Snakes and Ladders


by
Reremouse & Tabaqui



Square Three

Xander woke abruptly to a blow across the chest, knocking the wind from him, and before he could draw breath, a second caught him hard across the cheekbone, wrenching his patch askew as he flailed half awake to grab, stop, still, hold, something.

Gradually, Xander became aware of frantic mumbling - until the sharp dig of a bony knee into the juncture of Xander's hip and thigh woke him fully and immediately, and he grabbed an armful of Spike, holding on before the knee could land somewhere else.

"Spike!" Xander coughed, Spike's elbow catching him in the sternum, and fell back with a groan as Spike rolled off of him, skittering to a crouch against the sofa. Then, Xander heard it, the shrill ring of the telephone, still turned up full volume to-

Oh yeah, wake him up because he could sleep through just about anything.

Except a panicked vampire fighting his way over him to safety. "Oh, Jesus." Xander groped for the band of his patch, bringing it back down into place, and flopped bonelessly, allowing himself the span of several luxurious seconds in his best impression of roadkill. "Spike?" His voice came out in a sleep-roughened croak and he extended his arm to the figure he could just barely make out.

"Back the fuck off." Spike wasn't sure exactly what was going on, but he hurt, he fucking hurt, and he'd been cut, his chest - stomach - something. He clutched at the object under his hands, puzzled when gave easily. What is it what is it... The noise - sharp and hurtful in his ears abruptly cut off and he blinked, seeing flame, seeing a dark form reaching out. Blinked again and the flames receded to memory and he saw a swath of bright red and a heap of pillows and suddenly everything clicked.

"That you, mighty sultan?" he asked, and his voice was cracked and wavering - too rough and too weak.

"Most of him." Xander groaned, resisting the urge to look down and check for damage before rolling over and crawling across the floor to Spike, flopping down next to him against the couch and resting his head on its arm. "Thought you wanted to be the evil sultan." He winced, shifting into a position that didn't make his leg feel quite so much as if it was about to pop off at the hip, and leaned his shoulder lightly against Spike's. "I'm thinking turning off the phone might be a really good idea at this point."

Spike pushed a shaking hand back through his hair and looked at Xander, who looked - sore. "Did I hurt you, Xander? Didn't - sorry, yeah? Sorry." He grimaced and eased into a more upright position, the scars screaming, hot and sharp and twisting, somehow.

Fuck, I need a drink. A lot of drinks There was a strong glow coming around the blinds, and Spike sensed it was sometime after mid-day.

"I'll be the evil sultan tomorrow. Still...tired." He sighed and leaned against Xander's shoulder, closing his eyes. "Thought you said you had some good whiskey here."

"Yeah. More blood, too." Xander resisted the impulse to turn his head, rest his cheek on the dandelion riot of Spike's hair, just for a moment. Instead, he took the edge of the silk, drawing it up and around Spike's waist, wrapping it carefully around him, between him and the roughness of Xander's jeans that he was still wearing. "Let's get you back into the pillows. And sorry, but you've gotta be the sultan today. Can't have the sultan waiting on the harem boy."

Xander felt more than heard Spike's quiet snort of disgust, getting an arm around his back, and another under his knees and lifting. "Sorry about the phone. I sleep like the dead- Or, okay, the really dead dead. Because believe me, there is a difference."

"Yeah, okay, sultan for the day. Already got you trained -" He gasped sharply as the button on Xander's jeans caught his hip. "I don't - don't even have to walk."

"Fuck - sorry -" Xander said, and Spike lightly patted his cheek, clutching at the silk sheet.

"S'okay, pet. No worries." He braced himself nevertheless as Xander gently lowered him back to his nest and sighed in relief as he was once more cradled in the softness of all the pillows. Xander stayed hovering over him, looking upset, and he reached up and patted his cheek again.

"Did fine, pet. I'm fine. Thanks, yeah?"

Xander let his head drop against Spike's hand, the adrenaline surge draining out of him slowly. "What's really going on, Spike? What are these?" He didn't touch, but his hand hovered over the slashes, their heat. "This isn't just a blood-needy thing."

Spike flexed his fingers minutely against the pressure of Xander's cheek - soft and stubble-rough and warm. "I...hoped it might be. I guess it's not. A while ago we had this big dust-up with the fuckers that run - ran Wolfram and Hart. Took the bastards out, too. Bit of a fight." Spike let his hand drop, too tired to hold it up anymore and Xander settled back on his heels, watching him.

"Well, we all got hurt...Wesley got almost-dead...'memeber him? That other Watcher?" Silent nod from Xander and Spike nodded back, sparing a moment's thought for that intense, intelligent man who'd shared a beer or two with him, and who'd quietly and utterly died inside, when Fred had been consumed.

"He got tapped by the Powers - got him some visions, now. I got - cut by something. Clawed. Something kinda...like a spider or something. Chitinous..." He really didn't remember much of it, except for the faceted eyes and the ear-splitting chitter of pain when he'd hacked it in half.

"Thought I was all - healed up but these kept...bothering me. Itchy. Didn't want to think about it, I guess, and everybody was so...busy..." Spike shrugged, sighing. "They just got worse. Got - dark. Don't really know what it is, pet." Spike closed his eyes, burrowing into the nest a little deeper, wondering if he could stay awake long enough to drink some blood. "Dunno what to do, really," he added softly. And he really didn't.

"We'll find out." Xander arranged another bed pillow beneath Spike's shoulder, wishing Spike didn't feel quite so much like a man-sized doll. A very fragile man-sized doll.

"Once a bloody Scooby always a bloody Scooby."

Smiling shouldn't hurt so much, "Yeah, well. No Watcher here, but we'll find out what it is. Get you better." Xander climbed to his feet, careful not to jostle the patient, and crouched by the fireplace, beginning to build up the fire again to warm the room. He could feel the sweat already prickling at his scalp, itching with the increased heat as he closed the latticed metal doors. "Keep you in the O pos until then."

"Ta, pet." Spike's fingers twitched, as if too tired to even lift his arm, so Xander shuffled back until Spike could clasp his hand on top of the pillows. "But maybe later, yeah?"

"Yeah." Xander gave his fingers a gentle squeeze. "Go back to sleep. I'm going to take a shower before I start to offend your delicate sensibilities. Call around for some more blood, maybe."

"Mmmmm..." Spike felt his awareness slip a little and then he forced his eyes open again, in time to see Xander scrub wearily at his face and then wince as he lifted the patch's band off his forehead. He took the patch off altogether and rubbed at the skin above his other eyebrow for a moment. The red mark that had chafed itself there showed clearly.

"Don't care if you leave that off, pet. Doesn't bother me," he said quietly and Xander stiffened just a bit, not quite looking at him, the patch dangling from his fingers.

Xander's fingers slowed in their rubbing of the prickling, reddened skin. He rested his elbow on his knee, head and hand hanging down, then lifted his face with a rueful smile, the hollow pale from being covered all the time. "Seen worse, huh?"

"Done worse." Spike blinked, heavy eyed, Xander's face swimming a little in his vision. The deeply shadowed socket looked skull-like for a moment and he shivered, but then it passed and it was just Xander, tired smile and one eye and his scars that made him old before his time - younger than Spike forever. "Still pretty enough to be a harem boy."

Xander started, looking at Spike with incredulous good humor. "Have we already discussed getting you glasses? Because I think we should. Besides, you're the harem boy. I'm the dashing - I'm the dashing what again?"

"Harem boy," Spike repeated, a touch of a smirk on his face.

Xander snorted. "Right"

"Oh, fine, you can be Rudy bloody Valentino, I don't care." Spike made a huge effort and lifted his hand again, wincing as skin and muscle pulled all down his torso. He caught the damaged side of Xander's face in the palm of his hand and just cupped it for one long moment. "Still pretty."

Unconsciously, Xander leaned into the touch, winced when Spike's hand slipped gently away and flopped back onto the pillows and the vampire flinched, just a little.

"Okay, okay. I'm pretty, and you're the Crazy Harem Vampire living in my nest of pillows." As he spoke, he arranged Spike's arm more comfortably, making sure a fold of silk was tucked between it and the pillows. He frowned, thinking of the prescription bottle in his leather satchel. "Do human pain killers work on vampires?"

"Takes more, is all. Got more..." Spike yawned and reached again for contact, bumping his hand into Xander's knee. "More resistance, I guess. Why, you got something?"

"Yeah. For my eye, but I don't like to take them. Don't like the way they make me..." Xander groped for a word, waving his hand to indicate loopiness. He then let it drop to Spike's, the gesture of contact, even that small, already becoming familiar to him. "Guess I don't have to worry about you ODing on them, huh?"

Spike snorted. "Not hardly, pet."

"They're the good stuff. And it can't hurt you...right?"

"Nope, can't hurt. Bring it on." Spike had to let his hand slip off Xander's knee but this time Xander guided it to the pillows instead of letting it flop, and that was nice. The fire was nice, so deliciously warm, and the promise of good drugs that might ease the pain for awhile was more than nice. Blood and something to just ease the way, and wasn't that what unlife was supposed to be all about? "A sip of the good stuff and...some of the good stuff." He chuckled softly to himself and snuggled a little deeper into the pillows.

"And then you sleep and the whiffy human showers." Xander smoothed the silk under Spike's arm again, and laughed suddenly, the smile crinkling the skin at the corner of his eye and socket.

"What's so funny?"

"I never imagined becoming a weekend dealer to the undead." The warmth of the fire felt good on the lid of his empty socket, drying the clammy, sticky feeling it always got when he left his patch on too long. He gave Spike's hand a pat and levered himself to his feet, grimacing as the knots in his back unkinked. "One mug of blood and The Good Stuff coming up."

Spike looked - not good - but at least better, reclining in the pillows in the firelight's glow. It seemed somehow more...right...than his first plan to put Spike in bed, where he'd have had no place to burrow. Nothing to gather and hold the radiant warmth around him.

Spike drifted, half awake and half asleep, the pain dimming to an all-over ache like a bad, long fall - Like falling from the tower, god, don't, don't... Listening to Xander move around his house - go out to the garage and come back; fridge and microwave door and the small, domestic sounds he hadn't heard in...so very long. He wondered idly what color straw Xander would find this time.

Pink. With cheerful yellow candy cane stripes swirling up the sides. And best of all, a full bottle of rattling white pills.

"I've got three of these, full. And three more to pick up next time I drive to L.A..." Spike's eyebrows lifted, the only part of him that didn't look to be heavily weighted into the mass of pillows and silk. "I told you I don't like taking them."

"Why pick them up at all then?"

Xander shrugged, uncapping the bottle and passing it to Spike to choose as many as he wanted from it. "Doctor's orders, but I'm fine with aspirin. It's just headaches, right?" Mind-numbing, brain-searing, but no worse than a head wound from being thrown against walls by the monster of the week.

And nothing compared to having a guy shove his thumb into your eye socket. Despite the heat, a violent shudder ran down Xander's spine, and he shut his eye tight against that memory.

Spike's amusement over the straw Where in bloody hell did he find something like this? faded rapidly as Xander's scent - salty and dusty and a bit strong, but not bad - changed in an instant. Acquired the sour tang of fear and Spike stopped digging in the pill bottle and looked up at him sharply. Xander's eye was squinted tightly shut and he looked diminished somehow - looked...spooked. Fuck. Remembering that bastard Caleb and...fuck...

"Xan? Xander...it's all right." Spike rubbed at Xander's knee helplessly and the man shuddered. And finally, finally relaxed, just a bit.

Xander drew in a sharp breath, holding it until spots floated before his eyes and he could feel Spike's fingers where they rested against his leg, then let it out hard. Head hanging down, he waited for the world to settle again, and laid his hand on top of Spike's. "Yeah. Sorry. Just...sorry." His smile felt shaky when he tried it on, looking up at Spike.

At Spike who was the only reason he still had one good eye, and god damn he was not going to cry. He'd never thanked Spike. But if he tried now, there was no way the words were getting out without embarrassing himself, so he blinked quickly and gave Spike's hand a soft squeeze. "Thanks," he got out; one word coming out fine when more would stick.

"Sure, pet," Spike replied, certain somehow that there was more to that 'thanks', but not wanting to poke at it any more than he wanted to remember the tower, and his long, long fall. Fall from grace, fall from...sanity. It all started there, didn't it? All started then. That fall that should have brought Doc down with me, the fall that killed Buffy... We all fell into darkness then...

"Sure...anything..." he repeated, just above a whisper, and for a moment the utter misery on Xander's face was too much - was so wrong. The shaky little smile hid nothing at all. And then the smile got a little more solid and Spike had to smile back.

"Couple of old queens, aren't we, blubbin' all over each other." Spike had to laugh at that, and he hoped Xander would, too.

Xander was relieved when the laughter seemed to take the last of the tightness in his chest with it. "We're last year's harem girls. We've been replaced by newer and sportier models, and I guess this is where I'm supposed to say 'but we still have each other' but even my capacity for cheesy lines has its limits." The words came out in a rush that left Xander breathing easily again, smiling easily again. "We're pretty screwed up, huh?"

He helped Spike to hold the mug of blood, too heavy for the light grip that'd rested on his thigh, wrapping his fingers around both the mug and Spike's hand.

"We're not so bad off. Got drugs, anyway." Spike sipped the blood - tipped four of the pills into his palm and downed them, grimacing at the acrid taste and the unpleasant way they scraped down his throat. He sucked down another inch or two of blood and then it was all just too much and he leaned back and closed his eyes. "Can't keep my eyes open, anymore. Just gonna rest a bit, yeah?"

Xander took the mug from Spike's hand, adjusting the silk sheet one last time. "Yeah. And me. Stinky man go shower now."

Spike's tired chuckle followed Xander to the kitchen, but as he came back through the living room, it was to find Spike deeply asleep in the nest of pillows.

Xander let out a breath of relief, stripping quickly in his bedroom, wondering if he'd remembered to put anything in the dryer the night before and if it'd smell too badly of mildew if he waited another hour or two to get around to it.

Because thinking about that kind of thing was so much easier than thinking about everything else in his life that'd taken a turn for the Hellmouthy in the last day.

Not that he'd expected to avoid Hellmouthy entirely, what with working on the fucking Hellmouth.

He just hadn't expected Spike and the memories he brought with him.

And had a feeling that if- when, he corrected himself sternly - Spike recovered, it'd be the only good thing the Hellmouth ever gave him.

Xander pulled up short in the bathroom, just about to reach for the tub tap and made a face at the thin gray scum that covered every surface inside the tub. Shower sounds good.


~*~*~*~*~


Spike woke with a start, lifting his head sharply and lifting an arm, as well. Fending off something that wasn't there and when was he going to wake up like a normal vamp again? It took him a moment to get his bearings fireplace, pillows, clove-spice-Xander-smell, silk... and then he heaved a sigh and pushed himself up. He'd only slept a couple of hours - the intensity of reflected sunlight coming through the blinds wasn't that different now then before - and he leaned on his arm a moment, trying to figure out what had woken him.

Pain's not bad at all...damn good drugs...still tired, but... That's all I've been, lately. He lifted his head, scenting the air, and noticed another smell - faint but different.

It took him a moment to recognize it. Cordite. What the fuck? He pushed himself to his knees and rocked there a moment, getting his nerve and his strength up. Then he pushed, hard, and he was standing, the silk sheet slipping off his hips and he snatched at it, dragging it up around him, flipping one corner over his shoulder so he wouldn't trip over it. A wave of giddy lightness swamped him, and for a moment he felt like he was flying.

Oh, yeah...good drugs. He could hear something, as well - rise and fall, measured cadence of voices and he made his way slowly over to the sliding glass door. The blinds were down - almost but not quite closed - but it didn't seem that the sun was hitting the window just yet. He saw the little control by the door and stepped into shadow anyway before he touched the button that would activate them. The blinds slowly tilted open then scrolled up; showing him the back yard, the patio, Xander and...some man. Dark, dark-haired, goatee and mustache and casual, stained work-clothes. He was the one that stank of explosives. Unthinking - in fact, a little dazed - he reached out and pushed the door open.

"-so Matt came in early, and Russ called Julio from the Pasadena site-"

Xander looked up when Carl stopped talking to find Spike in the doorway, pale, rumpled, and still wearing only the sheet. Okay. Blush? Any minute now? Huh. No blush. Though there was a big grin. "Uh, Carl? This is Spike. The guy who got stuck in the old church."

"Somehow, I wasn't expecting you to look..." Carl trailed off, not quite sure where to look on Spike, but frowning at the scars and hollows on his body. "So unhealthy. Are you sure you don't want to go to the hospital? Alex explained it's against your beliefs, but man..."

Xander held out a hand to Spike, the concrete cool and still free of sun though it was beginning to slant in to warm the western edge of the patio floor.

Spike found himself answering the grin on Xander's face with one of his own and he stepped out onto the patio, anticipating pain and finding that the pills he'd taken had blunted even the rasp of cheap concrete. He stepped carefully across, his hand going out to Xander's and the silk flowed off his shoulder, sssssing faintly as it burned over his chest and arm. He grabbed at it and managed to catch the trailing edge, but not before he heard the soft gasp of surprise - or maybe horror - from... Cedric? No...

"Oops," he said, and giggled, Xander's hand warm on his elbow and the breeze that was blowing in at them stiffish and cool and tinged with the unmistakable scent of the sea.

Xander reached behind him, fetching a second chair, careful to position it away from the sun, for Spike to sit in. "Spike, this is Carl. He works the day shift."

Carl still looked more than a little nonplussed by the slipping sheet. "Alex, when you said you knew him -"

"We were roommates before the collapse," Xander explained, letting Spike keep a grip on his arm as he eased onto the cool canvas of the patio chair, because while the drugs seemed to be doing enough to leave Spike stoned out of his mind, he doubted they could withstand Spike falling on his ass on the concrete.

"School of hard knocks," Spike said, having a little trouble getting his tongue to work exactly right. He squinted over at Xander, then at the other man, frankly surveying the short, stocky man whose bared arms bulged with muscle and whose waist was showing a bit of a spread. "Not much keeps Harris down, though," he mumbled, and plucked at the sheet that lay over his legs. "Wanna get me somethin' to drink, mate? Could do with a bit of the..." Spike made a gesture that was meant to convey blood, mug, and bendy-straw but looked more like something Dru might do - or maybe jazz hands, he wasn't sure. "Hair'a the dog, yeah?"

Xander raised his eyebrows, giving Spike's arm a pat. "Some of the good stuff," he confirmed. "Carl, you want anything?"

"Yeah. Got anything lite?"

Xander groaned. "No. But I do have iced tea and a couple of kinds of soda. It's two in the afternoon. What are you doing drinking beer?"

"It's also over ninety five in the shade. Have a heart."

"Have a soda!" Xander answered with a laugh, leaving the door open behind him as he headed for the kitchen.

"So," Carl said, still chuckling a little, "I heard the story from Dave. How'd you end up down there?"

Spike realized he could see the ocean as well as smell it and he sat for a long moment, watching the distant glint and swell of the blue-grey-green horizon that was confettied with the white tops of rushing waves. Gulls called, their harsh cries muted by the distance and Spike took a long breath, filling his senses with the clean, living thing that was the sea.

"You okay?"

Spike blinked - looked over into dark brown eyes and a troubled frown and he shifted a little in the chair - hitched ineffectually at the sheet.

"Oh, yeah, m'fine mate. Fine."

"Seemed a little out of it. So - how did you get down there, in that church?" The man Xander said...Charles? No...Ches....damn it! Something with a c...

"I was just...lookin' around, you know..." Spike made to rub over the scars on his chest but stopped himself in time. "Got late, and I got tired and...it seemed like a good place to... What did Xander tell you?"

The man shrugged. "He didn't have time to tell me much. He said you were in LA. On medication, that he figured you must have run out, got confused." A frown. "How'd you get on medication if you don't believe in going to doctors?"

Xander ran the last few steps onto the patio, passing Spike a thermal coffee cup with a (yes) blue straw sticking out of the firmly closed lid, and handed Carl an orange soda. "Just hospitals. The psychologist's okay because he doesn't poke and probe." Xander tried to ignore Spike snickering quietly at that. "I called him and picked up Spike's medication this morning. He's a little loopy readjusting to it."

"Fuckin' seein' Aztec temples, mate," Spike muttered, and giggled when Xander coughed to cover an bit of out-of-control laughter. Yeah, supposed to be crazy... Could give him a bit of Dru, I suppose... Spike contemplated that for a moment, sucking on the straw, and then shot a sly look up at Xander.

"Know what the stars are sayin', pet?" he asked, and saw Xander's eye go wide as he got it. "They're sayin' that June is a very good month for me." Xander's face lost its half-amused, half-horrified look and went deadly serious, and Cade - no, Cooper? - chuckled politely.

"Too bad for you, then. Your stars are almost two months too late."

Spike heard what the man said, but it took a moment for it to sink in. "How, two months too late?" he snapped, and the man looked uneasy - looked at Xander, who was reaching for Spike, mouth opening to say - something.

"It's August, man," Carl said, and Spike...just closed his eyes.

"Carl, could you give us a minute?"

Carl looked from Xander to Spike, and stood up. "Yeah. Gotta let Mariel know I'm home. We'll drop by this evening. Her grandmother bought out a tamaleria in San Diego by the look of it, so it's share the wealth or buy a second freezer."

Xander forced a smile for Carl, holding out a hand to shake with him. "Thanks, Carl. This evening?"

"Yeah. Nice meeting you, Spike. You take care."

Spike gave a tense nod, the lines of his body tight and rigid as he stared out to sea. Xander slipped from his chair, resting his hands on Spike's knees, palms up, looking into his face. "You didn't know?"

"Bloody hell. Fucking August?? Xander - it can't be August. I was just -" Spike wanted to throw the cup in his hand - instead, he leaned a little sideways and let it thunk softly to the ground. "I just lay down, Xander. I just wanted to sleep is all. Just -" Spike made a frustrated motion with his hands, feeling the tremble in them - feeling the jitter of tension and Fear. That's what it is, mate, fuckin' fear... twist his insides as tight as a wire.

"I just wanted to sleep. I didn't... I didn't sleep for...for weeks, Xander! Did I?" He hunched over, fists to his temples and the fear roaring through him like a wave, because he'd come so close to death, so fucking close and hadn't even known. And was still there, right there, because the pills were fuckin' brilliant but they weren't a cure and the blood wasn't helping, wasn't doing a damn thing, he was in some kind of limbo, some kind of stasis -. He didn't realize he was shuddering - almost whimpering - with the crushing realization. Vampires don't get sick but I am, I am, and it's not getting better and I don't know what to do, I don't know what to do...

"Spike...Spike." Xander curled his fingers into tight fists, wanting to reach out to Spike, pull him into his arms until the whimpering stopped, until the shudders eased, and at last reached up to wrap his hands carefully around Spike's wrists, conscious that it was the pills pushing him into this new hysteria.

He spoke low and fast, back to the murmur where it was all tone because it'd worked before, and it was all he had. "We're gonna find the cure if I have to go to London and rip apart the Council's library myself. And I'll call fucking Angel and stab him through with hot pokers until he agrees to help. I'll even let you watch."

Spike's head shot up at that, and Xander's answering smile was almost wicked. "What, you didn't think Oz would come back with stories to tell?"

"Xan - pet, you -" Spike couldn't help it, he laughed, and that broke the tension and broke the tight, twisting knot of panic that had seized up his insides and brought him right back to the edge of incoherency.

"He told me all about it, Spike," Xander said, still with that wicked grin and his hold on Spike's wrists eased, until he was simply holding them, one thumb rubbing up and back in a mindless, soothing caress.

"Soddin' dogboy rammed me with his van. Shot a crossbow at me!"

"The nerve!" Xander huffed, and Spike laughed again, leaning forward until his forehead could rest on Xander's shoulder. The spicy, mint-citrus scent was stronger now, and Xander's hair was damp along his neck - curling a little.

"You're barmy, mate. Thank you," he added, almost a whisper, and closed his eyes.

Xander tilted his head, feeling the fluff of Spike's hair tickling his cheek and brought a hand up to carefully cup the back of Spike's skull. "Hey, you think I want to live with Mr. Traumatized Crazy Guy?" His tone was too gentle to carry any sting, though, or snark. He just rested there, one hand around Spike's wrist, the other petting his hair.

"I meant it, Spike. Whatever it takes. Whoever it takes."





Square Four

Spike swam into consciousness slowly, stretching himself carefully in The Nest. He'd started thinking of it like that sometime Saturday - long about the third visit from a 'just was in the neighborhood' co-worker. From what Xander said, they all lived in the neighborhood, so what you actually had were people - a lot of people - who were worried about Xander. Alex.

It made Spike smile a little, thinking about it. A far cry from the Sunnyhell of old and the Scooby gang, whose self-absorption knew no bounds. Spike yawned and contemplated getting up, but not for long. It just felt so good here, snugged in and warm. And weak. Don't forget the legs that barely get you across the room.

He dismissed that inner voice, and pushed himself up on one elbow. He could hear Xander outside on the patio, talking. A moment later the door in the dining room was sliding open and Xander came in.

"No, I left a message, what I'd really like is an answer...no...look, can you just...hello? Hello? Damn it!"

Xander stomped around the end of the dividing wall, the cordless phone in his hand, looking pissed off. His hair was dripping onto his shoulders and he had a towel around his waist and Spike could smell chlorine. Xander'd been swimming between calls.

"Morning, pet. Or - is it afternoon?"

Xander snorted, dropping the phone onto the couch end table and unwrapping his towel, using it to scrub at his hair. "Still morning, but you wouldn't know it from how many people have hung up on me already. You'd be amazed how touchy magic shop owners get when a stranger calls asking about a supplier for human blood."

He gave his shoulders a quick rubdown then tossed the towel at one of the bar stools at the counter as he wandered into the kitchen, calling back to Spike. "O neg or O pos? Sunnyside up or...no, that doesn't work." Xander opened the refrigerator, surveying the contents before yanking out the milk and cereal for his own breakfast. Still cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs after all these years. Thank you, Saturday Morning Television.

"Either'll do."

"Eenie meenie minie..." Xander shook his head, just grabbing the bag on top and preparing Spike's blood alongside his cereal. "You know places to get blood in LA, right? Because we really are down to the last few, and I think stealing it from Alicia is only something my heart can stand once in this lifetime."

"Sure we can come up with something," Spike answered absently, blinking into the empty spot where Xander had been standing. Guess he...went native in Africa. Never was that casual in the basement. Xander didn't have the dark tan his day-shift counterparts did, but he was tan. Tan all over, because Xander apparently swam in the nude, and also, apparently didn't mind Spike knowing. Spike didn't have a problem with it himself, truth be told, but his experience with Harris in the past hadn't been one of casual, comfortable nudity.

Startin' to rub off on him, Spike thought with a small smirk. Abruptly he changed his mind and decided he wanted to get up. He gathered himself together and slowly pushed himself upright, tugging the folds of the silk sheet around him. The cheap pine of the barstools was rough and unpleasant and he'd need the sheet for padding. He went carefully into the kitchen, a little floaty from the pills, and folded the majority of the sheet onto the stool and eased himself up onto it, making sure the sheet was under his feet as well when he put them on the bottom rung.

"I hope so, because it's that or pig blood, and I really don't want to feed you pig blood. Pause to marvel at the amazing evolution of Alexander Harris." Xander peeked back over his shoulder to find Spike staring at him with a nonplussed expression on his face. "I ate a lot of unpleasant stuff in Africa, Spike," he said, and hoped Spike would get the rest. If pig blood was to Spike anything like some of the canned horrors Xander had fed himself on in Africa were to him, the stuff would never again grace his refrigerator.

Unlike orange juice. Ah, sunny orange juice. How I missed you on the Dark Continent. Xander traded milk for a carton of orange juice and bumped the door closed with a hip, scribbling it onto his shopping list beneath Spike's B..

Xander was stretching up into a cabinet for a glass and Spike idly studied him.

Whittled down from his former Sunnydale heaviness by hard work and Africa - he'd gotten dysentery too many times to count, he'd said - he had the long, sinewy muscles of someone who'd spent a lot of time walking, running, and lifting. A set of parallel scars showed on his right shoulder-blade where he'd gotten caught in some razor-wire in a refugee camp in Senegal.

Another scar, long, twisty and slightly raised, ran from the outside of his left thigh to the back of his knee, courtesy of a rampaging wildebeest.

And, when he turned around, grinning, purple-starred glass in one hand, Spike's blood in the other, Spike could see the ugly, puckered wound of a gun-shot right below his rib-cage. Gift of a soldier, somewhere in Mozambique.

Been around, he has. And look at him - grin like Christmas morning. Spike couldn't help but grin back.

Xander laughed, looking into the silverware drawer and plucking out a blue straw. "Matches your eyes," he said, dropping it into Spike's warmed blood and pushing it across the counter. Leaving his cereal on the countertop, Xander circled around and bent to retrieve the towel that'd slithered off its intended stool, draping two layers of it carefully over the cheap pine because there were places where a wise man just didn't risk getting splinters. "So," he said, settling in. "LA. Blood. Contacts. Got any? Because I've called every place from here to Oxnard, and I've got jack."

"Got a couple people - well, not people people..." Spike sucked up some blood, thinking. "Might even be able to find us a contact up here, you know?" He cradled his warm mug in his hands. Still hasn't noticed his bollocks to the wind. Because... Spike took a sharp breath, realization dawning. He trusts me. Trusts me enough to...do that. God. Then something Xander had said finally registered and he turned an incredulous grin on Xander. "Matches my eyes, pet? Think you're takin' your duties as a harem boy too seriously."

Xander grinned around a mouthful of cereal, washing it down with orange juice and a grimace. Okay. One of these days I will remember not to wash the milky chocolate down with the orange juice. I've gotta get a coffee maker. "It's your eyes or your toga, and I'm running out of red straws for that one." He felt a small knot of tension ease as Spike didn't seem to be bothered by Xander's after swim habits, and dug into his cereal anew. Jesus. I'm either going to have to put that load in the dryer today or buy a new wardrobe.

Spike grinned around his straw and slurped up some blood. "Can't be anything worse then pig's blood, mate. S'like...like..." Spike couldn't think of any human food that he'd ever eaten that compared to pigs blood when you were used to the hot vitality of human blood from the jugular of a squirming, terrified victim.

Good times... he thought, sighing, and then perked up.

"How about cuttin' us a slice of that cake then?"

"Which one? The chocolate cake with white frosting from Mariel, or the...pink cake from Deb?" Which had turned out to be surprisingly good once a guy got past the pinkness. They still hadn't been able to agree on a flavor for it.

He pushed his bowl aside, leaning across the counter to snag a couple of plates and forks, grabbing a knife on the way. "Oh, and don't forget the sheet coffee cake Angela's grandmother made for us." It was getting hard not to laugh, because some time after mid-day on Saturday, the wives had started to come over more often than the husbands. He was starting to think it had something to do with Spike's stylin' toga.

"There's coffee cake?" Spike perked even more, because coffee cake when done by a deft hand - and somebody's grandmother had to be deft - was sheer heaven.

"Coffee cake it is," Xander said, peeling back a layer of cling film. Spike watched him, admiring the bunch and play of muscles in Xander's abdomen as he leaned over the counter again, going for a paper towel. Thank god he's not some beer-gut breeder. At least I've got something nice to look at while I recuperate. Speaking of recuperating... Spike slurped up some more blood, wondering how to broach the subject. He'd come to a conclusion some time in the night about his 'cure', or lack thereof. He was pretty sure, unless a sodding miracle happened in the next few days that he'd have to do something drastic. He was at a plateau, but he could feel it eroding underneath him. He slept more, felt weaker, and was taking eight of the little white pills now.

He wasn't getting better, and he was pretty sure the only person who could help him was in L.A. He was pretty sure he needed to call Wes.

"Xan...need to talk to you for a minute..." he said slowly, and saw a brief flash of uncertainty in that bright, laughing brown eye.

Not even got the patch on, and I didn't even notice. And neither did he. Maybe this'll be okay.

Xander cut and retrieved the cake slowly, trying not to feel the punch-in-the-gut feeling those words still brought out in him, fiddling with the paper towels and forks before setting it at Spike's elbow.

"Pet?"

Xander flashed Spike an apologetic grimace, rubbing at the hollow feeling just below his ribs. "Historically speaking, those words are not the prelude to a happy conversation, Spike." He lifted another slice of the cake onto his own plate and stuffed a bite into his mouth. A chewing mouth gathered no feet.

"Not like I'm given' you back your pin, Harris. You git," Spike teased, and smirked when Xander blushed. "I was just - thinkin' that maybe... Maybe I'm gonna have to call Wes on this." He braced himself, although for what, precisely, he wasn't sure. Just...something. Know he's not too keen on the L.A. crew, but...I'm out of ideas.

"What about Angel?"

"No Angel. Just Wes."

Tension left Xander with a whoosh of breath. "Spike." He reached out, fingers stopping just short of brushing Spike's thigh, catching the silk instead. "If Wes can find a cure for you, I will personally drive to his door and camp out there until he agrees to do it."

"Probably won't have to do that." Spike felt the hairs along his thigh raise up, reacting to the heat of Xander's hand, hovering so close. "Me and Wes...we kind of... Well, we got along there at the end, you know? He was... He'd lost...someone and..." Spike wasn't sure what to say - wasn't sure Xander wanted to hear the whole sorry mess of Fred and Wes and Illyria. Wasn't sure he wanted to tell it.

"'Sides, Wes knows when to keep his mouth shut. Angel's gotten an even bigger stick up his arse since the big 'blaze of glory' that wasn't. He'd probably just stake me to put me out of my misery."

"How 'bout staking Angel to put him out of our misery?" Xander muttered, giving his cake a poke before glancing over at Spike, looking just a little guilty and nodding again. "Okay. We call Wes. But..." He trailed off, frowning.

"But what?"

"Why'd you wait all weekend to suggest him? I mean, if things are good between the two of you." The question came out, to Xander's relief, honestly confused without a whiff of whine.

"Oh, I just..." Spike hesitated, pulling his straw out of the cup and using it to dribble blood over the last couple bites of coffee cake. Didn't want to admit to being that sick. Didn't want to admit to being at my wit's end... He glanced over at Xander who looked - expectant, and not pissed off, or upset. Do I lie? Or do I...spook him? Well, that's assuming he'll be spooked. His gaze wandered down for just a moment, to the bullet-scar and the top of a naked thigh, and he made up his mind.

"He's kind of my last resort, Xander," he said quietly.

Xander could almost feel Spike's gaze, tracking from one scar to another, and when he spoke, hearing it was almost a relief. God, he was sick of pretending things were all right when they weren't. He nodded. "I kinda figured." When Spike looked up at him, he went on. "You...really don't look good."

"Thought I was pretty enough to be in your harem." Spike spoke with a small smile but he knew Xander was right. He knew...from the shocked looks on Xander's friends' faces when they first caught sight of him, and no amount of flourish with a red silk sheet or 150 years of experience charming the willing and unwilling into his bed could hide the fact that he looked... A right mess. They probably think I'm one of those sorry bastards with the AIDS... Fuckin' hell. Sorry, Xan...didn't mean to get you into this mess...

Spike's small smile where a smirk should be hurt to watch, so Xander shrugged, waving what he hoped was a regal enough looking hand. "I'm a carpenter, Spike. My belief in fixer-uppers extends to my harem." He debated silently with himself for a moment whether or not to say the rest, then gave in, because pleasant or not, it was pretty true. "And if there's one thing I learned in my years as a Scooby, it's that it's pretty hard to kill a vampire with anything but decapitation or a stake."

And even then, it's not gonna be easy.

"First I'm the girl, now I'm some...some neglected Victorian that just needs some goateed carpenter's TLC?"

"As if even Bob Vila could resist you, you sexy fool."

Spike stared in astonishment at Xander for one long moment and then they both lost it, laughing hysterically until Spike was clutching at the countertop to keep himself from falling off his stool and Xander was wheezing like an asthmatic.

"Bloody...buggering...fuck!" Spike gasped, wincing a little at the sizzle of pain up his chest. "You're the living end, mate."

"The fine quality of my humor has only improved with age," Xander intoned solemnly, gathering up empty plate, bowl, and glass and circling the counter to put them in the dish washer, rinsing out Spike's empty mug as well before leaning his elbows on the counter, and his chin on one hand. "So we call Wes, heal you up, and then come back here to resume this crazy fun filled thing called life."

And after that, if Spike was planning to leave, Xander really didn't want to know.

Come back here. Come back here. Was that...an invitation? Huh. Why does he want to come back here? Got the whole world to wander... "If we're lucky. If Wes can help. If - if... Too many bloody 'if's! Vampire's don't get sick! It's bloody impossible." Spike sighed, looking at Xander who was looking back solemnly. "Or, I thought it was impossible."

Xander tipped his head. "Angel never told you about being poisoned by Faith, did he?" The look of surprise on Spike's face was all the confirmation Xander needed. "When Faith was still in Sunnydale working for the mayor, she shot Angel with a poisoned arrow, this stuff called Killer of the Dead. Made him weak. Made him feverish, with all this weird," Xander indicated the red crazing on Angel's chest over the same place on his own, "veining or something. Looked like a gunshot scar gone nuts. He was worse off than you are now."

Spike stared at Xander, feeling a bubble of hope rise in his chest. "Yeah? Knew I liked that chit... So - how'd they cure him? Hair-shirt and a rosary?"

"Blood of a slayer." Xander flicked a glance at Spike through his hair. "He drained Buffy."

Spike was literally speechless, a whole gamut of remarks rising up and then being discarded. He settled for a disgusted snort. "Bet that added ten years penance and a whole slew of Hail Mary's. Miserable bastard. Oh!" He grinned and Xander lifted both eyebrows in anticipation, the lid of his missing eye moving slightly. "Does that mean I get to drain Kennedy?"

"God, please. Even if it's not the same poison, drain her with my blessings." Xander dropped his head into his arms, smiling. "It's probably not, though. He had this weird red stuff. Not black. And it moved fast. A day after he was hit, he was worse off than you were in the church. And he'd been feeding."

"Wouldn't mind a trip to Brazil," Spike said vaguely, remembering being there with Dru, and how Dru had wanted to climb up to the top of the big Jesus statue - look into his eyes, she said, and see if there was a soul in there. A twitchy, unpleasantly hot feeling was coming over him, and suddenly every nerve ending seemed to wake up and scream - to burn.

"Fuckin' pills're wearin' off -" he said, pushing himself clumsily off the stool. The next thing he knew he was on his arse on the floor, the silk puddled over one thigh and his whole body feeling very much like it did when he had started to burn under - Under here. Right under here, under this fucking town that should have gone straight to hell.

Xander saw the twitch first, made it to Spike's side as he collapsed, swearing under his breath. "Come on. Back to The Nest. More pills. More booze. I call Wesley." Because talking was always so much easier than thinking. The silk tickled his legs as he carried Spike back to the living room, walking awkwardly with the effort to avoid too much contact on Spike's over-sensitive skin.

Bloody hell. This is getting - "Ridiculous, mate, it's..." Spike felt the first warning cramps in his back and legs as the fever - never far away - decided to kick back in. "Fuck. Aspirin too," he gritted, jaw clenched tight, and Xander nodded, his hair brushing Spike's face as he carefully lowered him back into The Nest.

"Didn't even g-get to enjoy bein' carried by my naked ha-harem boy," Spike joked, but his voice trembled and Xander lightly touched his cheek, eye dark and stormy.

"Shh." Because if there was one thing Xander recognized, it was babble to distract someone from seeing how bad off you really were. Which was about the worst time to stop and talk. He left Spike in the pillows on top of his silk, stoked the fire, and snatched up the pills, pouring the last handful into Spike's palm, cupping his hand from beneath until he took them, if shakily.

Gotta get more of those in LA too. Fuck, I don't want to need them. Xander thought, walking to the bathroom for the aspirin, and maybe a cool wash cloth.

And he didn't need to think about the funny tingle Spike's words started in his belly, because naked? He had no secrets and now was not the time to be thinking about naked harem boy games with Spike.

Not that any time was -

Xander stilled, one hand raised to the bathroom cabinet. Okay. So not the time to be going there.

On the way back, he considered stopping to pull on a pair of sweatpants, but resisted the urge. Because about the last thing he wanted to do just then was start hiding from Spike.

Spike resisted the urge to curl into a ball, knowing that it would hurt more if he did but hating the way his legs jerked and trembled as the fever ramped up faster than should be possible. He watched Xander stride back from the bathroom, the aspirin bottle in one hand and a washcloth in the other. He looked - off, somehow, but he knelt down and opened the aspirin up - dumped out six and reached for the half-empty bottle of Jack sitting near the edge of The Nest. Spike managed to get the aspirin into his mouth and then took a couple of big swallows of the whiskey.

Xander took the bottle back and seemed about to say something, and Spike reached out and touched his knee, trying for a smile.

"Thanks, Xander."

Xander let out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding, and focused on capping the bottle instead. "Just wait until I have a cold or something, and you can pay me back with interest. Me in piles of soaked Kleenex? Not pretty." He settled himself cross-legged at the edge of The Nest, cradling the phone. "Do you remember Wesley's number? Or do I get started pissing off Directory Assistance asking for every Wyndam-Pryce in the Greater Los Angeles area?"

"Got his number in my c-coat," Spike said, and sighed gratefully as Xander tugged a blanket up higher around his shoulders before getting up and going to the coat tree by the door. He carried it back over and laid it gently over his knees and then looked at Spike. Spike looked back - blinked - then realized what Xander was doing.

"Inside right breast pocket, pet. You don't need to a-ask."

The coat lay heavy across Xander's knees; felt like the weight of everything it'd seen was stitched into the seams, and it felt alive as only well-worn leather could. Xander realized that this weekend...was the first time he'd ever actually touched the coat. When it wasn't on Spike.

"W-what's so funny?"

"I think your pet coat likes me," Xander said, then laughed at himself for how inane that sounded coming out, slipping his hand into the right breast pocket and coming up with a small leather address book. He blinked. "Nice."

"Fred gave me that," Spike said without thinking, and then bit his lip. He really did not want to talk about Fred right now. He hoped Xander wouldn't ask. "My coat likes those that treat it with the respect it deserves. S'why it's been with me all this time."

A hard spasm of shivers wracked him and he closed his eyes. Only thing he could do, until the pills kicked in. Wait it out - suffer it, like some sort of martyr. Fuck that. Not even Catholic. Don't wanna be a saint, for fuck's sake. "Think I put Wes under 'E'. Ex-Watcher."

Xander grinned even as he flipped through the little book, leaving the coat across his legs, one hand unconsciously smoothing the leather. I didn't expect it to be this soft. "You file like Cordy."

"Find what I'm looking for, don't I?"

"Right there, under E. I guess you do." When he started to dial though, he hesitated. "Do you want to talk to him? I mean...the last time I saw him, we were both pretty...different."

At least he was as much of an asshole to me as I was to him.

One shaky finger stroked the skin between Xander's brows. "What's got you thinking, pet?"

"Just changes." Xander caught Spike's wrist as it tremored, eased it down to rest on the coat over his lap. "I'd probably like him better now."

"You probably would." Spike thought for a moment and then nodded, making up his mind. "You dial it for me, yeah? And I'll talk. Might go easier." Xander nodded, concentrating on the phone and dialing for a moment, and then handing the slim instrument over when it began to ring.

"Wyndam-Pryce, good morning," Wes said, and Spike took a huge breath and almost choked.

"Wes? Wes, mate it's -"

"Good - god, Ss- No! Uh - Seven is incorrect. Angel, let me just take this call and I'll be right with you."

There was a murmured reply, and then the sounds of a door - another door - opening and closing, and then Wes's voice again, slightly breathless.

"Spike? Is that - is that really you?"

"Yeah, s'me. Listen Wes, I need -"

"Where are you? Where in hell have you been? You've managed to annoy Angel without even being here. Quite a feat."

Spike could hear the dry humor in the other man's voice and he chuckled softly. "Always do my best when it comes to annoying the poof, Wes... Listen, I really - really need your help."

There was a long moment of silence, and then a sigh. "Do I actually get any sort of explanation? Or am I expected to fly blind?"

"I... Damn-it, Percy..." Spike sighed, watching Xander make 'what's going on?' faces. He reached over and whapped him on the knee, making his own face back.

"I'm...sick."

Another long silence, and Spike squirmed uncomfortably, the phone actually heavy, his arm shaking from the position he was holding it in. Christ. Can't even do this...

"Sick? Vampire's don't get sick, Spike."

"Angel did. Xander said that -"

"Xander said? You mean - Alexander Harris? Are you with him? Where are you? Spike -"

"Look, Wes, I can't - I can't hold up the phone, okay? I'm - I'm gonna let you talk to Xander for a minute 'til I can... 'Til I get my second wind, yeah? Hang on."

Spike passed the phone to Xander with relief, ignoring the panicked look that crossed the man's face.

'Talk to him!' he mouthed, and Xander mouthed back 'No!'

"Xan, please? Just - tell him where we are an' stuff until I can - until the pills kick in, yeah?"

Xander slumped, looking defeated, and eyed the phone with trepidation.

"You so owe me, blondie," Xander said, but Spike looked so exhausted in the pillows, he couldn't feel anything but the worry. "Hey, Wes...ley," Xander added, wincing. How formal was he supposed to be with Ex-Watcher British Guy anyway? He found Spike's hand where it lay on the leather of the duster and wrapped his fingers around it, thumb sweeping a gentle arc across the palm. "Shit, let me start again. Spike's still here. He's sick."

"Ale-...Xander, where is 'here'?"

At Wesley's irritated tone, one part of Xander winced, another snapped, and he took a deep calming breath, feeling the comforting slide of the leather pouch around his neck with the motion. I am mature, grown up Xander version 3.0. "Couple of hours from LA," And then, because he might have been mature but he wasn't a saint, he added: "And this is about Spike. I'm almost out of blood for him. Human. Not the shit Angel made him drink."

"Why is he with you? Xander, please, humor me."

Feeling the knot of tension building in his shoulders, Xander let go of Spike's hand to rest his fingers back on the duster, clenching and un-clenching them on the coat until he felt Spike's light touch on the back, and turned his hand over again to let Spike's lay against his palm. "Because I found him in really bad shape, and I'm-" He looked up at Spike, unsure if Spike wouldn't want Wesley to know he's being taken care of.

"Go on, pet. He'll have to know if he's to help."

"I'm taking care of him," Xander finished. "But I don't know what's wrong with him. And neither does he."

"You found him... Xander, I really am going to need the full story if I'm to help at all." Xander closed his eyes for a moment and Spike curled his fingers around Xander's hand, silently urging him on.

"Okay...I'm - we're in Sunnydale. I've been living here, helping to rebuild...it's this whole...thing, okay? And - Spike - was here, just... Well, what he was doing here is his own business..."

Xander looked at Spike for confirmation and Spike raised a faint grin, nodding. Xander felt vaguely queasy telling Wesley where they were, irrational as it might have been. "Some of the buildings here went down whole in the collapse last year. I found him delirious in a church and pulled him out, took him home. And look, we really don't want to involve Angel, or the Council, or -"

"Xander."

Xander stopped.

"I promise you that what you tell me will be held in complete confidence. And this will be easier on both of us, and on Spike, if you simply describe to me Spike's condition when you found him." He sighed. "I assure you I'm no more comfortable speaking to you at this moment than you are speaking to me. Go on."

Xander blinked. Okay. Wesley has changed. "Feverish. And you know how weird that is on a vampire. Delirious, like I said. He's got these three black slashes across his upper body that hurt him like a bastard. All of him hurts. When I found him, he couldn't handle the weight of his boots or coat."

"Did he get a look at the demon?"

"Uh. Spidery?" Xander looked to Spike for confirmation, receiving a nod, and nodded himself. "Spidery."

"Chitinous," Spike supplied helpfully.

"Chitinous, Spike says. Which is not a word that means anything to me, so I hope it means something to you."

Wesley laughed, and Xander found that the laugh made him sound like a different person completely. "Yes, it means something to me. And...how long has he been sick?"

"Ummm...a while. I mean, He's only been here a few days but..." Spike's wrist twitched under Xander's unconsciously stroking fingers, so he stilled. "And he's weak, Wes. Really weak."

"When - was he hurt?" Wesley asked slowly, and Xander heard the sudden tension in his voice.

"It happened in L.A. When all that - stuff - happened."

"But those were healed - Wesley stopped abruptly, and Xander heard a knock in the background. "Angel, if it cannot wait... Excuse me a moment." Xander listened to the click of the 'hold' button, gut tightening.

"What?" Spike asked.

"How sensitive is Angel's hearing?"

Spike snorted. "Trust Wesley to know. You're in no danger of being overheard with him, pet."

"He's that paranoid?"

Spike shrugged. "He knows Angel."

"And now you make me doubt his sanity."

Spike considered that, grinning a little. "Well, he did kinda lose it there for a while. Stabbed Gunn, shot some poor sod of an intern in the leg -" Xander's eye was getting wider and wider and Spike had to laugh. Fuckin' pills finally kickin' in. Thank Christ.

"Here - lemme have the phone, I can do it now," he added, holding out a hand that still shook like an old man's. At least it doesn't hurt so much now, though. Thank god for chemicals.

"Isn't Gunn a good guy?" Xander managed to ask in the whirl of mental-conflict between the Wesley he knew and the Wesley on the other end of the phone.

Spike smirked, taking the phone from him and bringing it to his ear. "He got better."

"Oh. Great."

"Yes, I'm back now, Xan- Spike? What are the two of you snickering about?"

"Your imitation of Billy the Kidd, Wes. Listen, you've got the basics, yeah? Think you can help me or not?"

"Billy the -? Spike, it's hardly necessary to tell Xander about that, and yes, I think I can help. But I would ideally need to see you in person."

A 'no' rose automatically to Spike's lips but he checked it, lying there watching at Xander's hand flex slowly around his. "Are you...sure, Wes? I mean, you've got that great big brain, why do you need to see me?"

'See you?' Xander mouthed, with what looked like alarm, and Spike nodded slowly.

"I want to be sure I get my diagnosis right, Spike. I would feel very uncomfortable doing this strictly over the phone. Listen, I have to get back to - to things, why don't you...two...think about it and call me back around...three? I'll be in my office then."

Spike thought that over for a minute - felt himself drifting off almost, the pills making everything sharp-edged and too bright and he'd closed his eyes.

"Yeah, that's - that's a good idea. Ta, Wes."

"Goodbye."

Wes disconnected and Spike let the phone slip from his hand - felt Xander take it and heard him turn it off.

"So what's the plan, Stan?" Xander asked.

"Call him back at three, and - he wants us to go down there. Meet him." Spike forced his eyes open and looked up at Xander. "Might be the only way, pet."

Xander nodded, laying his hand over Spike's again, then turning the phone on, dialing before he could change his mind and give in to the protective instinct to...shut everyone who wasn't Sunnydale out. And how weird was it that the Scoobs weren't Sunnydale anymore? Not to him.

"Who're you calling now?"

Xander's lips twisted into something like a rueful smile. "Carl. I'm going to call in my vacation days. See if Julio's coming up in time to take over my crew for a week."

"Mmmm... Holiday. Should go to the beach. Dru loved the beach..." Spike murmured, closing his eyes again and just drifting. "She was always tryin' to find a mermaid or a - selkie."

The pills really were working now, and Spike felt like he was floating up to the ceiling, tethered to the earth only by Xander's light grip on his hand.

It felt...nice.

"Did she ever find one?"

"Nah. Found some pretty shells. Had a headdress made of 'em for her once. Looked like a selkie herself." Spike's words trailed off vaguely, and Xander bent his head over Spike's arm, running his fingers from shoulder to wrist. It'd felt...nice having it done to him when he was in the midst of one of the five million bouts of dysentery he'd gone through in Africa. Cooled down the fever. Soothed the aches. Sort of hypnotic.

But nice.

With his other hand, he brought up Carl's number on the speed dial and waited.


~*~*~*~*~


Spike was aware, in a peripheral sort of way, of voices. Rather hushed ones, talking back and forth nearby. Like church, sort of, and he twisted a little, wondering why he was on his back.

"Angelus, leave off the chatter for god's sake and come on, the girls are waiting!" he called, impatient as always of Angelus' annoying habit of chatting up, then shocking every priest he came across. And then draining dry, of course.

"Just have your dinner and be done," he added, and groped for his coat. Where was it? He was so cold. Damn drafty churches - it's a wonder we all didn't catch pneumonia and die.

Xander returned to find Spike shivering, groping blindly for the edges of the sheet that had drifted away as he slept. "Hey."

"'Gelus?"

"Wow, even out of it, you really know how to insult a guy, Spike." Xander rested his hand on Spike's forehead, feeling the heat pouring off of him. He smoothed the skin between Spike's eyebrows with a thumb until Spike opened his eyes and squinted.

"Xan?"

"Yeah. It's me. Time to go. Carl helped me load everything into the truck for the trip to LA."

Spike struggled to sit up until Xander slid an arm under his shoulders, helping him, letting him rest bonelessly against his chest, smelling more of spice and wood smoke now than cigarettes and leather. He held pills, and water - with a green straw this time.

"What 'everything'?" Spike asked, still too sleep-muddled and groggy to do more than obediently take pills and water as Xander held them to his lips.

"Pillows. Lots of them. And some soft traveling clothes. You've got a nest in the back of the truck now and he couldn't find any soft shirts, but if you don't mind going used, this one's pretty soft, and still warm." Xander undraped the ancient flannel shirt from his arm. It'd seen him half way across Africa until it got too hot to wear it anymore.

Spike blinked a couple of times, forcing his vision to focus until he could see the faded, once-red shirt that Xander was holding out. He gathered it up and in an unconscious movement lifted it to his face and took a deep sniff. Xander, smells like...sweet-salt-spice, like apple dumplings and...that peppery scent...Africa, that's Africa... He nodded, shifting a little and struggling with the shirt.

"Don't mind, pet. Nice and soft," he said, trying to find the collar so he could slip it on.

"Here." Xander took the edges of the shirt, unbuttoning it and holding it for Spike to slip his arms into, drawing it up to his shoulders. "You should probably wear it open, keep it off the slashes. Carl picked up sweat pants for you too. The really new, soft -" Xander realized that Spike was looking at him with an utterly blank expression. "Uh. Have you ever worn sweat pants before?"

The arch of Spike's eyebrows was especially eloquent.

Xander groaned. "Right. Stupid me forgetting about vampires who have no circulation and go walking around in skin tight jeans all the time."

William the Bloody in...athletic gear. Sodding lovely. Spike took pity on Xander's crestfallen expression and did not say what he was thinking aloud.

"If they're as soft as this shirt, mate, they'll be lovely. Don't think I could stand the jeans now, anyway." He patted lightly at Xander's arm and smiled at him, and then smiled more when Xander immediately perked up. What makes him care what I think, anyway? Strange...sweet boy...

"And I don't wanna explain to the California Highway Patrol why there's a guy in my back seat naked from the waist down and stoned out of his mind." Xander unfolded the sweatpants - black, in deference to Spike's tastes - and about four sizes too large.

It was getting both easier and harder to slide an arm around Spike's ribs to steady him. Easier as Xander learned where not to touch, but harder, much harder, to feel how little Spike was able to help, how quickly Spike's strength was draining away from him. "Never thought I'd miss having you strong enough to toss me out of your way like a sack of rags." He propped Spike up with pillows, scooting down to his feet to help him dress.

"Rags, rags...rags and jags and one in a velvet gown..." Spike watched as Xander carefully threaded his feet through the bottoms of the sweatpants and then just as carefully pulled the loose, fleecy-soft material up his legs.

"What's that, blondie?" Xander asked, pulling the drawstring tight enough to keep the sweats on his hips, but not so tight that they cut into his skin.

"The beggars, love - but then, you never minded beggars, did you? Had some home for a lovely supper some nights, and then..."

Spike stopped when Xander looked up at him and the single, wary eye and dark, patched socket jolted his memory. "Sorry, pet. Got...confused for a minute."

"Got crazy for a minute, you mean," Xander answered, and shifted forward until he could slip his arms under Spike, testing the softness of the material. "Okay?"

"Okay." Spike's laid his hand against Xander's chest, patting lightly through the shirt. "Just, make it quick, yeah?"

"It's getting worse?"

"'S not getting better," Spike said after a moment.

"Do you -" Xander's eye fell on the empty bottle of Jack and he gave Spike a rueful smile. "I'll pick up another bottle on the way out of town."

"Ta ever so," Spike murmured, teeth gritted. Xander stood smoothly and started walking, carrying him as carefully as he could, but his weight pressed flesh to bone and Xander's jean-button kept scraping his hip. The air felt frigid once they'd moved away from the fireplace and Spike started to shiver. Xander stepped slowly down into the garage and over to his truck, which stood with the doors open and the front seat folded down.

Just like he'd said, there was another Nest in the back and Xander stood there for a moment, obviously wondering how he was going to get Spike in.

"Just - just get me close, Xander and I can - climb up, yeah?"

"We'll try," Xander said, sounding uncertain of the plan, but he maneuvered them both until Spike could reach out and get his elbows onto the edge and start a slow, painful craw into the padded space. He kept his mouth clamped shut but a tiny whimper of pain escaped him nonetheless.

"Oh, fuck. Sorry, damn-it - let me -"

"No, it's - I'm... I'm fine," Spike gasped and flopped down, pulling his legs slowly inside. "Did - did you call Wes? Is it past three yet?" he asked, that memory suddenly surfacing and making him panic, a little, because for the first time in a long time, he had no idea whatsoever what time of day it was.

Xander saw the first flickers of panic in Spike's eyes and leaned into the back seat until he could tangle his fingers with Spike's, just holding them. "Yeah. I called back a few hours ago. It's almost eight now. Said he's got a couple of leads but needs to see you. He thinks he knows what kind of demon it was. A... Jesus, it was something that sounded like 'constant rat abuse'," Xander admitted, tucking the pillows and blankets up around Spike so that he couldn't roll into anything hard or painful and setting the front seats upright again.

Spike chuckled, if weakly. "Pet, if I knew what the demon's name was, I would've told Wes, yeah?"

"Yeah, well, the point is that he thinks he knows what it was, and if it was, he said he'll know after he checks you out." Xander finally risked a look at Spike only to be met with wide, uncertain eyes. "I gave him the motel address, but he said it could take him a couple of days to get to us. Angel's suspicious."

"Meddling git. Wes'll figure a way - he's sneaky, really. Found out about the mind-wipe, didn't he? Got his memories back. Got Connor's." Spike watched Xander pat at his pockets, mumbling a mental checklist, and then reach for the keys and start the truck. The rumble seemed louder than before, echoing in the confined space of the garage and Spike resisted the urge to cover his ears.

"That's about what he said only he was more English about it."

"I'm English!"

"Spike, you're in a category all your own."

Spike snorted, and Xander thought he heard him mutter something that sounded like "Even called the wanker a 'meddling git'. You don't get much more fucking English than 'git'."

"Spike?" Xander asked, waiting for the garage door to open, then backing out onto the blunt driveway of his house, just like the blunt driveway of every other house in site.

"Yeah, pet."

"What do you mean mind wipe?"

"Oh...that." Spike paused for a moment to try and clear his head. The rumble of the truck was like the deep turbine groan of the ship he and Dru had crossed to America on, and he kept getting little flashes of that trip, and Dru at the bow, leaning into the stiff breeze, watching with fascination the curling wave of white-capped water that surged and hung just under the iron prow.

Intent on seeing a mermaid, and being childishly pleased to see a leaping, gleaming porpoise.

"See, Angel had a son with Darla -"

"Uh. Huh." Xander flipped the headlights on, keeping the truck at a crawl through the subdivision's twists and turns. "Dead Darla? Sire Darla?"

"That'd be the one."

"Neat trick. Even for Angel. So what happened. Did some god decide Angel was a special little vamp or something?"

Spike snorted a sour laugh. "Wolfram and bloody Hart, again. Brought the Bitch back from the dead, got my Dru to turn her, and then she and Peaches ended up shaggin' and that was that. Had a boy - Connor. He got all -" Spike waved his hand, trying to think about what, exactly, had happened to Connor, but Wes had told him over a few pints and he hadn't really been paying that much attention, anyway.

"Dunno what happened to him, really, 'cept he's in college now, 'stead of bein' three like he should be. Grew up in a demon dimension. Came back. Have to ask Wes, yeah?" The pills had him on the edge of collapse - floating in a strange, jumpy void of sensation and dim light. Flickers of Dru - of Sunnydale past - of his time in L.A. kept intruding over the image of Xander's head and shoulder, and his arm stretching down to the gear shift.

"Gimme a smoke pet, please?" he mumbled, feeling like he wanted one, but utterly clueless as to where they might be.

"How about some blood instead?" Xander leaned over, keeping his eye on the road and fished out one of the mugs in his cup holder, the one with the black straw sticking out. He passed it back to Spike, glancing reflexively in the rear view mirror at him before remembering with a jolt. Jesus, that shouldn't still get me every time. "So what does that have to do with a mind wipe?"

He took the turn out of the complex carefully, and the land opened up around them. A few streets of new green. First year's unrolled lawn sod, scraggly trees, and then...desert. The street was named Oasis Boulevard. Oasis, my ass. It looks more like a bad hallucination.

Spike braced the cup against the back of the seat and sucked up a mouthful of blood. It tasted...slightly off. Or odd. Something. He grimaced and stopped drinking. "Oh, it... I dunno, somethin' about Connor havin' a real life and..." The beam of an on-coming car dazzled across the roof of the truck and Spike squinted, flinching. God his head hurt. And the rumble-roar of the engine was numbing - deafening - making his teeth ache.

"Let's just get some sleep, yeah? C'mon, poppet, you lay down with me and sing me that song, the one 'bout the crows you like so much and we'll just rest a bit..." He felt his hand slipping off the cup, and the cup tipping, but he didn't have the strength to catch it, and barely noticed the warm blood dripping onto his hand.

Listening to Spike was becoming more and more like flipping through stations on the radio, and Xander tightened his grip on the steering wheel, taking the turn onto Shady Green, Hah! Maybe in thirty years. and into the darkest part of the brightly lit supermarket lot.

Shutting off the engine, he leaned back against the seat. Still possible to drive anywhere in Sunnydale in under five minutes. Even if this area had been outside city limits once. Maybe once the new construction was finished it'd be a real small city, not a sinister postage stamp. Then again, maybe it'd just become a sinister commemorative stamp.

"Spike?" Xander unbuckled his seatbelt, twisting against the leather to look back at his passenger and swore, snatching up the car mug, and dropping it into the holder. He grabbed the last of his napkins from some anonymous fast food meal and sopped up the dribbles over Spike's hand and the pillows with them. "Shit, I'm sorry."

A vague mumble was his only answer, and Xander gently eased Spike's hand out of the wet spot, cleaning the blood from his fingers and settling his hand closer to him. "Guess this'll be easier if you sleep through it, huh?" He smoothed a hand over Spike's hair, combing it away from his face, and wondering if he should offer to buy gel. Or a haircut. Or something.

Spike felt something rough dragging over and over his hand and he tried to pull away but it was as if all the muscles in his arm had simply been turned off. "Stop it, Dru," he said, but it was only a mumble even to his ears, and he doubted she'd heard. It stopped after a moment though, and then he felt something touching his hair - something stroking back through it and it felt good, felt nice, like his mother's hand when he'd been... Sick. Still sick? God, never going to be better, never going to... "Never bloody ends, never, ever ends, god..."

"You sound like me when I had chicken pox. I was fourteen, so it was pretty bad. I couldn't touch anything without it hurting and itching, and it felt like it'd never end. But it did." Xander's hand stilled when Spike spoke, then started again as he answered with a small smile, stroking his hair the way he'd had nobody to do when he was sick. It would have felt...good. "And I cannot wait until you're well enough to call me a sentimental tosser and tell me that vamps don't get chicken pox, so sod off and get you your booze. Which I am going to do," Xander said, but without moving anything other than his hand in Spike's hair, rhythmic and gentle until Spike's twitching and mumbling quieted and he went utterly still. "Yeah. Any minute now, I am going to leave this car, get you your booze and get on the road to L.A..."

Any minute now. God, he looks so frail asleep.





Square Five

"You're gonna like the hotel, Spike. Uh. At least I think you are. When you're alert enough to see it." Xander kept his eye on the freeway signs, watching their exit come closer and thanking whatever god or gods might be listening that he wasn't driving a Neon coupe like the poor bastard he'd seen cut off twice already since Burbank. "Mariel comes here to meet her grandmother, the one who comes up from Baja a couple of times a year."

There was no response. Not even a briefly mumbled comment about the stars, but for the past hour or so, Xander hadn't expected one. He was hoping it was a good sign, and not proof that Spike was in too much pain to even moan. "You know, you're gonna laugh at this if you remember it after you're better, but Jesus, my throat is killing me from all this talking." He eyed his drink speculatively, but winced at the immediate and intense veto from his bladder. He'd considered pulling in at a fast food place, cause god knew there were enough of them, but this close, he just wanted to get to the hotel. Get The Nest made, Spike settled. More blood and booze in him. Keep his eye on him.

Xander stole a glance into the back seat as soon as he pulled the truck off the freeway and onto their exit, relieved to find that Spike looked, not better, but at least not in conscious pain, either. He twitched a fold of the shirt away from Spike's stomach, and tucked it behind his back before the light turned green. "Okay. So the hotel is pretty nice. It's beach front. Venice Beach. Do vampires do beaches? I mean, is it like Lost Boys where you'll go to the boardwalk and the amusement parks looking for prey? Well, maybe not you you obviously, these days, but before?" Xander squinted at the street signs as they passed, checking the directions. "Our room doesn't have an ocean view or anything, but they all look pretty nice, and it's not like it'll kill us to wa- I mean, it's not like the walking will be difficult once Wesley comes up with your cure."

Xander slowed for traffic, leaning on the steering wheel. "I hate Los Angeles, by the way. I dunno why a big brooding loner like Angel chooses to stay here. It's all an act if you ask me. He just wants to be the center of attention. Which, okay, I guess you know more than I do. So anyway, the hotel's beach front, not too close to LAX, so the planes shouldn't be too loud, and you'll probably be able to hear the ocean from the room. Which, by the way, is a single room that I fully plan to transform into a Vampire Love Nest. Okay, only maybe without the sexual connotations, but a man takes his lines where he finds them. We've got quick check in, so I'm just gonna jump in the lobby here. Which means, y'know, that this would be a really bad time for you to wake up, while I'm in the lobby."

He swung off the main street and into the hotel parking lot, its white bulk glowing under its lamps and what moonlight shone through the Los Angeles smog. "Last chance to wake up without freaking. Going...going..." Xander pulled to a stop before the lobby and twisted to look down at Spike, still sleeping with the appearance of utter, if exhausted, peace. "And gone. Right."

"Let's see how express the check in is for a working schlub in the cheap rooms." Xander pushed his door open as quietly as he could, wincing at the kinks in his legs, and feeling a bit like a cowboy jangling through the saloon doors fresh off his horse the way he was limping. "Hello?"

"May I help you, sir?"

Xander turned quickly to his left, eye falling on the man who spoke. Young, tan, blond, and right out of the Venice Beach mold. Nice smile too. "Yeah. Reservation for Harris."

"Deluxe room with a queen sized bed for two weeks?"

"That's it," Xander said, rubbing absently at his hip and hoping the circulation would come back some time soon. "Why do they call the cheapest rooms deluxe anyway? Is that supposed to make me feel better about them or something?"

The clerk offered an apologetic shrug, passing over two keys and a slip of paper for Xander to sign. "Have you ever tried to convince someone that they want to stay in a room called 'the cheap suite'?"

"No. But I've tried to sell medium french fries that were actually smalls," Xander said, glancing at the room number on the keys before pocketing them. "Where...?"

"Drive around to your right and park near the corner of the building. The first door on the far end. You're on the second floor. All of our contact information is by the telephone in your room, so if you need anything-"

"Yeah, I'll call. Thanks." Heading back out to the truck, Xander allowed himself a moment to slow down. To just breathe in the breeze coming off the ocean and let it ruffle the sweat from his hair after two hours driving in a truck with the heat cranked up in August. By the end of Spike's illness, he was pretty sure he'd either become a devotee of that kind of yoga done in hundred and five degree heat or melt like a cheap wax dummy.

Probably the first. The heat wasn't so bad except when it made his clothes feel like they were trying to fuse with his skin. Unfortunately, California wasn't quite progressive enough to approve of naked freeway driving. "Okay, pal. We're at the hotel, and the not so fun part's coming up, but once we get up there, you can sleep and let your faithful harem boy do all the dirty work. Which, by the way, includes calling up one of the contacts Wesley gave me who'll do door to door blood delivery. You never told me there was home blood delivery."

Easing the truck around the building, Xander felt safe enough to reach back, brush his fingers against Spike's. "There's a refrigerator and microwave in the room. They call it a suite, but trust me, it's a room. So I'm gonna order as much as you can drink until Wesley can get to us." He pulled into a parking space just in front of their door and shut off the truck with a sigh, letting his eye close and leaning his head back against the seat. "But first the hard part."

Leaning across the seat, Xander rummaged through the two duffel bags he'd stuffed full of clothing at home, wrestling out a ridiculously fluffy fleece sweater, then trying not to wince as he pulled it on and hoped it'd be enough padding to carry Spike as comfortably as possible. With the door open, the ocean breeze taunted him with coolness on overheated skin. He eased open both doors and pushed the seat forward, laying his torso across the pillows to brush Spike's hair from his face. "Hey, sleeping beauty. We're here."


~~~~~


Spike felt like he was struggling upward through layers of wet air - through water - through treacle, and he gasped in a breath that made his throat sting. Gasped again and struck out with his hand because something was touching him and nothing was supposed to be touching him, he was alone, always alone and anything that touched him right now was enemy, other, get away, get OUT

"Fuck off, you bloody bastards," he growled, and his hand connected with something - something hard - and Jesus Christ, that hurt. Hurt everywhere and that wasn't supposed to happen, either, he was supposed to be free of that thing, they'd gotten it out, she'd said, she'd promised.

Can't do that again, can't, can't - "Said you took it out! Said it was out - why are you doing this to me?" He could feel something - on him - pressing around him, binding his legs and touching his back and his feet and he hit out wildly, not caring how much it hurt because he had to get free, had to get out. Fucking hurts, it hurts!

Someone - a voice - couldn't make it out and he scrabbled weakly at the enveloping mass around him, getting more and more tangled - more and more panicked. He could only see in flashes - halogen-white, flaring across his vision and then blackness again. A shadow - someone... Said he'd be there, said he'd be there - not supposed to leave me - "Xander! Xander - please - where are you? Where the fuck are you?" He hated that his voice was breaking and that he was probably crying but it hurt and he was supposed to be there. "Promised - you promised -"

At the sound of Spike's wrist hitting the window, hard, Xander swore, still trying to kick off his sneakers before climbing into the truck to calm Spike. Finally giving up on the laces, he yanked the shoes off, crawling up onto the pillows and over Spike, catching his arms against his chest where they couldn't flail, and stroking a hand over his hair, Spike's body cradled beneath the warmth of his own. "Spike. Spike, shh. I'm here. Right here. Not gonna let anybody hurt you, sweetheart. Promised you." His heart hurt with every whimper of Spike's, with that "promised". "Promised."

He wanted to grab Spike up, gather him to his chest and hold him until he calmed, but all he could do was hover, hope Spike could somehow feel, smell, sense that he was there. Still speaking, not quite babbling, those low soothing words, he worked the sheet free of Spike's tangled nest, using a soft corner to dab at the tears streaking his face before they could dry, and itch on sensitive skin. "Come on, Spike. Please. We're so close."

Fuck, something was on him, something was holding him, holding him down, smothering him, and Spike could barely lift his arms, he was so fucking tired, so tired. "Stop it, stop it!" He jerked his head back wildly, gasping in air - and froze. Spice, mint, lemon...salt-sweat, touch of earth... "Xander?" Spike raised his hand, feeling the wobble in it and fierce ache in his wrist tied? was it tied? and wiped at his face - wiped his eyes. His vision cleared slowly, and in the black-and-white striping of harsh shadow and industrial-strength street-lights he could make out a shadow - a face...

"Xander, fuck - that - that you? Xan?"

Xander let his breath out slowly, feeling a knot of tension going with it as Spike recognized him. "Yeah, it's me. We're at the hotel. You slept all the way down." Spike still looked dazed, not entirely there yet, so Xander kept smoothing his hand through his hair, at least as much to calm himself as to anchor Spike. "It's not even midnight yet, but I wanna get indoors. Crank up the heat, get you warm. God, get both of us fed." He gave Spike a rueful smile. "And get the mortal who drank too much soda to the john."


~~~~~


Xanderbabble, something about food and warm and john, who the hell is John? doubly confusing in the time-slip-vertigo of the pills and the fever. But Citrus-earth-spice and a warm hand brushing through and through his hair - warm body radiating heat and comfort, and Spike took another, smaller breath - shaky breath - and started to relax.

"Thought I was...back there, thought... Why's my wrist hurt, pet?" He was aware, in a rush of shame, that his voice was weak, choked with tears - petulant as Dru on a bad day and he clamped his jaws shut and just tried to calm down. Xander's here, and we're - here, that's the ocean, I can hear the ocean and... "We're here, yeah? I mean...a - a hotel, like you said..."

Said that already, fucking hell, gonna think you're barkin'...

Xander swallowed thickly against the rush of tender affection that tightened his throat and chest, giving in to the urge to press his lips against Spike's forehead. "Yeah, we're at the hotel. It's a nice one too. Mariel made a good choice." I wonder if this is what it was like for Spike. What it felt like for Spike taking care of Drusilla all those years.

He bowed his head, letting go of Spike reluctantly to untangle him from the mass of clothing and bedding, trying to make as little friction against his skin as he could. "You whacked your wrist pretty hard on the window when you woke up. Thinking you were back there." Xander stared at Spike's untangled legs for a long moment before looking up at him. "You're never going back there again. Promised to protect you, remember?"

"Yeah, I..." Spike closed his eyes for a moment, just want to rest and then opened them again - looked up at Xander's steady gaze - at the look of reassurance and the fierceness there. That's the look the boy turned on Angelus - drove him right out of the damn hospital. "Sorry, Xan. Didn't - mean to..." Huge breath, shaky sigh, and he caught Xander's gently petting hand and curled his fingers around it - around calluses and rough cuticles and badly bitten, badly chipped nails.

"Thanks, pet."

"Spike." Xander waited until Spike was silent, looking back at him, and smiled, rubbing his thumb over one prominent knuckle, finding himself suddenly at a complete loss for words. Instead, he opened Spike's hand, gently nuzzling against his palm, feeling his breath reflected back to him off of warm skin.

"Xan..."

"Put your arm around me," Xander said softly, letting go of Spike's hand, and helping him move. He hated how Spike trembled and flinched when he was lifted, biting his lip and feeling the intense ache of muscles taxed to their fullest. Because lifting a hundred and twenty-ish pounds of something was one thing, but lifting it carefully was completely different, fleece padding or no fleece padding.


~*~*~*~*~


Spike deliberately did not sigh in relief when Xander eased him down onto the hard edge of the hotel bed, but the 'ride' up had hurt more than anything else so far - had hurt too fucking much and Spike contemplated with resignation and more than a touch of fear the idea that he was getting worse faster.

Pills don't last as long, fever keeps coming back... Can't ever get ahead. He contemplated the blades of his forearms, pushing against the shirt-sleeves - the jut of rib and hip-bone and the ache where his bones were pressing too hard against too little padding.

Gotta find me a cure, Wes. Fuck, anything... He watched, dazed, as Xander assembled a new Nest and wondered how long it would take the ex-Watcher to find a fix. Never let us down before... His hands were shaking - fuck, his whole body was - and he clasped them together, and then pressed them between his knees. His wrist ached fiercely and a bruise was already showing, dark and wide.

Gonna look like the Slayer's boyfriend again, time we're through... He couldn't help the ugly little laugh that escaped him at the thought.


~~~~~


At Spike's laugh, Xander twisted from his work between the couch and the heater where he was building The Nest. He abandoned three different things to say before choosing one. "He'll find it, Spike." Wes had to. Xander hadn't expected it to hurt this much, watching Spike get weaker and weaker; hadn't expected the helplessness that'd sent him running from Africa to come back so quickly.

At least this time, I can do something about it.

He cranked the heater on full, relieved to find it keeping to a low hum, and shook out the silk sheets, crossing to the bed to kneel in front of Spike, easing the flannel shirt off his shoulders. "You'll feel better once you get out of these. I think this Nest is softer than the old one. Carl really knows how to lounge."

On the bottom of the nest beneath the mounds of pillows, brought along on an impulse, he'd put Spike's duster. Xander didn't know if he'd put it there as a good luck charm or scent-memory for Spike, but it'd felt wrong to separate Spike from it, even for this.

"Think you're right," Spike said, glad to have the shirt a damn flannel shirt washed so thin it's practically not there off his body. He put his hand on Xander's shoulder and carefully lifted himself the inch or two necessary to get the sweatpants off his hips and then sank back down, watching Xander work them down his legs and off, lip between his teeth in concentration.

He'd seen, amidst the tangle of sheets and blankets and pillows, his duster, carried reverently and added to the Nest, and he smiled down at the man who simply kept surprising him. Thought of everything. I hope...I can make this up, someday. Return the favor except... not. Spike didn't like the thought of ever having to take care of a Xander as ill as he himself was. Gonna keep you safe, pet. When I'm the Big Bad again. Make sure nothing ever touches you again... He couldn't stop himself from letting his fingers lightly, lightly brush the edge of the patch, and when Xander glanced quizzically up at him, he was sure his regret showed in his expression.

Xander leaned his face into Spike's touch, catching his hand with his own when it trembled. The sadness on Spike's face made his stomach twist. "You don't have to apologize for being weak, Spike. Or sick."

"Oh, I..." Spike bit his lip, head a little to one side. He didn't know what Xander would do, but he wanted - needed - to see him as he was. A reminder. That he'd failed, and that Xander was strong. Stronger than he was, maybe. Strong enough. He carefully slipped the tips of his fingers under the elastic band of the patch and lifted it up - lifted the patch off and let it drop to the floor. Touched again, even more gently, the paler, tissue-fine and wrinkled skin at the edges of the socket, and the strong curve of the dark eyebrow.

"I wish..." he started, but he didn't finish that, because everyone knew the folly of wishes anywhere near the Hellmouth. Or near its children.

As Spike's fingers traced the wrinkled, empty skin, Xander got it, feeling the funny quiver in his stomach ease up into his chest, and he smiled when Spike stopped himself before he could finish that thought. "I don't," he said finally, but had to look away from Spike's skeptical expression with a sigh. "Okay, maybe sometimes I do," he admitted quietly.

"'Course you do, pet. Wouldn't be human if you didn't... I just...could have been quicker, that's all. Could have been...a lot of things."

"You could have not been there at all." Xander risked a glance back at Spike, then turned his face to press his lips to Spike's palm. "I don't miss being the guy who walked into that vineyard." It's all fun and games until somebody loses an eye. Needed to stop thinking life was all games maybe. "And I remember who saved the other eye."

Spike took a deep breath and swayed suddenly, vertigo coming over him in a wave. The trip - the hard bed - was taking it's toll, and he was pretty sure he couldn't sit upright for one more minute. Xander's lips on his hand felt...so good.

"Think I better - lay down, pet," he mumbled, and felt his whole body sagging down, bed or floor, at this point he didn't care.

"It's okay. Come on...." Xander guided Spike down against his chest - bare again, better than harsh buttons and seams to scrape Spike's skin - and guided the sheet around him, circling emaciated hips and draping it along his spine so that Xander could stand with Spike in his arms, cradled against his chest.

He settled Spike into the softness of The Nest before picking up the line of conversation again, crouching at his feet to fuss the sheet into place, letting his hands come to rest, at last, on Spike's lower legs through the silk. "You really could've not been there at all, Spike. You could've taken off like almost every other being in Sunnydale. Or you could've frozen up the way Buffy did, but you didn't. Fuck, I didn't even think to struggle, to try to get away. It's not the kinda thing you ever think's gonna happen."

"Forgiving heart, Xander...heart of a lion... Did you see any lions in Africa?" The new Nest was wonderful and enfolding - the silk sheet a blessing and a relief. His head was swimming from the move across the room and he could smell the leather of his coat and the spicy scent of Xander all over the Nest. He felt safe, and the light pressure of Xander's hands on him was like an anchor, keeping him from slipping away. At least for the moment.

"God, yeah." Xander had to laugh at the memory, quickly shedding his jeans and easing himself carefully down onto the edge of The Nest next to Spike, resting their hands together, fingers loosely knotted. "One jumped onto the 'Rover while I was driving. I felt like a can of tuna at cat feeding time."

He shifted, rearranging himself until he could settle an arm above Spike's head, smooth his hand over Spike's brow and hair when his eyes drifted closed.

"Mmmm...kitty-treat. Bet you taste good, pet..." Spike twisted a tiny bit, easing infinitesimally closer to the heat Xander put out. God, it was so good to lie here and rest again, finally...

"S'good, Xan..." he mumbled, knowing he was going out again. "S'good..."

"Yeah," Xander breathed, wrapping himself as closely as he could around Spike without actually touching, with a protective ache in his chest he hadn't felt in so long. "Feels good," he added, very quietly once Spike was still, not sure if he was awake or asleep.

He let himself drift then, laying his head on his arm, watching Spike sleep through half-closed eye and soothing the occasional twitch of Spike's hand in his. He couldn't remember the last time he'd simply laid and...watched over someone like this, and not wanted to move away. He had to, though. He needed food, and Spike needed blood from delivery places that may or may not deliver during daylight hours.

And Xander was willing to admit to himself that it was more the second that made him ease his way out of The Nest with an apologetic murmur to Spike when that pale hand groped for his, and a gentle touch until it stilled.


~*~*~*~*~


Spike woke to the sounds of Xander brushing his teeth. Woke again when Xander muttered in his sleep. The room was nearly perfectly dark except for the low light coming around the almost-closed bathroom door, and each time Spike woke he lifted his head a fraction, checking. Just have to see... The ache in his body had become a dull, background grind, and he knew the fever was rising again. But he was too tired and too sore to do anything about it, and he knew Xander was exhausted. Waited out worse things...just go back to sleep...


~~~~~


When actual daylight lit the room - reflection off the ceiling where it had got in at the top of the window - he turned his aching head to see Xander squashed up on the couch, long limbs folded in what had to be an uncomfortable position. Right arm dangling down, just touching the edge of the Nest. There - right there - so Spike...wouldn't be alone.

Gonna have to work hard to make this up to you, pet. Don't know how...but I will...

Xander mumbled under his breath, pushing at the arm of the couch with his foot with all the stubbornness of a man still deeply enough asleep to think that it's only a blanket or pillows keeping him from stretching his legs.

In a moment, he gave up again, rolling onto his stomach, one leg bent over the couch arm, the other dropping into the Nest like a cat on a limb, boneless.

Spike tensed as the footsteps came closer - approached their door and stopped. A moment later there was a soft 'tap tap' and Spike just lay there in an agony of indecision. Should he try to answer the door himself? Or wake up Xander? Could he wake up Xander?

Finally he wriggled over in the Nest, reaching for Xander's ankle. He got his fingers around the bone and muscles there and tugged.

"Xan? Oi - Xander!" His voice was hoarse - barely a whisper - and he coughed weakly and swallowed, and tried again.

"Xander - hey, Xan, wake up..." He tugged again, gripping as hard as he could, his arm trembling with effort and his ribs starting to burn - his stomach, as the muscles contracted in spasms.

Xander felt the grip on his ankle first, lost somewhere between the old instinct to deny wakefulness and to wake up because this could be important. No. Bed comfy. Nice be- Xander frowned, prying his eye open, and groaned. "Okay. So not nice bed." The words came out slurred and mumbled and he winced, stretching and flopping onto his back, looking at Spike with a little smile. "Hey. Need some bedside service?"

Spike dropped back into the Nest, looking more exhausted than a man should after a weekend of sleeping, but he stopped Xander before he could crawl into the Nest with concern, pointing. "Door."

Then, Xander heard it, the quiet 'tap tap' at the door and he dragged a hand through his hair. "Shit. Coming!" He tried for a manly voice of assurance, but what came out was a croak as he scrambled off the couch and to the door, fitting his eye to the view hole before easing it open. "It's Wes," he added for Spike's benefit before addressing Wesley, rubbing his palm groggily over his eye socket and squinting at him. "What is it with people in LA waking up at the ass-crack of dawn?"

"By my watch it's half-past ten. Hardly the 'ass-crack' of anything," Wesley said, peering into the gloom of the hotel suite, feeling uncomfortably as if he were entering an old fashioned sickroom. Which, he supposed, was quite fair enough. It was the feeling of wrongness however, that a vampire should have need of a sickroom that unnerved him the most.

"Yeah, whatever," Xander said, muffled by a yawn and he pulled the door open wider, already retreating. Wesley smiled at the unspoken offer - come in if you can - and went inside. The room, besides being dark, was stiflingly hot, and Wes clicked the lock over and was grateful to be wearing just a thin, summer shirt, his jacket left behind in the car.

"Xander? Will I trip over anything?"

"Huh? Oh - sorry. Spike - close your eyes." There was click and then a lamp came on next to the bed and Wesley felt his mouth go dry. Xander was leaning against the back of a couch, rubbing his face with his palms - totally naked.

Well, it is warm in here, and...and that bed hasn't been slept in, and... Wesley brought his mental gibbering to a sharp halt and stepped forward, determined to focus on the - the - large television that was on the dresser a the foot of the bed. He hitched the strap of his laptop bag a little higher on his shoulder.

Spike heard Wesley's familiar voice and felt a twist of painful gladness in his chest. "Xan? Could - could I get a drink?" he whispered, watching Xander rub his face and push impatiently at his hair. And he's naked. Wes'll...like that. Heh.

"Yeah, sure. Hot and cold running..." Xander smiled at Spike over his shoulder, letting his hands drop and crossing the room. He crouched by the refrigerator, blearily peering in at the contents. "Blood and Pepsi. Yum." He grabbed a blood bag, emptying it into a mug and setting it in the microwave before he became conscious of Wesley looking Anywhere But At Xander. He ran a hand over his face again, hoping it'd wake him up. "Sorry, Wes. I work nights. And Spike, well, vampire. Want anything?"

"What? No - nothing." Wesley moved slowly around the end of the couch, trying to see into the deep shadow there. He felt faintly uneasy. "Spike? Is that - are you there?"

"M'here, Wes." The voice that answered him was hoarse, cracked - the merest shell of Spike's voice, and Wesley winced in empathy. It sounded as if his throat were absolutely raw.

"May I - turn on another lamp? I really need to be able to see you."

"Yeah. One by the TV, there. That -" a gasping wheeze, a cough. "That should do."

"Yes, all right." Wesley moved back to the dresser, reaching for the lamp, conscious of Xander moving purposefully around in the kitchenette area. Still not getting dressed, though. Good heavens. He found the button and switched the lamp on and then turned around. He wanted to see Spike - he'd missed the vampire, really. Missed their silent drinks, and the easy way they worked together, out in the field. Spike - was always at his back. He was prepared for - something bad. He thought he was. He wasn't.

The expression on Wesley's face was one Xander had seen before. First, ironically, on Wesley when he realized just how badly things were going in Sunnydale. The expression, even under the stubble, and without the wire-rimmed glasses, hadn't changed. He'd also seen the expression in Africa, on the faces of plenty of newly arrived aid workers discovering just what they'd signed on for.

Xander walked over to the ex-Watcher and nudged Wesley with his shoulder since his hands were occupied with blood and soda. "He usually doesn't look this bad. But it's getting worse pretty quick."

Wesley unslung his satchel from his shoulder, studiously not watching Xander kneel on the pillows alongside Spike and ease an arm under his shoulders, helping Spike to hold the mug with blood...and a bendy straw?

"Purple, pet?"

Xander flashed Spike a grin, easing in behind him until the vampire could lean against him, one hand supporting the heavy mug. "Yeah. Color changing, too. Or it would be if I put it in a cold drink, I guess. It's the thought that counts."

The vampire was... No - not 'the vampire'. That's Spike - that's the...person who helped to save the world not four months ago. William the Bloody. Spike looked...like the classic comic-book vampire. The comic books Wesley had only seen on the sly when he'd gone away to the Watcher's Academy. Gaunt to the point of emaciation, skin not the deeply ivory-white of a healthy vampire but a dead, grayish, ashy color, with blue veins prominent over every limb. There was a large, ugly bruise on his left wrist and hand, plum-black. But the worst... Wesley took a deep breath and looked elsewhere for a moment - realized 'elsewhere' had become the naked curve of Xander's flank and hastily looked back at Spike's torso.

The wound, that had bleed so freely and healed so quickly back in L.A. was, instead of faint scars or smooth skin, three black, swollen lines, from left pectoral to right hip. A muddy grayish-red fanned out from them - infection or irritation, Wesley couldn't be sure. But they were horrific, and sobering, and Wes looked up at Spike's face and saw the look of exhausted resignation in those deeply-socketed eyes, and knew he hadn't kept the shock and horror from his own face.

"Spike..." he said, and then didn't know what to say.

Spike watched Wesley look him over - saw the flinch and the dismay. Hated it, and hated lying there like some kind of...invalid. Like the fucking wheelchair all over again and he pushed that thought away with a shudder. Pushed the blood away, because -

"Pet, I think they gave you some blood that's gone off. It - doesn't taste right," he said, and Xander frowned.

"Spike," he said quietly, setting the blood on top of the heater, "that's the new batch. That I ordered last night."

Spike's eyes flicked to the mug, then to Xander's in disbelief. "Xan...no...gotta be something off in it..."

"But we know there's something off in you, Spike." Wesley knelt at the edge of the nest at Spike's feet unbuckling his satchel and sliding out a slender laptop, setting it to boot on the couch cushions.

"That...that mean something then?"

Wesley glanced back at Spike with a small smile, feeling the relief at having a tangible place to begin at last. "It very well may. As you might imagine, there's little concrete information on poisons that affect vampires. For one thing, vampires are notoriously difficult to poison. And for another -"

"Most of the vampires who get poisoned die," Xander finished quietly, combing a shaky hand through Spike's hair.

"Yes."

"Not this one."

Wesley looked from one to the other, Xander's overlong hair all but obscuring the stubbornly gentle expression on his face. "No. Not this one. He's far too pig-headed, for one thing."

"Oi! That's called 'goal oriented', mate." Spike winced and looked at the cup of blood with distaste. "Give us a sip of that sugar-water then, pet, yeah?" he asked, and Xander grinned and tipped the Pepsi to his lips. The icy-cold, bubbling liquid nearly choked him and he waved it away, gasping. "Fuck. Me."

"On your back like a girl, huh? Always knew there was something about you." Xander grinned, though he took back the soda before it could spill.

Spike laughed, then coughed, fixing him with wickedly sparkling eyes. "Think you're man enough to take me, Harris?"

"In your dreams, bleach boy." Xander resumed stroking Spike's hair though, taking the sting out of the banter as Spike looked back to Wesley.

"So, Wes - what's it look like? Got anything at all so far?"

Wesley moved his hand over the laptop, finger moving the cursor and thumb tap-tapping. "I'll need you to look at some pictures - find the actual demon. I've narrowed the field to about...ermmm...27."

"Christ," Spike muttered, but he nodded and then watched, amused, as Wesley tried to figure out how Spike was going to hold and look at the heavy laptop when he couldn't even hold a cup of blood. And...wait for it...ding! He's just noticed I'm in the all-together as well...

"God. I'd think the two of you planned this simply for the joy of embarrassing me."

"Huh?" Xander looked up at Wesley, nothing but confusion on his face, causing Spike to snicker.

Oh, pet. Been around me too long. There it is. Now he's noticed he's stark bollocks naked in front of the Watcher, too.

Xander looked down at himself, shrugged. "Sorry. It's hot in here..." His words faded off as he realized that Wesley was...staring at him.

"My god. Your eye..."

Xander's hand flew to his forehead where the band of the patch would usually lie, and it shook as he let it fall back into his lap.

"Oh..." Xander said, and looked down - hunched, just a little, and Spike wanted to slap that expression of pitying horror off Wes' face.

"The things we do to save the world, eh Watcher?" Spike snapped, doing his best to glare at Wes - doing his best to remind the ex-Watcher that he was ex-human, as well, and didn't have any call to be staring. Or pitying. Dammit, Wes, now is not the time! Get your shite together and be the Watcher, 'cause that's what we need.

The whole time, Spike had a grip on Xander's forearm - was rubbing soft circles on the flesh there and trying to convey with that so-inadequate touch that it was all right, that Wes was an idiot but he got better, that Xander was...was... Fuckin' beautiful, and brave - heart of a fuckin' lion, Wes, and don't you dare make him feel...small. Spike had never felt quite so helpless.

Wesley blinked - looked hard at Spike and then at Xander again, and then back to the laptop.

"Yes, well... I'm clearly not in the 'Circle of the Chosen', as Andrew so...eloquently puts it. I wonder what other information he's been withholding... Buffy's credit-card balance, certainly..."

He ran his hand nervously back through his hair and took a deep breath, and sighed.

"And...ummm... I can overlook the nudity. Boy's school, after all..." He schooled his face to a perfectly Wesley mask, and was relieved to see a tiny grin turn up the corner of Xander's mouth.

"Was that some weird English kind of apology?" Xander looked from Wesley to Spike, feeling the knot of tension in his shoulders loosen, and laid his hand over Spike's where it drew gentle circles on his forearm.

"Believe it was, pet."

Wesley coughed, looking away in embarrassment, back to his computer. "Now, how shall we do this?"

"Start with the pictures? I'm a big fan of more pictures, fewer words." Xander looked up from his intense scrutiny of Spike's fingers to meet Wesley's eyes again. This time Wesley didn't flinch, only gave Xander a small look of amusement - not even the expressive eye-roll his suggestion would have gotten him from Giles. Xaner let his breath out with relief, feeling the smile coming more easily.

"Be aware that not all of the demons are pictured, and it is entirely possible that Wolfram and Hart summoned this particular species specially to deal with you and Angel, Spike. They may not exist in our dimension." Wesley cautioned as he held out the laptop, nodding a small 'thank you' to Xander when he took the other side, propping it between them so that Spike could see without having to hold or bearing its weight.

Xander glanced at the laptop, and then away with a grimace. "Now that's one guy who'd stand out in a police line-up."

"That's the female of the species, I believe."

Xander looked at it again in horror. "Okay, and that one is so not making Miss December any time soon."

"Do you recognize any of them, Spike?"

Spike relaxed when Xander did - gave Wesley a small look of approval. Then he studied the row of pictures on the screen.

"None of these, mate. It was more...articulated, yeah? Sharp."

"Hrmm... Just click that button there, Xander - yes, the red one. That will scroll us to the next page."

After a moment's fumbling, Xander clicked, and a new row of pictures came up.

"Nope. None of these," Spike said, squinting. His eyesight was a little...fuzzy.

Xander clicked, he stared. His back was beginning to ache, and his shoulders, and everywhere he was pressed to Xander was prickling, prickling, prickling, like a thousand needles. But he was going to do this, no matter what. On the fifth page he stared extra-hard. "There! That one - third from the top!"

"Are you sure?" Wesley asked, and Spike rubbed his eyes and looked again.

"Can you make it bigger?"

"Yes, of course, just..." Wes took the computer back for a moment and then turned it to face him again, and the picture filled the screen. Spike shuddered.

"Yup. That's our man. Or woman. Or...whatever."

"Woman. As is usual, the female of the species is more deadly than the male. The T!ky!k -"

"Say that again, mate?"

"T!ky!k," Wes enunciated.

"Yeah Spike, T!ky!k," Xander said, reeling the name off perfectly, and visibly trying not to grin. Spike stared.

"It's a lot like the !Kung language. That the San speak. In Botswana. I picked up a couple of languages, when I was in Africa. Parts of some, at least." Xander said something else, clicks and explosive little sounds from
the back of his throat interspersed with more normal sounds and Spike could only laugh weakly. Wesley looked impressed.

Spike felt a warm little burst of pride; pride at Xander for being right up there with Wes, and pride for the teasing glint in his eye - the confident set of his shoulders. Never had that before. Not the Slayer's little pup, ever again...

"Yes, well, well done, Xander. Now...let me see..." Wes put the computer back on the couch and bent over it, and Spike and Xander just grinned at each other.

"Think that means he doesn't speak the language?" Xander asked in a stage whisper, earning a raised eyebrow and look of exasperated amusement from Wesley.

"Might be, pet. Might be."

"For your information," Wesley said as he typed, not looking at them, "I am only vaguely familiar with the conventions of Khosian languages. They were not considered...important for a young Watcher to become proficient in."

"Did you just admit I know a language better than you do?" Despite the teasing, Xander couldn't help but feel a little spark of accomplishment

Wesley glanced at Xander. "One out of several dozen, I assure you." He closed the laptop with a sigh.

"Spike, I'm going to need to take samples with me for study. It will be painful, but without them, it's entirely trial and error trying to find a cure for you."

Xander felt an unpleasant jolt in his chest at Wesley's words, and he fought the urge to tighten his arms around Spike. "What do you mean 'samples'?"

"Blood," Wesley said regretfully. "And fluid from the damaged tissue."

Xander felt Spike tense in his arms. "Gotta do what you've gotta do, mate."

Wesley nodded, pulling his satchel into his lap and rummaging. "I've brought something stronger for you. Something made for demons, not humans. Perhaps...Xander could administer your first dose, and give it time to take effect while I determine what samples I'll be needing."

Xander nodded and looked down at Spike. "I'm thinkin' bath. What d'you think?"

Spike sighed a little, because it was going to hurt no matter what. "Yeah, bath sounds good, pet. Nice and hot."

"Yeah." Xander echoed. They watched as Wesley pulled a pill-bottle out of his satchel and opened it - held it out to Xander, who caught three largish capsules in his palm. An odd whitish-green, and Spike cold smell them already - a yeasty, spoiled kind of smell. Well fuck. Nobody said it'd be nice.

"Hey, how 'bout my whiskey, Xander?" Spike asked, and Xander nodded and gently let Spike down, until he was lying on the pillows again.

"Sure thing. Drugs and booze - the Keith Moon cocktail."

"Can't go out in better company than that, pet," Spike called after him.

"I'd ask you if you were sure that's wise, Spike, but I realize the sheer fallacy of even considering it." Wesley's tone was teasingly fond as he glanced away from the computer screen to offer up a small smile.

Spike looked up at Wesley with a tired chuckle. "Been everywhere, tried it all, mate."

"I would imagine that you have, in nearly one hundred and fifty years of living." Wesley shifted aside to make way for Xander who crouched between the two of them, sliding an arm once more behind Spike's shoulders and setting the three pills into his hand. "And you can take those whenever you've need of them. I don't imagine they'll do more than make you rather pleasantly numb."

"You'd know, would you?" Spike arched an eyebrow, almost able to ignore that he needed Xander's help to lift the whiskey bottle to his lips and drink without spilling the stuff all over him.

"Intimately," Wesley said with a rueful smile.

"Oh?" Spike took a mouthful of whiskey and tossed the pills into his mouth - swallowed and almost gagged as the scent/flavor went thick and sour into his sinuses. He desperately gulped another mouthful of whiskey and coughed. And that fuckin' hurt and bloody hell he was sick of hurting. Xander put the bottle somewhere at the edge of the Nest and stroked his hair back, gentle touch that was becoming...something else. Fuck. I'm a fuckin' walking cliche, aren't I? Love's bitch 'til the end of time. Not supposed to like the man...so much. Not like this, not this fast, not...him. And where in fuck's demon-girl? Spike was pretty sure he wasn't make much sense, so he clenched his teeth together and tried to listen to Wesley.

"...got hurt, of course. And the visions, while not as debilitating for me as they were for...Cordelia are still rather painful from time to time, so I've experimented with various...things. These seem to work best on my altered physiology." Spike noticed the tiny hesitation over the name, and felt a wave of sympathy for Wesley. Two in one year. Hard on him...

"So what are you, now?" Xander asked, and Spike tried to look interested but the pills seemed to be working fast - seemed to be sending out lovely little waves of floaty painlessness, that alternated with the overall ache of his body like a damper switch; on, off, on, off. Off'll be bloody marvelous. Wesley was talking - telling Xander something - but really, his voice was just a background buzz to the slow, singing sort of hum that was starting down in the bottom of his spine.

"I'm gonna go start the bath up, Spike. Be right back," Xander said, and Spike blinked, riding the next wave of off. Spike realized that Wesley was talking again and struggled to focus. "Huh?"

Wesley offered up a small smile. "The pills do tend to make you somewhat groggy as you're getting used to them, don't they? I asked you if you knew anything of Metathanas demons."

"Of which?"

Wesley chuckled. "That gives me my answer well enough. It's all right. Those particular pills work best on the family of demons with human origins, which includes both the vampire and the Metathanas. Are they working, by the way?"

"Haven't felt this good since fuckin'...Woodstock." Spike said, and laughed.

"They are rather nice, aren't they?" Wesley shared a grin with Spike as Xander returned from the bathroom on a cloud of steam, the muted rush of the tub filling audible through the open door.

"Aw, who's a stoned widdle vampire, then?" Xander asked, crouching next to Spike with a grin, feeling the relief pumping through him like adrenaline at the rapid change in Spike's tension.

"Sod off." Spike batted ineffectually at Xander with a weak hand, letting it drop into The Nest when it failed to connect. "Wanker."

"Time to borrow the vamp, Wes. How long do you need?"

"Hm? Ah. The pills will reach their plateau in perhaps an hour, I should think. I'm not certain quite how much hot water this hotel has..."

"What do you think, blondie? An hour immersed in hot water?"

"You gonna join me, pet? Oh!" Spike wiggled into a more comfortable position in Xander's arms as the man lifted him and Xander gave him a startled look.

"Did I hurt you?"

"Nah, m'fine, pet... I jus' realized - I'm the sultan still so you, as my harem boy, had better...had better..." The 'off' was damn good - good enough to make him lose his train of thought. He caught a flash of astonished laughter on Wesley's face and snuggled down into the crook of Xander's neck, breathing his salt-sweet-spice smell in deeply.

"Smell good, Xan," he mumbled, and giggled a little when Xander tripped on the edge of the silk sheet and squeezed him.

Xander eased his grip on Spike, breathing out in relief. "I didn't hurt you?"

His only answer was a warm nuzzle into his neck and a lick along the jugular. "Er. You do remember that you're a good vampire now, don't you?"

"'M evil. You just taste good, pet."

"Don't worry, Xander. He won't do anything he wouldn't otherwise. The pills simply make him feel...comfortable." Wesley nodded toward the bathroom. "You'd best go. I don't fancy a flood in the hotel room."

"Huh?" It took Xander a moment to remember the small size of the hotel tub, and he swore, carrying Spike into the bathroom and setting him down on the closed toilet seat to shut off the water and drain a bit just before it could overflow. "Okay, and the record for near disasters in a single hour still goes to Xander Harris." He turned back to Spike with a smile only to find the vampire's eyes fixed intently on him.

"What?" Xander asked, doing that unconscious body-check thing and Spike had to laugh again. Nooo, that's a giggle 'cause these fuckin' pills are fuckin' brilliant...

"What, what? No. I mean - Xan...derrrr... C'mere" Spike rode a particularly lovely 'off' wave and this one seemed to just keep going, up and up, and he let his eyes flutter shut in bliss.

"Uh huh." Xander tried not to feel the little excited flutter in his stomach when Spike used that tone of voice, and knelt in front of Spike. He waited for Spike's eyes to open again, and leveled a finger at him, laughing when Spike swayed back and forth like a snake to keep his focus on it. "Them's the pills talking, pal. You? Are stoned out of your mind." He ducked his head, setting to untangling the sheet from Spike's body, then wrapping his hands around too-thin ribs. "Okay?"

"M'not that stoned... Xanderrrr...you ever... I mean -" Spike just couldn't get his tongue to work right - or maybe it was his brain. Maybe I am that stoned... Still smells...good... "Tasted good, too," he muttered, putting his arms around Xander's neck and locking his hands together. He inadvertently grabbed the bruised wrist, and the sizzle of pain shuddered up his arms and morphed into a shudder of delight, and he looked up at Xander through his eyelashes, smirking.

"Wanna taste you again. 'K? Xan? Or you can...no - you're not... You ever go hunting, with those lions, Xander?"

Xander caught his breath when Spike looked at him through his lashes, and held it when he spoke again, feeling the weight of Spike's arms intensely. "Who's hunting who here?" And god, what was in those pills?

"Whom."

God, Spike's voice was almost a purr, and Xander felt himself pulled down, felt his heart skip, and then drew a quick breath, ducking his head and scooping Spike up again to carry him to the bath. It's just the pills. But Jesus...

Xander shivered at Spike's tongue tracing designs on his neck again.

"Y'don't like it, pet?"

Each word was hot-cold on his throat, and Xander licked his lips, lowering Spike into the bath before he could like it too much. It has been way too long. He looked up to find Spike frowning, though his lashes were still lowered in that smoky look, and Xander couldn't resist pushing his hair out of his face again for a better view. "It'd take a stronger man than me not to like it, Spike. But again: you? Very, very stoned."

"Mmmm..." Spike arched his back, sliding down into the hot, hot water. Ohhh, yeah, fuckin' YEAH, Wes, love you, Jesus... The 'off' was now on - no more up and down and it was almost like he'd forgotten what it was like to not have any pain. And bloody hell, the water felt so good.

"Oooh, so fuckin'... Like when me and Dru one time, we found this...stuff, only it was... Well, thought it was, but - " Spike looked over at Xander, who had a puzzled, amused smile on his face. "You listening, pet? 'Cause I... Hey! You're the harem boy so you have to...be nice to me. Don't you wanna be nice to me?" Spike reached out and ran his finger down Xander's neck - skipped over the cord of the leather pouch and drew a line down the gold-brown skin over Xander's sternum.

"I can...I know how to be nice...back.."

"Hey, I'm kneeling on a hard tile floor while you're in a nice comfy tub, mister. That's pretty nice." Xander grabbed a folded towel, putting it under his hip, and shivered as he leaned against the porcelain of the tub, draping his hand in the hot water and watching it turn pink, clashing with the grayish tinge of Spike's skin where their fingers met. "I'm also not recording your stoned ramblings for posterity, and that's really nice. Above and beyond the call of duty nice."

Despite the teasing, Xander remained acutely aware of the prickles along his skin where Spike's fingers brushed.

"No, not nice. If you were really nice, you'd..." Spike tugged on Xander's hand, frowning. He wanted...something... Something different...something more, or maybe just something else, but... Oh, just like that, just like... "Dru was always nice to me... No, not always nice. Had to fuck off with the Bastard, di'n't, she? Had to...always choose... Everybody always choosin' somebody else an'... M'not..." Spike curled his hand around Xander's - looked up at him finally, and reached with his other hand to coil a lock of Xander's hair around his finger.

"You wouldn't do that, would you pet? Wouldn't do that to me..."

This time, Xander let Spike tug his face down, leaning over the rim of the tub, and reached up to curl a hand behind his neck. "No. I've done a lot of dumb things, but a hook-up with Angel's never been one of them." And why doesn't this feel like a dumb thing at all?

Oh, he's...lovely, he is... Spike let the strands fall away from his finger and then slowly slid his hand up into the damp, heavy fall off hair that covered the back of Xander's neck. Felt, with astonishing clarity the smooth curve of Xander's skull, and the rasp of stubble as he stroked his thumb over Xander's jaw. He tugged, ever so slightly, and tilted his head a fraction, and sighed when Xander's mouth touched his own. Slow, easy press of lip to lip - flick of his tongue to the underside of Xander's lip.

After a long moment Xander pulled back a fraction and Spike wanted him back. "S'lovely, pet... that's...just lovely..." he murmured.

Xander had thought he was long past the days where a kiss could take his breath away, but he was wrong. He could still feel the warm tingling press of Spike's kiss, the rapidly cooling skin beneath his mouth where Spike's tongue had tasted and reflexively licked his lips. Bitter, salt, something smoky...

He swallowed, and closed his eye, flexing his fingers in Spike's hair and resting their foreheads together. "I think I like those pills in you."

"Fuck, Xan, I like these pills in me. Do that again, love, yeah?" Because...god...that had been... Something, something so very... And Spike didn't know if it was the pills can't be the fuckin' pills, no bloody way, or if it was just... But he wanted to do it again.

"God, Spike..." Xander breathed, feeling the reflection of his words off of Spike's skin, lips and tongue softly copying Spike's kiss, but this time, he didn't pull away, and finally identified the last flavor with a smile. "You taste like whiskey." And his lips were so warm, so unnaturally soft.

He opened his eye, unaware he'd even let it close. This near, Spike's eyes were wide, black with the barest ring of crystal blue.

"You taste like sugar, pet...like candy...'come on-a my house, my house...gonna give you candy...' Spike sang softly, momentary flash of Dru singing that song - wicked grin and lips red with the candied cherries she adored.

"Xan...what...? Don't go, k? Don't let go..." The floating feeling was more of a rushing, now - flying and falling and Spike wondered, if he let go of Xander's hand, if he'd just float away - spin away into the spangled, dancing blackness that was creeping in from all sides. "Slipping..." he murmured, and let his head sag slowly down, until it was on the rim of the tub. "Slipping away..."

Xander followed Spike's head with his hand, cradling the back of his neck gently as the pounding in his chest eased away into radiant warmth, and the kind of tenderness he remembered feeling watching over Anya through her first flu. "Not leaving, Spike. Won't let you fall." Spike's skin beneath his hairline was so smooth, the unbleached hair so soft where his thumb swept through it. "Let go. It's okay." He felt so fragile.

And Xander's lips tasted of whiskey.

Wesley took his samples quickly, aware of Xander's watchful eye. He promised he'd call soon - took one last look at the gaunt figure in the tub and left, feeling a sharp urgency to fix it - fix it now.


~*~*~*~*~


Spike stretched - long and hard, his muscles tremoring with weakness but it felt so. Bloody. Good. Gonna have to do something nice for Wes, when this is all over. Really nice. He relaxed on his back, arms above his head, only gradually becoming aware of warmth pressed against his legs and hip. He turned his head and there was Xander, curled up in the Nest, his legs pressed against Spike's and his body angled slightly away, his arm curled under his head. Skein of mink-brown hair across his wrist and Spike </i>remembered</i>.

Oh...bloody hell. Kissed him. Kissed him... Fuckin' brilliant kiss. But - Jesus! Spike contemplated the dart of eye beneath eyelid - the slight, upward curve of Xander's lips. Well, but he didn't have to. And he...liked it... Yeah, he did. Spike had to grin, but then the grin faded as he continued to watch Xander sleep. He's exhausted. Isn't eating like he should... Wearin' himself out, watching over me and he shouldn't be doin' that but he is... Spike sighed, enjoying the pleasantly drowsy, pain-free lassitude that was weighing him down. Something special, him. Bloody lucky he found me...not gonna waste one minute of those pills. Spike turned over and scooted back until Xander was pressed against him, shoulders to heels.

He groped for Xander's right arm, and pulled it over his ribs, twining their fingers loosely together against his sternum. Xander shifted - murmured something - and then settled again, pulling Spike close. Yeah. Not one minute.


~*~*~*~*~


Xander dreamed of Africa. Sweltering nights when the tent kept mosquitoes off and heat in. Too hot for blankets. Too hot for clothes. Too hot to care about blankets or clothes. But still unwilling to let go of an equally hot body, skin slip-sliding against skin, mouth to mouth, breath to breath. Sleek golden hair sticking to Xander's cheek, catching on the band of his patch as hard mouths met and clashed, hungry and wet as the jungle outside and rough with several days' stubble.

Hungry as the sex got - surrounded by a different kind of groan and the smell of antiseptic and sickness outside of Andrej's tent - it was always slow, as if the heat had leeched into their veins, leaving them sluggish as they slid and ground against each other. Most nights, it'd been too hot to fuck, too exhausting to hunt down lube and thrust into a willing hole when their sweat left their skin slick enough to glisten in the half light reflected from outdoors; smooth enough to slide and grind against each other for what felt like hours on sleepless nights, finally passing out in the cooler pre-dawn, tangled together.

But this time, the sickbed moans were close, burning in his ears, and the sweat-slick body against his writhed, clawing at their bed to get away.

Shifting in confusion, Xander's forearm came in contact with hothothot! toohotskin! and he woke to a scream.

Xander jerked his arm up and away from the slashes across Spike's stomach. "Shit. Spike! Spike!!"

Spike's scream stuttered off into a pained choking as his lungs emptied themselves of air, and he writhed in the nest, the tendons of his throat corded with his head thrown back. "Sweetheart...sweetheart, come on." Xander rolled over, fumbling across the couch cushions for the bottle of pills, shaking one out into his palm and trying to pry Spike's jaws apart with his fingers. "Jesus Spike, open your goddamn mouth!"

Only a whimper answered him and in desperation, Xander peeled back Spike's lips, breaking the capsule letting the grit and goop ooze over his gums and between his teeth. "Come on, baby. Swallow. Swallow and it'll be better."

Burning, burning - again, always - no, no, please no, can't do it again, won't - I saved the bloody world, did it twice, what do you want from me, what do you </b>want? Spike was aware - just barely - of movement and sound over him - of something clawing at his mouth and pushing something - stink and sulphur-rot taste - into his mouth. Something...someone... Xander? Xander - no, shouldn't be here, can't have him, can't! He roared - managed, somehow, on limbs that felt full of shattered glass - to struggle to his knees. He hung there, panting - spitting - glaring into the red-shot blackness.

"Not right!" He coughed - gagged on the foulness that coated his lips. "Not him! Can't - have him!"

He clawed at the yielding surface beneath his hands, trying to push himself back and up and to his feet, but his bones ground together, sand and broken clock-work, and every muscle seemed to be stretched past the breaking point and screaming in agony. On fire, on fire... "Fire -" he gasped, and something - was touching him again.

Xander pulled Spike back against his chest, rubbing his cheek against Spike's hair, stroking at his throat, whispering to him. "No fire. I'm still here, sweetheart." Xander's nonsense words were becoming less nonsensical every time he held Spike, but he felt the first easing of painful tension once Spike swallowed, shifted his grasp to rub Spike's gums through his cheek, working every last drop of the medicine into him, catching the drops that frothed and bubbled between Spike's lips, trying to urge them back into his mouth, whispering reassurances, rocking them both carefully back and forth in the nest to the rhythm of his heartbeat that he could hear pounding in his ears.

Hurt, hurt, fucking hurt everywhere, but it was...easing off. Dialing down in increments, little shivery blanks and... '...No fire...here...sweetheart...' Xander's voice - Xander's hands, touching and soothing and... Little shocks of electricity that were easing to static-buzz and Spike took a deep, deep breath - let it out in a shuddering, half-choked sound that might have been a laugh but...wasn't. He face felt wet.

"Xan?" he asked, hoping - begging - and his throat was scraped and raw - tasted of rotting iron and long-turned milk, sour and cloying.

"Yeah, it's me." Xander let out a shuddering breath of relief and kissed Spike's temple, groping through the pillows for the water bottle he'd stashed between Nest and couch, popping the cap. "Here. Drink. Jesus, I'm so sorry. I should have set an alarm. Had a wakeup call. Something." He tipped the bottle to Spike's lips, returning to the slow stroking of his throat and feeling Spike swallowing against his fingertips.

Oh god, oh god, oh buggering fuck... Spike let himself slump backwards into Xander - into the heat and solidity of him - the comfort - even though it hurt, still. Let his words wash over him - 'yeah...sorry...drink...should have...' Cold and wet and chemical-nothingness at his mouth and he swallowed and swallowed again - coughed hard enough to make himself gag and then hung there in Xander's arms, shuddering and panting. Wishing it was fucking over.

"S'okay...Xan...s'okay..." he mumbled. God - he needed the rest of the pills.

"It will be." Xander nuzzled into Spike's hair, breathing his scent as much to calm himself as Spike as the spasms of Spike's coughing rattled them both. It might have been imagination, or wishful thinking, but he thought that Spike's scent changed when he was hurting. And when he wasn't. He groped for Spike's hand, uncurling his fingers and pressing two pills from the still open bottle into his palm so that he could uncap the whiskey for Spike to take them with. "Just two more."

Spike's hand was shaking and he clutched at the pills in his palm, trying to get them up to his fucking mouth without dropping them. He could smell Xander's fear - sharp and sour and wrong - and he could smell the whiskey Xander was holding. He fumbled the pills into his mouth, grimacing, and then felt the cold press of glass to his lips and opened them. Swallowed the whiskey and the pills in a long, burning gulp and then just went limp. Waiting. Because he didn't have the strength to do anything else and Xander's heartbeat was in his ears - was something to concentrate on until the pills kicked back in.

He groped blindly, fingers slipping over the sweat-damp silk, and then Xander's hand was on his, curving around it and squeezing gently, and he knew he was crying but fuck. Didn't matter. Xander didn't care.

Xander could taste salt on his lips - salt from the wet trails on Spike's cheek and Xander realized the vampire was crying. Picking up a corner of the silk, he carefully wiped them away. "I'm so sorry, Spike." God, it'd taken him how long to forget to set an alarm clock for medication times after leaving Africa? Spike's hair was damp under his hand, the curls and waves sticking together with rapidly cooling sweat. "Just ride it out. Wes said they'll work in a few minutes if the first is broken like that since you're so..." thin

So fucking thin, he means. So damn fucked up. Spike thought. "'K. Okay...bloody - hell, pet... Just talk, yeah? Don't..." Another flare of pain, and a surge of nauseating nothingness, and Spike figured that going off the damn pills was not gonna be a walk in the park. "Don't stop, Xan, don't...need you to...keep me..."

"What if I want to keep you?" Xander heard his voice come out low, soothing despite the catch in it, and he cleared his throat.

'...want to keep you...' Spike felt himself twitch, just a bit, as the words finally got through. "That...so, pet? Want to keep me?"

"Not keep like," Xander hesitated, "own, but keep you around, yeah. I've missed..." He let his breath out with a frustrated huff and a soft laugh at himself. "Who would have thought Xander Harris would run out of words, huh?"

"Never happen, pet," Spike murmured, smiling - turning his face just enough so that his cheek rested against Xander's.

Xander licked his lips, ducking his head into the touch of Spike's cheek. "It might. It has." He closed his eye, settling his fingers between Spike's, and remembered. "I didn't talk much in Africa. I mean, what was the point when nobody understood my language in half the places I went? And high school French? Let me tell you, it is not useful in that part of the world." He felt a self-deprecating smile come over him. "Especially when you don't remember much of it in the first place."

Xander felt a bare puff of not-breath from Spike across the back of his hand, and lifted the other stroke his arm. "It was like that when I met Andrej."

Spike made a 'huh?' noise and started to lift his head, but Xander stopped him, gently pressing Spike's head back down to his shoulder and petting his hair.

"Andrej was- Okay, I guess Andrej is a doctor from Doctors Without Borders. He's probably still with them. They're this...group that provides medical aid to people who can't get it wherever they are. I traveled around with them for a while cause whenever a new Slayer went on a rampage, they'd be the first to hear about it. Or at least the first to hear about it who spoke any language I could understand."

"Or sort of understand." Xander smiled against Spike's cheek. "I spoke a little French. He spoke a lot of French and a little English. But we got by. Um. Body language goes a long way too." Xander could feel his cheek warming against Spike's in a blush. Not an all-consuming blush of shame, just - a blush.

Spike just closed his eyes - rode the up-and-down of Xander's breathing. Listened to him babble about some doctor in Africa and - Since when is my boy...with boys? He felt the warmth of a blush suffuse Xander's skin and it was delicious - as was the wave of warm, spicy scent that followed.

"Xan...what about...demon-girl? I thought...you and the girl..." The pain was receding again - swallowed up by that lovely, floating calm, and Spike sighed in utter bliss, and - well - snuggled into Xander's neck a little. Take what I can get...

"We might've in time," Xander heard himself say, resting his cheek in the warmth of Spike's hair, relieved to be able to hold him closer as the drugs kicked in. "But Ahn didn't make it out of the school. She died saving Andrew." The words still hurt, but at least now, he could recognize them as words. The actual hurt had - distance now. "We haven't found her body though. I think - I don't think we will."

Not in the Hellmouth.

Hope you don't find her, love, Spike thought, but didn't say. Because he thought that might cause some sort of obscure hurt, where all he meant was... Comfort. Solace. He felt a tug of distant sorrow for the brash young woman who'd struggled to hard to become human again, only to lose her life in the same gods-forsaken hole she'd struggled to escape.

"Sorry, pet," he said finally, when the silence seemed to go on too long. Xander's cheek felt good against his skull - his arms felt good, loosely cradling him. Spike didn't want him to move as the drug began to creep in warm waves up and up his spine, and the good, floating, pain-free zone was settling right back over him.

"Didn't mean to...dredge all that up, yeah? Your doctor, sounds like...interestin' bloke..."

Xander couldn't help the smile at that. "Spike?"

"Yeah, pet?"

"Don't apologize for Anya. She hated that." He tried not to shake Spike too badly with the laughter he couldn't keep down. But he wanted...wanted Spike to know it was okay. Didn't want to hold back information from Spike the way the Council had. "And he wasn't 'my' doctor. Not really. Or not for long." He let his mind wind back down pathways of muggy nights, and how good it felt to see a familiar face, any familiar face there. "Africa's a funny place."

"Mmmm... Yeah? Wasn't so funny when I was there..." Spike pushed aside the details of his sojourn there - pushed aside the nightmare transit across that vast continent when all he wanted to do was go home - home - and he couldn't remember where it was, or how to get there. Just that 'home' was a green-eyed girl and a long-legged brunette with a voice that could shatter glass and he wanted it, oh, he wanted it. He shifted a little, and thought guiltily that Xander might not be comfortable.

"You all right back there, pet?"

Xander tightened his arms a little. "Don't you dare move." He wiggled his back into the cushions, keeping Spike against him. "How does a vampire travel in Africa?"

Spike smiled to himself and let his weight rest more firmly against Xander - stretched his legs out and almost laughed at the sheer bliss of pain-free movement. Could do anything right now. Fight. Well, maybe not fight... Shag. Oh, yeah, fuck yeah...

He put his hands on Xander's thighs where they bracketed his own and stroked absently, the dark, straight hairs pleasantly tickly under his fingers.

"I mostly hid out in the day - dug down into the ground or found an abandoned building... Got halfway up the Gold Coast down in the bilges of some fuckin' boat...shippin' opium or guns or some such - dodgy business..." He shifted again, rubbing his cheek slowly against Xander's, his fingers' light caress becoming something more like rubbing, fingertips digging in, just a little. God, feels good, so warm...like how he's just there...solid...

"Ate bloody rats. Not my finest hour."

Xander shivered under the rubbing, lowering his head until it rested against Spike's shoulder, feeling the movement of Spike's jaw against his temple. "I ate canned stuff. Like canned beans and chicken. And stuff I wouldn't have eaten even when I was a starving sixteen year old." Spike's skin was so smooth under his lips, and he smiled against it, feeling Spike rub against his hair like a cat. "Do you feel the heat there the way we do? Or does it feel good to you? The way it gets into your bones?"

"It felt good there. Felt...mmm..." Spike couldn't help it - he had to rub his cheek slowly, so slowly, back and forth against Xander's hair. Silken-soft, lingering scent of mint and salt. He breathed it in, opening his mouth just a little so he could taste it - let it really soak into him.

Xander let his eye close under the hypnotic rhythm of Spike's fingers brushing back and forth across his legs. The heat wasn't all that was getting into his bones. I kissed him this morning, he remembered, with enough clarity to make him draw a deep, steadying breath.

"Felt like that tub'a hot water... Just - all around..." His pushed a little harder with his fingers, almost kneading now, but the sleek, heavy muscles felt good under his hands, and the way Xander's hand was slowly, slowly petting his collarbone - his chest... God, yeah, just keep the pills comin' an' I'll stay here for days...

He could feel himself going out; lazily sliding down a warm slope of buzzing, painless sparks. Wish he'd...kiss me... Spike thought, and sighed his lungs empty, and didn't bother to refill them.

In the quiet of Spike's not breathing, Xander became more aware of his own; brushing his lips across Spike's throat where a pulse would be fluttering in a human, tasting the utter stillness there against his tongue. Copper and musk, and something like smoke. "It was hard to think. Hard to move," Xander said, aware that the memories weren't all that were hard, but that was okay too. Young, healthy American male, there. "But nice sometimes. Lazy sometimes. Like everything flowed into everything else. Like time didn't matter."

No feeling of urgency, no rush against the Apocalypse or against death, which was always so close he couldn't bring himself to waste time worrying about it. He breathed in the scent beneath Spike's jaw, lips parted to feel again the sleepy warmth he remembered, skin to skin. So hard not to stroke as he wanted to, all too aware of the ribs prominent beneath his palm as he lifted his face against Spike's, speaking against the corner of his lips. "Does this hurt?"

Have to know. Have to be sure. Feels so nice.

"Feels good, pet..." Spike murmured, the delicate press of Xander's lips to his skin an exquisite tease, a delicious flirt. "Xan..." He felt like he'd drift away and never come back to earth if Xander let him go, and that was...good, that was... "You can...f'you want, it's..." Light, and warm and... "Please, yeah? S'nice..."

Xander might have said once that he felt as if he were under a spell, but he knew better. No spell felt like this. No spell came with this kind of honest need to taste Spike again, make the kisses real again in his mind. "You stop me the second it hurts." He breathed the words against Spike's lips, tasting each one against the whiskey, woodsmoke, bitter taste within, unable to quite stifle the soft sigh of appreciation.

Warm, soft, good. Xander edged forward, pressing up against Spike's back with a quiet groan. "God. Taking advantage of the patient..." He couldn't help but smile.

"You're no Nightingale," Spike murmured, and the hot, insistent press of hard flesh at his back was... Fucking lovely, Jesus, he... Xander's mouth moved slowly over his, lightly pressing and tasting and Spike couldn't, for the life of him, make his arms move. But he wanted Xander to press in, to taste and explore and really kiss him and he was so damn loopy he couldn't even fist his hand through that hair, thick and heavy and bloody wonderful. Spike knew what he looked like - Wes' horror and his own covert inspections had filled him in quite nicely. And still...this...god.

"Sweet..." he said, and it was - sweet as clover-honey, and Spike wanted more.

"Hot," Xander answered with a grin, nipping Spike's bottom lip, feeling the flesh give pleasantly beneath his teeth, then darting in with his tongue; tasting, really tasting Spike for the first time. He groaned, feeling that invisible band around his chest tighten, make him want to pull Spike hard against himself until that heat leeched inside, merged together.

Because for the first time in years, Xander wanted, moving restlessly against Spike's spine. The memories of Spike writhing - twisted with pain - was still fresh in his mind though, close enough to make him shudder. "Don't want to hurt you."

"Can't, fuckin' can't, pet, m'a demon, not candy floss..." Spike turned his head restlessly, aware that he was starting to not actually feel his legs, and even though that gave him a moment's shivery memory of the wheelchair, he knew it was the pills. Just wanted a little more of that mouth on mouth, that most intimate of touches. Because the truth was there, in what Xander was doing. In that soft, careful press of lips and hesitant tongue. Care, he cares, he's...considering...me... Won't hurt me...

"Kiss me, love, please? Kiss me..."

"Jesus, yes. Sweetheart," Xander whispered the endearment into Spike's lips, tangling his fingers in blond curls, kissing, kissing? Possessing Spike's lips, mouth, until his neck ached with the position, and he shifted his hold, breathing hard against Spike's cheek as he tried to reclaim his voice. "Spike, gotta-"

"No, pet, no -" Spike's fingers curled weakly on Xander's legs and he caught them, tangling them with his and bringing them to his mouth, kissing each one in turn.

"Not stopping." He eased himself from behind Spike, laying him back into the Nest, keeping their fingers woven together between them before settling in against Spike's side, one leg draped over his. Xander rested on one elbow, hovering over Spike's gaunt face. He traced the line of one sharp cheekbone with his finger, then trailed it over pale lips. "Just getting started."

Bloody hell, that was - "Xan, yeah - do that again, do that -" Xander's mouth stopped his - took his, slow, deep kiss that tasted of sugar and sleep and salt, tasted of Xander and Spike wanted to taste that more, and deeper. But the tide of drugs in him was rising, rising - was making his head swim and he knew he was going down - out - under. Lovely way to die, pet, oh... "Don't...don't stop..." he murmured, even as his fingers went limp in Xander's hold and his eyes fluttered shut. The pills rolled him over and then pulled him away, and he went down into the deeps smiling.

Xander felt Spike go utterly still, utterly relaxed, and bowed his head over him, making himself feel every inch where their skin touched, every breath he took that Spike didn't. "God, if this is what you do to me when you're hurt, you're going to make me sixteen and horny all over again when you're well, aren't you?"

Spike's hand moved easily with Xander's as he brushed their twined fingers over Spike's cheeks, lips, across his throat, all too aware of the pounding of his own blood in his ears and the aching hardness still pressed to Spike's hip bone.

Spike's lips moved vaguely, with an inarticulate mumble, and Xander leaned down for one last taste, drawing on the fullness of Spike's lower lip. "Gonna keep you," he said again, and meant it.

"But you're gonna kill me." He lay his head down on the Nest, next to one bony shoulder, the movement shifting him against Spike's side. The contact of warm skin - no, the contact of Spike's warm skin still enough to make him want to wrap himself around Spike and -

Xander caught his breath, and let it out slowly, pushing up and away from Spike's body regretfully. "Sorry, sweetheart, but Wesley is gonna kill me if I follow up on that thought." With a groan, he rolled onto his back, head lolling to the side to watch Spike as he ghosted his hand down over chest and belly, feeling a shivery trail behind the heat as if to say 'Spike's fingers were here'.

Looking down, Xander caught Spike's hand with his left, weaving their fingers together again and drawing in a shaky breath, his free hand flexing and uncurling against his belly. "God, I feel like such a pervert, Spike. Whacking off while you're fucking passed out and holding my hand." He paused, glancing down at himself and sighing. "Okay, I know I'm a pervert, because saying that only made it worse."

"Better. Worse...oh, god, fuck it," Xander groaned, giving in, and sliding his hand around himself, biting his lip where Spike had kissed, feeling the imprint of Spike's unnaturally hot flesh along his thighs as he stroked. "Much better." The words came out in a whisper and he tightened his hand on Spike's, rocking his hips into the grasp of his fist to the slow rhythm he and Spike had kissed to. Good, good, but not good enough; that slow stroke and burn was only enough to build the raw need coiling in Xander's belly until he was trembling with it, with the intensity of fresh memory of Spike's skin just barely sliding against his, that rough accent begging more...

Wanting more.

Xander dropped his head back into the pillows, hearing Spike's voice again, "Xan, yeah - do that again, do that - Don't...don't stop..."

"Not gonna stop, baby. Just watch this. Watch me, all for you, all - god." Xander's throat closed down on the words, and he let go of himself in frustration, thumping his hand down into the pillows as he helplessly thrust his hips against the air, trying desperately not to disturb the Nest, or Spike. Not enough!

His hand shook as he drew Spike's fingers to his lips, kissing them, hissing as he rolled over to press a kiss to Spike's lips as well. "Sorry sweetheart. Sleep. I swear, I'll be right back."

Because if he could not whack off, and do it now, his head was going to fucking explode.

And unfortunately, they both needed his head intact.

With one last touch to Spike's cheek, Xander eased himself out of the Nest, and stumbled the first few steps forward, turning and letting his back thump against the dividing wall for support until his knees worked right. He let the fantasy unfurl again, this time, letting Spike join him. Nothing fancy, just Spike's lips under his, lemonade and woodsmoke tastes, his hand around Spike's dick, stripping it hard and fast while Spike jacked him slow and evil. "Want this hard pet. Beautiful - fuckin' beautiful. Gonna shove you down on that bed and ride you till you -

The shrill and sudden ring of the phone drowned out whatever fantasy!Spike was planning to ride Xander until. Xander dropped his head back at the wall with a thud and a half hysterical laugh. "The fucking world is out to give me blue balls." He snatched up the phone, snapping into it, "What?"

"Oh - ah...Xander? I'm - sorry, is - is something wrong? Is Spike - should I call back?" Wesley heard the note of frustration in Xander's voice and hoped that Spike hadn't gotten worse.

Xander almost bit his tongue, the impulse to say something - sarcastic was so strong. But fuck - wasn't Wes' fault, he was just...doing what he'd promised.

Xander sighed and closed his eye - leaned his head back against the wall again, this time without the thump.

"No, everything's fine, I was just - coming out of the shower, I - tripped. It's okay. Spike's asleep," Xander said, walking into the bathroom and closing the door behind him.

"Oh - good. Have you given him more of the pills? It's been - nearly eight hours." Wes heard a sigh.

"Yeah, I did. He - woke up when...the others wore off. Wes..." Xander hesitated. "He was - screaming, Wes."

The exhaustion - the horror in Xander's voice made Wesley go cold. If Xander admitted to that much, it had been bad. "Damn it. I'm - I'm sorry, Xander. Bloody hell. I should have told you...the after-effects are quite...severe, if you don't... Really, it's my fault."

Xander shook his head, then groaned with frustration and dragged a hand through his hair when he realized that Wesley couldn't see it. "It's okay, Wes. I should have set the alarm or something. I didn't even think -"

"You have quite a lot on your mind." Wesley's voice was - gentle - and Xander found himself sinking down on the edge of the bath tub, face resting in his hand. "It's understandable that some things should slip through the cracks."

"Some things, Wes. But not big things. Not things that have Spike waking up screaming in my -" Xander took a deep breath, steadying breath. "Sorry."

"It's perfectly all right."

"Do they teach you to sound this understanding at Watcher school?"

Wesley chuckled. "No. That, I've had to learn on my own. But I find it's fairly effective in convincing Angel that I'm the reasonable one and he should listen to me because of it."

"I'll bet." Xander sighed. "Okay, Wes. What've you got for us?"

"What I have is this. The T!ky!k are similar to spiders in that they inject a neurotoxin into their...prey, in order to paralyze them. In this case, the toxin is secreted by tiny hairs that cover the fore-limbs." Wesley cleared his throat, realizing belatedly how - clinical - he sounded. But clinical might actually be better.

"In the normal course of events, the victim is paralyzed within five to fifteen minutes. Vampire physiology, however, makes that impossible. The neurotoxin effects the system instead in a way similar to snake venom - it causes intense pain."

"This, I know, Wes. What's new?" Xander sounded impatient, and Wesley cleared his throat again.

"I'm sorry, Xander. The healing ability that would normally neutralize this poison is affected by the constant assault on the system. The fever is the body trying to - get rid of the poison. But this makes the metabolism speed up, and the poison act faster - and with more intensity. It's - a vicious cycle, I'm afraid."

"Catch 22," Xander said softly, and Wesley sighed.

"Yes, it is. Too much expenditure of energy with diminishing returns. Spike's body is breaking down because of the fever - it's making him too weak to heal..." Wes heard a small sound of distress from Xander and hurried to finish.

"There is a combination of herbs that will neutralize the poison. I'm researching it now. And...the dark lines on Spike's body? That is - those are the hairs. They shed from the T!ky!k, to insure enough poison is injected. We have to - clean the hairs out. Then the antidote and then..."

"The next words out of your mouth had better be 'Spike gets better'," Xander said, though he was too tired to inject any kind of sinister warning into the words.

"Spike gets better," Wesley confirmed gently. "But he gets better slowly. It won't happen over night, Xander. The extent of the damage to his system is incredible. He's been ravaged by this poison, and-"

"Wes. I know." Xander ground the heel of his palm against his eye. "I've seen what it's done to him. Fuck. He can't even drink his blood!"

"He will. The poison is systemic, Xander. It's saturated his tissues, his glands, and his saliva."

Xander remembered, with sudden vivid clarity, the taste of lemon in Spike's mouth. "Shit."

"Xander?"

"Um. The poison...in his saliva wouldn't happen to be a danger to humans, would it?"

"I assure you, Xander. You're quite safe to...demonstrate your affections in any way Spike is capable of comfortably bearing at this time."

"They teach you that smug tone of voice in Watcher school too, don't they?"

"Trade secret, I'm afraid."

Xander had to laugh at that, even though he was tired, and scared, dammit, and hurting for Spike in ways he hadn't hurt for anyone in a long time.

"Yeah, okay. Thanks, Wes. I...just... Thanks."

"You're welcome, Xander. Spike and I..." Wesley paused for a moment, wondering how much Xander knew. Wondering if it mattered. "We've...both lost people... He - helped me, a great deal. I'd do anything..."

"So will I," Xander said, when the silence stretched. "Wes?"

"Yes, Xander?"

"I - it's safe to hope now, right?"

"Yes. Yes, I believe it is. The treatment won't be pleasant, Xander."

"Will it work?"

"Yes." This time, Wesley's voice was absolutely firm.

"That's all I need to hear. When can we do it?"

"I need another day of research, then two, I believe, to brew the antidote."

"Wes."

Wesley heard the frustration in Xander's voice, the exhaustion stretching him thinner with each passing moment. "Tomorrow, I will return with the necessary supplies to clean the hairs from his body and to bind his wounds until the antidote is repaired. You must understand that in its weakened state, his body will be unable to heal the wounds left behind when we remove the source of the poison. You will have to keep them clean, bound-"

"Done," Xander said.

"There's more than -"

Xander interrupted him. "I don't care. I mean, I do. I care. Just come here tomorrow, and tell me what I've got to do, and that's what I'll do. There's nothing more to it than that."

Wesley know an immovable object when he saw one, and Xander was one, right now. But - he'd heard, through Andrew, about Xander's travels in Africa. Xander - could probably handle this better than Wesley could.

"All right, Xander. I do trust you. I just - wanted to warn you. I should be able to get away sometime rather early - I'll be there before noon, is that all right?"

"Wes, I'm ready to do it now."

"Before noon will have to suffice. Listen to me carefully now. You're to give him two doses in the morning. The first at the regular time, and the second at Eleven A.M. but alcohol, perhaps, may be a poor idea. I'm not entirely certain if it thins the blood of a vampire, but we'd best not risk it at this time."

"Right. Second dose. Eleven. Got it." Xander leaned back, resting a hand on the tap, just wanting to fill the tub as hot as it would go and soak until the tension went away. "And Wes?"

"Yes, Xander?"

And how did the guy sound so patient all the time? Probably all those years with Angel.

"Thanks."

"As I said, Xander. He's my friend, too."





Square Six

Waking up this time wasn't nearly as awful. Spike twitched hard, shivering away from a needle-prickle touch at his shoulder and blinked up into Xander's anxious face.

"Does it hurt already? Have to go a half-hour less..." Xander hovered as Spike pushed himself up on his elbow and rubbed a shaking hand over his face.

"Hurts a bit, not so bad. Had worse. Fuck, Xan...need something to drink..." Spike grimaced at the taste in his mouth - the coating that seemed to have covered every tooth and surface. "God -" Xander was pawing through the edges of the Nest, looking for something.

"Maybe you wanna brush your teeth?" he asked, and Spike thought about that.

"Yeah, maybe I do. Anything'd be better than this bloody...aftertaste...oh. You - broke one of those pills in my mouth." Spike remembered it, suddenly and vividly, and he shuddered in revulsion.

"Yeah, I did. Sorry. Won't happen again." Xander's voice was low and unhappy and Spike reached out and caught one of his aimlessly searching hands, tugging him closer.

"Don't go all hangdog on me, pet. You did what you had to do. It's all right, yeah? And...I remember you makin' up for in a bloody nice way..." Spike grinned, even though his arm was starting to tremor hard under his weight, and Xander reluctantly grinned back.

"Let's get you in the bathroom, then, and get those fangs nice and shiny."

"An' then some more of that bein' nice, maybe," Spike murmured, and was rewarded by a more genuine smile and a slow flush all over Xander's Still naked! Boy's comin' along nicely... body.

"Should've been nice to you years ago if that's what it would've got me," Xander muttered, feeling the blush in every pore, and smiling. He knelt in the Nest, sliding an arm under Spike's shoulders to lift him, and bit his lip. "I'm still sorry about the pill's taste. I talked to Wesley last night and he told me that coming down off them is harder than going without them. I'm not going to miss a dose again."

Spike's fingers pressed against Xander's right cheek until he turned his head to look down at him. "We're not gonna miss a dose again. 'S not your fault, pet. Just...get this taste out of my mouth, and I'll take another dose. Not late this time, yeah?"

"Yeah." Xander lifted Spike, easing them both out of the Nest and then to the bathroom where he'd spent some extra time spreading the hotel bed spread and blankets over the cold tile floor.

Standing at the sink was hard, and that was bloody humiliating, and Spike wanted to put his fist right through the empty mirror that he blankly stared at as he slowly brushed his teeth and tried not to fall right down on his ass. Xander hovered, and Spike could tell that he'd have an arm around him if the man didn't think it would hurt too much. And it would hurt, which was another reason Spike wished he could put his fist through the mirror, but even the thought took too much energy and he doggedly spit and rinsed and drank several palmfuls of water, grateful for the taste of sweet mint and the chlorine-spiked tap-water.

Xander guided him carefully back to the Nest and they both looked at it in dismay.

"Needs a bit of fluff and fold, yeah?" Spike said weakly, inwardly dreading the wait, but knowing it had to be done.

"Yeah..." Xander grimaced at the couch, knowing from experience how rough its covering was against the skin. "Do you feel up to another bath while I make the Nest again?"

"I can - can," Spike let go of Xander briefly, and swayed on his feet. "A bath sounds lovely, pet."

"You're gonna be the cleanest vampire in California." Xander turned them carefully, walking Spike back into the bathroom and helping him down onto the closed toilet seat while he adjusted the taps.

Spike watched Xander fiddle with the taps - watched him fold a towel for Spike to lean on and generally act...as if he'd done this before. And not just...since he found me.. "You - help those doctors down in Africa, then? You're so...comfortable with this. With...me."

Xander shrugged. "I helped where I could. Usually, that wasn't much more than making somebody comfortable and getting them to take their pills." He held his fingers beneath the faucet, letting the force of the water push them down. "But that's not why I'm comfortable with you. You're not a patient. You're -" Xander stopped. He didn't know quite what Spike was. Yet. "Spike."

"Yeah, I'm Spike." Spike had to smile at that - at the funny little look on Xander's face that said he wanted, maybe, to say something else, or something more, but...wouldn't. Smart, this one. What am I, indeed? He shivered suddenly, the steam getting to him and Xander shot him a look of concern.

"You okay? Is the fever coming back?"

"M'fine, pet. I remember...fighting, when I was there. Always gunfire 'round the corner, it seemed... Or a fire, something... Always people goin' here and there with their household stacked up on their heads and...all these skinny little kids..." The scenes had, in fact, been a great deal more gory from time to time - something his soul had had no trouble incorporating into the general chaos in his head. It hadn't been...nice.

"It was bad," Xander agreed, leaving the tub to fill and sliding his arms under Spike again. "But I didn't know them." He bit his lip, feeling obscurely guilty for something he'd worn out his guilt on during the first few months. "Like, I knew there was nothing I could do that would save them. I couldn't afford to let myself care. God, that was - I want to say that was hard, but it scares me how easy it was to keep myself from getting involved in any patient's future." He lowered Spike carefully into the water, feeling it lapping at his fingers as he arranged him in the tub. "I can't not care about what happens to you."

"That so, pet? Was a time you'd have been happy to see me dust... And me happy to see you drained." Spike let his head roll a little on the towel, watching Xander crouching there by the tub, his eye on the rippling water.

"Yeah, well...I was young and stupid once."

"Things do change, don't they. Change so much..." Another shiver came over him - heat of the water and the dragging weakness, and he thought unhappily that he really should eat.

"I'll be right back." He considered, for just a moment, asking Spike if he thought he could get some blood down, then remembered Wesley's voice, telling him how difficult the process would be. And decided that Spike was going to drink the blood if Xander had to prop his jaw open and pour it in.

Nicely, of course. "I'll be right back. And then, I'll tell you what else Wesley said."

Spike closed his eyes and tracked Xander through sound as pills were gathered and - yes - blood was heated. Even from the bathroom the smell was unpleasant and Spike shifted uneasily. Hope Wes has something...anything... Can't do this much longer...worse than the wheelchair, worse than being a ghost...worse then that bloody chip, almost... Least I can bite but bloody hell! I don't want to. Sad state for a vampire, this.

When Xander returned, it was with the travel mug full of blood in one hand and three pills in the other, and he sat down on the rim of the tub. "Can you take these with blood?"

"Can try, pet."

Xander felt his chest constrict with the exhaustion in Spike's voice, and ran his hand through Spike's curls after the vampire relieved him of the pills. As Spike drank, he began to talk. "Wesley has a cure," he said first, because dammit, he wasn't going to string Spike along. Not on something this important.

"Knew Wes'd come through!" Spike grinned, and then took a long drink of the blood and grimaced.

"It's in a few stages. The first one, we're gonna do today. It's - it's why I didn't bring the whiskey in. That demon that slashed you secretes its poison in little hairs. That's what the black stripes are. And it's making you weak enough that your body can't push them out, and can't heal from it."

"Hairs? They are?" Spike looked down at the stripes on his body - raised and throbbing and so fucking sore. Fucking demons.

Spike's hair tickled the back and sides of Xander's hand as he petted, feeling the smooth contour of Spike's skull beneath his touch. "So that's the first part of the procedure. We have to...get the hairs out."

Xander's hand felt good, and Spike let it distract him from the foul taste of the blood. It was bitter - rotten - and it took everything he had to swallow it down and keep it down. But he almost spit out his mouthful when Xander's words came clear in his head.

"Get them out? How in bloody hell do we do that? No - wait. Fuck." Spike knew exactly how, and from the look on Xander's face, so did Xander.

Xander grimaced. "Do I really have to say?"

"What is this, a condemned man's last meal?"

"No, but Wes said you're gonna need all the strength you can get. I mean it won't dust you," Jesus, I hope not. "but the way you are right now? The healing is...not gonna happen so fast." Xander's hand stilled, cupping the back of Spike's head, and he swept his thumb back and forth over a low ridge in the bone. "You'll be wrapped up a few days, so I'll have to change the bandages when you take your pills, but...I know how to do that." 'To keep your insides on the inside,' he didn't add, though it was impossible to keep the thought out of his head. "And then when he's got the antidote ready, you'll be ready to take it."

"Never been more ready for anything, pet," Spike murmured, relaxing into Xander's hand - into his touch - into the warm caress of his voice. He heard the words, but he heard the worry behind them, too - the empathy and the caring and that...was better than the rest put together. Better than the Nest, and the blood, and the unthinking invitation he'd gotten into Xander's home.

Pathetic, me. I'd offer up my heart and my...immortal soul if he asked. 'Cause he gives a bloody damn, I'd offer up...everything...anything. Haven't loved anybody since the soul. Not really...Niblet, maybe. And now... Fucking love. Never my friend but I let her in every time, don't I? The first surge of 'off' from the pills washed over him and he shut his inner voice down. Because that...did not need airing, now or ever. The empty mug drooped in his hands and Xander took it and set it aside.

"And I am so ready to have you well again." Xander ducked his head against a flash memory of Spike's hands flexing on his thighs, weak, but there. He let his breath out. "And contrary to any messages my body might be sending, it's not just because of the too weak to - Jesus and I sound like an ass even trying to say that's not what all of this is about." He hoped the apology showed in his smile when he tipped Spike's head back with gentle touch. "Want you strong again."

"I want that, too," Spike whispered, and he knew that the intensity of his want - of his new and puzzling desire for this man was in his eyes, hot and bright. He turned his face into Xander's palm and kissed it, letting his tongue-tip brush the callused skin, feeling that tingle of pain-to-pleasure that the drug gave him and wishing, god, that he could stay awake long enough to do something.

Xander shivered at the flicker of Spike's tongue across his palm and leaned back, letting his head rest against the wall. "What are you thinking" The words came from him unbidden, but he didn't take them back, feeling the intensity of Spike's gaze.

"That I'd like to shag you for three days straight," Spike said, giving Xander his best 'come hither' smile. Because what he was thinking was...was a muddle of emotion and hopeless longing and helpless desire and even if he could get it all into words it would be words that would probably make no sense. Or make too much sense, and Spike...just didn't know. He couldn't tell what Xander was thinking, deep in his heart. And he was afraid to ask.

For the second time in less than a day, the back of Xander's head made hard contact with a wall. "Jesus. Unfair advantage over the naked man here, Spike. Not that you're not naked yourself. Or a man. At least by definition. And not that I'm complaining..." Xander sighed. "Okay, and apparently, I can either be the strong, silent type or have a functioning libido, which makes me eternally seventeen." Xander absently traced Spike's lower lip, mentally running back over what he'd said before adding: "Which, by the way, was in no way a suggestion that I have any objection whatsoever to that plan."

Spike laughed, and playfully caught Xander's fingertips between his teeth, letting his tongue flutter over them as his teeth held them lightly. The drug swirled in him, making things so bright, and making the edges vibrate like the picture on a badly tuned TV. Something swam up out of his memory and abruptly he took Xander's hand in his, letting his fingers go with a last, teasing caress.

"When'd you eat last, mate? You look like you've lost a couple pounds. And I know you're not sleepin' the whole time I am." Spike tried to frown, but even though he couldn't he made his voice as stern as possible.

"Gotta stay strong, pet, or I'll be nursin' you, when this is all done."

Xander chuckled. Quietly, and let his fingers sift between Spike's to clasp their hands together. "Only one patient at a time. That's my rule. I'm...good. Okay, I'm fucking exhausted if you want the truth, but I'm good at running on adrenaline and stubbornness these days. At the site - Jesus - the second week I was there, Carl's daughter got sick with the chicken pox, and Mariel's boss wouldn't let her off, so Matt and I split his shift for a week. By the end of it, Russ was grabbing me before I could walk straight into walls."

He ran his thumb along Spike's, feeling Spike's smoothness against his calluses. "I'm a light sleeper when I have somebody to take care of."

"This isn't work...I'm not work, am I?" Spike blinked - long blink that made the room spin a little, and tugged on Xander's hand. "Don't do that, love. Don't - make excuses. Won't make me worse if you stop and eat, Xander. Won't make me worse if you sleep. Need you, pet, all right?"

The 'off' buzzed up his spine, shivery delight and he closed his eyes - arched back against the towel behind him and ran their joined hands slowly down his side, stopping short of the wounds that ran over his hip. "Need you, love..."

Xander felt the words. In his chest - in his stomach where they fluttered, and he uncurled his fingers against Spike's side, stroking the hollow beneath his ribs. "You're not work," he said finally, firmly. "God, you're not anything like work." He curled down until he could nuzzle his cheek against Spike's hair, all but wrapped around his body in the bath. "It...scares me. Waking up and having to see you to know you're..." Not dust. There. "...okay. How badly I have to wake up and see you."

Spike looked searchingly at the face that was so close to his own - at the scarred, scared, familiar face. The face he'd once hated enough to wish dead and gone forever. Everything, everything, everything you touch, and you know it, god dammit, you know it... Please...just this once... He couldn't talk - god and maybe Dru alone knew what would come spilling out. So he reached up, his fingers shaking and his arms like lead, and tugged Xander closer yet, and kissed him. And tried, with his lips and tongue and fingers, to say, what his brain wouldn't allow. To say that his need was just as great, and that his desperation wasn't for the sex, but for the man. The Heart of them all, and god, he needed that.

Shaking, Xander slid into the warm bath water, his knees to either side of Spike's hips, catching Spike's hand to his chest, and cradling Spike's face with his fingers. He tried to find the words against Spike's lips, but they stuck in his throat, caught there above the painful swell of his heart for Spike. "Can't leave me now." The words came out unsteadily, though he tried for a smile in them. "Didn't stop being a complete jerk just to let you go again." The words barely made sense, wrapped up in a time that felt like another life now, when the strength of this feeling for Spike had been just as strong, but bitter, rotten, jealous. Nothing like this.

Spike could not look away - could not draw breath to speak and the urge to throw his head back and howl his frustration out was intense. He couldn't do anything, trapped as he was - drugged, and ill, and too weak to get out of the damn bath, probably. Leave me again...leave me again...no, you'll not be doing that ever, love, ever... He pulled Xander down again, urgent and clumsy and desperate, god, just so very, very desperate. Part of what had driven him from Los Angeles had been the loneliness, despite Wesley's sometime company, and he couldn't face that again - couldn't and wouldn't and would cling to that shakily-spoken promise for all he was worth. Xander tasted like caramel, and like salt, and Spike kissed him until they were both shaking too hard to go on.

Xander rested his forehead against Spike's, clutching the pale fingertips to his chest where he could feel the thundering of his heart beneath their shivering. "Keeping you...keeping you." The words verged on nonsense, on pure feeling as he felt his breath reflected back at him from Spike's skin, from his lips until he realized that the trembling was from more than need. "Jesus. You're freezing." The words came out in a whisper, because he knew they'd end the moment though they had to be said as the water's temperature dropped past warm on its way to cold.

"Don't care," Spike muttered, trying to pull Xander closer. "You're warm, love, come and keep me warm -"

"Sweetheart..." Xander closed his eye, gathering massive effort to straighten up, bringing Spike's fingers to his lips to kiss, to breathe warm air over before pressing them to his chest. "You have no idea how badly I'd rather do that."

"Think I know," Spike said softly, letting his free hand drop to Xander's lap - to his cock that was rigid and so warm, thrumming with blood and desire. He stroked once, lightly, aware his own body was incapable of that at the moment - not caring. "God, want to feel this in me, love...so warm...warm me up from the inside, yeah? Xan..."

"God, Spike!" It was all Xander could do not to thrust hard into Spike's grasp, sliding restlessly against his hand. "Thought - thought you were supposed to be all virtuous now." And that would so be more effective without the orgasmic groan on the end, Harris.

"Virtue is for virgins and the clergy, love. Please, Xan, want you to...want it so much..." Spike knew the drug was floating him right out of his head, but he was tolerating it better now - he was sure he could stay awake, if he needed to, and god, he needed to. He tugged his other hand free of Xander's hold and ran it lightly down the heaving chest in front of him - rubbed a soothing circle on the corded belly, all the while stroking slowly over the silken skin of Xander's cock. "Can't hurt me, god, can't, love -"

"Fuck." Seldom was an expletive so heartfelt as the band of need tightened again around Xander's chest. He leaned back, grasping the sides of the bath with shaking fingers and thrust up into Spike's hold, feeling as if every muscle in his body was cording tighter and tighter with that rough silk voice and so-light, trembling touch. "Feel like - such a complete - pervert - getting off..." Xander half laughed, half groaned, letting his head fall back for a moment to just feel. "Good...good."

"Fuckin' beautiful," Spike murmured, tightening his grip, slipping his thumb over the head and watching in satisfaction as Xander shuddered, his eye fluttering shut. "No idea, love, what you look like - what you do to me -"

Know what you do to me.

"Tell me." Xander heard the roughness in his own voice, the unsteadiness beneath the words. The slide of Spike's thumb was sending shocks skittering across his nerves like tweaking the tightened wires of a wind-up toy, making his arms begin to shake, barely holding him up. So close. God. So fucking on edge.

"Burn for you, Xander. Want to feel you - over me, in me." Spike ran his hand up Xander's chest, to curl behind the back of his neck - to tug him forward. "Your weight, your heat - want you to...have me...cover me...want you all over me..." He stretched up, just enough, to trace the edge of one nipple with his tongue and tightened his grip; stroke and twist and glide, Xander's heartbeat drumming in his ears, his panting gasps hot across Spike's face. "Smell like you, taste like you, feel you in me all day..." His own voice was a whisper now and he wanted Xander's mouth on his. "Kiss me, Xan, kiss me -"

The images Spike painted flashed across Xander's mind like live things, and he groaned into the kiss, body bucking with the force of the orgasm that tore through him, only barely catching his weight on his arms. The pulse and ebb of feeling through his body gentled the kiss, shaping words into Spike's mouth that he wasn't ready yet to say out loud, shivering. So close he could feel the brush of Spike's chest with every one of the vampire's unnecessary breaths, and he unlocked the fingers of one hand from the rim of the tub, burying them in Spike's damp hair and cradling him into the kiss that tasted of bitter herbs, salt, smoke, lemonade, Spike.

The tidal scent of Xander's come was thick and welcome and clean - was unbearably good and Spike gave in to the urge finally and lifted his hand to his mouth - let his tongue glide over his knuckles while Xander panted into his neck and slowly came back down. Spike felt like he had come, almost - the singing fire of pleasure through his body - from watching Xander, from tasting and feeling him - was like a low-wattage shock. It was good, it was...different and, in the sudden dizzying drop as the pills kicked in once and for all, it was enough. His lids were too heavy to stay open and he let them droop down, into star-shot blackness that revolved slowly, slowly.

"Can't wait...do that for real, Xan..." Xander's kiss had been - telling. Encouraging - bloody brilliant. "Could kiss you all day."

Xander shivered as much from the words as Spike's touch, the band tightening around his chest again, but this time, it was warm. Unlike the water. Still half-dazed, Xander ran a shaking hand over Spike's lips one last time, bending to taste them before shuffling backwards to pull the drain plug and turn the water back on, full blast and hot, soaking an extra towel under the tap and wrapping it warmly around Spike's upper body.

The Nest...the Nest sounded like heaven just then, and Xander unbent his cramping legs, folding Spike's hands comfortably in his own lap. Stepping out of the tub, Xander snatched up the last towel as goose bumps rose across his skin, scrubbing briskly at the last of the cold water while waiting for the tub to fill. He had a Nest to rebuild, and a vampire to hold.

Please. God. Just a little nap. Let me have time for just one little nap.

Before cutting Spike open.

He shivered more violently, stopping the water and filling his head with the pictures Spike had painted in his mind instead as he went to rebuild the Nest.


~~~~~


An insistent and obnoxious noise wormed it's way into the pleasant dream Spike was having, and he fought his way to a mostly-awake state, snarling. The alarm shrilled at him from it's position on the couch and Spike reached over and slapped at it, finally hitting a button that turned it off. Bloody thing. Should put it through the wall. But he didn't, because he remembered with a small start that it was for the pills. And Xander... Who wasn't awake at all. Who was, in fact, lying behind Spike, one arm up on his hip and resting lightly down his thigh, the other, until moments ago, tucked under Spike's head. That's gonna hurt when he wakes up. If he wakes up. Spike watched Xander sleep for a moment, considering.

Xander was exhausted or he'd have never slept through the alarm. Let him sleep, then. I can get the pills. Spike stretched, feeling the smallest twinge along his chest where the skin pulled over the wounds, but nothing else. He was still pleasantly floating, but definitely coming down. But not for a bit. So...kitchen. Blood, god. Pills. Right. He pushed Xander's arm gently off his hip and slowly, slowly pushed himself to his knees. Which was a lot harder to do than he thought. His legs were like rubber - his arms were - and he was panting before he was halfway up, hanging on the edge of the couch. Fuck. Just..go slow... The weakness scared him, and he was NOT going to give in to it. Right. Just lean on the couch...

Dizziness gripped him as he stood and he swayed for a moment, eyes shut and fingers sinking into the couch arm. Then he slowly, slowly made his way into the kitchen area.

Xander woke to a crash and clatter. That kept clattering. And cursing.

But only made sense when Xander heard that faint, but distinct crunching of shifting bone and threw himself upright in the Nest, scrambling out of the pillows. "Spike? Shit. Ow!" He tripped over the blanket and sprawled beneath the television, but it was far enough to see the disaster in the kitchen. Spike on the floor, cans and tubes and little plastic cups scattered around him. Game faced, which should have frightened Xander. Should have.

Might have, on any other vampire but Spike. Because even that face was becoming easier and easier to read.

Xander scrambled to his feet, crossing the small room to crouch next to Spike, hesitated, then laid his hand against one sharply ridged cheek, stroking beneath his eye. "...I'm up."

Fuck. Of course he is. Spike wanted to growl, but that seemed like...a silly thing to do. But he was pissed, so he did anyway. Xander's fingers, lightly caressing, hesitated infinitesimally and then curved around, cupping his cheek. Thumb brushing delicately along his cheekbone and fingertips rubbing slowly in the hair behind his ear. Sorry, pet, sorry, sorry... "Bloody pills...got dizzy, is all," he muttered.

"Yeah..." Xander settled onto one knee, letting Spike rest against his hand. "It was like that for me after I lost my eye. God, those pills didn't do me any favors either." It's okay, sweetheart. Jesus. I remember how embarrassing it was too. "I should've warned you that I sleep like the dead after orgasms. At least Anya said I did. I think I still do." He also remembered the pictures she'd taken as proof, one of which involved her sitting primly on his bare ass while he snored into his pillow, utterly unaware of her presence. Another involved a miniature Santa hat, and that one, Xander was very glad to have lost in the destruction of the Hellmouth.

"Seems like you do, pet." Spike pushed into Xander's hand a little and sighed. He really didn't know if he could get back up again and... Gonna have to carry me. Again. This is...this is... The sudden wash of fury that nearly choked him felt good and he growled again, a little louder. Felt it rattle in his chest and he wished he could just punch something. Wondered if he tried if he'd just embarrass himself more.


~~~~~


Xander felt the rattle of Spike's growl, and closed his eyes, feeling it through the palm against Spike's cheek and the hand on his back. Felt the frustration rolling off of Spike in waves, and couldn't think of a damned thing to say that wouldn't just make Spike feel more weak. Instead, he bent and rested his forehead against Spike's, ridges to smooth, and breathed.

"It's not much longer now."

It felt good, Xander's forehead pressed to his. Felt like Dru, so long ago, when they would lean together and dance to the music in her head...music that sometimes Spike was pretty sure he could hear, too. It made him feel less lonely, and it made him realize how hard Xander was trying. To make him feel...good. To give him some dignity. Not that I've got much, doing this. Staggering in here. Stupid thing to do...

"No, not long now..." Spike reached up and on the second try got his hand around Xander's neck, just lightly holding him. "Not long, love..."

Xander's eye burned, and he shut it tightly, though he couldn't say why it chose now to tear up. Maybe because it was almost over, Spike's illness, or maybe because he was so tired, or maybe it was just Spike. He let his breath out slowly, smiling when he felt Spike's brow smooth beneath his, and kissed the last of the ridges as they vanished beneath the skin. "That feels so weird."

"Does not," Spike objected, automatic, and then he had to smile a little. "Maybe it does." He looked up at Xander and chose to ignore the glimmer of moisture in his eye. "Guess I should get up off this sodding cold floor and take my pills, yeah?"

"And maybe I should help, huh?" Breathing seemed a little easier as Xander slipped his arms under Spike, standing with him, and carrying him back to the Nest where he settled him, stuffing a few extra pillows beneath his back so that he could sit up comfortably. "Good?"

"Good, pet." One shaky hand lay against Xander's cheek, and he caught it, nuzzling in briefly and pressing a kiss to Spike's palm before letting go and heading back to the kitchen.

"Is there really any difference in taste between different blood types? I mean, I get that different animals would have different tasting blood, but what about blood types?"

Spike wiggled around, getting comfortable - feeling decadent and lazy not weak as a kitten as he watched his human IS mine, damn-it heat blood for him. Heat blood naked. He's beautiful. Bet he doesn't know that. Gonna make him know, when I'm better.

"A little. Can't tell you the difference to drink it, but they're all different. Easier to tell if the...donor was sick or on drugs or anything like that." He watched Xander cross to the Nest with a small smirk on his face.

"Uh huh," Xander said slowly, eyeing the look on Spike's face as he knelt in the Nest, letting Spike wrap his hands around mug and pills. "You gonna tell me what you're looking so smug about?"

"Just enjoyin' the view...harem boy. I think I'll need a massage soon. Or...you could feed me grapes." Spike gulped the pills and blood as fast as he could, grimacing - trying not to laugh at the momentary look that crossed Xander's face.

"Yeah, well, I'm not peeling them, O Exalted Master." Xander folded his legs and leaned back against the couch, determined not to blush this time. Much. He nudged Spike with his knee, keeping the contact of skin to skin afterwards instead of pulling back.

"Mmmmm...peeled grapes." Spike tipped his head back and let his eyes drift shut - but peeked through his lashes at Xander. "Like eyeballs, really. Don't get seeds with eyeballs, though..."

"You know, I have eaten an eye before." Xander also remembered, vaguely, that there had been a lot of alcohol involved leading up to its consumption.

Spike felt his eyes go wide and then narrow again as he stared speculatively at Xander's grin. "You never. Whose, then?"

"Did so! Not too long after I first got to Africa. I was in...god, I don't remember where I was. I was so...drunk." That part was still embarrassing to admit. That he hadn't exactly started off with the white hat bang that might have been expected of him.

But Xander could still feel the grin stretching his face, and an absurd little flutter of pride that he'd (okay, maybe possibly) surprised the Big Bad.

"I was in this little village where the big delicacy was sheep eyes, and they were pretty special. I couldn't turn them down without offending everybody in the place, and by then..." Xander shrugged, vaguely recalling the 'pop' of the membrane and the bitter, foul liquid coating his tongue in between slugs of cheap vodka. "I just thought it was funny. Laughed like hell, but I didn't gag it up." That had been the beginning of his recovery.

"Never would have imagined you would, pet. Made of sterner stuff, you..." Spike let his head fall back on the pillows a bit - let his hand slip off his own thigh and onto Xander's knee. "You were always braver than you let yourself think, Xan...always rushin' in and tryin' to save the day... Backed Angelus up, even, and there's not many alive can say that."

Xander felt good - the muscle under the warm skin solid and pleasing to touch. He unconsciously kneaded, just a little. Just to feel.

"I wasn't trying to save the day so much as I was too stubborn to let something really stupid kill someone I loved." Because, yeah, he still remembered loving Buffy with all the intensity his teenaged heart could muster. It'd changed into something else, after, but he would have - Wait a minute. "Angel told you about that?"

"Oh, he told us. Told us at length. Ranted and raved and stomped in little circles. It was bloody amusing and believe me, pet, I needed amusing being stuck in that damn chair. Thought he'd never leave off." Spike lifted his head and looked at Xander with a sly little grin on his lips. "He even invented a new torture or two, just for you."

Xander tilted his head. "You know? I'm trying to feel scared. I really am. But all I'm feeling is this little glow of satisfaction." He tapped his torso, just beneath the ribs. "Right here."

"Too bloody right, mate. Made my week, that. And that whole business with the ghosts at the school - he 'bout scrubbed his skin off, tryin' to get rid of the 'human taint'. Always was a bit of a drama queen."

Xander reached out absently, combing his fingers through the light snarls Spike's hair had picked up over night. "If we'd known that, it would have made him a lot less scary." Which he can admit comfortably now. Because no matter how brave, finding your favorite teacher dead in your librarian's bed is pretty wiggy.

"Oh, the stories I could tell..." Spike relaxed into the gentle combing, but a moment later he was sighing in frustration. "Think you could trade me this cup for one of your sodas, pet? Can't get the taste out of my mouth."

And it was just....wrong, for blood to leave a bad aftertaste, and it made Spike remember - well, acknowledge - his illness all over again. And he didn't want to.

"Yeah." Xander gave Spike's hair one last stroke, took the mug, and heaved himself onto the couch, and from there to the floor with minimal Nest disturbance. "Mountain Dew, Pepsi, or generic fizzy orange? There's also some diet stuff I got by accident, but let's say it together - ew."

God. How does he stand it? They're all vile. "Sure I can't have some whiskey, pet?" Spike called, and sighed again at the 'Ha!' that came back. "Gimme the generic orange, then - can't abide a drink that glows in the dark or one that has enough sugar in it to wire a whole town."

Xander came back with the orange and the Mountain Dew, uncapping the one for Spike, and the other for himself. "So which one is this? The glow in the dark one or the sugary one?" He watched Spike sniff at the orange soda without hiding his disgust. "And I'll have you know that stuff carries the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C, pal."

Spike eyed the radioactive yellow-green of Xander's drink of choice. "That's both, actually." He took a long drink of the orange, swishing it in his teeth a little. The highly sweetened, very manufactured flavor of it was...disgusting. But it washed away the even more revolting foulness of the blood, which was... Depressing, really.

"I'll be sure and pack some of this along next time it looks like I'm in danger of gettin' scurvy then, shall I?" he said, and took another drink. And shuddered. Hurry up, Wes, 'cause if I don't get a real drink soon...

Xander considered his drink. "Y'know, that's fair. I can pretend to be grossed out by your blood-"

"And I'll be genuinely revolted by your sodas," Spike finished, screwing the cap back on.

Xander laughed. "I barely drink them anymore, but it's this or hotel water, and - I'm thinking no to the hotel water." He glanced at the clock, and grimaced. "Another half hour before Wes gets here. He wanted the pills to take full effect before we started."

"I'll be comatose if he doesn't get here soon." Spike let Xander take his soda and then shot the man a hard look. "I ate. Now it's your turn."

"I think comatose is kinda what Wes is hoping for," Xander admitted, then glanced to the kitchen with a sigh. "Y'know, there comes a certain age when cold pizza for breakfast loses its appeal." He shuffled himself out of the Nest again, making his way to the kitchen and peering into the refrigerator in the time honored tradition of believing that if you stare inside the refrigerator long enough, it will somehow mysteriously divulge new contents. He shut it with a grimace. "I'll order something in."

"See if there's Mongolian bar-be-que!" Spike called. "Spicy yak ribs. Or...spring rolls and that sweet corn soup...and something sweet for afters... Hit the spot." Take away wasn't the best food, but it was food, and it would be hot. Get that drawn look off of Xander's face, maybe. Give him a little color.

Xander leaned over the couch, snatching up the menu folder from the bed-side table and flipping it open. "Um. Pizza, pizza, pizza, Mexican, sandwich shops...There's a pan-Asian place. Do you - can you eat anything?" Xander asked, realizing that despite his time living with Spike, he knew absolutely nothing of the mechanics of vampire consumption of human food.

"Can eat anything I like," Spike said, trying a little bit of a leer on for size. "An' how about - pan-Asian? Don't trust what you Yanks call Mexican."

"What? You defile the time-honored ninety-nine cent burrito special? What kind of Southern Californian vamp are you?" Xander climbed over the end of the couch to the phone. "Ribs, rolls, soup... and okay, what part of Asia is ice cream native to?"

"The part that moved to San Francisco." Spike had to smile at that - at the sweet-tooth that persisted in the man. "Do they deliver ice cream?"

Xander grinned back. "By the pint. As long as they sell it, I'll buy it. Cherry Blossom sound okay?"

"Cherry Blossom?"

Xander shrugged, dialing. "It's sweet. It's kind of skewed the way you keep leering at me - don't stop that, by the way - and kind of tart. Hi. Do you deliver out to Santa Monica?"

Spike watched Xander fold the corners of the phone book - doodle in the margin and generally fidget while he gave their order and recited the address of the hotel. He did his best to project a bit of 'sexual predator', despite the lovely waves of floating oblivion that kept crashing over him. Wish I could back this up with something more tangible... You're not gonna get out of bed for a week when I'm better, pet. Xander hopped up and hung up the phone and Spike grinned when he snuggled back down into the Nest.

And around Spike, carefully sliding a leg over Spike's, and getting his arm under Spike's head, pillowing it; tangling the fingers of the other hand with Spike's where they rested on the uninjured side of his chest.

"Food is on its way. Wesley is on his way. And they're including free tea with the order so you won't have to drink any more of that awful awful soda. Which in no way is a good thing because it leaves more for me."

Spike's skin was soft under Xander's fingers, and he couldn't resist sweeping his thumb along the spare curve of Spike's pectoral. Or what was left of it, and found himself grinning at the over-long riot of Spike's hair.

Spike couldn't resist - he reached over and patted the firm, rippling muscles of Xander's abdomen. "Watching your girlish figure then, pet? You know, you can burn a couple thousand calories having sex..."

"How many can I burn laying here wishing I was having sex?" Xander asked, watching Spike's fingers. Though it sparked something. Memory. "I used to eat. When I wasn't having sex. When I was too stressed to be having sex, I mean. Stressed? I ate. It kinda...stopped." He shrugged. "I haven't thought so much about what I eat since then." Which was an odd conversation to be having, naked in a nest of pillows with a vampire petting his stomach. Which he had to admit did look a lot more like the stomach he'd had on the swim team than the stomach he'd needed slayer strength to fasten his cummerbund around.

"Had other things to worry about, I imagine," Spike said, letting his hand slip a little lower so it could gently pet and tug the dark, straight hairs that grew in an enticing line down from Xander's navel.

Xander's breath hitched at a definite stir of anticipation from his cock, and he rolled over, pinning it and Spike's hand against Spike's hip with a laugh. He turned Spike's face toward him for a slow, sweet kiss. "I am not gonna answer the door for our food with a raging boner, Spike." He wasn't going to think too hard about the interest his body was showing in that thought, though.

"Might get us our food for free, if you did. 'Sides, they won't be here for ages, Xan..." Spike wiggled his hand until he could feel the thicker hair at the top of Xander's pubic bone. He started stroking again, tugging gently, and leaned up to kiss Xander back. Tastes good even after that bloody soda.

Xander inhaled against Spike's lips, tasting the faint lingering copper tang of blood under the orange sweetness, and god, the silk felt nice under his skin when he rocked against Spike's hand. "You - you might as well know sooner or later," he said, laying his head down on Spike's shoulder, mouthing the skin of his throat between words, "I am really - really - easy once the naughty touching starts."

"I like that in a harem boy," Spike murmured, and shifted a little, getting Xander's leg up a little higher over his hips. He could feel the rapidly hardening cock pushing at his thigh, and he got his other arm free of the press of their bodies and stroked it lazily down Xander's back. The pills were making everything...fuzzy. And there was a kind of glow to the edges of everything. But he was pretty sure he could stave off the inevitable fade-out. The vampiric ability to metabolize almost anything was still intact, if a bit sluggish.

"Spike..." Xander grasped for the slippery thoughts, sighing into his neck as he skated a hand over Spike's uninjured hip, and - Xander stilled, closing his eyes. "This isn't right."

Right? What does that mean? "Explain 'right', pet. Not sure I'm following." Spike knew his voice had gone...flat. Maybe even cold. But that line - at this moment - was far, far too reminiscent of Buffy and her eternal hot-and-cold running...lust, and he really just could not take that again. Wouldn't.

Xander shook his head quickly, rising on his supporting arm to look at Spike, really look at him, as he tenderly stroked the limp flesh laying against Spike's thigh, willing him to get it. "It shouldn't be just about me. Not when you - when I can't give you -" He shook his head again in frustration. "It's not fair that you're not getting anything out of this." You have no idea, no idea how hard it is to stop.

Spike heaved a long sigh of relief. He took Xander's hand and brought it up to his mouth, kissing the scarred, thickened knuckles. "Love - no. It's not about...fair. This isn't - a game. It's just the pills, yeah? But Xander..." Spike rubbed his cheek against Xander's hand - let his own hand slip around to ghost over Xander's chest and ribs - tease his navel and feather over the gun-shot scar. "Xan, I do
get something from this... I make you feel good, love. And...you are so...beautiful. You are so... How you look, when I touch you? The look in your eyes and..." Spike lifted his hips a little, friction of silk and skin on Xander's cock. "How your neck arches, and how your skin is flushed - so hot and soft... How you smell, love, like cloves and mint and salt...like... God, Xander...you make me burn. Make me want to taste you and touch you... Love, there's no 'fair'... Let me do this, yeah? Please?"

Spike's words left Xander shivering, feeling like his skin was two sizes too small and two degrees too hot everywhere Spike touched him. He groaned into their kiss, taking Spike's lips as hungrily as he wished he could take Spike's body. The way Spike said it - he couldn't not believe. "God. So much I want to do to you." But there was agreement in there somewhere too as he moved against Spike; silk and skin and sweat. "With - for - God -" Xander gave up, helplessly, on finding the right word, mouthing kisses down Spike's throat. "Gonna make you feel so good when you're better."

Spike arched up into the kisses Xander was raining down on him. He let his hand slide lower and grasped the hot, silken flesh of Xander's cock, rubbing his thumb slowly over the head and the slippery drop of fluid there. It felt so good, his heat and his weight - his need - his desire.

"Tell me. What do you want to do to me, love? Tell me, Xan..."

"Right now - wanna taste you," Xander said, feeling the heat of words and breath reflected back at him from Spike's throat; laying his lips over where a pulse would be, flickering the rhythm with his tongue. "Everywhere but here." He gave Spike's limp cock a gentle squeeze, fingertips sliding softly down to cup his balls, only a light touch. "Till you're so fuckin' sensitive. Begging, but if you touch me, I'm gonna stop, gonna make you wait for it before I go down on you...let you fuck my throat till I can't talk...can't breathe..." Xander realized he was babbling, but Spike's fingers felt so good around him, and his skin was so soft against him.

Oh...god... Xander was pressing - unintentionally - on the scars and it was sending little shock-waves of a twisting kind of pleasure-pain that was making Spike shudder all over. He fisted a handful of Xander's hair and yanked him down for a hard kiss, sliding his hand faster up and down the length of Xander's cock.

"Want to...want to feel you around me like that - hot and wet...willing... What else, what else..."

Breathing was getting hard to coordinate around the kiss. Thinking was all but a complete loss, the words fractured and disjointed by Spike's lips and hand as Xander moved restlessly against him. "Want - want to fuck you -" No finesse this time, the urge so strong it made Xander shake. "Want to - to watch you ride, h-hard like you need me- Ah - fuck, Spike!" Xander shuddered with orgasm against Spike, feeling the slipperiness over Spike's hand; his flesh, his hip, the silk, tongues and flickers of pleasure skittering over his nerves as he fought for breath.

Spike writhed against Xander, desperate for whatever sensation he could get. He hadn't lied - his desire was a coal burning down low in his belly and even though he wasn't getting off in the usual way his whole body was singing from the drug, from Xander's words; from the rasp and slide of his body and the wet, sucking kisses from his mouth. Spike got his wet fingers up to his mouth and licked, deliberate and slow, his gaze never leaving Xander's.

"You taste like cream - spiced cream and salt...taste so. Damn. Good. Next time I'm gonna suck you, Xander...next time I want you to come in my mouth."

Xander groaned at the quiver Spike's words produced in his belly, leaning forward to drag his tongue over Spike's fingers too; sliding his tongue against Spike's tongue between them, tasting himself and oranges and salt and Spike, and feeling the intense look in Spike's eyes. "Bet you'd be so fuckin' good. The way you kiss..."

"Fuck, Xan..." Spike kissed back hungrily, fucking his tongue into Xander's mouth, pulling the man down and getting every inch of contact he could get. "Make you scream, I will...make you beg," he gasped out, between kisses, and sank his fingers into the taut muscles of Xander's ass, rubbing and kneading, loving the feel of him under his hands.

"I'm all ready begging," Xander whispered into Spike's mouth around hungry kisses, pushing away the knowledge that they had both Wesley and food coming soon until he couldn't ignore it anymore and rested his forehead against Spike's. "Only the fact that Wes is coming to make you better could get me to stop kissing you and get out of this Nest right now. Just want you to know that."

"Only reason I'm lettin' you up is so you can let Wes do his thing. So I can get better. And then I'm going to show you, love, what you do to me...all night..." Spike nipped once at Xander's throat, just hard enough. "Just wanted you to know that."

The bite tingled, then burned with a promise that made Xander shiver. "Getting - out - of bed now," Xander said around kisses, only making it as far as Spike's other side before tangling his hand in Spike's hair with a reluctant sigh. "Any minute now. God."

Spike chuckled, sliding his hand over Xander's arm until he reached his fingers, gripping them. "Go on, pet."

"For Christmas, puppies, and sex. Fuck. Yes. Lots of sex. I used to think about more than sex. I think."

"I don't care if you don't think about anything else ever again." Spike watched Xander lever himself slowly up - watched him stand there, his eye dark and heavy-lidded, his skin a warm and delicious pink under the tan. So fucking sexy...god...when did that happen?

"You are so...fucking...lovely," Spike purred, and he slowly ran his tongue up a finger, watching. Loving the reactions and the want.

Xander sucked in his breath at that look and that tongue. And the words, a little voice in his mind admitted. Spike's words went straight to his belly and still made him blush. "Not gonna get tired of hearing that." He flashed Spike a quick grin before hurrying into the bathroom, still wearing the smile, and stared at himself, startled, in the mirror. I look so, so fucked. And yet, he couldn't bring himself to care, or to do more than splash a quick handful of water over his face, scrubbing at the two-day stubble that he really did need to shave. Soon.

Cleaning himself off, he dampened a towel and returned to Spike, and a long, slow, friendly hello kiss. "You are so lucky vampires aren't susceptible to beard burn."

"Feels good, that. All scratchy over my skin. And then...you can use your tongue, smooth me down again..." Spike smirked at the momentary glaze that came over Xander's eye and then sighed, because Xander really did have to dress for the delivery guy - and probably for Wes this time, too.

Xander sighed, swiping the cloth one last time, gently over Spike's skin before balling it up and throwing it across the room, out of the way. "Hang onto that thought, okay?" He bent, pressing his lips chastely to Spike's before standing, rummaging through the packed duffel he'd barely looked at since coming into the hotel room. "It feels wrong, saying you make me feel so good. When you're this sick, I mean. But you do." The jeans were soft as he tugged them on, buttoning them, and pulling on a white wife-beater over them.

Spike stretched a little, listening to Xander poke around in the kitchen, doing a desultory sort of clean-up of the mess Spike had made earlier. He plucked the silk sheet up a little higher, shivering at the whisper of it across sensitized skin and jerked, startled, at a knock on the door. Wes or food... He almost hoped it would be food, because he wasn't sure he'd be able to eat if Wes...happened...first. The pills were making the room reel around him, and he was so damn tired, now, from fighting the effect. Just a bit longer, either way. And then...fuck...hope I start feeling better soon...so tired of this...

When Xander returned, he returned balancing a big brown paper bag, and a cardboard cup holder that smelled of tea, and sauces, and frying oil. "I think the room is smelling a little musky," he admitted, remembering how quickly the delivery boy had gone. Or maybe he was just looking disreputable enough to start making people nervous.

Spike thought it might be that Xander had forgotten all about the patch - hadn't had it on in two days - but he wasn't going to mention it. Instead he took a deep breath, savoring the food-smells and the Xander smells, all mingled and salt-savory-sweet.

"Smells delicious to me, pet. No accounting for taste, yeah?"

Xander laughed, unfolding the bag and giving Spike a look through his hair. "Well, I wasn't planning to let him in, anyway. But if Wesley runs away, we're gonna have a small problem on our hands." Though privately, he didn't think running away was what Wesley would be inclined to do.

"Watcher's seen scarier things than you with a two-day beard, love." Spike hesitated, but then sighed and gave in. "Help me with these pillows, yeah? Need to sit up."

"Two day beard and not much sleep," Xander corrected, scooting forward to bolster Spike with several pillows, covertly folding the silk to hide the tell-tale stains on it between the seams of two pillows.

"After Wes comes by you're gonna lay down and sleep if I have to get him to slip you a micky, pet. I won't have you wearin' yourself down like this." Spike pulled a pair of chopsticks out of their paper wrapper and snapped them apart - idly rubbed them together to smooth off any splinters. "And you're gonna eat, too. Need you all healthy, love," Spike added, shooting Xander a look to take the edge off his scolding tone. Never had anybody fret themselves this much over me. It's...nice. But I won't let him keep on.

"You don't have to drug me," Xander promised, watching Spike preparing his chopsticks. "I'll sleep after it's done, until it's time for your next dose." He wondered for a moment when the vampire had first learned to use them. Because Xander was pretty sure the Victorian English hadn't caught on to chopsticks yet, and he couldn't imagine the wild child William the Bloody having the patience to sit down and learn. He was still clumsy with his own, fumbling with the larger pieces of meat. "Eating now," he added, pointing to the food with his chopsticks before taking a bite.

"Here, pet, easier like this," Spike said, taking Xander's fingers in his and gently rearranging his hold on the chopsticks. Then he picked up his own again and happily plucked out a chunk of rib, biting deep.

Xander frowned, relaxing his fingers around the chopsticks. It was easier like that. "Where did you learn to use these?"

"China," Spike said, watching Xander. Wondering if he'd make the connection and get all...skittish.

A jolt of recognition ran through Xander as he added Spike + China and came up with the inevitable, and grinned. "You mean you had time to around your busy Slayer killing schedule?"

That was unexpected, and Spike downed a mouthful of tea, considering.

"You don't mind, then, me talking about that? I usually get a quick 'Shut up, Spike' when it comes to...everything I ever did."

Xander's grin faded immediately at that, and he poked at his food. "I want to hear about everything you've done. Well, okay, maybe nothing involving incredibly graphic torture, but..." He frowned.

"It doesn't bother you?"

Xander lifted his head, looking at Spike. His Spike. And he wasn't gonna bother thinking too hard about when Spike had become his. He just was. "Of course not. Jesus, Spike. You wouldn't be alive now - or, well, whatever - if you hadn't done all of that. I get that. I get 'kill or be killed'."

"You don't look so happy about it, pet."

Xander stabbed his chopsticks into the barbecue beef, imagining it was Angel and feeling a little better. "What I'm not happy about is you expecting me to tell you to shut up," he admitted.

"I didn't..." Spike started, but the fast, almost angry look that darted his way made Spike reconsider. "All right, I suppose I did, a bit. You Scoobies were always awfully touchy about the blood and bones of things, even though you were out killing stuff most nights." Spike put his ribs down and picked up a carton of rice - absently scooped some into his mouth. "All right, yeah. Learned how to use 'em in China when we were there enjoying the mess being made by - well, everybody, really. Bloody revolution in the streets and you know we just reveled in it." Spike paused and watched Xander for a moment, but he seemed all right. "Dru was fascinated - hadn't ever seen anybody eat with sticks and she wanted to learn. Turned this pretty little monk and made him show us how until we could do it like we were born to it. And then she staked him with some very nice chopsticks with mother-of-pearl inlay." Spike was not going to tell Xander that Dru had also liked using those chopsticks to pluck out her victims eyes. Even he knew when enough was enough.

"I must be crazy. It's like..." Xander looked up at the ceiling, trying to get his words in order to explain his reaction to the story. "It's like history. People died one way or another. And it was bound to happen. Like that monk. If Dru hadn't killed him, maybe he would have been shot in the street." Xander shrugged. "Did you ever do that? Want to learn something so you turned somebody and made them teach you?" Xander popped another piece of beef into his mouth, hoping that Spike would get it. That he did want to know.

"Yeah..." Spike felt a little jolt of shock at that - at the obvious interest, and the utter lack of disgust. "Turned a man in France. Wanted to know how to work on my car - fix it if I had to. No fun getting stuck out in the middle of no-where, half an hour before dawn because of a set of dodgy plugs." Spike sipped some more tea, remembering, and smiled at the memory. "Had a Duesenberg Coupe. Lovely thing. Could go a hundred miles an hour in that thing. If you could find a road good enough."

"Which, of course, you stole," Xander added with a grin, closing his eyes to just savor the image of Spike and Drusilla roaring through the European night on the eve of the War. He shivered, speaking slowly. "It is so weird that you were actually there. You know? I mean, jesus, you look as young as me, but you've seen..." He shook his head, laughing. "History was never this sexy in school."

"History is sexy, love. It's all passion and torment and guilt and sweat. Love and hate and sex and violence." Spike grinned wolfishly, but he felt a surge of excitement go through him. Because he missed talking about old times. He missed being able to mention Dru without a scowl or a snide comment about her sanity. Dru had slipped a few gears, now and then, but she had always had a keen eye for new things - revolutionary changes. She hadn't been scared of the car, even though a lot of the older vampires - and humans - had been.

"So what poor guy lost his car so you and Dru could drive like crazy people all over France?"

"Claude was the owner. Nearly ran me down one night when his breaks went out. He was drunk as a lord, swearing and stomping around. Apologized to me a dozen times - gave me a bottle of some damn fine brandy and fixed his brakes right there. Just...couldn't pass it up. Him or the car. It was like flying, that car..."

"What happened to it?" Xander fought the urge to just set the food aside, push Spike back into the pillows and curl up against him. The impulse brought a blush to his cheeks, because dammit he wasn't that girly, but it still sounded...nice. And it brought Spike to life, irony and all, and he wondered, suddenly, if this was something Spike had ever had an interested audience for.

"Oh, some bastard of an SS officer took it. When I got - grabbed by 'em. Wound up on a submarine in the middle of the Atlantic with Angel, of all people. By the time I got back, and found Dru, it was long gone." Spike sighed, still regretting the loss, even though he'd loved his DeSoto almost as much.

Xander processed that for a moment, deciding that Spike's tendency to get captured by the military was not something he wanted to bring up or ask about. "You do realize how weird that story is, don't you? I mean, running into Angel on a submarine in the middle of the Atlantic ocean? And okay, maybe weirder that I don't doubt for a second that it's true." Xander set down the carton of meat, picking up a spring roll, thinking. "A guy I stayed with in Africa had a Duesenberg. But it wasn't going to go a hundred any time soon. Even if the roads had been good enough." Xander laughed. "I don't think it even had tires anymore, and the kids liked to play in it, and imagine. It'd belonged to some European back in the Thirties. God knows how he got it down there in the first place, probably on a boat." Xander dropped the roll back into the box and stretched his legs. "I asked Kalume why he kept it, and he said 'because it's a sexy car'."

"Oh, they were sexy. Got Dru so hot... Well." Spike drank the last of his tea, grinning over at Xander. Bad form, to talk about an ex-lover in front of... A new one. Because he is. And she is... Hurts, to admit that. But it's true. "Your government tapped Angel for some - secret mission. Save the Sub or something like that. That's when...when I first heard about scientists wanting to control demons." That memory came flooding back, as well, and it wasn't nearly as pleasant as the car had been. Bastards.

"And you were all ready on the sub because the German government had kidnapped you?"

"That's it."

Xander uncapped his soda, leaving the tea for Spike. "This'd be why I'm the 'rah-rah Spike!' boy instead of the white-hat these days. It's just - wrong doing that to people, even if they are grr-fangy vampires." But he wasn't going to let the conversation turn into a minefield that easily. Not if this was his last time with a lucid and pain-free Spike for a few days.

Spike couldn't help the bemused smile that stretched his mouth. "You really think 'rah rah Spike' in your head? Really?"

"Yeah. Sure. Pom-poms and all - red ones - but I draw the line at the flippy little pleated skirt. Which, by the way, is plaid, and has safety pins in it."

"Bet you'd look good in plaid skirt. With safety pins. Think of it as a kilt, if it makes you feel better." Spike knew his lip was curling in a leer of epic proportions because Xander, bent over a desk with a skirt flipped up over his back and his bare ass, spread and pink from what else a paddle? Made for a lovely image.

Xander snorted at Spike's leer. "Kilts don't come in mini length unless you're featured in a very very gay calendar."

"Oh, and we'd know about very gay calendars these days, would we?"

"By rumor, of course." Xander didn't try to hide his grin. So he used his internet connection for more than work, after all. Who didn't? "I bet you could bargain me into a kilt though."

"Ooh, pet. I'd give you just about anything you asked for," Spike purred, shifting just enough so that his leg slid along Xander's. "Kilt and a nice pair a'docs." He let his toes curl into Xander's thigh, stroking, and let his eyes fall half-shut. Maybe I can get him again, 'fore Wes gets here...

"I'm so easy, you could probably talk me into it with just that look, you know." Xander reached down, rubbing his hand along the fine bones of Spike's ankle. "I could learn to hold out for big stuff. But no, I have to be Mr. Happy Guy with just hot looks and sexy leers from the vampire."

"I've got quite a bit off of a well-placed leer, thank you very much," Spike said, wiggling his foot a little further into Xander's hold. "And don't think I'm immune, pet. That mouth of yours...talk me into anything..."

Xander felt Spike's skin warm under the heat of his hand, and on impulse bit his lip, giving Spike his best look from beneath shaggy hair. "Once you're better, I'll show you what else this mouth of mine can do." He dropped a kiss on Spike's knee, the closest flesh he could reach and stood, checking his cell phone for the time. "Wes is on his way." Better be, at least.

Wes. Spike was dreading and anticipating the man's arrival in equal measures. He wanted it over, wanted the cure started but...fuck. It was going to hurt. He lay back on the pillows, watching the little spangles and flashes of light that the pills painted across the ceiling. Sinking down into nothingness, warm and pain-free.

Xander watched Spike fading out again with a sick twist in his stomach and gathered the remains of their meal, tucking it away in the refrigerator for later. It didn't get any easier to watch, and he had to keep reminding himself that no matter how bad Spike looked, he'd still wake up again.


~*~*~*~*~


Wesley went through his hold-all one more time and then climbed out of his car and made his way slowly into the hotel. He wasn't looking forward to this at all. Has to be done. It'll be over soon and he'll heal... Wesley was still a little shaken by what he'd seen before - by the ashy pallor and pain-wracked gauntness of the vampire who was normally so...alive. He took a deep breath and lifted his hand, and knocked quietly on the door.

Xander opened the door almost immediately, having been pacing back and forth from the kitchen to the bed, since going out for a walk had not been an option. "He's asleep." Xander stepped back to let Wesley in, scrubbing a hand over his face and hesitating on the realization that he wasn't wearing the patch and wasn't quite sure where it had gotten to.

He gave a little mental shrug and let the door close behind Wesley. Spike was right. He'd seen worse things. "He had some food. Human food, I mean. That's not gonna affect what we have to do, is it?"

Wesley slipped inside, noticing the oily scent of take-away Chinese and...something. Musky and sweet. "No, no, it won't affect the tincture in any way - in fact, he'll have to take it in something because it is quite foul. I just hope..." Wesley paused, looking at Xander, judging his expression. Noticing once again that he wasn't wearing the eye patch and this time, because there were more lamps on, noticing the extent of the damage. He managed to keep his wince internal.

Xander scratched absently at the two-day beard, then scrubbed his palm over his face one last time, glancing back at Wesley when he trailed off, finding him staring vaguely in Xander's direction. "You just hope what?"

"What? Oh - I beg your pardon. I just hope that he doesn't get...sick. Vampires don't vomit often, but..." Wesley moved to the bed Stripped - why is the bed stripped? and unzipped the carryall. He pulled out the plastic painters overalls he'd bought and the box of latex gloves, the caps and the shoe covers. He was aware of Xander watching him with a bemused expression.

"You really wanna ask, don't you?" Despite what Xander knew they were about to do, he had to tease the Watcher. It'd been so long, and - it felt kinda good.

"I beg your pardon?"

Xander just shrugged, glancing sideways at Wesley and dividing the gear into two piles. "You don't have to be polite. That's all."

Wesley felt the blush climbing his throat to his face and turned away, fiddling with the gear. Dammit. Didn't mean to... Well, nothing for it, now, but to tough it out. "Yes, well... I apologize, Xander. I'm being...nosy. I suppose the - the pills are working if you and Spike can...sleep together."

Ah, it felt good to make the watcher stammer. All that was missing was a pair of glasses that Wesley could take off and clean. Xander shrugged. "You've got eyes. It's not nosy. And yeah, it's easier now, as long as he doesn't miss a dose. The - impotence. That wears off when he's off the pills, right?"

Wesley fumbled the little case of scalpels and nearly dropped it. "Does the -" He shot a shocked glance at Xander and then grinned, because Xander was doing a poor job of keeping a straight face and his eye was sparkling with suppressed laughter.

"Yes, it wears off. And if memory serves, you'd better lock the doors and take your clothes off, because you won't be leaving your bed for a while."

"If memory -" Xander stared at Wesley, a jolt of something not all together unlike lust mingled with vague embryonic possessiveness shot through him. "You and Spike?!"

"You say that as if it's utterly unthinkable," Wesley said, smiling to himself as he stepped into a pair of the coveralls. "Here, you need to wear these." He handed the other pair to Xander and then did the Velcro closures up, waiting. Will he ask? I'm surprised Spike didn't say...

"For a Watcher to do a vampire? Pretty surprising. Though there were these kinda interesting looks between Giles and Spike during the bathtub bondage fun time hour." Xander watched Wesley as he pulled on the plastic cover-alls. "It's probably rude, even for me to ask for the details, but what happened?" He froze, glancing from Wesley to Spike. It didn't seem likely but - "You guys weren't..." He made the universal gesture for "together".

"Giles -?" Wesley hopped awkwardly, trying to get a shoe-cover on. Oh, he must be joking. "And no, Spike and I were not..." He gave up and made the gesture back - sat heavily on the bed.

"We... When Spike was returned to a corporeal state, he was..." Wesley sighed and looked up at Xander, not wanting to broach Spike's privacy but wanting, very much, to reassure the young man who stood looking down at him, a half-anxious, half-incredulous look on his face.

"He was desperate for...contact, Xander. It was very hard on him, not being able to touch...for so long. He's very...tactile." Wesley slipped the other shoe cover on and stood. "And I was lonely, and we both...needed someone to hold. It was...solace. Do you understand?"

"Solace". There was a word that had a lot of connotations when it came to Spike, but this time, Xander found himself smiling. He rested a hand on Wesley's plastic-covered shoulder and squeezed. "Yeah. I get that." Xander let go and bent to slip the shoe covers on over his bare feet, grimacing as the plastic caught between his toes. He looked over at Spike, remembering how much he had needed touch when he first met Andrej. "I'm glad you were there." Somehow, he didn't think Wesley was one of the people who habitually told Spike to shut up.

Wesley sighed, and opened the box of latex gloves. "Yes, I'm glad I was, too. We really...started to depend on each other. Until...everything. I'm glad he found someone out here - or, someone found him. He was - very close to dying, Xander." Wesley stepped closer to the couch and looked over the back, studying Spike. The vampire was lying on his back, one arm curled over his chest, the other moving fitfully in the silk sheet. He looked, if possible, thinner, and the dark circles under his eyes and the hollows in his cheeks gave him an eerie, skeletal look. We need to just do this. He needs to start healing.

Xander watched Wesley watch Spike, and for a moment the expression on his face hurt to see. Xander remembered that Wesley hadn't been so lucky with the one he'd found.

"How do you propose we do this, then?" Wesley asked, turning back to Xander.

The Watcher mask had slid neatly back into place, so Xander followed. "How about in the bath tub? I'm thinking there might be questions if housekeeping comes in here to something that looks like a murder scene." Despite the fitful movements, Spike looked more at peace asleep than awake, and Xander didn't want to wake him up until he had to. "Maybe I could hold him and you...do the work?" Please, god, don't make me have to cut into Spike.

"Yes, that sounds like the best plan. You'll need to wear gloves as well, and this -" Wesley held out the plastic cap. "We can't risk getting any of the hairs or the poison onto our skin. Even in it's degraded state - it could be fatal." Wesley fished out the plastic visors he'd bought, as well - the kind EMT's and trauma nurses used in the ER to keep blood or fluids from getting on their faces. "I know this seems a bit - extreme, but..."

Xander accepted the head gear without hesitation, settling it in place. "He needs me healthy, he said. I'll do whatever it takes." Because he hadn't come this far taking care of Spike to give up now. Not so close to a cure. Except. Okay, there was the expected nervousness. Hello, nervousness. What kept you? Xander let out his breath, trying to find calm with it. "I'll carry Spike if you'll get the blankets off the floor in there. I, umm... I didn't want his feet to get cold," Xander finished, realizing it seemed a little silly, lining the bathroom with blankets for the brief time Spike had to stand before the sink, but it had seemed like a good idea at the time.

"Oh - of course." Wesley smiled at that because... Because Spike would do something like that too. He remembered quite clearly the handful of times he'd gotten too drunk to get home by himself, and how he'd woken up each time comfortably undressed and tucked in, a glass of water and aspirins by the bed. Spike...had a caring streak a mile wide, even if he took great pains to hide it.

Xander gave Wesley a shy smile before shuffling around the couch in the plastic booties, tugging his gloves into place and crouching next to Spike. "Hey, sweetheart. If you open your eyes, I just want you to know I'm not an alien being, no matter what I probably look like in this getup." Spike's hair caught on the latex of Xander's gloves, and he couldn't kiss through the visor, so instead he gathered Spike gently to him and stood, carrying him into the bathroom to watch Wesley throwing the last of the blankets out into the kitchen area. But when he tried to talk, his throat closed over. Just want this done.


~~~~~


Fire, fire across his chest, searing line and Spike thrashed, surfacing abruptly from the warm cocoon of nothing that he'd been floating in. White, white, all around him - restraints on his arms, his legs, and - Doctor - fucking doctor - strapped down - so dizzy - Dizzy because the blood was drugged, and only one bag, not enough, not enough. He was weak - he was sick - but he wrenched at the restraints, growling - screaming - because it really bothered the scientists, they didn't like their little guinea pigs to make noise.

The burning across his chest was bone-deep and nauseating and he braced his feet and pushed, feeling one arm come loose. He struck out wildly, satisfaction in the concussion of flesh on flesh but cringing - waiting for the acid-ice of the chip to flash through him.

Spike had been twitching, moaning, and even though Xander knew it was coming, the blow when Spike got his feet on the end of the tub and shoved knocked the wind out of him, left him scrambling for Spike's free arm; catching it, dragging it down again, struggling to wrap arms and legs around Spike as he wriggled like a fucking fish! "Spike. Spike, sweetheart, listen. It's Wes. Gonna get this shit out of you -" Then Spike shoved again, leaving Xander breathless once more, and he tucked his head in against Spike's neck and held on.

Wes leaned backwards hastily, but Spike still managed to glance a fist across his shoulder. He winced and waited, tense, while Xander did his best to calm the struggling figure. Knew this was going to be hard... The first scar was only open half-way, and the blood that was spilling out was too dark, foul-smelling, and sluggish. Poisoned, and it made Wes feel sick to his stomach.

Mumbling voice, and his arm caught and pinned again and Spike was panicking now, gasping in ragged breathes and twisting, lunging - doing his best to get free. Bastards. Won't let you... Xander's supposed to be here. Xander's supposed to - god - "Xander! Xander - h-help me, please help me -"

Wesley winced at the panic in Spike's voice as Xander subdued him once more, refusing to let his hand shake as he lay it against the quivering muscles of Spike's abdomen and continued the incision upwards, pushing the words forcefully to the back of his mind as he worked.

"I'm here. I'm here, Spike. Spike listen to me. It's Xander, I'm Xander..." The words flowed together around them, and Xander hoped it was his voice Spike would recognize even when he couldn't hear the words, couldn't understand, or comprehend.

No, no, nonono, not supposed to happen, not supposed to happen again, supposed to get some rest, some reward, some -

"Zzz-anderrr..." His own voice was a rasping groan and he shuddered and tried to twist away from the fire fire fire that was burning across him. But - mellow heat, soft voice, 'I'm here...listen...here, here...' and he opened his eyes wide and really looked.

"Oh god it hurts," he moaned, and hands were on him, holding him...helping him, not...the other.

Xander, that's Xander...thank Christ...oh, fuck, fuck, fuck.

Spike's moan hurt, and Xander tipped his head back with his chin, but the headgear prevented the kiss he wanted so badly, so badly. Xander pulled back to speak against his ear instead, thumbs sweeping soothing circles on Spike's inner arms as he held them. "Listen to my heartbeat, sweetheart." Since you don't have your own "Count the beats. Try to - to lose yourself in them while Wesley works." Sometimes, that had been all Andrej could offer to his patients in the way of painkillers, the how of leaving your own body when the pain got too bad to stand.

Spike could hear himself gasping for air - could hear the rustle of plastic - and the stink of Latex was thick in his nose. Heartbeat, heartbeat... He could hear Wesley, heart pounding a fast panicked beat. And then...then...there. Behind him. Almost beating within him. Xander's heart. He closed his eyes tightly against the white and red and listened, as hard as he could.

"Listening, I'm...listening, Xan...don't - don't..."

Xander kept his eye averted from Wesley's work, watching only Spike's face, caressing him with his gaze when he couldn't touch, circling, circling with his thumbs, and slowing his breathing, deep and steady. "That's right, sweetheart. With me. Listen to my heartbeat and breathe with me." This had been all he could offer too. All he could ever offer to the patients and the panicked victims of a frightened and newly-awakened slayer. Even if Spike didn't need to breathe, something inside him, something that remembered breathing, did.

Wesley consciously slowed his own breathing - tried to match Xander and Spike, tired to make the jitter in his hands go away by sheer will alone. He drew the scalpel through the last inch of scar-tissue, right below Spike's collarbone and then put the blade down, on the far end of the tub. The poisoned blood oozed sickly over Spike's pale skin and Wes picked up the gallon plastic jug of the tincture he'd made and opened it.

"Hold him, Xander. Spike? Spike - this is - is going to hurt." Then he grabbed a shop towel from its torn wrapper, and poured the tea-colored liquid slowly over the wound. And Spike screamed.

Xander felt the subtle vibration as the demon rose in Spike and flashed, for the briefest instant, on The Exorcist; holding a screaming, bloodied demon in his arms, but chanting reassurances, love - Xander sucked in a sharp breath, feeling his heart trip at that thought; trip and stutter before finding its even, meditative rhythm again, so hard with Spike writhing in his arms, game-faced with pain. "Wes.."

"Hold him, Xander." Wesley's voice was tight with stress as he braced a hand on Spike's collarbone, took a deep breath and dipped into the wound, the towel turning a sickly black-red with every sweep. Spike's screams had deepened into a animal growl that vibrated through Wesley's teeth and set his hair on end. "Once more." Murmured, pressing his hand hard against Spike's shoulder as he poured the tincture into the wound, this time, until it ran clean, and set down the bottle with shaking hands, allowing himself a moment, eyes closed, to gather strength. Twice more. Twice more, and then he could stitch and bandage Spike and put him to bed.

Spike was gripping the side of the tub in one hand, the soap holder in the other. Both were creaking under the pressure. The wash - tincture - whatever it was was astringent and alcohol in his nose, and the complicated green of many herbs. It stung even where he wasn't cut open and he felt blood on his lips from his fangs cutting in. The towel rasped across him, burning, and then more wash, and then the little click as Wesley picked up the scalpel again.

Oh fuck, fuck - "Wes - Wes, wait, I n-need - put something in my m-mouth, I can't be quiet -" His throat was raw from his earlier scream, and he was shivering now - shuddering and jittering as if he were being electrocuted, but he couldn't help it.

Xander scrabbled over the side of the tub to come up with one of the hand towels, letting go of Spike long enough to roll it into a cylinder, first dabbing away the blood that ran down Spike's chin, gently, then holding the towel to his lips. "Bite, sweetheart."

Wes watched them - watched Xander so gently wipe at Spike's chin - watched Spike turn to Xander and look at him. Trust and affection in those alien, golden eyes. More than affection. Spike's fangs sank into the towel and Wes leaned forward slowly and began again. Second cut. Halfway there. Steady now, steady... The scream, this time, was muffled.

Xander shook with Spike's scream, but kept his breathing steady, wishing so badly that he could bury his face in Spike's neck, nuzzle, kiss, calm. But he could only hold, only see the trust and agony in golden eyes. "He's half way now, Spike. Half way, and you'll feel so much better, sweetheart. Remember everything I promised I'm gonna do to you when you're better? Everything."

Spike breathed, breathed - flexing his hands around fiberglass and cheap porcelain, pushing against the bottom of the tub so hard it was starting to give. Xander's voice, whispering in his ear. Reminding him, promising him. Cold plastic against his neck, his cheek, and the disgusting feeling of the blood and tincture pooling around his ass - under his thighs.

I remember, I remember, god, yes, yes, yes - oh fuck. His body arched helplessly as the last of the second scar was opened in the thin skin nearly under his armpit. The jug sloshed as Wes picked it up and Spike pushed frantically back against Xander, his body wanting to get away even as he fought for control and hung there, feeling as if he were shaking his very bones out of joint.

Xander felt his ribs creak under the pressure, every breath a fight with Spike pushing back into him, whispering, whispering and feeling Spike's scream as Wesley poured and cleaned the second wound, their hands growing slippery with the bitter black blood and tincture that was beginning to slosh around them on the porcelain floor. "Two done. Two done, sweetheart."

Wesley swabbed with the towel - poured the tincture - swabbed some more. All the while Spike's body shivered under his hands and a low, steady, agonized sound - half growl, half whimper - threaded up out of Spike's chest. Wesley's shirt was sticking to his back under the coverall - his forehead was dripping sweat into his eyes and god, he felt sick.

Third one, last one, do it fast, do it right, damn-it, don't hurt him anymore than you have to... "Almost done, almost there," he murmured, copying Xander, and sank the bright steel blade for the last time into the muscle just above Spike's pubic bone.

Xander shook with Spike, only partially carried over from the tremors wracking the vampire's body, and he ran his knuckles up and down the corded muscles along Spike's spine, as far as he could reach while holding his arms. He felt so cold. "Gonna hold you when this is over, hold you right, not let you go. You're doing so good." Mindless words of comfort, promises to both of them. Xander heard Wesley set down the scalpel and lifted his eye to see Wesley pick up the jug for the last time. Please, god, last time.

God...god...Xander, couldn't do this if you weren't here...gonna show you...so much fuckin' gratitude...ah, god god fuck! The tincture swirled and flamed and drove teeth of acid and steel into him - into the open raw wounds that were one massive blanket of invisible flame. Wes poured and wiped and poked and finally, finally, he heard the jug clunk to the floor - heard the creak of plastic as Wes stood up.

"I'm going to turn on the shower - cool water. We have to get all of the tincture off. Xander - you both need to stand up so it will all - rinse away."

Xander's knees ached when he unfolded them but he didn't care, feeling as if he and Spike weighed roughly either nothing or a couple of million tons. There seemed to be no safe place to hold, other than looping his arms beneath Spike's again, and pushing to his feet, staggering in the slipperiness of the tub, casting a grateful glance Wesley's way when he held out a hand to steady them.

"The worst is over," Wesley promised, his hand cold and shaking through the latex gloves.

"Just do it. I want to take this shit off." Wanted to feel Spike, not plastic.

It took every bit of will - every bit of demon in him - for Spike to stay on his feet. When Wes turned the shower on and carefully, carefully directed the spray over Spike's torso - his hand held out to shield him from the worst of the pounding, needle-like spray - Spike's vision narrowed to a black-edged tunnel, and he simply went limp. He was being flayed with glass - gasoline - barbed wire, and his stomach roiled and almost revolted against his iron control. Finally, the shower was off - his body - the tub - Xander - was free of the deadly taint. He let the towel drop from his mouth, spitting dryly in an effort to get rid of fluff and threads.

"D-drink?" he rasped.

"Of course," Wesley said, his voice shaking as much as his hands, though Xander could see that he was trying to steady himself as well as he unscrewed the cap on a bottled water and held it for Spike to drink.

"Fuckin' water," Spike mumbled, but he drank, and Wesley gave him a dry look while he recapped the bottle.

Xander only closed his eye, bracing his shoulder against the wall.

"Let's save the alcohol for when you can lay down. If - if you'll let me help you, Xander can get those things off," Wesley added, suddenly unsure. Hoping Xander - and Spike - wouldn't mind him holding the vampire. Something he suddenly wanted to do, very much. Just for a moment.

Xander licked his bottom lip; it felt so dry. He couldn't blame Wesley for wanting to hold Spike. Solid and there and not dust, after all of that. "Take this thing off my head first." He swallowed, wishing his voice had come out more than a whisper. He felt a little as if he'd been screaming too, and drew a deep, achy breath when Wesley pulled the protective visor off of him. "Thank you," he said, and tipped Spike's face, and kissed him, shakily. Just a taste. Just - "Okay?" This last he asked Spike, fingertips stroking the taut skin of his neck, all he could reach in the awkward pose.

Watching them, Wesley felt something deep in his chest hurt, hurt in a way that tempted him to look away from the tender, worn expression on Xander's face, and the way they kissed, though they shook with exhaustion. But he didn't look away, couldn't. Hoped, as he quickly stripped out of his own plastic gear, stuffing it into one of the garbage bags and held out his arms for Spike.

Spike did his best to help Xander move him to Wesley's arms, but he could barely stay upright, and control of his limbs was beyond him. Wesley was sitting awkwardly on the rim of the tub and Xander gently lowered him down. Wes' familiar scent - dust and tea and old leather and citrus - filled Spike's nose and he let his head fall back on Wes' shoulder and just lay there. Listening to his heart, watching the man's fingers curl carefully around his knee and his wrist. Doing his best to hold without touching - without hurting.

"Doin' bloody fine, pet," Spike murmured, grimacing at the dry stabbing in his throat. "Just bloody lovely, yeah?" Reassuring Wes that it was all right.

Ripping off a glove, Xander threaded his fingers through Spike's hair, tucking it behind his ear and rubbing the corner of his jaw with a thumb. "Had to touch," he explained, just a little embarrassed, before hurriedly stripping off the last of the plastic as Wesley had and straddling the rim of the tub, knee to knee with Wesley. "What's next?" His hand found Spike's, tangling with his fingers though he didn't move to lift Spike from Wesley's lap. Not just yet.

The solidity of Spike was a comforting weight, and the damp curls tickled Wesley's cheek as he nodded his thanks to Xander. "The stitching. I don't believe there will be great blood loss during the process, but it's best that we finish here where any blood is easily washed away." He could feel the shift of tendons and bones in Spike's wrist as Spike grasped Xander's fingers, resisting the urge to...stroke.

Wes was warm behind him; warm and a little damp and so, so careful, and Spike rolled his head enough on Wesley's shoulder to rest his cheek on the man's collarbone, his nose pushing a little into the soft skin under his jaw. "Let's do it then, Wes, yeah? Want it over." He felt Xander's fingers in his, squeezing gently and he looked over at him, dredging up a smile. Feels like a smile. Probably looks like I'm gonna puke. "Give me that water bottle again, okay Xander?"

"Yeah." Xander scooted forward, sliding a hand under Spike's head to lift it enough to drink, tipping the water bottle for a sip at a time.

Wesley's fingers tightened on Spike, then loosened with a sigh, looking from one to the other with a tired smile. "Xander, you'll have to carry Spike again, while I - ah, yes, like that." He helped Xander maneuver Spike into his arms, watching the young man stand easily with the vampire cradled against him. "In the kitchen, please. I've spread the blankets there beneath the lights."

He watched the two of them go, scrubbing his hands once over his thighs, erasing the pressure of Spike's body there, and once through his hair, as if to erase the thoughts from his mind. He stood as well, on shaking legs, and leaned on the edge of the bathroom counter until the pins and needles sensation went away, only then daring to look into the mirror. Well. At least you know you've looked worse, he thought at his reflection, though the dark circles under his eyes were likely to get him sent home to rest. Yet again.

The beep of the microwave drew Wesley's attention, and he rummaged through his kit on the counter, gathering his stitching kit and more pills, pleased to find Xander already helping Spike to down a mug of blood on the floor of the kitchen. On second thought, he grabbed the whiskey from the kitchen counter as well before kneeling on the blankets.

Xander smoothed Spike's hair back once the mug was drained. "Open your eyes, sweetheart. I'm seeing whiskey and pills."

Wesley couldn't help but smile at that, and at the way Spike's eyes snapped open. "I don't even need to offer, do I? Oh, and..." Wesley stepped briskly over to the bed and rummaged for a moment in his bag, finding the small bottle he was looking for and returning to the kitchen. "You'll need to take this, as well. Ten drops, three times a day, for three days." He unscrewed the lid and sucked some of the liquid up into the dropper, holding it out towards Spike's glass of whiskey.

"That smells like the stuff you poured over me," Spike said, frowning, and Wes nodded.

"It is. This is more concentrated. It will remove any lingering toxin from your system. You can put it in your drink, Spike," he added, coaxing tone, and Spike growled. And then sighed, because there wasn't any way around this.

"Desecrating a fine beverage with that slop," he mumbled, but he nudged Xander's hand and Xander held the glass out. They both watched the oily brown liquid drip down, swirling heavily in the golden whiskey.

"Toss it back in one go," Wesley advised, and left the whiskey bottle uncapped in expectation of needing to top up Spike's glass immediately after. "You know, some of the herbs in this tincture are involved in the brewing and distilling of highly prized liqueurs."

"Bet they don't smell like the sewers on hot August day," Spike gritted out, and lifted the glass to his lips. His hand was shaking and Xander steadied it, and that seemed to steady Spike inside, where he was still shuddering from the pain, and the flashback. The entire front of his body still felt as if it were on fire, and the effect of the double dose of pills seemed to have vanished with the first cut. But he could deal with this pain, because it was at last finite. He could count the days until it would be over and endure. Like he always had. He looked up at Xander, small smile, and Xander smiled shakily back and together they tipped the glass up, and the whiskey into Spike's mouth.

"You've never enjoyed fine European cheeses, I see," Wesley said dryly.

"I have," Xander said. "They're rank."

"Not as rank as this swill." Spike held out the glass again, arm resting on Xander's as Wesley poured him a refill - this time without the tincture - and accepted the pills.

"When will Spike feel a difference?" Xander's left hand unconsciously rubbed back and forth along Spike's bent leg, comforting both of them.

"Probably not until tomorrow, I'm afraid. And...this tincture will... Well, your blood won't taste any better until you're done taking it." Spike groaned and Wes smiled sympathetically. "Now, get comfortable so I can close these wounds up. The faster the better. And then you can sleep."

Sleep. Xander felt himself swaying as if the word had thrown a switch, but he also felt so wired he knew sleep wasn't going to happen without some serious unwinding first. "Now sew," he intoned in a bad, sinister English accent, "and keep the stitches small."

Spike snorted a laugh that hurt, and let Xander ease him on to his back. He was starting to really feel what had been done, and the shivers that had wracked him in the shower were coming back. Christ. Don't need this now... He watched Wesley don another pair of latex gloves and ready his needle and silk and shuddered.

"Xander?" He was appalled at how weak his voice sounded - weak and wobbling but fuck - the latex smell and the pain and the jittery, shocky feel were too much like past times and things and he really felt like he was losing it, all over again.

Xander bent to kiss Spike's forehead. "I'm here, sweetheart." Here, but useless apart from comfort, and he didn't want to see that needle sliding into Spike's flesh again and again. So instead, he fussed with the blanket, pulling the free edge over Spike's legs to warm them, then shifted until he could slip one arm under Spike's head, lacing the fingers of his other hand with Spike's. "Squeeze, okay?"

"Don't want to hurt -" Spike flinched, and Xander winced with him, knowing that was the needle going in.

"You won't. Well, okay, you might, but nothing that won't get better."

Wesley bent over Spike and sewed, concentrating everything on that task so he could get it done. He'd tried to find a stapler but hadn't been able to, and so simply made stitch after stitch. By the time the first gash was neatly sewn up his legs were cramped, his hands were tingling and his neck had a sharp crick in it. He turned to his kit for more silk and stretched, twisting his head a little on his neck. Xander had Spike half cradled in his arms, and Spike's eyes were closed as Xander's fingers moved slowly, through and through his hair.

When Xander glanced up, Wesley looked away, feeling inexplicably intrusive at being caught out in watching the two of them. He returned to the stitching, taking care not to pull the strangely delicate skin too tight. There was a rhythm to Xander's murmurs, though Wesley couldn't make out the words, and he let the back of his mind focus on the patterns, on the sounds as he worked. He tied off the last stitch with a relieved sigh, grimacing over the sharp cramps in his hands. "I think it will be best to forego the bandages," he said at last, massaging his right palm with his left thumb and doing his best to smile into Spike's glazed eyes. "We're done."

"Thank Christ." Spike looked down at himself, grimacing. "Look like bloody Frankenstein's monster." His hand fluttered over the stitches for a moment but he couldn't bring himself to touch them. "How 'bout one more drink, Xan? Then I can sleep, yeah?" He hated how weak his voice was - hated the shivers that still shook him and the helplessness that forced him to just lie there. Over soon, healed soon, better soon. It's all right... Xander's mantra whispered in his head and he smiled up at the man. All right, yeah. Trust you, love...

"Yeah," Xander said, feeling the tension ebbing some with each breath as he refilled Spike's glass as far as he dared to, the way Spike's hand - and his, he had to admit - shook. "Gonna let you sleep like the - okay, that phrase loses some of its effect with the technically deceased." He helped Spike tip the glass, and glanced at Wesley who looked as if he could use a glass or three of whiskey himself. "Want some?"

"I -" Wesley eyed the bottle with more longing than good sense, and rubbed his face. "God, yes. Just one."

The whiskey went down like pale fire and Wesley closed his eyes for a moment while the heat of it blossomed in his stomach and loosened the knot that seemed to have made itself a permanent home there. God, he was tired. He ached all over, and his eyes felt as if they had sand in them. He dreaded the drive back, even though it wasn't that far - just the thought of fighting traffic, squinting in the eternal sunlight. Place needs a good monsoon. Perhaps I'll call Angel - get a room here at the hotel. Take a nap and then dinner later, just...relax. The thought cheered him a little and he handed the glass back to Xander feeling a little better.

"Now - Spike - if you're ready I think we should move you to the...bed."

"Nest," Xander corrected him.

"What?"

"It's The Nest," Xander said. "With capital letters."

"I...see. Well, it's certainly more comfortable than the kitchen floor, whatever it is."

"Too bloody right," Spike muttered, patting weakly at Xander's leg. "Now, pet? Yeah?"

"Oh yeah, sweetheart." Xander couldn't help smiling, rubbing his cheek against Spike's hair as he picked him up one last time. "You have so earned Nest time." Xander sniffed at himself. "And I have so earned a shower. I'm lucky you're so out of it or you'd have material for all kinds of snide comments."

Wesley was already at the Nest, rearranging the cushions to hold Spike as securely as possible, and Xander flushed, hoping that Wesley wouldn't inadvertently come across any telling stains in the silk. He moved slowly enough to give Wesley time to finish, then lay Spike within, bending to press his lips to Spike's, though at this point he wasn't even sure if Spike was still aware of it. "You'll stay with him?"

Wesley folded his legs onto the couch, still holding a pillow he was about to tuck beneath Spike in his hands. "Of course."

Xander bit his lip, nodded, and left for a quick shower. Just really fast. Get the sweat off... Get the feeling of plastic off. The memory of the blood and tincture sloshing around his legs... Xander shuddered, but left the bathroom door open out of habit, so that he could hear Spike if he called. He quickly turning the water on, stripping and stepping under the spray.

Spike was hazily aware of Wes rummaging around - of Xander's lips brushing over his. Then he was being cocooned in the familiar, comforting silk that was rich with the scent of Xander... Sex...musk...seed... His thoughts circled lazily and then grounded with a thump and he lifted his head sharply, looking around. "Xander?"

"He - he went to clean up. He'll be right back." Wesley's voice, and Spike blinked up at him - reached out and found a thin, socked ankle.

"Stay here a minute, yeah? Just..." The spangled, flickering darkness moved in, swallowing him up, and he sank gratefully.

Wesley looked down at the pale fingers curved around his leg - at the thin face that was marked by exhaustion and pain. "Of course I'll stay. You...you're all right, Spike. It's all right."

When Xander came back out of the shower, still wet enough to be grateful for the tropical heat of the room, he found Spike still clutching Wesley's ankle and grinned. "They're so cute when they're asleep."

Wesley jumped at Xander's words, then flushed, realizing that once again, Xander had foregone clothing. "I - I'm not certain he'd appreciate that sentiment."

"Of course he wouldn't." Xander tossed his towel over the couch and crawled in next to Spike. "That's why I waited until he was asleep to say it."

"Oh. Of course. I'll just be gathering up everything, and - I'm afraid the blankets and bloodied towels are a complete loss. I'll be disposing of them of course, and -"

Xander watched Wesley gently trying to extricate himself from Spike's grasp, and put a hand over one thin wrist, stopping him. "Why don't you grab a shower first? No hurry, right?"

Wesley carefully slid Spike's fingers off of his ankle and looked up at Xander, who was curled around the vampire, eye blinking sleepily and hair sleek and wet over his shoulders. God...shower would be so good... I did bring extra clothes, just in case... Mind made up, Wesley stood and stretched, working at a kink in his back.

"I think that's a good idea, actually. I'm feeling a bit - grubby." Xander nodded, and Wesley went about methodically bundling the soiled bed clothes into a garbage bag and tidying away his own supplies until everything was lined up neatly next to the bed. He went into the bathroom and stripped, pushing his clothes into the last garbage bag and stepping into the hot, pounding spray. It was absolute heaven. It wasn't until he was done - clean and starting to relax and so, so sleepy - that he realized he hadn't brought in his clean clothes. He stood there, towel wrapped tight around his waist, hesitating. Surely they're asleep by now. I can slip out, dress, and be gone before...before they know it. Wesley opened the door and began to walk quietly to the bed.

But Xander's voice stopped him cold. "Stay."

Wesley clutched at his towel, turning to find Xander's eye on him, watching him from Xander's sideways vantage against Spike's shoulder. "I - I couldn't possibly -"

"You look like shit, Wes. Come on."

"That's quite all right. I can get my own room. Really. It's no trouble at all."

"And I can only keep one side of Spike warm. Comfy Nest. Come on." Xander held out his hand, absolutely still, as if he was coaxing a skittish animal. Or Slayer.

Wesley just stood there for a long moment, but Xander's hand never wavered and his gaze held only concern and compassion. And Wesley was so very tired. Not just physically, but mentally as well. Seeing Spike - former...lover. Friend...still that, at least... so ill, and so low... Seeing the tenderness between them... It made Wesley long for the easy physicality - for the closeness. Just for a little while. Just...so Spike is warm. Slowly he went to his bag and pulled out a pair of boxers - slipped them on. Then with a small groan he picked up his cell-phone and dialed Angel's office. Someone - some drone - answered and he left a message - left a lie. Research going well, new info brought to light, must stay another day, blah blah. Satisfied that Angel would be unalarmed - but more likely, utterly indifferent - he turned his phone off and shoved it down into the bag. Out of sight... Then he went around the couch to the nest - no, Nest, and crawled in. Scooted close to Spike and burrowed down and finally, finally let loose a long, chest-rattling sigh.

"Thank you, Xander. I... thank you," he murmured, and smiled into the pillow as he felt Xander's hand slip over and curl around Wesley's wrist.

"Thank you," Xander said, feeling Wesley's pulse drum against his fingers and smiling a little. "Weird to feel another pulse. ...Really weird."

As Xander frowned, Wesley fought the urge to pull his wrist back out of reach, letting Xander feel his...difference.

Xander closed his eye, feeling that strong thump against his fingertips, and then nothing, for the longest time, then another. Like the slow breathing of meditation. And his skin was hot. Warmer than Xander's despite the heat of the room, warmer than Spike's when the fever had left him delirious and moaning. "Wow."

"Three point five beats per minute," Wesley said. "I - I'm honestly not certain if the heart beat is even necessary for my circulatory system to function as I am now."

"Wow," Xander said again, then took Wesley's hand and laid it over Spike's cheek, smiling when the sleeping vampire nuzzled into it instinctively. "He's gonna love that."

Wesley's breath caught. "I'm - I'm sure an electric blanket will do."

"I think Spike's gonna always go for live body over electric blanket."

Wesley had to smile at that - it was true, after all - and then a thought came to him and he carefully rolled over and inched backwards until he was pressed against Spike, only the thin veil of the silk sheet between them. As he got close Spike stirred and his knees bent, pushing up behind Wesley's. His arm came up and over Wes' waist and Spike's face nuzzled into the hair at the nape of Wesley's neck. Turning to the heat like a plant to the sun. It felt good, to have the solidity of another body against him. Xander's hand was over Spike, just touching Wesley's ribs and he breathed, and finally, finally relaxed.

Smiling as he felt both Wesley and Spike relax, Xander scooted up behind Spike, until he could wrap an arm over two slim waists, tangling his fingers with Spike's and melting into the pillow with a sigh. "You did good, Wes." It was easier to talk to him like this; relaxed and warm and boneless. He could feel the edge of one of Wesley's scars under his fingertips, and under Spike's. He felt Wesley go absolutely still at the praise. "Thank you."

And if it was a long time before Xander felt Wesley relax again, and heard his breath slow toward sleep, he didn't comment.


~*~*~*~*~


Wesley woke slowly, feeling more rested then he hand in a long, long time. There was a weight across his ribs - across his hips - and he slowly took stock. Body behind him, curled into him and still. Hand on his chest, loosely tangled with his own. And another hand on his thigh, just touching. And lips, on the nape of his neck, cool and breathless. And heartbreakingly familiar.

I remember this...this waking. Waking to...comfort. Wesley didn't want to move, but he knew he had to - had to get up - had to get out. He lifted his head slightly and blinked at the clock that was a part of the television. 7:13 a.m. My god! We've slept over twelve hours. I've got to get back to L.A... Not that anyone would be missing him, but he had things to dispose of - things to do. With a sigh of disappointment he carefully extracted himself from Spike and Xander's grip and reluctantly left the Nest. He used the bathroom quickly and then dressed and did one last check. He grabbed the hotel pad by the phone and scribbled a quick note about the tincture and the dissolvable sutures. Then he loaded himself up with the various bags and sent one last, longing look at the Nest.

As the door clicked shut behind him, Spike opened his eyes, reached down, and laced his fingers with Xander's, then went back to sleep.




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