Chocolatey Goodness


by
Mad Poetess



d Little Things

"Fuck." Simple. Good. Gutteral. Something nice girls didn't say. Willow said it again. Then she pounded on the table -- in lieu of smashing her fists against her laptop's keyboard- and added a few words in Swahili that hopefully meant what she thought they meant: something obscene but harmless, and not 'please turn me into a hairy three-eyed snot-monster.' She glanced down at her hands and didn't see any hair or snot, so she assumed she'd been right.

Tara looked up at her, startled, from where she sat on the bed next to Spike's stretched-out body. Or should that be corpse? Eww. Willow shuddered just a bit -- which was utterly silly for somebody who'd been spending years dealing with them in one form or another, and this was a body she knew. Still, laid out like that, unresponsive to touch or shaking or yelling, or anything except Xander's involuntary sleep-movements, which Spike continued to match like a freaky synchronized swimmer -- could you have synchronized sleeping? Anyway, he looked more corpse-like than usual, and that, along with everything else, was freaking Willow out.

"Sorry," she said. "Just... there's nothing in here about Gakis at all. At least not that I can find, but the search system is so screwy... And 'Demons, Demons, Demons' -- what kind of name is that for a database, anyway? It's like the Disney version of a real occult knowledge system. It even has a children's section. Which is so cute, if I wanted to teach my kid how to play 'How Many Horns Does A Hrontak Have' -- but right now? Whoever programmed this thing is seriously making my frog-turning finger twitch." Which wasn't the finger she was tempted to flip at the screen.

She looked up to find Tara blinking at her, an awkward 'help me, I don't want to have to have her put away' smile hovering over her lips. Then, without a word spoken between them, her lover was next to her. Strong, sure hands massaged her shoulders, pressing and sliding over muscles that Willow just now realized ached like she'd been holding up a medium-sized planet, instead of sitting hunched over a computer. "Maybe you need to take a break."

Willow sighed and gazed at the laptop again. She thumped the table one last time, more or less for good luck, then nodded. "I know. I'm not really thinking straight anymore, by the time I start threatening grievous bodily injury to nameless database programmers. Wesley's coming with books. Books are good. Books are our friends. Especially stolen-from-the-Watchers'-Council books."

"I think 'indefinite loan' was the phrase he used on the phone." Fingers digging between her shoulderblades, reaching for a tension that Willow couldn't quite let go of.

"Yeah, Giles has some 'indefinite loan' books too. I wonder if the disgruntled ex-Watcher and the unemployed librarian battle it out in his psyche at night, sending each other overdue notices." On the screen, the little dancing Parvo-demon that was supposed to be retrieving the answer to her query on dream-eaters was still dancing. It had been dancing for the last five minutes. She suspected it was sticking its tongue out at her, too, but the gif image was too small to be absolutely certain. It's always the little things that get to you, in the end. She gave in to the temptation, and flipped it off.

"Willow..."

She looked up at Tara, and sighed, reaching for one of those magical massage hands, because holding it seemed more important, right now. "I'm just... frustrated, I guess. There's nothing I can do. None of the spells I know have worked, so I can't help with magic, at least not until Wesley gets here. And Willow the Computer Wiz if ever a Wiz there was? Bupkis. She is Bupkis-Woman. I feel useless. Like I'm just waiting for the grownups to show up and tell me what to do."

Willow felt Tara's other hand stop rubbing at her shoulders, and wrap itself around her in a hug. "Yeah. I know how you feel. I wish I knew anything that might help. All the dream spells I can remember require a willing, conscious subject -- and they're mostly about controlling dreams. Staying lucid so you can explore them. Or charms to keep away bad dreams in the first place. Nothing about waking people up, or fighting monsters."

Willow stood, turned, and rested her forehead against Tara's. Not the only one. It was hard to remember that, when nothing seemed to be working and she felt like a little girl tugging on her mother's skirt -- me, me, I can do something too, I'm big now... But she wasn't the only one who felt like this, and she wasn't alone.

"You are helping, Tara. Just by being here. You being with me is everything. Don't ever think that it's not." Just to have warm arms encircling her, soft breath blowing her hair across her face, large, serious eyes looking into hers, with 'I'll do anything for you' written in letters three feet high across those dark blue irises... "I'm sorry this weekend turned out to be so crazy. It was supposed to be about us, and... it's gone all Scooby. Not in the 'have fun with your friends' sense -- in the 'monster stops in to ruin your popcorn and pizza party nine times out of ten' sense."

"No, I loved it. It was great. I mean, this isn't great, but... you know what I mean." Tara pulled her head back a little so that Willow was looking at her whole face, instead of just a close-up, magnified view of her eyes. "I like your friends. I liked the convention stuff. I like being with you, no matter where we are or what's happening. 'Cause I love you. Even when you're high on coffee or growling insanely at nameless database programmers."

Willow couldn't help looking back at the laptop, to see the demon still dancing. When she looked back at Tara, there was an apology on her lips, for what she hadn't said back right away -- but Tara's finger got there before she could utter it.

"Don't be stupid. I know. You're just worried about Xander."

And she was. More than anything else, more than the frustration with the computer or the magic or herself, Willow was worried about Xander. But just about the little things. Whether he'll ever find something as simple and right as Tara feels in my arms. Whether he'll ever get a haircut, before his bangs reach down to his nose. Whether he'll ever wake up again. Just the little things.

"Yeah." She walked over to look at him, Tara's arm still around her shoulder. His hair was tangled and sweat-matted on the pillow. His uncomfortable movements had knocked the blanket down into a crumpled mess around his chest, and Willow's hand moved towards him, some ridiculous mom-instinct urging her to pull it up to his chin. The gray mass of fog around him surged in her direction, and she snatched her hand away as the image of Spike flying backwards onto the other bed flashed through her head. "I hate this. He seems so... helpless. You know, he's the one who always protected me from whatever I was afraid of, when we were little. He even tries to protect Buffy, like she needs it."

In a voice that Willow knew was designed to calm her down and make her think straight, and usually succeeded, Tara asked, "I thought Xander was always getting into situations like this. I mean, not that it's his fault. Just that he has really bad luck when it comes to getting got by whatever bad thing is around."

"Yeah -- he does have a tendency to attract dangerous attention. I'm not sure if he's a weirdness-magnet, or he sends off 'hurt me' pheromones, or what. But I hate it. I've always hated it. And this... sucks. Which is all my highly-developed vocabulary can come up with at the moment. Can't the bad things leave us alone, for a weekend? A few days? I just want... "

Little things. Wake up, Xander. Crack a joke. Brush my hair. Tell me who you're in love with. Tell me it's some bagboy at the Food Mart, tell me it's Giles, tell me it's Regis Philbin. I won't care who. I won't tell anybody, not even Tara. I promise. Just wake up. Little things.

"I just want things to go right." Whatever that meant. Willow backed off when she felt her fingers itching to reach for the edge of that dark blue comforter again, and sat down on the bed next to Spike. The 'ack, it's a dead body' thing was gone now, probably just a product of her irritation with herself, which a Tara-cuddle had done a lot to bring down to a manageable level. Tara stood in front of her, long hair slipping out from behind her ear and fanning over her face.

"Do you think we should try calling Mr. Giles again?"

Why not. At least it would give her something to do, aside from think of things that she couldn't do anything about, and things she didn't know what to do about. Last time, right after she'd called Angel, she'd got no answer at Giles' place, but she couldn't imagine what would keep him out of his apartment for very long. Unless he and Olivia had gone on a date somewhere -- but from the vibes she'd been getting on Friday night, Willow thought it was more likely that he hadn't planned for them to leave the apartment all weekend.

She nodded, and started to stand up and reach for the phone, then looked at the silver cord that ran across the room to the little table and her cheerfully click-whirring laptop. "Or not. I don't want to try getting into that database again if we go offline. It took fifteen minutes just to get through their login procedures, the last time. Maybe I should go downstairs and use the pay phone?"

Tara gave half a nod, then stopped. "Doesn't Spike have Wesley's cell-phone on him?"

Er... touch Spike? Not that the thought bothered Willow anymore -- it just hadn't even occurred to her that she could, since the first time she'd shaken him and he hadn't woken up. But there was no gray cloud around him that could make zappy moves at her if she tried to pull the blanket up to his chin. Not that she could, since he was lying on top of it, and what insane brain cell had made her think about tucking Spike in? Spike was the Big Bad, even if he was sleeping the sleep of the just zapped with a million-volt cattle prod right now. He didn't need mothering.

Except he really looked like he did, the confusing, irritating jerk. He was frowning now; Willow glanced across to the other bed and tried to peer through the cloud of fog to see if Xander was as well. She couldn't tell. When she looked back at Spike, his face was blank. Unlined except for a few little ones around his eyes and mouth. Smooth looking Oil-of-Olay-for-the-undead skin, that translucent color that makeup companies called 'ivory' and Willow called 'fish-belly-white' when she saw it in the mirror. Spike's skin was even whiter than hers; the silver-blond of his hair would have shaded right into it without a pause for the eye, if his roots weren't growing out.

He looked nakeder now, in three layers of clothes including boots and a jacket, than he had last night in the bathroom wearing nothing but a smirk and a tattoo. With his face slack in sleep, Spike could have been any innocent collegiate geek, all tuckered out after a weekend of gaming and autograph-hunting. He wasn't anything like innocent -- she knew it. Just because she'd gone bowling with him, didn't mean she didn't know he was a killer. She'd seen him yellow-eyed and snarling, with blood on his lips. Waving a broken bottle in her face. Pushing her down on her own bed with death in his eyes and only the chip, the magical, wonderful, terrible chip, had saved her. Not like she'd forgotten any of that, or ever could. But he didn't look like a monster, now.

"He looks so..."

"Human?"

"I was gonna say 'young.' You know, for all his Big Bad B.S., he doesn't really look much older than any of us." Willow studied the shadows under his closed eyes, and below his cheekbones. "But yeah. He looks human, too. Acts human, a lot of the time. I guess that's why we forget he's not. That he's a demon, and he doesn't think like us."

Though if he didn't -- why had he sounded like the inside of his throat was being torn out when he saw Xander lying there asleep with this obscene gray thing pulsing all over him? Why had he said, "Fuck, this is all my fault..." ? Why had he sounded like he actually cared? Why had he reached out to touch Xander? Heck, why was he here at all, attending a convention he didn't care about with people he swore he hated, just so he could end up lying on this bed all sick and pale and small, even for a dead guy? It still didn't make any sense to her.

She reached slowly into his inside breast pocket, which contained a lump that she assumed was Wesley's cell-phone, and was struck by the fact that his chest didn't rise and fall. Well, duh... But it was disconcerting. Nothing moved, nothing twitched when she grasped the phone and slid it out -- or tried to. It was stuck on, or under, something in the pocket: a stack of cards or small papers, sharp enough to give her a paper cut as her fingers slid along one edge. Willow sighed and pulled the whole mess out, phone included, before putting her finger in her mouth and sucking on it.

"What's that?"

She disentangled the stack of card-things from the flip part of the cell-phone, and turned them over. Then blinked. Then stared. Then blinked again. "Photographs." Spike carried snapshots around in his pocket? How human was he? Though they were probably all shots of Drusilla, she realized after a second. That would be like him, to carry them around and pull them out to mope over when he was feeling morose.

There were three: a wallet-sized one on the bottom, and two square polaroids on top. One of which had bitten her; there was a drop of her blood still on the edge of it. Vampire photos. Snort. Hellmouth humor at its best. She wiped it off with the hem of her t-shirt and studied it, frowning.

"Is that a Dairy Queen coupon?" Tara was asking as she leaned over to peer at the picture.

You'd think so, with the mounds of whipped topping and the chocolate ice cream, and the interestingly-placed banana, Willow thought absently. Not to mention the maraschino cherries. But unless they'd run out of cups and had started serving their sundaes on rounded, pale hills of flesh that she'd last seen standing in the middle of the bathroom last night, this wasn't anything you could buy along with your Peanut Buster Parfait. Though it might increase sales if they made the offer.

"No, it's..uh... it's Spike. Naked. A la mode." Or technically, Spike's ass, a la mode, since the ice cream was mostly centered there. The slope of his back was visible above it, though, and the silver-white blur of hair that identified the subject of the picture better than any label that hadn't been filled in next to the date-stamp at the bottom of the photo. She almost laughed, before her brain went somewhere else entirely.

"Huh?" Tara bent closer, then stood up rapidly. "Oh. Um. Oh." Willow was still staring at the image. "Willow?"

"What? I didn't do it. I mean, I didn't take it. I mean, I saw him naked, but it wasn't this time, it was last night." Yes, that made perfect sense. It also did much to remove the 'Oh dear, maybe I'll have to commit her after all' look from Tara's face.

"That's...um... you saw him naked last night?"

"Shower. Walked in. Thought it was Xander. Not that I was walking in on Xander, I just wanted to talk to him and thought he was behind the curtain and he wasn't, he was in the middle of the room and he wasn't Xander, he was Spike, and did you know he has a Tigger tattoo on his ass?" And way to counter that stereotype everyone has of you that you babble at the slightest opportunity, her inner Cordelia (the High-School Version,™) added.

"Oh. I...um... don't see one in that picture." Tara was blushing very attractively, a strange, detached part of Willow's brain noticed, before her eyes automatically returned to the polaroid.

Willow blinked, and looked down at the picture yet again, noting that Tara was right -- though she couldn't know where Spike's tattoo was, Willow did, and that spot was devoid of both ice cream and Tigger. She sighed, finally admitting to herself that she was staring at the picture simply because it was, if utterly weird, also extremely sexy. Fine. Spike had a nice ass. Even Tara seemed to be somewhat transfixed by it.

So why --aside from her innate sense of decency -- did Willow's gaze keep slipping down the ice cream sundae to the legs that stretched out beneath it, slim muscular thighs giving way to firm calves, strong ankles, and -- Nononononono. Can't be. Uh-uh. No. No way. Willow stared at the feet that were showing at the very edge of the photo area, just above the white border and the date-stamp, as if whoever had taken it only had room to back up far enough away to get Spike's whole body in the shot, if he cut off the toes.

He. If he... Oh, come on. Come on, Willow. Come on, Willow. You know those sheets, you know that blanket, you know that beat up plaid mattress peeking out from under the blue tarp thing that you --thank god-- didn't know Xander keeps in his room, and will now have to spend the rest of your life trying to convince yourself you haven't seen. You know that tiny little cramped basement where there isn't room to take a decent picture even if there were enough light... Yes, she knew. But... You know damned well that if you stand up and take those boots off his feet and look inside, they'll say nine-and-a-half. Not that you need to know that, since it's Xander's bed, and Xander's pillows, and not Xander's feet, just like it wasn't Xander's foot the last time.

Not to mention that the date stamp was 6/29/00. This Thursday. Three days ago.

But... her mind continued to hammer at her. But Spike lives with him. He could've been using the bed when Xander wasn't home. But Xander was home. Who do you think took the picture? And you know he was home when you saw fishbelly-white-foot-guy in person, just before Xander chased you out the door with a panful of chocolate crispy treats and much babbling on both parts. You know, a little voice whispered in her mind. You knew when you saw him last night, and you put it away, because you were too busy staring at his ass, not to mention other naughty bits, to notice the little things. Little things like the fact that you saw a vampire sleeping in your best friend's bed.

As she handed the sundae picture to Tara without looking her in the eye -- anything not to have to open her mouth and say something -- Willow was almost afraid to look at the next one. Sundae being eaten? A bubble of laughter rose in her throat, but she choked it down, and flipped over the photo.

Polaroid. Date-stamp in the same place, but this one read 6/30/00. Same half-lit basement room, same bed. No tarp. Just Xander. In close-up. Looking at the camera. Willow closed her eyes. Breathed. Opened them again.

It wasn't that he was naked. He was, but there wasn't anything in this picture that you couldn't show on primetime TV. Nothing to make even the Willow who had drooled over him in high school go eep. Just a bare, tan shoulder, the length of an unclothed back fading into the dark background. Maybe the suggestion of the curve of a hip, but nothing you could prove in court. It wasn't that he was naked.

It was the look on his face. Chin propped on crossed arms. Tangled brown curls falling on his forehead, wide smile bared to the world. Un-self-conscious, maybe a little amused, but mostly just... happy. Like she'd been seeing little glimpses of all weekend, between the appearances of Xander's usual jester's mask and the scared little boy who peeped out from behind it.

In this picture, Xander didn't look like any kind of little boy -- he looked like a man. A man whose brown eyes stared steadily into the camera in a way that made Willow close her own eyes again.

She wondered if the man lying next to her, who wore size nine-and-a-half, or whatever the British equivalent was, Doc Martens, saw what she saw in that picture. She wondered how she'd manage to adapt the standard beat-you-to-death-with-a-shovel-if-you-hurt-him speech, to deal with a guy who was already dead. When he woke up. Assuming he woke up. She wondered if Xander was certifiably crazy, or if she was, and she was making the whole foot-size thing up in her head.

Willow opened her eyes and looked at the picture again, closely. Brought it to her face while Tara stood in front of her, still studying the sundae picture as if Spike's ass was the beginning and end of all that was weird in the world. It wasn't. Reflected in each of Xander's eyes, in the picture Willow held, was a tiny polaroid camera, floating in mid-air. Held by no-one. Held by Spike.

She laughed. She had to laugh. What else could she do but laugh? Xander the weirdness magnet. Xander the demon magnet. Xander the boy she'd been in love with back when she thought love was like those black and white pictures of a little boy in Dad's fedora, handing a red-tinted rose to a little girl in high heels and a floppy hat.

She glanced at Xander's crumpled fedora, still lying on the floor where Spike had stepped on it in the dark. The little things. Willow laughed again, and she couldn't stop, and she couldn't explain why, when Tara sat down next to her and put an arm around her, and said things would be all right. She wanted to explain, but she couldn't. She'd made a promise, after all. But that last little knot of tension, that Tara's fingers couldn't quite reach, faded away as Willow laughed.

A few minutes later, after she'd managed to start breathing normally again, and convinced Tara she was over her fit of hysteria, and slipped the stack of photos into her own pocket with the last one still unexamined, she punched-in Giles' number on the cell-phone. Still no answer. She'd touched the icky dead guy for nothing, the third-grade part of her mind informed her. Willow thought about laughing, but decided against it.





e Twilight Zone

Not too long ago, as reckoned by a vampire -- even one who can't decide exactly how old he is on any given night, depending on how cheesed off he is with his Sire -- Spike fell. Hard and fast and all those other romance novel cliches, for a sniping, infuriating, holier-than-thou loser whom he'd once detested -- and should still, if Spike were any kind of a decent evil bastard. That descent into madness, though, had ended in a roll on the basement floor and a mind-blowing fuck, and had left him with the unexpected gift of a warm, corruptible boy who licked chocolate peanut butter off Spike's face and snored in his ear.

Now, he was falling for Xander again. On the whole, if Spike could have concentrated enough to remember it, he would've preferred the first experience. This time, there wasn't any chocolate.

He plummeted, arms flailing, scrabbling for purchase on wet gray nothing that slid cold through his fingers, misted on his skin. Nothing to touch, nothing to see -- just endless twilight and wobbling imaginary shapes behind his eyes, that disappeared when he tried to focus on them. He could have been falling for seconds, or hours, or years, with nothing to pass the time there in the fog. He called something -- a name? His own or another? Or was it something else -- a question? Who, what, when, where, why... Even himself. They all flew from his lips. Gone. Sucked into the void.

He did remember...something. There had been fire. Fire and light and screaming, he remembered. He'd known that feeling, that pain that had screeched in his skull, but a thousand voices had shouted back at it. Not fair! Didn't do anything! Didn't hurt anyone! Just wanted to touch! Laughter, high and musical, familiar as the pain, though older -- then silence. No real answer, not that he'd expected one, but the electric torture had finally faded out, to be replaced by something even worse: nothing at all.

The emptiness, the silence, drowned out everything, even his own familiar mental gadflies. Couldn't hear himself think, couldn't think to wonder why. It terrified him, because it meant the smart-arsed little voices that lived in his mind had nothing to say to him, or they were gone entirely-- burned out of existence. Alone even inside himself... Jagged bolts of panic up and down his spine as he continued to fall. He almost welcomed the fear, because it gave him something to concentrate on.

Without warning, that fear was gone. No room for it in the space of shit! and whoosh and shudder as he hit bottom. Couldn't see, could barely feel, but he just knew he was spread out all over the ground -- smashed flat as a vampire pancake, and gooey with it, blood like chocolate syrup running out and away.

But he wasn't, he realized after a moment. Not pancake-smashed. Not smashed at all, except maybe cider-smashed, fourteen sheets to the wind as he scrambled to his feet and swayed. Saw nothing beyond the sudden swirling colors in front of his eyes, heard nothing beyond the ringing in his ears and the silence in his head, but he was still alive. Undead. Whatever. He would have kissed the ground if he had a clue where his lips were.

*****

Slap and splash of feet on wet pavement, and what a surprise-- Xander's running.

Damn, but he's good at this -- something to be proud of, yeah? Kept his ass alive on more than one occasion. Maybe even saved Buffy's, Willow's, when he's run to someone else for help, or for weapons, or to spread the word: "Badness on its way," so they could all deal with it together. He's not an athlete, could never be, can't pace himself, just runs until he falls -- but it's meant something in his life. More than just yeah, Harris is a pussy, like we didn't already know.

Not here, though.

This is the nightmare-place, which he dimly knows, and he's never saved anyone here, not even himself. This place is feet on road and heart in mouth, with the taste of stale vomit at the back of his throat. This is thinking he should stop and laugh, soon, at Miss Scary Thing 2000 and her dead-fish smile and her 'I think you'd better run now,' like she's the be-all-end-all compared to some of the shit that's chased him in the past. Yeah. He'll do that. 'Cause it's funny, right? He'll stop and laugh. Maybe a little later, like after he's dead. Then he'll have plenty of time.

This time could be different, though. He might get away, no matter that he never has before, on this road. He might find a place to hide. He's big now. He's a grown up. He's a man. No little pj-wearing boy-legs here-- they're long and strong, scattered with dark hair. And he really is good at this; he knows running, knows his feet and hands, knows lungs and stretch and sweat and how long he can go without doubling over and clutching his stomach and gagging on his own breath. Knows everything, so well that he can run with his eyes closed, lost in this rhythm of fear and flight.

Flee or fight? It's never been a question, not in this place -- but this time he might just be fast enough. He might win.

He knows he's lying, but he runs anyway, head down, wet hair flopping in his face. He doesn't need to see what's up ahead -- there's never anything new.

*****

Just when balance had returned to Spike, when he'd begun to sense rock beneath his feet, rain pattering on his skin, sentences beginning to form in his mind complete with subjects and predicates, it happened. Wham! Something slammed into him, hard, and he was swaying again.

It wasn't that falling, screaming terror of being alone, come back to get reacquainted -- this was real. Real as the ground, real as blood in his mouth, real as the echo of pain in his head. Something touched him, flesh to his flesh, and in that instant, everything changed.

Everything. Changed.

Everything... changes.

Warmth against him, behind him. Body. Muscle. Bones. Skin. Not alone, and there's a faint cheer from within his skull. Not alone inside, then, either. The other, the not-Spike, presses against him, hands scrabbling at his shoulders. Scratchy chin against the side of his neck. Wide chest at his back. Stomach, hips, thighs, hot and hard down the length of his body.

Hardness of more than muscle -- stiff, insistent cock slides in the rain-slick cleft of his naked buttocks.

Naked. He's naked. Like Adam with the fruit in his mouth, he knows it for the first time, and calls it good, echoing a first-father long cursed into memory. Naked. God. Skin against skin. Wet skin against his back, his arse, ticklish backs of his knees, and God, are you there, did you give this to me? This warm body against me, this breath on my neck? Warmer than anything in the cold rain. Sweet, familiar, strange and sharp. Is he mine?

Rapture. Someone once told him, years past believing, about the Rapture, and he had laughed, and scraped her mouth with his fangs, and said it was over, long over, and they were all that was left on the earth. She'd believed him, had whispered a bloody novena into his kiss, but he knew nothing, then. This. This is it, this warmth, this man, this the holy terror, and he could stand here forever, leaning back into this touch.

But there's no forever, there's only now. Panic -- sudden, fast, furious. Screaming fear and shame and cold air on his neck where there was warm, and none of it belongs to Spike. Sparks tzot-tzot the length of his spine again, goosebumps knobble his skin -- all from the outside. The other. He can feeltastesmell it pouring from whoever is pressed against him, naked skin shivering, shaking, building until he wants to scream, until he thinks that body will knock him over just to get him out of the way.

Instead, the world explodes. Or perhaps the world stays still, and he explodes. Flies apart, pieces of him shooting off like shrapnel -- then pulled back together. Sucked whole and solid into one quivering, thrumming body, no sign of the other one to be found. Lost in the dark? Pushed on past him? Gone, yet not, his skin still warm from the presence, and then...

He's running. Abrupt and awkward from a standing start, but fast as he can, fast as that body had been moving when it slammed into him. Running blind with something hard beneath his feet and big, cold raindrops splatting on his head and the scuff in his ears of soft-soled shoes on asphalt. No time to question why he's suddenly clothed; only time for running, mindless as a hunted fox.

Footfalls ring out behind him, louder than his own. Loud as thunder, loud as breaking bones or bootheels on stone, and it just now occurs to him why the one who hit him had run so fast.

It's coming...

Words and thought and the knowledge of his own name Spike, my name is Spike, once it was Will, but not now... return with the realization, but so does fear, and this time it's his own. Bad. Wrong. Worse than anything. Worse than a cold bed. Worse than falling. Worse than silence in his head. That silence is gone, anyway. A single mind-voice chants its counterpoint to the footfalls in the distance -- an endless litany of bugger and fuck and bloody sodding hell, gotta run, it's gonna touch me. If it touches me...

Spike runs, and behind him, something laughs. He almost thinks he knows it.

*****

BANG! Bang-thud-a-bang.

Tara sat up with a start, her heart thudding almost as loudly as the sound she'd heard. She realized with a flare of guilt that she'd fallen asleep, sitting in a chair by the sliding doors, watching the rain. Maybe it was thunder? Willow was still clacking away at the keyboard, so maybe she hadn't heard anything after all.

After Willow's weird little laughing jag, she'd returned to the computer with a vengeance. All of her nervous energy had faded away, leaving behind it a calm, focused drive to search for answers. The photos she'd found in Spike's jacket had disappeared into Willow's pocket with not another word spoken about them.

She has to have figured it out, Tara had thought, but she hadn't dared to break Willow's good mood by asking -- and it scarcely mattered, at the moment. Instead, she'd tried to help with the research -- but a few moments of watching those fingers fly over the keys was all it took for Tara to realize Willow was in her own groove. She'd called Wesley a few times on the cell-phone, early on, and asked Tara to run though the list of dream-related spells she knew, but after that, it was back to typing and clicking. Willow didn't need anybody hovering over her shoulder, no matter how politely she insisted that Tara wasn't a distraction, so Tara had taken a seat by the window, to wait.

The sky on the other side of the water-streaked glass had been gray as the thing that surrounded Xander, though far less disturbing. The rain had glowed a misty silver with the city lights behind it, and she'd thought absently how different it was from home. There, twilight would have been long gone, the house far enough from town that the dark just swallowed it up when the sun went down. The patter of the raindrops was the same, though, that old lullaby against her bedroom window, soft and low. Eventually her eyelids must have drooped as she watched and listened, as they were drooping again now.

Thud-bang-thud-thud-thud!

Tara blinked, and saw Willow jump in her seat. She hadn't imagined it -- somebody had knocked on the door, and now they were pounding. Willow must have been so into her rhythm that she hadn't heard it at all, the first time.

"I'll get it." As if she could make up for her dereliction of doing-nothing-helpful duty, Tara rose to her feet and hurried over to open the door.

In front of her stood two dripping-wet people and one dry one, with a folded umbrella over his wrist and a stack of books in his arms.

"What took you guys so long?" Cordelia pushed past Wesley, then Tara, without waiting for an answer, and walked directly over to Xander's bed, peering over the rolled wooden footboard at him.

"I was just gonna ask you that," Willow responded, standing up and stretching. "It's been forty-five minutes since I talked to you last. I was about to call again just to make sure you hadn't run off the road."

"Sorry," Wesley held up the pile of books as he walked in. "We had to stop at my place, as well as Cordelia's." Willow was across the room to take them from him in seconds. Tara ducked out of her way and into the bathroom to raid the towel rack. Wesley was still apologizing as she came out. "The traffic was horrendous, as well. People in Los Angeles drive like idiots, in the rain. It's a wonder more of them don't get killed on the freeway than in the alleyways."

"Especially when they let some people drive who have no concept of what the phrase 'Angel, for God's sake, pick a lane' means," Cordelia said, turning around to face them. Her tone was light, but her face was pale beneath the California tan, her eyes clouded. She accepted a towel from Tara with a distracted, "Thanks," and carefully wrung out her long hair into it. Then she flicked the wet ends in Angel's direction. "I mean, just because you could walk away from an intimate encounter with a Mack truck doesn't mean the rest of us wouldn't suffer from severe tire damage."

"He was...er...passing, Cordelia," Wesley said. He gave a worried look in Angel's direction, as if he didn't quite believe his own explanation.

"Uh-huh. That usually involves signaling. Or so the DMV guy said, the first three times I took the test. Ooh, for me too? Thanks again." Cordelia grabbed the second towel from Tara's hands, the one she'd meant for Angel, and wrapped her hair up in it. Then she moved to the chair where Tara had been sitting, and flopped down into it. "This...sucks. Why couldn't the Powers-That-Can't-Just-Send-An-E-Mail have bopped me with a vision? Preferably before Xander decided to sleep with the enemy? I wouldn't even have bitched about the headache, this time."

She was staring beseechingly at Angel, as if she thought he knew the answer, but Angel said nothing. He just stood there, water dripping from his leather jacket and the wilting brown spikes of his hair. Wesley had already bent over Willow's computer, studying the screen with great interest, but Angel stood silent in the middle of the room. Tara started to offer him a towel as well, but he shook his head. Not really at her, she realized a second later, but like he was just waking up. He walked over to Spike's bed, and gazed at the still, pale form with an intensity that she could feel, though she couldn't begin to guess what he was thinking.

Then a hand on Spike's arm, and she could have told Angel it wouldn't work. Neither would shaking Spike, or yelling his name, or shifting his own face into demon-mode, as liquid as the rain outside, and growling at him -- though Angel tried them all in the next few minutes. Everyone in the room turned to watch, when they heard the half-animal growl.

No reaction. No movement. The same as it had been for an hour and a half, now. Until Xander kicked at his covers again, and Spike's still-booted foot jerked in perfect synchrony. Angel started, bending closer to look at Spike's face, then over at Xander. It wasn't illumined in a flash of lightning, or anything so dramatic, but as Tara looked at the gold eyes, half hidden under the folds of his vampiric brow, she knew. He knew.

Then Angel straightened to his full height and turned fully around to face them, and something like lightning did spark in those yellow irises. Tara decided she definitely didn't want to be around if he ever did turn evil again. But the strange planes and furrows melted away, and his face looked more human than any of them, for a second. Confused, like he hadn't really believed anything Willow had told them on the phone, until he'd seen it himself, and now...

It was gone as quick as it came-- but there was that spark, again, in brown human eyes. He was suddenly all business, glancing back and forth between Willow and Wesley, who stood there with books in their hands, now.

"Are they in danger?"

"They might be," Wesley answered with a nod. "We can't be sure."

Angel nodded. "What do we do?"

"We...um..." Willow looked at Wesley, who nodded -- then she took a deep breath and looked back to Angel. "We wait."

*****

Spike's running.

It's not the running that's the problem. He's chased down hundreds of victims foolish enough to think they had a chance, that they could hide from something that sees in the dark -- that they could travel faster than the dead, and yes, the dead do travel fast, Mr. Stoker. They've been wrong, and he's been happy to prove them so. He's even chased Dru, games of tag in the forest or the jungle or down a windy London street, her laughter floating back to him mixed with snatches of nursery rhymes. 'Run, run, as fast as you can, can't catch me, I'm the gingerbread man...'

But this is different, because he's running from something-- only he doesn't know what. Just that if he slows down, it'll get him. If he looks back, it'll get him.

It's not right; William the Bloody doesn't run from anything, except demons at least five feet taller or three feet wider than him, or have more teeth than he can count in a single glance, or... He's got a list of rules, somewhere. Unwritten, like his lengthy essay on how to bollocks-up conquering the world in two easy steps, or his treatise on why a real man would never bleach his hair with anything that doesn't burn your nose hairs off when you sniff it. But the rules exist all the same, and nowhere do they say 'Run like your head's on fire and your arse is catching, from something you haven't even seen.'

So why can't he stop? He's back to himself; he knows his name and his current hair color and the fact that he once tried to justify using 'blancmange' as a rhyme for orange, when he was quite, quite drunk and writing limericks on a wall in Marseilles. The panic's still there, still burning his throat, but he can swallow it enough to think, so-- Why. Can't. He. Fucking. Stop.

Why are his legs pumping, feet splashing in puddles on the road, as he runs towards something in the distance, just slightly brighter than the gloom that surrounds him? He can finally hear, finally see, not that there 's bugger-all to hear or see but road and dark and that light in the distance.

It's not exactly safety, but it's something. It draws him, and he runs faster-- though not on purpose. His body just moves more quickly, jerking him along with it. Heart pounding, blood rushing through his veins, pulse echoing in his temples. Breath in short gasps, as if his lungs are conditioned to running from things, and...

Bloody hell. Lungs. He's breathing.

Spike's breathing. There's air. There's blood. Inside him. Pumping, not sitting still and doing its little magic vampire I'm-not-gonna-tell-you-how-I-keep-you-walking-and-talking thing. He'd stop still and stare at himself, if he could. But he can't make his legs stop moving, mouth stop holding that panic taste of copper and battery acid. He runs on towards the brightening light, because he can't stop running.

He can listen, though, to the alien beat of a pulse in his ears. Something he hasn't felt since he looked into Dru's round, mad eyes a hundred and twenty years ago in London, and saw them turn gold as she darted for his neck. He can feel that same pulse in his throat now, feel his chest rise and fall with the rhythm of his footfalls on the road.

Something's wrong with this. This isn't him. He's a vampire, and vampires don't breathe -- he's pretty sure it was in the manual. How? He can't concentrate on how. He can fight the streaks of pure fear that try to tell his mind not to think, to just run blind like his body, and he can conquer those, but it takes all he's got. No energy left for how.

The lights ahead glow brighter, and he can see outlines of a city, in the distance.

Nah, not really a city. Not like L.A. Not like London, not even the London of his youth. Just a town with delusions of grandeur. One main drag and a bunch of suburban neighborhoods clustered around the center, as if being close to the brightest lights can protect them from what walks down those streets at night-- or runs down them. The university off in the distance, and beyond it, the vineyards and the sea.

He can't see any of that, but he doesn't have to. He knows it. It's the shape in his head of the lights, the buildings. The battered and beaten metal sign looming out of the road ahead of him, that should have Rod bloody Serling standing behind it, telling him which way to turn, but instead it says 'Welcome to Sunnydale. ' Too bad he can't stop to run it over. Kick it down. Something. It's tradition.

Spike laughs as he runs past it, into the city, into the rain-misted lights and down empty, lonely Main Street. Laughs inside, since his body won't let him laugh for real. Laughs at the sign, laughs at himself. William the Formerly Bloody lives -- resides, rather -- in a town with a Main Street. In someone else's basement, with a warm human lover who no more belongs to Spike than the bed they sleep in or the cable they pirate.

He knows this much, just as he knows he shouldn't be here now, passing the Sun Cinema, dark and shuttered, the marquee as blank as his memory of where he should be, or how he got here. Spike laughs again, in his head, but it sounds hollow, and echoes too loudly in his skull. Or are the voices in his head laughing back at him? He feels his body shiver as he moves through the heart of town, the rain pouring down on him. Can still feel the terrifying pounding in his chest, his instincts telling him to wise up and ignore it, as if this stubborn body will let him. Need to look around -- check all the shadows.

Mustn't get complacent. Not safe just because it's familiar. How long ago did he learn that, at familiar hands? Familial hands. Not a human to be seen on the streets, like for once they all know something nasty's out and about. Much nastier than a pathetic crippled vampire who can't bite up anything worse than cartoon cereal. No hunting, no stalking, no riling up the townsfolk anymore, not for Spike -- and not smart enough to even lock himself in the basement and cower, like they're doing. No, he's out playing lamb to the slaughter, for something he can't even turn around to identify.

Wait! There! Someplace safe! his body screams at him. Run, thwap, rubber soles on asphalt, then on concrete, as he jogs up the sidewalk. Takes the front steps of the ruined Sunnydale High building two at a time, crosses the courtyard and he's standing, stopped, finally stopped, at the skewed front doors.

Safety? This is supposed to be safety? Running towards the Hellmouth? Body, what the hell are you thinking? Giggles in his mind, from the snarky little voices, and Spike thanks whatever gods look after insane demons that they haven't disappeared after all.

Still, he can't let them know he's actually glad to hear from them. Mind, what the hell are you thinkin'? We are vampire. We don't giggle. Especially hysterically. One of them snaps at him. We don't breathe, either, you thick-headed git. But he can't quite wrap his mind around what it's trying to tell him, or which one it is. Still-- whatever the thing that's chasing him is, it's out there, and it's not inside, which is reason enough to go in, as if he has a choice in the matter, when his body's already yanking on the doorhandles, and tumbling into chaos.

The doors slam shut behind him, and it's nothing like he expected. Brightly-lit hallway. Surrounded by laughter and shouts, swallowed up in a crowd of pushing, jostling bodies, moving along with them. Touch of warm shoulders and arms. Squeak of locker doors. Smell of students and teachers and chalk dust and teen spirit. Wrong, wrong, wrong, like all this has been wrong...

Not right-- these halls should be dark, burnt-out, should smell like fear and cordite and fried snake, which smells vaguely like chicken. Spike remembers this place -- dark and silent and the world was ending, and the sky had fallen on him, and somebody pulled him out from under it.

Now it's like that world's been turned on its head, and he's walking on that darkened sky, the earth above it bright and loud and teeming with life. The student-body is an animal unto itself, writhing its way through the halls, sweeping Spike along with it. An electric bell rings, somewhere in the ceiling.

"Hurry, we'll be late!" comes a young girl's voice from somewhere in the melee. It's familiar. Willow? He tries to shout for her, shout 'Red?' but nothing comes from his lips.

The crowd-snake thins out as it undulates further down the corridor, until it's only his own uncontrollable body that's pulling Spike along. There, at the junction of the next hall, a classroom door. Slightly ajar, and he hears the girl's voice raised in laughter, within. His body moves toward it, and the fear-shivers calm, just a bit.

Before he can get there, though, a flash of silver. Dark blur out of the corner of his eye, and Spike's feet stop moving. If he could control himself, he'd be frozen by what he thinks he saw, but can't have -- as it is, his head turns towards the wall of its own accord.

To see the hallway and its contents reflected in the scratched-up depths of a full-length mirror.

Reflected. He stares at it, transfixed by the image before him. It blinks when his eyes decide to close and open. Runs a hand through sweaty rain-drenched hair as he feels his own hand making the same motion. Straightens his button-up shirt. But it isn't him.

Dark eyes, big enough to suck him into the mirror, muddled with uncertainty. Dark hair, long and falling in his face, water dripping down his skin. Blue and green print shirt, the collar open a few buttons down to show the tanned throat beneath. Stubborn chin above it, and thin lips twitch nervously, though they look full enough when he pouts or frowns or sucks on his own finger-- or someone else's cock. Not that he's doing any of those things, but Spike has seen them all before.

Just never echoing Spike's own motions in a silvered surface that he's never expected to get any use out of, ever again. But then, it isn't him.

Spike studies himself in the mirror. Not himself. Xander. Xander in the mirror.

Not even the Xander he knows, not quite. Something wrong with the body before him; tall enough, but too slender. The hair too long in the wrong places, the paisley print shirt an older sort of loud than the tropical ones the boy wears now. The brown reflected eyes are soft and huge, like somebody's just let him know Bambi's mum doesn't make it to the end of the flick. And there's something else...

There, on his forehead, where the sweat-damp hair is sticking. Something written there, stamped red on his skin. It tickles Spike's memory even as his hand -- Xander's hand? -- reaches up to rub at the letters.

V-I-C-T-I-M ...

Xander in the mirror frowns back at him, when his scrubbing motions do nothing but make them stand out more. Red letters against pale skin, still wet from the rain, or from the sweat dripping down from his long bangs. "I'm not..." Spike hears, as Xander tries to comb that fringe of hair down to hide the marks. The lips in the mirror move. Spike's lips move -- but the voice is Xander's. It cracks on the last word.

What is this? Which of us am I? Is this the Red King's dream, or mine? And all of a sudden, as a soft nineteenth-century voice starts misquoting Alice at him, he knows. This isn't real, though it's real as anything, at the same time. The working lungs, the beating heart, the uncontrollable limbs -- it makes a lunatic sense. It's a nightmare. He's dreaming he's sharing Xander's body, like the hero of too many bad B-grade sci-fi movies -- or one of old Rod's little half-hour monochrome mind-fucks. He's trapped inside his lover, who can't even hear him trying to shout. Be a good flick, if he were curled up with Xander watching it, bowl of M&M's on the armrest between them -- but he's not.

If he's dreaming, he should be able to wake up, yeah? He tries. Thinks really hard at the mirror. My name is Spike. I'm dead, but still kicking. My hair's peroxide-blond, I've got cheekbones to die for, and I'd sell my left tit for a good hot fudge sundae. I'm dreaming, and I want to wake up.

Nothing, except Xander looking back at him, young and scared and far too edible. Hot fudge indeed. Needs to find a vampire to protect him. Be the only one to eat him up. He can't tell what part of him is thinking it. Which voice. The demon, the man, the peanut gallery. Such a little boy, in this big scary world.

"I'm not," Xander's voice says again with Spike's throat, with Spike's tongue, and Spike thinks, Not what? Edible? Oh, yes, believe me, you are. But Xander shakes his head, brushing his brow with his fingers, frowning.

"You should leave the narcissism to those who possess something worth studying in a mirror, Mr. Harris. Don't you have a class to get to?"

A little dash of panic again, because the body knows this voice. Spike finds himself spinning around to face...a bald head bobbing a few inches under his nose. It's a troll, he thinks at first. Not like Heimarr, the towering Norse buffoon he met in that bar in Copenhagen -- but an honest to god Three Billy Goats Gruff troll, the tiny sort that hides under bridges and snaps you up, snip snap snuff, with its sharp little teeth. A troll in a suit.

"Don't you have a tombstone you're supposed to be rotting under, Snyder?" he hears, feels Xander say, defensively brave.

Snyder... I know that name... Snyder... Xander's voice in his memory: 'I should introduce you to Principal Snyder.' Night air rushing past them on the way to Giles's flat to play Quiz-Kids and eat pizza with the Scooby Gang, Spike concentrating on keeping his demon and its territorial rage in check, barely hearing his lover try to make conversation. 'No, wait, he's dead. But then, so are you. You could do lunch and discuss my dreary home-life...'

The little man snorts. "Somebody's gotta keep things in order around here. It's not as if he could handle it."

He points down the hall. Another man, taller, stout, stands next to a row of lockers, playing with a strange yellowish dog-creature that jumps up energetically to lick his nose.

"He says it followed him to school. There are rules about that. Rules!"

The tall man pats the laughing dog-thing on the head; laughs along with it. "Down boy! That's a good doggie..."

It rips his head off. In one gulp. Spike's impressed. The blood fountains from the man's carotid artery, spattering the floor. Strangely, it doesn't make Spike hungry, in his dream of Xander's body, of what Xander would be thinking; he just finds it aesthetically pretty.

"See!" Snyder says. "That's what tolerance and understanding get you. It's no way to run a school. Now I'll have to get a custodian to come clean that up, and you can never find one when you need one..."

The laughing thing turns its face towards them, and Spike can see what it is. Not dog at all, but round-headed hyena, gold eyes flashing above a grinning, blood-drenched muzzle. 'I ate a pig once,' Xander confesses in Spike's memory. 'I was kind of possessed...' It laughs, in bubbling silver circles, faster and faster. He knows this laughter.

Spike blinks at the bulky, headless form that still stands somewhat forlornly in the hallway. Blinks again when Xander's voice says, "I didn't do it. I wasn't there. I never bit anybody's head off." He sounds like he's apologizing for something, all the same. The hyena still laughs.

The large man's body stumbles around for a bit, then drunkenly weaves its way down the hallway and out of sight, still trailing blood. The hyena turns around fully, apparently finished with that meal -- but it's licking its lips. Looking hungrily at Spike and the strange, short man, who gives a knowing look.

"You didn't do it, Harris?" He laughs, short, sharp, nothing like the crazy looping laughter of the hyena. "No, you weren't there, were you. Not your fault. Never your fault. You're just the whipping-boy."

"I'm not. You don't know me." Spike feels the surge of anger before it reaches Xander's voice. "You don't have any idea what I am."

"Don't I?" Flash of an image in front of Spike's eyes, almost too fast to focus on -- the faded blue of Xander's light summer blanket. Not like his own memories -- more like what he'd felt at Woodstock, second-hand acid-trip coursing through his veins. Barrage of sound, feeling, smell, all packed up into a second's worth of experience. Scent of fabric softener. Cramp in crabbed hands clutching the blanket. Denim under his naked stomach and a hard bulge against his side, his own as hard and hot beneath him. Cool air over his bare arse and a rush and SMACK and he's back in the hallway staring at the sneering, balding stranger. "Whipping-boy."

"It's not the same." Spike's head shakes from side to side, but he can't tell from the voice if Xander believes what he's saying. If he, Spike, that is, believes what... Whatever. Personal pronouns make no sense, so he discards the need to worry about them.

Especially with worse things to worry about -- the hyena gives a strange snarl, as if it, too, is unsure, then the sound changes. Of all the noises in the world, Spike can recognize that growl. The body is frozen, Xander's mouth uncharacteristically still.

Run, dammit, boy. You're bloody good at it when you have to be, dragged me along just fine on the way here, so do it now! This animal isn't what's been chasing them -- Spike can tell that, though he still has no idea what it was -- but that doesn't make it any less deadly. And he knows it's a dream, but... But if he can't wake up and it eats him-them-him, is he any less dead?

"Um... I think I have a class to get to..." Xander babbles abruptly, taking the body a step towards the classroom door. There's a sudden, bone-crushing grip on his/their upper arm.

"How fast do you think you can run, whipping-boy?" the little man asks. "Faster than that?" He points at the laughing animal, whose mouth opens to reveal rows and rows of sharp, white teeth. Too many. Spike's eyes, Xander's eyes, flick to the classroom door again.

"I don't have to run faster than that," Xander whispers.

Eyes close against his will, and Spike's trapped in darkness for a too-long moment, before the second rush of images comes. Running again. Running, running, through a cemetery, an arm heavy over his shoulder, someone's hand reaching around the body between them to clasp his free one as they all three run. Then... The weight gone, the hand in his, small, warm, still there, but nothing between them, and the sound of snarling in the night.

It's gone. His eyes open, and he swallows hard. "I don't have to run faster than the monster," Xander says. "I just have to run faster than you."

Snyder frowns, but his grip loosens, dissolves into mist. Spike's hand goes right through him as the body takes off running for the door at the end of the hall, the one with the frosted-glass window. The hyena's laughter echoes behind him, but he doesn't look back. He can't look back, because Xander chooses not to.

"Harris, you can't keep running forever!" Snyder calls after him over the chortling hyena, and something that sounds like the crunching of tiny troll-bones.

"Can too," Xander mutters as they slip in the back door to the classroom. "Can too, can too..."

The door shuts silently behind him, and the body crouches down. Walks, silly, like a duck, hiding below the level of the other students' heads. There are giggles. Someone hums "Be Kind To Your Web-Footed Friends."

It's insane. Insane to be trapped in some parody of Xander's body, that speaks to strange little Ferengi-like men in the hallway in Xander's voice, and runs from slavering hyenas with Xander's legs. Sneaks into Xander's classroom so the teacher won't catch them coming in late. Spike is already losing the clarity that he'd had moments ago. Forgetting that it's a dream. It's just him, in Xander's body, sharing this space. Trying to get to a seat, somewhere up ahead, without anyone grassing him out.

"Hey Harris -- walkin' kinda funny there. Rough night in the old basement? I think they sell a cream for that somewhere..."

His head whips around -- to shush the braying voice, hopefully -- but Spike feels his throat gulp at the sight of the large youth slumped lazily in the desk he's just passed. A sort of man-mountain-thing, with three cheerleaders draped over him, giggling and cooing. He's seen the kid before, somewhere. A photo. Pic of Xander and Jonathan the supertwerp, and this one, all decked out with weapons for the graduation party. But...

Spike and languages -- spoken, whispered -- gestured. Body language. Always good to know what's likely to get you beat senseless if you chat up the wrong sort of twelve foot demon because your bird fancies a threesome. A little faerie that whispers in your ear, Dru says. Gaydar, the humans call it. Spike thinks it's funny, since half the ones who say they have it couldn't tell if their own mother was bent or not.

This one makes Spike's little shoulder-faerie sing the Hallelujah Chorus. So why as many birds hanging off him as a hyena has fleas?

The hulking football player winks and leans down to look Spike in the eye. "Gotta maintain the image, bud. Got another two years before I get to come out." Then he sits back up and whispers something in one cheerleader's ear. Tinkerbell hand-waving motions in Spike/Xander's direction. She titters appreciatively.

"Don't listen to him," a familiar voice says softly. He looks up to see Tara, in a desk near the front of the room, motioning him up. "He's just here to confuse you."

Isn't everyone? Willow, sitting in front of her, is young -- far too young, hair down to her waist, parted in the middle. Tara shouldn't know her like that. Spike shouldn't know her like that, except for rifled photos in Xander's shoeboxes. The room is full of students, some Spike recognizes -- at least one he's positive he ate on parent-teacher night. They're chattering, tittering. They all seem to be laughing at him. The body moves on, though, stealth-crawling up the aisle towards her.

Tara's brushing Willow's hair, Long strokes, from the top of her head to the tip of the burnt auburn length. She motions him to sit across from her, and the body -- Xander -- complies. The seat ahead of Willow is empty, but a large piece of notebook paper has the word "SAVED" scrawled across it, and lies on the desk.

In front of Spike, of course, is the Slayer. She turns around and waves.

Willow chatters excitedly to Tara, occasionally glancing at him. " ... I threw holy water at one of them. And it worked, even though I'm Jewish-- I wonder what that's about? And then Buffy threw this cymbal at this one who had Xander and crash-bang! Poof! Slayer one, vampire none! You should've been there. Well, not really, cause, y'know, terrifying, but still..."

Spike feels himself tap Willow on the elbow. "Hey, Wills, I thought Library Guy was all about us not telling people Buffy's the Slayer." Xander's voice in his mouth. Still strange, and suddenly strange again, to be speaking to Red with it. As strange as Xander's name once felt on his tongue, back when it was all 'droopy boy' and 'donut lad.' Spike feels, hears it again: "Oops. Guess maybe I said that a little too loud myself, there."

She looks over at him and smiles. "No, it's okay. This is Tara. She's my girlfriend. She knows all about this stuff. Tara, this is Xander."

His eyes blink. His mouth speaks. "Your girlfriend ? But...um... what about me? I mean, what about Oz?"

Willow shakes her head at him, still smiling. "Oh, I've decided to give up on men -- they're too hairy. But boys are fine -- I'm gonna concentrate all my efforts on being a mom. Tara's gonna help me -- we've got a kitten together, and everything. We're getting married next week, and then we're gonna adopt you."

"Excuse me?" Spike feels himself frown. "I'm not a boy." Willow looks at him gently. "I'm not! Anyway, how are you gonna study for your PSAT's, if you adopt me and have to spend all your time ironing my clothes so they don't get all wrinkly from being out in the rain?"

"No problem. Tara knows this great spell. Works even better than irony. I mean ironing." Willow tilts her head and looks at his face. "See, he needs a mom, Tara. He's got something all over his forehead." She reaches into her knapsack and pulls out a tissue. Spits on it, and rubs it across Spike's brow. Xander squirms.

"It won't come off -- I tried."

"No, it's all gone, really, Xander," Buffy chirrups. Her nose wrinkles, then twitches, then starts to grow longer. Just a little bit. Almost enough to make it a real nose.

Xander's hand rubs Spike's forehead. "You don't have to lie to me, Buff. I know it's still there."

"Xander, it's gone -- honestly." Willow calls across the room, and Spike's eyes follow, so he can see someone he hadn't, before. Harmony, sitting in a desk by the window, putting on lipstick. The shades are pulled down, the whole length of the classroom, the only light coming from the overhead florescents. "Hey, Harmony, let me borrow that mirror, please."

"Excuse me? I think not -- you let your boyfriend be mean to me." Harmony snaps the compact shut, but holds it in her hand. Pouting. Spike knows that pout -- he's slapped it off her face a dozen times, and she's come back for more. But she's a child, now. Model's face rounded with baby fat.

"Hey, I dumped him, didn't I? And it's not like you need it anyway. You can't see yourself in it."

Harmony huffs and tosses that long blonde hair back over her shoulder. "I can pretend. I've gotta look good for my date tonight -- my boyfriend's taking me to France."

Spike has his doubts about that one. Willow does too, apparently. "On a school night?" She sounds older. Stronger. The Red he knows, though her face is still young and pale and nervous. "I bet you don't even have a boyfriend. Just give me the mirror, already."

"I do too. He goes to another school. You wouldn't know him." Harmony grimaces, but tosses the compact at Willow, who opens it and shows Spike his reflection. Xander's reflection. Same bruised dark eyes. Same suspicious frown.

Nothing written on his forehead, though he saw the word as plain as day, in the mirror in the hall.

"See? Mom-spit gets everything off."

You're not his mother. He has a mother. Though he might be better off with you, come to it.

She reaches into her purse and hands him a Hershey Bar. "Here -- eat this. Chocolate always makes you feel better."

Xander doesn't take the chocolate bar. "No. Um. No, thanks. Not always." Fingers rub at Spike's forehead. He can feel the word, still there, still burning on his skin. What's it mean? Whose victim? Not Spike's.

"I'm not ! Dammit, I'm not! Why can't he see?" He can hear Xander's voice saying it, but his own lips don't move. His own throat doesn't buzz. The sound just hangs in the air.

Spike tries to frown, though the body is already doing so. Why couldn't who see? Blind as a bat, you are, his mind-voices taunt. Wonder whatever happened to those spectacles you won't admit you ever wore?

There's a cough from the front of the room, and Buffy tugs on his sleeve.

"Keep it down, Xander. You want big-ears to hear us from the library and make us go fight things? I just wanna be a kid, today." She's suddenly dressed in teen-sized Osh-Kosh B'Gosh overalls, fluffy hair in two pigtails. "I don't like to kill things."

"Not like some people..." Spike hears a voice say softly in his ear. Not Xander's, but familiar. So familiar. No one seems to hear it but him. Is he losing it, more than usual? His eyes flick left and right, as if his body has the same idea. "Paranoid. You are crazy, Xander..." the voice whispers at him. "Just as crazy as Dru."

And what's wrong with that? Crazy's good, crazy's fine. Crazy's... Wonderful, when you're not cradling him in your arms and hoping you've not lost him... Shut up. Shut up. Sod off.

"I'm not." Xander says again.

"You know, if you keep talking English, the teacher's gonna yell at you," Buffy tells him. Pokes him on the arm. "You have to speak French. Like me. Veuillez permettre aux poissons de continuer de danser. Je suis très attiré à lui."

Something about a fish? The teacher would rather they talked about waltzing fish? A glance from the Xander-body around Buffy at the person sitting up front. A smooth dark head of hair, bent over a book.

Then she looks up. "Oui, Buffy. Tres bon." Sparkling insect eyes, and waving antennae. Her head descends again.

Spike's Xander-head bends low, whispering. "She's not the French teacher. She's the biology teacher!"

"She's subbing. And her name is French. Work with me, here." Buffy rolls her eyes, and turns to Willow. "So... do you think he'll be here? He's always late." Only she says it in questionable French: "Le pensez-vous serez-vous ici? Il est toujours en retard."

"I don't know -- he had a big night on Friday, what with the staking and all. But I can't believe he wouldn't show up today. I mean, it's all anybody's talking about!"

"Who's he ?" Xander asks with Spike's mouth. "And I am not a retard."

Tara frowns. "What do you mean, who's he?"

Harmony laughs from her seat by the window. "Everybody knows who he is. What are you, new?"

"He's only the coolest guy in the school," Cordelia says. She sits across the aisle, on the other side of Willow, and snatches Harmony's mirror away. "Which would explain why you don't know him, of course." Two tiny red dots on her neck, and Xander blinks when Spike would have. Recognizing them for what they are, though neater than most would be. She accentuates them with a skinny lip pencil, until they're huge, though still perfectly round. "There -- now everybody can see the hickey he gave me on Friday."

"Oh, as if he's even interested in you," Buffy tosses her ponytails. "He walked me home on Friday night, after the Harvest."

Harvest. The word rings a strange tingling bell in Spike's head. Nothing he's ever associated with Sunnydale, specifically. Something old. Angelus, blathering on about his grandsire. Some half-crocked prophecy that had Darla running home to the Master for three years to help research, and in the end, slinking back to them. Tossing her hair the same way Buffy had just done, saying he was off his nut and she'd much rather travel to places with clean sheets and a decent skyline.

"But who is he?" Xander's voice, Spike's mouth.

"You know him, Xander. We talk about him all the time. He's our best friend in the world. Besides you, of course," Tara says. "Don't you remember?"

"But I really don't..."

"Maybe you're crazy..." the whisper that no one hears. "Maybe you forgot him. Can't be that everybody else did. Has to be you."

Spike looks at the empty seat, because his head turns that way. 'SAVED.' For who? He'd never heard of any best friend of Xander's, besides Willow and the Slayer. No accounting for taste there.

"Shh..." Willow says to Tara. "Xander's got...problems. We don't... Ohmigod, there he is!" She squeals and points to the front door of the classroom, just to the left of the bug-teacher's desk.

A tall shadow outside it. The body blinks. Spike can feel his heartbeat get faster. "No," Xander whispers. "Dammit, you can't come here. Buffy's here."

Whatever it is, Spike's suddenly shaking in his seat. Something bad. Something he doesn't want to see. Something that makes him want to run, now, but he's petrified by Xander's immobility.

And there's a knock.

"Oui, je sais que vous êtes là." The teacher answers without looking up from her book. "You're late. Do you require an engraved invitation?"

"Well, kinda, yeah..." A young male voice, nothing special about it.

"No-- don't let him in!" Xander jumps up from his desk. Spike can feel the tension singing in his too-tall, not-quite-balanced-right body.

"Xander, what's wrong with you? He's your friend! You go bowling with him, remember? Xander?" Willow pulls at him, but Xander is standing. Backing away from the door. Looking at Buffy, who's grown smaller and smaller, until she is a child, in her blue overalls.

"You can't let him in."

"En français, Xander."

"I don't know the French. But you can't let him in!"

"But she doesn't have to." The whisperer is back. High and almost whining. Silver. Rainy, like the rain he can hear pounding on the shaded windows. "You'll let him in yourself. You always do."

"No," Xander whispers back. Spike's throat muscles clench. Teeth grind, then bite at his lips. "No." But it comes. Pouring forward from his mouth, like everything in him is being sucked out, in this one sound. Spike knows that feeling, knows the loss and the weakness and the letting go.

"Come..."

No.

"In."

The lights go out.





f Dark Places

It's dark. Pitch cold black dark. No sound of rain on glass, no graysilver twilight. Just dark. He's alone, as you can only be in the dark, no matter who's around you. No matter what's around you. Don't move -- it'll hear you. Don't breathe, don't... don't just stand there, dipshit. Gotta run. Gotta hide.

When they'd done nuclear attack drills in school-- and even the most stick-up-the-ass teachers couldn't hide a cynical eye-roll at this -- they'd been told to sit in their desks, and put their arms over their heads, just like for an earthquake. Don't look, because you might be staring at the explosion, and go blind. Forget that the school would go up in flames, that if they were close enough to be blinded by a modern nuke, they'd be ashes anyway. Just don't look. That'll save you.

He knew it was ridiculous even then, though now there's a faint echo of laughter in his head, from the professional grunt who told him where to place the charges for maximum effect when he blew the place up himself. Still, it's a foxhole, sort of. A way to pretend. He slips into a desk, quiet as he can, and hides, with his eyes closed and his arms over his ears. I can't see you, I can't see you, I can't see you...

*****

Spike used to be afraid of the dark. Once. Back when he was human and frail and small and all he had to fight off the bad things that lived in it were a worn stuffed lamb to clutch and the bedclothes pulled tight over his head.

He hasn't been afraid of the dark for a long time. Time came when he got too old for hiding under the covers, and if he still feared walking home alone at night... Well, he didn't have to say so, and later, he became one of those bad things, himself.

Still, Spike wouldn't curse a candle right about now, no matter that no mostly-sane vampire cares much for fire. Torch, flare, access to a light-switch; he's not picky. Spike waves his hands around him, feeling for a desk, a chair, a door. Anything. Anyone.

Nothing. No one.

"Xander?"

It comes out in his own voice. Unsure, rusty with being held inside another throat for...however long it's been, but his voice. Spike's voice. Spike's accent, Spike's word. His. Spike's mouth.

And everything changes again.

Spike was free. His hands belonged to him again -- he could move them around, not that he could see them, but he could feel the expected swoosh of air. He could hum, and laugh, and listen to the bitter echo in the darkness that stretched out around him.

Bitter, because he was free, and only in his freedom, did he realize he was alone. Xander hadn't answered. Xander, his bizarre dream of Xander's voice and hands and reflection, wasn't there.

His body felt the chill, with no blood to warm it. The silence was deeper, with no sound of breathing in his ears, no cracking tenor voice in his mouth, only his own. "God, I could use a smoke." He laughed again, at the sound. "Or a light. I'd settle for a light."

It glowed in front of him, orange in the black.

"And the morning and the evening were the first day..." Spike muttered as he walked towards it. Deja-vu, cept it can't be Sunnydale, unless they've set the place on fire. That thought warmed him a little. Couldn't tell how far away it was, except that it got bigger, after a while. Brighter. A pillar of flame, rising up, too bright to stare directly at for long, yet lending no light to its surroundings -- or there was just nothing else there for it to light up.

As he walked, he thought he heard things, familiar voices floating around in the darkness.

"Here. Drink this. And stop it." Sharp, female, his Sire's little cheerleader with the take-no-shit crossbow in his face.

"Stop what?"

"Brooding."

"I'm not..."

"Right, you're not brooding. You're sitting there -- on top of a bag of M&M's, by the way, just thought I'd let you know, so you're not surprised when you stand up and have chocolate all over your ass -- thinking, 'God, he looks so helpless lying there, and it's all my fault, my kid and his buddy got attacked by a monster, and the world's gonna end and Gucci is gonna discontinue the padded loafer, all because I was smooching Wesley behind a potted plant, for lo, I am Angel, and I am responsible for all. But you're not brooding."

"Well, not the Gucci part." A crinkle of something, and faint, faint smell of chocolate. "Um, you... potted plant?"

"Boston fern. Drink your blood. I promise not to tell the Powers That Be that you were playing tongue-twister with Wes, if you promise to inform me before you do anything really stupid, so I can at least call Willow and have her wait outside the door with the Ritual of Restoration handy. And if you promise to stop brooding."

"I'm not brooding. I just...don't like waiting."

"Willow says..." The voices faded away, as Spike walked closer to the fire. He shook them off, like the memory of rain on his hair. They seemed unnatural, had no place here in the dark. A dream of something happening to someone else.

He couldn't be sure how long he walked, except that the light grew bigger and impossibly brighter -- but at last he stood in front of the fire, and looked. Had to look, though what he saw made him wish he'd stayed in the dark.

It was a pyre. A stake in flames. Virgin tied like Joan of Arc at the center, writhing in her bonds, dressed in white, and screaming soundlessly. Except she wasn't Joan. Wasn't a virgin of any color, not since Spike had still been young enough to hide beneath the blankets.

It was Dru, tall and proud in the red-orange glare, for all her body squirmed. The flames lifted her hair, air currents twisting the curls serpentine around her face, covering wide-open eyes. Red lips open too, calling someone's name. Not his. It might have been Father, it might have been Daddy, but it wasn't Spike. It wasn't even William.

He almost reached, anyway. Almost walked into the fire for her. He'd done it before, and he would, he still would, after all of it, if he had to. But...

No mostly-sane vampire cares much for fire. It burns dead flesh faster, can bring the true death of ashes and emptiness, in seconds, leaving nothing. You'd have to be crazy not to fear it, not to scream and run, not to beg for help. You'd have to be crazy, to laugh as the flames caressed your skin.

He'd seen her do just that in Prague, though. Scream and laugh at the same time, sing as the orange tongues of fire flicked across her wrists, climbed her dress and darted for her hair. The figure on the pyre smiled, now, too late, but it was wrong, and he knew.

It slammed back into his head with startling clarity. Where he was. What was happening. Too clear, like he still had cider in his mouth, pisswater though Dru's brand might be. A drunk's clarity, where everything made sense. "S'a good likeness," Spike said loudly, his voice not catching at all, and why would it, since muscles don't get dusty from disuse, in dreams. "But you don't know her as well as I do. Don't have the smile down. Too many teeth."

The fire blazed brighter for a second, sparks whirling up and around like demented fireflies; then it shrank back down, and down, and down.

She stood across from him, flames vanishing, sucked into her skin. His once and no longer princess, tangled waves of hair draped around her shoulders, white frock not even singed. She shone in her own little circle, something sickly and red, that, like the pyre, gave no light to her surroundings, no light to him. He knew who it was, should have recognized that smile no matter what face she hid behind.

"The dreamer's thoughts give me shape within, unless I choose otherwise," Reikoku said gently -- with Drusilla's mouth, Drusilla's voice. "You called for the light; you gave me her face."

He stared at her, frankly studying his own memory of Dru, and thought she was only partly right. His girl had never stood like that, never quite so mock-humble, as if she was just about to bow. "Haven't had that dream in years," he muttered. Not even after Prague, when it had really happened. He hadn't dreamt of Dru on fire since... He couldn't remember.

"Because I took it from you, long ago, as a favour to her. Only you would manage to call it back, pull it out of my memory, looking for something to frighten yourself with. Baka." The Japanese insult sounded funny in Dru's accent, but he couldn't be sure he'd never heard her say it; she'd liked to play with language, roll foreign words around on her tongue, then forget their meaning five minutes later. Whereas that shit stuck around in his head forever. Baka. Idiot. Fool.

"S'pose I am." Spike nodded, memories, thoughts, falling into place within his head, like he'd finally shaken them into a pattern he could recognize. He almost felt awake. Logical. Drunk-logic, though -- he could tell there was something he was missing, but couldn't see it. "Been you all along, has it?"

She jerked her head once, loose brown curls tumbling around Dru's thin face. "Not as you mean it, no."

"Rei." The laughing voice in his, in Xander's ear. The familiar titter of the hyena, with rings of shark teeth in its wide-open maw. Course it was her. Should've known it the minute I sussed I was dreaming. "Game's over. Bugger off. You've had your fun."

He was still startled that he could speak, and so easily, untouched by the ever-present fear that had accompanied him while he'd dreamed himself in Xander's body. So startled that when she lifted one hand to her mouth, he was stilled by it. So elegant. So beautifully oriental, even in Dru's tall, thin, European form. So much older than him, such a different sort of death she was. He was almost as mesmerized as he'd been by Drusilla's eyes, once.

"It isn't me, Suppaiku. Not really." A half-hidden chuckle, still, in her voice. She'd always been so amused by him, laughing secretly at something he'd never understand. "I am just... how did you once describe the war, to me? It's a banquet, Spike, and no one pays attention if you're dressed like the hired help." Her hand took in the dark around her, one swift motion. "I'm just here for the table leavings. I barely had to stir the pot."

"Sod the cryptic Betty Crocker metaphors, Reikoku." His fascination broke. Some part of him had suddenly had it up the here with inscrutable oriental cobbleshite. Call it lack of patience, call it just being Spike. He wasn't getting any younger, and he had things to do. What they were escaped him, but he was pretty sure he had things to do. "Just get out of my head. Kitchen's closed."

She smiled, flashing those extra rows of teeth in Dru's mouth. Shook her head again. "You don't understand, do you. Is it because you're a man? It can't be inherent in vampires; Drusilla was never this much of a fool. But your little boy, the one you say is nothing -- he is. Baka, just like you, down to the stubborn insistence that he can run and run forever, fast enough to escape the monsters that come in by his own invitation." She spoke slowly and clearly, as to a child. "This isn't your head."

He couldn't make sense of it -- had reached the end of his drunken wisdom, and could only stare at her. Rei-Dru sighed, and her sickly red outline flared.

"Do you understand now?" She grew taller, wider, morphed as fast as Dru herself could switch from human face to monster, but it wasn't catlike golden eyes that stared at him. Dark hair shortened, gray eyes darkened to liquid brown, and Spike saw before him what he'd seen in the mirror. Young, vulnerable, frightened. Xander.

He could hear an echo, somewhere on the other side of the darkness -- closer than last time. Angel's voice. It was Angel's voice, had been before. When did he get here? "I'll kill him. Have I mentioned that? Knock his brains out on the floor and make him lick up the mess, set his hair on fire, stick his eyeballs on a toasting fork and hold 'em over the flames til they pop, then rip out his spine and use it for a really short bookrack."

Hell, that was almost sweet. Sentimental old bastard. Part of Spike was distracted, a part that had craved that voice, saying those things to him, or the like, for several human lifetimes.

But before him, he saw what he'd been missing, all through this long walk in the dark, and not even his Sire's words could stop him from running to Xander.

"Yes, you've mentioned," Cordelia's voice. "And eww. If I didn't know that's your way of showing you're worried about Spike, I'd --- Angel!"

Spike felt himself grabbed from behind. Invisible arms held him tight, kept him from Xander. "Let me go!"

"Spike, are you... He's still asleep. Willow!" Angel's voice, so close, at his ear, now.

"Tara, do you have the stuff ready?" Red. Hell, who invited them all into his dream?

"Everything's here; we had it all in the bag anyway. I don't know if it'll work, though, Willow. I've never used this spell to wake someone up -- just to make them stay aware when they fall asleep."

"If it doesn't work, we wait some more. If it does, at least Spike'll be awake -- and maybe he can tell us what's happening with Xander. Angel, are you--"

"I'm ready."

"Let. Go. Of. Me." Spike growled, straining to reach the Xander who stood in front of him, one hand reaching up to cover his mouth, which wasn't like Xander at all.

"Let it happen, Spike. Go to them," Xander said. Rei? Spike's mind was getting fuzzier -- arms holding him back, voices in his ears of people who weren't there. "You'll only confuse him, if you stay. It's almost over, anyway. Just go."

Flash. Scent, stronger than anything. Strongest of senses for a vampire, and this smell... Copper and salt and rich and red and sweet, so unbelievably sweet. The first in the world, in his world, was Dru's, but this was older, stronger because the first time he'd accepted it, he'd had a choice. Male and known, completely known, in the dark, in a crowd, anywhere. Held in front of his nose and FLASH.

Eyes half open in too-bright light, fangs breaking free, Angel's face leaning over his shoulder, strong arms around him from behind. Spikecanyouhearme.

And a wrist, at his mouth. Single red pomegranate seed hovering just above his lips, something that, contrariwise, would draw him back into the light for good if he just opened his mouth and tasted. And it had been so long...

"Spike?" That voice. Face. Hair flickering between short and long. Like looking at Angel through old, smoked glass, the white of the room distorted into a cold, dank mineshaft, guttering candles everywhere, and Himself lying next to Spike, both of them sated and surprised with each other. A vein, offered to him, and once without hesitation, he'd lowered his mouth to it. "Will? Come on, come back to us."

He's tryin' to piss me off, see if I'll wake up just so I can thump him, Spike thought clearly, even as he had to beat down the part of himself that had never stopped answering to that name. His eyelids flickered.

"Spike?" Tara's voice, tentative. Afraid. For him? Then more sure. "Morpheus, clear the eye. Release the mind that walks your world. You have no hold." Something sharp pierced the fog of Sireblood smell, for a second. Hensbane?

But then Angel, voice and scent so close that it drowned everything out. "Spike, dammit, just wake up!"

Spike opened his eyes wide, saw both worlds at once. The hand before his mouth, in the lighted room, the boy in front of him, in the dark.

"Not. Without. Xander." Spike turned his head to one side, felt the drop of Angel's blood roll down his cheek, and closed his eyes.

Forced himself to fall back down into the darkness, Tara's voice following him. "Morpheus, clear the eye. Awaken the mind that walks your world."

It came in a rush. The taste of cider on his tongue, the not-quite-drunk he'd been since then, wiped away. Clear, truly clear, now. Memory whistled past him. Words exchanged like cups of poison. Dull ache of confusion, of 'what did I do?' and the stabbing pain in the center of his chest, and walking away.

Drinking, and sitting, hating himself. The girls coming in, rescuing him from some imagined drunken stupor, and the words he'd spoken about Xander, bitter as crushed bones in his mouth. Then, walking in and seeing her, there, monstrous in ways he couldn't compete with as gray smoke coiled over his boy. The heartbeat he didn't possess, freezing up in his chest.

Walking to him, and touching, and falling. Wind and rain and running and thumping heart and teeth and animal growls and laughing faces that he knew only in their older versions. Their deader versions, some of them. Some he'd never seen at all, never even seen pictures of. Dark eyes in the mirror, and Xander's voice on his tongue.

"Christ." He heard his own voice echo loud around him, then disappear into the dark.

Soft white-noise laughter, in Rei's voice, now. "Hardly. I should say, it has not been your head. Your dream. You simply bullheaded your way into your boy's, and now, finally, you are separate again. Because he was finally frightened enough to let go of you; let go of everything."

Something tore at Spike's ribcage, almost like a heartbeat-- only it had claws and fangs. His own growling animal wasn't fooled by a soft voice, by something that pretended to be harmless. It screamed at him. mineminemineminemine... shetouchedhimhe'smine The rest of him, for once since he'd caged it below the surface, agreed. No need to pretend that Xander was less than everything, not now, not here. She knew, though apparently not enough.

"You don't touch what's mine," he snarled, as he finally understood.

His descent halted, and Xander stood before him again. Not Xander. Xander-Rei, a thing too obscene for words. Spike stared at her, concentrating. I control the vertical and the horizontal around here, right? He willed her to be as she truly was, as he remembered her, and Xander's body faded into fog. Reformed, a small, straight figure in leather, with long, long hair, and tilted black eyes. You can't have his face. He's mine.

The Gaki sighed. "I've no intention of harming him. I told you -- he's doing this to himself. It won't be long, Spike. Go back to your friends. Sit and wait, and tell them the boy will wake up soon."

"Let Xander go," he ordered, gravel-mouthed, "or so help me, you'll find out just how much I learned from the eyeball-popper out there -- and just how much I taught him." He turned around, ready to lay hands on her throat, but there was no one there.

"Spike, just open your eyes, and get out of my way. You're making a fool of yourself."

"I'm not leavin' him alone with you," Spike snarled, and though he knew where he was, knew he couldn't touch her, the demon was still screaming at him that there was a point to be made. He lunged at her, hands reaching for a narrow white throat.

"Be a fool, then, Suppaiku," she hissed. "Tilt at windmills, be his knight, try to snatch him up and carry him away -- but it isn't me you'll have to save him from."

He sailed right through her, falling again in the darkness.

"Baka."

Spike didn't know what direction to flip the bird in, since he couldn't see her -- so he just told her loudly to fuck off, in Japanese. Followed by every other insult he could think of in that language. Made for something to do while he fell.

*****

Lights on. Have they only been out for a second? Xander looks for Buffy, to tell her she has to grow up, fight the thing that's outside. Even though it's his to fight, he wants to run to her. One girl in all the world, and it's not him, and for a moment, he wants to believe Willow was right. That it's okay to let the Chosen One do it.

Then he sees his friends, sitting at their desks. Buffy. Willow. Tara. Cordy.

"No."

He can't look at the room, can't look at his friends, can't look at what covers the floor. You invited it inside. Can't look, so he doesn't. Can't see you...

*****

Spike fell until he hit, same as before. This time, though, he knew where he was, right away. He was back in the classroom -- and it was a charnel house.

A picture so pretty that the demon shouted loudly at him to get down on the linoleum and just roll in the blood. He didn't, but Spike almost slipped in it anyway, when one boot skidded in a puddle of red. His own boots, his own jeans, his own coat slapping around his calves, own arm reaching out for balance. His own nose, smelling the richness of copper-scented death, oxidizing as it pooled around the bodies slumped in their desks.

If this is Xander's dream, not mine, then... Bloody hell. Literally. What the fuck lives in his head? God, no wonder he came apart on me when he had that nightmare.

Spike walked over to the nearest desk, and lifted Cordelia's head. The hundred-dollar haircut swung bouncily away to reveal a savaged throat, the ludicrous literary vampire-hickeys replaced with death as he knew it -- as he'd dealt it a thousand thousand times. Great gaping, ragged hole, torn flesh, tiny gobbets of meat. He let it fall into the pool of blood on her desktop. It's not real. She's not dead; she's out there annoying the Sire, more power to her.

Willow and Tara were the same, bloodless white hands joined as if they'd planned to work some spell to defend themselves. But Rei was immune to magic; whatever dream-monster she'd sent after Xander would be just as well-protected from Xander's imaginary witches.

Vampire. Dream-vampire. He winced. The thought hadn't escaped him; he didn't need reminding from snarky mind-voice number whatever. Why's she sending vampires to chase him, of all things? Why would he be afraid of us, with all the beasties he's seen? He walked around, lifting heads, letting them fall, hoping that the next one wouldn't be Xander. It's a dream. It's his dream. He won't be dead. Just need to figure out where he is, so I can wake him up and get him outta here. He focused on that, ignoring the grumbling thing that was telling him to feast on the table leavings. Not like it's real blood, moron.

Spike the detective, he suddenly thought. Just his own brand of insanity, to picture himself searching for Xander, wearing that black fedora, the room in black and white, the blood on the floor looking like the chocolate syrup they really did use in old films. He could suddenly feel the pressure of the band around his forehead, see the shadow of the brim. Spike reached up to touch the hat he'd dreamed into place on his head, and almost grinned.

But the blood was still red and bright, and the desk where he and Xander's dream body had sat was still empty, except for the still-wrapped bar of chocolate Willow had offered, and Xander had refused. He hadn't turned into Sam Spade, with all the clues laid out in front of him - or if they were, he couldn't read them.

Spike pocketed the candy bar absently, aware that it was no more real than the blood, than the hat, but unable to let it sit there, somehow. He looked across the aisle; on the empty desk in front of Willow lay two pieces of paper. One piece, rather, ripped in two: "SA" on the first fragment, "VED" on the second. They hadn't been, had they. Not by witch-powers, and not by the Slayer in the seat across from them.

Changeable ocean-coloured eyes stared at him, sightless and dull. The fighting light was gone, that had always made him unsure if he wanted to kill or kiss her, until she opened her mouth and let out that mind-bleaching whine. She was still the child she'd been when he'd last seen her, before the lights went out -- the little normal girl who didn't want to fight anything, who blew Giles off when she first got to Sunnydale. Spike heard Xander's words again, in a darkened fake-theatre, so many hours ago that it seemed like days. That little girl's pouting mouth was forever closed, now.

"It's just a dream," he said aloud. Buffy wasn't dead -- and any regret he felt at the sight of those lightless eyes was probably just because he hadn't gotten to be the one to extinguish them. "Where is he?" he asked her, quietly. "What happened to you? What's he running from?"

"Spike?"

He whirled around from Buffy's desk, his own reflexes working faster than his mind's ability to recognize the voice. A head covered with pale blonde hair lifted from a desk by the window.

"Harmony? You're alive?"

She nodded, looking terrified. Mindblown, and Harmony hadn't much of a mind to blow. She sat up, and looked around at the classroom. "Well, not alive."

Spike smacked his forehead. "It's a vampire. Course it wouldn't touch you."

Harmony shook her head. "That doesn't matter. Not here. I just hid, and he didn't see me."

"He, who? Who did this? And where's Xander?" Spike walked over to her, as he asked.

Terror was suddenly replaced by an unattractive scorn. "Oh, him. The little crybaby scaredy-cat. He ran. He's gone."

Spike grabbed her by the hair and drew her up, so she stood on tiptoe, face strained with discomfort -- an old, familiar position. "Where did he go, Harm, and what's chasing him? I don't have time to put up with your shit."

Her expression changed again. Frightened blue eyes looked straight back at him, and he recoiled. Blinked and let go. Not because of any guilt at hurting Harmony -- she'd known what she was getting into when they got together, played the pain games as much as he had -- just hadn't been willing to admit to it when called on it.

But.

This wasn't Harmony's dream, was it. He recognized that shattered look -- he'd glimpsed it in dark eyes, by silver streetlight, as his lover shuddered in his lap at Cordelia's place. He'd watched it unblinking, a few nights earlier, until those eyes had finally fluttered closed, and he'd snuck off to go find the hand lotion.

"Xander?" he said softly.

Wild shaking of the mussed blonde hair as she slid down into her seat. "Eww! Do I look like a boy? Especially him. You're nuts!"

But this wasn't Harmony's denial face; it was Xander's -- and it wasn't just her head shaking, but her whole body. Spike winced, flexed the hand that had hurt her, almost cursing his lucidity, now. Brilliant, Spike. You might as well be the thing that's scaring him. "Xan..."

"He's a freak, and a fraidy-cat, and he ran away. He always runs away. He used to run off the playground when we were little, when the big kids came, and Willow and..." Harmony lowered her head. "Him. Willow and him used to stick up for Xander, but he didn't deserve it. He always screws everything up."

"Xan..." The shaking started again, and Spike stopped. Reached out a hand and placed it atop her head, gently. Sure, still, of whose head this really was. "All right. Harm. Who's 'him'? Somebody you all knew in school? Why's Xander afraid of him?"

"Because. Because Xander fucked up. I told you. Lame-boy fucked up and let him in, and lame-boy fucked up and let him go in the first place, and lame-boy fucked up and couldn't... couldn't clean up his own mess. And now see what he did." She pointed to the corpses all around her, of her friends. Xander's friends. "Over and over. It just happens over and over, because he's too chicken to stop it."

Spike leaned over the desk, and brushed aside the long strands of blonde fringe hanging in her eyes. If he stared close, he could see the outline of the word that Willow had scrubbed off, faint on the skin of her forehead. He looked past that, though, to the eyes he knew, whatever color they might be pretending to at the moment. "Tell me."

Frown. Blink, and SLAM. The room disappeared.

Dark again. Running through the cemetery once more, only this time he could see Xander. Like the black and white film he'd been imagining before, grainy because dreaming Xander couldn't really have seen himself, could only imagine what he'd looked like then, as he fed it to Spike now.

The hand in Xander's was Willow's, so young and white and frightened in the moonlight that her eyes were just dark holes in the pale face. The body between them was tall, male. Beaky and gangly, and as young as the ones who carried him. No one Spike had ever seen before, not on the streets of Sunnydale, not in the raid on the high school, not in any of the pictures he'd rifled through in Xander's albums or shoeboxes. Spike could see his throat, as that imagined movie camera zoomed in. Bleeding chocolate-syrup wounds, closer to the neat little fake bites on Cordelia's neck, than the raw mess it was now. Somebody'd been snacking, and got interrupted, and now they were running.

Then there were snarls, the ones he'd heard in that brief flash in the hallway. A male vamp closing in from the left, and from the right, a blonde in a short skirt and sweater. In the darkness, it took a second for Spike to recognize it as a Catholic school uniform. In the fuzziness of Xander's memory, it took two beats longer for him to know the face, vamped and grinning.

Darla. He knew she'd been here, knew Angel had staked her, but it had never even occurred to Spike that Xander had met her.

Met her? Spike laughed, painfully, as he watched it happen. Met her. Right.

He watched as Xander had his friend torn from his arms while she laughed, while Willow shouted, "Jesse!" into the darkness, and Xander stood there, clutching Red for all he was worth, lest somebody pull her away from him too. Then they ran for a pool of light where Spike could see the slight figure of the Slayer standing. Xander never looked over his shoulder, though Darla's laughter echoed out of the night at him, until the end. Until he stared back into utter darkness, with nothing visible but the tombstones.

And now Spike knew who wasn't "SAVED," didn't he. Someone who'd come back in Xander's dreams to wreak havoc among his former friends. Normally, he'd say 'Hurrah, good times' to the havoc-wreaking -- but not here. Not in his boy's head. He almost muttered an apology to Rei, for thinking she'd invented the horror herself -- until he recalled how long Xander must have been asleep. She may not have written the script, but she's been making him watch the flick. Not letting him wake up. Spike opened his eyes. He was back in the classroom, standing over the desk. Harmony looked up at him, frowning again. "It's no big deal. The Hellmouth gets kids all the time. I got vamped, and he never freaked out over me."

"You weren't his best friend. He wasn't holding your hand." Spike wiped the hair out of her face, and looked at her forehead again. Then he bent down, and put his hand on hers. "It wasn't your fault, Xan."

She stiffened. "I'm not Xander! You're as crazy as he is. Loony as that pretty, perfect ex-girlfriend you never shut up about. Why don't you go find her? Go read her the yellow pages or something."

"He's not crazy. And you're not Harmony." Spike spoke over the closing of his throat, because he knew it wasn't really there. His mind only made him think he had a throat to close, as he remembered the look on Xander's face, and him the utter moron who couldn't pick it up, that he'd been rabbiting on about Dru at lunch like it was her he'd barely missed staying in bed with that morning, instead of the boy who'd sat next across the table from him.

He knelt next to the desk, and said to her -- to Xander, "Xan... It's over. You're safe. None of this is real -- it's just a bad dream. All you have to do is open your eyes and wake up."

"I'm NOT Xander! And it's not over. It's not safe. Nobody's safe. Leave me alone!" She was-- that is, he was, Xander, though. The face melted and blurred before Spike's eyes. Panicked dark pupils, huge in liquor coloured irises. Dark brown hair.

"No. I won't do that." Spike leaned forward, and gathered the figure in the desk into his arms. It really didn't matter what Xander looked like -- young, old, girl, boy. "You are safe, Xander. I won't let anything hurt you. You just have to wake up."

"No! You're not real!" Xander pushed Spike away with a force that he would only possess in dreams, at least as long as he lived in a human body. Before Spike could even rise from the sprawl he had landed in, Xander was running from the room.

No way. I'm not losin' you, not lettin' you get lost in the dark. Not again. This time when you run, somebody catches you who loves you.

Spike was after him in a second, racing out the door and down the hall. The building was dark now, smelled of charred meat and death, as it should. He could just see Xander's tennis shoes disappearing around the corner, and he followed, picking up speed. He mightn't be Sam Spade, but this, he could do. He tipped his imaginary detective hat, as he passed the empty suit that Xander's mouthy little principal had been wearing, laid out on the floor.

They ran past lockers and classrooms. Past the empty library, where Spike could hear sounds coming from the Hellmouth within that made him glad it had never opened when he'd been around. Through the door at the end of the hall and out into the rain again.

*****

It looks like Spike. It sounds like Spike. But it doesn't talk like Spike, and it's telling him things that he wants too much to believe. It's okay. I won't let anybody hurt you. Too easy to accept, but that's not Spike. Spike's using him for a warm hole and somebody to share a bed with, and the echo of someone he can't ever have back. Xander knows that, knows he'll settle for that, too. If he lets himself believe anything else...

He used to let himself believe that if he just wished hard enough, he'd come to school in the morning and everybody would be in their seats, no empty one, no memories of the night that no one ever talked about, to show him why it was empty. He'd lean over and poke Jesse in the arm and point out how short Miss Wasserman's skirt was, and Willow would roll her eyes, and Buffy...

No. That way lies Xander in a rubber room, and he might be a little bit crazy, but he's not that crazy. He knows. He knows what happened and he knows what's chasing him with Spike's face now, and whose face is really under it.

Fine. He knows where to run. Knows it's always led to this, that this is what he comes back to night after night, but never quite has the balls to face. This time, though... It will be different. It might be faster than him, but that doesn't matter, for once, because he's not running away. He won't end up purely by accident at Brookside Park, with Giles on the swing, with Spike sitting next to him, arms open, waiting to almost rescue him in time. Not now.

Past Buffy's house, past Willow's, lights out. No welcome there, but why would there be, when they're dead, back in that classroom. Across sidewalks and over gutters and down alley shortcuts that he knows from years of running, in dreams, in life.

For once, he's not running from; he's running to.

*****

Spike ran, never looking at anything but Xander's shoes, flashing white in the distance. Familiar parts of town, bathed in the sheen of rain, fading as Xander passed, because the dream was only concerned with what Xander could see.

He thought he had an idea where they were going, at one point, when he caught sight of a familiar drive, a suburban house, story and a half, Bel Aire parked neatly at the back. There. Home? Xander's illusion of a safe place?

But Xander paused for a second only, by the basement window, almost long enough for Spike to catch up, then was off again. As Spike came near the open window, coat slapping against his calves, he heard the sound of smacking, steady, flesh on flesh. Growled and slowed, almost stopped, thinking this time - chip or no chip, if they hurt him...

Then, a voice more familiar than anything asked in a hopeless muddled English accent, "What am I punishing you for, Xander?"

Time froze, for a second, and Spike wondered just how stupid you had to be, to join Angel's little detective agency. As stupid as him? "Fine, I get it, all right?" Spike shouted after his fleeing lover. "You think it's all your fault. But it's not real, Xander. It was a long time ago. Just bloody stop!"

But Xander didn't stop, didn't act like he even heard, so Spike ran again, faster now, hearing his Docs scuff in the grass and on the gravel and down the road.

*****

Away from home, just needed to check on the place, make sure everything was okay. Away and splashing down the street where he's always been going, where he goes all the time, when his eyes are open and he's meeting Buffy, Willow, Anya there. Rhythmic thudding behind him on the road, didn't lose the thing with Spike's face, but then he didn't expect to. He knows where he's going, wants it to follow.

Music getting louder in the distance as he hits the bad side of town. Bad side, like there's a good side, like there's anything good about the Hellmouth on a Friday night. Lights of the Bronze shining like a beacon.

Betcha didn't think I'd come here, didja. Didn't think I had the 'nads. Well, why the hell not? If it's gonna be anywhere, might as well do it here.Heavy beat, not of feet behind him now, but synthesized drums, from inside.

He knows it didn't happen quite this way. The song was over, ending as he and Willow and Giles climbed from the car and snuck around back, as he's doing now. But he'd heard enough, to remember it now. He'd known the song already, had the words playing in his head over the silence and the sound of his own heart beating as the door opened and they'd slipped inside. How are you feelin'... do you feel okay? Cause I don't... He pulls on the back door. It isn't locked.

Only him now, only Xander, as it always should've been. This is his deal. Buffy can kill the guy onstage, fine. Throw a cymbal at somebody, whatever. Giles, Willow... This isn't their job. It's his. He was the one who didn't keep an eye on Jesse in the first place, and that was his job, right? Not my day to watch him, they'd always joked, but it was his day to watch both of them, and he'd only held on to Willow, and now...

Now he's here. In the dark, with the music and the bodies, pushing at each other. Here, and there's a stake in his hand, and he has a job to do. "Have you come to kill what's left of my smile?" someone sings from the speakers, but he thinks maybe it's already dead.

*****

Where? Where was he? Spike pushed his way through the crowd, past the press of faceless, dancing teenagers. Literally faceless, as if they didn't matter to Xander, didn't star in this particular flick, so his mind didn't have time to draw eyes and noses on them.

It was the Bronze, but tilted. Out of sync. Music too loud, dancers moving in slow motion. The sweat and stink of too many people not perfume in his nose, but madness. The dance club was lit eerily, lights flickering on and off.

"I wish I could've saved you..." the teenage whine-band moaned, and the lights went red. People screamed, and Spike could sense panic. Pushing and running. He moved to the dance floor, cutting through the crowd as if they - or he - didn't exist, to see what it was.

Vampires. There were vamps in gameface out there. Not really doing anything but growling, shoving, causing pandemonium -- which was good enough entertainment, but you'd think they'd be biting, draining, tearing it up. Or at least pushing people up towards the stage where the Slayer, somehow alive again because Xander's dream didn't have to make sense, stood in the spotlight, next to a vamp at least a foot taller than Angel. Frozen.

Spike could've kicked himself for even bothering to look, for not figuring it out sooner. He'd have to turn in the detective hat and admit he was the sidekick in front of all and sundry, at this rate. Frozen. Because they were window-dressing. Props, in Xander's nightmare. The only place anything would be happening was where Xander was. Everything else was a distraction.

He looked around for something that looked real, not random. Listened for actual words, over the pounding of the music. A scream -- a loud, familiar one. Cordelia's voice, followed by shouting. "Get off me!"

That'd be it, then.

*****

Xander knows the words by heart, though he never told them what he said, though he doesn't ever dream about this part, just running from it. Until now. The words live in his head, here, at this hell-place that's just... the Bronze, out in the real world.

"Jesse, man. Don't make me do it." Here, now, he's a kid again, Valley-speak in his mouth, sweat in his eyes.

The thing with its back to him, the thing that followed him here, stands up from where it's crouched over Cordy. Turns around. Looks him up and down.

"You again? Man, don't you have anything better to do? You could dream about naked chicks or something, you know." Jesse's face is human. Smiling, even though it's more of a sneer than a real smile.

"Jesse. I know there's still a part of you in there." Even now... even though he knows it's not real, hasn't ever been real, Xander wants to believe that it's true.

A part of someone who played in the sandbox with him when he was six. Who made up the sharks that live there, because he had the longest legs, and could jump from one edge to the other the easiest. Who loaned him milk money and always gave Xander half of his Nutty Bar at lunch, and laughed at him when he broke it apart and licked all the peanut butter off before he ate the chocolate-covered wafers. Who brass-balled his way into the back room at Video Hut to rent 'Sinderella,' freshman year, when Xander was too much of a chicken.

"Or dream about naked dudes, if that's your thing now," Jesse goes on as if Xander hadn't spoken. "But this," he points at Cordy, at the darkness, at the stage, back at Xander. "It's gettin' old, bud. Hell, even I'm sick of it, and I like terrorizing girls. Or would've, anyway, if I hadn't got staked."

"Wh-- What?"

"Dude, you're almost twenty. Get over the trauma, already. I'm dead. Everybody else moved on. What's wrong with you?"

There's a script, dammit. There's a song playing, there's heat and light and bodies, and there's Jesse standing in front of him. He's supposed to vamp out now, and Xander's supposed to try to kill him, and fail. Like he always fails, at the important things. He's not supposed to be talking like this. How can Xander answer that speech with what he really said, when no one was looking, while everyone was watching Buffy?

He does anyway. "Jesse, I don't wanna kill you. I don't wanna lose you, man. What am I supposed to do?"

Why doesn't Jesse say what he really did, which was, "You kill me, Xan, or you die. That's really all there is."

Instead, he says, in Spike's voice, "You wake up, Xander," as he starts to turn his head. Then he collapses into dust.

*****

The stake in his hand was a good one; he'd crafted it from the memory of one the Slayer had held against his chest, while he taunted her about her love life. He could feel the scratch of wood on skin, even now. And it worked the way they're supposed to work, the way every stake he'd held in the last six months had worked on every one of his fellow vamps whom he'd slain, post-chip.

The boy started to whirl, as he said the words, then, POOF.

"It's over," Spike said gently, as Xander stared at him in shock. "I told you -- I won't let anybody hurt you, ever again. Not even you."

Xander said nothing, just stared at him, open-mouthed. Looked from the stake in Spike's hand to the one in his own. Finally, he moved forward, and Spike opened his arms.

Xander hit him, a hard right to the jaw. "Dammit! Look what you did!"

Just like before, in Xander's dream world, when he needed strength, he had it. Spike went down, the stake in his hand clattering to the floor. Xander followed swiftly, throwing his stake away as well -- but he wasn't seeing to Spike, or apologizing. He was gathering up the pile of dust on the floor, sweeping it into his hands.

"Come on. Come back. Come back!" He was almost in tears, his voice raw and hoarse. Xander threw the handful of dust into the air, and in the outline it formed, Spike saw fear.

He's mad. He really is broken into little pieces. As the lean, tall shape reformed itself in front of Xander, Spike heard laughter over his shoulder. He sat up, to find a hand being offered to him.

Darla's hand, extending from the white sleeve of that kinky schoolgirl uniform. Her face was human now, as it hadn't been in Xander's memory of the cemetery, and as haughtily beautiful as Spike remembered it.

"Of course I look like you remember her," Rei agreed. It hadn't occurred to him that she could hear his thoughts, but of course she could. It was all thought, here. She'd known what he was thinking all along, told him to back off, but he wouldn't listen. "You're providing my features," she reminded him. "The boy is too busy resurrecting his friend, so that he can fail to kill him again."

Spike rubbed his jaw, the dream punch as painfully real as the one Xander had thrown at him at his own request, on Giles' front porch, under the lamplight. Think, Phillip Bloody Marlowe, he snarked at himself. What is it. What am I missing? Why didn't it work for me to kill the kid? Why's Xander brought him back?

A soft voice answered him, from deep within his own head. Why does he come back here, Spike? He has nightmares, yes, of course, lots of people do, but why this boy, chasing him? Why over and over, as he said? Why?

Because he wanted to.

"He's... not a boy," Spike said slowly. "He's not mad, either."

*****

Xander holds the stake up. He knows how to use it, has known for years now, though he only had a vague idea back then. He's not Buffy, but he can defend himself. "Come on, Jesse. Let's...just get this over with." If he drags it out, maybe it'll last a little longer, this time.

But this time it's Jesse who sticks to the script. "Okay... Let's deal with this. Jesse was an excruciating loser who couldn't get a date with anyone in the sighted community! Look at me. I'm a new man!"

"Yeah. Look at him, Xander."

The voice is Spike's, but Spike can't be here. Spike can't have staked Jesse for him, like some random moron had done it the last time. That was just his own mind, coming up with newer and loopier ways to make him fuck this up. This voice now, it isn't real.

"None of it's real, Xander. It's a dream. But I think you know that."

There's laughter, from Miss Thing, who's wearing the bitchy girl vamp's face now, smiling blonde and pretty and just another distracting thing to throw at him. It's not mocking, though. It's appreciative, admiring of what his dream-Spike said.

"Very good, Spike. You figured out after two weeks of sleeping with him, what it took me a whole night to determine."

Spike, on the floor, rubs his jaw. Picks up the hat he was wearing and puts it on his head -- and why is Spike wearing a hat, in this dream? Especially Xander's hat. "Well, you're the professional. I'm just his lover. Remind me to kill you, by the way, when this is over. I told you, nobody fucks with what's mine." He starts to stand.

"Hey, is somebody gonna kill me here, or what?" Jesse asks with a growl. Xander looks, and sees the face that looks like Spike's, but not, yellow eyes, wrinkled brow. Jesse's holding his hand out, and in it is Xander's stake. "Cause, y'know, I've got things to do."

Xander tries not to take it, but Jesse presses it into his hand.

"It's time. I've been waiting for you to get here for years, bud."

*****

"But he does this to himself," Rei said. "I told you -- I'm only collecting the leftovers. This is a hell of his own invention -- in a way, it's much more creative than Gaki-do."

Spike held out his hand, then, and grasped her outstretched one. Stood, and looked at her. Subject of enough of his own nightmares, but here, in this half-lit place, he had to wonder why. Whatever Darla had done, she was dust, as was the boy who stood before Xander. They were the ones who were still alive, or what passed for it. He and Xander. Angel. Even Dru, wherever she was, and the Slayer, at a hotel in Santa Barbara shagging her brains out with Agent Huckleberry Finn. And Xander had found his own way of coping with that.

He spoke past Darla's face, to the one behind it. "Xander may've invented it -- but you pushed him to it, tonight. He said he didn't need the bravest, wisest knight in all the land to tuck him in, before he stomped off upstairs. He never heard that from me, and he's barely met Dru."

She smiled, a small, sly Darla-smile. "We spoke. He's very brave, your boy."

He snarled, though this time he knew better than to bother letting the beast have reign. "You messed about with his head, Reikoku." A little grin of his own made its way to his lips. "Only I'm allowed to do that. You... If I ever see you again, I'll happily kick you back into Gaki-do so hard your great grand-mum'll get dragged down there with you.""

"But it's about to end. If he plays this dream through to its end, I can take it away, as I did yours. That I get a free meal, a delicious one, is merely a side-effect -- he'll be free of this nightmare forever. Isn't that what you want for him?"

Spike stared coldly at her. "It's his head. He's a grown man. It's not about what I want." With that, he turned away. Walked over to the two who stood next to the wall, the imaginary dead boy, the real, living man.

"Xander?" There was no answer, but Spike hardly expected one. He tapped the vampire on the shoulder. "Er. Jesse, right?"

"Yeah, man. You mind? We got something happening, here."

"I'll just be a minute. Have a Coke and a smile and relax."

Jesse blinked, as real as Xander wanted to make him, and slowly moved out of Spike's way.

"Xan..."

Now Xander looked up at him. "I have to kill him."

"No, you don't. You don't have to kill him." Spike put his hands on Xander's shoulders, and watched as his lover changed. The shape of his haircut, from long in front, to long all over. The width of his frame, the muscles in his chest and arms. Spike could feel it, spreading out across Xander's body.

"I do. I've gotta. It's gotta be me. Nobody can do it for me."

"No. Nobody can do it for you -- but you don't have to do it, Xander." Spike pulled him close. Felt the warm body stiffen in his embrace.

"I'm not a little kid. I'm not crazy. I know he's dead. I know. You don't have to take care of me."

He tried to pull away, but Spike held on. "No. You don't need anybody to take care of you. You manage just fine on your own. Think I might need somebody to take care of me, mind you... Your brain's a scary place." A shudder against him, and Spike touched his hair. "Xander, you don't have to kill him."

Xander shook his head, as wildly as he had when he'd been Harmony, in the classroom. "I know he's dead! I told you. But here, he's not, and I'm s'posed to..."

"Why can't you do it, then?" Spike whispered. "You know he's dead. You know it's not real. You know it's just a dream. So why can't you kill him?" He knew the answer, but it wasn't him who needed to hear it.

"Because..." Xander whispered quietly.

"Come on. You can tell me. It's just me, Xan. Nobody else who matters can hear." Rei stood off in the distance, white checks in Darla's uniform glowing under the light. Waiting to eat her fill. Not if Spike could help it. And Jesse... was frozen in the light, forever standing with the face of a monster, just out of Xander's reach.

"Because it's the only way I can have him." Xander's dream breath was warm against Spike's face. "Out there...nobody talks about him. Nobody remembers he was real, not even Willow. Sometimes I think I imagined him. But here, even like this, he's real. Even if he's a monster, at least... at least I can see him."

Spike hadn't been keeping the monsters at bay, sleeping with his arms around Xander every night -- at least not all of them. He'd just been keeping Xander from seeing the one that he wanted to see, even if he didn't know it when he was awake. The one he was willing to brave the nightmare to see again. Spike tightened his arms around Xander, and closed his eyes.

"You think I'm crazy. You're not even the real Spike, you're just me, and you still think I'm crazy. Like her. Like Dru."

"No. No, luv, I don't."

"And you think I'm a wimp, 'cause I couldn't kill him, and somebody else had to do it for me. Not even on purpose. Just brushed him up against the stake and ffft. Gone. Xander, the fucking coward, who can't stake one vamp at point blank range. You only hang around me because I remind you of Drusilla. "Cause it makes you feel less pathetic, if you can take care of poor loony Xander."

Once, the words had made him turn away, but now, Spike knew what was prompting them. "No. I don't. I don't think you're a wimp, or a coward. I think you're about the bravest person I know, for comin' back here, walkin' into hell night after night, just to see somebody you loved."

The Bronze darkened around them, Jesse looking once at them, then fading away completely. The only light was the soft red glow that surrounded Rei. Spike watched her shake her head once, then smile, then she, too, faded, and they were left in darkness. There was only Xander, in his arms.

"I'm afraid," Spike heard, after long silence.

"There's nothin' to be afraid of. You just have to wake up now."

"That's what I'm afraid of. I don't wanna lose this. Don't wanna forget him. Don't you get it? I am crazy. Fuck, maybe I do need to be taken care of. But who the hell would want somebody like me?"

"I do. I want you. You're mine." Spike whispered it into Xander's skin, the things he'd been afraid to say for so long.

"But you're not real." A sudden, hard push away from him, and Spike was staring at Xander as he knew him now. "That's not real, it's just what I want to hear. You're not even a good fake-Spike -- he'd never say things like that. Get away from me. Go."

"Xan--"

"You're not real! Go! Get out of my head!"

The lights went out again.

*****

Spike opened his eyes, to find himself lying in bed. Just a dream. Just my dream, after all, he thought for a moment. But his arms were still around Xander, and he'd never yet had a bad dream while Xander lay next to him.

"Spike's awake!" There was a joy he hadn't expected, in Willow's voice. She leaned over the bed, smiling widely. "Spike, you did it -- or one of you did. She's gone!"

"Gone? Huuhhh...who?" he yawned. Tired. For all the dreaming he'd been doing, he was tired as all hell. Spike laid his head down on Xander's chest. Fuck who knew what. They'd sort it out in the morning. "Gone?" He blinked sleepily. "Hey, how'd I get over here?" He'd been knocked across to the other bed, right?

"You ran over to Xander, when we tried to wake you up," Tara told him. "Angel couldn't even stop you."

"Yeah, that spell didn't exactly work like a charm," Willow said, sounding momentarily disappointed. Then she was cheerful again. "But who cares -- the ghostie's gone, anyway! She just kinda... dissolved, a few minutes ago. Did you chase her away?"

"Yeah, kinda. I guess. Hey, Xan, budge over," Spike murmured. But Xander wouldn't. Spike looked up at his face. His eyes were closed. Spike sat up, never letting go. "Xander?" No answer.

"Hey, Xander, come on. Wake up. Everything's okay, now." Willow was leaning over them, shaking Xander's shoulder. Spike growled, lightly, and she stood back, brow furrowing. "Spike?"

"What do you mean everything's okay? My boss is dating one of my ex-boyfriends, an evil vampire is cuddling up with the other, and Lindsey freakin' MacDonald knew about the second one before I did!" Cordelia shouted from the other side of the room. "I can not be the last to know something like this. It's not allowed!"

"Cordy, shut up," Willow said.

"I'm not your ex-boyfriend," Angel's pet Watcher protested quietly. "And Angel and I aren't dating."

"No, you're just making out behind the potted plants. And you and I went out. Once."

"Cordy, Wesley, shut up." Willow's voice was suddenly strident, loud. Commanding. Spike could picture the leatherette vampire version Xander had told him about, suddenly. "Xander still hasn't woken up."

Then, Cordelia was quiet. Spike felt a hand on his shoulder, and was about to risk a chip-zap to growl a lot more meaningfully at Willow, when he smelled the faint scent of dried blood on the wrist, and the utter familiarity of the owner. "Spike?"

"Sod off. I'll talk to you later." Spike pulled Xander upright, and spoke straight into his face. "Wake up." Nothing. "Fucking hell, Xander, open your eyes. It's over. The ghost's gone, the good guys won, everybody's throwing a great whopping party, and you're missing it."

Tara walked to the side of the bed, and laid her hand on Xander's hair. "I don't think he's really asleep, Spike," she said, worriedly. "He's just... not awake."

Spike growled, again. "I know that, Madame Cleo. He's staying in there on purpose."

Willow moved to her side. "But... he can't be. Why?" She sounded hurt, like Xander was doing this just to get at her.

"Because it's the only place he can get things that you won't even bloody talk to him about!" Spike snapped, uncaring at the moment whether she deserved it or not, and knowing full well that she wouldn't understand him.

He turned his head away from them. Away from all of them, away from everything except the man in his arms. "Xander, I know you can hear me. So you have a choice. You can either listen to me make an ass of m'self in front of all of your friends, or you can open your eyes and tell me to stuff it -- but I'm not lettin' go of you, and I'm not shutting up 'til you do." Silence, except for rain against the glass doors, and he was staring at closed eyelids. "Fine. I warned you, mind. I don't do lengthy speeches, so if I start repeating m'self, somebody jog me, and I'll throw in a bit of Much Ado About Nothing, or something. Here goes."

Deep breath. He could do this. Didn't matter who was listening. Didn't matter what they thought, or what happened to him after. Just Xander. "I don't think you're nuts, except in a good way. I think you're bloody stupid for not ever telling anybody what was wrong, but not insane. I do think you're crazy, though, if you decide to spend the rest of your life inside your skull with a dead boy, when there's live people out here who love you. Least one who misses him as much as you do, I bet. He'll be there, next time, if you want to go back, Xander."

Even if it meant Spike sleeping on the floor every night at the foot of the bed, guarding him from the real monsters while he met with the one he wanted to see. Assuming, of course, Xander didn't send him packing, for letting Princess Vision Girl and the witches hear all this. The witches, who made small sounds of surprise, as one or both finally twigged to what he was talking about -- but Spike looked only at Xander.

"I don't think you're a wimp because you couldn't kill him -- it wasn't your responsibility, Xander. I think you even know that. But if you're too scared to come out and face the fact that it was really me in there, and everything I said was true, then yeah. You are a coward."

There was a stirring in his arms, but the eyes remained stubbornly closed.

"Because this isn't about Dru, Xander. This was never about Dru. It's about you, and it's about me, and when I said I wanted you, I meant it. Not for sex, pet. For you. I never meant it to happen, but it did, and there's nothin' I can do about it. I'm sorry if it pisses you off, but there's at least one dead person out here who loves you too."

A flicker of the eyelids. He was trading his dignity for an eyelash-flicker. Just a flicker, as Spike gave up everything he'd been holding so close, so afraid to tell for fear that Xander would... would what, own him? Hell, I wore a bleedin' Hawaiian shirt for the man! Might as well tattoo property of Xander Harris on my arse and be done with it. Besides, what dignity did he have left, now?

"I know you heard me, you stubborn son of a bitch. You can't hide in there forever. I'm gonna keep sayin' it over and over til you tell me to stop, no matter how much it embarrasses you -- I love you."

Another flicker, a small squirm, and somewhere Cordy was saying, "Oh, that's so sweet! In an utterly depraved and obsessive way."

"You can be as big a jackass as you like. You can boot me out of your head for sayin' it, but that doesn't make it not true. You can kick me out of your flat, out of your life, for sayin' it in front of your friends, and if you tell me to go, I will. But I'll still love you."

And Spike was not going to blubber in front of these people. He was not. Even though he could feel the little pricks in his eyelids that signaled something he hadn't done in mixed company in over a hundred years. He wouldn't, couldn't. Not in front of Angel, who'd told him once that it didn't mean he wasn't a man. He knew that -- had known it ever since -- but he'd never give the Ponce the satisfaction of knowing he'd taught Spike any lasting lessons. Unless, of course, Xander didn't open his eyes in about five seconds.

"You're a moody, irritating, neurotic science fiction geek with absolutely no taste in clothes, and I'm runnin' out of things to say between the I love you's, so I might have to start quoting Shakespeare any second now, and scarin' the kiddies. But I love you anyway, and if you're good and wake up for me, I think I have a chocolate bar in my pocket. Now, open your eyes, dammit, or I swear I'll turn you over my knee and spank you within an inch of your life, government chip be damned. I--"

"Spike?"

"What?" He didn't dare stop talking now. He was on a roll. "I was just getting to the bit where I say 'I even love your saggy old boxer shorts.'"

"I heard you the first time." Xander opened his eyes. "Did you say you had chocolate? I'm hungry."




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