How would Angel manage to comb his hair over it? 'Cos you know he'd try to. Then he thought about the Slayer collecting an old-age pension, and snickered a bit more. "She'd be dead in a month. Sheer boredom. She gets her grapefruits squeezed by killing things, luv. Without us around, she'd have to find something else. Evil puppies, maybe. The occasional unsuspecting vampiric sheep."

Xander twisted halfway out of his grasp. "Buffy's not like that. She does it because it has to be done, not because she gets off on it somehow. She didn't even want to be the Slayer anymore, when she first came to Sunnydale. Tried to blow Giles off until people started getting killed right in front of us. "

Ahh, but she's thrown herself into it, hasn't she? Gone for the gusto. Can't tell me her knickers don't go all warm and wet at the thought of a good roll in the graveyard dirt with one of us. I've seen it. Been it, even. But say that, and he'd set off the war to end all wars, which was exactly what he didn't want to do. So aloud, Spike merely whispered, "Keep tryin' to protect her, don't you. All of 'em. Always cover their backs, even if it's just their reputations at stake, so to speak."

"They're my friends. Of course I do. They care about me, too, you know."

"Wasn't sayin' they don't." Just that they forgot, sometimes, that the boy was there, and looking out for them. Just that they didn't see how much he needed looking after, himself. "Just wonderin' who covers your back. Who keeps you safe at night, besides me." Allowed to mention that? Acknowledge that much about last night or the fifteen nights before? Even if he couldn't bring himself to say out loud that the same thing was true in reverse? Or maybe he should, after all...

Apparently not, because he didn't get the chance. Xander pulled away completely, with a quick little jerk. "Amazingly," he said coolly, "I managed to make it through the evenings all by my little self for the last nineteen years. Even stopped sleeping with a teddy bear when I was twelve. Possibly because my dad chucked him out the car window, but I choose to believe it was a mature, responsible decision on my part."

Xander stood and walked a few rows away, then slumped down into a chair near the wall. Spike smacked his forehead with his palm a few dozen times. "Hey Dave," he muttered. "Got any pithy relationship advice for the guy who's dating your alter ego?" On the screen, Third Technician Lister responded by trimming his toenails with his teeth.

*****

Xander leaned his head against the wall, and tried to feel the coolness, through the throbbing in his skull. His head hurt.

He should have known it would be a crappy day, from the start. It was raining. He'd woken up alone, feeling nasty. Hardly the first time that had happened, considering the jobs he'd worked and his Slayerette activities, but it hadn't happened in the last two weeks, so it was a little disconcerting. Especially since this was a different kind of nasty from 'Don't touch me, I worked two shifts, I stink and I have the Morning Breath from Hell' kind of nasty. This was 'touch me and I'll bite your head off' nasty. As Willow's alarm clock could testify, if it weren't lying across the room in at least three pieces. He'd have to buy her a new one-- preferably one that didn't sound like a rooster crowing when it went off; he'd blinked his gaze around the empty bedroom for nearly five cock-a-doodle-do's before he was absolutely sure he wasn't being attacked by Foghorn Leghorn, despite what his ears and his sleepy brain, and his pounding skull were trying to tell him.

As he showered, then dressed in a comfortably familiar plaid shirt that Spike would undoubtedly make barfing noises over, Xander had grumbled to himself. Just a little. He was well aware that Spike couldn't have stayed in bed with him until the morning light-- such as it was, what with the pissing rain outside-- gave them away. But he could at least have woken me up, given me a good-morning smack on the ass or something, before he snuck out the door like I'd just hired him for the night. Xander knew that wasn't true, though; Spike had just been looking out for him. Looking out for them both. Somehow that didn't make him feel any better.

The girls had taken off too, though he could hardly blame them for not knowing he didn't like to wake up alone. Willow had left him a note asking if he and Spike wanted to meet them for lunch, but he'd been half-tempted, after reading the cheery message, not to show up. Not because he didn't want to see them. Just because he still felt nasty. Like he might say something he'd regret, if he did. Though he couldn't think of anything he could possibly end up arguing with Willow about, much less Tara, who never said anything anyway.

He'd grabbed his detective-hat from the coatrack as he was going out the door, and held it in his hands as he walked, since he didn't want to put it on his still-damp head. "Xander the Dick," he sneered. "Allegedly hunting down alleged Bad Guys who allegedly want to kill somebody who's already dead, and can handle himself just fine without you. Which is why you're at a science fiction convention allegedly bodyguarding two more people who can handle themselves just fine without you, instead of helping Angel. Not really hunting down anything except Spike, and maybe Jeri Ryan's autograph. But at least you can use the word 'allegedly' properly in a sentence, thanks to your many years of training at the Darkwing Duck Syndicated School of Detection."

His many years of training hadn't done a hell of a lot for his attention to detail, apparently, because he was three strides past Room 1217 by the time he registered that he'd seen smoke pouring out from under the door.

His mind raced for a second, trying to jump out of the Self-Pity track and onto the Hero one. Split-second decision, Harris. What would Buffy do? Buffy would kick the door down, run in, and rescue whoever was inside. The little Willow-voice in his head said calmly, 'Remember that speech Giles is always giving us about there being one girl in all the world, a Chosen one, with the strength and skill, blah, blah, blah?'-- Um, yeah? -- 'You're not that girl.' -- Thanks for clearing that one up, Wills. But his mind-Willow had a point-- solid oak door-busting not usually in the Xander Harris repertoire.

"But even Xander Harris can pull a fire alarm," he babbled aloud. "If he can find it."

He'd spotted the little red box on the wall and was reaching for it, when he heard a woman laughing, quite nearby. "That won't be necessary," she said, "but I'm sure the hotel would thank you for your civic-mindedness, if there were an actual fire."

Xander turned around. A small, black-haired figure in jeans and a convention t-shirt stood where the smoke had been roiling a few seconds ago. The gray smoke was gone, and hadn't left any scent of burning behind it. Spike would have known it wasn't a real fire, just from that. Of course, Spike would have recognized her sooner, too. His brain finally kicked into what something like working order.

"Ah. Hey. You're Spike's friend, right? Which, you'll pardon me saying, sounds about as weird as 'Spike's sense of fair play,' or 'Spike's Guide to Clean Living.'"

The Asian woman --former woman, Xander reminded himself, though she looked solid enough now -- laughed again. "Quite. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call us 'acquaintances who never felt any particular desire to kill each other.' I think that was Spike's term for it. You are...Alexander, was it?"

He wasn't sure if he was flattered by the fact that she remembered his name, or disturbed. "Yeah. I usually go by 'Xander'. And your name's Rei, right? Rei-something, Rei-something, but, ah, not sure which came first, the something or the something. Sorry."

"It scarcely matters; Spike was quite right in implying that I chose them both for myself. 'Reikawa' means ghost of the river, as he said. Reikoku has a few different meanings, depending on how you spell it." Her tone was matter-of-fact. Polite, on the edge of friendly. Like she was the kind of person you met at a bus station and struck up a conversation with because she seemed like a safer bet than the knuckle-draggers in the football uniforms or the scary-looking wino with the waist-length beard and the unidentifiable stains on his coat. "It meant 'relentless' when I chose it," she continued, " but I was something of a pretentious thing, in those days."

"When you knew Spike?" Xander asked, in spite of his sincere lack of desire to spend more than a few seconds in her company. Because despite her relaxed, conversational tone, she was freaky. Just sent little chills up his spine, and not the good kind.

"No, a good two centuries before I had the dubious honor of becoming, as you say, friends, with Supaiku."

The creepy smile lost some of its creep-factor, became almost human, when she said Spike's name that way. He could hear something nostalgic and fond, in her voice, despite the words. Maybe that was it. This was someone who knew Spike when, and didn't carry the kind of still-love-my-Sire baggage that Angel did. It was the only explanation Xander could come up with for why he hadn't made his goodbyes and headed off to shiver reflexively, someplace where she couldn't see him. That, and wondering if whoever was in Room 1217 was okay...

She caught his glance at the door, and smiled directly at him. Oh yeah, there was the creepiness. "Worried about my breakfast companion? You are amusing. "

"Yeah, that's me. Missed being Official Class Clown by three votes, and that was just 'cause Jack Mayhew actually campaigned for it. Handed out rubber chickens and novelty condoms. Should I be worried about whoever's in there?"

Rei shook her head. "The man is a Hollywood talent agent. Here for his own enjoyment, to take his mind off his own failing business for a weekend. So what does he dream about? Turning away the wrong client; being laughed at by a board of studio executives. If nightmares were your sort of food, you could pick his up at a drive-thru. Fifty billion served, in this city." When Xander gave her an uncertain look, she waved a hand at the door. "He is sleeping peacefully; you're welcome to confirm it for yourself, if you like."

He did like, as a matter of fact. The ghost faded to nothing when Xander knocked on the door, leaving him alone to stammer an apology about it being the right room, wrong floor, to the tired-looking, fuzzy-haired guy who answered it. When that door was slammed shut after a few pointed comments about Xander learning how to read, he walked off, muttering again, hoping some of the red would fade from his face by the time he found Spike.

"You're a knight errant!" Rei's voice laughed in his ear. She reappeared in front of him, floating a few inches off the floor as he stalked towards the central opening where the hallways came together and the elevators lived. She looked more amused than ever. "How rare; no wonder your witch friends didn't want to sell you."

Xander blinked, his memory pulling the 'I've slept since then' trick on him. Sell... oh yeah. She offers to buy me as a pet, they say I'm theirs. Sweet, girls, but she hasn't been haunting a cave for the last hundred years. She was kidding. I hope. Just in case, though... "They were just being silly, you know. They don't actually own me, or anything."

"Yes, I did realize that." He flushed again, under her dark-eyed scrutiny. "They admire your bravery, but they do not have much confidence in your self-preservation skills, do they. That would be why they hired Spike."

Blinking seemed to be Xander's new facial tic, since his eyelids were doing it without any instructions from him. "Uh...hired Spike... for me? What on earth makes you think that?"

"Well, he certainly wasn't acting concerned for their safety last night, nor does anyone of the power-level that they project, require his protection, whatever they might have said. There is nothing at this hotel that could harm them, including me. But Spike could not have been more obvious about his stewardship of you had he stepped in front of you and growled at me. I'm surprised he didn't; surely it would have impressed his employers more than that awkward display of pretending not to be concerned about you. And it's his way, when he is...looking after someone-- growl and claw and bite. Effective, if less than subtle."

So... Xander tried to put together what she was saying. She thought Spike had been trying to defend him? By putting him down? It almost made sense-- Spike liked to show off his Big Bad-ness. Like killing two overgrown demonic skinheads on Friday, because one of them had laid a hand on Xander. But he couldn't go all fangy on Rei with the girls there; all he could do was pretend he didn't care, in hopes of making a potential danger less interested in poor, defenseless Xander.

He should be flattered, right? He'd been flattered by Spike fighting and killing things for him, by Marianne the ghostly waitress telling him that the vampire out there in the diner's parking lot was having a pissing war over Xander Harris. So why did it just bug the living hell out of him to hear it from this other ghost, this friend of Spike's? That was the part that didn't make sense. Unless it was the fact that she was harmless. According to Spike. According to what he'd just seen. Not a potential danger. Harmless, harmless, harmless, just like Xander, who apparently was so harmless that he needed to be protected from other harmless things. Stuffed animals. Rice pudding. The Muppet Show.

"Spike was not hired to take care of me," he said firmly. Not hired at all, but he still didn't --quite-- feel like making Spike look like an idiot in front of someone who had some kind of respect for him, however sarcastic it might be. "I don't need a bodyguard. I'm nothing special, like he said. Just along for the ride."

He was standing in front of the elevators now, wondering if there were a polite way to end this conversation, and why he cared, when he quite frankly felt like telling her to go back to whatever afterlife she popped out of, and take her too-right, too-wrong, too-confusing assumptions with her. She watched as he pressed the button for the main floor, then watched him as he waited, arms crossed. He felt the urge to whistle nervously, but clamped his jaw on it.

Finally, she moved. She floated over and reached out a finger towards Xander's face. He flinched, surprised, then angry with himself for showing it. After a tiny pause, she touched him anyway, trailing that small finger down his cheekbone, towards his chin. It wasn't like Marianne's touch had been, falsely solid, only odd because of the lack of heat, and he was used to that, with Spike around. This was tingly, electric, and wet, at the same time, like the air during a storm. It put a taste in his mouth, too, like the little tongue-zap you get from licking one end of a battery.

Xander stood still, being more creeped out than he'd been by the fact that the ghost diner didn't creep him out, or that he'd never even noticed Phantom Dennis was there in Cordy's apartment, until he'd formally introduced himself in the morning. "Could you not... not do that, please?" Her touch felt...wrong. Like only Spike should ever touch him that way, and that would never feel like this.

"I am sorry," she said softly, withdrawing her finger. "I'm a fool, forgive me. I didn't realize. She always called him her bravest, wisest knight in all the land; it never occurred to me that he's capable of playing Sancho Panza, as well."

Huh? The image of Spike in a sombrero flitted through Xander's head, which almost called up a laugh. "Lady, I don't know what you're--"

The auto-babble shut down when she spoke again, like she'd found the magic on/off switch, and he couldn't say a thing as she went on.

"He warned me, once, that if I ever so much as looked crossways at her without her permission, he'd find a way to send me back to Gaki-do-- I suppose you'd call it hell, or one of them-- and rip me to pieces with his own fangs before he did, ghost or no." She pushed her long hair back behind one ear, and smiled again with that almost-human expression. "Such drama. As if I could have harmed her, or wanted to. The madness, the visions that swirl around her head... Delicious. So is Drusilla back home, playing with her dolls, waiting patiently for you to finish whatever quest he's followed you out on?"

Xander swallowed hard, wondering when the conversation had started going over his head. "Dru's in Brazil, I think. Or that was the last place Spike saw her." So why don't you head down south and catch up on old times with her, he wanted to add. Wasn't that elevator ever coming?

Rei's eyes opened wide, and she shook her head. "He left her? Left Drusilla? I--" And she seemed at a loss for words, as she hadn't been all during this entire surreal exchange. "He would have fought to his own death for her. The true death. He used to have dreams of her, on fire, turned to ash, and he would wake up shouting for her. Spike left her? What on earth could she have done to make him leave?"

Made out with other demons, then told him to hit the highway. Think that would about do it for me. But Xander wouldn't say it out loud. "You'd have to ask Spike. I wouldn't know."

The elevator finally dinged, and Rei seemed to come back to herself, if she'd ever really been gone; he had no idea how to read her expressions, really. She bowed, and Xander caught himself almost doing the same; stifled a half-hysterical giggle at the thought of them doing that eternal Japanese politeness thing, bowing in the hallway until he was old and gray. Instead, he put his hat on his head, wet hair or not, then tipped it to her. Something his old, gray, grandpa would have done.

He walked into the open elevator and pressed the button for the main lobby. When he looked up to ask her what floor, as if she even needed to use the elevator, as if he even wanted to share that space with her, she was gone. And his head was aching even more.

*****

Spike looked down at the dark head leaning against the wall. Breathing slow, almost asleep. Rouse him, or just sit down next to him and put his arm back where it belonged? He'd probably get his head bit off for the second, if how they'd left things ten minutes ago was any indication. He touched Xander gently on the shoulder.

"Aggh!" Xander jumped in his seat, and banged his head against the wall, knocking his hat off his knee. Jumped away from Spike.

Spike snatched his hand back as if he'd been burned, which it half felt like he had. He put both of them up in the air, to ward off whatever snarky comment Xander might throw at him. "Sorry. Just... didn't think you actually wanted to fall asleep in here. You'll get a stiff neck."

Xander was silver-and-black in the darkness, the light from the movie screen occasionally flashing in his eyes as he looked up at Spike. "Yeah, I..." Xander rubbed at his skull, then stretched his neck. "You might be right, there." He picked up his hat and put it on his head.

"What's wrong?" Spike asked, not touching. Trying not to sound too much like whatever had set Xander off in the first place, whatever that had been.

"I dunno. Just got up on the wrong side of the bed, I guess." Spike winced, wishing he could have done something about not being in it when Xander got up. Xander frowned for a moment. Then his face slipped into that bland, clownlike expression he tended to use with his friends. "Maybe I just need to eat. You hungry?"

"Well, yeah, I s'pose. You still mad at me?" Spike tilted his head out of habit, as if changing the angle of his vision would make everything come clear. It didn't.

Xander clenched his fist against his jeans, hidden in the shadows between his leg and the wall, where he probably thought Spike couldn't see it. He flushed, the blood rising up into his cheeks, and Spike could feel the heat from where he stood. "I-- Hell, you just..."

"Insulted your friends?" Spike asked. "In case you hadn't noticed, I've sort of made a hobby of it, since killin' 'em stopped being an option."

Xander shook his head. "No... I don't know. I'm just in a mood. Can't I be in a mood? Don't they have those where you come from?" He wasn't quite snapping.

Was that all, really? Spike nodded slowly. "Yeah, sure. Hell, I can't really remember when Dru wasn't in a mood. No big deal." He brushed the tips of his fingers over Xander's shoulder, and Xander shook them off.

"Bizarre and inexplicable mood swings aside," Xander said, "I'm actually not a girl, you know."

"I'd noticed, yes." Spike let out a tinny, bewildered laugh. "So?

"So you don't need to bring me flowers, Spike. So to speak."

"Ah. What about chocolates?" Spike offered him the bag of M&M's that he'd left sitting on the other chair, and Xander accepted it gingerly. Spike just rubbed at his nose with one hand. There was quiet again for a while, as Xander crunched a handful of candy, and Spike tried to think of what he could say or do that wouldn't irritate him. "So where's food? Back at the room?" Spike asked eventually. "I could do with a bit more than chocolate pudding for lunch, 'less you wanted to forfeit the bet and do some fingerpaintin' with it."

Xander shook his head, not even bothering to come up with a decent retort. "Hotel restaurant. Always gotta eat there once, just to prove how godawful expensive it is. Meeting Will and Tara at one."

Spike peered down at the watch on Xander's left hand. "'Bout that time now." He shifted, yawning a bit, and offered his own hand, to pull Xander up. He didn't expect it to be accepted, somehow, and it wasn't.

Xander stood on his own, and walked past him to the door. Waited, arms crossed as he leaned against the doorframe, for Spike to walk up behind him. "It's on the second floor. We'd better hurry if we don't wanna get turned into toads for non-punctuality."

They walked across the lobby in silence, the chatter of the milling convention-goers suddenly gratingly loud in Spike's ears.

*****

"You do know that's absolutely disgusting, right?" Willow watched as Spike chased the last little piece of extremely rare liver across his plate. It was interesting, in its own way. There's a Pysch paper in this somewhere, I'm sure. The calming psychosomatic effects of substituting dead cow for dead human in the diet of your average vampire. Kind of like giving him a binkie, instead of letting him suck his thumb, and am I actually picturing Spike sucking his thumb? Yes, I am. Help.

"Would it make you any hungrier for dessert if I told you I was pretending it was the Slayer's greasy bits I'm eating?" Spike confirmed her unspoken diagnosis, using exaggerated delicacy to wipe his mouth with the cloth napkin, then, with a smirk, picked up his plate and licked it. Willow did her best not to make 'Eew-Face,' but she wasn't entirely successful. So much for clinical detachment, Dr. Rosenberg... Good thing your Psych professor isn't alive to see you making that face.

"You can dress him up, but you can't take him anywhere," Xander commented from across the table, where he was finishing off his last sandwich. They were staying in one of the most expensive hotels in the city, eating in a restaurant that probably added a ten percent surcharge for breathing the air in the waiting area, and Spike had seduced them into billing it to the room, aka Angel. So what did Xander order? Four peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches and about a gallon of chocolate milk. Willow was still trying to puzzle that one out.

"Yeah, you'd almost think I was raised by vampires or something," Spike said, deadpan.

Willow smiled. "Speaking of, I called Angel this morning. Just to check in."

"Yeah? He find the bad guys, dispense justice, save the world, and settle in for a good long afternoon of feeling guilty about it?" Spike asked.

"No, he found the bad guys, followed them around for a night and half a day, and decided they're just trying to drive him nuts. When I talked to him, he and Wesley were sitting in the lobby eating raspberry truffles and arguing over whether they should just pack it all up and go home. Cordy was whining something in the background about Angel being a dead --um, deader-- man if she ended up gaining five pounds on a wild goose chase."

"Joy." Spike flicked a glance at Xander. "How is it we get to spend the day with the gamers and geeks, and Angel and his lot sit about stuffing imported choccies down their throats?"

"You've been an evil vampire for a hundred and something-something years," Xander answered. "It's your punishment. And I'm being punished for giving you shelter and letting you hustle me at bowling."

Spike rolled his eyes, Willow wasn't sure at which comment. "I told Angel about your friend the Gaki," she said to him. He blinked, then nodded.

"Figured you would. And?"

"Wesley said he wanted to talk to you about her, because he'd never actually met anyone who knew a Gaki, and he'd always found the concept of the Hungry Ghosts fascinating-- that they eat only one thing, that they're never satisfied, et cetera, etcetera. He went on about it for a while."

Spike snorted, and Willow had to stop herself from defending her fellow research-nerd's excitement. "And the Great Detective, ultimate authority on nasty night-critters who didn't recognize a Fyarl demon when it was ripping bits off his scalp, had what to say?"

"Angel said you were the one who knew her, so you were probably right about her being safe." Willow smiled at Spike's look of surprise. "Of course he also said that if you let any of us get into trouble, he'll personally beat you until those brains you never use fall out of your skull and splatter on the ground, then he'll make you clean it up with your tongue." It had been an interesting image, to say the least, and Willow had done her own fair share of blinking when she heard it, as well as wondering just how happy it had made Angel to get Spike out of his face for the weekend.

"Yeah, that sounds more like him. Not, of course, that I care, but Rei's no danger to you lot. Like I said. If she's even still here."

"She's still here," Xander said, looking at his glass of milk. Playing with his straw. "I saw her this morning, on my way downstairs."

"You didn't say." Spike glanced almost accusingly at him, though he wasn't looking up to catch the expression.

"Didn't think it mattered. You didn't seem all that jazzed to see her, last night."

"No, not really. She just always sort of rubbed me the wrong way; too high and mighty for her own good; reminded me of Angel's Sire a bit too much. Dru was all cosy with 'er, though, so I never bothered chasing her off. Still, you might've mentioned." Spike was looking around the table distractedly, like he hoped some of those imported raspberry truffles that Angel and his gang were munching on over at the other hotel, might materialize on it. No such luck; Willow would have been perfectly happy with some herself, if only to feed them to Xander and put a real smile on his face, but between the four of them, they'd long ago devoured all the samples they'd picked up at the party last night. The table contained only the remains of their late lunch.

"Are you guys sure you don't want any salad? This thing is ridiculous." Willow pointed to the bowl in front of her, which dwarfed everything else on the table both in size and complexity. When she'd ordered a salad, she'd been thinking lettuce, tomatoes, maybe some turkey strips. Not the Moby Dick of the vegetable patch, bigger than her head and drowning in carrots, radishes, cheese, mushrooms, and about a hundred more leaves of green than she was carrying in her wallet right now. She'd only been able to eat half of it, even with Tara's help.

"No thanks. I've had my five food groups. Bread, fruit, nuts, dairy, and chocolate," Xander said, leaning back in his chair. He was trying for his 'I know I ate too much and I'll regret it later, but damn, that was good' smile, but it was coming off as something else, something familiar from the last few days. Hyper and weird and trying to be brave for the troops.

Willow gave a little sigh. It had been wonderful just to sit and talk with him yesterday, about what was going on in his life -- the kind of thing they'd all stopped doing, really, over the course of this year. Even if there were things he still wasn't telling her, at least he had been able to say something to somebody, which, she knew from experience, meant a lot. He'd talked quietly and joked with her until she fell asleep, and it had been good. He'd been...maybe happy, and she'd been hoping it would last longer than just the night.

When he caught her looking at him, he smiled quickly, and she smiled back, hopefully looking less edgy than he did. She glanced back down at her salad. "Spike? Still hungry? Wanna pretend this thing is...um...Buffy's hair, or something?" Oh, I did not just ask him that. Bad Willow, do not encourage the vampire to fantasize about eating your best friend.

"Nice thought, luv, but Bunnicula I'm not." He gnashed his totally human teeth at her. "If it can't be taken on the hoof, I don't want it in my mouth, ta muchly."

"Oh, like Fritos, Cheesy Chips, and Suzy-Q's put up a satisfying struggle when you chase 'em down an alley," Xander pointed out.

"S'different."

"How, exactly?"

"Well, for one thing, they're not covered in garlic ranch dressing," Spike said, indicating the white goop that thoroughly coated the salad.

"Oops. Sorry about that," said Willow. Not, of course, that Spike had actually addressed the issue of why he scarfed so much human junk-food. All he'd done was change the subject so nobody would pick up on the fact that the Big Bad didn't like to eat his veggies. Maybe he did need a binkie. Or just a couple of surrogate-moms to pick on him about his poor nutrition choices, since he was raised by vampires...

As if on cue, Tara looked up at Spike. "Um..."

The vampire rolled his eyes. "Yes, my lady of the long silences?" At Willow's raised eyebrow, he shrugged. "What, you'd prefer 'what the hell do you want, Blondie?' "

"It would make me feel more secure, strangely." Uses chopped liver as a pacifier. Puts blood on his cereal. Sorts M&M's into color groups. Lives in Xander's basement, watches soap operas, and spouts pseudo-Shakespearean dialogue to my girlfriend. Looks really good naked, and I did not just think that. Why can't I meet any normal vampires? Why did that question sound less ridiculous than it should have?

"Fine," Spike shrugged, and turned back to Tara. "What the hell do you want, Blondie?"

Tara speared a piece of perch on her fork, and looked like she'd rather chew it and forget about having opened her mouth at all. At last, she said, tentatively, "Bunnicula?"

A challenging raise of Spike's scarred brow. "Yeah?"

"Just... you read kids' books? That's kinda... well..."

"Cute," Willow finished for her, when she trailed off into what threatened to be yet another of Spike's 'long silences'.

"I am not cute," Spike protested. "Devastatingly hot, maybe, but not cute. And I don't read kids' books by choice. Dru dug it out of the knapsack of some Girl Guide that she was making a snack of, found out it was about a vampire rabbit, and made me read it to her."

Xander laughed, a bit mockingly. "He blames anything he doesn't want to get caught reading on Drusilla. Romance novels, poetry... Pretty sure he'd blame Passions on her, if it wasn't a TV show."

"No, I blame that one on the Watcher. Don't let him give you any blather about how I got him into it. He was already utterly corrupted."

This time it was Willow's turn to catch on something Spike had said, and start thinking, which was always dangerous. The picture of Spike reading to Drusilla was eerily... well... cute. There wasn't any other word for it. If you airbrush out the dead Girl Scout lying on the ground, of course. But still... Trust Willow Rosenberg to care deeply about the widespread vampire illiteracy problem, of course, but the thought bugged her. Maybe it was just the image of Spike, in all his kickass, demonic splendor, taking care of a crazy, childlike vampire who couldn't even amuse herself except for visions and tea parties with her dolls.

"Drusilla can't read?" she asked.

Spike shot her a dirty look. "Of course she can read, twit. She just can't concentrate on the page for very long. And she likes to hear somebody else reading to her, anyway. Or tellin' her a story." His eyes did a funny kind of thing where they went gray for a second, and Willow hoped this wasn't the prelude to another 'I'm gonna get drunk and mopey and sob all over you about my ex' moment, this time without broken bottles being shoved in her face. "She gets this look," he continued, "like she's really there, for a while. 'Cos she's focusing on your voice, and you can see it, for as long as you're talking. She's paying attention to you, not whatever fairy thing is whispering in her ear."

They were all watching him, as he looked off into space, seeing something else, and Willow couldn't help but feel sorry for him. Drusilla might have been a completely loony, evil, vampy, ho, but she'd been his evil vampy ho, and there was something genuine in Spike's voice when he talked about her, like for once he wasn't lying, or using the truth to manipulate you, just being honestly...something.

"Hell, I'd read her the yellow pages, if she asked me, and I'm not too bloody proud to say it," he finished.

Silence at the table, while Spike stared challengingly at her, and Willow felt like an idiot. Tara, meanwhile, was eyeing Spike like he'd just stepped off the mothership. She almost raised her hand; Willow could see it lifting off the table, then thumping down again, like Tara remembered she didn't actually have to ask permission to speak. "I...I guess I'm the only one who has to be filled in on the plot here, but I'm getting used to that, this weekend. Who's Drusilla?"

Xander was looking at Spike, too, and he wasn't even trying for that fake happy-ate-too-much face anymore. This was the face he'd been wearing when he'd come to pick them up at the bus station, when he'd thought she wasn't looking. The one that made Willow want to take him away somewhere and feed him raspberry truffles until he smiled again. "That would be the girl he left behind him. Except she left him behind. Dumped him somewhere in South America, for something slimier than Willow's salad, and he spends most of his time bitching about it to anybody who doesn't care to listen. I guess it's just selective-amnesia day."

Willow was taken aback. It wasn't so much what he'd said, as the sudden bitterness in his voice. He was way over Anya, or said he was, so he couldn't really be annoyed that Spike seemed to be forgetting the whole dumped-guy-bonding thing. What could have--- Oh. Can you say 'hubris,' Willow? It's our word for the day. As in, one talk with you will fix all of Xander's problems and he won't be in and out of a crappy mood all weekend because this mysterious guy he's in love with isn't here, and might not love Xander back even if he were. Which would mean he's an idiot, but that's neither here nor there. Spike's right, you are a twit. And she was babbling, even in her own head.

"Xander?" she said softly.

"What? It's nothing we haven't all heard before, except somehow Tara got lucky, until now. He whines about Dru all the time."

"Yeah, but..."

"This is the biteless jerk we're talking about, right?" Xander asked, a bit softer himself, now that he was speaking directly to her, instead of indirectly to the confused-looking vampire across from him. "Since when did Spike-baiting stop being a national pastime?"

"Since you sat down to lunch with him, voluntarily. Geez, Xan, you act like you aren't letting the guy live with you, also voluntarily. You even go bowling with him. So what bit you on the butt today?" As in, what specifically set you off when you were in such a good mood last night, and is there anything I can do to fix it, because I'm Super-Yenta, able to leap tall, sexually undecided best friends in a single bound. Someone please smack me.

Xander opened his mouth. Thank God, because if they relied on Willow's pretend super-powers to save the day, they'd be screwed. "Hey Wills..." She looked at him, hoping for some explanation. Instead she got, "Who's Sancho Panza?"

Blink. Blink. Blinkblinkblink... Huh? If he was trying to change the subject, he'd picked a lamer method than Spike's. Willow shook her head, then answered him. "Um... he was the little villager who played squire to Don Quixote, even though he knew the guy was nuts."

"Don Quixote being the old man who thought he was a knight and went--" Spike started in.

"Tilting at windmills. Yeah, I get it. Sancho Panza, same as Sancho Panda, without the fur. Go pop-culture boy. " He fell silent again. Willow looked at Spike, to see if he knew what was going on. The vampire was busy looking at Xander just as questioningly as Willow had been, while Xander studied his milk again. Yup, they were a lively group. It wasn't exactly cut-it-with-a-knife tension. Maybe spread-it-with-a-butter-knife, but Xander had eaten all the dinner rolls already. Tara, as usual, was keeping her mouth shut. Which meant it was up to Willow to salvage things with her quick wits and impressive conversational skills, after all. God help us.

"Anybody want dessert? They have Death By Chocolate..." she said in her most seductive voice. Which, with the squeak in the middle, would probably only be successful if she were trying to seduce Mickey Mouse.

"Not hungry," Xander said, taking a drink of his milk, then making a face, as if it had suddenly gone sour.

Yup. That worked.

*****

Interlude at the Rosa Grande East

There was someone in line ahead of Cordelia at the Toblerone booth. Which should have been a good thing, right? It would protect her hips from the evil chocolate for at least another five minutes, and keep her occupied and away from the unending Wesley/Angel debate about whether they'd been set up by Wolfram and Hart, or there was really something going on here. Which would have made more sense if the guys could pick a side. Angel says screw it, let's go home, Wesley says hello, they tried to kill you. Angel says people do that every day. Wesley says fine, screw it, let's go home. Angel says no, he'd feel too guilty if they were really up to something.

Et freakin' cetera -- they changed positions so often that you'd think they were arguing for the sheer fun of arguing. Of course they'd been set up, of course they were being led around by the noses like the stubborn male jackasses they were. But they didn't have to act like it-- they could just sit around for a few more hours, pretend to enjoy the atmosphere, then suck it up, admit they'd been tricked, and check out. But noooooo... they had to sit in the lobby and bicker until everyone around them was so bored that moving away was pretty much a survival imperative.

So Cordelia should have been overjoyed to be out of it, and standing patiently in line behind the small blonde woman who couldn't seem to make up her mind between white, dark, or filled Toblerone. So why did she feel like jumping up and down and yelling 'Get both, you fashionably-pale Buffy-clone, and get the hell out of my way?' Mostly because since she'd made the decision to eat the damned chocolate anyway, she didn't want to give her brain time to talk her out of it.

"Do I like this?" the woman was saying. Cordelia peered over her shoulder, refraining from pointing out that the way to find out was, of course, to buy some and get the hell out of her way. Even the Toblerone representative had one of those 'Someone help me' smiles pasted on his face. Cordelia sighed.

"Do you like which? The white? It can be a little weird-tasting, but it's nice dissolved in coffee," she said, trying to sound as friendly as possible.

The woman turned her head, with a confused, somewhat spacey look. "No...this." A small, graceful wave of her hand that somehow managed to take in the whole room at once.

Cordelia bit back a comment about riding the short bus to school, because, for the most part, she didn't make those kind of comments anymore. Still, this one did seem a few M&M's shy of a bag. Gotta stop thinking in chocolate metaphors, Cordy. Pretty soon you'll be as bad off as Xander. She took a deep breath and tried again. "The hotel? The chocolatiers' convention? The Toblerone stand?"

The blonde picked up a sample of milk chocolate. "This. I don't know-- I can't remember, if I like it or not. I don't think they had it, when I was a little girl." Her voice was still little-girlish, and Cordelia wondered if it was a fake-- she knew a lot of guys who could be hooked in by that kind of act-- or if she was really as loopy as she sounded.

Then the content of her sentence filtered through, and Cordy blinked. "Chocolate? You don't think they had chocolate when you were a kid?"

The other woman nodded dreamily. "And later... I think maybe it didn't taste right. Or I found something that tasted better."

Cordelia raised an eyebrow. "Put that in your mouth, and tell me you found something that tasted better, honey." The woman did, and for a moment all her concentration was focused on moving her jaw. "No, you don't chew it, you let it dissolve in your mouth. Let it flow over your tongue, and get into all the little taste buds you forgot you even owned."

There was something utterly bizarre about teaching someone to eat chocolate-- especially someone as white-bread as this girl. It wasn't like she was some kind of newbie, just off the boat from Walla-Walla, after all -- her accent was pure upperclass American. As Cordelia watched the expression of wonder spread across the pale face, though, she began to think that maybe the comment she hadn't made about the short bus was closer to the mark than just a randomly swallowed piece of sarcasm. The blonde reached for another piece of chocolate, and the Toblerone guy seemed torn between gently encouraging her to buy some instead of hogging the free samples, and keeping his mouth shut so he didn't have to get into a conversation with the flake. Cordelia touched her softly on the arm.

"Are you here with somebody?" She could have wandered into the hotel by herself; she was well-dressed, and no one would look twice at her in the lobby of the Rosa Grande, unless you actually spoke to her. But she didn't have a purse, and the white sundress she wore left very few possibilities for places she could have been carrying money. For crosstown travel, or buying chocolate.

"Oh, yeah. Them." The blonde grinned conspiratorially. "I gave them the slip. It was way too easy."

Cordy played along. "Yeah, I managed to get away from my resident party poopers, too. But maybe we should get you back to yours, now?" Before some sleazeball picked her up and led her off to the places that innocent little girls in L.A. get led off to when they don't know any better...

A pout, then a sad nod. "He'll have a fit, of course-- but how on earth was I supposed to resist? All you have to do is brush up against that boy and tickle his fancy, and he's too busy staring off into space to notice you're not there anymore. And I just told her she had a new gray hair. I think she's still standing in the bathroom, looking at herself." There was a little shudder at those words. "In the mirror. Ugh."

Cordelia blinked twice, then nodded slowly. Uh-huuuuuuuh. "Do you want me to...um... help you find them?"

"I don't know-- should I be talking to you? I'm not supposed to be ready for polite company, you know." Something in the other woman's voice, childlike as it was, made Cordelia's ears twitch. Somebody's wasn't as chock-full-o-nuts as she seemed. Or maybe Cordelia was just too used to dealing with truly insane people, by now, given the fact that she worked with two of them. There was a sly smile from the blonde. "Do you have more of this?" She held up the piece of chocolate that she'd been about to pop into her mouth.

Cordelia picked up five packages of dark chocolate and three of the nougat-filled. "I will in a minute." She turned to the salesman. As a certified good guy, she couldn't very well let anybody go through life never having had their own Toblerone bar-- and the more she shoved down blondie's throat, the less would go down her own, right? Which would have been a decent excuse if she hadn't reached down and grabbed three more bars when she thought about having to share. For...um...Wesley. Yeah. That was it.

But when Cordelia turned back around to ask the weird girl if she wanted to try one of the new sample bars with walnuts in them, there was no one there. After a moment of looking around, Cordy finally shrugged. The girl did seem to know where she'd left her friends, after all, and didn't really appear to be running away, more like just playing hookey. Cordelia bought two of the walnut bars for herself --er, Wesley -- and headed back towards her bickering friends.

Who weren't bickering anymore, they were... Cordelia blinked at them from behind a big potted fern. Urp. Well. That was interesting. Blinkblinkblink. Wesley. Blink. Angel. Blink. With the lips. And the hands. Blink blink. And the lips. Wait, she'd thought that already. Um. Wow.

She'd thought it would take them at least another six months to figure out the fucking obvious.

Couldn't interrupt them. It would be rude. And they might start arguing again. Which would be so much less entertaining. Not that she was watching. So maybe she should just stay here behind the large jungle plant, and eat some chocolate. And... um... not watch. Just to make sure Angel didn't get too happy, or anything.

*****

Meanwhile, Back At The RG West...

Spike was not happy. Things hadn't gotten any better, over the next few hours. When Tara haltingly suggested that they take another walk around the convention booths, Spike had practically jumped from the table, and was pleased to see that Xander rose as quickly. It was a short-lived pleasure; walking about merely diffused the tension across a bit more physical space -- and Xander was staying as far away from him as physically possible, keeping the women between them at all times.

He still wasn't saying much of anything, either. Or rather, the girls twittered to everyone in hearing range, and Xander answered them politely, but never dropped a word in Spike's direction. Nothing, no matter how many times he held up a model or a book and made clever, mostly-non-derisive comments about it. Zilch. Not a blind bit of luck. Spike was starting to wonder if he'd have to volunteer to wear one of Xander's few remaining tropical print shirts, just to get him to explain what Spike had done this time, let alone forgive him.

The witches finally cajoled them into an autograph line. The magical mystical double-team cheer squad to the rescue. 'Oooh, it'll be fun, come on, he's even British, Spike....' Yeah, like he wanted to meet every dingwad who set foot off the isles, just 'cos they spoke the same language. This wasn't even an actor or writer, just some stunt double he'd never heard of.

But Xander shrugged and slid down the wall to a seated position on the carpet, just like everyone ahead of them in the serpentine queue, so Spike followed suit, wondering what it was he was supposed to get autographed. Here, sign my grumpy lover for me? Why he was even here was debatable. He should be up in the room, fussing and fuming and possibly tossing off in the shower. Contemplating the fact that he was living Dawson's Creek, instead of being home watching the summer repeats in the privacy of their own dank little hellhole. But now it was a challenge. Some kind of moral Gag... imperative. Figure out what the sodding hell was wrong with Xander, or die trying. So William the Bloody was sitting in a line with a bunch of humans he'd rather drain than wait behind, immediate company more or less excepted, and brooding. Just shove a can of mousse up my arse and call me Angelus.

What could it be? Lack of sex, maybe? That always put Spike in a bad mood. Fuck, if it's just that, he can have the bet. Stupid idea in the first place, really. Smack whichever of you brain-blips came up with it, if I ever figure it out. Let him buy me all the clothes he wants. He can dress me up as Mork from Ork if it means he stops giving me that bloody look like he wants to either stake me or burn me and he can't decide which. Spike was just that close to whining aloud, at his own frustration. Confusion. Need for...something.

Something. If he could just reach across those few inches and take Xander's hand, it would be something. Just his fingers around Xander's, like they'd been in the dark last night, this morning, those times when no one could see. Just a moment, there in a crowded little hallway, the girls chattering next to them with nary a clue that Spike wanted nothing more than to lean over and pull his lover into his arms, and tell him everything would be all right, no matter what was bothering him. Tell him over and over and over until he finally believed it, even if it took forever, and who cared if Spike looked a right nelly for doing it, so long as Xander was happy? If he could...

But he couldn't, or he wouldn't have slunk out of bed in the first place, would he.

When he'd looked across the lunch table at those once-again angry black eyes, not a speck of gold showing in them anywhere, it had more than unnerved Spike. It had terrified him, and he wasn't sure why. Wasn't sure of anything all of a sudden, except that he didn't know what he'd done wrong. Again. But this time there wasn't any formal, sulky, 'I'm not speaking to you' to give him the clue that it really was something silly that he could fix if he just waited the whole thing out. That was what he'd always had to do with Dru, just wait, but... Spike stared, trying to look like he wasn't. Trying to see what was going on in there. Xander leaned his head back against the wall, eyes closed. Breathing so slow that Spike was pretty sure he'd nodded off, but the eyeballs were moving under the lids. Twitching.

It should be so simple. Spike's talent for picking out human emotions like, well, eyeballs, fished from the socket with an oyster fork, wasn't on strike today. Willow was feeling guilty 'cos she thought she'd set the whole thing off -- though it couldn't really have anything to do with her silly garlic-laced salad, since it had started before they ever got to lunch -- and babbling to fill up the silence. Little Blondie was answering her back because everything she did in the world was focused on keeping Red happy, even though she could sense the tension and it was making her nervous, blood thumping a bit faster, and the teeth nibbling away at that bottom lip of hers. Easy to read as a children's book about a vampire bunny. So why couldn't he suss out what had been making his lover glare and twitch and occasionally snap at him all day?

He glanced at his own hand where it rested on his knee, lest one of the women see him looking too long at Xander and suspect...something. Then he glanced back at the closed eyes, shaded by the brim of the silly, wonderful hat. As if Spike could peer through skin and pupil and nerves and down into the strange thing that was Xander's brain, if he just stared hard enough. What's happening in there? How do I make things right? Would it help if I could touch you, here and now? Do you want me to? Or would it just make you even crosser with me?

There were a thousand little rules, he was beginning to understand, though Xander wouldn't tell him what they were, and he didn't quite have the stones to ask. The one he was concerned with now though, was 'we don't touch in public, unless it looks like a gag, like a fight, like they might have to drag us apart before we kill each other.' Spike had broken that one in front of Angel, and it had worked out all right in the end, but did that mean he should do it with the witches? Let them know, and hope they didn't turn him into a toad? Sunnydale, even Sunnydale-in-L.A., was a whole different world.

He might ruin it all if he guessed, and he might ruin it all if he asked, and he might ruin it all if he reached. One finger, even, would stretch across that space between him and that sleeping mystery next to him, and crush all those unspoken rules into so many little pieces. A whole hand could shatter the universe.

So he tapped it on his knee. Just Spike and his usual attention-deficit-rude-boy behavior that nobody even noticed anymore. He could twitch and snap all he wanted and no one would look at him cross-eyed. So he did. Tap and tap and tap. Picked at a loose little thread in the denim a bit, then tapped some more.

Xander woke up, if he'd been asleep at all. Blinked and shook his head, somewhere else for a second, then his eyes cleared. He scowled at Spike, then looked away. Said something to Willow, ignoring Spike entirely.

Fine. Tap and tap again, then, since he wasn't going to talk. Fidget and fuss until Spike was pissing Xander off, even if nobody else noticed. He glared at Spike again, and Spike glared back. La la la la, I don't care. I'm immortal, I'm insane, I'm bored, this is what you get... Xander looked away, so Spike tapped some more. So Xander glared some more.

Spike tapped some more, and Spike picked some more, and Spike tapped and picked and tapped and picked until even yon witches were looking up to see what the hell he was doing, and Xander was positively burning him to a crisp with that stare. Had Spike six feet under and pushing up daisies or petunias or some other pansified flower that Dru used to pick the petals off, and he had Spike choking on the dirt, as well. Good. Fine. Perfect. Spike tapped, tapped, picked, tapped, pushing the tension until he could just hear the growl rumbling behind Xander's teeth like a trapped animal.

Then Xander reached out and grabbed his wrist.

Spike smirked-- like he'd succeeded at something when he didn't even know what he was bloody doing. Like he'd really done the impossible by getting the almightily stubborn Xander Harris to crack. He smirked, and he rubbed his thumb once along the hidden creases of the warm, slightly work-roughened palm, and he hoped he didn't look like too much of an idiot when he didn't try to pull away.

"If you don't stop that," Xander hissed, "I'm going to personally shove a stake so far up your ass, you'll be the world's only vampire unicorn. For about three seconds." He let Spike's wrist go with a little shake, as if he was disgusted with himself for even having touched it.

"Oh, go to blazes!" Spike snapped, his brief feeling of triumph and its accompanying smile disappearing instantly. Hell and high water, couldn't he do anything right? "Since we're being crude, as someone once said to me, what crawled up yours and died?" Which wasn't exactly how he'd planned to ask it, but it served to get the job done.

Willow was staring at Xander with undisguised confusion, as well. "Okay, really, Xan. He's got a point. I know Spike's irritating, but he's not that irritating. What's wrong?"

"There is nothing wrong with me!" Xander snapped. Willow's eyes widened, and Xander pulled his hat off and rubbed at his eyes. "Sorry. Sorry. I'm just tired, I guess. Staying up 'til three will do it to you, even if you sleep in."

"You do look a little beat. Why don't you go back to the room and take a nap? We can get an autograph for you, if you want." Willow gestured vaguely upwards, and Spike sent her a silent thanks as Xander slowly nodded and rose to his feet. Maybe alone in the room, they could hash this out, whatever there was to hash.

"Not really in the mood to sit about waiting for my arse to fall asleep either," Spike said as soon as Xander had walked around the corner. "Assume you two can entertain yourselves? Or each other?"

Tara, of course, blushed. Willow sent him a mock glare, nothing like the one Xander had been burning him down with. "Oh, go, Spike. Get lost. You've got Wesley's cell-phone, right? I promise we'll call you before we actually leave the hotel, even if Xander decides he wants to conveniently forget you."

"Your generosity overwhelms me. I'll be waiting with long-abated breath."

Spike took his leave and followed Xander, quickly spotting the dark fedora as it bobbed through and around the amorphous groups of chattering geeks whose only purpose in existing seemed to be getting in Spike's way. He finally caught up in the lobby, by the lifts. Xander was leaning against the wall, looking seriously done in. Maybe it was just lack of sleep? "Look--" Spike started, on his way to an apology, or a confrontation, or something -- but that was all he got the chance to say.

"What? Fine, I'm getting cranky; I'll go take my nap." Still that stormy look in Xander's eyes, like he could be bothered to play nice for his friends, but not for Spike.

"I just thought you might like some company, s'all." Spike reached for Xander's arm, just an old, ingrained physical motion of comfort from his Dru-days, that he cursed himself for not resisting in this so-public of public places. But it was too late.

Well. Now there was a touch, though hardly a happy one. Xander's hand around his elbow, pushing him away from the lift doors, a grip almost worthy of vampiric strength. "I don't need you to tuck me in, Spike. I'm a full-sized, state of the art, grown up man type guy, and if I decide I require an extra blankey or a new teddy bear for some reason, I'll call room service. Do you understand?"

"No, I don't remotely understand," Spike snapped, in spite of himself. "I have no idea what I've done to piss you off this time, and you don't seem inclined to clue me in. So much for 'I'm not a girl, Spike,' " Dammit, he wasn't trying to get in a fight, but honestly... Oh, smegging hell, to borrow another phrase. He calmed himself, hoping his softer tone would do the same for Xander. "Ah, look, I'm sorry. You don't do so well with sleeping alone, and I happen to like making sure that's not an issue. I'm just...trying to help."

And now there was no hand on him, nothing at all. Xander's voice was cold as old blood, and miles and miles away, as he said quietly, "What the hell makes you think I need your help? I don't need pity from a-- what was it? A geek more useless than I am."

"I don't think you're..." What the hell was happening, here? "Whatever I said back then, you know that's not true. You're not useless, any more than I'm...

Xander backed away, then stared Spike straight in the eye. "What? The bravest fucking knight in all the land? Or a crippled vampire who has to make himself look big by biting up my nasty bad dreams, so he won't have to admit how pathetic his life really is? Don't need either of 'em."

*****

It shot out of Xander's mouth like he was some kind of poison-spitting toad, and he wanted to take it back the minute he said it, but something stopped him. Something spun him around and stepped him into the waiting elevator and pressed the button, and didn't let him look up as Spike said, "Right. I'll just... go someplace that's...not here, then." Xander's head hurt, still, but it wasn't the ache in his skull that clenched his fists and made the skin on the bridge of his nose prickle like he was going to sneeze or cry, and he wasn't going to cry. He wasn't. Not until the doors closed, at least, and if he swallowed hard, maybe not even then.

He'd just wanted to go and... not be with Spike someplace where he wasn't with Spike, so he could think. Or not-think. Why the hell did Spike have to follow him? Act so damned concerned that he almost sounded like Willow? He didn't need that. Xander might have been edgy, he might have been snippy, but he wasn't out of control, and he didn't need...

But he did need, all those things he'd said he didn't, so why couldn't he say? Why had he chased Spike away with the kind of shit he hadn't said since Spike had moved out of the basement the first time, the kind of shit he didn't remotely mean? Why did a hand reaching out to him, that he wanted so much to take, make him shrink back like it was as poisonous as his own words?

Because I am a man, dammit. Not a kid, not a boy, not a lad, and nobody beats me when I actually show my face upstairs at home. I'm not helpless, I'm not stupid, I know how to read, even if I've never read Don Key-friggin'-hotay. But he's treating me like I'm gonna break, or like... like I'm already broken. Humoring me. He pressed his head against the wood paneling of the elevator and stabbed blindly at the button for his floor. Make Xander happy at all costs, or he might freak out on you. Keeps acting like it didn't matter, when I've spaced it, but he's lying. Got to be lying. Fuck, he's Spike. Of course he's lying. He always lies. But he'd ignored it, ignored the lies they were both telling each other, until now. Now...

Now a touch of Spike's hand on his skin, and he'd freaked again, because it was so soft, and so damn hesitant, and Spike should not have been afraid to touch him, and he shouldn't have been afraid of the touch. Nothing made sense, and Xander felt like the moving elevator was just one more thing that was pulling the earth out from under his feet. Off-balance. Needing something, somebody, to hold his arm so he didn't stumble out the door, but there wasn't anyone there, just a vampire somewhere down on the first floor, who wanted to be here with him, but Xander had chased him away.

And that was the problem, wasn't it. Wanted. Evil guy. Wanted. Wanted to hold him. Wanted to... help him. But why? Why would Spike bare his fangs at monsters for him, agree to bite up his nightmares, wrap his arms around Xander at night? For the sex? He could have gotten that from anybody he flashed his porno-jeans at. Xander Harris, boy virgin, couldn't have been that good. So why?

It didn't take long for him to figure it out. Just the time it took for the elevator to make him a bit dizzy, because it was so fast. The time it took to sing that Sesame Street pinball song, onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten, eleven-twe-eh-eh-eh-elve. That was all the time he had, before it hit him. Or two weeks, if you wanted to count it like that.

It hit him, and it kept hitting him. Hit him as he walked out onto the twelfth floor and couldn't quite see past the haze in front of his face, though he wasn't crying, because if it didn't make it out of your eyes, it wasn't crying. It hit him as he keyed the door. Hit him as he turned on the light. Hit him as he tossed his hat on the floor and walked into the bathroom and bent down over the cool porcelain sanitized for your protection bowl and vomited up four peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches and three glasses of chocolate milk and more blue M&M's than he ever wanted to see again in his life.

It hit him as he opened the sliding glass door. Hit him as he stood on the balcony in the rain and let it wash over him until he was freezing and soaking, and every word he could think of to yell at Spike, he'd yelled out into the air twelve stories above anybody who could hear him. It was still hitting him ten minutes later, or twenty, he wasn't sure how long he stood out there, staring at the dark gray sky like it would rain down answers on him instead of just smog-filled water. It was hitting him like the raindrops were hitting him, like if he stood out there long enough it could beat him to a bloody, bruised pulp and then Spike would be perfectly happy, wouldn't he.

Because Xander knew, now. What Spike thought he was. What Spike was keeping him for. Not the conversation, not the rent-free accommodation, not the fun things they could do with chocolate pudding or how much they both liked to win at board games. None of it was the real reason. The whywhywhywhywhy that was supposed to be reserved for the middle of the night when he was scared out of his mind by dreams and truth and his own desires, and needed Spike to hold him and make it all okay. When he crawled up, crazy and shivering and trying to bury himself in Spike's touch, asking...begging for Spike to drink from him...

The why. It didn't have a damn thing to do with Alexander LaVelle Harris or what he was or had been or could be, or who he'd finally admitted to himself that he loved.

It didn't have a damn thing to do with William the Bloody ever being able to love him back. Because when Spike looked at Alexander Harris, all he was seeing was somebody else. Somebody he'd never get back, so he was trying to find the next best thing. And Xander had thought it was Angel he had to be worried about.

"I'm not fucking Drusilla!" Xander shouted out into the wind, and if anybody did hear, they probably wondered why he felt the need to make that statement. Angry husband in the hotel room with a Luger cocked at his head? They sure as hell wouldn't think he was pointing out that he wasn't, in fact, a hundred and forty year old female vampire with the mind of a grade-schooler. It would pretty much be obvious to them. Obvious to any random stranger who walked past him in the lobby, obvious to everybody in the whole sorry, fucked-up world, except Spike.

He didn't cry. That shit was over, at least. If there was water on his face it was rain, washing down from godknowswhere; should be too hot for rain in L.A. in July, but it hadn't stopped all day. Just rain. Nothing that he needed a vampire to protect him from. To take care of him because of. To wrap his coat around because it was fucking freezing out here even on the second day of July, in the rain, in L.A., and Spike always fell for that I'm so cold routine. Xander didn't need it, and he didn't need a lover who would rock him back and forth in the dark and wipe the water from his face, because he wasn't helpless, and he wasn't crazy, and he wasn't crying.

He laughed, though. Laughed loud and long. Long after he stopped saying anything that remotely resembled English words, long after his throat was rough and raw. Laughed because it was the only thing to do, really. Laughed, as he left the door open so he could hear the rain fall, and turned off the lights and curled up on the bed in the dark, under the covers where it was at least kind of warm. Laughed, because the funniest thing of all was, it didn't matter. He wasn't even as brave as Anya, who'd had the balls to leave him. Xander Harris was just pathetic enough, himself, to stay with somebody who'd looked at him for two years, off and on, and never even seen his face. And that was too damned funny for words.

And if that face was buried in the pillow as he stopped laughing and fell asleep, because there was nothing left of him to stay awake, it didn't matter whose it was, did it.

*****

He was on his fourth cigarette, and his third cider, and the bartender kept giving him the 'what the hell are you drinking, and can I get you a parasol to go in it' look. "You got a problem, mate?" Spike said at last, as he tipped the bottle up to drain it.

"Just thinking if you're trying to get drunk-- and you're drinking like you are-- it'll take you a while on that stuff."

"Thanks for the tip. Get me another and sod off." A shrug from the middle-aged barkeep, and there was another bottle of Woodpecker clanked down on the counter in front of him.

"We do have Blackthorne's, you know," the bartender said as he popped the bottlecap off. Ah, good, save Spike the trouble of vamping out and biting it off with his teeth, fun as it might be to scare the natives.

"Which part of sod off didn't you understand? The sod, or the off?" Spike grabbed the bottle and drained it in one long swallow. Couldn't really taste it anyway. "'Nother." The man turned without a word, and Spike just stared at the dartboard, waiting for the next bottle, and wondering what the hell he was doing with his unlife. Sitting in a stuffy little sports bar in a pseudo-Edwardian hotel, drinking his sorrows away with Dru's favorite beverage of the corpuscle-free variety. And it wasn't 'cos it reminded him of her. It reminded him of Xander's lips on this same sort of bottle last night, and the little grin the boy'd given him when Spike pointed out that he was technically corrupting a minor by letting Xander drink it. And now...

Little son of a bitch thinks I'm pathetic. Well, of course he does. I am. Wasting my time trying to figure out what bee he's got in his bonnet this time, trying to take care of him, and he thinks I'm a bloody cripple. Finally said it. Sod him. Fuck him from here to the ninth circle of hell and back. Fuck him for saying it, and fuck him for being right, and... Just fuck him. Don't need him either. Don't need any of 'em. Don't need poncy Angel to find me something valuable to do like lookin' for demons that aren't even here, don't need the Sapphic Wiccans staring at me like I'm some kicked, Dru-less puppy 'cos I happened to mention her name, and I ruddy well don't need Xander Harris and his mood swings and his rusty excuse for wit and the way he makes me feel like his heart's beating for the both of us when I've got my skin pressed up against his. Sod him. Fuck him. Love him. Hate him.

He found another bottle somewhere near his hand, this time with the cap still on, and he bit it off without vamping out. Didn't look up to see the bartender's reaction, but the taste of his own blood was satisfyingly bitter in Spike's mouth.

*****

Dark. It was dark, then it was light, and he was somewhere kind of fuzzy and indistinct. Floating, and Xander knew he was asleep. Usually he loved these dreams, because they meant he could reach out and control what was going on. For a while, at least, until they slipped away into something else. Floating, and that was nice, that kind of muzzy feeling, like the blood was slipping from his veins and he didn't even care, because it was so good to be held, and there was no fear at all, just his throat bared. Yeah. Vampire caressing him, cool fingers along his pulse points. Smoothing back the little hairs along his temples, tracing the patterns of his skin and tickling that five-o-clock stubble. Touch me there. And there. Kiss my eyelids. Look at me. See me. Say it to me. Mean it.

Say it out loud. And he could almost hear it, as he felt ghost-lips against his jaw. Almost hear it in that growling rough accent from wherever he said he was from today. Almost, but not quite. Could hear his own voice say it, could shape the words in that grayish-whitish void, where it was safe enough to say anything he wanted, but couldn't hear them back from the body that held him, from whatever man or demon lived inside.

"Oh, very nice," said a voice that was nothing like his own, nothing like the one he'd been listening for, either. Silver and black and hissing like the rain, and he remembered it. Laughing at him, though he wasn't sure why. "Very impressive. You can even manage to torment yourself in a lucid dream. Has it occurred to you to become a professional victim? I know a very good agent. "

How could she tower above him if she was barely five feet tall? Why was he looking up at the straight fall of long black hair, brown almond eyes, sharp shark smile in the so-pretty face, with the tiny little china-doll body? All wrapped up in black leather that would make any Hellmouth bloodsucker proud, even the one that wasn't holding him anymore, as he stood before her. "What are you doing here? I didn't order any vampires, except the one. Who seems to have disappeared. Maybe I should go look for him."

"You chased him away, don't you remember? Besides, I'm not a vampire, little boy. And I don't have to be invited in when you left the doorway open wide."

"I'm not a little boy, lady."

"Oh no?" Amusement, at him. She thought he was funny. She wanted to buy him from the girls, and why the hell not, they could use the extra spending cash for new textbooks, come fall. Except the fingers reaching out to stroke his chin were cold and warm at once, and sparking like lightning, and reminded him too much of long-nailed digits that had held his head still and told him, once, that his face was a poem. So maybe he didn't want to belong to her. "Are you not, then?" she asked. "Not Spike's little boy?"

"I'm not anybody's little boy." He was six feet tall. He knew he was six feet tall, so why was he wearing blue flannel pajamas with fluffy sheep on them? They weren't even his pajamas, they were Willow's pajamas, or maybe Ally McBeal's pajamas, but they weren't his, and the bare feet sticking out of them weren't his, either. Couldn't be his, because they were so small you could cup them in both of your hands and tickle them, like his mother used to do, a long, long time ago. "I'm not anybody's little boy," he insisted, in a voice that got higher and sharper with each word, "and I'm not Spike's anything. I don't even like Spike."

"Ah, well. That makes it all the better, then."

"For what, exactly?"

She opened her mouth, and he could swear there were rows of teeth behind the ones in front, and he could swear her mouth was full of water, too, like there was a river rushing down her throat, past those white, white teeth. Down into the dark, where he was going, swallowed up by that open cave and the current that was dragging him under, and God, couldn't he ever meet a girl who didn't want to kill him? "The better for me to eat you with, of course," she said.

"Oh, please. You're not the Big Bad. I'm not afraid of you. I've played this Freddy Kreuger game before, with somebody a hell of a lot older than you." Image of something dark, crouching, running in the shadows, reaching for him... He tore his gaze away from her mouth, forced himself to look up at her eyes, and saw the answering blackness there, laughing at him.

She leaned close to him, so close, and laughed with her voice, too, as she whispered, "Yes? Really? Did you win?"

Well... if you counted having your heart ripped out and spending the rest of the night as a bit player in everybody else's dreams, then... er...

She read the uncertainty in his eyes, or on his forehead. She laughed again, and it was all the water in the world rushing into him, roaring in his ears. "You're a liar, little boy. You are afraid, which is very wise. And I think, perhaps, you should run now."

It was dark again, suddenly. He was alone, and there was a road beneath his feet, and she didn't need to tell him twice.





b Ghost Story



Tokyo, 1943.

"Tell me a story, Spike," Drusilla begged him again.

But he wasn't in the mood for making something up, even to please her. Not when the hunters had come that close-- close enough that he still had their stink in his nostrils now, as he held her next to him. Not even burying his nose in the perfume of her skin could completely erase it.

They had almost been dust in their own bed. They would have been, if Dru's little friend the Gaki hadn't caught one of the youngest of the vampire hunters napping in the van that had been moving ever closer to the crumbling block of flats where the vamps had set up camp. She'd seen the plans for the raid all mixed up in his dreams, and come floating in to warn them. It had been too close for Spike's taste-- they'd still been yawning and stretching and scrambling for clothes when they heard the footfalls in the corridors.

He was sick of running like rats from these little human boys. Tokyo was supposed to be the vampires' playground, their feasting table. Their European faces were excused by faked-up papers and a good story about being spies for the Japanese government-- with the right details lifted from some bureaucrat's dreams, again by Reikoku. For months, they'd had free reign. It wasn't perfect -- he couldn't get real choccies here, for a start, just those sorry excuses for Smarties that the American G.I.s carried about in their cardboard tubes, and some of the Nip lads had started smuggling in to use for barter -- but it was good. The gutters, such as they were, had run with blood.

He'd grown lazy. He'd allowed himself to forget, for a moment, that there were always things out there that could hurt him, or worse, Dru. It didn't have to be bigger, scarier monsters than they were, though God knew he'd found enough of those, once he'd started taking care of Dru on his own. It didn't have to be monsters at all. He'd forgotten, and his complacency had cost them. From somewhere out in the provinces, a little crusade of stout-hearted farmboys with torches and stakes had appeared with the spring rains. Young, foolishly brave, and armed with the one thing these city cattle didn't have-- knowledge that what they were hunting was real.

"Spike, please? I can't go to sleep without a story. The bad boys come when I close my eyes, and they have fire. It pinches me with its little orange claws, and rips and tears, and hurts when I look at it, because it's too beautiful."

Another monster, then, to add to the collection that already lived in her head. Spike shifted, pulling her closer to him, pushing a stray lock of hair off her forehead. "I can't think of any stories tonight, Dru. 'Less you want a real fairy tale; I could remember one of those, maybe. Snow White?"

Though God knew if he started in on that one, he'd have 'Someday My Prince Will Come' running through his head until he managed to get to sleep.   --Damn Walt Disney, and damn those idiot Nippie soldier-boys who managed to smuggle the flick into the country, and damn me for taking Dru to see it.--   Inane bloody tunes wormed their way into his brain and stayed there 'til he had to either sing 'em or make something scream just to get the melody out of his ears.

"I don't like that story," Dru pouted. "That girl is wicked and cruel to her mummy, who only gave her a lovely apple to help her sleep."

"Perhaps I could tell you a story, then," Reikoku said.

Spike raised one eyebrow at the small female figure who sat tailor-style at the foot of their makeshift bed, floating a few inches off the floor. She was capable of sitting that way for hours, he knew, just watching them, waiting for them to sleep, so she could take what she wanted from their dreams. Had made him nervous, at first-- not that he'd ever minded an audience, waking, sleeping, or shagging, but this one was too still, too quiet when she watched. Gave him the weird feeling she was sucking in everything around her, eating you up without even opening her mouth.

But she didn't seem dangerous. She'd never killed a human in front of them who wasn't already dying. Playing that same Death Angel game that Drusilla had fallen in love with on the little prisoner-of-war island, though Dru had grown weary of it long before they'd escaped to what passed for the mainland. And though she'd shown no qualms about diddling around in a dreaming human's head, slowly pushing them towards the nightmares that were apparently a dream-eater's equivalent to Slayer Blood, Rei had made no such moves on him or Dru .

No manipulation, no attempts to mess about with their heads, that he could tell. Maybe vamp dreams were dark enough already, or maybe she knew Spike would find some way to tear her into little pieces, ghost or not, if she hurt Dru. Bloody well better know, considering he'd laid it out for her in detail right in front of Drusilla. Dru had just laughed, then pulled him to the floor and ripped his clothes off, telling him it was the nicest bedtime story anybody'd ever told her; too bad he couldn't keep his mind still for long enough to think up something similar tonight. Rei had smiled when he threatened her, and said nothing.

Maybe Rei really did think of them as friends, as much as two different sorts of monsters who couldn't really do anything nasty to each other anyway, could be considered friends. He'd gotten used to her ways, anyway; figured out that she could be provoked into talking, if you purposely said something stupid enough that she had to correct you. Teased into laughing, which always made Dru laugh as well, and that was worth anything, now, to hear his princess laugh in this arse-backward city where they, the masters of the hunt, were suddenly the prey. So if Reikoku was willing to entertain Dru when he couldn't get his head straight enough to do it, he wasn't about to turn down the offer.

"Yeah, tell us a bedtime story, why don't you?" he agreed, sitting up a bit and letting Dru use him as a pillow. "Something with lots of blood and gore, for my girl."

"I know many of those," Reikoku agreed, but Dru shook her head.

"No, I want a different story," she said imperiously. "I'm tired of blood and gore." Spike looked at her, wondering if she'd gone irretrievably over the edge, past charmingly insane, and all the way to who are you and what have you done with my dark goddess. She fluttered her eyelashes at him, and he sighed, knowing it wouldn't matter a mite, one way or the other. "Blood can run too much like fire, " she said, swaying just a little in his arms, the way she would when one of her half-cocked visions took over. But this was just Dru being Dru. "It's all red behind my eyes. I want black, tonight. Just cool, black water.

Reikoku seemed to consider this, for a second, then nodded. "I know a story like that." Drusilla clapped, and Spike shrugged. As long as Dru was happy, he didn't care if Rei wanted to recite the entire history of Japan; he'd probably fall asleep halfway through anyway. The Gaki half bowed her head, a little formal conceit that still tickled Spike, and the curtain of her straight black hair hid her face as she began to speak.

*****

"Once, many years ago, there was a girl who lived next to a river. She had feet that were a little too big, from running barefoot in the dirt, and eyes too close together to look like the perfect ladies on her mother's wallscrolls, and she wanted... oh, many things. To be a princess, or a Geisha, or a poet, like the Lady Murasaki. Anything but a chicken farmer's daughter on the banks of the Shinano, whose waters flowed through the province and away to places she would never see, carrying fish and fallen blossoms and the leaves of strange trees from far upstream where she would never travel either.

One day, when she was seventeen, a soldier came riding through the village on a foundering horse. Lost and weary and separated from his troop, he stopped by the river for a drink of water, and she saw him. The man took off the straw hat he had made to shade his face from the sun, and dipped his hands in the cool water. He poured it over himself until his hair lay flat against his head, and she could trace the shape of his skull with her eyes.

From that moment, all other want became nothing, became only this want. The need to touch that skin on his cheeks where the sun had burned it, and see if it was still warm. To be held in front of him on his horse, and ride with him, to wherever he was riding. Or even to stay here, in this little place, where nothing ever moved except the river, as long as he would stay.

He did stay, for a while, because he was lost and his horse was crippled, and her family gave him a place to sleep, food to eat. Gave him one small daughter to follow him about asking questions, chattering endlessly, and one older, to watch him silently. To creep to his bed in the stable at night, and listen to him talk about what lay somewhere down the river. The cities, the people. Silks and gold and the foreign accents of the Gaijin who came from far across an ocean that she could hardly believe existed. Except that she believed him, believed anything he would say when she was wrapped warm in his arms, in a bed of straw.

She believed him when he said that he would take her with him when he went. She believed him when he told her she was more beautiful than any of those silken women in those unseen cities. When he put his hands on her body and said that she smelled of jasmine, though she knew full well she smelled of sweat and chicken droppings, the softness in his voice made her feel that it was true. She believed every word that he spoke, and when he left one dawn, early in the flood season, riding away at the end of a line of soldiers who had come at last to find him, she believed she would go with him.

He laughed at her. Very gently, so gently that she did not understand, for a moment, why he was laughing. He laughed, and kissed her on the forehead, and told her to be a good girl. Then he went, and the rains, as if they had been waiting only for the signal of her tears, came pouring down.

Unable to walk back to the house, to see the sad and knowing face of her mother, she ran to the river. She watched it churn for hours, watched the broken branches that she tossed in, spin and bob in the water, and disappear beneath it. Sucked away somewhere by the hunger of the flood. To follow him downstream, towards the sea? But she knew there was no following, any more than if she had lost what little dignity she had found in herself, and run barefoot after his horse shouting at him to take her along. There was no following. There was only the swirling water, and the darkness.

There was nothing she could do, but fall.

Tripped over a root, she tried to convince herself in the first few moments. Slipped on the muddy bank of the swollen river. But there was no truth in it. She fell of her own accord, plunging through dark waters, cool and sweet. She opened her mouth as she sank beneath the current, drawing it in gladly. She gulped water, chewed mud and stones, wanting, aching, hungry for more. By the time she reached the bottom, she was unsurprised that she had not stopped falling, that the river had no bottom. She was too busy trying to eat.

When she finally landed, she wished that she could have stayed in the dark waters forever. The place where she found herself was dry and hot and full of little flying things that chittered at her and tangled in her hair. In Gaki-do, the hell of the hungry dead, she lived a thousand empty, aching lifetimes, the food becoming filth as it touched her lips, the water turning to fire in her throat. She wanted, and wanted, lost herself in it, until that fallen girl just disappeared. It was someone else who screamed and ran and somehow wanted out enough to rise. Someone else found herself standing a few feet downstream from where she had fallen. The moon above was a mere bite less round than it had been, the ground still muddy from the receding waters, and the one who stood on the bank was the ghost of the river, who named herself Reikawa.

She was hungry still, and the water did not fill her, could not satisfy. Mist, fog, untouched by river or stone, she drifted towards what had been home, trying to consume anything she could find on the way. Anything to fill the void that raged inside her as strongly as the river had raged over the edges of its banks, days or an eternity before. Nothing. Nothing noticed or touched her. The hens and the dog chased each other around the yard, and paid no mind to her as she moved past them. Her mother stared straight ahead, not seeing her as another day was crossed off the ricepaper calendar on the wall.

Not seeing, as what had been her child concentrated, willed herself to be what she had been, and sat human-shaped and hungry at the table. Legs crossed just so, feet bare, waiting for a bowl of rice that was never set before her. Not seeing, or pretending not, mother's eyes dry as the hungry one's were, but her hands shaking as she laid out enough places only for the family that was left. The rice wouldn't move when the ghost tried to steal some from her sister's bowl as she had done so many times in play. Not even a single grain of rice, could she lift to her mouth to see if it would fill the empty place where something else had once resided.

But when they slept, she drifted into the second room where her mother and father lay side by side on pallets stuffed with straw and feathers. When she saw her mother turn away, pull apart from her husband, alone in her dreaming, ah, then. Then she came close, and while her mother shuddered in her sleep, the ghost pressed her mist against salt-wet skin, and tasted. Not the few tears on the wind-reddened cheek, still held half in check even in sleep, but the ones that overflowed the river in her mother's mind. Someone was drowning in it, a girl with eyes too close together, feet too big to please some who would go unnamed. She flailed and gasped for air, long hair floating out around her, then twisting at her throat to strangle her, as if the water had not done a good enough job, by itself.

She should have felt something, the ghost of the river knew. That this was herself, that this was something precious, gone forever. As she touched and tasted, the one who had named herself Reikawa knew only that the sorrow was the finest thing she had ever placed upon her tongue, the guilt more potent than a hundred jars of rice wine. It sucked her in, drew her on, past the little noises, the tiny thrashings of her mother's body, the squeak of fear. She stirred the nightmare with her fingers, churning the dream river until the woman gasped out loudly in her sleep, and finally the water became real, pouring from her eyes. The ghost girl drank of the dream, and that river was cool, dark, delicious. When she had finished, the mother slept peacefully, salt tears drying on her face, but the river ghost was already moving to the next sleeping body, and did not look back.

When she had eaten and drunk her way through the entire village, and realized that the empty place within her was still there, she laughed for many hours, deep in the night. Finally she named herself again, for the thing that pushed her onwards, down the river to the next place: Reikoku. Relentless.

"Hungry."

*****

"That was a lovely story," Drusilla said, and Rei smiled. Bowed. "But there was no princess. All stories should have a princess in them, somewhere. Even if she gets eaten by wolves."

"Later, there was a princess. The ghost met a princess, and her knight," she said. "Who walked in the night with her, and they had many adventures together."

Such a princess looked back at her-- a princess with great dark gray eyes, whose laughter sounded like music in a dark place, whose wide red mouth was as hungry as Reikoku's own. And her knight... Rei floated over to where Spike lay, fast asleep beside his mate, one arm tight around Drusilla's thin shoulders. She brushed her hand across his forehead.

He was dreaming of fire. It licked at the edges of his consciousness, burning him as if he were still human. His paler-than-Gaijin skin reddened and blistered, instead of charring and turning to ash as it would have if the hunters had really caught up with them. His head was filled with the smell and taste of his own burning flesh, but his dream-eyes were fixed straight ahead, on Dru, who screamed and blazed like a candle. Reikoku pulled her hand away, not wanting to see what had not happened, what she had raced across the city to prevent from happening.

"Does he taste good?" Drusilla asked her. "I think so, but I never know if I'm imagining things. I do that sometimes."

"He does." It was true enough, though the dream was nothing special. Spike's night-terrors were a decent meal, perhaps a little sweeter for his woman's presence in them. They were nothing like the heady wine of Drusilla's mad visions, which could be sipped from the air around her, even when she was awake, while she walked and sang and danced on the pavement with Spike. Those, when they happened, left Rei utterly satiated for hours. Satisfied, for the first time in three hundred years.

"It hurts him, though. My boy doesn't like to be hurt, not really. Not like me." Drusilla spoke softly, her eyes clouded as she watched Spike whisper something unintelligible under his breath. "He likes to play games, and he likes to be punished, sometimes, but it's not the same." Her voice turned conspiratorial for a moment. "It's because of Daddy. The King of Clubs made the princess, you see, but her knight was made by the King of Hearts, who fed him chocolate toffees and spanked him when he was good."

Reikoku smiled at the image, and Drusilla smiled back at her, one of the few who had never flinched at the sharpness of her teeth, or ever seemed to fear her at all. "And yet it is you who want him back the more, this creature who beat you and tore you and killed everything that you ever loved in life. You both call for him in the night, but Spike has given up hope of ever finding him, and you..." Drusilla babbled about him constantly, their lost Sire, as if he had been gone only hours instead of decades; as if he had meant to meet them at the pub around the corner, and had just lost track of the time.

"Hope is a lie, and Spike can only lie to other people. Not to himself, not for very long. " There was something of that familiar sweetness in the air now, and Rei moved closer to the vampiress, as her eyes turned darker. "There's no hope for Dru, not for me, but I don't need hope, when I know. We'll find him. Blood and fire and black magic, and I'll dance..." Spike's sleep was becoming more restless, dirty-blond hair falling into his face as he shook his head, denying something, or someone. Dru let him toss for a moment, his arm drawing her closer, then she pulled away, watched it fall by his side. "But Spike hurts. He's going to hurt, again. Again and again and again..."

She hugged her arms tightly around herself, and began to rock. Reikoku moved even closer, reaching a hand to touch Drusilla's hair. It felt like a touch, to her own ghostly fingers, though the tangled curls never moved. Drusilla shivered happily -- she felt something, then, at the stroke of Reikoku's hand. Something.

Spike made some sort of whimper, like a wounded animal, and Drusilla matched the sound in an eerie duet that made Reikoku want to clap her hands over her ears, as if she truly used them to hear, anymore. "Shhh," she said quickly. "Do not worry. I will take his dreams away." She turned to do that, to touch Spike again and eat, instead of just tasting, but Drusilla stopped her.

"It won't make any difference. He won't stop hurting for ages, yet. I'll hurt him, and Daddy will hurt him again... They'll do bad things to my Spike, that hurt his head, hurt his heart...It's lovely, all black and red and blue like lightning, but Spike doesn't like to hurt."

It was like ripe raspberries, the air around her head -- Rei could sense it on what she still sometimes thought of as a tongue. So why did the sound of Drusilla's pain make her want to retch?

"But it will stop. You said so, that it would stop," she said, trying to soothe the distress from that voice. Rei floated, poised, between them. Ready to partake of Drusilla's sweetness. Ready to tear herself away from that to bite away the pain of Dru's sleeping lover, little as she cared about Spike himself, beyond the meal.

"Someday. There's a little boy in my head, with big black eyes. There's words on his face, but I can't read them. I get lost, when I try to read them, and my William has such bad handwriting; I shall have to smack his hands for it. Did you know that there's a rhyme for orange, if you say it in French?" Reikoku waited patiently, having grown used to Dru's apparent lack of sense, and after a second, she continued. "He's for Spike, like Spike was for me, and he'll make it all right. But there's no little boy, not yet. He's just a story." As if Drusilla had forgotten that it had been she who stopped Rei in the first place, she pouted accusingly at the Gaki. "And Spike hurts."

"Then, for now, I shall make it better," Rei said, and put her hand back on Spike's forehead, dissolving into smoke. Telling herself not for the first time that she wasn't doing this for wide gray eyes and a red mouth with the beautiful nonsense of a thousand bloody fairy tales spilling from it. Not for that. Only for the taste of Dru's visions. Nothing more.

 

*****

Los Angeles, 2000

The boy with the dark eyes stood on the balcony, railing at the sky, and the rain, and Spike, and himself. Himself the most of all, though it was Spike's name called out to the darkened air with a hundred curses attached to it. Some of which the boy must have learned from the vampire, Reikoku decided, unless 'knocked-kneed Limey guttersnipe' had become the newest southern California teen sound byte.

When he finished shouting, he laughed. Laughed long enough that Reikoku wondered if he'd given himself a new name, by the time he finally stopped. If he had, he didn't speak it aloud. He turned off the lights and crawled into the bed and buried his face in the pillow, and let his body shake.

When his breathing finally slowed, she walked out of the darkness and traced a misty finger down his cheek. There were no tears to touch. She placed her hand on his forehead. With no one watching to shy away at the sharpness of her teeth, she smiled, and let her body turn to fog as she tumbled down into his dreams.

They tasted of burnt chocolate, and fear.





c Our Kind of People

"Tara? Please?" Willow was doing the 'I'm a good girl, I am,' act, which would normally have her girlfriend fetching whatever it was for her before she even named it, but this time Tara saw through her evil plan. The blonde shook her head resolutely as they walked past the Main Ops table in the lobby.

"No more coffee. You made me promise not to let you." Not that Tara could actually stop her, or would, if she really wanted some. But it was a game they'd been playing all day-- keep Willow away from the caffeine, don't let her get kidnapped by the strange, gnome-like men who run the computer gaming room, don't let her spend next semester's tuition money on X-rated fan fiction and battery-operated Star Wars toys... Tara had only been moderately successful at the last one, as evidenced by the bags they were both holding, but she was determined to do her best on the coffee issue. "You said I should drag you away by force, if you even looked at anything that smelled that good, ever again."

"But that was yesterday. Today they have kahlua hazelnut cream..."

"And given that it's already tonight, you'll be bouncing off the walls until...tomorrow. Nope. Sorry. Can't do it." She looked sternly at her girlfriend. Well, tried to. "Wouldn't be prudent. Not at this juncture."

"You're mean," Willow pouted. Tara shook her head again, smiling, then stopped as she heard the words echoed-- in a lower voice. She looked around, wondering if she'd imagined it.

"What?" Willow asked. When the phrase was repeated again, she looked around as well.

It was coming from the open door to the sports bar. They walked over, recognizing the familiar tones if not the half-slurred pout. Tara, at least, had never heard Spike sound like this before. "You're mean. I don't like you. And, if you don't mind my commentin' on your sartorial standards or lack thereof, your mum dresses you funny."

"I don't care how mean you think I am, buddy. Twelve of anything is the limit, around here. Even that stuff." The bartender sounded adamant, and Spike was making growling noises. Which, if he wasn't already in vamp face...could be an interesting experience for the locals. Tara looked at Willow, who was giving her the same look back: "Ulp." They hurried in.

"Well, hey, if it ain't Goldilocks and Lil' Red Riding Hood. Come to rescue the Big Bad from a life of drunken debauchery?" Spike looked up at them human-faced from where he sat at the bar. There were a slew of empty brown bottles lined up in front of him, and one clutched firmly in his hand. "Hate to break it to you, but I'm not drunk. Can't get drunk on Woodpecker; s'not possible."

"Oh, God," Willow groaned under her breath. Tara shot her a questioning glance. "You remember that whole Drusilla thing, at lunch?" she whispered. Tara nodded. "Last time he got all mopey over her, he tried to stake himself. The time before that, he kidnapped me and Xander and wanted me to do a love spell to get her back. He got all drunk and weepy and slobbery. It was honestly hard to remember that--"

"He has excellent hearing?" Spike said. Willow tried the innocent-me look on him , but he didn't seem to care one way or the other. He really didn't look drunk, Tara thought. Not if drunk was her brother Donny after a bottle and a half of White Lightning, passed out in the back of his truck. Even Spike's pouting seemed to be intended more to give the bartender a hard time; there was a hard, sharp glint in his eye, as if he were laughing inwardly at a particularly ironic joke. He threw a bill down on the bar, but made no move to get up. "There-- I've paid up; not like I'm trying to get you to run a tab, or something. Give me another."

"I told you, sir. You've reached our limit; it doesn't have anything to do with your ability to pay." The bartender, dressed not at all funnily in a standard vest-and-bow-tie uniform, looked beseechingly at Willow and Tara. "He belong to you two? You might think about getting him back to your room, assuming you're staying here. If not, for God's sake don't let him drive."

Willow stepped forward, just as Spike was letting out another almost-not-human growl. "I guess he belongs to us. In the sense that we're responsible for turning him loose on the world, as opposed to killing him. Don't worry, he's not driving anywhere, not tonight. Come on, Spike."

Spike gave her a disbelieving look, but stood up. Probably more because the bartender had his arms crossed and was obviously not about to hand over another bottle, than because of anything Willow had said. He still addressed her, though, as he grabbed his coat from the stool next to him and slipped it on. "I told you, mummy dearest-- I'm not drunk. Took about a case of Jack to get me to the point where I'd actually stoop to...er... asking you for help, last year. And I managed to drive into town quite well on that, thank you."

Willow rolled her eyes and yanked on his arm. "That's really encouraging, Spike. And they wonder why I don't have a car, when there's people like you on the road."

He accompanied them out of the bar, shooting a final nasty gesture at the bartender-- at least, Tara assumed it wasn't meant to be a peace sign-- with his free hand. "You can let go my arm, Red. I'm fully capable, you know," he said as they approached the main elevator bank.

"Of making a scene and getting us all kicked out of here? I don't doubt it. Come on, let's go back to the room. You can have some blood, and try to get less not-drunk, and cry on our shoulders about Dru. We'll feed you chocolate chip pudding, if you're good."

Spike stopped in front of the elevators and shook his arm free of Willow's. Gently, Tara noticed, though whether he had any concern for Willow's feelings, or was just avoiding a brain-zap, she couldn't be sure. "I'm not good. And I'm not drunk, for the third and probably not final time. And I'm sure as hell not goin' back up there, not for chocolate pudding -- not even for a fucking Klondike bar. "

Tara pressed the 'Up' button, then turned back to look at him. "Why not?"

Spike shrugged and looked off into the distance, where they were taking down most of the large convention displays in preparation for closing ceremonies in the morning. "His Royal Highness mightn't be through with his afternoon nap, and god forbid he should wake up and see me. Might chew my head the rest of the way off."

Tara had wondered, of course, when Xander had taken off after snapping at Spike. Whether there was something more than a bad hair day happening. But she couldn't exactly have asked either of them, even if it were any of her business, since she wasn't supposed to know there was anything to ask about. They were grown-ups; they didn't need a nosy witch interfering in their private affairs. So she'd gone about the business that was hers -- following Willow around the convention and watching her face light up when something took her back to a time when all the bad things in the world were safely locked behind a glass tv screen, and there was always Xander standing in front of the sofa to protect her if life got too scary.

"Not that his teeth are any sharper than his wits, of course." Spike's last-minute comment startled Tara out of her Willow-thoughts. He sounded jokey enough, but the expression on his face when he looked back at them was anything but. Just for a second. Then Tara watched as it melted away, just the way his vamp face did when he turned human, to be replaced by something smug and familiar. And fake.

Willow didn't seem to notice the quicksilver change, but she'd heard the words, at least. "All right, I've had just about enough of this. I don't know what's with either of you two, but you're going to talk like civilized grown-ups if I have to levitate you both upside down off the balcony." When one of the elevators chimed, she grabbed Spike's arm again, and practically dragged him through the open door. Tara followed, trying not to giggle at the sight of her hundred pound girlfriend manhandling a supernaturally strong male vampire into the elevator.

"We talked already, thanks," Spike snapped. The acid in his tone made Tara flinch, and dissolved any thought of laughing at him. "Your mate made it pretty clear that he doesn't want to see hide nor hair of my hide nor hair. Which is just fine with me. I'd rather call Angel and grovel for a ride, than set foot back in Harris' room, or Harris' car, or Harris' grotty little basement. I get my car back, in fact, and I'm out of here. I've no doubt the rejoicing will last long into the night, when the Slayer finds out I'm not coming back to Sunnydale."

"Excuse me? You're not coming back with us?"

Tara could see the unspoken 'And why am I actually upset about that?' flit across Willow's face and disappear without a trace. Come on, Willow, you've gotta figure this out soon...

"What part of it was too difficult for your college-educated brains to process?" The bitterness was almost tangible, and Tara took an involuntary step back as she watched the vampire clench his jaw and snort in response to Willow's question. His accent was different, too -- not as rough around the edges; it made 'college-educated' sound less like a jealous snipe, and more like a part of that sharp-edged inside joke to which only he knew the punchline.

"Just because Xander threatened to stick a stake in you?" Willow asked him. "I admit the placement suggestion was kind of...um...unusual, but he says stuff like that to you all the time. You're bailing over Xander having a bad day? I thought you guys were... friends, kind of."

Spike laughed, a single painful bark. Tara found that it actually hurt something in her stomach to hear it, and to watch his mouth twist up. "Friends? You've got to be kidding. What does it take to get through to you people that I'm evil? Bad? A person of some taste and refinement? I don't have friends, and if I did, they sure as hell wouldn't include an unemployed mouth-breather who lives in his parents' basement, collects comic books, thinks he's doing the world a favor by helping a bitchy little blonde twit save it every so often, and has the gall to consider me more pathetic than him." He snorted again, then looked down at the ground to avoid Willow's startled stare, and Tara's disturbed one.

This wasn't the cocky braggart they'd gone bowling with, or the calm, concerned guy she'd heard softly talking Xander back to sleep last night. It was a Spike whom Tara didn't recognize, distant and hurting and awkward with his lover's supposedly clueless friends. And there was nothing Tara could say to comfort him, if she could even figure out what was wrong, without giving their secret away to Willow.

What was bothering her so much about this? Why did she care if whatever relationship the demon had with the human crumbled under its own weight? What business was it of hers? A nasty little voice was laughing at her, somewhere down in her soul. It sounded just a little like Donny, the summer before she'd run to California, when she'd tried to tell him why she couldn't stay, without actually saying outright that she was running away.

Things like that just ain't meant to work out. There's that kind of people, and our kind of people, and you know damn well which kind you are. But you don't believe that. You never believed that. So why would you care about some demon, Tara-girl? None of your concern. Nothing to do with you. Just keep believing that, and maybe it'll be true. Just keep yourself to yourself, and no one will ever know what you are.

To drown out the words, some of them imagined, some of them with the weight of memory behind them, she said to Spike, "You went after him, didn't you. And you got in an argument."

"Oh, ten out of ten for the quiet one." He shrugged, just one shoulder. It somehow made his body look as twisted up as his voice sounded. "You lot spend so much time forgetting I'm not your friend, I just about got sucked into the glorious fantasy m'self. S'pose I ought to thank 'im for the reminder." The bell dinged, and the doors opened. "But I don't think I will, somehow. Your stop, ladies."

"Oh no, you don't." Willow, who hadn't let go of Spike's arm since she'd yanked him into the elevator, pulled on it again. This time he stood still and looked at her with a crooked little smile. Willow frowned and stuck her foot in the door. They stood there that way, Tara trapped in the corner with two stubborn faces between her and the exit, until...

BUZZZZZZZZ...

The elevator's alarm continued to scream at them as Willow stood with her shoe against the doorguard, smiling, and Spike clapped one hand to his ear, grimacing. With a muttered obscenity, he finally stumbled forward into the hallway. Willow followed, triumphant, and Tara shook her head. Spike should have known by now-- no one out-stubborned Willow Rosenberg. At least no one besides Miss Kitty, who didn't really count, since she had that unfair supernatural cuteness power going for her.

"Come on," Willow was saying as she led him down the hall towards their room. "You two are going to actually talk. None of this crap about 'Oh, we're men, we don't do that kind of thing, grunt, grunt, let's either watch football and bond by leering at the cheerleaders, or never speak to each other again'. Xander doesn't have enough guy friends as it is, and I'm not gonna watch him lose one-- even an evil, annoying one-- over something this stupid. He's got stuff on his mind, you know. Not everything is about you..."

Tara resisted the impulse to bang her own head against the wall as Willow continued. No, they're exchanging death threats over whether Commander Riker was cuter pre-beard, or post. Come on, hon! Figure this out so I can talk to you about it without feeling guilty.

"Fine, leave off, witch. I'll go in." Spike was still trying to shake himself free of Willow's mom-grip. "Just to get my gear, then I'm out of here. Sun's down, not that it ever came out, that I could tell..." Willow wasn't letting go, so Tara hung back, fishing her card key out of her purse. "In fact, you could just go in and fetch it for me..." Spike wheedled.

Tara was careful to look at the floor while she rolled her eyes. Then she nudged Willow and Spike out of the way. As she began to swipe her key in the lock, something pushed at her mind. At her senses. Gently wiggled her memory like a loose tooth. Tara backed away from the door and stared at it.

Spike stopped his attempts to squirm out of Willow's grasp, and stared at her. "What? Space-age code-key on the fritz? Happy to break the door down for you, considering Angel would have to pay for it."

Tara shook her head, still looking at the door. Something was wrong. More wrong, that is, than Spike's and Xander's personal problems. She just couldn't pin down what it was. Except it was something in that room. Weird. Familiar, and yet not. Itching at her to do something she didn't want to do, not blind, not like this, but... She also didn't want to open that door-- and she wanted to know why.

Carefully, Tara put her hand on the wood and felt-- not with her fingers, but with her mind.

'Easy, easy...' Tara could hear her mother's memory-voice telling her, as she held a closed wooden box in her hands. Something had moved inside it, and she'd almost dropped it. 'Relax. Just close your eyes and feel-- you know what's in there. You've touched it, you've smelled it, you've seen it in the sunlight. Now just reach past the wood, and tell me what it is.' So she had reached with her eyes closed and her small ten-year-old fingers on the old cigar box, and felt scale and smelled dust and heard the hiss, and seen the electric-green smudge that was the garter snake's aura. Her mother had listened to her excited laughter, then proudly opened the box, to let the little snake slide into Tara's hands.

Tara reached again, in the white hallway of a hotel ten years later, and what was inside the room bit at her like a coiled rattler. She yanked her hand away. "Something's in there," she whispered, before her tongue seemed to stop working altogether.

"Well, that was ominous," Spike sneered. "Cue cheesy incidental music..." Willow smacked him on the arm.

"What do you mean, honey?" Willow looked at Tara, her motherly irritation with Spike immediately replaced by a questioning expression. "Something's in there, like, big mucous-shooting demon that tried to kill Angel, something? Or something, like, Xander changing clothes, don't walk in on him, something? And don't you say a word, Spike."

The vampire said nothing, though Tara wasn't sure why he would -- not that she could get her brain to work right enough to think her own thoughts, much less try to understand Willow's. Tara shook her head, turning back to face them while still trying to frame a sentence properly again. The jolt she had experienced was almost electrical, and it felt like it had scrambled her brains. Yes, Xander was in there; she'd felt his now-familiar aura in the room as well, but it was dampened. Muffled.

Spike was already frowning, and now his face rippled into its bumpy, toothy demon-form. He sniffed the air carefully, then shook his own head, his vampire-face not showing the misplaced relief that Tara heard in his voice. "Nothing in there but the kid. Maybe he's not the only one who needs a nap, eh, witch?"

Finally, Tara was able to speak. "Your friend from last night," she said, looking into bright yellow eyes. "The ghost. She's in there with Xander."

Willow looked back at Tara. "Are you sure?"

She nodded. Behind the biting zap that had knocked her back into her own head, there had been the same creepy feeling that she'd felt in the hallway last night. Impossible to describe properly: curiosity and not-quite-human-amusement, and something else. Something that had made her just grab Willow's hand and chant, "I am not an Extra-Value Meal," over and over in her head.

What she'd felt just now had the same signature, came from the same creature, but that was the only similarity. The amusement was gone, replaced with irritation at her interference, slapping at her as if she were some kind of annoying bug. The 'something else' was no longer hidden behind a mask of politeness-- it was hunger. Pure, open, greedy hunger. And it wasn't directed at Tara.

Spike gave her a disgusted look. "If Rei's in there, why didn't you just say so? She probably dropped by to gas on about old times. Worry us over nothing, why don't you. Not that I was worried."

Tara grabbed his arm. "You d...don't unders...s...stand..." She bit her lip. Why did the damned stutter have to come out now, of all times? "Xander... She's doing something to him." There. She'd got it out. If that was all she could say, so be it -- Spike would do something now. He had to. He wouldn't let some stupid fight -- And the fact that, as Spike's pointed out himself on more than one occasion, he's a selfish, evil demon? -- stop him from going to help the one person in the world who was making him almost human. Would he?

Spike stared at her for a moment, and what passed between their eyes was a mystery, even to Tara. All she knew was that after that moment, Spike blinked, then shook her off, grabbing her door key from her hand. He jammed it into the slot, and yanked it out without waiting for the beep, which came a second later.

Spike pushed the door open quickly. The room was in partial darkness, the spill of light from the hallway only reaching a few feet into the little alcove inside the doorway-- and it was cold. The curtains and glass door were open at the other end of the room, letting in very little city light, but plenty of chilling rain. Spike strode past the mirrored closet and into the room. "Reikoku?"

Willow said, "Xander?" at the same time. There was no response from anyone, though Tara heard a muted crunching sound. She flipped the light on and walked in, then stood blinking at the scene before her, trying to take it in.

Spike stood in the middle of the room, his booted foot crushing Xander's black fedora, which had been lying on the carpet. Xander lay curled up under the covers of one double bed. Around him-- or maybe, over him, was a pulsing gray cloud of smoke. Thick enough to move and almost shine in the overhead light, but still translucent enough that Tara could make out Xander's face, pale on the pillow, hair drenched in sweat.

"Rei, get off him," Spike said, low and dangerously reasonable. "You want a snack, there's a nice little pub on the ground floor, serves spicy barbecue wings and beernuts. Can't say much for the barkeep, but the menu's not bad. Better than undercooked human, anyway, especially that one. What say you and me, we head down there and..." His stream of babble, a near match for Willow on a good day, ran on as he neared the bed, Willow and Tara behind him.

"Xan," he said quietly when he got there. There was no movement from Xander. Then, "Shit." Spike bent down, reaching out to touch the cloud, or maybe Xander's shoulder. "Fuck. Fuck, stupid...this is all my fault. Xan?"

Things happened far too quickly to make any sense. Spike's hand made contact with the Gaki. Tara heard a sizzling sound, then a loud crack.

There was a flash of light -- white fire in the air -- and the vampire flew backwards onto the opposite bed. The scent of ozone filled Tara's lungs for a second, then disappeared.

Willow ran towards Xander, and Tara grabbed her around the waist before she got too near the bed. "No, don't. "

"Let go of me, Tara. That thing is hurting Xander." Willow struggled in her arms. The gray blanket of mist shimmered, then was still, as was Xander. On the other bed, Spike lay just as motionless.

"I don't know what she's doing, exactly. But if you try to touch her, she might hurt you -- we can at least learn from Spike's mistakes."

Willow stopped fighting, and was stiff against Tara's body. She stared at the fog-shrouded form on the bed for what seemed like hours, before Tara felt safe enough to relax her tight hold, finally sure that the other woman wouldn't blindly bolt towards her best friend no matter the danger. "Spike's mistakes." Willow finally broke her gaze away from Xander to glare briefly at the vampire. "Like the one where he says 'Oh, she's harmless, she can't do anything bad to you unless you're already sick?"

Tara sighed. "Willow, I don't think he would have said that if he hadn't thought it was true."

"Right, because Spike never lies, especially when he's trying to make himself look better by making Xander feel like an idiot. Big undead jerk." Willow pulled free. Walked across and stood over Spike. She reached down and felt his forehead, then shook her head. "Oh, ignore me. I know it's not Spike's fault, not really. I'm just ... What on earth am I feeling for here-- a pulse? A fever? If he were dead-dead, he'd be dust in the wind." She shook him for a moment, with no discernible result. "Why on earth did he do that? I mean, I know why I would have, but why Spike?"

Tara bit her lip, unsure whether to answer that or not. Our kind of people, she heard her brother say again. Heard her father say it, first, which was where Donny got it from. But their mother had said something else, the one time she'd caught her son talking like that. Something that he'd seemed to listen to, at the time, though he'd forgotten it soon enough, after she died.

Then Willow turned around to look at Xander, without waiting for Tara to answer, if she'd ever really expected one. Her eyes were as gray and cloudy as the fog for a moment; then they cleared. Something sparked in them. "Wind...maybe..." Willow's brow furrowed in concentration. She cleared her throat. "Maestro, Greco, Africus, Syroco..." she whispered. Tara felt power building between Willow's outstretched hands, like the air in a lightning storm, before the thunder cracks. "Winds of the cross corners, blow..."

Nothing, then a small sound of ruffling paper. A breeze tugged at Tara's skirt, playing lightly with the fabric. Then something strong pushed past her, whipping her hair into her face and blowing the curtains open. A stack of brightly colored flyers lived up to their name, as they escaped out the open sliding door and into the rain, disappearing off the balcony. Tara watched the strange mist that covered Xander, and lent Willow what power she could, just by reaching over and taking her hand. It seemed for a second that the fog got lighter, that she could see Xander's sleeping frown more clearly. Then, just as suddenly as it had started, the air died down and the room was still.

"Well, that was a rousing success." Willow laughed nervously, then stopped, as if she was afraid she wouldn't be able to if she didn't cut herself off now. Tara knew how she felt.

"Spike said she couldn't be directly hurt by magic," she reminded Willow, who was staring dumbly at the writhing gray mass that surrounded Xander. It was back to its original thickness, as if nothing had happened at all, as if it was laughing at their display of arcane ability. Tara put her arms around Willow once again, holding tightly to the slim body as Willow leaned her head back on Tara's shoulder.

"Spike said she couldn't hurt anybody else, too. And look at him." The vampire was utterly still, pale skin almost shining against the navy-blue comforter. "Spike, wake up!" Nothing. Xander tossed slightly in the other bed, looking just as unnaturally white as his lover, behind the shifting gray covering. Tara blinked, as she saw Spike move, finally-- to make exactly the same motion. Willow noticed it too, and squeezed her arm. "Tara...can I be scared? Just for a minute?"

How many times had Willow been in this situation, a friend in trouble and no idea what was happening, just that she had to do something? How often had there been no one there whom Willow would dare to ask that question of, since she always had to be the smart one? The one who always had a plan, even when her mouth babbled nonsense while her mind came to its own conclusions? Tara stroked Willow's arm with one hand and nodded against her skull, the fine red hair brushing her nose.

"Uh-huh. You can be scared. It's okay." They stood there for a while just holding each other, before Willow shook herself, and picked up the phone.

A few minutes later, they were sitting on the bed next to Spike. Waiting. "He's not like us," Willow said, as she looked at the motionless vampire. "He's not supposed to do stupid things like that. So why did he?"

Tara didn't answer -- she just took Willow's hand in her own, and repeated her mother's words, in her head. 'Listen to me, child. Your daddy's right, there's two kinds of people. But you can't tell by looking at them -- it doesn't matter if they're white or black or live on the wrong side of town or got horns and a tail. None of that's worth a tinker's damn. The only kinds of people who make any difference in this world are the people who are too afraid to love each other, and the other kind. Our kind of people.'

Tara breathed, and Willow breathed, and Xander breathed, and Spike didn't. And they waited.




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